Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bike (sign) season

Imagine our surprise -- and delight -- to discover, while driving in the decidedly bike-unfriendly cold, these brand-new Share the Road signs on Parker Street, between Boylston Street (Rte. 9) and Dedham Street.

They went up last week. Note how the installation crews dug through the snow banks to put in the posts.

During this between-storm burst of sign installing, signs went up on Parker, Langley, Dedham, Nahanton, and Winchester, making a total of 24 signs city-wide, all in the last three months, beginning with this one.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Who you calling loud?

Chrissie Long has an article in the TAB about our favorite bit of tarmac: the Daniel/Jackson Street intersection. It was with great anticipation that we awaited its publication. (It was ready to run a week earlier.) Our worst fears went unrealized. Especially in light of the demands on Chrissie to cover every last burp in Newton (nearly single handedly), the article covers a lot of ground and gets a lot right. Not a bad job.

That said, the article incorrectly casts the debate as between those who say it is safe and those who say it isn't. Seems even-handed, but it contradicts the plain facts.

There is no question that the redesign is slowing cars through the intersection, which necessarily means that it's making the intersection safer day-in and day-out. As we at NS&S never tire of reminding, speed kills. Each day, 1500 to 2000 cars pass through the intersection, nearly 50,000 a month. When you slow those thousands of cars, you reduce the risk of physical injury and death. That's not debatable.

If you are going to argue, as Barry Bergman does, that the redesigned intersection is, in his words, "dangerous," you not only have to explain what makes it dangerous, but also how the increased danger outweighs the overwhelming safety benefit from slowing traffic. But, the opponents have never made a credible argument that the bumpout creates a danger, much less a danger that outweighs the safety benefit.

Previously, Mr. Bergman has called the redesign "a dangerous obstruction at the bottom of a long hill." Here's a long post addressing the obstacle-as-danger theory. In short, roadway obstacles are oversold as dangers. In fact, obstacle-free roadways encourage motorists to drive faster, which is a real, quantifiable danger.

A good intra-neighborhood squabble makes for good copy. (See also Chrissie's article about the split in Newton Lower Falls over a rail trail through the neighborhood, with blog post and commentary.) But, treating two sides to an argument fairly doesn't necessarily mean giving equal weight to their arguments. The facts on the ground are tilted against the redesign opponents and the article should have made that clear.

We get to this false balance, perhaps, because either Chrissie or I really screwed up. She paraphrases me thusly:

Taken too fast, the intersection could cause an accident, Roche acknowledged, but it’s his hope that people would recognize the threat and slow down. (Emphasis mine.)

It's conceivable that I used the word "hope." If so, I misspoke.

It's not my hope that people will slow down. It's my observation. People recognize the threat and are slowing down. It's seems counterintuitive; but drivers' concern about their welfare is what makes the intersection safer. It's the same concern that slows motorists at every corner: you can slow down or you can go over the curb or into oncoming traffic. It's the calculation that Clint Schuckel nicely alludes to in his comment that "there's a fine line [between] making someone uncomfortable and someone unsafe."

Chrissie writes that the redesign "may" have negative effects and that its my "hope" that the redesign will slow traffic. Let the opponents argue that there "may" be negative effects, but make no mistake that the redesign does slow traffic. Significantly.

And, that's a point I'll make loudly.


Boston Bikes at BPL

Nicole Freedman, Boston Bike Czar, will be reporting on the state of biking in Boston, tomorrow, Thursday, January 29, 7:00 PM at the Boston Public Libary (Copley) in the Rabb Lecture Hall. The report is sponsored by the Livable Streets Alliance, who provide:

The focus of the meeting will be on future steps needed to create the "world class bicycling city" that Mayor Menino has promised. There will be additional discussion about what could be done to significantly expand the cycling population -- and its political influence -- by attracting "traffic intolerant" bicyclists, read more.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Bike Racks at Crystal Lake?

Who'd have thunk it? Planners are asking Bike Newton and BPTF for advice on bike racks for the Crystal Lake bathhouse re-design. I've got some ideas that I've sent on to Amy Yuhasz in the planning department.

Idea 1:
Revise the lovely chain-link bordered walkway so that it becomes a lovelier planting-bordered walkway and very long bike rack.

Idea 2:
Convert the gated and locked wasteland between the bath-house and MBTA D-line right-of-way to two long rows of bike racks.

Currently, the landscape designer has included parking for only 12 bikes. I don't know about you, but I've seen over 20 bikes there on most summer days, in spite of the ancient rack, which only fits about 8. I'd like to see a capacity of 40. Time for input! There's a public presentation at the library on Thursday, January 22 at 7:30 in the Druker Auditorium. I (Steve) can't be there because of (irony!) a Bike Newton meeting. I hope you, whoever you are, can go, and make it clear that 12 spaces for bikes (there will be 24 for cars) is woefully inadequate.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gas tax proposal -- one thumb up, one thumb down

Some MetroWest legislators are proposing a 26.5-cent increase in the gas tax -- from 23.5 to 50 cents. It's much more than a token increase. Our transportation system would be much better funded. The burden of funding transportation would fall more squarely on drivers. The burden would be more evenly distributed across the state. And, seven of the 50 cents would be dedicated to transit -- 3 cents to regional transit and 4 cents to the MBTA's to pay off its piece of Big Dig debt. So far so good.

Then, the proposal goes wrong, badly wrong. The sponsors propose to eliminate all tolls. It's like an invitation to congestion (and a huge missed revenue opportunity). Tolls are not just a simple revenue generator. They help set traffic distribution. Remove the impact of tolls on turnpike use and it won't be pretty.

Currently, tolls allocate in one-dimension only: they have an impact on which road a person takes. The tolls on the turnpike cause some drivers to avoid the pike for local roads. The quite reasonable fear that toll hikes will cause an increase in cut-through, toll-avoiding traffic is quite reasonable. It is likewise reasonable to expect that reducing or eliminating tolls would reduce cut-through traffic.

But, there is a downside to reducing or eliminating tolls. You make it more attractive. Restricted resources that are free or priced too low are poorly used. The turnpike is a restricted resource, there is limited capacity. Giving that capacity away mis-allocates the resource. Imagine two drivers, one willing to pay a reasonable toll and one not. Removing the toll creates congestion that the first driver would have been willing to pay to avoid. Of course, imposing a toll, if it is the same price round-the-clock, causes that driver to use other roads, causing congestion there.

Not all toll avoiders are going to use other roads. Some will decide not to take the trip. Others will take mass transit. But still, there is an enormous impact on local roads.

The situation would be much different if we added another dimension to tolls: time. Imagine if the gas-tax gang proposed to reduce or eliminate tolls off-peak. Now our toll avoider has another choice: travel at a different time. Everybody wins. The willing toll payer faces less congestion as toll avoiders are given another option. The toll avoider who has the flexibility to travel off peak gets the benefit of the turnpike (compared to stop-and-go local roads). Local road users see a reduction in traffic from the toll avoiders that time-shift their travel. The tolls continue to operate as an incentive to use transit. And, the state maintains the revenue stream during peak travel.

There are going to be an awful lot of MetroWest commuters who are not going to be pleased once they live through the congestion that is the entirely foreseeable -- even if unintended -- consequence of removing the tolls.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Newton Corner

Tomorrow night, the latest study of Newton Corner and recommendations is on the Public Safety and Transportation agenda (PDF). The report is appended to the agenda. I have not read it yet. (It's long.)

Last year, I recommended transforming the oval from a racetrack to a proper, walkable mixed-use neighborhood by returning all one-way streets to two-way.

The inestimable Srdjan Nedeljkovic supports design concept 6, which features a new bridge directly connecting Centre and Galen Streets across the pike. Click on the image to see a larger version. It's an illustration from the report. The bridge looks promising, but still the key to getting the neighborhood under control is to restore a more neighborly two-lane flow, with modern roundabouts to manage the intersections.


A great idea poorly executed

I have been taking the T the last few weeks and just saw the T's Charlie Card and Ticket validation machines for the first time. After staring at them and puzzling over them, I finally figured them out. But, before I share my hard-earned insight, a little examination.

Here's a validation machine. My first question: what in the name of Charlie is validation? Does it tell me my Charlie Card/Ticket balance? Why is using this machine going to deduct the fare? What is in it for me? Day after day I stare at this strange creature wondering how it fits into my commuting life. I even listened to the recorded message hoping that the spoken word would help me make a connection. It's new technology. I want to use it. But, I'm afraid of losing $1.70 just to learn what my card balance is after the deduction.

Today, I saw this not-as-helpful-as-it-could-be flyer on the outside of the Fare Array Hut. (Had I missed the flyer before? Did it just go up today? Who knew those little warming shelters had such a stupid fancy name?) So many words for a simple concept. Turns out validation is Charlie speak for get a use-the-back-door pass before you board. Transact the fare deduction before you board, join the monthly pass wavers, and avoid the bottleneck at the front door.

Except for the receipts added to the waste stream, it's a great idea. And, it deserves much better usability. Look again at the validation machine. There is absolutely no indication that the thing is going to spit out a receipt. There is no indication of the connection between validation and fare deduction and boarding.

Fortunately, it's an entirely soluble problem. Here's what the T needs to do. First, brand the receipts. Boarding Pass. Quick Pass. Backdoor Pass. Charlie Check. Anything. And lose any mention of "validation." Then, print and post very simple instructions on the entire process from the user's perspective, focusing on what's in it for the user.

  1. Pay at the station
  2. Grab a receipt
  3. Skip the fare box

Redo the welcome screen on the machines to make it clear that using them rewards you with a receipt. If there's any money, re-label the machines to indicate that the ticket-in slot is also a receipt-out slot. Oh, and fire whoever was responsible for rolling out this great feature with such incredibly poor usability, instructions, and branding.

But, really some simple posters would do the trick.


Baker on pedestrian issues

Last night, Board of Alderman President Lisle Baker issued his President's Report for 2008 (PDF). Because it summarizes the work of the aldermanic committees, including Public Safety and Transportation and Traffic Council, it's not surprising that it covers some pedestrian issues. It's a useful summary of what the board accomplished in the area of pedestrian and bicycle safety.

How did the board do? Progress was modest at best.

In January, the board approved a pedestrian actuated signal at Craft and Linwood. Getting it funded and installed will be the real challenge, but approval is an important threshold. It would be nice to see signals at busy crossings across the city, especially on school routes.

Slightly troubling is the report's section on the "Walking School Bus Program." Walking school buses are great. (I lead one once a week, myself.) And, efforts across the city to encourage walking school buses are important and impressive. The board's October resolution recognizing city schools participation in International Walk to School Day was a nice show of support. But, otherwise, walking school buses, schools participation in the state Safe Routes to School program, the Newton Safe Routes Task Force, and the selection of Newton for WalkBoston's Community Safe Routes program had little to do with the board.

Lisle doesn't pretend otherwise. He doesn't claim credit on the board's behalf. But, if a board resolution is the highest achievement the board can cite for walk-to-school efforts, it hasn't really been a good year.

The fields trial ordinance is, on the other hand, an important step forward. A key to changing the shape of Newton streets is going to be actually changing the shape of Newton streets and seeing what happens.

On the Traffic Council front, again, not a lot of great news. The raised crosswalks on Woodland Road near Lasell are noteworthy, but not exactly fresh news. The dreaded Daniel/Jackson intersection is still being studied years after the board approved construction. And, the reconfiguration of traffic on and around Lowell Street promises great benefit. But, other than that it's guidelines and policy changes. I am not familiar with the details of the Traffic Council docket, so there may have been other important victories, but the president's summary doesn't exactly wow.

I don't want to suggest that there aren't hard-working people trying to do good things. I know that there are. But, the board isn't distinguishing itself on this front.