The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

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

WALK, BIKE, RUN: Unity and Tension In Non-Motorized Alliances

It wasn’t that long ago that Boston’s walking, bicycling, and transit advocacy groups saw each other as part of the problem. Faced with the hostile fragmentation, government policy-makers moved slowly or not at all. Boston wasn’t unusual. To the extent that cities had active transportation advocacy groups, the discordance was common. Today, urban areas (and some states) have two general types of much-more coordinated active-transportation activism. In many cities the dominant group is an all-inclusive alliance of non-motorized movers such as New York-based Transportation Alternatives that combines walkers, joggers, runners, and cyclists. In other cities, mode-specific groups lead the way although they tend to work in partnership with each other. Boston has both: LivableStreets Alliance has, from its inception 10 years ago, seen itself as representing both foot and wheels; the other major advocacy groups – Boston Cyclists Union, MassBike, WalkBoston – maintain their single-mode foci. Because there have been few walking-oriented advocacy groups around the nation (America Walks, the national coalition, is less than 10 years old), much of the national trend towards inclusivity seems to come from former bicycle-only groups expanding their scope, an evolution that makes enormous political sense since bicyclists are a small but well organized minority while walkers comprise a majority but are generally unorganized. Together they have many times the clout against their common enemy – our society’s car-centric infrastructure, policies, and cultural tendencies. However, whether internalized in one group or as a coalition among several, the emerging multi-modal alliance is not as deep or as tight as it needs to be in order to survive the coming challenges raised by more conservative political leadership at several levels of government. We need, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, to move together or we shall all go nowhere. Continue reading

THE DANGERS OF SAFETY: Why Focusing on Car Accidents May Hurt Our Health

Everyone officially puts “safety first.” Everyone wants to prevent accidents. Car crashes are treated as lead stories on TV news – the images are horrific and we all fear our vulnerability. But, in fact, our roads are safer than ever. In 1956, when Interstate construction began, the national fatality rate was 6.05 per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). By 2011, the fatality rate had dropped to 0.8 per 100 million VMT on the Interstate and 1.1 (the lowest ever recorded) nationwide, even though about 85% of people including those in metro areas, still get to work by car. (Massachusetts has the nation’s lowest fatality rate, 0.62!) Studies have shown, and the Traffic Engineering Profession has internalized, that highway accidents go down when there are wide lanes, gentle curves, no sight-line obstructing hills, limited entering/exiting locations with long ramps, no visual distractions other than large and uniform directional signage, and the absence of slower or more vulnerable traffic.   The Interstate is safest when it is “error tolerant” and forgiving of driver distraction. (Other contributors along the same lines: slide-resistant pavement, break-away sign and light poles, and better guardrails. But the reality is that safety lapses aren’t the biggest transportation-related source of injury. In fact, putting too much emphasis on preventing car crashes can make non-highway streets more dangerous – not only for pedestrians and cyclists but also for car occupants! Car accidents cause half as many deaths and several multiples fewer health problems than transportation-caused air, water, and noise pollution.   The amount of paved land in our cities makes us more vulnerable to climate change, rising temperatures, and floods while housing sprawl makes us less resilient in terms of agriculture and disaster-recovery.   Most subtly, life in and around automobiles changes the way we relate to our neighbors and friends, reducing our collective social capital and our individual life style satisfaction. Continue reading

ROADS ARE NOT THE DESTINATION: Celebration and Concern on the MassPike (Allston-I-90) Project

As our nation has painfully learned over the past fifty years from the destructive practices of the Interstate’s old scorched-earth invasion, focusing a transportation planning process on the need to satisfy car traffic trends is dangerous. (Full disclosure: I live in a house that was supposed to be ripped down for construction of the stopped-at-the-last-minute Inner Belt highway.) It’s a bit like the stories about the surgeon who announces that the operation was a success although unfortunately the patient died. Other than in romantic road movies, mobility is not a goal in itself. We move in order to accomplish something. Transportation is simply a means to an end. So we in the Commonwealth can be proud that MassDOT’s 2006 Highway Design Guide was a national leader in its inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle facilities and its insistence on Context Sensitive approaches – designing a road starting “from the outside” of the right-of-way then “working inwards” to the road itself, meaning taking into account both the nature of its surroundings and the space needed for sidewalks and bicycle facilities.   The even more assertive subsequent (and also nationally admired) policies – the Healthy Transportation Compact and Directive, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction goals and GreenDOT program, the Mode Shift and Transportation Oriented Development Initiatives – all build on the strengths of the Design Guide. These policies recognize that while car travel is and will continue to be a vital part of many people’s daily lives and our state’s economic activity, our future prosperity and well-being depends on our ability to re-balance our lopsidedly car-centric transportation system and investments by putting a lot more attention (and money) into transit, bicycling, and walking facilities. Continue reading