It was pretty amazing that Boston Transportation Department (BTD) Commissioner Tom Tinlin came to the annual Boston Bike program update two weeks ago. (Nichol Freedman once again won over the audience with It was also amazing that he stayed for the whole meeting taking notes on every suggestion and complaint – and that he intends to follow up and then let people know what was done.
It’s even more amazing because it’s actually the Department of Public Works (DPW) that is supposedly in charge of building and maintaining city roads, not the BTD! DPW Commissioner Joanne Massaro chairs, and her staff provides the engineering support for, the Public Improvement Commission which has the responsibility “to lay out, widen, relocate, alter, discontinue or rename public highways, and to order the making of specific repairs.”
But in Boston, for all the unevenness and incompleteness and frustrations of the process, it’s clearly the Transportation Department that is moving us towards a different kind of road system – and a significant reason for that is their relationship with the bicycling community.
Bicyclists are a small minority of the city’s travelers. But they play a vanguard role in helping move us towards the kind of transportation system our urban area needs to prosper, and perhaps simply to survive, in coming decades. It was the bicycling community that led the way towards Boston’s current adoption of a Complete Streets policy. It was the bicycling community that is pushing for the expansion of a “greenway system” that will extend park-like landscaping into our neighborhoods while creating safe “corridors” for non-motorized travel and family recreation. It was only after he started bicycling and the Boston Bikes program took off that Mayor Menino said that “the car is no longer king in Boston.”
We’re unlikely to ever get rid of cars. Individualized motor vehicles are too convenient and serve too many functions to disappear – although they are likely to become more fuel efficient and smaller. But the long-term trend towards more vehicles per family is likely to continue, putting more cars on the road. And the same mega trends reshaping cars are also pulling people into more urban areas – meaning that localized population density will increase and with that will come ever greater traffic congestion. Today’s city streets are crowded and cross-town trips take a long time. In the future, it will be worse.
Adding bicycle facilities to our road system makes it safer and more inviting not merely to bike but also to walk. The pressure to rethink street design also opens opportunity to make it easier to get on and off buses or into and out of transit stations, which are the most important large-scale urban alternatives to using a car. And the need to share the road slows down car drivers significantly improving their own (and everyone else’s) safety without (assuming intersection traffic lights are properly timed) decreasing “through put” volume or increasing trip duration.
The City’s Chief of Policy and Planning, Michael Kineavy, who also came and stayed for the entire evening at this year’s Boston Bike update, pointed to the BTD’s “relationship with the bicycling community as a model for other city departments of respectful interaction back and forth with a constituency, learning what works and what doesn’t.….[When an issue comes up] we get on the phone, we set up meetings not only with our own people but with people from the community who might have a different point of view and have the data to support it….Moving forward is not just about what we in the city apparatus think is best but what WE, collectively, want and think is best.”
There are probably lots of back-room tensions – or at least discussions – within City Hall about which department should have what role in designing street plans, interacting with the public, or evaluating how well things are working. Commissioner Massaro’s predecessor at DPW, Dennis Royer, left his unit out of serious contention for leadership in these issues – among his first statements upon taking the job was that “traffic calming is an oxymoron” and “we’ll never have raised intersections while I’m here.” He, along with many other city officials, was openly hostile to bicyclists.
But those days are gone, although some of the people who felt that way are probably still around. From a citizen’s perspective, it isn’t important which city Department does what, so long as the result is increased community livability. Perhaps the DPW can make a positive contribution to the transportation transformation Boston is beginning – there certainly is enough work to go around! But to do that, she’ll have to find ways to copy the model of public interaction displayed by the Transportation Department – starting with the bicycling community!