It really should be standard procedure to present the maximum safety alternative for all of Newton’s roadway projects, to illustrate the extent to which any other proposed design compromises safety. While absolutely everyone involved — directly or otherwise — claims that safety is the highest priority of the West Newton Square project, it is demonstrably not the case, as the design shows.

If West Newton Square were being designed for maximum safety, there would not be two left-turn lanes for southbound traffic turning left from Cherry St. onto Washington St. The decision to enable left turns from both lanes (or even to have two southbound lanes at all!) leads to other design decisions that measurably reduce safety in the square.

Having two left turn lanes onto the main corridor — Washington St. — is not reflective of a human-scaled village center, intended as a destination. Having two left turn lanes is highway-like stuff, designed solely to promote through traffic, at the expense of the square as a destination.

Backing up, there are three basic intended movements supported by the two-left turn lanes:

  • Right lane on Cherry St., left onto Washington St., right onto Highland St. (shown in red)
  • Right lane on Cherry St., left onto Washington St., through past Highland St. (shown in blue)
  • Left lane on Cherry St., left onto Washington St., through past Highland St. (shown in green)

To support the three movements, there are three eastbound lanes on Washington St. between Cherry St. and Highland St.: two through lanes and a right-turn lane (to Highland St.). The two through lanes continue to Waltham St. and Watertown St., where the left-hand lane becomes a left-turn lane and the right-hand lane continues east out of the square.

This makes some sense, if your main priority is creating capacity to move volumes of cars through the square and you assume that all drivers follow the intended movements. But, it doesn’t make any sense if safety is your goal. Or, a sense of place is your goal.

The most obvious issue is simply space. There are five lanes of traffic between Cherry St. and Highland St. Five lanes. In a village center. You can move traffic or have a nice destination. You cannot do both. Among other things, crossing five lanes of traffic does not encourage pedestrian circulation. Walking next to five lanes of traffic is unpleasant.

The slightly less obvious issue is that drivers don’t always behave the way they are intended to. At last week’s Public Facilities meeting on West Newton Square, one of the councilors (IIRC, Lenny Gentile) stood up at the projected design and described with great concern all the different movements that drivers might take from Cherry St. through the square and how those movements create conflict.

Most notably, a driver (represented in blue) might start in the right lane on Cherry St., go into the right-turn lane on Washington St. at Highland St., move left back into a through lane, and move left again to ultimately turn left at Watertown St. or Waltham St. Another driver (represented in green) might start in the left lane on Cherry St., go into the left through lane on Washington St., and then move right to continue through past Watertown St./Waltham St. to continue on Washington St. east of West Newton Square. And, these are just two of the possible conflicting movements.

These inevitable off-label movements create conflict that has to be negotiated in the area between Cherry St. and Watertown St./Waltham St. — the heart of West Newton Square! The availability of these off-label movements turn that section of eastbound travel into a blending zone. (I discussed blending here.) Those two left-turn lanes on Cherry St. are the direct cause of an unsafe, unfriendly stretch of village center roadway.

And, why? To move more cars.

If the city abandoned the two left-turn lanes on Cherry St., it would not need three lanes just east. The city could eliminate or shorten the right turn lane onto Highland St. The city could have just one through lane between Cherry St. and Highland St. and a short right-turn only slip lane.

The intersections could get narrower. There would be more space for buffer zones, which could be used for pulling over when emergency vehicles need to get through. There would be fewer cars that need to pull over. And, the amount of blending would be dramatically reduced. It would be a much more village center-like design.

There are two left-turn lanes on Cherry St. because a goal of the project is to maintain or increase through-traffic capacity. Folks don’t want traffic backed up to Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Folks don’t want traffic avoiding West Newton Square and cutting through residential neighborhoods.

Concern about congestion kills any hope of a plan that will actually revitalize West Newton Square. Who cares about congestion? People in cars care about congestion. But, we want fewer people in cars. So, why make it easier to drive? Let the cars back up to Wellesley Center! Then, people will start to confront the need to shift travel modes.

And, avoiding cut-through traffic around the square is a bad design tradeoff. Some of my favorite Newtonians live on Webster St., parallel to Washington St. Sorry to them. If, by good design, traffic capacity through the square is reduced, volume will increase on Webster St. Inevitable. The city should do everything it can to make sure that increased volume proceeds at a safe (20 MPH) pace. Traffic calming. Speed humps. Chicanes. Speed cameras (not yet legal, but before the state legislature). But, the city shouldn’t try to prevent increased volume.

If the city continues down this path of maintaining throughput at the expense of safety, at the very least it should restore the protected bike lane from a previous version of the design. If West Newton Square has to be a thruway, don’t put cyclists right next to the vehicular craziness.

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