I wish Boston were better with sidewalk repairs — July 1, 2017

I wish Boston were better with sidewalk repairs

The city has at least two varieties of poor sidewalk repair.

In the first variety, we start with something relatively nice, like this:

(dog not always included) Over time, it gets beaten up, like this:

Often this doesn’t get repaired with bricks; instead it gets repaired with asphalt, like this:

That’s a decent repair job, but bricks are nicer.

When the job is more slapdash, you get this:

What seems to have happened there is somewhat different than the above bricks-to-asphalt scenarios. In this last one (taken at MIT), I think people tended to cut across that corner as they walked, so someone decided to just replace the grass (which I assume had been matted down and muddied) with asphalt. But they half-assed the job.

A similar work of halfassery took place, it seems, many years ago outside of Back Bay station, at the intersection of Columbus Ave. and Clarendon St.:

Someone clearly told them that they needed to put in something like a curb cut. I imagine this either satisfies the letter of the regulation (maybe the Americans with Disabilities Act?), or that no one’s bothered to call them on it yet. It’s ugly, in any case.

The second major variety of sidewalk problem is just that the sidewalk remains unrepaired for years. See, for instance, the sidewalk out in front of Back Bay station:

I don’t know how a sidewalk this prominent — Back Bay gets 18000 orange-line riders per day — remains in a state of disrepair like this for this long. I opened a BOS:311 request about this a while ago, and the best guess at the moment is that the sidewalk falls into some procedural gap: it’s either considered a bridge over the Mass. Pike, hence under the supervision of the highway part of MassDOT; or it’s supervised by the MBTA. A similar question of responsibility may explain this hacked-together patch job on the sidewalk where Massachusetts Avenue crosses over Commonwealth Avenue.

I’ll be curious who ends up claiming responsibility for the Back Bay sidewalk. The repair may have to wait for the Back Bay redevelopment project, which would be kind of silly.

None of this touches the standard variety of, say, buckling brick sidewalks. A walk down most side streets in the South End involves going up and down little hills when you thought you were going to be walking along a straight street. I don’t know how older people, or people with disabilities, manage to live there. Perhaps they don’t?

As someone who walks everywhere, I take all of this personally. As someone who has mobility-impaired family, I’m particularly sensitive to how difficult walking is on even unbroken sidewalks. As someone who loves Boston, I want to see the city put forward a better face, rather than seeming, sometimes, a little provincial and broken-down.

I’ve often heard that much of this comes from Boston’s severe winters. To my ear that’s never been a convincing argument; in fact, what it says to me is that we should have had 387 years to figure out how to do winters right. I’m open to being convinced that America’s Walking City can’t

  1. figure out where to put all its snow
  2. keep beautiful brick sidewalks
  3. make those beautiful brick sidewalks level and walkable

but I contend that we have the technology and the manpower to achieve these things, and that we have a city beautiful enough to deserve it. While we’re at it, we have the resources for some single-payer show shoveling. In fact, I suspect that single-payer shoveling would be cheaper than asking everyone to shovel his or her own sidewalk.

Large problems like mass transit, education, and housing costs can often seem unsolvable. So I thought I’d focus on very specific, very comprehensible, presumably very solvable things: specific patches of sidewalk that can be made more walkable. I was warned years ago that what I think is just one specific half-assed sidewalk repair is in fact a thin veneer over a systemic problem. Maybe so. I’d like to find that it’s a solvable systemic problem.

The decline in American carnage (in Boston and New York, anyway) — February 7, 2017

The decline in American carnage (in Boston and New York, anyway)

I hadn’t ever seen a time series of violent crime in Boston. The current rate of violent crime is really quite low by historical standards — shockingly so. The Uniform Crime Reports website is poorly run, but go to a UCR-navigating website, select cities whose population is between 500k and 999,999, go to the next and select Boston, then click Get Table. I cached the results before they vanish down the Trump memory hole.

Violent crimes are down 60% from where they were in 1985, while the city’s population is up 14%.

The numbers for New York are quite similar.

Somehow Chicago doesn’t report violent-crime numbers into the UCR. Not sure why.

Moving To Opportunity in Boston — September 4, 2016

Moving To Opportunity in Boston

Much has been written about the benefits that can flow from helping people in poor neighborhoods move to wealthier neighborhoods (see, e.g., Yglesias). Today, Alon Levy on Twitter retweets Tony Dutzik, who shares an article from the Boston Globe about the difficulties that this sort of program faces in the Boston area. Wealthy suburbs like Newton resist providing affordable housing; instead we get this:

It was just three years ago that he withheld federal housing funds for a nine-unit development for the chronically homeless planned for a long-decommissioned fire station in Waban, a wealthy village on the west end of town where the locals play tennis at The Windsor Club in the summer and sled at Brae Burn Country Club in the winter.

“We live in a community where our kids walk to school,” one neighbor said at a public hearing on the project, “and I want to know why we shouldn’t be worried.” Another suggested that the prospective tenants might be more comfortable, “I hate to say this, but in Waltham.”

The article opens with the story of one woman whom any neighborhood would pretty clearly be honored to house:

It took some time, but Brito managed to find a subsidized apartment in a better-off community. Much better off, in fact: Lexington, a suburb of gracious Colonials and lofty SAT scores about 15 miles northwest of Boston.

Brito has to take a bus and two subways to get to her job in the city now. But the lengthy commute is worth it, she says. Her daughter can play alone in the backyard without fear. And her son, who just started his senior year at Lexington High, is considering St. John’s University in New York. Many of her old neighbors in the city aren’t faring so well. “Some people,” she said, “their environment swallows them.”

She’s willing to sacrifice a lot to make a better life for her family. Isn’t this what we’re supposed to be encouraging?

The intuition is that a neighborhood has every right to determine its makeup, including who gets to live there. In the United States, membership in the suburbs, with their good public schools and quality housing stock, is determined by ability to pay. Growing up in Vermont, we fought over Act 60, which tried to rectify some of the imbalances between wealthy and poor towns by redistributing some of the property-tax money from wealthy towns to poor ones. Naturally those towns which couldn’t afford to spend a lot on their schools drew the ire of wealthier towns: “We [in the wealthier towns] shouldn’t be penalized because we value our schools more.” In this model, the wealthier towns were paragons of virtue, willing to scrimp and save for their kids; it wasn’t just that the wealthier towns had set up a financial wall around themselves.

Let’s grant that neighborhoods have the right to control their makeup. (This principle arguably is what helped Cambridge fight off the Inner Belt, though that’s really a story of neighborhood-versus-state rather than neighborhood-versus-newcomers.) Still, this principle conflicts with the right of people to live wherever they want to live, so long as those people follow the laws and generally make good citizens of themselves. Most of us would bristle at openly declaring that a community is allowed to exclude people based purely on their wealth, but that’s how we’ve organized our cities and our suburbs. Even more of us, I think, would bristle at the thought that children, in particular — people who have no choice in these matters — should have their choices constrained by their parents’ wealth.

One answer might be that this sort of financial wall around the suburbs creates aspirations: if you work hard enough and earn enough money, you too will be able to afford to live in Lexington and send your kids to school there. “Every American believes that he may one day be rich” is one of the common stories about why Americans hate the estate tax, even though it applies to the tiniest sliver of Americans; the story goes that we all think, “That could one day be me,” even though, statistically, that will not one day be me.

I’m a libertarian on this point. I believe that the barriers to moving to a new city ought to be minimal (follow the laws and pay your taxes, basically), as should the barriers to moving to a new country; I’m all for open borders. But I doubt either of these things will happen in my lifetime.

One solution that the Boston area has come up with is METCO, whereby children from poor areas can be bused out to schools in wealthier areas. I suppose this neuters some of the suburban opposition: there’s less concern that poorer folks will endanger their pristine suburban neighborhoods, because the poorer folks will go back to Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan at the end of the school day.

Another option is to recognize that many of the financial walls around the suburbs come from zoning rules: forbidding multi-family buildings and requiring setbacks, among many others. Once we recognize this, start to chip away at those rules:

A bill approved earlier this month by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing would confront that problem head-on. The bill would require that every city and town plan for multifamily housing and designate areas where it is allowed as-of-right. It would also require every community to allow single-family homes clustered on modest lots in compact, walkable neighborhoods surrounded by open space. Cities and towns would be compensated for any net increases in school costs that result from their approval of multifamily and cluster developments.

(via Matt Yglesias)

Another alternative, which I’ll never tire of citing, comes from then-Harvard professor, now-Senator Elizabeth Warren’s book The Two-Income Trap, wherein she advises severing the link between “nice place to live” and “place with the good schools.” Ethically, this seems obvious to me: my children shouldn’t be allowed to get a good education solely because they were lucky enough to be born to middle-class white parents; they should be allowed to get a good education because they are American citizens, in the same way that their citizenship entitles them to protection against foreign invasion regardless of their parents’ income. But this is likely a minority viewpoint.

There’s a hand-wavy hope that the problem will solve itself as wealthy people move back into the cities. The mechanism by which this happens is always vague. Will the wealthy people who move back into the cities largely disconnect themselves from public infrastructure? Will they take Uber everywhere, for instance, rather than ride the subway, and send their kids to private schools rather than to the neighborhood comprehensive? Will they even have kids, or will the wealthy people be largely retirement-age boomers or childless married couples? And as the wealthy people move in, will the poor people be priced out? If so, then the we’ll see the wealthy people improve the public schools, but only for their own benefit — not for the benefit of those who really need the help. In short, assuming that the disconnected actions of wealthy people alone will take care of the problem seems to be praying for a micro solution to a macro problem.

My great fear is that rising inequality will only make this problem worse: the wealthy and the poor will inhabit increasingly disconnected islands, and the wealthy won’t even acknowledge that the problems of poverty are their problems too.

PSA on the Provincetown fast ferry — July 4, 2016

PSA on the Provincetown fast ferry

If you want to take an Uber to the Bay State Cruise Company ferry from Boston to Provincetown, don’t tell the Uber driver to go to 200 Seaport Boulevard. That’s a very large building, and you’ll end up blocks (as well as some vertical feet) away from where you want to be. Where you really want to be is at the corner of Seaport Blvd. and B Street. If I invent a location called “165 Northern Ave.,” that seems to be where you want to be.

Historical imagination and the gutting of Boston — May 15, 2016

Historical imagination and the gutting of Boston

By now I’ve read quite a number of books and any number of blog posts — including this new good one on Vox — about the gutting of U.S. cities by highways. I know about the connection of highways to racism; I know that highways very often cut neighborhoods off from the rest of their cities; I know that highways were thought to be an important part of urban renewal, and as far as I know the people who used that term did not mean it euphemistically — they really did believe they were revitalizing their cities.

But that’s all abstract. I fundamentally have never been able to put myself back into the minds of people who thought that this was a good idea. When I walk around Boston and I find that large parts of the city have had the life sucked out of them by urban-renewal projects that are today universally condemned, I’ve not yet been able to put myself in the heads of those who made these decisions:

Of course I’ve heard all the benign explanations. The future was believed to lie in automobiles: people would commute into the cities for work and commute back to the suburbs at night, and the bulldozed parts of the city weren’t actually that nice anyway. But what I fundamentally have not been able to build yet is the historical imagination to put myself in their shoes. Books like Building A New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950-1970 believe that pre-demolition Boston wasn’t anything worth writing home about, whereas books like A People’s History of the New Boston treat it as a problem of organization: plenty of people objected to having their houses destroyed, but they weren’t organized politically. By 1970 they had organized, and the orgy of destruction had ended.

So I still need to put myself back in the shoes of Mayor John Hynes, standing over the map of Boston and deciding what would be bulldozed and what wouldn’t; or of Mayor John Collins, agreeing to tear the Mass Pike right through the middle of the city. I need to understand how decades of mistakes — which we’re only correcting, piece by piece, today — didn’t seem like mistakes at the time.

Reading Donald Shoup really changes subsequent reading — October 26, 2015

Reading Donald Shoup really changes subsequent reading

Having read The High Cost Of Free Parking changes the way you read articles about parking. For instance, when you read an article like this, containing a quote like this:

On the campaign trail two years ago, Walsh pledged to look for ways to increase parking spots in city neighborhoods.

“We have to try to make parking more accessible,” Walsh told the Herald in September 2013. “I hear it every single day out on the campaign, the lack of parking. It’s an issue in every single neighborhood.”

, you realize that there’s a missing implicit word in there. The word is ‘free’. The newspaper — and maybe vintage-2013 Mayor Walsh — seem to assume that free on-street parking is a god-given right. Whereas if you admit the possibility of charging for parking, another solution leaps out: you can make parking accessible by charging for spaces. Some people will choose not to own cars. Some people will pay to put their cars in off-street parking. Then you’ll get your accessible parking.

I think vintage-2015 Mayor Walsh gets it. The article centers on residents’ anger over the city’s leasing parking spots to the likes of Zipcar. Mayor Walsh responds exactly as he should:

“The way that we’re doing this is to cut down actually on people having to own cars and driving cars and in the long run, it’ll actually save cars coming into the North End. People will be able to take a car and share community cars.”

There’s what you might call a “fallacy of simplicity” in people’s reactions to a lot of policies, including this one. The fallacy of simplicity says that if you want to achieve x, the way to do it is to do something whose immediate effect is x. Want to increase parking? Simple: dedicate more land to parking spaces. (Harder, and more likely to be correct: make it easier for people to live in a city without owning a car.) Want to cut the Federal budget deficit during a recession? Simple: cut spending. (Harder, and more likely to be correct: spend more money on public works, which pumps money into the economy, which gets business going, which restores a self-reinforcing economic boom.) Mayor Walsh isn’t subscribing to the fallacy of simplicity here. He’s aiming to reduce parking use by reducing demand, rather than increasing supply. That’s the right idea.

But if we’re going to look for simple solutions, how about not allowing every home to own unlimited parking permits?

Or to quote Lewis Mumford (from “Babel in Europe”), “The main issue is that the right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar, in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.”

A brief PSA — October 3, 2015
Proof that Boston’s public parking is wildly mis-priced —
Don’t strengthen economic regulations on ride-sharing services; weaken them on cabs: an open letter to my representatives — August 20, 2015

Don’t strengthen economic regulations on ride-sharing services; weaken them on cabs: an open letter to my representatives

From: Steve Laniel
Date: Thu, 20 Aug 2015 18:17:47 -0400
To: Michael J Moran, Linda Dorcena Forry
Cc: William N Brownsberger, Sonia Chang-Diaz,
Anthony W Petruccelli, Aaron Michlewitz, Byron Rushing, Jay D Livingstone

Dear Representative Moran and Senator Forry,

I read in the Globe about your bill, H.3702, that would add more regulations to ride-sharing services in an attempt to level the playing field with taxis. The intention is probably sound, but it seems to me that it’s going in the wrong direction. Why not loosen regulations on cabs? Two types of regulations strike me as hugely detrimental to taxi drivers:

  1. “Dead-heading”: if a cab picks up a passenger in Boston and drops her off in Brookline, that cab has to then drive back to Boston empty before picking anyone up in Boston. In that same situation, ride-sharing services can pick up passengers in Brookline. Each fare is thus more expensive for cabs than it is for the ride-sharing driver. Why not get rid of the dead-heading requirement? There’s no conceivable public-safety justification for such a requirement.
  2. Medallions: cab owners have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, even after ride-sharing services have driven down their value. Ride-share drivers aren’t subject to this requirement — and they shouldn’t be. Naturally we can expect that current medallion owners would hate the idea of their medallions becoming valueless, so of course we expect opposition here. The public good, though, is not served by defending entrenched property owners’ monopoly rents. Medallions introduce artificial scarcity, to no public-safety end.

The net effect of dead-heading requirements and artificial scarcity is that, as of 2011, Boston had the most expensive cabs in the country. And Boston cabs offer notoriously poor service, which is an expected outcome of a market protected by medallions: cab owners fight to protect their monopoly, rather than fight to provide better service to their customers. No wonder ride-sharing services have found a welcome home in Boston. And no wonder that the cab owners, long accustomed to monopoly rents, are outraged.

By the way: I’d be interested to hear the perspective of the cab drivers rather than that of the cab owners. Are the drivers choosing to quit the cab companies and work for ride-sharing services instead? Whose interests are we protecting? I suspect we’re not protecting the interests of the drivers. We’re certainly not protecting the interests of passengers. It looks from the outside like we’re only protecting the interests of the owners.

If what we care about is public safety, then by all means let’s require ride-share drivers to satisfy safety requirements. If, however, the goal is to level the economic playing field, then the way to do that is to weaken obsolete economic rules on taxis rather than strengthen them on ride-sharing services.

Steve Laniel

On Boston’s rejecting the Olympics — July 29, 2015

On Boston’s rejecting the Olympics

Most of the griping seems to be less about the Olympics themselves, and more about how we won’t get things the city needs — such as better mass transit and a “master plan”. (That’s a new one to me. I didn’t know the city needed one of those.)

That’s always been the nature of the pro-Olympics case, and it’s always been an atrocious argument; no wonder the city, in it wisdom, ultimately rejected that argument. Yes, the city has broken infrastructure. But conditioning infrastructure improvement on our accepting the Olympics is tantamount to blackmail. If we want to improve the city’s infrastructure, let’s improve the city’s infrastructure.

I’d be willing to start the discussion right there. If you think the city is a parochial backwater that is unwilling to think big, then the place where that matters is in the lived experience of its residents and the public services that support them; it has nothing to do with whether the Olympics come here. The three biggest challenges in Boston / Cambridge / Somerville / Brookline, to my mind, are that

  1. The public transit isn’t up to the level of a great city. It should break down less often; it should come more often; it should run all night; the vehicles and the stations ought to be so well-maintained that no one would ever hesitate to use them; we ought to have real Bus Rapid Transit; and the subway should reach at least as far out as Lexington: wherever you’re standing, you should be able to walk ten minutes and reach a subway stop. (And not the green line. No one likes the green line.) Even some low-tech solutions would do a world of good: separate bus lanes on Mass. Ave. would make our most popular form of mass transit speedier than the cars that surround it.

  2. The schools are a problem. No Boston / Cambridge / Somerville parents should have any hesitation about sending their kids to the public schools. It’s not uncommon for parents to think of ways to get a toehold in Brookline so that they can send their kids to the famously good schools there; consequently, Brookline property values are astronomical. Let’s talk about how to sunder the link between “the good places to live” and “where the schools are good”, like then-Professor Elizabeth Warren suggested. Parents in Roxbury should be able to send their kids to schools in Brookline. Let’s consider merging the school districts. (And yes, I’m aware that much of this is the legacy of a horrific episode in the 70s.)

  3. Property values are insane, to the point that I don’t understand how those earning the median household income of $53,000 can afford to own their homes. Let’s talk about building more densely. Let’s talk about making America’s Walking City truly the best city in the world for pedestrians.

These are the conversations we need to have. If we don’t address these things, that is what makes us parochial. If we can only have conversations about how to make Boston a great city when those conversations are based around a fantasy Olympics nine years in the future, that makes us juvenile. We should be able to improve Boston because we want to improve Boston, not because the International Olympic Committee told us to.