The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

CLOSING THE GAP BETWEEN TRANSPORTATION POLICY AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE: We Won’t “Bend The Trend” Until Professional Culture Changes

Thirty-seven percent of Bostonian households (37%!) don’t own a car.  But that still leaves most of us, especially suburban and rural dwellers, car dependent – forced because of the individually-varying distances between our homes and workplaces and shopping/socializing destinations to use individual vehicles to get around.  Our transportation system has to acknowledge and service that reality. While ignoring the current need for cars is both functionally and politically self-destructive, ignoring the need to “bend the curve” of future demand would be even worse. While Massachusetts policy regarding transportation infrastructure has begun recognizing these realities, and actual road design has significantly improved, the gap between vision and reality is still enormous.  And a key reason is the lag between new ideas and their incorporation into the transportation profession’s culture.  We need to change some of the metrics and defaults that shape road engineer’s decisions to nudge them towards more creative and complete incorporation of the new vision and values into their work.   Continue reading

THE SECOND COMING OF CARS: Will Self-Driving Cars End Congestion, Improve Safety, and Save the Environment?

Self-driving cars, a.k.a. autonomous vehicles (AVs), are all the buzz these days.  They are already being rolled out for real-life testing; within a very few years, sooner than anyone believed possible a short while ago, they will soon be nationwide.  Whether we want them or not; whether we are ready or not, they are moving from “Level 3” autonomy, where a human must be available to retake control, to "Level 5," cars that go on their own.  The breathless headlines announcing their arrival amplify our society’s techno-utopian impulse, with enthusiasts (and marketers) describing the countless ways AVs will revolutionize and improve nearly every aspect of our lives and society.  We are being told that autonomous vehicles will come to the rescue of our increasingly dysfunctional transportation system.  Car crashes won’t happen.  Pollution will decrease.  Congestion will go away.  Parking lanes will be turned into parks or bike lanes.  Access disparities will decrease for low-income and rural areas. At the risk of being labeled a Luddite, I don’t believe it.  Change: Yes.  And lots of it; much of it disruptive.  But improvement?  No more likely – in fact, probably less likely – than damage.  The only thing that has a chance of creating a more positive outcome is proactive regulation of the product and its use.  As ZipCar founder, Robin Chase, has been pointing out, we are faced with a Heaven or Hell choice.  Without successful strategies to steer us towards positive outcomes, AVs will not eliminate traffic congestion, reduce aggregate vehicle miles travelled (AVT), injuries, air pollution, or the need for parking, and may actually make it all worse. The good news is that so much of what we need to do to maximize the benefits, and avoid the catastrophes, of the seemingly inevitable onslaught of driverless cars are the common-sense things we have already started doing because they are worthwhile under any circumstances -- prioritize modes that move the most people, cause the least environmental damage, and equalize access; build more transit, bike lanes and sidewalks; price highway access, curb access and parking; etc.  However, the coming of AVs means we have to do a lot more of it, sooner.   Continue reading

Dockless Bike Sharing: A Great Leap but an Uncertain Landing

DOCKLESS BIKE SHARING:  A Great Leap But An Uncertain Landing In barely five years, dockless bike sharing systems have gone from exciting idea to world-phenomena.  There are over 70 firms that have placed somewhere between 10 and 25 million “park anywhere” bikes in several hundred cities with over a hundred-million users.  China is the epicenter of this modal tsunami but the industry is rapidly expanding around the globe, including explosively in the USA. The hope is that these systems, like the Hubway-style dock-station services that preceded them, will massively increase bike usage – reducing future increases in car congestion, improving air quality and public health, helping promote local businesses.  The hope is that their low cost, ubiquity, and flexibility will make expansion easy and solve the geographic inequities of the dock-station-based approach.  The Hubway model has proven to be not viable in the suburbs: boosters claim that the much-lower entry cost of dockless systems (cheaper for the vendor, no upfront investment for the municipality) will lead to their presence in a broader set of communities and help create a critical mass of voters pushing for improved cycling infrastructure, better traffic speed enforcement, and kid’s programs.   Continue reading

SUBURBAN AND RURAL PEDESTRIAN/BICYCLE INFRASTRUCTURE: Fitting the Design To The Location

Diversity – of people, buildings, land use, business, and transportation options – vary greatly between urban, suburban, exurban, and rural areas.  Addressing our transportation system’s negative effects – congestion, cost, climate, health, safety, isolation, waste, and more – requires multiple strategies and multiple road designs appropriate for different types of areas.  The toolkit of mobility strategies and road designs need adjustments and the mix needs to be tailored for the density and other characteristics of each type of place.  Rail, bus, shuttle, shared vehicle, and – most powerfully – land-use planning strategies will continue to be part of the package, only they will need to be packaged differently outside of cities.  This has even been recognized by the Federal Highway Administration, who recently published the Small Town and Rural Multimodal Networks guide that provides some options for accommodating walking and cycling in small and rural communities.  In that same spirit, here are some thoughts about walking and bicycling facilities for non-urban areas. Continue reading

REACH, TURN, LOOK, LIVE: The DUTCH REACH Campaign

Sometimes a phrase, image, or idea is so responsive to a situation or mood facing some portion of the population that it just goes viral, spreading seemingly by magic.  But, in addition, there is always a hidden engine of someone’s energy (or some other investment of resources) turning the cultural gears.  The “Dutch Reach” – a.k.a. “Far Reach”, “Far Hand Reach”, “Right Hand Reach”, “Reach Across”, and “Safety Exit”, among others – is a case in point.  It is also an excellent example of how individual initiative still makes a difference even in today’s digital world. Even though the mirror sticker says “watch for bikes” most of us forget to do it as we grab the door handle and push out.  Dutch Reach is the simple idea that car drivers should open their door by reaching over with their right hand (passengers with their left hand), thereby turning their body and head so that they have a clear view of their outside mirror (and, if their bodies are young and flexible, perhaps the road behind them), making it much more likely that they’ll notice if a bicyclist is approaching.  Waiting a few seconds before opening their door prevents them from accidently hitting the cyclist, knocking her into the street where she could – and tragically often does – get hit by a passing car or truck.  “Dooring” is one of the most common causes of injury and even death for urban bike riders; nearly every cyclist has regular N.D.E.s – near door experiences.  Dooring is a lot less likely to happen with the Dutch Reach. Continue reading

CAMBRIDGE BIKE SAFETY GROUP: Success On-Line and On-Road

It is always wonderful to watch a local advocacy campaign that does almost everything right. Especially when you both agree with their goals and like the people involved. Continue reading

WANT BETTER BUS AND TROLLEY SERVICE? Talk To Your Mayor!

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. Continue reading

MAKING MORRISSEY BOULEVARD LIVE UP TO ITS NAME: Going Past OK to Really Good

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. 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. 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