The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”

In transportation, requiring potential damage-causers to be careful translates into policies that, at least in several European countries, assume that the operator of any vehicle that hits or dangerously crowds a “vulnerable road user” is by default primarily responsible for the incident and any negative effects.  While this “strict liability” formulation would probably run afoul of the USA’s constitutional right of being innocent until proven guilty, Oregon has created “enhanced penalties for careless drivers who hurt vulnerable users.”  And other activists are pushing to establish a “rebuttable assumption” of vehicle-operator responsibility in similar situations. Of course, no matter what the law or who has what rights, defensive driving in both cars and on bikes is the ultimate defense against harm on the road.  As the slogan correctly puts it, “You may be dead right; but you will still be dead.”  Still, adoption of Vulnerable Road User laws can clarify the criminal burden of responsibility for street incidents and simplify some insurance claims.  It is possible that they will also change the context for cyclist behavior and even begin to address the inequality of road conditions in low-income versus better-off areas Vulnerable Road User laws won’t solve every safety problem.  But they will certainly move us in the right direction. ————————————- Continue reading

CRISIS AND OPPORTUNITY AT MASSDOT: Money, Internal Operations, and Political Support for Change

Because government is the arena where so many of society’s conflicting interests fight for influence, and because nearly every decision and action can end up in court, the public sector is more rule-bound than most organizations.  The biggest political sin for administrators is making a visible mistake.  So public agencies typically evolve very incrementally, and if something isn’t noticeably broken there is seldom any political advantage in fixing it – or even in improving its internal operations.  Which is what gives extra credence to the cliché that the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” Fortunately, and unfortunately, Massachusetts’ Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is in the middle of an accelerating crisis.  The most visible aspect is the MBTA’s growing revenue shortfall, a “fiscal cliff” that the state managed to avoid last year by using up most of the one-time fixes.   But it’s not just the MBTA budget that’s falling apart.  The fiscal health of the entire road system is dependent on a diminishing, inflation-unadjusted gas tax.  As both transportation needs and maintenance costs increase, the state has been forced to pay for an increasing amount of operational expenses – planning, maintenance, and even administrative work – using bond-financed capital funds.  It’s a time-bomb – taxpayers will end up paying for both the project and the interest for decades to come, making future revenues unavailable for future projects and putting the transportation system even deeper into the pothole. Continue reading


In recent weeks, three Boston-areas bicyclists have been killed by cars or trucks, and the number of cyclist injuries has slightly increased from previous years.  As a recent Boston Globe editorial pointed out, increasing bicyclist safety is a pressing issue – although it is probably just as pressing for other road users as well:  people walking, in cars, using wheelchairs, getting on or off buses. It’s not just acute physical safety that is at stake.  The overall health benefits of bicycling are so strong that even under today’s less-than-ideal conditions studies show that the positives heavily outweigh the negatives, statistically adding about an extra year of life to those who regular get on their two-wheelers. The editorial is a welcome contribution to the city’s discussion of how to make our evolving transportation system  safe for all users, no matter how they are moving.  Although bicycles may seem like a newcomer to the street scene, they have a long history (especially in Boston, which was the nation’s original cycling center) and there is much we can learn from research done in other cities across the US and abroad where bicycling has already taken off. Continue reading

THE TRAFFIC BEHIND THE CANDIDATES: Vote for the Appointees, Not The Person

Put more money into bicycling and pedestrian and railroad infrastructure, or less.  Move forward from the current small steps towards sustainability (energy development, resource-focused, climate protective, land-use, and economic), or not.  Build on the current stutter-steps towards rationalizing our wasteful healthcare system and providing universal access, or not.  Increase controls over speculative financial markets, or not.  Move cautiously on foreign interventions, or the opposite. The coming elections provide as stark a choice as any in recent memory. Continue reading

SIGNS, PAINT, AND FLEXIBILITY: Creative No-Cost Ways To Improve Road Intelligibility

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! Continue reading

CHARITY, CHANGE, AND POWER: Advocacy and Movements

Contribute money for an Advocacy group while enjoying the pleasures of a bike ride and picnic:  Why not?  The Talmudic Rabbis taught that while we are not required to solve the problems of human life, neither are we allowed to ignore them.  Advocacy steps beyond charity to systemic change – improving the public policies and institutional practices that shape life possibilities for the benefit of all, ourselves as well as those most in need.  Contribute!  Come!  Learn!  Join!                 Bike4Life Boston:   an annual, fun, family-friendly ride that benefits LivableStreets Alliance.                           Sunday, Sept.30,  9am-2:00pm, Auburndale Park, 201 West Pine Street, Newton, MA                                     20 & 40 mile rides, 4-mile kids’ ride, with post BBQ celebration                   1. Register and fundraise to help reach $50,000 goal –                  2. Sponsor a rider or the ride–                  3. Volunteer to help with the ride by emailing                                          For more information: Continue reading

ROAD RAGE, GUNS, & DEMOCRACY: Why Road Safety is About More Than Traffic Lights

Speeding, distraction, drinking, poorly designed intersections – a lot of things cause road accidents, injuries, and fatalities.  But some of them have nothing to do with driving.  Like guns.  In a recent NY Times Opinionator piece, Mark Bittman drew on his old community organizing background and wrote, “Back in the administration of W., we looked for the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the wrong place; they’re here at home.”  And on our streets, where incidents of gun-involved road rage are on the rise. The recent murders of Sikhs in Wisconsin and of “liberals” in Arizona have sparked another round of discussion about the danger of unregulated access to weapons.  Given the current Supreme Court, it is unlikely that any limits will be imposed.  But the way that groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have changed cultural attitudes about buzzing around with a few under your belt suggests that we may be able to de-escalate road rage through similar methods.   We need to make it as unacceptable to have a loaded gun in a car as it is to have an open bottle of alcohol. Continue reading

WHEN BEING “COMPLETE” IS DANGEROUSLY UNFINISHED: From The Gutter To Victory on Causeway Street

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. Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

MOTIVATING HELMETS: How To Convince People To Buckle Up

There is little question that if you have a bicycle accident, and if your head gets banged, and if it isn’t so severe that you’re dead anyway, then your injuries are likely to be significantly less severe if you are wearing a helmet.  I once had a dent in an old helmet that proved the point to my own satisfaction. And I’m amazed at how often anti-bicycle people use a cyclist’s uncovered head  as “proof” of the rider’s immaturity and irresponsibility – thereby justifying the critic’s condemnation of everyone who bikes. But how to convince people to put the helmet on?   Research says that the most common non-compliance reasons are that the person doesn’t own a helmet, that it feels too hot, that they don’t like the way a helmet makes them look, or that it shouldn’t be needed for short trips. Boston is using several strategies to provide high quality helmets at little or no cost, with the Boston Cyclist’s Union playing a major role.  Hubway is working with an MIT team to create helmet vending machines to place next to their stations although there are lots of technical deployment issues still to solve. Continue reading