Thursday, May 27, 2010

Traffic irony

If you believe, as many do, that well-planned, well-conceived density around transit nodes -- like Newton Centre -- will reduce overall car use, then savor the irony that a large obstacle to more development in Newton Centre and thus reducing traffic is ... traffic impact.

That it is ironic doesn't mean that traffic impact isn't a valid concern or that those worried about it are wrong to worry. It's just ironic.


What if they're both right?

A Globe account of the Real Property Re-use discussion of the proposed development of the so-called Fireman's Triangle describes Lenny Gentile's traffic's-too-bad-already assessment as in conflict with Deb Crossley's more-housing-is-good vision. They really aren't.

Adding residential density to Newton Centre will make it more vibrant and will be a significant environmental good. It will also exacerbate an already bad traffic situation. We can't let the traffic challenge foreclose desirable development*. And, we can't ignore the traffic problem just because the development provides other benefits.

There are a lot of traffic questions, each with potential solutions:

  • Can Newton Centre bear any more traffic?
  • Can flow be significantly improved?
  • Is there a structural cap on the volume of traffic in and out?
  • If traffic hits a ceiling, will cut-through traffic seek other routes? Will cut-through traffic seek other forms of transportation?
  • How should we balance the direct needs of Newton Centre v. cut-through traffic? What are our priorities?
  • Will development of Newton Centre decrease car use by new residents and neighbors, easing some traffic locally and elsewhere?
  • How do we better manage things for pedestrians and bicyclists?

They are good, tough questions. Let's wrestle with them before we through up our hands and say traffic's the reason we can't have more density.

*Acknowledged that there is not universal consensus that development is good, independent of potential traffic problems.


Roundabouts and pedestrians

Roundabouts are only a good idea if, along with the well-documented traffic improvements they bring, they improve things for pedestrians and bicyclists., a clearinghouse for pedestrian activists, has a good summary of the issues:

Modern roundabouts by their design require motorists to slow down typically to less than 25 mph (40 km/h), and preferably 15 mph (25 km/h) to proceed through the intersection. The literature shows that, given a properly designed single-lane roundabout, motorist and pedestrian safety is almost always improved when compared to conventional intersections. Results regarding cyclist safety are somewhat mixed. Roundabouts have fewer conflict points and lower speeds compared to conventional intersections, resulting in a significant overall reduction in the severity of crashes for all users, although the frequency of some crashes may increase. Multi-lane roundabouts present some challenges to pedestrians, thus reducing the safety effects that roundabouts provide.

It appears that the basic design of a roundabout is pretty straightforward and should nearly always deliver the motor vehicle improvements. On the pedestrian and bicycle fronts, however, as Nathan points out, there can be good and bad implementations. Simply lowering vehicle speeds is good, but not enough. Thoughtful, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design is imperative.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Roundabouts in Newton II

Continuing the series of intersections in Newton that could use a roundabout, how about the intersection of Ward, Waverly, and Stuart Streets? What makes this a particularly attractive opportunity is that it's a very residential intersection, where a traffic signal seems particularly out-of-place.

View Larger Map

A roundabout would be a much more context-sensitive design, eliminate the noise from stopping traffic, reduce (eliminate?) backups and the idling and emissions that result, all while improving traffic flow. And, the city would save on the energy costs required to power a traffic light where it's really not required.

This has always struck me as a particularly good opportunity for a roundabout trial because the intersection is already enormous. A roundabout would not only fill the center, but likely reduce the overall dimensions of the intersection, reducing a big asphalt blight on the neighborhood.


Time for meters on Braeland

With the Town Diner folks fixin' to serve up some tasty vittles in the Newton Centre T station, time to think about the parking on Braeland. With the exception of a few spaces on the Langley end, the parking is free and long-term. This does nothing to promote turnover and provides no money for the City. It does provide a relatively few spaces for commuters, which might ease demand for spaces in the neighborhood.

The diner is coming. Diner-driven demand for parking is coming. Competing demand for the Braeland parking is coming. The question is which parkers should be higher-priority: diners or T riders.

There are four options:

  • Leave it as long-term, free parking, consigning it to T riders
  • Leave it as long-term, but make it metered parking
  • Leave it free, but make it short-term, making it more available for diner customers and other Newton Centre patrons
  • Make it metered, short-term parking, maximizing turnover

There is no good reason for the parking to be free. Even if commuters are a higher priority, there is no reason that we should be subsidizing free parking for a relatively small fraction of T parkers (or other long-term parkers). Price the spaces for 85% occupancy (one or two open spaces on the stretch), and the city will have secured revenue without discouraging T use.

But, given the nature of Newton Centre and the need for parking to support local businesses, providing parking to commuters is not the best use of city-controlled spots. Better to add the Braeland spots to the inventory of spaces available for short-term use. And, use meters to create turnover. That will be good for the new diner and good for the other businesses that will be both competing for the spaces and also benefiting from the use of spaces by diners who then walk around the village.

How should the city use the meter revenue? Spend any meter revenue to be generated on Braeland right on Braeland. Narrow the street by a lot, add a bike lane, build a nice wide sidewalk with a wide grass berm, plant some street trees to provide a screen.

What to do about the concern about parking in the neighborhood? Accept that living near a commercial district means parking. Or, use mechanisms to directly limit parking, like residential parking permits. But, leaving free parking on Braeland is a blunt tool to deal with parking in residential areas, and it creates its own set of problems, problems that will be exacerbated by the new demand from the T station diner.


Transit-oriented development: think globally, suffer locally*?

With four significant development projects being seriously proposed -- Chestnut Hill Square on Boylston St./Route 9, Riverside, Newton Centre fire station triangle, and the Austin Street parking lot in Newtonville -- it's time to take stock of what the city's goals should be. At or near the top should be creating an overall reduction in per-person automobile trips. With the looming consequences of global climate change, it's imperative that we build our infrastructure in a way that minimizes, as much as possible, the need to drive to work, to shop, to play.

Generally speaking, mixed-use, transit-oriented development (TOD) is the way to meet that goal. TOD puts more people closer to transit nodes (Newton Centre and Riverside T stations and Newtonville commuter rail and bus), making it more likely that new residents will use transit rather than drive to work. Mixed-use development (as opposed to just residential) means creating and enhancing retail opportunities so that the new residents don't have to get in their cars to do all their shopping. New residents mean more potential shoppers for existing stores and restaurants. More shoppers makes the commercial district more attractive to store and restaurant owners looking for new locations. More and better retail increases the likelihood that those already within walking distance of the commercial district will do more of their shopping in the commercial district rather than get in their cars and go elsewhere.

It's a virtuous circle that starts by adding density, which translates into foot traffic in the commercial district, which enhances the commercial opportunities.

Thinking globally, a new residential unit in Newton within walking distance to a transit node and a vibrant commercial center will lead to fewer car trips by that unit's residents than a new residential unit in some other municipality that's not within walking distance of an attractive transit option and a commercial district.

If the only issue is what's best for the environment, exploiting the existing rich resources of Newton -- T and commuter lines and good and potentially great walkable village centers -- is a no-brainer.

But, there are other, very real issues. Adding residents to some other municipality may result in more car trips overall, but it won't add school kids to Newton's already overcrowded schools. While the math is contested, some reasonable people worry that small residential units in multi-unit buildings won't generate tax revenue to offset the incremental costs of adding the tenants, particularly if there are children.

And, then there's the paradox of increasing traffic while reducing car trips. Adding residences to Riverside, Newton Centre, or Newtonville indisputably leads to lower car usage by the new residents -- compared to equivalent residences without the same transit and shopping options within walking distance. But, those new residents aren't likely going to stop using their cars altogether. And, not all customers patronizing the new businesses are going to walk to shop and dine. So, even though it's transit-oriented development in walkable areas, new development will almost certainly result in more traffic volume in the immediate area. (There's a potential offset at Riverside, but that's the stuff of another post.)

So, what's Newton to do? There is no question about the overwhelming imperative to reduce fuel consumption, and the simplest way to do it is to reduce the need to drive. Newton is uniquely situated to help solve the problem: lots of transit nodes with opportunities to increase density around them. But, there are costs that fall only on Newton: schools, tax revenue, traffic.

As global citizens, we have to do the right thing. But, our leaders -- our mayor, our state legislative delegation, and our congressional delegation -- must make sure that Newton's not just taking one for the team*. We need more generous aid to offset the costs.

*I don't want to overstate this. There are many who believe that denser housing around our village centers will enhance the villages, even accounting for the costs.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Roundabouts in Newton I

Where could we use roundabouts in Newton? Let's start with the three corners of the City Hall triangle, Comm. Ave. at Homer/Lowell, Comm. Ave. at Walnut, and Walnut at Homer.

  • Improve traffic flow
  • Reduce the risk of accidents
  • Provide better pedestrian and bicycle accommodation

Of course, those three factors are not site-specific, so add:

  • Improve an intersection -- Comm. Ave. and Homer/Lowell -- where a young man died
  • Provide high-visibility commitment to test the merits of roundabouts -- you can't get any higher visibility than City Hall
  • Deal better with the awkward way Homer and Walnut meet Fenno
  • Add a little wrinkle to future Boston Marathons


Stopped ... and off

Not totally relevant to the discussion of red-light compliance, but it's red light-related and totally crazy: IBM has filed for a patent on technology that will remotely turn off cars stopped at a stop light.

The technology would turn off the engines of cars stopped at a stop light, and then restart them -- not all at once, but in sequence according to position in line, to eek out the last bit of fuel savings opportunity.

Of course, there's no way this would ever fly. But, even if the technology were practical, it's not nearly as efficient as simply reducing the amount that cars have to stop.


Newton takes second in Mass Commuter Challenge

Woo hoo! Newton riders logged the second-highest total of commute-by-bike numbers in the Mass Commuter Challenge during last week's Bay State Bike Week. Newton residents logged 18,633 miles by bike from home to work and back.


Roundabout Example -- Harwich

Google Maps takes you there ...

View Larger Map

This is Queen Anne Road and Orleans/Harwich Road (Rte. 39) in Harwich. Click through for more details. Use Street View to get an on-the-ground view.

Typical roundabout. Traffic is directed (channelized) into the intersection. There's a small center that is impassable (and available for landscaping/beautification); a concrete apron for emergency vehicles and large trucks, but uncomfortable for cars; and a tight circle designed to limit speeds.

Another view shows the distinction between the concrete apron and the travel lane:


Development for Newton Centre and Newtonville, too!

Tonight's Real Property Re-use Committee's agenda:

#160-09 DIRECTOR OF PLANNING & DEVELOPMENT requesting discussion of potential redevelopment of a block of land bounded by Willow, Centre and Lyman Streets, to include the existing 60,850 sq. ft. Fire Department headquarters and Station #3 site.

#150-09 DIRECTOR OF PLANNING & DEVELOPMENT requesting a discussion re the potential redevelopment of the Austin Street municipal parking lot in Newtonville for mixed-use development, including affordable housing.

7:45 PM in Room 209, City Hall.


Chestnut Hill Square and Riverside community meetings

The good folks at New England Development will present their latest plans for Chestnut Hill Square on Tuesday, June 1 from 7:15 to 9:00 at the Church of the Redeemer, 379 Hammond Street, in the Parish Hall behind the Church on the left.

The developers of the Riverside T station have rescheduled the community meeting that was recently canceled. The next meeting will be held on Thursday June 17, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. at the Williams Elementary School, 141 Grove Street.


Lower Falls bridge project moving forward

According to Dan Driscoll at the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), bids on restoration of the Lower Falls bridge will be opened this month, with work scheduled to begin in June.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Are we asking the right questions?

(Photo used under a Creative Commmons license)

Rather than ask how we can get higher red-light compliance -- by motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians -- maybe we ought to ask why compliance isn't higher in the first place. Maybe the answer is that signalized intersections are, frequently, a sub-optimal solution.

The problem signals solve is how to create gaps for traffic -- motor vehicle, bicycle, or pedestrian -- moving along one line to cross or enter traffic going along another line. A red light on Washington St. at Walnut St. creates a gap that allows cars, bikes, and pedestrians traveling along Walnut St. to cross or (cars and bikes only) join Washington St. It's that simple: traffic lights create gaps.

But, signals are a blunt tool. Frequently, there's no need for the gap -- or the length of the gap -- the light provide. I rode through Brookline late the other night and counted no fewer than 20 cars stopped east- or westbound when there was no crossing traffic whatsoever. Bicyclists regularly run lights with a plenty safe margin. And, pedestrians routinely cross against the light without any risk.

No question that motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians cross against the light when there isn't a safe gap, and sometimes with disastrous results. But, maybe that's a consequence of the natural erosion of signals' authority. When too many people see that traffic signals shouldn't apply to their particular situations, compliance is going to go down. It's human nature.

Signals are the three-eyed boys who cried wolf.

There are no easy answers. But, the search for solutions should start with the recognition that over-stopping has costs beyond promoting (potentially dangerous) non-compliance. Stopping cars for no reason wastes fuel, pollutes, creates wear and tear on cars, and wastes time.


Access to Riverside

What with the focus on the not-to-be direct access from 128, a potentially important improvement to the Riverside story has been overlooked. In the previous incarnation, cars exiting from the west side (along the 128 ramp) could only go right. The developer has added a two-way approach to this entrance from Grove St., so cars can exit the development without going through the entrance directly on Grove St.

Turning towards the development's (back entrance) from Grove St., traffic would have two choices: to the development or to the 128N entrance ramp. From the development, traffic would have two choices: left to Grove St. or right to the 128N entrance ramp. The plans call for a flyover for the ramp-bound traffic from Grove Street over the development entrance.

Creating an exit out of the back side of the development will relieve pressure on the site and on Grove St. Traffic from the office buildings on the west end of the development won't have to go through the development and out Grove St. But, the flyover precludes an opportunity to make the stretch from Grove St. to the back entrance a local road, complete with on-street parking. There's no reason that traffic to the on-ramp can't negotiate a mini-roundabout or traffic signal in front of the back entrance.


Chestnut Hill Square is back on the boards

Update: the TAB had many of the details a few weeks ago.

Update II: The Land Use report's 800,000 sq. ft. number for the previous proposal seemed high. Here's a contemporary TAB article that puts the figure at 245,000 sq. ft. plus 226 residential units. Here are my thoughts on the main subject of the article.

From the report of the May 11 Land Use committee meeting (link currently broken), New England Development is now proposing a 245,000 sq. ft. development with 90 1- and 2-bedroom residential units for Chestnut Hill Square, on the 11.5 acre site of the former Omni supermarket. That's down from 800,000 sq. ft. and 225 residential units. (See note above.) Not clear how the new development will be massed, but the report says a height of 8 stories, which is lower than the two originally proposed 14-story residential towers over the commercial space.

The 245,000 sq. ft. break down as follows:

  • 50,000 -- grocery store
  • 105,000 -- other retail/restaurant
  • 30,000 -- health club
  • 60,000 -- medical office

Note, that the residential units are in addition to the 245,000 sq. ft., not part of it (a point of some confusion the last go 'round).

Besides the (possible?) reduction in space, two other big differences -- based on this limited information: 1) programming, specifically the shift from retail/restaurant to some medical office space, and 2) a curb cut on Florence Street.

The decreased intensity of the use should please a lot of people. And, ninety residential units is still a substantial commitment to making this a mixed-use development. Among the questions to be answered as the proposal is rolled-out: how well integrated is the development. The previous version did a terrible job along the Boylston St./Route 9 side and did not offer adequate pedestrian integration with the surrounding, densely residential neighborhood. And, the curb cut on Florence Street is sure to be a source of controversy.

Why was New England Development before Land Use? To take up New England Development's offer to pay for peer-review of the traffic studies. Apparently, New England Development wants to break ground this year and paying for peer-review will move things along. Land Use authorized New England Development's request.

New England Development is planning to file for a Special Permit at the end of July, with a public hearing in September.


Newton's Bike Friday convoy

Last Friday was the first Bike Friday convoy to Boston. A beautiful morning for a ride down the Charles led by Newton Bike/Ped's George Kirby.

Next convoy: June 25, leaving Newton City Hall at 7:00.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

I Run Red Lights


I said it.

Acrually, I creep across them.

I never "blow" through them.

I do it when it is safer than following "The" Rules of the Road, rules that don't exist for bikers in many intersections.

I do it when the road and the parked car ahead forces me to merge from shoulder into the direct flow of traffic. I am safer to be ahead rather than caught in between tons of moving metal and opening doors.

I get a few second jump on the tons of growling metal on my back and dozens of itchy feet ready to jump from brake to accelerator.

I see there is no left turning traffic coming across my road, and I know that my light comes just after that light.

I look left, right, and behind.

I go.

I am not crunched.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Could a roundabout have saved Andy von Guerard?

Commenting on the TAB blog, Peter Furth thinks outside the signalized intersection box for an infrastructure change that might have made a difference on Monday: the roundabout.

But, first, a refresher on what a roundabout -- a modern roundabout -- is and isn't. A modern roundabout is a circular intersection that a) requires entering users to yield to traffic already in the circle and b) is designed with a tight enough curve to slow all traffic to 30 MPH or less. It is not a traditional, Horace James-type rotary, which is designed for high-speed entry into and through the circle.

A modern roundabout is safer than old-fashioned rotaries and signalized intersections because all traffic slows to a narrow range of less lethal speed and because those navigating the roundabout have fewer decisions to make. The modern roundabout reduces the number of points of potential conflict by up to 75% compared to a signalized intersection.

Less technically, a modern roundabout requires a cooperative approach to navigating an intersection compared to a signalized intersection, where motorists proceed when they have a right that has been withdrawn from other drivers competing for the right to proceed. Drivers in a modern roundabout are presented with the responsibility to determine when it's safe to proceed, while creating opportunities to do so.

So, what does this have to do with the fatal collision at Comm. Ave. and Lowell/Homer? Had the intersection been configured as a modern roundabout, there wouldn't have been the same calculus about or the same incentives for von Guerard's ultimately fatal behavior. Approaching a modern roundabout, von Guerard would not have been gambling if the light cycle provided him enough time. Instead, he would have looked into the intersection to see when the next gap would open up.

Perhaps more importantly, the cost/benefit analysis that von Guerard got so badly wrong (and every red-running biker or driver makes) would have been different. He wouldn't have faced the wait for a complete light cycle to proceed. In a modern roundabout, von Guerard would have been able to proceed as soon as a gap opened.

In a modern roundabout, what other users of the intersection are doing and going to do is much clearer. And, the wait to continue is shorter.

Note that the last sentence didn't end "shorter for bikers." Modern roundabouts are better for everyone. Traffic flow through a modern roundabout improves by up to 50%. If anything, many bicycle advocates are worried about bicycle navigation through them. (I'll take up that issue in another post.)

In one sense, pedestrian and bicyclist red-running impatience with signalized intersections is just a symptom of the horrible inefficiency of the green-yellow-red cycle for everyone. As I've written in other posts, cars are required to stop too often and for too long. Stopping (and then starting again) wastes fuel, wears out cars, dumps pollutants in our neighborhood, creates driver impatience, wastes driver time, &c. The goal should be to reduce speeds generally and to reduce speeds where there is the potential for conflict -- intersections and crosswalks, in particular -- to a slow enough speed that cars can stop and yield if necessary without danger or drama.

Roundabouts don't solve all problems. There are going to be intersections where the traffic flow is beyond the design limits of a roundabout. Roundabouts don't create traffic calming between intersections (though the may have an indirect benefit compared to stop signs or lights). Pedestrian-actuated signals may be required to slow and then stop traffic at mid-block crosswalks, where a roundabout would not be indicated. Stop signs are effective where right-of-way is contested. &c.

But, we've got a whole bunch of signalized intersections where traffic is inefficiently managed, where the appeal of pedestrian jay-walking and biker and motorist red-running is high, where we're jamming up traffic when we don't have to. Roundabouts in those intersections would be better. And, the intersection of Comm. Ave. and Lowell/Homer is one of those intersections.

If Andy von Guerard ran the light because he wanted to exempt himself from the inefficiency of the traffic light, he paid the ultimate price for his bad judgment. But, that didn't make him wrong about the intersection, just unlucky.


Andy von Guerard, RIP

As Steve said in a thoughtful comment, it's entirely appopriate, from a policy perspective to speculate and analyze what happened the other day that killed a bicyclist in Newton. We don't want people to die in crashes on our streets. Ever. And, we want to promote the right kind of transportation decisions. Understanding what happened is critical.

But, as we all know, this is first and foremost a terrible tragedy. Dan Atkinson has a nice story in the TAB about Andy von Guerard, the young man who died way to early.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Something doesn't add up

Thinking about yesterday's fatal bike crash in Newton, it doesn't make sense. When a biker runs a just-turned red light, he generally does it because he thinks he can make it through the intersection before traffic that's getting the green across his path starts. If he's cutting it close, he's putting himself in the position to get hit or -- if timing is really poor -- maybe hit the front of the car moving across. When there's a near miss, typically the biker swerves to the front of the car and the car stops short.

But, the report is that the biker hit the rear of the SUV.

He could have been trying to squeeze between the SUV and the car behind. But, riding through the gap is not something bikers do early in the light cycle. It's usually something bikers try when crossing traffic is thinned out.

According to the car behind the SUV involved, they had just gotten the light, so it's not likely that the SUV had entered the intersection to go left and had to stop for traffic in the opposite direction. That particular light delays the green for southbound traffic and gives a green left arrow to northbound traffic crossing from Homer to Lowell.

The only possible explanation that I can think of is that the biker saw that he'd just gotten a red, but saw that the light for southbound traffic was still red, figured he could shoot the intersection before crossing traffic got the green, and was totally unprepared for northbound traffic getting the early green. But, even if that were the case, it's tough to imagine the biker hitting the rear of the crossing car.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Boston, the new Portland

Note: I've been working on this post for a few days, well before news today that a bicyclist had died in Newton. With any luck, the improvements to Boston and the improvements that they inspire will make biking safer and reduce the chance of more cyclist deaths.

In the course of a week, whole sections of first-class biking facilities have popped up in the parts of Boston I travel through. It's like bike-lane fairies moved into town for the week!

Kenmore Square now has bicycle accommodations inbound and outbound on Beacon St. and Commonwealth Ave. And, not just whatever-we-could-squeeze-in bike accommodations. East of Kenmore Square, Beacon Street eastbound has been reduced by a lane to create space for a nice wide bike lane. That's the picture above. The same is true of Comm. Ave. eastbound and Beacon St. eastbound approaching the Brookline line, below.

Where there isn't room for bike lanes, there are sharrows every few feet: eastbound from the Brookline line until the bridge over the Turnpike, for instance. Or, as in this picture, from the bridge to Park Drive. (The sharrows start after the two dashed lines meet. Click through for the full-size image, where the sharrows are more visible.)

And, what has happened on Comm. Ave. from Charlesgate East, under Mass. Ave., and down to the Public Garden is nothing short of miraculous. At Charlesgate East, there's a painted bike box for bicyclists to wait for the light ahead of traffic (a common accommodation in Europe, but novel 'round here). The bike box positions riders to get left for bike lane on the left side of the road. The bike lane continues through the underpass, where two travel lanes have been reduced to one. Then, the left-side bike lanes run the length of Comm. Ave. to the Public Garden. Which means that you can ride that just-under-a-mile stretch of Comm. Ave. in a separate bike lane, without having to worry about double-parked cars and opening car doors. This design, by the way, is a student's idea. Then Northeastern student and now Boston DPW civil engineer Zach Wassmouth produced the design for a senior design project under the direction of NS&S fave Peter Furth.

This picture is from Mass. Ave. looking east and shows the treatment in and out of the underpass.

It's really tough to put into words how remarkable these bike improvements are and what a sea change it is to have Boston setting the standard for comprehensive bike accommodations.

There are (at least) two implications for Newton. First, there is some degree of bicycle accommodation along most of the route from Newton Centre to Kenmore Square through to the end of Comm. Ave. A gaping hole is the section of Beacon Street from to the Boston line, which will be filled in the next few weeks. Newton is connected to a growing regional network of bicycle facilities.

Second, the bar has been raised. Boston's been an easy target. And, has not always been clear that the promise of naming Nicole Freedman as the city's bike coordinator would change actually result in any meaningful change in Boston's bike friendliness. But, there can be no question now. They're taking lanes and spilling paint! This is a city that's intent on being world-class, not just the best in the neighborhood. Newton's now lags not only Brookline and Cambridge, but Boston, too. (Boston!?!?!?) Locally, signs are good (see the pro-active city attention to the Beacon St. gap), but the effort needs to be sustained.

This last picture is Beacon St. westbound heading towards the bridge over the 'Pike:


Bicyclist killed in Newton

The TAB is reporting the death this afternoon of a 21-year-old man in the intersection of Lowell/Homer and Comm. Ave., hard by City Hall. According to an eye witness, the biker struck the back of an SUV that was crossing the intersection.

Way too early to make any judgments about the cause of the accident or of the young man's death, but it seems from the eye witness that the SUV had the light.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Variable pricing is as old as parking meters

From Gizmodo, a celebration of the parking meter's 75th birthday (as calculated from the date of Carl Magee's patent application). Read it, it's nicely cranky.

Note that in the first installation, in Oklahoma City:

Your five cents (about $.80 in today's money) got you anywhere from 15 minutes' to an hour's worth of parking, depending on location.

That's right, variable pricing.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

After the sting

Apparently, the ouch has already gone out of the May 4 crosswalk sting. Riding east on Beacon St. yesterday, just before 9:00 AM, there were pedestrians in the crosswalk at Lawrence Ave. (one of the sting locations), and the crosswalks east and west. (There are three in close proximity, which makes sense given that it's a busy college campus.) And, in each case, at least five cars drove through the crosswalk. No cars stopped; in all three cases the pedestrians waited for a gap in the traffic.

It's not that common that I'll see pedestrians in all three crosswalks at one time. But, it's absolutely par for the course to see motorist non-compliance.

Just goes to show that enforcement has limited, if any, effect changing motorist behavior. Maybe a sustained, concentrated effort on the particular problem of driving through crosswalks could make a difference. But, one-shot deals aren't going to do it.


License readers and parking limits, no meters

Turns out that the principal reason for buying the license reading technology is not to enforce meter time limits. (The sound you're hearing is a deep sigh of relief from meter stuffers.) It's to enforce parking limits where there are no meters.

Everything I wrote about variable meter rates still applies. Instead of time limits to help encourage turnover, simply apply market-based rates that vary according to proximity to prime locations.

But, what about parking time limits without meters?

Simple answer: we shouldn't have them. Time limits that is. We should have meters.

It is practically gospel at Traffic Council that meters and residential areas don't mix. So, unless there are some exceptions, there are no meters in front of houses in Newton. The city gives away a valuable commodity. (If it's desirable enough to warrant parking time limits, it's got some value.) And, we end up with a variably enforced, all-or-nothing proposition: abide the time limit or pay a big fine.

It would be much better to use meters to create the kind of parking limitations we desire. Set a rate that will discourage the kind of parking that is objectionable. And, receive some reasonable tariff for using a valuable city asset the right way.

At the very least, meters in residential areas ought to be part of the toolkit, not something that we reflexively rule out.


Bike Newton Rally -- Ride with Setti

Don't miss the annual Bike Newton rally & ride Sunday from 12-3, a terrific time that's becoming a Newton tradition.

Steve Miller
of the Livable Streets Alliance and the Harvard School will be the main speaker.

Mayor Setti Warren will lead the ride.

Don't forget to register.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More on vilage-to-village bike routes

This comment makes it clear that I need to flesh out the village-to-village point a little more:

Given the relative distances and travel times involved, people walk from their homes to village centres. They >bike> from village centre to village centre to village centre and beyond. In choosing where to allocate scarce bicycle infrastructure resources, inter-village upgrades promise far higher impact per resource unit than intra-village collectours. This argument by SR baffles. Do readers agree or disagree?

A commonly made suggestion, as I understand it, is that the provision of village-center-to-village-center bike paths should be a high priority. Such bike paths would be lovely amenities. I look forward to the day that they exist.

But, any focus on village-center-to-village-center bike paths ignores a cold, hard reality. For the most part, it's not that easy to bike to any village center in the first place. And, I presume, biking to village center A would be a prerequisite to enjoying the path from village center A to village center B.

There are a bunch of different types of cycling we want to promote, undertaken by cyclists of varying skills. One particular activity/skill combination is the riding by cyclists of modest skill, experience, and confidence to take care of errands that they do by car, currently: pick up coffee, go to the drugstore, get some food, &c. There are plenty of people who, contra the commenter, don't walk to the nearest village center, but drive. Providing them with safe, comfortable, and convenient bike opportunities might convert some of those car trips to bike trips.

To be clear, these are the people who live near village center A, but are discouraged from biking there by current conditions. They are not prepared to bike from village A to village B, because they can't get to village A in the first place.

So, the goal should be to improve access to village centers, in every expanding circles and by ever more points of entry. Not only would such access increase the amount of a critical bike use and provide the pre-requisite to village-center-to-village-center travel, it ends up providing the paths. It's not, strictly speaking, an either/or proposition. If you can provide someone equi-distant to two village centers access to both, you've created a path between them.

But, let's first focus on getting people from their homes to village centers.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Bicyclists need to "earn" respect? Really?

Despite the headline -- What cyclists neglect: After a fatal crash, they want more respect on the road. They need to earn it. -- an opinion piece in the Globe Magazine isn't terrible. But, it's another in a long-line of unfortunate blame-the-victim broadsides that impose a disproportionately higher burden on bicyclists than on motorists.

I can't quibble with author Dan Most's recommendations:

  • Give lots of room to buses. Good advice for other large vehicles. Trash trucks seem to inflict a higher body count than most vehicles.
  • Wear a helmet. But, that has nothing to do with avoiding conflict, only surviving it.
  • Don't wear earphones.
  • Wear bright clothes.
  • Ride defensively.
  • Strive to be visible. Assume you're invisible. (Can't go wrong citing NS&S fave David Watson.)

But, he uncritically quotes a Boston police officer misunderstanding the law. Bicyclists are not supposed to abide by the same set of laws. Bikes can pass on the right. Drivers have special obligations to avoid bikes. Cars can pass bikes in a single lane of traffic. Bikes can go in bike lanes. Cars have to be registered. There are special bike-specific lighting requirements. Drivers have to be registered and insured.

Even more objectionable is Most's suggestion that the motorist v. bike problem is at least as much a problem of biker's not respecting motorists, that cyclists somehow share an equal burden for the difficult environment cyclists face. He reduces (to zero?) the special obligation drivers should have as pilots of potentially lethal multi-ton vehicles. And, he completely ignores the fact that driver indifference (at best) or aggression (at worst) plus an overallocation of our streets to cars keeps potential cyclists off the streets entirely.

As I laid out in more detail here, it's not necessarily the sensitivity like Most's to cyclists' flaws that irritates, it's the fact that the blame-the-bikers attitude reveals the extent to which we've normalized the often atrocious behavior of motorists.

And, it's unfortunate that Most doesn't take any policy stand. With Nashville underwater, record rains in Massachusetts, a Gulf of Mexico oil spill that would fill Cape Cod Bay and then some, traffic eroding our quality of life, &c., there's good reason to favor bicycles over cars. Why exactly should there be a burden on cyclists to earn respect?


Automating to solve the wrong problem

Newton's going to go high-tech to catch people who feed the meter beyond the posted time limit. The Globe had a story today. The TAB covered it in March. License plate reading cameras and zippy software identify cars that have been parked too long, allowing traffic enforcement agents to troll the streets for scofflaws quickly and efficiently.

But, it's a modern solution to enforcing outmoded parking policies.

Time limits are a crude tool to enforce turnover. Too low meter rates make it attractive for too many people to park on the street, so you need time limits to get people moving in and out of spaces. But, uniform limits and rates across most of a village centre make it attractive to feed the meter, especially when there is no alternative.
Variable meter rates are a better solution. Variable according to time of day and variable according to proximity. It takes some trial and error to find it, but there is a rate for every stretch of on-street parking that will yield 85% occupancy in a particular period. Eight-five percent occupancy is the level at which there is (nearly) always a space available for the next person who needs one, satisfying the turnover requirement. No need to impose a time limit on the person willing to pay for several hours of such parking privilege. Among other things, a time limit doesn't differentiate between someone having a long lunch and browsing in stores and an employee taking advantage of cheap rates to park close to the front door.

High rates on prime spots and lower rates on less desirable spots moves the less desirable parker out of the prime spots. If we have sufficient parking in our village centers to accommodate long-term parkers -- commuters and employees, principally -- let the market decide where they should park and how many spaces they should take. Price the second tier spaces to yield 85% occupancy. If need be, create a third or fourth tier. But, so long as there is turnover in every tier, who cares if some spaces are occupied by long-term parkers, so long as they are willing to pay the market rate.

Variable meters require some higher tech than the meters we've got. Too bad the city invested in high tech that enforces an outmoded model rather than high tech that would allow us to modernize our parking policies.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Crosswalks and the Burden of Anxiety

Over on the TAB blog, TAB editorial cartoonist Mark Marderosian takes umbrage with pedestrians who exercise their right to use the crosswalk:

People suddenly turning 90 degrees and walking out onto the street, no matter how close a car is, not caring that a pileup or screeching of brakes is imminent. It happens too many times that people are bound and determined to prove they have the right of way, even if it literally kills them.

The crosswalk is not in a plexiglass bubble.

Mark has, implicitly, raised the key policy question: who should have the burden of anxiety in a crosswalk? Should every motorist be responsible for making sure that there is no conflict between car and pedestrian in a crosswalk, approaching each crosswalk at a speed and with necessary attention to stop for any pedestrian? Or, should the pedestrian approach the crosswalk wary of cars that aren't prepared to stop?

There's a certain logical appeal to Mark's outrage. Drivers go through many more crosswalks when there aren't pedestrians present than they go through crosswalks when there are. There will be a whole lot of wasted caution if every driver going through every crosswalk needs to be alert for the possibility of a pedestrian and be able to stop safely. Pedestrians, on the other hand only need to be worried about a potential conflict when they are actually approaching a crosswalk. There is no wasted caution for pedestrians. There is a pedestrian in the crosswalk every time a pedestrian enters a crosswalk.

It's much more efficient to have pedestrians shoulder the burden of anxiety.

The problem with the efficiency argument is that it masks serious, negative policy implications.

When you put the burden of anxiety on the pedestrian, you discourage people from becoming pedestrians. You forfeit roads to cars. Roads become barriers between neighbors.

Cars may be a necessary evil, but we urgently need to reduce car use. Global climate change. The catastrophic ecological damage caused by our dependence on oil (see the Gulf of Mexico). Traffic that's ruining our city.

Our policies need to be in harmony with our social goals. If we want to promote walking (and biking), we need to create an environment where pedestrians don't fear for their lives in crosswalks.

Inefficient as it may seem, we really do need drivers to treat crosswalks as plexiglass bubbles. The law unequivocally gives pedestrians the right-of-way. The risk of serious injury or death arises because of the size and potential speed of cars. There's everything right with expecting that motorists live up to the letter of the law, even if it doesn't seem so efficient.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stop signs are costly, roundabouts rock

Five minutes explaining why stop signs are cheap to install, but impose a heavy cost, and why roundabouts are good for everybody. Not sure about that weird sign proposal, though.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Newton Pedestrian Crossing Sting

As the TAB is reporting, Newton and BC cops conducted a sting operation at three Newton crosswalks and ticketed or warned 48 drivers for failure to yield to pedestrians. Excellent work, but what lasting impact will / should come of it?

1. It demonstrates, pretty vividly, the breadth of the problem. All three are significant crosswalks. I travel over the crosswalk on Beacon near Lawrence every day. It's clearly marked. It's in an area -- by a college campus -- that you'd expect to see pedestrians. Site lines, especially during no-parking times, are excellent. Yet, motorists routinely ignore pedestrians. Eleven examples in 90 minutes seems, if anything, low.

2. It might just increase compliance. It's frequently noted that enforcement is only effective enforcing speed limits and stop signs when the enforcement is substantial and frequent at a particular problem location ... a commitment that no police department can make. But, I've often wondered if that's true for crosswalks. I wonder if publicity from such stings -- more than even the threat of tickets -- might gain for Newton the reputation as a place where crosswalks need to be monitored by motorists. Unlike speeding and running stop signs and traffic signals, most motorists probably recognize a duty to stop for pedestrians, they just aren't paying close enough attention when they approach crosswalks. Which leads to the next point ...

3. It demonstrates that we need more pedestrian-operated signals -- flashing lights. People don't pay close attention to crosswalks because, in all but a few places with high pedestrian traffic and no traffic signals, the odds of a pedestrian in a crosswalk are very low. Travel cross the city and its likely that you'll drive over a bunch of crosswalks and see no pedestrians. The beauty of a pedestrian-actuated signal is how it captures the attention of a driver when the attention is needed: when there is actually a pedestrian in the area.

4. It's not just a safety thing ... directly. Safety is clearly an issue. Too many people get hit or killed in what should be a safe zone. There is also, though, an insidious effect on walking based on the perception of safety. If crosswalks aren't respected, people don't feel comfortable crossing busy streets on foot. Which means that people either drive when they don't need to, or those busy streets divide our neighborhoods. On a personal note, the nine-year-old son of NS&S has friends to the east and friends to the west within a quarter-mile of our home. He's far likelier to do something with the friends east because he has to cross Parker Street to get to the friends to the west.

So, bully for the cops for confronting an important public safety issue. If this is going to have any lasting effect, though, it can't be a one-off. And, it's only one piece of the puzzle.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Reflecting on Clean Water

This whole episode has me reflecting on the water quality that we take for granted in the US. In India (where my family and I live frequently) urban areas generally have two plumbing systems:

1) city water, which is treated for drinking, and usually comes on for an hour or so early in the morning. One job of the average housewife is to leave the tap open at night with a large pan or bucket under it, and then wake up at 4:30 am or so to turn it off when the bucket is full. One gets accustomed to the sound of water suddenly ringing in a metal pail in the pre-dawn darkness.

2) raw water, which is only minimally treated. This water is used for showers, toilets, and laundry, and usually available all day in an apartment, but only because most urban buildings are outfitted with a large cement tank at ground level, a pump, and one or more big plastic tanks on the roof. Water comes on at odd times & fills the tank. It comes on less and less the longer it's been since the rainy season. Last summer, water shortages in Pune were dire, and raw water supplies needed to be supplemented by tanker-trucks.

I've helped lug water up several flights of stairs from a local outdoor community tap when the raw-water supply to the buildings fails. Let me tell you, when you're finished carrying water up four flights of stairs, you're pretty careful with how you use it.

It led me to wonder, while boiling our drinking water, what we'd do in a real crisis: say, if the water supply was cut off entirely for a week. We've got two supplies (Quabbin for drinking, and the emergency reservoirs to keep the system charged for fires) but only one set of pipes, which leaves householders over a barrel. I'd go down to the Charles with buckets, I suppose, and learn to tolerate the taste of chlorine.

What does this all have to do with walking and biking? Well, I hear a lot of people are wasting time and fuel driving all over creation looking for bottled water.

To get my clean water today, I walked from my bedroom to my kitchen, turned on a tap, filled a pasta pot, and boiled it. It's that easy. Why drive, when the water in your kitchen is nearly free?


Gas Prices Up

At $2.869, the cost of a gallon of regular unleaded is up $.06 this month, $.24 on the year, and up $.83 from a year ago. (Figures from AAA Southern New England.)

Meanwhile, fuel economy goes up, making gas-tax revenue per mile driven lower. And, the cost of road maintenance and construction, which is highly tied to the cost of oil, will go up.

It's time for a gas tax hike.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

View of Water Main Break from Charles Street, Auburndale

The precious stuff that usually runs UNDER Newton's Streets and Sidewalks: