City Planner Shows Possible Idea for Watertown Square That Includes Roundabouts

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Jeff Speck A concept for Watertown Square drawn up by city planner Jeff Speck, on the right, with an aerial photo of the area as it exists now.

How to make Watertown Square a calmer, more efficient, and inviting place to be is a complex puzzle, which City Manager George Proakis plans to take on in his first year on the job. A well-known city planner took a stab at the problem and drew up a redesign with roundabouts on two ends of the main intersection in town.

The drawing was the product of a quick analysis by Jeff Speck, in a talk about making cities more walkable, as well as places where businesses thrive. He presented it during his presentation at the Charles River Chamber of Commerce Fall Business Breakfast in Newton on Oct. 28 along with ideas for areas in other communities in the Chamber’s region: Newton, Needham and Wellesley,

“I took one hour, off the clock, to investigate the worst part of Watertown — which is also the heart of Watertown — which is Watertown Square,” Speck said.

He described the intersection as “this giant tarmac,” with pre-21st Century traffic design including a light over every lane, a lane for every turning motion.

“And once you have signals everywhere you have stacking everywhere and the roads need to get wider and wider and wider, and that’s what happened to Watertown center,” Speck said.

As an alternative, he came up with a concept that replaced the giant intersection with a roundabout where Mt. Auburn, Galen, Main, and Arsenal streets, plus Charles River Road meet. A second roundabout sits where Main and Pleasant streets come together with what is the bus and taxi drive around the Delta.

Roundabouts differ from rotaries in some ways including that vehicles stay in the same lane in roundabouts and do not change lanes, while rotaries are more like highway entrances where vehicles crisscross to circulate around the circle. Roundabouts are being used more and more across the country, Speck said, and they move traffic more swiftly not by increasing speed, but by increasing efficiency. The drawing also shows double the amount of open space, which could be used for green space, but also could be a location for more shops or businesses, he added.

Speck said he enjoyed looking at Watertown for many reasons, including because Proakis is a friend and, at times, colleague. He called Watertown’s City Manager “one of the best planners in America.”

“George is such a good planner that I have him co-teach my Harvard class every summer,” Speck said.

While Proakis said the Speck’s idea was interesting, he said there is much work to do before the design of the intersection is discussed.

“It will be interesting to see where that all goes, but I look forward to working with the community on strategies and as I told my staff in my very first staff meeting, I’d like us to be abnormal, think of new ideas, be creative, and bring new ideas to the table,” Proakis said. “So, Jeff’s idea comes to the table as part of that conversation. I really appreciate that.”

Leise Jones Photography Watertown City Manager George Proakis, left, appeared on a panel of municipal leaders moderated by Greg Reibman, right, the President of the Charles River Chamber of Commerce. Also on the panel, from left, were Needham Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop, and Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller.

After the program, Proakis said he had seen Speck’s drawing a few days before the Chamber Breakfast, but had not examined it closely.

“I haven’t really had time to think about that sort of an idea. But, as you probably know, there was a traffic circle, an old-style rotary, in the middle of that intersection many years ago, and those didn’t tend to work,” Proakis said. “We switched to the traffic light system at the time when they were getting rid of a lot of those. The modern roundabout  is an interesting concept in the way that it moves traffic.”

He noted that when Speck is hired to work on a project he takes a much closer look, and uses traffic engineers, does traffic studies, and really examines things like how many lanes are needed, and how buses would operate, among other things.

Watertown officials have examined what to do with the Square from a number of points of view, including traffic, zoning, housing, parking, and what to do with the old Police Station, Proakis said, but he wants to look at all of those issues at once.

The conversation is a very complex one, Proakis said, and he said he wants to complete the ongoing updating of the Comprehensive Plan before figuring out what to do at the neighborhood level, including Watertown Square. He expects that to happen in the winter of 2023.

“I don’t know where we will end up in a conversation like that but I just want to make sure we have the space to have it, that we can bring stakeholders together to figure out what might be possible,” Proakis said. 

He recently walked around Coolidge Square with local business owners to see what makes the area special, and to find out about the challenges they face. He may do a similar thing in Watertown Square.

When shaping the future of the Square, an important area for people to consider is how to adjust zoning.

“It is worth considering how you set zoning decides what you get for businesses and also what buildings remain and what sites get redeveloped,” Proakis said. “What do we want to stay and what we might want to change.”

While he has not decided which strategy would work best in Watertown Square, Proakis has identified some aspects of the Square that need to be improved.

“What bothers me is when you have six lanes of moving traffic on a business street it is very difficult to keep attention on the small businesses and keep the walkable side of things working,” Praokis said. “I want to see what’s out there, see what options we have.”

See the video of the Charles River Chamber of Commerce Fall Breakfast here:

28 thoughts on “City Planner Shows Possible Idea for Watertown Square That Includes Roundabouts

  1. All options should be explored. That’s never a bad thing. But there are no easy fixes to Watertown Square. Previously discussions included making major changes to the bridge coming into the Square from Galen Street. Steep price tags all around.

  2. Whether you like this idea or not, isn’t it nice to be brought into the conversation now…not when everything has been decided?

  3. I realize that something needs to change in the square, as I walk through it almost every morning on my daily walk…There’s way too much emphasis on cars and not enough on pedestrians, although I realize also that it’s a major gateway shall we say, and thousands of people come through it every day. I notice as well that an awful lot of drivers have absolutely no idea what they are doing, or they’re absolutely crazy and aggressive. I also realize that I’m going to have to look up the difference between a rotary and a roundabout, because I always thought they were the same thing with different names….this plan makes me think, what if I get in the wrong lane? How do I get where I want to go? Because I also drive through the square as well…This will take some serious thinking and redesigning so that everyone’s happy….

  4. Even the thought of roundabouts, or rotaries, as we call them, for the amount of traffic that enters and exits Watertown Square every morning, noon, and night is not only laughable, but mind-boggling. It would resemble the problem that Chevy Chase had in Lampoon’s European Vacation. I would just love to see this plan on paper!

    • Large diameter traffic circles and rotaries are not built anymore because the large diameters enable speeds that are unsafe and cause congestion.

      Many people confuse other and older styles of circular intersections with modern roundabouts. High speed, east coast rotaries, large multi-lane traffic circles (Arc D’Triomphe, Dupont Circle), and small neighborhood traffic circles are not modern roundabouts and UK ’roundabouts’ are not the same as North American ‘modern roundabouts’. The Brits even call a merry-go-round a kid’s roundabout.
      Single-lane modern roundabouts (50-120 feet in diameter) can handle intersections that serve up to 20,000 vehicles per day with peak-hour flows between 2,000 and 2,500 vehicles per hour. Two- and three-lane modern roundabouts (120-220 feet in diameter) can serve up to 60,000 vehicles per day and handle 2,500 to 5,500 vehicles per hour.

      There are plenty of resources online to learn the difference.

  5. At one of the Comprehensive Plan meetings a few years ago, I put a post-it on one board suggesting that we make Pleasant St. a two-way street so that the traffic heading east could better merge into Watertown Sq. without people blocking each other off to get into the different lanes. By allowing traffic from Main St. to funnel onto Pleasant St. at the beginning, it may help alleviate traffic backups where people try to take a left off of Main St. on to Cross St. This often is impeded by people going east on Main St. and blocking Cross St. so people can’t take the left. If people were just going straight on Main St., the traffic could continue to move freely at that section. Just a thought.

    I even suggested that maybe we consider a tunnel go under the Delta area connecting Main St. to Arsenal St. and No. Beacon Streets with two options to branch off there. That would allow more free flow of traffic on the surface for the other streets coming into that area and have more green space. I don’t know if this would work practically or economically, but I think we need to try to think outside the box and at least consider all possibilities.

    The City Manager’s approach to getting input from as many regular people as possible is much appreciated vs. just listening to developer’s needs. If we need to spend a little more money now to do it right, let’s look at all options so we don’t have to revisit this issue again in a few years.

  6. I agree, Paul. Watertown Square is a difficult problem-solving exercise. It’s been a while since the Sterritt site fiasco, after which the Council agreed to work on a process where the public was more involved in real decision-making. Now is the time for that plan, clearly delineated and published in enough time and in enough different venues for the community to respond. I’m looking forward to hearing the Council’s plan. I might note, that at the City meeting on the topic of rat control, a citizen who was attending only his second City meeting in his 40 years in Watertown, came up with an idea that might help in the short term and save the City some money as well. The City Council members at that meeting were pleased. You never know where the next good idea is coming from!

  7. Thank heavens Mr. Proakis is bringing in some fresh eyes to this problem. We definitely need a new approach, instead of leaving it to our regular planning dept, who usually leave it to developers or hire the same tired and uncreative firms over and over again (VHB anyone?).

  8. How a pedestrians supposed to cross this? Crossing the current intersection is already pretty difficult and a roundabout would make it even more difficult since the cars don’t stop.

    • It is a common misperception that drivers do not stop at modern roundabouts. Driver culture varies from place to place, and how drivers treat pedestrians where you live might be typical, or not.
      All modern roundabouts have median islands separating incoming and outgoing auto traffic. Pedestrians don’t have to find a gap in two directions of traffic, just one. This is safer for pedestrians, especially for younger or older ones, because they only need to concentrate on one direction of traffic at a time. This is what is meant by a two-phase crossing. Cross the first half, pause if you need to, then cross the second half. With the lower design speed of 15-20 mph, roundabout medians become very safe places to cross. It’s estimated that median refuges for pedestrians reduce crashes by 25% or better.

      On multi-lane crossings pedestrian beacons are often added if the auto (or pedestrian) traffic is too numerous. The beacons (rectangular rapid flashing, RRFB, or pedestrian hybrid, PHB) can also be two-phase, requiring the pedestrian to push a second button when they get to the median. The median should have a Z path to reorient the pedestrian to view oncoming traffic. Also, the pedestrian hybrid beacons usually rest in off, so they are only activated if a pedestrian needs the help crossing. This way only motorists that need to stop are delayed.
      There are plenty of online videos of pedestrians using modern roundabout crossings.

  9. People using the road make mistakes (like speeding, running stop signs and red lights, turning left in front of oncoming traffic), always have and always will. Crashes will always be with us, but they need not result in fatalities or serious injury.

    Modern roundabouts are the safest form of intersection in the world – the intersection type with the lowest risk of fatal or serious injury crashes – (much more so than comparable signals). Modern roundabouts require a change in speed and alter the geometry of one of the most dangerous parts of the system – intersections. The reduction in speed to about 20 mph and sideswipe geometry mean that, when a crash does happen at a modern roundabout, you might need a tow truck, but rarely an ambulance. Visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or FHWA for modern roundabout FAQs and safety facts.

  10. It is good to see the problem of erosion of the city’s Main Street area by the accretion of vehicles getting a fresh look. Reasonable people wonder what, if any, traffic studies have been done that rate the level of service at the Main Street/Pleasant Street intersections and the Watertown Street/Galen/Nonantum Rd. intersections? That a narrow residential street like Aldrich Road with a blind curve and school bus drop-off at Casey Field is two-way makes a reasonable person wonder if that was a decision to make the intersection numbers look better. As things stand, cars going east on Watertown Street turn onto Aldrich to avoid the traffic signal at Watertown and Galen, and traffic on Galen opting to go west on Watertown Street turn on Aldrich to avoid the signal at the intersection. These intersections with their long idling periods are likely air-quality hotspots. Reasonable people might well be interested in how the city of Watertown ranks by state air-quality standards, and when, if any, air-quality and traffic studies have been required for recently-approved residential and commercial developments. In addition, are there any permanent air-quality monitors in Watertown?

  11. Thank you so much for publishing the link to the recording, Charlie! Jeff Speck’s presentation was great, really intriguing, and the panel responses that followed it were really interesting too.

    It’s great to have recordings of public meetings like this one on YouTube, where they can be played back at 1.25, 1.5, 1.75 and even 2.0 speed!

  12. Love the video and it seems like a great solution for that area that has only gotten worse each year! I’m sure the businesses would love to have more pedestrian traffic as well.

  13. What about looking at ways to make the T come to Watertown again instead of thinking how to get more cars on the road?

    High traffic and pollution could be addressed.

  14. Yes! I love the idea of small modern roundabouts in Watertown Square. Traffic signals and large intersections with many lanes require a lot of space for cars and a lot of waiting for all the different movements to take place. Roundabouts are efficient and take up much less space, and result in less waiting for everyone. As long as pedestrians only have to cross one lane at a time, they are much better for pedestrians as well compared to a large intersection with a long wait to cross the street. Pedestrians always have the right of way at roundabouts and therefore would have to wait far far less than they do today. If we also include protected bike lanes in these designs, we would really have a great design that makes the square so much safer and more inviting!

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