It’s both a cliché and a powerful insight to remember that the solution you come up with depends on which problem you are trying to solve. A road builder sees problems in terms of the need for movement – usually meaning car capacity – and comes up the road expansion solutions. A transportation planner – as well as a livable communities developer – sees problems in terms of using the built environment as a way to improve peoples’ quality of life and comes up with solutions that stress human interaction.
The elevated section of the McGrath/O’Brien Highway from the Cambridge border to Somerville’s Highland Avenue is old and deteriorating. Working with people from the more than 20 land development and road planning efforts already happening along the corridor, LivableStreets Alliance coordinated discussionsthat endorsed five core value/vision statements for what should happen in this area:
- Reunite neighborhoods cut apart by the highway.
- Humanize the space by lowering traffic speeds, reducing noise and pollution, narrowing lane width, and reducing the current six (or more) lanes to four.
- Make traveling across and along the corridor safer and more inviting for pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders.
- Add more trees, grass, storm-water drainage, and other green features.
- Encourage local retail and job-creating businesses; including crafts-based and green-economy enterprises.
THE THREE SISTERS – CASEY OVERPASS, McGRATH HIGHWAY, RUTHERFORD AVE: MassDOT’s Credibility Crisis and the Need to Work Together
This post was meant to be about three of the old highways now falling down and the increasingly bitter policy disagreements within nearby communities over what to do about it. But as I thought more about these debates, it became clear that a significant secondary theme is that so few people trust the traffic engineers or their organizations – starting with total lack of belief in the validity of the traffic prediction models being used by MassDOT. The models feel like such opaque black boxes of unknown facts and hidden formulas that they simply feel like fantasy projections of agency desires – and there is little trust of those desires either. Applauding the projections that support one’s position and denouncing the rest is neither useful, logical, nor fair. The problem is that without analysis it’s all guesswork and power plays, which is not likely to end up creating optimal outcomes either.Read more
Q: Why do people live in cities?
A: Because that’s where all the other people are.
It’s really wonderful that Mayor Menino has a special group of “urban mechanics” finding ways to put new information technologies to work for the city. Technology is very cool. And fun. And useful. And has a huge impact. I spent part of my life in high tech and even wrote a book ‘way back in 1996 called Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway about how the emerging digital networks could be used to enhance or stifle democracy
But when it comes to the most important qualities of urban life, the future is behind us. I don’t mean that we should return to the disease-ridden, economically brutal cities of the past. Despite the Tea Party’s desire to dismantle our public safety nets and return to the competitive jungle of the pre-Progressive era, our world is much better because of the intervention of governments to provide clean water, require sewer systems, and to reduce the massacre of human wellbeing caused by unregulated markets. But there are important aspects of past urban life that are worth preserving or recreating that emerge from the presence of both cohesive neighborhoods and unstructured diversity.Read more
We’ve all heard the argument: narrowing traffic lanes or removing parking will hurt local businesses. And we’ve all read the research headlines that show the opposite is true: widening sidewalks, adding trees, including bike lanes, expanding transit facilities, and making public space more multi-modal, people friendly, and environmentally rich increases the number of customers and the amounts they are willing to pay. (WalkBoston has a wonderful tri-fold pamphlet called “Walking Is Good Business” that contains a treasure of statistics and citations, some of which I’ve used in this post.) But we need to go beyond these generic arguments to focus attention on the three specific situations where Complete Streets provides significant support for economic development, and be able to articulate what those benefits may be. The three are:
- Suburban Business and Adjoining Residential Areas
- Urban Neighborhoods
- First Generation, Inner-ring Highways
BRIDGES, ROADS & HISTORIC PRESERVATION: Combining Respect for the Past with Preparation for the Future in Transportation
We create ourselves and our society with what we’ve inherited from the past – from genes to hierarchies, from culture to social status. Most important are the stories, the myths, we’ve been given that help give meaning to the physical world and prepare us for an unknowable future. As those stories float between generations, among their anchors are the historic artifacts surrounding us in the built environment which embody our collective heritage and trigger our personal memories.
But obsessively preserving the past can be a barrier to dealing with today’s realities or preparing for tomorrow’s challenges. While architects and preservationists seem to have come to some mutual understanding, it seems that the same is not true in the transportation sector. As we begin dealing with the physical collapse of the infrastructure built for the passing automobile age, we face potentially damaging, and stupid, fights over what to do with its still-in-use artifacts. To what extent can we change historic bridges and roadways so they can safely and efficiently serve pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses as well as the cars they were designed for? To what extent can we acknowledge that the environment surrounding an old bridge has changed since it was constructed so that retaining walls that once served to hide polluted rivers can be changed to allow passers-by to see the now-beautiful water?Read more
HOW ROADS SHAPE ECONOMIES: Why What Happens to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, Sullivan Station, and Rutherford Ave. Will Make – or Break – Local Job Opportunities and Community Well-Being
Will Boston’s inner ring of old suburbs – Somerville, Charlestown, Roslindale, even Dorchester — be able to build on residential upgrading to become economic growth nodes as well? Or will they continue to be left out, with growth focused either in downtown Boston or the still-expanding outer rings of suburban towns around Routes 128/95 and 495?
The answer partly depends on the types of transportation system that gets built over the next twenty years – not only what happens to mass transit but also what is done with the older highways that run through the area. McGrath/O’Brien, Rutherford Ave., Casey (Rte 203) – these were once vital arterials bulldozed through the inner ring to connect the outer suburbs with downtown. Building them required the destruction of working class neighborhoods. But they kept the wheels of commerce rolling as the tide of growth moved outward.Read more
Propose to add bike lanes or narrow traffic lanes or even to install corner bulb-outs in either a suburb or an inner-city neighborhood, and you’re likely to run into the rejection chorus from long-time residents: “You’ll just make congestion worse.” “Cars will short-cut through our neighborhoods.” “This discriminates against the car driving majority.”
The issue isn’t the technical details – the size of the bulb-outs, the width of the bike lanes, the height of the speed bumps. Neither does it usually seem to be about the need to make it safer to walk, bike, or take transit. Everyone agrees that the roads aren’t as safe as we’d like. And often it isn’t really about bicycling, or buses, or whatever else has triggered the opposition – many people will tell you that “I’m all in favor of …; but this is just not the right place for this kind of project.”Read more
Parks have many functions. Urban parks were originally seen as oases, cool and green antidotes to the noise and density of the city; a place for quiet walks, meditation, and observation of nature’s wonderfulness. Over the years, a growing working population with limited opportunity to escape the city demanded that parks also be used for family fun and active recreation: picnics, kids’ games, adult sports and exercise. More recently, we’ve learned that green areas are the lungs and sponges of our environment, cleaning the air, absorbing water run-offs, lowering the temperature, and providing a vital tool for dealing with the globe’s escalating climatic disruptions.
But what if parks were also treated as building blocks for a regional healthy transportation network? What if they were nodes in a web of connected greenways with multi-use paths designed for non-motorized use for both families at play and weekday commuters? What if the vision was to improve access to local parks by neighbors as well as to facilitate movement between and through the parklands by everyone?Read more
Several times each day, most of us move from one place to another using one of the many options available – walk or drive, take the stairs or the elevator, bike or bus, taxi or limousine. Most of the time, most of us don’t really think about it; we just do what we’ve usually done, what everyone else usually does, fall into the default behavior: we drive, take the elevator, call a cab.
What creates the default? What nudges so many of us in the same direction? Not an act of nature or of god. Behavioral defaults are not inevitable or inescapable. They are created by the surrounding context – the structure of our buildings, the nature of the transportation system, the attributes of high social status, the cultural assumptions that make some things feel normal and others unthinkable. One way to understand the decision-making context is to examine the “Four Cs” of Convenience, Cost, Comfort, and Coolness. Which method of movement is easiest to access? Which feels like a good value? Which requires the least effort to use? Which is the most appropriate for people of our (self-imagined) social standing and style?Read more
CONTROLLING SEGWAYS, DESIGNING BRIDGE CROSSINGS, FACILITATING BIKE LIGHTS – Keeping Everyone Safely In Their Place
There actually is a common theme running through all three of this week’s seemingly unconnected items: how to deal with the changes in transportation choices that people will make as gas prices continue to rise, urban population expands, and congestion gets worse. Or, as my carpenter brother says about his tools, “the trick is keeping everything in its own place.”
SEGWAY IN THE WAY – Reclaiming Sidewalks for People
CHARLES RIVER BRIDGES – Part of the Path or the Road?
BIKE LIGHTS AT NIGHT – “Fix It” Enforcement
The first one applauds Boston’s effort to plan ahead for the influx of electric and low-powered vehicles – such as scooters, mopeds, electric bikes, and Segways – that people will increasingly use. If you agree, contact your favorite Boston City Councilor and urge a quick, positive vote for the proposal.Read more