The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough

The Human Scale is a wonderful movie based on the powerful insights and work of progressive urban planner, Jan Gehl; it’s now available in CD format.  Everyone who loves cities should see it.  In potently visual scenes, the film lays out his critique of today’s automobile-focused high-rise urban design, the dangers of top-down authoritarian planning and “mega projects,” the value of allowing “ordinary” citizens to shape development goals, and the dynamism unleashed by embracing unplanned and open-ended grass-roots creativity.  It’s an important message from a brilliant person who carries forward the best of the Jane Jacobs and William Whyte tradition of human-centered city life. Continue reading

PERFORMANCE MEASUREMENT FEEDBACK: It’s Hard to Stay on Route if You Don’t Know Where You’re Going

MassDOT deserves enormous credit for trying to connect its investment decisions with the desired outcomes.  It’s a challenging and complicated undertaking, constrained in many ways by federal reporting requirements, limited data, and unverified impact-calculating methodologies. The fact that their first attempt, the very impressive WeMove Massachusetts: Planning for Performance tool, is deeply flawed (for example, defining mobility solely as car travel) is much less important than the Agency’s public willingness to admit those flaws and commit itself to an iterative improvement process.  This is something that every public— and private – organization needs to take on, not merely to better serve its stakeholders but also to be better in control of its own fate. Continue reading

GETTING MORE EGGS FROM THE GOLDEN GOOSE: “Nobody in this Country got Rich on their Own.”

It takes resources to run a city. Of course, the most important resource is people: the capabilities and creativity of its work force, the strength and resiliency of its families and neighborhoods, the civic engagement of its residents – and if Mayor Walsh is really smart he will find many ways to encourage city volunteerism in every segment of government and social life. But money also counts.  Transportation, parks, social services, fire, police, housing, schools, and everything else: all cost money – inescapably (and legitimately) more today than yesterday, more tomorrow than today.  State law makes cities’ revenue overwhelmingly dependent on property taxes; they provide about two-thirds of Boston’s operating budget.  And (in Massachusetts) the Prop. 2½ limits on increasing the rates on pre-1982 buildings make local governments desperate for new development, particularly commercial development which has higher tax rates than residential buildings.  (The Boston Business Journal complains that “commercial properties downtown, in the Back Bay, and the Seaport… are taxed at nearly three times the residential rate …and generate more than half of Boston’s total tax levy….”) Continue reading

SMART CITIES, POWER POLITICS, & QUALITY OF LIFE: Technology and What It’s Used For

Techno-utopians.  It wasn’t long ago that we were being told that digital Information and Communication Technologies would solve nearly every problem and transform the world in wonderful ways, small and big.  Cars would be routed around congestion; government would more accurately chart population needs. Although there were some efforts to broaden the scope of “smart” to include people as well as systems, the vision was primarily about technology.   Continue reading

SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

We’ve all seen the graph: a person hit by a car going 40 miles per hour (mph) has an 85% chance of being killed.  Reducing the speed to 30 mph cuts the odds of death in half; reducing speed to 20 mph drops the fatality rate by an astounding 94%.  Even more dramatically, at 5 mph cars (and very cautious trucks), bikes, and pedestrians can all safely share the same street space.  According to the US Department of Transportation, about 33% of vehicle-related deaths are speeding-related.  Of those, around 40% occur in urban areas.   Continue reading

FOR A HEALTHIER YEAR IN A HEALTHIER WORLD

Solstice.  New Years.    The annual Janus; looking both forward and backward at another year of transitions and challenges. Continue reading

LIVABILITY, PUBLIC HEALTH, AND MOVING AROUND: A Healthy Society Requires Healthy People

Boston Public Health Commissioner, Barbara Ferrer, says that while Boston has many Public Health needs, the three biggest challenges facing the city are reducing violence, making a positive health impact an explicit goal of every policy in every department, and using the new provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to get hospitals and other health-care providers to do more about prevention. Continue reading

McGRATH HIGHWAY REPAIRS: The Occasional Superiority of Short-Term Solutions

Both Advocates and Public Agency leaders can find a number of lessons in the multi-level effort to deal with the McGrath Highway corridor in Somerville – which has resulted not only in a commitment from MassDOT to explore ways to eventually replace the crumbling neighborhood-dividing “Chinese Wall” with a less intimidating ground-level road, but a short-term plan to significantly  improve transit, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities as part of short-term repairs to the McCarthy Overpass section. Continue reading

MassDOT’S HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION POLICY DIRECTIVE: Framing Economic Needs as Public Health Measures Strengthens Both

MassDOT’s recently issued Healthy Transportation Policy Directive could actualize the most profound transformation in the state’s transportation system since the anti-highway movement convinced Governor Frank Sargent to cancel the massive Inner Belt project (the first time any state had done this) and his Transportation Secretary, Alan Altshuler, got the state’s Congressional delegation to pass legislation allowing Highway Fund money to be used for mass transit.   If carried through, it will push Massachusetts to the front of national efforts to modernize our transportation infrastructure. Continue reading

OPENING STREETS, CHANGING POLICIES: Creating Space for Neighborhood Revival and Transportation Reform

Movement building requires organizing activities and programs that have inherent value and meet people’s immediate needs while also raising their awareness of the importance of larger reforms and putting pressure on relevant officials and power brokers to implement those changes.   It’s a tricky combination to achieve.  Providing free breakfast to low-income kids, for example, makes access to good nutrition more affordably available but doesn’t necessarily force the commercial food system to change. In recent years, enthusiasm for Open Streets programs has spread among progressive transportation, community renewal, and other advocates wanting to change the way cities use their largest physical asset, the space normally devoted to car traffic and parking.  The excitement has its roots in the CicloVia program started nearly 40 years ago in Bogota, Columbia, where over two million people, nearly a third of the city population, come out for a few hours every weekend to play, exercise, do yoga, dance, walk, run, bicycle, enjoy endless vendor offerings, and simply hang out with each other along nearly 76 miles of car-free roads. (The roads aren’t “closed to cars”, they are “open for people”!)   Open Streets are now held around the globe including at least 90 US cities. Continue reading