Saturday, July 31, 2010

Critical Mass goes mainstream

Critical Mass is a self-organizing bike ride held throughout the world in cities; in Boston it happens the last friday of each month, beginning at 5:30 at Copley Square. I have been ambivalent about this ride because of a few bikers who actively antagonize motorists, but what I saw yesterday made me more comfortable about being an open supporter of this fun ride and recurring political statement ("Who's streets? Our streets!").

To explain why, let me start with some observations of the ride yesterday, which by my estimate numbered about 300, and moved from Copley Square through the financial district, over to East Cambridge and down Mass Ave to Harvard Square, over to Allston, down Comm Ave to BU, kenmore square to Brookline Ave and into the Fenway, at which time I peeled off and headed home.

Some observations:
- about 40% female; 60% male.
- youngest I saw was 8 yrs daughter with mom; oldest was a 60 yr old man.
- most honking cars' drivers were smiling.
- only a couple bike-car conflicts - one biker jerk was weaving in front of oncoming auto traffic - giving a bad name for all.
- pedestrians, seated outdoor cafe people, waving, smiling, lots of thumbs up and passing high fives.
- we got a spontaneous boston police escort bringing up the rear; had his lights flashing but no siren. The officer used the bullhorn on a couple occasions to ask the group to stay in the lane, and said THANK YOU!
- Firefighters at a Boston station gave us the thumbs up.
- As many women as men were willing to stand in the intersection to hold traffic while the group passed through.

To summarize, I am seeing lots of smart young people, men and women, for the most part asserting their legal right to the road, not looking for trouble.

Some ask, why friday at rush hour? Isn't this set up to antagonize motorists? I don't think so. If I put all those bikers in cars instead, traffic would be much worse. Friday at 5:30pm is actually a really nice time for a ride and convenient for working people - bikers should not be relegated to the streets when it is inconvenient for them, but convenient for motorists. And a good portion of the ride actually happens past rush hour. The ride is no more unnecessary than the many tourists in cars driving around during the same time.

Is holding the intersection wrong? If so, then there is a double standard, because it is common to do this on the city-sanctioned bike friday convoys.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Define reducing carbon footprint

Mayor Warren told the newly convened Transportation Advisory Committee, that its mission is to help the city figure out how to reduce its carbon footprint. Completely the right goal, but it has to be very carefully defined.

Are we trying to reduce Newton's overall carbon footprint? Today, some number of tons of CO2 are emitted from Newton's streets every day. Is the goal to reduce that number?

Or, are we trying to maximize Newton's contribution to carbon reduction efforts regionally or, dare we say it, globally?

This is not a trivial question. If the goal is to reduce Newton's carbon output, we'll want to encourage current residents to drive less, a noble and appropriate effort. But, adding residents to the city will inevitably offset any reduction achieved and will probably increase Newton's CO2 output.

But, adding residents to Newton, especially around our transit hubs, would be one of the most environmentally effective things the city could do. Residents who live near transit are likely to produce less carbon than the average Newton resident, lowering our per-person CO2 output. And, residents who live near transit in Newton are likely to produce less carbon than they would living elsewhere in the Boston metro area.

So, what's the measure of our goal?


Saturday, July 24, 2010

What Passes for a Traffic Study at Riverside

In the world of simulation modeling, analysts routinely conduct what is called a sensitivity analysis. For a variable of interest (say vehicle trips in a traffic study), modelers tweak the value of an independent variable (say # of parking spaces) - increasing/decreasing it by some fraction, and evaluate how sensitively the output variable (traffic) responds.

The "Traffic Impact and Access Study" prepared by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. for the developers of Riverside, has a glaring, fundamental flaw: it does not study the impact of number of parking spaces on traffic. This should be one of the FIRST things produced by a traffic study for a proposed development.

The study takes, as a given, the number of prescribed parking spots (2,720), and then estimates vehicle trips (and estimates that they will more than triple the current number of daily vehicle trips!).

Thus, probably the single most direct determinant of traffic is not studied in the traffic study.

At a minimum, this study should be extended to evaluate how the number of daily vehicle trips would change if the number of parking spaces were decreased by, say 1/3rd or 1/2, or increased by those fractions.

Going one step further, involving a glimmer of enlightened thinking about "transit oriented development", the analysis could then estimate how restricted parking would drive more use of the D line, the Commuter Rail from the western suburbs, and buses.

When this study is done, it will show clearly that more parking = more traffic. The number of parking spaces is currently prescribed to almost triple, from 960 to 2720. The number of daily vehicle trips is estimated to more than triple (3.25X, to be exact). This alone paints a picture of the tight relationship between parking and traffic.

In their original statement on the proposed development, the Auburndale Community Association stated as a precondition that no additional traffic could be generated from this development. Today we are facing more than a tripling. The question is whether we meant what we said.

Riverside neighbors need to understand that parking is the key lever on traffic. This is a far more effective focus than to focus on complicated freeway ramps and yet more pavement. More parking does not alleviate the traffic problem; it exacerbates it. The current plan allocates the most space to parking (748,000 sq ft), more than the office space and retail space combined. For "transit oriented development" this makes no sense.

Some Riverside neighbors are concerned that reducing parking in the development increases parking on residential streets. The straightforward solution is to restrict parking on residential streets by time period or to residents only, like they do in Boston.


Monday, July 19, 2010

More Pie (seating)

In light of my support for the Panera special petition, somebody asked me what the city should do for all the existing restaurants in Newton Centre that have seating limited by the regulations that were waived for Panera. My answer: lift the restrictions on the existing restaurants.

Here's an opportunity to do just that. Pie wants more seats. Four and twenty more blackbirds baked in the pie seats.

They should get them.

We want more restaurants in Newton Centre*. We want the restaurants in Newton Centre to succeed. We want Newton Centre landlords to want restaurants as tenants. Imposing onerous, success-inhibiting parking requirements on restaurants is not the answer, unless the question is how can we get more banks in Newton Centre.

If it turns out that we need more parking, build some shared parking!

*And Newton Highlands. And West Newton. And Newtonville. And Auburndale. And ...


Brookline and Red Sox parking, cont.

As recommended here and discussed here, Brookline is going to use meter rates to discourage on-street parking for Sox games, or profit from it.

When the rate for parking is too low, you get bad parking (Fenway patrons, not local business customers) and you lose a revenue opportunity. If it costs more than 20 bucks to park in a private garage for the game, why shouldn't be 20 bucks to park on the street?


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Gridlock on the Charles

A little outside the blog's normal scope, but the whole family hit Nahanton Park for the festivities as Charles River Canoe and Kayak celebrated the opening of their latest rental site. It's incredibly exciting that CRCK has made another section of the Charles available to the non-boat opening public. Judging by the crowd, I'm not the only excited one. Word is that Newton's Parks and Rec department was instrumental in making this beautiful stretch of the Charles more accessible.

With a flotilla of three kayaks, Son of NS&S and Princess NS&S took their grandfather on a paddle up between the marshes south of Nonantum Street along Cutler Park. A totally different experience than one gets starting at CRCK's Comm. Ave. or Brighton locations. Beautiful.

Check it out!


Friday, July 16, 2010

Saddest sign in Newton?

This sign is on Beacon Street at Hammond Street. It rather pointedly reminds us that our new bike lanes come to an end.

Let's get that sign moved! First to Hammond Pond Parkway and then further west.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bike Safety exhibit at the library

NS&S contributor Steve Runge has curated a nifty bike safety exhibit at the Newton Free Library. It's on the second floor near the Young Adult desk, just off the main stairs in the front of the building.

Bike there. Check it out. Bike home more safely.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sorting out what happened on Ward Street?

Is anybody clear on the basics of the fatal crash this week?

We know, because he's told both the TAB and the Globe, that 81-year-old Detlev Vagts, in his car, hit 54-year-old Marcia Kearney, on her scooter, killing Kearney. But what transpired is murky.

In the TAB, Dan Atkinson reports:

[Vagts] said he was traveling west on Ward Street and Kearney was making a left turn in front of him onto Grant Avenue.

The Grant and Ward intersection is a T; only westbound traffic on Ward can turn left. So, Kearney must have been ahead of Vagts, traveling in the same direction.
The Globe's account:

Vagts was driving on Ward Street past Grant Avenue when he said Kearney’s helmet and body appeared suddenly in front of the car.

‘‘It was too late to stop; she was making a turn from my right to the left,’’ Vagts said. ‘‘It was really shocking to see her lying there.’’

Was he in the process of passing her? Was she riding on the far right and then slowed suddenly to turn?


Friday, July 2, 2010

Lights on Needham Street

Traffic lights have been installed on Needham Street.

Pics and analysis to come.

Gonna help? Gonna hurt?


Newton Library staff: Read Tom Vanderbilt

Over on the Newton Reads blog, someone (it's not signed) is recommending Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt.

Read it. Report back in the comments.


Riverside, headlines, and the rest of the story

The following is going to run in the TAB next week:

The headline on my op-ed last week -- Roche: Current Riverside proposal all burden, no benefit for Newton -- suggests that I might not have been clear. "All burden, no benefit for Newton" is language that describes the commuter lot at Riverside Station and, by implication, the commuter parking garage included in development designs. Regarding commuter parking, that's the right language. Whatever benefit to the T and commuters of commuter spaces, it is not a benefit that flows to Newton. We only bear the burden.

All burden, no benefit is not, however, language I would use to describe the the overall design. The op-ed focused on one particular, decisive aspect of the development; I did not have space to address the whole development. Forced to render judgment today, I'd probably give a thumbs down. New development plus commuter parking on that scale is going to produce too much traffic. But that doesn't mean that the development would be all burden, no benefit, only that the benefits -- and they are meaningful -- don't outweigh the burdens.

What are the benefits?

  • Commercial office space -- significant tax revenue with a relatively low services burden. There are no free lunches, but office space served by 128 and an existing T station is a relatively cheap sandwich. And, it's not totally out-of-character with its immediate neighbors -- a hotel and a large office building -- though the bulk is not going to be welcome by residential neighbors.
  • Dense residential -- immediately on the Green line, very green. The substantial residential component is consistent with Newton's Comprehensive Plan and most welcome, setting aside the impact of adding any children to city schools. (The conflict between the green benefit of dense residential around existing T stations and the legitimate concern that Newton can't afford more school children demands a city/state solution.)
  • Retail -- potential benefit. There ought to be more retail, to make it more of a walkable district, where many needs are met without a car. But, too much of the wrong sort of retail could just encourage more traffic. In any case, the retail should be better integrated with the residential and office space.
  • Open space -- pretty good. Apart from the cutesy grove-along-Grove name, the linear park concept is interesting and better than earlier proposals (a sign that the developer is listening and the design is evolving). Frankly, at this site, open space on the site is probably not as important as providing multiple outstanding paths through the site and to the green space around the site. Turn the state-owned green space between Recreation Road and 128 into a park, for instance.
  • Roundabouts. No matter how much traffic is ultimately generated by the development and whether or not there is direct access from 128, properly-designed roundabouts are going to improve Grove Street.

Not only did I lack space to give a comprehensive review, such a review would have been premature. There is an ongoing process where the developer has been presenting -- and will continue to present -- designs as those designs evolve -- in response to feedback from the community. In fairness to the developer and the process, it would not be fair to render judgment yet. Not until there actually is a proposal.

That process is noteworthy. Unlike any developer on any other project I've seen, this developer has included the community in the design process and responded. One notable example: another activist suggested making the stretch from Grove Street to the new back entrance two-way, making it the entrance also an exit -- a substantial, transforming, unorthodox change. The developer subsequently lobbied a reluctant Mass DOT, and that change is now part of the plan and will substantially reduce the load on the Grove Street entrance. I am aware of no developer on any project of this scope that has or would entertain, much less implement, such a significant change to their plans, in large part because the plans they present the community are final and not really open for real input. (As Chestnut Hill Square and Northland move forward, I'd be happy to be proven wrong.)

One only hopes that the developer will push to get rid of the commuter parking!


Not so happy pavement markings

These are the pavement markings I mentioned on Monday, marking out where last week a Newton man drove over the double-yellow line and crashed into and killed a Chelsea man. This is looking west, with the eastbound lane to the left. Presumably, "POI" means point-of-impact. The path of fluid west and then into the westbound lane is, as I understand it, the path of the dead man's mini-van, post-collision.

Here's a picture looking the other direction, into the westbound path of the Newton driver. There don't appear to be any skid marks in front of the POI box. (I took these pictures on Tuesday.)


Thursday, July 1, 2010

What if there were zero additional parking at Riverside?

GaryR was audacious enough to raise this question in a comment on an earlier post. Let's entertain that seemingly crazy idea for a moment. Where would all the office workers have to come from? Let's see - it would be very difficult to drive there. Hmm. What other form of transport could one use? The green line?

The Green Line! (Also the Auburndale Commuter Rail stop, 10 min by foot from Riverside.)

All the empty morning reverse commute trains from Lechmere/Govt Center to Riverside would start to fill up with reverse, PAYING, commuters. Boston would see a revitalized real estate market, with new young professionals seeking rentals or condos in Boston, Brookline - heck, maybe even Newton - as a home base. Newton would be growing a healthy connection with Boston and itself along the D line corridor, rather than an unhealthy connection with sprawling exurbia. Riverside development would nurture the T, not I-95.

Is it not in the MBTA's best interests to promote T ridership, especially on empty trains that are returning anyway? Must we serve the exurbs rather than Newton-Brookline-Boston to fill office space with workers? What kind of exurban development pressure would the MBTA be further promoting by increasing parking so massively? Why wouldn't limited parking promote jobs for Newtonites (or relocating ones) right here in Auburndale or Lower Falls, or a couple stops down the line, raising local property values?

Is GaryR's question so crazy after all?


How 'bout them bike lanes!

That's my personal favorite part of the new bike lanes on Beacon Street: the shift of the center line, the left-turn lane, and the westbound travel lane to make room for the westbound bike lane. (That's Hammond Street at the top of the picture.) Before the bike lanes, there was rarely room for a bike if traffic was queued at the light. Now, there's plenty of room. (Biker's beware, the bike lane doesn't render drivers magically attentive. Watch out for right-turning traffic!)

The next shot shows more or less shows the entire stretch of bike lane. (This one needs to be seen in full size. Go ahead and click on it and come back.) The seam in the foreground is the Boston/Newton line. The crest of the hill where the bike lanes vanish is Hammond Street, where the bike lanes actually end. It's kind of depressing that Newton's entire inventory of bike lanes can be captured in a single photo. But, you've got to start somewhere!

This is what you see heading eastbound, crossing over Hammond. To the left, in the westbound lane, you can see how the lane routes around the bus stop, to avoid conflict with the frequent BC shuttle buses.

Finally, just for fun, this is the golden spike of our regional bike lane network, the point where the Newton-applied stripe overlaps the Boston-applied.


Helmet counts

Last week riding home from East Cambridge (hard by the Lechmere Station) to NS&S HQ in Newton Centre, I decided to count the helmet status of every rider I saw. Keeping in mind that it was a highly unscientific count (with a substantial bit of unreliability about my keeping the count correctly), the outcome was 66 with and 33 without. I wouldn't have had a prediction before I started, but it seems disappointingly low.

What did strike me was that the count was pretty close to even until I got to Coolidge Corner. It seems Newton folks are less helmet-averse. (Actually, it's probably that riders in Newton were more likely commuters than the quick-trip riders, especially near the colleges/universities I passed on the early part of the ride).

Also, a sartorial note. I did not see a single person in bike kit (bike shorts* and/or bike-specific shirts) without a helmet. Say what you will about the spandex-clad, they know what protects the noggin!

*Counting only those in bike shorts only. Yours truly and many others, I presume, wear bike shorts under regular shorts. No way to know who they are.


Princess NS&S on crosswalks

I know this sounds too contrived to be true, but six-year-old Princess NS&S volunteered the following out of the blue this morning:

Daddy, you know what is also a safety zone? The lines in the street that you walk across.

Needless to say, she's not crossing the street by herself until she's had a little skepticism pounded into her. (Don't call DSS. I mean it figuratively.)

Again, though, her comments illustrate the appeal of street markings. They suggest a comfort zone that people want and expect in complete streets. The trick is to figure out how to make bike accommodations and crosswalks actual safety zones.


Call to action -- lower speed limits

Be prepared to make a call!

Representative Kay Khan showing her value to the city and state has co-sponsored a bill to lower the prevailing speed limit to 25 MPH (from 30 MPH). That change will affect all roads without a specifically set speed limit and allow municipalities (like Newton!) to lower the speed limit on most roads without the cost, headache, and ultimate futility* of a state waiver.

This is a no-brainer. Call/e-mail/visit Chairman Vincent Pedone, House Committee on Bills in Third Reading. Contact info below. (House Committee on Bills in Third Reading? If I'd ever finished a Kafka novel, I'd probably say that sounds Kafka-esque!)

Thanks, Kay!

Here are the deets:

House Bill #4728

An Act Relative to Speed Limits

Lead Sponsor: Representative Denise Provost, Co-Sponsor: Kay Khan and others

How this bill changes existing law

  • Currently, speed limits on local roads are not set locally. Lowering a speed limit on a local road below 30mph requires state approval (MGL Ch. 90:18), and is based on a study of actual speeds of vehicles using the road.
  • Local petitions to lower speed limits currently must be made road by road, case by case, and the community bears the cost of each speed study.
  • H.4728 would lower the prevailing speed limit – the presumed speed limit “unless otherwise posted” – on local roads, in commercial districts, and densely settled residential districts, from 30mph to 25 mph.

Why lower the prevailing speed limit in urbanized areas from 30 mph to 25 mph?

  • At 30 mph, almost half (45%) of pedestrians struck by an automobile are killed; 50% are injured, leaving 5% that escape death or injury.
  • Lower speeds encourage yielding to pedestrians, watching for bicyclists, and increase the reaction time for drivers to respond to road conditions.
  • For every 1 mph reduction in speed, there is a reduction in vehicle collisions by 5% and a larger reduction in pedestrian fatalities.
  • Consider: A 10 mph reduction in the speed from 30 to 20 mph; Pedestrian-automobile accident fatalities drop from 45% to 5%.

Where is this bill now?

H.4728 was reported favorably out of the Joint Committee on Transportation and House Ways & Means. The bill, which has the support of Highway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky, is currently in the House Committee on Bills in Third Reading awaiting further action.

Call or Write TODAY to:

Chairman Vincent Pedone, House Committee on Bills in Third Reading
Room 20, State House, Boston, MA 02133
Telephone: (617) 722-2410

*Here's how I understand it. If you want the speed limit lowered in your neighborhood, you petition the city to petition the state. If the city decides to petition the state, a speed study is done and an 85th percentile speed determined. The 85th percentile speed is the speed above which only 15 percent of drivers drive. Here's the irony. If the 85th percentile speed is above 30 -- which might be the case if people are zooming down your sleepy residential street -- it works against you. The 85th percentile speed is presumed to be a safe speed, so there's no reason to lower the limit.

High prevailing speeds are a reason not to lower a speed limit. How 'bout them apples?!


Auburndale II - A Potential Green Mini-Corridor

The heart of Auburndale Village was ripped up and exposed by the Mass Pike decades ago; yet the remnants along Auburn Street maintain a stubborn vibrancy against raw exposure to I-90. There is a great opportunity for development that restores a cozy village feel, provides an acoustic barrier and environmental health benefit, and, with excellent south-facing exposure, has excellent solar photovoltaic and green wall/green roof potential. Oh yeah, and provide Americans with Disabilities Act - accessible access (currently lacking!) to the Auburndale Commuter Rail Station, subsidized by the development. It utilizes currently unused and unvalued space, with existing building size and setback precedents that provide proof-of-concept. Here is an example of smart development that Riverside could take a page from.