The Case for a Car Free Harvard Square

Long Exposure Harvard Square

Last month, a truck driving through Harvard Square struck and killed 67-year-old librarian Sharon Hamer. In response to the tragic fatality, Cambridge residents and the City Council have actively considered a variety of safety reforms, which include advocacy from pedestrian safety groups to cracking down on distracted driving.

Many of these proposed safety reforms hold some promise, but the most effective way of ending pedestrian deaths is by removing cars from Harvard Square entirely. There is a rich tradition of alternative theories in urban design that reclaims public spaces for pedestrians while maintaining viable transportation networks. While a future without cars in public spaces like Harvard Square may be hard to imagine, the centrality of cars in urban life is itself a political phenomenon born of insidious socio-historical dynamics. What politics have made, they can unmake. And despite how entrenched automotive culture has become in our world, it need not be a permanent fixture of our shared spaces.

Other cities around the world have experimented with working to clear cars from pedestrian-heavy areas. Barcelona has pioneered “superblock” areas within which streets are devoted to common spaces for the public, and cars are restricted to the major avenues between superblocks. New York City began a redesign of Times Square in 2009 that closed off large areas to cars, citing safety and decreased fatalities as a major legacy of the changes. New York’s Financial District also has large areas free from cars. In fact, efforts at such car-free areas have been bubbling in local politics in cities like Hamburg, Helsinki, Oslo, and Madrid.

Like Times Square, Harvard Square is a major tourist attraction. Barring cars from such spaces aids in their capacity as sites of learning and civic engagement. As a center of higher education, Harvard Square particularly stands to benefit from the symbolic reorganization of public space that affirms the accessibility of our campus and our community.


That said, we recognize that such an ambitious reform is unlikely to happen in the near future. For that reason, we’d like to call on the Cambridge City government to address a few particular problematic intersections in addition to the center of Harvard Square. These spots include the corners of Quincy Street and Broadway, Quincy Street and Cambridge Street, Mt. Auburn Street and Holyoke Street, and Bow Street and Plympton Street. These intersections are particularly troublesome for many students and the greater campus community. Moreover, the city should also consider standard measures to implement across its population and their traffic grids outside of our campus. We also believe that pedestrians and drivers around Harvard Square must be more vigilant about each other’s presence, which means total focus and minimal phone use.

In working to create safer intersections and roadways, Cambridge might consider working with the Graduate School of Design, and vice versa. Given Harvard’s substantial stake in making Cambridge a safe place for pedestrians, the University should work to foster these partnerships and contribute the expertise of its community in urban planning where it can.

We’d like to conclude by mourning the death of Hamer, who devoted her life to the betterment of our community as a librarian and board member of the Massachusetts School Library Association. The loss of her life should remind us that issues of urban planning and traffic patterning are serious. Our streets should be safe for everyone.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.