As follow up to a set of questions to the Ward 5 Ward Councilor candidates, Village 14 posed two additional questions: one about housing, the other about city streets and sidewalks. Bill Humphrey and Kathy Winters responded. Rena Getz did not.
This question about streets and sidewalks touches on comments Candidate Winters made at the League of Women Voters forum.
[Candidate Winters], you expressed [at the League of Women Voters forum] that one of your priorities was to make street improvements to make it safer for everyone to walk around Newton. Did you have any specific types of street improvements in mind? What kind of program would you have the city put in place to make street improvements? [Candidate Humphrey] and [Candidate Getz], neither of you raised this as an issue, but feel free to respond with your thoughts on physical changes to our streets.
I will start with the obvious – complete sidewalks and safe crossings along busy streets, and traffic calming measures where speed is an issue. It is no surprise that studies show that where there are failures in the pedestrian system – gaps in the sidewalk or lack of safe crossings – less people walk. We shouldn’t have that in a city where so many residents live less than a mile from amenities like shops, transit, schools, and parks. Studies also show that commercial property values are higher in areas with better walkability scores. If we want vibrant village centers, we have to improve our pedestrian pathways.
The city has made progress with its complete streets program, and Safe Routes to Schools is doing amazing work (great to see the trial pedestrian pathways introduced at Newton South!), but as with anything, a lack of available funding impedes progress. I would like to see us adopt a comprehensive plan to improve pedestrian facilities throughout the city (especially near schools and village centers), with collaboration of various stakeholders: Transportation, DPW, NPS, Parks and Rec, the Fire and Police departments. Let’s adopt a holistic approach and determine what we need to do to make walking pathways safe and appealing, and then we can face how to fund pedestrian facilities improvements.
I have also made road safety improvements a priority in my campaign, in response to the overwhelming number of people mentioning this issue in conversations when I go door to door asking voters what their top concerns are in the city or neighborhood this year. (Usually, they mention a specific intersection or block, if not a specific road sign, that gives them cause for concern.) All road safety matters, for drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and anyone else always boil down to a question of design rather than a question of enforcement. These design problems include such things as excessively wide intersection turning radiuses that encourage fast turns, unclear or missing line painting, excessively wide street lanes that feel like a highway, lack of safe sidewalks and crosswalks for children and senior citizens, dangerous winter snowbanks obstructing visibility and walking, overly high speed limits that promote dangerous stop-start traffic instead of gentle throughput, lack of protected and interconnected bike lanes to keep cyclists separate from cars, and lack of walkable routes to nearby village centers pushing more people into cars.
Our city staff is very interested in solving these challenges, but they are constantly juggling long lists of hotspots and evolving priorities mandated by the elected officials, and they won’t automatically be aware of every single problem residents see. As I found when I was knocking doors this year, it is much easier to get alerted to the very specific problems folks are noticing by going out and talking to residents directly, and any city councilor should be connecting that stream of information back to city staff to get it on their radars.
My role on this issue beyond that facilitation would depend on whether or not I ended up on the Public Safety & Transportation Committee, where Ward 5 is currently ably represented by Councilor Downs, who is already working very hard on road safety issues. Assuming she remains there and I am assigned elsewhere, my task as a councilor would be to support her existing efforts there and out in the community, and to keep forwarding concerns to her from constituents if they happened to come to me instead of to her directly. She has already organized some really great community road/sidewalk safety input meetings about Chestnut Street this year and last year, and that’s the kind of thing we should have more of across the city.