As a citizen and an advocate, I’ve followed and been a part of many transportation projects in Somerville and the Boston area. Some of them have progressed rather smoothly while others have been rife with controversy. Fortunately, when government and citizens work together in a constructive way, controversy can usually be avoided or at least minimized.
Change is something that affects all of our lives. Some people embrace it while others fear it. And because transportation is something that affects us all nearly every day or our lives, people tend to be very passionate about what they think are the best solutions for their own lives. Because the stakes are so high, it’s key that government officials involve citizens to the maximum extent and look to find solutions that best serve everyone, while also addressing the concerns of individuals who may not always agree.
Public process today
Historically in Massachusetts, particularly regarding state transportation projects, the public had little opportunity to provide input. Up until the mid-2000s, MassHighway (now the MassDOT Highway Division) typically had only one public meeting per project, at what is called the 25% Design stage. This is the point at which the major elements of a design had been determined, but where the details had not yet been fleshed out. The state had met solely with the municipality or other government stakeholders about that project prior to the 25% Design Hearing. Citizens’ only opportunity for providing input was to attend the 25% Design Hearing, where they would learn about the design and would be able to provide verbal feedback to the project team. They could also provide written comments up to 10 days after the hearing. Unfortunately, little information was available other than at the hearing, and no follow up meetings were ever held to inform the public about how the design had evolved based on citizen feedback.
Thankfully, times are changing. With most large projects, at least, MassDOT (as well as local municipalities) now typically holds a series of meetings, starting with gathering initial ideas and suggestions before a design is even begun. Meetings are held as the design goes through the design phases and all the way through the construction period. For example, for each of the Charles River bridges that are being reconstructed, MassDOT has held multiple meetings to solicit community input before, during, and after the design phases. One thing that has become very obvious, though, is that getting the public to agree on anything can be a very difficult proposition.
Educating the public
One of the most contentious issues that come up during the redesign of any street is traffic congestion and traffic flow. As we all look to making our streets more livable, there can be a lot of contention about how much space each form of transportation should be allotted, particularly how traffic will be affected when we redistribute space currently dedicated primarily to cars over to pedestrians, bicycles and transit. Part of this challenge comes from the fact that the amount of space given to cars does not directly correspond to how well traffic will flow. Simply adding or removing lanes will not necessarily make traffic better or worse. It is a complex issue with many nuances that are not always apparent to the public. For example, traffic flow can actually be improved while taking away space from cars by creating left turn only lanes, adjusting signal timing to make intersections and traffic flow smoother and more efficient, replacing traditional signalized intersections with roundabouts, and even by reducing traffic demand by making other modes, routes, or times more attractive.
If people are to agree on a solution which reduces pavement for cars, it is absolutely essential that government officials educate the public as best as they can to ensure them that traffic will not be made worse by a project. Time and time again, I see citizens dig their heels in against a proposed solution because they fear that traffic will be made worse. Some of them may never agree, but it’s important that our officials do their best to explain why a solution will indeed work.
Are choices always a good thing?
In a number of recent projects, officials have initially presented citizens with two or more rather different plans. They presented the pros and cons of each and asked the public for their opinion. Based on the feedback they received, they then tried to build consensus around the more popular plan. Unfortunately, their efforts to provide citizens with more opportunity for input in a project may be backfiring somewhat.
For example, in the Rutherford Ave/Sullivan Square Design Project, the City of Boston presented the public with two options: one that preserves the Rutherford Ave underpasses at Austin St and Sullivan Square, and an option that fills both of those underpasses in. Their motivation for presenting both options was to give citizens a choice. Unfortunately, people quickly saw themselves as being a part of one camp or another, and when the surface option was chosen by the City as their preferred option, many citizens in the underpass option camp were still not convinced that the surface option was the better of the two. Some of them, including our own Congressman Capuano, are still fighting for at least one of the underpasses to remain, introducing unnecessary delay to the project’s timeline.
I believe there are two reasons why this occurred. First, many of the citizens who supported the underpass option were afraid that removing the underpasses would cause traffic jams and that drivers would be tempted to cut through neighborhood streets. I believe this was a failure of the project team and government officials to adequately explain how the surface option would indeed handle all of the traffic on Rutherford Ave just as well as the underpass option. Secondly, I believe presenting these choices to the public may have been unnecessary. Both options handle traffic effectively, while the surface option creates a safer, quieter, more attractive street that has additional space available for a linear park and new development (and that also requires less money to build and maintain). By presenting an option that appears to accommodate motor vehicles better (the underpass option), I believe the City inadvertently created further doubt that the surface option could not handle traffic adequately.
Unfortunately, the situation is a bit of a Catch-22. If the City had only presented the surface option, it’s unclear as to whether people who are still in the underpass option camp today would be fighting as strongly. I tend to think that although they may still be expressing doubts about traffic flow, their position would be harder to defend since there would never have been an official option that played to their fears.
How to best involve the public
Government is smart to involve the public in transportation projects since citizens who use streets or transit daily often know more about what’s working and what’s not than the very people in charge of maintaining and rebuilding them. Citizens can provide valuable input about where and when traffic backs up, which intersections are difficult to cross, which locations are particularly challenging for bicycling, where buses get stuck in traffic, where parking is difficult, etc. Project designers and government officials can then attempt to solve as many of these problems as possible in their design. At the same time, it’s important that officials do not water down a design (for example by eliminating pedestrian or bicycle facilities) due to the citizens who are afraid of traffic congestion or who simply do not like bicycles.
Citizens can also be used to make design choices when there are relatively equivalent options to choose from. For example: What type of material should sidewalks be made of? What should the street lights look like? What kind and where should street furniture be located? In the case of the redesign of Union Square, citizens were presented with three options for the main part of the square. There were pros and cons to each, but none of the options were particularly better or worse as a whole for any one mode of transportation.
In a place like Somerville, we are fortunate to have citizens who are very savvy when it comes to transportation and urban planning issues. For example, unlike some of the other projects where overpasses or underpasses are being considered for removal, the citizens of Somerville have nearly unanimously expressed their desire to have the McCarthy Overpass along McGrath Highway removed (and sooner rather than later). The City of Somerville is often able to utilize the experience and knowledge of citizens in various projects, both individually and through appointed committees such as the Bicycle Committee and recently formed Transportation Advisory Team. Many of these citizens work in the transportation and planning fields, and it only makes sense to leverage their knowledge to help the City improve their own transportation network.
So while it is indeed important to involve citizens and let them know that their voices are heard, it is equally important that the planning process be one that is fair to all those who will benefit or suffer from what is built in the end. Citizen input, particularly around existing issues that need to be solved, should be wrapped into a project to the maximum extent. Citizens should be given choices when there are multiple good solutions. In the end, however, it is the project team and government officials’ duty to ensure that the end result is one that best serves everyone, even if there is still some dissent amongst citizens.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below. How do you think the public should be involved in transportation projects? How can we move a project forward when people strongly disagree? Have you been a part of a very good or very bad public process?
"Capuano Meeting Could Shape Sullivan Square Redesign" Somerville Patch 18 May 2011
“Plan to untangle avenue has Charlestown divided” Boston Globe 21 November 2011
“Spirited Crowd Asks MassDOT to Demolish McGrath ASAP” Somerville Patch 1 June 2012