Since Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced reopening plans in May, Newton City Council members have been discussing ways to restructure transportation to help people get around safely again.
Nicole Freedman, the director of Transportation Planning, said the ways people travel significantly changed with the lockdown, and she noticed “a dramatic reduction in rides on New-Mo, rides on public transit, driving on the street” and “much more biking and walking as people stay home.”
However, city councilors said in interviews they expect Newton will face sustainability challenges as the transportation scene changes in the new normal.
Councilor-at-large Alison M. Leary said Newton needs to take steps to steer residents away from driving more as the city reopens.
“We already have some of the worst congestion in the country,” Leary said.
In its updates, the MBTA says all riders and employees are required to “wear face coverings while riding the T” and “stations and vehicles are being cleaned and sanitized with increased frequency.” The MBTA also asks customers who don’t require boarding at the front to enter “at the rear doors of buses and street-level trolley stops.”
As the state reopens in phases, Leary said, she doesn’t anticipate “a huge jump of people immediately going back to work.
“I think it’ll be gradual,” she said, adding how the phased opening allows the city “to figure out best practices and see how we can get people safely on trains and buses.”
City Councilor-at-large Alicia Bowman said “getting back on public transportation” is “really important” for the city to meet its environmental goals.
Bowman said the MBTA’s new safety practices are key. She also pointed to research from Japan, which she said suggests public transit might not be as concerning as some people think as long as everyone follows safety rules such as wearing masks.
“There doesn’t seem to be a correlation with people who use transit more frequently than other modes,” Bowman said about the research from Japan.
Bowman and Leary said they have noticed a shift toward sustainability in residents’ preferred modes of transportation during this pandemic, and people around the city generally seem to be getting outside more often.
“We have a lot more people walking and biking,” Bowman said.
Bowman and Leary also said there is increased demand for a shared street model, in which they would add bike lanes and pedestrian pathways along some streets, but they said so far they haven’t received go-ahead from the mayor’s office.
In an e-mail asking about the mayor’s position on shared streets, Jonathan Yeo, the city’s chief of operating officer, said “the City is actively working with the Safe Routes to School team to enact roadway changes to facilitate bicycle and pedestrian access to school this fall. The City is also working on implementing new bicycle routes this coming year with road projects.”
Leary said a shared street model could help the city promote cycling and walking.
“People aren’t going to get out of their cars unless it’s convenient and easy for them to do that,” she said.
Leary said some city officials are concerned people will congregate in these streets, but she disagrees and thinks the city is missing an opportunity to have more “vehicle free zones.”
Freedman said whether or not to implement shared streets comes down to if there is enough room for people to social distance.
“Is there a safety issue where pedestrians are trying to go for walks on the sidewalks, and they cannot do it safely while social distancing?” Freedman asked. “Is it too crowded? If it’s too crowded we start learning to adjust.”
Bowman said there are alternative ways to implement shared streets for pedestrians and bicyclists, such as painting lanes instead of building protected ones. However, she said she is concerned because “the realities and the budget constraints are real.”
She pointed to how cities have lost “all sorts of revenue, sales tax revenue, and revenue from restaurants, and revenue from permits people take out to build, to paying their parking tickets.”
“These all have real impacts on the city,” Bowman said.
Bowman said she hoped Newton would follow in the footsteps of “hundreds of cities across the country” that are creating shared streets “with really low effort.”
“If we can’t get that done, I guess we should be hoping that we encourage as many people to stay home as possible,” she said. “Otherwise, we might very well have too many people driving, and then our congestion on our roads will be worse than it was before.”
Bowman said she is worried that “all the gains that we’ve gotten from making our homes and buildings greener are being decimated by transportation.”
“It’s not a good time to say, ‘Hey, you know, we’ll think about the environment in a couple of years.’”
Jesslyn Harijanto can be reached at email@example.com.