The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

ENOUGH KILLING: How to Make Bike-Car Collisions Less Deadly

It’s important to know that the huge increase in bicycling in Boston has been accompanied by a much small increase in bike-car collisions, meaning that the accident rate has gone down.  It’s yet another validation of the “Safety In Numbers” principle.  It’s not that the new cyclists are more skilled than the previous ones, or that a higher percentage of them are wearing helmets. It’s simply that the more people on bikes the more that drivers become aware and accepting of their presence, leading to a lower rate of collisions and injuries. But that doesn’t make it any less upsetting to learn that yet another bicyclist has been killed by a motor vehicle. The fifth this year. Yet another ghost haunting our streets. The police haven’t issued a final report on this latest tragedy, so the following is based on what has been available in the newspapers and on-line.  But here is my best guess of what happened, and some suggestions about how to make it less likely to happen again. Continue reading

HEALTHY PEOPLE, SAFE TRAVEL, GOOD BUSINESS, PERSONAL CHOICE: Framing Mode Shift

MassDOT has announced a goal of tripling the mode share of transit, walking, and bicycling over the next 18 years while also making the roads safer and more efficient for car travel.  No matter how it is eventually measured (trips, vehicle or person miles traveled, or some combination), the Mode Shift policy is visionary and ambitious.  If implemented, it will transform both the state’s transportation system and the Transportation Department.   It will make Massachusetts a national leader in environmental and climate protection, in primary prevention and public health, in “main street” business revival and sustainable economic development, and much more.  The real issue is not if a more sustainable transportation system is needed, the one we have is increasingly dysfunctional as well as unaffordable, but if such a transformative goal will be fully adopted and implemented. One part of the problem is that cyclists are a visible and prominent part of the coalitions fighting for a better, safer, healthier transportation system.  In fact, many car drivers see the entire new agenda as primarily about serving the needs of the 1% or 2% of the population who bikes.  And that’s a not good:  bicycling, and walking, are not how the majority of people get around.  State leaders need to support and integrate bicyclists demands for better facilities, in both urban and suburban-town-center areas as well as along the regional Rail-Trail networks.  But expanding bicycle facilities can’t be presented as the core reason for the new programs. As with so many other proposals to create a stronger foundation for future growth – dealing with public health, environmental protection, and the built environment, among others – advocates and state leaders needs to find ways to frame the discussion so that a majority of citizens see how the costs and potential short-term disruption will relatively quickly lead to benefits for themselves and their communities Continue reading

IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

A new effort has begun to bring improved transit and bicycle facilities to Roxbury, the base of Boston’s African-American community. (Full disclosure: On behalf of LivableStreets Alliance, I’m involved.) While most local people welcome the idea of more efficient bus routes, more comfortable bus stops, and protected bike lanes there has also been some opposition based on the fear that this invites gentrification.  It is similar to concerns about the larger impact of any improvement in a low-income area, from better parks to better food in local stores to better schools. It feels like a no-win situation.  Public sector, taxpayer-funded investment is an essential foundation for livability in every neighborhood.  As much as anyone else, low-income people deserve good parks, lighting, schools, transit, roads, sidewalks, bicycle accommodations, and other public amenities.  But any significant improvements in a low-income neighborhood’s facilities, or investment in Smart Growth initiatives and Transit Oriented Design development, make the place more attractive to higher-income “pioneers” and then even higher-income “settlers.”  Rents and home prices increase.  The retail mix gets hipper and moves up-scale.  Even before any facility upgrading, the process may start with an influx of “transitional populations” – students, artists, gays – but it’s the public investment that preps the area for sale.  And then gentrification pushes out long-time families: think Jamaica Plain, Davis Square, Cambridge’s Area IV. Continue reading

ADVENTURES OF A MOUNTAIN BIKE VIRGIN: The Pleasure of Very Low Gears

As a regular back-packer, my original perception of cross country Mountain Bikers was of arrogant punks who wrecked both the silence and the trail.  And the Down Hill bikers were even crazier – they get driven to the top and then fly down cliffs wearing bizarre armor.  To me, they were in the same category as the hot-dog skiers who jump off cliffs — who strike me as slightly insane no matter how amazing the photography. Yes, I’m a bicycling advocate and an avid cyclist.  I restarted bicycling about 15 years ago as a form of exercise after my back and knees made running too problematic.  And then I discovered the usefulness of bike commuting and the joy of multi-day touring. But it was all about the roads – and thin tires. Continue reading

ELECTION EMOTIONS: Pride, Hope, Relief and the Need For More

I am old enough to remember the “Whites Only” signs on the water fountains and bathrooms in the American South, the place from which South Africa learned about Apartheid.  I remember the anguish my brother went through when he came out, and the contempt of Ronald Reagan and so many others about the ravages of AIDS to which my brother eventually succumbed.  I remember the fear that we felt when friends had to suffer through dangerously illegal abortions, and the shock of later learning that so many women in several generations of my extended family had gone through that horrible experience to protect their families or themselves. So, for the second time I have ended election night in tears, amazed and thrilled that the segregated, gay-bashing, female-stereotyping, culturally repressive society I grew up in had put an African-American man into the Presidency who openly called for the end of those patterns; a BLACK man and family in the White House! Continue reading

WAYFINDING THROUGH POLITICAL DEBATE: Accidents Waiting To Happen

It’s the season for debates.  Right now it’s the candidates.  But soon enough the topics will include all the issues that elected leaders will have to deal with, from transportation to health care.  Debates can be great reality TV:  live, dramatic, with mythic overtones.  And we seem to have a special reverence for debate.  We believe that the clash of opposing sides raises the likelihood of finding truth.  Our entire judicial system is based on this principle. Of course, it’s not always true:  as our grandmother’s correctly pointed out years ago, we are most influenced by the opinions of the people around us – our friends and co-workers.  Psychologists now say that most people are committed to their own framework of values and assumptions and actually become more entrenched in their positions when confronted with countering facts. Even beyond all that, as every High School debate team and lawyer and political media consultant knows, presentation is often even more important than content; the side that dominates the interaction wins the argument. This depressing truth has been powerfully displayed in this year’s political campaigns.  Elections have always been full of distortions and insults. However, as political strategists increasingly incorporate lessons from advertising and media, their messaging becomes ever more sophisticatedly and powerfully manipulative.  Our only defense, other than strict controls over campaign financing and hate speech, is to know the ways we are being tricked.  Being angry is not enough – we need to find ways to fight back. Continue reading

VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”

In transportation, requiring potential damage-causers to be careful translates into policies that, at least in several European countries, assume that the operator of any vehicle that hits or dangerously crowds a “vulnerable road user” is by default primarily responsible for the incident and any negative effects.  While this “strict liability” formulation would probably run afoul of the USA’s constitutional right of being innocent until proven guilty, Oregon has created “enhanced penalties for careless drivers who hurt vulnerable users.”  And other activists are pushing to establish a “rebuttable assumption” of vehicle-operator responsibility in similar situations. Of course, no matter what the law or who has what rights, defensive driving in both cars and on bikes is the ultimate defense against harm on the road.  As the slogan correctly puts it, “You may be dead right; but you will still be dead.”  Still, adoption of Vulnerable Road User laws can clarify the criminal burden of responsibility for street incidents and simplify some insurance claims.  It is possible that they will also change the context for cyclist behavior and even begin to address the inequality of road conditions in low-income versus better-off areas Vulnerable Road User laws won’t solve every safety problem.  But they will certainly move us in the right direction. ————————————- Continue reading

CRISIS AND OPPORTUNITY AT MASSDOT: Money, Internal Operations, and Political Support for Change

Because government is the arena where so many of society’s conflicting interests fight for influence, and because nearly every decision and action can end up in court, the public sector is more rule-bound than most organizations.  The biggest political sin for administrators is making a visible mistake.  So public agencies typically evolve very incrementally, and if something isn’t noticeably broken there is seldom any political advantage in fixing it – or even in improving its internal operations.  Which is what gives extra credence to the cliché that the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” Fortunately, and unfortunately, Massachusetts’ Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is in the middle of an accelerating crisis.  The most visible aspect is the MBTA’s growing revenue shortfall, a “fiscal cliff” that the state managed to avoid last year by using up most of the one-time fixes.   But it’s not just the MBTA budget that’s falling apart.  The fiscal health of the entire road system is dependent on a diminishing, inflation-unadjusted gas tax.  As both transportation needs and maintenance costs increase, the state has been forced to pay for an increasing amount of operational expenses – planning, maintenance, and even administrative work – using bond-financed capital funds.  It’s a time-bomb – taxpayers will end up paying for both the project and the interest for decades to come, making future revenues unavailable for future projects and putting the transportation system even deeper into the pothole. Continue reading

THE BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL ON BICYCLE SAFETY: Moving Past the Training Wheels….

In recent weeks, three Boston-areas bicyclists have been killed by cars or trucks, and the number of cyclist injuries has slightly increased from previous years.  As a recent Boston Globe editorial pointed out, increasing bicyclist safety is a pressing issue – although it is probably just as pressing for other road users as well:  people walking, in cars, using wheelchairs, getting on or off buses. It’s not just acute physical safety that is at stake.  The overall health benefits of bicycling are so strong that even under today’s less-than-ideal conditions studies show that the positives heavily outweigh the negatives, statistically adding about an extra year of life to those who regular get on their two-wheelers. The editorial is a welcome contribution to the city’s discussion of how to make our evolving transportation system  safe for all users, no matter how they are moving.  Although bicycles may seem like a newcomer to the street scene, they have a long history (especially in Boston, which was the nation’s original cycling center) and there is much we can learn from research done in other cities across the US and abroad where bicycling has already taken off. Continue reading

THE TRAFFIC BEHIND THE CANDIDATES: Vote for the Appointees, Not The Person

Put more money into bicycling and pedestrian and railroad infrastructure, or less.  Move forward from the current small steps towards sustainability (energy development, resource-focused, climate protective, land-use, and economic), or not.  Build on the current stutter-steps towards rationalizing our wasteful healthcare system and providing universal access, or not.  Increase controls over speculative financial markets, or not.  Move cautiously on foreign interventions, or the opposite. The coming elections provide as stark a choice as any in recent memory. Continue reading