Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Draft Comprehensive Plan -- Transportation and Mobility

The Transportation and Mobility section of the Draft Comprehensive Plan is an impressive document. It is thoroughly researched and well written. The city has been well served by the staff and citizens who drafted it. (No credits are listed.)

It is an important and wide ranging document. The comments that follow are lengthy, but I hope commensurate with the section.

If for nothing else, the authors deserve kudos for slyly noting that "most children now rely on a system of being chauffeured by auto [to school]." Chauffeured. Brilliant.

There can be little dispute with the vision articulated in the section:

The vision of the city we seek includes pedestrian-friendly streets which connect neighborhoods and which work to enhance public transit, which in turn connects clusters of activity. In that vision, traffic calming and streetscape improvements encourage pedestrian-friendly, vital urban and residential environments.
Unfortunately, the authors paint an overly positive picture of the current situation. Which suggests that we are closer to the vision than we are. Which, in turn, leads to less aggressive goals than are warranted.

In the very first sentence of the section, the authors notes that Newtonians "rank traffic as one of their chief concerns." But, one of the two major goals set forth in the section is "To Maintain City Character and Quality of Life." Traffic is a problem for residents because it is having a detrimental effect on our quality of life. We need to recognize that things are broken and then aim to improve, not maintain, city character.

Take, for example, the section's discussion of Newton Centre. The authors hold Newton Centre out as an example, "sometimes cited nationally as an examplar of a neo-traditional neighborhood." Neo-traditional neighborhoods are pedestrian and bike friendly. Their streets are well laid out and narrow. Their streetscapes are well-defined.

Newton Center has none of those attributes.

My purpose is not to rebut the specific analysis or proposals as they relate to Newton Centre. There is already a forum for that: the Newton Centre Task Force. Rather, my purpose is to highlight an underlying flaw in the section's assumptions: that things are pretty good as is.

They are not.

The section is not consistently as optimistic in tone. There are instances where the authors more negatively -- and, therefore, more accurately -- describe the current situation, particulary in the Background section. And, the recommendations state that "pedestrian, bicycle, and public transport provisions are in need of substantial enhancements." But, the emphasis on the positive character of our neighborhoods and the goal of maintenance undercut the particular descriptions of problems and the recommendations. (And, the pedestrian and bicycle goals are not expressed in concrete terms, as discussed below.)

Our villages are central to the discussion of pedestrian, bicycling, and transit issues. Besides being overly generous in their assessment of the current state of our villages, by stating as their goal maintaining the character of the villages, the authors fail to grapple with a critical point: if our villages are to remain vital, they have to be vital in some new way. The report correctly and accurately notes that our villages -- and by extension our city generally -- operated on a livable scale because the villages met a wide variety of needs for nearby residents: grocery, hardware, pharmacy, banking, schools, &c. Those needs, except pharmacy and banking, are being met more efficiently in bigger boxes than can fit in our villages.

If we are going to return to a traditional, livable scale in our villages, we have to reinvent the village purpose in Newton. Again, there are better fora for wrestling with the character of our vilages than the Transportation and Mobility section of the Draft Comprehensive Plan, but inasmuch as the section explicitly aspires to a traditional character for our villages, it needs to acknowledge that livability and pedestrian friendliness are not mere functions of how wide the sidewalks and how narrow the street crossings are. It is going to require enormous creativity and leadership to create a new model or models for our villages.

One thing that is entirely missing from the description of the general situation is the nature of today's automobiles and how that relates to the impact traffic has on our lives. It is well documented that the average vehicle is bigger, more powerful, and safer today than, say, thirty years ago. The average vehicle is also more likely a truck. By safer, what's relevant to this discussion are improvements in tires, brakes, and vehicle management systems that afford drivers much better control.

The consequence of more power and better control? It is easier to go fast and drivers are -- justifiably -- more confident that they can control their cars/trucks at higher speeds. Every day I see the effect on my street and streets throughout Newton. There is probably little likelihood of an accident, but the effect of faster, more aggressive traffic is palpably, viscerally negative.

A significant aim of the Draft Comprehensive Plan is the adoption of a scheme for classifying Newton's streets. Classification should, as the authors suggest, promote better decision making about the streets and their functions and even about land use planning. I support a classification scheme and the proposed classification seems appropriate for the streets with which I am familiar. My only objection is with a single classification per street. The classification scheme should reflect that a street has different purposes during different times of the day and on different days.

To be parochial, my street -- Daniel Street -- appears to be classified as a minor connector, because, one assumes, it provides access to Bowen School. That's all well and good before and after school. But its narrow connecting purpose should not mean that we have to accept cut-through traffic trying to avoid Route 9 or Newton Centre. The classification should be aspirational, not merely descriptive. Outside of school hours, Daniel Street should not be considered a connector.

Here's what's missing from the recommendations:

  • Roadway narrowing. The section commendably recommends against widening roadways. We should also look for opportunities to take back space. Roadways should be no wider than is necessary for travel, with a reaonable shoulder for bicycle accommodation. Anything beyond that should be turned back to grass or sidewalk. The recent repaving and restriping of Beacon Street west of Waban includes shoulders that are as wide as the travel lane. How much better if the roadway had been redesigned and more grassy area provided instead.
  • Intersection narrowing. Roadway narrowing should also include narrowing of intersections. Narrower intersections will shorten pedestrian crossings and decrease vehicle speeds. And, they would simply reduce the amount of blacktop. For example, the intersection of Clark and Center Streets is probably twice as wide as it needs to be. Narrowing the width of Clark at Center Street would make life better for pedestrians and would discourage vehicles from taking turns at high speeds. And, it would make the intersection much more visually pleasing.
  • Specific, measurable goals for pedestrian and bicycle friendliness. The League of American Bicyclists certifies Bike Friendly Cities. The city should make certification a goal. By applying for certification, the city can measure the extent to which it falls short and identify specific measures it can take to achieve bike friendliness. There is no similar certification for pedestrian friendliness. The city can, however, establish and follow a pedestrian safety action plan, according to the guidelines set out by the Office of Safety of the Federal Highway Administration.
  • Focus on bikes and children. The city should aim to creating a safe environment for kids to bicycle and then encouraging them to ride.
  • Traffic calming as an integral part of roadway reconstruction. There is a cycle that's been repeated too often. Traffic conditions on a particular street are bad, but are mitigated somewhat by a poor surface. (A frequent joke: Potholes are great traffic calmers.) The street gets repaved. The new surface encourages more traffic at a higher speed. The neighborhood requests traffic calming. There are limited funds to build traffic calming mechanisms. Before a street gets paved, there should be a full consideration of traffic calming measures -- like curb extensions, roundabouts, chicanes, raised crosswalks, &c. -- any and all of which could be built at a much lower cost as part of roadway reconstruction.
  • Improvements in transit service. The authors painstakingly analyze the likelihood of new transit in Newton and set modest aims for possible expansion. But, the section is silent on improvements to existing service. For instance, Newton should advocate for significantly reduced transit times on the Riverside (D) line, perhaps through the creation of express service from Reservoir (which would undoubtedly require significant capital investment). Newton should also advocate for region-wide adoption of rules that give buses priority access to congested roads. For instance, Route 9 should have an HOV lane during peak periods.
  • The possibility for development above the Turnpike. The section recommends more off-street parking at the rail stations and commuter lines. Building parking lots over the Pike could serve the existing Newtonville and West Newton commuter rail stations, the existing West Newton and Newton Corner express bus stops, and the proposed Newton Corner station.
  • More specifics regarding schools. The sly reference to chauffeuring notwithstanding, the section's description of the problems related to school traffic is limited. And, the goals are modest and vague. As programs like Safe Routes to School recognize, there are numerous dimensions to the issue of how kids get to school, not the least of which is the health and welfare of children who aren't walking and biking enough. This is an area that demands aggressive specific goals, like participation in Safe Routes to School by all elementary schools and a specific reduction in the number of students arriving by car. This is a complicated problem, especially given the number of homes with two working parents, and will require creative problem solving and strong leadership.
  • Taxis. There is no mention of how taxis fit into the transportation scheme. Taxi availability plays an important role connecting people to transit, decreasing dependence on car travel and the demand for parking.

To end on a less critical note, some of the technical development recommendations are so spot on, I almost wanted to cry thinking of recent development that has been built without the benefit of the recommendations. For instance, the section recommends commercial development within large scale housing projects to provide ameneties that reduce residents need for car travel. Neither of the Avalon developments, on Needham Street and Route 9, include commercial space.

The section recommends fewer curb cuts on Needham Street and an effort to move away from proprietary parking across the city. The recently rebuilt Dunkin Donuts on Needham Street has the building on the east side of the lot and the parking on the west side. Newbury Comics has a similar orientation: building on the west side of the lot, parking on the east side. Had the Dunkin Donuts been built on the west side of the lot, there could have been a single curb cut and a shared lot which could have better handled the peak volume of either business.

3 comments:

lucia said...

Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I hope you'll be at the Feb 8th review of the draft Comprehensive Plan! (7:30 @ the Newton Arts Center in Newtonville - open to the public)

Anonymous said...

Yes, these are great recommendations, though I believe that the roads should have actual bike lanes and not just slim shoulders. Also, a lot of the parts of the roads that have shoulders are very bumpy and extremely difficult to bike. It's almost embarrassing how unfriendly Newton is to bikers.

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