December 23, 2009

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.

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