The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

TOWARDS A NEW HIERARCHY OF ROAD DESIGNS: From Traffic Volume To Human Function

Streets were once the public space between buildings – available for any purpose that people wanted to use it for:  commerce, walking, horses, playing, standing, and anything else.  But over the past decades, one of the largest physical assets owned by the public was turned over for the exclusive use of “motordom.”  Streets became tubes for car traffic.  Transportation Engineers became road designers and developed a sophisticated hierarchy of street types – from Highways to Local Streets – intended to maximize the efficient movement of as many cars as fast as possible. But what if street design was structured around functionality – not for cars but for people?  Instead of maximizing throughput volume they’d be designed to maximize the opportunity for people to participate in the full range of activity of the surrounding neighborhood.  It would require that the new road design slogan of being “context sensitive” began to be taken seriously, with the “context” being social and commercial interaction rather than vehicle access and mobility to the surrounding structures. Continue reading

TRANSPORTATION FINANCES: Why Saving Public Transportation Requires Helping Car Drivers

Massachusetts’ difficulty in finding ways to sustainably support its public transportation system (and its still-stuttering efforts to improve pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure) – in other words, its continuing inability to move away from overwhelming dependence on cars – is simply a specific example of a national problem.  In Congress and in many states cars are still king, if only because most people have no other choice:  a 2003 Harvard study found that owning a dependable car was a better predictor of finding and maintaining a job than having a GED. As in many other jurisdictions, Massachusetts’ MBTA’s budget crisis, temporarily settled by fare hikes and service cuts, will return again next year as an even bigger and more catastrophic problem.  The MBTA Board has just approved a FY13 budget that depends on $61 million in one-time and uncertain revenues – and still ends up with a $100 million funding gap in FY14. The rerun will wreak havoc not only on the 1.24 million people who use the MBTA every day but on the entire Metro-region economy.  A 10% drop in T ridership, within the range of possibility for the current reductions and probably an underestimate if future cuts are needed, will cost the state economy nearly $66 million a year simply dues to increased road congestion.  Even car drivers will suffer as more people are forced to get back into their cars and endure even higher levels of time-wasting congestion, injurious accidents, and greater air/water pollution. Continue reading

RECLAIMING THE LESSONS OF PAST VICTORIES: Traffic Is Not Inevitable

Although it was nearly a half-century ago it was also the starting point for most of the transportation issues we face today.  The Interstate Highway System was poised to push into the Boston metropolitan area – crashing through Somerville, Cambridge, The Fenway, the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain.  Thousands of families had already lost their homes, and thousands more were about to. Yet, at the seemingly last minute, the destruction was stopped.  It took a combination of grass roots protest and elite power politics, but it won – stopping the highways and diverting funds to public transportation.  In the process, the anti-highway campaign transformed state and national transportation policy, pulling the War on Poverty’s citizen participation ethos into a whole new policy area, changed government’s priority from serving cars to preserving homes, and taught an entire generation of planners that traffic volume was created by public policy rather than an inevitable independent phenomena. Continue reading

CONTRA-FLOW LANES: Fear and Comfort on Your Own Block

There was a time when the very idea of using road space for bike lanes struck most Americans both absurd and an invitation to disaster.  While some reality-challenged people still hold on to that position most people seem to have moved on.  Most big cities now have at least some bike lanes.  It turns out that the presence of bike lanes makes roads feel and actually be statistically safer for both bikes and cars –attracting more cyclists on to the road which makes (most) drivers more aware and accepting of their presence, reducing speed (but not “through put” – the time it takes to get down the road), and keeping less-skilled cyclists and drivers out of each other’s way. There was also a time when the idea of placing a separator between a bike lane and car traffic – using a painted buffer or bollards or parked cars or even a curb – seemed bizarre to most people, including many bike advocates!  And now even as established an organization as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) includes cycle tracks as an accepted technique in its list of possible designs – including them in proposals for the River and Western Avenue bridges over the Charles and even (hopefully) on the Longfellow!  It turns out that having separate “paths” for bikes and cars, and finding ways to promote the separation of bikes and pedestrians on shared paths, also increases both the perception and reality of safety. Continue reading

WILL MassDOT USE “GROUNDING MCGRATH” TO CONSOLIDATE ITS NEW DIRECTIONS, OR JUST REPEAT OLD CAR-CENTRIC BIASES: A “hidden cost” of the MBTA Funding Crisis

It’s totally understandable that Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey has been focusing on the MBTA fiscal crises.  Public transit – train, subway, trolley, bus, and ferry – is the backbone that supports the entire regional transportation system, and the region’s economic well-being. But we can only hope that the MBTA crisis will not totally pull Secretary Davey away from the highway division.  A crucial test of his agency’s commitment to the GreenDOT, WeMove, Healthy Transportation Compact, and Mode Shift policies is now happening around the McGrath/O’Brien Highway Corridor – which MassDOT has designated as a key pilot project that will explore ways to embody these programs and values into transportation planning, including MassDOT’s first use of a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) process maximize the project’s positive impact on public health. Continue reading

MODELING POSITIVE CITY-CONSTITUENCY RELATIONS: How Boston’s Transportation Department is Working with the Bicycling Community – and Creating Better Roads

It was pretty amazing that Boston Transportation Department (BTD) Commissioner Tom Tinlin came to the annual Boston Bike program update two weeks ago.  (Nichol Freedman once again won over the audience with It was also amazing that he stayed for the whole meeting taking notes on every suggestion and complaint – and that he intends to follow up and then let people know what was done. It’s even more amazing because it’s actually the Department of Public Works (DPW) that is supposedly in charge of building and maintaining city roads, not the BTD!  DPW Commissioner Joanne Massaro chairs, and her staff provides the engineering support for, the Public Improvement Commission which has the responsibility “to lay out, widen, relocate, alter, discontinue or rename public highways, and to order the making of specific repairs.” Continue reading

Boston Bicycling: Five Changes To Move From Better To World Class

It was only a few years ago that Bicycling Magazine called Boston the nation’s worst place for cyclists.  Senior city officials were openly hostile to bicycling.  The media portrayed cyclists as wild messengers cursing at everyone and running over pedestrians. Then Hub On Wheels revealed that there was a mainstream constituency for bicycling.  The Mayor got a bike and discovered that bicycles were fun and cyclists were friendly.  LivableStreets Alliance started pulling the city’s advocacy groups together while pushing for the bike lanes and cycle tracks previously scorned by the “vehicular cyclists.”  Nicole Freedman was hired to create the Boston Bike program which has significantly improved road facilities, expanded access, and promoted skill training.  The Mayor proclaimed that “the car is no longer kind.”  And the Hubway bike share program made cycling part of the everyday routines of thousands of ordinary people. Continue reading

BIKE HELMETS, CRASH SAFETY, AND PUBLIC HEALTH: From Anecdote to Evidence

I wear a bike helmet.  Always.  Every time I get on a bike.  I don’t think that the helmet will keep me from having an accident, just that it will reduce the odds of serious head injury in particular types of situations.  Small odds but a big benefit. It’s likely that people who cycle like I do – regular commuters with enough experience and confidence to ride within busy traffic – suffer the most severe injuries.  I don’t want to be one of those statistics.  As my daughter (the doctor!) says about helmetless speedsters, “I hope they’re carrying an organ donor card.” But avoiding injury– staying safe — is not my main motivation for cycling.  In addition to being cheaper and often faster than any other mode of urban commuting (as well as less polluting and more energy efficient), it helps me control my weight, stay fit, sleep better at night, have more energy the rest of the day, almost always puts me in a better mood – and is simply fun to do.  It keeps me healthy – body and soul.  I think it would be good for society if more of us biked instead of drove for at least the 25% of daily trips that are less than a mile long, if not for the 40% that are less than two miles and the 50% of daily commutes of less than five miles. Continue reading

LEVERAGING PUBLIC SPENDING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT: Do Multiple Goals Make Projects Better — or Unmanageable?

Keep It Simple.  Focus.  You can’t walk and tie your shoes at the same time.  Projects are much easier to manage, and it is easier to hold project managers accountable, if there is a single and explicit goal.  Transparency is vital to maintain public trust in government, and it is best accomplished when the line from spending to result is clear and straightforward. On the other hand, life is complicated, everything is connected, and the need for improvement is enormous.  Every project impacts its audience, and the world, in complex and multiple ways.  Given the scarcity of funds and the magnitude of the problems facing us, doesn’t it make sense to leverage every opportunity to create as much positive change as possible – and to increase the odds of overall success by being explicit about each of the top priority goals even if they relate to different issues? Continue reading

GENERATING THE POWER TO SAVE THE “T”: The Business Community Needs To Move

What will save the MBTA – and our region – from the disastrous effects of proposed service reductions and price increases?  Over the past few years, in response to the demand for “reform before revenue,” innovative T leadership has significantly improved efficiency, squeezed more out of available resources, and improved communications with the public. There now seems to be general agreement that the key issue is revenue both for capital and operating costs.  The T is not only saddled with the highest rate of debt of any major city transit system, it is also burdened with deteriorating old equipment that is costly to maintain.  At a minimum, the T needs debt relief, if not an infusion of capital for upgrading, as well as a replacement for the failed “piece of the sales tax” strategy for supplementing fares as a way to cover operating costs. Continue reading