Framing the argument on Beacon Street

Rendering of proposed Beacon Street redesign

Rendering of proposed Beacon Street redesign

If you haven’t already, take a minute to read Streetsblog’s coverage of the on-going debate over the future of Beacon Street in Somerville. The City of Somerville is planning to build a protected bike lane on the street, which may be the busiest bicycle corridor in the state. Yet some in the community are opposed to the transformation. Angie Schmitt sums up the situation:

Somerville’s plan calls for eliminating about 100 on-street parking spots on Beacon for the mile-long stretch where the bike lane will be installed. Although a local parking study found that there was more than enough on-street parking capacity to accommodate the reduction, some local residents have been grumpy about the proposed change. At a recent preliminary design meeting with the community, one neighbor called the plan “discriminatory” (against drivers) and said it violates their “right to park” in front of their homes.

“I want my parking place; I think this is a dumb project,” said Somerville resident Marty Filosi.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that a handful of vehicular cyclists in the region have opposed the plan. One of them is John Allen, a prominent local follower of John Forester’s transportation theories, which — against the preponderance of evidence — argue that dedicated cycling infrastructure makes cyclists less safe.

Despite the best efforts of City planners and advocates, proponents of a livable Beacon Street have failed to frame the discussion in a way to curry popular support. It doesn’t help that traditional media outlets insist on the reductive he-said she-said approach to journalism. The Globe, for example, quotes Beacon Street laundromat owner Domenic Ruccio for his expertise on the economics of parking supply and property values: “If you take a neighborhood like this and it gets a reputation of being unparkable, the rents of these apartments go down, and then the value of the real estate follows it.”

Setting aside the Globe’s refusal to challenge this ludicrous assertion, reporter Jarret Bencks merely mentions the objective parking study as a counterpoint to Ruccio’s uninformed (and self-serving) opinion. This is as troubling as it is unsurprising. In its desperation to be perceived as impartial, news media are only able to present opposite sides of every issue in equal proportions, irrespective of facts and information available to reporters.

The question of cycle tracks on Beacon Street is whether we want to make relatively small sacrifices in the name of saving lives of people who walk, bike, and live along the street. It’s whether we want to commit resources toward giving people viable alternative options to driving polluting vehicles as our planet cries louder and louder for help. And it’s whether we want to make Beacon Street a place people can come together to shop, eat, commute, and relax.

It should not be a question of preserving the minority’s right to store their private property on public land.

6 thoughts on “Framing the argument on Beacon Street

  1. Sam
    March 22, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Hello. As someone who bikes and lives in this neighborhood – you’re missing a huge parts of this story. It’s not about bikes vs. cars. It’s much more complex than that. Care to read another take?

    Also some more info about a community proposed design alternative that reduces parking, but keeps it on both sides of the street, in order to make room for buffered bike lanes that can extend the length of the street:

    1. editor
      March 23, 2013 at 11:17 am

      Thanks for your comments. The vehicular cycling arguments are tired and short-sighted. But the Olmstead design is a conversation worth having, and the City should be listening. In the end, though, I’m not any more excited about taking sidewalk space for parking than taking bike space for parking.

  2. Clark in Vancouver
    March 26, 2013 at 11:56 am

    The Omsted design idea is going in the right direction and could work out fine. One big design flaw is the location of the bike lane. It really should be between the parking lane and the sidewalk.

    The bulb-outs for parking meters and trees between car parking spots works well. Trees can be moved if they’re not too big if need be.

  3. Peter Furth
    April 6, 2013 at 10:02 am

    David Olmsted’s design for buffered bike lanes uses a space-saving trick that could be applied just as easily to cycle tracks. It doesn’t really sacrifice sidewalk width per se; his 7-ft sidewalk is fine for a walking area. The space-saving trick is putting trees into the parking lane.

    Olmsted’s concept should be divided into two separable ideas: (a) How to create space for safer bicycling and (b) what to do with that space. Olmsted’s answer to part (b) is to mark buffered bike lanes, which consume about 9 ft f space, along the traffic side of the parking lane. Those 9 ft of space could just as easily be put into a protected lane (cycle track) on the other side of the parking lane, resulting in a much safer place for bicycling, since buffered bike lanes would inevitably be blocked at one point or other by double parked cars and cars maneuvering into and out of parking places, forcing cyclists into the road. The clearly superior cycle track alternative would have a 15-ft sidewalk area divided into a walking zone and a bicycling zone, bordered by a parking lane with trees growing in it.

    But Olmsted’s answer to question (a) — carving out space for bike safety by putting trees into the bike lane — has some interesting possibilities. In Olmsted’s sketch, the only trees shown are in bulbouts at each end of a block associated with crosswalks, and in many people’s opinion two trees per block is too stark and tree-less a design to be acceptable. But the concept is easily extendible. Every place you want to have a tree, cut into the parking lane with a bulbout. This scheme can be seen on many streets in the Netherlands as well as in West Palm Beach. Imagine a parking lane with a repeating pattern of 2 parking spots (22 ft each), then a bulbout (10 ft) hosting a tree. You’d lose less than 20% of your parking lane, still have a row of trees spaced 54 ft apart, and space to create a nice, safe cycle track.

    Tree bulbouts in the parking lane create additional costs. With traditional grading, every bulbout creates a low-point corner that needs a drain. West Palm came up with a lower-cost solution — grade the road so that its low point is not at the curb, but at the junction of travel lane and parking lane. Bulbouts would also create a serious, but not insurmountable, snow-plowing challenge.

    But at the same time, tree bulbouts in the parking lane offer a real benefit — a way to retain parking while still providing a cycle track. It may not be worth the cost on the northern part of Beacon Street where parking demand is lighter. Their real value may be on the Inman Square end of Beacon Street, where the City considers it too extreme to eliminate 50% of the parking (one entire side of the street). A parking lane with tree bulbouts would allow there to be cycle tracks in both directions at a sacrifice of only 20% of the parking. That might be acceptable in terms of parking loss, and would be a great boon to bicycling safety.

    Peter Furth, who is a professor of transportation engineering at Northeastern University

  4. Sam Coren
    April 8, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    With all do respect Prof. Furth – the parking study was pretty flawed. North Beacon Oxford to Museum has just as much parking utilization as the South Beacon (Washington to city line). This is a mixed use street that’s mostly residential – many residents and several pedestrian advocates did not oppose the idea to taking in a couple feet of sidewalk on each side – Beacon – especially before Washington street – actually has a relatively low amount of foot traffic (I walk my dog on this street many different times a day and have often been the only one around…the city’s ped counts will back up my experience).

    Also, Beacon Street *is not* a good place to have a bike lane (or cycle track) behind a row of parked cars – there are just too many driveways and unsignalized intersections for this to be a good fit for that. Further more – you mentioned cars double parked on a buffered bike lanes…. Well, the city’s current design has a mountable curb on the Northbound side of the street and delivery vehicles and those who are picking up passengers curb side will no doubt park in it since there’s no real parking on that side, forcing cyclists into the street anyway. With the buffered bike lane it’s much safer for cyclists to take the lane without risking falling into a lane of moving traffic on the mountable curb. You also mentioned snow plowing challenges with bulbouts – well, the city has been ultimately unresponsive on how plows aren’t supposed to get damaged trying to plow a street with a mountable cycle track curb adjacent to a travel lane.

    You also mentioned cost issues with a buffered bike lane – the city’s current design for cycletracks has its own myriad of issues pertaining to cost. Right now their estimated construction costs are $7+ million in a project for which there is only $4.5 million in funding. The cycle track segments will cover almost all existing drainage and quite a few manhole covers in the sections it will go in.

    Personally, I would just like to see a consistent treatment throughout the length of the street and safer intersections than the hodgepodge of layouts that’s currently being proposed. My personal preference for Beacon Street, as a cyclist, is bike lanes (ideally buffered from the parking lane) for visibility, mobility, and connectivity reasons.

    Thank you for taking the time to critique Olmsted’s design. I think it’s really important and constructive to talk about “what else” could be done for Beacon Street.

  5. crankypants
    June 13, 2013 at 11:05 am

    I keep feeling that the beacon street cycle track is mostly just for publicity than for an actual need – cycle tracks are typically installed in places where there is higher-speed and volume auto traffic – specifically to increase cycling in that area – and would make far more sense on broadway or mcgrath – not beacon. For some reason it’s being installed in a place that already sees high numbers of cyclists. this money would be better spent redesigning intersections to make them safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

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