The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

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

VIEWS FROM THE HANDLEBARS: The Status and Practice of All-Year Bicycling

In a break from my usual essay-length postings, here is a series of short comments and questions addressing a variety of bike-related issues: the growing number of all-year cyclists and their need for more bike parking, the changing tone of driver-cyclist interaction in cities and suburbs, the problem of signaling “thanks” to nice drivers and ensuring eye contact through tinted windows, my annoyance at cyclists who hog the road, and thoughts about where bike boxes should be located.   Continue reading

THE SEAPORT: Making Up for Past Mistakes

  My father told me that “fixing a mistake is usually a lot more difficult and expensive than doing it right the first time.”  He was right.  And the Seaport District’s multiple shortcomings are a case in point – in terms of transportation and nearly every other dimension of sustainable livability.  The area is self-destructively dependent on car-based mobility for both in/out commuting and internal circulation.  The roads do not embody the city and state’s commitment to Complete Streets. Transit options are woefully missing and, even worse, the available transit facilities are embarrassingly inefficient.  But more generally, the place is a steel and glass desert, excludingly expensive; a daytime-only enclave lacking most of what could have been done to make it a real neighborhood.  It is, unfortunately, a classic example of what happens when government doesn’t plan for the public good – when it becomes so desperate to attract business that it ceases to shape the market and allows individual firms to develop space in ways that go no further than their own immediate, profit-driven needs. Continue reading


If the Legislature and Administration gives the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) the staffing and funds for implementation, the agency’s current Parkway Design Study could be a game-changer.  The new Urban Parkways and Path Advisory Committee (UPPC) has been providing the recently consolidated Planning & Engineer Departments with lists of particularly dangerous locations and has offered to help them prioritize future road projects.  (Readers – are there more places you’d add - see below?) While supporting efforts to increase DCR’s drastically inadequate levels of funding and staffing, Advocates are also pushing the agency to better coordinate with local (and state) Vision Zero efforts and begin making immediate, low-cost, visible changes in Parkway conditions to make them safer and more inviting for walkers, cyclists, bus riders, and neighbors.  Continue reading

THE HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION COMPACT: Public Health Needs To Reclaim Leadership

The Healthy Transportation Compact section of the 2009 Transportation Reform Bill continues to influence state policy, but the formal inter-agency bodies created to advance and advise the process have been allowed to falter.  While the program is a MassDOT responsibility, it would be important for the state Public Health Department to get involved in reviving the effort and using the Compact as leverage for moving its multi-issue preventive programs to the next level. Continue reading

THE ENVIRONMENTAL CLIMATE STORM: Transportation, GHG Emissions, and a Carbon Tax

The headlines this winter are all about the Establishment’s loss of control over our political process.  But there’s another form of chaos lurking outside.  As rising seas jeopardize coastal areas, drought forces rural families to migrate, and severe storms threaten regional destruction, we need to get serious about preventing what we can by reducing emissions and increasing our resiliency for what are already inescapable conditions.  It will take both market-wide changes that internalize the cost of greenhouse gas emissions by putting an increasing price on carbon pollution and transportation-specific policies that directly lower vehicular discharge.  These are only marginally technical problems.  The real struggle is political and unless there is a “bottom-up” movement to demand equitable as well as effective action the price of both the inevitably coming damage and the (hopefully) implemented preventative and mitigatory solutions will fall primarily on those outside the ranks of the rich and powerful. Continue reading