Thursday, November 29, 2007

Trump or tolls

Deval Patrick wants casino gambling, in large part, to fund the Commonwealth's driving subsidy. Donald Trump wants a piece of the action.

The choice couldn't be more clear: reduce the driving subsidy — through more and higher tolls and a higher gas tax — or risk an invasion of the Donald.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Brookline wants to block Heath Street

I'm not sure if this is going to be as big a deal as it seems, but Brookline is throwing down the gauntlet. As reported by Greg Reibman at the TAB, the Board of Selectman voted to petition the state to allow the town to block Heath Street.

Brookline needs state approval, which will be a lengthy process, because Newton objects to the plan.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A vision for the future

It's time to turn back years of bad policy and realize the pedestrian potential of all of our city streets, including Boylston Street.

So said, Alderman Vicki Danberg last night in what was the highlight of an otherwise mixed meeting of the Zoning and Planning committee.

During discussions of a provision of the proposed Planned Multi-Use Business Development amendment that will discourage, if not prohibit, degradation of the pedestrian environment, some aldermen — generally and with regard to Boylston Street in particular — suggested that there are some roads in Newton that are not just not appropriate for pedestrian travel. Alderman Danberg (and others) flat rejected the notion that some roads are simply not pedestrian corridors.

Alderman Danberg said, in effect, that the only reason such roads are not pedestrian-friendly is decades of bad policy, that how roads such as Boylston Street get designed and used is completely up to us to decide, and that we should take every opportunity, no matter how small, to realize a vision of human scale and pedestrian connectivity. (I didn't get Alderman Danberg's words verbatim; I am not doing them justice by my summary.)

It was a deeply heartening moment. More importantly, it was yet another sign that the tide is turning.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Gas tax v. tolls

In response to my post about casino gambling subsidizing driving, Andreae comments :

There's another way to fairly spread the cost of driving to all drivers: raising the gas tax.

Andreae is absolutely right. We need to raise the gas tax, to allocate more of the cost of driving to drivers, reducing the driving subsidy.

But, a higher gas tax alone is not enough. We also need tolls and other specific charges (congestion pricing, market-rate meters, &c.) to supplement the gas tax and impose a premium on the least desirable kinds of driving.

Not all driving is equally bad.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Law Lines

See me on TV? Welcome.

Miss me on TV? Watch Law Lines on the Blue Channel the next few Mondays.

More on the show tomorrow.


Vice subsidizing vice

In this Globe story about Alan LeBovidge, Deval Patrick's pick to be executive directory of the Turnpike Authority, Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen is once again cited for the proposition that more gambling is necessary to prevent motorists for paying their own way:

Cohen has said he will come back with larger toll hikes next year if legislators do not act on Patrick's plans to reorganize the transportation bureaucracy and approve gambling, two steps he believes will raise enough money to forestall more toll increases.

There's another alternative: rather than raise tolls, spread them. Tap north/south traffic on 93 to help pay the Big Dig debt and provide a regular revenue stream for annual maintenance.

Why does the Turnpike merit a massive subsidy from non-toll revenues?

Who thinks subsidizing driving is a good reason for casino gambling?


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Roadway widening and opinions

In the discussion about roadway widening language that Alderman Baker sought to change, Alderman Lappin echoed Alderman Baker's objection to the following language in the draft Comprehensive Plan, calling it "just an opinion":

Increasing roadway capacity would only encourage more people to drive, which would in turn create more traffic jams on existing roadways and choke points.

Phil Herr, who was otherwise willing to see the language removed, was very clear in response. The language was not an opinion, it was proven fact.

While it always takes politicians a while to get up-to-speed with technical experts, let's hope that we're seeing the end of the more-pavement-is-the-solution school of thought.


ZAP alderman (and more) (mostly) love* pedestrians and bikers

At Thursday night's Zoning and Planning committee meeting considering and passing the draft Comprehensive Plan, a core group of ZAP alderman (Danberg, Sangiolo, Burg) aided and abetted by non-ZAP alderman (Mansfield, Parker, Albright, Hess-Mahan) fought back* against the changes to the draft Comprehensive Plan proposed by Alderman Lisle Baker and invariably supported by Alderman Cheryl Lappin.

Alderman Baker, in his memorandum discussing the changes and his comments during the meeting, felt that the draft language was too rigid and did not allow for exceptions. His proposed changes, however, went far beyond allowing for exceptions and significantly weakened the policy statement in question.

The brave* defenders of the draft language worked hard to resist change that would undermine the policy statement and to craft language that would satisfy Alderman Baker's expressed concern about exceptions.

For example, the draft language included a strong statement about the detrimental consequence of roadway widening:

Increasing roadway capacity would only encourage more people to drive, which would in turn create more traffic jams on existing roadways and choke points.

Alderman Baker suggested removing that strong statement and adding "general" to "A strategy of 'roadway widening avoidance' will not result ..."

With those two changes a strong policy stand against the evils of roadway widening became significantly weaker.

While the aldermen were willing to allow for the possibility that roadway widening might be useful in some rare instances, Alderman Danberg was not going to support any change unless it was clear that roadway widening was to be considered "only as a last resort." So, the final language will allow for Alderman Baker's exceptional cases, but not at the expense of a strong statement of vision.

And, so it went throughout the long, but very productive consideration of Alderman Baker's suggested edits.

A note about Alderman Baker's participation. The sweep of his proposed edits suggest an agenda broader than the ostensible need to allow for exceptions that he articulated. But, he was a very reasonable participant in the discussion and seemed satisfied with the significantly less radical changes that resulted. There are at least three explanations:

  • His true purpose was only to account for possible exceptions and his proposed changes were inadvertently too broad.

  • At the meeting he quickly recognized significant opposition to his changes and took what he could get

  • Alderman Baker reads NS&S and was convinced by the wisdom of my arguments

I'm willing to give Alderman Baker the benefit of the doubt that it was reason number 1, but note that he has an out-dated view of traffic, pedestrians, and bikers, especially when compared to his colleagues.

*While some ZAP alderman may love some people who walk and bike, this headline is only a rhetorical flourish. Their public action only indicates that they consider pedestrians and bikers important for public policy reasons, not that they actually love them. But that takes more space than the headline allows. Likewise, it wasn't really a battle it was a reasoned discussion and the alderman cited above did not actually "fight back," they spoke camly and collegially. They weren't really "brave" in that they were never really in danger.

Note that there is no asterisk next to "evils" in "evils of roadway widening." Roadway widening is evil.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bike helmets attract cars

Motorists drive closer to bikers who wear helmets. That's the finding of a "plucky psychologist at the University of Bath" who hooked up sensors to his bike and found that cars and trucks came closer when he was wearing his helmet than when he wasn't.

This isn't a new story. It's from a May Scientific American article. Streetsblog had a bit on it back then. But, it popped up again in a local e-mail thread, so I'm chiming in.

It is a troubling story. But, I don't think it's a reason not to wear a helmet. It's not my understanding that cars overtaking bikers are a particular safety problem (though Ian Walker, the plucky psychologist, did get clipped twice). I'm going to keep wearing my lid because I'm worried about the more likelier incidents where wearing a helmet will help.

There is a lesson here: to get motorists to give you a wide berth and to protect yourself from head injury, camouflage your helmet with a long-haired wig.


Good news on the Green Line

According to the TAB, there'll be 10 new cars on the Green Line by the middle of next year.

The new cars are the low-floor Breda trains that have been the subject of much anguish.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why does Alderman Baker love traffic (and developers)?

In Alderman Baker's proposed changes to the draft Comprehensive Plan, he not only took a tire iron to the pedestrian and bicycle provisions, he did a number on the traffic-controlling provisions as well. (The previous post describes the timing of the proposal and the status of the draft Comprehensive Plan before the Board of Alderman.)

Here are some of the things that Alderman Baker wants to do to the traffic-reducing provisions of the draft Comprehensive Plan:

  • Remove consideration of the overall transportation effect of new development (page 3-6)

  • Weaken policy against roadway widening (page 4-12 and 4-21)

  • Put off making transportation performance standards, transportation access plans, maintaining traffic conditions city policy (page 4-20)

Regarding the first bullet, Alderman Baker wants to cut two words that will change the standard from positive transportation effects from new development to a positive overall effect from the project. That we want — and will insist on — an overall positive effect of a project is a given. The point of the provision in question is to require a positive transporation effect in addition.

There ought to be a bumper sticker: Road widening is for car lovers! More road, more lanes = more traffic. Count on it. It's called induced demand. We have enough roadway capacity in Newton.

Alderman Baker claims that "roadway widening may be of some value in specific contexts to relieve congestion". I'd like to see some examples. As for me, I think this sentence he'd like to cut from the Comprehensive Plan states the issue better:

A strategy of "roadway widening avoidance" will not result in substantive changes in the amount of growth that Newton can accommodate, but it will have an impact on the form that future growth takes by directing development towards areas where it will have the best access to transit while having the least impact on traffic.

The third bullet refers to three transportation standards that the draft plan proposes to impose on developers. Alderman Baker doesn't alter the substance of the standards, he just kicks implementation down the road by changing "requiring" to "consider requiring." You'd think that after years of work on the Comprehensive Plan, the city (including Alderman Baker) had considered it.


Why does Alderman Baker hate pedestrian and bikers?

Ward 7 Alderman Lisle Baker wants to get rid of the pro-pedestrian and pro-bicyclist provisions of the draft Comprehensive Plan. If he's not stopped on Thursday night, he'll be successful.

Just prior to the Zoning and Planning committee meeting to consider the draft Comprehensive Plan, Alderman Baker submitted a last-minute set of changes. The changes were rejected by the committee (5-3, Lappin and Yates joining Baker as nays). (What do I mean by last-minute? The draft Comprehensive Plan hasn't been changed since October 2006. The public hearing was on September 10 (PDF). Alderman Baker waited until the Friday before a Monday meeting to circulated his comments and proposed changes.)

As part of a deal before the full board vote on the draft Comprehensive Plan, the plan and Alderman Baker's suggested changes were sent back to committee (as was the Planned Multi-Use Business Development amendment to the zoning ordinance).

So what does Alderman Baker want to do to pedestrians and bicyclists? Here are some of the things that Alderman Baker wants removed from the draft Comprehensive Plan:

  • A recommendation that roadway modifications not degrade pedestrian and bicycle accommodations (page 4-18(G))

  • A recommendation that pedestrian and bicycle accommodations improve as much as roadways improve (page 4-18(G))

  • Reference to design principles that streets should be designed to accommodate bicycles (page 4-12)

  • Reference to design principles that there be pedestrian access to every location (page 4-12)

  • Obligation that developers provide excellent pedestrian access to transit and nearby destinations (page 4-21(G))

All around the world, cities are recognizing the need to enhance pedestrian and bicycle facilities and Alderman Baker doesn't even want to protect what little we have!


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Great election day picture

Not going to steal content from our friends at the TAB blog. Check out Jim Walker's terrific picture of a twothree-wheeled Swiston/Zukerman supporter.


Monday, November 5, 2007

Newton Charge II, why charge for driving?

To clarify, the so-far-not-TAB-endorsed Newton Charge would apply only to one set of drivers, those who pass through Newton on their way to somewhere else.

Why charge even them?

There are two important aspects of any fee for access:

  • Imposing on drivers a direct cost for driving
  • Discriminating among different drivers

Driving is an enormously subsidized activity that has all sorts of negative impacts on a community. We need to raise the cost of driving to both discourage driving and also to raise revenue that can be used to offset the negative impacts. A stiff gas tax would generally work to discourage driving, but it isn't an ideal mechanism to raise revenue to address those places most affected by traffic.

We should discriminate among different drivers, and the Newton Charge will.

There are, generally speaking, four kinds of traffic in Newton:

  • Wholly intra-Newton trips, those that begin and end in Newton—my house to City Hall and back
  • Trips by Newtonians that begin or end outside of Newton—My house to my friend's house in Brookline
  • Trips by non-Newtonians that end or start in Newton—The couple from Needham driving to Johnny's for Sunday brunch
  • Trips by non-Newtonians that start and end outside of Newton—the professional from Wellesley using Boylston Street to get to her job in Boston

The Newton Charge will only apply to the last set of trips, those that use Newton roads to pass from one town to another.

While there are subsets of the first three types of trip that might be worth discouraging—like unnecessarily driving kids to school—these are not generally trips that are problematic. Categories one and two involve Newton residents. They are entitled to use the roads they pay for. Category three involves non-Newton residents who are engaged with Newton. They are working, playing, worshiping, or spending in Newton. Those are not activities that we want to discourage.

But, why give the same access to our roads to people who are not either Newtonians or engaged in Newton? Why allow free travel through our city? Why allow pass-through drivers to add to the already too big traffic problem in our fair city? Among other things, the category four drivers compete with Newtonians or those engaged with Newton for limited capacity.

Look at this through the lens of the proposed development at Chestnut Hill Square. The developer expects the development will add 11,000 daily car trips to Boylston Street, all of which would fall into categories one through three. That many trips added to existing capacity is going to break the system. But, what if we were able to take some of the load out of the system by discouraging the category four drivers from driving through Newton and taking public transportation instead? We'd have more capacity available for trips by Chestnut Hill Square residents or for trips by Chestnut Hill Square shoppers, either of which is preferable to pass-through trips.

In future posts, the technical feasibility of the Newton Charge, its relationship to transit, and its regional impact.


Friday, November 2, 2007

Introducing the Newton Charge

I live on a cut-through. People cut down my street to avoid traffic on Boylston Street.

Boylston Street itself is a cut-through. A large number of people drive the length of Boylston from the Wellesley line to Brookline without stopping. These people add nothing to the Newton economy but traffic, congestion, pollution, noise, heartache, &c.

My solution (to the latter problem) is the Newton Charge (a name I almost surely will change). The Newton Charge is a fluctuating fee to be paid by any motorist who enters Newton and exits within a period that reasonably precludes the possibility of having stopped to dine at one of our restaurants, to visit one of our residents, to enjoy one of our parks, or to patronize any of our commercial establishments.

You drive through without stopping, you pay a small fee to offset the costs of your driving.

At this point, I'm thinking that the city border will be divided into 6 or 7 gates. As you drive on a road that passes through the gate (Boylston Street at the Wellesley line, Galen Street at the Watertown line, Commonwealth Avenue at the Weston line, &c.) you'd pass by FastLane and license plate readers. (This is already standard technology in use in London, Stockholm, and anywhere else where there is congestion pricing.)

The system would note your entry through the gate. The system would note your exit through another gate. If you come into one gate and out another gate within a certain amount of time, you'd be considered a passer-through and be charged. If you go in through one gate and back out the same gate, you would not be considered a passer-through. If you go in one gate and out another gate, but the time between is long enough, you will be considered to have stopped in Newton and will not be charged.

The price would depend on both your entry and exit gate and the time of day. More for longer trips during peak times. Less for shorter trips at night.

If you come into Newton on Needham Street and fifteen minutes later enter Boston on Beacon Street, you didn't stop at Sweet Tomatoes for a slice along the way. We'll charge you $.50 during evening and morning rush hours and $.25 at other times.

Traffic on the 'Pike would be exempt, but we will consider that you have passed through a gate if you get on or off. So, no cutting through Newton to avoid the tolls.

Split the revenue three ways:

  1. To Newton for road maintenance and to finance traffic calming
  2. To the Commonwealth for road maintenance on state-maintained roads
  3. To the MBTA to finance improvements to public transit
More on this idea and how it relates to Chestnut Hill Square in another post.