The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

SAFETY AND THE LAW: When Are Higher Penalties The Right Tool For Changing Behaviors

The Cambridge City Council recently passed a home rule petition (HB3852) asking the state Legislature to give it the authority to significantly increase the penalties to be paid by pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists for a wide variety of road violations.  Jaywalking fines would increase from $1 to $75.  Cyclists could be fined up to $75 for any of several violations, from lacking appropriate night-time lights and reflectors to extending the front fork beyond its original length.  (See below for full list of bicycling prohibitions.*)  Any vehicle (truck, car, or bike) ignoring a yield or stop sign or a blinking or solid red light could be fined up to $250. A local group called TROMP (Travel Responsibility Outreach & Mentoring Project) proposed the bill. The Cambridge Bicycle Committee opposes it. Rumors are also flying that Mayor Menino will propose a helmet law with stiff penalties.  Some public health people support it; most bike advocates are opposed. Are passing laws and increasing penalties the best way to improve street safety?  Maybe it is good strategy in some situations but not others.  Perhaps there are many situations in which changing the road’s infrastructure (e.g. creating “complete streets” or using traffic calming to lower speeds to no more than 20 mph) are more likely to change behavior and/or improve safety. It turns out that, in fact, we actually know a lot about this issue. —————————— Continue reading

THE AGONY AND THE ACTIVISM: Looking Back at the Big Dig

A while ago, following the fatal collapse of some ceiling panels in the Big Dig tunnels, Commonwealth magazine published interviews with local pundits about what went wrong with the management and public relations aspects of the gargantuan, 30-year project.  Some of the issues they raise include the need for: A strong leader and management team within the appropriate state agency with sufficient independence, power and talent to manage the contractor as well as keep the project from becoming a patronage dumping ground. Regular and honest outreach to keep the public informed and supportive as the project, and its budget, evolve. An exit strategy with the contractor if the work doesn’t meet expectations and a “succession” plan in place for others to finish the job if needed. But there is another perspective that is equally important – at least to those of us who have spent our lives working for progressive social change.  From that perspective, the key issue is not project management or contract oversight.  The issue is how to maximize the project’s positive contribution to the livability and viability of our communities, the quality of our air and water, the sustainability of our resource use patterns, and the equitable distribution of the project’s costs and benefits. ————————————— Continue reading

OUR NEW EXTENDED FAMILIES: How the Built Environment and Public Services Shape Social Relationships and Democratic Government

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.”   “I should have called it Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost The two most important things about relatives, my mother used to say, are that you don’t get to choose them and that they take care of each other.  Back in the day, when most families were extended, you had no choice about going to grandma’s for Sunday dinner and you simply accepted that Uncle Al was loud, that Aunt Sarah was obnoxious, that Cousin Bob told bad jokes, and that each of the other people in the room were just who they were.  There was no option – family was your world:  for some of us, a significant part of our social life was the regular meeting of our “cousins’ club.”  At family gatherings, you learned not only that everyone was different but that it was possible to tolerate those differences and still share a meal – one of the fundamental understandings that underpin both families and democracy. Continue reading

SUCCESSFUL ADVOCACY: Lessons of the BU Bridge Campaign

After years of effort, instead of holes in the sidewalk and pavement through which you could see the river below, the BU Bridge now has solid surfaces and (drum roll….) bike lanes!  It is a major victory for the Better Bridges campaign. True: the bridge isn’t any wider than it was before, so the sidewalk is still too narrow.  There still isn’t a way to get from the Boston-side steps, over Storrow Drive, to the Charles River embankment.  On the Cambridge side, there still isn’t a way to safely walk under the bridge along the river bank rather than having to add to the confusion of the crazy Memorial Drive traffic circle.  The sudden incline on the curving entrance to the bridge from the stop-line on the Cambridge side is still dangerous for cyclists; and it would have been better if there were flexible bollards on the span separating the car and bike lanes.  Traffic congestion on the bridge isn’t significantly lower than before, but it’s clearly no worse despite there being only three car lanes instead of four – there is now one lane entering the bridge from either side, two lanes exiting on the other end.  (Advocates have been saying, for years, that the problem is in the intersections leading to the bridge, not the bridge itself – turns out we were right.) Continue reading

FIX THE PROBLEM, NOT THE BRIDGE: How MassDOT Can Avoid Wasting $14 Million on the McGrath Highway

It’s both a cliché and a powerful insight to remember that the solution you come up with depends on which problem you are trying to solve.  A road builder sees problems in terms of the need for movement – usually meaning car capacity – and comes up the road expansion solutions.  A transportation planner – as well as a livable communities developer – sees problems in terms of using the built environment as a way to improve peoples’ quality of life and comes up with solutions that stress human interaction. The elevated section of the McGrath/O’Brien Highway from the Cambridge border to Somerville’s Highland Avenue is old and deteriorating.  Working with people from the more than 20 land development and road planning efforts already happening along the corridor,   LivableStreets Alliance coordinated discussionsthat endorsed five core value/vision statements for what should happen in this area: Reunite neighborhoods cut apart by the highway. Humanize the space by lowering traffic speeds, reducing noise and pollution, narrowing lane width, and reducing the current six (or more) lanes to four. Make traveling across and along the corridor safer and more inviting for pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders. Add more trees, grass, storm-water drainage, and other green features. Encourage local retail and job-creating businesses; including crafts-based and green-economy enterprises. Continue reading

THE THREE SISTERS – CASEY OVERPASS, McGRATH HIGHWAY, RUTHERFORD AVE: MassDOT’s Credibility Crisis and the Need to Work Together

This post was meant to be about three of the old highways now falling down and the increasingly bitter policy disagreements within nearby communities over what to do about it.  But as I thought more about these debates, it became clear that a significant secondary theme is that so few people trust the traffic engineers or their organizations – starting with total lack of belief in the validity of the traffic prediction models being used by MassDOT.  The models feel like such opaque black boxes of unknown facts and hidden formulas that they simply feel like fantasy projections of agency desires – and there is little trust of those desires either.  Applauding the projections that support one’s position and denouncing the rest is neither useful, logical, nor fair. The problem is that without analysis it’s all guesswork and power plays, which is not likely to end up creating optimal outcomes either. Continue reading

MOVING URBAN INNOVATION BACK TO THE FUTURE: Reclaiming the Village and the Street

Q: Why do people live in cities?       A: Because that’s where all the other people are.  It’s really wonderful that Mayor Menino has a special group of “urban mechanics” finding ways to put new information technologies to work for the city.  Technology is very cool.  And fun.  And useful.  And has a huge impact.  I spent part of my life in high tech and even wrote a book ‘way back in 1996 called Civilizing Cyberspace:  Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway about how the emerging digital networks could be used to enhance or stifle democracy But when it comes to the most important qualities of urban life, the future is behind us.  I don’t mean that we should return to the disease-ridden, economically brutal cities of the past.  Despite the Tea Party’s desire to dismantle our public safety nets and return to the competitive jungle of the pre-Progressive era, our world is much better because of the intervention of governments to provide clean water, require sewer systems, and to reduce the massacre of human wellbeing caused by unregulated markets.  But there are important aspects of past urban life that are worth preserving or recreating that emerge from the presence of both cohesive neighborhoods and unstructured diversity. Continue reading

THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (Part II)

In the two weeks since I posted Part I, discussing the role of mass movement in creating the political space for issue-oriented advocacy, some of the Occupy Wall Street groups have begun digging in for the long haul by setting up systems and expelling troublemakers (something the New Left should have done before the FBI infiltrators led the way into violence).  At the same time, right wing commentators have begun trying to paint them as hooligans, if not agents of the devil.  (As usual, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby places himself at the bottom of the pig pen by asserting both – see “A Sinful ‘Occupation’” from 11/2/11.) But no matter what happens to the Occupiers – whether they dribble out over the winter or explode into civil disobedience demonstrations – they have opened the door for more.  It may be less open-ended or idealistic, but the next phase will be translating the Occupy vision into a series of specific demands, then turning those into systemic reforms at both the policy and operational levels.  And accomplishing that will require sustained, organized effort – meaning strong, sophisticated organizations. Continue reading

GOOD GOALS: From Effort To Results

(This was written in response to a challenge from MassDOT’s new chief, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey.  But it’s really about what all service, public sector, and non-profit organizations need to keep in mind when they begin a goal-setting process – and the types of goals that outside stakeholders and advocates should be insisting upon.) A Sales VP in a high-tech firm I once worked at told his staff that “effort only counts in elementary school.  In the adult world, all that matters is results.”  Of course, the real issue is the nature of the results you are seeking in life, which I would maintain should include more than dollar-denominated bottom lines.  But the core idea, the value of numerically describing what you are trying to achieve, has a lot of merit.  Especially for organizations. Continue reading

THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (Part I)

Grass roots movements are the soil from which advocacy eventually grows.  As I write this, it’s not clear if the current wave of “Occupy Wall Street” groups will continue expanding to new cities, or if the arrests in NYC, Boston, and elsewhere have capped its growth. For all my admiration of the Occupy movement, for all my hope that it grows and spreads, I have no illusions that it will amount to much in the short term. The movement is appealingly non-specific, although energized by enormous creativity and personal sacrifice.  At the same time, I have no doubt that it is the most important progressive political event of the past several years; the first major opening in left-of-center political space since post-Obama election disappointment sucked the life out of the remnants of the civil rights, anti-war, environmental, women’s, youth culture, and other movements that energized his campaign. It may be incoherent and ephemeral, but it is a significant crack in the ground underneath the marauding right-wing forces. Continue reading