The folks paving Route 9 have what appears to be a helpful site. (From neighbor Adam.)
Thursday, April 26, 2007
While there is some serious discussion about whether and how much pedestrians should be discouraged from using electronic devices while crossing the street (don't skip the comments), this is just plain humorous.
Back story: Gizmodo, a gadgets blog, is giving a way a fancy camcorder to the reader who creates the best gadget-related public service announcement (PSA). Recall the your-brain-on-drug classic. This is an entry into the contest.
NS&S take: It's a dumb idea to combine the sometimes dangerous task of crossing the street and listening to music, talking on the phone, or text-messaging. No question, it shouldn't be dangerous. Cars and trucks should be more careful. But, it is dangerous ... and, therefore, stupid.
That doesn't, however, mean that it ought to be against the law. (Though, I wonder who the least-cost avoider is in the situation.)
Posted by Sean Roche at 5:21 AM
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
According to this article in the New York Sun, the federal Department of Transportation has $1 billion set aside to fund congestion pricing pilots. While congestion pricing systems are intended to be self-financing (and, indeed, create revenue) there are substantial start-up costs.
Let's hope some of that money finds its way to the Boston area. A good place to start might be the north/south passage on I-93. It's neither fair nor good policy to have free north/south travel (I-93) and tolls east/west (the Pike).
Posted by Sean Roche at 9:38 AM
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
If you are going to encourage bike use, you have to help people overcome the major obstacles. In Trondheim, Norway, that means giving bikers a little push up a very steep hill.
The bicycle lift "Trampe" is an electrically driven cable loop with foot plates. Cyclists put one paw on a foot plate and get pushed (with bike) up the hill.
Molly sent me the link. More pictures here.
Posted by Sean Roche at 12:34 AM
Monday, April 23, 2007
Parking fees are good public policy because they directly impose on motorists a charge for choosing to drive.
That's why parking meters make sense for public parking spaces, especially when they are variably priced to yield 85% occupancy.
But, what do you about parking on private property? How do you require private landowners to charge for parking? How do you set (and, if necessary, adjust) the price so that it discourages parking, but not altogether? A property owner isn't going to want to charge for parking if he can help it. And, one can only imagine the bureaucracy necessary to figure out what fees the city is going to require a property owner to charge and then to manage requests for adjustments. Yikes.
I've been trying to figure out you could align a property owner's interest so that he'd charge a reasonable parking fee of his own volition.
Tonight at the public hearing on the proposed Planned Business Development, it all came together. Phil Herr recommended that any special permit be predicated on anticipated traffic volume and that traffic volumes be intermittently checked to see that the development is not generating traffic in excess of the special permit levels.
If the traffic volume goes up, it would be incumbent on the property owner to throttle it back. Mr. Herr suggested that one way to do that would be to adjust uses. Tenants turnover. When there is turnover, require that the replacement be a lower traffic-generating use.
As Mr. Herr conceded, this strategy has its limitations. There's only so much reduction in volume you'll accomplish.
But, parking pricing could have a more direct effect. If traffic volume goes up, adjust parking prices until the traffic volume goes back down below the special permit level.
Such a regime brings the property owner's interest in line with good policy. The property owner won't want to exceed his special permit volume, so he'll price parking to most precisely meet the right number. A limit on traffic volume gives the property owner extra incentive to promote alternative transport. It's where he'll generate new customers. And, one imagines, you could earmark some of the funds from parking for transit improvements.
Posted by Sean Roche at 10:25 PM
New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled a plan to reduce New York's contribution to global warming. As a one-time Manhattan resident (and life-long NYC lover), I'm all for the greening of the great city.
Among the 127 proposals is congestion pricing in Manhattan below 86th Street. As in London, Stockholm, and Singapore today, in the near future, it will cost you a daily fee to drive your private car on Manhattan streets. Revenue generated will fund mass transit.
But, how does it matter to us here in Red Sox nation?
It's a harbinger of what's to come.
One day, Boston's going to have some similar scheme to reduce driving to and within downtown and the Back Bay. In Newton, we need to make sure that we have the infrastructure to get additional Newtonians into Boston by train, trolley, bus, and bike. (We're going to need improvements to that infrastructure even without congestion pricing. The combination of the Mass Pike tunnel to South Boston and cheap surface parking makes it relatively attractive to drive to downtown from Newton. As South Boston develops, the cheap parking is going to go away, making it a lot less attractive.)
And, an aggressive plan to reduce private car travel in New York City indicates that the threat of global warming is serious enough that we're going to have to confront the problem in Newton, too. It's not only big cities that have to reduce traffic volume.
In Newton, we have to start thinking about development patterns, traffic and parking policies, regional mass transit initiatives, and anything else that will reduce our dependence on cars and trucks.
There isn't going to be a single, massive cure to what is now universally recognized as a problem. We have to make lots of incremental, coordinated steps.
Posted by Sean Roche at 10:20 AM
Friday, April 20, 2007
Here's a nice, detailed explanation of how market-priced parking works in Redwood City, CA, with a long list of links at the bottom.
Key point, local businesses are big fans.
Posted by Sean Roche at 2:17 PM
Thanks to Donald Shoup and those spreading his findings, we know that free parking constitutes an enormous subsidy to motorists, grossly mis-allocates a scarce resource, and leads to increased environmental damage.
So what does that mean in Newton?
It means decisions like leasing land to Whole Foods for free parking and then allowing Whole Foods to expand the number of spaces on adjacent land is bad policy and planning. But, that one's in the books.
It means that Newton needs to remove its minimum parking requirements for private development and replace it with a requirement for market-based parking fees.
And, it means that the city and relevant agencies need to rethink public parking areas.
Here's candidate number one: the free lot in West Newton on Washington Street across from Blue Ribbon BBQ, the one marked "Small free lot" in the picture above. (Click here for the Google Map view of the lot and environs.)
There are about 50 spaces in the lot, the vast majority of them used by commuters. Commuters (like Mrs. NS&S and occasionally even me) like the small free lot because it is relatively easy to get to and it is close to one of the two staircases to the commuter rail platform.
But, there is another option for commuters, the large free lot, which is not quite as convenient to get to, but just as close to the platform.
What if you made the small lot a pay lot, with thirty or so spaces available for long-term use at a nice premium (start at say $10) with the rest two-hour maximum, again at a nice premium (start at say $2 an hour)?
Here's what I think would happen:
- Some commuters would stop looking for spaces in the small free lot and head straight for the large free lot.
- Some commuters would spend the $10 for the convenience.
- There would not be a net loss of commuters because a) the large lot is large enough and b) only the earliest commuters can count on finding a space in the large lot. There cannot be that many commuters for whom charging in the small lot will change their commuting choice.
- There would be an additional twenty or so spaces available for patrons of the businesses on Washington Street.
- Those twenty spaces would have high turnover, which is good for businesses.
- There would be a lot of new money available for improvements and maintenance in the business district. (I'd earmark all meter revenue to be spent in the district collected.)
- There would be a lot fewer cars circling the small lot and not finding spaces.
- Each morning and afternoon, there would be twenty or so extra trips down Elm and Webster Street to the large lot.
Ideally, you'd also charge for the larger lot. But, that's trickier. You don't want to push commuters to the point where they reconsider driving.
So, let's start with the small lot.
Posted by Sean Roche at 9:34 AM
Free parking spaces damage the environment directly -- by misusing a scarce resource -- and indirectly -- by encouraging driving.
So says Economist Steve Landsberg in an article in which he discusses Donald Shoup's findings that "the social cost of mandated free and underpriced parking is nothing short of phenomenal, the implied subsidy being comparable to what we spend on Medicare or national defense."
We must have more buses and fewer cars and trucks on the road. And the way to start is by directly imposing on people who drive the costs of their decisions, starting with parking.
No more free or nearly free parking.
Posted by Sean Roche at 9:05 AM
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Tonight, the Public Safety and Transportation committee will discuss steps to make Newton Corner safer that are short of major reconstruction (item #60-05) (PDF). I assume the committee is not precluding eventual reconstruction, but looking for short-term improvements.
I'm not sure that anything short of major reconstruction is going to help the pedestrian situation. There's too much traffic, going too fast, having to make too many decisions. It's not a recipe for pedestrian friendliness.
But, I do think there's something to do to cure some of the congestion on the bridge east of the hotel. Clarify confusion about lane allocation.
The picture above is my very rough draft of a sign that I'd put over the east- and west-bound lanes approaching the bridge. The point is to make clear where motorists need to be on the bridge to accomplish what they want to do after the bridge.
Long-term, the bridge needs to be transformed from its current NASCAR-esque oval race track to a more managed grid. My solution:
- Roundabouts at all of the red circles below
- Two-way traffic on Centre and Washington Streets, and maybe even on the bridges
- Signals only to facilitate pedestrian crossing
Posted by Sean Roche at 1:02 PM
Gizmag has a post that Nissan is working on a system that would use the GPS signal in your cellphone to prevent car v. pedestrian collisions.
Pedestrians' cell phones would transmit their coordinates to a central server. The central server would send a warning to approaching drivers about pedestrians in the vicinity.
Interesting concept and worthwhile goal (to reduce collisions with pedestrians), but I don't see how they filter the noise out of the system. Where there is even a moderate number of pedestrians on the sidewalk, how is the system going to help warn a driver about a pedestrian that is about to walk into the street?
Posted by Sean Roche at 10:22 AM
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
In light of New Jersey Governor Corzine's accident and injuries, I have e-mailed the governor and asked:
In light of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine's accident, do you have any policies in place regarding:I'll publish any answer I receive.
a) Your use of a seatbelt -- whether in the front seat or back?
b) What conditions you will or you will allow your driver to exceed the speed of traffic?
(I am less concerned about technical violations of the speed limit and more concerned with creating a dangerous speed differential between the car you're in and other cars.)
It would be a shame for you to be, like Governor Corzine, unable to perform your duties as governor because of needless injuries.
Posted by Sean Roche at 2:31 PM
Once more, the Tab uncritically repeats New England Development's assertion that $13 million worth of changes to roadways surrounding the proposed Chestnut Hill Square are "improvements." The offending paragraph:
The developer has also offered to make some road improvements to ease the impact from the possible addition, at a cost of $13 million. Expected improvements would also include traffic lights and travel lanes on both sides of Route 9 from Langley Road to the Hammond Pond Parkway.
The nice use of "offered" makes it even worse, like the only reason New England Development is spending the money is to mitigate the effects of the development on the neighborhood.
One more time, boys and girls, over half of the proposed $13 million is for changes to Route 9 that a) directly benefit New England Development and b) are not universally viewed as changes for the good.
No question, New England Development is taking the right steps to do actual mitigation. They are going to spend a bunch of money on things that are only going to mitigate. I don't want to suggest that they are shirking their responsibility.
But, the tab for mitigation isn't going to be $13 million.
When's mitigation mitigation?
NED's Overstated mitigation commitment
Posted by Sean Roche at 10:05 AM
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
The lightest Chevy or GMC Suburban weighs in within spitting distance of three tons. The Suburban carrying Governor Jon Corzine clocked in at 91 mph just before the crash that left him critically injured. (The crash was caused, it turns out, as trucks ahead of the governor tried to get out of the way of the motorcade barrelling down on them. See this animation.)
What possible reason is there for a three-ton truck, with a ridiculously high center-of-gravity, being permitted to travel over 65 mph, much less over 90 mph? At high speeds, these ungainly trucks can't get out of their own way.
There are legitimate uses for heavy trucks -- hauling cargo, hauling people, towing. For the same reasons, there are legitimate reasons why heavy trucks have to have powerful engines. But, there are no reasons why heavy, powerful trucks have to be able to accelerate quickly or reach high top speeds.
Given modern technology -- traction control, stability control, engine management -- it would be trivially easy to limit truck acceleration and top speed. Let trucks have all the power necessary to provide their truckish functions, but constrain not-truck-appropriate uses of the power. (Actually, I'd make the restriction weight based. Over two tons, acceleration at the rate of a Prius and a top speed of 65. A wicked high tax if you want power and weight.)
My guess is that aspiring truck owners whose really don't need a truck would be turned off by the restrictions/tax and choose lighter, more fuel-efficient, and nimbler cars.
A win all around.
Posted by Sean Roche at 9:25 PM
Notwithstanding Eric's critique that I am making a mountain out off a molehill, I do want to answer Alderman Hess-Mahan's thoughtful comments about the Whole Foods special permit.
There are two issues:
- What could have been done differently
- Why this matters
Yes. There are at least two feasible better uses:
- New development on the corner lot, sharing an [expanded] parking lot with Whole Foods.
- The whole parcel a parking lot, but some shared spots
Why is that a given?
The city owns a substantial part of the lot and leases it to Whole Foods. Here's the picture from the assessor's database. The yellow swath is the city owned parcel.
Just prior to granting the special permit, the aldermen extended the lease for thirty years. Why didn't they make an easement from both entrances (Beacon and Walnut) to the corner lot a condition of the extension?
That would have made it possible to develop the corner lot, have some parking, and close up the gas station curb cuts.
Development of a complementary use (one with different traffic patterns than Whole Foods) would have made much better use of the corner lot and the city property.
One of the downsides of a single-use parking lot is that some or all of it is going to be vacant at off-peak times. That's not pretty. And, it's inefficient. Patrons of establishments in new development could use the spaces.
Which leads me to the second alternative: nothing but lot, but with some number of spaces not Whole Foods only. In addition, there would be accommodation from the shared spaces to the sidewalk.
If there must be a parking lot at that corner, it ought to be available to more than just Whole Foods customers. It would be much better if even just ten spaces along Walnut Street were marked as not-just-Whole Foods and there were access from the parking lot directly to the sidewalk.
During Whole Foods' peak times, it would be most likely that Whole Foods customers would use those spaces, so the net loss of spaces to Whole Foods would not be the whole ten. During non-peak times, Whole Foods doesn't even need the spaces, so the net gain would be to the surrounding businesses (and, therefore, the city).
Why does this matter? It's just one lot in the city. Nobody else seems to be complaining. And, there are going to be a lot of happy Newtonians who will be able to shop for groceries more easily.
It matters because traffic on Beacon during evening rush hour backs Walnut Street to Homer Street. Which means that people cut down Homer and through Newton Centre to get to the intersection of Beacon and Centre. The additional 200 trips an hour are going to make that situation much worse. (I'd be willing to bet that the gas station attracted next to no new traffic during peak times, only traffic already on the road.)
It matters because free, single-use parking is about the worse land use you can have. Free parking on city-owned land squanders the value of the asset. Free parking on public or private land generates traffic. Single-use parking means that the traffic you generate does nothing to enhance the business district beyond the single establishment. Single-use parking means that people cannot accomplish multiple tasks per car trip, an essential strategy for decreasing traffic, fuel consumption, and pollution.
It matters because the city is going to become a (much?) less desirable place to live if we do not do something to get our arms around the traffic problems. At some point, we're going to start looking at projects like this and look for ways to decrease peak traffic, not put up with increases. We're going to look at our business districts as assets that need to be managed holistically, not piecemeal, with a meaningful pedestrian experience a critical factor.
I don't want to suggest that the Whole Foods decision, in and of itself, is a disaster. It's not. But, we're going to look back at decisions like the Whole Foods special permit as lost opportunities to shape a more livable, more sustainable community.
Pedestrians and Special Permits
Whole Foods mistake
Posted by Sean Roche at 2:56 PM
What kind of bikes are important? The cheap, indestructible, heavy bikes that are ubiquitous in the third world? Or the zippy, expensive, modern bikes that you find in American bike stores?
James on the Bike Design blog acknowledges that the work horses provide vital transportation to people who can't afford other means. But, he argues that bikes that people buy out of necessity are not going to solve the more pressing problem of getting people who can afford cars to choose bikes instead. (Even in underdeveloped countries, bikes are seen as symbols of poverty.)
Is there a bike (or bikes) out there that will help convince people to use their cars less?
Maybe it's not the bike, it's the infrastructure. Is there a type of bicycle accommodation that will get more people riding?
I suspect it's more an infrastructure issue. There are plenty of developed countries with robust bike cultures, but where's there is widespread bike usage, there is typically a biking infrastructure and culture. Anne sent a link to this speech by the Mayor of Munster, Germany, detailing all of the steps he took to transform his city into the most livable city in the world. (Here's the presentation that goes with the speech.)
Posted by Sean Roche at 2:10 PM
In light of the horrific injuries suffered by an unbuckled New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, a reminder.
Always. Wear. Your. Seatbelt.
Here's a nice little essay on the topic, courtesy of Brad DeLong.
The opening paragraph:
Do you know how we can tell the difference between people who were wearing their seatbelts and those who weren’t, at the scene of an automobile accident? The ones who were wearing their seatbelts are standing around saying “This really sucks,” and the ones who weren’t are kinda just lying there.I recommend the whole thing.
If you have a strong stomach, watch this video about how unbuckled rear passengers can be a danger to others.
Posted by Sean Roche at 8:32 AM
Monday, April 16, 2007
I had forgotten a very effective way of reducing car traffic: hitchhiking. I used to hitchhike a ton in an around the sub-/exurban town of my youth. It wasn't always easy, but I did get around a lot without a car.
This Autoweek column describes a modern-day solution to the problems of finding a ride and making sure that neither driver nor rider is an ax-murderer. Cell phones. A person needing a ride punches a number in his GPS-equipped cellphone. Nearby drivers willing to give rides get a message on their cellphones.
The solution was dubbed the "Relay System" by its creators at the Art Center College of Design. The graduate chair of Industrial Design discussed the idea at a recent Summit titled, “Design For Sustainable Mobility.”
Hitchhiking is not very likely to make much of a dent in Newton traffic, but a clever use of the interwebs and cellphones could help with car-pooling and with walking buses.
Posted by Sean Roche at 9:28 AM
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Delighted that the Bowen school-zone sign was now flashing, I decided to capture a little video:
It stopped working. While I was "filming." What are the odds?
Lauren, the crossing guard at Cypress and Jackson, tipped me off that the other school-zone sign, north and west of the school, was also not working.
The 20 is not lit and only the bottom flasher is on and flashing.
The next step
Bowen School Zone light
Posted by Sean Roche at 9:38 AM
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
One of the most jaw-dropping of Alderman Lipof's comments on the Whole Foods special petition was his opening sentence that: "Honestly, honestly, this type of re-use of a parcel has nothing to do with pedestrian traffic."
It caused me to review ordinance section 30-24, which governs special permits. As I pointed out below, one of the four general requirements for approval is that the Board of Alderman find that "There will be no nuisance or serious hazard to vehicles or pedestrians[.]"
But, maybe the requirement should go farther. Maybe it's time to amend the section to state that a special permit should only be granted where there will be substantial improvements to pedestrian access to other properties, where such access is feasible.
It's the right direction and it's not too much to ask.
Previously: Whole Foods mistake
Posted by Sean Roche at 12:52 PM
Like swallows to San Juan Capistrano, the sandbags have returned to the Daniel/Jackson Street intersection.
What a welcome sight.
The sandbags portend a much-anticipated permanent change (sometime after school's out?). They allow motorists to get used to the reconfigured intersection and change their behavior. And, they accomplish much of the goals of the permanent change. Right now.
The neighborhood has also requested that the south side of the intersection get built out (to better define it as a "T" intersection) and that some sort of in-street device (like rumblestrips) be built to discourage crossing lanes. Those changes depend on the final design and budget.
Daniel/Jackson Street Intersection wiki page
Poof, like that its gone
Final Daniel/Jackson Street Hurdle Cleared
Posted by Sean Roche at 9:53 AM
Only two aldermen -- Mansfield and Parker -- voted against the Whole Foods request for a special permit to add nearly 50% more parking spaces to its lot. (Alderman Danberg was absent.) The only thing more dispiriting than the 21-2 outcome was the long aldermanic debate.
Alderman Mansfield was the only speaker to put the question into proper context, discussing the two key issues:
- Increased parking will lead to increase traffic. Incredibly, the aldermen approved the special permit without any traffic study to back up Whole Food's key contentions about present conditions -- among them the claim that trolling for scarce spaces increases traffic -- or the likely effects.
- Store-specific parking without pedestrian connection to other properties squanders an opportunity to enhance the entire shopping district.
This is on a lot that includes land the city owns and leases to Whole Foods! The alderman couldn't even get Whole Foods to conform to city parking standards on city land.
But, the hard-bargaining aldermen did extract a few concessions. Whole Foods has reduced their demand by one space, increased the diameter of the trees that it's going to plant by a few inches, and will make sure that a fence isn't vinyl.
Irony alert. There are also going to be benches. No accommodation for people to walk to the benches, but the city bench count is going up by a few.
While not entirely representative, the second set of remarks by Alderman Rick Lipof are illuminating, so I present them in full (and annotated).
Honestly, honestly, this type of re-use of a parcel has nothing to do with pedestrian traffic.There are only four general requirements of a special permit. One of them, set forth in section 30-24(d)(3), requires that the board find that "There will be no nuisance or serious hazard to vehicles or pedestrians." So pedestrians are always a special permit consideration.
Okay, we're talking about a major intersection in Newton Four ... It is the Newton Four Corners major intersection. With four-way lights where people can push a button and cross. This little parcel is not an opportunity for us to better the pedestrian traffic. It just isn't.It's not an opportunity to better pedestrian traffic? Why not?
Section 30-24(g) specifically authorizes the Board of Alderman to attach conditions to a special permit to "to protect or benefit the neighborhood, the zoning district and the City."
Among other things, improved pedestrian access between businesses:
- Improves business conditions in the area
- Cuts down on traffic in the area and in the city (as people accomplish more per car trip)
Think the wine store across Walnut Street from Whole Foods is going to be helped by the increased congestion?
It's an opportunity for us to better the parking situation in an area that has been burdened.Think the area is burdened now. Wait until the traffic starts filling the lot.
Now, if we were doubling the parking lot then maybe people around town and other towns would say, "Wow, that parking lot's doubled in size, there's an opportunity for me to park there. I'm going to go to Whole Foods in Newton Four Corners." Adding this amount of spaces is not going to bring people to this supermarket that normally wouldn't come because they can't find a space.Of course adding spaces is going to bring new customers. Otherwise Whole Foods wouldn't be so interested in spending good money leasing the land. To suggest otherwise is willful.
This is alleviating a problem and making it a little better for the people who come there and for the people in the streets around the area that don't want to take excess parking anymore.There is absolutely no foundation for the argument that increased capacity cures congestion problems ... and certainly no analysis from Whole Foods. While counter-intuitive, it is just as likely that congestion at peak times will remain high and that there will be continued demand for off-street parking. Maybe, just maybe, the added spaces will shrink the period of congestion a bit, though, again counterintuitively, it may have the opposite effect.
Unquestionably, however, the additional parking spaces are going to add traffic volume. At peak times, it's going to get 200+ vehicles an hour worse for "the people in the streets in the area." It's up to leaders like Alderman Lipof to understand the consequences of a change like this and communicate it to the neighborhood. This isn't going to give them the relief they expect.
And, I have to say that when people on this board talk about what developers or what people make in a deal in a situation it really irks me. We have no position in speaking about the profit that somebody makes in a situation.The very act of granting a special permit increases the value of the land affected. That's why developers want them. Without the permit, the land is worth x. With the permit the land is worth more than x. Because the special permit process creates value for the petitioner it is it is not only the board's right, but its obligation to make sure that there is some return to the city of the wealth created.
I have no objection to developers developing and getting rich. But, the city should extract significant concessions in the process. Not just a bench or two.
Whether they want to pay a lot of money so we don't have a little store 24 at the corner is not our business.It is a complete abdication of the board's duty to say that it is not city business whether a special permit is being used for an anti-competitive purpose. And, the city has every right to make provisions for a mix of commercial enterprise in a business area. It's called planning.
And, if you want to look at the situation and see that they are going to overpay to make parking better, that situation makes that corner better for the city as a whole.There's no such thing as overpaying. Whole Foods is paying what it reasonably thinks is appropriate to increase revenue and decrease competition. That they are willing to "overpay" indicates, as discussed above, that they expect more business to flow (which means more traffic) and that there is likely a commercial use for the old gas-station lot.
So I applaud them for overspending.Instead of applauding them, ask yourself why they are overspending so that you understand the dynamics that would have them overspend and what affect those dynamics are going to have on the neighborhood and the city.
But, we do not count the dollars of the businesses or the people in this city when they do business. We look at zoning.We do count the dollars of the businesses. It's how we assess them.
We look at what's right and what's best for the area.I am certain that Alderman Lipof's intentions are good, but I vigorously reject his conclusion that more site-specific parking is best for the area.
Previously: Whole Foods parking lot
Posted by Sean Roche at 8:24 AM