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People for a livable Cambridge

By Jesse Gordon
Wednesday, December 18, 2002

The Harvard Square Committee is proposing several plans for redesigning Harvard Square, including public input right now. The Committee needs to hear from T-riders, bicyclists and pedestrians, or the desires of motorists will predominate the new design. More T-riders, bicyclists and pedestrians means safer roadways and lower overall housing prices, and for those who drive it means less automobile congestion and more auto parking spaces. If you're interested in making sure that Cambridge provides better facilities for non-motorists, and if you're frustrated because the voices of non-motorists are not being heard at City Hall, now is the time that you can make a difference.

Imagine Harvard Square as a pedestrian zone. Closed to cars, the streets fill with musicians, jugglers, vendors, tourists, and sidewalk cafes. Closed to parking, motorists figure out ways around to their destinations, and people learn to walk or bike in, or take the T. Closed to traffic, children meander safely; people hear the birds when the musicians pause; and Cantabrigians interact with each other instead of worrying about crossing Mass Ave.

Nice vision, but it ain't gonna happen. It doesn't matter that this autumn, for Oktoberfest, Harvard Square was a short-term pedestrian zone. It also doesn't matter that downtown Boston converts to a pedestrian zone every day, and that the same arguments applied to Downtown Crossing as opponents now apply to Harvard Square. It also doesn't matter that in the early 1970s, Harvard Square had a long-term pedestrian zone for several blocks along Brattle Street, under the oversight of then-City Councilor Cornelia Wheeler.

None of that matters, because the redesign of Harvard Square is more about traffic flow more than about people. The Harvard Square redesign is based on a report called "Polishing the Trophy" - where "polishing" can be interpreted as "let's clean up around the edges instead of a major redesign." To its credit, the city expanded the "polishing" to include a complete redesign, and the redesign considers the needs of non-motorists - but the result focuses on the needs of cars more than the needs of pedestrians. There's a long way to go before Cambridge is designed for people instead of designed for cars. But we can move closer to that goal if a constituency of pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit riders make their needs known to the Harvard Square Committee and the City Council. Cara Seiderman of the City's Transportation Planning Division says about getting more pedestrian-friendly solutions, "It really has to come from the community - people need to speak up." Maybe - if we make our needs known now - maybe we can get the pedestrian zone extended from Memorial Drive every weekend up JFK Street to Harvard Square, and maybe we can get wider sidewalks and better facilities for non-car traffic and non-car usage.

Cambridge merchants let the City Council know their needs very efficiently. They want parking nearby their storefronts, to promote easy shopping. That's one of the arguments against a pedestrian zone: that reduced traffic and parking hurts business. But one look at the thousands of people at Oktoberfest - or at Downtown Crossing any weekday - indicates that business can benefit when people come to enjoy the Square in a relaxed setting. Even a cheapskate like me drops $20 every time there's a street fair, without even having a car in which to haul stuff home. Harvard Square is already a tourist destination - a pedestrian zone would promote tourist traffic and the business that goes along with it.

Cambridge motorists also let the City Council know their needs. The traffic department promotes street designs to create smooth flowing traffic. That's the other argument against pedestrian zones: that they hinder traffic flow. I got caught driving around a street fair last summer, and spent a half-hour getting from North Cambridge to Central Square. But had I gotten used to the idea of diverting around Harvard Square every weekend, I'd have planned to go via a different route, like I do on summer Sundays when I know that Mem Drive is closed to traffic.

Cambridge pedestrians, T-riders, and bicyclists don't make their needs known the City Council. Many non-drivers are poorer citizens who vote less than average, which makes their voice less important to elected officials. Many other non-drivers are students who don't vote locally and hence have no voice with elected officials. And statistics downplay the significance of non-car traffic: the cty's official report indicates that 48 percent of Cantabrigians commute by car; 24 percent walk; 23 percent ride the T; and 3 percent bike. The statistics only count commuting - not recreational travel, or shopping travel - and hence car travel is over-emphasized. Nevertheless, the percentage of bicyclists could be further increased with additional facilities and continued support from the city.

The Harvard Square Committee consists of well-intended and civic-minded residents. But they need vision from us if they want to push something visionary. The current plans include a "shared street" for Palmer Street (next to the Coop), for the end of Winthrop Street (in front of the House of Blues), and possibly for Church Street. A "shared street" means cars proceed at 10 mph maximum, enforced by brick walkways, blocked street sections, and/or narrowed roadways. It's a reasonable compromise that some people feel is a first step towards a pedestrian zone, but not very visionary.

Even the limited vision of shared streets will only happen if enough people call and express support. If more people call with more visionary ideas, the discussion will widen to include them. "More visionary" means something like diverting traffic around Mass Ave to create a substantial pedestrian zone, or closing JFK Street and Mass Ave whenever Mem Drive is closed to traffic, or permanently closing Palmer Street and Winthrop Street.

A City Councilor said last year when asked about promoting non-car traffic, "Show me the constituents."

So let's:

  • Attend the Harvard Square Committee meeting on Thursday Dec. 19, at 6:30 PM, above the Cambridge Savings Bank in Harvard Square (entrance at 14 JFK Street), where the "shared streets" will be discussed.

  • Call Kathy Watkins, the City's officer responsible for the Harvard Square redevelopment, at (617) 349-4751, or write to her at KWatkins@ci.cambridge.ma.us.

  • Read the "Carfree Times" at www.carfree.com to get further ideas for promoting livable cities.

  • Join "People for Livable Cambridge," which I'm establishing in this article, by writing to 1770 Mass Ave. #630, Cambridge MA 02140. I'll periodically send out petitions and information.

    Jesse Gordon is a member of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee.

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