GREEN ROUTES TO THE FUTURE: Combining Regional Vision and Local Initiative to Revitalize Urban Transportation and Well-Being

Walking and bicycling are part of the solution to problems from traffic congestion to public health, from pollution to economic development.  Creating a seamless network of safe, family-friendly, aesthetically inviting walking and bicycling facilities is key to convincing a meaningful proportion of the population that they don’t need a car to get to work, run errands, visit friends, or have fun.  To have this impact, the network needs to be composed of overlapping “lines and loops” within and between neighborhoods and cities, suitable for both functional travel and recreational pleasure.  It needs to feel comfortable for all users: slow walkers and fast cyclists, slow baby-carriage pushers and fast runners.  And it should foster the expansion of our green spaces – parks, greenways, river banks, gardens, open space, and tree-lined boulevards.

Eastern Massachusetts needs this as much as anyplace.  Creating a Green Routes system requires connecting two currently separate strategies:  Adding better sidewalks and bike facilities to our streets and turning old railroad beds into off-road rail-trails.  To be successful, the two approaches need to be united within an “Emerald Network” vision of off-road paths, tree-lined streets, and clearly signed connections – a re-invigoration of the historic Olmsted-Eliot vision of regional parks and innovative parkways along our rivers and between our hills.

As a recent Boston Globe article illustrates, the Boston region has much to build on: off-road trails, city bike lanes, state parkways.  But connecting the existing segments, filling the missing links, requires both high-level commitment and local initiative.  Elected leaders as well as state and regional agencies need to incorporate this vision into their policies and funding priorities.  Municipalities need to include non-motorized facilities as a core part of their transportation and economic development planning.  Regional and local advocacy groups need to work together in a broad coalition dealing with transportation, environmental protection, smart growth, and public health.

The Green Routes Network will be an evolving system, completed segment by segment in ways that serve local needs while extending the regional web, with priority given to projects that maximally leverage existing segments or that serve currently underserved areas.  Each new addition will increase the value of everything that connects to it.

It can be done.  And the time to start is now!

(If you or your organization are interested in being part of the new Green Routes Coalition, please get in touch – Steve@LivableStreets.info)

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STREET TRANSFORMATION

There are two major traditions of non-motorized transportation infrastructure design.  The first focuses on transforming the street to maximize either modal separation or togetherness.  Separation is most clearly expressed in the Dutch strategy of restructuring streets into curb-separated “roadways” for cars, transit, bikes, and pedestrians.  (In the US, this has been translated into sidewalks and cycle tracks or “buffered” bike lanes.)  Alternatively, where the modes cannot be separated they are pushed together – most radically into “shared space” where people and vehicles are welcome but movement must be at a pedestrian-safe slow speed.  Less radically, the Europeans (and some US cities) are creating “bicycle boulevards” – using “traffic calming” and other techniques to slow cars and prioritize bike (and pedestrian) movement.  (Boston proposes to use particularly low-traffic streets for the same purpose under the label of “neighborways.”)

Whether it’s called Context Sensitive Design or Complete Streets or Transit Oriented Development or Smart Growth, most transportation policies now officially call for inclusion of transit, bicycle, and walking facilities.  Massachusetts is one of the leaders.  Its GreenDOT program is an impressively multi-faceted call for increased sustainability.  Boston’s Complete Streets Guidelines are state-of-art.

But so far, these are more policies than plans.  The old, car-centric approach is still built into nearly every inch of our existing transportation infrastructure.  It is still assumed by nearly every transportation funding decision-making process, every road design standard, and every zoning code.  It still forms the core skills and experience of almost the entire transportation work force from design to construction to maintenance.

In practice, these policies have not recognized the need to overcome the past century’s single-minded focus on car-centric development by now prioritizing investment in other modes.  For all the talk and pretty pictures, being multi-modal usually means simply fitting something for pedestrians and cyclists into the space left over after projected car volumes are accommodated.  Cycle Tracks (separate bike “roadways” alongside car lanes and pedestrian sidewalks) or even Buffered Bike Lanes (on-road bike lanes detached from traffic by visible separators of some kind) are rare, usually only considered on a case-by-case basis when Advocates are around to push.  And traffic speeds are still mostly left to driver discretion rather than built into the structure of the road, meaning that cars go as fast as the surface allows no matter what the posted speed limit.

RAIL-TO-TRAIL CONVERSIONS

The second tradition of non-motorized route development focuses on creating off-road facilities such as the multi-use paths created through Rail-to-Trailconversions.  These mostly serve suburban areas, although there are some urban extensions around the country.  As the Minuteman Bike Trail has proven, “if you build it, they will come” is also true for bike/ped facilities – showing that there is an enormous latent demand far beyond current mode share numbers.

New England has the nation’s most dense network of former railroad “rights of way.” But in Massachusetts a combination of bureaucratic complications, diverted funding, and local NIMBY fears has severely retarded progress.  Ironically, although almost always initially opposed by worried abutters, multi-use Rail-to-Trailconversions almost always end up raising property values of everything they pass.  A recent study found that home buyers were willing to pay a $9,000 premium to be located every thousand feet closer to the trail.   A USDA researcher has found similar trends.

THE UNIFYING VISION — AN EMERALD NETWORK

Transforming our streets to invite non-motorized uses (including non-transportation uses like New York’s Play Streets and San Francisco’s Sunday Streets program) is vital, as is aggressively completing the off-road trail network.  But neither, by themselves, will create the kind of seamless regional network we need.  We need to combine and connect these two approaches.  We need to make our streets feel like paths, full of foliage and comfortable even for people afraid to walk or bike near traffic.  And we need to stretch our paths so that they connect to the streets that lead to people’s front doors.

The way to do this is to draw on yet another tradition, the Olmsted-Eliot approach to urban planning and their magnificent heritage of parks and parkways, of the Esplanade and the Emerald Necklace, and of their Metropolitan Parkway plan.   The Olmsted-Eliot team used the natural environment as their canvas, building along rivers and around woods and hills, creating regional visions that provided both functionality and fun in beautiful settings.  They incorporated new technologies and transportation modes and constantly revised their plans as well as the topography, never allowing themselves to get frozen in any design or technique.

In the Olmsted-Elliot spirit, we can incorporate the MWRA’s aqueduct preserves and the amazing Bay Circuit Network.  We can tap into parts of several cities’ new Bicycle Networks and sidewalk improvement plans.  We can use some of the off-road, multi-use paths being created by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation as well as the on-road bicycle facilities being constructed by MassDOT, the state’s transportation agency. We can upgrade our remaining Parkways into a building block for a revitalized, multi-modal regional transportation system.  We can tie into the expanding segments of Rail-to-Trail multi-use paths.

But these are currently scattered fragments.  To create a better transportation system, to lay the foundation for a better future, what we most have to do is adopt the vision of a unified, mostly car-free, continuous network of walking and bicycling facilities based on our existing parks and .  We have to identify the most important “missing links” and mobilize ourselves to support closing those gaps.

HARD NUMBERS, BROAD BENEFITS

Other than for people in wheelchairs, every trip begins and ends with at least a little walking:  safe, wide, well-light, smooth, and clean sidewalks are a universal need.  Still, walking isn’t practical for more than short trips of ¼ or at most ½ mile, even for the young.  We need to include bicycles in every plan.

Fortunately, as with cars and trains, if you build it, they will come.  Just painting bike lanes brings more people out, with three times as many new cyclists appearing if the bicycle lanes feel especially safe and welcoming by being physically separated from cars:  off-road bike or multi-use paths, next-to-road “buffered” bike lanes or cycle tracks.  The D.C.-based advocacy blog WashCycle says that cycle tracks “increase ridership by 18-20 percent compared to 5-7 percent for [conventional, non-separated] bike lanes.”  The four-city, federally funded NonMotorized Transportation Pilot Program found that the systemic expansion of bicycling facilities and programs led to a 49% increase in the number of cyclists, a 36% increase in the share of trips taken by bicycle, and a 3% drop in the driving mode share.  Taking health impacts into account, the four communities saved nearly $6.9 million in reduced morbidity costs.

It also turns out that the most “bike friendly” cities in the US are among the safest for cars – Davis (CA) has about 1/10th the traffic fatality rate as the statewide norm.  The same is true for Portland (OR), Seattle (WA), and other places that take people-power travel seriously.

Bike facilities also reduce the desire among traffic-nervous cyclists to ride on the sidewalk, a significant safety hazard for pedestrians.  In New York City the Ninth Avenue and Grant Street bike paths reduced sidewalk riding by 84% and pedestrian injuries between 21% and 29%.

Because of the recreation and health implications, the Network’s “green” nature is just as important as its traveling extent.  An Emerald Network will bring additional people into our parks and green spaces, broadening the constituency supporting their maintenance and upgrading.  The presence of a nearby Green Route will not only help preserve existing nearby open space but spark the creation of more – from community gardens to street trees, from conversation lands to playgrounds.  The Green Routes will, in effect, extend our parks into our neighborhoods – an impact of particular importance in low-income areas with the fewest nearby resources: the creation of tree-lined and safe-for-kids “Neighborways” will be particularly important.

The addition of a tree canopy not only lowers a street’s physical temperature, it also lowers the social boiling point.  A recent study found that that “a 10% increase in tree canopy was associated with a roughly 12% decrease in crime” in contradiction with the presence of dense shrubs which seem to increase it.  A USDA study found the same pattern in another city.  This would be especially valuable in Boston, which has only about 23% of its surface protected by a tree canopy compared with the national average of 35% and a Massachusetts’ urban average of nearly 65%.  Even worse, there is a declining trend:  from 2003 to 2008 the city lost an additional 1% of its trees while the amount of impervious surface grew.

PLAN REGIONALLY, ACT LOCALLY

The only way we can create this Emerald Network is to combine regional vision with local action.  We need a coming together of the dozens of city and state, public and private, fund granters and fund seekers, industry and advocacy groups interested in this issue to support a unified vision of the kind of Green Routes to be created.  We need high-level Administrative and Legislative support for making this a design requirement and a funding priority.  And then we need to give local municipalities and advocacy groups as much flexibility and freedom as possible to work out the details and methods of making it happen within their own boundaries while insisting that they agree to link up at those boundaries to the rest of the network.

The Interstate Highway vision of a seamless network of high-speed highways running across the nation captured the upwardly mobile hopes of a population seeking escape from the deprivations of the Great Depression and WW II.  The Green Routes vision would inspire a way forward in an era of urban revitalization, demands for neighborhood “livability,” environmental concern, and intersection gridlock.

And while vision is the first stop, moving from policy to implementation requires translating the new values into an engaging vision and specific projects.  It requires an action plan.  In Massachusetts and elsewhere, we need to go beyond securing funds to upgrade and expand our mass transit system, beyond strengthening and enforcing Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented-Development, even beyond transforming our streets with improved sidewalks and bike lanes.  In eastern Massachusetts, we need to envision and plan for a Green Routes Network of mostly off-road or separated-from-traffic, tree-lined, walking and cycling corridors suitable for both work-day commuting and family recreation. An Emerald Network!

SMALL STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Will Green Routes solve our transportation problems?  No, not by itself.  We need to expand public transit options and implement more effective Smart Growth programs.  (One study found that a 10% extension of a city rail network generates an increase in transit use of almost 3% and a decrease in automobile use of a statistically significant 2%.)  But even here, a safe non-motorized network can help: Boston’s Hubway Bike Share system serves as the “last mile” of the regional T.  And recent Federal Highway Administration studies suggest that traffic on a clogged highway traffic flow can be made freely moving simply by a 10 percentreduction in the number of peak-time vehicles. A Green Routes Network can contribute to that, making its benefits relevant to a much larger percentage of the population than those who directly use it!

This Green Routes Network would form a backbone of corridors that would tie together and give additional value to the dozens of local Rail-to-Trail and Bike Network projects already happening around the metropolitan region.  And the Green Routes Network would also serve as a catalyzing armature for new local projects along its entire length – from bike networks to hiking paths.  Where special separated multi-use paths, cycle tracks and sidewalks, or even buffered bike lanes aren’t possible, the Network could include tree-lined “neighborways” – quiet, tree-lined streets posted to give pedestrians and bikes priority but open to slow-moving cars.

There are no single solutions or magic wands.  As critics of Jane Jacobs and her anti-highway/anti-mega-project progeny correctly point out, our cities desperately need big-vision transportation infrastructure projects (and water and waste systems!) if they are to remain sustainable in the face of population growth, climate change, and resource uncertainty.   But a Green Routes Network can help – not only with transportation but with a host of associated problems. It is not surprising that the new generation of business and professional leaders are looking for “livable communities” in which to live and raise their families.

There is no question that cars still dominate our transportation reality and have to be taken seriously.  But cars will not define the future.  Transportation is a system, highly integrated with many other systems.  It is possible for change to happen at the center of a system; but it is much more likely to start on the margin.  And what can be accomplished in the Metropolitan area can be a model for similar efforts around the state.  It can be done.  This is the time to do it.

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Related previous posts:

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

>QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative

>LEVERAGING PUBLIC SPENDING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT: Do Multiple Goals Make Projects Better — or Unmanageable?

>ZONING REFORM: Unlocking Investment in Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

>AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

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

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