Thursday, May 31, 2012

MassDOT has built a bypass from ear to ear

McCarthy overpass. (courtesy: LivableStreets)

Today there was a community meeting in Somerville regarding the upcoming repairs to the McCarthy Overpass of the McGrath highway. MassDOT representatives led by Frank DePaula came to explain that they were about to go ahead with a repair to the deficient structure. Approximately two hundred people came to the meeting, including many folks from STEP and LivableStreets. Every resident and every elected official strongly demanded that the overpass be demolished instead of repaired. And yet, by the end, it was clear that the representatives from MassDOT were not listening and were going to go ahead with their plans regardless.

The McGrath highway has divided Somerville since the mid-50s when it was built; a time when the desires of outer suburban commuters easily trumped the working class residents of Somerville. It is a classic example of an urban freeway from the era of urban renewal. It was owned and managed by DCR until 2009 when it was handed over to MassDOT in decaying condition. According to one longtime resident, when he complained about the decaying state of McCarthy 10 years ago, the DCR had told him that they were reduced to "buying supplies at Home Depot if something collapsed." They had clearly been negligent in maintenance, and should have never been in the highway building program to begin with.

The city of Somerville, led by Mayor Curtatone (who was present) has long maintained a desire to see the McCarthy overpass removed and McGrath transformed into a walkable urban boulevard. To that end, MassDOT has commissioned a study which, in a few years time, will come up with some recommendations for doing so. Then they will submit an EIR/EIS which will take another few years for approval. They are hoping to implement the urban boulevard sometime in the next 10-15 years. The residents of the city made it abundantly clear on multiple occasions that this is a completely unacceptable time-frame. The McCarthy overpass must be removed now. Unfortunately, it seems that MassDOT is determined to hide behind the cowardly excuses of "need more studies" and "finding consensus" so that they can spend $11 million on repairing a structure that every single resident wants torn down. They have their consensus: I have never seen a community meeting with people so united.

Even sadder, it appears that this repair option is a potential disaster. An independent mechanical engineer, Stephen Kaiser, performed a review of the same data that MassDOT engineers had assembled. He found that currently the bridge deck slab is only capable of supporting a 15-ton two-axle truck. However, the slab is not up for repairs this time around, and only one section is worse off than that. He proposed a moderate solution of repairing only the one bad section and saving the rest of the money and time, while accelerating the boulevard plan. The other major point he brought up is that the estimated per-ton-year cost of repairing the bridge ($450,000) was over twice as large as replacing the bridge ($175,000), and about 20 times higher than doing minimal repairs and demolishing the rest ($23,000). Repair is simply an astonishing waste of money.

The long-time resident who had pressured DCR also pointed out that the spalling of concrete had reached beneath the rebar and, according to most engineers, that means it is simply impossible to recover the original strength and durability of the bridge. There is no option but to replace or remove it, anything else is simply window-dressing. Another resident revealed that he had himself personally worked on the grounding of the West Side highway in New York. He said that it is highly likely that any attempt at repair of this overpass will result in further sections crumbling and failing, because it is so far gone. A MassDOT project managed chimed in at this point, promising that if this happened, they would cease the repair program immediately.

One woman noted that the so-called short-term "pedestrian improvements" were pathetic: some extra stripes of paint on the ground did nothing against 45mph traffic, and the stairs to the overpass were crumbling just as badly as anything else. Several residents spoke up about how dangerous they felt as both pedestrians and drivers on the bridge: in one woman's words, "it's not drivers vs people -- everyone hates that highway." Another said that she didn't feel that her kids were safe walking to school -- unlike Boston, there is no busing program in Somerville.

MassDOT project manager Steve McLaughlin and other MassDOT administrators who spoke continued to reiterate that while they supported the notion of an urban boulevard, they needed 10-15 years to achieve it, and much more funding than $11 million. The purpose of the repairs was to give them that window, they said. If they did not repair the bridge then it would probably have to be closed down shortly. At this point the whole room burst out clapping and cheering, "close it down!", and "we don't want it!" But, like every other comment, this simply did not make an impression, as I confirmed later when I spoke to Steve afterwards.

I also questioned him about the draft EIR for the urban boulevard. An official had mentioned that even one objection to that plan could slow progress down to a crawl. But, somehow, even though 200 people, the mayor and elected officials all objected to the repair plan, that was not enough to stop it. Could he explain that? He refused to give a straight answer.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bus lanes don't get no respect

Spotted this sign while wandering around town this past weekend. Essex Street is normally configured as two general vehicle lanes and one dedicated bus lane for the Silver Line. However, construction on a building is occupying one of the lanes here. Under any other circumstance, the likely response would be to simply reduce general vehicle travel to one lane. But in this case, the supposedly "dedicated" bus lane here gets treated like extra space for any motorist to use. A nearby sign indicates that construction is expected to last until "Dec 2012 / Dec 2013" whatever that means.

It's bad enough that people drive into the bus lanes on a regular basis. Now that it's officially sanctioned, they'll even have an excuse. Things like this are why we can't trust transportation planners bearing "Bus Rapid Transit."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Does the Downs-Thomson Paradox apply in Boston?

While looking at some Google Map directions I started thinking about the "in current traffic" time projections offered along with the turn-by-turn steps.  Could these be gathered and statistically analyzed in a coherent way? And if so, could they be used to study the Downs-Thomson Paradox as it may apply to commuting travel in Boston? From Wikipedia:
[The] equilibrium speed of car traffic on the road network is determined by the average door-to-door speed of equivalent journeys by (rail-based or otherwise segregated) public transport.
It follows that increasing road capacity can actually make overall congestion on the road worse. This occurs when the shift from public transport causes a disinvestment in the mode such that the operator either reduces frequency of service or raises fares to cover costs. This shifts additional passengers into cars. Ultimately the system may be eliminated and congestion on the original (expanded) road is worse than before.
In other words, when there is a highway competing with a separate public transit way, the congestion on the highway builds up until the average travel time matches the trip time on public transit. If the highway gets worse, then commuters shift onto public transit. If the highway gets better, then they shift back into cars.

There are plenty of caveats to this equilibrium. For one thing, there needs to be adequate, well-patronized public transportation available. It needs to be separate from the roadways so that effects of automobile traffic congestion do not interfere with its operation. There is also an assumption that the cost of driving (and parking) is within reach of enough commuters to make a difference. And there could be many peculiarities of geography or design which tilt the balance.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The definition of Greenspace

"Greenspace": An open lot covered with some form of green plant matter primarily for the purpose of satisfying some kind of aesthetic, bureaucratic or other formal requirement. A greenspace is not intended for direct use or enjoyment by people.
The BRA map and the Google satellite map of the Monsignor Casey Overpass
Mayor Menino went on record yesterday as being opposed to the removal of the Casey Overpass in Jamaica Plain, a project that has already been approved by MassDOT and the community.
Menino said sometimes people have to think outside the box and his vision would have the overpass being rebuilt with green space underneath it. That would connect Arnold Arboretum to the Franklin Park, creating one continuous line of green space, he said.
The Casey Overpass (src: MassDOT)
After that remark, it is quite clear that Menino is unable to think outside the confines of his own box; in his case, it is labeled "1960s Urban Renewal." Actually, it is likely that this statement is some kind of political play, because any moment of thought shows it to be absurd. What would happen to any kind of living vegetation that was planted in the shadow of an overpass? Unless the plan was to literally paint the asphalt green (or astroturf it) then the result would surely turn brown in short order. But this kind of attitude reveals the motivation behind the "greenspacing" impulse: it's an obsession with the placement of lines and colors on a map in the Central Planner's office.

The image at the top of this post is a great example. The BRA has highlighted in green the areas that it considers to be "Greenbelt Protection Overlay Districts." Curiously, nearly all of the space covered by the "Greenbelt" designation is actually occupied by highways for fast moving vehicular traffic, with manicured median strips. Such a "green" space is not created to be directly enjoyed or used by anyone. It is created purely to please the vanity of planners, with nary a thought to the folks who actually have to live with the consequences. From the heights of their offices, or from the windows of their chauffeured cars, they can look out, smile and nod to themselves, "Yes, we have provided the people with more green."

Update: I had forgotten that Nathan Lewis wrote a really good article about this "greenspace" problem a while back: Place and Non-Place. Check it out.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Urban renewal and Barry's Corner

Barry's Corner, 1925 and today (courtesy: BAHistory and Google)

While doing some research I came across an interesting (though old) article written about the history of a small neighborhood in the Allston section of Boston. I am familiar with the site and knew vaguely about its past but did not realize that the events that had occurred there in the 1960s were an echo of the same sort of urban renewal tragedy in the better-known West End.
A compact working-class neighborhood of 9.3 acres, Barry's corner contained only 52 structures housing a total of just seventy-one families Its ethnic composition was mostly Irish and Italian, with a sprinkling of Polish and French families. [...]

The BRA's plan called for the demolition of the existing 52 structures, and the construction on the cleared acreage (by well-connected developers), of a $4.5 million ten-story, 372 unit luxury apartment building, to be paid for largely with federal money. The BRA contended that the Barry's Corner structures were blighted, a charge the residents hotly disputed. The authority also noted that the existing neighborhood was yielding the city relatively little tax revenue. The proposed luxury complex would pay $150,000 as compared to the $15,000 the Barry's Corner properties were contributing. The BRA assured the public that "every effort is being made to assure that the residents now living in the area are provided with suitable new homes."
Eventually, the luxury apartment plan was abandoned, and a set of affordable apartments called Charlesview was built on part of the bulldozed land. Those buildings have been in the news lately and for the past few years because they are already falling apart and need to be replaced. Also, Harvard wants the land for its growing Allston campus and has arranged a swap, putting the new Charlesview down the road at Brighton Mills.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Front door-only boarding and alighting

In recent news, the MBTA is going to pursue a policy of front door-only boarding and alighting at Green Line surface stations, as a means to stop people from dodging the fare-box. I find that people get upset and irrational about fare evasion. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the people that seem to be "evading" are actually monthly pass holders looking to board more conveniently. It's unfortunate that nobody seems to be able to put a solid number on the losses. There is no cost/benefit analysis to this campaign. It may very well cost more to slow down operations by forcing everyone through the front door bottleneck.

Still, it may be worth a shot to see just how bad it gets. Although not formally recognized, peak-level congestion for the "B" extends well into the late evening, due to the large numbers of students riding. It is common for outbound trains at 9pm to be at crush loads during the semester. But, with careful discretion, it may be possible to implement this policy while opening all doors where necessary. Already, for the past year, drivers typically delay opening the rear doors by 5-10 seconds. It seems to produce a psychological effect which motivates people outside to move to the front door, while creating a slight amount of consternation for those waiting to alight. On the other hand, with the semester already over, they may not get to really test it under load until September.

By comparison, the fare structure in Pittsburgh is oriented around front door-only boarding and alighting outside of downtown. The idea there is to allow opening all the doors where the bus may find itself most congested, and balance that by closing the rear doors where it should be less congested. This is somewhat similar in rationale to the old system in Boston where outbound street-level trolleys did not collect fares. This new initiative by the MBTA doesn't pursue the goal of alleviating congestion, however. It seems to be an overreaction to the perceived problem of fare evasion.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The problem with South Coast Rail

Readers of this blog will know that I am a very big supporter of public transportation and the general goal of urban accessibility without a car. With that in mind, I still believe that it is proper to devote resources to their best use, and the long planned South Coast Rail project is a very bad idea in its current form. The plan is to extend the Stoughton line south and establish separate branches to Fall River and New Bedford as commuter rail service. Unfortunately, the project is plagued by elementary planning errors and outlandish costs. It represents a waste of resources as well as a threat to other far more deserving projects.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

More ridiculous parking requirements

While reviewing Cambridge's zoning code I looked at the table of minimum and maximum parking requirements, which has a long list of different uses and their different requirements. Here is one:
Bar, Saloon, or other establishment serving alcoholic beverages but which is not licensed to prepare or serve food.
Minimum Parking Required: 1 per 5/10/15 seats (depending on type of land).
That's right: Cambridge could require as many as 1 parking spot per 5 seats for a bar -- an establishment which, by definition, supplies beverages that make you unfit to pilot a vehicle.

Certainly, people are allowed to go to a bar and not drink, such as designated drivers. But why require that a bar provide parking, instead of letting the owner decide whether or not to assume that liability?

It's almost as if there's a kind of sickness which seems to get into city planners' heads whenever the topic of parking comes up, and it causes all common sense to fly out the window.

Cambridge should eliminate its minimum parking requirements

A new café called Dwelltime opened up on Broadway next to a 68 bus stop, just a few blocks from the Central Square T station. It seems to be doing quite well, but there is a curiously large amount of empty space inside, with few chairs. The reason is that they are limited in seating as a "fast food licensee" and they cannot upgrade because they do not own an off-street parking lot. They are currently petitioning the city of Cambridge for a special permit. If you are in the area, I recommend stopping by for a drink and signing the petition -- and don't forget to mark off that you got there by walking!

There are two ludicrous facts about this situation: first, that zoning cares about the distinction between fast and fine dining; and second that the supposedly progressive city of Cambridge is forcing business owners to supply parking.

Cambridge is notable because they added parking maximums to their zoning code, and sought to limit the number of spaces. However, they did not remove minimum parking requirements, only reduced them. But that is still bad for small businesses like Dwelltime, which thrive on local residents and passing pedestrians. What are they supposed to do? Buy another building, raze it to the ground, and cover it in asphalt, so that they can satisfy some ridiculous requirement? That would be an incredibly destructive and perverse outcome for the city to force on everyone.

This Article 6.000 requires development of adequate parking facilities to meet the reasonable needs of all building and land users without establishing regulations which unnecessarily encourage automobile usage.  The parking standards contained herein are intended to encourage public transit, bicycle usage and walking in lieu of automobiles where a choice of travel mode exists.

Perhaps this café will be able to acquire a special permit, but this should not have been an issue in the first place. It is time for Cambridge to actually live up to the intent stated in Article 6.000 and take the step of eliminating all minimum parking requirements, and letting small businesses flourish.