The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

WINTER BICYCLING (and WALKING): Safety, Comfort, and Public Priorities

Winter is coming.  Even in the midst of escalating ocean warming and climate volatility, that means tough weather conditions for New Englanders.  Night falls long before we head home from work.  The snow gets pushed to the side of the road, narrowing lanes, with the daily melt-freeze cycle turning the remaining slush into an invisible black-ice slickness.  Depressingly frequent MBTA breakdowns push people into rise share cars and on to our already over-crowded roads. Wet shoes numb our toes; cold wind hurts our ears.  Driving is hard; walking and bicycling even harder.  Even year-round cyclists take days off – I simply won’t bike when the temperature goes below 20.  Now, before the climate-changed storms arrive, is the time to prepare.  We need to prepare ourselves and our bikes.  But we also need to demand that the public agencies in charge of our sidewalks, roads, and paths prepare as well – upgrading both infrastructure and operations to ensure safety and mobility through the winter. Here are some of my thoughts on winter comfort and safety.  I’m sure I’ve missed some good ideas – what would you add? Continue reading

TOWARDS A PROGRESSIVE TRAFFIC ENGINEERING MANIFESTO: Values and Priorities To Guide 21st Century Road Work

The “spirit” of a law or policy is really just as important as its “letter”.  The frame of mind – the professional culture – of those implementing a policy, their underlying values and assumptions, will shape their decisions and actions just as much as the words. Nearly a decade ago, one of my first LivableStreets blogs, Traffic Engineering Myths Revealed, explored what seemed to be the car-focused, Interstate-derived consensus among road-design professionals.  Today, while transportation policies have radically changed, too often much of the old designs still infest road projects.  It’s time to promote an explicit and short description of a more progressive vision. Here is a rough outline of what I think should be in a short summary of the framework for 21st century traffic engineering.  As you can tell, much of this is drawn from past blogs.  This is just a start: what do you think should be added?   Continue reading

IDEAS: Parking, Walk Signals, Wider Sidewalks, Painted Lanes, Contra-Flow, Park-and-Pedal

This, my last blog post before taking the summer off to work on my Advocacy book, includes a series of quick, mostly one-paragraph thoughts.  (Who would have thought I could write something short!) -- The need to rethink our use of urban curb space to deal with the rise of shared cars, rapid home package delivery, bicycles, and an aging population.  How to increase pedestrian walk time without changing nearly anything else.  A suggestion about where to put parking meters on streets with “parking protected bike lanes.”  Praise for Everette’s creative use of painted lanes for placing transit, parking, and bicycles in their appropriate spots.  A plea for language clarity in descriptions of different bike lane configurations.  Urging greater use of “contra-flow” bike lanes.  Pleasure at the simple but wonderful idea of “Park and Pedal” locations.  I hope you all have a great summer! Continue reading

ADVOCATING FROM WITHIN: Ally, Champion, Leader

Working from within provides experience, expertise, and legitimacy.  People whose career moved in professional or managerial paths have a vital role in advocacy.  This includes people with a variety of roles: appointed or elected leaders, professional staff, even consultants, advisors, or “special commission” members. There are many ways in which an inside-outside Advocacy partnership is the strategic route to success.  The initial protest stages of an Advocacy campaign is almost always started by outsiders critical of what a public agency or private corporation is doing.  Similarly, building the political will to force an organization to change its policy and mission often must be via an end-run around a particularly resistant agency’s staff or political leadership.  Even at these times, however, internal friends can help open doors by insisting that “they’ve got a point; maybe we can lower the temperature by talking.” It is also enormously helpful, even in those early stages, to have inside allies who can feed information or sometimes even make public statements validating the protestor’s claims.  And once the campaign moves into pushing -- negotiating for specific policy, programmatic, or operational changes -- having an internal champion can make the process much more productive.  Outside pressure can raise the visibility and priority of changes that inside reformers would, themselves, like to implement.  Should the campaign succeed in triggering actual implementation, inside leadership is a necessity. But there is also a role for internal activists even during quiet periods of business-as-usual.  At a minimum, people on the inside can help their organizations do better by serving as a bridge to outside perspectives.   At a maximum, they can push for improvements even in the absence of outside pressure.     Continue reading

Are E-Bikes Bicycles?

This summer, the region’s first Electric-Bike-Sharing program will be launched by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.  Starting with 500 pedal-assist e-bikes and 50 stations (plus some “pop-up” sites for events) in Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, Amherst, and South Hadley – with Chicopee, West Springfield, and Easthampton eager to join –the system will be operated under a five-year contract by Bewegan, a Canadian vendor formerly known as Bixi, which is also responsible for negotiating the needed business sponsorships.  Recharging of the 70-pound e-bikes will occur at the stations and during redistribution, a task to be subcontracted out to Corps Logistics which hires veterans.  The stations will require direct grid connections; the original plan was developed before solar-powered station recharging seemed feasible – and would still cost $7,000 to $10,000 more per station. Nationwide, e-bikes – both individually owned and as part of bike-share programs – are a growing component of the bicycle world.  And bicycle advocacy continues to be a key component of current transportation reform efforts, including demands for improvements to pedestrian facilities, bus and transit systems, and road safety.  There is little doubt that the spread of e-bikes will significantly expand the range of people to get out of their cars, and allows them (and all cyclists) to go longer distances in less time – strengthening the “safety in numbers” dynamic and the advocates’ potential constituency.  But the emergence of e-bikes also requires a re-examination of the four value-based rationales that underlie bicycle advocacy: improved public transportation and personal mobility, personal and public health, climate-environmental protection, and changing urban lifestyles. Continue reading

DISTINGUISHING PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS: Privatizing, Contracting, and Special Arrangements

The range of ways that government and public agencies can utilize private companies and non-profit organizations is broad and confusing.  Government is not a business and should not be run as one. However, there is much to be gained by harnessing the flexibility, speedy decision-making, innovativeness, and profit-driven efficiency or value-driven passion of non-government actors. Still, it is easy and misleading to lump the entire spectrum of public-private-partnerships (P3) relationships into one misleading category.  It’s sometimes done as part of an effort to cut budgets or “downsize government” while pretending that “increased efficiencies” won’t turn reduced expenditures into reduced services. It’s sometimes used to shift blame for inadequate public investment or management failures onto someone else.  All types of P3 agreements are partnerships between public and non-public organizations.  However, the three types discussed here -- privatization, contracting-out, and “special arrangements” -- each have different underlying assumptions resulting in different roles for the public and non-public partners and therefore different effects on society.   Understanding the differences is vital for deciding which are actually good deals. Continue reading

CANDIDATE FORUMS AND QUESTIONNAIRES: Using Elections for Effective Advocacy

Another campaign season is over and, except for Special Elections, mass voting won’t happen again until next Fall.  But now is the time to begin preparing ways to clarify what candidates – for elected and appointed offices -- believe and will do about your issues.  And it is important to remember that non-profits are legally able to play a major role in that public education process. The two most typical tactics are sending candidates a questionnaire/survey and holding a public forum. Of the hundreds of each that I have read and attended over the years, very few of the questionnaire responses were more than long exercises of political side-stepping.  Very few of the forums were more than boring recitations of platitudes.  Very little of it helped anyone decide who to vote for – although some candidate’s performances or written answers were so bad that I personally eliminated them from consideration. Still, setting up candidate events is an important part of advocacy work.  So, the question is how to make them better -- more informative, more interesting, more useful, and more effective in advancing advocacy goals.  And that starts with becoming clear about the full range of effects that we’re trying to accomplish.  The typical purpose of election-related events is to learn more about candidates and their positions.  Two under-appreciated but equally valuable functions are to establish a relationship with current (or future) decision-makers and to let politicians learn more about you and your issues.  A related and worthwhile goal is using the event to gain increased public visibility for your issue and your organization.  And, if done well with lots of opportunity for public engagement, these events can provide a first taste of political engagement for previously uninvolved people.   Continue reading

CLOSING THE GAP BETWEEN TRANSPORTATION POLICY AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE: We Won’t “Bend The Trend” Until Professional Culture Changes

Thirty-seven percent of Bostonian households (37%!) don’t own a car.  But that still leaves most of us, especially suburban and rural dwellers, car dependent – forced because of the individually-varying distances between our homes and workplaces and shopping/socializing destinations to use individual vehicles to get around.  Our transportation system has to acknowledge and service that reality. While ignoring the current need for cars is both functionally and politically self-destructive, ignoring the need to “bend the curve” of future demand would be even worse. While Massachusetts policy regarding transportation infrastructure has begun recognizing these realities, and actual road design has significantly improved, the gap between vision and reality is still enormous.  And a key reason is the lag between new ideas and their incorporation into the transportation profession’s culture.  We need to change some of the metrics and defaults that shape road engineer’s decisions to nudge them towards more creative and complete incorporation of the new vision and values into their work.   Continue reading

THE SECOND COMING OF CARS: Will Self-Driving Cars End Congestion, Improve Safety, and Save the Environment?

Self-driving cars, a.k.a. autonomous vehicles (AVs), are all the buzz these days.  They are already being rolled out for real-life testing; within a very few years, sooner than anyone believed possible a short while ago, they will soon be nationwide.  Whether we want them or not; whether we are ready or not, they are moving from “Level 3” autonomy, where a human must be available to retake control, to "Level 5," cars that go on their own.  The breathless headlines announcing their arrival amplify our society’s techno-utopian impulse, with enthusiasts (and marketers) describing the countless ways AVs will revolutionize and improve nearly every aspect of our lives and society.  We are being told that autonomous vehicles will come to the rescue of our increasingly dysfunctional transportation system.  Car crashes won’t happen.  Pollution will decrease.  Congestion will go away.  Parking lanes will be turned into parks or bike lanes.  Access disparities will decrease for low-income and rural areas. At the risk of being labeled a Luddite, I don’t believe it.  Change: Yes.  And lots of it; much of it disruptive.  But improvement?  No more likely – in fact, probably less likely – than damage.  The only thing that has a chance of creating a more positive outcome is proactive regulation of the product and its use.  As ZipCar founder, Robin Chase, has been pointing out, we are faced with a Heaven or Hell choice.  Without successful strategies to steer us towards positive outcomes, AVs will not eliminate traffic congestion, reduce aggregate vehicle miles travelled (AVT), injuries, air pollution, or the need for parking, and may actually make it all worse. The good news is that so much of what we need to do to maximize the benefits, and avoid the catastrophes, of the seemingly inevitable onslaught of driverless cars are the common-sense things we have already started doing because they are worthwhile under any circumstances -- prioritize modes that move the most people, cause the least environmental damage, and equalize access; build more transit, bike lanes and sidewalks; price highway access, curb access and parking; etc.  However, the coming of AVs means we have to do a lot more of it, sooner.   Continue reading

Dockless Bike Sharing: A Great Leap but an Uncertain Landing

DOCKLESS BIKE SHARING:  A Great Leap But An Uncertain Landing In barely five years, dockless bike sharing systems have gone from exciting idea to world-phenomena.  There are over 70 firms that have placed somewhere between 10 and 25 million “park anywhere” bikes in several hundred cities with over a hundred-million users.  China is the epicenter of this modal tsunami but the industry is rapidly expanding around the globe, including explosively in the USA. The hope is that these systems, like the Hubway-style dock-station services that preceded them, will massively increase bike usage – reducing future increases in car congestion, improving air quality and public health, helping promote local businesses.  The hope is that their low cost, ubiquity, and flexibility will make expansion easy and solve the geographic inequities of the dock-station-based approach.  The Hubway model has proven to be not viable in the suburbs: boosters claim that the much-lower entry cost of dockless systems (cheaper for the vendor, no upfront investment for the municipality) will lead to their presence in a broader set of communities and help create a critical mass of voters pushing for improved cycling infrastructure, better traffic speed enforcement, and kid’s programs.   Continue reading