Cambridge Will Ax Two Car Lanes From Harvard Square

A redesigned Harvard Square will go under construction in June 2020.

Brattle Street in Harvard Square next to the Out of Town News kiosk, shown in a May 2019 file photograph.
Brattle Street in Harvard Square next to the Out of Town News kiosk, shown in a May 2019 file photograph.

After a truck driver struck and killed a 67-year-old retiree in Harvard Square earlier this fall, Cambridge officials announced that they will remove car lanes from Brattle Street and Massachusetts Avenue around the square’s central plaza as part of a construction project scheduled to begin next June.

Since 2017, the City of Cambridge has been planning a reconstruction of Harvard Square’s central plaza.

Until recently, that project had not planned to make any changes to the roadways surrounding the plaza: Brattle Street to the west, and Massachusetts Avenue to the east.

But after the driver of a large flatbed boom truck struck and killed Sharon Hamer, 67, a retired Boston Public Schools librarian, on Brattle Street near the Out of Town News kiosk in September, Vice Mayor Jan Devereux asked city officials to amend their plans for the square and add additional safety measures to its surrounding streets.

In a presentation Thursday evening at Harvard’s Smith Center, Cambridge City Engineer Kathy Watkins said that the city’s proposed changes were “not specific to what happened with September’s crash, because it’s still under investigation, but we’re looking at more general safety improvements.”

Watkins said that the city’s review of the square’s streets concluded that the current design’s crosswalks “are not very clear,” and that the north side of the square, where Brattle meets Massachusetts Avenue, creates an “awkward merge – especially for cyclists.”

By reducing the number of northbound lanes from Massachusetts Avenue – from two lanes to one lane along the plaza – the city found that it could simplify traffic signal timing throughout the square, and reduce wait times for motor vehicles and pedestrians, while also providing more space to buffer the northbound bike lane and ultimately, in a future project, widen the sidewalk along Harvard Yard.

A sketch of the City of Cambridge's proposed plans for the Harvard Square plaza, presented in a public meeting on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, would remove car lanes from both Brattle Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
A sketch of the City of Cambridge’s proposed plans for the Harvard Square plaza, presented in a public meeting on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, would remove car lanes from both Brattle Street and Massachusetts Avenue.

With improved signal timing, the city also calculated that it could reduce the number of southbound lanes through the square on Brattle Street, where Hamer was hit by a truck in September.

The city’s proposal would also force motor vehicles entering the Square from the north to merge from two lanes into one lane at Church Street, thus reducing the width of Brattle Street in the heart of the square and adding more space to the plaza. The proposal would also separate a section of the northbound Brattle Street bike lane and add an exclusive traffic signal for bikes to access the northbound Massachusetts Avenue bike lane from Brattle Street.

An audience of roughly two dozen members of the public were generally supportive of the city’s proposal and encouraged city staff to do even more to reduce the footprint of motor vehicles in the city’s busiest area for foot traffic. The Harvard Red Line subway stop, which is adjacent to the crash site, is the third-busiest subway station in the MTBA system (behind South Station and Downtown Crossing), with over 23,000 daily station entries.

Watkins said that the street and plaza reconstruction project is expected to go out to bid this winter, and that construction is expected to begin in June 2020.

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