Ten Ways To Transform Transportation — Part I

People are free to choose the way they get around.  But the context shapes their likely choices.  This is Part I of a three-part series suggesting high-leverage actions that would shift the context from one that makes getting into a car the default option to one where walking or cycling would be equally – and in some situations more – easy to do.  Because mass transit is such a huge topic, I will deal with it separately in a later series of posts.


The ideas discussed in Part I are:


Ideas 4-7 are discussed in Part II and ideas 8-10 plus a list of the provisions of the new Bike Safety Bill in Part III.   However, this is my list of the top ten ways to transform transportation.   I’m sure readers have others.  Please comment and add your own.  



In addition to a massive switch to higher-efficiency, lower-pollution motorized vehicles, the only viable future for Massachusetts’ transportation system is to increase the percentage of trips taken by bicycle, by foot, and using mass transit.  Transit is a complicated issue by itself, with the biggest obstacle being funding.  But there are relatively low-cost ways that the state and cities can significantly improve the safety and popularity of walking and cycling through an incremental and do-able combination of legal and regulatory changes, infrastructure improvements, and media campaigns.

Study after study shows that the two major reasons people don’t walk or bike is fear and convenience.  The primary source of that fear is traffic.  The primary source of the inconvenience is distance.  Both are exacerbated by lack of confidence and our cultural attitude connecting cars to status.

These are serious obstacles, but they don’t require heroic efforts to address.  Small, step-by-step changes in our policies, practices, and decision-making processes can make a huge difference.  Massachusetts’ new Bicycle Bill of Rights & Responsibilities Act is an important step forward (see the end of this posting for a summary).  But it’s not enough.

Here are ten additional steps that governments can take to transform transportation towards a five-year goal of doubling the percentage of short, local trips that people take by muscle power – to do errands, accompany kids to school, visit friends, and perhaps even commute to work.  Some require state action; some can be initiated on the local level.  Some are free, others will cost some money.  All are high-leverage changes that will significantly improve safety and the quality of daily life.  The question is not can government leaders do these actions, but will they?


Reduce the default speed limit for thickly settled and business districts to 25 mph – or even 20 mph.

+A person has an 80% chance of dying if hit by a car moving at 40 mph.  They have a 40% chance of death at 30 mph.  But the risk drops to 5% if the car is going 20 mph.  Slower traffic not only increases on-street safety, it makes sidewalks and shopping areas more inviting. Most European countries have a 30 kph speed limit – about 18 mph.  In our country, the standard leeway of 10 mph over the limit means that police won’t stop cars until they are going 35 or 40 mph, by which time the damage is already ready to happen.

+ There is a bill in the state legislature to reduce the “default” speed limit to 25 mph from 30 mph, but passage is not certain and even if passed it restricts the new limit to short distances in tightly defined locations.

+ When tickets for speeding violations were first issued in 1909 the fine was $25, which translates into $600 in today’s money – an amount that would have more of a deterrent impact than what most people actually pay today.

+ Severely limiting “right turn on red” opportunities and giving walkers and cyclists a 3-5 second head start over turning traffic (called “leading pedestrian indicators” or LPI) would also significantly reduce harm to pedestrians and cyclists.

+ Given that there are 350 separate municipalities in Massachusetts, and that it would be too confusing if each town had its own speed limits, setting a default limit for the state is a good idea.  Currently, under state law (Chapter 90, Section 18 – but based on federal practice) changing the speed limit on a particular street requires a burdensome study by the state Highway Division to determine the speed of free-flowing traffic and then, in most situations, requires that the new limit be set at 85% of that speed.  However, because traditional road design practice was to overbuild roads, structuring them to be safe for people driving as much as 10 mph over the intended legal speed limit, and because most people drive at the speed allowed by the road rather than by the seldom enforced legal limit, the 85% figure is often 5 mph or more higher than the currently posted limit – which leads to the opposite result of what was originally desired and ends up further reducing pedestrian and bicyclist safety.



Create infrastructure that structurally guides behavior into desired norms; design for a “model user” who reflects population medians rather than extremes.

+ Traditional engineering practice assumes that people will exceed legal limits so always builds in the capability of handling speeds and traffic volumes of at least 25% over expectations.  However, structure determines behavior:  designing a road to handle high speeds means drivers go fast.  If you want people to go slowly you have to design a road that encourages and even requires it.  For example: wide travel lanes and gentle curves were intended to make roads safer, but instead have been shown to increase average speed which, ironically, reduces safety.  In fact, recent research shows that reducing city lanes from the old 12-to-15 foot width down to 11, 10, or even 9 feet reduces the number of accidents, injuries, and fatalities.

+ While flexibility to handle extreme situations need to be part of road design, this flexibility should not invite the extreme.  For example, tight turning radii and curb extensions at intersections both slows down normal traffic and allows long emergency vehicles to make the turn by running over the extended sidewalk — so long as parked cars are kept away from the corner and the curb cuts are properly placed at the corners.

+ Only a small percentage of our population is young, fit, aggressively traffic tolerant, and male.  On the contrary, most people – and therefore most of the potential pool of future cyclists — are traffic intolerant, slightly out of shape and overweight, cautious, older than 35, and probably female.  They simply won’t share the road with cars unless the cars are going extremely slowly (see #1, above).  Therefore, to make them feel comfortable using their bikes for short trips to the store or to visit friends or even for longer commutes or for recreational exercise, we need to create “safe spaces” that are mostly free of car traffic.

+ This is, in fact, the approach of those European countries that have successfully raised the percentage of trips taken by bicycle. We need to create a dense, state-wide network of off-road bike paths (with separate “lanes” for bikes and pedestrians) as well as an urban network of “protected bike lanes” (also called “cycle tracks” or “separated bike lanes” or “side paths”) which create a physically separated on-road lane for cyclists on major commuter routes to school or work as a competitive alternative to driving in a car.

+ Cycle tracks should be located on the sidewalk side of parallel parked cars, or be separated from traffic (and from pedestrians) by a curb or by planters or by a painted buffer area.  Cycle tracks should be connected to existing shared-use paths, which should also be divided into two “lanes” — one side for faster-moving bicyclists and the other for pedestrians, dog walkers, baby- carriage pushers, joggers, and in-line skaters.

+ Intersections also need upgrading with, for example, special signals.  We already provide signals for cars and for pedestrians; the third mode of bicycles needs the same guidance and legitimization.


Make applicants show detailed knowledge and exhibit solid skills about not endangering pedestrians and bicyclists; require everyone to get retested every 10 years.

+ Our transportation system is currently set up so that being able to drive a car is often a survival necessity – there is no other way to secure a job, buy food, live.  But even so, being allowed to control a lethal vehicle is a privilege, not a right.  People have to earn that privilege by being properly trained and performing well, not only during the testing period but also over their lifetime of license-holding.  In 2005 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) there were 158,082 crashes in Massachusetts resulting in 5,493 fatalities or incapacitating injuries.  None of us want our family members, friends, or ourselves to become part of that total.

+ As most people who’ve gotten a driver’s license know, driving tests are a joke.  The written test is simplistic and ineffectively short – it had 12 questions when initiated in 1909 and has only expanded to 20 today.  People only seem to fail the on-street driving test if they hit something or irritate the state cop watching them.  The Registry has made some improvements in the written test, by including some material about bicycling in the manual and asking a question about it, but that is not enough.

+ The driver manual needs to include significantly more information about driving in ways that respect the rights of pedestrians and cyclists; the written tests need to include a larger number of questions about these issues; and the on-road tests need to really challenge applicants about the proper way to obey those rules.

+ While changing the driving tests should influence the content of driver education programs, it would be good to require that such programs teach a specified list of information and cover a similar list of skills in order to be accredited.

+ It would also be good if bicycle skill training was a required part of elementary school physical education programs (and if every child actually had Phys. Ed. – or at least a real recess – every day), as in done in some European countries.

+ While it is true that older drivers need retesting, so does everyone else.  It would impose a justifiable burden on the driving public to require that everyone reread the driver’s manual once a decade and prove that they understand that yellow means slow-to-a-stop rather than speed-up-before-red.

–>for a PDF file with the compiled material of Parts I, II, and III, please send an email to [email protected]

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