Boston’s Odd Squares Offer a Vision for West 7th Street


A great crosswalk in Davis Square.

There should be a complex German compound noun describing “the feeling of arriving in a new city and staring at an intersection in amazement.” I’ve felt this feeling more than once, in San Francisco, Copenhagen, and most recently in Boston, where I spent a week visiting friends and family.

Boston is famously non-linear, eschewing the ubiquitous US street grid in favor of an endless nest of old paths. Most streets change names every few miles, and on top of the chaos, when people say “Boston” they often mean cities that are not Boston. The Boston metro is made up of cities like Cambridge, Somerville, Roxbury, Newton, Brookline, or (where I spent the weekend) Medford. All these cities and dozens more mash together around the actual City of Boston to create the seamless nest of New England urbanism that is metro “Boston.” (The jurisdictional complexity makes me glad I don’t try to engage in advocacy or planning there!)


Boston meme.

Arriving in town after a long train ride from Saint Paul, I got the feeling again. Emerging from the subway, I spent twenty minutes leaning on a lamppost under a theater marquee watching the traffic in Davis Square, one of my favorite places. The “square” is a main intersection in the city of Somerville (population 50,000). And like many of Boston’s “squares”, it’s “square” only in the abstract; rather, the term means “a space where things come together”, in this case, a complex intersection where four or five main streets collide unevenly.

To me, Davis Square offers an interesting comparison to certain parts of Saint Paul, especially the confusing “bowtie” corners of West 7th Street, where the angular main drag cuts through the saint Paul grid creating unorthodox intersections. For example, often the space is a mishmash of triangles and blobs, the result of acute and obtusely connecting streets… just like West 7th.


Some of the complex Randolph/Osceola/West 7th intersection.

Like many of Boston’s squares, the colliding streets mark a change in land use toward more commercial buildings, many of which are one or two (or maybe three) stories… just like West 7th.

And the squares also become the chief transit hubs for the neighborhood, while at the same time being key intersections and navigational nodes for car traffic that comes through at very high volumes… just like West 7th.

(Another parallel with West 7th neighborhoods is the intense focus of north Boston cities on preservation, stopping development, dislike of newcomers, and panegyrics to historic localism.)

To me the comparison is interesting. Davis Square, and others in Metro Boston, show how odd angled corners don’t have to be pedestrian nightmares. Instead the they can create opportunities for amazing sidewalks and public spaces. 

Observing Davis Square


Davis Square, brick sidewalks and bollards.

I arrived at Davis around 9 pm last Thursday and the place was buzzing. The middle of the square — a large public brick-laid plaza fronting a row of coffee and ice cream shops, with a few fixed picnic tables and a ledge for sitting — was half full of people, including a guy playing the guitar and singing originals into a mic.

Looking at the square with Saint Paul eyes (I hadn’t traveled in a  year) the most amazing thing was the traffic speed. Somerville and Cambridge streets carry a lot of traffic — a main street like nearby Massachusetts Avenue carries between 10-15,000 cars a day, for example  — and this was a busy corner where a bunch of these streets came together. But I watched for twenty minutes and didn’t see one car going faster than 25 through the square. (And most of the drivers were traveling slower than that!) Compared to your average West 7th intersections, the difference in speeds transformed the space from what would have been a stressful dangerous place to a more relaxing, intense-but-not-dangerous corner.


Crosswalks in Davis Square, an important transit hub.

There were lots of reasons for the slower speeds, including general complexity (stemming from the number of pedestrians and streets), narrower lanes, and serious traffic calming measures like raised crosswalks, bumpouts, signs, and differentiated bricks. Yet despite the slower speeds, this is an intersection that I would guess carries just as many cars as West 7th corners like Saint Clair/Western, Randolph/Osceola, or Otto/Milton.

The slower speeds make all the difference. I watched as an employee perched on a ladder under the theater marquee, using a ten-foot suction cup device to change the letters. He balanced on the edge of the curb not five feet from the cars. In Saint Paul that would have been dangerous, but in Davis it didn’t seem so bad.

As I leaned on a lamppost, waves of people walked out of the Red Line subway and onto the sidewalk. One key spot was an unsignalized crosswalk across Holland Street, a four-lane two-way. The crosswalk was well marked on each side, and even “tabled”, raised slightly above the regular street grade. Every time someone wanted to cross the street, both lanes of cars stopped to let them cross. Every time. 


The Holland Street crosswalk.

At one point an old man in a grimy blue hoodie trudged into the middle of the road, clearly intoxicated. He was using all of his limited concentration to deeply inhale his cigarette, leaving minimal brain power to register the fact that he was standing in the middle of a busy street, oblivious to the traffic queueing up around him. He ambled in front of a delivery van and simply stood there, wavering slightly on his unsteady feet as he inhaled the hell out of a butt.


Few bike lanes in Boston, just like in West 7th. But with slower speeds, it seems a bit safer.

To my amazement, the van driver didn’t move. The van, and the cars in the other lanes, simply stopped and waited. After thirty seconds (an eternity!) a young man walked into the crosswalk and put his arm on the man’s shoulder, trying to get him back on the sidewalk. It wasn’t easy, but the samaritan deposited him onto a bench in the square and the van driver moved on his way.

On West 7th, you see all kinds of marginally aware people stumbling around, and I can’t imagine that any of them being treated so kindly if they wandered into the street. For all its reputation of brusqueness and inhospalitality, Boston streets are more humane than streets in most American cities.

Solution for a Long-Standing Saint Paul Problem 

Seeing so much patient traffic peacefully coexisting with sidewalks full of streetlife inspired me. I love West 7th and the neighborhoods along it, one reason why I spend my free time hanging out there. It’s a historic neighborhood with long roots and plenty of character. But there’s long been a problem of unsafe streets, particularly at the odd-intersections along West 7th, which cuts across the street grid like a samurai sword.

The kinds of street design decisions you see in Davis could be magical for improving the pedestrian realm in Saint Paul. So what could that look like on a corner like Randolph/Osceola, one of the larger “squares” on West 7th?


One idea: What if there were one or two traffic median islands in the intersection? You might put one in front of Osceola Avenue (preventing straight-thru movements)?

What if there were curb extensions on some of the triangular corners, like in front of the fire station? These would tighten up the lanes and help encourage drivers to slow down on the dangerous “obtuse angle” turning movements that tend to be done at high speed.

Could be some way to create a one-way pairing for two of the streets that enter into the new “square,” if you wanted to tighten up the roads even more. (Note: this kind of planning is above my pay grade.)

What if there were a tabled crosswalk before the intersection would be great, something to signal to drivers that they are entering a “square” with different drivers’? It would help get traffic below the critical 25 miles per hour threshold. You could install one at a spot just before drivers enter the square, perhaps at Juno Avenue or Toronto Street.


“Pig’s Eye Parrant Square.”

Another cool thing about the “square” idea is that, in order to get political support for the project, you could name it after anyone you like, like maybe “Thune Square”,”Stahlmann Square”, “Fort Road Federation Square” or something. Anything to get some buy-in.

But what about…

I’m sure that if you suggested any of these changes it would be simply a matter of minutes until someone brought up snow plows or emergency vehicles or something.

Well, they have snow plows and emergency vehicles in Boston, and somehow they figure it out. I believe the need to reduce speeds that lead to deadly crashes outweighs the need for wide roads. Saint Paul is a creative city and we can surely figure out how to plow streets even if they’re made safer for people walking around. 


Snowplow in Boston. In the winter of ’14-15, Boston got over five times as much snow as the Twin Cities.

The key to a places like Davis is that it uses infrastructure to shift the driving culture. “Re-thinking”  how we see the spaces that surround us isn’t just something mental, but happens in the concrete and brick of the sidewalks and streets.

Imagine West 7th street not as a highway, but as a series of critical little places, intense neighborhood foci, “squares” full of life. Imagine a West 7th street where people hung out drinking coffee and having conversations, where sidewalks were comfortable places where you didn’t feel like you were in danger, where people could cross the street easily, and drivers always stopped to let them safely cross. Imagine neighborhoods that encouraged walking, where West 7th was no longer a barrier separating and dividing the neighborhood, but a place full of people, connecting both sides of the street instead, a place where you’d feel comfortable letting your kids walk to the park or to school.

Boston has lots of on-street parking, lots of traffic, lots of historic preservation, and plenty of aggressive impatient people. But they’ve managed to create places where the automobile doesn’t suffocate community. I think we could do the same thing in Saint Paul. Why not?


Great crosswalk in Davis surrounded by metered on-street parking and small businesses.

14 thoughts on “Boston’s Odd Squares Offer a Vision for West 7th Street

  1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    The street I live on in Philadelphia is also at a diagonal, and there are various bump outs and reclaimed pedestrian areas along it. (See here: Some are more successful than others, and that’s mainly due to whether the nearby businesses have embraced it.

    I think what you’re writing about here is quite similar. How wonderful it would be to take advantage of West 7th’s diagonal orientation to create a chain of small scale parks and seating areas. A lot of the changes you suggest could be done quickly with paint and planters, but if transit comes to West 7th, a larger scale public space remaking of the street would be wonderful.

  2. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Don’t forget that an obscene amount of money was spent on Boston’s “big dig” in order to get cars off the street.

    When I lived there, in some areas it was not unusual to see cars parked half on sidewalk, half on street, and maybe double parked besides. Don’t know if the underground project had a noticeable effect on those practices, or if city parking enforcement policies have changed. I had a car but mostly drove it on weekends. Often I’d get a parking ticket when similarly parked cars didn’t, but I had the out of state license plate and the city didn’t make efforts to collect on such tags. I suspect the cops saw an easy way to help justify their rounds without really penalizing anyone.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Yeah that was downtown. Davis Square is a completely different kind of situation.

      From what i’ve heard parking in Metro Boston is a free-for-all. In some places is almost IMPOSSIBLE (like Allston on a weekend) and people do all kinds of crazy things to park. Arlington actually bans overnight parking on EVERY street all year long, which is nuts. in Medford where my brother lives, there basically are no parking rules and people just park wherever without much consequence.

      So it really depends.

    2. Dan Choma

      As someone who also lived in Boston a long time, I feel it’s especially necessary to remind those who never lived in Boston that the Big Dig is No. Where. Near. Davis Square. It’s not even in the same town, as technically Davis Square is in Somerville and the big dig is downtown Boston. So I’m calling you out on your Red Herring. Plus, Bill is talking about civic spending on road bump outs, not federal spending on huge interstate projects.

      That said, you are right. The big dig cost an obscene amount of federal money. But that price tag is irrelevant to the discussion of cheap, easily accomplished, local street projects such as bump outs and cross walks marked with red brick. I miss those things in Boston.

      I *will* say that the Red Line Subway’s entrance into Davis square was a great example of how a large project with a large federal budget was hugely successful for causing economic revitalization to Davis Square. So that’s an an example of great federal funding having a great local reward. I still agree with Bill that bump outs and crosswalks are cheap and totally doable locally.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        It’s also important to note that the Big Dig wasn’t about taking cars off surface streets – it replaced an elevated freeway artery with an underground one through downtown. And it retained entrance/exit ramps to surface streets in the area. My understanding was this was all about making this part of downtown more pleasant, not removing surface auto capacity.

  3. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    Yes! I have thought these exact same things (without the experience of Boston) many times while walking or biking through these intersections. So many of them would make great mini-parks which would have their own benefit. And, making it easier for everyone to navigate those intersections would be wonderful. There is so much possibility. However, it seems the political wind and neighborhood mood has been so heavily polluted by anti-LRT voices right that any changes would be seen as outsiders trying to wreck the neighborhood. It would be fantastic to have some temporary installations so that people could experience how these intersections would be different.

  4. Dan Choma

    Articles like this make me miss the East Coast, which happens like clockwork every fall. If you’ve never been out east during the fall, go do it. People wear scarves. They walk fast. And the best part? Everyone is in a hurry BUT the weather. The autumn lasts for. ever. The only lackadaisical thing to exist on the east coast is it’s autumn.

    I never owned a car when I was in Boston as I never had to. And I play *drums* and *bass* and played professionally in Boston for years. A car was just something that cut into your gig profits.

    Sure, I saw people double parked, but most of the people that I knew that had cars were folks from the suburbs that were coming into the city for day trips. Even day trips into the city were discouraged by car in economic terms as the subway systems have such good parking lots at the ends of them, so most suburban folks I knew would park there and take the T in.

    When I first moved to Massachusetts, I thought people drove like crazy insane people as far as I could see being a midwesterner in the big city, but when I moved back to Minnesota, I realized that they are driving safer.

    Yea, they shout a lot. But the narrow streets mean they can’t go as fast so they are less likely to run you over. Also, people in Massachusetts can zipper merge and make decisions when they drive.

    It seems aggressive, but the aggression combined with the narrow streets in my opinion is why they have almost half the traffic deaths per capita that we do here in MN. (MN 7.74 per 100,000 people vs MA 4.79 per 100,000 people) ( )

    In my opinion, it’s more aggressive to have a higher rate of murdering people with your cars than it is to have a higher rate of people shouting “rudely” out of taxi cabs about the Red Sawwwks.

    Frankly, to me, it’s more aggressive to build streets so that only those wealthy enough to have a car can be the recipient of federal highway subsidies that everyone pays for.

    Frankly, it’s more aggressive to me to have huge parking lots for cheap that bankrupt the local municipalities and create huge income disparities.

    Frankly, it’s more aggressive to me to spend municipal parks money on redundant gun ranges for police officers instead of tables where old men can place chess in the park and argue about baseball.

    Frankly, I think Saint Paul would be well served to aim at being more cosmopolitan like Boston and more east coast cities as it’s geography and street design have more in common with East Coast cities than West Coast ones. But, this is as much a cultural problem as it is a design problem.

    People in Saint Paul need to realize that their city is the last great East Coast city, not the first of a series of West Coast cities based on a Manifest Destiny and auto normative culture.

    But I digress. Go Sox.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Sox lost, alas.

      Actually I am always surprised at how many people drive everywhere in Boston, despite the fact that it’s such a pain in the ass. Outside of downtown, and a few “parking nightmare spots,” it’s almost always easier to drive and park (often on the street! often for free!) than it is to take transit, excepting the T of course. Buses are very slow much of the time and their schedules seem to me about even in terms of frequency with the Twin Cities, which is to say, not that great.

      Boston does not employ smart parking policy (see for example and rarely prioritizes transit outside of the T. It’s still a place where driving is pretty easy and many many people have cars and use them all the time. But that said, they have calmed traffic to a great degree to make it a city that prioritizes walking in many places, so that’s the balance of the place. Still I can’t help but think that, with the density, transit spine, and walkable streets in place, they are right at a threshold where they could really start pushing transit and reducing car usage and reach more sustainable transportation goals if they wanted to. Bikes, for example, still have a looooong way to go to reach Minneapolis-type infrastructure. One problem that I sense (and I might be off) is that there is no “they” in much of the metro because of the aforementioned municipal fragmentation and entrenched town/gown and real-estate pressure-driven animosity to change. Local governments and groups wield a lot of control over these land use decisions.

    2. Scott

      Yes, Yes, Yes. I spent the last couple of days in Portland (the original [Me.] not the copy [Or.]. It was wonderful. Traffic along the main, still somewhat industrial, street through town averages about 12 mph. Strictly observed pedestrian crosswalks occur about every 20 feet. Cars are stopped all over the place, while pedestrians meander across the street, along the street, around the street, and seemingly everywhere. They mostly walk in the crosswalks, but some just go wherever, and everybody just kind of plays along, because life is good and why not.

      Just get a lobster and settle down.

  5. Scott

    Good post. Minneapolis’ Hennepin Avenue between Franklin and W. 28th Streets and across the river in Northeast should be considered for such treatments too. The angle cutting through the grid provides a lot of opportunities for cool urban places. Unfortunately, car-oriented land uses and awful street design have made it hard to make such things happen in the future. Smith Triangle, which houses the Thomas Lowry statue, is one place that remains intact, though.

  6. Keith Morris

    Last time I was on W 7th (around Randolph) I was struck by how the layout is the same as Nicollet between Franklin and the Kmart, but no one aside from myself was riding a bike. Then I noticed the 35 MPH speed limit posted; maybe signs do make a difference. The other thing was how treacherous it feels crossing some of these intersections or those just off W 7th. They’re basically blind turns and you really need to watch your back in case you need to jump out of the way.

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