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.