The Powder House Circle, a busy intersection in Somerville, was upgraded this summer with lane improvements, bike lanes, updated crosswalks and physical barriers, intending to improve safety and navigability for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike.
Located at the intersection of College Avenue, Warner Street, Broadway and Powder House Boulevard, the six-way roundabout has caused frustration among Somerville residents, according to Will Mbah, Somerville city councilor at-large and 2022 mayoral candidate. Powder House Circle has also been the site of several car crashes and has been previously labelled a “high crash intersection” by the City of Somerville.
Rocco DiRico, executive director of government and communications at Tufts University, expressed what made the intersection unsafe.
“Under the old design, Powder House Circle was confusing and chaotic,” DiRico wrote in an email to the Daily. “It was very difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate.”
Arah Schuur of Somerville Bike Safety, which is an advocacy group dedicated to fighting for safe and separate bike infrastructure for the city, described the previous Powder House Square Circle as a free-for-all.
“There were no demarcations for lanes … no bike lanes … no painted automobile lanes … no flex posts,” Schuur said.
Schuur, who regularly bikes through Powder House Circle, felt that the old design was particularly dangerous and life-threatening for cyclists.
“There was no delineation for bicycles; there was no physical protection,” Schuur said. “You just had to kind of share the space with very aggressive drivers who were also confused.”
Pedestrians also had a hard time safely maneuvering and crossing Powder House Circle. According to Mbah, pedestrians often traveled through lanes of traffic to reach the island in the middle of the roundabout.
Additionally, given the location of Powder House Circle, many of the drivers who pass through are commuters or are from out of town.
“They’re coming from another town, going somewhere else and they’re using our streets and our infrastructure just to get through,” Schuur said. “It takes them time to learn.”
Between the confusing lanes, dangerous crosswalks and lack of demarcation, Powder House Circle had been in dire need of renovation. According to an article by the City of Somerville Mobility Committee, an updated Powder House Circle plan has been in the works since 2019.
“There were several public meetings when the project was being designed,” DiRico said. “Our students, faculty, and staff had the opportunity to give the City their input.”
The City of Somerville finally broke ground on the renovations this past summer.
The additions to the intersection include shortened crosswalks, flex posts, renovated bus stops, protected bike lanes, curb extensions and painted vehicle lanes.
Based on feedback from the community, Mbah reported that the changes have made the roundabout safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. One of the most notable changes to Powder House Circle is the change from three vehicle lanes to one.
“It has also simplified the vehicle traffic that travels through the roundabout,” Mbah wrote in an email to the Daily. “The expanded medians make it clear that the circle is for single lane traffic, whereas before there were frequently two lanes of vehicles travelling through the circle.”
According to Schuur, the decrease in the number of vehicle lanes in combination with the squaring off of turns also encourages drivers to slow down, and the protected and lineated bike lanes have made Powder House Circle safer for cyclists.
“Separating bicycles from cars is the primary safety improvement, along with reducing the speed of cars,” Schuur said.
Students and faculty have welcomed the changes to the rotary.
“The shortened crosswalks and protected bike lanes will make it much easier for students to get to and from Davis Square,” DiRico said.
Mbah discussed next steps for future renovations in Somerville’s narrow streets and highly trafficked areas. He is a founding member of the Somerville Alliance for Safe Streets and is passionate about making Somerville’s streets safe for individuals with disabilities.
“Many of our sidewalks are outdated and difficult to navigate for people with disabilities, especially those that use a device to help them travel or are visually impaired,” Mbah said. “Our next step should be to make sure this roundabout and all streets and sidewalks in Somerville are safe for this community.”