Do traffic signals make Boston pedestrians more Massholish than their counterparts in Cambridge?

Biking in Heels posits that differences in the way our traffic signals work for pedestrians explain why Bostonians dart every which way from every direction, while Cantabrigians are more thoughtful, even when jaywalking:

In Cambridge, the city has had a policy for a long time of concurrent walk signals, so pedestrians have a right of way every time the cars going parallel have a light, so there's never much of a wait. There are regularly spaced crosswalks in areas without closely spaced lights, and where those crosswalks are on high speed roads, there are lights with "on demand" buttons. The signalized crossings controlled by the city of Cambridge (for example the ones around Fresh Pond) operate almost immediately after pushing, with only 30 seconds or so of delay to safely slow and stop traffic. In most places, especially pedestrian dense areas, there are countdown timers too, so that the pedestrian knows exactly how long they have until the light will actually turn.



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Boston pedestrians

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Cantabrigians more thoughtful? Apparently the author of this article has never driven through Harvard SQ. What a bunch of arrogant **ckheads! They seem to think they can just waltz into traffic whenever they feel like it and everything will come to a halt because they're crossing the street. They make crosswalks and traffic lights for a reason, folks!


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Most people in Harvard Square aren't Catabridgians, anyway. They're Harvards, people who work at Harvard, tourists, and suburban kids who hang out in the pit.

Share the streets

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There's no reason to be speeding through Harvard Square, or any other intensively developed area with lots of people walking around. You should expect people to be in the streets at any time. They were originally created for people long before there were cars, and it is only natural for everyone to use them.

If you're angry because people won't bow down to your car, well, too bad for you. The best parts of the Boston area are the ones where there's lots of people, and they're more important than your momentary inconvenience. The worst parts of the Boston area are the dead zones, dominated by fast-moving cars, where people fear to tread.

Sharing is not the answer. I

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Sharing is not the answer. I agree that people shouldn't be going 40 in Harvard Square, but peds also shouldn't pop out from behind parked cars directly into the street.

The rules of the road are pretty clear; both drivers and peds should obey them.

Boston is demand only

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I think that the bigger difference is that most places in Boston you don't get a walk signal unless the walk button has been pushed. Tourists especially seem to be baffled by this. I suppose it makes sense to not stop cars if you don't have to but the other result is that plenty of people don't bother with the walk signals at all. I actually think Boston traffic decisions are remarkably car oriented, which again results in grumpy pedestrians running amok.

Walk button pushed != walk signal

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I've found a ton of the buttons in Boston don't respond (at least, not within a full light cycle) by giving a walk sign. So now I don't even bother to push them.

the button activated

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the button activated crosswalks are just part of the historic charm here in Boston. A vacation here is like taking a time machine back to the late 1970's! Enjoy your stay in America's [push a questionably functioning metal button to gain permission to continue] Walking City!

But please look both ways, that red light is just a "suggestion".

Not like the late 70s

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I know what you mean, but vacation here is not like the late 70s. What's the first thing people on vacation here do? They run to Fanuil Hall. Fanuil Hall, the tourist trap as we know it now, wasn't even there in the late 70s. Just some shells of buildings and a lot of unused space. Downtown Crossing wasn't the picture of urban decay it is now. It was Washington Street and had Jordan Marsh, Filenes and a three story Woolworths. Besides, if it was the late 70s I'd be at the Rat watching the Neighborhoods for a $3 cover charge.

You're wrong

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about F. Hall. 1st, it was a well known and very popular produce and meat market up to the period when it was 'gentrified' into the F. Hall we all know and love [*sarcasm*] today. F. Hall the tourist trap+late night drinking spot as it is now came into being by the mid - late 70s.

Whatever advantage Cambridge

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Whatever advantage Cambridge may or may not have is wiped out by all the douchebags that go to/from the Kendall T station and cross on a red light, blocking regular and bus traffic alike.

Kendall Square Crossing

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This signal is due to meet its death when Main Street is reconstructed as part of the Kendall Square redevelopment project, and replaced with a raised crossing. Much better for pedestrians and cars alike.

This happens in Harvard

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This happens in Harvard Square too. I avoid driving like the plague in both those areas.

I work in Kendall Square, and it feels very much like I'm in a herd of cattle coming out of the T station walking to cross at Broadway and Third. That light is frequent and gives plenty of time for pedestrians to cross, but yet people still just can't seem to wait for it. Many of them end up stranded on the median strip. Those 2 seconds they shave off their arrival time must be well worth it.

The bigger problem in my eyes

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The bigger problem in my eyes is pedestrians, both in Boston and in Cambridge, who think they have the right of way no matter what, walk signal or don't-walk signal. They march out in the crosswalk when oncoming traffic is seconds away, as if the painted crosswalk is a shield of invincibility, and sometimes get all pissed when the traffic with the green light honks while they, with the no-walk signal, are holding things up. As someone who's been mostly a walker in the city but at times a driver, too, it irks me to see pedestrians hold up traffic for the 20-30 seconds it takes to cross the street rather than wait the 2-3 seconds it takes for a car to drive by.

Boston is the only major city

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Boston is the only major city in the US that does not provide walk signals parallel to the green at virtually every intersection. NY, Chicago, and LA all let the pedestrians cross with traffic, and have far fewer of the push-button lights.

It's especially ridiculous downtown, where pedestrians outnumber cars by at least 5:1.

On the countdown timers, my favorite is the timers that count to zero, yet there's still another 10 second wait after that for the cross traffic to get the green. This useless, misleading information just encourages jay walking.

I can go light-by-light in downtown Boston and tell you how they could program the lights to make things better for both drivers and pedestrians. I think many of these lights were programmed in 1952, and haven't been updated since.


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Not to say you're wrong in your opinion but comparing Boston to NYC, Chicago, or LA doesn't really make sense. Those places are way way bigger with much more infrastructure. I'd like to see a comparison to cities more relative to Boston in size and population, along with places wih a similar downtown area. This may be a national problem that needs rethinking.

Boston has the least

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Boston has the least pedestrian-friendly lights of any major city, yet is supposed to be "walking city."

That is the problem.

LA is far more car friendly, yet the lights are much more regular and predictable for pedestrians.

Also in LA

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LA enforces, and with meaningful fines, both pedestrians jay-walking and cars entering crosswalks with pedestrians in them. Yes, LA is where car is king but when a pedestrian puts a foot in a crosswalk all the cars stop and they stay stopped until the pedestrain is out of the crosswalk, unlike in Boston where drivers think they're doing great as long as they don't actually hit any pedestrians in a crosswalk.

I'd love to see similar enforcement (and fines) here.

Ever see a cyclist stop at a crosswalk?

They do exactly what you claim about drivers and never get ticketed. I've only seen one bicyclist come to a full stop at a crosswalk for a pedestrian rather than just dart around. I was in shock and awe.


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You must not walk much. My commute is 1.4 miles each way (longer if I'm running errands), right down the greenway and cyclists stop a decent amount of the time. They break the rules a lot, don't get me wrong, but they still stop more than that. I nearly get hit by cars way more than nearly hit by cyclists.

It's all relative

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Metro Boston is still one of the top 10 metro areas in the U.S. It's CSA makes it the 5th or 6th largest. Boston also has proportionately the largest influx of non-residents [suburbanites] into the city on a daily basis of any city in the U.S., roughly doubling the city's population to 1.5 million people in a small geographical area.

I was born in NYC, lived there as a child off and on, and also lived in L.A. I agree NY,LA and Chicago are in a class by themselves. But Boston would be comparable to San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, cities like that.

I personally love the

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I personally love the pedestrian signals in Boston that still show a red hand even though the cross street is a one way that has a red light. There isn't even a remote possibility of conflict from turning traffic.

Me too

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I personally love the pedestrian signals in Boston that still show a red hand even though the cross street is a one way that has a red light. There isn't even a remote possibility of conflict from turning traffic.

Off the very top of my head I can name two intersections where this is the case. Clarendon Street is one way at Columbus Ave and is a No Turn on Red intersection, however when Columbus has a green, there is still a don't walk sign for traffic crossing Clarendon St, even though there is no conflict. The same situation exists at Clarendon and Tremont St, where there is a No Turn on Red for Clarendon St traffic, but still a don't walk for pedestrian traffic on Tremont. It makes no sense.

There are ton of these in

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There are ton of these in downtown. These "don't walk even though it's perfectly safe" lights simply train pedestrians that walk lights are to be ignored.

The reason is contracting

From training children to animals, consistency is vital.

The people who re-program traffic signals are usually contracted or sub-contracted, not full time public employees. A city counsel can just make an intersection No Turn on Red and get the DPW to put up a sign. The DPW may not want to spend the extra money to complete the change since the council likely didn't ask for it.

Even Austin

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Had fewer of the pushbuttons and mostly concurrent signals. And that city is relatively terrible for walking.

Mind the gap

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Yeah, the 10-second gap between red hand and green light just encourages people to disregard the red hand and assume that the lights are programmed stupidly. Hence people darting out into traffic that has right-of-way.

You can sort of see how it evolved organically, though. It's the same reason you get a second or two delay between yellow-to-red one way and red-to-green the other: engineers assume that people are assholes and will try to run the yellow light, and so they build in a delay so people don't get T-boned when they go as soon as the light turns green. They assume that pedestrians are going to do the same idiotic thing and get caught in the middle of the crosswalk when the light turns. "Aha," they think, "we'll give them 10 seconds to get across after the light turns, thus making them safer!" And instead we get the current problem, where no one pays any attention to the crosswalks because they're obviously wrong most of the time.

But the crazy thing is that

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But the crazy thing is that this isn't systematic. At the corner of Milk and Devonshire in downtown, one of the directions counts to zero, and then ten seconds elapse before the opposing traffic gets a green light. In the other direction at the same intersection, the count down works "properly," i.e., counts down to the opposing green.

Basically, I think it's just poor or no planning. I don't think pedestrian (or car) safety has been given much in the way of thought.

Something needs to be done about Arlington St

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especially between Beacon and Boylston. Arlington and Newbury by the Taj is especially heinous. Pedestrians have a ridiculously short time to cross the street, and the drivers in this area all act like they've been up 3 days straight on meth and cocaine [many probably have.] It's a tragic accident waiting to happen, especially with the slow moving tourists.

I agree also, there's a retarded, inexplicable red hand delay on traffic lights.

On the other hand...

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Yesterday I was on my Way to the Four Seasons. When I exited Storrow onto Arlington Street, I had the light to turn onto Arlington. That did not stop the hordes of hipsters from completely ignoring the don't walk light and most of them laughed in my face as I inched further onto Arlington Street.

It was only when I revved the engine on my Suburban that they stopped laughing and stood still, allowing me to continue on my legal way.

Another thing about Arlington Street between Beacon and Boylston is that it tends to give the morons in the BMW's, AMG's, Ferrari's and the like the feeling that they're on an urban straightaway.

Then again, it was a guy on a bike I watched nail a little kid not too long ago at the Comm Ave crossing and just kept going. Add to that, the kid and his parents had the lights in their favor.

It was only when I revved the

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It was only when I revved the engine on my Suburban that they stopped laughing and stood still, allowing me to continue on my legal way ...




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soc. major or something?

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I think it's smart to communicate to (illegally) crossing pedestrians that you intend to drive over the crosswalk (legally) by any safe means necessary. Obviously that includes making noise with your voice, your car, or whatever works, in order to inform those who cannot see you, such as at the rear of the pack, that your vehicle is there, & that you intend to move it.

Why would you interpret noise from a motor vehicle as necessarily threatening, or worse, masculine posturing? All motor vehicles make noise when running. We have no idea if the driver was otherwise somehow threatening, and there's no reason to assume it based on this anecdote.

In crowded areas, particularly in student neighborhoods, I often see pedestrians simply following others into a crosswalk, not noticing the "don't walk" signal. The Boston side of the BU Bridge is awful for this: droves of students, chatting on phones or to each other, walking in front of cars who have a green light. A few of them look but still walk, watching the cars coming towards them.

Also, isn't it illegal & potentially more dangerous for the vehicle to wind up stuck over the crosswalk, once their signal has turned red? The risks (& inconvenience) all around increase for everyone dramatically.

can't find the masculine posturing

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he said he was "revving" his engine..... are you really that aloof to post WWII-american pop culture?

"why sir would you interpret these body motions of mine as threatening? I'm merely clenching my fingers into fists and holding them aloft in your direction"

your argument is like a second grader trying to get out of trouble after flipping his sister the bird

hee, who's in 2nd grade?

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your argument is like a second grader trying to get out of trouble after flipping his sister the bird

Hee! Good line (are you a writer?), but I wasn't not defending my own comment or actions, merely replying to someone else's post. So, nay, not aloof, just practical - and accustomed to negotiating a car through herds of students every September.

Funny that you felt the need to respond to my "argument" with a bit of name-calling. Maybe you could write sit-coms or greeting cards?

Your analogy of a clenched fist to a car's engine in traffic is silly. A clenched fist "aloft" in a person's direction is of course threatening; but the sound of a vehicle engine revving, in a marked lane, with a green light? C'mon - you can do better.

Revving engine or beep helps

Revving engine or short beep helps to also get pedestrians to look up from their "smart" phones to observe surroundings including traffic and traffic signals. If this fails, sustained horn, hand with spread fingers imitating red on on sign, and other hand pointing to sign clarifies the message.


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I try the "friendlier" beep-beep to get their attention off the phone screen first. But if I'm already stopped in traffic (& have the right of way), I prefer the sounds of engine to continued horn use. Car horns are an awful sound that I'd rather save for a true emergency - as in someone could be hurt, & they need to be swiftly alerted.

I am more afraid of cyclists than cars

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On the busy Boston and Cambridge streets I am by far more afraid of being hit by a bicycle than I am by a car. Cars at least ocacsionally make some pretense of following road rules.

It's a Nice Theory

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But the pedestrians in Harvard Square are as bad as the ones around the Common and the Garden. Crowded sidewalks + curving roads = people darting into the street.

I'd also argue that the signal stops like the ones around Fresh Pond make people even more hesitant to cross the road. For drivers those lights go from flashing yellow to red, and only randomly. I've stopped at many of them and watched multiple cars shoot through the red light at full speed.

Any standards?

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Is anyone aware of national standards for crosswalk signals? It seems like there should be something -- for example when button pushes are required, when countdown signals are required, how much time between a red hand and a green light, etc.

Pedestrians in Cambridge

Why does the

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Why does the Cambridge-maintained light at Mass Ave and Alewife Brook Parkway still have a 4-way walk phase?

It's very easy to cross with the parallel green (and most pedestrians do so). The only conflicting vehicle move is a right turn from one side (left turns have red arrows, and cars on the other street have "no turn on red" signs), and cars go slowly since the corners are sharp.

The huge backup on Route 16 is one of the worst in the Boston area, and seriously degrades the usefulness of Alewife bus routes.

I'm not sure that is a

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I'm not sure that is a Cambridge-maintained light; doesn't Alewife Brook Parkway belong to the MDC DCR?

Yes. Even though the parkway

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Yes. Even though the parkway is owned by the DCR, for some reason the light at Mass Ave is a Cambridge light. Like other Cambridge lights, it has a small sign on one of the poles saying to call the Cambridge DPW if the light is malfunctioning.

Super Jeff

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Let me add a plug for Jeff Parenti here. He knows everything there is to know about every intersection in Cambridge. To top it all off, he's responsive.

Right on Red

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Right on Red is a huge problem in Boston, too. The pedestrians finally get a light, and then have to wait as all of the cars making right turns zoom through the crosswalk while the pedestrian cross time ticks away.

I used to have to cross Mass Ave and Boylston on a daily basis, and this was a huge problem there.

Also, there are tons of lights where the "WALK" sign takes 1-2 light cycles to kick in, or takes so long to kick in that a natural opening in traffic kicks in, and people assume the light is broken and just cross on their own. This is a huge problem in Comm Ave out in Allston- you could run across Comm Ave 4 times during a lull in traffic, but if you wait for the pedestrian light, you'll wait 2 minutes with no cars passing, and then when the WALK light turns, you'll have to dodge 10 cars who run the light.

Right turns

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Cambridge helps with the turning cars problem too. At most intersections the walk light turns on three seconds before the parallel green light for cars, allowing pedestrians to get into the crosswalk before turning cars can zoom through and cut them off.

I didn't get into the whole "right turn on Red"

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But as I understand it, Cambridge basically outlawed right turns on red, and then the state made them back down and do it only at signed intersections. In return they put up No Right Turn on Red signs practically everywhere.

I don't have any problem with right turns on reds when that right turn involves a full stop and yielding to any pedestrians, but I've seen too many places where drivers barely slow down at the red when turning right, and that's dangerous for cross traffic pedestrians.

Right on Red saves fuel; reduces pollution

It was Jimmy Carter after the arab oil embargo in the late 1970s who ordered 55mph speed limits and allowing right on red, where both had previously been mostly decided by engineers instead of politicians or planners.

Engineering standards prohibit right on red mostly when a crosswalk is not visible long enough before a driver gets there, for given speeds. With urban planners demanding buildings have no setbacks, fewer corners have enough visibility. Standards have also changed to require more visibility over time.

Cities don't care so much about fuel savings, pollution reduction, traffic congestion reduction, or less wasted economic productivity from allowing right on red. They are more concerned that they don't get sued if there is an accident.

Within the next few years all

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Within the next few years all or nearly all new vehicles will have engines that shut off at idle (as is the case now with hybrids), which will negate the fuel savings and pollution control of right on red. I'll be interested to see if right on red laws, which are responsible for hundreds of pedestrian deaths each year, are then repealed.

15 years more before old cars retired

I suspect hybrid owners replace more starter motors due to constant use and so too will everyone with the new requirements. In 15 years start removing RoR. There are still the increased costs to productivity and added congestion from lowered intersection efficiency. Still not a free lunch.

Hey Adam

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Is there any way to delete a (duplicate) comment?

I can edit it (as I'm doing now) but can't seem to just delete it.

Boston used to have an

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Boston used to have an idiosyncratic (but accepted in national standards) approach to pedestrian crossings at busy intersections - the four-way red-and-yellow light, stopping all traffic. There are few if any of the red-yellow lights left, although there are still some four-way stops; I think this is confusing.

As for Harvard Square - the layout, with two separate broad crosswalks across Mass Ave, makes the intersection half a block long, such that the "walk" light may go on before a car that went through a green light has cleared the crosswalks. There's no rational pedestrian behavior that will make this work.

The main Harvard Square

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The main Harvard Square crosswalk is poorly designed. Once you're past the stop line, there's no traffic light visible. So if traffic is moving slowly, you'd have no way of knowing if the light turned red while you're in the middle of the huge intersection.

The centerline and lane lines (including bike lane lines) don't continue through the crosswalks. The road is curved, and the centerline is asymmetrical (one lane northbound, two south), so it's hard to know your lateral position.

I think there should be dashed lane lines through the crosswalks, and traffic lights and "stop here on red" signs visible in the gaps between the 3 crosswalks.

That's not poor design

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The main Harvard Square crosswalk is poorly designed. Once you're past the stop line, there's no traffic light visible

That's actually good design intended to alter driver behavior. No driver should enter an intersection if they can't clear it before the light changes, even if traffic is inching along. Drivers shouldn't proceed into the intersection until it can be cleared, and the light should be within their line of sight until they can clear the intersection. They figured this out a long time ago in Germany (among other places), where traffic signals are almost universally located on the same side of the intersection as approaching traffic, and placed between the stop line and crosswalk. This prevents crosswalk and intersection blocking as well as makes the driver more cautious when turning on red (when allowed). Also, in many cases, lights are placed lower to the street to bring the driver's eye level and sight of vision within a better alignment of their surroundings.

In a long intersection like

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In a long intersection like the Harvard Square triple crosswalk, if you're behind another car, the only way to be absolutely certain you'll get through before the light changes is to stop at the green light until that car is through.

And even that wouldn't provide a 100 percent guarantee that you won't have to stop in the intersection, if there's a jaywalker or other unexpected situation.

You can declare all you want that people shouldn't be driving in the intersection after the light turns red. But that doesn't help people trying to cross the street when a stream of traffic clears the intersection after the walk light is on. An extra signal head and a "stop here on red" sign at the last crosswalk *would* solve the problem.

Could someone send this exchange to Mayor Menino?

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Every day I walk in Boston, and everyday I want to stop over at City Hall and take Mr Mayor out for a walk. Escorting him from the State House to South Station would be enough to impress upon him the level of war going on between pedistrians and drivers in downtown Boston.

Could you send this exchange and the Morrissey Blvd exchange to Mr Mayor, please???

The most infuriating behavior

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The most infuriating behavior I see regularly - pedestrian pushes the button and immediately begins to jaywalk afterward (not waiting for the button push to do its magic), so traffic has to first avoid the jaywalker and then gets stuck at a red light while nobody uses the crosswalk.

I'm not sure if ticketing jaywalkers is the solution, because police would just abuse that authority to make money for themselves. Most lights in the Boston area are poorly timed for cars, public transit, bikes and pedestrians alike. When buses aren't reliably on time due to traffic, we get more cars on the road, which in turn creates more gridlock and more unsafe situations for bikes and pedestrians.

on the subject of "right turn

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on the subject of "right turn on red" - there's no reason a driver should have to sit at a red light when there's no oncoming or pedestrian traffic. The true purpose of a "no turn on red" intersection is where a turning car doesn't have a clear view of the oncoming traffic (therefore making the turn blind and unsafe). Putting them at every intersection is simply lazy traffic planning.

There aren't many of them, but I've seen intersections with signs reading "Right on Red After Full Stop - Yield to Pedestrians". On quieter side streets where a stopped car can clearly see any oncoming car, bike, or pedestrian, this should be allowed. It's a quality of life issue - idling cars produce far more exhaust in a residential neighborhood than a car passing through. The solution is simple - don't require cars to idle longer than necessary.

I've also seen intersections with a "No Turn On Red" sign that illuminates like a walk signal - when it's safe for cars to turn right, the sign turns off and traffic proceeds with caution.

" idling cars produce far

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" idling cars produce far more exhaust in a residential neighborhood than a car passing through. "

And leaving the bigger street green when there's no traffic on the side street also saves a heck of a lot of gas. Yet Cambridge has been steadily removing side street traffic sensors, and setting lights to a pretimed cycle.

The few Cambridge lights that still have sensors are a joy to drive or bike through, especially late at night. There's no need to jam on the gas when you see a green a few blocks away. Chances are it will still be green when you get there. And if it turns red, it will turn green again a few seconds later, as soon as the side street is clear.

Pedestrian crossings (and anomalies) in Cambridge

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You can't count the crosswalks around Fresh Pond as the City of Cambridge, even though they are, geographically. Any signal on a road controlled by MassHighway or the DCR follows their rules, and not those of the city of Cambridge. Mass Highway/the DCR also controls all crosswalks along Memorial Drive, and that road is painful to deal with as a pedestrian, particularly at the Mass Ave crossing. It makes no sense for a pedestrian to have to push a button to cross Mass Ave at Memorial Drive, but one block down at Amherst, no button is needed.

In general, city operated signals have concurrent operations for pedestrians (where pedestrians get a walk sign at the same time traffic has a green), not exclusive (where pedestrians have to wait until all cars have stopped). Exceptions include T-intersections (e.g. Broadway and Third street) and mid-block crossings (the later mentioned Kendall Square T station, but also the Super Crosswalk at Harvard).

But Cambridge lobbied heavily

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But Cambridge lobbied heavily for the installation of the crosswalk lights near the Fresh Pond rotaries, and the light at Mass Ave and Mem Drive.

Cambridge Street is awful!

Cambridge street between Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Government Center seems to have more green time for pedestrians than motorists, yet pedestrians continue crossing when they get the red hand! This seems to be a situation where walk signals are too long to the point that pedestrians think they always have the right of way!

BTW, as a pedestrian I often cross without pressing a walk button when I can easily cross during a traffic gap. There is no point making traffic stop unnecessarily and causing more pollution.