Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why I am voting for Mike Ross

Normally I try to stay out of explicit politics on this blog, but there's a huge election coming up on Tuesday: the preliminary election for Mayor and City Council, and it's the biggest one of my generation. With Mayor Menino retiring, there's 12 candidates competing to be the next mayor. There's also 19 City Council at-Large candidates. The preliminary election will narrow the field of mayor from 12 down to 2, and it will narrow the City Council at-Large candidates from 19 to 8.

It's one thing to work on general activism for walkability and public transportation. But the actual policy gets made by elected officials. So it's important to engage with them. And during election season, that means talking to them about issues that are important to you. And finding candidates that agree with you, and helping them to get elected. All the great ideas in the world are not going to help anyone unless you can get elected, or get someone elected who believes in those ideas.

I collected a series of notes earlier about housing issues, but yesterday was the Transportation Forum, and I'm going to refer people to that because there is video and a great questionnaire that goes along with it. Also the Boston Globe published their transportation questionnaire. We're lucky that there's been a lot of focus on transportation and livability issues this cycle. That means that many of the candidates have had to speak about their plans, and at least give lip service to the ideas of promoting walking, biking, public transit, housing development, economic diversity and the like. Maybe it even means that whoever wins will follow through on those promises. With some of them, we can only hope they won't go back on their words.

There is one candidate that I know will be good on these issues and that is why I am voting for Mike Ross in the preliminary election. I don't know if he will be one of the two candidates to pass the threshold next week. There's far too much uncertainty in the race to make any sort of prediction. However Tuesday turns out, I have chosen to support him because I believe he represents the best choice on the issues that I find most important, on the themes that I often cover in this blog.

Experience

Mike lives in Mission Hill and represents District 8: including Mission Hill, the Fenway, the Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Of all the candidates, he lives closest to Boston proper. He's represented that district for over 13 years including 2 years as City Council President. Given the choice, I would prefer that Boston not continue to be ruled as a colony of its outer suburbs.

His district includes densely populated residential areas, bustling commercial and mixed use areas, big institutions, major parks, much of the Central Subway and it borders a stretch of the Southwest Corridor. In other words, he has a lot of experience dealing with urban issues.

He lives on a street with a big hospital along one end, and many student-occupied houses adjacent. He has to deal personally with the kind of issues that would be more abstract to someone who lives far away in, say, West Roxbury or Hyde Park, but all too real to someone who lives in Mission Hill, Allston or Roxbury. I think that kind of lived experience is important to have in the mayor of a city like Boston.


Community Organizing

In the past decade, he's helped bring about the revitalization of the West Fens. A stretch of Boylston Street near Fenway Park used to look like a slice of New Jersey: parking lots and fast food chains. Now it's under intense development as a whole new urban corridor, with high-rises and mixed-uses. It's bringing life to an area that's close to downtown but was largely ignored as a Red Sox fiefdom for decades.

At the same time, he's managed to do it in a way that has community buy-in. In other parts of the city, the community bitterly fights any attempt to bring development and life into the area. In the Fenway, he brought together many parties to sit down and plan the development, and as a result, people are happy and welcome the changes coming.

For a nice change of pace, the plan actually includes parking maximums set at 0.75 / unit as well as language and design plans talking about the importance of making a walkable place that is not overwhelmed by cars. Yes, that's right: plans developed through community process that call for fewer parking spaces and more urbanity. I find that very impressive.

Housing

I would say that one of the first aspects of his stump speech that stood out to me is his emphasis on the need to build more housing. And not just a little trickle, but large amounts that will help relieve the enormous pressure being put on the neighborhoods. Like in the Fenway, he emphasizes the importance of bringing the community together and planning for the housing expansion, so that it will be done fairly and predictably. But he also emphasizes the need for more than just housing: there are also the amenities which make living in the city feasible and desirable. Markets where you can buy fresh produce and other food. Restaurants where you can go out and socialize. A diversity of retail to bring jobs and life to neighborhoods. And all within walking distance, to make a place that you don't feel forced to drive away from, but rather feel welcome to stay and live in. His answer to the first question of the Transportation forum questionnaire encapsulates this, what he speaks about while on the campaign trail:
I am fortunate enough to live in an extremely livable community, Mission Hill, one that helps to identify for me what the definition of that word truly is. I have access to numerous forms of public transportation like a bike share hub at the bottom of my street, the Green Line on Huntington Avenue, the Orange Line at the other end of Tremont Street next to Columbus Avenue, the bus; the options for getting around the city are limitless. There are community staples--a community health center, a grocery store that provides fresh and healthy food options as well as affordable restaurants are all within walking distance. This is a community that is thriving due in a large part to it's livability and every neighborhood deserves to have this equal access and opportunity.
I hope that you can see why I judge the importance of living in an urban neighborhood of the city so highly. There's a lot more in his housing plan as well, worth a read.

Transportation

More than any other candidate, Mike Ross has made public transportation a centerpiece of his campaign. To publicize the release of his Transportation plan, he opted to campaign for three days without a car -- a difficult task given the MBTA in its current decrepit state. The Boston Globe called it a "gimmick," but it was more than any other candidate dared to do, and I think that shows just how out of touch the Globe is. For some of us, going car-free is not a "gimmick" but our everyday lives.

Mike has worked on transit issues in the past. The Night Owl was an attempt to provide late night MBTA service from 2001 to 2005 that Mike pushed for back when he first arrived on the City Council. It wasn't able to be made sustainable at the time, but it looks like the time is ripe for it again, and he has pledged to bring it back as mayor.

He believes in the importance of transit oriented development:
Transit-oriented development (TOD) has the potential to spark investment in parts of our city that need it most. Mixed-use housing and commercial development in close proximity to T stops supports MBTA ridership, sustainable development, and creates greater connections for neighborhoods.
[...] As Mayor, I will improve and modernize zoning and permitting processes in order to facilitate more transit-oriented development in Boston to promote greater transit ridership and create more sustainable and livable communities. A successful public transit system is dependent on riders' access to transit stops. Promoting mixed-use housing and commercial development in close proximity to T stops and transit hubs makes taking the T an easy option for residents. It's also a sustainable way to develop our neighborhoods and jumpstart business districts near T stops.
And he is also supportive of reducing the destructive parking quotas which have been plaguing our city since the 1950s. Furthermore, when asked about parking around the city, he responded by talking about the possibilities of "parking benefit districts" (see also this PDF) which is absolutely stunning to be hearing from a potential mayor. This is the kind of thinking which lives up to the slogan "Boston Smarter."

Although I'm not personally much of a bicycling activist, I do support it, and his Transportation Plan pledges to make Boston the #1 city in America for cyclists, and lists a number of ways he intends to go about it. That includes hiring a transportation director with a strong cycling background, building more cycle tracks, and adding more bike lanes elsewhere.

Also, if you haven't read his response to the Transportation Forum questionnaire yet, I recommend it.

Other issues

Mike worked to bring food trucks to Boston and pushed back against entrenched bureaucracy that didn't want to be bothered dealing with it.

He was willing to bring in ideas from other cities to improve our public spaces. Such as in the Common, which now has a new sandwich shop. That replaced a decrepit structure that was blighting the vicinity, and the idea came from NYC's Central Park.

When he first took office, the Red Sox were prepared to scrap Fenway Park -- in his district -- and demand a large subsidy from the city to replace it. Instead he worked to convince the owners to renovate the park, not replace it. Personally, I like baseball, and I like Fenway Park. But even if you don't care for baseball, thanks in part to his efforts, the city wasn't weaseled out of a half-billion of taxpayer dollars or worse to build a new stadium. I think that's a win for good government.

In 2008, at the depth of the recession, the firefighters union demanded a huge raise that would have cost the city an extra $45 million it didn't have. Libraries were going to be closed, including one in my area. Mike was able to negotiate with the union leadership and save that money, save the libraries, and do it without alienating the union. I believe in the importance of unions, and yet, also believe that they are just one side of the balance that needs to be maintained, with the needs of the public represented strongly by elected officials.

The topic of schools is admittedly out of my element, but, I am happy with his plans: more availability of vocational schooling at the upper end, early pre-K at the lower end, and a longer school day for arts. I know he also worked to get an elementary school opened in the North End (actually in the old Romney HQ) which is the first one in the area since the 1970s. That's pretty cool, and will help families stay in the city.

Conclusion

I think that housing and transportation policies have many side effects on a wide variety of city issues, ranging from safety, parks and public health, to education, as well. That's why I focus on those two. It's important to have a diversity of housing options to suit a diversity of people and their economic means. Otherwise you end up with a segregated society. And it's important to have neighborhoods where people feel safe and welcome when walking. Our streets are our largest public space, and if they become depopulated, they become unsafe. If parents don't feel safe, then they won't let their kids walk, and then those kids will lose out on the main advantage of being in a city: having a place to grow up which is bigger, more engaging, and more diverse than your own backyard. Not all learning occurs at school. If children are being shuttled around between controlled locations exclusively by private vehicles, then what's the difference between that and being in a sprawling suburb?

As you may have noticed, I've spent a long time thinking about this. Probably too long. I may not change anyone's mind, but I'm hoping that this discussion may help someone looking for help with deciding. These are the issues that I find important, and these are the reasons why I am voting for Mike Ross for mayor.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The streets around the Public Garden


There is an upcoming public meeting to discuss the possibility of a two-way cycle track around the Public Garden. I encourage people to attend. The mess of one-way streets around the Public Garden (and around downtown Boston) makes it difficult for bike riders to get around safely. It's good that they are looking into fixing this. Perhaps it can integrate with Connect Historic Boston. But there's so much more to these streets than just cyclist safety, as important as that is.

As anyone who has lived, or visited, here knows, the streets around the Public Garden and the Common are some particularly nasty, wide, one way racetracks. It seems absurd: the Public Garden being one of the jewels of Boston with so much money and effort invested in it, yet it is surrounded by a sea of pavement. How did it get to be so screwed up?

Well, we've heard about the dirty 1970s and the damage wrought on this city by traffic engineers and leaders who seemed determined to gut every nice aspect of town and turn it into a giant highway/parking lot. But it goes further than that. From the Ninth Annual Report of the City Planning Board (1923):
Boston was one of the first cities in this country to adopt the expedient of one-way streets in order to lessen congestion and confusion.
It must be hilarious, to generations of lost drivers, that they thought these one-way streets would actually "lessen confusion." But what's sadder is that this attitude comes from a time when pedestrians were being driven from the streets, murdered in mass numbers (200,000 in the 1920s), and stripped of their traditional rights to the street as a public space. The elites wanted wider streets for their cars and trucks, even though the vast majority of citizens did not possess either. And the elites got what they wanted. The City Planning Board, which had been formed only a decade earlier, seems to have viewed its job as primarily being about identifying blocks for destruction with the goal of widening streets.

They even sliced off a piece of the Public Garden itself -- unthinkable today -- and claimed that there was "no opposition" from the public:
Unfortunately, the matter had progressed beyond the stage of a public hearing before coming to the attention of the Board, and there being no opposition from the public or from the Transit Commission to a taking in excess of its recommendation, a further strip of the Public Garden was taken, and Boylston Street widened between Church and Arlington streets to a width of 120 feet.
And that's where it remains today.

The proposed cycletrack is a better use of all this excessive street space than current conditions. But there's an even better solution: Two-way complete streets. There's simply no sense in having a high-speed one-way loop around the Public Garden. It's incredibly irresponsible on the part of BTD. This aggressive engineering of multi-lane one-way streets here, and in adjacent blocks, is ridiculous, reckless and unjust. Let's take a tour:

Boylston Street is 120' from Garden to building line. I've noticed that crossing at this intersection (~80') is difficult for seniors because BTD doesn't care enough about pedestrians to set the timing right.
Well at least there's a nice sidewalk. You can see how the street flares out though.
Arlington Street is about 50' curb-to-curb. That's wider than Memorial Drive.
This bit of devilish engineering has more in common with a highway ramp than a city street.
Westbound racetrack, but not so helpful for people trying to go east.
Just ridiculously wide. Beacon Street varies between 50' and 65' curb-to-curb along this stretch.
This section of Charles Street is 45' wide curb-to-curb and functions as a one-way speedway. What in the world for? It's supposed to be a shopping street. There's simply no sane reason for it to be one-way, with so many lanes.

The sidewalks are tiny, pitiful, and difficult for people with disabilities to navigate. Or just difficult for crowds, period. Wide streets, tiny sidewalks. This street is a disgrace.
Back to Beacon Street. Hey look, it's two-way, and the world didn't end. Too many lanes though. This is highway-thinking, not city thinking.
What "genius" thought a HIGHWAY between the Public Garden and the Common was a good idea? The roadway is 70' at this point. That's almost as wide as the nearby Mass Pike.
The fact that I can take these pictures indicates that this road is massively over capacity. It's like standing on a drag strip.
Tiny or impassable sidewalks, giant roadway. Yes you can walk through the parks, at least. But you can't ride there. And what kind of message does a 4-lane highway send about our city?
One rider braves the racetrack.
Just think about how much tax money gets sucked into maintaining this ridiculously wide monster road. It's anti-urban and it confuses drivers too. What a waste.
BTD probably thought putting a dinky little planter with some flowers in it is all that's needed to make everything better. Nothing that actually involves making the street safer or more human-oriented.
I guess the walk wouldn't have been complete without a large SUV running through the red light as I'm trying to take a picture.

The cycletrack idea is better than nothing, but it's a band-aide. The real problem is that our streets are still largely unchanged from the highway-crazed, anti-city transportation departments of past decades. What would really help everyone -- pedestrians, cyclists and drivers -- would be to discard all the ridiculous over-engineered intersections, and replace all the wide one-way streets with two-way streets that meet at simple, well-understood intersections. I also propose the following rules of thumb for city streets:

  • First, ensure sufficient walking space. If you can't guarantee 10' sidewalks then consider a "shared, slow street" concept.
  • If the street is wide enough for two lanes then it should be a two way street.
  • If the street is wider than that then either widen sidewalks (for slow streets) or create bike lanes (for slightly faster streets).
  • If it is even wider than that, then consider wider sidewalks, street parking, separated cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, or bus lanes if there is a route.
  • If the street is really wide, then implement the Complete Streets concept. But why is the street so wide? Perhaps it should be narrower.
There really isn't a place for more than one travel lane in each direction on most city streets. Perhaps the busiest, widest and most central streets could have more, assuming there doesn't need to be a bus lane there. Intersections should be kept as simple as possible. Traffic signals which attempt to be too clever just confuse people, and almost always wind up screwing over pedestrians. Fancy traffic engineering is not appropriate or necessary. The point of a city street is not to be a sewer or a conduit, but to be part of our shared inheritance, our public open space, a public way that is open to everyone for business or pleasure. Having streets around the Public Garden designed in a way that is more appropriate for the city may even obviate the need for cycle tracks, and make it safer for pedestrians and drivers as well.