Thursday, 27 August 2009

Livable streets in east Arlington, MA

The Arlington, MA, Board of Selectmen earlier this month voted "yes" 4-to-1 on a plan under development to renovate Massachusetts avenue in the eastern half of the town. The vote will now send the plans to the Mass highway department for their review. Mass highway will then sponsor its own public hearing some time this Fall.

The plan would help motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists by improving stoplight siting and equipment, marking lanes more clearly, adjusting lanes according to engineering estimates of traffic flow, putting in "bumpouts" so pedestrians have a shorter distance to safely cross the avenue, and adding bike lanes. The plan has enthusiastic support from some businesses and many residents, including me, who believe it will make the neighborhood and business district more vibrant.

Still, the Selectmen's vote required some courage. At one public meeting at Fox Library, some opponents were so angry, refusing to let the moderator call the next speaker, that a patient Arlington policeman had to be called in to keep order. (A later, larger, meeting at Hardy Elementary School was more civil, with a genuine sharing of views about a revised plan that addressed many of the original concerns). Some opponents say there has been insufficient discussion, even though the town has been collecting community input for many months through an exceptionally open planning process.

Some people at my church were concerned with an early plan's proposal to remove a traffic light at Linwood Street, but the revised plan approved by Selectmen had remedied those concerns. Some businesses have reasonable concerns about the disruption of the road work, but the engineers and community leaders are addressing those concerns vigorously, and other businesses are on balance hopeful about the changes. A neighborhood group called the East Arlington Livable Streets Coalition (EALS) has my support, organizing supporters when appropriate and also communicating reasonable concerns in a balanced way to project designers when appropriate.

One sad theme for some opponents has been some prejudice against cyclists. It is a view I have heard elsewhere in the community, too, such as a mean and tasteless piece in the Boston Globe recently, in which a car-driver fantasizes about bullying cyclists by driving right up close behind them and hitting the horn. The Globe also mischaracterized the balance of community opinion in recent coverage of the Selectmen's vote, drawing a fair response from EALS organizer Phil Goff.

Early coverage in the Arlington Advocate seemed to treat the opponents as if they represented the whole community, but more recent coverage has included the views of residents and businesses that have high hopes for the renovation.

I am glad for the Selectmen's courage, which came from listening to the whole community and not just those who were shouting loudest.

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