Moving past the debate: Solutions to traffic challenges on Memorial Drive
As spring approaches, the debate has reopened as to whether the weekend closings of Memorial Drive should include Saturdays, as they have in recent years. Within the area that would close, there is overwhelmingly strong public support, including 94 percent of Riverside residents who use the park, a substantial proportion of written comments in favor within the Riverside and adjacent neighborhoods and nearly 1,000 of the 4,000 petition signatures from the 02139 ZIP code, which includes Riverside and Cambridgeport.
It is also clear that not everyone is pleased with the full weekend closings, though: a city-run survey found that 10 percent of Riverside residents have experienced bad traffic delays. These neighbors have raised important concerns about traffic impacts that are deserving of respect, analysis and action. With that goal in mind, we want to publicly raise solutions to improve traffic flow and safety with benefits throughout the week, not just on Saturdays. Here are some specific changes that could be implemented to achieve that goal:
Synchronization of traffic signals: Currently, there is a three-second cycle discrepancy between the signals at Western Avenue and Memorial Drive and Western Avenue and Soldiers Field Road, leading to poor traffic flow and backups. Synchronizing these signals fully would help alleviate congestion along Western Avenue that is also common on weekdays.
Customizing light timings for weekend traffic patterns: While the Riverbend Park schedule has changed, there have been no changes to the nearby traffic signals. Currently, the traffic light at Western Avenue and Memorial Drive is optimized for peak evening rush-hour traffic, when many drivers are trying to turn left from Memorial Drive to access the Turnpike.
Providing a weekend schedule for the traffic light at Western Avenue and Memorial Drive could move more traffic through Western Avenue. Three-quarters of the traffic light’s cycle is dedicated to Memorial Drive traffic, even on weekends when there is proportionally more traffic on Western Avenue. By simply retiming the light, it would allow more traffic through from Western Avenue, reducing backups into the Riverside and Cambridgeport neighborhoods.
Adding flexibility to lane markings: Lane markings on the Western Avenue bridge over the Charles River are optimized for rush-hour traffic, causing confusion and backups on weekends. Making these lane assignments more flexible could lead to safer sorting and more efficient queuing when traffic patterns change during the closures.
Additionally, allowing both lanes to turn left from Memorial Drive onto Western Avenue would be more efficient than forcing two lanes of traffic into the single “left only” lane during the weekend. This would improve the traffic flow and could allow the Memorial Drive phase of the traffic signal at Western Avenue and Memorial Drive to be reduced all week.
Preventing blocked intersections and reducing neighborhood traffic impacts: Marking the intersection of Putnam and Western avenues with “Don’t block the box” signs and paint could help alleviate traffic congestion caused by drivers who cannot make it through the intersection before the light turns red. Better communication with residents and others, including improving communication about the closing schedule through wayfinding apps and signs, would also likely help.
Improving pedestrian safety by providing a protected “walk” phase: The traffic lights at Riverbend Park pose a safety issue for pedestrians and bicyclists when the park is open, because there are only three seconds of crossing time before traffic turning left from Memorial Drive onto the Western Avenue bridge is in conflict with people crossing along the river paths. To address this, some of the signal cycle used for Memorial Drive could be reallocated to allow an exclusive pedestrian cycle phase on busy weekend days.
We must work together to implement these changes rather than assigning blame and pitting open space against avoidable traffic congestion. Although these solutions have been proposed in the many public meetings with city and state officials last year, they have not yet been prioritized. As Riverbend Park is largely in state Rep. Marjorie Decker’s district, she could play a pivotal role in working with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to fast-track these changes as the park reopens this season, along with support from the Cambridge state legislative delegation. By prioritizing roadway improvements, we can maintain this safe and enjoyable open space while minimizing impacts to neighbors. Let’s move past the debate and work together to implement these positive changes.
The Memorial Drive Alliance
The Memorial Drive Alliance includes two dozen community organizations aligned toward restoring Memorial Drive park space and dedicating more of it to people.
Synchronization of the light system is something they promised us in the public meetings back when the redesign work on Western Ave was done, and which never materialized.
But then again they told us that the redesign would improve traffic flow, that we would not end up with emergency vehicles stuck in traffic and that our complaints about traffic jams on weekdays did not match their data and didn’t exist.
@unquietsoul, I agree with you, I think those lights being aligned would help the traffic that is out there on weekdays.
It reminds me of the proverb ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is now’.
For what it’s worth, I think given that the DCR controls the traffic lights on both sides of the bridge, they would be the best able to work on the synchronization, and I think MassDOT controls the lane markings on the bridge.