Friday, February 19, 2010

Rethinking Coolidge Corner Lane Scheme

I have some serious concerns about the latest Transportation Board proposal for lane changes at the Harvard/Beacon intersection at Coolidge Corner.

The most recently proposed plan, to reduce the number of southbound Harvard Street lanes to one on the north side of Beacon St., remove the median on this same side of the intersection and add an additional northbound lane,  has come about as a result of focusing entirely on trying to solve the problem of gridlock or “blocking” that occurs regularly at this intersection. While this is a serious problem, I do not think the proposed solution will be effective, nor does it address the most prominent contributing factor. However, in addition to these shortcomings, I fear we have overlooked some of the serious negative consequences likely to result from this narrowly focused attempt to “fix the problem”.

We can surely all agree that there is a heavy volume of vehicle traffic flowing North on Harvard St. Beyond this point, I fear there are as many opinions as there are individuals. My professional experience leads me to the conclusion that there are two principle reasons why the traffic fails to clear the intersection before the green signal activates (and then frustrates) the westbound Beacon St. flows. Number one is the simple fact that two lanes of traffic must merge into one. Allowing a bit more space for this to occur by having an additional lane accepting traffic on the far side of the intersection will not sufficiently accommodate the merging traffic. To complicate things, your proposal retains curbside parking here. While I support maintaining the parking for its traffic calming and pedestrian buffer functions, the “friction” caused by parking vehicles and the inevitable double parkers will minimize the effectiveness of the scheme you are proposing if your goal was to maximize traffic flow through this bottle neck.

A much more effective solution would be to eliminate the two to one lane merge all together by making the northbound right hand lane on the south side of Harvard for right turns and buses only. That way only one through lane would be crossing Beacon St. to begin with. Yes, this will extend queue’s on Harvard St. A don’t block the box treatment and enforcement would be necessary at Longwood. Otherwise, there is sufficient storage capacity for the resulting queue. Yes, traffic will back up on Harvard, it already does, but the “flow” will be regulated before it enters the intersection at Beacon and the problem will be eliminated.

Another contributing factor to the gridlock problem relates to the width of Beacon St. It appears that the signal timing does not adequately compensate for this. It appears that some vehicles entering the intersection on the yellow (and sometimes red) do not have adequate time to travel the full distance to clear the intersection, regardless of or made worse by the delay at the merge. If the clearance time were lengthened, that is if the signal on Beacon St. simply stayed red longer, drivers would be spared the frustration.

Even if, after considering my comments you still believe the proposed changes will work for the limited goal of moving more vehicles through this very small segment of our roadway network, I ask that we take a moment to stand back and ask ourselves what our overall goal should be and what the wider consequences from this change may be.

Coolidge Corner is, for many a vital transportation and commercial hub. Thousands of commuters from the T stream through daily, stopping at shops and restaurants on their way. Thousands more visit daily from home on foot. It is for their comfort and safety that I object to this scheme. The median in the middle of Harvard Street is a vital refuge for many a pedestrian, especially those who have difficulty speedily crossing in front of impatient drivers. I think it should be extended rather than eliminated. Consider also the effect of combining the through and right turn lane in the southbound direction. Who hasn’t been walking across the street, only to hear the car behind the car waiting for you lay on its horn? The volume of pedestrians is heavy at this intersection. We should be really glad for the high pedestrian volume because if each one those people were in a car, they would be taking up 60 times more space than they do on foot, none of us would be going anywhere.

Because of the heavy volume of pedestrians, right turning vehicles will sometimes wait a long time before they can turn, thus blocking the through travel. How patient will those drivers be after waiting through a light or two? How safe, comfortable or relaxed will the pedestrian crossing the street in front of those drivers be?

Already, the automobile is favored over the pedestrian at this intersection. There is no protected pedestrian phase, despite the heavy pedestrian volume. Many times car drivers play dodgem trying to turn through a group of pedestrians. All of this is particularly menacing for elderly or disabled people. Most people have no idea that they must press the very distant button (which is often blocked by snow mounds) to get a walk signal. They either wait and wait, or finally give up and go. This is especially problematic for parents with young children who are trying to teach their kids how to cross safely using the signal. If we make it more difficult and dangerous and unpleasant to walk, which I think this scheme does, we are “shooting ourselves in the foot” in terms of mitigating congestion or maximizing the capacity of our infrastructure, as walkers will take to cars because they no longer feel safe. Infrastructure is a precursor to activity. Make room for more cars and you get more cars. Make it more pleasant to walk and more people will walk. It is that simple. Make Coolidge Corner more people friendly and you get more people.

Paying attention to and giving greater accommodation to those on foot focuses our attention on the human scale and impacts the quality of everyone’s experience in Coolidge Corner. We have a choice. Can we find a balance between accommodating the through traffic and making Coolidge Corner a people place? I hope so.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

SHIFTBoston Ideas Competition

On the frigid eve of January 14, 2010 the Institute of Contemporary Art was the setting for unveiling of the winners of the SHIFTBoston ideas competition. I was there. It was fun. Lots of folks who love the city, many of them unemployed architects, were enjoying the shared buzz of dreaming and creating a more lively and meaningful city. Check out the winners and significant contributions at the website below.

The brief for the competition, (from their website, says this:

Let’s make Boston dynamic!

The SHIFTboston Ideas Competition 2009 called on all architects, artists, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers and anyone to submit their most provocative wild visions for the City of Boston: WHAT IF this could happen in Boston?

SHIFTboston seeks to collect visions that aim to enhance and electrify the urban experience in Boston. Innovative, radical ideas for new city elements such as public art, landscape, architecture, urban intervention and transportation. Competitors were encouraged to explore topics such as the future city, energy efficiency and ecological urbanism.

This competition is intended to collect and inspire. The goal is to attract greater public interest in future possibilities for the urban environment of Boston. We want to inspire and engage the city community while encouraging positive awareness and a hunger for change. We believe a collective desire to push boundaries and challenge the familiar are the necessary seeds with which to grow a more dynamic city!

We seek to drive a SHIFT in thinking, perception, attitude, definition, process, method, planning, and organization in order to re-energize Boston’s urban environment. We are here to move Boston forward. Be part of the SHIFT!

Despite their plea for open endedness, the brief actually gave a lot of direction, which was not necessarily a bad thing, but it is easy to see in hind sight how the entrees fit within the topics. I actually think they did a good job of provoking a direction just enough to contain the range, while still encouraging creativity. Remember too that entries were visually rendered. The world as defined by trained architects. So while the competition was named an "Ideas" competition, the realm of possible ideas was clearly visual/spatial. Again, not a bad thing, but a niche nonetheless. A reshaping of the world achieved through building or using space in a different way. To be able to enter, a person needed to have a profound mastery over rendering software, so the universe of possible entrants was delineated.

Some clear themes emerged. 1) Active use of public space. Such as urban farming on the Greenway, floating temporary park barges, or the winner, which proposed turning the unused Tremont subway tunnel into a theater space. 2) Interactive environments, using technology in response to natural forces to heighten our awareness of our environment. Such as the wind and light responsive dynamic light display in Fort Point Channel, or the harbor cleaning floating responsive technological play/learn barge. 3) Responses to climate change, these ranged from the simply profound blue chalk "water line" marking the new water level after sea levels rise, to the adaptive response to flooded land that proposed an acceptance of change rather than resistance. The green underpass walls, wind and water technology collaborative learning center and shared use kayaks hinted at an acknowledgment of building a more "harmoniously integrated" environment. A profound reawakening of our relationship to the ocean seems destined for our future, and was on the minds of many entrants.

After introducing the judges,  presenting the runners up and discussing the "dominant entry themes" the event's MC Brian Healy yielded the floor to the political luminaries in the audience. There was a Boston City Council member, who liked what he say and spoke about the need for Boston to be attractive to young people, which meant creating more opportunities for active public life, and Kairos Shen, Boston's Chief Planner, who stressed realism perhaps more than anyone else there that night, all the while noting that if the mayor were here, he would be wildly happy. A representative of the State's Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development pleaded for help and ideas for solving the problem of matching building opportunities that he oversees with truly creative talent. A valuable identification of a solvable problem, and I am sure many in the audience were more than happy to learn about a new source for employment opportunities.

While those present clearly yearned for a loosening of the restrictions and negativity that so often meets new ideas, there was no shortage of inspiration. The temporary nature of many of the proposals held out the greatest hope for implementation. What many fear, (and rightly so in many cases), is the imposition of "of the moment" fads and fancies of architects that will not stand the test of time and are hopelessly out of scale and context to their surroundings. Loss of meaning through destruction of our built heritage is not necessarily the best route forward. But there is also the need to create and to respond to present needs and life styles. The ideas generated here, pose a third alternative with their innovative, and often temporary re-use and re-claiming of unused and unwanted spaces and places. This seems particularly appropriate in our short-attention span era and somehow suits the needs of a limited energy , finite space and financially constrained reality. The cry for more human contact, interaction and fun was palpable. While striving to be futuristic, the entries were, in reality, sublimely of the moment.