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Somerville is restricting access to cars on some streets to create a network for pedestrians and cyclists

The “Shared Streets” initiative is a pilot project that will kick off at the end of May. It’s a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Somerville will soon launch a network of interconnected streets, closed to through traffic, for people to walk and bike around the city.
Somerville will soon launch a network of interconnected streets, closed to through traffic, for people to walk and bike around the city.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Call it the Concrete Necklace: A linked network of streets, largely closed to cars, snaking through the region’s most densely populated community.

Somerville officials announced Sunday that they’re restricting through traffic on a series of residential roads beginning later this month, a move the city says will make it easier and safer for pedestrians and cyclists to get around while maintaining social distancing protocols amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The pilot project, called “Shared Streets,” will eventually lead to roughly 7 miles of mostly interconnected routes that will stretch from east to west, and north to south, allowing people to take over the middle of the roadways for essential trips to supermarkets or healthcare providers, or to get some fresh air and recharge as the weather begins to take a steady turn towards summer.

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“We have been planning this . . . as part of our gradual, informed, and very careful reopening,” said Mayor Joseph Curtatone in a phone interview Monday, one day after the city announced vague details of the plan on Twitter. “With this increased activity and movement, really our goal is to provide just a safe, alternative way for our residents to be mobile.”

Officials said the first 1.7-mile “shared route” will be installed by the end of the month in East Somerville — a neighborhood Curtatone said is underserved and where many residents don’t have access to vehicles — and into Winter Hill. From there, additional routes will be added in phases in the coming weeks.

Eventually, the makeshift pathways will cut through nearly every neighborhood, making it possible in at least one case to travel from busy hubs like Davis Square all the way to East Somerville with very minimal interaction with moving traffic, a draft of a map shared with the Globe shows. An official map is expected to be released to the public sometime this week.

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The city is targeting “low-volume or residential side-streets” as part of its plan, so residents shouldn’t expect to see main thoroughfares interrupted to vehicle travel. The roads that will become part of the network will be marked by clear signage and moveable barriers, limiting access to abutters, first responders, and delivery drivers only, officials said. Parking will not be affected on these streets.

Additionally, in some areas like business districts, where foot traffic is much higher, streets will remain open to through traffic but the sidewalk space will be widened, so people can easily remain 6 feet apart.

Curtatone stressed that the roads used for the project are meant to serve a functional purpose, meaning residents shouldn’t be hosting gatherings or any type of events in the street. In other words, this isn’t Porchfest or the Fluff Festival.

“It’s about reclaiming the public ground, planning a city for people and not cars and connecting them to services and getting them to work," Curtatone said. “[We’re] creating this resource at a human scale.”

The project, which will be modified as necessary, was developed by the mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, and mirrors similar practices adopted by cities across the country and the world as they start to ease into reopening their economies.

Last week, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh hinted at reconfiguring some streets in the city to accommodate social distancing and perhaps better serve businesses and pedestrian travel.

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In Brookline last month, officials temporarily shifted patterns on four high-density streets to make it easier for people to get around. And in Arlington on Monday, the town’s Select Board approved a one-week pilot to close access to through traffic in a small portion of one of its neighborhoods.

Brad Rawson, Somerville’s director of mobility, said all of the thinking that went into mapping out which streets to utilize for the pilot was done through the lens of safely supporting essential trip-making while also reducing community transmission of COVID-19.

“[This is] a product of the current emergency, and yet it leverages some specific streets that the city of Somerville has been working on for traffic calming purposes over a number of years,” he said.

Rawson said while the city is starting off small, they will be “very, very quickly deploying these routes.”

“We anticipate having a citywide network so that every Somerville neighborhood has the same benefit, and the same access,” he added. “That’s the vision and the plan.”

City Councillor Ben Ewen-Campen said several of the city’s elected leaders had been working towards a plan to “pedestrianize” some streets at the very start of the pandemic. However, because the administration “was understandably prioritizing emergency health and safety measures” first, any such plan was put on hold.

Ewen-Campen said he’s pleased to see that something is now taking shape.

“In the weeks since, it has become clear that there are really effective ways to create shared streets,” he said in an e-mail. “This has been the successful approach in a number of cities across the country, and I’m very glad that we’ll be rolling this out here.”

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Curtatone agreed that allowing more access to pedestrians, cyclists, and other users has indeed been something on people’s minds for months.

But he said Somerville, which is plotting a more cautious timeline to reopening than the state has laid out, wanted to be methodical about its approach, using available data and information to create a design that would work best for residents and visitors.

“While we have been striving to be bold in our response [to the pandemic], we have also strived to be deliberate and very strategic,” he said. “This mobility plan and Shared Streets initiative we are launching are really grounded in those same principles.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.