The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

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

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR EQUITABLE DEVELOPMENT: Boston Needs To Give As Much Attention to the Low-income Fairmount/Indigo Corridor as to the High-Income Seaport

The Seaport has everyone’s attention as city and state agencies scramble to make up for the hard-to-believe absence of a Master Plan to guide the big-money area’s development into a functional neighborhood with  parks, transit, stores, schools, bicycle facilities – just about everything beyond offices, restaurants, and condos too expensive for anything besides speculative flipping.    But given Mayor Walsh’s commitment to equity, to improving conditions for all Bostonians regardless of income, it’s surprising and disturbing that more attention hasn’t been paid to one of the city’s biggest equalizing opportunities – the 9-mile Fairmount/Indigo Corridor, especially the Fairmount Greenway component. This inattention is especially disappointing because there are many high-impact actions that can be accomplished at extremely low cost that would visibly improve conditions in a nine-mile stretch through many of the city’s low-income and non-white neighborhoods. True: the Fairmount\Indigo Line has been upgraded and in-city service started (although fares to Readville are still out of scale with appropriate transit amounts and the inability to use Charlie Cards makes payment very confusing).  But even though the city has played a role, the rail and the stations are state projects.  What’s clearly a city responsibility is the Fairmount Greenway Project – a walking, bicycling, and family-friendly play-in-the-street route meandering through adjoining residential neighborhoods parallel to the rail tracks.   Years of community meetings organized by the Fairmount Collaborative and the Fairmount Greenway Task Force have devised and approved an extensive set of ideas for the street route and key parcels.  The plans include creative designs for inexpensive improvements as well as grand plans for major projects.   But with few exceptions, already overburdened city agencies have not been able to do more  than provide verbal support and small actions – and it should be clear by now to everyone that they won’t do any more (perhaps, given inadequate funding and staffing levels, they can’t do any more) unless the Mayor explicitly makes this project a strategic priority.   The Greenway needs to be prominently written into all the long-range plans the Administration is currently preparing – from GoBoston to Imagine Boston 2030 – but even more important, the many quick-easy-cheap ideas need to be funded and accomplished.  Soon. Continue reading

TRANSPORTATION ADVOCACY: Proclaiming Victory, Moving To The Next Level

We should celebrate: on a policy level, MassDOT now follows most of the road design values andapproaches that progressive transportation advocates began promoting a decade or more ago.Although short-fallings remain in the application of the new policies (and the state has barely begunfixing and funding our mass transit system), it’s time for advocates to begin thinking about the next levelof vision and goals.  Here are some ideas for that conversation: moving the focus from streets to networks and systems, emphasizing the community-creating and place-making aspects of transportation facilities, becoming more explicit about the different types of economic development stimulus a transportation project can provide,  putting greater emphasis on making up for past neglect of those who were previously underserved. Continue reading

GO WHEN IT’S CLEAR, STOP WHEN IT’S DANGEROUS: Why Bikes Should Treat Red Lights and Stop Signs as Yields

San Francisco is contemplating an “Idaho Stop” rule allowing bicyclists to treat red lights like stop signs and stop signs as if they were yields.  Should Boston do it too? Continue reading

CAPITAL CONVERSATIONS: Themes for the Next Phase

Instead of internally creating a capital spending plan and then asking for public reaction, Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack held a series of public discussions, in-person and on-line, to ask what was on the public’s to-do list.  Her invitation has sparked some thoughts about themes that might shape future transportation system spending including: Making Safety, not Eliminating Congestion, the Only Rationale for Construction; Getting More Value and Better Leverage from Maintenance Work; Empowering MassDOT’s District Offices to be Accountable for Complete Street Standards; Changing What People Get Rewarded For; Bringing In New Ideas and Skills. Continue reading

Traffic Congestion: Why It’s Increasing and How To Reduce It

The statistics show that each of us is driving less.  So why do our roads feel more jammed up?  Why does it take longer to get anywhere?  And what can we do about it?  Some politicians have begun blaming Traffic Calming and bicycle lanes for the backups; saying that Complete Streets and pedestrian bulb-outs are making roads less safe because less accessible for emergency vehicles.  Is there any truth to this?  More fundamentally, is car congestion a problem to be solved or a solution to a problem? Continue reading

Local Government and Economic Growth: Three Choices, None Simple

There can be no question about the transformative power of today’s metropolitan economy.  Major cities around the country hope to ride the wave of the growing financial, research-based, and digital business sectors.  City leaders are doing what they can to make the place attractive to exploding numbers of higher-income young professionals these firms employ as well as the upper-income suburban baby boomers now seeking the convenience and vitality of urban life.   Working within market trends requires skill but has the advantage of moving with the economic current.  In contrast, urban leaders who wish to expand the benefits of economic growth to the entire population have a more limited and challenging set of options. Continue reading

Active Transportation is Primary Prevention: The Evolution of Public Health From Quarantines to Mass In Motion

Public Health has its origins in catastrophe, the realization that if an out-of-the-ordinary pestilence is suddenly sickening large numbers of people there must be a general cause rather than individual failures.  In contrast to Medicine, which traditionally is about treating an individual’s existing disease, Public Health seeks to keep large groups from getting sick.  In contrast even to Preventive Medicine, which tends to focus on increasing compliance with medical prescriptions, Public Health is about wellness and well-being – a holistic concern with an entire population’s overall quality of life.  And in Massachusetts, a national leader across a wide range of Public Health issues, one of the most innovative and powerful strategies to improve population health has been the Mass In Motion program. Continue reading

The Purpose of Transit: Neither Reform Nor Revenue are the Needed Starting Point

It’s now semi-official – everyone agrees that the MBTA needs both reform and revenue.  No one says (publicly) that the current T and Commuter Rail budget is too big for its mission.  And that’s where the agreement ends – with the question of what is the MBTA’s mission, vision, and values:  what exactly are we trying to achieve? Continue reading