Friday, December 28, 2007

Unbelievably scary

Another tragic — and unnecessary — death as a man driving-while-texting hit and killed a thirteen-year-old boy who was riding his bike on the side of the road.

Texting and driving strikes me as a danger to pedestrians, bikers, other drivers, passengers, &c. of totally different magnitude than we've seen. It's a total distraction. Look no farther than the driver in the story above who thought he'd hit a mailbox. Texting is becoming more and more of a mainstream activity, so the temptation to text while driving and the incidence is only going to grow. And, there doesn't seem to be any way to physically prevent it.

When I'm riding my bike, I assume that the people driving behind me are aware of my presence. I ride so people can see me. I wear bright clothes. And, I use lights at night.

I rely on the fact that drivers are paying some attention to the road in front of them.

In the case of texting drivers, the reliance is misplaced. I don't know how, as a biker, I can get the attention of someone with their eyes and one hand on their cellphone for an extended period.

That changes the dynamic.


Trial Run

To update the post on T cellphone service, I took a ride from South Station to Kenmore yesterday afternoon and made a call.

Here's what's going to keep cellphone usage down on the train, at least the Red Line: it's just too damn loud. I couldn't hear a word of what my wife was saying.

On the other hand, the reception was fabulous. Four bars the whole way. So, it should be great for text messaging, e-mail, &c.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Cellphones on the T

Years ago, when the MBTA was first working on a contract to wire the tunnels for cellphone service, I wrote an op-ed for the Metro in which I posited that cellphone service on the T might help convince some people to take the T instead of driving. (I couldn't find the op-ed online.) Since so many people use their commuting time to make a few calls and catch up on voice-mail, car commuting is more attractive in this regard.

Today's Globe reports that the four tunnels connecting the Park Street, Government Center, State, and Downtown Crossing have had cellphone service (Verizon and T-Mobile) for a few weeks, with AT&T coming on line yesterday.

Some things have changed in the last few years. When I wrote my op-ed, the big worry was the noise of cellphone conversations. As the article points out, data (e-mail, text-messaging, and web browsing) is where growth is. And, data use is silent.

The limited service availability seems unlikely to get many people out of their cars, but the T and its partner expect to expand service.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Chestnut Hill Square nuggets

Two end-of-the-year thoughts about Chestnut Hill Square:

Some people think that we should think of Boylston Street as a state highway (which it is) and plan accordingly, which means no worrying about the pedestrian streetscape. The logical extension of that argument is to leave the artery as it is and not create new intersections, which naturally limit the artery's effectiveness as an artery. But, a new intersection is exactly what New England Development is planning, namely a new median break and signal.

Maybe one answer is to not worry about throughput on Boylston Street and to add more, not fewer, intersections to promote access to the north and south sides of the street. Make it more like Beacon Street in Brookline.

Over on the Garden City, I wrote that Alderman Gentile and others were not acting as NIBMYs limiting the Planned Multi-Use Business Development to major arterials (Boylston Street) ... that they were NOMMAs instead.

On a more serious note, when you're talking about significant effects on traffic, it's tough to be a NIMBY. When it comes to traffic, we are all abutters. If Chestnut Hill Square increases volume on Boylston Street significantly, it's likely that traffic will divert to Beacon Street and, possibly, Commonwealth Avenue.


Good Citizen

Simon Malls has been running shuttles between the Mall at Chestnut Hill (the upper mall) and the Atrium this holiday season. While it's undoubtedly good for business, it also keeps cars off Boylston Street, which is good for the community. And, with Simon's work to extend of the #60 bus line to the upper mall, the shuttle is, effectively, a connection between the Atrium and public transportation.


Friday, December 21, 2007

This car goes here and ...

It's always a delight to introduce NS&S readers to the work of StreetFilms. Here's Professor of Trafficology Donald Shoup explaining the effects of market-based meter fees on traffic.

It's great. He uses toy cars.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Shovel it forward

Friend of NS&S Andreae sends along a link to the Neighbors Project, where you can get Thank You for Shoveling cards. (There are lots of other goodies in the site, like a recommendation against putting up fences on your property.)

I am a reluctant proponent of a shoveling ordinance, because I don't think it's reasonable to expect that one can "encourage" a neighbor to shovel with a friendly request. We need a regulation. (What we really need is funding that will achieve functional parity between roads and sidewalks, but that's not politically likely.)

These Thank You for Shoveling cards, though, approach the problem from a much more positive place, rewarding people who do shovel. Very nice.

Sign up. Get your free cards. Give them out. Earn one yourself.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Traffic Trials

Today's City Update in the paper TAB has an item on how the city is conducting a test of a new configuration for the troubled Watertown/Lowell/Craft Streets intersection. (The link is to an older article on the intersection. I'll link to today's article if it goes online and I remember.) Today's article notes that the DPW is conducting more and more traffic trials, one of which is the recently completed trial of own Daniel/Jackson Street intersection, which remains standing until permanent construction in the spring.

The expansion of trials is a great development, especially now that the city is using asphalt curbing instead of sand bags in some locations.

As I've kinda argued before, I hope the city takes it one step further and uses this relatively cheap asphalt curbing as a permanent or semi-permanent solution where reconfiguration is called for but money's not available for a full dig-up-the-streets-and-put-in-granite approach. (I proposed concrete parking curbs, but extruded asphalt curbing seems like a better solution.) One thing we'll learn is how well the curbing holds up to a winter's plowing.

Asphalt curbing, it's not just for trials anymore!


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Snow Thought II

With all of the discussion about an ordinance to requiring residents to take snow off sidewalks, it is instructive to look at compliance with and enforcement of the existing ordinance that prohibits residents putting snow onto sidewalks.

Section 26-9 states:

No person shall block, obstruct or otherwise hinder or impair pedestrian or vehicular traffic on the public ways of the city by placing snow or ice or permitting or causing snow or ice to be placed upon a street, sidewalk or bridge[.]

I haven't driven all over town, but there appear to be significant violators on Needham Street, Parker Street, Beacon Street, and elsewhere. And, these aren't just technical violations, they get to the very purpose of the ordinance. They really force pedestrians into the street.

I'll follow up in a few weeks to see if any citations are issued. If you have any pictures, send them and I'll post them.

By the way, things looked good at last year's poster-child Section 26-9 violator, Whole Foods on Walnut Street. Nice clear sidewalks and no snow mounds blocking them.

NS&S gets results!


Snow Thought I

This disparity between street clearing and sidewalk clearing is worse than the ratio of street miles cleared to sidewalk miles cleared — 300 to 60 — suggests. The streets get several passes. The sidewalks don't.

Some of the sidewalks in my neighborhood are on the priority list because they are school routes. They got a timely visit by the city's nifty sidewalk clearing machine. One pass took the snow down a bunch, but left tracks that have turned to ice. The sidewalks are now very tricky to walk on.

The clearing will have some effect, eventually, as the ice melts. But another pass and some salting and sanding would really make a difference.

Maybe that'll be in the cards in upcoming days.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A long walk

Let us welcome Google Map's Street View with a look west at the frontage of the proposed Chestnut Hill Square site.

I hope this shows the opportunity here. It's a long stretch of road, so it's a blank canvas to create whatever we want to make of it. And, it currently has a very pedestrian-friendly shoulder.

The only reason it's not already a pedestrian way is the lack of anything to walk to. In other words, first-floor commercial uses.


Commuter Rail Contract

Universal Hub has the goods on the new contract extension for MBCR to run the commuter rail. A three-year extension does seem a bit much for a company that can't run the trains on time.

But, at least there's some parity here. It doesn't seem like the state is doing a much better job managing roadways.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Would it be more persuasive coming from a rock star?

In a New York Times article, Radiohead's Thom Yorke is quoted thusly:

Signing a new major-label contract "would have killed us straight off," he added. "Money makes you numb, as M.I.A. wrote. I mean, it's tempting to have someone say to you, 'You will never have to worry about money ever again,' but no matter how much money someone gives you -- what, you're not going to spend it? You're not going to find stupid ways to get rid of it? Of course you are. It's like building roads and expecting there to be less traffic."

Yup! (PDF)

From Aaron at Streetsblog.


Do you love children?

Then read this.

Teen drivers kill 6,000 drivers every year and injure another 300,000.

That's not the way the article puts it:

Each year, nearly 6,000 American teenagers die in car accidents involving teenage drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; more than 300,000 are injured.

It's an unfortunate symptom of our car-default culture that this otherwise essential article uses weasel words instead of a plain statement of fact: our kids are killing each other at an alarming rate.

The factors that lead to this unacceptable teenage death toll are well-known and easily controlled:

  • Driving after dark

  • Driving with other kids in the car

  • Alcohol

  • Talking on the phone

  • Text messaging

Read the article. It filled me with despair that we don't have this epidemic under control, but hopeful that we can.

When teens kill teens, it's no accident.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Walkable Places

Alderman Verne Vance, a vocal advocate for human-scaled development in Newton, forwarded a link to an interesting, if a bit hazy, Globe article on the rise of walkable urban places in the U.S. The article cites a study by developer/consultant/urban planning professor/think-tank fellow Christopher B. Leinberger that identifies 157 region-serving walkable urban places in the 30 largest metropolitan regions in the country.

The Boston area has a bunch — the Back Bay, the South End, Kendall Square, Wellesley Center, &c. — but nothing in Newton. We ought to aspire to get on the list.

Here is the definition:

Walkable urban is:
  • at least five times as dense as drivable sub-urban (floor-area-ratio of between 0.8 and upwards to 40.0),

  • mixed-use (residential, office, retail, cultural, educational, etc.),

  • compact (regional-serving walkable urban places, as defined below, are generally between 100 and 500 acres in size),

  • generally accessible by multiple transportation means (transit, bike, car and walking), and

  • walkable for nearly every destination once in the place.

That last criteria really speaks to the vision we have of places like Chestnut Hill and Needham Street. We need to think about both places as potential walkable urban districts.

At the last ZAP meeting, Alderman Lisle Baker said:

Route 9 itself is not a pedestrian corridor in the conventional sense that we think of Newton Centre and we've talked about in the past.

True as a description of what is, but inadequate as a statement of what should be. (The quote starts at about 59:00 of the meeting audio.) Any development on Boylston Street between Hammond Street to the east and Langley Road to the west — most obviously including Chestnut Hill Square — should do its part to knit the district together so that it is safely and comfortably walkable from end-to-end.

Hard to see how to do that without making Boylston Street itself the central pedestrian artery, which means requiring wide sidewalks, wide roadway shoulders, and first-floor commercial activity.

By the way, don't let the word "urban" set off visions of skyscrapers. Look above at the first criterion. It talks about density over .8 FAR. That's a lot less than anyone is proposing for Chestnut Hill Square.


Monday, December 3, 2007

The value of road-pricing

Road-pricing, like the soon-to-be popular Newton charge, is not just the right thing to do, it has provable economic validity. This Common Tragedies post explains the "virtuous circle" of reducing/ending the subsidy for car travel and using the savings/revenue for public transit.

Here's the pithy, if wonky, core of the argument:

Mass transit systems are a network good with positive externalities — beyond reducing congestion, buses are a far less polluting alternative than cars — and hence should be subsidized to achieve the socially optimal level of provision. Public roads, on the other hand, are a common pool resource whose value is rapidly degraded when given away for free.

If we stop plowing money into our roads (or spending money to plow them?), we can build a useful network of public transit that can reduce our car-dependency.