The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

FOLLOWING THE LEADER: Lessons from NYC’s Janette Sadik-Khan

Former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan recently gave a talk at the Harvard Book Store to promote her inspiring new book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. While Sadik-Khan was clear that the campaigns were a group effort involving her entire staff and several other departments as well, it’s clear that her leadership made a difference.  Despite the gentrifying implications of the Bloomberg Administration’s efforts to revitalize much of the city, transportation reform had city-wide effects that made things better for nearly everyone.   Some of the lessons she described: the power of positive and inclusion framing of program innovations, the importance of turning top-down innovations into bottom-up requests, the need to move quickly and cheaply when opportunities arise, and the way that the collection of new types of data can reshape the public debate. Continue reading

VIEWS FROM THE HANDLEBARS: The Status and Practice of All-Year Bicycling

In a break from my usual essay-length postings, here is a series of short comments and questions addressing a variety of bike-related issues: the growing number of all-year cyclists and their need for more bike parking, the changing tone of driver-cyclist interaction in cities and suburbs, the problem of signaling “thanks” to nice drivers and ensuring eye contact through tinted windows, my annoyance at cyclists who hog the road, and thoughts about where bike boxes should be located.   Continue reading

THE SEAPORT: Making Up for Past Mistakes

  My father told me that “fixing a mistake is usually a lot more difficult and expensive than doing it right the first time.”  He was right.  And the Seaport District’s multiple shortcomings are a case in point – in terms of transportation and nearly every other dimension of sustainable livability.  The area is self-destructively dependent on car-based mobility for both in/out commuting and internal circulation.  The roads do not embody the city and state’s commitment to Complete Streets. Transit options are woefully missing and, even worse, the available transit facilities are embarrassingly inefficient.  But more generally, the place is a steel and glass desert, excludingly expensive; a daytime-only enclave lacking most of what could have been done to make it a real neighborhood.  It is, unfortunately, a classic example of what happens when government doesn’t plan for the public good – when it becomes so desperate to attract business that it ceases to shape the market and allows individual firms to develop space in ways that go no further than their own immediate, profit-driven needs. Continue reading


If the Legislature and Administration gives the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) the staffing and funds for implementation, the agency’s current Parkway Design Study could be a game-changer.  The new Urban Parkways and Path Advisory Committee (UPPC) has been providing the recently consolidated Planning & Engineer Departments with lists of particularly dangerous locations and has offered to help them prioritize future road projects.  (Readers – are there more places you’d add - see below?) While supporting efforts to increase DCR’s drastically inadequate levels of funding and staffing, Advocates are also pushing the agency to better coordinate with local (and state) Vision Zero efforts and begin making immediate, low-cost, visible changes in Parkway conditions to make them safer and more inviting for walkers, cyclists, bus riders, and neighbors.  Continue reading

THE HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION COMPACT: Public Health Needs To Reclaim Leadership

The Healthy Transportation Compact section of the 2009 Transportation Reform Bill continues to influence state policy, but the formal inter-agency bodies created to advance and advise the process have been allowed to falter.  While the program is a MassDOT responsibility, it would be important for the state Public Health Department to get involved in reviving the effort and using the Compact as leverage for moving its multi-issue preventive programs to the next level. Continue reading

THE ENVIRONMENTAL CLIMATE STORM: Transportation, GHG Emissions, and a Carbon Tax

The headlines this winter are all about the Establishment’s loss of control over our political process.  But there’s another form of chaos lurking outside.  As rising seas jeopardize coastal areas, drought forces rural families to migrate, and severe storms threaten regional destruction, we need to get serious about preventing what we can by reducing emissions and increasing our resiliency for what are already inescapable conditions.  It will take both market-wide changes that internalize the cost of greenhouse gas emissions by putting an increasing price on carbon pollution and transportation-specific policies that directly lower vehicular discharge.  These are only marginally technical problems.  The real struggle is political and unless there is a “bottom-up” movement to demand equitable as well as effective action the price of both the inevitably coming damage and the (hopefully) implemented preventative and mitigatory solutions will fall primarily on those outside the ranks of the rich and powerful. Continue reading

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR EQUITABLE DEVELOPMENT: Boston Needs To Give As Much Attention to the Low-income Fairmount/Indigo Corridor as to the High-Income Seaport

The Seaport has everyone’s attention as city and state agencies scramble to make up for the hard-to-believe absence of a Master Plan to guide the big-money area’s development into a functional neighborhood with  parks, transit, stores, schools, bicycle facilities – just about everything beyond offices, restaurants, and condos too expensive for anything besides speculative flipping.    But given Mayor Walsh’s commitment to equity, to improving conditions for all Bostonians regardless of income, it’s surprising and disturbing that more attention hasn’t been paid to one of the city’s biggest equalizing opportunities – the 9-mile Fairmount/Indigo Corridor, especially the Fairmount Greenway component. This inattention is especially disappointing because there are many high-impact actions that can be accomplished at extremely low cost that would visibly improve conditions in a nine-mile stretch through many of the city’s low-income and non-white neighborhoods. True: the Fairmount\Indigo Line has been upgraded and in-city service started (although fares to Readville are still out of scale with appropriate transit amounts and the inability to use Charlie Cards makes payment very confusing).  But even though the city has played a role, the rail and the stations are state projects.  What’s clearly a city responsibility is the Fairmount Greenway Project – a walking, bicycling, and family-friendly play-in-the-street route meandering through adjoining residential neighborhoods parallel to the rail tracks.   Years of community meetings organized by the Fairmount Collaborative and the Fairmount Greenway Task Force have devised and approved an extensive set of ideas for the street route and key parcels.  The plans include creative designs for inexpensive improvements as well as grand plans for major projects.   But with few exceptions, already overburdened city agencies have not been able to do more  than provide verbal support and small actions – and it should be clear by now to everyone that they won’t do any more (perhaps, given inadequate funding and staffing levels, they can’t do any more) unless the Mayor explicitly makes this project a strategic priority.   The Greenway needs to be prominently written into all the long-range plans the Administration is currently preparing – from GoBoston to Imagine Boston 2030 – but even more important, the many quick-easy-cheap ideas need to be funded and accomplished.  Soon. Continue reading

TRANSPORTATION ADVOCACY: Proclaiming Victory, Moving To The Next Level

We should celebrate: on a policy level, MassDOT now follows most of the road design values andapproaches that progressive transportation advocates began promoting a decade or more ago.Although short-fallings remain in the application of the new policies (and the state has barely begunfixing and funding our mass transit system), it’s time for advocates to begin thinking about the next levelof vision and goals.  Here are some ideas for that conversation: moving the focus from streets to networks and systems, emphasizing the community-creating and place-making aspects of transportation facilities, becoming more explicit about the different types of economic development stimulus a transportation project can provide,  putting greater emphasis on making up for past neglect of those who were previously underserved. Continue reading

GO WHEN IT’S CLEAR, STOP WHEN IT’S DANGEROUS: Why Bikes Should Treat Red Lights and Stop Signs as Yields

San Francisco is contemplating an “Idaho Stop” rule allowing bicyclists to treat red lights like stop signs and stop signs as if they were yields.  Should Boston do it too? Continue reading

CAPITAL CONVERSATIONS: Themes for the Next Phase

Instead of internally creating a capital spending plan and then asking for public reaction, Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack held a series of public discussions, in-person and on-line, to ask what was on the public’s to-do list.  Her invitation has sparked some thoughts about themes that might shape future transportation system spending including: Making Safety, not Eliminating Congestion, the Only Rationale for Construction; Getting More Value and Better Leverage from Maintenance Work; Empowering MassDOT’s District Offices to be Accountable for Complete Street Standards; Changing What People Get Rewarded For; Bringing In New Ideas and Skills. Continue reading