November 30, 2005

Cars, Pedestrians Co-existing: Beacon St, Brookline vs. Rte 30, Framingham

As I was walking and driving on Beacon Street in Brookline today, I again marvelled how a street with 3 and 4 lanes of traffic in each direction - a pretty major east-west thoroughfare in that area, in fact - manages to be so pedestrian friendly. Especially when later in the afternoon, I was both walking and driving on Rte. 30 in Framingham, disheartened that on a stretch of roadway with fewer lanes than Beacon Street, it was unpleasant to walk and much more difficult to cross.

Here's why.

Buffer between pedestrians and traffic. There is none on Rte. 30. This is something that most suburban planners simply don't think about, yet it's critical to attracting foot traffic. Beacon Street's on-street parking, which serves as a buffer between moving vehicles and walkers, makes a huge difference in pedestrian comfort -- especially when it's raining. I didn't get splashed by cars while walking on Beacon Street. I got splashed numerous times on Rte. 30, because cars are whizzing by just inches from pedestrians, with nothing between them.

Building siting. Buildings are right up at the sidewalk on Beacon Street, with windows looking out at passers-by. This is another key issue that so many suburban officials either don't understand or don't care about. If you want to make a walkable environment, you don't have buildings with huge setbacks and acres of asphalt between the sidewalk and the destination. Nor do you have lengthy stretches of huge parking lots abutting the sidewalk. People instinctively dislike walking in such streetscapes. Parking is primarily on-street, along sidewalks or in the rear on Beacon Street, and there are few massive driveways and parking lots as part of the streetscape. In contrast, the Rte. 30 streetscape is primarily massive driveways and parking lots.

Building architecture. Along with being sited at the sidewalk, the interesting architecture of the buildings - such as bay windows that break up what might otherwise be long, flat walls; porches and outdoor patios - are all designed so the sidewalks and buildings are an integrated and welcoming environment.

Sidewalk design. It's not simply that the sidewalks are wider on Beacon Street, although they are. It's that the sidewalks are continuous, and incorporate things like occasional restaurant outdoor seating as well as the expectation people will enter homes and businesses on foot. On Rte. 30, sidewalks often end abruptly - just try crossing over from the post office to get to any of the businesses where Filene's Basement is! Not only is there no sidewalk, but there's an actual barrier preventing walkers from getting there by the most obvious and direct path. It's nuts.

Crossings and medians. Beacon Street crossings are designed with the assumption that they will be regularly used by pedestrians as well as vehicles. Crosswalks are well marked, and light signals give ample time for people to cross the street without running. And where Beacon Street is 3 or 4 lanes in each direction, there's a wide median area for the trolley that's welcoming to pedestrians - a place where you can stop without feeling endangered by nearby traffic. This makes traversing the wide street less daunting on foot.

In contrast, there are few marked crosswalks along Rte. 30; signals are clearly designed for automotive traffic and does not assume pedestrian use; and with the lack of an ample median strip, there's always the feeling that you need to run in order to make the light and dodge turning vehicles. This isn't just poor aesthetics; it's dangerous.

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