The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities


We’ve all heard the argument: narrowing traffic lanes or removing parking will hurt local businesses.  And we’ve all read the research headlines that show the opposite is true:  widening sidewalks, adding trees, including bike lanes, expanding transit facilities, and making public space more multi-modal, people friendly, and environmentally rich increases the number of customers and the amounts they are willing to pay.  (WalkBoston has a wonderful tri-fold pamphlet called “Walking Is Good Business” that contains a treasure of statistics and citations, some of which I’ve used in this post.)  But we need to go beyond these generic arguments to focus attention on the three specific situations where Complete Streets provides significant support for economic development, and be able to articulate what those benefits may be.  The three are: Suburban Business and Adjoining Residential Areas Urban Neighborhoods First Generation, Inner-ring Highways Continue reading

BRIDGES, ROADS & HISTORIC PRESERVATION: Combining Respect for the Past with Preparation for the Future in Transportation

We create ourselves and our society with what we’ve inherited from the past – from genes to hierarchies, from culture to social status.  Most important are the stories, the myths, we’ve been given that help give meaning to the physical world and prepare us for an unknowable future.  As those stories float between generations, among their anchors are the historic artifacts surrounding us in the built environment which embody our collective heritage and trigger our personal memories. But obsessively preserving the past can be a barrier to dealing with today’s realities or preparing for tomorrow’s challenges.  While architects and preservationists seem to have come to some mutual understanding, it seems that the same is not true in the transportation sector.  As we begin dealing with the physical collapse of the infrastructure built for the passing automobile age, we face potentially damaging, and stupid, fights over what to do with its still-in-use artifacts.  To what extent can we change historic bridges and roadways so they can safely and efficiently serve pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses as well as the cars they were designed for?  To what extent can we acknowledge that the environment surrounding an old bridge has changed since it was constructed so that retaining walls that once served to hide polluted rivers can be changed to allow passers-by to see the now-beautiful water? Continue reading

COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

Compared with traffic engineers’ traditional focus on moving many cars as fast as possible, adoption of a “Complete Streets” policy at the state or local level is a huge improvement.  Designing streets to serve all modes and all types of users within those modes turns out to create a safer and more movement-efficient transportation system for everyone – including fewer car accidents and injuries! (The key reason is that while a well-designed multi-modal road doesn’t significantly reduce car throughput – the number of cars passing through a stretch of pavement in a given time period – the presence of different kinds of users and the narrower lanes lead drivers to feel more comfortable going at lower speeds.  Meaning, as my mother used to say, that there is less “racing to the next red light.” And slower speeds equal fewer injuries – for everyone.) Continue reading

HEALTH IMPACT ASSESSMENTS (HIA) AND ADVOCACY: Useful Tool or Sophisticated Smoke Screen?

“Health In Everything” is an important slogan, pointing out that personal and social well-being is impacted by every public policy and every aspect of our built and cultural environments.  Partly based on this insight, there is increasing interest in creating Health Impact Assessments (HIA) as part of the preparation for all kinds of policies and projects that don’t traditionally fall within the purview of public health – from transportation to commercial development, from agriculture to public safety. For example, the 2009 enabling law creating the new Massachusetts Department of Transportation states that MassDOT “shall…institute and establish methods to implement the use of health impact assessments to determine the effect of transportation projects on public health and vulnerable populations for use by planners, transportation administrators, public health administrators and developers…” Continue reading

GREEN LINE EXTENSION: State Needs To Make The Trains Run On Time

The state has, once again, announced a multi-year delay in completing the Green Line Extension, from 2014 to 2018 or 2020 or even later.  Somerville is already mobilizing to fight.  But they should not be fighting alone.  All of us, around this entire region, have a deep stake in the outcome.  As national transportation policy gets warped by the Tea Party’s opposition to anything besides unregulated automobiles, and national transportation funding remains hostage to the right-wing goal of dismantling government, letting the Green Line Extension get “kicked down the road” will weaken our ability to push dozens of other pending transit projects to completion, whether they be rail road, subway/trolley, bus, and even off-road shared-up paths.  It will make our entire regional economy weaker, our environment dirtier, our options fewer. We’re all in this together.  We need to unite to demand no more delays.  In fact, given that both construction and borrowing are cheaper now than they’ve been (or probably will be) for decades, it makes sense to speed up implementation and push all the way to Route 16 near Medford Square.  Putting construction off until only makes it more expensive – even the state estimates that a half-decade postponement will increase the estimated $1billion bill by at least 20% — about $200 million! Continue reading

DEMOCRACY, DEMAGOGUERY, AND BICYCLING: Stop The Boston Herald’s Vigilante Campaign

It’s been fascinating and infuriating watching the Boston Herald try to conjure up anti-bicyclist hysteria.   Day after day, they throw out feelers, venomous outbursts testing the appeal of one angle after another: government waste, arrogant elites riding roughshod over ordinary people, preferential treatment of a minority group, discriminatory ticketing of car drivers while letting law-breaking cyclists get away with warnings, out-of-control youth treating the elderly with contempt….I’m sure that there is more to come. Pandering to resentment is the Herald’s stock in trade.  Of course, it’s not them alone.  The modern model of nastiness was created by AM radio’s talk hate shows and spread to other media (and other countries) by Rupert’s Fox-media conglomerates.  They’re all anti-government, and jumping on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.  If this was any place beside Massachusetts we’d also be getting heavy doses of gay-bashing – but here the legalization of same-sex marriage has made it a non-issue.  (Has your marriage been having any extra trouble lately?  Has anyone you know suddenly woken up attracted to a different gender?) Continue reading


Massachusetts’ public mass transportation system is about to go broke.  It is being dragged down by over $8.6 billion of debt (including an inappropriately huge chunk of the Big Dig costs), decreasing federal aid, and the unwillingness of state government to raise revenue.  The MBTA’s capital spending plan lists $3.7 billion worth of projects needed for safety or reliability, while the agency only gets to spend between $200 and $300 million a year. Like transit systems around the country, the MBTA is caught in a downward spiral.  Cultural changes and hard times have increased demand, which is growing at a faster rate than highway vehicle travel.  But decreasing revenue means less service and higher fares. According to the American Public Transportation Association, more than 80 percent of the nation’s transit systems are considering or have recently enacted fare increases or service cuts, including reductions in rush-hour service, off-peak service and geographic coverage.  Locally, T riders are facing potential increases of 25 cents for each bus/subway ride, about $120 a year.  But these cutbacks drive away riders and reduce revenue while also setting the stage for public criticism and reduced public support, which further undermines efforts to get political support for the desperately needed investment.  The result is an increasingly unreliable and unsafe system, with anti-government right wingers crowing that “the government can’t do anything” or attacking the very idea of non-car transportation. Continue reading

ZONING REFORM: Unlocking Investment in Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

There is little or no zoning in many parts of the United States.  It is condemned as the intrusion of government rules on what you want to do with your own property.  Live free or die! But, historically, it was precisely the unregulated freedom of property owners to do whatever they wanted that was the cause of death.  Zoning was a way to separate deadly land uses from residential areas. Unfortunately, over the years, in many communities zoning has become a mind-bogglingly complicated bureaucratic mess, totally opaque and highly vulnerable to back-room dealings as well as political-business collusion.  In many cases, it has become so ossified that zoning categories neither address market realities nor capture sufficient value for the public good. Continue reading

HOW ROADS SHAPE ECONOMIES: Why What Happens to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, Sullivan Station, and Rutherford Ave. Will Make – or Break – Local Job Opportunities and Community Well-Being

Will Boston’s inner ring of old suburbs – Somerville, Charlestown, Roslindale, even Dorchester — be able to build on residential upgrading to become economic growth nodes as well?  Or will they continue to be left out, with growth focused either in downtown Boston or the still-expanding outer rings of suburban towns around Routes 128/95 and 495? The answer partly depends on the types of transportation system that gets built over the next twenty years – not only what happens to mass transit but also what is done with the older highways that run through the area.  McGrath/O’Brien, Rutherford Ave., Casey (Rte 203) – these were once vital arterials bulldozed through the inner ring to connect the outer suburbs with downtown.  Building them required the destruction of working class neighborhoods.  But they kept the wheels of commerce rolling as the tide of growth moved outward. Continue reading

FEDERAL HIGHWAY FUND RESCISSIONS: Are We Giving Back (Bike/Ped/R2T/SSTS) Money? What Should We Do?

Short Answer:  No money is being lost or returned. Short Explanation:  Congress “appropriates” less money than government is “authorized” to spend.  States have great freedom to allocate the appropriated funds among different programs.  States typically use as much as they can for roads.  Massachusetts has the dubious honor of spending the lowest percentage of any state or territory of its Transportation Enhancements (TE) authorization and other programs typically used for bike/ped facilities. For bike/ped-favoring programs such as TE and Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ), the disproportionate allocation process creates an “unobligated balance” between the authorized ceiling and the obligated (to be eventually spent) amount.  This “authorized-to-obligated” gap accumulates every year.  Every now and then, Congress cleans up the books by “rescinding” some of the unobligated amounts.  States have great freedom in deciding which programs’ unobligated balances are used for the rescission – they typically use the bike/ped programs for this purpose. Continue reading