What to do about Beacon Street

On November 23, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

There is a lively online discussion on The Somerville News website. Its primary topic is the city’s reconstruction plan for Beacon Street. A secondary one is its banishing from official communications the term “illegal immigrant” when describing people who are in the country illegally.

As Tip O’Neil famously said, “All politics are local.” And followed through to their roots, these issues reveal much, not just about Somerville’s changing population and strong-mayor form of government, but also about our larger economic and political institutions’ inability to confront the nation’s most serious challenges. Since there is only space in this column for one of them, let’s focus on Beacon Street.

I’m delighted that it will finally be resurfaced, and at small expense to Somerville taxpayers. I’m weary of praying that the fillings won’t shake out of my teeth when I drive on it.

The city’s reconstruction plan would also build divided bicycle tracks between Oxford and Washington Streets, since in good weather 300 cyclists per hour travel that route during morning and evening commute times. But it proposes eliminating half (111) of the route’s existing parking spots to make room for the bike tracks. It references a study that says half the spaces are not currently utilized.

Seven hundred neighborhood residents and small business owners have signed a petition opposing the plan. They say that there is scant parking for them already. They point to flaws in the study, most glaring of which is that it was conducted when nearby Harvard and Lesley Universities were not in session.

The mayor would like for the city to do whatever it can to reduce the use of automobiles. Eliminating congestion, reducing pollution, and retarding climate change are indeed worthy goals.

But there are plenty of people who have no other choice than to drive if they are to earn a living or care for their kids. This was not such a problem when Somerville had a wealth of factory jobs, and trolleys took ‘Villens to work, school, and play. Today the jobs and trolleys are gone, and parking is scarce in many of our 19th-Century neighborhoods.

As might be expected, young professionals who have moved to Somerville in recent decades are disproportionately represented among the bicycle track advocates. People who were born and raised here are increasingly being priced out of the housing market. They are disproportionately represented among those who must rely on a car to get to work.

I would not like to see it become incrementally more difficult for them to remain in the city that they grew up in. And not just for their sakes. They tend to invest themselves in community life, while young professionals tend to remain aloof and, too often, leave town when their kids reach school age. This is changing, as I reported in a series of columns last year. But on balance, the distinction remains accurate.

Viewing this as a conflict of New Somerville versus Old Somerville, however, is misleading and unhelpful. The problems that we face as a community, a nation, and a species are socially created. But we are offered only individual solutions.

By myself, I cannot grow the economy, bring back the trolleys, or expand our city’s limited open space. The individual solution available to me is to own a car that can take me to work and to open space. But that individual solution in turn worsens the social problems of congestion, pollution, and climate change.

I don’t choose to drive because I’m stupid or indifferent to the quality of my community or to the fate of the planet. I make the choice because our economic and political institutions cannot offer me a better one.

Our nation’s political leaders lack the courage or capacity to acknowledge this relationship between institutionally created problems and individual solutions that worsen those problems but reinforce the institutions.  While patronizing the “middle class,” they implicitly deny that sustaining the American dream would require transforming our institutions, not just tweaking fiscal policies.

A number of the world’s religions teach us that we are our brothers’ keepers. Socialism was the only widely embraced secular ideology that also viewed all of humanity as one community. Of course, much of what religious and socialist leaders did made a mockery of what they preached.

But the goals of ordinary people who embraced socialism were admirable and seemingly modest: employment for anyone willing to work, economic security in old age, effective education and healthcare, community integrity, and a say in governance.

Perhaps such a shared human identity is impossible to achieve, and goals of peace, equality of opportunity, and minimal material wellbeing for all are impossible. But here in Somerville, where politics are local, perhaps we could create a shared ‘Villen identity.

Because our institutions can only offer us individual solutions to social problems, we might view the Beacon Street conflict as planetary stewards vs. the environmentally irresponsible, or myopic yuppies vs. struggling working families, or indifferent motorists vs. dead cyclists.

Here is how city government could heal those false distinctions and build a stronger community.

Bring all of the stakeholders together and create a conversation in which they see the shared situation through each other’s eyes. Somerville’s richly diverse population includes people with skills and talent in urban design, traffic engineering, community building, and related disciplines. Recruit them and make them part of the conversation from the beginning.

When everyone has been heard and knows they have been heard, identify creative, pragmatic solutions that honor everyone’s experience. I understand that we face such physical constraints as road dimensions. But too often I’ve seen grossly inadequate solutions to urban design problems that were based on received wisdom rather than on solid data and unconstrained creativity.

Seek consensus to implement the most promising solution as a trial. A conflict like this typically ends with the dominant party implementing its solution, the losing party remaining resentfully, and sometimes accurately, convinced of its rightness, and no institutional learning that can avoid or craft better solutions to such conflicts in the future.

Avoid this by building into the process a period for monitoring the solution—perhaps a year—and a scheduled series of participatory events where the accumulated data will be reviewed and the solution modified appropriately.

Somerville has all of the tough challenges of a big city, but it has the talent and manageable scale to craft and implement brilliant responses while building shared community. Does it have the will?



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