Friday, October 23, 2009

Aldermen Loving Stop Signs

An equal parts encouraging and dispiriting Public Safety & Transportation committee meeting this week. The encouraging part is a proposal to use an apron of ribbed concrete in conjunction with a bumpout as a compromise to the full Daniel/Jackson Street intersection redesign that's in place now. Devil, details, &c. But, the proposal has promise.

The dispiriting part was the vote by the committee to overrule a Traffic Council denial of a request for two additional stop signs at the intersection. Actually, that wasn't the most dispiriting part, because the actual intention of the committee on stop signs was not clear given the very confusing procedural posture of the item. What was most dispiriting was the argument made by the one alderman who made the case against stop signs.

Keep in mind that Traffic Council has rejected stop signs at this location on three separate occasions over the years. Three different city traffic engineers have argued that using stop signs to slow traffic at an intersection like this is a disfavored practice and that has several documented secondary effects that outweigh the apparent slowing benefit: increased noise, operating costs borne by motorists, environmental degradation, without providing the expected safety benefits. Stop signs to slow traffic are officially discouraged by the manual that defines the best practices for street signs, traffic signal, and striping, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is official state policy by act of law. The MUTCD policies are drafted by traffic engineers and are adopted only after a rigorous review process.

Here is the argument the alderman made in favor of against stop signs:

I actually I found Clint's commentary interesting in that there are reasons he gave why excessive use of stop signs would be a bad idea in theory but then said people would continue to go zipping through without a stop sign, implying that a stop sign would in fact have a traffic calming effect without being a change to the road surface.

Associate City Engineer Clint Schuckel said, yet again, that improperly used stop signs are not recognized traffic calming because changes to the roadway are more desirable, slowing but not stopping cars; that slowing cars is not consistent with the recognized purpose of a stop sign, and that there are secondary consequences -- noise, pollution, operating costs, &c. -- to using stop signs to calm traffic. He never said, nor would it be credible, to claim that stop signs don't slow traffic compared to no stop signs. Of course they do. The question is whether stop signs are preferable to modern traffic calming practices.

So my suggestion is that if there's a concern about driver confusion, having just two of the three entrances to the intersection having stop signs that we do all three because that does seem for many years that's what the Board of Alderman did at intersections not only throughout Ward 6 but throughout the city. And, you know, I live with them and have them in the neighborhood and deal with them all the time and I don't you know I don't find them to be that inconvenient.

Forget the data that say unnecessary stop signs waste time, waste fuel, and put wear on brakes and other systems, I don't have any problem with them.

We have four-way and three-way stops all over Newton Highlands and Newton Centre. You know ... There are ... It may well be that in some theoretical model that's not the best practice but it is the reality on the ground.

Data you don't agree with and professional standards are now "some theoretical model."

And, I think that if you were to apply the standards that Clint articulated, to our existing stop signs, you'd have to take most of them out and I don't .. so I think as a matter of consistency with what ... the way we live in the City of Newton that theoretical model doesn't apply to our reality.

Between past practices and modern practices, choose past practices. Newton's special. What applies to the rest of the world doesn't apply to us

So, I would suggest that what we ought to do is put both of the stop signs that were requested in. And so make it a true three-way stop to avoid any issue of confusion about who's stopping and who's not. And, so that would be an action on the stop-sign action.

This from a man who has repeatedly claimed that we need to question the way we do things in the city, adopt proven best practices from elsewhere, and make data-driven decisions.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Parker Street process

Peter Howe has a letter in the most recent TAB (10/4/09) expressing concern about the apparent lack of process concerning the installation of a pedestrian-activated signal at the crosswalk at Parker and Daniel Streets. (I couldn't find the letter online.) While I happen to think that some sort of signal probably makes sense at this location, Peter's process concerns are legitimate. There ought to be a full public opportunity to allow neighbors and others potentially affected to hear the rationale for a signal, the pros and the cons, and offer their input. As with any other traffic change, there are going to be secondary consequences to consider (some of which may even be positive).

Fortunately, it appears to be earlier in the process than Peter appears to assume and that opportunity is still available.

At issue is a recommendation in a pending report prepared by a consultant engaged by through the state's Safe Routes to School program. Bowen is a member school of the Safe Routes program. As such, it was eligible to apply for -- and was granted -- an Infrastructure Assessment. Consultants were retained by the state to survey the transportation infrastructure around Bowen and along walking routes to Bowen and to make recommendations about changes that would make walking to school safer. The program provides money (federal funds) to implement changes if the city adopts any of the consultants' recommendations.

At this point, there is no final report, but according to discussion at the September 14 Traffic Council meeting, the consultants have met with city staff to review their recommendations, one of which is a pedestrian-activated signal at the crosswalk across Parker at Daniel. Peter apparently relied on the minutes of the meeting which state that Traffic Council voted 4-0 "in support of TEC's recommendation for the design of a pedestrian activated full signal at Daniel and Parker Streets." Listening to the meeting audio, however, it appears that no vote was taken as it was just a discussion item and that the report is in error. (Discussion of the Parker Street item begins at about 29:30 and lasts for 13:30.) There was informal agreement, however, that city staff should recommend that the consultant include a full signal (green, yellow, red) rather than a flashing yellow sign as one of the recommendations in the report.

It's tough to tell from the meeting audio what the next steps are once the report is issued. I wholeheartedly agree with Peter's call for "a full, open, transparent public process of reviewing the need for and design and operation of this new traffic light before it's a done deal."

Where Peter and I part ways is with his suggestion that the redesign of the Daniel/Jackson intersection just up the street was "relentlessly pushed through City Hall." The Daniel/Jackson intersection redesign was the subject of innumerable public meetings, a full consultants' study, neighborhood comment on the study and trials resulting from the study, and deliberation by Traffic Council, Public Facilities, and the full Board of Aldermen. Eight years after the first petition to address problems at Daniel and Jackson, there is no permanent construction and we're still before the board (Public Safety & Transportation) after recent returns to Traffic Council and Public Facilities. There are strong feelings on both sides of the issue, but it's just not fair to attribute those strong feelings to a lack of process or transparency.


Friday, October 16, 2009

More Newton Centre goodness coming

New lines on the street at the corner of Beacon and Herrick signal some changes to the intersection:

What they signal is a big road diet at the corner, which will shorten the crosswalk, lower speeds around the corner, and make the first parking space a protected one. Here's a better idea of what's to come (click for a bigger version):


Monday, October 5, 2009

LWV Asks Candidates Livable Streets Question

The League of Women Voters has issued its three Voters Guide questions to candidates for aldermen. And, once again, it includes a Livable Streets question:

What measures would you promote to enhance walking and biking as alternative modes of transportation year round?

It's a virtual repeat of the 2007 question:

How would you encourage safe walking and bicycling in the city, especially during the winter?

The TAB published and NS&S graded the candidates' answers in 2007 (contested races and non-contested races).

Candidates, want to earn an A? Your answer must include:

  • Complete streets review before any road construction project. Such review leads to successes like Herrick and Union. Failing to do it leads to missed opportunities like Floral and Centre.
  • Defined goals for miles of streets with bike accommodations and recommendations for funding (striping isn't expensive, but it isn't free)
  • Commitment to sidewalk snow clearing ordinance in the next two years
  • Support for the Safe Routes to School programs in the elementary schools
  • Requirement of full bicycle and pedestrian access for all major new development
Read the top-graded answers from the last election.


Panera in Newton Centre

Panera Bread wants to open a 111-seat restaurant in the space formerly occupied by Tess on Centre Street. (Tess has consolidated as Tess & Carlos next door.) To open, Panera needs a special permit waiving its requirement to provide 25 parking spaces. Here's the Planning Department memo on the special permit application (PDF).

The parking waiver raises some fairly complicated issues, which I may address in another post. But, assuming that the Land Use committee is amenable to a waiver, the committee should require as a condition of the waiver that Panera (actually the property owner) deed, lease, or otherwise transfer eight private parking spaces to the city.

The optimal parking for Newton Centre, indeed for any of our village centers, is shared parking, ideally municipally owned (so that it can be metered parking).Shared parking is efficient. Spaces are available for whatever demand arises and serve complementary uses. Centrally located shared parking reduces the need for curb cuts to private parking lots. Fewer curb cuts mean more uninterrupted commercial streetscapes and more on-street parking spaces.

Store-only parking, like the nine spaces serving the building now (to be reduced to eight), is not optimal. Store-only spaces are inefficient. When there is little or no demand from the stores served, unoccupied spaces are unusable by customers of other stores. And, store-only spaces discourage people from parking once and shopping at more than one store, a practice that is both ecologically sound and creates commercial vitality.

Panera intends to meet most of its parking demand with the municipal lots and on-street parking. That's appropriate. But, they are also planning to the private spaces. Since Panera intends to meet most of its demand with shared parking, it should contribute its private spaces to the inventory of shared parking in Newton Centre.

Panera's private spaces are accessible from Pelham Street by a private entrance. Adding the eight spaces to the municipal lot might allow the city to close that curb cut and possibly add two more on-street spaces on Pelham Street. In any case, it would remove a constraint and possibly lead to a more efficient design of the Pelham Street lot.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Trees in Newton Centre Parking Lot?

A thought on a slightly dated Newton Tab blog on tree planting in Newton:

How about some trees in the Newton Centre triangle parking lot? Crowns in parking lots provide shading, amelioration of heat island effect, carbon sequestration and air cleansing right where the air is dirtiest from tailpipes, while taking up very little ground area, or requiring removal of Newton’s sacred parking spots (Gertrude Stein's comment about Oakland, Ca: "there is no there, there", rings true of the heart of Newton Centre - a bleak wasteland of pavement. A testament to our values in Newton.)

Actually, there was a pilot tree planting there this summer - but we need to get the trees out of pots and into the ground where they can thrive.

Here is a shameless sales pitch: I am involved in National Science Foundation sponsored research that quantifies vegetation impacts on the carbon footprint of greater Boston, with one special focus on impacts of replacing pavement with trees. Anyone interested in hearing more about what could be done in Newton can contact me at or check out

Also see the great commentary on trees in Newton at Lasell College:


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Shared Bikes (Boston) Reviewed

I'm not sure we'll ever have the demand for rental bikes in Newton, but it's interesting to follow what's planned for Boston. Here's a review of the coming Boston bikes from a women who has tried Velibe in Paris. She likes 'em.

From Universal Hub.