In a city that seems to move faster and faster by the day, two Dorchester neighborhoods are happy to have slowed things down a bit.
More than two years ago, the Neighborhood Slow Streets program had its birth as a pilot effort in the Talbot Norfolk Triangle (TNT) neighborhood after a near tragedy when a 10-year-old boy was hit by a driver on Elmhurst Street while crossing to get to the park there.
After years of petitions and letters to city leaders, the now-popular Slow Streets program took shape as officials and neighbors met repeatedly to brainstorm innovative ideas for the entire TNT area. Now that small sliver of Dorchester, which was the “guinea pig” for the citywide program, has become the model for how to slow down drivers by introducing speed tables, speed humps, crosswalks, signage, bollards, and even the rare roundabout.
With some early success in 2017, the program spread to other areas, including TNT’s abutting neighborhood West of Washington (WOW). Though others were included in that first expansion, only TNT and WOW hit construction before Covid-19 came on the scene in March 2020. With most all of the improvements in both neighborhoods now completed – including the often talked about roundabout on Southern Avenue– the reviews are in and they are quite good.
“I’m a huge fan of Slow Streets,” said Paul Malkemes, who is on the Steering Committee for TNT. “I know what it’s done for our neighborhood in TNT. Our spark before Slow Streets was the children’s park built on Elmhurst in 2009. Neighbors there started advocating for a speed hump in front of the park to help the kids cross. In 2010 or 2011, we were having a family fun night there and we had a 10-year-old boy hit by a car in front of the park. It became a catalyzing moment for the entire neighborhood.”
Soon after, Boston Transportation Department (BTD) and even some youth organizations began working with neighbors. Malkemes recalls having teens use a speed gun from his Elmhurst Street front porch, routinely clocking cars driving 50 to 60 mph on the small street.
In the WOW neighborhood, Neighborhood Association President Laquisa Burke said the neighborhood was prime territory for cut-through traffic, and much of it was speeding up the straightaway streets of Norwell, Spencer, Millet, and Whitfield/Thane. Naturally, in Dorchester, short-cuts are almost a rite of passage for any driver as people try to avoid the congested roadways like Blue Hill Avenue, Washington Street, and Dorchester Avenue by finding backroad shortcuts. Sometimes, however, in the case of WOW, those shortcuts go right through neighborhoods.
Burke said that when the city did a speed study after the limit was changed to 25 mph citywide, “We found that 80 to 90 percent of drivers were speeding. We had people speeding through Park Street, and Park was a two-way – and there were car accidents at Athelwold and Norwell and Park and Norwell. People here were upset because on every street, drivers were zooming up the streets…When we heard what TNT was getting, we wanted that, too. It made sense to give it to us. Then someone was killed on a bicycle at the Norwell traffic light on Talbot. That was all because people were speeding to beat the light, which needed to be mitigated.”
In 2017, WOW was one of a handful of neighborhoods citywide – out of hundreds that applied – to be chosen for the first phase of the program. Meetings and walk-throughs happened quickly there, and so construction was planned prior to Covid-19 hitting.
The city’s Active Transportation Director, Stefanie Seskin, said the program is one of the most popular in the neighborhoods, and one that she has found very gratifying. In the five years it has been in place, they have gone from piloting with TNT to having 15 designated neighborhoods all over the city – including two now under construction in Dorchester, one north of WOW and the other south of TNT.
It is a program that has been a learning process for the city and the neighborhoods, and much more of a partnership than a dictate. Using speed humps, daylighting intersections, sidewalk bump outs, the roundabout, and a new intersection configuration near the Oliver Wendell Holmes School in the WOW neighborhood, Seskin said they have heard from residents that it’s been an improvement.
“We were able to find the balance between what is possible to clear of snow and how to implement a program to slow traffic down and improve safety and be aware of the occasional need of emergency responders getting through,” she said. “It’s a balance point and these two neighborhoods made the case that we could successfully do this work and even ramp it up.”
She said neighbors at prospective Slow Streets areas commonly bring pictures of the speed humps in TNT, or the raised crosswalks in WOW, to say they would like something similar.
“People are excited about this program,” she said. “People see what is happening there and they are excited for it to happen in their neighborhoods, too. The unfortunate thing is everyone wants it, and we can’t be everywhere at one time.”
Malkemes said it is a game of patience, particularly for their neighborhood, which just got the roundabout completed this summer after planning for it many years ago. In the end sum, though, he said that – along with partnering with other city agencies like Public Works and with private developers on New England Avenue – they have found a slower pace.
“As the pilot, you’re definitely the guinea pig,” he said. “We didn’t have a clear sense that this would be multiple phases over years…It didn’t make a difference right away. Neighbors wanted it, though…It took a little longer than neighbors wanted, but that’s also part of being the guinea pig. Neighbors are really grateful…[The city] was even very responsive to ideas that came up later on. We’re probably in the place now to answer what is working and what isn’t working with Slow Streets. It was an experiment here.”
In the WOW neighborhood, Burke said, traffic has slowed down significantly, and parents of small children and older adults now feel safer walking on the sidewalk or crossing the street.
“Overall,” she added, “I don’t think we even get as many cars in the neighborhood now. I think people decided they hate the speed bumps and don’t like cutting through the area, so they have moved to other areas. They have them now on other streets and on New England Avenue, too, so people aren’t really going to get away from or around them. You drive elsewhere or you drive right. It’s been a blessing here.”
While there were hiccups for both neighborhoods, and there are still tweaks to be ironed out – such as who cleans the daylighted areas as the street sweeper cannot get into the plastic bollards. There’s also the issue in WOW about how to replace the plastic bollards, which often get obliterated by drivers and large trucks, and the desire by many to have solid bollards instead of plastic.
But for the most part, both neighborhood leaders give Slow Streets a thumb’s up.
For WOW, which was a fairly new organization in 2017, Burke said that Slow Streets was actually a catalyst to bring the neighborhood together – leading to the potential development of a new park on Norwell Street, more affordable housing projects, and the growth of WOW’s membership.
“I feel like we were in the right place at the right time,” she said. “It doesn’t always happen that way… It was one of the first things we got that we fought for.”
Meanwhile, Seskin said, they are still waiting to get the raw data to see if traffic and accidents slowed, but she said that anecdotally it’s nice to hear from residents that their neighborhood feels slower and safer. She also said, particularly in Dorchester, there will now be wide swaths of territory on the neighborhood’s west side with similar Slow Streets treatments, pointing to projects now under construction in the Washington/Harvard/Norwell corridor just north of WOW, and in the Dorchester United neighborhoods just south of TNT.
“It will be a very large swath of Dorchester in the end, which is really cool,” she said. “You drive through there or bike through there and say, ‘Wow, we did this and this and this and then suddenly you’re not in Dorchester anymore…You don’t get a lot of thank yous as a city worker, but this program is one that at the end of the day, people are very happy with and happy that the city came out and partnered with them.”
Seskin said they are now focusing on the designated Slow Streets neighborhoods that didn’t get built out due to Covid-19, adding that they likely will re-open the program for new applications before the end of the year.