Residents in a western enclave of Concord would like to walk or bike to the newly opened Bruce Freeman Rail Trail nearby. But crossing busy Route 2A is unsafe because a roughly 2,000-foot stretch along the road lacks both sidewalks and crosswalks.
“My son wants to play with kids who live on the other side of 2A. So we get in the car and drive him 200 feet and drop him off,’’ said Caroline Mahoney, a mother of four whose neighborhood is cut off from a number of parks and paved paths by 2A.
“I’ve seen 18-wheelers flying by,’’ said Nasir M. Rana, another resident who won’t let his two school-age children cross 2A by themselves. “Cars are going 60 miles per hour, and the posted speed [limit] is 45 miles per hour. There’s an incline, which makes visibility very tough. It’s madness.’’ Indeed, the state’s most recent crash map pinpoints two “crash clusters’’ on Route 2A in Concord that accounted for 34 accidents between 2015 and 2017.
Last year — amid the pandemic — Mahoney and Rana circulated an online petition among their neighbors, asking Concord town officials to build a sidewalk and add crosswalks along 2A. “To our surprise, we got signatures from a good 100 neighbors,’’ Rana said. “We took those signatures and wrote an open letter to local officials,’’ he said, including the town manager, the department of public works, the town engineer, and members of the town selectboard.
There’s just one complication: 2A is a state road, meaning that town officials aren’t empowered to fix it. “While we support the design and construction of the improvements [to 2A], we do not have the legal standing to perform the work,’’ Concord’s town manager, Stephen Crane, said in an e-mail.
A Massachusetts Department of Transportation spokeswoman said the 2A project is on the Statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan list for further study to examine possible drainage, grading, and utility issues. But, she added, if Concord wanted to proceed with the 2A project, town officials could fund it themselves or apply for state funding under a qualified MassDOT grant program.
“The town is saying they can’t do anything because it’s a state road, but the state says Concord can apply for different kinds of funding,’’ Mahoney said. “How do we get the two ends together, to get the town and the state to talk to each other?’’
When neighborhood groups — or even individual residents — have concerns about road safety, one of the biggest hurdles is simply figuring out where to direct their complaints. And making changes to roadways and traffic patterns typically involves a formal study, buy-in from local and state officials, and, perhaps most important, public funding. The process can take years.
Still, neighborhood groups can play a key role in raising awareness and advocating for improvements. Residents can highlight problems using publicly available police reports and crash data. Some have been known to track roadway speeds using personal radar guns. Petitioning other residents for signatures shows community support. Residents can take it a step further, reaching out to state lawmakers, school administrators, disability organizations, and local hiking-biking groups to broaden their base.
Assisting Mahoney, Rana, and others is WalkBoston, a pedestrian-advocacy organization that works throughout the Commonwealth, not just the capital. This nonprofit can pinpoint a road’s jurisdiction and identify key decision-makers: elected officials, business groups, disability organizations, and neighborhood associations. Often WalkBoston will guide them on a “walk audit’’ of the targeted area. “We talk about destinations that people want to access,’’ said Stacey Beuttell, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Can they access them through crossings? What are the posted speeds? Should we narrow the travel lanes or add bike lanes?’’
Once problems are identified, residents can ask their municipality to take the lead in seeking improvements, even if it’s a state road, the MassDOT spokeswoman said. Some cities have a bicycle and pedestrian committee; if not, residents can contact the local department of public works to share their concerns.
Before any changes can be made, cities often commission a formal traffic-engineering study, said Chuck Huffine, a traffic engineer and transportation planner whose company, CLH Associates in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., consults with municipalities and developers. The findings of such studies often include “traffic calming’’ recommendations—ways to get drivers to slow down, make safe turns, and share the road with pedestrians and cyclists, said Huffine, who helped draft a primer on traffic-calming strategies for the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Solutions range from relatively low-cost speed humps to big-ticket projects like rotaries at intersections.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has multiple programs and resources available to municipalities looking to improve roadway safety. “We offer a lot of sources for technical assistance, as well as funding,’’ said Jackie DeWolfe, director of sustainable mobility for MassDOT. Last year, for example, the state announced a Shared Streets and Spaces Grant Program to help towns improve curbs, streets, and parking areas. Since its inception in June 2020, the program has invested $21.1 million in municipal and public transit projects, DeWolfe said.
Separately, scores of cities across the state are continuing to lower speed limits from 30 to 25 miles per hour on certain roads, part of a measure the state Legislature approved in 2016. Early research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicates that the new rule is working. In Boston, where the default speed limit was lowered to 25 miles per hour, the odds of a vehicle traveling faster than 35 miles per hour fell 29.3 percent, according to Wen Hu, a senior research transportation engineer and coauthor of the study. The odds of a vehicle traveling over 30 mph fell 8.5 percent. The research didn’t examine whether lower speeds resulted in fewer crashes, but the institute is planning to analyze crash data.
Separate data indicate overall improvements in road safety. In May, Boston released its 2019-2020 report card on Vision Zero, an effort to eliminate serious and fatal crashes on city streets by 2030. The findings: Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in the city fell from 15 in 2016 to nine in 2019 and to seven in 2020. (The report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic reduced overall traffic within Boston in 2020.)
Statewide, there were 92 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities on Massachusetts roadways in 2016, according to Massachusetts Department of Transportation data. In 2019, the most recent comparable year, there were 83 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.
“It’s encouraging,’’ WalkBoston’s Beuttell said of statewide safety efforts. “They’re making strides.’’
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