On a recent frigid February morning, I met Peter Cheung, a local activist for safer streets for bicyclists, at the intersection of Park Drive and Brookline Avenue, in the Fenway — a spot that holds special and sad significance for Cheung and other members of greater Boston’s cycling community.
It was at this intersection that Paula Sharaga, a 69-year-old Brookline librarian and an avid cyclist, was killed when she was hit by a cement truck while bicycling across the intersection.
Sharaga's tragic death sent a jolt of grief and outrage through the greater Boston bicyclist community. It was also a reminder of the persistently dangerous — deadly, in this case — roadways and intersections that dot the city and are the sites of dozens of non-fatal crashes on a monthly, weekly and even daily basis.
Earlier this month, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh unveiled a slate of new traffic measures aimed in large part at making the city's streets safer — including reducing the speed limit on residential streets to 20 miles per hour, from 25 — after speeds were already reduced from 30 mph last year. But many safe streets advocates say simply reducing speed limits, without targeting significant re-designs of the city's worst roadways won't be enough.
The intersection at which Sharaga was killed is one of at least a few dozen around Boston long-known to bicyclists, safe streets groups and the city itself as epicenters of exactly the kind of fatal encounters between cars, pedestrians and bicycles Boston officials have vowed — and so far failed — to stop.
A day earlier, Cheung and about 100 others had gathered here to mourn Sharaga's death, and to leave behind a reminder of how she died.
Resting against a lamppost and facing the traffic is a woman's bicycle, painted all white — a ghost bike.
“A ghost bike is a memorial for the cyclist that was killed,” Cheung explained, “and it's also to make a statement that ... the area’s not really accommodating for cyclists and pedestrians.”
Not "accommodating" may be an understatement.
This intersection is a cyclist's and pedestrian's nightmare: 12 lanes of busy traffic converging in one spot, without a single bike lane, and where pedestrians face an onslaught of left-turning cars and trucks.
Sharaga was the first bicyclist killed at this intersection — at least in recent memory — but there have been plenty of close calls.
An analysis of city crash data by WGBH News found that there were 27 bicycle or pedestrian crashes that resulted in EMS calls within just 200 feet of the spot where Sharaga was killed, since 2015, and close to 200 crashes along the three streets that feed into that intersection.
That’s why safe streets advocates don’t call these “accidents.” Far from being accidental, says Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Bicyclists’ Union, crashes are usually the result of poor roadway design.
“They're not accidents,” she said. “If a road is designed for speeding, people will speed,” she said.
And the numbers, she says, bear that out: “A majority of crashes that are occurring are happening on 7 percent of the city streets,” Wolfson said, citing a recent report by the city of Boston on “High Crash” intersections around the city.
Crashes, in other words, are often predictable — and that means they're preventable.
In 2015, Walsh announced the city’s “Vision Zero” plan — a goal of eliminating traffic-related deaths and serious injuries by 2025. The new speed limits are part of that plan.
But many residents are calling on the city to get more aggressive when it comes to streets already known for crashes.
Two weeks ago, neighbors in West Roxbury packed a local meeting about street safety, after lifelong resident Mary Wentworth was struck and killed in February while crossing four-lane Centre Street to get a cup of coffee.
Two years prior, another pedestrian had been struck and killed at the same spot. Residents asked city officials: Why wasn't more done, sooner?
Several residents testified to having been hit or nearly hit on Centre Street themselves, including one mother who said she’d come within inches of being hit while walking her three-year-old son across Centre Street. Choking back tears, she added, “The fact is that someone lost their life, and it could have been prevented.”
District City Councilor Matt O'Malley said that making Centre Street safer is his top priority, and city streets officials said Walsh has increased funding for street improvements.
But most of the Boston's Vision Zero plans so far revolve around the city's "Neighborhood Slow Streets" program, which allows neighborhoods to apply for safety interventions on small, residential streets.
Last year, the program accepted four such applications; some four dozen neighborhoods had applied.
But even if the program were expanded, it’s not clear that it would do much to reduce the worst crashes around Boston.
Brendan Kearney of the pedestrian group Walk Boston worries the city isn't taking on the bigger, more complicated roadways where most crashes are actually happening.
“These are happening on fast arterial streets,” said Kearney, not on the residential streets that are the primary focus of the Neighborhood Slow Streets program. “We want to make sure they're addressing the root cause.”
Sharaga was the first bicyclist killed in Boston this year and, hopefully, the last.
But meanwhile, crashes continue. On average, the city of Boston alone has seen about one non-fatal bicycle crash and two pedestrians hit per day in recent years.
Until the city posts new data, we don't know where the most recent non-fatal crashes have been. But odds are, it won't be a surprise.