I've made two separate attempts tonight to write a post about the Executive Summary for Jeff Speck's Lowell Downtown Evolution Plan; both went wildly off-topic and lacked focus. So, here's a third try. Perhaps if I focus on a very precise topic, I'll have better luck. Expect the rest of my thoughts to be organized in the future, probably as the actual full report comes out.
Speck's plan is heavily focused, like many modern urban-design plans, on walkability and dense development oriented towards efficient use of mass-transit. This is wildly different from the car-centric models we used throughout much of the second half of the last century. To those familiar with the design methodologies of the past, some of Speck's ideas, like making most streets downtown two way and shrinking the width of lanes, seem totally crazy. In addition to other complaints, the commenters on Jen Myers article often fall into this mindset (Dan Phelps, on the other hand, trusts Speck on this particular point [I'll try to get to some of the other chief complaints another time]). In fact, many of them are supporting an extension to the Connector around downtown to get cross-town traffic off the streets and/or connection of the Rourke Bridge crossing to Route 3 as the long-discussed extension to MA-213. After all, we had purposely made these streets wide one-way roads and eliminated on-street parking to try to eliminate the traffic issues downtown and increase businesses only 50 years ago, and people are still complaining getting into, through, or parking in downtown is too hard. It clearly wasn't enough, so why undo it?
Because of Latent, or Induced, demand. It's applying basic economic principles to the automobile. The basic idea is, the more space you give to the car, the more cars will use that space. You will never, in the long run, satisfy the car's lust for more pavement. You will only temporarily fix the traffic problem while making the place less attractive to pedestrians.
As an example, there was a rainstorm last week that slowed the AM commute southbound on Route 3 to about 30 MPH. My Facebook was full of people complaining about how long it took for them to get to work. Somebody asked, "didn't we widen Route 3 to fix this!?" Why, yes we did. We removed all of the trees from the median and sometimes the edges, widening the highway to as many as five lanes in places from two, and what did we actually accomplish other than invading people's back yards along the right-of-way? We helped people that were used to hour-long commutes on the old route 3 move further away from population centers along the new route 3, where their commute will still be an hour...until more people get the same idea and slow the traffic once again. Land usage and annual miles driven are growing far, far faster in the US than the actual population.
If we hadn't widened Route 3, what would've happened instead? People would've made a time-is-money economic decision where they hit a tipping point: "enough is enough!". They might've adjusted their schedules to avoid peak hours. They might've moved closer to work. They might've clamored for better mass-transit options along the corridor. Their jobs might've moved closer to them. They might've moved somewhere else entirely. Probably all of these options encourage less gasoline use than widening the highway, and most also reduce sprawl, which is the taking of open land for automobile-oriented, low-density development.
So, pull that logic into extending the Connector into Dracut. I personally would never live in Dracut because of the traffic situation: it's not worth the trouble, and it's only getting worse. Adding more highway capacity to the town is going to do only one thing in the medium-term: increase development pressure on Dracut, Pawtucketville, Tyngsboro, Pelham, etc. These towns will be more than happy to meet the demand for financial reasons. In a few years time, we'll have added to the miles people are driving a year, while ruining the remaining rural character of the area, and helping the traffic none whatsoever.
Instead, planners like Speck suggest focusing our development efforts on compact urban areas like Lowell, and focusing on transit in particular (where mass transit can be efficient). However, there's a mental leap here that isn't that easy to make: While I think it's unarguable that cars have damaged Lowell, can we really say that by redesigning Lowell to not be focused on the car, that we will improve things? What is to say that jobs will relocate to Lowell to take advantage of the now less-mobile workforce, as opposed to people and jobs just leaving the city en-masse?
I think this actually might not be that complicated of a choice when we look at all our options: either we do nothing and Lowell continues to suffer losses to suburban locations for the same reasons it has for the past 50 years, or we do something and Lowell continues to suffer losses to suburban locations for accessibility reasons. OR - the third option, we do something, this plan actually works, and Lowell is poised to grow as a re-invigorated place to work, play, and live.