The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

Warm Weather Bicycling: On The Open Road Again

I love it.  As the air warms I emerge from my cold-weather focus on commuting as quickly as possible, and start stretching out for glorious long rides through the countryside.  I am repeatedly amazed at the beauty of the forests and fields I pass through.  And I think about life but also about the interaction of cycling with the world – particularly cars.  How Should Car Drivers Let Bicyclists Know They’re Coming Up From Behind? I know I’m supposed to be listening for the motor, but often you simply can’t hear things over the wind and noise.  The ones that drive me crazy are the people who wait until they’re right behind me and then honk loudly.  I nearly jump off my seat or off the road.  Of course, I instantly assume it’s a hostile attack by some idiot – until I steady myself enough to look around and realize it’s just some nervous old lady who thinks she’s being helpful (unless, of course, it actually is some hostile idiot). Continue reading

Improving MassDOT’s Bike/Ped Advisory Process

It’s good that road designers are professionally conservative – you don’t want bridges falling down because someone just thought it would be fun to try an off-beat idea.  But the world is changing, even though some traffic engineers aren’t always comfortable letting go of the car-centric, suburbs-oriented, Interstate-model of transportation they were trained to create. Massachusetts’ Secretary of Transportation, Jeff Mullan, has said that he wants to create a new MassDOT that fully implements the Healthy Transportation Compact aspects of the act creating the unified agency.  The restructuring act requires MassDOT to “…encourage the construction of complete streets, designed and operated to enable safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and bus riders of all ages to safely move along and across roadways in urban and suburban areas…[and to] increase bicycle and pedestrian travel…” Continue reading

Will Our River Crossings Be Bridges or Barriers?

The Charles River is one of the defining features of our region.  From the time humans first arrived, we have used it for sustenance, pleasure, and travel.  While the basin feels like a refuge of nature in the midst of our urban lives, nearly every inch of the river – from the shore to the deepest channel – has been shaped by human activity.  The river and the structures around it need to be managed to preserve their value to the life cycle while maximizing their human functionality. In particular, the bridges over the river can help connect our communities, provide access to the riverbank, and be an aesthetic asset.  Or they can make travel difficult, even dangerous, block us off from the river, and serve as walls preventing movement on or beside the water.  As the state begins a once-in-a-lifetime process of repairing and improving almost every bridge along the Charles, we need to make sure that it’s done right. Continue reading

When Budgets Shrink, Mission’s Must Converge

Or…How to Improve Our Quality of Life and Get Maximum Leverage from Limited Public Resources by Integrating Complementary Aspects of Policy & Programs in Transportation, Health, Development, Environment, Energy – and everything else! I was once one of those people who joined in the American chorus of contempt about the inefficiency and incompetence of public programs.  Until I began working in the private sector.  I quickly learned that the dearth of really good managers, the culture of petty bickering and buck-passing, the incredible lack of inter-departmental coordination and inter-subsidiary synergy was just as common in business as it was in government – if not worse because it was hidden from public view behind the narrow window of bottom line results.  So long as the ink was black, internal corporate operations could get away with utterly amazing amounts of wastefulness, nastiness, short-sightedness, and bungling – often because the competition was doing the same! Continue reading

Cycling and Cents — The Bicycle ROI

It’s winter in Boston – cold, windy, occasional snow.  And yet every time I go out I see people bicycling.  They weren’t here ten years ago; or even five – certainly not in the winter!  It suddenly feels like we’ve reach an inflection point:  there are enough people who use cycling as a major form of transportation that it’s become a year-round presence. The US Census Bureau agrees.  Their 2008 American Community Survey found that the share of bicycle commuters nationally increased 43 percent since 2000.  In supportive environments it grew even more:  the 27 large cities recognized as Bike Friendly by the League of American Bicyclists had increases nearly 60 percent larger than the national average.  ( There are lots of reasons for this upsurge but in these fiscally tight times it’s illuminating to particularly analyze the dollars and sense aspects.  It turns out that bicycling is a good deal for both the cyclist and the city. Continue reading

Changing The Rules of the Road: National Transportation Reform

For the past half century, Congress creates a new national transportation funding bill every six years or so.  Originally, the primary role of the Highway Trust Fund was to send federal gas tax money to the states to subsidize construction of the Interstate Highway System and other roads.  Over time, as national priorities have changed, the bill has authorized the Fund to cautiously include other modes (railroads, transit, bikeways, and walking paths) and a broader perspective (reducing traffic-related air pollution and safety).  The most recent six year cycle ended in 2009, and the next Transportation Funding Bill – now being debated – will not only shape how we travel but also the nature of our communities, the cleanliness of our environment, our level of daily physical activity, and much more.  All of us have a stake in the outcome.  Continue reading

Why the Public Sector Can’t Be Run “Like A Business”

The public sector can certainly benefit from the adoption of many business practices, from a focus on customer service to more efficient work flow, from TQM to greater transparency.  But no matter how important these practices may be, no matter how much the public sector can benefit from their use, there is a fundamental difference between the two sectors that will perpetually lead to differences: the public sector rests on a foundation of democracy while private organizations do not.  This plays itself out in at least five ways: government’s requirement to serve everyone, government’s requirement to fulfill its entire mandate, the multiple and sometimes competing dimensions that defines quality in public programs, the complicated way public revenues are generated, and the population-wide ownership of the public sector. Continue reading

Making Government Work (Better)

No matter what our concern, each of us has a stake in having government operate effectively and accountably, respecting legal rights while being creative and fast-acting enough to deal with public issues. Some people say this means that government should be run like a business.  But government is not business.  Its bottom line is much more complicated than profit, its operations are subject to many more constraints, and it operates with far more public scrutiny than any firm could endure.  (For more on the differences, see the associated posting “Why the Public Sector – Schools in Particular – Can’t Be Run “Like A Business.”)  But there are a lot of business methods that the public sector can adapt to its own unique circumstances and use – needs to use – if it is to do its job.  Here are comments about a few of them – measuring performance, involving the public, outsourcing, and technology. Continue reading

High Status Bus Rides — Does Bus Rapid Transit Make Sense for Us?

Imagine that you wanted to invent a better public mass transit system.  Like a railroad it would run on an exclusive right-of-way, have weather-protected stations where people with already-bought tickets could wait, and multiple cars with comfortable accommodations.  Like a subway, each car would have lots of doors so that large numbers of people, standing or in wheelchairs, could quickly get on and off from a platform that is level with the doors.  Electronic signposts at every station would display the waiting time before the next pickup. Like a bus it would change its route and stopping locations as changing need requires.  It would be clean and safe and fast and high-status enough to attract both rich and poor.  It wouldn’t cost nearly as much nor take nearly as long to build as rail.  And it would work best where traffic congestion is worst.  Pretty good, right? What you want to invent already exists.  It’s called Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT.  I’m not talking about Boston’s Silver Line – which is no more BRT than Amtrak’s Acela is a true high-speed rail line.  Both use a label that they don’t deserve to cover up their basic failures.  They are a sad reminder that the most powerful way to undermine a good idea is with a bad first example.  But true BRT already exists in a few cities in this country and many more around the world.  We in the Boston area need to erase our negative impressions, start again learning about BRT as if the state hadn’t already spoiled the concept.  In fact, there are several places in our own region that could be well served by such a system. Continue reading

Celebrity Culture, Reality TV, Political Anger – and Scott Brown’s Election

Republicans are claiming that Scott Brown’s election was an affirmation of their conservative ideology.  But it is unlikely that the majority of Massachusetts voters have so radically changed their values and views.  It is more likely that his election was the result of two other dynamics — the capture of the election process by our reality-show celebrity culture and the widespread anger about the mess that national elites have made of our society.  Both have implications for advocates.  Why do so many people get so involved with celebrities?  As Joseph Campbell so insightfully taught, throughout human history we’ve celebrated heroes – people, deities, and even creatures who represent our ideals and our fantasies.  And we’ve created myths – stories about those heroes that models ways to struggle with the hardships and fears of our existence. Continue reading