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Ensuring Safer Streets in Brockton

Student Research with Brockton Offers New Insights for Street Safety

Sometimes, the key to getting important work done is identifying and collaborating with exceptionally skilled entities.

Over the last 12 years, the City of Brockton has had many challenges regarding the safety of pedestrians, with more than 30 pedestrian-related deaths since 2009. When a student team from the Rappaport Greater Boston Applied Field Lab at Harvard Kennedy School was tasked with using its diverse skillset in an effort to research the issue, they quickly came to realize there was more than just data analysis, policy proposals and budgetary options to be explored.

Mayor Robert Sullivan asked the team to examine the most dangerous roadways in the city for non-motorists (pedestrians, cyclists, and skaters, for example) and share their findings on ways to improve the situation.

The mayor, who had been sworn in only a year earlier after spending the past 16 years as a city councilor, partnered with Harvard Kennedy School Professor Linda Bilmes, Assistant Professor Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, and the student team of Charles Deffarges (HKS), Liza Farr (MIT), Pedro González (HKS/Stanford Graduate School of Business), and Leah Nakaima (HKS).

“Each year, Rappaport field lab teams from across the Harvard graduate schools, MIT and Tufts undertake projects that provide technical assistance to Greater Boston communities,” Professor Bilmes said. “Our collaboration with the City of Brockton to focus on pedestrian safety was a compelling project for the students and faculty.

“The city officials were a pleasure to work with. We hope that our research helps the city to reduce street accidents and fatalities, while also showing our students the importance of effective local government.”

Brockton road safety has had the attention of experts and public officials alike for many years. One AAA representative described the 30 non-motorist traffic fatalities between 2009 and 2021 as “stunning,” and Mayor Sullivan – a lifelong resident of the city himself – made traffic and pedestrian safety a top priority upon taking office. At the start of 2021, he told The Enterprise(Brockton’s local newspaper), “My office will be spending the upcoming semester working with the Harvard Kennedy School to propose and implement concrete solutions to these issues.”

“The mayor is relatively new, and the problem was relatively old, but he was invigorated to solve it,” said Farr, who used GIS mapping to identify the most dangerous intersections in Brockton. “People were dying, and the city was interested in understanding the highest value improvements it could make to reduce those fatalities.”

The team focused on nine critical intersections, including one of the deadliest – Belmont Street, in front of Brockton High School.

On that stretch of road, which alternates between four and five lanes, the team identified several issues: lanes wider than the Department of Transportation’s standard; no on-street parking to signal a need for drivers to slow down; and no pedestrian islands to provide respite for those crossing.

“It basically feels like a highway,” Farr said. “It’s a very wide road to have in front of a high school, where kids might be going across the street during lunch, in some cases traversing almost 90 feet.”

Farr and Nakaima led discussions with peer cities to explore changes made in each that could potentially be implemented in Brockton. They spoke with representatives from Lynn, Revere, Salem, Hingham, and Chelsea to learn about each city’s own street improvement projects, funding mechanisms, means of prioritization, and any conflicts that may have been encountered along the way.

“We wanted to understand what new insights these cities uncovered that could be shared with Brockton,” Nakaima said.

Ultimately, several options rose to the top of the group’s findings, including:

  • Signalize the intersections with full signals, stop signs, or signalized crosswalks.
  • Include curb extensions or pedestrian islands to reduce crossing distance and increase visibility.
  • Begin with low-cost treatments, like paint and bollards.
  • Narrow lanes to 10.5 feet to reduce speeding. Start with paint rather than moving curbs, to reduce costs.
  • Consider installing bike lanes, which also reduce speeding. (This would require removing a lane of parking).
  • Increase tree planting to reduce speeding and provide a shadier, more attractive pedestrian environment.

The students looked closely at alternatives that were not as dependent on enforcement to be effective.

“A lot of the designs we’ve highlighted – narrowing lanes, increasing pedestrian space, reducing crossing distances – those are things that bring about behavior shifts without having to enforce it,” Deffarges said. “They’re considered traffic calming devices. They naturally calm the traffic flow.”

“I saw the power of Phyllis and Jerry Rappaport’s collaboration and partnership, and how their support for our research with cities makes a difference on the ground.”

Leah Nakaima, 2021 Rappaport Greater Boston Applied Field Lab Student

Once the design choices were explored, González designed a flexible financial model to help analyze the various options. The model provided a range of possibilities that could be considered at each intersection, with the associated costs noted in the spreadsheet.

“This model allows City of Brockton to look at each of the different options and immediately know the budget required,” he explained.

Another element of the team’s analysis was to research state and federal funding opportunities that could be leveraged by the city, including ways to utilize the American Rescue Plan Act funds that have been allocated for Brockton. The work of the team happened to coincide with the development of the city’s first capital budget and some of their research and analysis supported the new budget development.

The team also examined Brockton’s city government structure to better understand the decision-making processes that touch road safety. Deffarges took the lead in studying the different groups involved – the mayor, city council, public safety, DPW, school administrators, business, and community groups, etc. – and how they currently interact.

As part of the research findings, the team noted some options that could be considered to add new communication and interaction opportunities. “There was a theme with some of, ‘Oh, that’s just how it is,’” Deffarges said. “A goal for our work was shifting that narrative, highlighting options that could make a difference.”

Said Professor de Benedictis-Kessner, who is leading a second field project with City of Brockton this fall, “Our students were drawn in by the critical importance of this project’s policy focus – and the lives that could be saved by working to address street safety.

“They used an impressive array of skills to help Brockton move ahead on this issue. Their dedication highlighted just how much work is needed to address the needs of cities such as Brockton.”

González was awarded a 2021 Rappaport Summer Public Finance Fellowship to continue the Brockton street safety research, with a focus on new ways to engage and involve the community in discussions for traffic safety improvements.

“As a resident of Brockton for over 15 years, I’m grateful for the Kennedy School students’ concerns about the safety of pedestrians in this city,” said the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Sydné Marrow. “The detailed findings provided by the Harvard Kennedy School spring Field Lab team and Rappaport Summer Fellow Pedro González are creative, well-thought-out, and impressive.

“We are currently in the process of moving forward with a number of their suggestions.”

Both Phyllis and Jerry Rappaport participated in the final presentation, asking detailed questions about the research and making clear that the family’s interest goes well beyond their financial contribution.

“I saw the power of Phyllis and Jerry Rappaport’s collaboration and partnership, and how their support for our research with cities makes a difference on the ground,” Nakaima said. “They listened to the mayor, they listened to the students, and it makes me think of how much we can impact lives every second of the day when people like the Rappaports are involved and just as invested as the people in the communities.”