SNOW REMOVAL ON BIKE LANES; SEAPORT TRAFFIC JAMS

PREPARING FOR SNOW:  WHEN SHOULD BIKE LANES GET PRIORITY? 

Most municipalities and most state agencies have carefully negotiated lists of which streets get plowed clear of snow in what priority order.  First priority usually goes to busy highways and arterials, hospitals and schools, fire stations and emergency services.

But in some communities, a major portion of daily travel occurs by bicycle or on foot.   The corridor from Somerville through Cambridge to Boston (Beacon-Hampshire-Broadway-Main-Longfellow Bridge) often has more bikes than cars during the morning commute.  And there are key walking areas between bus and subway/trolley stops and nearby workplaces.

Carice Pingenot, who has just opened the area’s newest bike store called Bicycle Belle, recently asked me if it wasn’t about time that municipalities and state agencies created and publicized Priority Snow Removal Areas focused on bike and foot traffic?   Bike-lane priority streets would, like major car roads, have parking bans during snow emergencies.  Plows would remove the snow rather than push it to the side as is typically done on other streets – making room for cars but making it extremely unsafe for cyclists.  And where the priority route contained a cycle track, the responsible agency would have appropriate width plows available nearby.

In walking priority areas, nearby property owners would be regularly served with notices reminding them of (if necessary, newly passed) regulations requiring rapid and adequate shoveling.  If the sidewalk was public property, the city or state agency would either have contractors ready to go or create a plan for utilizing its own employees in a timely manner.

Climate change doesn’t just mean warmer overall weather.  It also means more extreme weather events.  As bicycling and walking become more important methods of urban travel, we need to be ready to make the surfaces they use as available as streets are for cars.

SEAPORT TRAFFIC JAMS

New development generates more trips.  Banks and contractors wouldn’t build residences, stores, or workplaces if they didn’t expect people to come to them.  However, these profit-seeking investments would seldom occur if governments didn’t spend other people’s money – the public’s tax money – to prepare an area for development and to deal with the inevitable transportation needs.  Unfortunately, land use and transportation planning are usually treated as separate processes in this country, and neither is integrated with quality of life, environmental, and sustainability issues.  In the absence of serious planning and spending for alternative ways to get into and around a newly developed area, travelers’ default option is to drive, usually by themselves in a Single Occupancy Vehicle (SOV).  This is especially true if the roads are the only transportation facility that has been upgraded.

But if you build it they will come.  So it should be no surprise that Boston’s rapidly developing Seaport District, which has already reached anticipated 2025 levels of development, already has traffic jams:  “everyone seems to head out at 5 p.m., creating bumper-to-bumper traffic along the main spine on Seaport Boulevard, spilling out onto Atlantic Avenue, and clogging side roads throughout the area.”

As far back as the early 1990s, planners knew that the water front area would eventually need better transit facilities.  But, as the Massachusetts Sierra Club points out, the proposed Red Line branch was scrapped in favor of “an inadequate Silver Line bus tunnel that forces passengers into an awkward series of transfers to get almost anyplace else.”

Government’s short-term response is to open up more roads:  promoting use of the B Street tunnel to I-93, opening up the Haul Road to commuters during rush hour, eliminating the downtown HOV lane on 93 North.   While there is also discussion of encouraging the use of the No. 4 bus from North Station and adding another commuter ferry, these are wholly insufficient for the scale of the problem – which is too much drive-alone travel.  Worse – by making driving easier these steps will only encourage more driving.

The biggest need is to increase alternatives to SOV commuting, if only because thousands of waterfront area parking spaces are about the disappear: dropping from about 6,000 to 750!  Car pools are a start.  Express buses from the edges of the area, or even from outside the city, into the Seaport are another step.  There needs to be a more extensive network of bus routes – probably using mini-buses or vans – across the entire Waterfront and extending into adjacent areas.  A real Bus Rapid Transit line needs to be developed, perhaps using a current car lane on various roads and getting traffic signal priority at intersections.  The Silver Line needs to be upgraded, perhaps even turned into a light rail system and integrated into the rest of the MBTA system.

Non-motorized travel facilities need to be drastically expanded as well.  More Hubway stations.  Every building should be required to have a large amount of both outside bike parking areas (both open and covered) near entrances and indoor secure facilities.  Cycle tracks, or at least buffered bike lanes, need to be installed along each of the major roads and through the larger development parcels with connections to the South Bay Harbor Trail, South Boston’s Harbor Paths, and nearby MBTA stations.  A low-traffic-stress Green Routes system, suitable for bicycle commuting, needs to extend outward through Boston to the suburbs.  And the surfaces of both the bikeways and sidewalks need to be maintained and given priority treatment for snow removal.

Just as important: planners need to push for more residential construction so that people who work in the district can live there as well; no commuting needed.  This implies the need for retail stores, parks, and even schools – all of which should be paid for by the developers reaping fortunes from the public’s preparatory work.

In fact, developers should also be required to significantly contribute to the cost of upgrading the area’s transportation system.  This will only happen if the city, acting  through the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), and the state, acting through MassPort and MassDOT, work together with a unified goal of creating alternatives to SOV travel rather than simply facilitating driving.

The Innovation District has already been priced out of reach of the small start-ups that made it an economic driver; it is quite possible that lack of transportation will choke the rest of it to death.

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posted in MAKING BICYCLING MAINSTREAM by Steve Miller

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