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!)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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