By Karen Buck
Social media encourages us to share — share our photos, share our posts, and share our favorite memes. Social media connects us.
What about social transit? What about sharing the road?
As our cities expand and the population grows, many Americans are questioning a life centered on the automobile. In 2017, drivers in the Boston area spent an average of 60 hours in traffic during peak periods, according to an annual scorecard from the transportation analytics firm INRIX, as reported by WBUR. That makes Boston the seventh-most congested urban area in the country. (Los Angeles, at an average of 102 hours in traffic , and New York City, at 91 hours, top the gridlock list.) Consider this: Millennium Partners is proposing a $100 million gondola to fly workers over the clogged streets of the Seaport.
Yet many believe that easing transportation congestion may not require flying cars. The concept of “smart growth” can be applied to a community’s “transportation needs.
“Smart growth is about having choices in your communities; it means having choices for how you get around, so you’re not trapped into having to own an automobile,” said André Leroux, of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.
An urban planning movement, dubbed Transit Oriented Development or TOD, has emerged. According to the New Urbanism website, TOD is the “practice of creating vibrant, walkable, mixed-use communities surrounding transit stations.” Malden, as a gateway city, has opportunities to create smart transit beyond the Malden MBTA stop to serve its changing demographics. Smart transit could reduce automobile congestion and accidents. Downtown Malden may experience a rise in property values without denigrating its surrounding neighborhoods.
A case study of the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor in Arlington, Virginia, demonstrates the possibilities. According to a report by Re-Connecting America Center for Transit-Oriented Development: “This was a declining low-density commercial corridor 30 years ago when the local government decided to focus development around five closely spaced rail stations, working with residents and the private sector. The results are extraordinary: Despite the enormous amount of development that has occurred, single-family neighborhoods have been preserved just a short walk away, and there has been only a modest increase in traffic.” Other results were noted:
• Assessed value of land around the stations increased 81% in 10 years;
• 8% of county land generates 33% of county revenues, allowing Arlington to have the lowest property tax in Northern Virginia;
• 50% of residents take transit to work; 73% walk to stations; development has generated only modest increases in traffic;
• Surrounding single-family neighborhoods have been preserved.
According to the Smart Growth/Smart Energy Toolkit, “Another financial benefit of TOD is its positive impact on property values. Research consistently shows that both residential and commercial property values rise with proximity to transit stations. This translates into expansion of the municipal property tax base, and a direct improvement in tax revenues in the very neighborhoods where public infrastructure and service delivery costs are reduced due to increased densities.” Likewise, Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts has improved its neighborhood look and public safety through grants and smart planning.
We may justify our time in traffic congestion by listening to the radio or a book on disc. But what about the costs of automobile ownership? According to calculations from The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation (H+T) Affordability Index, a typical household in our location owns 1.40 cars and residents drive cars 14,041 miles per year. As of 2017, in Malden, the regional and typical cost of driving a car is $10,103.
Transportation costs are considered affordable if they are 15% or less of household income, or $11,308/yr for the this area’s typical household.
. Our median may be affordable, according to this ratio. But, what could you do with an additional $10,000 per year? Generation Millennial, as a group, do not revere the automobile.
“Millennials have a lower rate of car ownership than previous generations at their age.” notes, Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research.
For many there is an alternative: public transportation. The greater Boston area is spiderwebbed with buses, subways and commute trains. Public transportation may be seriously underutilized and it’s not necessarily inconvenience that keeps people off the subway, but social stigma. Joseph Stromberg, writing in VOX on Aug. 10, 2015, contends that “Although history and geography are partly to blame, there’s a deeper reason why American public transportation is so terrible. European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.”
This may be changing. For example, Denver voters decided to tax themselves to build six rail lines in a dozen years. When the $4.7 billion Fastracks initiative is completed, there will be 44 trains an hour pulling into Denver’s downtown Union Station.
Additionally, some corporations and universities have begun to see public transportation as a smart investment. New Balance set a precedent at the Boston Landing station by funding almost the entire cost of the station construction. When the MBTA reported delays in the construction of the new Allston West Station, Harvard University upped its pledge of $30-$35 million to $50 million dollars, which represents half of the station’s costs. This will ensure a faster completion to the year 2025 rather than 2045.
“Transit in the U.S. is caught in a vicious cycle,” David King, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, told Stromberg in Vox. “We push for low fares for social reasons, but that starves the transit agency, which leads to reduced service.” In a sense, it’s the same dilemma faced by the streetcar companies 70 years ago, King said.
In 1897, Boston opened the first public underground rail tunnel in the United States. Originally built to get streetcars off of the congested streets, it eventually came to be the first underground subway system in America. “In 1912, Boston had this great public transit system, with four subway lines and streetcars that fed it,” says transit blogger Alon Levy. “Then they spent the next 60 or 70 years destroying it.”
Like the rest of the region, Malden is beset with traffic congestion issues. According to Kevin Duffy, the city’s Strategy and Business Development Officer, approximately 50,000 cars pass through Converse Square (intersection of Salem and Main Street) per week and 50,000 cars travel through Malden on Route 60 per day.
During May of 2017, the DCR conducted a $30,000 traffic study at the intersection of Fellsway East and Highland Avenue, Malden. At 7 a.m., the highest-volume traffic, approximately 1,300 cars, traverse the intersection southbound on Fellsway East. Cars often travel above 40 miles per hour through the intersection despite posted speed limits of 25 or 30 miles per hour.
All those GPS devices are having any effect. As USA Today reports, commuters are being ushered through neighborhood streets by GPS navigation software applications on smartphones. The drivers’ main incentives are to shave time off of their commute, so if enabled by street design, they may speed and make dangerous driving decisions.
Google-owned Waze assists Boston city engineers with their traffic jam data to adjust traffic lights in the downtown harbor area. This data has helped to reduce traffic congestion by 18% on a monthly basis. But the Waze app promotes usage of all roads. Julie Mossler, head of Waze brand and global marketing told USA Today, “We use the streets within reason. We find the open road and spread cars across the grid, which lowers the risk of unsafe driving behavior.”
The City of Medford has responded to smartphone usage by drivers by putting up an L.E.D. street sign reading: “Get your head out of your app.”
Many residents comment on the lack of parking in Malden’s center. And yet, parking garages offer parking opportunities that are accepted in most urban communities, but are seemingly shunned in Malden.
“I wish people would avail themselves more to the parking garages,” said Kevin Molis, Police Chief of Malden. “For some reason the businesses have not been able to attract users. I think that the businesses and the owners of the garage should work together to make it more attractive or more well known. That is something that the police or the traffic commission can not mandate since it is private business. But, that would work well for the city. They need to get their customers to use the garages. Maybe they should find out why the average citizen is not using the garages. Is it lighting? Is it convenient? Keep asking questions and we’ll find out why people are not using something, as the square continues to grow. We do have empty places with much potential.”
As housing prices increase, living in or close to Boston is becoming farther out of reach financially for average workers and the cost of commuting is also on the rise. An analysis of single-family home sales found that prices are rising much faster in or near the city compared with prices in far-flung towns, according to Timothy Warren Jr., chief executive of the Warren Group. Warren looked at the prices of single-family homes in 285 Massachusetts communities and found that in 10 communities, prices have surpassed what they were in 2005 — a peak in the market — by 50 percent or more. Nine of those 10 communities were in or near Boston.
“Some of those communities were previously considered blue-collar and affordable, including South Boston, Jamaica Plain, Somerville, and Charlestown,” Warren said in an e-mail.
Smart transit is the recommended accompaniment to urban growth. Smart transit includes encouraging use of and improving access to public transportation; taking strides to become a more walkable and bike-friendly city; and increasing car-sharing opportunities such as Zip car. “There are times when you may need a ride, but you don’t need a car,” comments Chief Molis in an interview. These specific smart transit initiatives in Malden will be explored in the next article of this series.
The New Urbanism website lists the many benefits to transit-oriented development (TOD). These include a higher quality of life with better places to live, work, and play; greater mobility with ease of moving around; increased transit ridership and decreased driving and congestion; reduced car accidents and injuries; reduced household spending on transportation; healthier lifestyle with more walking, and less stress; higher, and more stable property values; increased foot traffic and customers for area businesses; reduced dependence on foreign oil; and reduced pollution and environmental destruction.
How do YOU think Malden can better address its transit woes? Neighborhood View encourage your thoughts and comments as we continue to delve into an exploration of growth in the city. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a series of articles through the spring, Neighborhood View will examine the issue of growth in Malden and how the tenets of “Smart Growth” can be applied in areas such as traffic, housing, the arts and quality of life. The Smart Growth in Malden reporting team includes Karen Buck, Robin Inman, Liz Kelley, Jennifer McClain, Stephanie Schorow, and Anne D’Urso-Rose.