Cambridge Fights to Unsnarl Traffic

Harvard Square, Pedestrian Mousetrap Still Baffles Architects, Motorists

Harvard Square, Cambridge's nationally notorious traffic intersection, is in a whirl this month. The City Planning Board, in another desperate attempt to unsnarl the pedestrians from the buses from the cars, is experimenting with a rotary traffic plan. So far, the daily scrimmage of man against machine has grown only more exciting, hardly any less dangerous.

Before the war, rotary traffic around the subway kiosk was attempted with disastrous results. At that time, there were trolleys to cope with, and the experiment permitted two-way traffic on the avenue nearest the Coop. The end result was only more confusion, and the police, city planners, et al, went back to the method of directing traffic with the help of a traffic booth and loudspeakers.

This traffic booth was in itself part of a previous experiment to ease congestion in Cambridge. Installed both at Harvard and Central Squares in 1936, two of them were intended to supplement the traffic lights. Manned by officers who could mix insults with instructions, they weathered considerable criticism to remain the key method of handling traffic.

New Traffic Tricks

Rotary traffic under the new system involves more than merely an automotive merry-go-round. In addition to keeping traffic circulating around the kiosk in a counter-clockwise direction, the current plan involves the elimination of all trolley-busses and removal of trolley-car track. To speed subway traffic, the exit on Massachusetts Avenue near Wadsworth House has been turned into another entrance. Bus loading stations have been moved from the kiosk to in front of the Coop, and the traffic booth and traffic lights both eliminated.

Edger W. Davis, Engineer for the City of Cambridge, yesterday stated that the present rotary experiment would continue "for at least 30 days." If after that time, however, the situation remains snafu, the Planning Board will temporarily revert to the old helter-skelter routing system.

An Ancient Problem

Some 15 years ago, students and faculty in the Department of Architecture at the Graduate School of Design grew extremely interested in the Harvard Square problem. Numerous student projects were devoted to the task of getting pedestrians across the street without making them run, and getting cars through the Square without forcing them to stall.

Working with Martin Wagner, associate professor of regional planning, two students completed blueprints in May, 1947, for the most extensive and far-reaching solution to the traffic question that was ever been seriously proposed (see map).

Working on the theory that any re-routing of traffic in existing channels was only a stop-gap measure, these three devised a revolutionary scheme to redesign the entire Cambridge shopping center (see model). Creating new arteries of traffic and increasing parking space, their blueprint for a safe-and-sane Harvard Square would solve the automobile problem now faced by every city laid out in the days of the horse and buggy.

Undoubtedly too expensive and too revolutionary to be accepted by local citizenry, this plan has been shelved by the Architecture Department. As Professor George Holmes Perkins 26, chairman of the Department of Regional Planning has explained, the department no longer bothers with the Harvard Square problem. Apparently he feels that the only practical solutions are too grandiose for City planning Boards to consider at present and too expensive for taxpayers ever to approve.

For short term solution, however, Professor Perkins offers the following suggestions: (1) get through traffic routed through the Square in sunken arteries, (2) remove the subway kiosk and relocate bus stops, (3) increase parking areas ten-fold.

The Great Scheme

The vast 1947 project suggested the razing of many existing business structures, the rerouting of Massachusetts Avenue along Mt. Auburn Street (see map), and the elimination of what is now Harvard Square. A multi-unit shopping center under one roof would then be constructed (F on map). Each merchant would hold shares in this redevelopment project, entitling him to store space in the new all-weather shopping center.

One of the most fundamental features of this plan would be pedestrian cross-walks bridging Massachusetts Avenue at strategic locations. According to Wagner, shoppers would have to realize that they, as well as vehicles, should obey certain rules as to where and when to cross streets.

One of the great problems in the Square now, under the rotary traffic experiment, stems from the fact that pedestrians don't believe in crossing only at the designated crosswalks. This obviously leads to trouble in such a busy intersection as Harvard Square, where well over 70,000 persons transfer daily.

Many Cars, No Space

Although parking meters have somewhat alleviated congestion from shoppers autos, they have in no way solved the problem. The only solution lies in the construction of mammoth lots, on the surface, nearby to shopping centers. While working with students on new designs for Cambridge's street system, professor Wagner came up with interesting and significant figures on automobile owners.

First of all, survey's conducted in Boston department stores show that shoppers who come to the store in cars buy 40 percent more merchandise that those who arrive by bus or subway. Secondly, parking lots farther away then 800 feet from shopping centers have proven unsuccessful and discouraging. Motorists prefer to come by MTA channels rather than park this far away. Thirdly, surface parking lots have been voted much more efficient than either the subterranean or "skyscrapper" variety, especially for a highly transient trade.

Wagner feels that the city itself should own and operate such lots. By this plan, parking tolls could easily repay initial expenses and case the taxpayer's burden. Until this is accomplished, nothing looms in the immediate offing to ease his parking problem except more meters and new business and residential zoning laws. Many such laws now on the bocks require business establishments to supply parking space for a certain proportion of their trade. Large apartment houses are also supposed to allow one off-the-street parking space for every three occupants, but these and similar ordinances are constantly ignored.

Students continue to bear a large share of the inconveniences caused by traffic congestion. They are, however, innocently responsible for a large share of this same congestion. Excluding graduate schools on the Boston side of the Charles, students operate close to 1000 vehicles with varying degrees of frequency. And while many of them park in off-the-street garages and use their ears only infrequently, many others drive to and fro throughout Cambridge and leave their vehicles in the streets overnight:

And Too Many People

Besides permanently locating so many ears near the most vunerable point in the Cambridge traffic system, the students themselves add to police woes. An estimated 10,000 students mill through the Square for daily visits to the Coop and other neighboring institutions in addition to the 70,000 commuters who transfer there from one means of transportation to another.

Because of the University's influence on car and pedestrian traffic, and because the corporation itself owns and controls much Harvard Square property, many faculty members and city residents feel that Harvard should take an active part in working on the problem. University prestige as well as funds, they feel, might well hasten action. From the University's standpoint, investments in parking lots could prove a paying proposition, and certainly an ingratiating one.

In the Crystal Ball

Even if rotary traffic flunks the thirty day test, the Cambridge Planning Beard promises to try other measures. Constantly aware of the danger and annoyance that exist 12 hours a day just outside of Harvard Yard City Man ager Atkinson is at present considering new proposals.

One would turn Harvard Yard itself into a large traffic circle, with westbound traffic on Massachusetts Avenue turning up Quinsy Street and skirting Men Hall in order to reach Porter Square. But the narrowness of Quincy Street and the presence of students will probably force dropping this idea.

Another plan would make Massachusetts Avenue a westerly one-way thoroughfare below Central Square. Returning traffic would use Mt. Auburn Street to reach Boston. Here again, the large volume of pedestrian student traffic and the narrowness of Mt. Auburn Street make this another dubious solution.

The single step that will ultimately do the greatest good is the removal of the Harvard Square subway kiosk. Should the MTA got around to establishing a Porter Square station, the pill-box would either be relocated or at least subjected to much less pedestrian traffic. Simultaneously, much of the bus transferring would be moved up to Porter Square, with a subsequent ease on Harvard Square motorists. Rerouting of all unnecessary trucks around the Square would further the solution.

But meanwhile, as you dodge the cars and curse the police, don't scon at Cambridge for trying out rotary traffic. Even if it doesn't work, you should feel reassured to know that the city is at least thinking about the problem. The chances are that you'll keep on dodging and ducking until you graduate. But be a little optimistic, if only for your children's sake. A few more years of brooding and experimentation may pay off for Harvard Square