Like the saying about the weather — everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it — so it goes with Needham residents’ seemingly endless complaints about traffic and reckless drivers and the impression that nothing is ever done about it.
On Tuesday, traffic and safety were front and center at the Select Board meeting, when Public Works Director Carys Lustig described multiple town efforts designed to improve traffic safety through traffic calming and road diet strategies.
In back-to-back segments of the meeting, Lustig described pilot locations at High Rock and Oak streets and provided an overview of a planned project along Dedham Avenue to demonstrate how various traffic calming measures will soon be implemented.
Lustig said approaches to road design and safety are evolving. “The thinking had been that wider is better — that the driver has more view and more space to operate. But they’ve found it actually has the opposite effect; it causes (drivers) to not pay attention, and it causes them to drive faster.”
The town’s Transportation Safety Committee (TSC) has been looking for locations to pilot the use of narrower travel lanes and other traffic calming methods to measure whether traffic speeds can be reduced.
This was planned for Warren Street, but that pilot program was scrubbed due to neighborhood opposition.
The TSC turned its attention to High Rock and Oak streets, which have undergone recent improvements that provide a blank canvas for new markings.
On High Rock, the center line will be painted in epoxy and the edge lines will be painted to create a 9-foot travel lane and 5-foot bike lanes on both sides of the road.
On Oak Street, the pilot program will add painted shoulders on both sides of the road in latex to make the lanes 9 feet wide.
Traffic measurements will be taken before and after the pilot program to assess how effective the methods are at slowing traffic and improving safety.
The plans for Dedham Avenue were made possible by a grant from the state Department of Transportation (MassDOT), which had planned to repave Dedham Ave under the state’s municipal pavement maintenance program.
However, that project conflicted with an Eversource project. “The state decided instead of doing the work for us, it would issue a grant in the amount they had budgeted for the project,” said Lustig.
The delay provided the DPW with additional time to address a range of concerns regarding both pedestrian and traffic safety along Dedham Avenue. The Select Board tried to address those concerns when it recently petitioned the state to lower the speed limit on the road from 40 mph to 30 mph.
“We don’t just want to take the speed down, we also want to do traffic calming measures,” Lustig said of the more ambitious plans.
Those measures could include reducing lane width from the current 12-plus feet to 10 feet, adding fully accessible ramps, an accessible sidewalk under the MBTA bridge and a bike lane heading north from the MBTA bridge to the town center.
The intended cumulative effect of narrowing the visual field, tightening the lanes and creating “pinch points” is to cause the traffic to slow down.
All part of the plan
The Select Board has placed transportation issues near the top of its list of goals. Justin McCullen, current chair of the TSC and a member of the newly formed Mobility Planning & Coordinating Committee, said the traffic calming projects reflect a commitment to transportation improvements, especially around safety.
The committee, which has yet to meet, plans to hold a mobility summit in the spring. This is all part of what McCullen described as a concerted effort on behalf of holistic transportation foresight and planning.
While the DPW manages the town’s transportation infrastructure, many other town departments have their own transportations concerns — including the schools, park and recreation, police, fire and others.
Designed to advise the Select Board, the mobility committee will focus on a cohesive plan to develop, maintain and recommend policies for the future of mobility-related infrastructure. McCullen said they will be talking to all town departments. “We want the town to be more thoughtful and proactive on traffic.”
In other words, not just talk about it, but also do something about it.