Recent news that the temporary North Washington Street Bridge and resulting pedestrian detours will be around for at least another 13 months has sparked outrage from vulnerable road users. I decided to take a closer look at the current conditions.
In mid-2019, MassDOT closed the walkway on the East (harbor) side of the bridge. This closure means pedestrians traveling between the North End and Charlestown must cross North Washington Street on both sides in order to use the bridge. Under the current configuration, that's 13 lanes of traffic altogether (seven on the North End side and Six in Charlestown).
This detour was originally scheduled to last 15 months. It's now been 42 months. In recent weeks, MassDOT informed the public that it will be at least another 13 months before pedestrians traveling between Charlestown and the North End can use the bridge safely.
After a child walking to school was nearly run over on the Charlestown side in 2021, the City asked the contractor to A) Close the slip lane onto Chelsea Street and B) Increase the length of the pedestrian phase at City Square. These minor changes have made the Charlestown crossing marginally safer. So I'll focus on the Keany Square (North End) side for the rest of this article.
Pedestrians can't make the crossing at Keany Square (the North End side) in a single phase. They must:
- Wait up to three minutes for a walk phase across the slip lane onto the bridge.
- Wait an additional two minutes at a small, unprotected island between the slip lane and the additional six lanes for the next pedestrian phase.
This is where the real problems start.
The crosswalk during the seven-second pedestrian phase is invariably blocked by motor vehicles. Most often, it's blocked for the entirety of the 18-second clearing phase as well. This leaves pedestrians with no choice other than to snake their way through the phalanx of vehicles - praying that they will be seen, even when the operator of the often massive vehicles have zero visibility of the crosswalk that they're plowing through.
Actually, the other choice pedestrians have is a strength-in-numbers takeover of the intersection when the crosswalk clears of vehicles. This exact scenario happened today when dozens of Eliot school children commandeered the intersection during a non-pedestrian phase. It was the only time the crosswalk was free of motor vehicles and seemed to be by far the safest opportunity to actually get to the other side. Amazingly, this was what motivated the detail officer to finally exit the patrol vehicle he had been sitting in. (He was unmotivated to help out - or even get out of his patrol car - while the J.P. Noonan truck above rolled its enormous tires past school children during their walk phase, or for any of the other six light cycles I observed today.) At this time, the officer shut down the impromptu appropriation and restored the status quo of breathtakingly dangerous motor vehicle dominance.
Wait, there's a cop detail there?
Yes. Well, there's supposed to be. Sgt. Paul Chevrette represented BPD at Tuesday's MassDOT meeting on the bridge. He assured us that officers are on duty and assigned, but then passed off responsibility to a non-existent crossing guard and even implied that it was the attendee's responsibility to find that crossing guard:
Meeting Attendee Jade Figueiredo: we do not have consistent crossing guards [...] and these kids are dodging big mack trucks
Sgt. Paul Chevrette: Those assignments [for a police detail] are in and as far as I know, with the crossing guards, if you guys know anyone that's willing to work as a crossing guard, we are taking applications.
Side note: I have known the crossing guard that was previously assigned to the Keany Square intersection for twenty years. If he can't handle the traffic there, no civilian can. This is a job for a police officer. Apparently, we're already paying for one to be there, we just need Sgt. Chevrette's officers to, you know, actually get out of their patrol cars and help.
Several parents I spoke with confirmed that on the rare occasion a police office is present, they are almost always in the patrol vehicle - not on the ground helping people to cross safely. I also spoke with a second-grade teacher at the Eliot school that confirmed the detail officers don't help her either:
We've been on field trips with three teachers and 80 kids. And the police officer just sits in his car watching his phone while we try to navigate around cars running red lights.
Sadly, with or without police details, motor vehicle operators in Boston pay almost no attention to red lights at pedestrian crossings. This is the next signalized intersection up Commercial Street today, 500 feet from Keany Square:
Here's Cross Street at the other side of the North End:
Perhaps most frustrating is the sense of complacency and lack of urgency from our elected officials, MassDOT, and BPD. No one from Gabby Colletta's or Lydia Edward's office were present at Tuesday's meeting. A rep from Aaron Michlewitz's office was there, but contributed nothing. Same with the Mayor's ONS rep.
We've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas.