The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

A VISION FOR COMMUTER-REGIONAL RAIL: Purpose, Technology, and Strategy

Until the 100-inches-of-snow winter of 2014-15 brought the entire 100-year-old system to its knees, and with it most of the regional economy, years of discussion about our state’s dependency on the misnamed Commuter Rail system had not broken through the public and politician’s unwillingness to raise the large amounts of revenue needed to fix things.  Suddenly, we had to pay attention. Unfortunately, we’re paying attention to the wrong things – the stoppages, the contract with Keolis, the budget shortfalls.  The real problem is not the malfunctioning locomotives or the Fiscal Management Board’s short-sighted proposal to stop weekend service.  The real problem is that the entire system is based on dysfunctional premises.  Like being stuck in quicksand, the more we flail around the deeper we descend.  Keeping the Titanic from sinking isn’t good enough if you’re living in the airplane era.  What is needed is a new vision of both purpose and technology – and a new strategy for using what we already have as the foundation for a phased advance from today’s mess to that desired future.    Continue reading

PROTEST, PUSHING, PARTNERSHIP: The Three Phases of Advocacy

Advocacy generally goes through at least three phases: Protesting against what you don’t want, Pushing for what you do want, and Partnering with the implementing agency to make sure it’s done right and kept going.    If we ran the world we wouldn’t need to advocate for anything.  We’d just do it, or order it done.  Advocates are sometimes prestigious or influential; their requests are listened to, carry weight, and often followed by decision-makers.  But, by definition, the need to advocate for something implies an outsider status, a less than all-powerful position – often a position of relative weakness or even marginality.  Perhaps even a degree of invisibility.  If power is the ability to directly make change, Advocacy is about influence – the ability to get those with power to make the desired change.   Continue reading

ROADS AND ROSES: The Functional and Cultural Importance of Design and Beauty

In 1912 nearly 23,000 immigrant mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, led by a multi-ethnic coalition of the city’s women, walked off their jobs to protest yet another pay cut.  With the help of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW – the “Wobblies”), they fought not only for better wages and working conditions but for respect and a better life – for beauty in the ways most meaningful to them.  As the famous song phrases it: “Give us bread, but give us roses too.” We need to have the same demands of our transportation systems – not just the vehicles (cars, trains, buses) that are our immediate focus of attention and use but also the corridors and buildings.  While some of our transportation infrastructure is privately owned -- and the current Republican-run federal government seems eager to expand that percentage – most of it is public land, owned collectively by ourselves as a “public right of way” to preserve our ability to move and assemble without restriction. Continue reading

E-BIKES ARE COMING: Improving Our Dangerously Incoherent Policies

Look down the street.  It’s not just cars, trucks, buses, bikes, and pedestrians.  There is a whole spectrum of new two and three wheeled things on the roll – stand-up scooters, in-line skates, skate boards both manual and motorized, Segways, “personal assistant mobility devices”, electric-assist pedal bikes, motorized cargo bikes and pedicabs, mopeds, mini-motorcycles, “smart wheels” that fit onto regular bikes, exploding hoverboards, and other things joining the motor scooters and motorcycles already there.  And next year there will be even more as several industry sectors – bicycle, moped, and scooter manufacturers in particular – gear up to serve the growing market of bike-interested but less-physically fit adults and aging boomers. Continue reading

ADVOCACY FOR THE COMMON GOOD: Action, Organization, and Power

Advocacy is the mobilization of resources and power to deal with societal problems.  It combines protest against what you don’t want, pushing for what you do want, and partnering with those responsible for implementation to make sure you actually get what you want  – although it is the pushing that we most generally think of as “advocacy”.  Advocacy starts through the spread of motivating information and bringing people together.  Having ideas and energy is vital, but not enough.  Success requires having the momentum and power to actually implement the desired change.  Vision and talk are the starting points.  Changed awareness – knowledge and empathy – and vital building blocks, but the goal of Advocacy is visible change in individual and social reality – which almost always requires action.  Advocacy occurs when you seek change outside yourself, in the surrounding world. Continue reading

A GOOD WALK, UNSPOILED: A Few Ways to Improve Foot Traffic

The cliché is true: every trip begins and ends on foot.  The basics of what makes for a good walking experience are pretty straightforward:  smooth, wide, unobstructed and well-lit surfaces; stress-free street crossings; pleasing aesthetics; busy but not overcrowded; hassle-free and crime-free areas; opportunities for social or commercial activity; and a way to get to where you want to go.  In fact, policies about pedestrian facilities are generally decent – it’s the implementation that gets controversial. Although the increasing numbers of people who step into a street with their eyes lost in a screen and their ears blocked with music are asking for trouble, the starting point for road safety must be that as the most vulnerable of road users, pedestrians (on foot or wheelchair) deserve the most protection and should be yielded to by everyone.  However, because every situation has its own particularities, most policies and standards appropriately provide enormous lee-way for on-the-spot judgement by the individual designer or traffic signal controller.   And the devil is always in the details of what gets decided, particularly in the (deliberate or implicit) weighting given to car traffic versus pedestrian (and bicycle) movement.  Here are some ideas about how things should go. Continue reading

Eliminating Killer Trucks: Leveraging the Procurement Power of Government, Non-Profits, and Private Business

Truck drivers, like most of us, try very hard to avoid hurting anyone. But the deadly repetition of death continues -- trucks are only 4% of vehicles in the United States but cause about 7% of pedestrian fatalities and 11% of cyclist fatalities. The disparity is even higher in urban areas – a London analysis found that the 4% of vehicles that were trucks were involved in nearly 53% of cyclist fatalities. In New York City truck were involved in 32% of cyclist fatalities. In Boston, 7 out of 9 cyclist fatalities in 2012-13 involved trucks or buses and the numbers keep rising. The combination of huge blind spots in the driver’s vision (especially from the cabs of the biggest and tallest trucks), the pressure drivers are under from their companies to increase their loads and cut their time, and the lack of city-specific commercial driver training in the US – all add up to nearly inevitable tragedy. There are some defensive tactics that pedestrians and bicyclists can use. Unfortunately, these are not fool-proof and not enough to prevent tragedy. What is also needed are systemic changes in both truck drivers’ ability to see what’s around them, and the availability of training resources to help truck drivers operate more safely in urban areas.  Accomplishing these two changes requires changes in public policy. Public policy changes slowly and with great difficulty – it is constitutionally designed to have multiple steps and, because our political system is so dependent on business support, it is repeatedly subject to vested-interest push-backs. However, progress is happening. This summer, D.C. became the first state to pass a side guard and mirror law for all large trucks. A truck side-guard and blind-spot mirror bill is advancing in New York State, with New York City as a major sponsor. A similar bill was introduced in last year’s session of the Massachusetts Legislature – it will hopefully get more traction when it’s re-introduced this year.  Continue reading

Active Transportation and The Community Preservation Act: Funding for Livability, Mobility, and Health

This November, Boston voters (as well as those in Springfield and Holyoke) will decide if their cities will join the roughly 160 others across the state in adopting the Community Preservation Act. A positive CPA vote (item number 5 on the Boston ballot) will raise money that can only be used for open space preservation (including greenways), development of affordable housing, the acquisition and development of outdoor recreational facilities (including playgrounds, bicycling, and pedestrian facilities), and the preservation of historic resources. If adopted, the average single-family Boston homeowner will pay about $28 per year – about $2 per month. Small business owners would pay between $100 and $250 a year. Including the projected state match, the city is expected to have roughly $20 million every year for CPA projects. It’s a small amount to pay for a very large return in increased quality of life. And voters can see exactly what their money is being used for via a database set up by the non-profit Community Preservation Coalition. The program has been a huge success in those municipalities that have already adopted it since the enabling act passed in 2000; state-wide raising over $1.4 billion which has paid for over 8,500 units of affordable housing, 1,250 recreation projects, 21,800 acres of open space, and 3,600 historic preservation projects. Once adopted, no city has ever voted to repeal the CPA program. Continue reading

Better Bike Lanes: Improving On What Got Us Here

Except for the boldest and most confident people, even experienced cyclists feel more comfortable – and more people are likely to use their bikes – when they are separated from fast moving or heavy traffic.  So it’s not surprising that the spread of standard bike lanes – a painted corridor sometimes against the curb but usually between parked cars and moving traffic – has been a powerful catalyst for the growth of cycling in recent years. Since safety comes from numbers, these facilities have significantly lowered the risk and improved the environment for bicycling.  Research shows that standard lanes increase the distance between cyclists and both moving and parked cars compared to unmarked streets -- nudging parked cars closer to the curb and bicycle riders further away.  But experience has also taught us that the next-to-the-driver-door location has significant flaws and that it’s possible to do better.  A lot of great design ideas have been developed.  However, outside the advocacy community, many people still haven’t heard about them.  Here is an introduction to a few of them. Continue reading

Road Rage Prevention and Deflation: Making Roads Safer for Interpersonal AND Intermodal Interaction

Road Rage is aggressive anger and dangerous behavior.  It carries overtones of self-righteous arrogance and potential violence.  It’s incredibly scary and deeply disturbing, especially as the number of carried guns and the amount of culture-permeating violence increases.  To reduce our chances of becoming the victim – or the initiator – of road rage, we need to de-escalate tense situations.   When confronted by an emotionally out of control or threatening person, our first act must be to remove ourselves to safety.  More often, however, we are faced with an unintentionally and unknowingly endangering behavior by a thoughtless person.  Both situations are frightening and infuriating, but exploding in anger is not usually our best response – either in its deterrence effect or its impact on ourselves.  Anger may sometimes give us a feeling of regaining control, but makes others see us as being out of control.  Sometimes, even merely trying to assertively deal with the situation triggers fury rather than understanding, potentially creating an escalating feedback loop that spirals out of control into emotional or even physical injury.  Sometimes, we need to walk away – for our own sake.  Without compromising our right to be on the roads, the route towards more civil interaction is to always try to make ourselves part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  We need to be true to our better selves, doing what we can to make our streets safer and more welcoming places for everyone. Our goal must always be to make our roads friendly at the level of interpersonal interaction as well as mode interaction – which also implies the importance of improving our street design, of adopting and implementing Compete Streets and Vision Zero programs.  A panel discussion organized by Ken Carlson, chair of the Somerville Bicycle Committee, prompted some thoughts and this blog.  (Full disclosure: I moderated the session and will lead another panel at MassDOT's upcoming Moving Together Conference.)  I’m writing this from the perspective of being a year-round cyclist who occasionally drives a car or takes transit, and starts or ends every trip with some distance on foot. Continue reading