The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

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

Out of the Snow, Into the Parking Mess

Parking is a problem. When it snows it’s a nightmare. We start looking around, getting frustrated, maybe nasty. There seem to be parking spots everywhere except where we want to go. Parking is the explosive trap door of community transportation meetings – anything that reduces the number of spots anywhere evokes outcry. This winter’s climate craziness has pushed people from frustration into pathology — angry notes, slashed tires, off-road rage. Forgive us, neighbors, we have space saved. At a recent meeting of the LivableStreets Alliance Advocacy Committee, Board member Charlie Denison led a brainstorming session about how the current parking situation in Boston isn’t really benefiting anyone, especially drivers themselves. The ideas range from snow-related strategies to general management of residential and commercial parking to long-term ways to reduce the overall demand. Just as the snow finally forced state leaders to acknowledge the desperate condition of the MBTA, maybe we can use this crisis to begin addressing the parking problem as well in both residential and commercial areas, by both addressing parking policies and the city-design need for it. Here’s my take on what came up during the brainstorm… Continue reading

Parkways Moving Forward: DCR is Not The Highway Department

It’s a pleasure to be able to praise a government agency: civil servants who try to live up to their public service mission are over-worked and underpaid relative to private sector peers – and always under appreciated! It’s particularly a pleasure to praise the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR), a woefully underfunded agency whose roadway department has been exasperatingly difficult to work with in the past.   Which is why we have to hope that newly inaugurated Governor Baker’s announcement of a freeze on hiring and contracting will not derail DCR’s historic commitment to create an updated Master conceptual Plan for how their metro-region parkways can reclaim their Olmstedian heritage and be once again made more park-like and more bike-and-pedestrian-friendly — as well as estimates of what it would cost to properly operate such a system. Continue reading

Olympic Opportunity? — Region Gains Only If We Demand the Benefits First

The best and perhaps only argument for holding the 2024 Summer Olympics in Boston (and Cambridge) is that the deadlines and international media scrutiny will force us – meaning city, state, and federal governments as well as local universities – to make the infrastructure investments that we already know are needed but that are unlikely to occur given current budget pressures. The promise is that most of the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on a “car-free” Olympics will be used for upgraded public transportation and walking/bicycling facilities, for expanded student dormitories around local colleges and family-sized affordable housing, and general landscape improvements. What if it could be so? (Full disclosure: I’d like to have one of the promised improvements be the Greenway Links project – a seamless network of walking and bicycling corridors for recreation and travel by people of all ages and abilities – that I’ve been working on for the past few years.) Continue reading

Commonwealth Avenue: Grand Boulevard, Dangerous Street

Stretching from the Public Garden out to Weston, Commonwealth Avenue meanders past sculptured medians, historic parks, heartbreaking hills, ponds and rivers, and an enormous number of residences and businesses. Although various crossings are frustratingly congested, in general the number of cars has been steadily dropping while the number of trolley passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and runners has been steadily increasing. The busiest sections are the least fancy: the Mass Ave. crossing, Kenmore Square and the BU corridor, Packards corner to around Warren Street. The BU bridge area is the thickest of all with huge numbers of rushing students, growing cohorts of cyclists, and frustrated car drivers trying to squeeze through the spaghetti mess from Longwood Medical Area to Storrow or (via Cambridge) the Mass Pike. Much of the rest of Comm Ave has relatively light (and therefore, because of the invitingly wide lanes, fast) car traffic. Continue reading

WALSH ADMINISTRATION NEEDS A TRANSPORTATION MAP: Which Way On Comm. Ave. Design?

Mayor Marty Walsh visibly cares about helping underserved communities. And he is aggressively promoting the continuing building boom and accompanying (construction) jobs, as expressed in his statement to the Chamber of Commerce that “we hit the ground running…in development, education, housing, public health, and infrastructure.”  Unfortunately, it appears that the Mayor currently includes transportation as just a part of “infrastructure”, rather than a distinct critical element of city policy –streets and transportation are treated simply as extensions of the more important “building blocks” listed in his speech. Continue reading