The State of Livable Streets in Boston

boston_crosswalk.jpgThe Boston Globe serves up a smorgasbord of livable streets storylines in this gripping read, "The Future of Crossing the Street." An overview of Boston’s evolving transportation scene, the piece starts with a look at the "shared space" philosophy of Hans Monderman, the pioneering Dutch traffic engineer who designed intersections with minimal controls, signals and boundaries.

Reporter Billy Baker captures the tension between making pedestrians conform to current street designs and adapting streets to put walking and other modes on more equal footing with driving. Here’s how the situation looks to Boston transportation commish Thomas Tinlin:

The transportation department has a secure room
inside City Hall known as the Traffic Management Center. It looks a bit
like the war room in a Hollywood movie. Eight large screens and several
smaller ones show real-time video of different intersections, and
computer screens display the city’s signal maps. A technician sits at a
desk monitoring the ant farm, ready to make traffic-light adjustments.
But fixing one intersection could create gridlock in the next.
Everything they do, Tinlin says, is a trade-off . "Transportation
commissioners of the past have always been about ‘move the car, move
the car.’ The world is so different now. It’s cars and bikes and
wheelchairs."

The new reality, however, is still playing out
inside an old reality. Greater Boston is artery-heavy; its main
pedestrian streets are often choked with vehicles. Shared Space,
Tinlin’s engineers point out, is not designed for heavily trafficked
streets. And tearing up and rebuilding the city is not realistic.
Instead, there are many retrofits that are coming into vogue and
appearing in a few nearby cities and towns to calm traffic and make the
pedestrian safer.

A big one is to install things like bump-outs, bulb-outs, and curb
extensions… They bring the sidewalk out past the parked cars,
closer to the edge of the travel lane, put the pedestrian into the
sightlines of drivers, and shorten the distance the pedestrian has to
cross to the other side of the street. These extended sidewalks can
also improve bus stops. Because the curb comes out to the travel lane,
it eliminates the need for a 90-foot bus stop (which can actually add a
parking space or two), makes the on/off safer and easier, and keeps the
bus from having to fight its way back onto the street — improving
service and reliability and, advocates believe, encouraging more people
to use mass transit, which they view as a huge component for making the
entire system better. Of course, moving out bus stops means cars have
less chance to pass a slower-moving bus, but advocates say you need to
consider the fact that there could be more people on that bus than in
the cars behind it, and the best way to balance the system is to
consider how many people you move, not how many vehicles.

Another
retrofit in wide use is the raised crosswalk, which brings the
crosswalk level with the sidewalk and forces the car to have to come up
onto the pedestrian’s space, instead of the pedestrian having to step
down onto the vehicle’s territory (it also functions as a speed bump).

The full story is well worth the read, and another recent Globe article, on Boston’s first bike lanes, makes for a good companion piece.

Photo: NYCviaRachel/Flickr

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