NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

Transportation is responsible for 36% of Massachusetts’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In order to meet the reductions required by our state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, MassDOT has committed itself to significantly improving its internal operational energy efficiency (GreenDOT) and  tripling the share of travel done using transit, bicycle, and foot over the next 18 years.  Mandating higher mile-per-gallon vehicles and less polluting fuels will also help achieve the GHG reduction goals.  However, assuming a reasonable rate of population and economic growth between now and 2030, there will be a corresponding increase in transportation activity.  To reach the Mode Shift goals, MassDOT will have to find ways to channel almost all of it into the target modes rather than Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOV).


Improving and expanding walking and transit facilities must be a crucial part of the Mode Shift program.  In the context of MassDOT’s Mode Shift goals “functional walking” is what counts – the short trips we take every day to do errands, see friends, go out for lunch, and at the start or finish of almost every motorized trip.  In addition to improved sidewalks and intersections, increasing walking requires changing our zoning and mortgage systems to prioritize multi-use density in town centers and urban neighborhoods.


Transit, which covers longer distances and can handle much larger numbers, is primarily useful for fixed-schedule, fixed-route, point-to-point travel between high-use collection points – which makes it perfect for commuters.   (Because it mostly requires users to get to fixed-location statins, transit trips require complementary walking or bicycling segments.  In fact, according to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study, transit users are more likely than the average American to meet minimal recommendations for regular physical activity.)  Increasing transit use requires expanding our rail systems, creating more Express Bus routes, establishing reserved bus lanes with traffic light priority and front-facing cameras on buses to capture the license plates of lane-blocking cars, making more real-time data available to users (especially for buses), and more.   (Adding fully-automated tolls to the major north-south highways would not only make the east-west Mass Pike tolls less unfair, but also reduce the highway subsidy we all pay through our non-gas taxes and make it easier for affected people to decide to take the train instead.)

But there are lots of trips that standard transit doesn’t deal with.  This is particularly problematic for the 1-in-8  Massachusetts residents and the 35% of Boston households who don’t own cars.   In non-urban Berkshire County, nearly two-thirds of bus passengers don’t own a car.   Providing convenient, affordable, and regular transit services on off hours and irregular routes is probably most cost-effectively handled through affordable and flexible shuttle, car-sharing, and taxi services – whose expansion should also be part of the larger Mode Shift program for social justice as much as environmental reasons.


Walking and transit:  what fits in the middle is bicycling.  For the majority of short to mid-length commutes and daily non-work trips, the only realistic non-motorized option is the bicycle.  Within cities, it’s usually quicker than either cars or transit at less cost (including parking and operating or ticket expenses).  Cycling is also a wonderful last-mile complement to the transit system, as shown by the instant success of downtown bike-sharing systems such as Hubway and the increasing appearance of folding-bikes at suburban train stations.

Most of the 50% of daily trips taken by Americans that are less than 3 miles long (and even many of the 70% that are less than 10 miles long) can be done by bicycle – weather, terrain, and physical ability permitting.  Best of all, not only does bicycling burn calories instead of carbon, it has unrivaled public health benefits.  A recent decade-long Dutch study found that regular cyclists had measurably longer life spans than walkers or even people who were active in sports.  The inherent positive effects so dramatically outweigh the possible negatives that the researchers say that on a population-wide basis “for every year of life lost to a bike crash, twenty years of life are gained from stress reduction, greater cardiovascular fitness, and improved mental health.”


But bicycling will have to become more mainstream if it is to significantly contribute to overall mode change.  It is estimated that about 1% of the population are fearless cyclists willing to ride through any level of road and traffic conditions and about 7% are enthusiastic cyclists willing to boldly handle many problems.  A bit over 30% of the population will never get on a bike no matter what.  But many of the 60% who are unsure and cautious can be convinced to use two wheels if their biggest fear is addressed – they are nervous (or scared stiff!) about being hit by a car.

The official commitment to create city-wide bicycle networks, most notably now occurring in Boston but embarrassingly not yet in any other city in Massachusetts, is the foundation for any successful mode shifting effort.  The resulting networks need to allow anyone, regardless of age, skill, or confidence to cycle around town with the least possible amount of traffic stress.  It’s not expensive or even technically difficult; it just takes making it a priority.


But city networks are not enough.  Bicycles will not become a significant alternative to cars unless cyclists are also able to get across and between cities, to travel regionally in addition to locally.  These 3 to 10 mile (or more) trips would serve the needs of many commuters.  Just as highway planners of the 1950s understood that making urban areas car-friendly required connecting local roads with a supportive backbone of specially-designed arterials and highways, today’s transportation planners need to understand that we need a similar system of “Green Routes” for bicycles – connecting Boston’s neighborhoods to each other, the suburbs with the downtown and with transit access points, and residential with employment and shopping centers around the I-95 and I-495 circles.

Some of this, particularly in suburban areas, can be accomplished through the continued transformation of abandoned rail road embankments and old aqueduct rights-of-way into multi-use paths into multi-use paths. A huge step would be a commitment by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to turn the metro-region’s parkways back into the multi-modal systems they were originally intended to be.  The more urban segments could build on existing paths through parks and  along our rivers but will also require the development of protected bikeways – cycle tracks, off-road paths, buffered protected bike lanes, as well as low-traffic or bicycle-optimized bike boulevards or “neighborways” in residential areas.   Where space is available, there would be separate “fast lanes” (for runners and skaters as well as faster cyclists) and “slow lanes” or sidewalks (for walkers, wheelchairs, baby carriages, and slow cyclists).

The system would be called Green Routes because it would provide more than transportation benefits.  Just as mode shift, ultimately, is not about movement but what it leads to:  health, safety, economic development, and personal choice.  Tree-lined and relatively quiet, the corridors would extend our parks into our neighborhoods along with their health-supporting impact.  Like a growing bush, the corridors would sprout benches, tables, and children’s play areas that would serve as enticing destinations for family recreational outings either by bike or foot.   They will link and add value to local parks and conservation lands, water resources, and hiking trails.  Their water-runoff-handling swales and other structures will help prevent flooding.  And both because of their mode-shifting impact and their Green design, the corridors would help the state meet its Green House Gas emission reduction goals.


The good news is that many segments of the six or seven top priority regional corridors we need already exist or are in process of improvement or development – the Emerald Necklace, the river paths along the Charles and Neponset and Mystic, the Minuteman and Community Path, along with several others.  MassDOT’s own state-wide Bay State Bikeway plans will upgrade at least one important regional route. But many intimidating gaps and missing links remain.  MAPC has done valuable work mapping and categorizing both the existing inventory and the needed additions.

But the creation of the Green Routes system will require more than maps.  Making bicycling feel safe enough for “ordinary people” requires creating traffic-protected bike facilities, a seamless network reaching into every part of  each municipality so that children, nervous adults, and even slow seniors are able to confidently bike from almost anywhere to almost anywhere else.  To spread this vision, a regional coalition of transportation, environmental, open space conservation, public health, bicycle, and walking advocates – including people involved in Rail-to-Trail and Hiking Trail projects – have begun meeting as a regional Green Routes Coalition to build support for the vision.  Each of the participating groups and individuals will continue working on their particular projects.  In addition, they will share what they’ve learned, support each other’s efforts, identify and collectively advocate for needed changes in state policy, and promote the vision of a regional Green Routes backbone system.  It is the start of what is likely to be a very long campaign, but the more the public knows about and supports the vision to more likely it is to eventually be achieved.


Related posts:

>GREEN ROUTES TO THE FUTURE: Combining Regional Vision and Local Initiative to Revitalize Urban Transportation and Well-Being

>AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

>PARKS, GREENWAYS, AND TRANSPORTATION: Increasing Usefulness By Combining Visions

>LIVABLE STREETS – From Theory to Practice

>What Transportation And Public Health Can Learn From Each Other About Changing Public Behaviors

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