What’s becoming more and more clear to this novice activist is that any local changes to roadways and road use pretty much require changes in the procedures of governance. Bike Newton (along with Newton BikePed) has been diligently working on convincing various elected and appointed officials that we need changes on our roads to make them safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. At a recent Bike Newton meeting, frustration surfaced: it seems as if we’ve convinced, if not everyone, at least a lot of critical people. The mayor assures us we have his support, several Aldermen are supporting us in every way they can muster, and even the head of DPW wants changes (as he should, since he frequently bikes to work!).
But all this activity and support seems to result in very little action. We now have a short stretch of bike lane on Beacon Street at B.C., and a few short snippets in the neighborhood of city hall, and some promises (but little else) for more. If there’s all this support, what keeps things from happening? The “way it’s done,” is what we keep hearing. How is it done? You’d think the head of the DPW could direct his employees to have a design proposed, get some input from community groups, and revise and execute it. You’d think. Or you’d think the mayor could say, “Let it be so.” You’d think.
The sticky business that slows everything down seems to be parking: anything that involves parking–or more specifically, reducing the amount of on-street parking–triggers a visit to Traffic Council, an Aldermanic Committee designed to halt projects long enough for concerned citizens to derail them. The process has a veneer of democracy: why shouldn’t potentially affected citizens have a voice in the process? If I’m going to be prohibited from parking on the street in front of my house, shouldn’t my voice have a place in the decision process? Answer: Yes, but.
But nobody’s voice, mine included, should gum up the process so thoroughly that every effort to change the status quo requires a Herculean effort. The short-run solution is to flow around these barriers with compromise. We can’t have a through-bike lane because of parking? Alright. There are alternatives, such as sharrows or, as Newton Streets and Sidewalks has suggested, bike lanes marked with dotted lines, or as Brookline has done on Beacon Street, bike lanes alternating with “Share the Road” signage.
The longer-term solution, though, involves changes in the paths of these proposals. They really don’t belong in Aldermanic Committees. They belong in the DPW, which has the skill set for evaluating roadway designs, and under the Mayor’s office, which has the charter for public safety. There should of course be some kind of provision for citizen input, but it shouldn’t be designed primarily to collect objections and wield tacit veto power. Can we ever get unstuck from parking? Can Newton move forward?