Upham's Corner Online

Pedestrian Safety in Upham's Corner

Posted: November 2, 2011     Nancy J Conrad

Recently at meetings in Upham's Corner, residents discussed pedestrian safety and identified what they call "a dangerous crosswalk"  in the very heart of the business district. 

"Crossing Columbia Road from the Pilgrim Church to the Strand Theatre is a nightmare." 

The Upham's Corner Improvement Association decided to take on this intersection as a project and contacted Upham's Corner News to do some investigation. 

This report looks at the conditions, problems, goals and solutions.  Included is a conversation with a representative of the Boston Transportation Department and word that the intersection is under review with a promised upgrade for pedestrian safety.

Columbia Rd and Hancock crosswalk
Columbia Road is a wide thoroughfare with  opposing lanes of traffic separated by a median strip across most of its entire length from Franklin Park to South Boston.

Columbia Road in Upham's Corner begins at Quincy Street to Edward Everett Square and turns east towards South Boston. 

As shown in the diagram  Columbia Road in the Upham's Corner business district stretches from Bird Street to Holden Street.

In that section of Columbia Road there are five crosswalks associated with vehicular traffic controls. 

The ONLY crosswalk that is repeatedly identified as dangerous is #3 which crosses from the Pilgrim Church to the right side of the Strand Theatre.

This crosswalk is problematic for three reasons:
  1. It's functioning is inconsistent with the other four crosswalks

  2. There is no median strip

  3. Cars are being given priority over pedestrians

Crosswalks over Columbia Rd

Audible Pedestrian SignalsIn mid October a City contractor upgraded some of the pedestrian traffic controls along Columbia Road in the Upham's Corner business district.

What we pedestrians generally refer to as the "pedestrian button" is now what BTD (Boston Transportation Department) refers to as "audible pedestrian signals." 

How do the new signals work? 

  • There is (supposed to be) a raised arrow on the button itself which shows the pedestrian which way to cross (especially important for the blind)
  • Pushing the button initiates an audible sequence of directions for crossing the street, usually starting out with "Don't Walk"
  • When it is time to cross, the signal will say "Start Crossing"
As implemented along Columbia Road in the Upham's Corner business district, pedestrian controls and crossing standards differ slightly at each intersection but automatic pedestrian crossing is (relatively) safe EXCEPT at Columbia / Hancock.

Cross safely
when traffic stops?
Pedestrian Controls
Columbia / Holden
Old, Broken Safe crossing to median strip
Columbia / Dudley
Old, Automatic
Safe crossing
Columbia / Hancock
New, Manual
Cannot cross unless manual controls used.
Columbia / Davern
New, Manual
10' wide median strip - safe stopping point
Columbia / Bird
New, manual
no "arrow"
Safe crossing - median strip

According to a BTD representative, many intersections in the City of Boston are defined with one of the streets as major (primary) and the other as a side street (secondary).  The major street has the priority green. 

Loop detectors in the roadway detect traffic.  If you're on a side street, the loop detector will trigger the traffic control signal indicating there is a car waiting and that the traffic control signal needs to service that car.If there are no cars on the side street, then the mainstream will always have a green light. This obviously affects the pedestrian's ability to cross the major road when there are no cars on the side streets.  The pedestrian manual controls allow the pedestrian to request safe passage at any time.

Note that this type of design is put in place if the side street has under 250 cars per hour.  Greater than that and the two streets are handled differently.

The Columbia / Hancock intersection is complicated by the relationship of Hancock Street to Columbia Road.  Vehicular traffic from Hancock Street is not "through" traffic.  Cars can only turn right or left and most of the traffic is opting a right turn.  In fact the Hancock Street traffic light is not a green light but rather a green arrow which tells the driver that s/he has the right of way.

Vehicular Traffic

  • As currently designed, cars on Hancock Street line up for a "green" light.  There is a "no right turn on red" sign but residents report that drivers frequently turn right at any convenient opportunity.
  • When the loop detector determines traffic waiting, it sets up a "service cycle," stops the traffic on Columbia Road and uses a "right arrow" to signal traffic on Hancock Street to turn right.

Pedestrian Traffic
  • A pedestrian on the Pilgrim Church side of Columbia Road waits until the Columbia Road traffic stops then proceeds to the other side

  • The pedestrian is UNABLE to cross to the other side because cars from Hancock Street have the right of way and there is no median strip for safe stopping as with other Columbia Road crosswalks

Pedestrian safety in Upham's Corner
View of crosswalk from the Pilgrim Church to the Strand Theatre across Columbia Road

Pedestrian safety in Upham's Corner
Hancock Street traffic waiting to turn right onto Columbia Road

The Upham's Corner Improvement Association had a lot to say about the Columbia /Hancock crosswalk. 

"We stand with the pedestrians.  The very center of Upham's Corner needs to be pedestrian friendly.  Yes, traffic needs to flow as smoothly as possible but people need to be able to get to/from both sides of Columbia Road without having to be afraid to cross the street.

The City touts the redevelopment of the Strand Theatre yet isn't providing the proper infrastructure support such as parking and traffic controls.

Upham's Corner deserves better!"

One Upham's Corner resident said:

"I don't even try crossing at Pilgrim Church - too dangerous.  I walk down to Davern Ave where at least I have the safety of a median strip."

Another resident said she also gave up using that crosswalk. 
"I've tried crossing Columbia Road when the cars stop but I can't get across.  Cars from Hancock Street keep turning in front of me and don't let me cross.  I remember once I was signalling permission to the drivers to let me cross.  One of the cars was a police car and the police officer was very angry and yelled at me."
BTD needs to treat the Columbia / Hancock intersection as if it were a normal intersection where cars turning right or left have to yield to pedestrians. 

Let's use Columbia / Dudley as an example.  If I have the right of way on Columbia Road (green light) and I want to turn right onto Stoughton Street, don't I first have to yield to any pedestrians crossing? 

The Solution
  • Enforce the No Right Turn on Red sign
  • Put up a Yield to Pedestrians sign
  • Eliminate the right turn arrow
  • Install a small median strip for pedestrian safety
What will happen?  When Columbia Road traffic stops, pedestrians will be able to cross Columbia Road and cars from Hancock Street will be able to turn right as long as they yield to pedestrians as in any other normal intersection.  If necessary, with a median strip a pedestrian can wait safely there for the next walk cycle.

Compare that to the complicated and dangerous light sequence now in effect.  Doesn't make sense.

UC News spoke with a representative from the Boston Transportation Department.  The conversation helped illustrate the conflicting priorities present in the design of a safe pedestrian / vehicular transportation system. 

At the end of the conversation, BTD announced that the Columbia / Hancock intersection is under review and the pedestrian controls will be upgraded.


BTD What you are asking for is to put a pedestriann signal on recall which means it comes up every single cycle for the full 24 hours.  For an intersection like Columbia / Hancock where most of the drivers want to turn right, the drivers might wait the first couple times but when they realize there aren't any pedetrians crossing (ever), they will start to not pay attention to the crosswalk.

UC News
What we are asking for is to have the Columbia / Hancock intersection treated the same way as all the other intersections on Columbia Road in Upham's Corner.

What this means is very simple.  When the traffic on Columbia Road stops, the pedestrian gets to cross.  Pedestrians get used to patterns and in Upham's Corner, they get to cross when the traffic stops.  All of the intersections need to be basically the same.

Why can't the pedestrian use the manual controls?

UC News
If they don't have to use manual controls anywhere else, why should they suddenly have to use them at Columbia / Hancock?  Worse than that is the fact that this crosswalk leads to one of the most heavily used areas of Upham's Corner - the Strand Theatre.

I still don't see what is wrong with the pedestrian having to use manual controls to cross the street.

UC News
Upham's Corner is full of people. A lot of them cross from Pilgrim Church over to the other side. The City should be making Upham's Corner as pedestrian friendly and safe as possible.  The current traffic signals favor cars (coming from Hancock St) and force pedestrians to use a manual control.  It doesn't feel friendly.  It doesn't feel right. 

[BTD representative left to get the intersection sequence and returned to the phone with good news.]

I'm being told that there is a design for that intersection in process.  They are going to be upgrading that intersection with a new sequence  which will include a concurrent pedestrian walk signal.

It means that the pedestrian will not have to press the button to walk.

UC News
That is so nice to hear and I appreciate your sharing that information. 

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