The Ten Thousand Pound Elephant in the Room

Spring has come to Boston and that means one thing: snow. Sometimes rain, but mostly snow thus far. There’s been more snow this spring thus far than there was all winter. But last winter’s record-breaking amount of snow is still fresh in people’s minds, especially it’s effects on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, so while it’s been encouraging to see real estate professionals and elected officials interested in walkability, it’s also been incredibly disappointing to see no progress, or even interest, in improving walkability for those times when the weather is bad.

Good transit service is vital for walkability, true, especially in bad weather. No one is going to want to take the bus if it involves a long wait or a long walk in the rain, cold, snow, ice or extreme heat. That means that as many bus stops as possible ought to have shelters and that they need to be kept clear of snow.

But it also means that the basic infrastructure of walking needs to be maintained and it isn’t. Roads and streets are graded so that water flows off into the sides, where it can drain without being a hazard to drivers and the Amerticans With Disabilities acts mandates that at crossings sidewalks need to have ramps installed so that people with limited mobility can cross the street. Unfortunately, engineers have not put two and two together and so whenever it rains or there’s heavy snowmelt, the crossings fill up with water and become impassable to everyone. Bus stops also have poor drainage.

By the same token, city handling of sidewalks is atrocious. While the city will plow and salt every road until its dry as a bone, sidewalks are left to homeowners. This is a problem because homeowners are time-constrained by needing to clear off their cars and go to work, age-constrained or are completely absent.

The result is that sidewalks are hazardous for walking in the winter while bus stops become almost unusuable. And during severe snow storms, transit service can be severely delayed or completely shut down, putting more cars on the road. For pedestrians, this becomes a huge burden in terms of time and money. Unsurprisingly, this burden falls disproportionally on the people who can least afford it. According to the Severe Winter Weather Patterns Impact report, 25 percent of MBTA riders do not own a car and 40 percent have household incomes of less than $40,000 a year.

Meanwhile the City of Boston spent $35 million on snow removal for cars, according to The Boston Globe.

But the impact of bad weather on walkability goes deeper than just the transit aspect. A person who doesn’t have a car still needs to get to the grocery store. They still need to get to church or visit friends or go to the library. Somestimes the liquor store beckons. In Boston and its environs, suburban-style zoning laws have resulted in stores being pushed out of neighborhoods and into shopping centers behind large parking lots. Not only are they harder to walk to for more people, the large parking lots create a car-oriented environment where drivers don’t expect pedestrians and they’re not served by frequent, reliable transit service. Market Basket is the biggest offender in the Boston area, with notoriously low prices married to locations all but impossible to get to without a car.

With stores at long distances from where people live and little to no bus service, walking there and back begins to require things likes carts and with flooded crosswalks, icy and snowy sidewalks or whatever other hazards cities’ neglect of walking can produce, doing something as simple as going to the grocery store can become difficult, if not dangerous.

Expecting people without cars to hibernate during the winter months is not a realistic urban policy, but that seems to be the de facto position of city governments.

There are a number of things cities can do. They can abolish parking minimimus and related requirements for grocery stores, or allow neighborhood stores as of right as is done in Germany and Japan, as Sonia Hirt has shown. This would promote walkability by increasing the things in a neighborhood to walk to. But cities can also adopt the shared street, or woonerf.

Some of the woonerven could be Really Narrow Streets, which would be nice. In contrast to a complete street, which keeps pedestrians and cyclists in their places and confined to small, if protected, lanes, a shared street or really narrow street uses design principles to creates streets where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers all share it safely. Having such streets in Boston and Cambridge would mean that plowing and salting the streets would no longer be only benefitting the drivers.

A city that is only walkable when the sun is shining isn’t really walkable at all.




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