Note: I emailed Councilors Auchincloss and Laredo a near-final draft of this post and invited them to write guest posts to expand on their comments in the meeting. They both declined, though I hope that one or both will change their mind.
Is the future of Newton car-inevitable or not? On that question, there was a stark divide on display at the most recent City Council Land Use committee meeting on the Northland Project, which was dedicated to a review of the proposed traffic-demand-management (TDM) plan.
On one side of the divide stand Councilor Jake Auchincloss (at-large, Ward 3), Andreae Downs (at-large, Ward 5), and others (the Parking Caucus*), who are demanding reduced parking at Northland. They recognize that the context of the Northland site enables car-free or -lite living. Northland will be, itself, mixed use, meaning on-site amenities. Among the many amenities within just a short walk of the development, there are two (two!) grocery stores. Needham St. is on an existing MBTA bus route. It’s no longer a walk from the site to the Eliot T station than the walk that many people in Newton already take to public transit. Needham St., in the next year or so, will have the city’s first true separated bike accommodations. It’s a mile from an elementary school. There are two urgent care centers within a mile. And, that’s just on the Newton side of the river.
On the other side of the debate is council president Marc Laredo (at-large, Ward 7). At the Land Use meeting, Councilor Laredo vigorously — and at times heatedly — argued that traffic projections for the development should be based on suburban models, not “downtown Boston.” He focused on whether or not the on-site amenities would reduce residents’ car use, ignoring the host of amenities just off the property. He dismissed (probably correctly) the likelihood that residents would work where they lived, but wholly ignored the regional employment hub that is developing just over the river in Needham. He seemed not to acknowledge the difference between housing at the Northland site versus, say, the new housing on Greendale Ave. in Needham, which has no amenities within walking distance.
The two approaches converge, if only on the surface. Both Councilors Auchincloss and Laredo said that the proposed TDM is too complex and that limiting parking is basically all the city needs to do to manage traffic. But, they come at the limit on parking in very different ways. Councilor Auchincloss supports reasonably intense development and argues that the impact of the development on traffic depends almost entirely on parking. Provide more parking and there will be more car trips. Provide less parking and there will be fewer. Importantly for Auchincloss and the rest of the Parking Caucus, the development — even with the proposed residential, office, and commercial space — can be viable with less parking, because driving is not inevitable. Limiting parking puts the burden on the developer to figure out how to create and take advantage of robust alternatives to driving, instead of allowing the developer to have the parking they want and hope that it doesn’t get fully used.
Councilor Laredo proposed a fixed amount of parking and phased development, with more development allowed if the initial phase(s) generates less traffic than the city sets as a limit. The difference is significant. Under Councilor Laredo’s proposed approach, supported by Councilor Chris Markewicz (ward councilor, ward 4), the parking-to-uses ratio starts high, which is a recipe for car travel. With available parking, people will drive. Limiting driving will be a rearguard action. The likelihood of success limiting driving without limiting parking is low, so the likelihood of the developer meeting some threshold requirement for further development is also low.
We’ll get the same impact on traffic with much less development (which may be the point for some).
Bottom line: you get the traffic you plan for. If we plan, pace the Parking Caucus, for a world where driving is not inevitable, we will have a much greater likelihood that driving is not the only mobility option. If we plan, pace Councilor Laredo, for a world where suburban-levels of driving are inevitable, we will get suburban levels of driving.
This matters because Newton needs more development. More development helps ease the regional housing crisis. More development that does not require suburban-levels of driving will help with the global climate crisis. Every person who moves to Northland instead of a suburban home or even suburban office building has the potential for significantly less driving.
I’ve had lots of discussions with lots of people — including some very thoughtful city councilors — who say that you need to a car to live or work in Newton. That doesn’t have to be the case. The sooner we imagine a Newton where some people don’t rely on cars, the likelier it is that we can build that Newton.
Cars are not inevitable.
* Not an official name. A term of endearment that I’ve coined for them.