The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

Car-Free Sunday Streets; Night Light Follies; Priority Bus Lanes

Three short items in this week’s post: 1) Transforming Boston into Mayor Menino’s goal of a “World Class Bicycling City’ requires a multifaceted strategy. One action area: creating the kind of car-free safety zone that lets “ordinary” people feel it is safe to cycle.  In addition to the creation of “cycle tracks” – bike lanes that are physically separated from moving traffic in some way, it is also possible to build on the example of Hub On Wheels and temporarily ban cars from some section of a street, or to create a off-road (perhaps “multi-use”) greenway paths. 2) In this dark well-bottom of the year, only lunatics don’t use lights on their bicycle.  Of course, it’s what the law requires – but more importantly, it’s what survival requires.  In fact, any cyclist riding the roads later than 4:30 that doesn’t wear bright (preferably yellow) outerwear covered with reflective tape should have their live insurance cancelled and their motives examined.  But this begs the real controversy, worthy of several rounds of beer at your favorite spot – should bike lights blink or be steady? 3) Finally, as a former techie, I’m always interested in the latest ways to make our systems “smarter.”  But even more, I’m impressed by the presence (or depressed by the absence) of a smartly-designed infrastructure beneath the electronic sensors….like priority bus lanes. Continue reading

Efficiency And Equity In Transportation Planning

In economics, “efficiency” only refers to the allocation of capital.  Unregulated markets that allow investors to seek the highest profit lead to the largest overall amount of capital growth, exclusive of any other societal effects. It implies that capital growth is its own reward and perhaps the most important goal. Most of us have a broader and more humane definition of “efficiency” – not only accomplishing more with less but doing so in a way that is beneficial to both the system and those it affects  – long-term sustainability, both individual and social well-being.  And this conception of efficiency blends into an even more powerful concept: equity.  Not that every one is or has exactly the same but that the disparities are minimized – that we accept that we are a community that rises or falls together.  This type of equity requires acknowledging a collective responsible for maintaining a balance between providing freedom for individual creativity and security for everyone, for being accountable to contribute our proportional share of resources for the common good in exchange for having our needs taken into account. Continue reading

Thanksgiving and the Nature of Power

Without a struggle, there can be no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. — Frederick Douglas Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired manner. – Huey Newton Thanksgiving can be just what its name describes:  a moment to gather with loved ones to express thanks for the good in our lives.  We may feel that our circumstances depend on our own efforts, or on our ability to stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us, or on the influence of whatever form of chance or higher power we may choose to believe in.  Regardless, it is an opportunity to appreciate how much we have, whatever that is. Continue reading

The Three Legs of a Healthy Built Environment: Smart Growth, Active Transportation, Human-Scale Architecture

Our goal is livable communities – healthy, safe, sustainable, friendly, affordable, diverse, beautiful.  The vision is not just about a facilitating built environment but what it accomplishes – encouraging people to supportively relate to each other and feel positively about themselves. Public health teaches us that it is expensive, slow, and very difficult to try to convince each person, one at a time, to change their behavior.  It is much more cost effective, with a much broader impact, to change the context for decision-making so that making a “healthy choice” is the easy, low cost, and default thing to do. Continue reading

Going Mainstream: Overcoming Discouragements to Walking & Bicycling

Everyone who can walks, at least a little.  But how do we convince people that its preferable to getting into their car?  Similarly, we’ve gotten past the stage where the only people who bike are little kids, messengers, Euro-racers, and low-wage Latino immigrants.  Cycling has spread to a broader demographic of students, young adults, and people with a commitment to health and/or the environment.  But how do we get the next segment of ordinary people to use a bicycle for the 40% of daily trips that are under 2 miles or the 50% of commutes that are less than 5 miles long? Continue reading

LIVABLE STREETS – From Theory to Practice

I’m glad that more people are using the phrase “livable streets” these days.  But other than being derived from the title of a book by Donald Appleyard, what does it mean?  And even though livability is about more than transportation, a livable streets approach also requires us to structure our streets to maximize safety when on the move – which recent developments seem to indicate is most attainable by getting away from the mixed-mode muddle that concurrently characterizes our roads.  As it turns out, other than mass transit, cycling is the most efficient method of getting around urban areas – as I recently relearned.   Bicycling is also one of the best methods to integrate physical activity into our daily lives, which is a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle.  And the best way to make active transportation the default choice of most people is to introduce it in grade school – as the Dutch are already doing.  So….from vision to vitality, here are five short pieces: Continue reading

ADVOCACY: Weaving Together Protest & Partnership

Successful advocacy combines protest and partnership, acting as an outsider fighting something we oppose and acting as an insider working to shape official plans.  Many of our most critical strategic and tactical decisions deal with when and how to do one or the other, or – more typically – how to weave the two together. The big advantage of protest is that because you aren’t constrained by the problems of implementation you are more easily able to act as the spokesperson for higher ideals, as a proponent of a better vision of how things could be – which, when the political climate is particularly hostile, may be the most useful thing to do.  Today, however, progressives are more likely to lean towards partnership than protest, which seems to have been taken over by the radical right-wing of American politics.  Partnering with public officials give advocates greater access to the decision-making process, but at the cost of having to be “realistic” and satisfied with negotiating for what is possible under the current circumstances.  Still, no matter how friendly the relationship between advocates and officials, there are three strategic tasks that people pushing for change have to do:  mobilize political will, ensure that agencies have the needed resources and skills, and creating a climate of public acceptance needed for compliance and enforcement. Continue reading

What To Do About the Longfellow Bridge

On behalf of LivableStreets Alliance, I have been participating in a 45-person Task Force representing a wide range of interests assembled by MassDOT to make suggestions on the design for the Longfellow deck surface.  MassDOT will submit these ideas, along with its own analysis of which should be the “priority alternative,” to the Federal Highway Administration for review.  Unfortunately, the bridge is not wide enough to include the entire list of facilities desired by pedestrian, bicyclist, car, and transit advocates – so the challenge is how to best divide up the burden of limited space among the various modes.  The following is based on comments I made at the public meeting held near the end of the Task Force process. Continue reading


Regular cycling keeps a person fit.  Those of us who regularly commute or do errands zip along city streets feeling strong and healthy – even a bit smarter than the stuck-in-traffic drivers we pass – and safe so long as we pay careful attention to what’s going on around us. But even though we may have the skills to avoid accidents in heavy traffic, there are circumstances where cycling may be dangerous to our health.  We may not break our arms or necks, but we may damage our lungs, hearts, and even our brains. Continue reading

SHORT TAKES: FROM DESIGN ABSTRACTION TO DAILY FACTS: Bridges Aren’t Highways; Who Are We Designing For; The Impact of Surfaces; Why “Bike Sharrows” Aren’t Enough.

A few quick thoughts….Even in the city, some bridges contain long stretches of uninterrupted pavement; does that mean that they are a kind of “highway?”  Or are they better seen as part of the urban network, just another city street?  But even then, a bridge is not “just” a city street, especially if its over a river it is also a special place in itself – a place that people, if given the chance, would love to walk over, sit down on, and look out from. In a parallel vein, its time that the American cycling community stopped using the wanna-be racer as the “model user” for bike design.  Speed and sleekness are not what every bicyclist is looking for – sturdiness, ease of use, the ability to carry packages or children are top priorities for an increasing percentage of the market. Continue reading