Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hey, that was our money!

What's worse than making an infrastructure decision without sufficient public input? Undoing the change before it has had a chance to be properly tested. reports:

The city of Newton is reversing course and undoing some modifications recently made at a busy intersection in Newton Centre, after discovering the changes had made traffic worse, not better. 

The city attempted to speed traffic flow through the congested intersection of Parker and Cypress Streets at Centre Street by narrowing the lanes and adding a stop sign, but the new modifications have created more backups, said Commissioner of Public Works David Turocy. 

As early as next week, workers will start undoing the modifications to return the intersection to its old configuration.

I think there is an unreported back story:  This is government at work in an election year.  Many of my friends and neighbors complained to the Mayor's Office about the change and the politically correct administration decided to cave.   (I actually found that the intersection worked better with the change.)  Why did they complain?  First, the reconfiguration required a small change in driving habits. (Previously, traffic entering from Centre Street would have to yield. Now, the traffic from Cypress Street would have to yield.)  Second, the road is still roughed up, without final paving, and traffic slows because of that. Third, the temporary signage at the intersection is not optimal.  People are not yet used to the change, and so the improvement in traffic flow that was envisioned has not yet been achieved.

Most importantly, though, there was insufficient public consultation and communication during the design process.

By the way, there was a logic to the change.  In a guest column in the local paper, the chair of the mayor's Transportation Advisory Group and the Pedestrian Coordinator noted:

The reconfiguration . . .was implemented to reduce crashes between vehicles and normalize it with other intersections (taking away the left-turning priority and giving the right of way to the through traffic.)

These behaviors lead to the kind of pedestrian crashes we see across the city including the two in newton Centre in November, when elderly Newton residents were hit in two separate incidents.

. . . .The number of legal travel lanes for cars remains the same.

It's hard, though, to sell a project that will save lives because no one can envision the people who have yet to be injured.

Perhaps all of this could have been avoided if there had been a proper public consultation process before the streets were torn up.  Meanwhile, what a waste of money:

The intersection was being remodeled as part of a $1.8-million contract from the state, said Turocy, that included work on two other intersections as well as a street paving. He said he did not know how much the work on Cypress and Centre Streets cost, but that the city had funds leftover in the grant which would pay for the reversal of the construction. 

This makes it sound like the result was costless to the citizenry.  Obviously, that is not so. At a minimum, there was an opportunity cost, in that the funds could have been spent elsewhere. But, also, all of Newton's residents pay state taxes, so that was our money.


akhan13 said...

Hi Paul, I agree that they should have stuck it out (in an ideal world) to demonstrate improvements at the back end, and communicated better on the front end. But to say they 'caved in'- isn't that democracy- to listen to your constituents? To me this is still a case of us as citizens reacting with our emotions and not considering the larger issues. Democracy is the will of the people, and unfortunately we are impatient and unempathetic at this time, but it is unfair to characterize those that do not supersede our judgement as failing in their duties.

Paul Levy said...

Democracy is exercised in elections, for the most part. A few complaints do not necessarily reflect the majority.

Anonymous said...


with regards to the comments by the chair of the Transportation Advisory Group.

The two elderly Newton residents were not struck in that intersection, both were struck at Centre/Pelham, further down the street:

The number of legal travel lanes is brought up because prior to the change, there was one 'legal' lane but two functional lanes Northbound on Centre, helping ease bottleneck. It also left one northbound travel lane free for busses to stop.

I would guess that, immediately after the reconfiguration (while school was still in session) you didn't wait 15-30 minutes in morning queues on Cypress/Parker Street, as that traffic backed up all the way to Route 9 and beyond.

akhan13 said...

They do offer the best representation of the public between elections. Democracy is far more than a series of elections; it is the ongoing participation of the electorate in decision making, The elected representatives were not meant to be a substitute for participatory activity, but rather a conduit for such. The deviation from an informed and politically active citizenry has led to our lobbyist fueled policies. We are the ones that left the void that they now fill.

akhan13 said...

The assumption that elections by themselves constitute democracy has been of the greatest detriment to modern society. The transition from direct democracy to representative democracy has been challenging, but the original political premise of democracy has been far beyond what we are achieving today. Elections were supposed to be a means to that end, not a representation of that end in itself.

Paul Levy said...

Anon 11:18,

Yes, I saw the traffic backed up. Previous to the change, I used to see traffic backed up on Centre Street all the way to Paul Street. Previous to the change, by the way, traffic was often backed up on Parker Street all the way to Browning Road.

Given the number of cars headed north through Newton Centre in the morning, the question is not so much whether there will be a back-up, but on which street.

But you seem to be missing my point about how to properly conduct such projects, getting better public input in advance, plus making clear to the public what the goals of the project are so that the results can be measured against those.

Paul Levy said...


You seem to have raised the issue to a level we might discuss about Tahrir Square, where there was not effective democracy in the country in question. In cities like Newton, there is quite effective governmental democracy--or can be. The problem with making infrastructure decisions based on complaints--as opposed to a more through process--is that you tend only hear from the objectors.

In this case, there were several changes made in the configuration of the intersection. Some may have worked well (i.e., changing which traffic has the right of way), while some may have not been well conceived (i.e., squeezing down the width of the intersection.) Now, both the potentially good and bad changes will both be undone because of a skittish administration.

Nancy said...

Probably they wanted to get the money....well it put people to work and it seems they will continue to work. Can't believe public input would have done anything but stalled project.

People believe that they can change anything these days and often they do.........

Lack of conviction on the part of designers........the whole thing seems very pathetic.

Paul Levy said...

From Facebook:

Karla Hailer: I admit that I was kind of shocked to hear they're reversing it. I didn't think it was that bad when I was driving through Newton Centre on my way to Norwood/128.

Ted Hess-Mahan: Just last week the traffic engineers in Newton were telling me it would work fine once the timing of all the lights in the Centre were adjusted. I don't know what the right answer is, but we may end up paying to construct it twice and take it apart once.

Paul Levy: They could have tested half of the change without spending much money at all, i.e., just changing the right-of-way between Centre and Cypress traffic so that cars on the main thoroughfare would have the right-of-way. Could have done that for several months and see how it went. They could still try that.

Adam said...

Paul, it may not be as simple as it seems. Simply reversing the right of way in a trial, as you suggest, would, at best, shift the traffic problem, not improve traffic flow as desired. With the ambiguous lanes at the intersection, perhaps it would have even created a more dangerous situation.

This scheme was impossible to trial without concurrent crossing, shortening the crossings, retiming the lights, and perhaps using new equipment... Like peeling the onion. The engineers sought to improve throughput (thus reduce queueing and give the stopped Cypress traffic an opportunity to merge into Centre) by eliminating the exclusive pedestrian crossing phase, used so often during peak traffic periods, and enabling more right turning traffic on to Beacon to proceed under yield instead of stop control. I was skeptical that this would be enough to reduce backups, but the traffic engineers were confident in their plan and said they would do whatever was necessary if it failed. We'll never really know just how well it would have worked on completion, so the timing of all this makes for even more waste.

Ultimately, street design is not a democracy, and it's a good thing it's not. Street design should be based on sound engineering and policies, not politics. But we do need more transparency about these projects, including a better explanation of the measures being taken in advance of construction.

Anonymous said...

Paul - The City of Newton also needs to evaluate their use of traffic signs. Drive Commonwealth Ave up near BC and there are HUNDREDS of street signs.... many duplicative or even unnecessary. Takes away from all of the trees on Commonwealth Ave and looks ridiculous..... notice BC had their sign removed from their front entrance... it was a yellow "School" sign in front of their main entrance and was totally absurd.

Paul Levy said...

Very true. Over-signage is a problem throughout the metropolitan area.

Norma Swenson said...

Bloggers above seem to be trying to rewrite what happened and is on the record: maybe election politics,but maybe not. Aldermen, Turocy, other planners confessed in a public meeting with area residents at City Hall that 1) original DOT Study Rx were not followed; 2)The original proposed plan in place was changed by Aldermen without requisite notice to resent design; 3)The Parker St traffic count flows into Cypress wss NOT included in the final traffic flow planning, producing the failed design now needing correction. The original plan was never tried. This version could not work. ..Between The Waves