Recommendations for Boston’s Healthy Streets COVID Response
Below is the letter we, MassBike, LivableStreets Alliance and WalkBoston sent to Chief of Streets Chris Osgood regarding Boston’s Healthy Streets plan.
June 16, 2020
Chris Osgood, Chief of Streets
1 City Hall Square, Room 603
Boston, MA 02201
Dear Chief Osgood,
On May 12th, the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) presented a plan to the City Council for adapting streets for COVID-19 response and recovery. However, we are concerned about the focus and scope of the first phase of the Healthy Streets plan that the Transportation Department announced on May 30th, and want to ensure these issues are addressed before future phases of the plan are implemented:
The most glaring issue with the Healthy Streets plan is the lack of attention paid and investment made in the Black and brown neighborhoods that are disproportionately suffering from the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. As early as April, members of this group reached out to BTD staff with specific recommendations for tactical interventions in the most impacted communities. These recommendations came directly from community leaders and individuals in Mattapan, Hyde Park, Roxbury, and Dorchester. Almost none of these recommendations have been included in the first phase of the Healthy Streets plan.
Additionally, the City has offered no transparency or criteria for how they chose the first phase projects and no timeline or criteria for how they will choose and implement additional phases of the plan. This seemingly arbitrary approach has already compounded the pre-existing inequitable investment in streets in our communities of color, and will likely only exacerbate these existing inequities of investment if not addressed explicitly and immediately.
The Healthy Streets plan only includes implementation of bike lanes on downtown corridors. We know that a network of bike lanes are essential infrastructure for safe travel — at all times, as well as during this time of physical distancing. The recent death of a person biking on Cummins Highway on June 9, 2020 only underscores the urgency of building safe infrastructure in all neighborhoods, not just in the city’s core. While protected bike lanes on downtown streets are long overdue, the corridors laid out in the Healthy Streets plan do not build out the network that is required for people to travel safely throughout the city. Go Boston 2030 provides a clear plan for where interventions are needed. We recommend prioritizing these corridors for quick-build protected bike lanes in Phase 2 of the Healthy Streets plan:
- Cummins Highway
- Malcolm X Boulevard, from Nubian Square to the Southwest Corridor
- Albany Street, from lower Roxbury to South Boston
- Western Ave, in Allston and Brighton
- Hyde Park Avenue
- Dorchester Avenue
- American Legion Highway
- Columbus Ave, from Mass Ave to the Downtown Network
- Columbia Road
- Columbus Ave, in Roxbury
- Cambridge Street in Allston, from Union Square to the Charles River
- Commonwealth Ave from the BU Bridge to the Bowker Overpass
- East Broadway and Summer Street, in South Boston
As street space is reconfigured to allow for outdoor dining and retail, it’s important that plans for protected bike lanes are incorporated into the new layouts. For example, Charles Street is a key corridor in the protected bike network, but the neighborhood civic association is calling for a lane reduction that only accommodates outdoor dining, not protected bike infrastructure. Neighborhood associations should not be given the power to supersede years of public process that identified the need to create a critical bike network link on a corridor like Charles Street. It is clear that both outdoor dining space and protected bike infrastructure could be achieved there.
Many Main Streets and business associations are in support of swiftly repurposing parking lanes into cafe seating (as was installed on Hanover Street in the North End), which leaves the travel lane to be repurposed for critical mobility access. Improving safety for people walking and biking to Main Streets and other commercial districts is a key goal of Go Boston 2030, and COVID-19 response and recovery plans must align with this goal.
Enforcement + Policing
We have already provided several recommendations to Mayor Walsh regarding the role of policing and enforcement on our streets (see attached for reference). As outlined in the general recommendations to follow, it’s important that any adaptations to streets for COVID-19 response and recovery do not require police enforcement. As has been made so apparent in the last several weeks, policing is not a solution for street safety in communities of color. It’s important that the City develop a plan for how these interventions can be maintained and enforced without a police presence. We recommend that the City facilitate a community-led program which can be maintained by local organizations and residents.
The City should prioritize automatic recall of WALK signals in low-income and communities of color which have been most impacted by COVID-19, as well as WALK signals that are close to the most heavily used bus stops (which are already highlighted on the City’s Healthy Streets map). This work should be included in Phase 1 and should begin now. It is a long overdue and basic adjustment to all signals in Boston.
We already recommended in mid-April that BTD automate WALK signals so pedestrians do not have to push buttons. It is one less surface to touch and potentially contract/spread disease. Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville have already implemented this effort.
Lack of Engagement with Community Partners
We understand there are staff capacity limitations for rapid response and tactical implementations, especially due to COVID-19. As many other cities have done, we believe it is critical for the City to partner with Main Streets organizations, community groups, advocacy organizations, and other partners to implement, manage, and help communicate about these interventions.
We have offered, on numerous occasions, to deploy our own staff to act as a liaison to community groups and to engage with community members to help identify neighborhood needs. As you know, the City has already worked with us to conduct community outreach and support City-led efforts in the past. We have community trust and a track record of success. Without explicit collaboration with community partners, the City will not be able to implement and manage tactical streets interventions at the scale and pace needed.
Communication, Data Collection, and Measuring Success
While we support the concept of “the pilot is the process,” this does not mean implementing quick-build or tactical projects without a proper strategy to inform the community, collect feedback, and measure success.
Many other communities have strong, established strategies for communications and measurements of success for these projects that can be used as models for Boston efforts. The City should develop a strong plan for monitoring these interventions, including relying on staff, consultants, and volunteers to count people walking and biking (and collect gender and race data), and using automatic technology to measure vehicle speeds and volume. The City can coordinate with employers to better understand how workers are commuting.
In addition, clear coordination between BTD’s Transit Team and Active Transportation Team is critical to ensure that the needs of transit users are balanced with the safety needs of those who are walking and biking (and those who would if there was a connected network). The Transit Team is overdue in developing a clear bus network plan that is based on public process, data, and analysis that takes equity, safety, and mobility needs into account. The City must balance rapid response with adherence to long-standing network plans, and ensure that building out the bus priority network does not preclude a safe bike network and safe pedestrian infrastructure.
We look forward to working with the City to ensure that we adapt our streets as rapidly and effectively as possible to respond to the current health and economic challenges.
Becca Wolfson, Boston Cyclists Union
Stacy Thompson, LivableStreets Alliance
Galen Mook, MassBike
Stacey Buettell, WalkBoston
CC: Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Boston City Council