Council Hearing Comes After Citywide Uptick in Car Crashes

In response to a recent uptick in the number of fatal and serious auto crashes throughout the city, the City Council’s Joint Committee on Planning, Development and Transportation Public Health held a virtual meeting on Monday, Nov. 23, to tackle two hearing orders that intend to look at the issue of speeding in Boston as a potential Public Health Emergency, as well as to discuss how the city could improve its infrastructure to help reduce accidents on its roadways.

“I think it’s unconscionable for cars to be speeding in neighborhoods, and there’s no reason a car should be traveling over 25 mph in the City of Boston – it’s too fast,” said City Councilor Ed Flynn, who together with Councilor Frank Baker, co-sponsored one of the hearing orders and asked what the city could do to declare the problem a Public Health Emergency.

Councilor Flynn also suggested that the city make changes to physical infrastructure in residential neighborhoods, but said it’s largely up to Boston Police to enforce its roadway regulations more vigilantly as well.

City Councilor Michael Flaherty also said police need “to step up their game and enforce traffic laws” and lamented that no representatives from the Boston Police were on hand for the virtual meeting. 

“We need to get them to them to the table,” said Councilor Flaherty, “and we need them to make this a priority throughout every district.”

City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who filed the second hearing order jointly with Councilor Flynn and Council President Kim Janey, said the city need to take a holistic approach by making system-wide improvements to its traffic signals rather than going intersection by intersection.

Traffic signals should be shifted throughout the city, she said, to “give the pedestrian a head-start” and “put [them] at the top of the pyramid in every instance.”

Additionally, Councilor Bok, who, along with Council President Janey, is unique among her fellow councilors in that she doesn’t own a car, applauded the city for recently changing traffic signals around the Public Garden from  “half-block” to “half-cycles.”

Moreover, the city’s traffic problems have been exasperated, Councilor Bok said, with Waze popularizing side streets once only known to locals as cut-throughs. One way she suggested to divert traffic from these residential streets would be via the creation of “super blocks,” which are designed to secure the site from automobiles.

Council President Janey said the tragic death of Virginia Chalmers, a longtime Boston Public Schools educator who was struck and killed by an Eversource truck on Nov. 17 while biking on Blue Hills Parkway, “underscores the importance of keeping our streets safe.”

Janey added, “I hope we will take this as a call to action. I know my colleagues on this call already get this, but we need to step up our efforts.”

Chris Osgood, the city’s Chief of Streets, said as part of the Mayor Martin Walsh’s Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries citywide, streets would be redesigned along the “high-crash network” – 60 miles of Boston roadways where the highest number of auto accidents occur – using funds from the city’s Capital Budget; these planned improvements include the redesigns of Beacon Street in Back Bay and American Legion Highway, respectively, as well as the installation of raised sidewalks between Jackson and Hyde squares.

The city will first invest in its 16 designated Neighborhood Slow Streets, he said, which encompasses 40 miles of its streets, and also plans to redesign between10 and 20 corridors where the most crashes occur citywide beginning next spring.

Osgood said the city intends to engage a design consultant to look at intersections at Massachusetts Avenue and Andrew Square, among other high-crash locations, over the winter as well.

In addition, the city has installed 100 “radar speed-feedback signs” throughout the city, Osgood said, and is further considering speed humps or “tactile rumble strips” like those now used in Roslindale, at key intersections.

“There are also a whole series of projects we’re looking forward to designing and implementing…including on Melnea Cass Boulevard,” said Osgood, who added that the redesign of Columbus Avenue, where 26 crashes occurred last year alone, to include a center-running bus lane is now in the works.

The city has extended its bike network to include new connections from City Hall to both the Boston Common and the Public Garden, he said, and also plans to reduce the number of traffic lanes on Tremont Street.

In conclusion, Osgood echoed Councilor Flynn,  saying that declaring traffic in the city a Public Health Emergency would “open up new resources for the city.”

John Bookston of the Fenway Civic Association said the group had requested a grant to help facilitate traffic calming in Hemenway Street, but it was denied the funds because no schools or libraries are located within the district.

And this comes as the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal is granting exemptions, Bookston said, to allow the installation of electronic billboards, including one near Fenway Park.

“Please take a close look at dangers…of driving safely when you’re distracted by electronic billboards,” Bookston urged city officials.

Charles Neckyfarow, who chairs the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay’s Public Safety Committee, meanwhile, advocated for the installation of cameras at major roadways in the city to assist Boston Police with traffic enforcement.

Brendan Kearney, deputy director of WalkBoston, said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is undertaking a study to examine how speed limits are established, as well as how speed management can be used to prevent auto-related fatalities.

Kearney urged the city to become a stakeholder in this process, and to share Boston Police crash data with MassDOT in order to assist them in the study.

“This could possibly qualify the city for more funding to improve safely on streets,” Kearney added.

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