The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities


Massachusetts’ public mass transportation system is about to go broke.  It is being dragged down by over $8.6 billion of debt (including an inappropriately huge chunk of the Big Dig costs), decreasing federal aid, and the unwillingness of state government to raise revenue.  The MBTA’s capital spending plan lists $3.7 billion worth of projects needed for safety or reliability, while the agency only gets to spend between $200 and $300 million a year. Like transit systems around the country, the MBTA is caught in a downward spiral.  Cultural changes and hard times have increased demand, which is growing at a faster rate than highway vehicle travel.  But decreasing revenue means less service and higher fares. According to the American Public Transportation Association, more than 80 percent of the nation’s transit systems are considering or have recently enacted fare increases or service cuts, including reductions in rush-hour service, off-peak service and geographic coverage.  Locally, T riders are facing potential increases of 25 cents for each bus/subway ride, about $120 a year.  But these cutbacks drive away riders and reduce revenue while also setting the stage for public criticism and reduced public support, which further undermines efforts to get political support for the desperately needed investment.  The result is an increasingly unreliable and unsafe system, with anti-government right wingers crowing that “the government can’t do anything” or attacking the very idea of non-car transportation. Continue reading

ZONING REFORM: Unlocking Investment in Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

There is little or no zoning in many parts of the United States.  It is condemned as the intrusion of government rules on what you want to do with your own property.  Live free or die! But, historically, it was precisely the unregulated freedom of property owners to do whatever they wanted that was the cause of death.  Zoning was a way to separate deadly land uses from residential areas. Unfortunately, over the years, in many communities zoning has become a mind-bogglingly complicated bureaucratic mess, totally opaque and highly vulnerable to back-room dealings as well as political-business collusion.  In many cases, it has become so ossified that zoning categories neither address market realities nor capture sufficient value for the public good. Continue reading

HOW ROADS SHAPE ECONOMIES: Why What Happens to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, Sullivan Station, and Rutherford Ave. Will Make – or Break – Local Job Opportunities and Community Well-Being

Will Boston’s inner ring of old suburbs – Somerville, Charlestown, Roslindale, even Dorchester — be able to build on residential upgrading to become economic growth nodes as well?  Or will they continue to be left out, with growth focused either in downtown Boston or the still-expanding outer rings of suburban towns around Routes 128/95 and 495? The answer partly depends on the types of transportation system that gets built over the next twenty years – not only what happens to mass transit but also what is done with the older highways that run through the area.  McGrath/O’Brien, Rutherford Ave., Casey (Rte 203) – these were once vital arterials bulldozed through the inner ring to connect the outer suburbs with downtown.  Building them required the destruction of working class neighborhoods.  But they kept the wheels of commerce rolling as the tide of growth moved outward. Continue reading

FEDERAL HIGHWAY FUND RESCISSIONS: Are We Giving Back (Bike/Ped/R2T/SSTS) Money? What Should We Do?

Short Answer:  No money is being lost or returned. Short Explanation:  Congress “appropriates” less money than government is “authorized” to spend.  States have great freedom to allocate the appropriated funds among different programs.  States typically use as much as they can for roads.  Massachusetts has the dubious honor of spending the lowest percentage of any state or territory of its Transportation Enhancements (TE) authorization and other programs typically used for bike/ped facilities. For bike/ped-favoring programs such as TE and Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ), the disproportionate allocation process creates an “unobligated balance” between the authorized ceiling and the obligated (to be eventually spent) amount.  This “authorized-to-obligated” gap accumulates every year.  Every now and then, Congress cleans up the books by “rescinding” some of the unobligated amounts.  States have great freedom in deciding which programs’ unobligated balances are used for the rescission – they typically use the bike/ped programs for this purpose. Continue reading

AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

Propose to add bike lanes or narrow traffic lanes or even to install corner bulb-outs in either a suburb or an inner-city neighborhood, and you’re likely to run into the rejection chorus from long-time residents:  “You’ll just make congestion worse.” “Cars will short-cut through our neighborhoods.”  “This discriminates against the car driving majority.” The issue isn’t the technical details – the size of the bulb-outs, the width of the bike lanes, the height of the speed bumps.  Neither does it usually seem to be about the need to make it safer to walk, bike, or take transit.  Everyone agrees that the roads aren’t as safe as we’d like.  And often it isn’t really about bicycling, or buses, or whatever else has triggered the opposition – many people will tell you that “I’m all in favor of …; but this is just not the right place for this kind of project.” Continue reading

PARKS, GREENWAYS, AND TRANSPORTATION: Increasing Usefulness By Combining Visions

Parks have many functions.  Urban parks were originally seen as oases, cool and green antidotes to the noise and density of the city; a place for quiet walks, meditation, and observation of nature’s wonderfulness.  Over the years, a growing working population with limited opportunity to escape the city demanded that parks also be used for family fun and active recreation: picnics, kids’ games, adult sports and exercise.  More recently, we’ve learned that green areas are the lungs and sponges of our environment, cleaning the air, absorbing water run-offs, lowering the temperature, and providing a vital tool for dealing with the globe’s escalating climatic disruptions. But what if parks were also treated as building blocks for a regional healthy transportation network?  What if they were nodes in a web of connected greenways with multi-use paths designed for non-motorized use for both families at play and weekday commuters?  What if the vision was to improve access to local parks by neighbors as well as to facilitate movement between and through the parklands by everyone? Continue reading

SHAPING TRAVEL CHOICES: The Four C’s of the Behavioral Context

Several times each day, most of us move from one place to another using one of the many options available – walk or drive, take the stairs or the elevator, bike or bus, taxi or limousine.  Most of the time, most of us don’t really think about it; we just do what we’ve usually done, what everyone else usually does, fall into the default behavior:  we drive, take the elevator, call a cab. What creates the default?  What nudges so many of us in the same direction?  Not an act of nature or of god.  Behavioral defaults are not inevitable or inescapable.  They are created by the surrounding context – the structure of our buildings, the nature of the transportation system, the attributes of high social status, the cultural assumptions that make some things feel normal and others unthinkable.  One way to understand the decision-making context is to examine the “Four Cs” of Convenience, Cost, Comfort, and Coolness.  Which method of movement is easiest to access?  Which feels like a good value?  Which requires the least effort to use?  Which is the most appropriate for people of our (self-imagined) social standing and style? Continue reading

UPDATE on TRANSPORTATION ENHANCEMENTS in MASSACHUSETTS: From Hope for Better to Concern for Worse….?

Winning isn’t everything; but being last should be embarrassing.  The Transportation Enhancement (TE) component of the federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) is the major source of federal funding for pedestrian/bicycle facilities and rail-trail conversations.  A recent post pointed out Massachusetts’ worst-in-the-nation status in percent of potential-to-actual money spent on TE projects. The post applauded the (slightly) simplified application process MassDOT was instituting for TE projects as well as the creation of financial incentives for the state’s 13 regional transportation planning groups (MPOs) to approve TE projects.  It also approvingly noted the criteria that MassDOT was considering using to evaluate TE project spending, giving priority to projects that would connect high-population areas or close gaps in existing bike routes. Continue reading

DESIGNING A TRANSPORTATION REPORT CARD: Ideas for a State Bike & Pedestrian Facility Progress Report

It’s hard to know if you are heading in the right direction if you don’t know where you are going.    In today’s context of fiscal constraint, it is vital to justify expenditures or to choose among competing options by evaluating how much they are moving us, or potentially will move us, towards our goals.  This is particularly true for public policy and action. The Healthy Transportation Compact, a component of the 2008 law creating today’s Massachusetts Department of Transportation, commits the agency to “support healthy transportation…reducing greenhouse gas emissions…improving access to services for persons with mobility limitations, and increasing opportunities for physical activities… increasing bicycle and pedestrian travel…[creating] complete streets for all users…” Continue reading


There actually is a common theme running through all three of this week’s seemingly unconnected items:  how to deal with the changes in transportation choices that people will make as gas prices continue to rise, urban population expands, and congestion gets worse.  Or, as my carpenter brother says about his tools, “the trick is keeping everything in its own place.” SEGWAY IN THE WAY – Reclaiming Sidewalks for People CHARLES RIVER BRIDGES – Part of the Path or the Road? BIKE LIGHTS AT NIGHT – “Fix It” Enforcement The first one applauds Boston’s effort to plan ahead for the influx of electric and low-powered vehicles – such as scooters, mopeds, electric bikes, and Segways – that people will increasingly use.  If you agree, contact your favorite Boston City Councilor and urge a quick, positive vote for the proposal. Continue reading