Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hess-Mahan: Bike racks were not extorted!

I have tweaked the Board of Aldermen for extracting bike racks from Beacon Street as a special permit condition. Aldercritter Hess-Mahan weighs in with a defense:

Oy! "Extorted"? Really? Please!

The special permit laws provide that when a special permit granting authority (SPGA) approves a special permit, it may impose conditions that are intended to mitigate the impact of the project. That is exactly what the Land Use Committee and the Board of Aldermen, as the SPGA, did in this instance. The BOA granted a special permit waiving the requirement that B Street provide additional parking in Newton Centre for its proposed expansion. As a condition, Land Use proposed, and B Street agreed to require bike racks that were intended to encourage people to ride their bicycles to Newton Centre instead of driving their cars, thereby reducing the demand for parking spaces.

As the Chairman of the Land Use Committee, I have worked tirelessly with the planning department and my colleagues trying to erase the antiquated and incorrect notion that every special permit requires a "public benefit," which has no basis in the law and bears the indicia of paying "tribute" rather than providing mitigation for the impact of special permit projects.

Please do not unfairly malign our efforts to improve the special permit process. I am also working on amending the parking regulations. But until they are changed, we must apply the law as it is written.

My position continues to be that the parking requirement that necessitated the special permit application is a bad law. So, any condition put on its waiver is unwarranted.

But, Alderman Hess-Mahan deserves credit for his committee's continued good outcomes on parking waivers and for wrestling with these issues.


B Street B Racks

Updated: According to Aldercritter Hess-Mahan in the comments, Beacon Street only reimbursed the city for installation and that the cost was covered by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Makes the condition a little more palatable.

As attentive readers may recall, as part of the absolutely correct decision to grant B Street (then Pie) a parking waiver, the Land Use committee extorted from negotiated with the owners a commitment to pay for installation of food-themed bike racks.

Here they are. Around the corner from the restaurant and in front of a bank.

Maybe it's wishful thinking. With the way things are going in Newton Centre, maybe the tide has turned and the bank will be replaced by a restaurant. Doubt it.

The likelier explanation is that there is no room in front of the restaurant. The sidewalk is too mean and narrow.

At a minimum, though, the B Street-supplied racks ought to have some permanent recognition that they were donated by bStreet.


Newton Centre Racks

Here are the new racks in Newton Centre (that I've found so far). Send pictures of other new racks anywhere in Newton and I'll post them.

Next to Bigelow's on Sumner, near the corner of Langley.

In front of Tete a Tete on Beacon, near the corner of Sumner.

In front of Zoots and Peet's, on Beacon.

On the corner of Centre and Beacon, near Piccadilly Square.

At the corner of Beacon and Herrick (yes, that's Herrick, not Union), in front of Bank of America.

On Centre, near Cypress, in front of Piccadilly Square.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Maryland hand-me-downs

What a stunning denunciation of the state of our transit system that we are leasing trains from Maryland, just to keep things afloat. Maryland's investment in its system is so much better than ours that their surplus markedly upgrades our regular fleet.

Really, really deplorable.


A sign that opening day is upon us

What's in the bag? A parking meter that has been installed on Beacon Street near Audubon Circle/St. Mary's Place in Brookline. Perhaps more importantly, it's just a few blocks from Fenway. Attention-paying readers will recall that Brookline is instituting market-based meter rates on Red Sox game days as a way of ensuring that there is turnover of spaces during games. Space turnover means that businesses in the area, particularly restaurants, don't suffer because all on-street parking is consumed by game-goers.

What does that have to do with this meter-in-a-bag? You can't do market-based rates with old meters. You've got to have new technology. Hence, the appearance of this meter -- and a bunch more on Beacon. They've been installed in time for opening day and the institution of the new game-day rate policy.


Friday, March 18, 2011

High-speed rail and walking to a village

One of the key arguments in favor of inter-city rail is that it will improve opportunities for air travelers.

Last year, nearly a million people flew between Logan and JFK or LaGuardia (and presumably several hundred thousand to Newark). High(er)-speed rail between Boston and New York would provide a more competitive alternative to flying, which would reduce the demand for flights. Reduced demand for flights to and from New York would up limited terminal space and takeoff/landing slots for flights to destinations that cannot be easily served by rail, basically any place outside the Northeast corridor.

If you want more and better air travel choices, encourage rail improvements to remove congestion from airports.

That lesson scales. Better mass transit for commuters takes drivers off the roads, making less congestion for those who need to commute by car. Better bike accommodations encourages people to bike rather than drive, when they can, freeing up space for drivers who can't bike -- too far, picking up kids, &c. Better pedestrian accommodations encourages people to walk rather than bike or drive, ...

The larger point is that mobility options are not anti-car (or anti-air travel). They are pro-mobility. Everybody wins.


Magical things happening in Newton Centre

Dear Mayor Warren,

Just wanted to let you know that, sometime today, a squad of bike-rack fairies seemed to have hit Newton Centre, sprinkling magic post-and-ring bike racks all over the center.

Just wanted to let you know. Could be a city-wide epidemic.

Pics tomorrow.




Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bike lanes and priority bike lanes, what's the difference?

In light of the regulatory hurdles to "real" bike lanes in Newton, given the actual amount of on-street parking for long stretches of key roads (Beacon, Comm. Ave., Walnut, Parker, Langley, &c.), and given the necessity to provide more explicit bike accommodation than striped shoulders to attract less experienced cyclists to the streets, there's a strong case to be made for so-called priority bike lanes.

In practical terms, though, one might ask: what's the difference? The difference boils down to whether the outside, left edge of the bike lane is solid or dashed. That's it.

If the outside edge is dashed, a bike lane is not exclusive to bikes. The dashed treatment is seen wherever bike lanes cross intersections or where the bike lane slots between the travel lane and a right-turn lane. The clear intent of the lane, even when dashed is to provide a safe haven for bicyclists. It's just not as rigidly exclusive.

Where parking is currently allowed, but rarely used, the priority bike lane should be superior to the striped shoulder. It should be just as effective at keeping cars in the travel lane and out of the shoulder. It should be more effective at delineating space for bicycles, attracting inexperienced cyclists. And, if anything, it should act as a mild discouragement for the otherwise legal parking.

A net win that can be accomplished without regulatory change.

Is a "real" bike lane preferable? No question. Better to have parking prohibited, even where it's rarely used -- maybe especially where parking is rarely used, since there's little downside. But, the difference isn't worth the fight. Not now, at least. Put in priority bike lanes, which will improve accommodation and spur ridership growth. Revisit the issue when the demand is higher.


Friday, March 4, 2011

How bikes and legal parking can co-exist

Alex: Priority bike lanes.
Watson: What is the solution to the conflict between parking regulations and traditional bike lane rules?

As I discussed below, there are long stretches of Newton streets on which we want to have bike accommodations where there isn't a lot of parking, but parking is legal and the street is not wide enough for travel lanes, bike lanes, and parking in the shoulder. Because parking is legal, bike lanes are not permissible. (Note, some of these same roads have stretches where parking is legal and regularly used (at least during the day). Those stretches are a different case.) And, striped shoulders -- legal for parking and separate space for bikers where no one actually parks -- are not sufficient accommodations to attract new riders to the streets.

In sum, we've got shoulders that are currently available for biking and for parking, but without real demand for the parking and no way to make it more inviting to ride in them.

The answer to the problem is some sort of hybrid treatment of the shoulder that designates it's a place for bikes to ride, but also acceptable for parking. Putting a sharrow in the shoulder isn't a good idea, because sharrows designate -- as the name suggests -- a shared space for moving cars and moving bicycles. We don't want to create an invitation for cars to drive in the shoulder.

But, priority bike lanes might work. Priority bike lanes are, essentially, bike lanes with the bike lane stencil, but using dashed lines rather than solid lines to demarcate the lane. Priority bike lanes indicate to bicyclists and motorists where bikes are expected to travel and where motorists are supposed to yield to bicyclists. They are typically used where there is no other facility for bikes and bicyclists need to ride in the travel lane. They set out a space for bikes that cars may also use.

For the problem of the regulatory conflict on our street's shoulders, they may be perfect. Because they define a shared space, there is no need to undo parking regulations to install them. The combination of the striped line and the stencil should provide motorist with notice to expect bikes and to be careful. The stencil will invite the less advanced rider. And the dashed line will allow the accommodation to co-exist with the seldom used right to park.

There may be some design niceties about whether it might be good to bring a priority bike lane a little into the travel lane, But, otherwise, that's it: a bike lane with a dashed line rather than a solid line. The answer to the regulatory conflict that prevents us from taking full advantage of the space in the shoulders.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Paying for paving

We're wrapping up a winter with unusually high snow removal costs. And, we've got an epidemic of potholes that are going to have to be fixed.

This might be a good time to reflect on the fact that maintaining a traffic infrastructure costs serious money and that we expect road conditions that exceed our willingness to pay for them. It's time for a higher gas tax, with a distribution to municipalities for roadway maintenance based on traffic volumes and a significant distribution for transit and other alternative transportation.


What's the real conflict between bikes and parking?

It is an article of faith that, in Newton, there are two major impediments to bike accommodations: too narrow streets and legal parking. Combine them and they eliminate the possibility of bike lanes. There just isn't room in the right of way for travel lanes, bike lanes, and parking. That requires at least 20' -- 9' travel lane, 4' bike lane, and 7' parking shoulder -- and more like 23' in each direction. So it's posed as an either or: bike lanes or parking.

But, maybe things aren't as bad as they seem.

Along the streets where parking is principally overflow parking, there is no real competition for space between bikes and cars. The shoulder is predominantly available for cycling and a striped shoulder separates bikes from traffic pretty well. But, because of regulation, that nice space for biking can't be designated as an official bike lane. A bike lane can't be striped where cars can legally park.

For long stretches, it isn't a conflict between actual cars and actual bikers, but a conflict of regulations.

On those long stretches of road, why isn't a striped shoulder enough? From my own experience (principally on Beacon and Winchester) the stripes keep the cars out of the shoulder. But, the goal is broader than making life safer for the bikers on the road now. We want to encourage more riders. And, unfortunately, the stripes don't attract new bikers to the shoulder.

Less advanced riders, the riders we need to attract to our city streets, don't feel comfortable without more explicit bike accommodations.

So, what are we to do? One option is to disallow parking, at least from the stretches where parking is infrequently used. That's certainly a better balance of accommodation for bikes and cars: full time access for bikes at the expense of occasionally used parking. But, it invites a political battle.

What if there were a way to create bike accommodations that attract new riders without taking on the parking regulations? The answer lies in this bit of reality. If the regulations did allow parking and a bike lane to co-exist on these up-for-grabs stretches of road, the actual incidence of parking wouldn't be too much of a concern. Occasionally, a biker would have to go out into the road. Not ideal, but much better than what we have now. And, not too different than what you see with the occasional illegally parked car in official bike lanes in other cities.

Next up: the solution.