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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.


What about pedestrians?

By Jane Holtz Kay, 8/6/2002

Like many Bostonians in my neighborhood, I've had a three-star, 10-year view of the backhoes and bulldozers that serve the Big Dig. With an office about a dozen not-so-easy steps away from construction, I've suffered the electrical shorts, the telephone cutoffs, the earth-shattering symphony of excavation through the endless '90s. Like others, I've become immune to the chaos and inconvenience of endless construction in the name of a new cityscape.

The construction nearing completion doesn't bother me. But one thing does: the post-Dig plans.

What worries me is that working here, a stone's throw from Boston Harbor, I tally no more than six trips to the sea annually. The obstacle that keeps me landlocked is not the elevated artery; it is the six-lane highway underneath it. And I see no evidence that the post-Dig plans will change that path -- or my walk.

The six-lane surface road, with its relentless vehicles and daunting intersections that has been a putoff to pedestrians for a generation, shows few signs of shrinking. As the Big Dig begins to set its surface plans in stone, it becomes ever more clear that the stream of traffic will endure.

Not only will the roadway below the bygone bridge linger, but -- worse -- the number of trucks filled with hazardous waste will increase. Too dangerous to go underground, these chemically laden, poisonous vehicles are required to go above on the surface road through the heart of the city. Surreal, but true, more trucks will be bombing by with mysterious cargos plus everyday traffic shooting down the street. Together, they will damage any intent to seam the city to the shore.

Wasn't this project about strengthening this path to the sea? Wasn't it about seaming the city, connecting downtown with the harbor? Wasn't it to make a safe route for walkers? A promenade for people?

And yet, for all the forums and fulminations about the project, we get no mending of this brutalizing six-lane raceway. Even a Mass. Pike spokesman admits the problem will endure. Planners will have "to wedge a lot of green space and stores," he says ruefully. But how?

It is imperative to enforce the goal of the great excavation: a walkable route through a civilized city. It may be late in the game, but planners must create a street to serve pedestrians. It is time to plan as if people, not cars, mattered most. Wasn't that what the price tag and the tumult were about?

While we squabble through the summer to see who will manage the post-Dig fixup, we have yet to insist on either a viable public institution or a new plan to cushion the shock of the speedway. To do so, we must not only guarantee the ordained parks for people but supply the structures -- stores, offices, housing -- that carve a pedestrian cityscape out of a roadway.

Certainly we have the traffic-calming tools to do so. To cushion the shock of the six-lane speedway, we must soften it through proven measures to slow and slim the road and widen the sidewalks. To make it walkable, we can put more parked cars along the way and reduce six lanes to four. To make it crossable, we can "bulb out" -- expand -- the sidewalk at the corners to slow traffic. We can fill the roadway with trees and green islands. In short, we can make the impassable road passable.

To assure this, we must create a truly public agency. The Millennium Greenway Trust, with its lack of public stewards and bias towards profiteers, was "deeply flawed" and marginally legal in the eyes of Big Dig watchdogs. We need to ally planners, the public, and public agencies to institute and enforce these steps. We need to protect the conservation restriction on the paltry four- to six-acre parcels ordained.

We have the skill and will to go back to the drawing board to salve the scar beneath the artery. Buildings twining through? Sure. A Commonwealth Avenue or Olmstedian Emerald Necklace? In modest amounts. Above all, we need to address the pedestrian path neglected by Big Dig planners. Their massive inattention is typified by the ham-fisted plan to bridge the road's major pedestrian crossing at South Station. The sea of cars that obstructs a safe route to rail and bus today will remain. We can do better.

Finally, to bring still more walkers to the surface, we need to reroute our transportation dollars to civilizing the surface and its surroundings. By shifting the millions slated for meandering bus routes to rail and centering a high speed rail through the city, we can cut cars and add walkers. By putting the North-South Rail Link in place under the corridor, we can turn motorists into subway-riding pedestrians and bring more life to town.

The grim years living with the scar of the auto age artery should inspire us to rediscover the waterfront world of Boston's birth. The final plans of the Big Dig should enhance the labors of past city-builders to humanize our planning for pedestrians -- for people -- as we cross the finish line of this latest, but, hopefully, not least, construction in Boston's history.

Jane Holtz Kay is architecture/planning critic of The Nation and author of "Lost Boston" and "Asphalt Nation."

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