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COLUMN

Boston’s Pedestrian Initiatives

Michael J. Ring

Although local communities are riding the crest of an amazing economic expansion, there are still many problems which demand action from local governments. In fact, some of these problems are the by-products of the roaring economy itself. Important issues such as affordable housing and land management must be addressed so that area cities are affordable and livable.

Unfortunately, local governments seem unwilling to devote themselves to these large issues. Both affordable housing and open space preservation require thought, planning, and careful consideration. Instead, governments throw out meaningless initiatives which do little to improve the quality of life for area residents -- but also require little expenditure of effort or political capital.

The city of Boston’s actions in the past week are a prime example of this narrow thinking. Instead of addressing major local issues such as the affordable housing crisis, Boston city government turned its attention to the trivial matters of jaywalking and underage alcohol use.

Last week, the city announced a program cleverly entitled “Walk This Way,” designed to deter jaywalking and other forms of deviant pedestrian behavior. The program’s launch included the placing of humorous signs reminding pedestrians of the dangers of deviant crossing behavior in twelve of the city’s most hazardous intersections. The kickoff event, covered heavily in the local media last week, prominently featured Mayor Thomas Menino as a cheerleader for the campaign.

One problem with the program, besides its diversion of the attention of city leaders from important to trivial matters, is that the program will almost assuredly be a colossal failure. Think you can change a bunch of jaywalking Bostonians’ attitudes with a few cute signs? Think again.

If pedestrian safety were suddenly a momentous priority, the city of Boston could instead target the maniacal motorists who place pedestrians in danger. Or the city might even wish to consider insuring that all pedestrian crossing signals work, and standardize their operation. Some signals require pedestrians to press the walk button. Some display instructions in synchronization with the automobile signals. Some just don’t work. If the city of Boston chose one system, followed it, and paid attention to its maintenance, perhaps some pedestrians would be more willing to follow the walk signals.

This could be worse. “Walk This Way” may be a doomed, misguided program, but at least its heart is in the right place. A few signs here and there is very much preferable to a Guiliani-style crackdown on any pedestrian stepping off the curb a mere nanosecond before the signal flashes “Walk”.

The same cannot be said for the second program announced by the city making headlines last week. This second effort is a vicious crackdown -- and college students are clearly in the city’s crosshairs.

Boston recently received a grant from the Governor’s Highway Safety Bureau and announced the money would be used to target alcohol use among college students in Allston-Brighton. The grant, part of the Zero Tolerance Policy on underage drinking in that neighborhood, will be used to operate an additional patrol car, help bar owners with the seizure of fake IDs, and place more undercover officers in package stores.

This is quite a little witchhunt. The city opens its purses for prosecution, not education. Police officers, not alcohol counselors, are the hired guns. Indeed, the capture of poor souls seems to please the city, the arrest figures (over 150 last year and 31 since late October alone) have become an end in themselves. Alcohol abuse in the neighborhood may not be down, but arrests and prosecution are up, and that apparently is enough to keep the city happy.

Of course this program is exceedingly unfair to students, who will now have to tolerate an even more pervasive Big Brother in their personal affairs. But these actions are hardly unexpected. (A quick aside: do you think student turnout in Allston-Brighton was heavy in this month’s election?)

Aside from the targeting of students, this war against underage drinking is hardly the most efficient use of law enforcement resources. Alcohol-related crimes such as drunk driving pose significant public safety threats, but the mere possession of alcohol by someone who is less than 21 years of age is not one of these threats. Even jaywalking seems a more serious crime.

Instead of worrying about these picayune details, local cities should be paying more attention to greater issues. The region cries out for new grand visions and leadership. Tackling small, simplistic problems while ignoring the major challenges facing the area will not make Boston and surrounding communities more affordable and more livable.

As new city councils are soon inaugurated in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and other area communities, newly-elected leaders should remember that now is the time to be brave and bold and gather the courage to tackle weighty political issues. Great visions and great ideas make great leaders, but those who advance small solutions are completely forgettable.