The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

E-BIKES ARE COMING: Improving Our Dangerously Incoherent Policies

Look down the street.  It’s not just cars, trucks, buses, bikes, and pedestrians.  There is a whole spectrum of new two and three wheeled things on the roll – stand-up scooters, in-line skates, skate boards both manual and motorized, Segways, “personal assistant mobility devices”, electric-assist pedal bikes, motorized cargo bikes and pedicabs, mopeds, mini-motorcycles, “smart wheels” that fit onto regular bikes, exploding hoverboards, and other things joining the motor scooters and motorcycles already there.  And next year there will be even more as several industry sectors – bicycle, moped, and scooter manufacturers in particular – gear up to serve the growing market of bike-interested but less-physically fit adults and aging boomers. Continue reading

ADVOCACY FOR THE COMMON GOOD: Action, Organization, and Power

Advocacy is the mobilization of resources and power to deal with societal problems.  It combines protest against what you don’t want, pushing for what you do want, and partnering with those responsible for implementation to make sure you actually get what you want  – although it is the pushing that we most generally think of as “advocacy”.  Advocacy starts through the spread of motivating information and bringing people together.  Having ideas and energy is vital, but not enough.  Success requires having the momentum and power to actually implement the desired change.  Vision and talk are the starting points.  Changed awareness – knowledge and empathy – and vital building blocks, but the goal of Advocacy is visible change in individual and social reality – which almost always requires action.  Advocacy occurs when you seek change outside yourself, in the surrounding world. Continue reading

A GOOD WALK, UNSPOILED: A Few Ways to Improve Foot Traffic

The cliché is true: every trip begins and ends on foot.  The basics of what makes for a good walking experience are pretty straightforward:  smooth, wide, unobstructed and well-lit surfaces; stress-free street crossings; pleasing aesthetics; busy but not overcrowded; hassle-free and crime-free areas; opportunities for social or commercial activity; and a way to get to where you want to go.  In fact, policies about pedestrian facilities are generally decent – it’s the implementation that gets controversial. Although the increasing numbers of people who step into a street with their eyes lost in a screen and their ears blocked with music are asking for trouble, the starting point for road safety must be that as the most vulnerable of road users, pedestrians (on foot or wheelchair) deserve the most protection and should be yielded to by everyone.  However, because every situation has its own particularities, most policies and standards appropriately provide enormous lee-way for on-the-spot judgement by the individual designer or traffic signal controller.   And the devil is always in the details of what gets decided, particularly in the (deliberate or implicit) weighting given to car traffic versus pedestrian (and bicycle) movement.  Here are some ideas about how things should go. Continue reading

Eliminating Killer Trucks: Leveraging the Procurement Power of Government, Non-Profits, and Private Business

Truck drivers, like most of us, try very hard to avoid hurting anyone. But the deadly repetition of death continues -- trucks are only 4% of vehicles in the United States but cause about 7% of pedestrian fatalities and 11% of cyclist fatalities. The disparity is even higher in urban areas – a London analysis found that the 4% of vehicles that were trucks were involved in nearly 53% of cyclist fatalities. In New York City truck were involved in 32% of cyclist fatalities. In Boston, 7 out of 9 cyclist fatalities in 2012-13 involved trucks or buses and the numbers keep rising. The combination of huge blind spots in the driver’s vision (especially from the cabs of the biggest and tallest trucks), the pressure drivers are under from their companies to increase their loads and cut their time, and the lack of city-specific commercial driver training in the US – all add up to nearly inevitable tragedy. There are some defensive tactics that pedestrians and bicyclists can use. Unfortunately, these are not fool-proof and not enough to prevent tragedy. What is also needed are systemic changes in both truck drivers’ ability to see what’s around them, and the availability of training resources to help truck drivers operate more safely in urban areas.  Accomplishing these two changes requires changes in public policy. Public policy changes slowly and with great difficulty – it is constitutionally designed to have multiple steps and, because our political system is so dependent on business support, it is repeatedly subject to vested-interest push-backs. However, progress is happening. This summer, D.C. became the first state to pass a side guard and mirror law for all large trucks. A truck side-guard and blind-spot mirror bill is advancing in New York State, with New York City as a major sponsor. A similar bill was introduced in last year’s session of the Massachusetts Legislature – it will hopefully get more traction when it’s re-introduced this year.  Continue reading

Active Transportation and The Community Preservation Act: Funding for Livability, Mobility, and Health

This November, Boston voters (as well as those in Springfield and Holyoke) will decide if their cities will join the roughly 160 others across the state in adopting the Community Preservation Act. A positive CPA vote (item number 5 on the Boston ballot) will raise money that can only be used for open space preservation (including greenways), development of affordable housing, the acquisition and development of outdoor recreational facilities (including playgrounds, bicycling, and pedestrian facilities), and the preservation of historic resources. If adopted, the average single-family Boston homeowner will pay about $28 per year – about $2 per month. Small business owners would pay between $100 and $250 a year. Including the projected state match, the city is expected to have roughly $20 million every year for CPA projects. It’s a small amount to pay for a very large return in increased quality of life. And voters can see exactly what their money is being used for via a database set up by the non-profit Community Preservation Coalition. The program has been a huge success in those municipalities that have already adopted it since the enabling act passed in 2000; state-wide raising over $1.4 billion which has paid for over 8,500 units of affordable housing, 1,250 recreation projects, 21,800 acres of open space, and 3,600 historic preservation projects. Once adopted, no city has ever voted to repeal the CPA program. Continue reading

Better Bike Lanes: Improving On What Got Us Here

Except for the boldest and most confident people, even experienced cyclists feel more comfortable – and more people are likely to use their bikes – when they are separated from fast moving or heavy traffic.  So it’s not surprising that the spread of standard bike lanes – a painted corridor sometimes against the curb but usually between parked cars and moving traffic – has been a powerful catalyst for the growth of cycling in recent years. Since safety comes from numbers, these facilities have significantly lowered the risk and improved the environment for bicycling.  Research shows that standard lanes increase the distance between cyclists and both moving and parked cars compared to unmarked streets -- nudging parked cars closer to the curb and bicycle riders further away.  But experience has also taught us that the next-to-the-driver-door location has significant flaws and that it’s possible to do better.  A lot of great design ideas have been developed.  However, outside the advocacy community, many people still haven’t heard about them.  Here is an introduction to a few of them. Continue reading

Road Rage Prevention and Deflation: Making Roads Safer for Interpersonal AND Intermodal Interaction

Road Rage is aggressive anger and dangerous behavior.  It carries overtones of self-righteous arrogance and potential violence.  It’s incredibly scary and deeply disturbing, especially as the number of carried guns and the amount of culture-permeating violence increases.  To reduce our chances of becoming the victim – or the initiator – of road rage, we need to de-escalate tense situations.   When confronted by an emotionally out of control or threatening person, our first act must be to remove ourselves to safety.  More often, however, we are faced with an unintentionally and unknowingly endangering behavior by a thoughtless person.  Both situations are frightening and infuriating, but exploding in anger is not usually our best response – either in its deterrence effect or its impact on ourselves.  Anger may sometimes give us a feeling of regaining control, but makes others see us as being out of control.  Sometimes, even merely trying to assertively deal with the situation triggers fury rather than understanding, potentially creating an escalating feedback loop that spirals out of control into emotional or even physical injury.  Sometimes, we need to walk away – for our own sake.  Without compromising our right to be on the roads, the route towards more civil interaction is to always try to make ourselves part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  We need to be true to our better selves, doing what we can to make our streets safer and more welcoming places for everyone. Our goal must always be to make our roads friendly at the level of interpersonal interaction as well as mode interaction – which also implies the importance of improving our street design, of adopting and implementing Compete Streets and Vision Zero programs.  A panel discussion organized by Ken Carlson, chair of the Somerville Bicycle Committee, prompted some thoughts and this blog.  (Full disclosure: I moderated the session and will lead another panel at MassDOT's upcoming Moving Together Conference.)  I’m writing this from the perspective of being a year-round cyclist who occasionally drives a car or takes transit, and starts or ends every trip with some distance on foot. Continue reading

The Death and Legacy of Bike Culture: An Appreciation

You don’t hear a lot about “bike culture” these days. A decade or two ago it was a hot phrase, denoting the shared camaraderie, courage, outsidership, feeling of rebellion and excitement of being a cyclist in a world that considered you slightly crazy. (If society treats cyclists as deviants doing an insanely dangerous activity; who else would you expect to become a cyclist beside a risk-taking person with a certain disregard for the rules?) But it also had a powerful democratic and moral vision that said being on a bike was a positive thing that everyone could and be encouraged to do; that it was our roads that were irrational rather than those who didn’t use cars. Like Punk, bike culture was an urban phenomenon, based among weekend racers, daredevil messengers, and the spandex covered hot-rodders joining the others in marginalized outlaw status on the streets. Today, as bicycling has become more mainstream, the macho desperado aspects of the culture have receded to the immature margins and the universalizing positive messages have been carried forward in the nation’s many Bicycle Advocacy and Transportation Reform groups. But here’s a semi-nostalgic glance back at the people who pushed through the asphalt barbed wire to get it all started. Continue reading

PEOPLE PRIORITY STREETS: Neighborways, Slow Streets, and Safety Zones

Roads are for moving on. But they are also for being in. There is a growing effort to reclaim the historic role of streets as a neighborhood’s collective front yard, a place for people to meet and talk, to sit and look or eat, and for their children to play.  From temporary Play Streets and Open Streets to more permanent Shared Space, Neighborways, and Slow Zones, there are a growing menu of strategies for combining the two roles of streets as travel corridors and public space – the largest single asset owned by most local governments. And along with these is a re-emergence of “traffic calming” as a positive goal.   Continue reading

FOLLOWING THE LEADER: Lessons from NYC’s Janette Sadik-Khan

Former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan recently gave a talk at the Harvard Book Store to promote her inspiring new book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. While Sadik-Khan was clear that the campaigns were a group effort involving her entire staff and several other departments as well, it’s clear that her leadership made a difference.  Despite the gentrifying implications of the Bloomberg Administration’s efforts to revitalize much of the city, transportation reform had city-wide effects that made things better for nearly everyone.   Some of the lessons she described: the power of positive and inclusion framing of program innovations, the importance of turning top-down innovations into bottom-up requests, the need to move quickly and cheaply when opportunities arise, and the way that the collection of new types of data can reshape the public debate. Continue reading