February 27, 2007

Framingham Wins $50K Transit-Oriented Development Grant

"Framingham has been approved for a $50,000 Transit Oriented Development (TOD) grant for preliminary design of pedestrian improvements near the MBTA station," according to an e-mail from William Hanson, chair of the Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee. The town applied for the state grant last fall (see post) .

TOD is aimed at creating "compact, mixed-use, walkable development centered around transit stations. Generally including a mix of uses such as housing, shopping, employment, and recreational facilities," according to the Massachusetts state government Web site.

Framingham won the grant to do preliminary work on "pedestrian improvements to create better connections between commuter rail and bus service to housing and services in downtown Framingham."

Improving the pedestrian environment around the commuter rail station is a critical step in revitalizing downtown. Right now, the station does little to add vibrancy to the business district, since the streetscape around the station is so unappealing for pedestrians. Instead, commuters walk to and from their parked cars, but few are drawn to nearby stores and restaurants because there's no appealing route on foot from the station to those destinations. And it's hard to imagine many people living in planned nearby housing would be eager to go on foot to and from the train, again because of the offputting walking environment.

Boston (Chinatown, Jamaica Plain and Mattapan), Worcester and Holyoke also received preliminary design grants for pedestrian and bicycle improvements around transit stations.

The Framingham grant is on the agenda for the Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee's monthly meeting on Tuesday, March 13 at 7:30 pm in Town Hall.

February 25, 2007

What We Can Learn From the Battle Over Atlantic Yards

Is the proposal for a 22-acre development in Brooklyn - including a sports arena and 16 residential skyscrapers - a boon for New York City, or an overdevelopment that will overpopulate and ruin a thriving borough neighborhood?

The debate over Atlantic Yards is heating up as construction begins on the 22-acre site. Supporters say it will knit together neighborhoods that had been artificially separated by Long Island Rail Road yards, add needed housing and feature more public space and interesting design by noted architect Frank Gehry.

But critics rightly worry about the scale of the development, and what it will do both to neighborhoods and existing infrastructure.

One of the many tussles surrounding the project appears at first glance to be a minor one, turning a portion of one street (Pacific Street) into a so-called "superblock," an extremely long block without cross streets. However, many planners say such superblocks end up discouraging neighborhood street life.

Streetsblog points out that the project's landscape architect, Laurie Olin, actually told the New York Observer: "I think space on streets is actually useless space." Blog BrooklynSpeak fires back: "Far from being 'useless space,' Brooklynites use their streets to hang out on stoops and eat and drink in restaurants that spill out on to the sidewalk. Aside from parks and plazas, New York's public realm is its streets. The bottom line is that demapping Pacific Street would turn land that is now totally public into semi-private open space, mainly benefiting the developer and the future residents of the project, who will enjoy the use of parkland that won't be for all of us."

I'm waiting to see how development plans for the Natick mall expansion and downtown Framingham affect the nearby neighborhoods. Will new residential developments be knit into the fabric of the community, connecting to the existing street network in a pedestrian-friendly way? Or will they be set off surrounded by huge asphalt moats, making it less likely that residents of new condos will feel a part of the same community and neighborhoods as nearby residents?

Already, marketing pitches for the new condos at Natick Mall stress things like a private rooftop garden (not for the rest of the neighborhood). And while the new Nieman-Marcus building shell appears to be close to the Speen Street sidewalk, I'm not confident there will be a welcoming street-facing entrance and pathway from the sidewalk to the store. These are things we need to be keeping an eye on.

February 19, 2007

Where are the most pedestrians injured in Framingham? I crunch the data and find out

Roughly 40% of accidents where vehicles injured pedestrians occurred on just three roads in Framingham: Concord Street, Waverly Street and Route 9.

That's according to an analysis of Massachusetts Highway Department data from 2003 to 2005. Mass Highway received the information from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

If my coding of the accident data is correct, the majority of pedestrian accidents with injuries occurred in an area south of the Mass Pike along or near the Rte. 126 corridor. You can see the map here. I've also done a query tool where you can see all the pedestrian accidents reported to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, even those without injuries, by street.

These stats don't necessarily mean those roadways are the town's "most dangerous." It's impossible to determine that without also knowing how many pedestrians use each roadway overall. However, it's safe to say that improving the pedestrian environment in those areas would likely have a larger than average public safety payoff.

Four pedestrians were killed during the time studied - two on Rte. 9, one on Old Connecticut Path and one on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Last year's data is not yet available from the Mass Highway Dept., and so these numbers don't include a 2006 fatality on Old Connecticut Path (or yet another fatality up the same road in Wayland). Focusing on improving pedestrian issues along Old Connectict Path would clearly also have a significant effect on walker safety.

Overall, there were a dozen accidents reported in three years involving pedestrians on Concord Street/Rte. 126., including those without injuries, and another six at an intersection near it.

Of the 52 accidents where pedestrians were injured, 10 occurred on Concord Street/Rte. 126, six on Waverly Street, five on Rte. 9 and five on Hollis Street/Rte. 126.

Also part of this post:

Map of vehicle/pedestrian accidents with injuries in Framingham, 2003 to 2005

Tool to see all vehicle/pedestrian accidents in Framingham, 2003 to 2005, query by street

February 18, 2007

$2M Arts District Upgrade, Homeless Shelter Collide

Framingham isn't alone in wrestling with how social services fit in to hoped-for downtown revitalization. From the Denton (Tex.) Record-Chronicle:
"When city officials developed plans for an arts corridor along Hickory Street, they envisioned a pedestrian-friendly avenue with galleries, restaurants, music venues and public art.

"A homeless shelter wasn't in the picture.

"Meanwhile, Sons of Thunder Motorcycle Ministries was quietly housing the homeless in an East Hickory Street warehouse, in conflict with city zoning and code regulations. . . . 'A shelter wouldn't fit the image of a street dedicated to the arts, obviously,' City Council member Bob Montgomery said.

"Others say the shelter and arts corridor could coexist."

My belief is that while such services are possible within an upgraded business district, they're not necessarily ideal on the main retail/pedestrian thoroughfare -- and I'd say the same thing about medical offices, insurance offices, auto repair shops, and many other service businesses, regardless of their demographics. If you want to create a critical mass of appealing retail in a small business center, an area where people are willing to park once and walk to multiple destinations, you don't want to break up the streetscape with too many windows that don't entice people to window shop and walk in.

It's worthwhile to watch if and how other communities handle the issue of desired business-district overhaul vs. social service needs. Denton's plans for its "corridor" include nearly $2 million in improvements, the article says. The investments are "aimed at creating a more pedestrian-friendly corridor, with wider sidewalks, lighting, trash cans, benches, bike racks, trees and flowerpots." A new commuter rail station is likely for the area as well, which could draw more people to the avenue -- just as the commuter rail station in Framingham could, but doesn't, draw many more people to the downtown business district. Framingham's doesn't now mostly because there's no appealing streetscape between the rail station, parking and stores. That should be a major priority in any plans to revitalize downtown Framingham.

February 13, 2007

Study: Outsourcing Could Cost Boston 3% of its 2004 Jobs

The Lowell area may lose up to 4.3% of jobs that existed in 2004 to offshoring, according to a new Brookings Institution report, while the Boston metro area is expected to lose 2.6% to 3% of such jobs by 2015. IT jobs will be among the hardest hit, the report predicts, with some regions - including Boston and Nashua, N.H. - losing up to 17% of existing programming and software engineering positions in the next eight years.

The report, Implications of Service Offshoring for Metropolitan Economies, places Lowell in the highest category studied, along with Boulder, Colo; San Francisco; San Jose, Calif. and Stamford. Conn. All are expected to lose 3.1% to 4.3% of their jobs to overseas outsourcing by 2015.

Areas with high concentrations of information technology jobs are most vulnerable, followed by those specializing in back-office services. Large metro areas (a million or more) are also most likely to experience a higher percentage impact. Along with highlighting the threat from foreign competition, the report suggests governments "pursue policies that boost productivity and innovation, assist workers who are harmed by offshoring, and modernize approaches to economic and workforce development." Innovation or the ability to "make creative use" of innovations elsewhere, will likely offer the best protection against job loss, the study's authors say. But the study also has specific advice for federal, state and local authorities, including encouraging education & training and business collaboration.

Interestingly, the report calls for a variety of policies to "level the playing field" between U.S.-based companies and foreign competitors, including spreading out health care costs "widely among residents and/or businesses" instead of relying on our current employer-based insurance model.

The report's authors warn that "when indirect employment effects are considered, the metropolitan areas that are most vulnerable to offshoring could lose many more jobs than our estimates suggest. Because of multiplier effects, the total number of jobs lost in a metropolitan area because of offshoring could be 1.5 to three times as large."

February 12, 2007

Appealing Streetscapes Need Visual Interest

I agree with Kansas City Star columnist E. Thomas McClanahan, who notes that a "healthy urban districts need street fronts thick with detail — buildings with grand entrances, clear windows, plantings, benches or sheltered alcoves. Amenities such as these send a compelling message to the eye, one that says: Lots of cool stuff here, but you can’t experience it from your car. You have to get out and walk.

"A blank wall sends the opposite message, and makes even a short walk monotonous."

That's another detail that often gets lost when officials think they're doing something for walkers by installing a sidewalk, without taking into account that a compelling streetscape -- and by compelling, I mean one that encourages people to walk from one destination to another -- needs more than just sidewalks.

As McClanahan says, it needs visual and architectural interest. It also needs a feeling of "enclosure" -- walking along a 6-lane highway with buildings set way back and parking lots all around is a sure way to discourage foot traffic, no matter how wide the sidewalks. Also, walkers instinctively dislike large blank walls, and like varying building facades with things like bay windows and doorways not flush on a single plane.

Think about what makes places like Boston's Newbury Street so attractive for walking, and it includes all these things, not just the presence of sidewalks. It's something local planning officials need to keep in mind when they think about trying to revitalize downtown Framingham.

February 8, 2007

More Thoughts on Edgell Road

Based on what I know now, I oppose widening Edgell Road. We do not need another "traffic sewer" in town to negatively effect streetscape and make it more difficult, dangerous and unappealing for people to cross the street in a neighborhood business district.

What we need is some design to make a more appealing streetscape. It may not be possible to get a lot of people to Nobscot via public transit, but it is possible to create a "park once, walk to multiple destinations" business district, as well as encourage more people living in nearby housing to cross the street to the retail areas.

We could get many more people to Framingham Centre on foot from the nearby college if there was a more attractive streetscape and pedestrian path in that area. If we are contemplating doing anything to Edgell Road, there ought to be serious thought given to making Framingham Centre a more attractive place to walk around on foot. Park once, walk to multiple destinations.

The fact that a project to widen the road might also include constructing sidewalks does not impress me. The simple existence of sidewalks does virtually nothing to encourage walking if the surrounding environment is pedestrian-hostile. As exhibit A, I give you the recent work on Rte. 30. There are sidewalks. Have you ever tried to walk from Target to the Bella Costa shopping center? I have. It's an extremely unpleasant experience, despite the sidewalks. There is no good place to try to cross the street without feeling like you're in danger. This is poor design. I cross Beacon Street in Coolidge Corner, which has as many if not more lanes of traffic as Rte. 30 does, and it doesn't feel difficult or dangerous. Why? Better design, taking into account the needs of pedestrians and public transit as well as private vehicles.

I'm not arguing to do away with decent roadways. But it's time to bring some balance back to our planning. It's long past time to start considering the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and appealing streetscape in addition to the legitimate needs of vehicular traffic. Because we cannot build enough roadway capacity to meet vehicle demand. Never. Period.

From one of my favorite planning books, Suburban Nation: "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. ...

"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."

Why? Make a longer commute easier, and more people will choose to do it, in order to take advantage of cheaper housing. I wrote more on this here.

Edgell Road Reconstruction in the Works

There's a proposal to widen Edgell Road, change or add traffic lights and other potential changes, according to a posting on a local e-mail group. The project raises serious issues about turning a two-lane roadway into a major north-south, high-speed traffic sewer. It also can impact one of the more attractive areas in town, the historic homes near Framingham Centre.

If anyone is planning changes around Edgell Road, it ought to be down in the Framingham Centre business district to make a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. I'm guessing that's not on the plan. I'm guessing the plan is all about how to move more motor vehicles through more quickly, with little if any attention paid to people who might want to walk, or quality of life for those living on the road.

In any case, there's a public informational meeting on March 5 at the Hemenway School, 7 to 9 p.m., to discuss the project.

February 6, 2007

Task Force At Work to Redesign Newton Center

Newton Center has a lot of interesting stores and restaurants but a rather unfortunate design, since the focal point of much of the business district - the center of the Centre, so to speak - is the parking lot. Seriously.

If you've never been there, the heart of the prime retail area is a large paved and unlandscaped parking area. People who want to get from one grouping of stores to another often have to cross multiple streets and the large parking lot. This discourages shoppers from visiting more than one retail grouping, yet still requires anyone parking in that lot to cross a street no matter where they're heading.

The Newton Centre Task Force has hired a landscape architect, Bruce Leish, who has sketched out the concept of a park in the center including some kind of public meeting space, according to the Globe. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

February 5, 2007

Why I Turned Down Free Call Waiting Service

I multi-task as much as the next 21st-century person - probably moreso, considering I earn my living working on the Web, and my company's corporate culture leans heavily on instant-message communication (who can wait for e-mail? :-) ) Many of us have multiple IM conversations going on at once during the day, even when answering e-mail or talking on the phone, and it's all part of the adrenaline rush of a day at the office.

But one's personal relations can and should use a different standard. Call me old-fashioned, but when talking to a loved one, I think one's full attention should be on the conversation at hand, not checking to see if someone more important is trying to call. We've got voicemail for people to leave a message if I'm already on the phone.

I can see how call waiting can be necessary if you've got kids of a certain age, or some other pressing personal reasons why there are some calls you truly can't miss. I, however do not. One call at a time is just fine. Which is why I asked Verizon not to turn on the call-waiting service we're entitled to as part of our telecom package.

February 4, 2007

Guest What? Seniors Walk More in Walker-Friendly Communities

Sounds pretty obvious, doesn't it? If you want to keep older adults walking for exercise, design more pedestrian-friendly communities. Yet you'd never know it from some of the new housing being built for seniors today, which doesn't encourage much walking to other destinations in the comunity.

But if it's possible and more enticing to walk, people do walk. The built environment matters! A study headed by Dr. Ethan Berke, assistant professor at Dartmouth Medical School, indeed showed that "men living in more walkable neighborhoods were about six times more likely to walk for exercise, and women were 75 percent more likely to walk for exercise," according to Health Behavior News Service. The study examined 936 participants from 65 to 97 years old.

"Berke and a team of University of Washington urban planning specialists created a measurement of neighborhood 'walkability' and applied it to communities in the Seattle region. The measurement looked at about 200 factors, including slope of the land, mix of residents and businesses and proximity to grocery stores."

The study is slated to appear in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health.