Efficiency And Equity In Transportation Planning

In economics, “efficiency” only refers to the allocation of capital.  Unregulated markets that allow investors to seek the highest profit lead to the largest overall amount of capital growth, exclusive of any other societal effects. It implies that capital growth is its own reward and perhaps the most important goal.

Most of us have a broader and more humane definition of “efficiency” – not only accomplishing more with less but doing so in a way that is beneficial to both the system and those it affects  – long-term sustainability, both individual and social well-being.  And this conception of efficiency blends into an even more powerful concept: equity.  Not that every one is or has exactly the same but that the disparities are minimized – that we accept that we are a community that rises or falls together.  This type of equity requires acknowledging a collective responsible for maintaining a balance between providing freedom for individual creativity and security for everyone, for being accountable to contribute our proportional share of resources for the common good in exchange for having our needs taken into account.

It is in this sense that we need to examine the efficiency of our transportation system.  For nearly 50 years our country has poured money into road construction.  The investment was the foundation for enormous economic growth.  But the externalized costs of environmental damage, international vulnerability, social isolation, and obesity have begun to rise – some of them to dangerous levels.  And the collapse of the mortgage speculation bubble has left many of the newer car-dependent suburban developments with market values below the cost of the materials used in their construction.

For 50 years we have over invested in car-serving facilities that serve the upwardly mobile.  Our balance sheet is skewed; it’s time to rebalance our investment portfolio.  Reducing our over-exposure to one type of asset requires us to now disproportionately put funds into transit, pedestrian, and cycling infrastructure – especially in previously underserved areas.  Even more radically, as we begin to confront the disastrous lack of attention paid to our transportation infrastructure over the past decades, in this time of catastrophic reductions in public funds, we have to accept that we can’t afford to repair every aspect of our overbuilt car-centric facilities.  In fact, we shouldn’t.  To move towards greater modal equity, we have to use every available dollar for investments that prepare us for the future of expensive fossil fuels, declining suburbs, rising health costs, and lower salaries – focusing our efforts on projects and programs that reduce the disparity among regions and communities.

As always, the truth is in the particulars.  Here are comments about three ways to change how we think:

What We Should Learn From the Craigie Bridge Closings

To Bridge or Not Bridge Leverett Circle: That Is Not The Question.

Advocating for the “Sixth E”



What We Should Learn From the Craigie Bridge Closings

In order to repair the Craigie Drawbridge between the Science Museum and Leverett Circle, MassDOT had to close the road to Boston-bound traffic.  There were predictions of massive chaos and horrific congestion along all the alternative routes.

But the big news was that there wasn’t any – no disaster, no hours-long back-ups, no spike in accidents.

Perhaps we should have known better.  After all, we lived through 15 years of the Big Dig which disrupted traffic far more dramatically and yet never shut down the city, drove downtown stores into bankruptcy, or prevented people from getting to work.

Maybe we’ll be better students this time.  The closing of the Craigie Bridge is a ”natural experiment” which shows that the addition of the Zakim Bridge adds enough overall capacity for cars entering Boston from the north that even with major reductions in car traffic capacity at the Craigie and BU bridges (compounded by temporary lane reductions on the Longfellow) car drivers were able to rapidly adjust and the river basin transportation system was able to handle the situation.  In fact, overall commuting capacity will be significant increasing even more in coming years as the Green Line Extension gets built — offsetting possible increases in population or jobs in East Cambridge and beyond.

There is additional data that we have to incorporate into our planning.  Traffic volumes over the Charles River bridges have been declining in recent years, even before the current economic slowdown, and we need to acknowledge this in our long-range planning.  In addition, the coming six years of construction will further encourage commuters to find alternative modes.

In addition, anyone who still uses a car (as I do) knows that congestion is getting worse.  The ONLY solution is to encourage people to do something besides continue relying on single occupancy vehicular travel — especially for regular commutes and short-distance errands or non-work trips.  In addition, the quality of our air and water as well as the quality of our personal health requires that we encourage more active transportation — walking and cycling.

The real lesson is the implication of this for what we do on the other bridges and with the rest of our still car-centric transportation system.   We need to vastly expand and provide adequate financing for our public transportation system, especially the bus networks and the commuter rail lines serving the broader metropolitan area.  (In particular, the Longfellow Bridge should have wide sidewalks, protected bike lanes, and only one car lane in BOTH directions.)  All the bridges (and all state roads) need to include maximum pedestrian and bicycle facilities – even at the cost of reducing traffic capacity.  Installing wide, buffered or even physically separated, bike lanes will benefit all travelers by:

(1) Drawing many of the sidewalk bicyclists into the new safer, more comfortable bike lane, reducing bicycle/pedestrian conflicts on the sidewalks.

(2) Reducing the speed of automobile traffic by narrowing the width or reducing the number of car lanes; thereby decreasing the likelihood of accidents and serious injury for people inside or outside cars in the case of an automobile crash.

(3) Increasing the appeal of bicycling to a wider range of people, enticing some motorists to leave their bikes at home and reducing the amount of automobile congestion.

Also, see “What To Do About The Longfellow Bridge” 

And: “Fixing The Bridges Won’t Solve Traffic Congestion”

And: “If You Build It They Come – But What Happens If You Take It Away?” 


To Bridge or Not To Bridge Leverett Circle: That Is Not The Question.

It appears that the West End neighborhood was promised a new pedestrian bridge over Leverett Circle, and they probably have the political clout to get it.  But whether or not a new bridge is built, the real issue is what will be done to make the ground-level intersection safer and more welcoming for everyone – walkers, cyclists, and car drivers.  Here are some suggestions:

* Raise all the pedestrian crossings and use different colored pavement.  Ensure that all crossing signals are automatic and that the walk phase lasts as long as the concurrent green.  Add leading pedestrian intervals of 3-5 seconds and provide count-down numbers to each pedestrian signal.

* Run bike lanes, also using a different colored pavement, through the entire circle to facilitate going from Craigie to Martha Way, and run a bike lane from Charles Circle along the service road next to the hospitals into and through Leverett Circle.

* Make it safer for cars by reducing speeds – narrow all the car lanes entering the Circle to no more than 10 feet and tighten the radius of the turn from Storrow into the I-93 ramp/tunnel and Martha Way.  Install a traffic light on Storrow at Blossom St. to allow a right turn and at that new intersection add signs (and remove the median barrier between the service road and Storrow) to encourage cars to begin sorting themselves into appropriate turning lanes so it isn’t so crazy at Leverett Circle itself.

But why limit ourselves to these standard solutions?  There is a whole new strategy emerging from Europe called “shared spaces” based on the idea that people move most carefully when they are most uncertain about what is in front of them.  Safety comes from increasing complexity rather than trying to segregate everyone into separate lanes.  What if all the traffic lights and street signs were removed from the area and everyone – people pushing baby carriages, school groups, the elderly, cyclists, and cars – all were free to move into the area at any time.  There would have to be signs and transition point informing drivers entering the area that they were entering a different kind of space in which they were responsible for going slowly enough to not harm any other potential occupant.  According to Ben Hamilton Baillie, a British traffic designer who has used this approach on several major roads and intersections, not only does a “shared space” system decrease the number of accidents it also increases the vehicular through-put volume because of more efficient use of available room.  Sound bizarre, if not dangerous?  Check out his website:   http://www.hamilton-baillie.co.uk/index.php?do=publications

Particularly this video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBcz-Y8lqOg

Also, see:  “Improving Intersection Safety”

And: “Making Boston a World Class WALKing City”


Advocating for the “Sixth E”

The League of American Bicyclists evaluates cities and states according to their achievements implementing the “Five Es” – Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, and Evaluation.  These are powerful strategic guides to what is needed to change transportation behaviors.

But I think we need more.  So I was very excited a while ago when a letter to the League magazine mentioned the need for a Sixth E – Equity.  Unfortunately, what the person meant was equal treatment with other modes of travel.  I have no problem with arguing for that kind of equity, but what I was hoping for was something much more fundamental – equity for people of all income levels, genders, and ability.  In fact, I think the only way we are going to win the first kind of equity is by working for the second.

Cycling will be treated as the equal of other modes not only when our cities and roads are redesigned according to Smart Growth and Complete Street principals, but when cycling becomes so mainstream that it’s participants have the political clout to demand that policy-makers take their needs into account.

So I was happy to learn about the existence of the Transportation for America Equity Caucus, formed by “the nation’s leading civil rights, community development, racial justice, economic justice, faith-based, health, housing, labor, environmental justice, tribal, and transportation organizations. The Equity Caucus will work for transportation policies that advance economic and social justice in America. The Coalition believes that Complete Streets policies create affordable options for all people – regardless of income, race, age, or ability – and promote healthy, safe, and inclusive communities.”

How do we get there?  One hint comes from a study conducted by the New York City Department of Transportation.  They found that only 15% of the bicyclists on regular on-street bike lanes are female while women make up nearly 42% of people using protected bike lanes (aka cycle tracks) and greenways.  It appears that creating quality facilities for traffic-intolerant bicyclists not only convinces more people to leave their cars at home, it particularly attracts women.  European experience confirms this insight: the countries that protect bicyclists from the traffic the most have the highest percentage of female riders – 55% in Holland, 45% in Denmark, and 49% in Germany.  (At some point, some creative lawyer might find grounds for a sex-discrimination case against current practice in the USA!)

It is likely that similar findings would emerge from a study of the impact of protected bike ways on cycling numbers in non-white communities – although a significant increase would probably also require addressing other issues such as reduced street crime, access to equipment, skill training, and more.  Still, including “Transportation Justice” as one of our values could help transform the cycling community from its current image of spandex-clad white street freaks into an everyday part of the American scene.

(For more about the Equity Caucus, read a letter they recently sent to the White House.)

(For more on women and bikes, see “The Future of Cycling,” in Reclaim newsletter, Vol. 16, #4 2010 from TransAlt.org.)

Also see: “Broken Windows and Broken Streets – Livable Streets as a Strategy to Reduce Crime and Support Local Business” 

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