Transportation: good intents, cloudy results and taxi rules

If you’re curious to see what suburban-oriented government looked like in the 1950s and before, visit the Transportation Board–where it can sometimes seem as though antique outlooks have been preserved in amber. Within the past week–at public meetings of two of the town’s many other boards, commissions, committees and councils–some members complained openly about unresponsive behavior. Complainers even included a member of the Board of Selectmen, which appoints members of the Transportation Board.

Launching a board: Oddly enough, the Transportation Board had been launched as a reform against arrogance, or so some people said at the time. Since the emergence of motor vehicles in the early twentieth century, Brookline struggled with regulation. Under Chapter 40, Section 22, of the General Laws, town meetings may enact bylaws and boards of selectmen may adopt “rules and orders” concerning traffic and parking.

The workload of regulating motor vehicles soon became too much for the Board of Selectmen in Brookline. During the 1920s, it delegated work to a Traffic Committee consisting of four department heads and the chairs of the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board. A surge in automobiles after World War II challenged that approach.

A 1968 town meeting scrapped the Traffic Committee and a later commission, seeking so-called “home rule” legislation to create a Department of Traffic and Parking, headed by a full-time director, and a volunteer Traffic Appeals Board. That approach also failed. A wave of neighborhood protests over traffic and parking grew stronger, fueled with accusations of arrogant behavior by the full-time “traffic czar.”

The fall town meeting of 1973 again petitioned for legislation: this time to create a Transportation Department–more recently the Transportation Division in the Department of Public Works–and a volunteer Transportation Board. So far, the arrangements under a 1974 law have held. Under that law, the Board of Selectmen acts as an appeals board, and appeals have been rare. One could be coming soon, though.

Building a peninsula: The intersection where Buckminster and Clinton Rds. join just west of the High School has often been seen as a safety issue. Drivers may careen through without seeming to look and sometimes without stopping at the single stop sign, found when coming into the intersection from Clinton Rd. Heading the other way, downhill on Clinton Rd., drivers can easily exceed the posted 30 mph speed limit.

One classic method to slow the speeds is a traffic island, making drivers dodge around. More modern, so-called “traffic calming” might use a raised intersection, “speed bumps” or “curb bulbs.” Apparently, none had looked to Brookline’s current engineers like the right approach. Instead, they had sold the Transportation Board a giant peninsula, blooming out the sidewalk from the northeast sides of Clinton and Buckminster Rds. at the junction. Daniel Martin, a Brookline engineer, called it a “curb extension”–clearly a highly extensible phrase.

Of course, any change to a residential street is also a change to someone’s home. The home nearest the giant peninsula is 79 Buckminster Rd. Its owners are not pleased, to say the least. From their viewpoint, the huge peninsula would leave their lot “landlocked” without street frontage. It might work technically only because they now have a garage beneath the back of the house, reached by a driveway shared with their neighbors at 3 Clinton Rd. Were they to install a conventional driveway, somehow it would have to invade the peninsula.

Good intents, cloudy results: As the rehearing on the peninsula plan Thursday, May 21, went on for more than an hour and a half, neighbors recalled street changes with bad side-effects. In a winter with heavy snow like the last one, parts of streets narrowed to calm traffic became dangerous or impassible. Judy Meyers, a Precinct 12 town meeting member who lives downhill at 75 Clinton Rd., said she was “very sympathetic” to the owners of 79 Buckminster. However, “Clinton Rd. has been a speedway…[and] I don’t love speed bumps.”

Compared with alternatives, the peninsula plan looks like costly efforts invested for cloudy results. Several years ago, similarly costly measures on Winchester St. slowed speeding only within around a hundred feet from obstacles. Unless something more is done, Ms. Meyers, who lives quite a bit farther than that from the intersection at issue, is not likely to see much improvement.

In the past, Transportation sometimes waxed less bureaucratic and became more effective. Instead of seeing roadblocks in its path–claiming you can’t do this and you can’t do that–it did the impossible anyway. In North Brookline, an alert observer can find 25 mph posted speed limits and intersections with stop signs on the wider street rather than the narrower one. Those were inexpensive, practical solutions to vexing problems.

On May 21, however, certifiable experts certified nothing more could be done, and the vote went 2 to 4 against reconsidering the peninsula plan. Only board members Ali Tali and Pamela Zelnick voted in favor. At other places and in other times, such events became subjects of land damage lawsuits, but Brookline offers a further course: administrative appeal.

If the owners of 79 Buckminster Rd. carry an appeal, they will be dealing with the Board of Selectmen. Its newly chosen chair, Neil Wishinsky, recently told another group, “My political thinking is to stay away from parking.” For much of the last 90 years, Mr. Wishinsky would have found kindred spirits on his board, but now such duties come with the job.

Taxi rules: After negotiations with taxi owners, Todd Kirrane, Brookline’s transportation administrator, brought in a substantially revised draft of new rules. The changes tend to lower the added costs to taxi companies but will also provide lower standards of service. A key point of dispute has been new requirements for vehicles with ramps for people who use wheelchairs.

The revised draft has vague and inconsistent language. In some places, it speaks of “ramped taxicabs,” saying they might also provide a “lift.” In others, it refers to “WAV taxicabs”–never defining that but apparently meaning “wheelchair-accessible vehicle.” It’s unclear whether a “ramped taxicab” will necessarily be a “WAV taxicab” or vice-versa. Possibly the regulations did not undergo legal reviews.

As first proposed, the rules required one “ramped taxicab” for every ten licensed vehicles. Operators objected to the extra costs, some saying they got no requests for such vehicles in as much as ten years and probably would never get any. Members of the Commission for the Disabled have called that a self-fulfilling prophecy, since word had gotten around that there were no such Brookline taxis.

Mr. Kirrane stated that Boston now has a standard of one “WAV taxicab” for every 18 licensed vehicles. In Brookline, the revised draft called for one “ramped taxicab” for every 25 licensed vehicles. Saralynn Allaire, a Precinct 16 town meeting member and a member of the Commission for the Disabled, asked how the rule would be implemented. Mr. Kirrane said the rule would come into effect July 1 of next year and would not apply to a company with fewer than 25 licensed vehicles.

The board reviewed a perennial controversy: a limit on the number of licensed taxis. At least two members of the board–Joshua Safer, the chair, and Ali Tali–seemed to favor what one called a “market system,” with no limit. The revised draft proposed a limit of two licensed taxis per 1,000 Brookline residents. Brookline’s population map, based on the 2010 federal census, shows 58,732 residents–indicating 117 taxi licenses.

Board member Christopher Dempsey criticized the limit, saying it was “picked out of the air” and that “a population metric is not a very effective one.” He offered no other approach. His motion to strike the metric failed on a 1-4-1 vote, with board member Scott Englander abstaining. The board adopted the revised taxi rules, effective July 1, by a unanimous vote. After the meeting, Joe Bethoney, owner of Bay State Taxi, Brookline’s largest company, confirmed that he planned to continue in business under the new rules.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, May 23, 2015


Complete Streets: seeking better sidewalks and bicycle paths, Brookline Beacon, May 12, 2015

Craig Bolon, Changing the rules: new taxi regulations, Brookline Beacon, April 6, 2015

Craig Bolon, Brookline government: public information and the committee forest, Brookline Beacon, August 1, 2014

David J. Barron, Gerald E. Frug and Rick T. Su, Dispelling the myth of home rule, Rappaport Institute (Cambridge, MA), 2003

Craig Bolon, Vehicle parking in Brookline, Brookline Town Meeting Members Association, 2000

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