December 23, 2009

Residents, officials urge state to improve Rte. 9 pedestrian environment

The Commonwealth plans to do some sidewalk improvements along Route 9 as part of a Stimulus-funded resurfacing project in Natick and Framingham. However, the plans also call for eliminating some existing grassy strips between blacktop sidewalks and the roadway, instead relying on painted lines to mark walkways, Department of Transportation officials said at a public hearing tonight in Framingham.

Fortunately, several town officials objected to this idea, suggesting instead either a change of material -- such as concrete -- or even raised sidewalks, to "restore not the privilege but the right of walking on the right of way," as Planning Board Chairman Carol Spack said. (That whole painted line idea didn't work very well when it was tried next to BJ's.)

Several officials including Selectmen Chair Ginger Esty urged the state to work on the Rte. 9 median, making a more visually pleasing separator such as has been done in Shrewsbury. Alas, due to the $12.5 million budget limit, it sounded unlikely there will be any improvements on the median for this project. However State Sen. Karen Spilka said that separately, the Metropolitan Area Planning Councilis working on a longer term Route 9 corridor study that will hopefully deal with issues such as this. "That is taking place now in a much more thorough way" than the resurfacing project, which is in design now with hopes to advertise for bids next month and start construction in April.

The project includes plans to fill in some gaps where there are no sidewalks at all, although Sue Bernstein's query about adding sidewalks to the south side of Rte. 9 across from the reservoir near several apartment complexes, allowing people to walk to Temple Street, received a negative response (it's not included and there are no plans to do so). It's still unclear whether there will be a sidewalk in front of the State Police barracks, as apparently there are some security concerns.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much of tonight's comment time was spent talking about pedestrian needs -- adequate and safe sidewalks and crossing areas. One resident of a condo complex along Rte. 9 who came primarily to find out about noise issues during the roadwork, also complained how difficult it was to walk on Rte. 9. In fact, she said one night she tried to walk and ended up calling a taxi because it was so scary. Walking right next to zooming traffic doesn't feel good. Which is why removing grassy barriers is absolutely the wrong way to go.

I added to that plea for better sidewalks, building on those comments to zero in on one of my favorite themes: Sidewalks need to be aesthetically pleasing, and streetscapes need to be walker-friendly, if people are going to use them. Simply installing concrete (or even worse, painting lines on asphalt) will not get people out on foot.

William Hanson, chair of the Framingham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, outlined several steps that could make Rte. 9 safer for cyclists, including striping a bicycle lane near traffic on ramps to give motorists a heads up that there may be bicycles on the road. He also asked state transportation officials to make sure they maintain pedestrian access during construction and ensure "the sidewalks is not a free staging area for materials."

I also submitted written testimony to the Mass. Dept. of Transportation. If you'd like to, you can send it to Frank A. Tramontozzi, P.E., Chief Engineer, MassDOT - Highway Division, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA  02116-3973 and reference Project File No. 604991.

Aesthetics, sidewalks matter: My testimony to the state Dept. of Transportation

I delivered this written testimony to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation at a public hearing tonight on a federally funded Route 9 road resurfacing project:

Lessen traffic congestion, improve aesthetics, create a more successful retail corridor and make for happier residents. The Route 9 corridor project can achieve all this at once by keeping one goal in mind: Design for "park once, walk to multiple places."

People who come to the Framingham/Natick retail corridor should be encouraged by the environment to leave their vehicles in one place and then go to several destinations by foot.

It dumps unnecessary traffic in an already congested area, when people feel they must get in their cars to travel half a mile or less. But that's the case now along Route 9. Shoppers feel uneasy or unsafe trying to cross Rte. 9 on foot - or even walk on one side. There are ugly, unappealing sidewalks that are constantly broken by huge floods of traffic spilling onto Rte. 9. And extremely inadequate pedestrian crossings.

I urge you to include in this project:

  • Adequate crossings that are more than lines painted on a road. We need permanent physical markers such as a raised or brick crossing -- not only for crossing Rte. 9 but also the roads that intersect it.

  • Traffic signal timings that don’t make pedestrians sprint across the street.

  • If possible, an attractive separator between east and westbound traffic that would allow pedestrians a safe place to pause.

  • Aesthetically pleasing sidewalks. The mere existence of sidewalks is not enough. If they are unpleasant, they will not be used, even if it is theoretically "possible" to walk on them.

Research has shown that most walkers need an environment with a feeling of "architectural enclosure"  making people feel "held within a space." As the book Suburban Nation demonstrates, without that feeling of enclosure, streets don’t attract pedestrian life. City Hall Plaza in Boston is a prime example.

I know this project can't move buildings closer to the sidewalk to compensate for a wide traffic channel. But trees and other landscaping can help separate the sidewalk from the major traffic artery nearby and encourage walking, by creating a more compelling space. This kind of landscape architecture is not a frill that can be cut to save money. It is critical if the corridor is ever to evolve from inefficient sprawl to encouraging a reasonable amount of foot traffic for trips under a mile.

For a model, I urge you to look at the busy Beacon Street corridor in Brookline, which has a vibrant pedestrian life in addition to a heavy flow of vehicle traffic. It's no accident that there is also physical separation between the sidewalk and the traffic, in some cases by brick design and in many cases by on-street parking.

Closer locally, an aesthetically pleasing pedestrian walkway along the side of the new Lowe's on Rte. 30 has encouraged a few more people to be out on foot. Much to my surprise, on the big Black Friday shopping day last month, I was not the only person walking from Lowe's across Rte. 30 to Kohl's and Shoppers World -- I saw a number of people out doing the same, even though it was raining. You'll see many more people trying to walk from place to place along Route 9 if there are sidewalks that provide a more visually compelling streetscape. That means more than a strip of cement inches away from 8 or 10 lanes of traffic whizzing by.

As the Department of Transportation's own Web site says: "Walking is key to a successful multimodal transportation system, contributes to community quality of life, and enhances personal wellbeing." That's true not only for Brookline, Cambridge and Boston but for Framingham and Natick as well.

I urge the state to design Route 9 through the Framingham/Natick retail corridor to encourage - not just enable, but promote -- walking between nearby destinations.

Thank you.

Also see my write-up of tonight's public hearing.

December 6, 2009

Framingham Bicycle & Advisory Committee meets Tuesday

The Framingham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meets tomorrow (Tuesday, Dec. 8), 7:30 pm in conference room 1 of the Memorial Building (Framingham Town Hall).

7:30 PM

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

7:50 PM

-> Update on recent meetings: Cochituate Rail Trail and MABPAB

8:15 PM

-> Status of new compliance measures for preservation of FBPAC public records

8:30 PM

-> Year end review of FBPAC accomplishments and the status of continuing initiatives.

December 4, 2009

Here's our chance to have a say on Rte. 9 walkability

The state plans to resurface about 8 miles of Rte. 9 in Framingham and Natick. As part of the project, Mass. Dept. of Transportation will hold a public hearing aimed at "fully acquainting" us with the plans, but the public will be able to offer comments as well.

Part of the project includes "sidewalk and wheelchair ramp upgrades" as well as "new pavement markings and signs." Dare we hope there might be some consideration for walkability? For creating an appealing walking environment, not just installing sidewalks within inches of 10 lanes of traffic whizzing by that no one would want to use? For usable crossing areas that feel safe to traverse?

I hope to be there to find out (and report). The hearing is on Wednesday, December 23 in the Memorial Building (Framingham Town Hall) Ablondi Room, beginning at 7 pm.

Boston Bike Update

How is the effort going to create a world-class bicycling environment in Boston? Nicole Freedman, Director of Mayor Menino's Boston Bikes, will presentthe second annual Boston Bikes Report Thursday, December 10, 6:30 to 8 pm (doors open at 6). The event is at the Boston Public Library's Rabb Lecture Hall, Copley Square, 700 Boylston St. Free and open to the public, sponsored by the LivableStreets Alliance.

November 29, 2009

Black Friday ... on foot

I find sitting in holiday shopping traffic about as appealing as fingernails on a blackboard, which is why I decided to try a bit of local Black Friday shopping as a pedestrian. Instead of driving over to Kohl's, across from Shoppers World and all its traffic, I left my car at Stop & Shop and walked.

How did it go? Thanks to the pedestrian path alongside of Lowe's (back to back with Stop & Shop), the walk from my car to Rte. 30 was actually pleasant. Thumbs up to the new sidewalk that's actually designed to make walking attractive as well as safe -- as opposed to the ludicrous yellow stripes painted on the busy street that was supposed to pass for pedestrian access between BJs and Target across the way.

Crossing Rte. 30 is always a dicey proposition, and trying to cross an intersection on foot with 5+ lanes of traffic and no pedestrian-friendly separator is even more so. However, at least there are clearly painted crosswalks (although I'd prefer something like the brick crossing at Elm Street & Potter Road), as well as traffic signals that stop traffic all ways.

It's still a bit scary crossing Rte. 30 on foot, even with the light, since most drivers don't expect pedestrians at that intersection; if they're looking to make a right on red, they may be checking for oncoming vehicles to their left and not walkers to their right. Plus, you've got to use a pretty brisk pace to make it across the multiple lanes of traffic in the short amount of time you're given to cross a rather wide multi-lane road.

However, it all worked out fine. It only took me 7 or so minutes each way -- really not much longer than driving through traffic-choked roadways. And much to my surprise, I saw other people out walking between Target, Shoppers World and/or Kohl's, despite the light rain. I'm not the only one who's discovered that even in an area not well designed for pedestrians, it can be less hassle to walk from place to place than take your auto.

Bonus: When I got back to my car, I was well positioned to pop into the grocery store and pick up some post-Thanksgiving, non-turkey-related weekend dinner ingredients, without having to make multiple stops.

As I've said in earlier posts, it's unlikely many of us who need to travel to work each day can realistically live car-free in a suburb like Framingham. Existing development patterns tend not to support meaningful public transit, especially in areas of town with lower population densities. Instead, planners need to strive toward commercial and retail development that encourage parking once and walking to multiple destinations. How much traffic would be reduced if there were a safe and visually appealing way to walk between destinations like the Natick Mall, Shoppers World, Target, Kohl's, the Logan Express Bus and nearby offices on Speen Street, Route 9 and Old Connecticut Path?

November 23, 2009

Residents rally for safer crossings after pedestrian struck, killed in Denver

After two pedestrians were struck - one fatally - in a Denver neighborhood, officials have responded to make the crossing less dangerous. The blog Evidence Soup reports:

"Although it took two years for a nearby block to convince the city to add a crosswalk, within 6 weeks our Public Works folks announced a plan to make this a 24-hour "Safety Zone" - by December they'll be adding signage, speed-monitoring equipment, crosswalks, double yellow lines. "

Blogger Tracy Allison Altman notes that others in the area had been asking the wrong questions and ignoring compelling evidence that neighborhood patterns were changing and more people were out walking. "It's not about cars. It's about pedestrians. . . . Sometimes it's best to draw attention to your evidence without discounting someone else's. Go around them, not at them."

As traffic around the Rte. 9/Rte. 30 retail area worsens this holiday shopping season, will more people try to get form place to place on foot, despite the dangers? I crossed Rte. 30 to Shopper's World on foot last weekend, and for the first time I can recall, I saw another pedestrian out crossing with me. It's time for us, too, to pay more attention to walkers, not only drivers, when designing traffic flow -- before we end up with a similar tragedy.

November 22, 2009

New pedestrian crossings in town

A look at two upgraded pedestrian crossings in Saxonville, at the McAuliffe branch library and Potter Road/Elm Street.


'We're eating ourselves to death'

That's the title of a recent blog post from Paul Levy, in which he notes the ludicrous state of the average American meal. "A single sandwich with 1500 calories. A 32-ounce drink from the soda fountain with hundreds more."

One commenter notes that it take more time and money to eat healthy than to eat nutrition-free junk. My response: Of course, part of the reason it costs more to eat healthy than eat junk is U.S. government food policy. Why is it that tobacco and corn production are subsidized but fruit and vegetables are not?

A lot of this is culture - many parts of our society are conditioned to value quantity over quality, so a gigantic plate of mediocre food is "better" than a smaller portion of quality food.

Few of us are taught to value fresh ingredients and quality meals, or the effort that goes into making them. Michael Pollan has some excellent analysis of this in "In Defense of Food."

And, as I noted in a Facebook post responding to the issue of a sedentary society, many Americans' environment makes it all but impossible to walk anywhere. New development patterns cordon off commercial from residential, which means most people can't walk to walk to a grocery store. Most new schools are sited in ways that make it dangerous for kids to walk.

I work less than a mile from major retail centers, but the suburban development patterns are such that you take your life in your hands if you try to make the trip by foot. It's crazy.

It would be illegal under most modern zoning codes to design a pedestrian-friendly development patterned after one of America's great walkable neighborhoods like Boston's Back Bay.

November 9, 2009

Thursday in Cambridge: Designing for how we move through space

For those interested in the role design has in transportation advocacy, come hear Shauna Gillies - Smith and Mark Pasnik at a presentation hosted by the Boston Society of Architects and LivableStreets Alliance. Thursday, Nov. 12, 7-9 pm at 100 Sidney St., Central Square in Cambridge. $5 suggested donation.


November 1, 2009

Better crosswalks

I'm pleased to see more visible crosswalks in a couple of key pedestrian crossing areas: the dangerous crossing from the parking lot to McAuliffe branch library, and the Potter Road/Elm Street intersection.

At Potter Road there's now a highly visible brick walkway, instead of the yellow lines on the street that seem to wear away after a few months. And there's a slight "raised" walkway now for the library crossing, along with a sidewalk that extends a bit into the walkway to make it visually clearer to drivers that something "unusual" is happening in this part of the street. Hopefully some drivers whipping around the corner from Water Street -- especially those yakking on their cell phones and not paying attention to the fact that people on foot are crossing to and from the library -- will realize they need to be watchful for walkers.

I've been meaning to snap photos of them both, hope to get to that soon.

September 4, 2009

Salem, NH mulls 'village center' for traffic-choked intersection

Salem officials are considering a plan to transform an area of typical suburban sprawl into a more pedestrian friendly, mixed-use environment.

A town committee has been tasked with redeveloping the Rte. 28/Main Street, which currently -- at least according to the satellite photo I saw on Google Map :-) -- has your typical U.S. post-War development pattern of buildings set back from the street and large parking lots fronting the road, a recipe for unappealing walking.

The redevelopment committee's goals "include mixed-use development — including retail, business office, and residential development — two- to four-story buildings, shared parking areas, shared driveways and access points, and design guidelines. All of these elements would go toward creating a "village center character" in the area of the intersection, [consultant Martin] Kennedy told the Planning Board," according to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune.

Car-focused suburban sprawl is a mid-20th century philosophy that's increasingly out of vogue, as people look to recapture a sense of community and enjoy a more unique sense of place. There's a reason why it generally costs more to rent space per square foot in a desirable walkable neighborhood like Beacon Hill or Concord Center than an upscale exurb.

August 27, 2009

An urban vacant lot blossoms, if only briefly

Great column in the Globe yesterday about an outdoor film festival in Chinatown this week:
An event that brings the city to life without a lifetime of planning and divine intervention; it belongs completely to the neighborhood while drawing people from all over; it converts an urban dead spot into a vital place.

“People come around that corner, and instead of the vacant lot, they see Christmas lights and people sitting there eating takeout and watching a movie, and it’s remarkable,’’ says Sam Davol, who plays cello with the band The Magnetic Fields, and helped start the program after moving to Chinatown with his wife, Leslie, and their two kids four years ago.

It's a great and innovative idea on how to bring a sense of community - and some enjoyment - to a usually empty space. Definitely worth reading in full ... and then perhaps pondering how that spirit could spread to events in other communities.

August 24, 2009

Separating traffic and sidewalk

It's so much more pleasant to walk on a sidewalk when that sidewalk is separated from traffic whizzing by. That separation can be as simple as on-street parking or as pleasant as an actual landscaping buffer.

Main Street, Lenox

That came to mind a couple of weeks ago when we were in Lenox in western Mass., and there was an extremely wide buffer between the sidewalk and traffic in an area of Main Street without on-street parking. This buffer and a pleasant streetscape makes for an enormously more appealing walking environment than just sticking a sidewalk right next to the street (as is done way too often in Framingham).

Don't let the lack of pedestrians in the photo fool you into thinking people don't walk here. I actually waited quite awhile to find a time where I could get a picture without a lot of people blocking the view!

July 22, 2009

Walkability: 2 local events tonight

There are two events of note this evening for those interested in livable, walkable communities.

In Framingham, there's a Cochituate Rail Trail workshop if you'd like to find out more about trail plans and offer comments of your own.  The design will be ready for preview starting at 6:30 pm, with a formal presentation beginning at 7 followed by comments and Q&A. That's in the Memorial Building (town hall) Blumer Room, 150 Concord St.

Or, attend a talk on "Mode Shift:  moving from driving to transit, biking, and walking" hosted by LivableStreets Alliance in Central Square (100 Sidney St.) from 7-9 pm in Cambridge. Jason Schrieber discusses what factors get people out of their cars. Better mass transit, bike lanes and sidewalks? Financial incentives such as gas tax and parking prices? Better land use patterns?

July 16, 2009

Hands-on look at the Posterous platform

My hands-on review of Posterous posted last Friday on In general, I like the service, but I do wonder at the wisdom of single, un-modified broadcasts out to all social networking platforms at once. For instance, if you use the same title for your Posterous post and Twitter tweet, either you're not taking advantage of the specific Twitter culture (@ to refer to people, hashtags when mentioning popular subjects) or you've got an odd looking post title elsewhere.


Posted via web from Sharon Machlis' 'Lifestream'

The triumph of cheap junk

Whether it's food or clothing or electronics, most Americans are being conditioned by advertising to value, well, value. Quality? Not so much.

Unless you''re part of the upper-income "luxury goods" demographic (I'm not), as an American you are bombarded with messages that low price is the ideal. Wal-Mart, one of the nation's most successful retailers, boasts in its slogan: "Save money. Live better." Fast food outlets tout their "value meals."

It was this way even before the recession: Retailers targeting the middle class talked less about quality than quantity. The message has long been "get more stuff for less," not "spend a little more to get something a lot better."

Finally, some are starting to question this meme. The documentary Food Inc spotlights the crappy junk being passed off as food in this country;  the book In Defense of Food laments corporate-created food-like substances that have replaced wholesome, tasty, healthy food in our supermarkets.

And it's the message of  Cheap: The High Cost of discount Culture, which Yvonne Abraham highlighted in the Globe yesterday. In a visit to Target with the book's author, Ellen Ruppel Shell, Abraham notices that some of the best "bargains" are actually shoddy merchandise. It dawns on her that all the signs promoting products brag about low prices. None of the signs mentioned the quality of products; "they barely mentioned the products, period."

Now let's be clear here: I'm not advocating spending ridiculous sums for the latest hot fad, or spending extra money for something that doesn't offer anything extra but a "name." My complaint is that too many of our cultural cues no longer value well-crafted, well-made products that also actually do offer value, if you consider the enjoyment they bring and how long they'll last.

I'm not going to give up all low-cost bargain merchandise. But I think the balance between cheap and quality has gotten a bit out of whack in our pop culture.

If you want to add a few trendy things to your wardrobe that are likely to go out of style soon, low-cost won't-last-forever make sense. Ditto for clothing for kids who grow quickly. Few of us can afford high prices for everything.

But I want to stop following the siren song of manufacturers and retailers enticing us to make impulse purchases of cheap goods that we may or may not actually need. We're much less likely to impulse buy a high quality item with a heftier pricetag.

Visit a place like Italy or France, where citizens still care deeply about quality of food and clothing, and you begin to understand what we've sacrificed in the pursuit of more for less. Simple meals in Italy are often fabulous, not only due to skills of the chef, but also the quality of ingredients -- locally grown and harvested to maximize flavor, not engineered and mass-produced for maximum longevity and minimum cost. I've heard some people complain about prices at local farmers markets, not understanding that it costs more to grow a tomato for flavor than for shelf life.

"Compared to the 9.9 percent of their income Americans spend on food, the Italians spend 14.9 percent, the French 14.9 percent, and the Spanish 17.1 percent," notes In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan. As a result, Pollan argues, people in those societies not only eat better than we do; they're healthier. Pollan readily admits that not everyone has the luxury to spend more on quality food, but argues that some who could spend more for nutritious food do not. He thinks that's a mistake, and here's why. Which does it make sense to spend more on: enjoyable, high-quality, high-flavor food or medical expenses to treat the diseases that come from a fast-food, sugar/corn syrup/salt-laden, nutrient-poor Western diet?

July 14, 2009

Why the Economist is thriving while other weekly news mags aren't

How can the Economist -- expensive, few ads, limited online presence -- be thriving in the digital age when so many other weekly news magazines are in trouble? The Atlantic makes an intriguing point about the value of insight as opposed to simply offering lots of info:

Now that information is infinitely replicable and pervasive, original reporting will never again receive its due. The real value of the Economist lies in its smart analysis of everything it deems worth knowing—and smart packaging, which may be the last truly unique attribute in the digital age.

I'm not sure I'd go that far. Someone still has to go out there and do original reporting. But "original reporting" is not stenography. The task of relating informaiton from a press conference or event has become commodity news, and that field is overcrowded. Now that it's so easy to see reports from so many sources about, say, a presidential press conference or major vendor product announcement, you can find hundreds of similar stories about such things. How many are actually needed? Some, without question. But I doubt we need the number we have now.

Successful publishers must either find less crowded niches or more useful way of serving broader markets. Those who want to play in the breaking news space must also deliver authoritative, useful analysis. That's also "original reporting."

The biggest favor we can do for our audience is to help them deal with information overload. People already have plenty of random acts of information. Ultimately, we need to respond to the same questions I was asking reporters to answer 20 years ago:

So what?

Who cares?

Why does this matter?

Those are the questions the Economist helps its readers answer, and what those of us publishing in any format must address if we expect our audience to invest their time in what we do.


Posted via web from Sharon Machlis' 'Lifestream'

July 1, 2009

Las Vegas Sun online head: 'We now geocode every story on our site'

I'm a big believer in bringing order to the chaos of text. Even if you only bring a smidgen of structure to that information, you add so much more reader value. In fact, it's become a joke around the newsroom how often I use the phrase "structured data." My boss, editor in chief Scot Finnie, keeps urging me to come up with something catchier. I'm thinking "mashup-ready" might work.

The classic case is the old, one of the first mashups. Instead of simply posting a lot of local crimes news as individual plain-text stories ("There was a house break-in at 123 X street Tuesday...."), online journalism pioneer Adrian Holovaty got all the information into a database where site visitors could search and sort by neighborhood, type of crime, day and more. Holovaty has since gone on to work on the grant-funded

Rob Curley is another well-known name in the field of onine journalism. One of his biggest areas of expertise is so-called hyper-local coverage online. In a recent interview at Media Bistro, Curley said:

We now geo-code every story on our site, every piece of content. We either add an exact latitude and longitude to it or, if we don't have that, then we try to at least get it down to the zip code. Soon, if you give your zip code you can have all of those stories now on one page. You can have all of the home foreclosures and homes that have been sold on that page; you can have all the crimes. We can show you all the rotary club meetings, all the high school shows that are in your zip code, the movie listings that are closest to you... We've build the page so that it works very much like iGoogle does, so you can move all the boxes around in any order that you want.

That's adding value to your content -- something all of us in the media business need to be doing. At Computerworld, it's why we have our Best Places to Work in IT sortable by a dozen criteria such as training budget and percent of staff promoted, as well as by company size and region. It's why we now our product reviews in a (very simple) database, so site visitors can search and sort by product and product category as well as see story headlines. And it's why so many people are starting to pay attention to the intersection of journalism and technology.

Posted via web from Sharon Machlis' 'Lifestream'

June 30, 2009

How are our federal stimulus funds being spent on transportation?

Of the $336 million in federal transportation money Massachusetts received from the federal stimulus program, one-fifth is being spent on building new roadways, according to a report from Smart Growth America examining how transportation Stimulus funds are being spent. That's the second highest portion in New England (only New Hampshire is using more).

On the plus side: A solid 14% will be spent on "non-motorized" projects, and another 17% on transit-related programs.

Massachusetts ranked 29th in the portion of money being used to repair existing roadways as opposed to build new ones, but third in the percent of funding being used on public transportation and "non-motorized projects" (District of Columbia was first and Delaware 2nd).

Overall, Smart Growth America concludes that "states failed to make as much progress as possible on pressing transportation needs."

In addition, the group claims, the billions in federal transportation stimulus money will create and save jobs but not "as many or as quickly as they could have," arguing data show another $2 billion on repair would have created 4,300 new jobs more quickly. And while the funds will help shore up crumbling infrastructure, there will now be "$6 billion more miles of roads to maintain ... When they could not afford to maintain the ones they already have."

The report also says spending falls far short of providing a more balanced transportation system, improve public transportation, help reduce energy consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions or not contribute to additional sprawl.

More than half of the roads in Massachusetts were not in good condition as of 2007, costing the average driver about $300 a year. In addition, 345 bridges and roadways in the state were "structurally deficient" last year, the report says.

June 18, 2009

Urban mobility planning in Barcelona: Lecture in Cambridge

What are the results of implementing better transit networks, traffic calming zones, and a bike sharing program? Are these measures always environmentally-friendly? Are they enough to create better places to live and enjoy? Learn about the development of urban mobility plans in Greater Barcelona and Catalonia, Spain, from Marius Navazo, Urban Planner, Barcelona. See what the Catalan Government is encouraging municipalities to do.

The lecture is Thursday, June 25, 7 to 9 pm at LivableStreets office space, 100 Sidney Street, Cambridge. The event is free and open to the public (although donations are suggested). Beer and soda provided compliments of Harpoon Brewery and delivered thanks to Metro Pedal Power.

Marius Navazo is a geographer who has been working for the last 10 years in town and regional planning, focused on transportation and its impacts to improve cities from a social and environmental perspective. He has been working at the Catalan Government for the last 4 years, and now he is a freelancer working for different municipalities in the Barcelona area.

For more information, go to

June 16, 2009

Hospital hypocrisy

Does anyone else find irony in a company that brings for-profit capitalism to healthcare complaining about "unfair competition" if another institution invades what it considers its monopoly-protected turf?

MetroWest Medical Center is owned by Vanguard Health Systems, a multi-billion-dollar company that turned a $16 million profit from the (continuing) operations of 15 hospitals around the country in the last quarter. Vanguard Health Systems' Web site boasts that the company brings "the business acumen of a privately owned organization" and "the strengths of a for-profit corporation" to its hospitals (although good luck finding anything about that on the MetroWest hospitals' own site).

You can't have it both ways. You can't take advantage of free-market capitalism to earn a profit for investors from treating people's injuries and illnesses, and then complain about competition.

May 26, 2009

Rte. 126 Corridor Study in the Works

A Route 126 Corridor Transportation Improvement Study will soon be underway in Framingham, Ashland, Holliston, Medway and Bellingham. The goal is to improve access to commercial, retail, educational and services.

The study, under the aegis of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, will recommend design, traffic and other changes to the corridor. There will be "special emphasis on the effective and safe accommodation of pedestrians and bicyclists," according to a statement issued by state Rep. Pam Richardson. "Bus service improvement recommendations may also be developed."

Rte. 126 in Framingham is one of the roadways desperately needing a better pedestrian environment, especially when it comes to crossing intersections on foot. If you check out a map I created a couple of years ago of accidents in Framingham where pedestrians were injured (2003-2005), you'll see a huge cluster of pins along the Rte. 126 corridor. Improved walker safety in this area is clearly needed.

Aesthetic improvements are also needed, as well as better walkways: Many sidewalks are narrow with no buffer between walkers and traffic, and some almost impassable in spots due to poorly situated utility poles and other obstacles.

The project will start with "formation of an advisory task force that includes town officials, affected residents, members of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the Massachusetts Highway Department, and the Executive Office of Transportation and Public Works, as well as local Senators and Representatives," Rep. Richardson's statement says. The task force is supposed to meet in mid-June and then again "within 12 months."

May 21, 2009

Good news: Local officials get serious about mall-area walkability

I was heartened to see a piece in today's Globe West focusing on attempts by Framingham and Natick officials "to make the retail sprawl of Route 9 more pedestrian friendly with better sidewalks, benches, and other amenities."

Great news! ... especially for those of us who work within walking distance of the stores, but who can't actually walk to the mall because it's so dangerous and unpleasant to cross major intersections in the way.

It's all but pointless to promote a retail district like "the Golden Triangle" without offering an attractive, appealing way to walk within it. After all, if you've got to get in your car and battle traffic congestion to get from one place to another, it no longer matters much whether you're going half a mile, a mile or a couple of miles; the synergy of a retail district is lost. Without a walkable "park once, walk to multiple destinations" retail center, you lose the advantage of serendipity -- stumbling upon a destination you didn't know would interest you until you saw it. This is the philosophy behind any well-designed individual store -- put related attractive products close together -- or shopping mall (not to mention Web site). But you can't browse or window shop while you're in a moving vehicle. Nor do you want to in the current hideous walking environment within Golden Triangle destinations.

Walkability means more than the presence of barely usable, ugly sidewalks that make it theoretically possible to get from one place to another on foot. Most people will not walk between retail destinations unless there is a pathway that feels safe and comfortable, and is at least moderately aesthetically pleasing. A sidewalk with 8 lanes of traffic on one side and acres of asphalt on the other, with no buffer or greenery on either side, will not be used by any but the hardiest of pedestrians. To encourage widespread walking will require more than adding a few benches and pretty lights; we need appealing streetscapes that offer buffers between walkers and vehicles and sizeable medians (think Beacon Street in Brookline) for pedestrian crossings. Based on today's article, I'm cautiously optimistic that some of our planning officials support the need for true walkability.

April 6, 2009

Life in downtown Framingham this weekend

It was what I called "artists' weekend" in Framingham last weekend, with open studios at Fountain Street downtown and in Saxonville, as well as a free family afternoon at the Danforth Museum. Plus the usual cultural activities at the Amazing Things arts center. And while it's a cliche that artists taking advantage of cheap loft space can help bring vibrancy to a downtown center, well, cliches often become cliches because they speak (some) truth.

I went with a friend Saturday first to Panza Shoes downtown, which was surprisingly bustling; and then to the Fountain Street open house. There's a sizable free parking area at the Fountain Street studio building, and still tough to find a spot there; turnout was strong, and the event larger -- and more enjoyable -- than I expected. We got there around 3 and didn't get to see everything before things closed up at 5.

What was missing, though, was an appealing pedestrian streetscape between destinations like Panza and Fountain Street. There was a ton of auto traffic, but few pedestrians. And foot traffic is key in order to take advantage of multiple attractions and create a critical mass.

Downtown Framingham does have some compelling destinations: Amazing Things, Panza, the Danforth. What it does not yet have is synergy between them, because there are too many unattractive gaps between them. It's not yet a "park once, walk to many" environment. But there's potential. However, people must realize that creating a compelling ambiance for walkers is not a frill; it's essential for the next step of downtown revitalization.

March 23, 2009

Downtown retail districts need residences

The Boston Globe had a piece this weekend about the Downtown Crossing shopping district, with the online title: "Without car traffic, Downtown Crossing loses its charm at night." As if autos driving through a neighborhood with shuttered stores and zero pedestrian traffic is going to bring the area back to life.

I saw the same thing last weekend when I was in Indianapolis on business, in the city center, and there were wide streets with ample parking everywhere. But without a critical mass of residences in an area along with an appealing pedestrian environment to draw them from home to destinations on foot, the neighborhood street got awfully lonely at night.

And if there's too much emphasis on broad streets with quickly moving traffic, there's a major risk of killing off after-dark foot traffic altogether.

If you want to argue that vehicular access is necessary to attract more residential development along the block, fine. But just letting cars drive through won't bring vibrant nightlife back to Washington Street. Newbury Street "works" not because there are cars, but because there's the proper mix of businesses that appeal to people on foot, pedestrian-friendly streetscape including architecture that makes people want to stroll and window-shop, and a relatively narrow conduit for vehicles that usually must move slowly through the area.

February 18, 2009

Stimulus funds: How much for something besides roads?

Streetsblog has some good news for cycling, pedestrian and anti-sprawl advocates. Analysis by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign of the recently passed stimulus bill shows that the $27.5 billion included for "highways" allocates 3% of that for "transportation enhancements," usually bicycle and pedestrian projects. That's up from 1.7% in the 2005 federal transportation bill.

In addition, major metro areas (population over 200,000) will get roughly 16% of the total funding -- which apparently is good news considering how funding usually gets distributed. Although Ben Fried at Streetsblog points out, "As Brookings notes, the nation's 100 largest metro areas produce 75% of the nation's GDP." Three-quarters of the nation's economic activity, yet less than one-fifth of federal funding for transportation infrastructure.

Thanks to my colleague Mitch Betts for the link.

Last month, Transportation for America put together a chart showing various state transportation funding requests. Massachusetts apparently asked for $783 million in transportation funding, including $17.6 million (2.2%) for bike and pedestrian projects. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the second-highest percentage request on the chart - possibly highest, since Maine's 2.8% included ferries as well as bike and pedestrian work.

February 16, 2009

Hang up the phone and drive

Even if you've got a "hands-free" headset. Hang up the phone and pay attention to the roadway, so you don't kill someone, OK?

Latest data show that talking on a cell phone, even with both hands on the wheel, is a dangerous activity.

"Engaging in a phone conversation on a mobile device while driving distracts the brain and delays reaction times, experts said. Drivers are more likely to swerve between lanes, slow down and miss important signs," says this CNN story summarizing recent driving-while-talking studies. And no, it's not the same as chatting with the person next to you. From the same report:

" 'It doesn't matter what kind of cell phone device they are using, because the impairments are so large,' said University of Utah professor David Strayer, who used a high-tech driving simulator for his experiment.

"Strayer's study, published in December, concluded that conversations with a front-seat passenger can actually mitigate accidents, because the passenger can help observe road conditions and warn the driver of possible hazards."

Maybe you don't mean it, but if you talk on the phone while driving, you're showing contempt for the safety and well-being of those on the road around you. Studies are clear that reaction time is slower for a driver yakking on a phone. Not just for other people. Yes, even for you. And when you're piloting a 1,000+ lb vehicle at 55+ mph, just a slight delay in reaction time can be deadly.

"Phone driving is the drunken driving of the new millennium," wrote Dan Carney in the Washington Post piece, What Call is Worth a Life? "Seemingly everyone does it, and all of them seem to believe that they are skilled in a way that prevents their powers of perception from being clouded by the fog of isolation that envelops drivers who talk on the phone."

That was four years ago, and the problem has only gotten worse. "One study from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated that 636,000 traffic accidents each year -- about 6 percent of all accidents -- are caused by drivers using their cell phones, resulting in an estimated 2,600 deaths," notes CNN.

It's time to ban drivers from talking on cell phones. Period.

Will the financial meltdown tame exurban sprawl? Is home ownership an economic problem?

Toward the end of a lengthy piece on how the financial crisis will reshape America, "Rise of the Creative Class" author Richard Florida argues that our society will finally start re-thinking suburbs -- particularly exurbs. He believes areas with a high concentration of well-educated knowledge workers will do best in a post-manufacturing economy:

"The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required.

"The housing bubble was the ultimate expression, and perhaps the last gasp, of an economic system some 80 years in the making, and now well past its 'sell-by' date. The bubble encouraged massive, unsustainable growth in places where land was cheap and the real-estate economy dominant. It encouraged low-density sprawl, which is ill-fitted to a creative, postindustrial economy. And not least, it created a workforce too often stuck in place, anchored by houses that cannot be profitably sold, at a time when flexibility and mobility are of great importance."

Just as the era after the Depression and World War II led to suburban growth, will our new post-crash era once again realign American living patterns? It's an interesting argument, especially if you believe that areas most rich in knowledge workers, such as Silicon Valley, New York and Boston, will thrive.

The most controversial part of his piece is his call for an end to government incentives to homebuyers, arguing they "distort demand, encouraging people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise would." However, I think Florida gives too short shrift to the community benefits of home ownership (which can include condos, not only stand-alone single-family houses) -- once you're heavily financially invested in a place, you have much more of a stake in the functioning success of that community than you do if you're a transient renter. He also underestimates the problem of disparity of housing prices: How many people in affordable areas of the country are put off by housing prices in Boston or New York -- even rental prices -- compared to what they can get elsewhere?

Instead, I think we should start with a look at changing other government actions that encourage exurban sprawl, such as: the investment and development/design tilt toward roads for private cars instead of mass transit and walkable neighborhoods; zoning regulations that favor sprawl over smart growth; and perhaps someday the effective forced subsidies by urban dwellers so those in the exurbs pay similar utility rates, even though it's more expensive to deliver services to sparsely populated outer-ring communities.

However, I think it may be worth a look at some point (clearly not right now) at *how* the government promotes home ownership, because it is certainly arguable that deductions for mortgage interest can disproportionately benefit upper-income taxpayers. As Atlantic senior editor Clive Crook notes in the article Housebound:

"The current deduction costs nearly $80 billion a year in forgone federal revenues. It is available only to the minority of households—typically affluent— that itemize their taxes. Households at the margin of choosing between renting and owning are not, for the most part, itemizers. The deduction has no effect on their choice, and thus does almost nothing to promote homeownership. What it does promote, studies show, is spending on housing—that is, people who would have been owners anyway pay more for their houses. Prices are higher than they would otherwise have been, and mortgages are bigger. As many owners have learned abruptly, this can worsen economic insecurity."

Not sure I completely agree. At the time we were buying our first home, the mortgage deduction was the difference that allowed us to afford a house at the median price point in the most affordable town in the area -- a 7-room slab ranch on a quiet street in a middle-class neighborhood -- instead of a house on a noisy street, a house that was smaller than our apartment, one that would need a lot of (expensive) work, or one that increased our commutes. So I sure appreciated the deduction. Although I suppose it's arguable that if there weren't such a deduction, price levels would had to have been lower as a result, just as prices allegedly drop when mortgage rates rise. However, that's not necessarily the case. But some other sort of tax credit that better targets middle-class homebuyers might indeed be more effective than the mortgage interest deduction we have now.

Florida suggests that instead of trying to stop foreclosures, we require banks that take ownership of homes from defaulting homeowners "to offer to rent each home to the previous homeowner, at market rates—which are typically lower than mortgage payments—for some number of years. (At the end of that period, the former homeowner could be given the option to repurchase the home at the prevailing market price.) A bigger, healthier rental market, with more choices, would make renting a more attractive option for many people; it would also make the economy as a whole more flexible and responsive."

Both Florida and Crook point to work by economist Andrew Oswald that conscludes higher home ownership leads to higher unemployment rates, because workers are less mobile and thus less able to go where jobs are. Florida summarizes Oswald's work: "[I]n both the United States and Europe, those places with higher homeownership rates also suffer from higher unemployment. Homeownership, Oswald found, is a more important predictor of unemployment than rates of unionization or the generosity of welfare benefits. Too often, it ties people to declining or blighted locations, and forces them into work—if they can find it—that is a poor match for their interests and abilities."

Not mentioned here, though, is the human cost to forcing people to pick up and move in order to find work; and the cost to a community when large numbers of people view themselves as transient residents instead of fully vested citizens. What doesn't work so well in a financial meltdown works a lot better when the economy is not in dire straits, and people are employed and emotionally anchored to their communities. However, I will admit there's a cost as well to family finances (i.e. housing issues) forcing people to stay in an area where there are no unemployment prospects. In any case, food for thought. Your thoughts?

February 15, 2009

I know Natick isn't Manhattan, but...'s still a pity that when 300 people are pouring out of The Center for Arts in Natick after a sold-out evening show, they all walk back to their cars passing nothing but dark storefronts (as we did last night). On Valentine's Day, no less! How many of those patrons would have been happy to extend the evening by ducking into a cafe for an after-theater snack, dessert or coffee/tea!

I realize that in general, it probably doesn't make sense for many businesses in Natick Center to stay open until 11 or midnight; there's hardly the after-theater foot traffic you'd get in New York. But what a missed opportunity for the specific weekend evenings when TCAN has a full house! Wouldn't it be great if there were a cafe or dessert place right by the center, which could coordinate with TCAN, find out when they expect large crowds, and then advertise to the patrons that night to come in after the show?

February 11, 2009

In Pictures: Transforming an ugly parking lot into a walkable shopping area

Too many of the strip mall/big box parking lots along Rte. 9, Rte. 30 and elsewhere are not only visually unpleasant, but they make it all but impossible to walk from place to place -- even between retail destinations that are only a few hundred feet away. But those design patterns can change! Check out this development vision for a town in Illinois. This 5-picture slideshow starts out with an ugly ocean of asphalt in front of a chain restaurant, and ends with an attractive "walkable design [that] would allow residents to shop with their feet instead of their cars. The revamped shopping center would keep all the same amenities in place and add a sense of community character."

Another scenario from Memphis shows how a few design changes can transform a residential neighborhood with an unappealing pedestrian streetscape into one where pedestrians would love to stroll.

Which version would you rather live, work and shop in? These attractive neighborhoods become possible when developers and town officials keep walkable streetscapes in mind.

(Thanks to my colleague Mitch Betts for the links.)

February 8, 2009

Who says you can't draw people to downtown Framingham?

It was standing room only at Nevins Hall Saturday morning, when Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling Three Cups of Tea, took the stage to talk about his work in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Parking woes? People parked several blocks away and walked, and that didn't seem to be much of a deterrence (after all, a number of people [including me] stood for more than an hour for the presentation). Kudos to the library's Framingham Reads Together program, for bringing such a great speaker to town.

After it was over, though, I couldn't help be a little sorry for a great opportunity lost by many of the surrounding people. As hundreds of attendees walked back to their cars, how many stopped to patronize local businesses? How many even knew what local businesses were around? Many of the attendees were from out of town. And because we don't yet have an obvious, uninterrupted retail/dining district surrounding town hall, a lot of people who might have patronized some of the many interesting locally owned business downtown just headed back to their cars.

It seems a pity there weren't menus and coupons for some local eateries. They could have advertised "Three Cups of Tea specials" for all those people! The Danforth Museum was handing out fliers for Framingham Reads Together future events; but it's too bad some of the area restaurants weren't doing the same.

Soon there's another big opportunity: Patriots Day, when a lot of people will head downtown again to watch the runners go by. I think this would be a great chance for local restaurants, grocers and ethnic food places of all sorts to promote themselves. I know we've had ethnic fairs on Patriots Day in the past, but I don't think we should just count on people making their way to a fair after the race. I think it's better to promote our local businesses to the crowd while they're standing around waiting!

Why not a "walking tour" map of various ethnic grocers, restaurants and bakeries that could be handed out to spectators along the Marathon route?? Why not a logo for all those participating, and brochures at each explaining some interesting things to buy at the Asian Grocery (with recipes) or Brazilian bakery (with an explainer of some of the more popular items) or Russian store or Italian market? Why not a "driving tour" map as well, adding points of interest for food lovers like B&R Artisan Bread and North End Treats?

I was happy to hear about the recent partnership between Brazilian-owned businesses and MIT to help all downtown businesses stay open. I believe Framingham's downtown ethnic mix can make it an appealing alternative to cookie-cutter mall chain stores. However, until we have a streetscape like Boston's North End or Waltham's Moody Street, which would encourage people to stroll from block to block and window shop until finding an unexpected destination, it would help if we could take more actions so people know about our local businesses. I hope some of the grant money for downtown businesses will go toward this kind of promotion.

As for Greg Mortenson's presentation, it was great. If you've read Three Cups of Tea, you know what incredible work he's done building schools to educate children - and especially girls - in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If you haven't, I heartily recommend it; and it's not too late for some other Framingham Reads Together events around the book.

I also did a brief (8 minutes or so) video report of his talk (apologies for the lack of tripod; it was a spur-of-the-moment idea to try to video with my little point-and-shoot camera from the sidelines).

January 17, 2009

Another Herbert Hoover legacy: Soul-less zoning

Many of us have Herbert Hoover on our minds these days, wondering whether our economy is once again on the precipice, as it was during the Hoover administration. However, I didn't know until today that Hoover, along with his economic infamy, was also a key player in creating zoning regulations that outlawed great community development patterns.
"As Commerce Secretary, he championed the Standard Zoning Enabling Act to address 'the moral and social issues that can only be solved by a new conception of city building,' " writes Rick Cole at

"In 1926, the Supreme Court upheld zoning to protect health and safety by 'excluding from residential areas the confusion and danger of fire, contagion and disorder which in greater or less degree attach to the location of store, shops and factories.' The quite sensible idea that people shouldn’t live next to steel mills was used to justify a system of 'zones' to isolate uses that had lived in harmony for centuries."

The end result? Neighborhoods where you can't walk anywhere. Notes Cole:
"Take any great place that people love to visit. You know, those lively tourist haunts from Nantucket to San Francisco. Or those red hot neighborhoods from Seattle’s Capital Hill to Miami Beach’s Art Deco district. Or those healthy downtowns from Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Illinois to Charleston, South Carolina. What do they all have in common?

The mix of uses that gives them life are presently outlawed by zoning in virtually every city and town in all 50 states."

I'm not sure if I'd go quite that far -- even Framingham recently allowed housing and retail again downtown -- but it is true that a large number of communities would not allow building patterns that were used to create great neighborhoods like Back Bay in Boston.

January 16, 2009

Bike, urban planning events of note at the Boston Public Library

The first annual "Boston Bikes Update report" by the city's director of bicycle programs, Nicole Freedman, takes place Thursday, Jan. 29, 7 pm at the Boston Public Library main branch (Copley Square) Rabb Lecture Hall. Focus is on what steps are needed to create a "world-class bicycling city.

Also at the Boston Public Library: Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia and leader in urban thinking, comes to Boston for a series of events titled “The Future of Transportation: People, Professionals, Politics”.

There will be several opportunities to hear him, including a lecture onThursday, February 5, 6:30PM Rabb Lecture Hall. (Thanks to Craig Della Penna for the tip).

January 2, 2009

Better community design makes happier citizens

Public spaces that bring people together in congenial activity produce happier citizens than those – like traffic jams – that spur animosity and aggression, says [University of British Columbia professor emeritus John Helliwell, who studies economics and human well-being.] . . .

That's just one of many fascinating nuggets of info in an article about the transformation of Bogota, Columbia: From Living Hell to Living Well. The city's former mayor realized that improving people's economic standard of living was a difficult, long-term prospect. So, he looked at ways to improve other factors in their quality of life.

Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa
"increased gas taxes and prohibited car owners from driving during rush hour more than three times per week. He also handed over prime space on the city's main arteries to the Transmilenio, a bus rapid-transit system based on that of Curitiba, Brazil.

"Bogotans almost impeached their new mayor. Business owners were outraged. Yet by the end of his three-year term, Mr. Peñalosa was immensely popular and his reforms were being lauded for making Bogota remarkably fairer, more tolerable and more efficient."

The mayor's overall results? Rush hour traffic moves three times faster than before. The murder rate plunged 40%. Traffic deaths are down. There are 1,200 new parks.
" 'A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can't be both,' the new mayor announced. He shelved the highway plans and poured the billions saved into parks, schools, libraries, bike routes and the world's longest "pedestrian freeway." . . .

" 'Before Peñalosa, mayors were terrified to take on the issue of auto-dominated public space, for fear that motorists would rebel politically,' says Walter Hook of New York's Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). 'But he not only challenged auto dependency, he succeeded politically. He's given other politicians the courage to follow. And other mayors have realized that they can't build their way out of congestion.' '

Despite economic challenges, Bogota's mayor helped "to transform a city once infamous for narco-terrorism, pollution and chaos into a globally lauded model of livability and urban renewal."

We may not be living in the Third World, but there are good lessons here about what local officials can do in an era of constrained finances. Here in Framingham, sadly, we're heading the wrong direction, with an announcement that one of the first things to be cut back is sidewalk plowing.