The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

Propose to add bike lanes or narrow traffic lanes or even to install corner bulb-outs in either a suburb or an inner-city neighborhood, and you’re likely to run into the rejection chorus from long-time residents:  “You’ll just make congestion worse.” “Cars will short-cut through our neighborhoods.”  “This discriminates against the car driving majority.” The issue isn’t the technical details – the size of the bulb-outs, the width of the bike lanes, the height of the speed bumps.  Neither does it usually seem to be about the need to make it safer to walk, bike, or take transit.  Everyone agrees that the roads aren’t as safe as we’d like.  And often it isn’t really about bicycling, or buses, or whatever else has triggered the opposition – many people will tell you that “I’m all in favor of …; but this is just not the right place for this kind of project.” Continue reading

PARKS, GREENWAYS, AND TRANSPORTATION: Increasing Usefulness By Combining Visions

Parks have many functions.  Urban parks were originally seen as oases, cool and green antidotes to the noise and density of the city; a place for quiet walks, meditation, and observation of nature’s wonderfulness.  Over the years, a growing working population with limited opportunity to escape the city demanded that parks also be used for family fun and active recreation: picnics, kids’ games, adult sports and exercise.  More recently, we’ve learned that green areas are the lungs and sponges of our environment, cleaning the air, absorbing water run-offs, lowering the temperature, and providing a vital tool for dealing with the globe’s escalating climatic disruptions. But what if parks were also treated as building blocks for a regional healthy transportation network?  What if they were nodes in a web of connected greenways with multi-use paths designed for non-motorized use for both families at play and weekday commuters?  What if the vision was to improve access to local parks by neighbors as well as to facilitate movement between and through the parklands by everyone? Continue reading

SHAPING TRAVEL CHOICES: The Four C’s of the Behavioral Context

Several times each day, most of us move from one place to another using one of the many options available – walk or drive, take the stairs or the elevator, bike or bus, taxi or limousine.  Most of the time, most of us don’t really think about it; we just do what we’ve usually done, what everyone else usually does, fall into the default behavior:  we drive, take the elevator, call a cab. What creates the default?  What nudges so many of us in the same direction?  Not an act of nature or of god.  Behavioral defaults are not inevitable or inescapable.  They are created by the surrounding context – the structure of our buildings, the nature of the transportation system, the attributes of high social status, the cultural assumptions that make some things feel normal and others unthinkable.  One way to understand the decision-making context is to examine the “Four Cs” of Convenience, Cost, Comfort, and Coolness.  Which method of movement is easiest to access?  Which feels like a good value?  Which requires the least effort to use?  Which is the most appropriate for people of our (self-imagined) social standing and style? Continue reading

UPDATE on TRANSPORTATION ENHANCEMENTS in MASSACHUSETTS: From Hope for Better to Concern for Worse….?

Winning isn’t everything; but being last should be embarrassing.  The Transportation Enhancement (TE) component of the federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) is the major source of federal funding for pedestrian/bicycle facilities and rail-trail conversations.  A recent post pointed out Massachusetts’ worst-in-the-nation status in percent of potential-to-actual money spent on TE projects. The post applauded the (slightly) simplified application process MassDOT was instituting for TE projects as well as the creation of financial incentives for the state’s 13 regional transportation planning groups (MPOs) to approve TE projects.  It also approvingly noted the criteria that MassDOT was considering using to evaluate TE project spending, giving priority to projects that would connect high-population areas or close gaps in existing bike routes. Continue reading

DESIGNING A TRANSPORTATION REPORT CARD: Ideas for a State Bike & Pedestrian Facility Progress Report

It’s hard to know if you are heading in the right direction if you don’t know where you are going.    In today’s context of fiscal constraint, it is vital to justify expenditures or to choose among competing options by evaluating how much they are moving us, or potentially will move us, towards our goals.  This is particularly true for public policy and action. The Healthy Transportation Compact, a component of the 2008 law creating today’s Massachusetts Department of Transportation, commits the agency to “support healthy transportation…reducing greenhouse gas emissions…improving access to services for persons with mobility limitations, and increasing opportunities for physical activities… increasing bicycle and pedestrian travel…[creating] complete streets for all users…” Continue reading


There actually is a common theme running through all three of this week’s seemingly unconnected items:  how to deal with the changes in transportation choices that people will make as gas prices continue to rise, urban population expands, and congestion gets worse.  Or, as my carpenter brother says about his tools, “the trick is keeping everything in its own place.” SEGWAY IN THE WAY – Reclaiming Sidewalks for People CHARLES RIVER BRIDGES – Part of the Path or the Road? BIKE LIGHTS AT NIGHT – “Fix It” Enforcement The first one applauds Boston’s effort to plan ahead for the influx of electric and low-powered vehicles – such as scooters, mopeds, electric bikes, and Segways – that people will increasingly use.  If you agree, contact your favorite Boston City Councilor and urge a quick, positive vote for the proposal. Continue reading

WHEN SHOUTING “FIRE” IS UNHEALTHY: Balancing Emergency Access, Travel Safety, and Public Health

Arriving late is every emergency worker’s nightmare. EMTs and firefighters know that new construction materials – plastics and composites – burn fast and release unpredictable clouds of toxic fumes.  It is estimated that people have about 3 minutes to escape the heat and smoke once a fire starts, down from nearly 17 minutes forty years ago.  Response speed spells life or death not only for the residents but also for the fire fighters, whose ever-larger ladder trucks and pumpers need to fight through traffic congestion and tight intersections.   In fact, given our increasing awareness of the potential need for mass evacuations under catastrophic conditions, creating a transportation system that allows emergency movement is a matter of both public safety and national security. So it’s not surprising that fire chiefs in many communities have fought for wide traffic lanes and intersections – a concern often shared by bus drivers and snow-plow agencies.  But this has repeatedly brought them into conflict with the growing public demand to slow traffic and create more livable streets whether under the label of “Complete Streets”, “New Urbanism”, “Traffic Calming and Road Diets”, or “Creating Better Balance Between Car, Bike, and Pedestrian Facilities”. Continue reading

SMALL STEPS FORWARD: Improvements To Applaud, Improvements To Make

While we’re waiting for the big transformations needed to deal with climate change, resource depletion, dietary distortions, inequality, and the other despair-evoking problems we face, it’s good to remember that incremental improvements are still possible – and may be all we can gain at this particular moment in history.  The first five items in this post applauds small but significant steps forward while pointing out some additional actions that are still needed. The fifth item picks up a previous post’s theme – the need for bicyclists to discipline their own community about dangerous and anti-social behavior. (See “Time To Stop Behaving Badly On Bikes“)   As our streets are redesigned for pedestrian and cyclist safety, we will have to confront an inevitable backlash as car owners protest the loss of their once-privileged status and businesses worry (mostly inaccurately) about decreased access for truck deliveries, parking-dependent customers, and car-commuting employees.  The last thing we need at this time are stupid cyclists (or jay-walkers) providing good reasons to oppose continued change. Continue reading

REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use

Transportation for America (T4) is a huge national coalition (including LivableStreets Alliance) focused on getting improvements in the next federal transportation authorization bill – which is already overdue and now mired in Republican demands to reduce government activity and spending no matter the consequences.  T4A conducted a lengthy national process of collecting ideas and creating a really good consensus platform. But the T4A platform is focused on national issues.  Those of us who mostly work at the city and state levels need a set of issues and positions that more directly speak to people’s everyday experiences, fears, and hopes – and can serve as a platform for building the broad coalitions needed to successfully push for change. Continue reading


Because I’m out so many evenings and weekends, I try to reserve a couple of mid-week hours to bike with the Wednesday Wheelers.  This week the weather was fabulous and a small group of us did a great 40 mile ride through the beauty of the approaching spring.  Afterwards, I sat with Stan Sabin and his wife Susan at lunch. Stan Sabin was a former Pulmonologist, a sweet and careful man who probably never ran a red light or jumped in front of traffic in any of his 74 years. When we finished eating and chatting, Stan smiled, kissed Susan, waved to everyone, then left ahead of the rest of us to get home in time for the free health clinic that he ran in Framingham. Continue reading