Design Pearl Street for the Future, Not the Past

Design Pearl Street for the Future, Not the Past

In a decade, we won't need parking on Pearl Street. Why rebuild the street as if we do?

  • Posted on: 26 January 2015
  • By: stannenb

The Cambridge City Council delves into street design tonight, considering a Policy Order sponsored by Councilor Tim Toomey and Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan that requests that the City Manager instruct the Community Development Department (CDD_ to cease consideration of one design option for the planned reconstruction of Pearl Street. If passed, and if City Manager Richard Rossi heeds the request, the CDD would be forced to design Pearl Street for the past, not the future.

Cars hold a special place in the Cambridge political economy. Rather than view them as a competing need for limited street real estate and tax dollars, the invocation of “parking" usually comes with the assumption that the temporary storage of private property trumps other equally legitimate public needs. Parking is not only assumed to be a right, but it’s a right that’s expected to be taxpayer funded. For a city that prides itself on environmental consciousness, its continued prioritization of automobiles is a striking blindspot.

Parking is a short term need. Car ownership is declining in Cambridge. Transportation network providers – Uber and Lyft – are growing in popularity. Bridj, a company that creates on-demand bus routes, is beginning its own Cambridge service. Academic transportation planners are already thinking about an automobile environment dominated by autonomous vehicles owned and operated by transportation service providers. In this future, they expect car ownership to plummet over the next five to ten years. And, without mass ownership of private vehicles, the need for parking effectively disappears. Streets Cambridge designs for 50 years should reflect that future, not the past.

Pearl Street is already overwhelmingly allocated to cars, with close to 75% of its street area used for either travel or storage. It is an uncomfortable street on which to bicycle and walk, with sidewalks squeezed against property lines. The so-called “Complete Street” plan (pictured above), the option the Council Policy Order seeks to remove, doesn’t address this. Rather than eliminate parking spaces, it restricts parking to night time, preventing that space being reallocated to pedestrians. A true “complete street” plan would eliminate one lane of parking entirely, widen the sidewalks, add a true bicycle lane, and realize Pearl Street as a pedestrian boulevard.

This isn’t to say that the Council shouldn’t consider parking. There’s much that can and should be done to modernize parking in Cambridge:

  • Modernize and expand the Green Street garage. City-owned surface parking lots in Cambridge are being actively discussed as sites for housing. While transit-oriented development will reduce the need for parking, it will not eliminate it. Parking should be consolidated to the Green Street garage ahead of redevelopment of the lots. A complete rethinking of that structure could bring retail outlets to the ground floor and enliven two dead blocks.
  • Modernize our parking payment infrastructure. The City Council agenda has been littered with Orders from Councilors requesting pay-by-phone, pay-by-plate, and pay-by-anything-but-coins. Historically, the City has been extraordinarily conservative in introducing new parking technology. But caution has now made the Cambridge parking experience an anachronism, and has prevented the introduction of modern parking policies, including variable pricing.
  • Implement full cost recovery for parking permits. As Cambridge strives to reduce its carbon emissions and become “net-zero” it needs to consider ways in which it continues to subsidize behaviors that, given the climate change crisis, it should discourage. At its core, the climate change crisis has happened because the true costs of emitting carbon has been externalized. Ending subsidized parking permits, except for low income residents, would start to align policies with Cambridge’s stated goals.

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jet packs?