Moving Forward in Forest Hills


Every so often, I like to write about my neighborhood of Forest Hills, a section of Jamaica Plain in the city of Boston, as the area is going through great changes with the removal of an antiquated elevated highway and development of previously underused parcels near the MBTA station. Progress on revitalizing the neighborhood continues this week as 25% Design Hearing will be held for the new Casey Arborway at-grade roadway at 5:30 on February 27th at English High School. You can read my earlier posts from Nov. 29, 2011 and April 4, 2012 for background information on the project. It should be an exciting time when the neighborhood can come together for input on a new system of roads and public spaces that will serve all users – walker, bicyclists, transit users and drivers alike. If you can’t attend the meeting, please write a letter of support for the at-grade project and your ideas for design to:

Thomas F. Broderick,
P.E., Chief Engineer,
MassDOT,
10 Park Plaza,
Boston, MA 02116,
Attention.: Paul King, Project File No. 605511

or

dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us (include the above address information in the email)

Such submissions will also be accepted at the meeting. Mailed statements and exhibits intended for inclusion in the public meeting transcript must be postmarked within ten (10) business days of this Public Information Meeting. Project inquiries may be emailed to:

dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us

(This information via the Boston Cyclists Union)

Unfortunately, there is a small but vocal group that will be using this meeting to agitate for building a new overpass cutting through the neighborhood, an automotive-centered model that offers little for other users or the neighborhood in general. Through nearly two years of a public process with dozens of meetings and hundreds of letters, at least 2/3′s of the people of Jamaica Plain have let it be known that they prefer not to have an elevated highway slicing the neighborhood in half. I hope if you’re reading this and feel that a new overpass would be a good idea that you can take a moment to step back from the hostility of the most extreme overpass advocates and work together with other neighbors in the 25% Design Process to find solutions that work for everyone.

Just for review, here are some reasons why an elevated highway is a bad idea for an urban area:

  • Doesn’t reduces automotive congestion – Most people think that by building more highways and wider highways, we can improve traffic flow and reduce congestion. It makes intuitive sense and for about six decades starting from the end of WWII it was the main way cities responded to traffic concerns (including constructing the original Casey Overpass in the 1950s). However, building more highways simply creates induced demand where the more road built, the more people drive cars, and with cars prioritized other users suffer. Cities across the world from San Francisco to New York to Seoul are learning the benefits of highway removal which actually reduces traffic congestion and makes for healthier, more economically vibrant neighborhoods.
  • Creates a highway mentality – The Casey Overpass does not just carry a large volume of cars rumbling overhead, but creates a full highway interchange with a system of access and exit ramps. These added roads complicate the intersections around Forest Hills greatly. Much of the congestion that occurs on Washington Street and South Street at peak periods is caused by cars trapped in-between the traffic lights on each side of the overpass that regulate access and exits to the highway. It also brings a lot more cars into the area than there will be with an at-grade neighborhood road system. With highway mentality encouraged by the car-first design of the overpass, most drivers exceed safe neighborhood speed limits and are looking more for a way to jockey themselves into a better position than looking out for walkers and bikers.
  • Highways cost more – Two options were presented last year, a new overpass and an at-grade plan. The new overpass plan cost significantly more and didn’t include many of the benefits such as new bike lanes, walking paths, and public space covered by the lest costly at-grade plan. The “iconic bridge” proposed by the most vocal overpass proponents would cost significantly more, and again would prioritize motorists over all other users. In these troubled economic times, there is a limited pool of money available from the government, and much of that should be spent on repairing actual bridges that cross rivers and railroad tracks in other parts of the commonwealth. Not to mention, these are just the construction costs. An elevated structure will require more money for maintenance. The current Casey Overpass built in the 1950s was significantly rebuilt in the late 1980s/early 1990s. A new overpass now would force the next generation to face the cost of repairing or demolishing the highway once again in 25-30 years.
  • An antiquated model for changing times – A lot of the pressure to rebuild the overpass comes from the idea that the current levels of traffic will continue to increase in the future. Current trends indicate that the future of Boston will see fewer than more cars. For one thing, the troubled economic times have forced many people out of their cars for more affordable transportation. Even when the economy fully recovers, peak oil has made cheap gas a thing of the past. Since the 1990s, more and more people have decided to take advantage of the social and business connections of living in the city. The Millennial generation are driving less frequently than their parents and grandparents. The growing danger of pollution and climate change will also force people to drive less. In short, a new overpass is a 1950s-era solution that could be a fossil shortly after it’s built. Instead of being saddled with a fixed structure, an at-grade road in Forest Hills would be able to adapt to changing uses and serve the needs of a developing, transit-oriented neighborhood.
  • Make Transit Alternatives Irresistible – Considering that urban highways create congestion, prioritize motorists while putting walker and bicyclists at risk, have enormous costs that just keep building, and are on the verge of being extraneous anyway, why not have Forest Hills be the center of a new, cutting edge Boston? Instead of putting cars first, why not make alternate transportation irresistible so that people once fearful of leaving their cars can enjoy walking, biking, and public transit instead? There are a number of parcels of land to be developed in Forest Hills. In the shadow of an overpass they are likely to end up oriented to serving automotive customers. Without the overpass, Forest Hill can begin to develop as the hub of a transit-oriented neighborhood of the future. Ultimately it comes down to a choice of maintaining the status quo based on fearful predictions of traffic nightmares or working together to create a vibrant neighborhood that fulfills our hopes and dreams.

Having said all this, there is one point upon which I agree with the opponents of the at-grade plan. The current design for the Casey Arborway road at 6 lanes is too wide, and like proposals for a new overpass, puts too great an emphasis on prioritizing motorists. As we work towards a final design for what is ultimately constructed at Forest Hills, now in its 25% design phase, I would like to propose a narrower road. In fact, last summer the Jamaica Plain Gazette noted that the opening year design would be reduced by two lanes. I believe that a four-lane road with additional right turn lanes at appropriate intersections would be the optimal final design for the Casey Arborway for the following reasons:

  • Induced demand – Like building a new overpass, building an oversized at-grade road will encourage more people to drive. The designs for both the new overpass and the at-grade model were based on projections of future traffic increases rather than current use. In a sense, building the wider road may just create the increased traffic congestion they were hoping to avoid, whereas a more modest roadway could help encourage the trends I noted for a future with reduced car use.
  • Consistency – The Casey Arborway connects the 4 lane road of Morton Street to the 4 lane road of the Arborway. There’s no good reason for the road to swell to six lanes for 3/10 of a mile as it will not increase the throughput of traffic. The wider road will just encourage drivers to shift lanes which traffic studies indicate is a cause of greater congestion. One only need to look further along the Arborway where the road inexplicably expands from 4 to 8 lanes and then back down to 4 lanes causing traffic backups as vehicles merge together.
  • Makes it bigger than it already is – Currently, due to the deterioration on the Casey Overpass there is only one lane in each direction. On the ground level on New Washington Street, there is one through lane in each direction with other lanes dedicated to turns and parking. So as it right now there are four through lanes crossing Forest Hills. The plans to remove the confusing system of access/exit ramps, clear away infrastructure that creates blindspots, take away left turn lanes at the intersections, and most importantly to vastly improve the signaling will help make the new four lane road less congested than the current four lane road/overpass.
  • Overbuilding for peak periods – Okay, so Forest Hill can see some nasty traffic backups, and that is what most people complain about. But I wonder if these drivers ever see Forest Hills outside of the peak morning and evening rush hours. Since I actually live in Forest Hills, I notice that at midday, nights, weekends and holidays that traffic runs smoothly around Forest Hills and in fact can get pretty sparse. Even in the mornings I’ve noticed that there can be snarled traffic at 7:30 or 8 am, but everything running smoothly at 7:45 or 8:15 am. I think it’s a mistake to overbuild the road to serve the levels of automotive traffic that Forest Hills gets for a small part of each business day. It is a recipe for:
  • High Speeds and Reckless Driving – Wide roads and wide lanes in residential/commercial areas are not a good idea, because no matter the posted speed limit, a wide road is an invitation to speed. As it is today, Washington St./Hyde Park Av./Ukraine Way/South St/New Washington Street often has the ambience of a NASCAR speedway. Speeding cars will kill any chances of building a walking/biking community and most likely kill some walkers and bicyclists. A narrower road will force drivers to operate their cars at safer speeds.
  • Make walking, biking, and transit irresistible – I said this before, but it’s worth reiterating that it is beneficial for everyone in the community to encourage as many people as possible to get out of their cars and use other means of getting around. Forest Hills sits in between the Southwest Corridor community path, Franklin Park, and the Arnold Arboretum. A narrower road means there is more space for cycletracks, comfortable places to walk, and connections to transit that can tie these places together as well as making new connections south to Roslindale.

So those are my thoughts on the design of the new Casey Arborway as we reach this latest milestone of the 25% design hearing. Again, if you live in Jamaica Plain or Boston, I encourage you to attend Wednesday’s meeting and/or write a letter with your thoughts. I’m looking forward to seeing what changes come forward as the design process continues.


The Casey Arborway is not the only thing happening in Forest Hills. I thank you for reading this far, but if you can bear to read more, here are a few tidbits:

  • New Harvest Co-op opens – the first major new development in the neighborhood is a very welcome grocery market. It is a bit pricy gourmet store but it’s still great to have a place to shop within walking distance.
  • A new cafe is on the way – the next development will also be welcome. It’s kind of across the tracks for me, so it will be a good excuse to walk over
  • Ideas for new park space –  The Casey Arborway plan will open new park space at the end of the Southwest Corridor Park.  Public space is great but I do worry that it may end up only being used during commuter hours and be an empty void on evenings and weekends.  One idea I have to keep the space active is to create a dog park.  Although I’m not a dog owner myself , there are a lot of dogs in our neighborhood.  I expect that dog owners would take their dogs out to exercise on evenings and weekends even in the winter time so it would make for an active and social space year round.  I’m sure there are other great ideas for the space as well (I’d love a Munich-style beer garden but I doubt that would happen in Boston).
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4 responses to this post.

  1. I almost missed this great article in the Boston Globe about the opportunities for transit-oriented development in Forest Hills and instilling greater vitality in the neighborhood. It makes me very excited about what the future holds!

    FEBRUARY 28, 2013
    EDITORIAL | OPEN UP BOSTON
    For answers to housing woes, look to vibrant Davis Square

    Reply

  2. Today’s JP Gazette covers the most recent public meeting. You’ll see that I’ve already commented.

    A couple of other recent articles of note have interesting takes on what I hope to see in Forest Hills as we work together to create a sustainable neighborhood and transit equity. Worth a read if you’ve got the time.

    Reply

  3. Another JP resident writes the JP Gazette pleading that we can move forward with actually designing the new city roads instead of wasting time rehashing the discredited plan for a new overpass.

    Some other timely articles:

    • The Sustainable Cities Collective tells us about The Problem with Cars (3/15/13)
    • A brilliant post on The Walking Bostonian describes the psychological factors behind traffic and how “Chicken Little” fear-mongering inhibits progress. The Casey Overpass makes a cameo appearance. (3/15/13)

    Reply

  4. Some more relevant articles:

    Reply

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