By Beth Treffeisen
Special to the Gazette
Residents packed the City Council chamber on May 10 during a budget hearing for the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) to demand slower and safer streets in the city.
In the crowd, residents sported bicycle t-shirts and some still wore their bike helmets after attending a memorial for Rick Archer, a 29-year-old courier who was struck by a car and killed on at the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Clarendon Street earlier this month.
One topic kept coming to the forefront of the City Councilors questions – why can’t we have more Neighborhood Slow Streets areas?
The Neighborhood Slow Streets is a City initiative to slow traffic speeds and improve safety on residential streets within a specific area. A typical zone consists of about 10 to 15 blocks. As part of the program, the City will work with the community to identify problems and design effective solutions.
As they are implemented, the streets will have visual and physical cues to slow drivers to 20 mph in order to make it feel more inviting for people of all ages who are walking, playing, or bicycling.
The Slow Streets program will emphasize quick-install, low-cost fixes, such as signage, pavement markings, speed humps, and day lighting.
This year, the City of Boston received 47 applications for the Neighborhood Slow Streets program but only two or three applications will be selected that will be implemented within the next two years. The neighborhoods for this year’s application will be selected at the end of the month.
“This is not a new request from residents,” said Stefanie Seskin, who is the active transportation director for BTD. “The neighborhoods have been asking the City for traffic calming and speed humps for a very long time.”
She said Vision Zero, which is the movement to have zero pedestrian or cycling fatalities in the City of Boston, has sparked new interest from residents to make it happen.
“We’re definitely surprised by the volume of applications we got this year,” said Seskin. “We were expecting maybe half of what we received. It really speaks to this is something the residents really want.”
Two pilot programs are in the works now for the Stonybrook neighborhood in Jamaica Plain and the Talbot-Norfolk Triangle in Dorchester. Both will be constructed later this year.
The Boston Transportation Department this year has $1.3 million to go towards Vision Zero. City Council President Michelle Wu asked BTD Commissioner Gina Fiandaca if money was what was restraining the department from doing more Neighborhood Slow Street zones. Fiandaca replied that it is a bit more complicated than that.
“We want to make those areas right,” said Fiandaca. “We are also looking at the other applications to see if there are interventions that we can implement outside the Neighborhood Slow Streets program.”
But Wu still had some concerns. She said, “ I don’t think it is fair to rationalize safety and I feel like every neighborhood should have the opportunity to take part.”
City Councilor Tito Jackson agreed, saying that the budget should be shifted to make this a priority.
“We have to move with utter urgency with implementation,” said Jackson. “I don’t want us to get paralysis by analysis. I want us to put these Slow Streets in today.”
Fiandaca said that as the Slow Street program continues and accepts another round of applications next year, they will also still be implementing other fixes, such as stop signs, racket flash beacons, and painted bicycle lanes throughout the city.
According to WalkBoston, a nonprofit that works to make walking safer and easier in Massachusetts, the number of injuries and crashes for people walking in the City of Boston has steadily gone up over the last few years.
In 2014 there were 724 pedestrian injuries, in 2015 there were 789 and last year there were 904. That is about two to three people a day getting hit by a car reporting to the Boston EMS in the city, and that only counts the people who report it.
“This really gets to the heart of a lot of people’s lives around the city,” said Wendy Landman, who is the executive director of WalkBoston. “If you’re scared to let your 10-year-old cross the street even if you live on a residential street it makes a difference.”
Brendan Kearney, who is the communications director of WalkBoston, believes that the City isn’t doing enough to ensure that these Slow Streets get implemented.
“The Neighborhood Slow Streets has definitely struck a cord with neighborhood groups across the city,” said Kearney. “The staff is working incredibly hard…but they’re spread too thin.”
He believes that best practices that work and have been established elsewhere around the U.S. and the world is something that BTD can tap from. During the hearing they asked for the department to consider taking on more staff dedicated to Vision Zero.
“Signs don’t do everything,” said Kearney. “You need to make physical changes in the streets too.”
Landman added, “There are many, many, projects that can come at much lower costs.”
Seskin who has been working on the Slow Streets program for over year said that although it is meant to use low cost methods, it quickly adds up.
“All of the tools supported are meant to be low-cost but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have no cost – it certainly adds up,” said Seskin. “This project is little bit more than adding signage but less than doing an all out redesign and construction of a sidewalk.”
The priority for which neighborhoods will be selected first is based off a point system that includes: community support, percentage of households with youths under 18 and adults over 65, presence of schools, parks, community centers, libraries, and public housing, and proximity to transit routes.
It also includes the history of crashes that cause fatal or serious injuries, geographic diversity of the selected neighborhood, and the feasibility of the City to implement improvements.
“It is targeted towards the more vulnerable population and the swelling of drivers there,” said Seskin.
This year Seskin says she hopes to get the pilot programs in the ground and begin the community process for the first round of applications that are accepted.
Hopefully, she said, after the second and third rounds BTD will get quicker at making Slow Streets a reality.
“Right now we don’t have systems in place yet and we have to do a lot of configuration with Boston Water and Sewer and making sure everything is up to the City’s codes,” said Seskin. “Over the next two or three [rounds] we will continue to learn and hopefully we will get better as time goes on – there will be a lot more soon.”