Eric Cody has had his eye on an intersection in Cambridge for a while.
A long while.
In November 2009, Cody, who lives in Cambridge, decided it was time to e-mail the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s then-commissioner Richard K. Sullivan about the crosswalk at Cambridge’s Memorial Drive and Hawthorn Street, just west of Harvard Square, a popular crossing for joggers and dog-walkers who seek to ramble alongside the Charles River.
“I believe this cross walk is not well perceived by motorists,” Cody wrote in his e-mail four years ago. “The crosswalk is not at an intersection, per se, and may not therefore be obvious to drivers. The painted markings are somewhat worn. There are no visual cues such as orange barrels or sign posts. Many drivers just do not seem to be aware that there is a crosswalk, and some that do realize it do so fairly late, e.g., have to brake hard.”
Cody continued, “I request that your agency take a careful look at this crosswalk before someone gets hurt, or worse.”
And it turns out, Cody wasn’t alone. At a 2011 public meeting on the Charles River Basin, resident Carice Pingenot declared “Hawthorn is just a bad intersection.”
“It really is taking your life into your hands to cross there,” Pingenot said. “People get through the long light at JFK, and they floor it, and they don’t want to stop for somebody as insignificant [as] a hundred and fifty pound person.”
For years, Cambridge officials had pushed the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the agency responsible for Memorial Drive, hoping that they would pay to install a pedestrian signal to ensure a safer trip for residents on foot. There are no other crossings with signals nearby, and most people choose to simply dash out between gaps in the traffic.
But traffic signals are not cheap; some can cost upward of $100,000 to install. The intersection remained signal-less.
And then, magically, a solution seemed to appear: Several months ago, Cody noticed that installation had begun on a pedestrian-activated stop light. It was the exact kind of fix he’d hoped for.
But counter to his expectations, the situation got worse. The traffic signal is installed, but it does not yet have power. And now drivers passing through the intersection now ignore the crosswalk even more than they did before, he said, lulled into security by traffic lights even though they do not work.
“Ironically, this new situation has actually increased the danger to people trying to cross,” Cody wrote in an e-mail last week. “Drivers now see the dark lights and blow through without regard to whether anyone is in the crosswalk. Three days ago, a pedestrian in front of me was nearly run down by a distracted driver.”
So, the question remains: When will Eric Cody’s long-hoped-for traffic signal finally swing into action?
The traffic signal is a government agency hot potato: Though the intersection is located in Cambridge and the roadway belongs to the Department of Conversation and Recreation, the traffic signal project is the responsibility of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, as part of its Accelerated Bridge Program .
The reconstruction of the Anderson Memorial Bridge — the bridge that connects Allston with Harvard Square along John F. Kennedy Street — will prompt new traffic patterns after the project concludes in the fall of 2014. People driving into Cambridge on the bridge will no longer be allowed to turn left onto Memorial Drive. That measure is in place right now during construction, but it will remain permanent once the bridge is fully open, with new bike lanes.
Drivers who are looking to turn west onto Memorial Drive will have to take another route, and traffic engineers expect that most will turn onto Mount Auburn Street and cut through Hawthorn Street. Such an influx of traffic required MassDOT officials to install a vehicular signal at the intersection of Hawthorn and Memorial Drive to accommodate all the extra cars that will drive through the neighborhood. At the last minute, MassDOT figured: Why not put a pedestrian signal there, too?
So, Cambridge will finally get its pedestrian signal at the site, all expenses paid by the state’s bridge fund. The signal will be hooked up to detectors that will prompt the light to change whenever cars on Hawthorn Street seek to turn onto Memorial Drive; pedestrians will be able to press a button that will cause the traffic lights to turn red, with cars in every direction coming to a halt.
Still, MassDOT spokesman Mike Verseckes said the signal is still several weeks away from being fully operational. One of the pedestrian signal heads needs to be replaced after it was knocked out by a recent snowstorm, and workers are waiting for the piece of equipment to be delivered.
Additionally, the signal needs to be wired into Cambridge’s electrical system, the city must then inspect the wiring, and NStar has to activate the light.
“We anticipate this to take one more month, at the soonest,” Verseckes said.
“In the meantime,” he continued, “we encourage all pedestrians to cross Memorial Drive only at the existing crossings and to be mindful of oncoming and turning vehicles in the vicinity.”