Friday, December 22, 2006

Tolls on the Pike

Slightly off topic, but here goes.

Soon-to-be Governor Patrick is opposed to eliminating tolls because of the lost revenue ($114 million if you just get rid of the tolls west of Springfield).

Here's my take:

Tolls are good because they capture from motorists some of the costs of car/truck travel. The tolls on the Mass Pike are not good because they unfairly tax some drivers while other drivers, particularly those on I-93, get to ride for free on roads built and maintained, in part, with Pike toll money.

An ideal solution would be to put tolls on all the interstates through Massachusetts. Ain't. Gonna. Happen.

An acceptable solution would be to get rid of all of the tolls in Massachusetts in exchange for an increase in the gas tax that would offset the loss of toll revenue. Earmark some percentage for mass transit.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Infuriating, but instructive

This weekend, the otherwise sainted mother-in-law of NS&S shared with me her deep frustration with bikes on the road, triggered by one not-so-recent incident: four guys riding side-by-side on one of the country roads near her home and holding her up. (To be fair, I think this was an example of incidents that happen to her periodically, but far from frequently.)

As a cyclist, I deal with much more infuriating -- and potentially dangerous -- driver behavior almost every time I get on my bike. My impulse was to tell her to get a grip. She's wrong to be so frustrated. The relatively minor negative impact cyclists have on her life pales compared to the impact that motorists have on cyclists'.

Objectively, we cyclists are far more put upon than putting upon. But, practically speaking, it's irrelevant.

It's a tough pill to swallow, but if we want to live in a world that is more bike friendly, we really have to be model citizens. Being model citizens is not enough. We have to be active in our communities to create a more bike-friendly infrastructure and culture. But, if we want allies (or at least neutrals) in our activism, we also have to be nice to motorists. The world is generally hostile to us. Nice people like my mother-in-law are looking for reasons to dismiss our concerns.

It isn't fair. It isn't right. It just is.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New Bike Accommodations

The new striping on Winchester, Nahanton, and Beacon Street is only part of the plan. There will be signs. DPW Commissioner Rooney is evaluating possibilities.

I suggest a new sign: Bikes by Right. In fact, that should be the underlying message of all bike accommodation efforts by the city. Bicyclists have a right to be on the road and travel safely.

I also think the best strategy would use more than one sign type. Nirvana (the section of Beacon Street between Washington Square and Cleveland Circle) has a "Share the Road" sign every block or more. The quantity is right, but the message loses its effectiveness with repetition. I'd mix in a few "Share the Road" signs with my "Bikes by Right" signs.

At last night's Bike/Pedestrian Task Force meeting, I spoke at some length with a bike-lane opponent. His "ghetto" argument is compelling (though I'm not entirely sold). If you create bike lanes, you create the expectation that bicyclists will only travel in those lanes. However, bike lanes can be dangerous (and sometimes blocked). The woman who died in Central Square a few years ago was travelling in a bike lane when a driver opened the car door into her path (knocking her into traffic).

But bike lanes/no bike lanes should not end the on-street marking debate. The new bike accommodations need some clarification. Cars can't go over the line. Bikes can travel on either side (though they will, out of self preservation, stay in the gutter when its safe to).

I don't have the complete answer, yet. But, I think that on-street markings should be an important tool in the effort to get the "Bikes by Right" message across.


Teacher's aide hit by car near Angier

According to the Tab blog, a teacher's aide was hit by a car while she was crossing Beacon Street.

Key question: did this happen during drop-off?


For Shame, II

Went to a Pedestrian/Bicycle Task Force meeting at City Hall last night. By a side entrance there was a car (red Pontiac, tag # 6167 JP) idling unoccupied in a parking space reserved for aldercritters.

Surely no aldercritter would do something so socially and environmentally unacceptable, so I'm assuming the miscreant was not just irresponsible but a flouter of parking restrictions, too.

For Shame, I


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cranking it up

Not exactly on topic, but 120 volunteers rode a bike to power an 1500-light LED reindeer on a billboard in Vancover. From Core77.

Small irony: it appears that motorists are the billboard's intended audience (as opposed to, say, a Times Square billboard). Bikers powering a billboard for the entertainment (okay, education) of drivers.


Parking Lots

The worst treated pedestrians in the world may be those who have just stepped out of their cars on their way to shop.

I have come to this conclusion while considering the proposal to build a pedestrian bridge across Route 9 connecting the to-be-developed Chestnut Hill Square and its across-the-street neighbor, the Mall at Chestnut Hill. The bridge dumps pedestrians at the far edge of the parking lot. From there, the walkers-over-from-Chestnut-Hill-Square join the just-parked-at-the-Mall folks to negotiate the vast expanse of tarmac.

Why aren't there sidewalks in parking lots? Every two rows of spots should have a sidewalk between them. You get out of your car, walk to the front (of the car), and walk along the sidewalk to the building. Out of traffic.

Ideally, the sidewalk would continue across driving lanes as a raised sidewalk. But, that's not a requirement.

Okay, I know the answer. Four feet of sidewalk for every two rows of cars would seriously reduce the number of spots in a lot. Tough to argue that you want to make it better for parking lot users by providing more space for them as pedestrians at the expense of space for them as drivers. A transportation/land use policy conundrum.

No such conundrum with regards to the proposed pedestrian bridge across Route 9. I have my doubts about the value of the bridge. But, if a bridge there will be, there must be a protected sidewalk from the end of the bridge, across the parking lot to the front door of the Mall at Chestnut Hill.

It would be ideal if the sidewalk across the parking lot were shaded with photovoltaic cells like they are about to do in the parking lots at Google's headquarters.


As goes Chicago ...

As if we needed another reason to emulate Chicago -- beyond an extensive network of bike lanes and grass rooftops -- here's another: following the death of a four-year-old, Chicago has mobilized to crack down on pedestrian- threatening/-unfriendly driving. From Streetsblog.

Direct comparisons to Chicago are tough. It's a city of 2.8 million v. Newton's .08 million. And, the density is different. But some of these solutions scale. And, leadership always scales.

The Mayor of Chicago leads the call for bike and pedestrian accommodation. In Newton, it's a task force that's never been officially commissioned as a standing committee, a couple of vocal aldercritters, a generally well-disposed DPW department, unconnected citizens, and yours truly. Not a recipe for decisive action.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Striping on Beacon, pictures

Here are some pictures I took of the new striping on Beacon Street.

Looking east on Beacon near Waverly:

Looking west on Beacon near the top of the BC hill:
I can't tell you how difficult it was biking along here with cars that couldn't figure out if it was two lanes or one.

Looking west on Beacon near Wilde Street.

Looking east on Beacon near Holly Street:

Striping on Beacon
Winchester, III
Updated: More on Winchester
No Bike Lane on Winchester


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Woman Struck on Washington Street

A 70-year-old woman was hit by a car last night.

Safe streets aren't necessarily good streets. But unsafe streets are, by definition, bad streets.


Shoveling something

I have a column in the Tab on shoveling sidewalks.


Striping on Winchester and Beacon


I drove the lengths of Beacon and Winchester yesterday. The striping made me giddy. The section of Beacon east of Boston College before the Hammond Pond Parkway intersection has always been a problem for bikers. It was not clear if there are two traffic lanes or one. No question now.

There are sections of the west end of Beacon where the gutter -- if that's the right word -- is almost as wide as the lane itself.

There are some open questions:

  • Where exactly are bikers supposed to go? Where the gutter is wide, to the right of the stripe makes sense. But, the gutter is not uniformally wide. Maybe some signs would help.
  • Is parking allowed or encouraged near the JCC on Winchester? The stripes create what looks like a nice parking zone. What's the relationship between parking and bikers?
  • Are motorists going to obey the striping? Maybe some signs would help.
  • Why no striping on Beacon between Angier to the west and Waverly to the east? That's a route of regular bike traffic. Some clarification would be helpful.
Some of the gutters are so wide, it seems that the city should reclaim some of the pavement and make it grass, trees, and sidewalk. Clearly, that would have to be done as part of some sort of reconstruction. Shame that the west end of Beacon was repaved as wide as it is in some spots.

Winchester, III
Updated: More on Winchester
No Bike Lane on Winchester


Kevin Flaherty

I haven't posted anything about Kevin Flaherty's death and the safety of Woodland Road, primarily out of ignorance. I need to learn more.

But, if you missed it, do read this article about Kevin's friend Randy Stillman from last week's Tab and the letters to the editor in this week's Tab.


Welcome Tab readers

If you are visiting after reading my column in the Tab this week, welcome.

Click here to read about the objectives of this blog.

Please leave a comment or e-mail me at newtonstreets {at} gmail [dot] com.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Winchester Street, III

We didn't have to wait until Spring to get the striping on Winchester and Beacon.

The roads are striped with pretty wide gutters. Very clearly, there is a narrower car-travel lane, which should have some effect on average speed.

Not clear how they accommodate bikers. Are bikers supposed to stay in the gutters? Are cars/trucks going to fight for space in the narrower travel lane?

Pictures to come.

I'll do some more research.

Also, pace the Newton Blog item on JCC parking, parking on Winchester appears to be legal. It's not legal in the now blocked-off entrances to the JCC from Winchester, presumably for fire access, but it's legal elsewhere. With the new stripes, the parking appears to be more legitimate, not less.

Updated: More on Winchester
No Bike Lane on Winchester


Monday, December 11, 2006

Traffic Art

A piece of traffic-calming art in Cambridge by 70-year-old Wen-ti Tsen was among the ideas celebrated in the New York Times Magazine annual Year in Ideas issue (subscription required). The Globe had a piece about it in August.

Cambridge didn't want to/couldn't spend the money to do any physical traffic calming at a problem intersection, so they decided to spend relatively short money ($10K) on a mural to see if it would slow traffic.

I could find no picture to upload. The illustration in the print version is not online. Here's the satellite view of the intersection. The satellite photo appears to predate the mural.

I'm skeptical that the mural will have any long-term effect once the novelty wears off. But, I love the idea of using our vast expanses of macadam as canvases for public art.

Not everyone is so fond of the work. The traffic circle mural was a victim of what looks like a pattern of vandalism against public art.

This reminds me of something that I saw on the big E a few years ago. A guerrilla artist with the street name of Roadwork did some less-sanctioned work in Montreal:

More Roadwork pictures here, here, here, and here.

Apparently, Roadwork eventually got in trouble with the local constabulatory and was charged. He had to do public service hours, which he fulfilled making a sanctioned work.


For Shame, I

Sure, a $100,000 sports car with a ridiculous vanity plate is an easy mark, but this driver really earned the distinction as the first entrant into our "For Shame" picture gallery.

Yesterday was the second Saturday in a row that we saw the car parked in the fire lane in front of the Newton West Suburban Y for over twenty minutes.

Bonus points for parking far enough from the curb that the "No Parking" marking was unobscured for our camera.


Saturday, December 9, 2006

Best v. Good

The pending improvement up the street put me in mind of Voltaire's now-hoary saw: The best is the enemy of the good.

I'm under no delusion why we're getting our intersection redesigned when other equally (or more) deserving improvements go undone: money. We've got it, in the form of traffic mitigation funds set up as a condition of approval for nearby development.

It's going to cost a lot to put in new curbs, dig up the street, change the sidewalk configuration, move a storm drain, put in dirt, plant grass, &c. Cost is one of the reasons that the city isn't throwing up pedestrian-friendly changes all over town. One reason.

But, does cost have to be such a big factor?

I'm guessing that we'd get the same effect on traffic with some concrete parking curbs bolted into the pavement where the new curb line is going to go. (And, we wouldn't have to wait until spring.) If concrete curbs wouldn't be as obvious to traffic, add some signs. At something like $20-50 for a six-foot length of six-inch high concrete curb, you could do our proposed curb line for probably 10% of what our project is going to cost.

Undoubtedly, it would not look as attractive. But, what is our priority. Safety or beauty? Fortunately, because we have the money, we don't have to choose.

But, at other locations where private funding is not available, maybe concrete curbing makes sense.

Take, for instance, Langley Street, where it meets Centre Street. The west end of Langley is a sea of asphalt that should be redesigned and rebuilt to give most of the area back to pedestrians. I bet it will be no small dollar project to rebuild the curb line, build new sidewalks, dig up asphalt, put in dirt, plant grass, etc.

So don't. At least for now.

Spend a couple of days hammering concrete curbs into the pavement and putting up signs to create a safe zone for pedestrians. Later, when the money for a more permanent change is available, do it up nice.

The city could take the same approach all over town and create lots of curb extensions quickly.


We're so proud

At a recent meeting of the Bowen Space Task Force, Mrs. NS&S said the following:

It is a moral imperative that we deal with the traffic in Newton.
We couldn't have said it better ourselves.


Friday, December 8, 2006

Green Taxis, Clarification

Regarding my Green Taxis post, a concerned reader asked, in so many words, "What's your point?"

Having clearly failed to make my point(s) clearly, allow me to clarify.

I have three related points:

  • Taxis are already part of the solution. The green quotient of taxi service goes well beyond the fuel economy of the taxi fleet. Readily available taxi service reduces overall dependence on automobiles and promotes use of public transportation.
  • The benefit of "greening" the taxi fleet is nominal. There are only 80-something cars in the Newton taxi fleet. While there may be some public relations value to having less conspicuously consuming taxis, the actual fuel savings is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall amount of fuel consumed by vehicles within the Newton borders.
  • Green taxis either pay for themselves, in which case the fleet owners will get to them in due time, or they don't. If they don't, somebody's got to bear the extra cost. Given all the other issues on the aldercritter docket, does it make sense to push for something that costs taxi owners, taxi customers, or the town extra money?
I don't mean to suggest that a green taxi program is on the docket or under short-term consideration. But, the issue came up and I wanted to put the suggestion in the context of the environmental value of taxis generally. That value is often overlooked.

I think my other point about taxis is clearer, but let me make sure. I want taxis to drive slower through Newton. The moment of a taxi owner request for extending the fuel surcharge seemed like a good opportunity to point out the fuel-wasting behavior.

How does a chip address both problems? Modern car and truck engines have computer chips that control lots of things, including fuel and air flow to the engine. Air and fuel flow determine the power that an engine generates, how much fuel an engine consumes, and, indirectly, how long an engine lasts. Manufacturers try to balance power, fuel economy, and durability concerns. Modern-day hot rodders "chip" their cars, by replacing the chip that comes with the car with an after-market version that is programmed to tip the balance towards power at the expense of economy and durability.

Concievably, a chip could be created that sacrifices power for fuel economy. Put such a chip in taxis and taxi drivers wouldn't be able to drive as aggressively. And, they'd get better mileage.

Keep in mind that many (most) taxis are either retired police cruisers or bought-new civilian versions of the police cruisers. Both police and taxis have similar requirements for durability and 'round-the-clock use. That's why taxis use the same models.

But, police have a requirement for performance that taxis don't have. No matter, taxis get the power as a by-product of the other shared requirements.

A chip could cure the problem.


Thursday, December 7, 2006

Green taxis

Last night, the Transportation/Public Safety committee extended the $1 taxi fuel surcharge (item # to come) for another six months. In the related discussion, two interesting issues came up:

  • Drivers' inefficient driving behavior
  • Hybrid taxis and other green technologies
At the same time taxi companies are asking for an extension of the fuel surcharge, they should be engaging in a little self help: doing something about fuel-consuming (and neighborhood disrupting) driving like speeding and aggressive acceleration and braking. The taxi owner/representatives were very receptive to the concern and described some coming technology solutions that will let them monitor driver behavior. The owners want to stop wasteful driving habits. It costs them money.

Aldercritter Linsky inquired about hybrid taxis and other technologies. NS&S says that an effort to encourage hybrid taxis in Newton is a waste.

Taxis are green. Even a big ol' Crown Vic is practically efficient because the availability of taxi service reduces the number of cars and the volume of traffic. Taxis connect people to public transportation. Plus, the number of taxis in Newton is so small, the payoff of some sort of technology initiative would be low.

Coincidentally, there was an item today in the New York Daily News about hybrid taxis.

You could address both issues with one initiative: require taxi owners to install chips that de-tune the engines for better fuel economy at the expense of power.



There's a pending item (number to follow) to require more process in the identification of crosswalks in Newton. Aldercritter Samuelson and the Traffic Council would like to approve any proposed crosswalks before Commissioner Rooney and his gang stripe them.

It's a very interesting debate that gets at the very purpose of representative government. But, we'll hold the civics lesson for a later date. For now, a concrete proposal. (Pun, sorta intentional.)

Let's amend the ordinances to specify a maximum width (length?) of 20 feet for any new or rebuilt unsignaled crosswalk. Give the commissioner carte blanche to make such crosswalks and make the city better for pedestrians. If he wants an exception, he'll have to go through the process.

This doesn't directly address all of the arguments for Traffic Council review, but my bet is that the practical consequence would be all good.


Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Overnight Parking III

At the Public Safety & Transportation committee meeting, Fire Chief LaCroix got an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed change to the Parking Ban ordinance.

The ban makes the world safer. Easier to get trucks near houses. He'd like a parking ban year 'round.

He did make a good point. When there's snow, cleared snow at the curb adds distance between the trucks and a house. Parked cars make it worse.

But, you don't need an overnight snow ban to address the problem!

Make it illegal to park when there's a snow situation and make it easy to figure out when it's a snow situation.

The issue isn't whether or not the purported benefits of the current ban are meaningful and worthwhile. Let's assume they are. The issue is whether the ban is a necessary and cost-effective mechanism to get those benefits.

More on Overnight Parking
Idiotic Parking Ordinance


Poof, like that its gone

As anticipated, the Jackson/Daniel Street intersection trial has come to an end. Can't leave the sandbags out during plowing season. Plus, the sandbags were beginning to look a little ratty.

Even with the full knowledge that its just a matter of time before the intersection is permanently changed, it's still disappointing to return to the status quo ante.

Daniel/Jackson Street Intersection wiki page.


Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Commuting options

I know the feature is in the Cars section and that editorial content in the Cars section has a single purpose, to draw eyeballs to one of the only remaining reliable revenue streams the Globe has: auto dealer ads. But it's still disappointing that a boston. com feature on the top ten commuter choices doesn't include:

  • Walking
  • Biking
  • Public transportation


Monday, December 4, 2006

Zip-itty doo dah

I'm not sure that Newton is quite dense enough to make Zipcar widely useful, but it sure is promising in Brookline, Boston, and elsewhere. Some signs of success: $25 million in new funding and Zipcar's claim that 40 percent of Zipcar members decide against purchasing a car or sell their car and their overall car usage is reduced by as much as 50 percent.

What might make sense is Zipcar minivans and SUVs for Newtonians. Most people with small trucks don't need them except for 10% of the time or less, but buy to meet that 10% need. If they owned smaller cars and used a Zipcar truck for the 10% need, we'd all be better off.


Final Daniel/Jackson Street Hurdle Cleared

According to Commissioner Rooney, the Newton Fire Department has blessed the intersection as navigable, he's notified the Public Facilities Committee, and the item is unconditionally approved.

Daniel/Jackson Street Intersection wiki page.


Updated: More on Winchester

Update: Commissioner Rooney says that the bike accommodation striping was planned and scheduled, but the contractor put it off because of rain (more than once). Now it is too cold, so it's postponed, presumably until Spring.

I saw what appears to be a new watch-out-for-bikes sign at the corner of Winchester and Nahanton. A sign of things to come? I'll post a picture shortly.

Also, see this item in the Newton Blog about JCC parking along Winchester.

It has always seemed a little odd to me that people park for the JCC on Winchester, but I've never worried about it too much. But, the Winchester parking potentially raises a new issue with the anticipated bike striping.

Will parking on Winchester by the JCC become illegal? If it is, will the city enforce anything?

It will be interesting to see how it plays out.


Saturday, December 2, 2006

No Bike Lane on Winchester

At the November 8 Public Facilities Committee meeting, Public Works Commissioner Robert Rooney discussed his plans to stripe with bike lanes the recently reconstructed and (at that point) unstriped Winchester Street.

Commissioner Rooney's plans for Winchester Street came up in the context of a discussion of the Newton Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force Master Plan, docket item 376-06. But his plans for Winchester Street are not noted in the the committee report (PDF).

Crossing over Winchester this week (as I do regularly to drop daughter of NS&S at day care), I noticed that Winchester has been striped, but without any bike accommodation.

It's tough to attribute bad motive here. Commissioner Rooney and the DPW seem to have taken the initiative on Winchester and I don't recall anybody at the meeting discouraging him about his plans to stripe for bikes.

The diligent staff here at NS&S will monitor.


State of the Streets and Sidewalks

There are a lot of important issues in Newton, particularly regarding the schools, but it is still a bit disappointing that the mayor's 2006 state of the city address (PDF) has not one mention of traffic or pedestrian issues (save one reference to traffic studies that were part of the Newton North planning).


Friday, December 1, 2006

If you really like bikes ...

Check out Taliah Lempert's bike paintings. The painting here hangs in a work room where I toil.
My favorites among her paintings [warning: amateur art criticism ahead] treat the bikes in an iconic fashion, but her attraction to bikes appears to go beyond form.


More on Overnight Parking

Its only slightly ironic that we return to the winter ban on overnight parking the day after a record high of 69 degrees. (Original item.)

Turns out, there is aldercritter attention to the ban: a pending docket item, #222-06, proposing to start the ban later and end it earlier. Aldercritter Parker sponsored another item, proposing to lift the ban except in snow "situations," but I cannot find the item on any committee agendas or reports. The snow situations would include a risk of snow and existing, uncleared snow.

The start-later/end-earlier item is before the Public Safety and Transportation Committee and was most recently discussed on October 18. The minutes are, unintentionally, hilarious.

Justifications for the overnight ban:

* Slipperiness -- Between November and April, black ice and wet leaves can make roads slick. Sounds like an argument for banning driving.
* Preventing crime -- When there are fewer cars parked on the streets, fewer cars are broken into. Sounds like an argument for a year-round parking ban.
* Catching crooks -- When there are fewer cars parked on the streets, there are fewer places for criminals to hide. Sounds like an argument for removing trees, bushes, fences, houses, dumpsters, doors, &c.
* Sweeping streets -- The overnight ban facilitates street cleaning. I wasn't aware that streets were cleaned between 2 and 4 AM.
* Plowing snow -- The ban reduces the number of cars that have to be plowed during fall and spring snowstorms.

In all seriousness, the first four, absurd arguments simply establish that the ban is overly broad for its one legitimate purpose and that the rest is just pretext. I mean really, does the DPW actually believe that the overnight parking ban is a fair trade-off for making it a little easier to sweep my streets once-a-month or so? Wouldn't, say, designated street-cleaning days work a little better, since they would also apply to people who parked after 4 AM and before 2 AM, which I've got to believe constitutes most on-street parking?

The bottom line is that technology has rendered unnecessary a blanket ban from November through April. There are a half-dozen ways that the city could cheaply and effectively communicate a snow situation and ban overnight parking. If the city reasonably limited the number of nights that overnight parking is banned, the hours of the ban could be lengthened (midnight to six?), making it more narrowly tailored and more effective.

The item is on the committee agenda for 12/06 (PDF). (Search for "222-06" as the item doesn't mention parking, only the number of the ordinance at issue.)

E-mail, call, or write aldercritters Samuelson (Chair), Lennon, Linsky, Burg, Harney, Danberg, Vance and