The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

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

Questioning Complete Streets: Having the Courage of Our Vision and Values

Having a vision of the kind of city you want is an essential foundation for purposeful and effective governance.  Some cities do a coherent overall process, such as Somerville’s SomerVision or Boston’s forthcoming Imagine Boston 2030.  Cambridge has constructed its vision piecemeal, through policies around a variety of quantitative and qualitative issues.   No matter the process, these days the resulting vision statements almost all aim for a combination of livability, stainability, prosperity, and diversity with the specifics addressing things like schools, housing, services, open space, and mobility.  For example, in terms of mobility, SomerVision (slogan: “An Exceptional Place to Live, Work, Play, and Raise a Family”) sets a goal of having “50% of New Trips via Transit, Bike, or Walking.” The most powerful, but hardest to really accept, aspect of creating a vision involves making choices – a public a statement that the city’s residents prefers one type of future over another, one direction over the multitude of other possibilities.  Like growing up, having a vision implies accepting that you can’t have it all – that achieving your top priorities means you can’t do something else, and most importantly that equalizing things means that whatever was previously getting more than its fair share will have to get a little less. Continue reading

Jump Starting Complete Streets: Focusing on Kids (and others) When Progress Slows

Every street should be safe for walking and bicycling.  This is an essential component of the Complete Streets design philosophy that has emerged in recent years as the “new normal” for roads – although the gap between policy and practice often remains wide.   Because the core issue is mobility, Advocates compliment this “everywhere for everyone” approach with concerted efforts to create seamless networks of sidewalks and low-traffic-stress routes (paths and protected bike lanes or cycle tracks) along major “desire lines” connecting most residential areas with most schools, parks, recreational, shopping, and work areas.   Or at least a set of “key routes” across town.   Many Advocacy groups put considerable effort into sketching out these networks and routes – trying to combine directness with safety, beauty with speed, ubiquity with practicality.  To paraphrase a slogan from the Greenway Links Initiative I’ve been working on in the Metro Area:  Big enough to be inspiring, simple enough to be understandable. Continue reading