What to do with the blue zone? That’s the big question regarding safety and traffic flow at the under-construction Zervas Elementary School. The discussion is equal parts encouraging and maddening. The answer should be simple: in the interest of safety and other considerations, do not add capacity.
What’s maddening? Where to start? Here are the transportation goals, as articulated by the city-engaged traffic engineers:
- Manage vehicle congestion on Beethoven Avenue
- Minimize delay at intersection of Beacon Street/Beethoven Avenue/Evelyn Road
- Increase pedestrian accessibility within study area
- Facilitate student drop-off and pick-up
- Provide emergency vehicle access to Beethoven Avenue during drop-off and pick-up
Notice anything missing? If you answered “an explicit recognition that children’s safety is the top priority and cannot be compromised,” you win. At a community meeting, the traffic engineers explained that their aim was to balance among these unranked goals. When asked why there was no mention of children’s safety as a goal, they said that it was implicit in the third bullet: increase pedestrian accessibility within study area.
So safety is not important enough to call out on its own and is but one goal among many, including minimizing traffic delays. Crazy. It’s mind-boggling that the City’s engagement with the traffic engineer didn’t specify uncompromised safety as the City’s overwhelmingly first priority. It’s mind-boggling that the City engaged a traffic engineering firm that wouldn’t just assume safety is the City’s overwhelmingly first priority. As we’ll see shortly, it’s not just that safety was left off the bullet list, it’s seriously compromised in the designs proposed.
There’s another goal, more subtle but related to safety, that is also left off the bulleted list of goals (and out of the designs): discouraging driving. As School Committee member Steve Siegel so nicely articulated at the same meeting I attended, the street design isn’t just going to determine how vehicle traffic flows, it is going to shape the decisions families make about how children get to school. Make driving an attractive option and parents will be more likely to drive, increasing the number of cars out front of school, reducing the perceived (and actual) safety for children walking, encouraging more families to drive. Make driving less attractive, less convenient, parents will be discouraged, increasing the number of children walking or taking the bus, reducing the number of cars, making walking a more attractive option.
The City may not be able to prevent you from driving your child to school, but it certainly doesn’t have to make it as easy as possible. A City goal should be to reduce vehicle trips to school to promote safety, health, the environment, and neighborhood impact.
So what about the designs? The three proposed designs increase capacity — the number of cars that can flow through the drop-off/pick-up zone in a given amount of time. As we’ll see, the design elements that increase capacity reduce safety. Direct correlation. And, again more subtly, increased capacity, as Steve noted, induces demand. This is a very powerful concept that needs to be front-and-center in the discussion: the more cars that can get through, the likelier that folks are to drive.
As background, the pre-construction blue zone was simply the northbound (heading toward Beacon) travel lane on Beethoven. Traffic (through or dropping-off) was supposed to stopped behind cars in the blue zone disgorged their pint-sized passengers and moved on. As a practical matter, though, traffic would go into the southbound lane to get around the dropping-off cars and some parents/care-givers would actually drop children off heading northbound in the southbound lane, putting children at risk of being hit by cars pulling out of the designated blue zone.
Of the proposed street designs, Option 1 and 2 create an off-street blue zone on Beethoven (northbound, heading toward Beacon): the “bump-in.” Option 1 extends the bump-in farther than Option 2. The supposed benefit is that through traffic can go by the blue zone, increasing capacity and through-put. As a practical matter, though, this option is likely to exacerbate the previously unsafe conditions. There will now be space for two or even three lanes of drop-off, putting more kids walking in front of more cars pulling out into even crazier traffic patterns. Additionally, the bump-in will cost $400K (to move utility poles and make curb changes), money which could be used on nearby streets and intersections to increase safety. And, the bump-in will eat up valuable real estate that could be used for a wider sidewalks and/or a bigger buffer between children and traffic.
Even if we grant that the blue zone would work as designed — parents would only drop off in the blue zone, not the travel lane — the bump-in design fails because, by its very success, it would increase flow and induce demand. It will lead to more driving, exactly what we don’t want in front of our schools and in the neighborhoods around our schools. And, it will permanently widen the street, making it likelier that people will speed outside of drop-off and pick-up times.
A variant of Option 2 (call it Option 3) features a smaller bump-in and adds a dedicated right-turn lane at the corner of Beethoven and Beacon. The purpose of the right-turn lane is to get more cars through the green-light cycle. Again, more capacity.
The major downside to the design is that it would increase the length of the crosswalk across Beethoven by 11 feet, which increases the time that children and others are in the crosswalk, exposed to traffic. Short crosswalks are safer for pedestrians. Maddeningly, the presenting traffic engineer downplayed the reduced pedestrian safety by saying that the crosswalk would be no longer than one of the other crossings.
The goal of the design should be to make all crosswalks as safe as possible, not to make them no worse than the worst.
The other significant downside is the reduction in the landing zone at the corner nearest the school. In essence, it reduces capacity for pedestrians for the benefit of drivers. The bump-in is a similar tradeoff in capacity. A wider sidewalk just accommodates more people, strollers, scooters, bikes, &c.
Option 3 is really the complete triumph of cars over people.
Another option along Beethoven northbound (not shown): maintain the status quo. No bump-in or dedicated right-turn lane. No increase in car capacity, which allows for more human capacity (wider sidewalk). Reduced potential of multiple drop-off lanes. Explore options to prevent northbound traffic from going into the southbound lane. Establish a clear priority for safety over convenience, for reducing traffic to and around schools over convenience.
Councilor John Rice, it should be noted, proposed a compromise of sorts: don’t change the street design, but make the last block of Beethoven (north of Puritan) two lanes of one-way traffic (northbound) during drop-off and pick-up times. It’s a clever idea which generates increased capacity only when needed. (A big problem with increased capacity for school drop-off and pick-up is that it just invites faster driving and cut-through during non-peak times. Not good for the neighborhood.) But, ultimately, it’s a capacity-generating proposal, which will increase the likelihood of kids being dropped off in one lane and then cutting across a lane of traffic to get to the curb.
We just need to make safety the number one priority and not subject to compromise for convenience. In fact, convenience, capacity, flow should not be priorities, except in the negative sense. We should make driving inconvenient, reduce capacity, diminish flow. We should not make it more attractive to drive.
I look forward to the inevitable comments that this is an excessively rigid perspective, that we need to accommodate the needs of everyone in the community, that compromise is necessary. I just disagree. We should not compromise children’s safety. And, the values in this situation are in conflict. Convenience comes at the expense of safety.
There are important values at issue here: children’s safety, children’s health, the environment, the neighborhood. Why should we compromise those values? To make it easier to drive kids to school?