The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

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. Continue reading

OPEN STREETS & CYCLOVIAS: Creating Space For Urban Transformation

Come to Boston’s first Open Streets festivals – called Circle The City – on July 15 (closing streets between Jamaica Pond and Franklin Park) and August 15 (closing parts of the Kennedy Greenway and nearby streets).  Next: what about opening Storrow Drive’s outbound side every Sunday from 7am to 10am – nine miles of uninterrupted and totally safe room for bicycling, roller blading, walking, and family fun!  And then Dot Ave! The streets may belong to the people – in most cities comprising the single largest physical asset the public owns – but they’re functional dominated by cars.  And the more traffic the less we are likely to use the roads, and the space around them, for anything else – and the less livable our neighborhoods become. Continue reading

QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative

In addition to opposing the destructive imposition of highways and other mega projects serving regional needs into urban neighborhoods, Jane Jacobs also advocated for urban revitalization through small-scale citizen initiatives such as the housing program she helped start in New York’s Greenwich Village.   But it’s always easier to say “no” than to find a better solution; her program had only limited success. Still, there is a lot of creative energy floating around in citizenland.  Unleashing that volunteer labor could lead to important, even if usually small, improvements not only in our built environment but also in our social connections.  Action creates its own tailwind – neighbors emerge from the caves of their private lives when given the opportunity to work together on something of self-evident local value. Continue reading

NEW GARAGES FOR THE DOWNTOWN: How Can We Get What We Need?

“You can’t always get what you want,” sang the Rolling Stones, “but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.”  One of the signs of maturity is recognizing that you’ve got to give in order to get, that the real discussion should be about the nature of the trade-off rather than the need to compromise.  Recent developments are forcing us to decide how to balance the benefits and costs of increased parking in downtown Boston.  At stake are not just the parking spaces but the future nature of Boston life – its physical shape and feel, its residential friendliness, its commercial prosperity, the quality of its environment and its population’s health. Parks and people are good.  Cities thrive when there are lots of both. More car traffic coming into Boston is bad.  It increases pollution (air, water, and noise), makes our streets less safe and inviting no matter how you are getting around, forces government to continue shaping the built environment around the needs of cars rather than people, and makes it hard to get public support for creating less destructive modes of movement.  When the car is king, people get run over. Continue reading

TOWARDS A NEW HIERARCHY OF ROAD DESIGNS: From Traffic Volume To Human Function

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. Continue reading

TRANSPORTATION FINANCES: Why Saving Public Transportation Requires Helping Car Drivers

Massachusetts’ difficulty in finding ways to sustainably support its public transportation system (and its still-stuttering efforts to improve pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure) – in other words, its continuing inability to move away from overwhelming dependence on cars – is simply a specific example of a national problem.  In Congress and in many states cars are still king, if only because most people have no other choice:  a 2003 Harvard study found that owning a dependable car was a better predictor of finding and maintaining a job than having a GED. As in many other jurisdictions, Massachusetts’ MBTA’s budget crisis, temporarily settled by fare hikes and service cuts, will return again next year as an even bigger and more catastrophic problem.  The MBTA Board has just approved a FY13 budget that depends on $61 million in one-time and uncertain revenues – and still ends up with a $100 million funding gap in FY14. The rerun will wreak havoc not only on the 1.24 million people who use the MBTA every day but on the entire Metro-region economy.  A 10% drop in T ridership, within the range of possibility for the current reductions and probably an underestimate if future cuts are needed, will cost the state economy nearly $66 million a year simply dues to increased road congestion.  Even car drivers will suffer as more people are forced to get back into their cars and endure even higher levels of time-wasting congestion, injurious accidents, and greater air/water pollution. Continue reading

RECLAIMING THE LESSONS OF PAST VICTORIES: Traffic Is Not Inevitable

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. Continue reading

CONTRA-FLOW LANES: Fear and Comfort on Your Own Block

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

MODELING POSITIVE CITY-CONSTITUENCY RELATIONS: How Boston’s Transportation Department is Working with the Bicycling Community – and Creating Better Roads

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.” Continue reading