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|Craig Kelley for Cambridge City Council in 2015|
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. . . Whenever someone gets killed . . . councilors manage to sound properly appalled . . .
Pedestrian safety issues, a sign that the city doesn't care
Cambridge's dangerous streets
Last summer, a young man was killed crossing Memorial Drive near Magazine Beach. Just a few weeks ago, another young man was hit by a car in almost the same place. Some people argue that these men got hit because they ignored the nearby overpass and jaywalked across the street. I, on the other hand, argue that the more basic issue is that the Cambridge City Council and the city administration have little enthusiastic for tackling the tough and continuing issues of pedestrian and cyclist safety throughout Cambridge.
Whenever someone gets killed, whether it be a pedestrian on Memorial Drive or someone walking down the train tracks in North Cambridge, councilors manage to sound properly appalled, filing order after order requesting that the city confer with the state on pedestrian safety at Magazine Beach or restart the planning process for North Massachusetts Avenue or crack down on drivers blasting past pedestrians in crosswalks.
Poor traffic enforcement adds to problem
The problem is, as impressive as these orders may look in theory, in reality they are frequently not worth the paper they are printed on. The manger does as he wishes, the councilors move on to other things, and dangerous situations remain unresolved.
The lack of effective traffic enforcement is a particularly telling example of how unwilling or unable the City Council or the administration are to do anything of long-term concrete value. From 1998 through 2000, the city issued 656 citations for vehicles refusing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. The city issued another 874 warnings for such violations. That's a grand total of 1,530 stops over a three-year period, or about three stops every two days in the entire city. As someone who has regularly counted 20 or 30 vehicles speeding by me as I wait in the crosswalk with my 4-year-old son on my shoulders, it has become very clear that the city doesn't' care about getting me, or my family, safely across the street. If it did, the number of stops would be much higher and, over time, drivers would have learned that they have both a legal and a social obligation to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross the street in a crosswalk. Sadly, however, no one in power seems to care and pedestrians following the law all too frequently have to dodge through a deadly flow of traffic just to get around town.
Similarly low enforcement numbers exist for cars that make illegal right turns at traffic lights. Having been almost hit myself by one illegally turning vehicle and having pulled my son out of the path of another, I would like to believe that the city is trying to make the streets safer for those of us who walk and bike around town. But the numbers tell another story. In the same three-year period, 1998 to 2000, there was an astounding total of 212 warnings and citations for these illegal turns, the vast majority of which were simply warnings. That's less than one such stop every three days. Since I often see four or five illegal right-hand turns at the junction of Dover Street and Massachusetts Avenue, I can only survive that the authorities, for whatever reason, just don't view this type of traffic violation as a serious public safety issue.
A chronic lack of action
Of course, it's not just enforcement where city officials appear to lack the stomach or ability to make meaningful changes to further public safety. Anyone who has watched the debate on the North Cambridge railroad crossing unfold over the years cannot help but be astounded at how little has been done despite the high body count. I realize that, unlike traffic enforcement, the city doesn't have unilateral power to solve these crossing problems, but I still find it amazing that so little has been done for so long. A pedestrian's ability to cross the tracks has changed not one iota in years, despite the existence of a task force, thousands of dollars in expenditures, and a variety of council orders on the subject. One night last week I used the underpass by the Fitzgerald School, a crossing that years ago was proposed to be expanded to allow easy visibility in and around the tunnel area. Once again with my son on my shoulders, I walked past a large thicket of dark, overgrown bushes, down into the low tunnel where I was unable to see who might be waiting on the other side, and then up again into another dark, out of the way area. As an ex-Marine Corps infantry officer, I know this whole underpass area is about as good an ambush spot as any miscreant might wish. Given concerns about crime in the area, including a recent stabbing on Linear Park, it is tough to blame folks for crossing the tracks illegally, no matter what dangers might be posed by passing trains.
See for yourself, then vote
As the City Council campaign heats up, we will all receive vast amounts of literature from the various incumbents stating how he or she has done this, that or the other thing to further public safety. When deciding which of these claims to believe and which candidate to support, I suggest voters actually try crossing the street, riding a bike or getting across the train tracks at night. The results of this experiment might result a whole crop of new faces at City Hall.