Mayor Marty Walsh visibly cares about helping underserved communities. And he is aggressively promoting the continuing building boom and accompanying (construction) jobs, as expressed in his statement to the Chamber of Commerce that “we hit the ground running…in development, education, housing, public health, and infrastructure.” Unfortunately, it appears that the Mayor currently includes transportation as just a part of “infrastructure”, rather than a distinct critical element of city policy –streets and transportation are treated simply as extensions of the more important “building blocks” listed in his speech.
However, leverage also moves in the other direction: a city’s transportation systems set the context for and unleash energy in land use, job creation, and neighborhood improvement. Repeated studies show that both walkability and bikeability promote business growth, resident satisfaction, and public health. Walsh’s recent promotion of transit-oriented development as key to the development of affordable housing, as well as his cooperation in branding the Red Line as a “Life Science Corridor”, are tacit acknowledgements of this relationship. And it’s true that certain stand-alone issues have gotten attention: late night bus service for downtown businesses, emergency fixes for the Seaport’s entry/exit mess, and the inevitable neighborhood complaints about parking. But this is not a holistic vision. So far, his senior staff have not treated transportation as its own systemic entry-point for urban issues and quality of life.
A more holistic approach may emerge from Walsh’s promise to have transportation staff walk through every neighborhood noting problems. And, following a recommendation of his Transition Team, Walsh has appointed an Advisory Committee charged with the development of a “Boston Urban Mobility Plan”. (Full disclosure: LivableStreets has a representative on that committee.) Currently, however, this is simply a two-year process of soliciting public input rather than a commitment to action. So far, none of this yet adds up to a vision capable of generating policies and action that leverage transportation spending into better lives for all Boston residents and commuters.
In the meantime, Boston’s award-winning Complete Streets Guidelines have not been officially adopted as policy, although (fortunately) there are some staff people who are still trying to integrate its state-of-the-art good ideas into road designs. The slow-down is even more pronounced in the once thriving effort to make Boston a “world class city for bicycling” – which is often the opening wedge for improvements for pedestrians and transit users as well. The city’s Bicycle Network Plan is no longer referenced, much less used as a guide for street work. This despite the admittance by senior Walsh staffers that bicycle advocates were one of the most organized, visible, and vocal constituents of the mayoral election. According to the Boston Cyclists Union newsletter, “Outside of the addition of paint to a few locations such as Cambridge St. in Allston, and the groundbreaking new truck sideguards ordinance pushed by the Mayor himself, the city’s progress on bike safety has slowed significantly in 2014. Public meetings on and talk of the cycletrack around the Public Garden have evaporated. The plan for the first contraflow lane on Hemenway Street in the Fenway neighborhoods has been shelved without notice. A bike lane set to be added to a key connection for South Boston residents–the W. 4th St. Bridge–has been put on hold.” We can only hope that the recent bike ride that Mayor Walsh took with people from the Cyclists Union, Bikes Not Bombs, LivableStreets, and the Roxbury/Dorchester neighborhood signals increased interest in this issue.
Ironically, the most powerful current inducement for improvement in non-car transportation – subway, trolley, bus, bicycling, and walking – comes from the controversial effort to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston. The Boston 2024 Olympic Committee is seeking to distinguish its bid and keep taxpayer costs down by describing their vision as a “car free” event – based on the assumption that city and state governments will construct nearly all of the proposed non-car-focused transportation improvements listed in various planning documents and bond authorization bills.
REDUCING THE COMMON WEALTH
Transportation’s current low priority within the Walsh Administration is shown most clearly in the lack of top-level vision and leadership given to the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) and the Department of Public Works (DPW). Though Walsh committed to filling all cabinet positions by year’s end, there is no public evidence of any progress in searches for either new departmental Commissioners or for the cabinet-level Director who is supposed to be in charge of both. So both agencies have temporary Acting Commissioners left over from the Menino era.
The leadership vacuum has resulted in internal maneuverings to protect department turf and the individualizing of design approaches – whomever was once assigned a project holds on and does it his own way. One of the most painful examples of this lack of coherence has been the conflicting plans and different public input process for different sections of Commonwealth Avenue – a problem exacerbated by Boston University’s and it’s consultant’s commitment to an out-of-date, car-centric perspective on safety.
Everyone agrees that Comm. Ave. desperately needs improvement. It’s got the highest number of pedestrians and bicyclists of any road in the city, along with congestion-causing numbers of trucks and cars, and the slowest trolley system in the urban area. However, the sections of this extremely busy street being designed by the BTD for the BU Bridge to Packards Corner blocks (aka Phase 2A) are following very different public-input process and incorporating very different design philosophies than the sections being designed by the DPW covering Packards Corner to Warren/Kelton Street (aka Phases 3 & 4). Ironically, given DPW’s past reputation as being hostile to anything that would impede car movement, the DPW now seem much more responsive to public suggestion and more progressive in their willingness to incorporate multi-modal facilities than the left-over BTD leadership.
The Boston Transportation Department, under its current temporary leadership, has flagrantly violated its own public-input protocols. There was no “concept-stage” opportunity for suggestions, a total lack of response to the written suggestions community members and advocates sent in after the 25%-of-design meeting several years ago and again more recently after realizing that plans were being rushed towards completion, and so far the only 75%-of-design-completion “public meeting” was one called by BU students and the BU Bikes group.
In addition, despite BTD’s role in creating the city’s Complete Streets Guidelines, the original BTD design for the BU Bridge to Packards Corner section is car-centric and lacks the components that most Advocates think are needed: protected bike lanes (cycle tracks), raised crosswalks and wider sidewalks (the plan actually proposes to narrow sidewalks), additional and improved crossings (especially around the Star Market and Babcock T crossing), faster Green Line travel, and traffic-calming narrower lanes and sharper turns (the plan calls for wider car lanes and “softer” turns) – not to mention the cutting down of mature trees and limitations on sidewalk cafes that the design requires.
It is only because of an enormous effort, led by BU’s own students with the support of the city’s transportation Advocacy groups (whose increasingly tight coalition has significantly increased their impact), that BTD is finally bending. Advocacy groups working in support of the students have come up with a united vision of how to include improvements for trolley passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars. And it appears that the public pressure is forcing BTD to make some improvements, although even those are complicated by lack of coordination with MBTA plans to upgrade and consolidate its Green Line trolley stops in the area to comply with ADA regulations. The good news is that Acting Transportation Department Commissioner Jim Gilooly has publicly stated that “the one decision you can take to the bank is…there will be significant improvement, if not dramatic improvement,” from the original plans – although no one yet knows what he means by that – a concern increased by BTD and the BU Administration’s current touting of another inadequate approach that would simply widen bike lanes rather than create physically separated space.
It’s time for Mayor Walsh to step in. Transportation is too important to be left to squabbling departments. We need a vision that starts from the reality that the economic growth we seek creates population (or at least employment) growth and therefore increased transportation needs – which will inescapably lead to increased car congestion (and pollution) unless we massively increase the availability and attractiveness of other modes. We need good leadership. We need to take advantage of this long-delayed upgrading of Commonwealth Avenue to make it the safe, efficient, multi-modal, Walsh Administration precedent-setting transportation corridor that it needs to be.
Thanks to Matt Danish for his encyclopedic knowledge about Commonwealth Avenue and to the many people whose anecdotes and comments have shaped my perception of the new Administration. The opiniions are, of course, totally my own.
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