Friday, July 19, 2024

A car heads north on Appleton Street in West Cambridge on Monday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A fix may be near for the traffic surging over Appleton Street in West Cambridge over the past year, but transportation planners say they’d be fixing a problem they probably did not cause – and that residents of other nearby streets will have to be ready to get Appleton’s redirected traffic.

More than 4,000 cars are turning from Brattle Street to drive north on Appleton Street to Huron Avenue, a trip of roughly one-third mile, more than 100 neighborhood residents and many city councillors learned at a May 23 community meeting. The volume is two or three times as much as on parallel streets – other so-called ladder streets between the two major thoroughfares – that have actually seen declines of around 300 fewer cars in the same time.

There’s regularly “honking gridlock” on the street, neighbors say. When there’s not, drivers tend to hurtle over the hill. Police have put a speed feedback trailer on the street with a 20 mph limit sign and a warning to speeders to slow down; city councillor Patty Nolan said she was told by an officer he’d issued 54 citations on the street within the past three days.

“This is not fair, and this is not safe,” resident Vanessa Ruget told city councillors at their Monday meeting.

A no-left-turn sign could go up by the third weekend of July, transportation commissioner Brooke McKenna said, but the Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department wanted to first use the next three weeks to do more analysis of where traffic was most likely to go if it couldn’t use Appleton. “We think they can absorb the differences,” McKenna said of nearby streets, “but we do want to do a little bit more outreach and … get ahead of that.”

The installation of a permanent no-left-turn sign wasn’t certain, but the department leaned in that direction, McKenna said.

Ruget and others put the blame on city transportation planners and changes to Garden Street, which runs to the north and east and in November 2022 got separated bike lanes. When the lanes came in, five blocks of Garden between Bond Street and Huron Avenue were made one-way, with traffic flowing only toward Harvard Square.

Looking to Garden Street

City councillors Paul Toner and Ayesha Wilson agreed this was the root – or route – of the problem.

“The resolution is for us to revisit Garden Street – not to take away bike lanes, but to revisit the notion of Garden Street being a one way,” Toner said. “We’re just pushing the problem throughout West Cambridge in terms of putting up signs for no left turn here, no left turn there, and it’s just creating more confusion.”

Wilson referred also to the “unintended consequences” of changes such as on Garden Street, which was followed by complaints from residents of Concord Street to its immediate west and smaller roads such as Raymond and Walker streets to its east. After some time and mitigation, those complaints have subsided – only to echo on Appleton.

“Have you all really thought about the impact of the infrastructure making Garden Street a one-way and how that has now impacted several of the streets across several blocks of a neighborhood?” Wilson asked.

It’s more complicated than it may seem, transportation officials said. There’s a general rise in traffic volumes across the region, with “a lot of unknowns,” McKenna said. “I don’t think you can draw the very direct correlations all of the time. Traffic is a very challenging, kind of amorphous thing that is pretty hard to control, and it’s pretty hard to understand all the connections.” The department waited at first to take action to see if construction detours were the problem.

Counting the Waze

The culprit is more likely apps such as Waze and Google Maps that drivers now rely on, especially when passing through a city from somewhere else and to somewhere else. Their algorithms may try to save a couple of minutes of driving time with “15 extra turns on small local streets,” McKenna said.

That’s also why a no-turn sign would be all-day instead of for between certain times, such as from 4 to 7 p.m.: Mapping apps disregard anything but total bans on turns, so preventing turns only during certain hours wouldn’t stop the apps from suggesting drivers take Appleton from Brattle, McKenna said. (The most common cut-through pattern is for vehicles traveling from Mount Auburn Street north on Lowell Street, then right on Brattle very briefly to go left on Appleton.)

There’s no certainty people will obey a sign, but other steps were outlined by the department for Appleton, including new painted lines and permanent speed feedback signs.

When the traffic redistributes, “we are a little concerned about what may happen with the other ladder streets – and we anticipate that residents of those streets may ask for a similar restriction,” said Jeff Parenti, assistant commissioner for street management.“Some of what we’ll be doing between now and a few weeks from now is making sure that the community understands what the tradeoffs are. Once we feel confident that the community understands, we can feel confident that this restriction on Appleton Street is a good idea.”