The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

SIGNS, PAINT, AND FLEXIBILITY: Creative No-Cost Ways To Improve Road Intelligibility

It’s for good reason that traffic engineers are not trained to indulge in flights of fantasy:  too many lives are dependent on the safety of our transportation system.  So it’s not surprising that the road design professional organization’s “bible” – the American Association of State of Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) guide to the “Geometric Design of Highways and Streets” (the “Green Book”) – evolves very slowly.   However, a negative effective of this conservatism – combined with the dominance of automobile-focused businesses and professionals within transportation organizations — is that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has been very slow to incorporate the rapidly-evolving best practices for bicycle and pedestrian movement in its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).  As a result, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has published an Urban Bicycle Design Guide that they update annually. In recent years, the Transportation Departments of a number of cities in eastern Massachusetts have been (relatively) rapidly upgrading their bicycle and pedestrian facilities.   Enough has been done that we can begin evaluating what works and what doesn’t, and even describe our preferences.  It turns out that there often are several ways to accomplish the same result, that there is room (and need) for engineering creativity – and in this age of crowd sourcing it makes sense to listen to what users think.  The key thing is that many of the “better” ideas don’t cost anything more than the “ok” treatments – they simply require that the designers be willing to learn from others.   What follows is an attempt to not merely praise basic improvements but to encourage experimentation and improvement.   And I’m sure readers can add to this list….Please do! Continue reading

CHARITY, CHANGE, AND POWER: Advocacy and Movements

Contribute money for an Advocacy group while enjoying the pleasures of a bike ride and picnic:  Why not?  The Talmudic Rabbis taught that while we are not required to solve the problems of human life, neither are we allowed to ignore them.  Advocacy steps beyond charity to systemic change – improving the public policies and institutional practices that shape life possibilities for the benefit of all, ourselves as well as those most in need.  Contribute!  Come!  Learn!  Join!                 Bike4Life Boston:   an annual, fun, family-friendly ride that benefits LivableStreets Alliance.                           Sunday, Sept.30,  9am-2:00pm, Auburndale Park, 201 West Pine Street, Newton, MA                                     20 & 40 mile rides, 4-mile kids’ ride, with post BBQ celebration                   1. Register and fundraise to help reach $50,000 goal –                  2. Sponsor a rider or the ride–                  3. Volunteer to help with the ride by emailing                                          For more information: Continue reading

ROAD RAGE, GUNS, & DEMOCRACY: Why Road Safety is About More Than Traffic Lights

Speeding, distraction, drinking, poorly designed intersections – a lot of things cause road accidents, injuries, and fatalities.  But some of them have nothing to do with driving.  Like guns.  In a recent NY Times Opinionator piece, Mark Bittman drew on his old community organizing background and wrote, “Back in the administration of W., we looked for the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the wrong place; they’re here at home.”  And on our streets, where incidents of gun-involved road rage are on the rise. The recent murders of Sikhs in Wisconsin and of “liberals” in Arizona have sparked another round of discussion about the danger of unregulated access to weapons.  Given the current Supreme Court, it is unlikely that any limits will be imposed.  But the way that groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have changed cultural attitudes about buzzing around with a few under your belt suggests that we may be able to de-escalate road rage through similar methods.   We need to make it as unacceptable to have a loaded gun in a car as it is to have an open bottle of alcohol. Continue reading

WHEN BEING “COMPLETE” IS DANGEROUSLY UNFINISHED: From The Gutter To Victory on Causeway Street

Causeway Street sits on top of the colonial era Mill Pond Dam, which harnessed tidal flows to generate power — which is why it’s called a “causeway.”  For its time and location, the Dam was an audacious and creative effort.  Unfortunately, the current plans to restructure today’s Causeway Street into a truly multi-modal and multi-functional space exhibits neither. Causeway Street and the adjoining misshapen intersections from Lowell Square to Keany Square is a complicated place.  It’s got North Station generating commuter crowds twice every day, and Boston Garden releasing post-event human flash floods nearly every third day.  It’s the passageway between the Kennedy Greenway and the Charles River parklands as well as between downtown and Charlestown’s expressway on-ramps and the new Rutherford Ave cycle tracks. It’s got family residences (including a huge future development on the Boston Garden property) and businesses.  It’s got social service agencies and state offices.  Meeting every need of every one of those constituencies is probably impossible. Continue reading

A PATH FORWARD FOR CHARLES RIVER UNDERPASSES: Separating “Approaches” from “Tunnels” Removes Barriers

As part of the Accelerated Bridge Program’s (ABP) upgrading of the Charles River bridges, it is important that every intersection along the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path – the route from the Esplanade to Watertown – be made as safe as possible for pedestrians, runners, and bicyclists.  Whether going across the river or along the shore, no matter in which direction, the intersections should feel comfortable for non-motorized use by people of all abilities – in wheelchairs, by foot, on bike, or on skates. But the surface intersections aren’t the only issue.  It would be possible to create a 7-mile long, traffic-free path if every one of the bridges had an underpass – similar to but better designed and constructed than the existing ones under the Eliot Bridge (which crosses from Harvard’s fields to BB&N). For several years, a broad coalition of organizations and individuals have pushed MassDOT to include the underpasses in their ABP plans.   Charles River Conservancy has played a leadership role, supported by LivableStreets Alliance and other groups, demanding that the state both create a “tunnel” of some kind within the structure of each bridge, and connect the tunnel to the existing route with entry/exit “approach paths.” Continue reading

MOTIVATING HELMETS: How To Convince People To Buckle Up

There is little question that if you have a bicycle accident, and if your head gets banged, and if it isn’t so severe that you’re dead anyway, then your injuries are likely to be significantly less severe if you are wearing a helmet.  I once had a dent in an old helmet that proved the point to my own satisfaction. And I’m amazed at how often anti-bicycle people use a cyclist’s uncovered head  as “proof” of the rider’s immaturity and irresponsibility – thereby justifying the critic’s condemnation of everyone who bikes. But how to convince people to put the helmet on?   Research says that the most common non-compliance reasons are that the person doesn’t own a helmet, that it feels too hot, that they don’t like the way a helmet makes them look, or that it shouldn’t be needed for short trips. Boston is using several strategies to provide high quality helmets at little or no cost, with the Boston Cyclist’s Union playing a major role.  Hubway is working with an MIT team to create helmet vending machines to place next to their stations although there are lots of technical deployment issues still to solve. Continue reading

GREEN ROUTES TO THE FUTURE: Combining Regional Vision and Local Initiative to Revitalize Urban Transportation and Well-Being

Walking and bicycling are part of the solution to problems from traffic congestion to public health, from pollution to economic development.  Creating a seamless network of safe, family-friendly, aesthetically inviting walking and bicycling facilities is key to convincing a meaningful proportion of the population that they don’t need a car to get to work, run errands, visit friends, or have fun.  To have this impact, the network needs to be composed of overlapping “lines and loops” within and between neighborhoods and cities, suitable for both functional travel and recreational pleasure.  It needs to feel comfortable for all users: slow walkers and fast cyclists, slow baby-carriage pushers and fast runners.  And it should foster the expansion of our green spaces – parks, greenways, river banks, gardens, open space, and tree-lined boulevards. Eastern Massachusetts needs this as much as anyplace.  Creating a Green Routes system requires connecting two currently separate strategies:  Adding better sidewalks and bike facilities to our streets and turning old railroad beds into off-road rail-trails.  To be successful, the two approaches need to be united within an “Emerald Network” vision of off-road paths, tree-lined streets, and clearly signed connections – a re-invigoration of the historic Olmsted-Eliot vision of regional parks and innovative parkways along our rivers and between our hills. Continue reading

OPEN STREETS & CYCLOVIAS: Creating Space For Urban Transformation

Come to Boston’s first Open Streets festivals – called Circle The City – on July 15 (closing streets between Jamaica Pond and Franklin Park) and August 15 (closing parts of the Kennedy Greenway and nearby streets).  Next: what about opening Storrow Drive’s outbound side every Sunday from 7am to 10am – nine miles of uninterrupted and totally safe room for bicycling, roller blading, walking, and family fun!  And then Dot Ave! The streets may belong to the people – in most cities comprising the single largest physical asset the public owns – but they’re functional dominated by cars.  And the more traffic the less we are likely to use the roads, and the space around them, for anything else – and the less livable our neighborhoods become. Continue reading

QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative

In addition to opposing the destructive imposition of highways and other mega projects serving regional needs into urban neighborhoods, Jane Jacobs also advocated for urban revitalization through small-scale citizen initiatives such as the housing program she helped start in New York’s Greenwich Village.   But it’s always easier to say “no” than to find a better solution; her program had only limited success. Still, there is a lot of creative energy floating around in citizenland.  Unleashing that volunteer labor could lead to important, even if usually small, improvements not only in our built environment but also in our social connections.  Action creates its own tailwind – neighbors emerge from the caves of their private lives when given the opportunity to work together on something of self-evident local value. Continue reading


“You can’t always get what you want,” sang the Rolling Stones, “but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.”  One of the signs of maturity is recognizing that you’ve got to give in order to get, that the real discussion should be about the nature of the trade-off rather than the need to compromise.  Recent developments are forcing us to decide how to balance the benefits and costs of increased parking in downtown Boston.  At stake are not just the parking spaces but the future nature of Boston life – its physical shape and feel, its residential friendliness, its commercial prosperity, the quality of its environment and its population’s health. Parks and people are good.  Cities thrive when there are lots of both. More car traffic coming into Boston is bad.  It increases pollution (air, water, and noise), makes our streets less safe and inviting no matter how you are getting around, forces government to continue shaping the built environment around the needs of cars rather than people, and makes it hard to get public support for creating less destructive modes of movement.  When the car is king, people get run over. Continue reading