CONCRETE STEPS: Some Ideas For Immediate Action

Grand visions and long-range analysis have enormous power to frame issues and create an actionable context.  But they don’t lead to anything unless operationalized by specific, preferably simple, do-able steps forward.  When I’m consulting with organizations on strategic planning I say that they need at least 2 solid action ideas in each of these three categories:

Symbolic – things that may not make a big difference but send key messages.

Quick– technically easy, low cost, very visible, preferably non-controversial and begin to actually change things.

Fundamental – the more complicated and challenging, long-term, but foundational changes that make a significant difference and create a new context for future actions.

So, in an effort to follow my own advice, here is the first of two posts, this week and next, describing concrete actions listed along with the city or state agency most capable of implementing them.  This is my list – please suggest others!

City of Boston:

  • Wayfinding:  in preparation for the roll-out of Bike Sharing, and given that the general location of most of the Bike Share stations are roughly predictable, pick 5 to the most likely destinations for Bike Share users and install “This Way To …..” signs along likely routes.
  • Safeguard Pedestrian Crossings:  The intersection at Court and Congress Streets is heavily used, but the zebra stripes need repainting and the walk signal needs to provide more time for people to get across.  Similar improvements would make a big difference at the intersection of the Surface Artery with both Lincoln and Essex streets.
  • Create a “Green Wave”: What if we could dramatically increase safety by slowing down cars while keeping cars moving steadily through intersections and simultaneously boost the speed and efficiency of using a bicycle?  A “Green Wave” is a street whose traffic lights are timed to allow continuous flow for a vehicle going about 12 miles an hour.  Cars continue to flow fast enough for drivers to feel satisfied with their progress, while cyclists move along at a comfortable rate.  If combined with a separated-from traffic bikeway (e.g. using a paint-buffered bike lane or even a physically separated cycle track) this could convince a lot of people to leave the car at home.  Pilot the idea on Commonwealth Ave., which already has an innovative bike lane design.  Then expand it, with an appropriate bikeway, down the entire length of Massachusetts Ave.  And then do it again along the Blue Hill Ave./Warren corridor!


Cities of Cambridge, Brookline, & Somerville:

  • Commit To Bike Share: The new Bike Share system will radically change transportation dynamics in every area where the kiosks are located.  But only if there are a large enough number of kiosks covering a large enough area.  Boston alone is not enough – it is time for the neighboring communities to publically join.  In any case, a lot of the Boston-based bikes are going to end up in those communities no matter what – so it would be smart planning if a method of handling the flow is in place!  (And while we’re at it – Harvard, MIT, BU, and Northeastern should sign up for a bunch of the kiosks as well!)


State – MassDOT Central Planning Group:

  • Organize a Task Force To Suggest Ways To Implement The Healthy Transportation Compact (HTC): The state law creating MassDOT required the agency to work with Energy & Environmental Affairs and Health & Human Services to move towards a sustainable, health-promoting, fully accessible transportation system – specifically emphasizing travel by foot, bike, and transit.   While MassDOT has made significant advances on many of the law’s requirements, not much has happened to implement the HTC other than a couple of very preliminary discussion meetings at the Secretarial level.  (Full disclosure – I’ve recently been asked to conduct lunch-time workshops about health and transportation.)  It’s time to jump start the process – perhaps by tapping into this region’s substantial academic and advocacy expertise in public health and sustainable energy.


State – MassDOT Highway Division:

  • Stripe Bike Lanes on Washington St. in Somerville under the McGrath Overpass: The City of Somerville has put bike lanes from Union Square to the McGrath Overpass and from the Overpass through East Somerville.  The only remaining gap is in the section “owned” by MassDOT.  There is simply no excuse for thwarting the community’s clear desire for safer bicycle passage through this area.  Neither cost nor lack of design ideas are acceptable excuses – paint is cheap and several Advocacy groups are willing to provide a design!
  • Preserve Historic Look of Bridges, Abandon Past Mistakes:Massachusetts’ historic landscapes and architecture is both heritage and legacy, part of our identity and a resource to build on.  Historic preservation is a good thing.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to preserve problems.  The Western Ave. and River St. bridges over the Charles, and even aspects of the Anderson Bridge, are not very old, and their ugly concrete walls are more effective as visual barriers cutting people off from the beauty of the river than as safety fences keeping cars from going into the water.  The old lamp posts stick out into the sidewalk, dangerously reducing their width.  (This is true on the Longfellow Bridge as well.)  It is entirely possible to design more open railings and better positioned lamp posts that preserve the historic look and feel of the bridges but correct these dysfunctional anachronisms.  We need to honor and build on the past, not be enslaved by it!
  • Use some of the Federal Highway Safety Funds for Safe Routes To School and Bike Skills Programs in Elementary School Physical Education Classes: this needs no explanation!

State — MBTA

  • Reconnect East Boston: End Eastie’s cycling isolation by allowing cyclists to use either the first or last car of every Blue Line train at all times;  and perhaps further rationalize subway usage by encouraging people with extra-large baby carriages or wheelchairs to do the same.
  • Protect Parking Facility Evolution:   It’s good that the MBTA is looking for ways to deal with its crushing debt payments without again raising fares, which would inevitably reduce ridership and penalize low-income workers.  But while the T explores one-time savings such as preselling future parking lot revenue to for-profit businesses, it needs to be careful not to lose control of more than the cost of parking.  For example, the public sector must retain control of the ability to change the layout and number of parking spots to improve the safety and convenience of people arriving by foot, bicycle, and bus as well as by car, along with the ability to install additional bicycle parking facilities such as the “Roll and Ride” cages at Alewife and the smaller racks at other locations.

State – DCR

  • Fix Land BoulevardIt is a familiar problem to every manager – funds suddenly appear that have to be used by a tight deadline for a particular purpose, so there is no time to revise your ideas about the project and you are forced to use old plans even though you know there are better ways to do it.  That seems to be what happened on Land Boulevard – money became available for re-striping the lanes and even though DCR has said that it wants to include better pedestrian crossings and bike lanes (perhaps even buffered bike lane or cycle tracks) in all its Parkways, the tight deadline forced them to simply reuse the old designs.  Land Boulevard is now a mini-highway rather than a complete street.  But that was last year, this is now:  its time to fix the mistake.  Even more: its time to become “opportunity ready” by developing new design plans for the next six possible road projects, even though the money to do the work doesn’t currently exist, so that we aren’t again stuck recreating the inadequate past.
  • Maximize Use of Recreational Trail Program Funds – DCR should push MassDOT to allocate 100% of the allowable Recreational Trail Program funding instead of the current, embarrassing, lowest-in-the-USA level of 45%, about half the national average. Massachusetts has an obligation ceiling of about $1.3 million for the program, but despite submission of nearly 60 local requests totally $1.7 million, MassDOT only “programmed” $600,000 – with the rest of the potential funds being diverted to other purposes.  The sad reality is that the state’s unprogrammed $600,000 per year would make a gigantic difference to the relatively low-cost state-wide trails program but is no more than a small rounding error for big road projects.  One of the first uses of this money should be to begin turning the proposed state-wide Mass Central Rail Trail from vision to reality.


  • Require Segway Registration: Segways are miraculous technology.  They are mainly used in industrial situations where they speed movement around large storage areas and facilitate inspection of distributed equipment.  They are also important for people with certain types of disabilities, allowing them to get around in previously impossible freedom.  But they are big, potentially fast machines and when used by the general public on sidewalks they are simply a hazard.  The state should mandate (or allow municipalities to vote locally) that Segways can only be used on the sidewalk by people displaying a special HP license plate and should have a built-in governor that doesn’t allow them to go above 5 mph.  If they are to be used on the road, they should be required to have front and back lights, and a special license plate.  Other cities and states have already addressed this issue – for example, Boulder, Colorado – and we should too, before the problem escalates.  (Municipalities might be able to move on this issue even without state action.)

For Related Posts, see:

Car-Free Sundays; Bus Priority At Intersections

Transportation funding Decision-Making: Four Ways To Fix The MPO Process

Five Steps To Make GreenDOT Real: From Promise to Impact on Transportation and Climate

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