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Traffic congestion is not a new problem, but by most reports it is worsening, and cities and towns are seeing the effects spilling into neighborhood streets.
Medford, which sees spillover traffic from Interstate 93, Route 28 and the Fellsway area, has launched a pilot program to reduce side street traffic while attempting to alter the mindset of commuters who have been cutting through neighborhoods in order to bypass choke points.
The program limits travel on 10 marked streets to Medford residents only from 7 to 9 a.m., Monday through Friday. Signs alert drivers to the new restrictions, and there is a visible police presence.
The pilot began on Aug. 27 with the opening of the school year. Medford Police Chief Jack Buckley said both officers and residents are reporting that it’s making a difference.
“Wholeheartedly this has been effective,” he said. “The initial plan was to see a reduction of 30%, but we have far exceeded that.”
Diversion of commuter traffic from major roadways to residential side streets has been exacerbated by the use of popular navigation apps like Waze, Google Maps and Apple Maps, which indicate the fastest route to a destination, even if it shaves off just a minute or two of drive time. These recommendations often take drivers off major roadways and put them on residential streets during a time period when children are traveling to school, creating a safety issue.
Chief Buckley said the direction apps have the further effect of prompting drivers to speed up to ensure that they actually save the expected minute.
“This is a historic and systemic problem,” he said. “We’ve been talking about it for over 10 years. We have major roads that are designed to handle this traffic, but the little side roads, where kids are getting on school buses, are not.”
Buckley said the city has a good relationship with Waze when communicating other traffic pattern changes, such as construction or new one-way street designations. The new restrictions are not being sent to Waze or other apps, however, because it is a pilot program.
“Would we be making the community safer by restricting traffic? Yes,” Buckley said. “Could we possibly train commuters to be courteous and recognize that cities and towns are having a problem with safety due to traffic congestion? We have to have that conversation. … You’re protecting a neighborhood, even though it may not be your neighborhood.”
The timeline for the pilot is not yet defined, and a number of factors will determine its future. By the 90-day mark, it will be reviewed by the Traffic Commission, as with other traffic restrictions. Buckley is a member of the commission.
“Traffic congestion negatively impacts our neighborhoods, infringes on safety and reduces our quality of life,” said Mayor Stephanie Burke. “The Waze app has made Medford side streets a cut through, taking a toll on our roadways and residents. This initiative will hopefully alleviate some of the traffic burdens incurred in those neighborhoods.”