Friday, January 17, 2014

Arlington's Corridor Project and the livable future of our cities

Some local news (but even if you don't live in Arlington, MA... keep reading).

I found a comment on Twitter about the recent proposal to rebuild Mass Ave with pedestrian safety in focus:
A question to Mrs. Miles - do you want to please drivers in your town or all people? If drivers - why don't we simply convert Mass Ave into a highway?
Anyway, my Elka subscribed to Arlington Advocate - our local newspaper since she wanted to know what's going on in the town. That's good, especially that there is a big buzz about the Massachusetts Ave Corridor Project. I wrote about it earlier. The project plans on adding bike lanes to Mass Ave - our main street in Arlington, but its scope is much broader. It is an effort to convert the main street in the town into a place that is more livable: people- and cyclists-friendly and less car-dependent. To achieve this, town planned on removing one of 4 lanes on Mass Ave and use this space for bike lanes, median dividers and wider sidewalks. Not everyone around here is happy with this decision. Some "concerned citizens" objected this proposal and stalled it in the last public vote.
One of those people is Eric Berger, resident of Arlington, who wrote a commentary in today's paper (unfortunately, you can't view it online yet). Mr. Berger presents 7 "myths" about the project claiming that truth is elsewhere and rebuilding of Mass Ave means only more congestion, longer travel times, stuck emergency vehicles, more killed pedestrians, etc. To quote the article:
The truth is that the environment will become less green because traffic congestion and air quality will worsen. (...)
The truth is that traffic congestion will increase along with traffic back ups and therefore side street cut-through traffic will rise dramatically. (...)
The truth is that bike lanes (...) will provide an unsafe environment for these bicyclists, far less safe than the nearby Minuteman Bikeway. (...) 
The truth is the absence of any such crossing signals (...) undermines the safety of pedestrians crossing the corridor. (...)
The truth is that travel to and from the corridor will become more congested and less efficient, and the increased hassle will undermine corridor businesses. 
The main problem with Berger's"truths" is that he gives absolutely no proof in the article that his "truths" are true indeed. Essentially, he just pulls those statements out of his rear end not citing any sources whatsoever. Duh, anyone can do that!

How does he know that Arlington will become more polluted? Or that bicyclists will become unsafe on Mass Ave? Or that pedestrians will be in danger? Or the businesses will suffer?

Perhaps his "truths" should be put to test first, before we start rebuilding the town center.
Block those lanes that will be removed with cones, place temporary markings and see how the new layout could work without rebuilding most of the downtown. But maybe this is not easily doable. Maybe instead of reinventing the wheel we should just look for examples.

The main question remains - do we want to live in a place that is built for cars, or built for people? Mr. Berger seems to like to former and would probably like to see a multilane highway running through the town and would like to have several city blocks leveled and converted into huge parking lots. That has been tried already in many American cities but it all belongs to past. Our cities are changing and they do not follow Berger's advice, fortunately. New York is a good example:

Let's comment on some of the Berger's "truths" then:

"Bike lanes will be unsafe. Why build bike lanes if there is the Minuteman Bikeway nearby?"
Bike lanes on our main street will be unsafe if drivers decide to ignore them. But they are needed there. Berger's argues that we don't need the lanes because Minuteman Bikeway is nearby. But the Bikeway is not running in the same direction as Mass Ave! If I told Mr. Berger that he doesn't have to drive on Mass Ave since Route 2 is nearby, he wouldn't like it, for sure.
Another reason why MB is not the right choice for the commuters is that it's full of dog-walkers, children, baby strollers, joggers, etc. It's a multi-user path and as such, it's not designed to handle a heavy bike traffic. Not to mention the stop signs every few hundred feet. Would you want to drive to work every day on a road full of slower vehicles and stop signs at every intersection? I guess not.

"Crossing signals must be installed everywhere, especially the pedestrian-activated ones"
This is a car-oriented approach that says "Let pedestrians wait and not interfere with our driving. We will let them cross when there is a chance. Maybe in a few minutes." If the system is not programmed right (And it rarely is.), pedestrians will try to cross on red since no one wants to wait several minutes for green. Programming it right means that green light on crosswalks should come up within seconds, not minutes. Too often it works this way: pedestrian pushes the button, computer gets the request but has to wait the entire phase of light changes before can fit that request into the program.

Anyway, the problem with crosswalks and crosswalk lights is much larger. It's a way of fitting pedestrians into a car-infested city. Cities became car places where people can't walk freely anymore.

"Local businesses will suffer"
New York City example shows something exactly opposite. Of course, Arlington is not NYC - not even close. But the same rules will apply. If I visit a business place, I can often get there faster walking or by bike, locking it at the front door, instead of spending time hunting for a parking spot and then worry that my parking meter will expire soon. Do you really have to park your car right in front of the store?

"Let's keep it the way it is. We need the space for cars"
This has been tried before many times. You start with a congestion. You want to alleviate it by building new roads. You end up with more cars and more congestion. It doesn't work and the reason for it is that more roads must be build in place of the walking space, city parks and bike lanes (Where else would you find space in the city?). This encourages people to walk and bike less and drive more.
The recent trend worldwide is to do exactly the opposite - eliminate cars from city centers (see the video above), focus on public transport for long range travel and bicycles for short-range trips. Arlington, and many other cities in US, can do it better. Give priorities to buses, streetcars, bicycles. Design the system the way where people would benefit from mass transportation and simply not want to drive into the downtown.
My ideal Mass Ave would have only 2 car lanes, one in each direction but would also have bike lanes on both sides and a "T" tracks (Boston's streetcar) in the middle on the street.

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