Although it was nearly a half-century ago it was also the starting point for most of the transportation issues we face today. The Interstate Highway System was poised to push into the Boston metropolitan area – crashing through Somerville, Cambridge, The Fenway, the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain. Thousands of families had already lost their homes, and thousands more were about to.
Yet, at the seemingly last minute, the destruction was stopped. It took a combination of grass roots protest and elite power politics, but it won – stopping the highways and diverting funds to public transportation. In the process, the anti-highway campaign transformed state and national transportation policy, pulling the War on Poverty’s citizen participation ethos into a whole new policy area, changed government’s priority from serving cars to preserving homes, and taught an entire generation of planners that traffic volume was created by public policy rather than an inevitable independent phenomena.Read more
There was a time when the very idea of using road space for bike lanes struck most Americans both absurd and an invitation to disaster. While some reality-challenged people still hold on to that position most people seem to have moved on. Most big cities now have at least some bike lanes. It turns out that the presence of bike lanes makes roads feel and actually be statistically safer for both bikes and cars –attracting more cyclists on to the road which makes (most) drivers more aware and accepting of their presence, reducing speed (but not “through put” – the time it takes to get down the road), and keeping less-skilled cyclists and drivers out of each other’s way.
There was also a time when the idea of placing a separator between a bike lane and car traffic – using a painted buffer or bollards or parked cars or even a curb – seemed bizarre to most people, including many bike advocates! And now even as established an organization as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) includes cycle tracks as an accepted technique in its list of possible designs – including them in proposals for the River and Western Avenue bridges over the Charles and even (hopefully) on the Longfellow! It turns out that having separate “paths” for bikes and cars, and finding ways to promote the separation of bikes and pedestrians on shared paths, also increases both the perception and reality of safety.Read more
It was only a few years ago that Bicycling Magazine called Boston the nation’s worst place for cyclists. Senior city officials were openly hostile to bicycling. The media portrayed cyclists as wild messengers cursing at everyone and running over pedestrians.
Then Hub On Wheels revealed that there was a mainstream constituency for bicycling. The Mayor got a bike and discovered that bicycles were fun and cyclists were friendly. LivableStreets Alliance started pulling the city’s advocacy groups together while pushing for the bike lanes and cycle tracks previously scorned by the “vehicular cyclists.” Nicole Freedman was hired to create the Boston Bike program which has significantly improved road facilities, expanded access, and promoted skill training. The Mayor proclaimed that “the car is no longer kind.” And the Hubway bike share program made cycling part of the everyday routines of thousands of ordinary people.Read more
A while ago, following the fatal collapse of some ceiling panels in the Big Dig tunnels, Commonwealth magazine published interviews with local pundits about what went wrong with the management and public relations aspects of the gargantuan, 30-year project. Some of the issues they raise include the need for:
- A strong leader and management team within the appropriate state agency with sufficient independence, power and talent to manage the contractor as well as keep the project from becoming a patronage dumping ground.
- Regular and honest outreach to keep the public informed and supportive as the project, and its budget, evolve.
- An exit strategy with the contractor if the work doesn’t meet expectations and a “succession” plan in place for others to finish the job if needed.
But there is another perspective that is equally important – at least to those of us who have spent our lives working for progressive social change. From that perspective, the key issue is not project management or contract oversight. The issue is how to maximize the project’s positive contribution to the livability and viability of our communities, the quality of our air and water, the sustainability of our resource use patterns, and the equitable distribution of the project’s costs and benefits.
OUR NEW EXTENDED FAMILIES: How the Built Environment and Public Services Shape Social Relationships and Democratic Government
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.” “I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost
The two most important things about relatives, my mother used to say, are that you don’t get to choose them and that they take care of each other. Back in the day, when most families were extended, you had no choice about going to grandma’s for Sunday dinner and you simply accepted that Uncle Al was loud, that Aunt Sarah was obnoxious, that Cousin Bob told bad jokes, and that each of the other people in the room were just who they were. There was no option – family was your world: for some of us, a significant part of our social life was the regular meeting of our “cousins’ club.” At family gatherings, you learned not only that everyone was different but that it was possible to tolerate those differences and still share a meal – one of the fundamental understandings that underpin both families and democracy.Read more
After years of effort, instead of holes in the sidewalk and pavement through which you could see the river below, the BU Bridge now has solid surfaces and (drum roll….) bike lanes! It is a major victory for the Better Bridges campaign.
True: the bridge isn’t any wider than it was before, so the sidewalk is still too narrow. There still isn’t a way to get from the Boston-side steps, over Storrow Drive, to the Charles River embankment. On the Cambridge side, there still isn’t a way to safely walk under the bridge along the river bank rather than having to add to the confusion of the crazy Memorial Drive traffic circle. The sudden incline on the curving entrance to the bridge from the stop-line on the Cambridge side is still dangerous for cyclists; and it would have been better if there were flexible bollards on the span separating the car and bike lanes. Traffic congestion on the bridge isn’t significantly lower than before, but it’s clearly no worse despite there being only three car lanes instead of four – there is now one lane entering the bridge from either side, two lanes exiting on the other end. (Advocates have been saying, for years, that the problem is in the intersections leading to the bridge, not the bridge itself – turns out we were right.)Read more
THE THREE SISTERS – CASEY OVERPASS, McGRATH HIGHWAY, RUTHERFORD AVE: MassDOT’s Credibility Crisis and the Need to Work Together
This post was meant to be about three of the old highways now falling down and the increasingly bitter policy disagreements within nearby communities over what to do about it. But as I thought more about these debates, it became clear that a significant secondary theme is that so few people trust the traffic engineers or their organizations – starting with total lack of belief in the validity of the traffic prediction models being used by MassDOT. The models feel like such opaque black boxes of unknown facts and hidden formulas that they simply feel like fantasy projections of agency desires – and there is little trust of those desires either. Applauding the projections that support one’s position and denouncing the rest is neither useful, logical, nor fair. The problem is that without analysis it’s all guesswork and power plays, which is not likely to end up creating optimal outcomes either.Read more
THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (Part II)
In the two weeks since I posted Part I, discussing the role of mass movement in creating the political space for issue-oriented advocacy, some of the Occupy Wall Street groups have begun digging in for the long haul by setting up systems and expelling troublemakers (something the New Left should have done before the FBI infiltrators led the way into violence). At the same time, right wing commentators have begun trying to paint them as hooligans, if not agents of the devil. (As usual, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby places himself at the bottom of the pig pen by asserting both – see “A Sinful ‘Occupation’” from 11/2/11.)
But no matter what happens to the Occupiers – whether they dribble out over the winter or explode into civil disobedience demonstrations – they have opened the door for more. It may be less open-ended or idealistic, but the next phase will be translating the Occupy vision into a series of specific demands, then turning those into systemic reforms at both the policy and operational levels. And accomplishing that will require sustained, organized effort – meaning strong, sophisticated organizations.Read more
THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (Part I)
Grass roots movements are the soil from which advocacy eventually grows. As I write this, it’s not clear if the current wave of “Occupy Wall Street” groups will continue expanding to new cities, or if the arrests in NYC, Boston, and elsewhere have capped its growth.
For all my admiration of the Occupy movement, for all my hope that it grows and spreads, I have no illusions that it will amount to much in the short term. The movement is appealingly non-specific, although energized by enormous creativity and personal sacrifice. At the same time, I have no doubt that it is the most important progressive political event of the past several years; the first major opening in left-of-center political space since post-Obama election disappointment sucked the life out of the remnants of the civil rights, anti-war, environmental, women’s, youth culture, and other movements that energized his campaign. It may be incoherent and ephemeral, but it is a significant crack in the ground underneath the marauding right-wing forces.Read more
We’ve all heard the argument: narrowing traffic lanes or removing parking will hurt local businesses. And we’ve all read the research headlines that show the opposite is true: widening sidewalks, adding trees, including bike lanes, expanding transit facilities, and making public space more multi-modal, people friendly, and environmentally rich increases the number of customers and the amounts they are willing to pay. (WalkBoston has a wonderful tri-fold pamphlet called “Walking Is Good Business” that contains a treasure of statistics and citations, some of which I’ve used in this post.) But we need to go beyond these generic arguments to focus attention on the three specific situations where Complete Streets provides significant support for economic development, and be able to articulate what those benefits may be. The three are:
- Suburban Business and Adjoining Residential Areas
- Urban Neighborhoods
- First Generation, Inner-ring Highways