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How the Boston area’s most maddening intersections got that way

A look at 5 dicey crossings and what it would take to untangle them.

illustration by scott garrett

IT’S A DRIZZLY MONDAY in July, a bit after the morning rush hour, and I set off in my car on an improbable tour of terrible intersections in and around Boston. I start near Inman Square, an old-school Cambridge crossing named for a wealthy 18th-century merchant but better known as a hornet’s nest where a cyclist was struck and killed last year. The city has since banned left turns from three of the square’s streets. I manage to escape, heading west, and 15 minutes later I’ve made it 2.7 miles onto Fresh Pond Parkway — the four-laner cutting through a supposedly residential neighborhood that carries Route 2 commuters toward Storrow Drive.

My next destination is Newton Corner — a ring of roadway above the Mass. Pike so epic that a Reddit poster dubbed it “the Newton Super Collider.” As I enter its Charybdic churn, I face what planners would call its first curse: It’s a highway exit rotary with stoplights. There’s no green light long enough to let all the traffic coming off the Pike through, and the backup onto the highway can stretch a mile. Cursing the merges, I guess at which lane will take me onto the Pike eastbound (no signs to be seen). When one light changes to green, some idiot does one of those cross-lane right turns that gets everyone’s pulse racing, but eventually I succeed in getting onto the Pike and head toward the Southeast Expressway on my way to Kosciuszko Circle in Dorchester, the dreaded devil rotary.

On the turnpike, nerves easing as traffic flows, I realize I’m nearing the Cambridge/Allston exit. I could just go home and end this misadventure. Except I know that exit stalls like a clogged drain.

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Why have I undertaken this miserable drive? My tour, and this story, came about because I wanted to know why the intersection nearest my house is so confusing and dangerous. Finding the answer took me back in time. Way back.

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People have complained about Boston traffic since the city was a settlement on the Shawmut Peninsula and they were trying to get to the mainland across a sliver of land called the Neck (now part of the South End near Washington Street and East Berkeley). In 1893, the city surveying department called the congestion problem “stupendous.”

Nowadays, every Bostonian has a most-hated intersection. I’m not talking about our most dangerous crossings (think the Middlesex Turnpike at Route 128), which most always involve a highway. I mean those contorted, confusing tangles of roadway that gum up our commutes and snarl our errands. We’re often moving so slowly, we’re more likely to die from aggravation than accident. We can call them Uphams Corner or Kendall Square, but they are more like X’s or rounded triangles or infinite loops, a.k.a. rotaries. The Charles Circle. Sullivan Square, the rotary of death. Kelley Circle, choke point of the Jamaicaway.

Blame our forefathers and their penchant for pubs and prayer. The early settlers built wherever they wished, and their well-worn paths eventually became roads. Multiple roads usually converged at a tavern or a church, explained George F. Weston Jr. in his 1957 book Boston Ways. The five streets headed toward South Station? To Colonials, they led to the Bull Tavern.

This hub-and-spoke pattern was perpetuated as an expanding Boston reclaimed land, developing in fits and starts. Look at the Cambridge side of the Longfellow Bridge. Feeder roads like Main Street and Broadway were once privately funded turnpikes radiating to Central, Harvard, and Union squares. “That made sense when there wasn’t much development,” says Joseph Barr, director of Cambridge’s Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Department. But as farmland became neighborhoods with street grids, it led to intersections built for aggression.

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That’s the history. The question is, why do so many of our intersections still make us want to scream? The reasons are as tangled as the roads themselves.

First problem: Intersections in Greater Boston might fall under the domain of a city or town, but also MassDOT (the state Department of Transportation) or the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), a natural resources agency responsible for nearly 1,000 intersections statewide. Each has its own interests, and they often don’t agree on the biggest problems, the best solutions, and who should pay for what.

And even when they do, resolving the issues is never easy. Easing congestion in one direction, for example, usually makes it worse in the others. “You typically don’t make anyone thoroughly happy,” says James Gillooly, the Boston transportation department’s affable deputy commissioner.

We also don’t fund enough traffic signal engineers, says Peter Furth, professor of traffic engineering at Northeastern University. He says cities need one for every 50,000 people, meaning Boston should have 13 or 14, not 10. He says the small staff means the city has to spend on outside consultants to rethink intersections.

Then there’s us. Yes, we are Massholes, but we are also just humans. We sometimes find ourselves in the wrong lane or wait too long to change lanes. Drivers caught in a congested intersection can be reduced to a primal state. Flight isn’t possible, so there is only fight. At that point, says Tom Vanderbilt, author of 2008’s best-selling Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), “the logic of politeness breaks down.” That’s when you see drivers refuse to allow a car to merge into “their” lane or stick their vehicle into the middle of an intersection against the light (traffic engineers call this “blocking the box”). Yes, there are traffic signals, but, says Vanderbilt, “at the end of the day, they are just colored lights.”

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Finally, intersections don’t belong to cars alone, so truly fixing horrible ones means doing so for pedestrians and cyclists as well. In 2016, Boston emergency medical workers treated 1,208 pedestrians and cyclists struck by vehicles. Data from the Boston Police Department show pedestrian fatalities are on the rise. And that’s just Boston proper. Around the metro area, cities and towns are adding traffic-calming elements like chicanes (bends meant to slow cars) and lowering the default speed limit to 25. Boston and Cambridge participate in the Vision Zero Network, which helps communities redesign streets and intersections to prevent serious accidents.

Xander Dyer knows pedestrian perils too well. The 46-year-old private equity real estate investor’s commute begins when he crosses, on foot, the intersection of Fresh Pond Parkway and Mt. Auburn Street in West Cambridge — seven lanes of rush-hour traffic, a 137-foot gantlet interspersed with two pedestrian islands. He sees others give up on the infrequent walk signal and dart across. Dyer waits, because six years ago, about 100 yards away, his mother was killed as she crossed Mt. Auburn after taking the bus home from an evening yoga class. It’s the same bus stop Dyer uses returning home. “I think about it every day,” he says. “I go, ‘That’s where my mom lay.’ ”

Dyer was part of a group DCR formed to hear ideas and concerns about redesigns of the intersection. He thinks things will improve. And many other places are remaking intersections to accommodate bike lanes or safer pedestrian crossings.

Because our terrible intersections are often terrible in their own ways, simple solutions are scarce, especially as the region continues to gain population. But here are five of the Boston area’s gnarliest intersections and suggestions for how each could be better for us, whether we move on two feet, two wheels, or four tires.

Fresh Pond Parkway at Mt. Auburn (Cambridge)

Mt. Auburn is one of the oldest thoroughfares in America, dating to 1630, the year Puritans led by John Winthrop established Boston. Fresh Pond Parkway intersected it in 1899, creating an X-shaped intersection that probably seemed bucolic. No more. Today, a total of 12 lanes enter it. Up to 50,000 people a day, by car or on MBTA buses, vie to cross a pavement expanse roughly a football field’s length.

That field of asphalt creates problems. Out of confusion (or arrogance), drivers make frequent illegal turns. A westbound car on Mt. Auburn might dart across oncoming eastbound cars to make a U-turn-like left onto Gerry’s Landing. This is dangerous both for drivers — MassDOT tallied 41 collisions between 2012 and 2014 — and pedestrians. The situation could be fixed, and without all that much investment by DCR, which controls the intersection. A state-funded study recommended creating well-defined paths for cars by moving curbs or using paint or flexible poles. The longer-term plans, including bike lanes, a new pedestrian sidewalk on the north side of Mt. Auburn, and possibly a dedicated bus lane, will cost $4.2 million. Norman Orrall, DCR’s chief of engineering and planning, says in the short term, the agency hopes to move curbs and add road paint as soon as next spring. One intriguing idea that was proposed but dismissed involved splitting the X intersection in two, with cars on Mt. Auburn no longer crossing Fresh Pond but turning onto it and then being routed back to Mt. Auburn — with signals timed to smooth traffic flow.

BU Bridge and Commonwealth Avenue (Boston)

The three-lane BU Bridge meets the six-lane, two-track Commonwealth Avenue at a refreshingly simple 90-degree angle, and traffic flowing above the Charles River from Cambridge and then across Commonwealth rarely gets backed up. But remember, this is actually an intersection of two bridges built over a highway. There is nothing orderly about the traffic, as heavy volume coming up from Storrow Drive meets the funnel of cars crossing Commonwealth in the opposite direction, bound for the BU Bridge. It’s not just cars jockeying for position — it’s a turf war among vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and the Green Line. “This is what you get when you do highway infrastructure in the middle of a college campus,” says Northeastern’s Furth.

As part of the ongoing major structural upgrade of the Commonwealth Bridge, MassDOT plans to enlarge the sidewalk where pedestrians wait and to shorten their crossing distance, as well as add a second right-turn lane onto the BU Bridge to alleviate the free-for-all as cars merge into the existing single right-turn lane. The second lane is a godsend for Cambridge-bound drivers, but won’t solve all the intersection’s problems.

Let’s look at drivers who want to get onto the BU Bridge. Westbound drivers on Commonwealth just turn right. Simple. But most eastbound cars navigate an S-curve: a right turn away from the bridge, a loop around counterclockwise (where they merge with cars coming from Brookline), then a left onto Commonwealth, where they have to push through multiple traffic streams to get into the right-turn lane and then onto the bridge. Eastbound drivers actually have a second option for getting onto the span — they can drive slightly farther down Commonwealth and turn right onto a looping street that flows clockwise and then straight across Commonwealth onto the bridge.

Most cars don’t take this inner loop because of signal timing. Fiddling with the lights might help create more efficient traffic flow, but there is also a more radical solution — what traffic engineers call a “punch-through.” This redesign would allow cars entering the intersection from Brookline to drive straight onto the inner loop and over the bridge, eliminating much of the bottlenecking on Comm. Ave. MassDOT is “analyzing the potential” of this solution, but moving forward would require a buy-in from both Boston and Brookline, so it’s unlikely to happen soon.

Newton Corner

Newton, MA., 08/01/17, The intersection at Newton Corner. For a story on bad intersections. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Traffic at troublesome Newton Corner.

The intersection of Washington Street and Centre Street was transformed into “the Circle of Death” in the 1960s, when the state stuck a turnpike through Newton. Newton Corner now comprises a half-mile circle of pavement with 216 street signs, 23 crosswalks, 12 traffic lights, and 11 bus routes. Six local streets feed into the rotary, which also includes four highway on/off ramps. Some 100,000 cars pass through the Newton Corner rotary every day, and MassDOT tallied 89 crashes between 2012 and 2014.

The rotary’s traffic problems are perhaps best illustrated by the four-lane merge-a-thon that is the bridge east of the hotel standing over the Pike. Four roads, approaching from different angles, feed cars onto the bridge. In less than 200 feet, each car must merge into the lane it needs to drive off the bridge onto Galen Street, Washington Street, or onto the Pike. The bridge on the west side presents a similar four-lane merging challenge and throws in a curve and a grade change.

There is no easy fix for this mess. Newton is limited in what it can do, because while it owns the local streets that form the long sides of the rotary, MassDOT owns the bridges, so any changes require coordination among bureaucracies. It does happen; the two have worked together, with the state repainting lanes, installing overhead signs, and paying for a new traffic light, changes recommended in a 2006 study. But those improvements have made a marginal impact on congestion, says Nicole Freedman, the city’s director of transportation.

Which is why Newton Mayor Setti Warren wants to start over, rebuilding a village center above the Pike and between the bridges. It’s good to have dreams, of course. In the meantime, Newton does what it can. This fall, the city is spending $500,000 to upgrade pedestrian signals and curb ramps and repaint crosswalks.

Kosciuszko Circle (Boston)

07/16/2015 BOSTON, MA Traffic around Kosciuszko Circle (cq) in Dorchester. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe) Massintersections
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File
Kosciuszko Circle in Dorchester.

The National Park Service added “K Circle” to the Register of Historic Places (it is part of the Old Harbor Reservation Parkways, laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted ) in 2008. The traffic is certainly legendary — at rush hour, the circle carries almost 4,400 cars per hour (or 73 a minute), more when Interstate 93 gets backed up and drivers are looking for a shortcut. Getting around the circle can feel like a high-speed game of duck-duck-goose, says Chico Colvard, a filmmaker who taught at nearby UMass Boston and recalls it as “a nightmare.” One traffic study found more than 100 accidents at the circle between 2011 and 2013.

Many old-fashioned traffic circles like Kosciuszko — large rotaries designed for cars to enter at high speeds — have been replaced by signalized intersections (think Shea Circle at the Arborway). And, indeed, Boston 2024, the group behind the failed Olympic bid, had proposed turning the circle into a four-way intersection with a traffic light.

Currently there are no plans to fix the rotary, which is in State Representative Nick Collins’s district. He regularly hears stories about congestion and safety problems at the circle and says the area’s expected growth means it will need a dedicated bridge for pedestrians and cyclists and probably a road tunneled beneath the rotary.

Any real solution needs to consider both local traffic and through traffic. According to the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s 2011 Columbia Point Master Plan, through traffic accounted for 80 to 95 percent of traffic during peak hours, which could justify the construction of an underpass or overpass. Another option would be to peel off the local traffic using slip lanes — roads that would allow cars to curve onto the adjacent road without entering the rotary. And all of that would have to pass muster with the historic register, of course.

Melnea Cass and . . . (Boston)

BOSTON, MA - 8/01/2017: Bad intersection, Melnea Cass and Mass. Ave (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: MAGAZINE TOPIC 081317badintersections
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Rush hour at Melnea Cass Boulevard and Mass. Ave., among Boston’s worst intersections.

An intersection doesn’t need to be old to be a problem. Melnea Cass Boulevard — built in 1981 through the swath of Roxbury razed in the 1960s to make room for the “inner belt” — still maddens drivers at rush hour. Every day more than 30,000 cars drive down the four-lane boulevard between Columbus and Massachusetts avenues — an intersection on MassDOT’s database of top crash sites.

The complaint about Melnea Cass, almost regardless of the cross street, is congestion, often related to drivers trying to make a left turn. Furth suggests separating those cars from the through traffic by adding left-turn pockets.

In 2013, Boston considered widening the boulevard by 40 feet in order to add a bus lane and relieve congestion. But the plan called for cutting down trees and removing an existing bike lane, and residents balked, calling the plan “a knee-jerk response to the availability of federal monies,” so the city went back to the drawing board.

Now the Boston transportation department is looking at multiple changes, including designated left-turn lanes, and what James Gillooly, the deputy commissioner, calls “protected intersections,” which include separate bike tracks, raised crosswalks, and corners that force drivers to slow down. “We’re trying to balance the needs of different users and trying to shape a better behavior on the part of all three [drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians],” says Gillooly. The most recent redesign includes pedestrian and traffic signals, wide sidewalks, two-way bike paths, and turning lanes. The city has raised $25 million for the project, which is slated to start in 2019.

Old intersections can be taught new tricks, Gillooly says. He cites the intersection of Milton and West Milton in the Readville section of Hyde Park. It used to allow for fast, sweeping turns, which made sense when Readville was a lightly populated industrial district and delivery trucks had trouble making a 90-degree turn. But such turns were no longer workable as it became a residential area. The state had already planned to fix a nearby bridge when the city asked it to consider rethinking the adjacent intersection as part of the project. Boston transportation planners wanted a sharper turn in order to slow down traffic and shorten pedestrian crossing distances. “Lo and behold, we discovered an old plan that showed that the corner used to be nice and square,” says Gillooly. “So we went back to the future.” It opened in 2008, and this fall the city will start work on similar changes to three more Readville intersections.

My bad intersection tour won’t disappear, not in a region that has grown so much that rush hour now lasts much of the workday. But we can make it so no one has to run the gantlet just to get to work. Now we need local and state officials to step on the gas.  

Four ways to intervene for your intersection

1) Complain. Call your local government, or if it offers a complaint form on its website, use that.

2) Suggest. Some places, Boston included, allow residents or neighborhood associations to apply for traffic calming at specific spots.

3) Join. Neighborhood associations have a bigger impact than a lone resident and bring still more pressure to bear by partnering with local businesses and other groups.

4) Go up the ladder. Contacting your state representative can make action more likely.

Jessie Scanlon is a writer in Cambridge. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.