The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

Miller’s Laws of Motion — or What Newton Didn’t Tell Us

Forget your physics class.  Travel is another dimension, where things happen according to a different set of natural laws.  I’ve modestly labeled the following as Miller’s Laws of Motion, but readers of this blog are welcome to add their own to the list…. 1) The narrower the road, the more likely you are to be stuck behind a very slow driver. When my family lived in rural New Hampshire, we called this the “Dan Hill syndrome.”  Dan was a wonderfully kind farmer who lived up the road from us and who seemed to believe that horse speed was the maximum appropriate for human travel.  Which wouldn’t have been so noticeable except for the fact that we all lived on a one-lane dirt road that went up a very long and steep incline making passing absolutely impossible – which forced us to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Continue reading

Why BRT Is NOT A Subway Line

The foundation for a healthy transportation system is a great public transit network.  But public transportation is expensive, so might buses do the job?  What makes for a good Rapid Transit system?   The basic characteristics are pretty straightforward: A dedicated travel corridor reserved for the transit vehicles, with minimal stops (except at designated passenger pick up/drop off locations), and engineered for a smooth and safe ride at relatively good speeds. The ability to provide limited stop express service as well as local service. Prepayment and vehicle door-level boarding at transit stations so passengers can quickly move on and off the vehicles. Capacity to move large numbers of people. Extended hours of operation across a wide area. And the best systems also incorporate: Advanced technology to keep passengers informed of wait times or problems, to keep the vehicles moving closely but not dangerously behind each other, and to allow for tight alignment of vehicle doorways with boarding areas. Hybrid or electric engines to minimize pollution. Regular maintenance to sustain reliability and keep fares low. The problem is that fixed rail systems – trains, trolleys, subways, and light rail – are incredibly expensive to build, and once constructed they are forever frozen in one location. Continue reading

Bikes Are Vehicles; But They’re Not Cars

Some bicycle advocacy groups promote the slogan “Same Roads, Same Laws” to support cyclists’ right to use the roadway along with car traffic.  I think it’s a bad slogan; at best incomplete, at worst self-defeating.  Bikes and cars are radically different types of vehicles, exposing cyclists and drivers to radically different conditions.  In addition to the laws that all vehicles should obey, we need special laws and road designs to protect the safety and promote the use of bicycles. Continue reading

Why The Next Stimulus Bill May Not Transform Transportation Either

We’ve begun hearing rumors of a potential follow-up stimulus bill that will inject additional billions into infrastructure spending.  But if state officials use the same narrow definition of “shovel ready” to select projects for funding for the new bill that they did for the old one, we’ll be stuck with another set of  old car-centric highway plans that don’t incorporate today’s “complete streets” approach. To its credit, Massachusetts was one of only six states to spend more than 10% of their federal stimulus funds on non-car projects. But the reality is that stimulus funds are intended to provide a quick stimulus – to be spent quickly and have an immediate impact. On the other hand, road projects take a very long time to plan, design, and get approved. Continue reading

In Boston, Red Means Go!

When a law whose purpose is to promote safety has the opposite effect, maybe its time to change the law.   Maybe there is something to learn from the fact that so few cyclists stop at red lights when there is no cross traffic.  Anyone who races through an intersection without looking — in any vehicle — is stupid and a danger to both themselves and others. I have no patience for hot-shot cyclists who ignore red lights as if neither the law nor common sense applies to them. But neither do I have any sympathy for car drivers who race into yellow lights or pedestrians who walk out from between parked cars. However, it seems to be the bad behavior of bicyclists that catches the public’s attention. The Globe recently ran a story about cyclist law-breaking. And I can’t count the number of times that a friend has complained to me about the outrageous way bicylists go flying through red lights.  In fact, when I’m driving my car (yes, I own one) I sometimes feel the same way.  It’s clear that not only is blindly racing into cross traffic dangerous, it enrages motorists, making it harder to get their support for bike-friendly policies. Continue reading

Boston: Birthplace of American Bicycling

After all those years of being labeled the worst bicycling city in America by Bicycling Magazine, it is hard to remember that Boston was once – and hopefully will again become – the hub of American bicycling.  The modern bicycle, with two wheels turned by a pedal, was invented in Paris in 1863 by a mechanic named Pierre Lallement based on earlier but pedal-less “velocipedes.”  Lallement, however, left Paris for the United States in 1865 where the 22 year-old settled in Connecticut and built a prototype of his design, filing the first and only patent for the pedal-driven bicycle in 1866. Continue reading

Why the Dutch Don’t Wear Bike Helmets: Building Safety Into The Road

It’s not because they’re stupid.  Or because they don’t care about safety for themselves or the kids perches on open seats on top of the handlebars.  I recently traveled in Denmark and the Netherlands and I think I found the answer:  they don’t ride in the road.  More accurately: when traffic is heavy, bicyclists ride in their own roads. In addition to extensive networks of off-road paths (with separate lanes for walkers and cyclists), most busy urban streets have been divided into four distinct roadways – one for pedestrians, one for cyclists, one for buses and trolleys, and one for cars and trucks.  As much as possible, each of the four roadways is physically separate from the others, with curbs or medians or “bollards”, or even rows of parked cars keeping the uses apart.  Combined with extensive subway and train networks, the cities have an effective and highly integrated transportation system. Continue reading

If You Build It They Come — But What Happens If You Take It Away?

If you build it…it will fill up — a truism for both roads and bikeways.  But if it isn’t there, or even if it was once there and you take it away, the traffic seems to go away as well…which may be the most important fact about traffic planning that you will never hear from the highway lobby.  I spent two hours during a recent afternoon trying to get out of Boston through the Big Dig tunnel.  Traffic wasn’t being bottled up by an accident; it just always seems congested in the late afternoon.  Funny thing is that I don’t remember traffic being so bad during those endless years when Big Dig construction was being so corruptly mismanaged and lanes were always being shut down.  Somehow, people found other ways (or times) to get where they needed to go. Continue reading

ReDefining Transportation: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making

“Getting there should be half the fun!”  I love this slogan:  it acknowledges that travel involves the full spectrum of human life rather than the simple relocation of objects.  Even more, it implies that the other half of the fun happens “there” – a place – with the suggestion that transportation is as much about enhancing the quality of locations as about motion between them. Continue reading

Quick Quotes – Bicycling

“Studies in New York found that a surprisingly large percentage of vehicles coming into lower Manhattan were government employees or others who had an assured parking spot. Other studies have shown the presence of a guaranteed parking spot at home—required in new residential developments—is what turns a New Yorker into a car commuter.  On the flip side, people would be much less likely to drive into Manhattan if they knew their expensive car was likely to be stolen, vandalized, or taken away by police. And yet this is what was being asked of bicycle commuters, save those lucky few who work in a handful of buildings that provide indoor bicycle parking. Surveys have shown that the leading deterrent to potential bicycle commuters is lack of a safe, secure parking spot on the other end. “What Would Get Americans Biking To Work?  Decent Parking,” by Tom Vanderbilt, Slate On-Line, 8/17/09 Continue reading