Boston Leads the Way in People-Centered Urban Planning

When it comes to making cities more liveable and efficient, many Americans tend to look abroad for examples, namely to places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. But it is nice to find a model closer to home, especially since it gives lie to the notion that America’s car-culture poses unique challenges that foreign cities do not face.

As PRI reports, Boston is one of the biggest and most prominent participants a new movement that is sweeping communities of all sizes across the United States.

“Complete streets” look different in different places, but the idea is simple: Make transportation systems about people, so there is equal access for all forms of travel.

In Boston’s Allston neighborhood, the Complete Streets movement centers on a problematic busy street called Cambridge Street. Since Cambridge Street was last redesigned 50 years ago, it has been high on the list of residents’ complaints.

“Cambridge Street is a crucial link in our neighborhood, and it’s also an incredibly unsafe, dangerous street”, says Harry Mattison, a 31-year-old software developer who is a longtime advocate for pedestrian and cyclist rights in the area. Pattison is one of a small group of locals who are demanding a safer Cambridge Street. Mattison has three kids and laments not feeling safe on a street that cuts through the heart of his own neighborhood.

“I want to be able to walk with my kids, to bike with my kids, to drive safely in the neighborhood where I live, and we just cant do that today because this street is so poorly designed and so unsafe”, he says.

The city is working on a short-term fix to make Cambridge Street safer. But in the long term, Boston’s transportation department has bigger plans. It’s going to bring the street into the modern day and transform it using the principles of Complete Streets.

Redesigns will vary from changes as simple as narrowing a road to make room for a new bike lane, to installing bike sharing stations, trees along the streets, and even exclusive bus lanes. The ultimate aim is to simply make streets work for the people who use them, particularly locals, pedestrians, and cyclists.

And while this might seem like a pretty obvious thing, the concept of complete streets is going up against a pretty well-established mantra in U.S. infrastructure planning.

“After World War II, the United States and many other countries embarked on a massive infrastructure investment [designed to] move goods across the country”, says Stefanie Seskin, the deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. “That created a lot of really good and important changes to the way we built our roads, in terms of safety when you’re traveling at high speeds”.

But, Seskin says, while wide lanes make highways and other high-speed roads safer for traffic using them, they were never meant for cities and town centers. Vineet Gupta agrees that the post-war engineering mentality explains why Cambridge Street is so bad for pedestrians today.

“In those days, all they cared about was moving traffic and making traffic flow more efficiently, and really not focusing on what cities really are, and what makes them livable”, Gupta says.

A recent article in Aeon by Antonia Malchik explores the travails of America’s love of automobiles, namely with respect to how it has undermined physical activity and outdoor life.

For decades, Americans have been losing their ability, even their right, to walk. There are places in the United States – New York City, for example – where people walk as a matter of habit and lifestyle, commuting in ways familiar to residents of London or Paris. But there are vast blankets and folds of the country where the ability to walk – to open a door and step outside and go somewhere or nowhere without getting behind the wheel of a car – is a struggle, a fight. A risk.

In 2013 more than 4,700 pedestrians were killed, and an estimated 66,000 injured, in what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls ‘traffic crashes’. That’s a bite-sized phrase for what is, essentially, people in cars killing and injuring people on foot.

Kate Kraft, the National Coalition Director for America Walks, an advocacy organisation for walkability, says that, ever since towns began removing streetcars, we’ve undermined transit systems that would support the walker and planned instead for the car. Walking is an impediment to the car culture we revere, an experience we’ve intentionally designed out of our lives.

And like the PRI piece, this development is linked to cultural and infrastructural trends in post-WWII America.

Walkers lost significant ground during the ‘white flight’ decades after the Second World War – when Americans with means, mostly white, abandoned the cities and cloistered themselves in suburbs that, over time, lost their neighbourhood amenities and their sidewalks, and then spread further into the countryside, wresting sterile square footage from farmlands and forests. Only New York City (as well as, some would claim, Boston) managed to save itself for pedestrians, assisted by an existing and expansive public transport system and the work of people like the 1960s activist and writer Jane Jacobs, who successfully argued that sidewalks, pedestrians, and public spaces were crucial to healthy, thriving cities.

In most other places, walking became both boring – there’s little to look at in the suburbs, and scant shade – and difficult. Take the sad example of the trek to school. When I was in a Montana grade school in the early 1980s, I walked several blocks there and back, on my own, from my second day of kindergarten (my father walked with me the first day). In 1969, 48 per cent of children aged five to 14 walked or cycled to school. By 2009, the number had dropped to 13 per cent; even families still living within a mile of school began driving. The suburbs were too far for most cyclists, much less walkers, and over time the roads became more treacherous for people of all ages, children especially.

The arteries connecting far-flung housing developments to life’s necessities are never sleepy country roads or tree-lined neighbourhood streets, but racing two- and four-lane motorways dangerous to drivers and lethal to walkers. Add an inflated sense of crime, and you get a mass exodus of generations hopping from their houses into comfortable, oversized cars, getting everywhere faster with breakfast on the go, and with little use for sidewalks.

We came to scorn walking, to fear it. Real Americans fold themselves into cars, where they feel safe and in control. For exercise, the better-off mimic walkers, bicyclists, hikers, and farmers on stationary machines in health clubs. They and the middle class drive to parks and wilderness preserves for the privilege of walking outside among trees and birds and clean air, and the poor are left with vast wastelands of road and concrete; the advice to ‘walk three times a week for your health’ is easier given than followed when there’s nowhere safe to place your foot.

The Aeon article also goes on to blame Americans’ “attachment to private property and individual liberty” as a major factor in the neglect and elimination of public spaces. You can make of that theory what you will, but I think it is a compelling point to consider, given the well-documented erosion, restriction, and/or privatization of other public goods — parks, infrastructure, and even clean air. But that is a broader topic for another day.

As a lifelong resident of the urban sprawl that is Miami, I can definitely attest to how difficult it is for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike to get by. Everyone is jostling around for what limited space remains, and those lacking the protection of a vehicle are at great risk of injury or death;for their part, car drivers are often trapped by the limitations of their vehicles, namely the lack of maneuverability and parking space in most city centers. A lot of urban areas do not seem to work for anyone (unless of course you have the money to access privately-managed and gated enclaves).

So it is clear that a lot of cities, both in the U.S. and abroad, could use a bit of an overhaul, especially in a time of rapid urbanization (and in the case of the developed world, re-urbanization), socioeconomic difficult, and environmental crisis. Cities with more community amenities, recreational and social spaces, and diverse transportation options are a benefit to all. Hopefully Boston and other leading urban centers can lead the way and give us a demonstrably successful model to look to and emulate (though each city has a unique shape, geography, and climate that no doubt has to be taken into account).

Thankfully, we seem to be reaching a point in the way we think about and plan cities. According to data cited by PRI, the National Complete Streets Coalition has seen its complete street policies embraced by over six times as many communities last year than in 2008. The federal government is considering its own Complete Streets policy, while the Safe Streets Act, which is currently under consideration in Congress, would require all federally funded transportation projects to comply with Complete Street principles.

While this is an important matter for all levels of government, I think it is definitely more ideal for municipalities and counties to tackle the issue themselves, given their own unique local needs and challenges. A more spirited and proactive community life, whether in regards to infrastructure or other social and public goods, is most certainly worth cultviating.

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