Making Boston A World Class WALKing City

Aren’t we already walkable?  We’ve got short blocks and a decent amount of mixed-use development, which encourage using your feet.  Nearly 5% of our adult population walks to work, second only to New York.  But most of our advantages are the dwindling remains of our colonial and immigrant inheritance – narrow winding streets, buildings fronting the sidewalk, three-decker density, scattered neighborhood business districts.  Unfortunately, we have done our best over the past 50 years to catch up with the rest of car-centric America. 

It should not be surprising that pedestrian accidents in Boston have jumped by 21 percent since 2006, reaching 776 last year according to police statistics.  Fatalities have increased to 20 in 2008 from eight in 2005.  Jaywalking is a local sport, and no one feels safe.

Boston’s Complete Streets policy, still in formation, is supposed to address some of these issues.  But another supposed step forward, the 2004 policy on traffic signal timing, has been unevenly implemented if not repeatedly violated.

Walkability is vital to urban vitality – economic, health, and community.  So here are some ideas on what can be done – and how to make sure they happen.  These are just my ideas.  I invite readers to suggest more!

It’s true that Boston has the second lowest pedestrian fatality rate of any metro area in the country with a population over 1 million.   And the more than $10,000 a year that a typical two-car suburban couple in our metro area would save by taking public transportation, bicycling, and walking instead of driving is nearly the highest amount in the nation.

But it is also true that many of our streets now structurally invite people to speed.  Our intersections are often designed to facilitate car throughput rather than pedestrian crossings.  Sidewalks are cut up by driveways, in poor repair, narrowed by poles and traffic control boxes – and snow.  Walk signal timing and controls are confusing if not hostile to anyone who isn’t bold and quick.

And we can’t assume that good intentions and progressive policy statements are enough to solve the problem.  The 2004 policy supposedly made “concurrent” walk signals the default – meaning that people could “walk on the green” rather than waiting a longer time for an “exclusive walk” after traffic was stopped in all four directions.  It also supposedly reduced the use of turn arrows (which prevent concurrent walk) and mandated that signals be set to maximize walk time.  However, anyone who walks in Boston knows that this simply isn’t the case.

Walkable streets help bring people to stores and promote neighborhood economic vitality.  Even people who drive to shop end up walking from their car to the store – and hopefully to other stores as well. And vibrant neighborhood business centers, accessible social service and community centers, local schools, parks, and playgrounds all help promote walking by providing desirable destinations and increasing the number of “eyes on the street” which increases the perceived (and actual) safety of the area.

So here are some ideas….


A report titled “Dangerous By Design” issued by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Project finds that as many as 40% of fatal pedestrian-car accidents are in places without a crosswalk.  Except on quiet, residential streets, all four pedestrian crossing should be marked with bold, wide zebra stripes with a clearly marked (and signed) traffic stop line several feet before it.  The stripes should go directly to curb cuts that are in the pedestrian desire line (the most direct route from one side of the intersection to the other) rather than located 10 to 20 feet away from the corner.  At the intersection the curb should “bulb out” both to shorten the distance across the street and to slow turning traffic by narrowing the lane and tightening the corner.  In wide intersections, there should be a “safety island” or median mid-way across as a resting place for seniors, the disabled, people wheeling baby carriages, and other slow movers. In places where vulnerable populations are likely to be crossing the street (e.g. near senior housing, schools, playgrounds, and health facilities) raise the intersection to the level of the sidewalk so that it feels like an extension of the walking surface rather than only part of the street, and to force cars to slow down when entering this shared space.   In fact, a city-wide Safe Routes To School and Safe Routes for Seniors program should be started to survey road conditions in appropriate areas and implement the entire catalog of traffic-calming and pedestrian safety techniques.


Research indicates that people will only wait about 30 seconds before they get impatient and start walking against the light.  But at Boston’s Park Street intersection, you have to wait 93 seconds for the walk signal – and then you only get 7 seconds to make it across!  No wonder people jaywalk!  An exception?  No….in Kenmore Square, people have to wait 1 minute and 43 seconds to legally walk across the street to the bus.  And the push buttons!  Most either don’t work or take so long that it’s hard to tell the difference – and some are over-ridden by the master controller at City Hall at certain times of the day anyway.  The ability to use different walk-traffic signal cycles at different times of day seem either misused or unused.

What needs to be done is neither complicated nor controversial.  Much of this was already promised by the 2004 policy or is now recommended by national standards.  Rebalance the wait burden by prioritizing pedestrian safety instead of traffic flow – normal people (young and old!) should be able to walk (not run) across an entire intersection in one cycle.  Except in extreme situations, make everything concurrent and automatic from 5 AM through midnight and on weekends.  Walk signals should give pedestrians a 3 to 5 second advance over turning cars.  Get ride of push buttons; if they are absolutely necessary (e.g. to reduce unnecessary waiting for cars when there are no pedestrians in the middle of the night) include clear labels about when they are in operation and how long they take to execute.  Except in extreme situations, don’t allow signal cycles to be more than 60 seconds long.  In most locations, replace turn arrows with advanced green (along with 3-5 second pedestrian advance and concurrent walk signals).  In low traffic locations, use stop signs instead of traffic signals.  At subway and rail stations and other high volume pedestrian locations where the walking desire-line cuts across the middle of a block, add mid-block traffic signals instead of forcing pedestrians to jaywalk.  If necessary, change cycle timing at rush hour (or half hour) to accommodate increased traffic volume, but remember that it isn’t a crime to require drivers to wait as least as long as pedestrians on city streets.


If a pedestrian is hit by a car traveling at 40 mph, there is an 80% probability of death.  If the car is going at 20 mph the odds drop to 5%.   European cities have residential speed limits closer to 20 mph. We need to bring down the current 35 mph legal limit to at least 25.  But changing the number on signs isn’t enough.  All of us tend to drive as fast as the road comfortably allows.  The structure of the road itself is what determines the real-life speed limit.  Wide lanes, slow curves, long straight-aways and sightlines all inherently cause drivers to speed up.  So the real solution is to put roads on a diet – to physically narrow the lanes whenever possible.  In addition, research shows that drivers respond to a visual narrowing almost as much as physical one.  Lining a street with trees or flower boxes, adding a bike lane, putting in curves or chicanes, even simply painting an “edge line” along the side – all makes a street feel like a place that requires more careful navigation.  Adding “bike boxes” in front of the stop line at intersections not only pushes cars away from the corner but also reminds drivers that they aren’t the only legitimate vehicles on the road.  All this adds up to “traffic calming,” the idea that driving behavior can be improved by physical changes in the road environment – something that has been tested and adopted in many other major cities around the USA.  Boston, we need to always remember, is a city not a highway.



This, too, isn’t very complicated:  Sidewalks should be wide, smooth, clear of obstructions, carefully lit, full of comfortable places to stop and sit or talk, pass by lots of desirable destinations, shaded by trees and ornamented with plantings.

Sidewalks should not be broken up by driveways; where driveways have to cross they should be kept as narrow as possible and it should be somehow made clear that pedestrians have priority. Sidewalks should have at last 5 feet of clear space, preferably much more — up to 10 or 15 or even 25 feet if possible to leave room for benches, planters, trees, food vendors, and small group discussions.  Even in brick-happy Boston, there are ways to create surfaces that don’t quickly become uneven, create endless rough edges, and cause problems both for snow removal and wheelchair use.


Snow slows traffic.  But too often the plows merely push snow to the side, covering bike lanes and forcing cyclists into icy streets.  And unshoveled sidewalks do the same to pedestrians.  Boston should have a policy requiring that every commercial sidewalk be cleared by 6 PM if the snow stops falling before noon and otherwise by 7 AM of the following day.  Residential sidewalks should have 6 to 12 hours following the end of a snow fall. A single phone number to call to complain about unshoveled sidewalks should be widely publicized. After the deadline, the city should clear unplowed sidewalks itself and bill the property owner (along with a hefty fine).  And there should be a presumption of property-owner guilt for any injury that occurs on a sidewalk that isn’t cleared within the deadlines.  If this is too drastic, WalkBoston has already given the city a pragmatic, step-by-step program that will move us forward.


Every bus ride not only keeps a car off the road, thereby creating a better walking environment through reduced noise and pollution, but also begins and ends with walking.  As does every trolley and subway ride.  Even the use of shared cars, such as ZipCar, reduces the total number of vehicles on the road and usually involves some amount of walking beyond one’s own driveway.

Even more helpful to walking than a shift from single occupancy vehicles to mass or shared transit is a shift from motors to muscles.  In most cities, bicyclists have been the most important constituency pushing for an end to car-centric road design.  Boston is fortunate to have a pedestrian-focused group, WalkBoston, that has helped promote progressive transportation policy.  But even here, cyclists are a key constituency for change.  Cyclists don’t want to be forced to weave around pedestrians on the sidewalk any more than pedestrians want them there.  So they have a mutual interest in limiting the dominance of cars and redesigning streets to provide greater safety for non-motorized travelers.


The city needs to create a bottom-up inventory of all the pedestrian-unfriendly intersections, traffic/walk signals, sidewalks, and other components of our transportation system.              A web site could be created that allows neighborhood groups – civic associations, bike clubs, Main Street business associations – as well as the general citizenry to point out problems in every part of the city.  The city’s professional staff, working with a city-wide Pedestrian Advisory Committee, could prioritize and come up with potential solutions that fit within the city’s fiscal and scheduling realities.

But then the city has to set and publicize goals – some percentage of traffic/walk signals reviewed and (if needed) retimed each year, of traffic signals with no more than a 60 second cycle, of remaining intersections set for “exclusive” rather than “concurrent” walk, of intersections still without zebra stripes, corner bulb-outs, or not yet raised.  The number of days it takes to resolve a complaint about sidewalks conditions.  The linear feet of sidewalk in neighborhood commercial centers that are greater than 15 feet wide.  The number of car-free days in neighborhoods around the city.

And then the city has to measure annual progress towards those goals.


The actions needed to increase the walkability of Boston streets are not rocket science or hard to learn.  So why hasn’t more been done?  Despite our current fiscal crisis, cost is not the most important reason.  When a road is being rebuilt or even repainted it takes little or no extra money to incorporate the needs of walkers into the design.  In fact, replacing traffic lights with stop signs at low-volume intersections actually saves money.

A more typical reason is inertia.  Giving priority to car speed and convenience is not only the way it’s always been done, it’s often the only way that traffic engineers and field staff know how to do things.  Recently, Boston asked some of its long-time consultants to design a bike path.  But the very veteran members of the consulting firm simply didn’t know how to do it – no one had every asked for such a thing before!  So training in state-of-the-art techniques is part of the route forward.

But there is a yet more complicated reason why transformative transportation ideas have a hard time getting implemented.  The people who lead transportation departments and firms were trained and served their formative years in the Inter-State era, when the model of a safe and worthwhile road was a traffic-only highway.  The limited-access Inter-state doesn’t allow bicycles or even have sidewalks – its all about cars and speed.   Many of today’s road designers sincerely believe that it is unsafe to restrict traffic flow, that it is unprofessional to shift the burden of limited resources from pedestrians and bicyclists to cars by narrowing travel lanes or forcing drivers to wait very long at intersections.  At public meetings they say that they are “multi-modal” but in practice they still believe there is no alternative to maintaining a high Level of Service for cars and treat bike lanes and wide sidewalks as luxuries to be included after cars are dealt with.

So ultimately, what will bring change is public pressure – both through our elected officials and directly through citizen advocacy.  Boston, and every other city, should have a Pedestrian Advisory Committee (as well as a Bicycle Advisory Committee) that should be given a chance to review and comment upon every road repair and re-painting design, as well as all building development plans that might impact the walking environment.  These Advisory Committees wouldn’t have veto power; the city’s professional staff would retain the final decision-making power.  But they would have the right to make suggestions and to get an explanation from the professionals if their suggestions aren’t accepted.  And, because there is are often changes as ideas move into implementation, they would also have the right to examine the work that actually gets done on the streets and to point out where promised improvements weren’t properly carried out.

If the city has too much going on for a city-wide Advisory Committee to deal with, it might be useful to also present design proposals to Main Street neighborhood boards, or to community civic associations as well.

The bottom line is that street design needs to be informed by technical, engineering analyses, but that the way those considerations are used is a political and value-driven decision.  If we want walking to be given a higher priority, we will have to demand it, vote for it, and work to make it happen.

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