Wednesday, May 22, 2024

An overheard shot shows the unusually elongated nature of the intersection of Cambridge and Hampshire streets in Inman Square.

Everyone hates the intersection of Cambridge and Hampshire streets at Inman Square — its traffic confusion and constant threat of vehicular mayhem.

Universal agreement on its awfulness, though, isn’t resulting in significant repair, in large part because that threat is almost never fulfilled.

While the typical intersection forms a plus symbol when seen from the sky, this one forms an elongated X (bringing into play three side streets) that literally stretches out traffic patterns and muddles what should be simple simultaneous left-hand turns.

Some drivers on Hampshire take lefts in front of oncoming traffic, some behind cars that must drive far forward to complete their own turns. It’s all done while pedestrians cross, and there’s enough traffic and confusion to ensure Cambridge Street drivers get green lights before Hampshire cars have cleared the crossroads.

Inman Square’s shops and restaurants are magnets for people and cars on their own, but “with the hospital so close and the fire station, it’s a real clusterfuck,” said Gannon McCarthy, who gets his coffee at the square’s 1369 Coffee House and works a couple of blocks down at Lorem Ipsum Books. “I’ve seen ambulances have a hard time getting through.”

In truth, it shouldn’t be an intersection at all, but a rotary. Susan Clippinger, director of the city’s Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department, has a very simple reason why it isn’t, though, namely that the shape of the intersection would force a rotary circle into something more like a very tight, long ellipse.

The rotary idea hasn’t been looked at seriously, she said, but because “people generally people don’t like the intersection, whenever we’re doing any kind of work nearby, we look to see if there’s anything we can do to improve it.”

Workers at the square’s Cambridge Savings Bank branch, seen at right in a building that comes to a point, have ringside seats to the craziness — and can testify to a counterintuitive lack of collisions.

That means mainly tweaking the timing of signals and refining pavement markings, since anything more consequential “gets to be very difficult because of the geometry.”

Still, in addition to the tweaks there have been at least three intensive looks at the square since she joined the department in 1994, Clippinger said, with one important fact preventing wholesale reconstruction: a dearth of traffic accidents.

“It’s more chaos than crashes,” she said.

McCarthy — who finds himself often “just watching the craziness at that corner” when he gets his daily caffeine fix — has also noted the lack of crashes and injury.

“Compared to other streets in Boston, there are very few frustrated people and honking cars,” he said.

The workers at the square’s Cambridge Savings Bank — which narrows nearly to the width of a doorway to fit the sharpest sidewalk where the two streets meet — have front-row, ringside seats to the craziness. While they’re firm believers in the awfulness of the square, they’re also astonished observers of its lack of automotive violence.

“I’ve seen some cars come very close. I see a lot of people almost get hit. I’ve never seen anyone get hit,” said Stephen Sousa, a teller who has been in the square for a year.

The main culprit, the bank workers said, is the traffic signals on Cambridge Street that seem not to take into account the distance that must be traveled to pass through the actual intersection. People speed through a yellow light and, by the time they reach Hampshire Street, encounter the drivers getting a green on Hampshire.

“I don’t think people measure the distance,” said Maria Pacheco, a teller supervisor who’s been at the bank branch for about a decade (and seen one person hit by a car there in that whole time).

Other than perfecting the timing of traffic lights, residents, employees and city officials in the area seem largely out of ideas for improvement.

Pacheco remembers one thing that seemed to help, albeit back in the 1960s: a police officer that stood in the crossroads using hand signals to direct drivers. But she doubted that service would return — and ultimately wondered if it was needed.

“Actually, there should be more accidents,” she said, “but the drivers have been here and know how it works.”

Requests for comment left in March with the Inman Square Business Association and Mara Kustra, the association’s founder and a local business owner, went unanswered.