There is a negative feedback loop we have come to accept as normal. We must have a highway, and everything that entails, through the middle of the city because we have to accommodate the commuters who live outside of the city. And, people choose to live outside of the city and commute in because they prefer not to live next to the highway in the neighborhoods it has degraded.
We must have a highway through the middle of the city because we need all of those people living outside of the city to come into town to work, shop, and office. And, by having the highway divide the community, we force nearly every city resident who wants to work, shop, or office to get into their car, at which point the big boxes and drive-thrus in the neighboring city gain a significant advantage over local businesses.
I could go on, but the point is rather self-evident. The priority that we must value speed and volume of traffic when designing Washington Street is imposed on the city as a preference of one set outcomes (commuting lifestyle) over another set of outcomes (neighborhood living). I reject that priority.
What is the implication of rejecting that priority? What would happen if the DOT joined with the city in saying that priorities other than speed and volume were more dominant? What if we all agreed that the quality of the city’s neighborhoods, the success of its local businesses, and the safety of its residents, were the paramount concern?
In such a circumstance, the new design of Washington Street would narrow lanes, widen sidewalks, bring in vegetation and human-scaled lighting, prioritize people walking, give deference to cross-traffic instead of throughput, and do the many quality-of-life things that city officials and residents are asking for.
And, while it might make commutes a little longer for those who have chosen to live outside the city, that delay would be offset in time by an increasing number of people who choose to live in the city’s neighborhoods, the improved business community that could expand offerings in response to a responsive local market, a shift in the number of trips that could now be made by biking and walking, and the local wealth saved from an overall reduction in vehicle miles traveled.
The pandemic has demonstrated to us all that hours of operation can be flexible, that remote work is here to stay, and that commute patterns are not stuck at what the historic traffic flow charts suggest they must be. The system is dynamic. If we’re doing a once-in-a-generation renovation of Washington Street, let’s not be rigid in our thinking of what is possible. Let’s build a great city and then see what traffic volumes we can accommodate at peak hour.