Living on Earth and Complete Streets in Boston

Cambridge Street Bridge
Cambridge Street Bridge with cycle track

Excellent Living on Earth piece this week about the “Complete Streets” movement, focused on Cambridge Street in Allston. The segment features an interview with then-deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, Stefanie Seskin, now Boston’s Director of Active Transportation. Also interviewed is Vineet GuptaBoston Transportation Department head of policy and planning.

It’s been nearly 75 years since World War II ended, yet much transportation planning is still based on that obsolete paradigm. The Living on Earth piece concludes on a hopeful note that the pace of change is picking up:

SESKIN: Post World War II, we embarked in the United States and in many other countries, on a massive infrastructure investment to move goods really across the country. And that had a lot of really important and good changes to the way that we built our roads in terms of safety when you’re travelling at high speeds, when you’re thinking about trucks and how they move.

LUCAS: But Seskin says while wide lanes make highways and other high-speed roads safer for traffic using them, they were never meant for cities and town centers. And yet city streets were built the same way as those high-speed roads. Vineet Gupta of Boston’s Transportation Department says that post-war engineering mentality explains why Cambridge Street is so bad for pedestrians today.

GUPTA: In those days, all they cared about was moving traffic and making traffic flow more efficient, and really not focusing on what cities really are, and what makes them livable.

LUCAS: That’s where people-oriented complete streets are different.And the idea has been gaining traction around the country.The National Complete Streets Coalition says that the number of places with complete street policies leaped from 86 in 2008 to 610 last year. Stephanie Seskin has noticed.

We haven’t seen much of this progress yet in Roslindale. It’s our job to push both elected and appointed officials to bring Complete Streets to our neighborhood sooner rather than later. We should be leading rather than trailing.

Gentrification in East Boston

HT Ricardo: Great WBUR piece on development and gentrification in Eastie (listen or read), illuminating both the micro- and macro-economic forces at work in modern-day Boston. Demand for housing is surging in neighborhoods with short downtown commutes–which includes both East Boston and Roslindale. Each neighborhood has unique draws: East Boston has its waterfront; Roslindale has, among other natural and permanent features, the Arnold Arboretum. The result across Boston inevitably includes painful displacement:

Stories of exodus are increasingly common in East Boston, but it’s happening across the city. A recent study from Northeastern University suggests Boston’s housing market is in crisis: Young millennials and aging baby boomers are relocating from the suburbs, occupying housing that traditionally went to blue-collar Bostonians.

The WBUR article also cites a recent study showing Boston now leads the country in gentrification!

Having a much lower percentage of rental housing, the rapid displacement we’re witnessing in East Boston may be less dramatic in Rozzie, but development is coming here too (stay tuned for even more announcements soon), presenting both challenges and opportunities for the community. More residents, wealth, and improved building stock can be a net benefit, but in addition to design goals (encouraging smart transit- and foot-oriented development that will not exacerbate traffic and parking woes), we must continue to push for maintaining and adding affordable housing. One reason we love Roslindale is because it, like Eastie, has become one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city; let’s insure we preserve that key advantage in the coming boom.

Design Help Wanted

Our WalkUP Roslindale team has a variety of skills, but graphic design isn’t one of them, yet! So far, we’ve relied 100% on public domain (copyright expired) and broadly-licensed Creative Commons images on our website, Twitter feed, and Facebook page. We’d love to have some more distinct and perhaps cutting edge icons and artwork. If anyone has the skills and enthusiasm to help in this area, please contact us at info@nullwalkuproslindale.org.

Longer term, we’d like to do more ambitious graphical projects, such as depicting various parts of the neighborhood with smarter pedestrian design (imagine Poplar Street as a woonerf!), similar to how the Boston Cyclists Union has worked with volunteers to generate drawings and doctored photographs to spark the imagination about what is possible. If you have the skills for this, we’d love to hear from you as well!

A rendering by Bike Union volunteer Jessi Flynn of the Bike Union’s redesign of Route 9
A rendering by Boston Cyclists Union volunteer Jessi Flynn of a redesign of Route 9
A remaining challenge will be ensuring the cycletrack reaches all the way to the intersection with the BU Bridge, as depicted here. Illustration created by a Bike Union volunteer.
An illustration of a proposed Commonwealth Ave cycletrack created by a Boston Cyclists Union volunteer

We Need to Talk About Parking

Banned in BostonA critical piece of the walkability/livability discussion is the problem of parking. Some minor flare-ups around the proposal to replace (temporarily) even one car parking space with a corral that could accommodate at least ten bikes highlights the passion and sensitivity some feel around the issue. For those who don’t have time to pore over an 800-page bestselling book on the topic (“The High Cost of Free Parking”), we’ll try to lay out piece by piece over the next few weeks why parking–and especially free parking–can be toxic to the health of a community and especially a neighborhood shopping district.

In the meantime, though, last week’s Planet Money episode “Free Parking” provides an entertaining and engaging introduction to the topic, through the prism of a parking exchange startup that originated in Baltimore and was subsequently banned in Boston. Although the story is interesting from a number of perspectives, we urge everyone to listen closely to the interview with Donald Shoup, author of the aforementioned bestseller.

Stay tuned for more.

Rozzie Bikes “Hidden Parkway” Event This Sunday, June 14, 2015

RozzieBikesVia our friends at RozzieBikes, a ride this weekend to explore Roslindale’s “hidden” parkway. This kind of event is great both for regular urban cyclists as well as those who may not be entirely comfortable biking on public ways as the group can provide security and protection. The total ride should be around 5 miles with “no significant hills”, so easy enough even if you don’t have a fancy Lycra collection.

Exploration of Boston’s ‘hidden’ parkway by bicycle!

Date: Sunday, June 14 (raindate Sunday June 28)
Time: 7:30am meeting time for 8am departure – return by 10am
Location: Stop-n-Shop plaza (Walgreen’s end)
American Legion Hwy near intersection with Hyde Park Ave.

This 2.5 mile corridor that borders Roslindale and Mattapan has opportunities for large and small green recreational projects, including bike & walking paths, parks, tot-lots, picnic areas, and protected urban wild. However, this area is extremely vulnerable to destruction from both pending and proposed development. Once these pockets of green are gone, they are gone forever. Did you know that the 4500′ open Canterbury Brook that winds on either side of American Legion Highway is one of only five open brooks in Boston?

A 2-hour, 5-mile exploration by bicycle will introduce this corridor of opportunity, and you will get to share in the vision of residents and neighbors who are passionately working to preserve and enhance a vibrant community and fragile greenscape. Periodic stops will provide ample opportunity for discussion and engagement. We will finish in time for you to enjoy brunch or Sunday services, and the rest of your weekend.

Bring your bicycle, helmet, water bottle and sunscreen, and your curiosity! The ride will be casual with multiple stops and no significant hills, and so is appropriate for riders of all abilities.

We look forward to riding and sharing with you.

Email Laura Smeaton with questions.

 

Another Pedestrian Tragedy in the City of Boston

Local news reports on a terrible tragedy this past weekend in Mattapan, where an eight-year-old girl was killed and a twelve-year-old boy seriously injured by a hit-and-run motorist who was later arrested and charged with vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident. Recall we had a similarly serious incident in Rozzie just a couple of weeks back (that driver has since been identified and charged). We don’t know the families or more details than have been made publicly available, but it’s an awful occurrence. We offer our condolences to the one family and wishes for a speedy recovery to the other.

One point in the article bears emphasis here:

Neighbors said speeding is a constant problem on West Selden Street.

“Literally I’ve been in my house and cars have gone by so fast that my house shakes,” said Dee Phillips, who lives on the street.

It’s easy and natural to blame bad drivers — and some in the comments on the above-linked article callously assert irresponsible parenting — but fundamentally these tragedies are a statistically predictable result of the decisions we collectively make about our urban environment, starting with street design, but also including enforcement as well as culture and community norms. Put simply: speed kills.

My first post-college job back in the 1990s was at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a think-tank in Chicago that researches and advocates for smarter transportation and land-use policies, as well as environmentally sustainable economic development. We were trained not to call car crashes “accidents” in public statements; rather they should just be called “crashes.” The reason: although any particular crash might seem accidental in its details, in the aggregate the phenomenon is the predictable and foreseeable result of policies involving our streets. And while any single crash may or may not have been avoided through better design decisions, there are well-known proven techniques that will greatly reduce the number of such crashes. All it takes is a determination that we won’t tolerate a certain baseline level of death and serious injury as the “cost of doing business.” This is exactly the point of the Vision Zero InitiativeNo Loss of Life is Acceptable. We embrace this vision, and you should too.

RIP Wapo Taco – Don’t Mourn, Organize!

Wapo Taco Roslindale
Wapo Taco Storefront (image courtesy WalkScore,com)

Sad News from Wapo Taco, a quirky, tasty, and affordable two-person taco shop that has been with us for nearly two decades. They are closing at the end of the month due to a substantial rent hike:

TO ALL OF OUR CUSTOMERS
It is with great sadness and heavy hearts, that we make this announcement.
After 18 yrs. We have decided to close THE WAPO TACO. The building we are in, was recently sold. The new Landlords have doubled our rent. In order for us to stay, we would have to pass that on our customers, with a substantial price increase. We don’t think that would be fair to all of you. We would like to thank all of our customers for all of your love and support over the past 18 yrs. We value the many friendships and memories we’ve made throughout the years…..
Our last day of business will be Saturday, June 27th….
Thank you all again it has been a wonderful ride.
Dianne and Lorenzo

This announcement comes on the heels of the closure of several other long-standing Roslindale businesses: most recently Vouros bakery, before that the Select Cafe (f/k/a Emac and Bolio’s), and the more short-lived Sugar Restaurant.

These losses to our community are always followed by hand-wringing and no small amount of antipathy directed to greedy landlords, accompanied by a legitimate fear of large-chain invasion. And there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of this, but to re-appropriate the words of Joe Hill (often mis-attributed as his last): Don’t Mourn, Organize!

Rising commercial rents and the related shifting demographics in the neighborhood will inevitably result in some unfortunate (and perhaps avoidable) casualties. But there are other factors at work here too, that we can do something about. Every single entrepreneur we’ve heard from who has considered opening a storefront in Roslindale in recent years has expressed concern about the lack of daytime foot traffic. Although Wapo Taco was open most days from 12pm to 8pm, anecdotal observation suggests the shop was slow for most of that time, and often empty.

We don’t know any details of the restaurant’s balance sheet, but it’s easy to imagine that they could have survived a substantial rent increase with a 2x increase in sales. They certainly had the production capacity for it. Lack of foot-traffic (especially daytime) was also a concern of the previous owners of the Boston Cheese Cellar, which closed in the spring but recently reopened with a new owner and extra gusto. Moreover, the 2010 Tufts University Study, Destination: Roslindale Village, A Roadmap for a Vibrant Village, also highlighted the need for increased foot traffic to improve and invigorate the neighborhood economy.

So what do we do to increase foot traffic so we can retain businesses like Wapo Taco and attract others that are badly needed (a fancy espresso shop!)? There is no single strategy for success, but all of WalkUP Roslindale‘s priorities will help get us there: increased density close to the square (perhaps the #1  need); an improved pedestrian environment (via infrastructure, design, enforcement, and cultural changes); better bike infrastructure (think Hubway and an off-road bike highway to the orange line); improved (and more affordable) transit connectivity; as well as neighborhood marketing.

It’s worth noting that there is no way we can achieve these goals through more auto-centric build-out: there is no practical place to add more free parking, and even if we could, at most it would bring a handful more people into the village while further exacerbating the already existing street gridlock at peak hours. Abolishing unlimited free parking could actually help quite a bit, but that’s a topic for a future blog entry. It will be much more effective to find ways to let people who want to live here do so affordably, and enable those who want to get to the village other than by car do so safely, thereby freeing up parking spots and easing traffic congestion for others who cannot or will not travel other than by car.

See also this discussion about Wapo Taco’s closing on Universal Hub.