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Regulating Malicious Motorists on Mass. Ave.

Michael J. Ring

A local legend purports that the first surveyors in Boston were cows. Back in the 17th century, claims the tale, the cows would enjoy grazing on the Common. At the end of the day, the bovines would blaze curving, narrow paths leading back to their respective barns. The city later decided to pave over the cow paths, thus forming the metropolitan street grid.

While the steady hooves of those ancient cattle do seem apparent in some quarters of the city, our immediate environs elicit the entirely opposite observation. Massachusetts Avenue, a full six car-widths wide from the Charles River to Lafayette Square, rends the Institute asunder. Likewise, the speedway parallel to the river known as Memorial Drive severs the MIT community from the banks of the Charles. With two pedestrian fatalities and a litany of smaller accidents on these thoroughfares in this academic year alone, it is intuitively obvious that major traffic-calming work is in order.

While much of the present discussion has focused on improving safety on Memorial Drive, enhancing safety on Massachusetts Avenue is just as important. Those of us who inhabit west campus must traverse this cavernous artery at least twice a day, and most of us will need to make four crossings. Daily pedestrian traffic numbers in the thousands, and the ever-common speeding motorists or guerrilla drivers attempting to sneak through a red light could be even more of a danger on Massachusetts Avenue.

One immediate solution that would greatly improve our chances of avoiding a third disaster is to increase police patrols on both these streets and vigorously enforce the current traffic laws. The Campus Police can do a much better job in enforcing the current traffic laws governing the streets traversing campus. It seems that not a day goes by when I fail to see an officer ticketing vehicles without parking permits on Amherst Street. Yet just as frequently, I see a speeding car on Massachusetts Avenue pass a red light without repercussions.

Are moving violations less of a priority to the Campus Police than parking tickets are? A stronger commitment from the Campus Police to the zealous enforcement of traffic regulations would vastly improve pedestrian safety in and around campus.

Unfortunately, there are few other solutions which MIT can implement directly to avert another senseless pedestrian accident. The Institute has a serious responsibility, however, to lobby the City of Cambridge and the Metropolitan District Commission to take all actions necessary and proper to avert another tragedy. The following proposals would satisfy these goals.

Crosswalk safety must be augmented on both Massachusetts Avenue and Memorial Drive. Our best solution is to borrow a French initiative used to tame that country's notoriously aggressive drivers. In France many crosswalks are placed on the top of a wide, gently rounding speed bump elevated about a foot from the street. This elegant device is effective in slowing the flow of traffic at busy street crossings, improving the safety of those traveling by foot. Such devices should be implemented at the crosswalks on Memorial Drive, as well as the heavily traversed crosswalks at 77 Massachusetts Ave. and Massachusetts Avenue at Amherst Street.

As pedestrian traffic is extremely heavy in the area, speed limits of 30 mph and above are simply inadequate to protect the safety of those walking in the area. The speed limit on Massachusetts Avenue from the river as far north as Vassar Street should be reduced to 20 miles per hour. This is consistent with Massachusetts law for speed limit in a school zone.

The reasoning for such an action is simple: a lower speed limit would help prevent motorists from being involved in another pedestrian tragedy. The low speed limit insures the protection of those crossing the street, especially those crossing busy highways. As there is no street more traveled in Cambridge than Massachusetts Avenue, and as the pedestrian traffic at MIT remains at high levels all day, only a 20 mph speed limit can properly safeguard those of us whose livelihoods depend on safe passage across that street.

On Memorial Drive, pedestrian traffic is lighter, but the need remains for a speed cut to tame the monsters lurking behind the wheel. Perhaps a speed limit of 25 mph is more appropriate there.

The final, and perhaps most radical, step I propose is to restrict general traffic to one lane in each direction on both Massachusetts Avenue and Memorial Drive. Besides further slowing traffic, this solution will make other transportation alternatives more attractive to the motoring public.

On Massachusetts Avenue, the right lane in both directions between the Charles River and Lafayette Square should be restricted to buses, taxis, and high-occupancy vehicles containing three or more people, leaving all other traffic in the left lane. This solution will not only reduce the speed of traffic by constricting the general flow to one lane, but it will also vastly improve the timeliness of the MBTA buses. The T vehicles will be offered unimpeded flow from University Park to Memorial Drive. Their improved efficiency will render them more attractive for the people living and working along the corridor, thus further cutting the total daily vehicle volume.

Various low bridges and crossings prevent buses from traveling along Memorial Drive. There is no reason, however, why the inner lanes in both directions could not be restricted to taxis and high-occupancy vehicles. Such a constraint will encourage carpooling, again resulting in a decline of traffic volume.

These ideas will only work if there is a commitment from the law enforcement community to enforce these new regulations and punish the offenders. With such a pledge, however, pedestrians in and around the Institute may be assured that the initiatives detailed above will tame the scofflaw motorists and make Memorial Drive and Massachusetts Avenue less intimidating and safer, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares.