The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

DIGITAL WORLD REQUIRES DIFFERENT ROAD DESIGNS: From Car-Centric Functions to Neighborhood Characteristics

Today’s digital technologies are rapidly changing how the public right of way – our car-travel corridors – are used. The Federal Highway Administration’s traditional functional distinctions – highway, arterial, feeder, collector, etc. -- are getting fuzzier. Waze is sending traffic through back streets instead of down clogged arterials, a congestion-spreading tactic that will happen  regularly as new development adds tens of thousands of additional daily car trips to the metro area.  Platformed-based car sharing (aka Transportation Network Companies or TNCs) are enticing urbanites to leave their own vehicle at home but double parking everywhere for pick-ups and drop-offs (often blocking bicycle lanes), and increasing congestion partly because “much of the time, they are driving around empty, waiting for a fare.”  Amazon and the other on-line stores are promising faster and cheaper home delivery, potentially sending growing numbers of vehicles to previously low-traffic neighborhoods. And the faster-than-anyone-anticipated roll-out of driverless cars, delivery vans, and trucks – starting with the driver-assisting technologies already appearing in high end vehicles – threatens to totally swamp the roads with endlessly moving (fossil fuel-consuming and air/water/noise polluting) private machines. The digital transformation of everything has also brought an increase in distracted driving (and more visible but less dangerous distracted walking and bicycling) leading to increases in fatalities of vulnerable road users (mostly young kids and seniors), maintenance workers, EMTs, and even police.  The problem comes from both the difficulty of pausing our addictive cellphone use when we drive alone and the increased presence of screens and entertainment options built into the car itself.  (In one study, an app showed that college students checked their phones an average of 60 times a time, for three to four minutes each time, for a total of 220 minutes -- three and two-thirds hours -- a day.  Another study found young adults having 85 sessions for an average daily total of nearly five hours.) All of which is in contrast to the growing demand in both cities and suburbs for walkable/bikeable, green, and quiet mixed-use neighborhoods. How can we move from our unwanted reality to the desired future? The still-unknown solution will probably require a new type of context-sensitive design that incorporates placemaking as much as mobility. This will only happen if we reclaim the land we collectively own but reserve for motorized traffic and demand that it be used for a broader range of human activity. And this requires bold political vision and leadership able to win voters to the economic and social value of investing our tax dollars in a significant rebuilding of our infrastructure. The people-oriented streets that will replace our current car-oriented roads will have extremely aggressive traffic calming and more meaningful complete streets multi-modalism. The design process will increase the amount of local choice even at the cost of confusion-avoiding standardization. And we all will have to continue changing our already-changing emotions about being behind the wheel. Continue reading

REVISITING SULLIVAN SQUARE: When Updating a Plan is a Step Backward

Situations change and the plans we’ve made to deal with it have to change, too.  But the new plans should be at least as good, at least as effective for dealing with the situation, as the originals.  Which is the unsettling aspect of Boston’s current revisiting of past decisions about what to do with Sullivan Square, at the Somerville end of Charlestown’s Rutherford Avenue.    Continue reading

A VISION FOR COMMUTER-REGIONAL RAIL: Purpose, Technology, and Strategy

Until the 100-inches-of-snow winter of 2014-15 brought the entire 100-year-old system to its knees, and with it most of the regional economy, years of discussion about our state’s dependency on the misnamed Commuter Rail system had not broken through the public and politician’s unwillingness to raise the large amounts of revenue needed to fix things.  Suddenly, we had to pay attention. Unfortunately, we’re paying attention to the wrong things – the stoppages, the contract with Keolis, the budget shortfalls.  The real problem is not the malfunctioning locomotives or the Fiscal Management Board’s short-sighted proposal to stop weekend service.  The real problem is that the entire system is based on dysfunctional premises.  Like being stuck in quicksand, the more we flail around the deeper we descend.  Keeping the Titanic from sinking isn’t good enough if you’re living in the airplane era.  What is needed is a new vision of both purpose and technology – and a new strategy for using what we already have as the foundation for a phased advance from today’s mess to that desired future.    Continue reading

PROTEST, PUSHING, PARTNERSHIP: The Three Phases of Advocacy

Advocacy generally goes through at least three phases: Protesting against what you don’t want, Pushing for what you do want, and Partnering with the implementing agency to make sure it’s done right and kept going.    If we ran the world we wouldn’t need to advocate for anything.  We’d just do it, or order it done.  Advocates are sometimes prestigious or influential; their requests are listened to, carry weight, and often followed by decision-makers.  But, by definition, the need to advocate for something implies an outsider status, a less than all-powerful position – often a position of relative weakness or even marginality.  Perhaps even a degree of invisibility.  If power is the ability to directly make change, Advocacy is about influence – the ability to get those with power to make the desired change.   Continue reading

ROADS AND ROSES: The Functional and Cultural Importance of Design and Beauty

In 1912 nearly 23,000 immigrant mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, led by a multi-ethnic coalition of the city’s women, walked off their jobs to protest yet another pay cut.  With the help of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW – the “Wobblies”), they fought not only for better wages and working conditions but for respect and a better life – for beauty in the ways most meaningful to them.  As the famous song phrases it: “Give us bread, but give us roses too.” We need to have the same demands of our transportation systems – not just the vehicles (cars, trains, buses) that are our immediate focus of attention and use but also the corridors and buildings.  While some of our transportation infrastructure is privately owned -- and the current Republican-run federal government seems eager to expand that percentage – most of it is public land, owned collectively by ourselves as a “public right of way” to preserve our ability to move and assemble without restriction. Continue reading

E-BIKES ARE COMING: Improving Our Dangerously Incoherent Policies

Look down the street.  It’s not just cars, trucks, buses, bikes, and pedestrians.  There is a whole spectrum of new two and three wheeled things on the roll – stand-up scooters, in-line skates, skate boards both manual and motorized, Segways, “personal assistant mobility devices”, electric-assist pedal bikes, motorized cargo bikes and pedicabs, mopeds, mini-motorcycles, “smart wheels” that fit onto regular bikes, exploding hoverboards, and other things joining the motor scooters and motorcycles already there.  And next year there will be even more as several industry sectors – bicycle, moped, and scooter manufacturers in particular – gear up to serve the growing market of bike-interested but less-physically fit adults and aging boomers.  In fact, the vehicles are a positive addition to our transportation mix – we all benefit when more people use small, personalized, pollution-free methods of getting around.  In addition, in dense urban areas, e-bikes can serve as delivery vehicles, reducing the need for pollution- and congestion-causing larger cars or trucks – as is happening in places like New York City. The category is already hot in most of the world and business forecasters say it’s about to take off in the US as well.  Building on the revived legitimacy and popularity of bicycles, these new machines use less fuel than cars, let riders avoid traffic jams, are relatively cheap, and are fun to use. But there are questions. The machines aren’t cars, and the riders don’t always feel comfortable in the midst of traffic.  So should they be allowed to ride in bike lanes – or on sidewalks? What about cycle tracks and off-road mountain bike trails?  Where should they be able to park – on the sidewalk, in a bike rack?  How fast should they be allowed to go?  Should riders – under age 17 or perhaps of any age – be required to wear helmets?  At what point, in terms of potential speed or size, should front and/or back lights – and maybe a rear stop light -- be necessary?  Are any of them vehicular enough that riders should have to be licensed, or that the machine should be registered and the public protected by mandatory liability insurance?  Should any type of machine be prohibited? Continue reading

ADVOCACY FOR THE COMMON GOOD: Action, Organization, and Power

Advocacy is the mobilization of resources and power to deal with societal problems.  It combines protest against what you don’t want, pushing for what you do want, and partnering with those responsible for implementation to make sure you actually get what you want  – although it is the pushing that we most generally think of as “advocacy”.  Advocacy starts through the spread of motivating information and bringing people together.  Having ideas and energy is vital, but not enough.  Success requires having the momentum and power to actually implement the desired change.  Vision and talk are the starting points.  Changed awareness – knowledge and empathy – and vital building blocks, but the goal of Advocacy is visible change in individual and social reality – which almost always requires action.  Advocacy occurs when you seek change outside yourself, in the surrounding world. Advocacy can be done in pursuit of specific benefits for an individual – although individual-benefit Advocacy, especially for yourself, has relatively little impact on society as a whole.  Increasing the contribution of Advocacy to the common good requires moving up the slope from interested observer, to passive supporter, to low-key participant, to activist, to organizer-of-others, to catalyst for the self-organization of others.  At its most generalized, Advocates go through a process of: -Identifying and defining a problem and proposing solutions through the creation and dissemination of a compelling story that embodies core values and vision and solicits support; -Identifying, convening, and mobilizing potential contributors to the advocacy campaign to develop a unifying strategy; -Leading or participating in the campaign, monitoring progress, and deciding when maximal likely success has been reached; -Evaluating implementation and pushing for further improvements. Continue reading

A GOOD WALK, UNSPOILED: A Few Ways to Improve Foot Traffic

The cliché is true: every trip begins and ends on foot.  The basics of what makes for a good walking experience are pretty straightforward:  smooth, wide, unobstructed and well-lit surfaces; stress-free street crossings; pleasing aesthetics; busy but not overcrowded; hassle-free and crime-free areas; opportunities for social or commercial activity; and a way to get to where you want to go.  In fact, policies about pedestrian facilities are generally decent – it’s the implementation that gets controversial. Although the increasing numbers of people who step into a street with their eyes lost in a screen and their ears blocked with music are asking for trouble, the starting point for road safety must be that as the most vulnerable of road users, pedestrians (on foot or wheelchair) deserve the most protection and should be yielded to by everyone.  However, because every situation has its own particularities, most policies and standards appropriately provide enormous lee-way for on-the-spot judgement by the individual designer or traffic signal controller.   And the devil is always in the details of what gets decided, particularly in the (deliberate or implicit) weighting given to car traffic versus pedestrian (and bicycle) movement.  Here are some ideas about how things should go. Continue reading

Eliminating Killer Trucks: Leveraging the Procurement Power of Government, Non-Profits, and Private Business

Truck drivers, like most of us, try very hard to avoid hurting anyone. But the deadly repetition of death continues -- trucks are only 4% of vehicles in the United States but cause about 7% of pedestrian fatalities and 11% of cyclist fatalities. The disparity is even higher in urban areas – a London analysis found that the 4% of vehicles that were trucks were involved in nearly 53% of cyclist fatalities. In New York City truck were involved in 32% of cyclist fatalities. In Boston, 7 out of 9 cyclist fatalities in 2012-13 involved trucks or buses and the numbers keep rising. The combination of huge blind spots in the driver’s vision (especially from the cabs of the biggest and tallest trucks), the pressure drivers are under from their companies to increase their loads and cut their time, and the lack of city-specific commercial driver training in the US – all add up to nearly inevitable tragedy. There are some defensive tactics that pedestrians and bicyclists can use. Unfortunately, these are not fool-proof and not enough to prevent tragedy. What is also needed are systemic changes in both truck drivers’ ability to see what’s around them, and the availability of training resources to help truck drivers operate more safely in urban areas.  Accomplishing these two changes requires changes in public policy. Public policy changes slowly and with great difficulty – it is constitutionally designed to have multiple steps and, because our political system is so dependent on business support, it is repeatedly subject to vested-interest push-backs. However, progress is happening. This summer, D.C. became the first state to pass a side guard and mirror law for all large trucks. A truck side-guard and blind-spot mirror bill is advancing in New York State, with New York City as a major sponsor. A similar bill was introduced in last year’s session of the Massachusetts Legislature – it will hopefully get more traction when it’s re-introduced this year.  Continue reading

Active Transportation and The Community Preservation Act: Funding for Livability, Mobility, and Health

This November, Boston voters (as well as those in Springfield and Holyoke) will decide if their cities will join the roughly 160 others across the state in adopting the Community Preservation Act. A positive CPA vote (item number 5 on the Boston ballot) will raise money that can only be used for open space preservation (including greenways), development of affordable housing, the acquisition and development of outdoor recreational facilities (including playgrounds, bicycling, and pedestrian facilities), and the preservation of historic resources. If adopted, the average single-family Boston homeowner will pay about $28 per year – about $2 per month. Small business owners would pay between $100 and $250 a year. Including the projected state match, the city is expected to have roughly $20 million every year for CPA projects. It’s a small amount to pay for a very large return in increased quality of life. And voters can see exactly what their money is being used for via a database set up by the non-profit Community Preservation Coalition. The program has been a huge success in those municipalities that have already adopted it since the enabling act passed in 2000; state-wide raising over $1.4 billion which has paid for over 8,500 units of affordable housing, 1,250 recreation projects, 21,800 acres of open space, and 3,600 historic preservation projects. Once adopted, no city has ever voted to repeal the CPA program. Continue reading