Vassar/Mass. Ave. intersection needs closer scrutiny

Ethan A. Solomon’s Jan. 11 article raises more questions than answers about Phyo Kyaw’s death on Dec. 27. I was actually at the intersection shortly after the accident and find the reports of the investigation to raise serious concern. The truck involved in the accident was clearly unable to make the turn. There was simply not enough room and the driver blocked several lanes of traffic in the process. Indeed, this intersection is not suitable for the volume of heavy equipment traffic that passes through it on a daily basis. Clearly, the MIT and Cambridge Police are well aware of the danger that such an intersection configuration imposes and have done nothing to protect the student population. Moreover, the university continues to condone or remain willfully ignorant of these problems by not demanding the development of a remedy; and, there are remedies!

On the evening of Dec. 27, the driver was making a turn that caused the vehicle to block nearly all lanes of traffic. Such large trucks should never be permitted to make this turn given the vehicle length and the configuration of the intersection. In the process of turning, the driver blocked all traffic lanes, including the lane that Phyo Kyaw was using. His bicycle impacted the truck, incurring a fatal injury. At the time I drove by, MIT and Cambridge police and rescue personnel were fully engaged in his rescue. I was simply stunned!

Careful journalism would indicate that some attention to the rules of the road then in effect would be helpful. The Tech needs to encourage responsible journalism to re-examine the exact circumstances. Ultimately, responsibility will be determined by the accident investigation. However, in fatalities, quick action is normally indicated; and, extending the investigation is not in the interest of public safety given the number of incidents at this intersection. The investigative time required by local authorities is simply outrageous given the circumstances: 55 accidents! We are mindful that this is a fatal accident; thus, it merits prompt action. This gives rise to a reasonable conclusion that commercial traffic is more important than student and pedestrian safety. This was simply an “avoidable” fatality.

Given the large number of accidents that have occurred, the City of Cambridge and MIT should be engaged in a re-design of the intersection. There is ample space on at least three corners to provide for greater traffic volume and turning configuration. The Vassar segment is, indeed, too narrow for large commercial traffic. I’m not sure how many additional pedestrians will need to sacrifice their safety to compel reasonable traffic engineers to take action. Meghan Iron’s article points out the seriousness of this intersection and the 55 accidents that have occurred to date: 55! However the assertion that “accidents will happen” and that “efforts have been made” is simply unacceptable, written by someone who does not find “death” or “accident” to be unacceptable outcomes: “unavoidable”. The immediate solution is to restrict commercial traffic from Vassar Street until a permanent solution can be implemented.

Hopefully, students and pedestrians reading these two articles will be strongly encouraged to avoid these major intersections lest they become the 56th contributor to traffic hazard statistics. I would also encourage The Tech to invest a bit more time toward investigative journalism. Phyo Kyaw should always be remembered and motivating to us all. Having been at this intersection at the time of his passing, I am always sad to see the touching memorial in his honor. My office is nearby and I pass it daily! We owe responsible action in his memory. The university and the student government should demand action by local authority.

A few years ago, I worked at USDOT/Federal Highway Administration (Mass Division) at the Volpe Center. Given the frequency of accidents at this intersection, I would expect that there is basis for a prompt determination. In this case, no such determination was made and the investigation has dragged on longer than normal necessity would indicate given the frequency of incidents. This leads me to conclude that the facts are uncertain and/or may have already been determined. Having been at the scene at the time of the accident, the circumstances could be easily established. It’s one of those elements that a responsible journalist might ask local authorities: “how long does this process take; and, why is this one taking such a long time?”

While I appreciate [The Tech’s] observation that Phyo was in the leftmost lane of traffic, there is an underlying question of right-of-way. Phyo’s bicycle appeared to be on the side of Vassar St. adjacent to Bldg. 35. Since this was after the accident it was a bit difficult for me to know the exact details. However, the truck was blocking both lanes of traffic, and the rear of the vehicle had nearly impacted the signal light at the corner adjacent to Bldg. 35. This is indicative that the intersection is not designed to accommodate long vehicle turning. Thus, all parties at the intersection were at risk.

However, if this was the case, Phyo could have been riding his Bike correctly at the time of impact — a detail that responsible journalists could establish. In any case, trucks trying to make this turn continue to encounter the same problem, daily. Indeed, most tanker rear wheels over-ride the curb, placing anyone at serious risk. Traffic rules should have been explored and would likely indicate that if a driver makes a turn, blocking oncoming traffic lanes creates a serious safety hazard – a reason why so many accidents have happened at this intersection.

Given that this intersection is often used by heavy equipment, buses, etc. there are a number of obvious solutions:

1) Redesign of the curb cuts on either side of the road. An increased curb cut would permit a turning vehicle more room to make the turn. There is enough room on all but one corner to make an alteration.

2) Truck routes c/should not include this corner if possible. Thus, extended length tankers should be restricted from this intersection until a solution is designed/implemented. As you probably know, buses — about the length of the tanker truck — do not make this turn because of the narrowness of the road.

3) Traffic signals need to be modified. Pedestrians and bike users are at considerable risk on a daily basis. Right turn on Red should be prohibited at this intersection for large commercial vehicles. We have often seen right turning vehicles impact bicycle riders at all corners. An alternative would be signage to require bicycle riders to walk through the intersection and prohibit right-turn-on red at all corners. Special bicycle turning signals could/should be installed.

4) Police Coordination. Heavy equipment moves through this intersection daily and all hours in the evening. Given the nature of the pedestrian traffic, heavy equipment should be banned from turning at this intersection and a separate truck route established. In the alternative, when access to this Vassar corridor is needed, the police could be summoned – MIT and/or Cambridge.

Note that there are few circumstances that would require heavy equipment through this corridor to reach MIT facilities. MIT Facilities Dept. who are expecting delivery by heavy equipment should be required to at least notify the MIT police and schedule deliveries at low traffic periods. Heavy vehicles should not permitted to use Vassar as a pass through to other routes. Currently, commercial vendors make extensive use of this Vassar Street corridor, endangering pedestrian and bicycle traffic. There is little or no MIT/Cambridge police enforcement in this area.

Traffic management is the responsibility of the local authority: City of Cambridge. However, given that this is a major roadway, near Memorial Drive, it is possible that Federal Highway Administration and MassDOT assistance could be used – given the road classification. Because of the large number of accidents that have taken place here, the City of Cambridge DOT could/should be examined. As a Federal funds recipient, it is expected to use those funds to provide for public safety. Unquestionably, this has not happened. Thus, the City of Cambridge is probably in violation of their obligations under State and Federal guidelines to ensure public safety. Certainly MIT is in a position to ask for and expect an examination of the City of Cambridge DOT so that this does not happen again and demand an immediate solution. The immediate solution is a 24 hr. traffic director (person) stationed at this intersection until a solution is implemented given the very serious hazard to public safety.

Under Federal and State requirements, there is nothing more important than safety. Absolutely nothing. This has simply not happened. I was astonished to learn that there have been +50 accidents. Clearly, the City of Cambridge has decided that commercial traffic is more important than the safety and lives of pedestrians and MIT students. I also strongly recommend that you consider revising editorial guidelines for such future stories. Simple interviews and some library research could go a long way to identifying that the City of Cambridge is ultimately at fault and may have placed both the truck driver and Phyo Kyaw on a fatal collision course. Reasonable solutions are available. Why none have been implemented is unconscionable.

David Palés G

1 Comment
Mark about 6 years ago

News bulletin: The City of Cambridge claimed that they WERE making the intersection safer by narrowing Vassar in 2003! The City of Cambridge has a map of designated truck routes on their web site - Mass Ave and Vassar Street are both on it. The Complete Streets changes being done around Cambridge are not just ineffective and costly, they can be dangerous. City planners are on a quest for design awards and career enhancement, backed by lobbies supporting design philosophies that yield more profit per mile. The City of Cambridge let dogma and greed supersede safety. Fire the idiots ruining roads and putting bike lanes in door zones instead of shared lane markers.

It takes more than a curb cut to undue the city's damage. Signal posts is are the way also. The lighting from the BoA ATM kiosk is also too bright at night and in the eyes of vehicle operators.