The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

Boston Bicycling: Five Changes To Move From Better To World Class

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. Continue reading


I wear a bike helmet.  Always.  Every time I get on a bike.  I don’t think that the helmet will keep me from having an accident, just that it will reduce the odds of serious head injury in particular types of situations.  Small odds but a big benefit. It’s likely that people who cycle like I do – regular commuters with enough experience and confidence to ride within busy traffic – suffer the most severe injuries.  I don’t want to be one of those statistics.  As my daughter (the doctor!) says about helmetless speedsters, “I hope they’re carrying an organ donor card.” But avoiding injury– staying safe — is not my main motivation for cycling.  In addition to being cheaper and often faster than any other mode of urban commuting (as well as less polluting and more energy efficient), it helps me control my weight, stay fit, sleep better at night, have more energy the rest of the day, almost always puts me in a better mood – and is simply fun to do.  It keeps me healthy – body and soul.  I think it would be good for society if more of us biked instead of drove for at least the 25% of daily trips that are less than a mile long, if not for the 40% that are less than two miles and the 50% of daily commutes of less than five miles. Continue reading

LEVERAGING PUBLIC SPENDING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT: Do Multiple Goals Make Projects Better — or Unmanageable?

Keep It Simple.  Focus.  You can’t walk and tie your shoes at the same time.  Projects are much easier to manage, and it is easier to hold project managers accountable, if there is a single and explicit goal.  Transparency is vital to maintain public trust in government, and it is best accomplished when the line from spending to result is clear and straightforward. On the other hand, life is complicated, everything is connected, and the need for improvement is enormous.  Every project impacts its audience, and the world, in complex and multiple ways.  Given the scarcity of funds and the magnitude of the problems facing us, doesn’t it make sense to leverage every opportunity to create as much positive change as possible – and to increase the odds of overall success by being explicit about each of the top priority goals even if they relate to different issues? Continue reading

GENERATING THE POWER TO SAVE THE “T”: The Business Community Needs To Move

What will save the MBTA – and our region – from the disastrous effects of proposed service reductions and price increases?  Over the past few years, in response to the demand for “reform before revenue,” innovative T leadership has significantly improved efficiency, squeezed more out of available resources, and improved communications with the public. There now seems to be general agreement that the key issue is revenue both for capital and operating costs.  The T is not only saddled with the highest rate of debt of any major city transit system, it is also burdened with deteriorating old equipment that is costly to maintain.  At a minimum, the T needs debt relief, if not an infusion of capital for upgrading, as well as a replacement for the failed “piece of the sales tax” strategy for supplementing fares as a way to cover operating costs. Continue reading

SAFETY AND THE LAW: When Are Higher Penalties The Right Tool For Changing Behaviors

The Cambridge City Council recently passed a home rule petition (HB3852) asking the state Legislature to give it the authority to significantly increase the penalties to be paid by pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists for a wide variety of road violations.  Jaywalking fines would increase from $1 to $75.  Cyclists could be fined up to $75 for any of several violations, from lacking appropriate night-time lights and reflectors to extending the front fork beyond its original length.  (See below for full list of bicycling prohibitions.*)  Any vehicle (truck, car, or bike) ignoring a yield or stop sign or a blinking or solid red light could be fined up to $250. A local group called TROMP (Travel Responsibility Outreach & Mentoring Project) proposed the bill. The Cambridge Bicycle Committee opposes it. Rumors are also flying that Mayor Menino will propose a helmet law with stiff penalties.  Some public health people support it; most bike advocates are opposed. Are passing laws and increasing penalties the best way to improve street safety?  Maybe it is good strategy in some situations but not others.  Perhaps there are many situations in which changing the road’s infrastructure (e.g. creating “complete streets” or using traffic calming to lower speeds to no more than 20 mph) are more likely to change behavior and/or improve safety. It turns out that, in fact, we actually know a lot about this issue. —————————— Continue reading

THE AGONY AND THE ACTIVISM: Looking Back at the Big Dig

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. ————————————— Continue reading

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. Continue reading

SUCCESSFUL ADVOCACY: Lessons of the BU Bridge Campaign

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.) Continue reading

FIX THE PROBLEM, NOT THE BRIDGE: How MassDOT Can Avoid Wasting $14 Million on the McGrath Highway

It’s both a cliché and a powerful insight to remember that the solution you come up with depends on which problem you are trying to solve.  A road builder sees problems in terms of the need for movement – usually meaning car capacity – and comes up the road expansion solutions.  A transportation planner – as well as a livable communities developer – sees problems in terms of using the built environment as a way to improve peoples’ quality of life and comes up with solutions that stress human interaction. The elevated section of the McGrath/O’Brien Highway from the Cambridge border to Somerville’s Highland Avenue is old and deteriorating.  Working with people from the more than 20 land development and road planning efforts already happening along the corridor,   LivableStreets Alliance coordinated discussionsthat endorsed five core value/vision statements for what should happen in this area: Reunite neighborhoods cut apart by the highway. Humanize the space by lowering traffic speeds, reducing noise and pollution, narrowing lane width, and reducing the current six (or more) lanes to four. Make traveling across and along the corridor safer and more inviting for pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders. Add more trees, grass, storm-water drainage, and other green features. Encourage local retail and job-creating businesses; including crafts-based and green-economy enterprises. Continue reading

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. Continue reading