Sunday, March 22, 2015

Comm Ave Phase 2A public meeting: Tuesday March 24th

March 24th, 6 p.m.
565 Commonwealth Ave (Kenmore Classroom Building)
Room 101

The city is holding their long-awaited Comm Ave Phase 2A public meeting on Tuesday. This deals with the segment of Comm Ave between Packard's Corner and the BU Bridge (non-inclusive). One of the biggest topics of contention has been whether or not the bike lanes would finally be fixed on Comm Ave to match the Boston Bike Network plan for having a protected bike lane on Comm Ave.

The status quo
Good news seems to be that they will be presenting some kind of protected bike lane option at the meeting, so that represents a major step forward for the city. The precise details remain to be seen.

Another one of the major problems on the street is the lack of a crosswalk at Alcorn Street and Naples Road. On one side is a densely populated residential area, on the other side is the neighborhood supermarket. Most people simply wait and cross the street over the tracks when clear. But, the engineers believe that people should be walking over 1,000 feet out of their way, traversing 6 extra traffic lanes and waiting through extra cycles of the traffic light, simply to get across the street. While carrying heavy bags. This is a clear case of a disconnect between the planning department -- who only see this street on paper -- and the people who live here.

Even in the heavy snowfall, people would still rather cross here than go around the long way.

So, while there has been a great deal of progress made on the design, compared to where it was 3 years ago, there is still some more to go.

Finally, I would like to mention that although the MBTA has finally put out a plan for much-needed station consolidation, it is not clear that they will be ready to go before the city starts the reconstruction project. That will put us in the absurd situation of rebuilding the street around the 4 old stations. Then, presumably, the MBTA will come along and cut those out, and rebuild 2 properly accessible stations, but at that point they will simply leave the old station locations as dead space. That's a terrible waste, and a lot of extra pain too -- as the time period of construction would be lengthened. It seems to make a lot more sense to simply get both projects done simultaneously, so that the new street doesn't have to waste space, and so that the station construction can proceed in parallel with the street reconstruction, in a fully integrated fashion.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The scourge of single-story retail

A curious pattern exists in Boston (I've also noticed it in other American cities). Neighborhoods that were primarily developed between 1890 and 1960 tend to have a lot of single-story retail. Oftentimes those retail shops are adjacent to multistory residential or office buildings, but the retail buildings themselves are single-story. Many of them are cheap boxes that look awful, while some of them do have decent architectural features that seem strangely out-of-place.

I'm sifting through some of my pre-snowpocalypse photographs for this post, so we can remember Boston as it once was.

The Fenway is a densely populated vibrant neighborhood with a strange dichotomy between retail buildings and residential buildings, like many other streetcar suburbs built around the same time.

Another example from the Fenway.

Double-whammy of bad 20th century planning: surface parking and single-story retail immediately adjacent to major Green Line station in Brighton.

Same place, across the street. Typical of Comm Ave, there's a strip of single-story retail adjacent to 5-story or more apartment buildings. Some parts of Comm Ave do have ground-floor retail below residential, but it's the exception, not the rule.

Union Square, Allston, with lots of great little shops and restaurants. But almost all of them are in single-story retail buildings. The tall building behind is from the 1980s, and does have a little bit of ground floor retail included, but is separate from most of the shops you see.

Single story retail from the early 20th century. But as you can see, it used to be a whole lot better. Nowadays the building is used for storage of automotive supplies, and the intersection is a motor vehicle-dominated nightmare. In 1889, the first electric trolley line in Boston departed from the Allston depot along those tracks. Now, the Allston depot is a pizzeria with a giant surface parking lot.
In the mid-1960s this theater was torn down to be replaced by a nearly featureless single-story retail building with surface parking out front. As the zoning regulations of the time would dictate.

Single-story retail in the center of Hyde Park's business district.
Single-story retail in triple-decker Dorchester, along Blue Hill Ave, where trolleys once roamed, and where frequent buses ply today.
Single-story retail and massive surface parking near Forest Hills, a major MBTA subway, bus and commuter rail station.
Single-story retail on Comm Ave next to a Green Line station.
Tall residential, short retail, MBTA station: Brookline is no exception.

In a city with an acute housing shortage, where space is at a premium, why do we allow so much waste to take place? It seems like there are hundreds of thousands of people who would like to be able to live in these neighborhoods with decent local shops, and in some cases, places that are only steps away from frequent MBTA service. Multistory buildings with ground floor shops and upstairs residences are not new in Boston -- they were quite commonly built in the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. The oldest neighborhoods in Boston: Beacon Hill, the North End, even the Back Bay, all have streets lined with buildings that have ground floor retail and homes above. Yet, starting around 1890 or so, it seems, some kind of insanity gripped America: suddenly, neighborhoods started being developed with apartment buildings on one block and single-story retail on another. Sometimes even on the same block.

I don't have a definitive answer, but there are several pieces in play:
  • The criminally incompetent, so-called "City Planning" movement started around the turn of the 20th century, and these new planners were notoriously blind to the actual sources of city vitality and diversity. In some cases, they were opposed to city life, and actively sought to destroy it. Records from the City Planning Board of Boston show that many early discussions focused around choosing which buildings to destroy in order to widen roads. No doubt, they probably saw mixed uses as being "messy" and falsely perceived them as a source of traffic congestion.
  • Property tax laws in this country can be counterproductive: they effectively penalize landowners who invest in their properties. In some cases, building owners may have chosen to cut down floors off their own buildings to save on tax expenses. In a sane world, such crazy outcomes would result in legislative self-examination and reform of the tax laws: for example, by repealing property taxes and replacing them with something less harmful like a land-value tax. In this world, well... no.
  • In New England (and NY) it was common to quickly erect buildings that became known as "taxpayers" in order to generate some value quickly for the land without much effort. These taxpayer buildings were just enough to house some retail and then got locked into place when zoning came into effect around the mid-1950s. Many of the featureless boxes plaguing our landscape seem to fall into this category, but there are also plenty of examples of single-story retail with the kind of fine architectural detailing that seems out-of-place on a taxpayer.
  • The economics of redevelopment seem to require a significant density boost in order to replace a revenue-generating property with a new one. If floors cannot simply be added to the top of the single-story building, and if the construction requires a shutdown of the business operating within, then the end result of construction has to be much taller than what previously existed. In the case of single-story successful retail, that probably means going up to 4-6 levels.
  • And this discussion wouldn't be complete without mentioning the nefarious effect of mid-20th century zoning regulations. It is quite possible that many single-story retail buildings were intended to be temporary. But once zoning kicked in, redevelopment -- already difficult -- became near impossible. The density boost required to make redevelopment financially palatable was now illegal or required expensive variance hearings. In many cases, even the existing property was made illegal by unreasonable zoning requirements that demanded excessive amounts of parking that simply could not be provided in a space-constrained city neighborhood.
So, as a result, we have a bunch of neighborhoods where, if you somehow transported some people from 1915 one hundred years into the future to 2015, they might ask: "Why do you still have all these same crummy, single-story buildings that existed in my time?" ... After, of course, catching up on the past hundred years of history.

If we are serious about tackling the problem of rising housing costs and creating a better, more vibrant city that is accessible to all, then we will need to find a way to deal with these squat, inefficient, single-story structures. I often hear people complain that Boston is space-constrained, that we don't have room for development. That's not really true, as there are too many vacant parcels. But there are also many underutilized parcels in locations that can easily support much more. The replacement of single-story buildings that are located adjacent to frequent transit ought to be a high priority for all of the cities and towns in the region.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Snow daze

Spotted this while passing through -- first snow of the year and it's still fun for bicicle snow man
Blizzard returns streets to people
Best way of getting around now
No revenue service, but trains clearing snow still need a second operator apparently!
A space taken by automobiles returned to the people for one day.

Headed for the hills
Second best way of getting around in the snow (after skiing)

Such a strong desire line @ Naples Rd that people climb mounds of snow to use it
Snow soccer in what is regularly a dangerous intersection
Walking is the dominant mode of transportation on Comm Ave
Even on the deteriorating highway overpass, with tiny sidewalks
Guess who the city doesn't care about!
I could not navigate this canyon
Not a flake on the ground for drivers, however!
The bus stop is starting to disappear beneath the mounds of snow
Beautiful nearly dry pavement for motorists -- slush for people walking.
Cambridge Street overpass of I-90 is even less friendly in a blizzard
Sidewalk's gone
All that remains of the Framingham line
That Kenmore Square crosswalk STILL hasn't been cleared out
Park your car on the sidewalk and avoid shoveling snow! City says: "No violation found" either.
Relics of civilization pasT
Ah screw it
The Green Line is canceled and now what?
Snow tracks
Free (illegal) parking deemed more important than transit
Let's build a mountain of snow on the tracks!
The mountain is moving faster than the Green Line: faster than zero
The 57 cannot handle the load even late at night
Naples Rd desire line strong as ever, no matter what
They're waiting for the shuttle bus that may never come

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

False pretexts: motorists only pretend to care about ambulances when doing so happens to be convenient

Two bits of news hit recently that may seem unrelated, at first: Lawmakers seek crackdown on highway protests:
Rep. Colleen Garry, a Democrat from Dracut, proposed making it a felony to block highways. She told the Lowell Sun she was furious about the Thursday morning protests that blocked two sections of the heavily traveled highway through Boston, one north of the city and one south.
"I'm just outraged that people would be that reckless," Garry said. "Everyone has a right to protest, but to do that kind of thing in a highway or a roadway?" [...]
Nearly 30 protesters were arrested and arraigned on charges including trespassing, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and willfully obstructing an emergency vehicle.

State police said an ambulance transporting a seriously injured car crash victim to a Boston hospital was forced to divert to a hospital outside the city that did not have a trauma unit. The man survived.
State Sen. Richard Ross, a Wrentham Republican, filed legislation that would impose a minimum $5,000 fine and allow a jail sentence of up to six months for willfully trespassing on state highways. Current law allows for a maximum $50 fine and a jail term of no more than three months.
And the same week, State to propose opening S. Boston Bypass Road to all drivers:
State transportation officials will file a notice in February with Massachusetts environmental regulators to allow cars coming into South Boston to use the Bypass Road, which is currently restricted to trucks and other commercial vehicles. The pilot program would last six months and could begin as soon as March. [...] 
The 1.1-mile road was built to accommodate trucks during the construction of the Central Artery, and when the tunnels were done, the road remained restricted. But as traffic becomes heavier in the fast-growing Seaport District, there has been pressure to open up the road to everyone. [...]
As part of its filing, the state will also propose letting all drivers use the high-occupancy vehicle lanes outside of South Station and the South End.
These two pieces of news are, in fact, related: because together they illustrate the hypocrisy and insincerity of our Commonwealth's transportation policy with regard to emergency vehicles. If our elected officials truly cared about emergency vehicle response time -- which they should -- then they would put a quick end to this proposal that will destroy the efficacy of both the South Boston Bypass Road as well as the HOV lanes outside of the South End. If not, then it is quite clear that these politicians, Rick Ross and Colleen Garry, are merely posturing and mouthing platitudes, all while silently sticking it to emergency responders. By far the most common obstacle for emergency vehicles on our roads is not protesters: on a daily basis, emergency vehicles are obstructed by other motorists and the traffic jams created by motor vehicles.

First, a little background: it is quite common for ordinary motorists to believe that the exact same facilities that enable their own travel at high speeds are also beneficial to emergency vehicles. A related objection to certain traffic-calming measures is that they will slow emergency response. However, in reality, the truth is much more complex and requires context-specific analysis. More car capacity might help emergency vehicle response time, under some circumstances. In other scenarios, additional car capacity might harm emergency vehicle response time. An additional, open, free-flowing lane can help emergency vehicles -- but if that same lane jams up with private automobiles then that lane just becomes an obstacle: an overall detriment to response times. In that scenario, removal of a jammed travel lane -- a reduction in car capacity -- can give emergency vehicles the maneuvering room they need in order to avoid the obstacle created by other motorists.

BU Bridge under renovation (source)
The BU Bridge renovation project gives a prime example of how removal of a lane can help emergency vehicles. The engineers behind this project understood that the prior existing condition of having four substandard travel lanes (with no shoulders) was unsafe and liable to create immovable jams at a crucial choke-point for emergency vehicles traveling between Boston and Cambridge. Therefore, they chose to eliminate a lane and reallocated its space into a pair of 5-foot shoulders on either side of the motorway. These shoulders are not intended for motor vehicle travel but they do provide a space for other vehicles to pull over while yielding to an emergency vehicle. In addition, they provide breakdown space to help recover from crashes or other incidents. They also serve as a continuation of the bike lanes coming from Boston. All-in-all, a fairly solid engineering compromise, considering that the intersections on both sides of the river need substantial renovation and rethinking.

But none of those safety issues were important to motorists such as Stanley Spiegel, who was quoted in the Boston Globe, in February of 2009, making this threat:
"There's going to be road rage," predicted Stanley Spiegel, who lives across the bridge in Brookline. "If you're going to spend public money to go for an improvement, you don't predictably make things worse.
This kind of attitude shows zero concern for the safety of anyone else, but it is sadly all too common among entitled motorists of Mr. Spiegel's ilk. Whenever safety or emergency response goals conflict with increased car capacity, we can see quite clearly where motorists like him stand. Thankfully, in the case of the BU Bridge thus far, MassDOT has not capitulated to the bullies who would remove the shoulder space and turn it back into a fourth congested travel lane.

The South Boston Bypass Road (source)
The South Boston Bypass Road was assembled out of a narrow right-of-way for the purpose of helping the industries along the waterfront thrive during the Big Dig. It also keeps a bunch of heavy trucks off of the regular city streets, and it provides a clear lane of travel for emergency vehicles operating between the South Boston Waterfront and South Bay. As you can see from this picture, the shoulders are fairly small: they seem to vary from 2-4 feet. It's not a road designed for high volumes of traveling vehicles. As a result, heavy traffic induced on this road could result in jam-ups that would be impassable for emergency vehicles.

For a number of years, pundits such as Shirley Leung have been campaigning to allow private cars on it. She has quoted old-school 'highwaymen', such as Frank DePaola (who coincidentally is the interim Secretary of Transportation right now), with statements like this: "If you have traffic, and you want to relieve it, you have to find road capacity." As a result of this kind of short-sighted thinking, the South Boston Bypass Road will be jammed up with private cars and will not be able to serve its former purposes any longer. And it goes to show, that when the political push comes to shove, concerns about emergency vehicles suddenly disappear, in favor of a temporary band-aid covering up much deeper, systemic problems with South Boston transportation.

HOV lanes are also a popular target of attack by privileged motorists. It's so common that it's even got a name: the "Empty Lanes Attack", so called because drivers will often claim that the HOV lanes are "mostly empty" or not being used, and therefore should be given over to single-occupancy vehicles. What they (intentionally) fail to realize is that the relative emptiness is what gives the HOV lane its value: it is passable. If it were congested, then it would not be useful. Too bad, then, that even our Boston MPO doesn't seem to understand that most basic of concepts. And because such lanes are designed not to be congested, they are also useful for emergency vehicles that need to bypass major traffic congestion. Thus, the proposal to 'open' the HOV lanes outside of South Station to general traffic will result in degradation of emergency response times.

Where is the outrage? Why, of course there is none: because motorists only pretend to care about ambulances when doing so happens to be convenient. The "Empty Lanes Attack" trumps their false concern about emergency vehicles: the allure of additional single-occupancy vehicle road capacity takes precedence over safety principles.

If officials really cared about emergency response times, then I-93 would have full-width shoulders and/or HOV facilities/zipper lanes extended all the way from end-to-end: taking existing lane space where necessary. It's the only responsible way. But, in fact, the current configuration of the highway that excludes such safety features from much of its length, especially where most constrained. This shows where the true priorities lie: always pushing for 8 lanes of general travel no matter what the consequences are to emergency vehicles or highway safety. Convenience for drivers of single-occupancy vehicles is more important than safety, to our decision-makers.

The fact is that it's easy for officials to claim that they care about emergency vehicle response times when doing so also means more capacity for drivers. But real courage would be shown by officials who show that they care about emergency response even when it's not politically convenient to do so. That means support for restricted lanes such as HOV or bus lanes. That means supporting safety features within the existing right-of-way of roads, without requiring costly expansion. And that means not playing these insincere political games in which 'concern' for safety only arises when it is useful for pursuing another agenda; when that same 'concern' suddenly vanishes the moment it is no longer useful.