December 28, 2006

A Visit to Boston’s New Institute for Contemporary Art

Considering that I often don't enjoy "modern art" much, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed a visit today to the new Institute for Contemporary Art. Honestly, I went mostly to see the new building, an architecturally intriguing addition to the waterfront; but the art was worth experiencing as well.

Kudos to the ICA for including downloadable MP3 files on their Web site that you can put on your own iPod or other MP3 player and bring to the museum for your own audio tour. It's definitely something other museums should consider. While it's certainly possible to read the short descriptions of the artwork and get more info to enhance the viewing experience; in the case of contemporary art, being able to hear audio files from some of the artists themselves explaining their work added to my enjoyment.

It was especially interesting to hear local artist Josiah McElheny talk about the very cool work, Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely - one of my favorites for the beauty of the glass objects and the additional fascination of the endless reflections; as well as photographer Nan Goldin talk about some of her works. There were some great photos on display, including a well-known shot by WHO of a bullet piercing an apple.

As for the architecture, with all that's been written about the building, I was expecting something with much more of a grand impact. Unfortunately, it's hard for a building that's not particularly large and is surrounded by acres of parking lots to have much of an effect as you walk up to it. Right now the major drawback to the new ICA is its surroundings. There's no urban streetscape or feel at all, and no urge at all to go by foot anywhere but back to your car. A few blocks in the area are starting to shape up with a neighborhood feel; but right now, there are too many warehouses and parking lots at the sidewalk to expect that, say, conventioneers are going to feel like they're in the heart of a city as opposed to a warehouse district on its outskirts.

That aside, though, the building is a nice piece of work, making the most of its location with some stunning views from both inside and out. Here's a panorama I shot from inside the building (you can see some reflections off the glass):

December 27, 2006

Building More Roads is One of the Worst Solutions for Congestion, Not an Answer

Sam Stanley bemoans Boston traffic gridlock, notes the soaring amount of urban vehicle miles travelled, and then trots out a tired solution that's never worked: Build more highway capacity (Making Gridlock a Priortity, today's Boston Globe op-ed page). But guess what? There's simply not enough land to keep boosting highway capacity in urban environments - not unless you want to completely destroy streetscapes, wreck neighborhoods, or spend billions of dollars per mile to build underground roadways like the Big Dig.

But even if you did that, all you'd do is escalate traffic volumes even further. "A recent University of California at Berkeley study covering thirty California counties between 1973 and 1990 found that, for every 10 percent increase in roadway capacity, traffic increased 9 percent within four years' time," note Andres Duany, Elizabeth Platter-Zyberk and Jeff Speck in the book Suburban Nation.

I agree with Stanley that we need to look at "other cost-effective ways to combat traffic," such as better traffic signal optimization and using traffic cameras to improve accident response times. Variable-priced toll lanes are also an interesting idea, making people pay premium rates to travel at premium times on congested roadways.

But keep building ever more highway capacity to encourage people to keep driving more - at a rate of increase that already far outstrips the rate of population growth? No, that's not a public policy I endorse. There's a fundamental problem question here that he's ignored: Why has there been such a huge increase in private-vehicle travel? He tosses out a statistic that urban driving miles increased more than 168% in the past 30 years, without ever questioning why that is or if there's some way to ease demand instead of stoking it. There are several reasons for this spike in passenger vehicle miles:

* Lack of affordable housing, which forces people to live ever farther away from jobs (as well as other urban attractions such as cultural sites, sporting events, commercial and retail centers, etc.)

* Patterns of development that make any other kind of travel impractical. In older town centers, people can still walk to train stations and bus stops; in urban centers, people take the subway or buses or even walk to their jobs. In some older communities, people can walk to the grocery store and kids can walk to school. In newer suburbs and exurbs, it's impossible to walk anywhere, and the McMansions went up without thought of how those people would get to jobs or shopping, simply assuming the private car for 100% of travel was viable. Build more roads without changing that kind of development, and you just have the same problem with higher traffic levels.

* People in private cars do not pay their full fair share of expenses for the roads they use. If you don't pay more for road repair, snow removal, highway construction and so on, depending on how much you drive and use those roads, then you're going to drive more - and make decisions on where to live and work that involve more driving - than you otherwise would if you had to pay the full cost per mile. If we all paid half the cost of heating oil, and tax revenues made up the difference, many of us would be cranking up our thermostats in the winter. Same with private automobile use. Fund all road construction and maintenance via the gasoline tax, and you might see some changes in private vehicle usage patterns.

* Mass transit service is deteriorating. It's bad enough that service is so sparse and infrequent that in many cases, it's not practical to use. But even when the service allegedly is there, buses and trains are late, service is painfully slow and sometimes your bus or train simply doesn't show up at all. It doesn't have to be that way. When I was in Geneva last year, every single bus, train and commuter boat I took arrived on schedule to the minute. Every one! Even buses travelling through crowded city streets at rush hour. I'd suggest some of our public officials head to Switzerland and find out how they manage this, because clearly it's possible if there's a commitment to such service.

But let me repeat the basic flaw in Stanley's argument: You'll never be able to build enough highway capacity to meet demand. Never. Spanking new uncongested highways simply encourage development patterns that rely on those highways, eventually clogging them. I remember when Rte. 495 was mostly empty, and now thanks to housing patterns which rely heavily on private vehicle travel on that highway, it's often congested. How do we fix that, then? Build another ring highway? Widen it to eight lanes each way? Where does it end?

"Building more highways and widening existing roads, almost always motivated by concern over traffic, does nothing to reduce traffic. In the long run, it actually increases traffic. This revelation is so counterintuitive that it bears repeating: adding lanes makes traffic worse," Suburban Nation points out.

"This paradox was suspected as early as 1942 by Robert Moses, who noticed that the highways he had built around New York City in 1939 were somehow generating greater traffic problems than had existed previously. Since then, the phenomenon has been well documented, most notably in 1989, when the Southern Califronia Association of Governments concluded that traffic-assistance measures, be they adding lanes, or even double-decking the roadways, would have no more than a cosmetic effect on Los Angeles' traffic problems. ...

"Across the Atlantic, the British government reached a similar conclusion. Its studies showed that increased traffic capacity causes people to drive more -- a lot more -- such that half of any driving-time savings generated by new roadways are lost in the short run. In the long run, potentially all savings are expected to be lost. In the words of the Transport Minister, 'The fact of the matter is that we cannot tackle our traffic problems by building more roads.' ...

"Increased traffic capacity makes longer commutes less burdensome, and as a result, people are willing to live farther and farther from their workplace. As increasing numbers of people make similar decisions, the long-distance commute grows as crowded as the inner city, commuters clamor for additional lanes, and the cycle repeats itself. ...

"The phenomenon of induced trafic works in reverse as well. When New York's West Side Highway collapsed in 1973, a NYDOT study showed that 93 percent of the car trips lost did not reappear elsewhere; people simply stopped driving. A similar result accompanied the destruction of San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway in the 1989 earthquake. Citizens voted to remove the freeway entirely despite the apocalyptic warnings of traffic engineers. Surprisingly, a recent British study found that downtown road removals tend to boost local economies, while new roads lead to higher urban unemployment. ...

"The question is not how many lanes must be built to ease congestion but how many lanes of congestion you want. Do you favor four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour, or sixteen? This condition is best explained by what specialists call latent demand. Since the real constraint on driving is traffic, not cost, people are always ready to make more trips when the traffic goes away. The number of latent trips is huge -- perhaps 30 percent of existing traffic. Because of latent demand, adding lanes is futile, since drivers are already poised to use them up."

December 26, 2006

Plans For A More Walkable Chicago

Chicago Mayor Daley "has big plans to make things safer for those who prefer strolling to motoring," the Chicago Tribune noted in an editorial today. "A redesign of many curbs and intersections is under way to make them more pedestrian-friendly and render the act of crossing the street less risky. Also on the drawing board: more cameras to catch drivers who run red lights, and more pedestrian-countdown signals to alert street-crossers to either step it up or stay put."

The paper supports those plans, although it goes on to complain about planned "sting operations at high-accident intersections" this spring, when town officials "will go undercover and pose as average passersby--although to do any good they'll have to loiter around particular street corners. That might scare away the real pedestrians."

Apparently, the problem is "a creeping California-ism that would alter the equilibrium of Chicago's more competitive car-versus-pedestrian culture." Even though the paper says that more than one pedestrian a week is killed in Chicago traffic.

Whatever. But the curb and intersection redesign sounds like a wonderful idea.

If our Framingham town officials had to regularly walk to multiple destinations on both sides of Rte. 30, for example, I bet we'd see some different intersection designs here before too long. Just today, I'd planned to walk from my office across Rte. 30 to the Fidelity/Bank of America building. But traffic was heavy, and without a sidewalk around the bank, the thought of dashing across the intersection and then sloshing across the muddy, sloping grass was extraordinarily unappealing. I'd still like to know who allowed that building to be constructed without a sidewalk in front of it, since there already is a walkway in front of the other buildings on the block, and without any kind of reasonable pedestrian crossing.

December 24, 2006

Walking for Dinner

As I was driving home from work in massive amounts of traffic, the thought of heading anywhere else in my car was rather uninspiring. And one look at the Super Stop & Shop parking lot told me that pretty much everyone was stopping to pick up some groceries on their way home. Ah, if only there was some way to walk to a smaller, neighborhood grocery store like I used to do when Purity Supreme was in Saxonville!

Fortunately, Gerard Farms is still open (alas, they're closing for vacation til March after today). So, I was able to take a walk there and pick up a few things for dinner (some sliced deli meats, a few vegetable salads, done). But oh how it would improve my quality of life to be able to walk to a local market several times a week and pick up fresh meat and produce for dinner.

I think one of the reasons we eat so much processed (and unhealthy) food in this country is because local markets have all but disappeared. Who wants to drive to and shop at a huge big-box regional grocer multiple times a week? Instead, we stock up on foods with chemicals we can't pronounce, let alone identify - overly processed and packaged goods that will have a shelf life of weeks or months. The shelf life is usually inversely proportional to the taste, and we get less sensory satisfaction from our meals, so we eat greater quantities to make up for lower quality. And so it goes -- along with living our lives sitting at desks or in our cars, we end up out of shape and overweight.

I'm reading Mireille Guiliano's sequel to French Women Don't Get Fat, called Frech Women For All Seasons, and she points out that the French spend a higher percentage of their income on food. They'll pay more for locally produced items, and for quality. I suspect they're also willing to pay a little more to shop at a local market. The result? Along with the way they cook (using fresh, natural ingredients) and eat (mindfully, slowly, and paying attention to what they're consuming instead of watching TV, reading or typing at a computer), the way they shop helps them enjoy eating while not getting fat.

Many of us also pay less attention to what's in season, instead expecting to buy everything all the time, regardless of how long it's been stored or shipped. That, too, ends up reducing the satisfaction of what we consume.

I hope someday the trend toward local neighborhood grocers returns. Let the super stores have the business of long shelf-life packaged goods -- they'll be able to offer lower prices, and people can stop occasionally and stock up, as I'd do as well. But give us some more local options for fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat!

December 20, 2006

Adventures in Walking Along Rte. 30

With the seasonal traffic particularly awful this time of year, I tried parking once and walking to several destinations along Rte. 30 last week. It was an, um, interesting experience.

First, some good news. The walk from Stop & Shop to the new Lowe's is drastically improved, thanks to the new walkway along the side of Lowe's between it and Target. If you're on foot and want to actually cross over between Lowe's and Target, it's not TOO difficult around the stores -- the main problem is that cars are whizzing through there and not expecting pedestrians. I'm not sure I'd try it after dark. At the sidewalk, however, where 5 lanes of traffic are spilling out, it's scary. There needs to be a pedestrian median there.

The walk along the sidewalk in front of Lowe's to the post office was decent. The extra curb cut for Lowe's rooftop parking doesn't help, although right now with the store still new and not at full capacity, there wasn't too much traffic in and out of there while I was walking. As for the post office, it still needs a marked walkway between the sidewalk and the building. While the front parking isn't that large, when it's crowded there are cars pulling in and out of there all the time, and there definitely ought to be a visually pleasing, safe-feeling path from sidewalk to entrance.

Crossing Rte. 30 to get to the businesses on the other side is a truly frightening experience. Whether I'm crossing near Leggat-McCall Way to get to the Bank of America, or further down to get to the strip malls, it's always scary. There is absolutely no good place in the retail area of Rte. 30 to cross from one side to the other on foot, and that's crazy.

Besides well-marked crosswalks and adequate crossing light cycles, you need an attractive median where pedestrians can rest while walking across a lot of lanes of traffic, which makes it feel much safer. Plus, attention needs to be paid to the angle of curb cuts, which can make a corner feel more or less threatening.

Try crossing at Rte. 126 and 30 on foot sometime, and you'll see how unsafe it feels even if you've got a signal. No matter which way you're trying to go -- even just across 126 on the same side of 30, to get, say, from the Aegean Restaurant to the B&R Artisan Bread shop a couple of blocks down, feels downright frightening. It shouldn't. People ought to be able to park once and walk safely between retail establishments within a quarter or half mile of each other, without having to drive from place to place.

December 18, 2006

Globe Op-Ed Contributor Responds on North End Pedestrian Plan

Back in September, David Kruh (who's written two books about Boston's Scollay Square, razed for the hideous City Hall Plaza development) wrote a column on Boston's "love/hate relationship" with the automobile, criticizing the concept of a pedestrian-only zone for Hanover Street. I posted a response, arguing that the North End is quite different from the plaza, and creating more space for pedestrians in what's already a pedestrian-appealing streetscape makes a lot more sense than creating a barren wasteland and thinking people on foot will fill it up.

Anyway, today Kruh sent some comments responding to my Planning Livable Communities post. You can see his comments at the bottom of my original post.

December 16, 2006

More Pedestrian-Friendly Rte. 9 Frontage for New Natick Mall?

Natick Mall owners will be seeking another 65,000 square feet of retail space along Rte. 9, the MetroWest Daily News reported last week. "The new section, which would be built in the Rte. 9 parking lot between Macy's and the Lord & Taylor, would look like a row of storefronts along
a street, said Jim Grant, General Growth's vice president for development," the paper says. The plan comes before the Natick Planning Board Wednesday.

"By proposing the Rte. 9 side shops, the enclosed mall also wants to take part in the trend of what is called lifestyle centers, which are outdoor shopping areas designed to resemble upscale main streets or shopping districts. Grant said the new varied design would be a big improvement
in how the mall looks from Rte. 9."

Sounds intriguing, I hope to find out more. For example, will there be a pedestrian-appealing public sidewalk, and walkway from that sidewalk to the shopping area? Or will it just be designed to look nicer to cars driving by? Are there any plans to make the Speen Street side at all even moderately appealing for people to arrive by foot from the nearby hotels?

December 13, 2006

Mixed Reaction to Mayor Manino’s Plan For New Waterfront City Hall

Few love Boston's current city hall, an ugly structure easily mistaken for a massive parking garage surrounded by a "public plaza" so offputting that it often remains nearly empty even on beautiful summer days when nearby destinations like Quincy Market are bustling. However, I question Mayor Manino's solution: selling off the existing site and building a new one along the South Boston waterfront.

City Hall isn't just another building open to the public, like a museum or concert hall. As the seat of city government, it needs to be accessible to as many people as possible; and the available "silver line" bus service is vastly inferior to the network of trains around the current site. Without new light rail or trolley service connecting to existing lines, this will make it much more difficult for most workers and citizens to get there.

And while I understand the mayor's enthusiasm for remaking the South Boston waterfront, City Hall shouldn't be a neighborhood pioneer like, more appropriately, the new Institute of Contemporary Art. City Hall should be at a community's heart, not trying to help create a new one. Why not open up the existing site to some sort of public/private partnership competition to build a better, new City Hall along with other, private square footage to help foot the bill?

December 9, 2006

Pinefield Bustling on ‘Jingle Bell Day’

Saxonville's Pinefield Shopping Center was filled with shoppers and holiday celebrants today, drawn to day-long events that included free horse-drawn hayrides, music, pictures with Santa, wine/beer/liquor tastings for the adults and more. It was wonderful to see the place bustling with people from the neighborhood and beyond, both inside various stores and outside walking from store to store. It's things like this that help neighborhood businesses compete with big-box retailers.
I tried not to think too long about how much greater this thriving neighborhood center could have been with a rebuilt branch library as its anchor overlooking the Sudbury River. Sigh. On the brighter side, the days of worrying about the loss of Lincoln Drugs and the fate of the Pinefield Shopping Center seemed a long time ago, as a steady stream of shoppers was attracted to Ace Hardware's "bucket sale." Although most people arrived at the event by auto, you could even see the occasional locals walking on the streets nearby.

The shopping center certainly has its aesthetic faults (acres of asphalt parking and no obviously welcoming walkway from sidewalk to stores; too-narrow sidewalk in front of some stores, often blocked in front of the hardware store, to name a couple). And I still miss having a grocery store there - ah, to have a small specialty grocer, a bakery/bread place, and some more healthy eating options. Nevertheless, Pinefield joins other businesses in Saxonville Center to serve as a good commercial anchor to the neighborhood - much better than would a single big-box.

December 7, 2006

$1M for 3 Square Miles of WiFi?

I'm a big fan of wireless Internet access, but not big enough to support spending a million dollars in public money to offer town employees WiFi in a 3-square-mile section of downtown Framingham.

According to the Globe, "Kathleen McCarthy, Framingham technology services director, last week briefed selectmen on a plan to provide Internet access for town employees in a 3-square-mile downtown area at a cost of about $1 million. It would cost a total of $2.7 million to $4 million to expand wireless service to the entire town, she said.

"McCarthy said the primary goal of the proposal is to 'extend municipal services out to the field.' "

OK, so we can't afford to replace the terribly inadequate branch library in Saxonville, but we have a million dollars to spend so "Police, fire, public works, and health inspection services personnel all could work away from the office more efficiently with laptops and wireless Internet access"? Um, I don't think so.

And by the way, Framingham is 26 square miles, not just 3. If the service is for public employees, what possible rationale could there be to spend a million dollars to offer wireless very close to town offices, and not offer it in areas of the town more remote from town hall? If this is so useful to, say, more quickly map and fix a water main break, why give the service only to downtown?

If we're going to be investing money in downtown infrastructure, how about first improving the streetscape? Make it a compelling pedestrian environment, and you'd help attract new business activity, boost property values and improve quality of life. Wifi needs to come after that, not before.

I would, however, like to see public WiFi access at both town library buildings.