Because I’m out so many evenings and weekends, I try to reserve a couple of mid-week hours to bike with the Wednesday Wheelers.  This week the weather was fabulous and a small group of us did a great 40 mile ride through the beauty of the approaching spring.  Afterwards, I sat with Stan Sabin and his wife Susan at lunch. Stan Sabin was a former Pulmonologist, a sweet and careful man who probably never ran a red light or jumped in front of traffic in any of his 74 years.

When we finished eating and chatting, Stan smiled, kissed Susan, waved to everyone, then left ahead of the rest of us to get home in time for the free health clinic that he ran in Framingham.

At the same time, driving down Rte. 115, a woman who wasn’t texting, wasn’t drunk, had a valid license, and wasn’t going any faster than the 35 or 40 mph speed limit allowed, was driving down the road and had a “sneezing fit” – the kind, which has happened to each of us, that squinshes your eyes and jerks your hands. 


When she opened her eyes, Stan was dead.


Maybe you’ve seen the slide that shows that when a person is hit by a car going 20 mph they have a 95% chance of survival.  But if they’re hit by a car going 40 mph, they have an 80% chance of being killed.

Turns out its true.


It’s a simple trade-off: a couple of additional seconds for going down the block at 20 mph versus the potential of killing someone.


Accidents happen. We can’t eliminate them.  But the consequences of accidents can be reduced.  We’ve got to pass a slower prevailing speed limit for residential and commercial districts closer to the European standard of 20 mph, or at least give municipalities the right to create “vulnerable user” zones (like school zones) that cut legal speeds to 20 mph in designated areas.  And then, because people (including me) actually drive as fast as road conditions allow us to feel comfortable doing, we need to restructure our roads so that drivers simply don’t feel safe going faster than we want them to. 


MassDOT has the authority to make our roads truly multi-modal and safe for every type of user.  Section 1.2 of the Highway Design Guide states that its goal is “to ensure that the safety and mobility of all users of the transportation system (pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers) are considered equally through all phases of a project so that even the most vulnerable (e.g., children and the elderly) can feel and be safe within the public right of way.”


It’s not an impossible dream.  Since 1997 Sweden has been implementing “Vision Zero” which aims to eliminate all traffic-related deaths. By 2009 they reduced fatalities by 34.5%. the actual ten year reduction was 13% to 471 deaths. The target was revised to 50% by 2020 and to 0 deaths by 2050. In 2009 the reduction from 1997 totals was 34.5% to 355 deaths.


The rest of this post…the stuff that follows the “continue reading” below, suggests some reasons that MassDOT hasn’t yet fulfilled or even embraced that transformative mission.  But this long introductory section is about the real reason that moving towards true multi-modal equality is so important – people’s lives are at stake.


For myself, since Stan’s death I’ve been feeling nervous each time I go out on my bike.  The vulnerability and randomness of what happens on the road feels very close.  As does Stan.


In MassDOT’s founding legislation the Healthy Transportation Compact and other sections has strong language directing the agency to be multi-modal, health-promoting, protective of the environment, dedicated to “complete streets” design standards, and energy-usage sustainable.  MassDOT’s Highway Design Guide, inherited from the former Highway Division, promotes “context sensitive design” meaning, for example, that different design criteria should be used for different kinds of roads.  It allows for a range of lane and road widths and calls for planners to “start from the outside and work inwards” meaning that the needs of pedestrians and cyclists should be met first, even before considering car requirements.  The founding legislation, the Highway Design Guide, and MassDOT’s own “GreenDOT” policy all call for Complete Streets that incorporate appropriate facilities for all modes: walking, cycling, transit, as well as cars and trucks.  Even AASHTO (the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the group whose recommendations set roadway standards) accepts that roads are not only used by cars! 

For example, Section 5.1.1 of the Highway Design Guide states:  “Approaches to cross-section formulation are presented from right-of way edge to edge, rather than the more traditional method from center line out. Through this approach, accommodation of pedestrians and bicyclists is positively encouraged, made safer, and included in every transportation project as required under Chapter 87 of state law.”

The Healthy Transportation Compact states that MassDOT shall “develop methods to increase bicycle and pedestrian travel…encourage the construction of complete streets, designed and operated to enable safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and bus riders of all ages to safely move along and across roadways in urban and suburban areas… develop and implement a method for monitoring progress on achieving the goals of this section…”

And the foreword to AASHTO’s 2004 “Green Book” (officially titled “A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets”) says that that “Designers should recognize the implications of this sharing of the transportation corridors and are encouraged to consider not only vehicular movement, but also movement of people…”

The words are all there.  It’s clear that, among its other missions, MassDOT is supposed to be transforming our transportation system into something more cost-effectively suitable for 21st century conditions.

But the reality is that almost every road project still focuses on improving car traffic and only includes those pedestrian and bicycling facilities that fit into the space that’s left over.  When there is a range of options, it’s the smallest one. If car speed, volume, or direction makes it awkward for walkers or cyclists, the designers typically scale back the later rather than the former.  Technically, the new designs are all “complete streets” because they do include some provision for pedestrian and bicycling needs.  But it’s the minimum possible, especially for bicycle facilities.

For example:  MassDOT has recently rebuilt Broadway in Magoun Square, Somerville.  Somehow, the road ended up with two travel lanes in each direction, which vary between 11′ and 14′ wide, as well as a right-turn-only lane and medians in some locations.  But there are no bike lanes.  The consultant said they “wouldn’t fit” and neither MassDOT nor the city pushed back, despite requests from the local Bike Committee. And its not just bike facilities that got pushed out in favor of car capacity – the sidewalk clear space is 5’ or less in many spots.  This happened despite the Square’s proximity to both Tufts University and a future Green Line stop.

Another example:  MassDOT’s design for Route 105 in Middleborough has just reached the 25% stage.  The plan is to improve things by expanding the sidewalks from 5’ to 5.5’, and widening the roadway in order to add 4’ shoulders and left-turn-only lanes.  LivableStreets Alliance asked that the lanes be narrowed by a few inches so that the shoulder could be expanded by a foot and labeled a bike lane, but were told that there wasn’t room.  MassDOT did accept a request to use dashed lines to continue the shoulder (meaning the area that cyclists will typically use) across the ramp entrances leading to I-495.  But under the I-495 bridge – where widening the road would be too expensive – the new shoulders will disappear for about 100 feet, dumping cyclists into the churning car flow.

Why is this still happening?  One reason is that designs for a lot of today’s road projects were actually created years ago and weren’t updated during all the years that state and municipal transportation departments waited for funding.  Another reason is that many MassDOT staff – and probably an even larger percentage of municipal staff – still believe that cars are the main issue because more people (including the traffic engineers) drive than bike.

A deeper reason is that even though AASHTO is moving towards greater flexibility  —  the 2004 Green Book foreword states that “It is not intended to be a detailed design manual that could supersede the need for the application of sound principles by the knowledgeable design professional. Specific flexibility is permitted to encourage independent designs tailored to particular situations.”— most of AASHTO’s standards are still extremely car-centric.

For example, a study published recently by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program found that there is no significant crash difference between 10-, 11-, and 12-foot lanes on urban arterials where the speed limit is 45 mph or less.  But AASHTO’s Highway Safety Manual chapter on arterials makes no mention of this significant justification for narrowing lane widths to make room for bike lanes, buffered bike lanes, or physically-separated cycle tracks.  Furthermore, many traffic engineers still feel that AASHTO’s highway derived designs are the starting point not only for arterials but also for 30 or 35mph roads – if research shows that AASHTO’s designs make highways safer, they seem to feel that it’s smart to use the same approach on other roads as well.

Another problem is the continuing impact of the standard but outdated method of computing “design speed” – which is then used to determine many road characteristics.  The design speed is NOT the posted speed limit or even the desired speed.  Currently, a road is designed to feel comfortable to and be safe for drivers speeding (or estimated to be speeding once the work is done) at the 85th percentile of everyone using the road.  That is, the “reference driver” will be going faster than 85% of all traffic on the road.  There is nothing in this formula that relates to the comfort or safety of pedestrians or bicyclists.

(We all know that rather than obey posted speed limits, drivers usually go as fast as they feel comfortable moving given road conditions.  So maybe we should design roads so that 85% of drivers will feel uncomfortable if they go faster than a specific “target speed.”)

Finally, the “quality” of a road project is primarily measured by its Level of Service (LOS), which is usually calculated only for car traffic and designated by A (the “best”) to F (with its overtones of Failure).  In the wry words of Wikipedia, LOS A describes “conditions where traffic flows at or above the posted speed limit and all motorists have complete mobility between lanes. LOS A occurs late at night in urban areas, frequently in rural areas, and generally in car advertisements.”

At a “D” LOS car “speeds are somewhat reduced, motorists are hemmed in by other cars and trucks.”  At “E” the car “flow becomes irregular and speed varies rapidly, but rarely reaches the posted limit.”  And at the “F” worst-case LOS  “every vehicle moves in lockstep with the vehicle in front of it, with frequent slowing required…[Although] ‘F’ is sometimes allowed in areas with improved pedestrian, bicycle, or transit alternatives”

While efforts are being made to create LOS measurements for transit, walking, and bicycling, the standard approach focuses simply on cars.  And what traffic engineer thinks his career will be enhanced if he becomes known for creating F-level roads?

MassDOT’s leadership has spent its first year dealing with the enormous challenges of merging multiple agencies into a unified whole, coping with dysfunctional fiscal constraints, developing first-draft plans for maintaining the operational status of its equipment and facilities, and dealing with repeated public relations and political crises.  It is good that Secretary Mullan and others affirm the transformational goals contained within their founding legislation and their own policies.  Now, however, its time to begin turning the slogans into streets.

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