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Following Deadly Crash, Residents Reimagine Pedestrian Safety in Harvard Square

Pedestrians
Pedestrians cross Massachusetts Avenue in groups, causing automobile traffic to stall for a moment.

Cambridge residents and city officials have started to question the state of pedestrian safety after 67-year-old librarian Sharon Hamer was struck and killed last week crossing the street in Harvard Square outside of the crosswalk.

Several days later, during Monday’s City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Jan Devereux introduced a policy order calling on her colleagues to commit to studying how pedestrian safety can be improved during the upcoming redesign of the Harvard Square Kiosk.

As Out of Town News, the kiosk’s longtime occupant, prepares to leave its space ahead of major renovations, Devereux said in an interview that there is a clear opportunity and obligation to evaluate how the Square can become more pedestrian-friendly.

"I really want to ask our staff to just take a second, third, fourth, look at the design, and how it's going to improve the conditions because we have so many people crossing the plaza now,” she said. “I just think we're obligated to really scrutinize it very carefully.”

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“I think this crash is really a wake up call that we can't simply ignore,” she added.

Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston — a pedestrian safety group that is working across the state to make cities safer and more convenient for walking — said her organization is focused on improving “everyday walking” such as travel to schools and transit hubs. In terms of safety, she said she is most concerned with distracted driving.

“When you walk down the street, whether you're in Cambridge, or Boston, or rural towns in the Berkshires, it feels like half the drivers are looking at their phones,” she said. “The number of fatalities has been growing across the country, and there are a lot of people trying to figure out what all was going on.”

While crashes involving motor vehicles in Cambridge have dropped since 2000, the number of crashes involving pedestrians has stayed “generally consistent,” according to a 2017 Cambridge Police Department report. The report attributes this fact to the city’s rising population and associated rising number of pedestrians on Cambridge’s streets. Crashes involving either pedestrians or cyclists make up an average 17 percent of total crashes annually.

Patrick C. Braga, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, said the Square has several “shortcomings” with regard to ensuring the pedestrian and cyclist safety. Among the most significant are narrow sidewalks and a street design that gives priority to cars, he said.

“I'm almost punished through the streetscape design of having to constantly have to reassert just my human presence to others and hope that I can get empathy from the people who are driving to not endanger me and not see me as an obstacle in their way, but just somebody trying to get somewhere,” he said.

“Distracted walking should not be punishable by death in a highly walked dense area like Harvard Square,” he added.

Devereux said that there is no “magic bullet” to solve the problem, but that the city is taking steps to improve safety. She cited decreased speed limits and improved street design as part of an ongoing effort to address deadly crashes.

“Street design is key — looking for ways to continue to make the street infrastructure reflect that pedestrians and cyclists have equal, if not greater, right, to be using the street and need to be protected and separated and very visible,” she said.

Landman said that Cambridge’s city government has been a strong partner with her organization in improving pedestrian safety. She added that “concerted efforts” by the city have helped to improve overall safety, though it still has its issues.

“A great many Cantabrigians walk to transit, walk to their cars, walk in general,” she said. “[City officials] have been hard on it, but it has obviously not been fully successful.”

Braga said he proposed a design overhaul for the Square that would include a roundabout with smaller lanes and “prioritize safety.” He added that additional measures like changing the number of car lanes in certain areas and relying less on traffic lights could alleviate some of the dangers throughout Cambridge.

“It shouldn’t be that kind of rigid, over-engineered control,” he said.

Braga also said the possibility of eliminating car traffic entirely from the Square posed an “extraordinarily promising” solution so long as it were to be sufficiently studied. Both Devereux and Landman agreed.

Cambridge resident Heather M. Hoffman said that while she believes many approaches must be considered when addressing pedestrian safety, she believes walkers must be more “assertive” in order to help prevent crashes.

“I understand that my job [as a walker] is to make sure that [drivers] know what I want to do, so that they can stop and let me do it,” she said. “And I get so annoyed with the pedestrians who hang out on the curb, waiting for someone to read their mind and let them cross. The law says ‘stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk,’ not a pedestrian texting and thinking about a crosswalk.”

— Declan J. Knieriem can reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @DeclanKnieriem.

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