The shortcut stops here: Towns fight speeding traffic on side streets

A Medford cruiser patrols the entrance to Baxter Street, one of 10 side streets where out-of-town traffic is banned during morning rush hour as children are heading to school.
A Medford cruiser patrols the entrance to Baxter Street, one of 10 side streets where out-of-town traffic is banned during morning rush hour as children are heading to school.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

When the new school year began, out-of-town drivers accustomed to cutting through neighborhood streets in north Medford to escape rush hour traffic discovered that option was no longer available.

In a bid to curtail the problem of speeding cars jeopardizing the safety of children traveling to school in the morning, the city initiated a pilot program to ban cut-through traffic by nonresidents on 10 side streets during weekday mornings, using signs that say “DO NOT ENTER ” and “residents only.”

Though it may be the first municipality in the area to specifically target out-of-town motorists, Medford is not alone in taking aim at cut-through traffic.


Concerned about the growing number of cars invading quiet residential streets to escape congestion on major roads — a trend officials attribute in part to the growing popularity of traffic apps — many cities and towns are grappling with ways to curb the cut-throughs.

“It’s a huge problem in Dedham as in many other communities and in many ways it is affecting the quality of life and even the very fabric of the town,” said Dennis Teehan, vice chair of Dedham’s Board of Selectmen.

Teehan said traffic apps like Waze and Google Maps are helping fuel the problem by “driving traffic into places that had not been previously known about by many people, frankly places not designed to safely maintain that volume of traffic going through them. It’s a very dangerous situation.”

For residents who live in the neighborhoods impacted, cut-through traffic can mean cars whizzing through their quiet streets, unaccustomed traffic backups, or some combination.

Patricia Bonner said residents of her Dyer Hill neighborhood in south Braintree now contend with traffic congestion when they leave for work in the morning because of cars diverting onto their local streets to avoid stretches of busy Route 37. It took one neighbor 15 minutes to turn onto that main road recently because there were 19 cars ahead of her.


“It’s a frustrating issue and just seems to be getting worse and worse,” she said.

Medford Police Chief Jack Buckley said cars have long cut through the city to beat the traffic on Interstate 93 and Route 28, but with traffic apps more are looking for shortcuts.

“They are providing answers to individuals for how to save one minute or two minutes, to skirt the traffic,” he said of the apps. “The majority of those shortcuts place you on residential side streets.”

“It’s not just the volume, it’s the manner they are driving,” Buckley said. “They are driving at high speeds, cutting through stop signs, making a dangerous situation at the wrong time in the morning, when kids are trying to get on school buses, and in the afternoon when they are trying to get off them.”

Google Maps and Waze — which Google owns — said in a joint statement, “Google Maps and Waze are committed to working with cities to accurately reflect their roadways on the map. If the right authority chooses to restrict traffic on side streets, we’ll work to update our maps accordingly.”

A vehicle drives over a speed bump along Addison Street in Braintree.
A vehicle drives over a speed bump along Addison Street in Braintree.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

Buckley said initial results indicate the restrictions in north Medford have curtailed cut-through traffic. And while acknowledging curbing traffic in one area can just displace it to another, Buckley said there are no signs of that happening in any significant way.


As for exempting all Medford motorists from the ban — not just those who live in the neighborhood — Buckley said that unlike out-of-town drivers, Medford residents generally have a purpose for driving on those streets.

“We are trying to walk that fine line of keeping the convenience of being mobile in the community . . . and at the same time trying to control that volume of traffic,” he said.

Eric Bourassa, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said his agency is hearing increasingly from communities about cut-through traffic, though he said it is only part of a broader concern about traffic congestion.

While restricting traffic can be appropriate at times, Bourassa said communities would do better to focus on reducing traffic speeds — through measures such as installing raised crosswalks, lowering speed limits, and narrowing roadways — which he said can serve to deter cut-through motorists and generally enhance safety.

Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan said that because of its location off Interstate 93, his community has always been used by cut-through drivers, but the problem is becoming worse.

Sullivan said the town has employed a number of “traffic calming measures,” such as using temporary speed bumps and lowering speed limits, to combat the problem. More recently, Braintree has launched a program to work with residents to devise specific fixes for their neighborhoods.

“Everyone is looking for a shortcut,” he said. “We are hoping to make it a ‘long cut’ so they are disincentivized from attempting to cut through a neighborhood.”


Belmont recently conducted a study that confirmed it is experiencing a significant amount of cut-through traffic, according to Dana Miller, chair of the town’s Transportation Advisory Committee. For example, from 8 to 8:30 a.m one day, Belmont drivers constituted only 3 percent of vehicles on a section of Pleasant Street, and 5 percent on a section of Park Avenue — two locations close to Route 2.

Armed with the information, her committee is developing an overall traffic calming policy for the town, which could include measures from installing speed bumps and raised crosswalks to narrowing travel lanes.

The hope is “to make drivers more attentive and encourage them to drive at speeds appropriate to the neighborhood,” Miller said, which might also spur them to stop using those side streets as cut-throughs.

Concord also is using the findings of a study to explore solutions to its problems, according to Police Chief Joseph F. O’Connor. He said the town commissioned the study after a trial policy of excluding traffic from one neighborhood resulted in more traffic in others.

“We are going through the data and sharing it with people in the community to try and see if we can make some improvements that don’t negatively impact other neighborhoods,” he said.

In Quincy, the city has responded to a rise in cut-through traffic with measures to improve flow on its main roads, including using technology to better monitor traffic conditions and tweak the timing of lights, said Christopher Cassani, the city’s director of traffic and parking.


“The better we can manage traffic on the main roads, the less desirable it becomes for vehicles to use shortcuts,” he said.

While Lawrence has not had to grapple much with cut-through traffic, speeding cars have long been a problem in the city. To help slow traffic and enhance the safety of children, the city recently placed temporary speed bumps near most schools.

“It’s been super effective. Schools are reporting a lot less speeding going on around their schools,” said Mayor Dan Rivera, noting that neighbors also are welcoming the change.

In Medford, Buckley said he understands the instinct of motorists to do whatever they can to avoid getting stuck in traffic.

“I get it. Sometimes you are in a hurry and it’s tough to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on [Interstate] 93. But at some point when you elect to get off onto a residential street, please show some courtesy.”

Traffic backs up during rush hour on Barnes Hill Road in Concord.
Traffic backs up during rush hour on Barnes Hill Road in Concord. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.