Saturday, October 24, 2009

Could you see Boston making changes like these?

Expanding on the last post about the conservatism in urban design in the Commonwealth, I found this video about shared streets in Auckland, New Zealand.  They're based on successful designs in Denmark by Gehl Architects.  I had the amazing privilege to learn from two architects of that firm last semester. Perhaps someday I could bring streets like these to Holyoke or Cambridge, but not to Boston.

Massachusetts: Too Conservative?

Sure, Massachusetts leads when it comes to civil rights or protecting the environment, but I've learned during my time as a planner-in-training that when it comes to transportation, the Commonwealth is quite conservative.

Yesterday at work, I spoke with a colleague about the state and possible reconstruction of Longfellow Bridge, also known as the Salt-and-Pepper-Shaker Bridge due to the shape of its central towers, between Boston and Cambridge.  The current configuration of the bridge, the cross-section of which you can view here, includes the MBTA Red Line running in 27' down the middle, two vehicle travel lanes on each side taking up between 48' and 51'8", a 3'-3'6" shoulders doubling as bicycle lanes, and a sidewalk of 10' on one side and 6' on the other.

The first problem is the narrower sidewalk, which while at some points has 6 feet of width, narrows down to about 2 feet at one point with a light pole right in the middle.  The second problem relates to the cars.  The bridge, considering its location, carries very few cars.  Around twice as many people pass over the bridge using mass transit than private automobiles.  This begs the question, why are there four vehicle travel lanes?  Not only is such a mix unsustainable, it's also unnecessary.  I understand that there needs to be enough room for one vehicle to pass another in emergencies, but that does not necessitate another whole travel lane.

Make less room for cars and what do you get?  Fewer cars.  Longfellow desperately needs to be reconstructed, so let's transform Longfellow Bridge into a 21st century travel way, with one vehicle travel lane each way, wide bicycle lanes and wide sidewalks.  None of the proposed alternatives include closing vehicle lanes permanently.  However, as my co-worker pointed out, vehicle travel will be reduced to one lane each way for prolonged periods during construction--why not just leave it like that?

The Red Line will also require shifting during the rebuild, which will be very expensive.  Instead of shifting the tracks multiple times to get it back in its original position, shift them just once or twice and use the opportunity to  change the configuration.  Change one side of the bridge into a dedicated way for pedestrians and bicyclists and leave the other side for cars.  The Longfellow already offers the best view of Boston--you'd even be able to turn it into a tourist attraction!  Unfortunately the City of Boston and the Massachusetts Highway Department lack the vision to make the change.  It makes me wonder whether I could do transportation planning in the Commonwealth without becoming horribly frustrated in trying to fight the culture. 

Other examples of conservative transportation planning: PVTA won't consider light rail, the MBTA insists on bus rapid transit instead of new subways and won't electrify the commuter rail, and the legislature won't consider raising the gas tax.  Boston still lags on bicycle policy & action, and I'm not sure that the idea occurs to a single public official to substitute street parking for real bicycle lanes or even to restructure street parking pricing.