October 19, 2017: Zoning changes needed in light of increased ride-sharing

October 19, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont Planning Board recently discussed what steps could be taken to “revitalize” Waverley Square.  The need to engage in a town-wide conversation about how to attract new development to Waverley Square has long been recognized. One of the first steps that could be taken, however, would benefit Belmont’s other business districts as well.  Belmont should revisit what parking requirements are required by local zoning regulations given today’s world of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

There can be little question that as ride-sharing services expand, both the use of cars and the corresponding need to park those cars, is being reduced.  As one parking analyst notes, “parking is what cars do most of the time.  The average automobile spends 95 percent of its time sitting in place.”  It is not unusual for a community to devote up to four or five parking spaces somewhere in town for every automobile that is owned.  That, however, will not continue.  Another firm, which specializes in urban parking issues, recently estimated that “current parking needs will be cut in half in the next 30 years.”

Ride-sharing has been found to reduce parking needs for service establishments such as local restaurants in particular.  When one thinks about it, the reason for that reduction is evident. Uber-delivered patrons don’t need parking spaces because the cars in which they arrive (and depart) are never parked.  William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, explains that the only way Uber drivers make money is to keep their cars in motion.  And, as Kinder says, “every Uber ride means one less car in the parking lot.”

Multiple studies agree that the increased use of ride-sharing services is decreasing the demand for local parking. The University of Michigan’s Transportation Institute, for example, concluded that “if you’re in a big city with a large ridesharing car fleet in operation, there may not be much need to own your own vehicle—after all, getting a ride is only a couple taps away.” Similarly, a survey of 1,200 people in Austin (TX) reported that 41% of respondents increased the use of their personal cars when Uber and Lyft were driven from town by local regulation.

From a climate change perspective, increasing the use of ride-sharing services helps a community reduce its carbon footprint.  Jason Bordoff, a former energy advisor to President Obama explains that even though ride-sharing may expand the total number of miles driven by some cars, “they also improve the economics of electric vehicles, which have higher capital costs but lower operating costs, by sharply increasing the utilization rate of cars.” Bordoff concludes that “all of this matters for energy and climate change.”

Recognizing the reduced need for parking, and incorporating that recognition into our zoning bylaws, would offer two positive impacts to Belmont businesses. First, it would quite literally take less space to operate a business if fewer parking spaces are required.  More locations in Belmont would become economically viable.  Second, providing parking spaces is expensive. Requiring a number of parking spaces that exceeds that which, in reality, is needed by a business imposes an unnecessary cost to operate that Belmont business.

The Planning Board recently reduced the mandatory parking requirements to allow a new restaurant to open in Belmont Center.  It would benefit the town and our local business community if that was not simply a one-and-done decision.  Updating our local zoning to reflect declining parking needs in light of contemporary transportation choices would be sound climate change policy, sound business-development strategy, and a sound first step forward to help redevelop Waverley Square.

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April 27, 2017: Ill-fated solid waste facility should not shackle our future

April 27, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting should act favorably on the Pay as You Throw article that will be considered in May. That article would allow the Board of Selectmen to consider PAYT when Belmont negotiates a new solid waste contract this coming fall, notwithstanding a 1990 over-ride regarding solid waste. Arguments that the 1990 vote created a “social contract” under which Belmont residents would never need pay for trash collection should be rejected.

The tale of the 1990 over-ride actually began years before, when Belmont yielded to pressure placed on Massachusetts communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. According to a 2001 Harvard Business School analysis: “in the late 1970s and early 1980s Massachusetts officials leaned hard on many communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. . .[The state] wielded heavy sticks, notably the threat to close down existing landfills. Some municipalities resisted this pressure, but almost two dozen—representing 500,000 Massachusetts residents—felt they could not.” Belmont was one of 23 communities that joined the North East Solid Waste Committee.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The biggest problem arose when the state stopped pressuring local governments to close their landfills. Landfills that were expected to close instead continued to operate. Since the NESWC contract called for a Guaranteed Annual Tonnage to be provided to the incinerator, when large communities such as Lawrence and Lowell decided not to participate, the 23 smaller communities (including Belmont) were required either to provide equivalent substitute tonnage for the trash that had been expected from the large communities or to pay for that tonnage anyway.

The adverse impacts on Belmont were extraordinary. The 1985 Warrant Committee report to Town Meeting noted that the “costs of disposal will rise to about $29 a ton from $16 during the current fiscal year.” In 1986, the WC reported that the “costs of collection and hauling will be about $56 a ton.” In 1987, the WC told TM that the budget for solid waste was “almost 70 percent above the amount voted [the previous year]. . .”

The cost increases simply didn’t slow down. A subsequent investigation of NESWC by the Massachusetts Inspector General reported in 1997: “NESWC communities currently pay approximately $95 per ton for waste disposal.” In short, NESWC created a financial crisis for Belmont: a 600% increase in trash collection and disposal costs (from $16/ton to $95/ton) in just over ten years (1985 to 1997). The Inspector General’s report noted that “rapid increases in the cost of waste disposal meant that other budgetary items necessarily had to get trimmed.”

Because of these budgetary pressures, Belmont swallowed hard and passed a 1990 over-ride devoted to solid waste. This was not based on any commitment that residents would “never have to pay for trash collection and disposal,” but rather because Belmont was drowning in NESWC debt that threatened the town’s schools as well as its police, fire and other community services.

The financial debacle associated with the NESWC trash incinerator no longer burdens our community. Today, moving to PAYT would not only be environmentally friendly, but would save the town close to a million dollars over five years. To allow the NESWC disaster to prevent Belmont from even considering a contemporary trash collection and disposal scheme would be to allow that NESWC incinerator to impose continuing environmental and economic harms on Belmont.

Belmont suffered for years because of the ill-fated NESWC facility. It should not, today, be allowed to shackle us in the future to both our financial and environmental detriment. In negotiating a new solid waste contract this year, the BOS should be authorized to at least consider PAYT.

February 23, 2017: Protests are fine, but how do we spend our own money?

February 23, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Much ado has been made about the devastating adverse impacts that President Trump’s decisions will have on the environment.  The President seeks to undo clean air and water regulations, dismantle clean energy programs, and promote environmentally destructive energy production and transportation facilities.  People are literally marching in the streets in protest.  In addition to this political response, however, one necessary local response to these policies is to pay even closer attention to how we handle our personal pocketbooks.

One thing we know in Belmont is that the biggest potential for a reduction in local Greenhouse Gas emissions lies in the transportation sector. According to the GHG Inventory prepared for Belmont last spring, “emissions from vehicles (mainly residential) are estimated to have increased 6% from 2007 to 2014.”  Indeed, today, transportation emissions make up the biggest source of GHG emissions in our community.

Reducing auto emissions is an effective tool to address global climate change. Belmont’s GHG Inventory stated, long before Trump was elected President, that “the largest opportunities for [GHG] reductions lie in the choices made when residents replace vehicles and heating systems.”  According to the Inventory, “the choice of an efficient vehicle is probably the single most important and effective action residents of Belmont can take for reducing emissions.” These personal choices on vehicles are made every day.  The GHG Inventory estimated that 1600 new vehicles are purchased every year by Belmont residents.  Through such purchases, 20% of Belmont’s existing vehicle stock is replaced each year.

The purchase (or lease) of electric vehicles is particularly sensible for Belmont residents.  Belmont’s automobile travel of 23.5 miles per day readily lends itself to the use of EVs, In fact, the town’s GHG Inventory reports, “vehicles in Belmont are driven substantially [fewer] miles per day on average than the state-wide average.” In addition, both the state and federal governments are putting their proverbial “thumb on the scale” to promote EVs by offering substantial rebates ($7500 Federal, $2500 MA). Possible increases in electricity use are offset by savings in fuel consumption.  EV drivers can expect to pay the equivalent of $1.40 to $1.65 per gallon of gas.  Discounts from Belmont Light also help offset any increase in electricity costs.

Mark Twain once said that it is not the things we don’t know that so frequently cause disasters. It is the things we do know, but aren’t true. There are considerable misconceptions about EVs.  People worry that EVs are too small, too light, or don’t go very far. As Belmont residents make choices about their vehicle purchases this year, the Belmont Drives Electric program is designed to provide sound information. Before you decide that EVs are “hard to drive,” for example, Belmont residents should visit one of the Belmont Drives Electric events to test drive a vehicle. You may well decide that an EV is not for you.  But, you may also decide that what you had “heard” or “thought you knew” about EVs is just plain wrong, and that an EV purchase would be appropriate to meet your household’s needs.

Taking time to learn about EVs is something that every Belmont car buyer owes both to themselves and to their community.  The Belmont Drives Electric program is designed to make that process of self-education easier.  It is an opportunity that should not be missed. And, when all is said and done, while marching to protest President Trump’s environmental decisionmaking may be necessary and appropriate, the cumulative impact of the car purchasing decisions that individual Belmont residents make in their ordinary course of living should also be recognized and acted upon in our continuing local efforts to clean up the environment.

February 9, 2017: Belmont’s drought response: Increasingly ‘too late’

February 9, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

While the poor quality of water that Belmont dumps into the Mystic River has gained considerable attention in recent years, the quantity of water in Belmont, not merely the quality, should also be of concern.  In five of the last seven months of 2016, the northeast region of Massachusetts, the region of which Belmont is a part, has been subject to a Drought Warning by the state.  In the state’s system of drought classifications, Drought Warning is just one step down from a Drought Emergency.

Under a Drought Warning, Belmont is not under the threat of mandatory water conservation measures.  Mandatory state restrictions on water use, such as a ban on watering one’s lawn, can only be imposed when the drought becomes a Drought Emergency.

Nonetheless, according to Belmont resident Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, Belmont should take the Drought Warning seriously even during these winter months.  People have been poorly conditioned by other warning systems, Blatt believes.  For example, when one hears a winter storm warning issued, the caution is about a storm that will occur in the future.  In contrast, Blatt says, a Drought Warning is not a prediction of a future event.  The Drought Warning under which Belmont has been placed means that the drought is here today.

By the time a Drought Warning has been issued, in other words, it is largely too late for people most effectively to respond.  The adverse impacts of the drought are not coming, they have already arrived.  In addition, Blatt says, those adverse effects cannot be alleviated simply through a few rain storms.  It takes months of wet weather for the impacts of a drought to be undone.  Moreover, she continues, hard rain storms are not generally helpful in ending drought conditions.  Big storms result in rain water quickly draining into the streets, being funneled into streams and rivers through stormwater pipes, and eventually flowing into the ocean.  In contrast, lots of snow could help.  Snow can melt slowly, soak into the ground, and help replenish ground water and drinking water sources.

Belmont residents are in no danger of turning their kitchen faucet on and not having water come out.  That, however, is not an entirely crazy notion.  Cambridge, for example, was forced last fall to begin to buy water from the Mass Water Resources Authority because of the decline in water levels in the city’s own reservoir. That need to purchase MWRA water not only imposed substantial costs on Cambridge residents, but also reduced available water supplies to other MWRA communities (of which Belmont is one).

I realize that as I write today, snow is on the ground and the Super Bowl (and, even more importantly, the coming start to baseball’s Spring Training) are more on peoples’ minds than things like restrictions on watering one’s lawn.  In fact, however, that is precisely the point.  The longer the Belmont community postpones its responses to the existence of drought conditions in Massachusetts, the more likely two things will occur.  First, the restrictions that may eventually be imposed will need to be more severe.  Second, even those more severe restrictions will be a less effective response to the drought conditions since it will increasingly be “too late.”

Through its water department, the town should be taking an aggressive response to the drought that has befallen Belmont (and many other parts of Massachusetts).  At the least, community education regarding ways to implement water conservation, even during these cold weather months, would be an important beneficial response to dry summer weather.  Waiting until the summer months to respond to continuing dry weather will be too late.

December 29, 2016: 2016 brought beginnings, endings to Belmont

December 29, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

2016 will go down as one with significant beginnings and endings for Belmont.  One of the most substantial beginnings was the start of the process to renovate and rebuild Belmont High School.  To say that the process “started” this year is perhaps a misnomer.  Belmont officials have sought a state go-ahead for years. Both repairs and expansions are needed.  In January 2016, however, state approval finally came for the expected $100 million project. The project still has a long way to go before a renovated school becomes a reality. A building committee was appointed to usher the BHS project through the design and construction process.

Another education journey came to an end in 2016.  After residents overwhelmingly voted “no” to funding for a new Minuteman High School building, Town Meeting voted further to have Belmont withdraw from the Minuteman Regional Vocational School District.  For Belmont students to attend Minuteman in the future, they will need to apply for open spaces, as do students in other non-member towns.

Chenery middle school students are eager to use their new modular classrooms.  Seven classrooms, known as “the mods,” were delivered to Belmont in October to be installed on the Chenery tennis courts.  Chenery principal Mike McAllister notes that, given the increased student population in Belmont, the mods will be used for the foreseeable future.

Multi-year projects really can come to an end in Belmont.  In 2016, the reconstruction of the Belmont Street/Trapelo Road corridor, along with the reconstruction of Leonard Street through Belmont Center, were completed.  Requisite ribbon cuttings were held, smiles were seen aplenty, and more than a few heavy sighs of relief were heard.

One Belmont initiative generated some real excitement this year.  The Belmont Goes Solar campaign resulted in the sale of more than 250 solar systems to be installed on Belmont rooftops.   Before the campaign, only 20 Belmont residents had installed solar systems.  Belmont Goes Solar generated more solar sales than through any other community solarization campaign in Massachusetts.

Intoxicants were at the center of one major controversy this year.  The Board of Selectmen approved, on a rare 2–1 split vote, a highly controversial decision to allow The Loading Dock to transfer its liquor license to Belmont’s Star Market.  Legitimate arguments were raised on both sides.  On the one hand, owners of The Loading Dock needed the money from the sale of the license to stay in business.  On the other hand, the original intent of Town Meeting was to use liquor licenses to promote economic development by small locally-owned businesses in commercially undeveloped parts of town.  Fears were expressed that granting Star Market a liquor license will harm existing small local businesses, such as Cushing Square’s Spirited Gourmet and Belmont Center’s Craft Beer Cellars.

Other issues in Belmont continued to drag on throughout 2016.  Chris Starr (finally) sold the development rights to Cushing Village to another developer; nonetheless, by the end of the year no demolition, let alone construction, had yet begun.  The community path was laid over on yet another committee for further “public input” and “feasibility study.”  Reconstruction of the old Macy’s building continues, but still disrupts Belmont Center.

2016 gave Belmont residents a reason to have a fundamental optimism about how well local government works in our community.  Streets and schools were taken care of. Irrespective of whether one agreed or disagreed with the outcome, intensely controversial issues (such as The Loading Dock and Minuteman Tech) were squarely addressed and resolved.

As we remember 2016, and wonder what 2017 might bring, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s counsel that “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”

Happy holidays to all.

September 22, 2016: Unbundled parking: Fewer cars from Cushing Village

September 22, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As the final up-or-down decision grows near on whether the proposed Cushing Village development will move forward, it is important to consider not only “whether” the development will proceed, but to consider, also, “how” it will proceed.  In a prior Guest Opinion in the Citizen-Herald, for example, Cushing Village developer Chris Starr committed that “residential parking will be ‘unbundled’ from their monthly apartment rent, which will encourage residents to use the nearby public transit and go car-free if they prefer.”  That commitment should be carried forward by the new developers.

One way to manage parking, and thus help control the automobile traffic generated by new developments such as Cushing Village, is to “unbundle” the parking from the living units, such as was proposed by Chris Starr.  According to the Transport Policy Institute at Victoria University, “optimal parking supply is the amount that motorists would purchase if they paid all costs directly and had good parking and transport options.”

“Unbundling means that parking is rented or sold separately,” the Institute explains, “rather than automatically included with building space.”  Rather than rent an apartment with two parking spaces for $2,000 per month, in other words, the apartment is rented for $1,700, with each parking space rented separately for $150 per month.  In this way, residents of the building pay only for the parking they need.  For a development such as Cushing Village, which sits directly on a bus line to significant public transportation options (e.g., the T at Harvard Square, the train in Waverley Square), persons who choose to rely on public transit in lieu of a car are not forced to pay for parking spaces that they choose not to use.  In contrast, people who choose to rely on automobiles are called upon to pay the full cost of parking those automobiles.

The primary community benefit of unbundling the rent and/or sale of parking spaces from the underlying living unit is that the process attracts individuals who choose not to use cars as their mode of transportation.  The ready access to shared automobiles, such as Zip Cars, which will be located at Cushing Village, provides that transportation option when needed.

Unbundling has an unquestioned impact on reducing automobiles in new developments. In a 2013 “review of parking standards” in the Concord (MA) zoning code, Concord was told that “charging separately for parking is the single most effective strategy to encourage households to own fewer cars, and rely more on walking, cycling and transit.”  Unbundling residential parking, Concord was told, “can significantly reduce household vehicle ownership and parking demand.”

Concord was told that the process of unbundling parking makes “the cost of providing parking clear to residential and commercial tenants and buyers, and [helps] them make more informed decisions about their transportation needs.” Typically, the Concord zoning study found, “unbundled parking reduces parking demand by 10 – 30%.” One impact of this reduced parking demand is either that building size can be reduced or that developers can “build less parking and more of the functional building space (whether that is living units, commercial space or office space).”

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency of which Belmont is a member, agrees. According to MAPC, unbundled parking “is not only more equitable, but can also reduce the total amount of parking required for the building. . .Communities should encourage developers to unbundle the price of parking. . .”

As Cushing Village moves forward under the guidance of a new developer, Belmont would be well-served if Toll Brothers makes clear its commitment to follow-through on previously-announced plans to unbundle the pricing of parking and building space.