The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities


Commuter rail has been in the headlines.  But it’s not really the most important part of our region’s mass transit system.  About 130,300 people take a train trip each day; nearly 795,800 take a bus, trackless trolley, or the Green Line.  Unfortunately, despite the lower media profile, buses and trolleys are performing even more poorly than rail. It’s easy to blame the state – governor, MassDOT, MBTA, and the legislature -- for inadequacies in bus and trolley service.  They are, after all, ultimately responsible for the lack of funds, incompetent management, and narrow-minded planning that dug the hole we’re now trying to climb out of.  They are in charge of the malfunctioning equipment (selection and maintenance of vehicles, tracks, signals) and the operations (staffing, training, running) of the system.  And they are the only ones capable of implementing several vital service improvement changes: off-board fare collection, all-door boarding, platform/level boarding, high capacity vehicles, protected shelters, clean and safe facilities, easy rail and subway transfers, and more. But a narrow focus on state-level mis-leadership leaves a key set of players off the hook: mayors, city managers, and their administrations.  Buses run on city streets and through city-controlled intersections.  Trolley’s run on tracks but are subject to city-regulated traffic lights.  City leaders actually control the biggest cause of bus and trolley delay – treating mass transit as just another part of traffic, as part of the congestion problem rather than as a solution, as a peer to cars and parking rather than a priority, as a secondary problem rather than one of the foundations for future economic growth, urban livability, and social justice. The resulting poor service exacerbates our region’s inequities rather than providing access to more opportunities. The MAPC’s recently released State of Equity report showed that there’s incredible racial disparity among bus commuters in Eastern Massachusetts, with black riders spending 64 hours per year more on the bus relative to their white counterparts. It’s not that city officials aren’t aware of the need to make bus and trolley travel better. They know that giving busses and trolleys traffic light priority, reserving peak-hour bus-lanes, and providing space for better waiting/loading areas would hugely improve service -- as would providing bus stop shelters, maintaining and removing snow from adjacent sidewalks, and sweeping street trash from boarding areas. All this would attract more transit riders and reduce car traffic. And it’s not that they aren’t doing anything. It’s just that it’s simply not a high enough priority and therefore either action keeps getting delayed, or reduced in scope, or simply dropped in the face of even small amounts of car-driver pushback. Case in point: despite the broad support developed through the Go Boston 2030 engagement process, Boston  continues to stall on a bus-only pilot on Washington Street in Roslindale where the need is clear and bus improvements are a “no-brainer.” Supporters from Roslindale have been told repeatedly throughout 2017 that a pilot is in sight, but the new year is right around the corner without a definitive date or timeline nailed down, leaving many uncertain of the City's commitment to its bus priorities. The City supposedly has a “Better Buses Working Group” - a inter-agency task force dedicated to developing pro-transit policies and operations - but it’s unclear what this group is working on, what is their mandate from the Mayor’s Office, or how they’re accountable to the people of Boston. Bus riders are delayed by not only unreliable bus service but City Hall itself, it seems.   Continue reading


During the early years of automobile ascendancy, New York’s Robert Moses perfected the strategy of using the public desire for parks as a wedge for the creation of “parkways” that were actually an early version of a regional highway system.  In Massachusetts, the Olmsted-derived Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) -- previously solely focused on preserving water-shed forests, beaches, and parks -- saw this as an opportunity to turn the narrow corridors between its “reservations” into a similar network of higher-capacity roads in the metropolitan region. At stake was the enormous power that came from giving out the huge construction project contracts.  By the 1960s, the state Highway Department was able to tap into the open spigot of federal Interstate funding and eventually usurped the MDC growth strategy.   (Some people say there was also an ethnic dimension: the Turnpike gave its business to Irish Democrats, under Republican governor’s the Highway Department favored Italians, and the MDC was one of the few remaining WASP strongholds.)  But it has only been in the past few years, as the last of the highway-focused staff fade into retirement, that the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR, the new agency into which the increasingly discredited MDC was merged in 2003) has begun exploring ways to turn its parkways and boulevards back into linear parks that allow leisurely walking, bicycling, and driving while increasing public access and enjoyment of nearby natural resources. Case in point:  the pending redesign of 3-mile-long Morrissey Boulevard which, while capable of further improvement, is a gigantic step forward – hopefully the first fruit of the finished (but for some reason not yet released) Parkway Redesign Guidelines study done for DCR by Toole Design.    While Mayor Walsh has expressed “concerns” about the plan, the fact that repeated traffic counts and analysis of future trends shows that the new design has plenty of capacity to handle anticipated traffic while also significantly improving neighborhood access to the harbor along with pedestrian and bicycle safety should ultimately win the day.  Boston, hopefully, is still place where facts matter and livability for all is a priority. Continue reading

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