It’s for good reason that traffic engineers are not trained to indulge in flights of fantasy: too many lives are dependent on the safety of our transportation system. So it’s not surprising that the road design professional organization’s “bible” – the American Association of State of Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) guide to the “Geometric Design of Highways and Streets” (the “Green Book”) – evolves very slowly. However, a negative effective of this conservatism – combined with the dominance of automobile-focused businesses and professionals within transportation organizations — is that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has been very slow to incorporate the rapidly-evolving best practices for bicycle and pedestrian movement in its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). As a result, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has published an Urban Bicycle Design Guide that they update annually.
In recent years, the Transportation Departments of a number of cities in eastern Massachusetts have been (relatively) rapidly upgrading their bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Enough has been done that we can begin evaluating what works and what doesn’t, and even describe our preferences. It turns out that there often are several ways to accomplish the same result, that there is room (and need) for engineering creativity – and in this age of crowd sourcing it makes sense to listen to what users think. The key thing is that many of the “better” ideas don’t cost anything more than the “ok” treatments – they simply require that the designers be willing to learn from others. What follows is an attempt to not merely praise basic improvements but to encourage experimentation and improvement. And I’m sure readers can add to this list….Please do!Read more
Causeway Street sits on top of the colonial era Mill Pond Dam, which harnessed tidal flows to generate power — which is why it’s called a “causeway.” For its time and location, the Dam was an audacious and creative effort. Unfortunately, the current plans to restructure today’s Causeway Street into a truly multi-modal and multi-functional space exhibits neither.
Causeway Street and the adjoining misshapen intersections from Lowell Square to Keany Square is a complicated place. It’s got North Station generating commuter crowds twice every day, and Boston Garden releasing post-event human flash floods nearly every third day. It’s the passageway between the Kennedy Greenway and the Charles River parklands as well as between downtown and Charlestown’s expressway on-ramps and the new Rutherford Ave cycle tracks. It’s got family residences (including a huge future development on the Boston Garden property) and businesses. It’s got social service agencies and state offices. Meeting every need of every one of those constituencies is probably impossible.Read more
A PATH FORWARD FOR CHARLES RIVER UNDERPASSES: Separating “Approaches” from “Tunnels” Removes Barriers
As part of the Accelerated Bridge Program’s (ABP) upgrading of the Charles River bridges, it is important that every intersection along the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path – the route from the Esplanade to Watertown – be made as safe as possible for pedestrians, runners, and bicyclists. Whether going across the river or along the shore, no matter in which direction, the intersections should feel comfortable for non-motorized use by people of all abilities – in wheelchairs, by foot, on bike, or on skates.
But the surface intersections aren’t the only issue. It would be possible to create a 7-mile long, traffic-free path if every one of the bridges had an underpass – similar to but better designed and constructed than the existing ones under the Eliot Bridge (which crosses from Harvard’s fields to BB&N).
For several years, a broad coalition of organizations and individuals have pushed MassDOT to include the underpasses in their ABP plans. Charles River Conservancy has played a leadership role, supported by LivableStreets Alliance and other groups, demanding that the state both create a “tunnel” of some kind within the structure of each bridge, and connect the tunnel to the existing route with entry/exit “approach paths.”Read more
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.Read more
Streets were once the public space between buildings – available for any purpose that people wanted to use it for: commerce, walking, horses, playing, standing, and anything else. But over the past decades, one of the largest physical assets owned by the public was turned over for the exclusive use of “motordom.” Streets became tubes for car traffic. Transportation Engineers became road designers and developed a sophisticated hierarchy of street types – from Highways to Local Streets – intended to maximize the efficient movement of as many cars as fast as possible.
But what if street design was structured around functionality – not for cars but for people? Instead of maximizing throughput volume they’d be designed to maximize the opportunity for people to participate in the full range of activity of the surrounding neighborhood. It would require that the new road design slogan of being “context sensitive” began to be taken seriously, with the “context” being social and commercial interaction rather than vehicle access and mobility to the surrounding structures.Read more
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
WILL MassDOT USE “GROUNDING MCGRATH” TO CONSOLIDATE ITS NEW DIRECTIONS, OR JUST REPEAT OLD CAR-CENTRIC BIASES: A “hidden cost” of the MBTA Funding Crisis
It’s totally understandable that Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey has been focusing on the MBTA fiscal crises. Public transit – train, subway, trolley, bus, and ferry – is the backbone that supports the entire regional transportation system, and the region’s economic well-being.
But we can only hope that the MBTA crisis will not totally pull Secretary Davey away from the highway division. A crucial test of his agency’s commitment to the GreenDOT, WeMove, Healthy Transportation Compact, and Mode Shift policies is now happening around the McGrath/O’Brien Highway Corridor – which MassDOT has designated as a key pilot project that will explore ways to embody these programs and values into transportation planning, including MassDOT’s first use of a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) process maximize the project’s positive impact on public health.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
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