On September 14, 2023, a proposal was presented to the Cambridge City Council’s Traffic & Safety Committee. It included a four-phase plan to install stop signs at four downtown intersections where there are currently traffic lights. Phase 1 would address the Spring/Gay Streets intersection and the Muir/Race Streets intersection. Phase 2 would focus on the Muse/Gay Streets intersection. Phase 3 would cover the High/Glasgow and High/Locust Streets intersections. And Phase 4 would handle the Gay/Poplar/Race Streets intersection.
The proposal went to the full council on September 25 and again on November 13. At that point, an additional public comment session was requested. Commissioner Brian Roche of District 5 has been involved with the project from the beginning, and he had a lot to say about it.
Phase 1 was planned to begin in January 2024. Has it started yet?
“Yes, I think they’re waiting on some materials. … The city was going to do it internally because it’s relatively simple changes, but they’re going to have somebody actually do it so they can be quicker with it. … Now, it’s weather permitting. … This time of year, it’s tough to paint…paint and install some stop signs.”
The impetus for the project
“I have been involved in the Traffic & Safety Committee since I was elected to Council, and one of the principal things that keeps coming up is how hard it is to cross certain intersections in town as a pedestrian. … We did a pilot by changing the intersection at the post office. … The best feedback we got was ‘Why don’t you do the other one? Because I hate sitting at a light and there’s no cars.’”
“They get there and they sit at the light, and they’re just like ‘Why am I sitting here?’ So, we commissioned a study. … ‘Let’s just see if these intersections are performing as high as they should from a safety standpoint and…a traffic flow standpoint.’ The study came back that not a single one of the intersections in the downtown area, with the exception of the base of the bridge maybe…not a single intersection in the town really qualifies for stop lights from a traffic flow standpoint.”
“And all this is according to what’s called the MUTCD, the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is really federal and state guidelines for when you do stop signs, when you do stop lights, when you don’t do anything. And all the intersections came back as they would be more highly rated from a vehicular traffic flow standpoint and from a vehicular safety standpoint if they were converted to stop signs.”
The dangers of green lights
“The downtown area being our commercial core, the merchants were given the option for feedback, and their biggest complaint was cars zooming down the street. So, what happens with a stoplight is, if you’re at about mid-block and the light is green, it’s human nature to say, ‘Oh, God, it’s green. I need to catch that.’ So, you forget the fact that there might be an older person crossing the street or a ball that rolls out or somebody trying to get out of a car just to get through that light.”
“The red light’s not the problem. The green light’s the problem because people are trying to get through that intersection, not paying attention. And, if you hit a pedestrian at anything above 20 miles pan hour, the chances of death or even a vehicular accident, the injury goes up precipitously with the speed.”
“You only have to try to cross the intersection of Gay and Race or watch anyone to see how confusing it is for pedestrians and unsafe it is. There’s not a single point in time when a vehicle has to pay attention to a pedestrian.”
Why he thinks stop signs are better
“So, what a stop sign does is its predictability. They know they have to stop no matter what. So, they’re not in a rush to get there. They pay more attention, and that’s good for business. You have to make a downtown comfortable, or any place comfortable, for people to want to be there. And, if people are there, they spend money there. And, if there’s money being spent there, then there’s commercial activity, and people open businesses and things like that. So, it’s paramount from the redevelopment of our downtown to make it more comfortable for pedestrians, bicyclists, people with disabilities, etc.”
What about the fact that many people only slow down for stop signs without stopping?
“When people stop at a stop sign is when they’re looking out for their own safety. So, you at least slow down, which is really what we want. We want people to pay attention. So, if somebody slows down and rolls the intersection because nothing’s coming, that’s inherently not a problem. … The bigger problem is when they’re not paying attention. So, someone coming to an all-way stop, everyone is on alert, even if they roll the intersection, and the person approaching the intersection is more likely to slow down and be aware of the car that’s also approaching the intersection.”
Six citizens showed up for the November 30 public comment session. What were the comments?
“They were all there to make sure it happened.”
Two downtown businesses emailed Roche about the project separately from the Main Street endorsement.
“They said it was a long time coming and ‘Why are we waiting so long?’ They do not like cars zooming past the entrances to their businesses. They want that predictability. They want cars slowing down.”