The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

Cycling and Cents — The Bicycle ROI

It’s winter in Boston – cold, windy, occasional snow.  And yet every time I go out I see people bicycling.  They weren’t here ten years ago; or even five – certainly not in the winter!  It suddenly feels like we’ve reach an inflection point:  there are enough people who use cycling as a major form of transportation that it’s become a year-round presence. The US Census Bureau agrees.  Their 2008 American Community Survey found that the share of bicycle commuters nationally increased 43 percent since 2000.  In supportive environments it grew even more:  the 27 large cities recognized as Bike Friendly by the League of American Bicyclists had increases nearly 60 percent larger than the national average.  ( There are lots of reasons for this upsurge but in these fiscally tight times it’s illuminating to particularly analyze the dollars and sense aspects.  It turns out that bicycling is a good deal for both the cyclist and the city. Continue reading

Changing The Rules of the Road: National Transportation Reform

For the past half century, Congress creates a new national transportation funding bill every six years or so.  Originally, the primary role of the Highway Trust Fund was to send federal gas tax money to the states to subsidize construction of the Interstate Highway System and other roads.  Over time, as national priorities have changed, the bill has authorized the Fund to cautiously include other modes (railroads, transit, bikeways, and walking paths) and a broader perspective (reducing traffic-related air pollution and safety).  The most recent six year cycle ended in 2009, and the next Transportation Funding Bill – now being debated – will not only shape how we travel but also the nature of our communities, the cleanliness of our environment, our level of daily physical activity, and much more.  All of us have a stake in the outcome.  Continue reading

Why the Public Sector Can’t Be Run “Like A Business”

The public sector can certainly benefit from the adoption of many business practices, from a focus on customer service to more efficient work flow, from TQM to greater transparency.  But no matter how important these practices may be, no matter how much the public sector can benefit from their use, there is a fundamental difference between the two sectors that will perpetually lead to differences: the public sector rests on a foundation of democracy while private organizations do not.  This plays itself out in at least five ways: government’s requirement to serve everyone, government’s requirement to fulfill its entire mandate, the multiple and sometimes competing dimensions that defines quality in public programs, the complicated way public revenues are generated, and the population-wide ownership of the public sector. Continue reading

Making Government Work (Better)

No matter what our concern, each of us has a stake in having government operate effectively and accountably, respecting legal rights while being creative and fast-acting enough to deal with public issues. Some people say this means that government should be run like a business.  But government is not business.  Its bottom line is much more complicated than profit, its operations are subject to many more constraints, and it operates with far more public scrutiny than any firm could endure.  (For more on the differences, see the associated posting “Why the Public Sector – Schools in Particular – Can’t Be Run “Like A Business.”)  But there are a lot of business methods that the public sector can adapt to its own unique circumstances and use – needs to use – if it is to do its job.  Here are comments about a few of them – measuring performance, involving the public, outsourcing, and technology. Continue reading

High Status Bus Rides — Does Bus Rapid Transit Make Sense for Us?

Imagine that you wanted to invent a better public mass transit system.  Like a railroad it would run on an exclusive right-of-way, have weather-protected stations where people with already-bought tickets could wait, and multiple cars with comfortable accommodations.  Like a subway, each car would have lots of doors so that large numbers of people, standing or in wheelchairs, could quickly get on and off from a platform that is level with the doors.  Electronic signposts at every station would display the waiting time before the next pickup. Like a bus it would change its route and stopping locations as changing need requires.  It would be clean and safe and fast and high-status enough to attract both rich and poor.  It wouldn’t cost nearly as much nor take nearly as long to build as rail.  And it would work best where traffic congestion is worst.  Pretty good, right? What you want to invent already exists.  It’s called Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT.  I’m not talking about Boston’s Silver Line – which is no more BRT than Amtrak’s Acela is a true high-speed rail line.  Both use a label that they don’t deserve to cover up their basic failures.  They are a sad reminder that the most powerful way to undermine a good idea is with a bad first example.  But true BRT already exists in a few cities in this country and many more around the world.  We in the Boston area need to erase our negative impressions, start again learning about BRT as if the state hadn’t already spoiled the concept.  In fact, there are several places in our own region that could be well served by such a system. Continue reading

Celebrity Culture, Reality TV, Political Anger – and Scott Brown’s Election

Republicans are claiming that Scott Brown’s election was an affirmation of their conservative ideology.  But it is unlikely that the majority of Massachusetts voters have so radically changed their values and views.  It is more likely that his election was the result of two other dynamics — the capture of the election process by our reality-show celebrity culture and the widespread anger about the mess that national elites have made of our society.  Both have implications for advocates.  Why do so many people get so involved with celebrities?  As Joseph Campbell so insightfully taught, throughout human history we’ve celebrated heroes – people, deities, and even creatures who represent our ideals and our fantasies.  And we’ve created myths – stories about those heroes that models ways to struggle with the hardships and fears of our existence. Continue reading

Bikes Not Bombs — Lessons about Sustainable Organizing for Progressive Change

A couple months ago Bikes Not Bombs both celebrated its 25th anniversary and announced that the last of the founding organizers, Carl Kurtz, was leaving.  But its core mission of international anti-war solidarity combined with local bicycle and youth services remains.  Still based in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, BNB is now being run by the next generation — people who have grown up with the organization, or connected through the international network of local bike shops that BNB continues to support, or who were attracted by BNB’s combination of political vision and pragmatic services. It is of enormous credit to the entire BNB community that the organization has lasted this long.  And it’s of equal credit to Carl that he has been such a steadfast leader and worker for the entire time.  Listening to the speeches, and reflecting on what I know about the organization, helped remind me of what it takes to create sustainable change from the bottom up.  The simplicity of the words hides the enormous skill and art of making them happen:  compelling vision, optimistic faith, coherent mission, operational efficiency, good leadership, and luck. Continue reading

Why Do So Many People Do Such Stupid Things?

Why don’t more people just leave their cars at home?  Why do so many people eat such terrible food?  I am frequently in conversations where someone asks these types of questions.  Sometimes the speaker is just a snob, using the question to really announce their own sense of superiority.  But sometimes it’s a sincere bewilderment.  Why do people make choices that end up hurting not only themselves but our society in the long run?  And how can we get them to change?  Few people are consciously self-destructive.  The reason most Americans drive, just like the reason that so many Americans eat bad food, is because given the surrounding context it makes sense to do so.  Our homes jobs, shopping centers, schools, and friends are often located far away from each other, extending across the metro region into the suburbs.   Public transportation doesn’t typically connect scattered starting points with equally scattered destinations – assuming that’s its available at all.  Cars are often a necessity. Continue reading

Boston Needs Bureaucracy

(This is the full text and title of a letter that appeared in the Boston Globe on 1/10/10) We all hate bureaucracy – big, rule-based, inflexible.  But the impersonal efficiency of bureaucracy is exactly what big organizations need to run effectively.  So the James Michael Curley legacy that is most damaging to today’s Boston is not the corruption or ethnic-neighborhood chauvinism or even the patronage described by Peter Canellos (“Curley’s People”, Jan.1, Ideas), but the pattern of delivering public service entirely on the basis of personal relationships.  If you want something done, you have to know someone who works in city hall.  Even within City Hall, inter-office coordination is more about calling your cousin than oiling a functional machine. Continue reading

Making Boston A World Class WALKing City

Aren’t we already walkable?  We’ve got short blocks and a decent amount of mixed-use development, which encourage using your feet.  Nearly 5% of our adult population walks to work, second only to New York.  But most of our advantages are the dwindling remains of our colonial and immigrant inheritance – narrow winding streets, buildings fronting the sidewalk, three-decker density, scattered neighborhood business districts.  Unfortunately, we have done our best over the past 50 years to catch up with the rest of car-centric America.  It should not be surprising that pedestrian accidents in Boston have jumped by 21 percent since 2006, reaching 776 last year according to police statistics.  Fatalities have increased to 20 in 2008 from eight in 2005.  Jaywalking is a local sport, and no one feels safe. Continue reading