August 28, 2008

Natick meeting: State transportation office seeks citizen input

Have experiences getting to work, school or elsewhere that you'd like to share with state officials? The Executive Office of Transportation says it's "kicking off a civic outreach effort to talk to Massachusetts residents about their experiences using the transportation system."

The second workshop is Monday, September 22, 6 pm at the Morse Institute Library in Natick (the first workshop is Sept. 17 3 pm at the main library in Boston). You can see the full workshop schedule  here.

"Tell us what you observe every day as you move around on the roads, rails, and trails of our state," the You Move Massachusetts Web site invites.

Alas, 6 pm is a tough time for most of us who work a full-time day job ( unless they're planning to feed us dinner there). Nevertheless, I'm hoping to get down to the workshop to share my experiences trying to, say, cross Rte. 30 without getting killed; or my inability to walk to Shoppers World or the Natick Mall from my office nearby because no thought was given to pedestrian needs.

August 25, 2008

The presidential candidates on public transit

Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden is a well-known, long-time supporter of public transportation -- particularly rail service, as he commutes daily from the Senate in Washington, D.C. to his home in Delaware via Amtrak. So that got me wondering how the two major-party picks at the top of the ticket stacked up on public transportation issues.

Turns out the difference is pretty clear. If you believe public transit can and should play an important part in helping to reduce our highest-in-the-world per-capita oil consumption, Barack Obama does as well, with a detailed transportation plan that supports the development and funding of high-speed rail service as well as modernizing aging urban transit systems and changing the tax code so that employees can't get higher benefits for driving and parking than if they take public transportation.

"Providing passengers with safe high-speed rail will have significant environmental and metropolitan planning advantages and help diversify our nation’s transportation infrastructure," Obama's plan notes. "Our domestic rail freight capacity must also be strengthened because our demand for rail transportation has never been greater, leaving many key transportation hubs stretched to capacity. Obama is committed to renewing the federal government’s commitment to high speed rail so that our nation’s transportation infrastructure continues to support, and not hinder, our nation’s long-term economic growth."

I couldn't find any policy statements on that even mentioned public transportation, although a number of newspaper articles highlight his long-held hostility toward intercity rail service. "In 2000, when he was chairman of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation committee, McCain killed $10 billion in capital funding for Amtrak. He denounced Amtrak as a symbol of government waste, claiming, 'There's only two parts of the country that can support a viable rail system - the Northeast and the far West,' " notes Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson. Currently on McCain's Web site, his plan to "reform our transportation sector" talks only about fuels to power private vehicles; there's literally not a word about mass transit.

In further searching, the only official reference to public transportation I could find was a blog post by McCain staffer Michael Goldfarb, who sneeringly referred to the possibility that a President Obama would tell Americans "to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can." As if that were some kind of awful thing.

"Particularly among rail advocates, McCain is well known as a consistent critic of Amtrak who has repeatedly tried to eliminate national passenger train service by slashing funding and proposing to dismember the national system into disparate regional entities," says LightRailNow!, which advocates for mass transit.

August 19, 2008

Dense development: OK for vacations but not at home?

"After fighting density at public meetings throughout the year, even NIMBYs need a vacation. When the weather is right and they feel like escaping their one dwelling-unit-per-acre suburban subdivisions for some rest and relaxation, these neighborhood activists often head for places like the Jersey Shore," writes planner Matt Wanamaker for Next American City. The irony, he notes, is that "a good deal of the vibrancy in resort towns like those at 'The Shore' may be attributed to something that many visitors would claim revulsion to in their hometowns: density."

Interesting point. While certainly some suburbanites who deplore any increase in density back home head off to rural oases like New Hampshire's White Mountains, many also do head to places like Wildwood Crest, N.J. - "where even the quietest blocks have a typical residential density of around 12 dwelling-units-per-acre." For some reason, what's not OK at home seems worth traveling to for vacation,=, Wanamaker notes:
"Parents who fight ordinances permitting 'dangerous' alleys at home let their children ride bikes alone through them at The Shore. Every block has a sidewalk used for short walks to shops, schools, churches, and of course the ocean. . . . Single-family homes sit snugly next to each other or next to townhomes, which often sit close to lowrise hotels. Sandwich shops without dedicated parking spaces are full of patrons all day. Most homes have porches and families wind down the day by sitting in them and waving to anyone who walks by. . . . They are things that planners struggle to convince towns to allow, yet are often denied by citizen groups who protest, citing concerns including…reduced quality of life."

Is this a case of what some people used to say about another tourist magnet, New York City: A nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there? Or is this a case where people really do enjoy traditional, more densely developed walkable communities without realizing it?

There's a difference between wanting to maintain a certain level of space and quiet in your community, because that's how it was when you moved there and that's the lifestyle you're hoping to maintain; and arguing that increased density will "destroy" quality of life, lower property values and cause all sorts of other problems. Personally, I'd like to live close to density but have quiet on my own block; who wouldn't? But density doesn't necessarily kill off property values. Beacon Hill is a lot more densely developed than, say, Hopedale, but it's pretty obvious which place has higher housing costs. Yes, there can be value in density, if done right.

August 11, 2008

Burlington, Vermont's 'downtown that works' ... and what Framingham might learn

Burlington, Vt. proper has a population that's smaller than Framingham -- just 40,000 people (plus several colleges) -- yet it boasts a thriving downtown and rejuvenated waterfront. We were there yesterday, on a Sunday afternoon, and the 4-block pedestrian-only retail area was packed with people. There was a special street performer festival going on, but several locals said the crowds were typical.

What makes it work? What lessons could Framingham learn from Burlington's success?

[caption id="attachment_720" align="alignright" width="225" caption="Outdoor seating at numerous restaurants, along with an attractive pedestrian-only retail area with a good mix of businesses, brings crowds to downtown Burlington, Vt."]Outdoor seating at numerous restaurants, along with an attractive pedestrian-only retail area with a good mix of businesses, brings crowds to downtown Burlington, Vt.[/caption]

* A huge amount of effort was put into making a walkable city. The waterfront is connected to the downtown shopping area, and both are connected to nearby college campuses. It's not merely theoretically possible to walk between destinations, but the streetscape makes you want to stroll. Cars don't whiz by within inches of walkers, there's separation and screening. And intersections are crossable on foot. There's also a free shuttle running between college, downtown shopping and waterfront. Contrast that with the highly unpleasant corridors between Framingham's train station and retail area, Framingham State, and nearby parks and ponds.

* The city's colleges aren't hidden away, physically separated from the rest of the city, but are well integrated and bring foot traffic and life to nearby retail. "Twenty-five years ago, the four-block stretch between Main and Pearl streets was open to automobile traffic, and lined with shops that met a small city's everyday demands -- it was easy, on a weekday afternoon or evening, to entirely forget that this is a college town. All that changed when the core blocks of Church Street went all-pedestrian," note Kay and Bill Scheller in "Best Vermont Drives." Funny how catering to foot traffic turns out to be good for local business.

* The heart of the city's retail district is, yes, devoted to retail -- shops and restaurants, not things like medical offices, insurance offices or financial businesses. Yes, Burlington also has a Salvation Army center and food kitchen downtown, conveniently located a couple of blocks off the main shopping area.

* The city's sense of place is palpable. Even with some chain stores in the Church Street pedestrian mall, there were so many locally owned shops that I didn't feel like I was walking around a slightly different, outdoor version of the Natick Mall.

"Burlington in the 1950s and '60s was a different place. Docks and waterside railyards had become privately owned wastelands, littered with high grass and rusting debris," Christina Tree & Diane E. Foulds write in Vermont: An Explorers Guide. "The few public beaches were closed due to pollution, and the solution was seen as 'urban renewal.' In the 70s some 300 homes and 40 small businesses were demolished, and large luxury condo/retail development was planned. Then in 1981, Burlington elected as mayor Bernie Sanders, who had campaigned on the slogan 'The Waterfront Is Not for Sale.'

Because of that city form of government, one leader with a vision of how to change the community's direction could win the support of voters and spark a transformation. I'm encouraged that Framingham is working on downtown revitalization plans (something we've been hearing about on and off for decades now), but real change isn't quite as easy in a representative town meeting form of government, where most elected "representatives" easily win re-election without opposition, and voters have no idea what their "reps" stand for or how they vote, since almost no votes are recorded.

You can view a half-minute snippet of downtown Burlington below.


August 1, 2008

Bus from Framingham to a T stop in Newton?

I've long thought that an express bus from Shoppers World in Framingham to downtown Boston would be a great thing -- similar to the Logan Express but heading downtown. Alas, it doesn't look like that's in the cards, but there is talk now of a bus that would link Framingham to the Woodland T station in Newton.

That's good news for people who live on the other side of Framingham from the commuter rail station, making public transit here somewhat impractical. From my house, for example, it's over 6 miles due south to the train station, which has infrequent service and takes about an hour to get to South Station. (All that time driving southward doesn't bring me any closer to Boston.) Why drive and park there, when just a few miles more heading east gets me to the Riverside station in Newton, where service is much more frequent.

For a bus service to be appealing, though, it's got to be reasonably quick. So, I was highly unimpressed to read that the  MetroWest Regional Transit Authority administrator estimated a bus trip from Framingham to Woodland would take around an hour, according to a MetroWest Daily News report. An hour from Framingham to Newton? Seriously? It's only 15 miles from the western edge of Framingham to Woodland, so you're talking an average speed of 15 miles an hour. And, a commuter to Boston would then need another 35 minutes+ to get to downtown Boston. Excluding waiting time, that's more than three hours of commuting time per day to go to a job that's less than 30 miles away. That's nuts.

Compare that with Logan Express, which goes from Framingham to Boston in 30-45 minutes. How many people with access to a car are going to choose a public transit option that takes more than an hour and a half each way into Boston?