City Councilor Marc Laredo (At-large, Ward 7) has some thoughts about transportation. Also, looks like he’s gearing up to run for mayor. Or state rep.

Below is the full text of Councilor Laredo’s recent email to constituents, in which he lays out “three key observations that guide [his] thinking on the City Council regarding Newton’s transportation issues.” It is a statement of Councilor Laredo’s transportation principles and priorities. What’s striking is that he doesn’t make (intentional) reference, directly or even indirectly, to the global climate crisis. (I add “(intentional)” because he opens with mention of “our relatively mild New England winter.” Irony is not dead.)

That’s right. In 2020, an elected official wrote 573 words to his constituents about his approach to transportation policy without even a single mention of the undeniably huge role transportation has in creating and exacerbating the most pressing (long-term) crisis facing our city, nation, and world. He also doesn’t touch on safety. It’s shameful.

The letter is an apology for car culture. It’s also tinged with an ugly shade of NIMBY.

Let’s take a look …

The first section looks promising: “Transportation is not a local issue.” Absolutely true. And, for the most part, the specific policy prescriptions Councilor Laredo suggests are spot on. He proposes robust, interrelated regional solutions like public transit and more rail connection among municipalities. And, he encourages us to look beyond scale and cost and “think boldly.”

It’s tough, though, to overlook this sentence: “How we address the issue of transportation is made much more difficult by the fact that we are basically a fully developed, built-out city.” This is absolutely not a true statement. Newton is only “fully developed” and “built-out” to the extent of our exclusionary zoning. Yes, we don’t have many empty, unimproved lots. But, we have plenty of opportunity to do greater build out, to create more homes. What’s blocking us is a group of city councilors, Councilor Laredo prominent among them, who insist on renewing exclusionary zoning rules that create racial segregation, cause economic dislocation, and contribute to global climate change.

If you read his words carefully, what Councilor Laredo seems to be saying is that we need to promote regional transportation solutions at least in part to relieve the pressure on Newton to develop. If we want to keep Newton as it is — exclusive, segregated, suburban — we need to make sure that there are plenty of regional options for folks to get around efficiently. Councilor Laredo demonstrates a keen understanding of the relationship between land use and transportation. We have a regional transportation problem because we have a regional housing problem and vice versa. Because we are so close to Boston, adding housing to Newton — which already has robust connections to Boston and relatively cheap potential for much more — could reduce our regional transportation problems. 

We could reduce the region’s transportation problem, ease the crisis-level regional housing shortage, and end nearly a century of racial discrimination by ending exclusionary zoning. Councilor Laredo would rather keep Newton the way it is — “I think it is the best place to live in the state!” He wants to spend money outside the city to prevent Newton from making any meaningful change to our privileged enclave.

The message of the second section is clear: Councilor Laredo is going to be, at best, passive in the fight to reduce the car use that’s ruining our city, our region, and our planet. “Like it or not, many people will continue to use automobiles […] on a regular basis because they provide that convenience and comfort.” Convenience and comfort are the threshold. He recognizes no need to reduce atmosphere-destroying emissions. He recognizes no need to make our city safer. He recognizes no need to make our neighborhoods and village centers more pleasant. 

He recognizes that there is an interest in alternatives. But, he doesn’t express any urgency to implement alternatives. He says alternatives “need to be speedy, reliable, safe, comfortable and cost-effective.” But, he doesn’t say that making alternatives speedy, reliable, comfortable, and cost-effective is or should be a priority. He doesn’t, it seems clear, because his interests align with drivers. He’s okay with the status quo. He recognizes — and is willing to protect — the comfort and convenience of driving.

Here’s why it’s fair to read Councilor Laredo as at best passive on the problem of driving and likely pro-driving. It’s what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say we need to reduce the amount of driving Newton drivers do. And, he doesn’t say that we need to actively promote alternatives, even if it’s at the expense of the comfort and convenience of driving. He makes no demands on us as a community to rise to the challenge of global warming.

If I’m wrong, it would be so very easy for Councilor Laredo to clarify. Simple words. Driving is bad. More biking. More walking. And some slightly less simple words. We need to shift our transportation priorities from investments that make driving easier to those that make biking and walking easier. Even, or especially, if there is a tradeoff.

I would love to be wrong. 

I don’t know what to make of the third section. Councilor Laredo says that our transportation planning and infrastructure “must be flexible and anticipate, as much as possible, the unexpected.” I’ve been at this transportation thing for years, and I have no idea what Councilor Laredo is talking about. 

But, I do know this. We need a city government that isn’t just sitting around waiting for things to happen. We need councilors who have a vision for the future of local transportation, can articulate it, and will fight for it. And, that future needs to have each of us driving a lot less. We need councilors who are not fine with people choosing to drive because it’s “comfortable and convenient.” We need councilors who will promote and use the well-established tools for reducing driving in a municipality, which include density, restrictions on vehicle access, and robust alternatives, like protected bike lanes.

Councilor Laredo treats our car-centric city as an inevitability. It’s only an inevitability to the extent that people like him continue to make it an inevitability.

Finally, what do you make of the new branding? The graphic that accompanies this post appears at the bottom of Councilor Laredo’s constituent letter. That is not the logo of someone who has not had a contested election in over a decade.

Somebody’s got his eye on bigger things.

The text of Councilor Laredo’s letter, in full. 

Dear Friends,

I hope that you are making it through our relatively mild New England winter and starting to think of spring!  

 

This month, I want to highlight an issue that is of great concern at a local, regional, and national level – transportation.  How we transport ourselves to work, school, shopping, and leisure activities has tremendous implications for all of us.  Here are three key observations that guide my thinking on the City Council regarding Newton’s transportation issues:

 

1.  Transportation is not a local issue.   The City Council spends a lot of time considering transportation issues –  including the seemingly ever increasing congestion on our roads – particularly when we are discussing whether and how to add housing units and increase density in our city.  How we address the issue of transportation is made much more difficult by the fact that we are basically a fully developed, built-out city.   While we continue to grapple with these challenges internally, we need to work in partnership with other communities throughout the commonwealth as we think about our transportation needs.   There are likely to be multiple, interrelated  solutions, including far more robust local public transit and expanded rail service to other cities throughout the state and the region.  Some of these initiatives, such as high-speed rail service to Worcester and Springfield, are likely to be significant and costly undertakings;  however, we need to think boldly about these opportunities and not immediately reject them because of the price tag.  

 

While we in Newton justifiably love our city – and I think it is the best place to live in the state! – we are not the only community or area in Massachusetts. Linking Newton with other cities in the region will benefit not only Newton but all parts of our state, allowing other areas to grow and flourish as Newton receives the benefits of increased economic integration with the entire state. Our city needs to be a leader – working in partnership with other communities throughout the state – to make better transportation throughout the state (and the region) a reality.

 

2.  We want convenience and comfort.  No matter how much we talk about alternative forms of transportation, the great majority of us want to be able to get from one place to another as quickly and comfortably as possible.  Like it or not, many people will continue to use automobiles – whether as drivers, passengers, or in a self-driving vehicle – on a regular basis because they provide that convenience and comfort.  We need to think and plan accordingly as we try to promote other forms of transit. We need to be open and honest about convenience and comfort and recognize that alternatives need to be speedy, reliable, safe, comfortable and cost-effective in order to encourage residents to use them. 

 

3.  Flexibility to deal with the future.   At the end of the 1800s, horses were a source of congestion in major metropolitan areas as they clogged and dirtied our streets.  Today, it is automobiles, including ride sharing and home delivery services, we struggle to handle.  Twenty or thirty years from now, we are likely to have other, as yet unforeseen, sources of transportation to accommodate.  What this means is that our planning, ordinances, and public construction work must be flexible and anticipate, as much as possible, the unexpected.  Who knows what the future will bring!

 

As always, I welcome your thoughts, questions, comments and criticisms!

 

Thanks,

 

Marc

 

 







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