The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

Bikes Not Bombs — Lessons about Sustainable Organizing for Progressive Change

A couple months ago Bikes Not Bombs both celebrated its 25th anniversary and announced that the last of the founding organizers, Carl Kurtz, was leaving.  But its core mission of international anti-war solidarity combined with local bicycle and youth services remains.  Still based in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, BNB is now being run by the next generation — people who have grown up with the organization, or connected through the international network of local bike shops that BNB continues to support, or who were attracted by BNB’s combination of political vision and pragmatic services. It is of enormous credit to the entire BNB community that the organization has lasted this long.  And it’s of equal credit to Carl that he has been such a steadfast leader and worker for the entire time.  Listening to the speeches, and reflecting on what I know about the organization, helped remind me of what it takes to create sustainable change from the bottom up.  The simplicity of the words hides the enormous skill and art of making them happen:  compelling vision, optimistic faith, coherent mission, operational efficiency, good leadership, and luck. Continue reading

Why Do So Many People Do Such Stupid Things?

Why don’t more people just leave their cars at home?  Why do so many people eat such terrible food?  I am frequently in conversations where someone asks these types of questions.  Sometimes the speaker is just a snob, using the question to really announce their own sense of superiority.  But sometimes it’s a sincere bewilderment.  Why do people make choices that end up hurting not only themselves but our society in the long run?  And how can we get them to change?  Few people are consciously self-destructive.  The reason most Americans drive, just like the reason that so many Americans eat bad food, is because given the surrounding context it makes sense to do so.  Our homes jobs, shopping centers, schools, and friends are often located far away from each other, extending across the metro region into the suburbs.   Public transportation doesn’t typically connect scattered starting points with equally scattered destinations – assuming that’s its available at all.  Cars are often a necessity. Continue reading

Boston Needs Bureaucracy

(This is the full text and title of a letter that appeared in the Boston Globe on 1/10/10) We all hate bureaucracy – big, rule-based, inflexible.  But the impersonal efficiency of bureaucracy is exactly what big organizations need to run effectively.  So the James Michael Curley legacy that is most damaging to today’s Boston is not the corruption or ethnic-neighborhood chauvinism or even the patronage described by Peter Canellos (“Curley’s People”, Jan.1, Ideas), but the pattern of delivering public service entirely on the basis of personal relationships.  If you want something done, you have to know someone who works in city hall.  Even within City Hall, inter-office coordination is more about calling your cousin than oiling a functional machine. Continue reading

Making Boston A World Class WALKing City

Aren’t we already walkable?  We’ve got short blocks and a decent amount of mixed-use development, which encourage using your feet.  Nearly 5% of our adult population walks to work, second only to New York.  But most of our advantages are the dwindling remains of our colonial and immigrant inheritance – narrow winding streets, buildings fronting the sidewalk, three-decker density, scattered neighborhood business districts.  Unfortunately, we have done our best over the past 50 years to catch up with the rest of car-centric America.  It should not be surprising that pedestrian accidents in Boston have jumped by 21 percent since 2006, reaching 776 last year according to police statistics.  Fatalities have increased to 20 in 2008 from eight in 2005.  Jaywalking is a local sport, and no one feels safe. Continue reading

Maintaining Momentum As The Wave of Reform Recedes

It hasn’t been just the biting cold and the encroaching night that has made this December depressing.  The collapse of the Senate’s version of Health Reform into an insurance and drug industry subsidy program, the failure to reach agreement on a climate recovery treaty in Copenhagen, the continued war in Iraq and the announced escalation in Afghanistan….for many of us, these developments have eliminated our little remaining hope that the Obama election would create deeply transformative change – in transportation or anything else. It’s true that each of these disappointments includes many incremental improvements and sometimes creates a platform for future progress.  Simply having an African-American as President is culturally transformative and well worth the effort of his election.  But we no longer seem to have enough momentum to push through the structural changes we anticipated.  This is important both for what it teaches us about politics and how we have to adjust our strategies going forward. Continue reading

Ten Steps To Make Boston a World-class Bicycling City

Mayor Menino says he want to make Boston a “world class bicycling city.”  And now that he’s been elected to an unprecedented fifth term, he says that he’s ready to take additional risks to bring significant improvement.  So what needs to be done to realize the vision? Here are ten ideas, and one over-arching concept:  All these suggested actions will have a much greater chance of success, and have a much greater impact on local culture, if the city frames them as steps towards achieving an ambitious set of high-level goals – and then measures annual progress.  Appropriate goals might include increasing the city’s total number of cyclists by 10% per year and cutting the number of traffic-related pedestrian and cyclist injuries in half every two years. Continue reading

Learning from 28x — The Zen of Project Planning

Despite having a high percentage of transit-dependent households, the mostly low-income and non-white sections of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan have some of the area’s worst transportation options.  The buses are old, over crowded, and slow.  There is no trolley or commuter train service.  Since the latest estimates are that a two-person Boston household spends up to $12,324 a year more if they use cars rather than trolleys, buses, and feet, many of these people have little choice but to take what’s given them. It’s hard not to see this as discriminatory.  And many residents do. So, the only good that may emerge from the withdrawal of the state’s application for about one hundred and fifty million dollars to upgrade bus service along Blue Hill Ave – because of community opposition to the state’s plans – is that it becomes a case study in how NOT to implement successful transportation projects.  What went wrong, and what can we learn? Continue reading

How To Prevent Bridge Repair Gridlock

Except for the Mass Ave bridge, every bridge in the lower Charles River basin is going to get repaired over the next five years or so. Hopefully, the end result will be structurally sound structures within a transportation system finally able to serve pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit vehicles as well as cars — and that also provide improved access to the region’s river-side parklands. However, the construction period will cause a massive reduction in the system’s car-carrying capacity. The state needs to act, now, to encourage a significant shift from cars to transit, bikes, and walking. But how can this be done?  We already know, from bitter experience around the country and the world, that building more roads to relieve congestion will only attract more drivers until the new roads are over crowded as well. It seems that, in most transportation systems, if you build it they will come. Continue reading

What is “Healthy Transportation” — Issues for a Health Impact Assessment

Massachusetts’ new Transportation Reform Act mandates that the Department of Transportation collaborate with Health & Human Services, Environment & Energy, and others to create a Healthy Transportation Compact.  The law also requires that the state devise a way of conducting a Health Impact Assessment of new transportation projects.  But what does it mean to have a transportation system that is healthy for the environment, for our climate, for the economy, for our communities and families, for the physical and mental wellbeing of those who are moving around and those who are being passed by?  The first thing that assessing “healthy” requires is that we look at transportation as a system rather than as separate modes or separate networks (rail, trolley, bus, cars, trucks, bikes, planes, boats, and feet).  Massachusetts’ creation of a Department of Transportation that brings together many of the previously separate travel agencies (MBTA, Turnpike, Mass Highway, Airports) is a good first step, but true systemic thinking will require much more. Continue reading

Ten Ways To Transform Transportation — Part III

People are free to choose the way they get around.  But the context shapes their likely choices.  This is Part III of a three-part series suggesting high-leverage actions that would shift the context from one that makes getting into a car the default option to one where walking or cycling would be equally – and in some situations more – easy to do.  Because mass transit is such a huge topic, I will deal with it separately in a later series of posts.   The ideas discussed in Part III include: 8. PRICE PARKING PROPERLY9. CHANGE LIABILITY ASSUMPTIONS10. SET GOALS AND MEASURE PROGRESS Ideas 1-3 are discussed in Part I and ideas 4-7 in Part II.  However, this is my list of the top ten ways to transform transportation.   I’m sure readers have others.  Please comment and add your own. Continue reading