November 23, 2007

Crossing Route 9. The Friday after Thanksgiving. On foot.

Every year I find myself drawn to check out some stores on "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, just to see what's going on and soak up the scene. I rarely buy much, if anything, although usually pick up a couple of good deals. Today after picking up free-after-rebate software at Office Depot in Shoppers World, I poked my head into Best Buy (crowded), and decided I wanted to see what was doing at Circuit City. No way I was going to drive my car across Route 9 and back, not to mention attempt to park in their lot today. So, I figured I'd see if it's possible to .... walk across Route 9 on the Friday after Thanksgiving!

Rte. 9 Crosswalk   Turns out there's actually a halfway decent pedestrian crossing on Rte. 9 at the Framingham-Natick line. What's crazy is that you'd never know it when you're in Shoppers World. There's nothing that leads you from the parking lot to the sidewalk to the crosswalk. There's no visual cue when you're in the parking lot, that you can do anything else on foot except get back in your car and drive. Likewise, once you reach the sidewalk, it's clear you're not actually meant to walk on foot from the sidewalk into Shoppers World. The mall and the sidewalk are side by side, but totally disconnected. Everything about the streetscape says these are two separate worlds, and you're not meant to get from one to the other if you're a pedestrian (see photo below). It's insane. Then, you're walking along the sidewalk and there are several restaurants RIGHT THERE, TGI Friday's and Olive Garden, but no path to get from the sidewalk to the restaurant. It's the absolute worst of suburban planning: Even if you install a sidewalk, make it impossible to get from that sidewalk to any destinations abutting the sidewalk.

The Rte. 9 crossing itself wasn't bad, although it takes awhile. There's a usable separation in the middle of the road, so you don't have to dash across zillions of lanes of traffic at once. And, there are pedestrian crossing signals. There's a fairly long wait before you get the crossing light, which is understandable considering all the vehicular traffic passing through. My one nit is that there's a separate crossing signal for each side, and you've got to do the wait each time. Yet there's little reason why you'd only be crossing one half of Route 9 and then camping out indefinitely in the median.

Here's what I mean about the Route 9 sidewalk. The streetscape isn't as ghastly as much of Route 9 here - on one side is a nice line of trees (although there's no barrier between sidewalk and multiple lanes of traffic, which isn't good). However, it's clear you're not actually meant to be strolling the area to enjoy various commercial and retail sites within view, since there's no path to the restaurants and stores except walking across the grass.


November 15, 2007

Downtown options

"The steering committee of the Downtown Rail Crossing Task Force crafted three approaches to the future of downtown they say will help them decide which solution is best to fix the traffic tie-ups in the area of routes 126 and 135. The options focus on making downtown a more desirable place to live, a more desirable place to eat and shop, or a more desirable place to enjoy cultural activities," the MetroWest Daily News reports. Ny vote?  a "cool mixed-use destination," as I saw it in the committee's Nov. 5 strategy session review.

What does that mean? The buzz words they used were "alive, funky, diverse, flavor," with a focus on retail and residential, along with growing cultural uses, and some sponsored festivals and events.

Downtown's attraction could be as a small, human-scale urban center offering a unique sense of place, walkable streetscape and things you can't find in a typical suburban neighborhood. There's no sense trying to compete as a pure residential-only center, with so many others in the area; or conventional retail, with Rte. 9 nearby. Instead, we need to look at something along the lines of downtown Waltham, a walkable urban neighborhood with compelling, non-suburban-cookie-cutter attractions.

"Among the possibilities bandied about in this month's meeting were building a movie theater that shows underground or art-house films and trying to better incorporate Framingham State College and MetroWest Medical Center into the life of downtown," the article said. The movie theater idea is a good one, although it would probably have to be some kind of non-profit. But the movie theater really helped revitalize Waltham, and creating an alternative to Rte. 9 Hollywood productions closer than Newton or Waltham could attract movie-lovers around MetroWest.

Add a few excellent restaurants, the Amazing Things Art Center and a walkable streetscape that encourages people to stroll between destinations, and you've definitely got potential -- enough that new residences would be more attractive.

Create such a downtown and I think it would naturally draw Framingham State students. More attention to the immediate streetscape around the college is a separate but important step in taking better advantage of the presence of Framingham State, which right now feels more like it's behind fortress walls than integrated into the surrounding community. What a pity walkable college-oriented retail was never allowed to thrive in the blocks adjacent to the campus.

Framingham forums on Open Space & Recreation Plan

From William Hanson, chair of the Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee:

Four public forums are coming up to encourage public participation in the preparation of the next edition of the
Framingham Open Space and Recreation Plan. The future of rail trail development in Framingham is one aspect of this plan. Those with an interest in trails or other types of outdoor recreation should attend one or more of these sessions.

Monday, November 26 - 7:30pm - Memorial Building - Blumer Community Room

Monday, December 3 - 7:30pm - High School in the Cafeteria

Thursday, December 6 - 9:30am - Senior Center (535 Union Avenue)

Wednesday, December 12 - 7:30pm - Brophy School in the Library

November 11, 2007

See home through a tourist’s eyes

While vacationing at home last week, I took a Photo Walk tour of Beacon Hill. It was a fun way to see a local place from a traveler's perspective, finding out new things about oft-visited places and looking at familiar scenes with a new eye. (Last fall, I took a a guided walking tour of the North End and got a kick out of that as well). Not every neighborhood can be packed with architecture deserving of the National Register of Historic Places, of course. But in my book, you should be able to give a visitor a walking tour of your neighborhood -- if it's a livable (i.e. walkable) community.

Stops on most of our tours won't be homes of Revolutionary War heroes, graceful $12 million Victorian-era townhouses or stops on the Underground Railroad. Perhaps we won't have a cluster of world-class restaurants or cool, Old World markets. But we should be able to walk around and point out things of local interest -- even if those things are only of hyperlocal interest, and not likely to draw tourists who'd ever pay for your guided tour.

Here's our neighbor who always has a gorgeous garden out front. There's a local family-owned market that used to be a turkey farm, and has great ice cream in the summer. Kids love skating on that pond in the winter.

Could you take a visitor on a 60 minute stroll around your neighborhood, pointing out interesting sites? That's one way to see whether you're living in a walkable neighborhood with a sense of place.

By the way, if you want to see the results of my Beacon Hill Photo Walk, check out my photo gallery on SmugMug.

November 5, 2007

Speen Street’s crosswalk to nowhere: too bad we need to walk a hundred feet

My company has a cluster of buildings near the intersection of Speen Street and Old Connecticut Path, and people need to do a fair amount of walking between those buildings -- for meetings, and for lunch (not all the buildings have cafeterias). Unfortunately, there's not a sidewalk for the full stretch.

It's annoying and feels a bit unsafe most of the year; but when it's winter, that attempted walk becomes downright dangerous. With no sidewalks to shovel and plowed snow piled up, people need to walk in the narrow street amidst a steady stream of traffic, including a lot of turning cars. It's so bad that we may end up having to throw up our hands and tell people to take their cars the less than 100 feet between buildings. How insane is that? Why can't our town officials understand that walking isn't just for recreation; it's just as vital a form of transportation as driving! Nobody would put up with it if roads became impassable for cars for weeks at a time. Why do we allow that for walking?

Happily it's not snowing yet. Meanwhile, I took a short (less than 3 minutes) video of the issue. You can see the video on YouTube.

Some people at my company are valiantly trying to get some kind of help for this situation, we'll see if we get any relief.

November 4, 2007

Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Committee Meets Tuesday 11/13

From Chair William Hanson:

Framingham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee
Conference Room 1
Memorial Building
150 Concord Street
Tuesday November 13, 2007 at 7:30 PM

7:30 PM

-> Vote on meeting minutes
-> Review recent correspondence and media articles
-> Public comment

7:50 PM

-> Update on recent meetings: Downtown Rail Crossing, Open
Space and Recreation Plan, Cochituate Rail Trail,
Bruce Freeman Trail

8:15 PM

-> Review of the Moving Together 2007 bicycle and pedestrian
conference. Prepare any followup activities.

8:45 PM

-> Review the draft of the Massachusetts Bicycle Plan and any
comments submitted by FBPAC or other local bicyclists

November 3, 2007

Mayors highlight benefits of walkable cities

"Cities that are 'walkable,' workable and livable add up to the 's' word: sustainable. Cities that are centered on people and public transit, not cars, and built to higher standards of energy efficiency will save money, hum with new development and create jobs to suit a greener way of life."

--New York Times coverage of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Summit

Walkability isn't just good for quality of life and the local economy; it also clearly makes environmental sense. However, some mayors say going green isn't the way to sell smarter development paterns. “You just can’t say we need to reduce global warming because there will be floods and polar bears will be gone,” said Mayor Douglas H. Palmer of Trenton, the Times reports. “They’ll run me out of town.”

Instead, he talks about pollution being bad for children's health, and energy waste driving up monthly heating bills.

Yet streetscapes with pedestrian appeal are clearly good for local economies. Notes the Times:

"The mayor of Fayetteville, Ark., gushed through a slide show about how his city was in the midst of great change. Bleak roads and bland shopping strips were being redrawn to a more human scale. Downtown condominiums were going for a million dollars. Streets once silent at night now bustled."

Good for the local economy, good for the environment, good for quality of life. It kind of makes you wonder why more American communities aren't insisting on pedestrian-friendly development, doesn't it?