Time to take DCR out of the road business

It seems like every public official in Massachusetts has a DCR horror story.

Marc Draisen, the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and a former state representative has told positively Kafkaesque stories about trying to reform it when he was in the legislator. Mayors tell stories about learning plans to sell off community hockey rinks from journalists calling to ask them for a statement.

Elected officials tell of an agency in virtual chaos: one legislative liason handles all 200 members of the General Court from all across the Commonwealth, while each year they have to do more with less money. Not surprisingly, turn over is rife among the staff, resulting in projects having to start over from square one time and time again.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation is a kitchen sink of competing missions and identities. It’s in charge of state parks, ice rinks, pools, outdoor theaters, campgrounds, playgrounds and, strangely, a highway network in Greater Boston. This is because many of Greater Boston’s recreational facilities were under an entity called the Metropolitan District Commission that pioneered the building of public parks, such as Franklin Park and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The MDC was the backbone of the Emerald Necklace.

In the nineteenth century, the MDC not only built the parks, they connected them in a series of roads called parkways. The original idea was that people would take their horse-drawn carriages along them to get fresh air and be in nature, since even where there were parks in Boston at the time, everything would have been covered with coal soot and the noise of horseshoes on cobblestones was just deafening.

But nowadays, the parkways are surface highways that serve commuters in cars and not Brahmins in carriages and having them under the auspices of an agency primarily concerned with activities like camping and preventing people from dumping raw sewage into Walden Pond, its shrinking budget and its overworked staff is maybe not the best idea. They should be placed under the purview of the city or town in which they run.

Medford 1

For instance, this is a DCR sidewalk along the Revere Beach Parkway in Medford, by Wellington Station. There’s not a lot of room, there’s no way for an elderly person or a young parent with a baby stroller to get by on it. It’s so narrow that the lack of protection from the speeding traffic in the parkway makes it feel incredibly unsafe.

It gets worse, too.

Medford 2

Not only are there dozens of new apartments already across the street from the station and dozens more going up, this is the pedestrian crossing DCR expects people to use! Not only do they not want to stop traffic, they expect people to be able to leap Jersey barriers in a single bound!

From an urban planning perspective, it’s just as idiotic. Rather than walk to Wellington, or to the grocery stores on the other side of the Fellsway, another parkway running through Medford, every single one of the residents of these apartments will be driving to all of their destinations except Kappy’s, the liquor store.

Now, perhaps things would be just as bad if Medford were in charge. It obviously depends on their mayor and her administration, but that’s not the point of this. No, the reason cities should take over the parkways has to do with process. Right now, with DCR in such disarray, their control of these important roadways creates massive jurisdictional issues to things that range from clearing snow to important matters of safety, like complete streets redesigns that would add pedestrian crossings and bike lanes.

The parkways are so wide that some lanes could be exclusive to buses, providing a pseudo-BRT service in areas not currently lacking transit access. But such ideas are unlikely to be broached, much less acted upon, with the DCR in charge.

It has been a long time since Boston’s parkways reflected the designs of Olmstead and Eliot. Instead, they have become vital arteries in the regions transportation network and as such they should be treated like it, held to the same standards of safety, pedestrian-and-cyclist equity and complete design. Moreover, transfering authority from the DCR would save that agency money and free it to concentrate on its primary mission of conservation and recreation.

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