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.Read more
Trucks are only 4% of vehicles in the United States but cause about 7% of pedestrian fatalities and 11% of cyclist fatalities. The disparity is even higher in urban areas – a London analysis found that the 4% of vehicles that were trucks were involved in nearly 53% of cyclist fatalities. In Boston, 7 out of 9 cyclist fatalities in 2012-13 involved trucks or buses. Many of those deaths were preventable.
It wasn’t long ago, when regional rail-trail conversions were the leading strategy for creating multi-use non-motorized travel corridors, that the biggest opposition came from suburbanites fearing that the bike paths would bring intruders (meaning poor or Black people) into their backyards and lower their property values. Today, as the action has shifted to our reviving cities, there is opposition from low-income residents worried that the neighborhood improvements they’ve demanded for decades – better transit, bike facilities, parks, street lights, new construction – will attract upscale newcomers, raise property values, and cause displacement. The fears of the suburbanites were always groundless. But, unfortunately, the fears of inner city people – especially in reviving cities such as Boston, NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco – have a strong basis in fact, especially around transportation facilities – a recent study found that rents go up about $43/month for each 100 meters closer to a station. The working class Davis Square where I once hung out disappeared with the new T stop. Planning for the Green Line extension to Somerville’s Union Square has unleashed property speculation and driven up rents. Smart investors are already gobbling up property along Dorchester’s future Fairmont Line.Read more
It’s bad enough that rain-water run-off from our streets takes oil-derived toxins, metal and synthetic dust into our soil then into our groundwater and rivers. But it also turns out that human-injected poisons seep up from below our roads, destroying plant life, killing soil, and creating explosive danger on the surface as well. The volatile poison is natural gas. And local groups are just beginning to measure its unwanted presence.
So long as it stays in the mind-bogglingly large network of gas pipelines running down almost all our streets to business and residential locations, natural gas is a much better fuel than coal or oil or gasoline. But it’s a dangerous amendment to the soil and the air above it if it leaks out. And it is leaking – a lot, as we’re just beginning to discover. There are more than 3,300 natural gas leaks in Boston and at least 20,000 across the state, releasing between eight and twelve billion cubic feet of natural gas each year.Read more
CHARLES RIVER BRIDGES FALL OFF THE SCHEDULE: State Needs To Find Funds Without Skimping on Surrounding Improvements
While work on the Longfellow and Anderson bridges is moving forward, plans for repairing and upgrading the in-between River Street and Western Avenue bridges and the messed-up intersections leading to them on both sides of the Charles River have suddenly disappeared from MassDOT’s Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP) agenda. The bridge’s structural deficiencies are still there as are the approach roads’ deficiencies (have you ever tried crossing as a pedestrian in any direction from the DoubleTree?). MassDOT, DCR, consultants, advocates (including the efforts of LivableStreets Alliance’s “Better Bridges” campaign), legislators, and community members have spent years worth of time negotiating, adjusting, and finally agreeing on a plan that would be a huge improvement to both safety and functionality, including physically separated bicycle lanes (“cycle tracks”) and much improved pedestrian crossings especially on the Boston side. Designs are complete, permits are obtained, and contracts are ready to go. But another funding source has not yet been identified. And MassDOT has indicated that, because other projects in the area will cause traffic problems, construction would not be able to begin until after 2019 in any case. Still, despite this worrisome setback, this may be an opportunity to make the plans even better.Read more
In real life there are no magic wands whose waving causes all problems to disappear, no magic pill that makes everything better. But sometimes there are Master Keys that open a series of blockages and create new routes forward. Even in transportation. One possible Master Key is finding ways to install new on/off ramps on the Mass Pike Extension from Allston to Mass Ave.
Right now, MassDOT planners are struggling with how to design the quarter-billion-dollar Mass Pike Re-alignment project at the Allston exit while maintaining (or expanding) the MBTA and Commuter Rail usage, with the final redesign of Cambridge Street from Harvard Ave to the Charles River, with the best way to fix the messed-up traffic on the Boston side of the BU bridge, with the appropriate design for Commonwealth Ave from the BU bridge to (and past) Packards Corner, and with what to do about the collapsing Fenway-to-Storrow Bowker Overpass (in addition to the path, initially proposed by the Solomon Foundation, from Beacon Street to the Mass Ave bridge)Read more
EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough
The Human Scale is a wonderful movie based on the powerful insights and work of progressive urban planner, Jan Gehl; it’s now available in CD format. Everyone who loves cities should see it. In potently visual scenes, the film lays out his critique of today’s automobile-focused high-rise urban design, the dangers of top-down authoritarian planning and “mega projects,” the value of allowing “ordinary” citizens to shape development goals, and the dynamism unleashed by embracing unplanned and open-ended grass-roots creativity. It’s an important message from a brilliant person who carries forward the best of the Jane Jacobs and William Whyte tradition of human-centered city life.Read more
We’ve all seen the graph: a person hit by a car going 40 miles per hour (mph) has an 85% chance of being killed. Reducing the speed to 30 mph cuts the odds of death in half; reducing speed to 20 mph drops the fatality rate by an astounding 94%. Even more dramatically, at 5 mph cars (and very cautious trucks), bikes, and pedestrians can all safely share the same street space. According to the US Department of Transportation, about 33% of vehicle-related deaths are speeding-related. Of those, around 40% occur in urban areas.
Both Advocates and Public Agency leaders can find a number of lessons in the multi-level effort to deal with the McGrath Highway corridor in Somerville – which has resulted not only in a commitment from MassDOT to explore ways to eventually replace the crumbling neighborhood-dividing “Chinese Wall” with a less intimidating ground-level road, but a short-term plan to significantly improve transit, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities as part of short-term repairs to the McCarthy Overpass section.Read more
OPENING STREETS, CHANGING POLICIES: Creating Space for Neighborhood Revival and Transportation Reform
Movement building requires organizing activities and programs that have inherent value and meet people’s immediate needs while also raising their awareness of the importance of larger reforms and putting pressure on relevant officials and power brokers to implement those changes. It’s a tricky combination to achieve. Providing free breakfast to low-income kids, for example, makes access to good nutrition more affordably available but doesn’t necessarily force the commercial food system to change.
In recent years, enthusiasm for Open Streets programs has spread among progressive transportation, community renewal, and other advocates wanting to change the way cities use their largest physical asset, the space normally devoted to car traffic and parking. The excitement has its roots in the CicloVia program started nearly 40 years ago in Bogota, Columbia, where over two million people, nearly a third of the city population, come out for a few hours every weekend to play, exercise, do yoga, dance, walk, run, bicycle, enjoy endless vendor offerings, and simply hang out with each other along nearly 76 miles of car-free roads. (The roads aren’t “closed to cars”, they are “open for people”!) Open Streets are now held around the globe including at least 90 US cities.Read more