LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMIC GROWTH: Three Choices, None Simple

There can be no question about the transformative power of today’s metropolitan economy.  Major cities around the country hope to ride the wave of the growing financial, research-based, and digital business sectors.  City leaders are doing what they can to make the place attractive to exploding numbers of higher-income young professionals these firms employ as well as the upper-income suburban baby boomers now seeking the convenience and vitality of urban life.   Working within market trends requires skill but has the advantage of moving with the economic current.  In contrast, urban leaders who wish to expand the benefits of economic growth to the entire population have a more limited and challenging set of options.

Of course, city leaders have much more limited influence over their municipal economy than they like to profess.  For all that Massachusetts lauds its tradition of local self-government, from the direct democracy of small town meetings to city’s home rule petitions, most municipalities are realms of very limited autonomy not just politically but also fiscally, with the straightjacket of Prop. 2½ further reducing their choices. It’s possible for local leaders to attract particular commercial developments by offering tax breaks – bringing new jobs and indirect benefits at the cost of losing the tax revenues that are the fiscal reason for growth in the first place.  But this mortgage-the-future strategy can only go so far.  This truth brings municipal officials up against the painful reality that local economic development is generally at the mercy of larger trends shaped by higher levels of government and non-local corporations.  Prop. 2½ reinforces the attraction of going with the market’s flow, capping annual property tax rate increases at 2.5% leaving only two routes for meeting the escalating costs of medical care, education, police/fire, social services, snow removal, and other city programs:  letting the market valuation of property rise and encouraging new construction.  Of course, the bigger the city and the more prominent it’s inherent assets the stronger its position.  But even Boston (big) and Cambridge (home of both Harvard and MIT) are not fully masters of their own prosperity – and most towns are even more vulnerable.

Compounding the problem is that the larger market forces energizing the regional and therefore local economy have built-in tendencies that destroy existing communities as much as they create new wealth.  It’s not so much the gentrification, the arrival of higher income families, as the many types of displacement that their large-scale arrival triggers:  the ripple effect of luxury housing that raises the price that can be charged for everything else; the replacement of traditional stores serving working families with more profitable boutiques serving the new residents; the hollowing out of the job market leaving only relatively high-end professional and bottom-hugging service jobs; the growing need to respond to the desires of “new economy” and “creative class” constituencies over working and poor families in city-hall and business decision-making.

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THE TRAP OF MUNICIPAL FINANCES

Running a city is expensive.  Municipal leaders are trapped between their citizenry’s expectation (and requirement) for increased responsiveness to public needs and their desire to protect their income by stabilizing property taxes – the regressive but only significant source of local revenue municipalities are allowed.  And even that is limited to a 2.5% annual rate increase.  This is particularly challenging when the cost of providing services is rising faster than the growth in revenue provided by increasing local property values.    A small amount of progressive redistribution is possible through differential commercial and residential tax rates, capping taxes for the elderly and low-income with “circuit-breakers,” and other methods.  But primarily, town and city governments rely on new development to create additional taxable properties that provide the new money needed to keep up with rising costs and expand the scope of services.

The up-side is that new development can revive economically stagnating neighborhoods, add vitality to city life, and attract new investment that creates both jobs and revenue.  The down-side is that the process of gaining that revenue can further marginalize the people who need the services that the revenue is supposed to pay for – from better schools to better playgrounds, from social services to police, from job training to affordable housing.

As a result, local politicians who care about serving the entire population – including working, poor, non-white, and immigrant families – have three general options for dealing with the rapidly evolving economy of today’s metropolitan areas:  strategies that are relationship-based, negotiation focused, or policy-driven.  Each is incomplete.  Each has risks.  Each is easy to misuse.

Relationship-based

Traditionally, local politics was about personal relationships with and among established business, religious, and community leaders.  It was a back-scratching strategy, making personal deals for “favors” in both directions without any intention of rocking the boat.  It was, in part, about providing a specific benefit to a specific person.  The old ethnic patronage machines were the embodiment of this approach – a key tool in immigrants’ efforts to push their way on to some rung of the American economic ladder, to start fighting for entry into the mainstream.   Today’s version of that strategy, while a far cry from the old James Michael Curley shake-down politics, has a similar acceptance of surrounding hierarchies and market forces combined with a similar focus on private deals.   It’s a backroom, quiet strategy that is capable of providing immediate help to someone who needs it.   While this approach is usually very respectful of established community organizations and cultural norms – and gains a lot of loyalty because of those relationships – it does little to protect them or their members from the larger market forces.   While there are lots of individual politicians still practicing this time-honored approach, and every elected official has to do it to some extent, it is no longer the dominant style or force it used to be.

Negotiation-focused

The second option uses the limited tools at a city’s disposal, mostly zoning and permitting, to improve the city’s negotiating power with developers.  It then uses some of what is gained to protect traditional residents or otherwise modify the excesses of profit-seeking commercial pressures.  There is a general acceptance of the larger implications of market dynamics but an aggressive effort to cut the best deal.  When combined with a traditional set of relationships with established community organizations, this is an attractively pragmatic political middle ground.   But given the assumptions of city leaders within this camp about the ultimate supremacy of the market’s general direction, there is a limit to how hard feel they can push.  At some point, the conservativeness of this approach outweighs the assertiveness of its rhetoric.  In fear of “killing the golden goose,” they cease maximizing their yield of golden eggs.   At some point, they stop utilizing their unique assets powerfully enough and the deals they can negotiate are not significant enough to meet their constituents’ needs or to keep their city from being transformed.

Policy-driven

The third option starts with a vision of how the city “should” be – a master plan with demographic and employment as well as architectural implications.  The progressive version of this strategy focuses on preserving the racial, language, and income diversity of the community – partly as a ethical-democratic imperative and partly because engaging the entire population’s creativity and effort will lead to an equally robust but more equally distributed prosperity.  Adherents then embed that vision into the city’s planning and permission processes to bend the market towards the desired future.  This is a bold but risky strategy, a kind of swimming upstream against the market current.  It counts on investors continuing to come even when the price (in effort and dollars) is high – something only likely to happen if the regional economy is booming and the benefits of locating within city limits are enormously unique and significant.  Ironically, because it is an oppositional strategy – usually publically defined by its fights against market-driven development and small-benefit deals – it sometimes comes across as insensitive to people’s current needs and disrespectful of the community’s traditional relationships.

There will be municipal elections next fall in cities around the metropolitan area – here and across the nation.  One of the things citizens need to ask candidates about is how they intend to deal with the pressures of the surrounding economy and – no matter if their strategy is relationship-based, negotiation focused or policy-driven – how and why they think they will succeed.

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Thanks to Larry Rosenberg and Rich Parr for comments on earlier versions.  All remaining mistakes and opinions are, of course, my responsibility.

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Related previous posts:

> STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets

> IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

> THE NEXT MAYOR’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating Prosperity by Lifting the Basement Instead of Raising the Roof

> GETTING MORE EGGS FROM THE GOLDEN GOOSE: “Nobody in this Country got Rich on their Own.”

> QUESTIONING COMPLETE STREETS: Having the Courage of Our Vision and Values

 

 

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ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION IS PRIMARY PREVENTION: The Evolution of Public Health From Quarantines to Mass In Motion

Public Health has its origins in catastrophe, the realization that if an out-of-the-ordinary pestilence is suddenly sickening large numbers of people there must be a general cause rather than individual failures.  In contrast to Medicine, which traditionally is about treating an individual’s existing disease, Public Health seeks to keep large groups from getting sick.  In contrast even to Preventive Medicine, which tends to focus on increasing compliance with medical prescriptions, Public Health is about wellness and well-being – a holistic concern with an entire population’s overall quality of life.  And in Massachusetts, a national leader across a wide range of Public Health issues, one of the most innovative and powerful strategies to improve population health has been the Mass In Motion program. Mass In Motion is, at core, a simple idea.  It starts from the reality that nearly two-thirds of the state’s adults and about a quarter of our children are either overweight or obese, with the numbers soaring in low-income communities.  Nationally, this costs us about $3.5 billion in excess health care costs each year, not to mention the pain suffered by the patients and the diminished futures facing the children.  To end the cycle, the state Department of Public Health gives small Mass In Motion grants to municipalities to set up multi-agency coordination bodies tasked to make it easier for people to secure healthy food and to make local streets and parks more walking and bicycling friendly.  The magic is that in most towns the police and public works and schools and parks departments have never before regularly met together, much less done so in the context of public health leadership.  Just getting everyone in the room to talk about how they can work together – on almost anything – is a major advance.  Having the conversation focus on how to implement a Complete Streets policy is unprecedented.  And it works: Mass In Motion communities have a statistically significant reduction in the percentage of overweight and obese school children compared with the state as a whole. I’ve talked with the Mass In Motion coordinators in several cities and conducted workshops in a few (special shout-outs to Fall River and New Bedford!).  I’ve found that in every city there are local advocates eager to use whatever facilitating framework the government can provide to get involved.   Why government?  Because we are dealing with our shared environment, our public spaces, and because we want to improve living conditions for everyone regardless of ability to pay, it is only the government that has the legitimate authority to act for our collective wellbeing.  The strategy is not to create new prohibitions.  Rather, Mass In Motion communities create a healthier decision-making context.  They find ways to “nudge” people by making it easier, cheaper, more common, and more socially prestigious to “do the healthy thing.”  Particularly to do more walking or bicycling for which the evidence showing a positive impact on health is incontrovertible. Street design matters.  I don’t know the statistics for other cities, but in Boston, 56% of city-owned land is taken up by streets and sidewalks.  And there are between two and three incidents every day in which a car hits a pedestrian or cyclist.  Boston has a very sophisticated Complete Street policy, but it’s new and much of the city is still dangerously car-centric.  Other cities have, at best, the same spotty safety situations. Streets designed to slow down speeding traffic, to improve sidewalks, create low-traffic-stress bike routes, make intersections safer, and promote “place-making” rather than “pass through” aesthetics reduce injuries and invite use. The Legislature is now debating whether to continue funding Mass In Motion (line item 4513-1111).  Last year the state Legislature for the first time included explicit reference to Mass in Motion in budget language and dedicated a minimum of $250,000 for Mass in Motion as part of a larger “Heath Promotion and Disease Prevention” line item. That language is missing in the FY2016 budget proposals, forcing the Department of Public Health to squeeze Mass In Motion in among numerous other programs in a line item that has been sharply diminished over the last ten years. At the same time, the Baker Administration is deciding what to do about the complementary Complete/Active Streets Certification/Funding Grant Program, authorized within the most recent Transportation Bond Bill.  As with most Bond Bills, this one was a “Christmas Tree” of wishes that the Administration has to choose among in order to keep total borrowing within the state’s “bond cap” and debt service payment capabilities. Give your Representatives and Senators a call.  Let them know what you think. ——————— Continue reading
Posted in Commentary & Analysis, Obesity, Public Health, Road Design, TRANSPORTATION HEALTH and SAFETY, Walking | Leave a comment

THE PURPOSE OF TRANSIT: Neither Reform Nor Revenue are the Needed Starting Point

It’s now semi-official – everyone agrees that the MBTA needs both reform and revenue.  No one says (publicly) that the current T and Commuter Rail budget is too big for its mission.  And that’s where the agreement ends – with the question of what is the MBTA’s mission, vision, and values:  what exactly are we trying to achieve? Is our transit system a public mobility service for everyone (including the elderly, disabled, and young) for all types of uses (commuting, shopping, socializing) across all parts of the region (or perhaps the entire state) or are particular components more important than the rest?  Similarly, while increased customer service is a generally-agreed upon priority, which customers should get what level of what kinds of service at what cost?  And in the larger scale, is the T only about transportation, and should it be run to maximize its operation’s internal cost-efficiency regardless of “off-budget” externalities, or is it about a broad range of social goals and public benefits – in the Frontier Group’s words “[fulfilling] a transportation need at lower public expense than the available alternatives (e.g., adding another lane to the Big Dig),…deliver[ing] public benefits that exceed the costs (e.g., reducing air pollution or curbing congestion), or…meet[ing] a pressing and vital societal need (e.g., providing mobility to the disabled)”.   Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s recent Globe OpEd added another dimension: “The cities identified as having the highest chances for a person moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of income across generations are the cities ranked as having the best public transportation.  Through better transportation, American cities can provide opportunities for millions to escape poverty.” At the recent Legislative hearing on MBTA reform, Governor Baker said that this winter’s collapse showed that the T was vital to our regional economy and explicitly stated that he had no interest in privatizing the MBTA, in laying off Carmen Union members, or raising fares beyond many people’s ability to pay.  This was a welcome public statement, a positive opening for future discussion.  But it can’t be the final word. ——— Continue reading
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QUESTIONING COMPLETE STREETS: An Open Letter to the Cambridge City Council

Having a vision of the kind of city you want is an essential foundation for purposeful and effective governance.  Some cities do a coherent overall process, such as Somerville’s SomerVision or Boston’s forthcoming Imagine Boston 2030.  Cambridge has constructed its vision piecemeal, through policies around a variety of quantitative and qualitative issues.   No matter the process, these days the resulting vision statements almost all aim for a combination of livability, stainability, prosperity, and diversity with the specifics addressing things like schools, housing, services, open space, and mobility.  For example, in terms of mobility, SomerVision (slogan: “An Exceptional Place to Live, Work, Play, and Raise a Family”) sets a goal of having “50% of New Trips via Transit, Bike, or Walking.” The most powerful, but hardest to really accept, aspect of creating a vision involves making choices – a public a statement that the city’s residents prefers one type of future over another, one direction over the multitude of other possibilities.  Like growing up, having a vision implies accepting that you can’t have it all – that achieving your top priorities means you can’t do something else, and most importantly that equalizing things means that whatever was previously getting more than its fair share will have to get a little less. But, as most adults know, having a vision – a goal -- is only the starting point for creating a future.  Making it real requires the courage of your convictions, the strength to take actions that express those values, and a willingness to accept the consequences of choosing one thing over another.  Checking the facts as you go is also important.  Maturity and perhaps wisdom comes from basing your actions on both values and evidence. Over the past decade, cities and town have made enormous progress and gained visible benefits from movement towards a more equitable vision of transportation modality: – giving equal weight to the needs of walkers, bicyclists, and bus or trolley riders as to car drivers (Complete Streets, Safe Routes To School), -- slowing down traffic to improve driver and everyone else’s safety (Traffic Calming, Vision Zero), and -- changing to more market-driven parking pricing to increase availability and improve circulation to retail stores. All these have contributed to the astonishing growth of bicycling, the reduction of injury rates, the revived vitality of local business districts, and perhaps even to the slowed increase in childhood obesity. Not surprisingly, however, there has been pushback.  Parking is a common triggering issue.  Neighbors fearful of increased on-street competition for space oppose making housing more affordable by reducing the amount of on-site parking spaces developers are required to build.  Drivers blame increased congestion at key intersections and major roads on the diversion of road capacity to bike lanes.  And, most touchy of all, critics claim that making roads less car-centric makes it harder for emergency vehicles to get through, endangering us all – a question made credible after the road-narrowing snow disasters of last winter. For example, a proposed Cambridge City Council Policy Order raises several of these issues -- the “Whereas” sections cite concerns that traffic calming “in particular the narrowing of major arteries used to enter and exit Cambridge…has directly led to a sharp increase in congestion, bottlenecks and motor vehicle accidents; and….presents a safety hazard… [because it] does not permit fire trucks and other large emergency vehicles to gain access….” In several towns, these complaints are being echoed by local politicians.  In some cases this is a sincere effort to clarify the impact of recent policy changes on road use. In some cases it may be just a grandstand pandering for votes from the diminishing number of car-centric commuters. But it seems most likely that the critics really believe that we’re on the wrong track and that the questioning and demands for data are really an effort to lay the groundwork for a broader re-examination of where transportation policy is going – an effort to find some problem with multi-modal design that can be used to discredit the entire idea. Fortunately, these attacks will fail because they ignore both the growing clarity of municipal values and the factual evidence. ---------------- Continue reading
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JUMP STARTING COMPLETE STREETS: Focusing on Kids (and others) When Progress Slows

Every street should be safe for walking and bicycling.  This is an essential component of the Complete Streets design philosophy that has emerged in recent years as the “new normal” for roads – although the gap between policy and practice often remains wide.   Because the core issue is mobility, Advocates compliment this “everywhere for everyone” approach with concerted efforts to create seamless networks of sidewalks and low-traffic-stress routes (paths and protected bike lanes or cycle tracks) along major “desire lines” connecting most residential areas with most schools, parks, recreational, shopping, and work areas.   Or at least a set of “key routes” across town.   Many Advocacy groups put considerable effort into sketching out these networks and routes – trying to combine directness with safety, beauty with speed, ubiquity with practicality.  To paraphrase a slogan from the Greenway Links Initiative I’ve been working on in the Metro Area:  Big enough to be inspiring, simple enough to be understandable. However, the difficulty of getting cities to adopt the proactive, grand vision approach to transportation planning and road maintenance required for the creation of such networks forces most Advocacy groups to fall back on pragmatism.   Every time a street is repaved or restriped; every time a developer wants a curb cut; every time state or federal transportation funds become available – grab the opportunity to push for another, often disconnected stretch of improved sidewalks, redone crosswalks and intersections, bike lanes (regular or protected) or paths.   Having those draft network and key route maps helps focus Advocates efforts on those locations that will make the biggest contribution towards the ultimate goal.  But the process is still rather haphazard, catch-as-can, ending up feeling rather incoherent.  And sometimes things go nowhere. How to get things started again?   Continue reading
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OUT OF THE SNOW, INTO THE PARKING MESS

Parking is a problem. When it snows it’s a nightmare. We start looking around, getting frustrated, maybe nasty. There seem to be parking spots everywhere except where we want to go. Parking is the explosive trap door of community transportation meetings – anything that reduces the number of spots anywhere evokes outcry. This winter’s climate craziness has pushed people from frustration into pathology — angry notes, slashed tires, off-road rage. Forgive us, neighbors, we have space saved. At a recent meeting of the LivableStreets Alliance Advocacy Committee, Board member Charlie Denison led a brainstorming session about how the current parking situation in Boston isn’t really benefiting anyone, especially drivers themselves. The ideas range from snow-related strategies to general management of residential and commercial parking to long-term ways to reduce the overall demand. Just as the snow finally forced state leaders to acknowledge the desperate condition of the MBTA, maybe we can use this crisis to begin addressing the parking problem as well in both residential and commercial areas, by both addressing parking policies and the city-design need for it. Here’s my take on what came up during the brainstorm… ------------------ Continue reading
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PARKWAYS MOVING FORWARD: DCR is Not The Highway Department

It’s a pleasure to be able to praise a government agency: civil servants who try to live up to their public service mission are over-worked and underpaid relative to private sector peers – and always under appreciated! It’s particularly a pleasure to praise the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR), a woefully underfunded agency whose roadway department has been exasperatingly difficult to work with in the past.   Which is why we have to hope that newly inaugurated Governor Baker’s announcement of a freeze on hiring and contracting will not derail DCR’s historic commitment to create an updated Master conceptual Plan for how their metro-region paths and parkways can reclaim their Olmstedian heritage and be once again made more park-like and more bike-and-pedestrian-friendly — as well as estimates of what it would cost to properly operate such a system. However, even in the midst of the freeze and while the Agency waits to hear who will be appointed to be its next Commissioner, there should be no delay in beginning to fulfill the promise to also make DCR’s prioritization and decision-making processes better able to incorporate community and stakeholder suggestions. The newly formed Urban Paths and Parkways Advisory Committee (UPPAC) is an obvious way to draw on the expertise of people who often know more about both local needs and national best-practices than DCR’s own too-small and over-burdened road engineering staff. In addition, even if budget constraints slow down DCR’s recent string of successful capital projects, the Agency should move forward on its decision to re-think its approach to Parkway maintenance – incorporating the new vision into repaving and striping is a low-cost way of making meaningful improvements even when funding for big project is unavailable. There is a palpable enthusiasm among people around the region at the prospect of a full, safe network of Greenways reaching out from the urban core to the entire metro area. Although DCR’s new direction was announced in the final days of the Patrick Administration little action has occurred. The incoming state leaders can easily take over and treat them as their own.   And if they do, they will find a lot of people eager to work with them. Continue reading
Posted in Advocacy, Commentary & Analysis, Government Reform, Road Design, ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE | Leave a comment

OLYMPIC OPPORTUNITY? — Region Gains Only If We Demand the Benefits First

The best and perhaps only argument for holding the 2024 Summer Olympics in Boston (and Cambridge) is that the deadlines and international media scrutiny will force us – meaning city, state, and federal governments as well as local universities – to make the infrastructure investments that we already know are needed but that are unlikely to occur given current budget pressures. The promise is that most of the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on a “car-free” Olympics will be used for upgraded public transportation and walking/bicycling facilities, for expanded student dormitories around local colleges and family-sized affordable housing, and general landscape improvements. What if it could be so? (Full disclosure: I’d like to have one of the promised improvements be the Greenway Links project – a seamless network of walking and bicycling corridors for recreation and travel by people of all ages and abilities – that I’ve been working on for the past few years.) FISCAL BLACK HOLE Continue reading
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COMMONWEALTH AVENUE: Grand Boulevard, Dangerous Street

Stretching from the Public Garden out to Weston, Commonwealth Avenue meanders past sculptured medians, historic parks, heartbreaking hills, ponds and rivers, and an enormous number of residences and businesses. Although various crossings are frustratingly congested, in general the number of cars has been steadily dropping while the number of trolley passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and runners has been steadily increasing. The busiest sections are the least fancy: the Mass Ave. crossing, Kenmore Square and the BU corridor, Packards corner to around Warren Street. The BU bridge area is the thickest of all with huge numbers of rushing students, growing cohorts of cyclists, and frustrated car drivers trying to squeeze through the spaghetti mess from Longwood Medical Area to Storrow or (via Cambridge) the Mass Pike. Much of the rest of Comm Ave has relatively light (and therefore, because of the invitingly wide lanes, fast) car traffic. Comm. Ave has been undergoing periodic renovations and re-inventions almost from the day the first luxurious Back Bay section was built in the mid-1800s. The straight Kenmore to Packards Corner section came later in the century and the curvy section up to the elegant Chestnut Hill Reservoir came near the end of the 1800s based on a landscaped Olmsted design, eventually linking up with a fancy boulevard in Newton. In the early 1900s the street cars were added to promote development, today’s Green Line. And from the 1950s onward an increasing amount of the huge width has been devoted to cars – moving, turning, and parking (as well as purchasing, fixing, refueling).   In the words of Allston activist, Matt Danish, (drawing on the writings of Bill Marchione published at http://bahistory.org) the city made the road more car friendly by “cutting down more trees and laying asphalt over even more portions of the remaining grass mall. Large parking areas were created near Harvard Ave, taking the place of much of the remaining parkland. At Warren Street, an entirely new motorway was cut into the grassy side of the hill, and westbound traffic diverted across the tracks at a strange angle that persists to this day: as anyone familiar with that intersection can attest. Later, a fence was erected down the middle of the MBTA reservation, literally splitting the Allston community in two.” Each of the changes set the tone of the Avenue for decades afterwards. Today, we’re just emerging from the “let’s make it a highway” epoch. What comes next will help define not only this historic corridor but the Walsh Administration’s transportation vision and the relationship they see between roads and the kind of city Boston will become. Continue reading
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WALSH ADMINISTRATION NEEDS A TRANSPORTATION MAP: Which Way On Comm. Ave. Design?

Mayor Marty Walsh visibly cares about helping underserved communities. And he is aggressively promoting the continuing building boom and accompanying (construction) jobs, as expressed in his statement to the Chamber of Commerce that “we hit the ground running…in development, education, housing, public health, and infrastructure.”  Unfortunately, it appears that the Mayor currently includes transportation as just a part of “infrastructure”, rather than a distinct critical element of city policy –streets and transportation are treated simply as extensions of the more important “building blocks” listed in his speech.

However, leverage also moves in the other direction: a city’s transportation systems set the context for and unleash energy in land use, job creation, and neighborhood improvement. Repeated studies show that both walkability and bikeability promote business growth, resident satisfaction, and public health.  Walsh’s recent promotion of transit-oriented development as key to the development of affordable housing, as well as his cooperation in branding the Red Line as a “Life Science Corridor”, are tacit acknowledgements of this relationship. And it’s true that certain stand-alone issues have gotten attention: late night bus service for downtown businesses, emergency fixes for the Seaport’s entry/exit mess, and the inevitable neighborhood complaints about parking.   But this is not a holistic vision. So far, his senior staff have not treated transportation as its own systemic entry-point for urban issues and quality of life.

POSITIVE SIGNS

A more holistic approach may emerge from Walsh’s promise to have transportation staff walk through every neighborhood noting problems. And, following a recommendation of his Transition Team, Walsh has appointed an Advisory Committee charged with the development of a “Boston Urban Mobility Plan”. (Full disclosure: LivableStreets has a representative on that committee.) Currently, however, this is simply a two-year process of soliciting public input rather than a commitment to action. So far, none of this yet adds up to a vision capable of generating policies and action that leverage transportation spending into better lives for all Boston residents and commuters.

In the meantime, Boston’s award-winning Complete Streets Guidelines have not been officially adopted as policy, although (fortunately) there are some staff people who are still trying to integrate its state-of-the-art good ideas into road designs. The slow-down is even more pronounced in the once thriving effort to make Boston a “world class city for bicycling” – which is often the opening wedge for improvements for pedestrians and transit users as well. The city’s Bicycle Network Plan is no longer referenced, much less used as a guide for street work. This despite the admittance by senior Walsh staffers that bicycle advocates were one of the most organized, visible, and vocal constituents of the mayoral election. According to the Boston Cyclists Union newsletter, “Outside of the addition of paint to a few locations such as Cambridge St. in Allston, and the groundbreaking new truck sideguards ordinance pushed by the Mayor himself, the city’s progress on bike safety has slowed significantly in 2014. Public meetings on and talk of the cycletrack around the Public Garden have evaporated. The plan for the first contraflow lane on Hemenway Street in the Fenway neighborhoods has been shelved without notice. A bike lane set to be added to a key connection for South Boston residents–the W. 4th St. Bridge–has been put on hold.” We can only hope that the recent bike ride that Mayor Walsh took with people from the Cyclists Union, Bikes Not Bombs, LivableStreets, and the Roxbury/Dorchester neighborhood signals increased interest in this issue.

Ironically, the most powerful current inducement for improvement in non-car transportation – subway, trolley, bus, bicycling, and walking – comes from the controversial effort to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston. The Boston 2024 Olympic Committee is seeking to distinguish its bid and keep taxpayer costs down by describing their vision as a “car free” event – based on the assumption that city and state governments will construct nearly all of the proposed non-car-focused transportation improvements listed in various planning documents and bond authorization bills.

REDUCING THE COMMON WEALTH

Transportation’s current low priority within the Walsh Administration is shown most clearly in the lack of top-level vision and leadership given to the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) and the Department of Public Works (DPW). Though Walsh committed to filling all cabinet positions by year’s end, there is no public evidence of any progress in searches for either new departmental Commissioners or for the cabinet-level Director who is supposed to be in charge of both. So both agencies have temporary Acting Commissioners left over from the Menino era.

The leadership vacuum has resulted in internal maneuverings to protect department turf and the individualizing of design approaches – whomever was once assigned a project holds on and does it his own way. One of the most painful examples of this lack of coherence has been the conflicting plans and different public input process for different sections of Commonwealth Avenue – a problem exacerbated by Boston University’s and it’s consultant’s commitment to an out-of-date, car-centric perspective on safety.

Everyone agrees that Comm. Ave. desperately needs improvement.   It’s got the highest number of pedestrians and bicyclists of any road in the city, along with congestion-causing numbers of trucks and cars, and the slowest trolley system in the urban area. However, the sections of this extremely busy street being designed by the BTD for the BU Bridge to Packards Corner blocks (aka Phase 2A) are following very different public-input process and incorporating very different design philosophies than the sections being designed by the DPW covering Packards Corner to Warren/Kelton Street (aka Phases 3 & 4).  Ironically, given DPW’s past reputation as being hostile to anything that would impede car movement, the DPW now seem much more responsive to public suggestion and more progressive in their willingness to incorporate multi-modal facilities than the left-over BTD leadership.

BTD MIS-SETPS

The Boston Transportation Department, under its current temporary leadership, has flagrantly violated its own public-input protocols.   There was no “concept-stage” opportunity for suggestions, a total lack of response to the written suggestions community members and advocates sent in after the 25%-of-design meeting several years ago and again more recently after realizing that plans were being rushed towards completion, and so far the only 75%-of-design-completion “public meeting” was one called by BU students and the BU Bikes group.

In addition, despite BTD’s role in creating the city’s Complete Streets Guidelines, the original BTD design for the BU Bridge to Packards Corner section is car-centric and lacks the components that most Advocates think are needed: protected bike lanes (cycle tracks), raised crosswalks and wider sidewalks (the plan actually proposes to narrow sidewalks), additional and improved crossings (especially around the Star Market and Babcock T crossing), faster Green Line travel, and traffic-calming narrower lanes and sharper turns (the plan calls for wider car lanes and “softer” turns) – not to mention the cutting down of mature trees and limitations on sidewalk cafes that the design requires.

It is only because of an enormous effort, led by BU’s own students with the support of the city’s transportation Advocacy groups (whose increasingly tight coalition has significantly increased their impact), that BTD is finally bending. Advocacy groups working in support of the students have come up with a united vision of how to include improvements for trolley passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars.   And it appears that the public pressure is forcing BTD to make some improvements, although even those are complicated by lack of coordination with MBTA plans to upgrade and consolidate its Green Line trolley stops in the area to comply with ADA regulations. The good news is that Acting Transportation Department Commissioner Jim Gilooly has publicly stated that “the one decision you can take to the bank is…there will be significant improvement, if not dramatic improvement,” from the original plans – although no one yet knows what he means by that – a concern increased by BTD and the BU Administration’s current touting of another inadequate approach that would simply widen bike lanes rather than create physically separated space.

It’s time for Mayor Walsh to step in. Transportation is too important to be left to squabbling departments. We need a vision that starts from the reality that the economic growth we seek creates population (or at least employment) growth and therefore increased transportation needs – which will inescapably lead to increased car congestion (and pollution) unless we massively increase the availability and attractiveness of other modes. We need good leadership. We need to take advantage of this long-delayed upgrading of Commonwealth Avenue to make it the safe, efficient, multi-modal, Walsh Administration precedent-setting transportation corridor that it needs to be.

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Thanks to Matt Danish for his encyclopedic knowledge about Commonwealth Avenue and to the many people whose anecdotes and comments have shaped my perception of the new Administration. The opiniions are, of course, totally my own.

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Related previous posts:

> FROM BETTER TO WORSE ON COMMONWEALTH AVE: City Leaders Need To Step Up For Their Own Policies

> MOVING BEYOND CAR LEVEL OF SERVICE (LOS): Measurable and Meaningful Criteria for Transportation Investments, Project Designs, and Development Mitigation (revised)

> EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough

> SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

> MODELING POSITIVE CITY-CONSTITUENCY RELATIONS: How Boston’s Transportation Department is Working with the Bicycling Community – and Creating Better Roads

Posted in Boston Transportation, Commentary & Analysis, Road Design, ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE, Safety, TRANSPORTATION HEALTH and SAFETY | Leave a comment

WALK, BIKE, RUN: Unity and Tension In Non-Motorized Alliances

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.

GROUP IDENTITY AND ORGANIZED ADVOCACY

Our society’s past treatment of bicycling as a risky and deviant behavior created a sense of community and identity among those who do it – as well as making it inevitable that urban cycling had a high proportion of risk-taking adverturists. In recent years, as cycling expanded among more mainstream middle-class young adults, bicyclists emerged as an articulate and assertive presence. They are, in many cities, the vanguard demanding safer and less car-centric transportation policies and infrastructure. In Boston, senior Walsh administration officials recount that other than parents of school kids, bicyclists were the most vocal and visible constituency during the recent mayoral campaign. (Bicyclists’ new influence developed partly because of the declining sway in their community of “vehicular cyclists” who oppose any bike-specific accommodations on the grounds that bikes are vehicles and if you aren’t strong, societally-self-confident, and brave enough to ride fast with cars you shouldn’t be on the road.)

No matter how popular or mainstream it gets, bicycling is likely to remain a minority activity. On the other hand, every trip – by bike, car, bus, or train – begins and ends with walking. Everyone walks. But exactly because it is so ordinary few people identify as “walkers” even though most cities (including Boston) are full of poorly-maintained sidewalks, dangerously ill-timed crosswalk & traffic signals, and a woefully inadequate amount of “street furniture,” benches, or attractive outdoor social spaces. Combining the energy of the bicycling community with the ubiquity of pedestrian issues increases the chances of success for both.

(Runners have much more group identity and have an organized core – one reason why WalkBoston and other walker groups have begun expanding their agenda to include them. Long-distance walkers, wilderness hikers, and trail runners are a separate category interested in specialized areas such as the wonderful Bay Circuit Path.)

SHARED AND DIVERGENT INTERESTS

However, the pedestrian-cyclist alliance is not an inevitability. Both sides have much in common: the desire to slow cars on city streets to 20 mph or less (while maintaining “through put” with better traffic signal timing), to push for lane and road “diets” to create more room for other modes and reduce crossing distances, to reduce the inefficiently-used amount of space devoted to parking, and to lengthen crossing time while shortening “cycle times” at signalized intersections. They also have a shared interest in expanding and improving off-road paths (greenways, rail-to-trail conversions, river-side paths) into “multi-use” facilities.

Beyond that, interests diverge, a fact that issue-expanding bike advocates sometimes overlook. Bicyclists want separated lanes (buffered lanes or cycle tracks) and more bike parking spaces, both of which may reduce sidewalk widths. Pedestrians want corner bulb-outs, raised crosswalks and intersection tables which slow cars but can also interfere with bike flow. Walking advocates get nervous about allowing bikes to start a few seconds before cars with the pedestrian LPI (Leading Pedestrian Indicator) walk signal because of worry that turning bikes will hit pedestrians, and of sidewalk-level Cycle Tracks that allow flexible use of the full space.

Some of this emerges from a general uneasiness among pedestrian advocates about bicyclists’ behavior, which runs from realistic concerns about jerks on bikes (and the anxiety their fast-and-close presence evokes in the slow moving elderly) to a nearly paranoid fear of bikers that somehow ignores the infrequency of bike-ped crashes and injuries compared to car-ped disasters. (I suspect that this is somehow related to the fact that many pedestrians, like many motorists, see bicycles as the intruding newcomer to the street scene and a threat to the limited security they’ve been able to win from our car-dominated transportation system. This all reminds me of the anger some white people have about the intrusion of non-whites into their labor market rather than seeing both groups as suffering from employers’ manipulations.)

Like most frequent bicyclists, at social gatherings I am occasionally subjected to a litany of complaints about rude cyclists who run red lights, or hog sidewalks, or race by scarily close in crosswalks, or even yell profanities at anyone in their way. It only helps a little to point out that bicyclists would be happy to get off the sidewalk if there was a safe place to go, that treating red lights and stop signs as if they were “yield” signs helps bicyclists stay safe from turning cars, and that as cycling becomes more mainstream the anti-social miscreants are becoming a decreasing portion of the group and their misbehavior is no longer the norm. I admit that the growing number of bicyclists creates real challenges for our inadequate transportation infrastructure and that the behavior of some two-wheeled fanatics is unsafe if not reprehensible. But I also point out that the percentage of distracted drivers and obliviously ear-plugged walkers seems to be increasing. And, if the conversation lasts long enough, I always agree that these are issues we all need to deal with.

SOCIAL FUNCTIONALITY AND IMPACT

Still, while some of the walkers’ complaints are legitimate, we (and they) need to keep a sense of perspective about the relative function and impact of the two modes. While walking is the “last 100 feet” of every trip, bicycling can serve as the last mile. The explosive growth of bike sharing such as Hubway shows that bicycling is the logical last leg of an urban public transit system. It is also, unlike walking, the only realistic commuting alternative to overcrowded trains or congested roads. In fact, the fastest growing type of cyclists are “functional bicyclists” – people who regularly use their bikes for daily transportation. Improving walking conditions is vital – especially for those outside working age: children going to school, the elderly, the disabled – but improving cycling conditions will have a much greater impact on the overall transportation system and a region’s economic development.

Similarly, from a health perspective it’s better to do any physical activity rather than sit in front of a TV. Even standing up to get another snack is a step in the right direction. Regular walking, such as occurs among people who commute by public transit, has proven positive health impacts. And walking is probably the most important built-into-daily-routines physical activity of the elderly – a status that the lucky among us will someday attain, or already have. On a population basis, the first step that people take towards more physical activity is more likely to happen on foot that via pedaling.

But even better health impacts come from regular bike riding, even if it’s only slow-speed pedaling. Analysis of the Harvard School of Public Health’s huge health-outcomes database shows that the vast majority of walkers simply go too slow to have any impact on their weight. At the same time, convincing research from Denmark covering tenyears shows that people who commute by bike have a nearly 28% lower risk of all-cause mortality, no matter what other kinds of physical activity or exercise they engage in. Regular cyclists, meaning people going no more than 10 miles an hour on relatively flat roads have an average level of fitness equivalent to people ten years younger than themselves. Multiple studies show that the cardio-vascular and general benefits of regular bicycling hugely outweigh the relatively small negative impact of accidents or breathing car-polluted air – and both of these negatives are significantly reduced by the presence of separated cycle-tracks and distancing the bikes from the cars on heavily trafficked arterials.

GENTRIFICATION AND INCLUSION

Recently, after years of struggle by low-income communities demanding that cities improve local parks, playgrounds, transit availability, and street conditions, many low income leaders have become afraid that any upgrading of their neighborhood’s facilities will attract upper-income “urbanizing settlers,” leading to gentrification and the eventual inability of working or poor families to afford the rents or find stores catering to their needs. The fear is sometimes particularly expressed against bicycle infrastructure which is sometimes described as a “white thing.” There is clearly some justification for worries about upscaling, particularly in neighborhoods adjacent to current upper-income areas or with (or in line to get) transit connections to downtown employment centers – of which Boston has many. But any objective analysis makes it clear that the problem isn’t limited to bicycle infrastructure, and the solution isn’t to stop public investment in low-income neighborhoods but, rather, to find ways to protect residents from the destructive effects of the free market.

Even more fundamentally, it’s important to realize that the number of non-white bicyclists is much higher than the stereotypes portray. Asian and Latino populations come from cultures where bicycling is prevalent – although it is often seen as a low-income alternative to the higher-status ownership of a car. Even in African-American communities the number of youthful bike riders is very high – although the use of “bike runners” in the drug trade further complicates the cultural associations. The problem is that immigrants, non-English speakers, people of color, and low-income people of all ethnicities are woefully under-represented in organized bicycle (and walking and running) club and advocacy groups. (The League of American Bicyclists, LAB, deserves credit for starting its Equity Initiative and Women Bike Program, as does the Boston Bikes Program for its community low-income outreach programs such as Roll It Forward, Youth Programs, and more.)

TOGETEHER OR NOT AT ALL

In Boston, ten years ago, LivableStreets Alliance was started partly because existing walking, bicycling, running, and transit groups were not only not working together, but treating each other like hostile competitors. As a result, and aided by the then-dominant Vehicular Bicyclists’ opposition to anything other than roads-as-they-were, government agencies were able to play each group off against the others, resulting in repeated failures for everyone. LivableStreets played a seminal role in showing that a broad transportation focus, inclusive of every mode including cars, aware of both recreational and functional uses, could create a united front that was capable of winning change. Since then, new leadership at WalkBoston and MassBike along with the emergence of the Boston Cyclists Union have fundamentally changed the political landscape – and led to a (hopefully) continuing series of victories for safety, multi-modalism, and innovation. WalkBoston even publically supported the BCU and LivableStreets call for cycletracks on Commonwealth Avenue.

But we can’t take any of this for granted. New political administrations at the city, state, and federal levels can not be assumed to be as open to progressive transportation visions or as willing to provide funds as those of the past. Harder times make small differences more difficult. We have to consciously work through our distinct interests and perspectives. The bottom line is that bicyclists who ignore the needs of pedestrians undermine not only their own current advocacy but also their own future well-being – and the same is true for pedestrians, transit users, and even car drivers. Single-mode fundamentalism is as destruction to transportation advocacy as it is to religion.

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Thanks to Wendy Landman whose public comments sparked my thinking about this and to Pete Stidman who forced me to rethink an earlier draft. All opinions are, of course, my own.

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Some related previous blogs include:

> STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets

> SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

> VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”

> THE RIGHT TO BE ON THE ROAD: When Bicyclists Have To Pull Over, When Cars Can Pass

> CAMERAS, TERRORISM, AND TRUST: Fears and Memories Across the Generational Divide

> CIRCLING THE BLOCK: Saving Money, Time, and Aggravation Through Parking Reform

> ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION CREATES HEALTHY COMMUNITIES: How To Use Your Roads To Lower Your Doctor (and Insurance) Bills

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

 

Posted in Advocacy, Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, Walking | Leave a comment

THE DANGERS OF SAFETY: Why Focusing on Car Accidents May Hurt Our Health

Everyone officially puts “safety first.” Everyone wants to prevent accidents. Car crashes are treated as lead stories on TV news – the images are horrific and we all fear our vulnerability. But, in fact, our roads are safer than ever. In 1956, when Interstate construction began, the national fatality rate was 6.05 per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). By 2011, the fatality rate had dropped to 0.8 per 100 million VMT on the Interstate and 1.1 (the lowest ever recorded) nationwide, even though about 85% of people including those in metro areas, still get to work by car. (Massachusetts has the nation’s lowest fatality rate, 0.62!)

Studies have shown, and the Traffic Engineering Profession has internalized, that highway accidents go down when there are wide lanes, gentle curves, no sight-line obstructing hills, limited entering/exiting locations with long ramps, no visual distractions other than large and uniform directional signage, and the absence of slower or more vulnerable traffic.   The Interstate is safest when it is “error tolerant” and forgiving of driver distraction. (Other contributors along the same lines: slide-resistant pavement, break-away sign and light poles, and better guardrails.

But the reality is that safety lapses aren’t the biggest transportation-related source of injury. In fact, putting too much emphasis on preventing car crashes can make non-highway streets more dangerous – not only for pedestrians and cyclists but also for car occupants! Car accidents cause half as many deaths and several multiples fewer health problems than transportation-caused air, water, and noise pollution.   The amount of paved land in our cities makes us more vulnerable to climate change, rising temperatures, and floods while housing sprawl makes us less resilient in terms of agriculture and disaster-recovery.   Most subtly, life in and around automobiles changes the way we relate to our neighbors and friends, reducing our collective social capital and our individual life style satisfaction.

TRANSFERRING THE RISK

It’s easy to over generalize from actions appropriate for one context to other situations where they may actually have negative impacts: most of the strategies that make the Interstate safer for high-speed driving make daily city driving more dangerous. Unlike the Interstate, busy city streets become safer when drivers pay more attention to their surroundings, are unable to go fast, have to carefully negotiate turns, and are always made aware that the street and adjoining sidewalks are full of more vulnerable children, disabled, elderly, bicyclists, and shoppers who might step out at any unexpected moment and location.

The more that states and cities create urban “arterials” – local or regional collector roads typically “designed with the forgiving roadway features intended to enhance the safety of motorists” – the higher the accident rate.   According to a study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, “each additional mile of arterial…was associated with a 9.8% increase in motorist crashes.”   Interstate-influenced local roads are also dangerous for people outside the car: higher vehicle speeds result in an increase in both the frequency and severity of crashes involving pedestrians.  The JAPA article states that “examinations of the spatial distribution of pedestrian-[injuring] crashes show that they cluster along urban arterials…”

Even beyond issues of speed, focusing on keeping car occupants uninjured can lead to road designs that increase the risk for pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-motorized users. After declining between 2005 and 2009, the raw number of pedestrian deaths started climbing again, and in 2012 was back to essentially the same number as it was in 2003, even though overall traffic fatality rates are down, according to SmartGrowth America. Nationally, pedestrians accounted for nearly 15% of all traffic deaths in 2013, up 6% from 2011 and representing a five-year high. (In the Boston area, pedestrians were almost 20% of traffic fatalities!) It’s no better for cyclists: in 2012, the last year for which full numbers are available, 726 cyclists lost their lives nationwide — almost two a day. (It’s far safer to fly. In that same year, there were zero fatalities from commercial airplane accidents in the United States.)

The hurt is not equally distributed: for African Americans, the age-adjusted pedestrian fatality rate was 60 percent higher than for whites. This is probably related to the racial tilt of our nation’s growing income inequality: lower income families are much more likely to live near major arterials and four-way intersections with traffic volumes 2.4 times greater than in high-income areas, according to a new study.

OVERLOOKING THE ELEPHANT

In addition, focusing on safety lets us ignore transportation-related environmental issues which have an even more powerful impact on the wellbeing we are seeking to improve: vehicular pollution injures many hundreds of thousands more people than car accidents and causes at least twice as many deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that the US is on track for an estimated 27,200 motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2014, down nearly 6,000 over the past two years and down nearly 16,000 since 2005 (partly due to the long-term decline in VMT). In contrast, a recent MIT report found that “emissions from road transportation” cause 53,000 premature deaths a year.

It’s not just the deaths. According to a multi-year EPA study, people living, working, or going to school within 300 feet of a busy roadway – a disproportionate number of whom are low-income – are at increased risk of a huge variety of diseases: a 50% to 100% increase in annual mortality due to cardiovascular disease and cancer (particularly lung cancer even among non-smokers, although an association with breast cancer and childhood leukemia is also suspected), chronic asthma, possibly autism (up to a several hundred percent elevated risk associated with mother’s exposure during pregnancy or infant’s during first year of life), and possibly late-in-life decline in cognitive functions. There’s even an obesity connection: new research published in the journal Diabetologia found that “children growing up in areas exposed to high levels of traffic-related air pollutants had higher levels of insulin resistance, one precursor to diabetes.” Even people riding inside cars are exposed to about double the general atmospheric levels due to concentration from heaters and air conditioners.   And cyclists riding in traffic on the busiest roads get up to five times higher doses.

According to the American Lung Association, reducing air pollution has almost immediate, large-scale positive effects, with fewer deaths occurring within the first two years after reductions. “Looking at air quality in 545 counties in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007, researchers found that people had approximately four months added to their life expectancy on average due to cleaner air. Women and people who lived in urban and densely populated counties benefited the most.”

Diesel can be even worse than gasoline. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has (finally!) officially stated that diesel fumes, to which about 12 million U.S. workers are regularly exposed, can cause dizziness and respiratory irritation after even short-term exposure and eventually raises the risk of both cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Massachusetts is purchasing some new and cleaner diesel commuter rail locomotives which will replace half of those currently in service, but many of the dirty old ones remain and electric versions would require more investment than the state is willing to make.

Even more diffuse in its impact, and therefore difficult to study is the impact of noise pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) has documented seven distinct types of negative health effects of noise pollution including hearing impairment, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, annoyance, and sleep disturbance. “In Norway, road traffic has been demonstrated to cause almost 80% of the noise annoyances reported…and passenger cars and lorries (trucks) are responsible for bulk of costs. Traffic noise alone is harming the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region.”

Perhaps the biggest elephant is the effect of car travel on our national obesity rate. The risk of obesity increases 6% with every additional mile spent in the car, and decreases 5% with every kilometer walked, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

INDIVIDUAL VS SOCIETAL

And safety keeps us focused on individual impacts rather than transportation’s longer-term, broader, societal impacts: the impact of our transportation system on long-term job growth, neighborhood livability, environmental sustainability, and interpersonal connections all of which strongly affect our quality of life, societal sustainability, and individual longevity.

Tire micro-shreds, combustion products, and de-icing materials damage streets and vehicles as well as surface and underground water supplies, and vegetation. Leaks from car-fuel-carrying boats, trains, and storage facilities affect coastal areas and aquifers.   Road construction both directly pollutes and creates “impervious surfaces [that] adversely affect water quality due to faster rates of runoff, lower groundwater recharge rates, and increased erosion.”

Covering our land with pavement also makes us more vulnerable to flooding and excessive heat. We’ve “artificially created flood-prone places simply by paving over the region’s natural ability to manage excess water,” points out Harriet Festing.   And “about 80% of the fuel that vehicles burn simply turns to heat,” according to Brian Stone Jr., director of the Urban Climate Lab at Georgia Tech, who adds that the replacement of tree cover with heat-storing asphalt results in cities heating up at double the rate of the overall planet, leading to greater air condition use with its own heat exhaust and energy demands. “In some cities, 20 to 25 percent of the total heat load is from engines,” he says.

Transportation represents 70% of US petroleum consumption, is by far the largest source of direct climate impact by US households and is also among the Massachusetts economic sectors which has shown the greatest inability to make progress with energy and climate mitigation. In Massachusetts, according to a Mass Audubon study the steady spread of housing, roads, and other development has left 22 percent of the Commonwealth’s land covered by asphalt, concrete, or other impermeable materials — up from 14 percent in 1981 — exacerbating the challenges of climate change.

LIVABILITY: The Quality of Life

According to a report in the Journal of the American Planning Association, “Transportation is the second largest expense for households in the United States, costing more than food, clothing, and health care. Low- and moderate-income households spend 42 percent of their total annual income on transportation…[nearly twice as much as] middle-income households…” But the real cost, and the real effect on our well-being, isn’t directly financial; it’s in the quality of our personal and social lives. Slate writer Annie Lowrey is simply articulating the common knowledge: “Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia.”

Nearly 50 years ago, Donald Appleyard found that people living on “lightly trafficked streets had two more neighborhood friends and twice as many acquaintances as those on the heavily trafficked streets….On the heavily trafficked street, respondents indicated that their apartment, or perhaps their building, qualified as ‘home.’ On the light-traffic streets, people often saw the whole block as ‘home’.”

Simply being in a car changes our perception of others. According to one study, participants who were asked to describe the character of others they saw from the perspective of looking through a simulated car windshield described them with more “negative characteristics (threatening, unpleasant)” than participants who were shown exactly the same video set up to feel that they were traveling by bicycle, foot, or transit. Participants in the non-car simulations described the people they saw as “higher on positive characteristics (considerate, well-educated).”

And, as usual, the impact isn’t equally distributed across our society. “Transportation projects should connect communities to opportunity, but too often new roads and rail lines have isolated low-income people and devastated the economic prospects of neighborhoods of color…[We need projects that] create jobs and business opportunities for residents, links low-income neighborhoods of color to employment centers, and strengthens local businesses along the route….[and confronts] the challenges of improving long-struggling neighborhoods without pricing out families and small local businesses….[promoting] economic inclusion for all aspects of the [project], from hiring and contracting to supporting small businesses during construction, to building affordable housing in long-struggling neighborhoods poised to rebound.”

INADEQUATE SOLUTIONS

Most dangerously, a narrow focus on moving-vehicle safety means that we come up with inadequate and unbalanced solutions. Yes, we need better vehicles (despite the auto industry’s endless predictions of economic disaster): safer, less polluting, more energy efficient. Yes, we need more advocacy movements like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, educational campaigns against distracted driving, tougher teenage-driver and elderly license-renewal regulations. But just as importantly, we need to radically change the way we design urban and “suburban town center” streets.

The most powerful impact on street-level reality comes from changes in our land use patterns. One survey showed that “the ten counties highest in ‘smart growth’ — i.e., compact and mixed forms of development — had less than a quarter the per capita traffic fatality rates than the ten with the most scattered and single-use growth patterns….”

If we can’t significantly reduce the need for cars, we can at least slow them down. “Engineers design streets for speeds well above the posted limit, so that speeding drivers will be safe—a practice that, of course, causes the very speeding it hopes to protect against.” Some 61.3 percent of pedestrian fatalities took place on roads with a speed limit of 40 mph or higher; only 9 percent of fatalities that occurred on roads with speed limits of less than 30 mph according to Smart Growth America. Instead of designing streets to be tolerant of speeding, we need to structure them so that it makes going fast difficult, if not impossible, as demanded by the “Twenty Is Plenty” campaigns in the UK, NY, and elsewhere.

Simply narrowing roads through “road diets” that reduce the number of lanes from 4 to 3 (making room for larger sidewalks and bike facilities) and “lane diets” that narrow car lanes from the typical 12 to 15 down to 10 or even 9 can have a similar impact. According to one federal DOT analysis, “the combined estimate from all the best studies predicted that accidents would decline 29 percent, on average, after a four-to-three-lane road diet…” And the additional advantage of pavement reductions is that is frees up space for wider sidewalks and bike facilities.

Wider sidewalks and more bicycling facilities may be the quick and easy route to improved safety, especially for the nine out of ten trips that are not a commuting ride. As one recent publication summarized, “There is growing data showing that cities with very high use of bikes for routine transportation almost always have much lower than average traffic fatality rates…. Interestingly, the decrease in fatality occurred not just for people on bikes, but for all classes of road users — including people in cars and people on foot…” [probably related to lower speeds and greater driver attention.]

Beyond safety, there are other health-related benefits of moving away from car dependence. A Norwegian cost-benefit study on infrastructure investments concludes provisions for walking and cycling to be much more cost effective than traditional car infrastructure, the main positive component being positive health effects from walking and cycling. A study of the cycling city of Odense, Denmark, suggests significant public savings to be a result of local cycle promotion activities. The savings in public paid maintenance allowances for employees being off work for health reasons were found to be bigger than the total investments in campaigns and infrastructure.

Road designers are constantly looking for people taming devices so that cars can be safe to drive fast. What we really need is traffic taming so that people are safe – and our society is healthy.

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Thanks to Wig Zamore whose always knowledgeable comments prompted this topic.

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Related previous blogs:

> TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT SAFETY: Looking Beyond Traffic Lights

> SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

> VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”

> Broken Windows and Broken Streets – Livable Streets as a Strategy to Reduce Crime and Support Local Business

> BICYCLING SAFETY: Preventing Injury Requires Multiple Strategies

> DANGER FROM BELOW: Our Leaky Gas Pipe Infrastructure

 

 

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, Obesity, Public Health, Safety, TRANSPORTATION HEALTH and SAFETY | Leave a comment

ROADS ARE NOT THE DESTINATION: Celebration and Concern on the MassPike (Allston-I-90) Project

As our nation has painfully learned over the past fifty years from the destructive practices of the Interstate’s old scorched-earth invasion, focusing a transportation planning process on the need to satisfy car traffic trends is dangerous. (Full disclosure: I live in a house that was supposed to be ripped down for construction of the stopped-at-the-last-minute Inner Belt highway.) It’s a bit like the stories about the surgeon who announces that the operation was a success although unfortunately the patient died. Other than in romantic road movies, mobility is not a goal in itself. We move in order to accomplish something. Transportation is simply a means to an end.

So we in the Commonwealth can be proud that MassDOT’s 2006 Highway Design Guide was a national leader in its inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle facilities and its insistence on Context Sensitive approaches – designing a road starting “from the outside” of the right-of-way then “working inwards” to the road itself, meaning taking into account both the nature of its surroundings and the space needed for sidewalks and bicycle facilities.   The even more assertive subsequent (and also nationally admired) policies – the Healthy Transportation Compact and Directive, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction goals and GreenDOT program, the Mode Shift and Transportation Oriented Development Initiatives – all build on the strengths of the Design Guide. These policies recognize that while car travel is and will continue to be a vital part of many people’s daily lives and our state’s economic activity, our future prosperity and well-being depends on our ability to re-balance our lopsidedly car-centric transportation system and investments by putting a lot more attention (and money) into transit, bicycling, and walking facilities.

Of course, we’ve all sworn to ourselves to change an old way of doing something, only to fall back into old patterns soon after.   Going from decision to habit – or from policy to implementation, and then to institutionalized default – requires paying attention, not giving up, and a willingness to correct the inevitable missteps. It requires accepting that transportation design must be used as a tool for moving us towards a desired future rather than simply a reflection of current trends. Which is why what’s happening with MassDOT’s Allston-I-90 Realignment Project, a quarter-billion dollar project creating a major Gateway into Boston and Cambridge, is both heartening and worrisome.

MASSPIKE AND ALLSTON

The Allston-I-90 Realignment Project is a massive pump-priming investment that will unleash a huge amount of economic development on Harvard’s Allston properties while escalating the Harvard-expansion-influenced changes in the nature of the surrounding neighborhoods. It has the potential to either facilitate or block future regional transit expansion and to relieve or intensify traffic congestion and dangerous conditions along Cambridge Street. It could increase the area’s amount of and public access to open space and river-front areas. It could re-connect North Allston with Commonwealth Avenue, or not. It will also reduce the curve in the Mass Pike (I-90), fix the MassPike’s deteriorating elevated viaduct over Storrow, and finalize the replacement of the toll booths with electronic pass-throughs – the centrality of that road to commuters has already been shown by the uproar over the delays caused by nearby repairs to the Pike’s Commonwealth Avenue underpass.

It’s not like MassDOT policy doesn’t set a broad enough context.  The state’s GreenDOT policy – which will hopefully survive the next governor’s inevitable need to put his own stamp on the transportation program – is a national model. It not only commits the Commonwealth to find ways to dramatically reduce the energy use and the negative environmental impact of the transportation system but to also make its own operations as energy-efficient and environmentally undamaging as possible. In one presentation, the “purpose of the I-90 Allston Interchange Project” is explicitly stated as being to “further the goals of the Green DOT Policy: to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, promote the healthy transportation options of walking, bicycling, and public transit, and support smart growth development.” That’s as good as it gets; the issue isn’t the high level vision, it’s how those 10,000 foot views evolve as they come down to street level.

The non-road details are where the asphalt meetings daily life. So it’s not surprising that from the perspective of many in the Allston community the road work itself is just about the least important result of the project. Yes, the MassPike is a vital corridor for cars racing through the area; but in addition to the pollution spewing from those cars into the air and water, the on-off ramps have just as vital an impact on the nature of the surrounding areas. Nearby residents, people in adjoining neighborhoods in both Boston and Cambridge, major institutions including Harvard and Boston Universities, and major employers such as New Balance whose massive development is going up nearby – all these, as well as people concerned about public health or our parklands or our area’s ability to handle the ravages of climate change – realize the enormous impact of this project not only on traffic flow but on the area’s quality of life and economic success.

And the local stakeholders, particularly the “People’s Pike” community group that was the driving force behind MassDOT’s creation of a project “Stakeholder Task Force” have worked with (and pushed) MassDOT to make a long list of important improvements to the agency’s original plan. Originally, MassDOT’s Project Team simply wanted to fix the collapsing viaduct, move the Pike, preserve enough of the old CSX rail yard to serve as a maintenance yard and lay-over area for the MBTA, and throw in a couple of arterial (highway-like) off ramps to Cambridge Street.

Because of community input and pressure, the on-off ramps will be less highway-like and slightly narrower than initially proposed. A new rail station (“West Station”) will be built with at least pedestrian and bicycle access from both the Allston and Packards Corner (Boston University) sides; Cambridge Street will have a Complete Streets design; there will be a “People’s Pike” with separate bike and pedestrian paths from around Lincoln Street to the Charles River; there will be a direct route from the Pike exit to Soldiers Field Road which will be moved a bit away from the river where the river path is currently most narrow. While MassDOT has announced few design details for these components, and advocates remain concerned that they will be done well, getting commitments for these changes was an enormous victory as well as a welcome sign of the slow influence of MassDOT’s policies on actual work.

THE ROADS MUST ROLL

However, at the same time, MassDOT’s engineers have repeatedly shown that their starting point is the highway. Their highway proposals are detailed, data-driven, and comprehensive. Everything else is sketched in. While they’re willing to adjust things around the edges, it’s clear that getting automotive traffic flows right is their primary concern; pedestrian and bicycle flows will be figured out after they have determined their preferred auto design. It’s what they’ve been trained to do. It’s what they’ve spent their entire careers doing. It’s their official scope of responsibility, their schedule is tight, and even by itself the road work is going to be expensive. And, after all, this is all happening because of the need to fix the TurnPike’s deteriorating elevated pavement.   But just because you’re a wielding a hammer doesn’t mean that every problem should be treated like a nail.

The People’s Pike community group has been unable to get MassDOT to budge on using this opportunity to do more than token expansion of the Charles River parkland. (Advocates have developed plans showing that Storrow Drive could be easily moved up to 50 feet, creating a new “Allston Esplanade.” And volunteers from the Boston Society of Architects have already conducted a creative charrette exploring possible land-use layouts for the area, but MassDOT has refused to bring these “outsiders” into the official process.) The on-off ramps are to be built on three-story-high berms, creating new barriers across the undeveloped land and making human-scale street-facing future development much more difficult. MassDOT has refused to include any foundations for a deck over the Pike and railroad tracks, needed to truly knit the two sides of the neighborhood back together. Neither are the designers willing to commit to creating the desperately needed 2-track railroad “Grand Junction” bridge over the Charles or include a connection from the People’s Pike and the Charles River bike path to Cambridge. And MassDOT is insisting on widening the Pike’s viaduct in a way that will require a permanent taking of Charles River parkland. Most frustratingly, MassDOT has disbanded the community-based Task Force, implying that it’s listened enough and has no intention to make additional changes – even before there’s been serious discussion about how to mitigate the enormous construction-period disruption.

In the opinion of the “People’s Pike” Community Group none of the requested additions or design improvements would disrupt future traffic flow along or on/off the Pike. And all are needed if the project is “to build a new street network that improves the environment and creates the framework for a new neighborhood with homes, offices, parks, and shops surrounding the new West Station, while also eliminating the toll booths and the decaying turnpike viaduct.” When Boston was creating the Back Bay, the first thing built was the Public Garden – it was the presence of that public facility that set the tone for and unleashed the investment in the rest of the area. The state needs the same kind of vision for the Allston Rail Yards area – start with the things that make it a great place to be, don’t create a transportation system that precludes the area’s open-space value, the investment will follow.

Even though land-use decisions are not officially MassDOT’s responsibility it is likely that agency leaders have their own ideas about how the surrounding land should be best used and equally likely that these quiet assumptions are influencing their road design choices – making these explicit and public would help the Task Force understand the reasons behind MassDOT’s plans as well as provide a chance for the public to discuss (and probably improve) them.

Of course, complicating the situation is Harvard’s unclear plans for the roughly 90 areas of land in the MassPike and Rail Yard area east of Cambridge Street. The University now owns nearly 360 acres in Allston, including about 65 acres of just-starting-to-be-developed land in the “Science Innovation” section between Cambridge Street and Western Avenue. An organization whose planning horizon extends 50 or more years into the future may not have developed specific ideas for this newest addition on the far fringe of their land. But, ironically, the community’s vision of a green area with a rich array of bike/ped paths, an accessible transit station, and low-speed car roads extending all around is totally compatible with almost any kind of future development Harvard may want – from dormitories to office space, from research labs to a spin-off start-up area, while various aspects of the current MassDOT proposal might foreclose certain options. Harvard’s silence – at least its public silence – suggests a lack of attention that will only hurt its own interests in the long run.

STARTING WITH THE END IN MIND

A transportation planning process should start by establishing what is trying to be accomplished – not in terms of the nature of the road or the rail line or the bike path but in terms of the surrounding area, population, and economy. This means general goals such as livability, opportunity, equity, sustainability – as well as the specifics appropriate for the location and set by public policies such as reduction of greenhouse gases and mode shift.   This process starts with broadly participatory public discussions that deal with the needs of both the adjoining and regional populations. The entire public input process would probably benefit from the participation of professionals outside the transportation field – city planners, landscape architects, environmental engineers. It is only with this broader vision in place that that the Highway Engineers will be able to figure out the road (and rail and path) designs that best express and facilitate the desired results.

High quality development – sustainable, livable, attractive, affordable – can only survive on a foundation of high quality transportation. But high quality transportation reaches that level by starting with the understanding that its primary role is to serve the desired future development and the people living and working in existing communities surrounding the project. In terms of the Allston project, while maintaining the continued smooth flow of traffic along the Pike and into/out-from the surrounding areas is very important, equally important is the project’s impact on its neighborhood and its success in laying a foundation for the multi-modal development of the region’s future transportation system.

Despite its good policies and words, MassDOT has not yet operationalized methods that incorporate the understanding that transportation planning needs to start by understanding the type of land use (and community life) that is trying to be achieved, and then work backwards towards the type of transportation facilities needed to enable the desired future.

MassDOT was originally working with a tight schedule in order to be able to submit the required Environmental Notification Form (ENF) before the close of the Patrick Administration. In fact, they turned it in on October 31, so it is not clear that there is any other looming deadline that forces this project to march so quickly towards a conclusion. There is now time to stop and rethink some assumptions about what’s needed and what’s possible. The process may bring state planners back to where they are today; it’s more likely that they’ll end up with something much better.

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Thanks to Harry Mattison and Jessica Robertson for their corrections to previous versions of this piece.

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Related previous blogs:

> ALLSTON-BRIGHTON ON THE MOVE: Boston’s Most Transportation Changing Neighborhood

> MASS PIKE EXITS: Master Key for Unlocking Boston Roads from Esplanade to Allston

> MassDOT’S HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION POLICY DIRECTIVE: Framing Economic Needs as Public Health Measures Strengthens Both

> A NOTE FOR THE NEXT GOVERNOR: Travel is the Least Important Thing about Transportation

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, MassDOT Transformation, Road Design, ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE, STREET LIFE & LAND USE | Leave a comment

TRUCKIN’ ON: Reducing the danger of Trucks and other Large Vehicles

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. Of the pedestrians and cyclists killed by trucks in the US, one-quarter and one-half, respectively, are first hit by the side of the truck, then fall under the rear wheels and are crushed as the vehicle turns. Almost all of those deaths were preventable. There are a variety of reasons for the deadliness of these interactions: individual behavior, the legal and cultural decision-making context created by law and regulation and public campaigns, the design of roads and intersections, and the nature of the vehicles themselves.  Paying attention to these will help prevent accidents. But no matter how careful we are, some accidents will happen and it is inexcusable to not implement the proven, relatively easy and inexpensive way to reduce the severity of the resulting injuries: putting side-guards on trucks and wheel-guards on buses. It’s time to move. SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS
  • Side-guards and Wheel-guards save lives and should be both installed on city-owned vehicles and required on trucks used by vendors for city contracts. Use of sidewalk “loading areas” might also be restricted to trucks with side-guards. Side-impact-with-truck pedestrian deaths decreases by 20% in the UK, and cyclist fatalities dropped 61% after sideguards were required there. Germany had a confirming 40% decrease in cyclist deaths.
  • It is vital that the height of the side guard from the street be small enough to effectively prevent roll-unders by children as well as adults – for example, the side guard should be no higher than the lowest part of the truck and cab body or a maximum of 14 inches, whichever is lower.
  • Municipalities should also explore the accident prevention benefits of installing additional blind-spot mirrors or cameras on its trucks, as well as side-of-truck outside turning blinkers and audible alarms to warm pedestrians and cyclists that a truck is turning.
  • The Public Schools should be urged to work with the municipal Bikes Program to expand access to bicycle skill and safety training in Elementary and Middle schools, as is already happening in Cambridge.
  • The city’s Traffic and Public Works Departments should be required to aggressively implement its Complete Streets and Bicycle Network plans which will improve the safety and functionality of our streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and car occupants.
  • The city should urge the state to strengthen Commercial Driver relicensing requirements.
INDIVIDUAL BEHAVIOR: Calming the Irrational Continue reading
Posted in Advocacy, Safety, TRANSPORTATION HEALTH and SAFETY | 1 Comment

MAKING “COMPETE STREET” OPERATIONAL: MassDOT Actives “Active Streets Certification (and Grant)” Program

City after city has found that making their streets safer and friendly for everyone – more walkable, bikeable, transit accessible and “socializable” – makes them more attractive to current and prospective residents and businesses. Not to mention the positive impact on reducing pollution, promoting public health, and dealing with climate change issues. The basic idea of a Complete Street is pretty straightforward: a travel corridor that has specific infrastructure for all modes including cars, bikes, foot, and (if present) buses, trucks, and trolleys. (Although having a multi-use – bike and walk – path alongside a railroad track is now allowed in Massachusetts, this combination is beyond the scope of most Complete Streets policies.)

However, turning this goal into design is complicated. Often, motor-focused traffic engineers continue to prioritize car capacity while including the minimally allowed “amenities” for everything else. Even well-meaning designers have trouble identifying and balancing possible friction points between pedestrians and cyclists. And few, if any, US Transportation Agencies have picked up on the European insight that the best way to relieve urban car and transit congestion is to decisively prioritize bicycling.

While some Complete Streets action occurs on the initiative of individual road designers, a more typical starting point is the adoption of an agency, municipal, or state-wide Complete Streets policy – a signifying event also endorsed by the National Complete Streets Coalition (now part of the national Smart Growth Alliance).

In Massachusetts, several broad coalitions including the ACT Fresh Coalition organized by the Mass Public Health Association and the Transportation for Massachusetts Coalition (T4Mass), pushed for and won Legislative inclusion of a $50 million Complete Streets Certification And Grant Program (H.4046 Acts of 2014) as part of the state’s recent Transportation Bond Bill. (Full disclosure: LivableStreets Alliance is part of ACT Fresh and I sit on the Coalition’s Steering Committee.) Being part of the Bond Bill means that the Administration has the authority to set up the program, but does not imply any requirement that it do so. Given the huge unfunded backlog of maintenance, repair, and new transportation projects it was not totally surprising that MassDOT initially decided to postpone activating this program.

However, in response to urgings from advocates, and in line with its own increasingly progressive policies, MassDOT has just announced that it will craft rules and procedures for the program, and perhaps even distribute “seed funds” this fall, before we all have to start over with the next Governor. Not only does this begin creating a “carrot” that will entice additional municipalities to move forward on this issue, it also positions the program for a quick ramp up under the next Administration.

Building on the National Complete Streets Coalition suggestions, the advocacy coalitions have also made some key recommendations for what criteria should be required for Complete Streets Certification. The recommendations state that while communities that have begun work on Complete Streets through the creation of Guidelines (e.g. Boston’s Complete Streets Design Guidelines, Cambridge’s Vehicle Trip Reduction and Parking Demand Management ordinances) should be recognized and eligible for some funding, it is important that the Certification Program set official adoption by the Board of Selection/City Council of a resolution or policy, by-law, or ordinance as the goal. The policy should, at a minimum, include the following:

> Acknowledgement that all projects on every road in the jurisdiction – whether state- or city-owned – are potential opportunities to include Complete Streets elements and a commitment that every maintenance, repair, full or partial reconstruction, sewer/water or utility work, or new construction/expansion activity implement the policy – including all Private Developments;

>The creation or identification of a municipal body or municipal staff (e.g., working group, task force, official committee, planning staff, transportation staff, etc.) to advise decision makers on implementation;

> Establishment or confirmation of a Review Process for Private Developments to ensure both that interior roads follow Complete Streets guidelines and that new gaps are not created in the area’s bicycle and pedestrian network;

> Provisions for clear and accountable exceptions to the policy;

> Identification and regular updating of information and training on best practices and resources for implementing Complete Streets;

> Base-line mode-share and accident data (particularly for pedestrians and bicyclists) be collected and, along with Complete Street mileage data, regularly shared with MassDOT – most simply by doing counts at specific locations at certain times twice a year for as long as a municipality is receiving funding, especially before and after Complete Streets improvements are done on a street or intersection.

To ensure that less affluent communities or communities with less planning staff capacity could benefit as much as possible from the program, the Legislation requires that at least a third of the funds be awarded to municipalities with a median household income below that Commonwealth’s average. The Coalition builds on that innovative beginning to propose that 10% of the funds be given to municipalities for Phase I work — capacity building to be used primarily for the non-construction type of work. Once an official policy was adopted, the project-ready municipality would be eligible for design and construction-oriented Phase II funds.

The full text of the Coalition’s letter outlining their recommendations follows…

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Proposed Rules and Regulations for the Complete Streets Certification Program

The Transportation Bond Bill signed into law by Governor Patrick in April 2014 (H.4046 An Act financing improvements to the Commonwealth’s transportation system) includes a $50 million authorization for the Complete Streets Certification Program. The creation of this program was a top legislative priority in the current legislative session for our organizations, and we are very excited about the potential of this program moving forward. This program could benefit cities and towns across the Commonwealth, and be an important step toward achieving goals of increased trips for walking, bicycling, and public transit.

Below are our organizations’ recommendations on the rules and regulations necessary to carry about the program as outlined in the legislation.

Criterion 1: The Complete Streets Policy

The cornerstone of this program is the adoption of a Complete Streets policy. The policy will be the document that guides the municipality as it takes the other certification steps and works to implement Complete Streets. For purposes of certification, a Complete Streets policy could be a resolution or policy adopted by the Board of Selectmen/City Council, a by-law, or an ordinance. Some communities have already taken steps to implement Complete Streets without any specific policy (e.g. Boston’s Complete Streets Design Guidelines, Cambridge’s Vehicle Trip Reduction and Parking Demand Management ordinances). We think it is important to enable municipalities that are already doing this type of work to be eligible for funding, but we also think codifying those efforts in a policy is important as well. We would recommend even cities that have shown progress being made toward implementation should enact some type of official policy.

The policy should, at a minimum, include the following:

> Acknowledgement that all projects are potential opportunities to include Complete Streets elements and a commitment that every project use those opportunities to implement the policy;

> The creation or identification of a municipal body or municipal staff (e.g., working group, task force, official committee, planning staff, transportation staff, etc.) to advise decision makers on implementation;

> Provisions for clear and accountable exceptions to the policy;

> Identification of information on best practices and resources for implementing Complete Streets.

The public hearing required by the legislation does not need to be called specifically and solely for the purposes of adopting this policy. It should, however, follow all applicable open meeting law requirements.

Criterion 2: Coordination with MassDOT

The requirement of the legislation that municipalities work with MassDOT to confirm the accuracy of the baseline inventory for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure came about from meetings of the Built Environment Community of Practice organized by DPH. It was suggested by MassDOT staff in attendance that this would be an opportunity for MassDOT to get a clear, accurate picture of the infrastructure currently in place in a given city or town which might inform its investments on state controlled roads going forward.

This could also be tied to the effort to acquire a statewide asset management system. If that system could capture bicycle and pedestrian facilities, it would be beneficial to municipalities as well as the state.

At a minimum, the municipality and MassDOT should meet once as part of this process. At the meeting, both groups could present the data they have, identify any inaccuracies, and then follow-up subsequently to ensure both groups are using correct data in making their decisions. Additional meetings could be beneficial if possible, but requiring them might be difficult both for MassDOT and municipal staffing budgets.

Criterion 3: Establishing or Confirming a Review Process for Private Developments

The goal of this requirement is to ensure that new gaps are not created in the bicycle and pedestrian network when larger private developments are constructed. The goal is not to require homeowners to pay for the cost of these improvements, but rather the developers of the projects or sub-divisions would incorporate Complete Streets infrastructure into their projects.

Most communities have some type of review in place for private development projects such as these (e.g., site plan review and subdivision regulations). For these communities, a review of existing regulations/processes will be required and recommendations for addressing gaps will be made within two (2) years of certification. For communities without this type of process, this program could potentially be used as a catalyst to develop a process, both for Complete Streets and other infrastructure requirements.

Criterion 4: Procedures for Projects on Municipal Rights-of-Way

This is a critical requirement for the continued success of the Complete Streets Certification Program. Complete Streets should be considered not only as part of large roadway reconstruction projects, but also whenever municipal DPW’s are doing regular maintenance work. Additionally, traffic rules and orders issued by the chief elected officials should align with the implementation of Complete Streets to avoid policies being at cross purposes.

The procedures a municipality identifies or establishes under this requirement should ensure that any time work of any type is done on any road, the inclusion of Complete Streets infrastructure is considered, even if it is ultimately not included due to the previously mentioned exceptions of the policy. Planning documents should be consulted whenever any type of work is to be done on a municipal road, whether those documents are bicycle and pedestrian plans or more general plans. If appropriate plans do not exist, municipal staff should work with residents to identify areas where improvements are needed.

These opportunities include, but are not limited to:

> Full roadway reconstruction

> New roadway construction

> Resurfacing

> Restriping

> Sewer and utility work

Criterion 5: Setting a Municipal Mode-Shift Goal

As an additional method of keeping the municipality focused on implementing Complete Streets, the requirement to set a municipal level goal for mode shift was included in the program. However, given the complexities of measuring mode shift, it was never expected that a certified municipality would be able to accurately measure each and every trip taken by its residents.

The most efficient method of measuring this for an individual city or town would likely be to identify a small number of important intersections or destinations to do counts before and after new complete Streets infrastructure has been added. Additionally, this goal could be tied to work being done in the community around Safe Routes to School.

It is important that it include some measurable statistics and parameters. Doing counts at specific locations at certain times twice a year for as long as a municipality is receiving funding should provide data that shows the effects of the Complete Streets infrastructure.

Funding Structure

While the general structure of the Complete Streets Certification Program was modeled after the Green Communities Program, it might be best to consider a slightly different method for distributing the grants. Given the wide range of work already being done, some municipalities may be able to show how they meet criteria already whereas others may need to take more time to move in that direction.

For Green Communities, a municipality needs to meet all of the criteria before it receives funding. Given the nature of the work that certification would require for Complete Streets – review of existing processes, traffic counts, working with MassDOT – splitting the funding into two categories could potentially work. The first phase, or capacity building phase, would be a smaller amount to be used primarily for the non-construction type of work.

The second phase, or implementation phase, would be focused more on projects and infrastructure. However, it would be important that at least one of the criteria, specifically the passing of a policy, be completed before any funding is made available. Phase 2 funding should be made available only to those communities that have met all of the other criteria and are project ready.

If a municipality were able to show it has met the criteria related to the capacity building phase already, it would move directly to the implementation phase.

The only stipulation included in the legislation regarding funding is a requirement that not less than 33% of the available grant funding be awarded to municipalities with a median household income below that Commonwealth’s average. This important provision was added by the legislature to ensure that less affluent communities or communities with less planning staff capacity could benefit as much as possible from the program. While this requirement calls for a minimum of 33% to be awarded to these municipalities, that should not be seen as the upper limit for funding to be directed to such municipalities.

Beyond that requirement, we would recommend that 10% of the available funding be awarded for “Phase 1” grants as described above, and the remaining 90% be awarded for “Phase 2” grants. An appropriate starting point for the formula to disburse grants to approved applicants would be the Ch.90 program, but funding decisions should also take into account a municipality’s commitment to spend its own local dollars, including any funds received from the state, on these efforts as well.

We have been working as a coalition to implement this program, and we would be happy to continue working with MassDOT to refine these regulations. Many of the groups in this coalition have seats on the advisory committee created by the legislation, so appointing members to that committee quickly would give structure to our efforts going forward. We believe that with these recommendations, this program will be a successful step toward cities and towns across the Commonwealth implementing Complete Streets.

Municipalities of every shape and size are eager to work on Complete Streets because they know it makes them more attractive to their current and prospective residents. We believe that the Complete Streets Certification Program could expand this work to even more cities and towns, and serve as a way to leverage local investment in the types of projects that will advance MassDOT’s policy goals such as Mode Shift and Green House Gas Emissions Targets.

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Previous related postings include:

> COMPLETE STREETS AS AN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY: The Green Beyond The Paint

> COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

> EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough

> SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

> CAMERAS, TERRORISM, AND TRUST: Fears and Memories Across the Generational Divide

> CIRCLING THE BLOCK: Saving Money, Time, and Aggravation Through Parking Reform

> ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION CREATES HEALTHY COMMUNITIES: How To Use Your Roads To Lower Your Doctor (and Insurance) Bills

 

Posted in Commentary & Analysis | Leave a comment

STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets

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.

THE LIGHTENING ROD EFFECT

It’s not that the streetscape improvements, transit access, bike paths, green space, or public buildings are the real cause of the upscaling. Larger demographic, economic, and historic pressures have built up around certain cities like a gigantic thunderstorm roiling with electric charge. The power surge doesn’t flow everywhere – its starts downtown, along the waterfront or on hilltops, in areas with desirable houses or open space, and where it’s possible to easily get to downtown workplaces without using a car, while at the same time easy to use a car to get out of town. Other places, lacking these amenities or having some negative characteristic (too much crime, too many poor people, too Black) are skipped – nationwide, a recent study found that for every “neighborhood that’s gentrified since 1970, 10 have remained poor and another 12 have slipped into poverty….racial composition did in fact have a significant effect.” In those that did gentrify, what moved a run-down neighborhood on to the hit list, or even transformed an undesirable location into something that upper-income people found attractive, was often new public investment. Sometimes small, sometimes major, these local improvements simply provide a lightning rod for the surrounding energy, focusing attention on a particular place and unleashing the creative destruction of profit-seeking.

The recent move of the better-off back into the city may seem like the impersonal and diffuse working out of personal choices and market dynamics. But markets and choices are shaped by policies. The rightward tilt of politics in recent years, both in the US and internationally, has created escalating inequality giving the upper 20% of our own population and the top 1% of many less stable nations enormous unneeded wealth, which they’re using to buy property – driving up prices in their preferred neighborhoods, pushing the next income layer of renters and buyers into other neighborhoods, and ratcheting up price inflation across the entire housing market.

However, the impact of all this can – must, and can only – be also addressed through public policies and programs. In fact, unless public officials begin implementing ways to create more sustainable conditions for middle-income and lower-income residents, our cities are likely to get strangled by their economic “success” – just as the success of Kendall Square has made it too expensive for new start-ups to locate there. True: given our messed up tax system it is new development and rising property values that provides the funds for physical improvements and urban services.   But it’s also true that a city’s vitality depends not only on its attractiveness to young professionals and rich investors but also, to an extent we seldom acknowledge, on its cultural (meaning ethnic and racial and place-of-birth) diversity and the presence of the rest of the workforce (meaning middle-income and poor families).

MORE IS NOT ENOUGH

Simply building more will not eliminate the pressure on middle and low-income families. In theory, a gargantuan increase in the amount of new housing would create a more fluid and affordable market. Reform of our damagingly old and dysfunctional zoning laws (unfortunately killed in the most recent Legislatative session by real estate lobbyists) and more intelligent mortgage criteria would certainly help. But it would take nearly 30,000 new units over the next six years to merely keep up with current demand, and many more than that to bend the cost curve down – and only 3,200 are on track for completion in the coming year, almost all of which are downtown luxury condos. We simply can’t build our way out of this crisis. In San Francisco, advocates are promoting a ballot initiative requiring at least 30% of new housing to be reserved for middle- and low-income families. Developers say this ignores the financial reality of new construction. Advocates disagree, saying that the limited amount of developable land makes it impossible to satisfy the high-end market, meaning there will never be significant spillover to middle-income or low-income segments.

Given the growing inequality of our society as a whole, if left to itself the real estate market will continue its current tilt towards the highest end of the luxury market, with negative spill-over effects on everyone else. The solution, therefore, is to change the market by changing the context in which it operates, to intervene in the market to change the profits to be made (or not made) for certain types of development, and to reduce or eliminate market pressure on some percentage of our city’s housing.

THERE ARE WAYS

Success requires using the full range of strategies. The city has to help create more housing in ways that protect its long-term affordability – lowering construction costs by using tax-foreclosed and city-owned land, using limited-equity ownership contracts, subsidizing mortgages in ways that translate into partial public ownership, mortgage pools for low-income borrowers, etc. This also requires an expansion of home-ownership training programs and mutual-support groups to strengthen families and communities. For those unable to afford to purchase, we need family-appropriate (e.g. multi-bedroom) scattered site public housing programs that are well designed and well run as well as more rent subsidy programs – some of which can be negotiated with developers seeking development rights or who have been found in violation of building codes (the offer is to avoid criminal prosecution by fixing up a unit and renting it at below-market levels).

Boston is starting to move in the right direction: there are plans to turn nearly 200 vacant lots along the new Fairmont Line into one- to three-family homes with about 400 units, although it’s not clear that the properties’ financing and ownership will be structured in ways that preserve their long-term affordability or just released into the market. In addition, the city has foreclosure-ownership of two huge lots, the old Cote Ford car dealership site in Mattapan and the three-acre former Maxwell box warehouse in Dorchester. Both provide huge opportunity for both local economic development and housing.

And for those who do want to move out of their old neighborhoods, we need much more aggressive state-wide enforcement of anti-discrimination laws as well as more effective “anti-snob zoning” program in the suburbs.

Those of us who favor expanding opportunities for people to walk and bike, want to increase access to green space in every neighborhood, care about the quality of streets, and believe new construction can help create local jobs – we need to expand our focus and demand that public investment walk on two legs: one leg for upgraded facilities and environment, one leg for population stability and support.

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DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGE – THE DRIP AND THE FLOOD

Americans are always moving, so some turnover is normal. Over time, the cumulative effect of individual decisions – heavily influenced by differing (and unequal) opportunities available to differing racial/class groups as well as the desire to be around people similar to oneself – flow into larger patterns. Neighborhood change is not such a bad thing when it happens slowly, with potential movers able to freely make informed choices, communities able to stay or rebuild connections, and no one losing their financial shirt or personal dignity.

Gentrification – the arrival of people with (or from families with) more disposable income – is not, by itself, a bad thing for inner city areas, or any community. (Adding quality-of-life amenities to keep middle-income and professional families from leaving is a key strategy for struggling Gateway Cities such as Lawrence.) The newcomers attract more businesses; bring new cultural energy; are able to demand more attention from public officials; have skills and resources that can help a neighborhood organize itself to deal with local problems. Obviously, it’s not that low-income or non-white communities can’t do some of this for themselves – the Dudley Square Neighborhood Initiative is just one of many successful Boston examples. But the presence of newcomers can be a positive addition to the mix, despite the tensions inherent in the new class and race combinations.

However, there is a point, a tipping point, when gentrification become displacement, when property costs and rents go above levels affordable by the majority of existing residents, when stores and churches that cater to their needs begin to close.   And sometimes, as has happened all too frequently in Boston history, this type of population shift can be the result of a deliberate, brutal, attack. When I first arrived in Boston the big issue was the massive destruction of affordable homes across the Roxbury and South End routes of the planned Inner Belt Highway, intended to let suburban professionals get into or through the city more easily. (The fight against the Inner-Belt is one of the great democratic insurgency success stories of this region and the nation.). Urban Renewal’s destruction of the ethnically mixed working class West End had already happened. Still unfolding was the racial blockbusting along Blue Hill Avenue, a vicious process that wiped out the city’s Jewish community, that was set off when the city’s major banks responded to the demand to stop discriminating against non-white mortgage seekers by bankrolling the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG) scheme.

MARKETS ARE MADE, NOT BORN

In the post-WWII era, urban transformation was deliberate policy by both corporations and governments through highway construction, continuing racial discrimination in mortgage and GI bill benefits, and the resulting sprawl. Today’s population-shifting pressures are more subtle, but no less powerful. Although it isn’t hard to point out the complimentary government and business actions that have shaped the larger contextual dynamic, it doesn’t feel like anyone is directly forcing empty-nest baby boomers to move back to the city or directly forcing Millennials to stop buying cars and preferring to work for urban firms located near a subway stop. And, so long as it’s legal, no one can blame businesses for trying to make money from this situation.

Markets have become a fetishized idea of late, as if all good things flow from them. But, as with highways, we’ve learned that letting markets expand too much tips the balance towards negative rather than positive impacts. Markets are a human creation whose operations and effects are formed by the rules of the surrounding society. After the Great Depression and the horrors of WWII, Americans wanted a better, more hopeful life.   There were a lot of ways these deep desires could have been (and were) realized, but the primary strategy offered by the combined efforts of the automobile, real estate, construction, and consumer product industries – expressed through a long list of federal government policies they pushed into place – was suburbanization. White people (African-Americans were mostly excluded or channeled into separate and inferior situations) moved out of their crowded, inner-city neighborhoods full of old buildings, extended families, and noisy street life and drove out the expanding highways to new single-family homes with green lawns on cheap land with new schools and social status.

Behind the escaping movers, city finances collapsed as businesses followed their owners, executives, and workers into the suburbs, culminating with New York City’s near bankruptcy in 1975. More recently, the Internet was supposed to be the final straw, allowing people to do anything from anywhere and destroying the last remnant of urban advantage, easy communication and innovation-sparking cross-specialty interchange. Not surprisingly, for most of the post-WWII period the headlines were about the death of cities,

If large segments of the public hadn’t enthusiastically bought into this version of the American Dream it wouldn’t have happened. But making it the primary choice available out of the spectrum of options was a top-down process rather than a bottom-up demand. European countries, for example, mostly rebuilt their even more bombed-out buildings rather than move people out of them.

But moving to the suburbs is so twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, urban resurgence is the big story. The re-urbanization of America, the much headlined move back into the cities by empty-nest baby-boomers and Millenials, is more of a bottom-up phenomena. Although federal policies have become less anti-urban in recent years there has been little pro-urban tilt. And while businesses tied to those populations have been rushing to grab space downtown, further raising the pressure on inner-city land prices, this started as a catch-up effort rather than a proactive strategy.   American re-urbanization is partly a reflection of global tendencies – people have been crowding into cities in growing numbers almost everywhere. It’s partly a reflection of the economic depths to which cities had fallen, along with their land and rent costs, and how dysfunctionally far out from their work places new home seekers were finding it necessary to go before they could afford to buy.

GAIN AND PAIN

Still, the rebirth of cities owes a lot to the efforts of urban leaders and taxpayers.   The majority of the growing market price of downtown property is shaped by what’s around it — the surrounding infrastructure, the quality of the environment, the amount and type of business activity, safety, and a dozen other attributes determined by public action, taxpayer investment. By skimming off the luxury opportunities, private investors are reaping what the taxpayer has directly or indirectly sown. And the public has every right to recapture some of that value for the benefit of those caught in the grinding gears of that change.

If we want to have both urban upgrading and demographic stability – or at least keep the pressure for population changes within acceptable levels – we need to directly and explicitly address the land use market. Not only that, we have to deliberately and effectively limit market dynamics to some extent, softening its impact on some properties, entirely removing other parcels and buildings from the market.

Markets will not disappear. But they must be shaped. The only way to combine city-wide (perhaps regional) economic growth and population fairness requires us to mediate the impact of our market success.

As befitting his history as a Building Trades official, Boston Mayor Walsh is emphatically pro-development, with a particular emphasis on downtown growth, along with the traditional accompanying focus on traffic and parking. But he also has a deep commitment to spreading the action around. However, we’ve learned that while a rising tide lifts all boats, it does so disproportionate, with those who have getting the most of the more. We’ve learned that growth by itself will simply trigger more displacement. The big question is whether the new Administration is committed to using every available tool, and pushing to create new ones, to harness investor’s energy for social equity and neighborhood stability in lower-income areas – perhaps framing it, echoing the Catholic Church, as “a preferential option for the poor.”

There is a certain strain of both urban and suburban life that is purely anti-growth. But at best that’s a nostalgic impossibility – more often, it’s a gloss for racism and exclusionary snobbery. Change is the only permanence; it is what keeps a city healthy and flexible. In any case we’ve got little choice: we’re in the middle of a land boom which may slow down but, given that new land is hard to create, is not likely to go away anytime soon – at least not until climate change floods or another generational culture shift once again send people fleeing. The only question is if we allow the booming market to shape us into the increasingly unequal and segregated patterns it inherently creates , or if we shape the market to preserve those qualities of life that we want to preserve.

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Thanks to Jim Campen for comments on previous drafts. Any remaining errors or lapses of good judgment are my own responsibility.

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Related previous posts:

>IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

>GETTING MORE EGGS FROM THE GOLDEN GOOSE: “Nobody in this Country got Rich on their Own.”

> THE NEXT MAYOR’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating Prosperity by Lifting the Basement Instead of Raising the Roof

 

Posted in Advocacy, Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, Government Reform | Leave a comment

Project Selection Criteria: Public Hearing Testimony

The following was submitted to the state Project Selection Advisory Council at their 7/29/14 public hearing in Boston.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this incredibly important topic. And thank you for all the work that you have already done on this incredibly complicated issue. My name is Steven E. Miller; I’m a senior staff at the Harvard School of Public Health and a member of the state’s Healthy Transportation Compact Advisory Committee. I’m also a founding Board member of LivableStreets Alliance which, as I’m sure you know, is a member of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition.   My testimony reflects all those identities.

My testimony will address three issues. First, the framing within which we need to address the entire topic of Project Selection Criteria. Second, the specific issue of Regional Equity, which I know has been a vexing theme in your deliberations, along with a quick comment about what projects should be subject to the evaluation process you are beginning to shape. And finally, some thoughts about how to make the criteria categories you are currently using more effective and powerful.

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Posted in Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, Government Reform, MassDOT Transformation, Road Design | Leave a comment

FROM BETTER TO WORSE ON COMMONWEALTH AVE: City Leaders Need To Step Up For Their Own Policies

For a while it was feeling like stodgy Boston was jumping back into the elite group of city’s whose actions around transportation (and its joined-at-the-hip land-use twin) set the pace for the rest of the country. Our environmentally-based Smart Growth policies were state-of-the-art, which became even more valuable as climate-change storms and rising sea levels revealed our coastal vulnerability. After years of letting the state take the lead around transit and roads, Boston leaped ahead on mobility. City Hall, working with advocates, used the political opening created by the Hub On Wheels festival to set up the Boston Bike Program with its rapid rollout of bike lanes, its Roll-It-Forward outreach to low-income families, a visionary Bike Network Plan, and the wonderful Hubway system that is increasingly understood as the “last mile” of our transit system as well as a relief valve for both over-capacity trolleys and car-congested roads. And all this culminated in the cutting-edge Complete Streets Guide that integrated Green, Smart, and Multimodal by both dealing with the safety needs of cars, buses, walkers, and cyclists as well as treating streets as a powerful leverage for improved neighborhood cohesion, safety, and economic development.

It was inspiring; exciting; promising of things to come. It made Boston a national leader and a better place to live.

Which is why it is confusing and frustrating to find that Boston’s transportation agencies are proposing such a backward — and unsafe — set of proposals for Commonwealth Avenue in clear violation of its own policies. Two years ago, before many of the new policies were put in place, the city unveiled their ideas at a 25% design stage meeting. Those proposals were heavily criticized as inadequate or even dangerous by most attendees. After two years of silence, the city has suddenly reissued substantially the same thing and called it a 75% design. They say it’s safer, but the facts say otherwise. It’s upsetting to think that the transportation leadership doesn’t believe in the city’s own vision or follow their own guidelines.

The Walsh Administration needs to focus some attention on the currently overlooked transportation departments. This is a signature project that has to be done right. If it does not fully embody the city’s own exemplary policies we can unfortunately look forward to nasty and protracted project-by-project fights for years to come.

COMMONWEALTH MEANS GOOD FOR ALL

Commonwealth Avenue is one of our region’s showcase gems. Designed in part by our own genius, Frederick Law Olmsted, it is a broad, landscaped boulevard that is supposed to welcome everyone no matter their method of movement. But we all know that it’s become something of a mess. The road surface has acne. The Green Line barely moves. Cars pile up. Walkers, including multitudes of BU students, are unable to cross the street. And cyclists are getting injured – as the Boston Cyclists Union documents, in the BU area alone there were 68 reported crashes between 2010-12 including one fatality.   The people most exposed to danger are the thousands who enter and exit the Green Line twice (or more) a day, dodging across moving traffic and jumping barriers to catch the trolley.

From the Public Garden to Newton, nearly every segment of the road is unique, with different problems and different “owners” at the state and city levels. So it’s not surprising that plans to improve things have been divided into at least seven separate short-term and long-term projects.

Some things have already happened and, although still needing refinement, provide significant improvements: the innovative center-media bike lanes from the Public Garden to Charlesgate/Fens, the bike lanes from Kenmore to Packard’s Corner (where Brighton Ave cuts off) which were LivableStreets Alliance first infrastructure victory after its founding seven years ago. Some changes were well-meaning but have proven inconsequential: the quick fixes Boston installed from the BU Bridge to Packard’s Corner after 23-year-old cyclist Christopher Weigl was killed by a delivery truck making an illegal turn on to St. Paul Street don’t seem to have made as much difference as was hoped.

PHASE 2a

The city is now focusing on “Phase 2a” — a major upgrade to the section from Amory to Alcorn Streets (near the BU Bridge to nearly Packard’s Corner — a non-Olmstedian segment that was once labeled as an extension of Brighton Ave). Usage patterns have dramatically changed in recent years. Like the rest of the MBTA system and transit systems around the nation, usage of the Green Line, already the most heavily-used light rail line in the country, has significantly increased in recent years. Bicycling is up nearly 135% since 2007; pedestrian volumes have increased 80% since 2001; and (consistent with both regional and national trends) car volumes have decreased as much as 31% since 1987 despite increased key intersection tie-ups, according to the BU Master Plan ((sections 8.5.1-8.5.6).

But instead of dealing with this new reality, Boston’s transportation agencies are rushing through a throw-back proposal, with little public input, that:

> narrows sidewalks and leaves out needed intersection improvements (crosswalks, wider ramps, curb extensions),

>makes it harder for people to walk from one side of the street (mid-block crossings) to the other for shopping or getting on/off trolleys (getting rid of obstructive fences rather than adding more),

>doesn’t make the agreements with the MBTA need to improve trolley times (better station structures, better spaced stops, work T for both-door entry, traffic light priority) or bus service (curb extensions, traffic light priority),

>doesn’t separate bikes from cars (cycle tracks, bike boxes, bike signals),

>doesn’t improve car safety (narrowing outer lane to MassDOT approved 10.5’ width with Green Wave coordination of traffic lights to ensure steady flow at 15 mph), and will require the unnecessary destruction of numerous old trees.

And all this is being done to allow for wider car lanes, more turning lanes, and other car-focused favoritism that will not actually do anything but speed cars that are rushing to the next red light.

This plan, released by the Boston Transportation Department, not only ignores the city’s own Bike Plan and Complete Streets policies, not only flies in the face of today’s best practices, but simply won’t create a street that people can safely and comfortably use. According to one of the wise sayings the Internet now attributes to Einstein, doing the same thing over and over while expecting different outcomes is a form of insanity. Cars are an important part of our city transportation mix. But simply letting cars go faster for short distances will not solve anything. Car needs have to be dealt with, of course, but also put into better balance with transit, walking, and cycling, especially in a student dominated area.

DOING IT RIGHT – WHO’S IN CHARGE?

Boston University, legitimately concerned about its students safety, is also worried that restarting the design process will make the project miss the FY2015 funding deadline. But the level of community and advocacy anger at this retrograde plan ensures a bruising fight if key improvements are not made — doing it right will be much faster, and better. It would behoove the University leadership, even though their own traffic consultant, Tetra Tech, has primarily a traditional and conservative car-focused highway and bridge focus, to quickly embrace the rather self-explanatory and relatively low-cost improvements advocates have suggested.

The BTD and DPW are currently waiting for the Walsh Administration to appoint a new Cabinet level Director above the departmental Commissioners. But there has been no noise leaking out about any effort to attract anyone – much less the type of creative, high-level, and progressive national figure needed to take control of this backsliding ship. Something will be happening on Commonwealth Ave in the next couple of years. However, what is being now proposed is not what Boston needs. Without clear orders from above to do the right thing, we are heading for a long and bruising fight. We can — and must — do better.

A BETTER APPROACH

Boston has reached the stage, at least at the policy level, that a better approach is pretty obvious. In fact, a broad coalition of advocacy groups – LivableStreets Alliance, Boston Cyclists Union, WalkBoston, MassBike, with support from BU Bikes, AB Bikes, and others – have sent Acting BTD Commissioner Jim Gillooly a letter repeating back the obvious.

The Boston Cyclists Union, working with other advocate groups, is developing realistic conceptual designs for placing cycle tracks (protected bike lanes) along the road. LivableStreets Alliance has suggested to both the MBTA and the city that if they worked together significant trolley and bus travel time improvements could be made while facilitating passenger access and saving a lot of the old trees along the route. The national Transportation Research Board has published a paper by Northeastern University professor Peter Furth describing an advanced method for bus stop spacing and another for implementing transit priority at traffic lights.   Informal advocacy charettes have developed extensive mark-ups of the city’s engineering plan drawings, and suggested improvements.

The city had a public hearing at the 25% design stage and got a lot of negative feedback. Without incorporating very much of the suggested improvements – particularly those meant to improve conditions for bus, trolley, sidewalk, and bicycle users – it appears that the city is now trying to push the planning process through to completion with relatively little public input.   This will not only lead to an inevitable and endless series of public controversies, but by not incorporating good advice from “outsiders” the city will end up with a severely deficient street layout.

PHASE 2b & 3

Unfortunately, the problems with Commonwealth Ave go beyond Phase 2a. The rest of what’s being planned is also problematic.   Phase 2b covers the BU Bridge-CommAve-MassPike intersection and overpass (from Carlton to Amory Streets). It is, itself, divided into two stages – fixing the underside of the MassPike overpass (which should happen next year) and then redoing the surface (probably in FY16 or 17). And it will be impacted by what is done through the I-90 toll-area project in the next few years which may (hopefully) involve some movement of both the Pike and Storrow Drive as they approach the BU Bridge area.   Phase 3, with the Boston Department of Public Works as the lead agency, includes Commonwealth Ave from Packard’s Corner, where the main road is joined by two adjacent service roads, past the Herb Chambers area (he pays the city for on-street use for his business), up to foot-of-the-hill Warren Street.

In the Phase 3 project area, Commonwealth Ave has 6 travel lanes plus 2 parking lanes. According to MassDOT’s traffic counts, traffic volumes are lower here than on the two travel-lane-wide nearby Harvard Avenue. That leaves a lot of extra space to play with. Rather than follow what appears to be the city’s current approach – putting a cycle track on the south-side median (next to the inbound service lanes) requiring undesirable tree removal and jeopardizing the desirable diagonal parking near Harvard Ave) – advocates are suggesting exploration of moving the MBTA tracks to the center of the street, having one lane of moving traffic in each direction expanding into an additional turning lane at intersections, using some of the side lane space on the (current) inbound side for a bike route shared with local-access-for-parking-only car access, using space around Griggs Street for a “pocket T track” to service flexibility, and using some of the northern service road for expanded park space with benches and facilities.   There is plenty of time for some imaginative planning in this area.

The Phase 2 project area is the most complicated, if only because it involves MassDOT (which “owns” the overpass), DCR (which “owns” the river banks and Storrow), and Brookline (which owns part of Mountfort) as well as Boston and indirectly Cambridge – with implications for the Longwood Medical Area and BU as well. Getting bike lanes on to the BU Bridge was a major LivableStreets Alliance victory a couple years ago, won with the support of key MassDOT and Boston officials.   MassDOT is already starting to fix the crumbling underlying structure, although they are hopefully not locking themselves into any structural commitments that will foreclose some of the good ideas surfacing out of the I-90 Toll area redesign project.

Across the project area, there is a desperate need to widen the teeming sidewalks, provide more space at the bus stops, improve pedestrian and bicycle intersection safety, and clear up the crazy zig-zag car flow that makes the area into a dangerous “merge of death” from Carlton Street across Commonwealth Ave blocking everything going in every direction during every light cycle.

The obvious slice through the Gordian knot is to “punch through” the Mountfort-Carlton traffic island allowing cars to go straight from Park Drive on to the BU Bridge and creating a single point intersection. This still leaves major issues about the Park Drive to Storrow and Park Drive to Commonwealth westbound. But it is a bold and effective starting point.

Unfortunately, based on MassDOT’s Environmental Review submission, they don’t intend to pursue the punch-through, which forces them to keep a two-right-turn lane layout from Commonwealth on to the BU Bridge. On the other side, MassDOT proposes to have two right-turning lanes into Essex, also unneeded based on traffic volumes and flow patterns. Much worse — rather than shorten pedestrian crossing distances, their plan will lengthen the distance and time required to go over both the BU Bridge and Commonwealth – and their VHB Consultants don’t seem to notice that there is no median safety area in the middle of Commonwealth so their assumption that people can do a two-stage (and even more time consuming) crossing is simply ridiculous. Instead of three through lanes, which immediately narrow back to two going in both directions on Commonwealth, it would be better to create a separated bicycle lane.

MOVING FORWARD

The BU Bridge/Commonwealth Avenue intersection is key part of the regional transportation system. The best solutions will inevitably come from open-ended discussions and creating brainstorming among a broad spectrum of stakeholders.   Cars are an important part of the mix, today and for the foreseeable future. But when it comes to safety, car speed – and even car volumes – is not the most important goal. We need – building on the words of Boston’s own Complete Streets policy – be smart, green, multimodal, and willing to push the boundaries so that we, Boston and the region, remain the national leader we are capable of being.

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Thanks to Jamie Maier, Jackie Douglas, and Matt Danish for comments on previous versions. All remaining mistakes, omissions, and opinions are entirely my own.

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Related previous postings:

> MAKING COMM. AVE. SAFER: City Proposals Are A Good Start; Turnpike Overpass Is Next Issue

> A BICYCLE BOULEVARD ON COMMONWEALTH AVENUE?

> ENOUGH KILLING: How to Make Bike-Car Collisions Less Deadly

> COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

>TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT SAFETY: Looking Beyond Traffic Lights

> VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”

 

 

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, Road Design, ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE, Safety, transit, Walking | Leave a comment

MOVING BEYOND CAR LEVEL OF SERVICE (LOS): Measurable and Meaningful Criteria for Transportation Investments, Project Designs, and Development Mitigation (revised)

Scaled from A to F like an elementary school report card, automobile Level of Service (LOS) metrics are easy to measure and easy to understand. LOS is, essentially, the average amount of delay compared to a “free-flowing” road where everyone is moving at full design-speed – congestion! It is a powerful indicator: it has a direct relationship to the quality of the user experience (the amount of congestion and “lost time”), the environmental impact (longer passage time equals more emissions), and the road infrastructure’s adequacy (the relationship of traffic volume to road capacity) – with the car-industry-pleasing implication that the key to improving LOS is increasing capacity.

For the past half century, when the auto industry was driving national economic growth, improving car LOS was seen not only as a transportation priority but as the key to local prosperity and the “good life” for upwardly mobile citizens. Raising LOS was a required goal of nearly every transportation investment and project design. Not surprisingly, millions of dollars of federal Interstate Highway research has been poured into figuring out how various road features raise or lower LOS – most of which boil down to getting rid of anything that might prevent cars from continuously going full speed such as sharp turns, adjacent distractions, crosswalks, bike lanes, and buses.

But at some point this strategy imploded as the “if you build it they will come” dynamic repeatedly filled every new road, undermining both commerce and personal life.

Today, most of us have a more nuanced view of car traffic and a broader understanding of what improves our quality of life. Moving as many cars as fast as possible is no longer the highest priority for most of us. We’ve learned that car traffic can also negatively affect a broad range of policy issues, from environmental and climate protection to community integration and neighborhood equity, from public health and safety to land use and conservation, from business growth to job distribution, and more.

But what can replace LOS? We don’t need something perfect, just something better than what we’ve got. The need to go beyond LOS when deciding between possible investments and for evaluating transportation system designs has become part of the national transportation policy discussion. Many groups have begun working on these questions: people within the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), Association of Pedestrian and Bicycling Professionals (APBP), the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the American Public Health Association’s Transportation Group (APHA), the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and others. Congress wrote in a requirement for “performance evaluation” into the most recent federal Transportation Funding Act, MAP-21. However, the regulations emerging from the Federal Highway Administration seem to focus on traditional traffic safety issues rather than picking up the policy themes of mode-change announced by the past two Transportation Secretaries.

This broadening of the decision-making and evaluative horizon makes life complicated for Transportation Planners. A senior MassDOT Engineer recently complained that the members of the Advisory Task Force for the I-90 Allston Interchange project were asking him to incorporate too many factors, saying that “we are not in the business of community development; we build roads.” But roads are a key part of community development – his comment, while technically correct, is indicative of the degree to which we’ve not yet found effective ways to seamlessly connect our policies, our transportation investment decision-making, our road design criteria, and our transportation system evaluations.

MEASURABLE INVESTMENT CRITERIA

A transportation project’s impact on the achievement of policy goals depends on what is built, where it is located, how it is designed, and how far beyond the “travel surface” its scope extends – with the construction process itself having some impact as well. The combination of the broad range of policies impacted by transportation and the desire for multiple measurements for each component creates a huge number of potential investment-ranking criteria. To what extent will a possible project increase the percentage of roads (in a particular area, or state-wide, or that carry more than a specified amount of daily traffic, or…) whose pavement is in satisfactory condition? To what extent will a possible project reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions? Or provide improved access to jobs and services for currently underserved populations? Florida’s Expanded Transportation Performance Measures to Supplement Level of Service (LOS) for Growth Management and Transportation Impact Analysis has over 200 performance measurements.

Some of the criteria are simply gates – yes or no check offs. Others are qualitative (and sometimes subjective) ranges – a lot, a little, not at all as perceived by the evaluator(s). Best of all are those with clear quantitative, numerical measurements. And once the criteria are listed and scored, they then need to be prioritized, or weighted, and combined into an overall rank level – either ending up with a civil-service-type strict ladder of scores or with a series of “buckets” that group projects into “highly rated” or “moderately rated” with final, more political, decision-making taking over at that point.

But it is vital to list and “weight” the many possible decision-making criteria and test them to make sure they are meaningfully related to the policy goals. In addition, there must also be a cost-effective method of measuring performance either periodically or continuously. There are many desirable criteria, or metrics, for which no measurement recording technology currently exists.  Much can be learned from the growing field of Transportation-related Health Impact Assessment (HIA) reports. And Smart Growth America’s Complete Streets Alliance division has done a good job of thinking through some of these issues and has crafted a solid foundation for further development.

One problem is that once we open the door to a wider set of issues we are immediately hit by an almost infinite maze of possibilities. There are simply too many things we’d like to keep track of: not only the impact on non-car mode shares but also on economic development, public health impacts, the natural and social environments, and more.   Even worse, many of these things would be extremely difficult or expensive – or even impossible, given current technology – to measure. And an endless list is almost as useless as an empty list, too complicated to understand or effectively use for decision-making and design. (Furthermore, as concerned Transportation Planners are quick to point out, it’s not always clear what design features will translate into improved scores on many of the evaluation criteria.)

A FIRST ATTEMPT: THE PROJECT SELECTION ADVISORY COUNCIL

Massachusetts’ new Project Selection Advisory Council has been struggling with the need to combine simplicity with breath.   Currently preparing to release their recommendations this fall, they are focusing on seven high-level goal-categories: Safety and Security, Mobility and Accessibility, Economic Development, Quality of Life, Health and Environment, Regional Equity, and System Preservation.

The value of these categories will ultimately be shaped by the specific criteria they contain, both the goals to be attained and the specific project-design aspects that would help us move towards that goal. Understandably, but unfortunately, the Council seems to be leaving the development of most of those details to MassDOT staff at a later date. It would be good if the Council at least suggested some as examples of what they’d like to see. For example, under Safety and Security it might be useful to go beyond a simple requirement that all roads follow “complete streets” guidelines, which can be interpreted to mean the minimum possible accommodations for non-car movement:

  • What percentage of residential and commercial roads in the project will have their design speed reduced to 20 mph, in order to reduce the likelihood and severity of car accidents?
  • What percentage of roads within the project area will end up with bicycle accommodations that provide “low traffic stress” for cyclists?
  • What percentage of intersections in the project area will be optimized for pedestrian crossing via street markings, signal timing, and a regular series of follow-up adjustments?

The Mobility and Access category might go beyond a simple reduction in travel time to include:

  • How much will the project increase the number of home-to-job connections for those who live and/or work in the project area traveling by bicycle, transit, and foot?
  • How much will the project increase non-car access to medical, educational, social service, recreational, and cultural provider locations?
  • How much will the project add to the area’s mileage of non-interrupted low-traffic-stress network?

Under Economic Development, the criteria might ask:

  • Given estimated future growth of “people trips” into, out of, and within the area containing the project, to what extent will the project prioritize movement other than by Single Occupancy Vehicles?
  • To what extent does the project facilitate Transit-Oriented-Development, including bike share and bike routes as part of the TOD mix?
  • To what extent does the project increase the opportunity for the state to tap into additional sources of economic development or other types of funding?

Quality of Life/Environmental Justice can be left vague, or can be focused with criteria such as:

  • To what extent does the project reconnect neighborhoods previously cut apart by past transportation projects?
  • To what extent does the project improve access to education, training, and jobs for residents in low-income areas?
  • To what extent does the project slow or reduce the amount of traffic, particularly truck traffic, as well as noise and air pollution, in low-income areas, especially those with a relatively high number of children?

The Health/Environment category picks up some of the same themes, but applies them more broadly to the entire population:

  • To what extent does the project reduce noise, air, and water pollution?
  • To what extent does the project increase opportunities for active transportation – walking, cycling, and taking transit?
  • To what extent does the project preserve or increase the amount of and access to open space and recreational facilities?

Regional Equity comes not from having the same number of projects in each area or spending the same amount of money in each area, and definitely not from doing the same number of miles of road work in each area. Equity is about people, not geography:

  • Is transportation spending spread proportionately according to the population in the Greater Boston, state-wide Urban, and rural areas?

Finally, System Preservation needs to include pedestrian and bicycle facilities as well as roads.

  • How many miles of complete bicycle and pedestrian network will the project directly construct or indirectly create by filling in “missing links” in existing potential networks?

And, of course, it is possible to use different high-level categories: Vehicular modalities, Environmental/climate impact, Social/community impact, Sustainable economic development/freight delivery, and others. For example, within the Modal category the criteria to be developed could cover issues of safety, efficiency, and cost for each method of travel – walking, cycling, transit, and cars.   Within the Local Context category the criteria to be developed could cover the impact of a project on the neighborhood fabric and social interactions, on possible changes in surrounding property values and uses and demographics, as well as on the aesthetic shape of the built environment. Under Environment/Energy would go issues of air/water pollution, fuel efficiency, and noise. The Economic Development category could cover the triggering effect a transportation project might have on new job creation, increasing the number of home-to-job connections, and expanded access to health-promoting consumer goods.

As always, more important than the high level category titles are the Advisory Council’s as-yet-not-released specific criteria included under each of them – although the legal need to incorporate the federal MAP-21 criteria may undermine other values.

THE BLACK BOX OF DEMAND PREDICTION

Traditionally, the starting point in transportation investment decision-making is predicting future transportation demand, a complex question. Massachusetts, and other states, run simulations, or models, based on a range of possible changes in the surrounding context: What new housing or commercial building is likely to occur? How are the workplace and residential populations likely to change: to grow larger, older, younger, richer, poorer? How much will outsiders be drawn to the area for shopping or entertainment, and how much will people in the project area want to leave for the same reasons? Given all that, testing over a set of low-to-high possibilities for each variable, how are the current modal choices of people in that area likely to change in coming years? And how does all that impact the mix of transportation facilities needed – the demand for car trips, bus rides, bicycle and pedestrian use?

Obviously, this process incorporates a lot of educated guesswork – and seldom turns out to be very accurate. Even worse, given the contemporary transportation profession’s roots in highway planning, it should not be surprising that nearly every demand forecasting model incorporates assumptions that overstate the number of cars that will appear. (In fact, car usage has been level or decreasing for over a decade, although the results were extremely skewed geographically with congested areas getting even more congested even as overall numbers declined.) In addition, modeling software is (so far) unable to reliably predict how much currently low levels of bicycle or transit use would increase if better facilities were provided, much less to incorporate cultural trends such as the tendency of “Millennials” to delay getting a driver license or enjoy bicycling riding. “Induced demand”(the way available options and context shapes people’s personal choices) and “latent demand” (the “if you build it they will come” effect) are significantly undeveloped aspects of transportation modeling.

But what if meeting what we currently think future transportation demand will be was not the most important result of a transportation project? What if it shared equal priority with improving air quality, or increasing opportunities for daily physical activity, or knitting together previously road-divided communities? We might end up with very different investment priority rankings, and very different road designs, than now usually occurs.

SIMPLYING ASSUMPTIONS

There are some ways to simply the decision-making. While every situation and project is unique, it is not too difficult to make generalizations about different travel modes. Improving walking, bicycling, and transit facilities tend to help achieve certain policy goals such reducing greenhouse gas and other polluting emissions, improving public health, and increasing the desirability of a neighborhood. Improving facilities for cars and trucks tends to help some kinds of business activity and increase personal travel flexibility. Depending on the way that policy goals are themselves ranked in important, a first cut for decision-making can be based on a project’s modal focus.

On a similar assumption that bike facilities have, by definition, a net positive impact on the environment and other goals in 2012 the California State Assembly passed a bill (#2245) exempting the creation of bike lanes from these requirements. (This was prompted by an anti-bike person to hold up activity in San Francisco for several years by suing to require that every bike lane be subject to a time-consuming and expensive environmental review as a transportation project.)

But most transportation projects these days include improvements to several modes – bikes, pedestrians, cars, and sometimes transit.   Digging deeper into their impact requires analyzing other variables: location (taking into consideration environmental, social, and economic factors), design (taking into account federal and state standards), scope (the direct construction of surrounding features), and construction process as well (the use of recycled materials, the impact of detours, the amount of dust and noise generated, etc.).

There are a number of efforts around the country to come up with programs for evaluating these larger, open-ended and highly recursive questions. Oregon’s MOSAIC focuses on the “social, environmental, and economic costs and benefits” across nine categories, and the state DOT’s Alternative Performance Measures is a more recent approach. STARS, coming from Portland, OR and the Sustainability Transportation Council, measures full life cycle impact. LEED-ND, developed by a partnership among the U.S. Green Building Council, the Congress for New Urbanism, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, provides sustainability criteria for smart growth. The principles developed by that National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the national Transportation For America coalition are an excellent framework for policy making but are much too high level for project selection much less design.

MITIGATION INSIGHTS

Another approach to setting investment priorities comes from new ideas about determining the types of environmental impact mitigation actions that new developments have to pay for or construct. Every project – both things built next to roads or rails and the transportation surface itself – has impacts on its surrounding environment. Although potentially broad, in many cases, a major focus of the analysis and mitigation requirements were the traffic impacts – specifically the degree to which the development would add to traffic, increase congestion, reduce the car LOS at various points.

(In some jurisdictions, political leaders find it useful to deliberately keep impact analysis and mitigation requirements vague – it increases the range of what can be demanded, an opportunity that can be used for public benefit and, sometimes, private gain. But in general, there is significant pressure to make this process relatively straightforward, understandable, and easy to calculate.)

Bellingham, Washington has tried to step away from an auto-focused approach through an innovative approach that has implications for transportation investment decision-making as well. That city has adopted an innovative approach called Multimodal Transportation Concurrency. Rather than LOS projections, developers have to provide calculations of the number of additional “person trips” that their proposal will cause. This estimate is compared with the existing person trip capacity available in the surrounding roads (measured by use versus design capacity), transit system (also measured by use versus capacity), bicycle and pedestrian networks (measured by degree of network completeness). If future growth exceeds current capacity the developer has to pay for upgrades that conform to the city’s multi-modal and mode-shift goals – with creating new bike or pedestrian or even transit stop facilities significantly less expensive (and therefore more likely to be done) than new roads.   These criteria have the huge advantage of being simple to calculate and implement. However, the overall impact seems very dependent on the modal priorities of the city’s multi-modal and mode shift policy goals, which are external to the People Trip approach itself.

California, too, has theoretically changed its new development Environmental Impact analysis from car-centric to more multi-modal. However, a recent study did not “find an agency…that has stopped using auto LOS as the primary significance threshold; cities are reluctant to change because of the fear of lawsuits.” This may change: newly passed California Senate Bill 743 (2013) prohibits using automobile delay as a significant environmental impact and allows for alternatives to auto LOS in setting mitigation requirements. Some jurisdictions are beginning to base mitigation demands on the development’s impact on non-car modes – to what extent will the generated increase in car traffic make buses run slower, or add to the difficultly of walking across an intersection, or increase “traffic stress” for bicyclists? Appropriate mitigation would address these negative impacts.

ROAD DESIGN

Road design, which theoretically should be shaped by the same policy-based criteria as transportation investment, is often still unable to escape from its heritage in Interstate Highway movement and safety.  Despite official policies mandating greater attention to walking and bicycling, road design often ends up prioritizing car through-put and storage (parking). Significant flexibility is built into AASHTO and other Highway Design Guidelines (including MA’s). And most road planners and designers are willing to include “accommodations” for pedestrians and bicyclists and even buses and trolleys – but only to the point that it begins to violate the core imperative to maintain or improve car LOS; a point which can be very quickly reached. It’s hard to blame the planners – road designs need specifics and the only hard numbers available relate to cars.

Transportation Engineers have a wealth of professional training, peer-culture, and validated tools for making roads better for cars. But they, like the people who approve their work, often have a hard time translating non-car-focused policy goals into specific design elements – especially when faced with hard trade-offs in the use of limited street space. Including state-of-the-art facilities for pedestrians, cyclists, or buses often reduces the road’s capacity for moving (or parking) cars, making LOS worse while also violating a project manager’s prime directive: stay in budget and on time by avoiding mission creep. So the degree that the final design ends up reflecting official policy goals is significantly dependent not on the policies but on the personal beliefs (and prejudices) of the Engineers – their willingness to violate traditional norms.

And without clear, measurable goals for investment, mitigation, and design it is very hard to do post-construction evaluation: did the project move our transportation system towards achievement of major policy goals? If so, how much? In what ways? If not, what went wrong? In fact, except when embarrassed by budget or schedule overruns, few transportation agencies have any official process for collecting and incorporating feedback. Why bother – there currently isn’t much to measure beside LOS.

FOCUSING ON SPECIFICS

On the other side of the coin, there are a number of efforts to deeply explore criteria for particular areas of concern. In 2008, the San Francisco Public Health Department (not the Transportation Department!) partnered with the city Bicycle Coalition to develop a way to catalog and calculate the safety and convenience level of intersections and street segments for cycling and walking. San Francisco’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Environment Quality Indexes (BEQI & PEQI) have since been adapted, often by public health groups, in Los Angeles, Austin, and other cities. Several community advocacy groups have successfully used them to secure specific improvements. While obviously valuable, and potentially useful in identifying particularly dangerous locations for future improvement as well as providing insight on how to design travel facilities for bike/ped safety, it’s not clear how these tools help shape larger funding decisions between transit and roads, off-road paths and sidewalks.

Northeastern University Civil Engineering Professor Peter Furth has been developing the concept of Levels of Traffic Stress as a way to standardize bicycle facility planning. Peak or average traffic speed is placed along the X-axis, peak or average traffic volume along the Y-axis, the intersection of the two is labeled with the type of bicycle facility that should be required. By implication, any other type of facility would require the submission of a Non-standard Design Exception Request with associated justifications. This would enormously advance the quality of bicycle travel, and it may be adaptable for pedestrian planning as well.   But, as with B/PEQI, it’s not clear how these tools help shape larger funding decisions between transit and roads, off-road paths and sidewalks.

Both of these previous two approaches, as well as the sustainability methods described in the Proceedings of the Second Conference on GREEN STREETS, HIGHWAYS, AND DEVELOPMENT 2013 held by the Transportation and Development Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers provide excellent guidance for the design, construction, or performance evaluation of various facilities’ effectiveness within the framework of their particular issue concerns. But these are not broad enough to shape initial investment decisions.

MASSACHUSETTS

Massachusetts is in a transitional period. Policies reflecting the new “car is no longer king” approach – Complete Streets, Active Transportation, Mode-shift, Sustainability Planning, Transit Orientated Design, and more – have begun getting adopted in municipalities and some states, including Massachusetts. But even though MassDOT’s leadership has a sincere commitment to progressive change, even in urban areas where these policies are most appropriate and needed, there has been only minor change in actual practice and what gets built. In the absence of a clear, easy-to-understand prioritizing system the state’s thirteen regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) that help decide how federal and state transportation funds are used too often fall into a pattern of deferring to the Governor’s priorities for big projects and horse-trade around who gets the rest for which local projects. And the biggest pot of transportation money, distributed to municipalities under Chapter 90 of the state’s legal code, is explicitly exempt from most Complete Streets or other non-car-related guiding criteria!

MassDOT’s new Transportation Impact Assessment Guidelines call for developers to consider walking, bicycling, and public transit as central access modes, not just as mitigation for the traffic impacts of new development, a change that WalkBoston helped push through.   But these are not even close to becoming mainstream practices.

It is possible that the upcoming public hearings of the state’s quick-turn-around Project Selection Advisory Council will shape public opinion around a broadly acceptable set of criteria, as well as providing a forum for the reconciliation of the related criteria coming from the Impact Assessment, Active Streets Recognition, and Healthy Transportation Directives.

MOVING FORWARD

Transportation is much too important to be left to the transportation industry. All of us have a stake in making sure that transportation system help create the type of sustainable, prosperous, and livable world we want to live in. However, without meaningful, measurable, and easily acted-upon criteria, moving from policy to reality, from the democratic oversight of government actions to the street-level impact-reality of public programs, is like pushing the tail end of a string and expecting the front edge to move.

Transportation investment needs to be shaped by the full set of policies whose fulfilment is affected by transportation: public health and safety, land use and conservation, environmental and climate protection, community integration and development, local business growth, and more. But exactly because there are so many of them it becomes hard to prioritize – especially since so many are stated in qualitative terms that are hard to cost-effectively measure.   In the absence of usable alternatives, decisions get based on the hard numbers that are available – car congestion as described by the “Level of Service” (LOS) that primarily measures the amount of delay compared to a “free-flowing” road. The importance of dealing with car traffic is further intensified by the way existing Transportation Demand Models, used to predict future traffic levels, consistently overestimate future car volume and are inherently unable to predict the “latent demand” of how many more people will walk or bike or use transit if provided excellent facilities.

This process doesn’t have to start from scratch. Some experiments are already underway. And there are some cities (and regions) whose transportation systems already seem to be moving in the right direction. We need to examine the decision-making criteria being used those cities (and regions): what tools and methods are they using to measure and collect the data? How do the criteria function within their decision-making process?

As Congress continues to stalemate on fundamental ideological difference, and because we can’t trust that the next President’s Secretaries of Transportation will be as committed to a multi-modal and sustainable future as Obama’s choices, we have to begin changing the way the transportation decision-making and project design process works.   It can be done.

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Thanks to the many, many people whose ideas and comments have shaped my understanding of these issues.   All opinions and mistakes are, of course, my own responsibility.

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Related previous posts include:

> STEERING THE ORGANIZATION: Using Decision-Point Criteria to Achieve Goals

> PERFORMANCE MEASUREMENT FEEDBACK: It’s Hard to Stay on Route if You Don’t Know Where You’re Going

> EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough

> SMART CITIES, POWER POLITICS, & QUALITY OF LIFE: Technology and What It’s Used For

 

 

Posted in Climate/Energy/Environment, Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, Government Reform, MassHighway/DOT, Project Management, Road Design | Leave a comment

FREE AND EASY: Open Ended Bicycling

Every year I am part of a group that does a one-day ride from Boston to Provincetown, about 146 miles. We’ve done it in blazing heat and nor’easter rainstorms – that was the year we later realized that each of us was secretly hoping our bike would fail so we’d have an excuse to drop out and go home. But we support each other and always make it. Of course, we end up exhausted. But we’ve learned that stopping every 15 or so miles for a snack and rest allows everyone to pull through. It’s always a great adventure and earns us great story-telling rights for months afterwards.

This year, the weather was almost perfect. Cool enough. Sunny enough. The scenery along the Claire Saltonstall Bikeway was, as always, mostly beautiful, although the hundreds of cracks already appearing in the newly repaved sections of the Cape Cod Rail Trail were a depressing surprise. And despite my lack of preparation and anticipatory worries I was astonished to feel stronger for longer than in previous years. At first I thought it was me – maybe I was in better shape than I imagined – but then I realized that the difference was the lack of wind! Pushing into a 10 or 15 mph headwind for endless miles is harder than climbing hills.

I love the feeling of being out in the world, gliding through on my bike, feeling my body work, chatting with friends, feeling part of a group. But best of all is the vacation feeling of not having anything to do but what I’m doing.   We were riding. There were no deadlines. The day was ours. It was free time.

When not chatting, a long bike ride is a good time to think. My pleasure reminded me of weekends when I’ve got a list of non-essential tasks to do. I wander from one to the next as my interest and energy flow, never worrying about how far I get although almost always finding that I’ve finished most of it by beer-time at the end of the day.

Or the feeling I used to get when (a long time ago) I hitch-hiked across the US and Europe. It was a letting go of control, an accepting of whatever came along, a naïve belief in my own ability to handle anything and in the benign nature of the universe, a welcoming of unknown adventure.

We seemed to have jumped from an enduring winter through a few days of spring directly into early summer. Clean off your bike. Don’t be afraid of going longer than you think you can. (Being with others helps!) Have fun. Feel free.

Thanks to this year’s crew: Eric, David, Bang, Jackie, Mark, Monica, Andrew, Meir

Posted in bike culture, Commentary & Analysis, Public Health | Leave a comment

DANGER FROM BELOW: Our Leaky Gas Pipe Infrastructure

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.

OLD PIPES

Here in the Northeast, the major problem is the age of the pipe system. At least 17% of NSTAR’s pipes, for example, are over a half-century old and made of cast iron which, like a cast iron pot left outside, have rusted into a fragile skeleton. A big bang on the street above from a truck or other object, a vibration running along the pipe due to an explosion or even from distant repair work, the impact of frost heaves or a minor shifting of the ground – any kind of jostling could create a crack, sometimes small but often large enough for gas to begin leaking.

If enough gas seeps to the surface into a building it doesn’t take much of a spark to send it up. This year, seven people died in a Harlem, NYC gas disaster. A month later twelve people were hurt in Dorchester from a gas-caused house explosion. There have been similar explosions in Springfield, Gloucester, Fitchburg, Somerset, and Winthrop – with more coming.

But even if the gas doesn’t destroy our homes, and lives, it can damage our environment. Seeping gas kills roots – of trees, shrubs, and plants. Brookline, which is one of the first cities to begin investigating the problem, estimates that over a million dollars in tree damage has already occurred in their community. It’s likely that other cities have similar although as yet undiagnosed problems.

CLIMATE CHANGE

And when the gas gets up to the air it continues its dirty work – natural gas is methane which has a greenhouse warming effect up to 34 times more than CO2.   There are a lot of jokes about cow flatulence and climate change; natural gas is a much more abundant source! In Cambridge, gas leaks are estimated to have the equivalent climate change impact of the total annual emissions of nearly a third of all the cars registered in the city.

The infuriating aspect of the entire situation is that we, the region’s natural gas consumers, pay for all the lost gas and the dead trees and eventually for the climate destabilization. The cost of the “lost” gas is factored into our utility bills, a “surcharge” estimated by the Conservation Law Foundation to be about $38 million a year in Massachusetts alone. It is reflected in the high cost of doing business in our state. And it is our property tax that pays for the trees and plants that die. Not to mention the human cost of fires and explosions.

Utility and gas transmission companies are only required to fix leaks that are “potentially explosive.”   However, according to Massachusetts State Representative Lori Ehrlich, utilities would earn back the cost of fixing the average leak in less than 3 years. The companies know where the leaks are located – their “sniffer trucks” drive up and down as many streets as they can. But under current regulations they have no incentive to front the money in the first place.

ACTION

Community “HEET” groups have begun bringing the situation to light. First, starting in Somerville and Cambridge, they are using a precision methane analyzer to find the leaks and map their location. Second, the groups are mobilizing citizens to report and demand action on the worst leaks – just fixing the top ten will save ratepayers an estimated $45,000 per year and prevent the carbon equivalent of 500 passenger cars from hitting the atmosphere.

Even though we are most aware of the lousy pavement conditions on top of the road, sometimes it’s what’s under the street that counts. There are a variety of bills relating to this issue now pending in the Legislature. Get in touch with HEET at (info@HEETma.org) and find out what you can do to demand action!

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Thanks to Audrey Schulman for feedback on an earlier draft.

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Related previous posts:

> LIVABILITY, PUBLIC HEALTH, AND MOVING AROUND: A Healthy Society Requires Healthy People

> THE ADVOCATES DILEMA: When The Need for Action is Immediate But the Pace of Change is Slow

> ZONING REFORM: Unlocking Investment in Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

 

Posted in Advocacy, Climate/Energy/Environment, Commentary & Analysis, Public Health, TRANSPORTATION HEALTH and SAFETY | Leave a comment

A NOTE FOR THE NEXT GOVERNOR: Travel is the Least Important Thing about Transportation

Congratulations on your election. As you know, that was the easy part!   Here’s something waiting for you: our transportation system is in crisis. We can’t seem to generate the political will needed to raise the money required to upgrade our decayed rails, roads, bridges, and sidewalks to meet the needs of today – much less to lay a foundation for the future. Anti-government forces have been able to shape the public perception of transportation spending as a tax rather than an investment, a cost rather than an asset. As a result, things are falling apart.

But perhaps part of the problem is that we have allowed the public imagination to remain stuck in the belief that transportation is about vehicles and the surfaces they use. Perhaps we have to stop talking about cars and trains, roads and paths; not even about congestion or pot-holes or snow plowing.

Maybe the path to funding lies through other topics, other needs, other visions: Transportation is about where we can afford to live and the jobs we are close enough to apply for.   Transportation is about the asthma and diabetes our family members suffer from, the safety of our children as they walk to school, and the ability of our seniors to avoid moving to a nursing home. Transportation is about our ability to meet our neighbors and hang out together. Transportation is actually about the livability and well-being of our families and our communities.

Transportation is an individual act based on personal decisions. But public leaders and agencies have always shaped the decision-making context through infrastructure investment and regulatory policy. It’s time to adjust that context, at both the governmental and personal levels, so that it is easier, cheaper, functional, and socially praised to make better choices – choices that serve both our own needs and our world’s. The challenge is not technical but political. We need you to take charge!

Transportation policies, even in progressive agencies and firms, are usually talked about in terms of Mode Shift (away from Single Occupancy Vehicles), Complete Streets (to include maximum-possible pedestrian, cycling, and transit facilities), Clean Vehicle (to reduce pollution and noise and increase fuel efficiency), and the occasional “Bike Network Plan. This is the level at which transportation policy is usually discussed. But once again, maybe we are framing things in the wrong way.

Perhaps connecting the daily reality of people’s lives to transportation policy, and from there to funding, requires emphasizing three strategic themes: Transportation Has to Serve the Rest of Our Needs, Being Outside Should be Safe for Everyone from 8 to 80, Creating Livable Communities Require Better Neighborhoods.   And we won’t go anywhere on this unless you lead us there.

Policy-based Decision Making: Transportation Has to Serve the Rest of Our Needs

Transportation decision-making – what projects to invest in, what kind of design to create – has traditionally started and ended with improving car Level of Service (LOS), essentially the “excess” time it takes to get through an intersection under non-optimal conditions.   Instead, we need to create a broad list of policy goals – from reducing Green House Gases and fuel consumption to achieving zero fatalities, from fostering business development to facilitating neighborhood social life, from improving safety to reducing inequity, and more. A second step is to draw on new research from around the world to have ways of predicting how much various types of transportation projects, and how various approaches to road design, will move us towards or away from the desired values and goals. And third, we need to use new technologies to measure how much the completed project actually achieved its predicted impact.

This must be tied to a reform of the Metropolitan Planning Organization decision-making processes – the 13 regional bodies across the state that determine how a substantial percentage of federal highway funds are used – to require that they give priority to the projects with the highest scores.

Creating such broad goals and evaluative criteria also requires extensive multi-agency and cross-department coordination. The Legislatively-mandated Healthy Transportation Compact has set the stage for this, even mandating a forum for on-going discussions between public agencies and key Advocates dealing with the entire range of transportation-impacted-and-impacting issues.   This breaking down of bureaucratic boundaries has to continue.

A similar process has to happen at the local level. Nearly 80 percent of the state’s roads are owned and maintained by municipalities although much of the work on those roads is paid for with “Chapter 90” state funds. Policy-based investment requires that municipalities be required to go through a similar prioritizing and road-design process for state-funded work. At the same time, the state needs to dramatically loosen the restrictions on locally-initiated pilots and experiments and low-cost temporary fixes – so long as they are based on implementing a short list of top priority policy goals.   For example, a lot of complex road changes can be prefigured using paint, planters, and signs – which gives the public a chance to experience the new idea in a non-threatening manner.

To sell transportation, we need to remember that it is only the means to a broader set of desirable ends.

Street Safety is the Opposite of Highway Design: Outside Safety for 8 to 80

Several US cities and some European countries have already proclaimed official goals of reducing transportation fatalities to zero – and then taken the implications of that commitment seriously. The most important implication emerges from the realization that nearly everything we do to insure safety and high usage for highways is exactly the opposite of what is needed for safety and high usage on city streets.

Highways are high speed, high-volume corridors reserved for cars, trucks, and buses. Highway safety is increased by designing them to be as “driver proof” as possible: tolerant of mistakes and lapses of attention, with lots of extra space for error-correction and few visual distractions.

In contrast, residential and commercial streets are community space: full of different kinds of uses and surrounded by lots of activity.   Making that kind of road safe – not just for cars but for all users – requires that we design them to make drivers slow down, to pay more attention to what they’re doing, where they are, and what else is around. This takes more than public education exhorting everyone to look where they’re going or respect each other, or stationing a police officer at every intersection. It takes designing the road itself to shape driver behavior. We all know that, regardless of the official speed limit, we drive more carefully when the lane is narrow, the pavement is bumpy, there are lots of other people and things in (or simply visible from) the road. Traffic safety engineers have learned to apply these lessons to our city streets: narrowing travel lanes to 10’ (or even less!), bumping out intersection cross-walks and installing bolder “zebra markings”, installing bike lanes (preferably physically separated from the moving cars), widening the sidewalk and using some of the space for benches and trees and café tables, giving buses and trolleys priority at intersections.

The good news is that we now know that building safety into the road design does not increase congestion. Cars may move more slowly, but proper traffic signal timing means that “throughput” over a specified distance can stay roughly the same. The most amazing finding is that this is even true on congested main roads, the arterials: one reason is that drivers are as intelligent as anyone else. The opposite of “if you build it they will come” is also true: “if you take it away, they go away” – meaning that reducing the capacity of roads leads to fewer cars. Because people adjust their travel decisions according to the new context, they make new choices and the traffic volume goes down until the smaller road reaches its own level of “normal” over-usage. Rather than detour into neighboring streets, studies show that the missing car trips actually go to different times of day, or to different travel methods, or to more efficient trip planning.

If we want our children to safely move, on their own power, between their school to nearby parks to home; if we (or our parents) want to “age in place” rather than a nursing home; if we want our downtown business districts to retain (or regain) their vitality as places to meet our friends and do our shopping; then we need to re-orient the entire psychology and design of our transportation system around those activities – and consign highway design to the very narrow uses it really has. This – rather than widening roads or building parking garages – is the proven way to increase customer traffic into local businesses as well as to reduce the number of accidents and injuries. When our transportation system passes the “ice cream test” – when both kids and seniors feel comfortable going outside and getting a cone from a local store – we will have succeeded.

Livable Communities Require Better Neighborhoods: Land-use Shapes Road Reality

As much as anywhere in the nation, Massachusetts has learned that building more roads doesn’t eliminate congestion; it just attracts more cars until the new road also slides past peak-hour capacity. But the truism of “if you build it, they will come” also applies to sidewalks, bike facilities, and transit stops – there is a huge latent demand for all types of transportation.

The type of transportation people choose depends, first of all, on how far they have to go. The closer we live to where we work, shop, play, and hang out with friends the less we need to drive. And “the village” is where people want to live these days – as shown by the increased value of properties with higher walking and bikeability scores or nearby transit.

The good news is that density does not require turning our cities and suburban centers into mock Manhattans with skyscraper canyons. Smaller rooms and fewer parking requirements, which allow for more affordable prices, also allow greater density without extreme heights. And there’s a bonus: it opens up public space for the kind of informal interaction that makes communities thrive.

Of course, we need to clearly differentiate between rural, suburban, and urban areas – each of which requires a distinct set of policies and practices. But the reality is that our population will continue to grow – we need it to grow if we want our economy to remain strong – and we have to find the most environmentally sustainable, socially integrative, and affordable way to house those people – our children as well as newcomers. We need to create many more affordable housing units – small apartments and multi-bedroom multi-family buildings in our cities and suburban centers. We need to re-emphasize rentals, preferably with a long-term option to buy, and mixed use building with active sideway-level presences.

The path to a better transportation system turns out to run through zoning reform, affordable housing, transit-oriented development, and smart growth.

Leadership & Money

Transportation is a key component in our need for access to things, places, and people. It’s not the motion to and from that counts, it’s what we do at the endpoints and along the way.   And “we” means all of us – those with lots of choices and those with little, the well-off and the poor, the young and the old.

As you know, despite our collective fear of change the future is coming, and it will be different from what we currently have. Powerful economic, demographic, and environmental forces are swirling around us with near hurricane force. We cannot stand in front of that wind. We do not have the option of having things simply remain as they are. But we do have the ability to at least partly harness the energy flowing towards us, to influence where the water goes and how it shapes the land.

Yes, we have to suck it up and be willing to raise the funds required to pay for the transportation system we need. But the route to approval runs through pictures, not numbers. We will only move forward if our political, business, and media leaders help the public see what a positive future can look like. We need to describe the stakes – getting left behind in an increasingly dangerous, deteriorating, and dysfunctional region or taking control of our own destiny.

And at some point you will have stick your neck out and put your own political capital on the line to push, rather than simply exhort, for money.   But if all this is correct, if transportation is actually a high-leverage tool for broad improvement, then the hit will be short-term and you will find it a lot easier to get re-elected!

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Related previous posts:

> STEERING THE ORGANIZATION: Using Decision-Point Criteria to Achieve Goals

> TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT SAFETY: Looking Beyond Traffic Lights

> CHARLES RIVER BRIDGES FALL OFF THE SCHEDULE: State Needs To Find Funds Without Skimping on Surrounding Improvements

> PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value

 

 

 

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, Government Reform, Road Design, Safety | Leave a comment

TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT SAFETY: Looking Beyond Traffic Lights

My tolerance may have been low because of the bicyclist who had been run over that afternoon, the 8th Boston-area death in the past two years – five by right-turning trucks, two by buses, one by a drunk driver – and I was thinking that it could have been me.   But there it was, the rant that everyone who bikes regularly (and every city’s bike coordinator) hears from people outside their normal social circles: “I’ve got nothing against bicycles.  But the bicyclists out there are crazy.  They’re a menace. It’s not safe; they run red lights; they don’t wear helmets; they almost hit me; they’re blocking the road.  You’ve got to do something!”

But the more he talked, the clearer it was that this person wasn’t really talking about safety, or even about bicyclists’ behavior. He was complaining about the entire presence of bicycles in his space.   Bikes were newcomers into the street space that, however dangerous to use by either foot or car, he used to feel he understood how to navigate.  But now his comfort level had been radically disrupted.  And he was angry. I felt a bit sympathetic — I have mixed feelings about Segways.  It’s a normal human reaction: streets are a high stress environment and he felt that the presence of bicyclists was making it worse. Bottom line: Every cyclist in the city could stop at every red light, and everyone could wear a helmet, but he’d still find them upsetting.

Yes, I know that the bicycling community has its share of immature idiots who do stupid things and act obnoxiously to everyone around them, yelling at us as if we’re all to blame for his problems. I doubt that the percentage of offensive jerks is any higher among the cycling community than among car drivers and pedestrians. Still, interpersonal respect is something we have to work on: the goal has to be strengthening our empathy for the other person no matter how they are moving, and respect for their equal right to be in the public way. There is no excuse for rudeness by anyone to anyone and the presence of emotionally-disturbed jackasses within the cycling community provides a too inviting cover for wholesale condemnation. My hope is that as bicycling becomes more mainstream the social norms of “ordinary people” will temper the behavior of the swashbucklers who defined bike culture back when it was a high-risk, deviant activity.

Getting rid of these volatile distractions is important because safety really is an issue. Yes, cyclists generally should stop at red lights and wear helmets. But these are not the most relevant issues we need to address. The real problems are trucks without sideguards or blind-spot mirrors turning across intersections too small for their size; cars going too fast for human safety, even if it’s within the legal limit; distracted and drunk driving; the lack of separate bike lanes or cycle tracks on high volume/speed roads; and the need for cyclists to stop before entering a busy intersection – no matter if there is traffic light or stop sign or no sign at all – and to not ride the wrong way on high-volume one-way streets.   Like New York City, Portland, San Franciso, and Chicago, we need to endorse a “Zero Fatalities” vision, even if we set lower intermediate goals and then work towards making it happen.

As for the cultural problem of public angst about the presence of cyclists on the road, we need to continue to demand that our political leaders and mass media do their part to shape public opinion by making it clear that the streets belong to all of us, that bicyclists are an important and valued (and growing) part of our community, and that we have to respect each other not just to increase safety but to strengthen the interpersonal civility that makes our city a good place to live and our country a democracy.

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TRUCKS AND BUSES: Prevention and Protection

Trucks (and buses) are big, heavy, and always dangerous – especially in the city, especially when they are turning. As the lawyer for the man who ran over the cyclists correctly said, “There is a point in any vehicle when you look to see if somebody’s coming, and there is a blind spot.” For large trucks and buses, the blind spot is not only along the right side but often also below directly in front. New York City, as part of its multi-faceted Vision Zero Traffic Safety Plan, will now require trucks and school buses to have “cross over mirrors” that let drivers see anything at least three feet tall within one foot of the vehicle anywhere across the entire width of the truck. Unfortunately, this this law only covers trucks over 26,000 lbs (13 tons) registered in New York and operated on non-limited-access roads in NYC.

While we are dependent on trucks to deliver the things we need, it might be even more effective to require that deliveries be made “off-hour” between 8pm and 6am, or simply not during peak commuting time. It might make sense to expand on existing noise-control regulations and ban trucks over a certain size from turning across certain intersections from arterials into side streets, or to lower the allowed weight limits on small city streets to filter out the biggest trucks. (The continuing industry push for bigger and heavier trucks is associated with “a spike in injuries and fatalities…Fatalities have increased 16 percent since 2009 from 3,380 to 3,921, and the number of people injured in these crashes has increased 40 percent, from 74,000 to 104,000.”)

In addition, because accidents will happen, the city and state should require that all trucks and buses operating within their jurisdiction have installed full-length deflectors called sideguards – the collision of a truck and a bike can break an arm or leg, but death most typically occurs when the cyclist is thrown under the rear wheel and gets crushed. The presence of sideguards reduced side-of-truck pedestrian fatalities by 20% and bicycle fatalities by 61% fatality reduction after being mandated in the UK for nearly all trucks over 4 tons in 1986. In the USA, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study found an annual rate of about 100-120 pedestrian and cyclists deaths where first impact was against the side of a large truck; and that nearly half of cyclists who were killed by a tractor-trailer collision had first impacted the truck’s side.

Currently, the best effort around sideguard issues is a proposed NYS legislation “An act to amend the vehicle and traffic law, in relation to requiring certain vehicles to be equipped with side under-ride guards” modeled on the state’s existing cross-over mirror regulation. The National Transportation Safety Board analysis argues that 26,000 lbs is too high — that is the weight of a large box truck or a school bus.  The NTSB recommends requiring sideguards on trucks over 10,000 lbs (5 tons), which is the weight of a small delivery truck. UK and European laws (see sections 51 and 52) require sideguards on trucks weighing over 3,500 kg, or about 4 tons — pretty much all trucks that are bigger than a large pickup!

As Alex Epstein – Volpe Transportation Center analyst, LivableStreets member, and key leader in the national effort to research and deploy truck sideguards – notes, the average sideguard cost per vehicle is $850, and it is now possible to get off-the-shelf sideguards from a North American manufacturer (ok: they’re Canadian).

Why not Massachusetts; and if not state-wide, at least at a municipal level?

Massachusetts law already makes the right-hook illegal: “no person operating a vehicle that overtakes and passes a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall make a right turn at an intersection or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance from the bicyclist.” It’s time that we not only enforced the law, but also required trucks to have the tools to comply.

SPEED KILLS: 20 is Plenty

According to the US Department of Transportation, about 33% of vehicle-related deaths are speeding-related. Of those, around 40% occur in urban areas. 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 or so mph cars (and very cautious trucks), bikes, and pedestrians can all safely share the same street space. Unfortunately, the typical default speed limit for residential and commercial areas – set by state law rather than local preference – is 30 or 35mph and given the defacto grace-space of 10 mph it means drivers have to be flagrantly zooming before police will stop them.

Furthermore, we all know from our own experience that it is the physical structure of a road, rather than the official speed limit, that actually determines how we drive. And most of our streets are laid out in ways that make it feel comfortable to go a lot faster than the 20 mph that would make the streets safely inviting for non-motorists to use.

Part of NYC’s Vision Zero campaign is an effort to give the City power to determine the placement of speed and red-light cameras, the power to reduce the default citywide speed limit to 25mph and specific streets to 20mph, and to increase the penalties associated with dangerous driver behavior.

If we are serious about safety, the Massachusetts Legislature has to empower municipalities to similarly lower the default speed limit and to create special 20mph “safety zones” (or “slow zones”) around senior residences, playgrounds, medical areas, busy commercial areas as well as schools. And we have to get serious about implementing our Complete Streets policy in a way that fosters the physical redesign of residential and commercial roads to discourage driving over 20mph.

As for distracted driving – it is just as deadly as drunk driving and should be treated no less seriously.

SEPARATED BIKE FACILITIES: Off-road Paths and Road-side Cycletracks

One strategy for increasing safety in high traffic volume and high car speed areas is to create more physically separated bicycle facilities, the way we already create (or are supposed to create) physically separate pedestrian lanes (aka “sidewalks”). Whenever possible, we need to demand distinct “bicycle highways” and multi-use paths that run in their own corridors – preferably enhanced by trees and other plantings. (Full disclosure: I’m active in a Green Routes Coalition that is pushing for exactly this!) When necessary, we have to re-assign our limited road space from cars to non-motorized use in the form of traffic-separated cycle tracks.

Too often, traffic engineers still interpret the requirement to include pedestrian and bicycle accommodations as a burdensome diversion from their main responsibility of improving car flow. We need to go beyond minimal concessions to make optimal design the norm, with anything less requiring an “exception request” – exactly the opposite of current practice.

Two bills now pending in the state Legislature would also help. The Vulnerable Road Users Bill (Senate 1639) reflects the principle that those who can do the most harm have the greatest responsibility to prevent it. And the Act To Protect Bicyclists In Bicycle Lanes (Senate 1640) would make it illegal state-wide (as it currently is illegal in Boston) to park in a bicycle facility and force riders to serve into traffic. Call your state representatives today!

BICYCLIST BEHAVIORS: Time to Grow Up!

First of all, it’s no secret that some cyclists act not only rudely but dangerously – to themselves and others. However, the typical public comments about the number of cyclists without helmets is utterly off-base – except as a surrogate for the empty-headed person’s supposed lack of common sense and responsibility. There is simply no evidence that wearing a helmet reduces the rate of accidents in any way, and there is some evidence that requiring helmet use may even have the opposite effect by making some people less willing to bike and thereby lowering the “safety in numbers” effect. (There is a strong correlation between the number of cyclists and the awareness of car drivers of their presence, with a resulting improvement in driver behavior.)

Of course, as with all vehicles, the lower your speed, the less likely you will get in an accident, and the less likely you will be injured in accident. This in part explains why Hubway (average speed 6MPH) has had such low injury rates.   So, helmet use is more prudent the faster you cycle. At the same time, the evidence is traumatically clear that if you do have an accident and if you are one of the small percentage of people whose accident leads to a head injury, you are enormously better off if you have a helmet on – which is why I always wear one and always urge others to do so as a voluntary act of self-preservation!

Similarly, from a safety perspective, running through a red light is not inherently dangerous. Sometimes there simply isn’t any crossing traffic. And, from a safety perspective, it is most important for the cyclist to get visibly into an intersection before turning cars (and trucks) cut in front of them, which – when streets are poorly laid out – can sometimes be best accomplished by going on red. But this is never an excuse for anyone to speed into the intersection without slowing down to check for crossing traffic and stopping if there is any — regardless if there is a traffic light, stop/yield sign, or nothing at all. Unfortunately, this type of dangerous behavior doesn’t only happen when the cyclist is running through a red light. The bicycling community has to make it clear that this kind of behavior is socially unacceptable. Those of us waiting for traffic to clear should be vocal and angry towards those who set us all up for future difficulties – no matter what signalization is there.

Going the wrong way on a one-way street is a bit more complicated. When traffic is heavy or lighting is poor, it’s an enormous safety risk. But sometimes going the wrong way is a rational response to a poorly designed road pattern: one-way streets are usually created in an effort to control car traffic, but when Traffic Planners are only thinking mono-modally – only thinking of cars – they sometimes end up blocking off obvious bicycling desire lines as well. For example, as dangerous as it is to go the wrong way on Charles Street below Beacon Hill, some cyclists will continue doing it until the city creates a proper route from the downtown and Commons areas to the Longfellow Bridge.

FIGHTING TRAFFIC

Peter Norton’s wonderful Fighting Traffic book talks about the early twentieth century when roads were a truly public space used for playing, walking, vending, socializing, and horses. The arrival of increasingly fast and very deadly motorized machines sparked a nationwide war to preserve the public way for pedestrians and kids.   People were furious at the intrusion of this space-monopolizing newcomer to their midst. Cars were invaders, disruptors of the tenuous status quo that people felt they were already barely able to deal with. But cars won, amazingly quickly – both because of their usefulness and their deadliness – and walking across the street was redefined as illegal jaywalking, playing was moved to playgrounds, and horses (along with their mountains of poop) were simply eliminated.

Today, bicycles are the newcomer, the invader, the unwanted aliens. Their presence is understandably upsetting to pedestrians who suddenly have yet another moving obstacle to deal with, and to car drivers who feel they already have enough problems weaving around the crazy hot-rodders and arm-waving phone-users. Bikes become a visible trigger for anger and anxiety about the congested and barely functional street system we have to deal with to survive every day.

But bikes are efficient, inexpensive and healthy means to get around the City. They are an essential and necessary part of how our transportation systems will adapt to the needs of increased density, economic growth, and energy/environmental challenges. Thankfully cities are building more infrastructure, making it safer and easier for *normal* people to cycle.   Bikes are not going away. In fact, their popularity is happily growing every day!

What should we say to those who don’t want us here? Cartoonist Bikeyface says it graphically in her wonderful recent post. As for what I ended up saying to the anti-cyclist complainer, I’m afraid that instead of politely smiling and saying, “Some people do unsafe things. But just because a percentage of car drivers act dangerously or rudely, and a percentage of pedestrians cross without looking, we don’t condemn everyone who uses a car or walks,” I said “And how many people do you know who’ve been killed by getting run over by a bicycle?” It got tense; he moved away. I left.

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Thanks to Alex Epstein and Mark Chase for comments on earlier drafts. As always, all opinions and mistakes remain my own responsibility.

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Previous related posts:

> SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

> BICYCLING SAFETY: Preventing Injury Requires Multiple Strategies

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

> ENOUGH KILLING: How to Make Bike-Car Collisions Less Deadly

> VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”

> MOTIVATING HELMETS: How Convince People To Buckle Up

> THE RIGHT TO BE ON THE ROAD: When Bicyclists Have To Pull Over, When Cars Can Pass

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, Road Design, Safety, TRANSPORTATION HEALTH and SAFETY, Walking | Leave a comment

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.

The Advocates and Community members’ main focus was on insisting that the new bridge designs include safe and ample facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as smoothing car travel AND that the project extend beyond the bridge edge to include the adjoining intersections and approach roads.  Prioritizing the surface-level layout was based on the need to fix problems in already existing facilities.  (Which makes one wonder what is being done with the bridges in other parts of the state where there are fewer or no advocates to push for more forward-thinking visions!)  However, the Charles River bridge agreements notably left out the idea of further improving non-motorized travel along the river by fixing the remaining seriously deteriorated sections of path along both sides of the river, as well as  creating underpasses at each of the bridges – the later an idea that the Charles River Conservancy (CRC) came to champion.  The CRC has commissioned technical studies and renderings showing that the underpasses are both technically feasible and would cost relatively little if done at the same time as the bridge repair work.

NEW OPPORTUNITY

MassDOT’s original reason for not including the Underpasses was that the many permits needed – from the US Army Corp of Engineers, various Conservation Commissions, and (most problematically) the notoriously uncooperative Mass Historical (preservation) Commission – could not be secured in time for the Accelerated Bridge Project deadline of 2016.  Moving the River/Western bridge work out of the ABP removes that scheduling problem.

As part of the negotiations around the Charles River bridges, MassDOT did agree to not repair the bridges in ways that would make the future creation of underpasses impossible.  Unfortunately, MassDOT’s official explanation of why work on the River and Western bridges is being delayed claims that ensuring the possibility of an underpass on the Anderson Bridge – coupled with the need to not start on these two bridges until work on the Longfellow and Anderson is complete – is what pushed the completion date too far beyond the ABP 2016 deadline.

It’s likely that adjusting the Anderson plans did make things for complicated.  However, rumors are circulating that this is a face-saving obfuscation.  If MassDOT had started talking with the Anderson contractor earlier in the process there would have been plenty of time to incorporate the needed changes.  According to the rumors, the real reason for delay is that the Mass Historical Commission has insisted that the contractor use a particular type of old-fashion, hand-made brick – and that several (maybe as many as 4) efforts by the only company able to produce these replica artifacts have failed to produce bricks with both the needed appearance and strength for the job.  Rather than take on the Historical Commission’s contentious Executive Director and possibly her boss, Secretary of State Galvin, as well, MassDOT is using the underpasses as its covering story.

The worst scenario would be if MassDOT decides to fall back on its old plans to just do the minimal needed safety-related repairs on the bridges themselves.  This may prevent additional parts of the bridge facade falling into the water – a non-trivial accomplishment! – but won’t do anything to improve regional transportation.  Getting the Charles River bridge work back on track, with the inclusion of both the river-side paths and the underpasses, is what is needed – but making that happen will require a united effort of the broadest possible coalition of agency leaders, advocates, community members and elected officials.   Starting now.

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BRIDGE DISASTER

On August 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145.  Quickly, the media revealed that tens of thousands of bridges across the country were also structurally deficient, 543 in Massachusetts.  The following year, Governor Deval Patrick made Massachusetts one of the first states to respond to this crisis , and to launch an economic stimulus program after the financial industry collapse, by creating the $3  billion, eight-year Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP).   The Charles River bridges (Craigie Dam at the Science Museum, Longfellow, Boston University, River, Western, and Anderson at Harvard Square) are among those to be repaired at a total cost of about $400 million.

At first, both MassDOT and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) – the state agencies initially responsible for the bridge repair work – planned to simply repair the bridges as they were, with no changes to the current design or functionality.  But Advocates, with recently formed LivableStreets Alliance taking the lead, pointed out that major infrastructure like bridges only get worked on once every 50 to 70 years, and the state should not squander this historic opportunity to make improvements not only to the bridge itself but to the approaches on either side which were often a major cause of traffic congestion and accidents.  The public’s transportation needs and expectations had changed since those bridges were built a lifetime (or two) ago – with a huge demand for improved safety not only for cars but also pedestrians, cyclists, and transit vehicles (and their passengers).

CONTINUING NEED

DCR, the first agency to begin ABP work was initially taken aback by the Advocates pressure but, despite continuing resistance from some of their Traffic Engineers, Agency leaders quickly realized the value of adopting a broader vision.  And even after responsibility for most ADP work was transferred to MassDOT as part of the 2009 Transportation Reform Act, that proactive perspective (combined with the environmental demands of the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act and the Healthy Transportation Compact requirements of the 2009 Reform Act) continued to shape official policy.

By this past August (2013), MassDOT had repaired or replaced 259 bridges across the Commonwealth, reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges by about 20%.  The fact that over 80% of the deficient bridges have not yet been repaired is a small indication of how huge the problem remains.  Coupled with the state’s desperate need to expand commuter rail, MBTA, and regional bus services the state has a nearly $12 billion shortfall in needed transportation investment. However, in the recent past, anti-government and anti-tax sentiment made it impossible for the state Legislature to authorize significantly increasing spending, instead demanding “reform before revenue” and including cost-efficiency reporting requirements in the 2009 Transportation Reform Act.  In partial response, MassDOT has been extremely proud of its use of innovative construction techniques and brags that its ABP efforts are “on budget and on time.”

All of which helps explain why MassDOT would rather drop the River and Western Bridges from the ABP than try to extend the schedule.  In addition, MassDOT is bound by the “regional equity” provisions that the Legislature included in various appropriation bills.  (The non-metro members of our geographically-driven legislature feel that Boston, and the Charles, get more than its share of funds and attention.) In addition, some advocates feel that the money needed for the underpasses would be better spent on fixing the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path and the Cambridge-side sidewalks.

It’s unlikely that any huge ABP-II program will be announced on the heels of the controversial Transportation Bond Bill or during the last months of the Patrick Administration.  But fixing these heavily used and functionally deficient bridges at the entrance to the Mass Pike is a necessity that can’t be put off.   Turning that necessity into government action will require pulling together a broad coalition and developing an effective media campaign.  It’s time to start.

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Thanks to Jessica Parson and Jeff Rosenberg  for comments on earlier drafts.

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Previous related postings:

> A PATH FORWARD FOR CHARLES RIVER UNDERPASSES: Separating “Approaches” from “Tunnels” Removes Barriers

> LEGACY TIME: Styles and Strategies for the Political Administration End Game

> THE ART OF TRANSPORTATION (AND URBAN) PLANNING: Going Beyond the Technical Specs

> MassDOT’S HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION POLICY DIRECTIVE: Framing Economic Needs as Public Health Measures Strengthens Both

> ALLSTON-BRIGHTON ON THE MOVE: Boston’s Most Transportation Changing Neighborhood

 

Posted in Advocacy, Commentary & Analysis, MassHighway/DOT, Road Design, ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE | Leave a comment

STEERING THE ORGANIZATION: Using Decision-Point Criteria to Achieve Goals

MassDOT is legitimately proud of its progressive policies about creating a sustainable, multi-modal transportation system.  But the transfer from policy to facts on the ground has been very uneven and incomplete.  This isn’t surprising:  as with many other endeavors, road construction is a complex and multi-player process with gridlock and human life at stake.  It’s not easy to turn a ship as big and disjointed as MassDOT with its highway-trained staff and its enormous web of highway-derived vendors.

Fortunately, there are three high-leverage points in the project process – for transportation and in every other field – that can help speed policy implementation and adherence:

– Project Selection (both internally at MassDOT and through the MPO funding process),

– Project Design (particularly as summarized in MassDOT’s Design Criteria Workbook and Design Exception Report Guidance, which are themselves based on the new Healthy Transportation Policy Directive and the implementing E-14-001 – Design Criteria for MassDOT Highway Division Projects Engineering Directive);

– Project Evaluation (as captured in the new Planning For Performance  system and the Draft Transportation Impact Assessment proposal).

Ideally, the same high-level criteria should govern each of these decision-making events, even if there is a slightly different emphasis for each.  And, ideally, those criteria should have the same hierarchy:

* starting with the user experience of the problem (or need) being addressed and the proposed (or completed) solution…including both current users and potential future ones, both “in-vehicle” people and those living/working/traveling near the vehicles; then

* checking to what degree the proposed (or completed) project moves our transportation system towards key state and MassDOT policy goals; then

* noting how well the proposed (or complete) project meets (or exceeded) MassDOT’s and FHWA’s technical criteria, including whether it meet “desired” targets rather than “minimal acceptable” one; and finally

* how well the project meets budget and scheduling requirements (or expectations).

The list of Alternative Performance Measures in NACTO’s (National Association of City Transportation Officials) Urban Street Design Guide has some good initial suggestions, but we need to go further.   MassDOT deserves enormous credit for beginning to develop criteria for the three high-leverage decision points,  but it’s not clear that the agency sees them as a unified whole – there are three separate groups and processes dealing with each one.  What’s needed are a single set of easy-to-understand metrics, not some complex (even if perfectly tuned) methodology.  Coming up with a coherent, start to finish set of progressive criteria will not only be good for Massachusetts but might set the framework for a national effort to go beyond the car-centric and skimpy criteria being proposed for the federal MAP-21 Transportation program.

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USER EXPERIENCE

User-based criteria start with safety but then expand to include things like comfort, convenience, usefulness (e.g. number and type of destinations with reduced travel time), cost, socialability (the degree to which it facilitates meeting and talking with others), and neighborhood cohesion (the degree to which it helps connect both sides of the right-of-way or fits with specific nearby uses such as a school, playground, health-care facility, elderly housing, etc.)

These are not remotely similar to the criteria that Transportation Agencies, Transportation Planners, and Traffic Engineers are used to.  It is likely that selecting appropriate metrics as well as do-able measuring methods will require some creativity or even the use of not-quite-perfect surrogates.  “Crowd-sourcing” a brainstorming process might help – there are probably some bright people both inside MassDOT and in the general public who can help!  In order for MassDOT to become the customer-oriented agency it wants to be, figuring this out should be a high priority.

KEY POLICIES

States and Agencies have huge numbers of policies covering nearly every aspect of government activity.  Picking the most important, “key” ones is a political decision, hopefully done with enough public input that the selections are seen as appropriate and have general public support.  Again, devising appropriate metrics and measuring methods, or selecting surrogates, will be challenging.

But to start the process, I’d suggest developing criteria that measure the amount that the proposed (or completed) project moves us towards the goals derived from the following policies.   Currently, most transportation planning materials require quantitative (numerical) data analysis for car traffic but only qualitative (narrative) discussion of non-motorized needs – which often provides an excuse to relegate these to the sidelines, useful only to placate the public and policy makers that they are “being considered.”

1. Reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions and other air pollution issues: cutting transportation’s share by 40% by 2020 – only 6 years away  — as outlined in the GreenDOT program.

2. Mode Shift & Complete Streets: tripling the number/percentage of trips taken by walking, bicycling, and transit; maximizing the pedestrian-, cycling-, and transit-friendliness of the transportation system.

3. Safety/Speed Control: including appropriate physical attributes in the road surface, width, curvature, elevations, and shape to reduce accidents and keep drivers from exceeding the desired or “target” speed (which may be lower than the legal speed limit).

4. Environmental Protection: improving water/waste run-off problems; maximizing the “green cover” on the right-of-way.

5. Context Sensitivity:  design contributes to cohesion of neighborhood on both sides of right-of-way; design fits with specific uses (e.g. school, playground, health-care facility, elderly housing) and general characteristics (e.g. rural/urban, commercial/residential) of the surrounding area, as well other known or likely public or private development that this project’s design should anticipate.

6. Economic Development and Equitable Opportunity:  transportation not only shapes land use, it also provides the foundation for business development.  We need to ensure that transportation projects are done in ways that both stimulate private investment and spread that investment to areas and populations that have been previously underserved.

TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS

This is where Traffic Engineers live: lane widths, corner and curve radii, elevation and sight-distances, and more.  And it’s also where traditional Federal Highway constraints are most powerful.  The bad news is that national guidelines are very highway-based, almost always based on a desire to move as many cars as fast as possible with little regard to either other modes or the surrounding environment – although there now are some efforts to be more open to pedestrian, bicycling, and transit concerns.  The good news is that national guidelines are actually extremely flexible, allowing “professional judgment” to over-rule many of the suggested specifications.  While allowing a range of options appropriately gives road designers the ability to apply their professional judgment to each unique situation, the bad news is that it is a lot of work for Road Designers to move beyond past practice – applying for an “exception” requires additional research, analysis, paperwork, approvals, and time-consuming discussions – so in addition to any personal preferences for “the way I’ve always done it and that I know is safe” there are extremely strong incentives to just go with the traditional flow.

An all-too-typical response from traffic planners to requests for more truly multi-modal designs is that “bicyclists and pedestrians are a crazy minority with far more power than they deserve—people are voting with their feet (on the accelerator) and we should accommodate cars more than other modes”.  While car traffic is, and will for many years continue to be, the primary mode of the majority of Americans, the degree of car dependence varies enormously from rural to urban areas and from older to younger people – although both MassBike and WalkBoston say that they are getting increasing numbers of inquiries from suburban and even rural areas asking for help in improving non-motorized travel.  In addition, numerous studies show that prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists creates streets that are also safer for car occupants with little or no additional travel-time.   Even drivers benefit when more people choose to leave the car at home.

For MassDOT, and Massachusetts, to achieve its policy goals the “exception request” process is going to have to be changed so that the policy-enhancing “desired” specifications are treated as “normal” and going below (or above) them – even if within “minimally acceptable” levels – requires going through the “exception request” process.   Having a “Complete Street” should mean more than just making sure there’s a basic sidewalk, or a wide right lane where bikes can go, or no parking in front of the bus stop.  It means starting the design process by thinking through what would be the best possible situation for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users and then figuring out how to fit car needs into that, rather than the other way around.

There is probably no way that Massachusetts can (or should) totally avoid the limits imposed by federal requirements for Interstates and National Highway System roads.   And FHWA’s proposed MAP-21 Safety Criteria may also turn out to be a problem.  But in this era of increasing federalism, there is probably significant wiggle room if state leaders are willing to fight for it.  Because AASHTO, the national arbiter of road design, has been so highway-focused and so slow to change, various alternatives have emerged.  At the city level, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has already begun issuing alternative transportation design guidelines that MassDOT needs to officially allow their engineers and consultants to use these incredibly well thought-out and effective sources.

BUDGET AND SCHEDULING BENCHMARKS

Duh.  Yes.

MassDOT is pushing into policy and practices that are relatively new for US transportation agencies.  It’s not totally clear that MassDOT itself understands the huge impact that would come from tight coherence among Project Selection, Design, and Evaluation – it is, in fact, the only way we are going to be able to build the kind of comprehensive, affordable, and effective transportation system we need for a better and more prosperous future.  But there is experience in some pioneering cities within this country and many cities, even countries, in Europe and elsewhere.  We should not only learn from them, we should blatantly steal the best they have to offer!

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Thanks to Jason DeGray, Lizzi Weyant, and Mark Chase for comments on earlier drafts.

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Related previous posts:

> PERFORMANCE MEASUREMENT FEEDBACK: It’s Hard to Stay on Route if You Don’t Know Where You’re Going

> SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

> MassDOT’S HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION POLICY DIRECTIVE: Framing Economic Needs as Public Health Measures Strengthens Both

> THE ART OF TRANSPORTATION (AND URBAN) PLANNING: Going Beyond the Technical Specs

> INTERGRATING VISION INTO OPERATIONS: Balancing Front-Line Empowerment With Organizational Priorities at MassDOT

> BUS SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT IS KEY TO TRANSIT: Local, Improved, Express, and Bus Rapid Transit

 

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, Government Reform, MassHighway/DOT, Road Design | Leave a comment

MASS PIKE EXITS: Master Key for Unlocking Boston Roads from Esplanade to Allston

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)

AND MORE…

At the same time, community and advocacy groups are pushing for pedestrian and bike routes that reconnect Allston Village (near the new Harvard Campus) with Comm Ave, and that run along the Grand Junction railway from Somerville through Cambridge over the RR bridge (under the BU bridge) to Allston.  Residents in the Charlesgate area are demanding that the Bowker be torn down and the area – an extension of the historic Emerald Necklace listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Olmsted Park System – be rescued from the dominating concrete.  The Esplanade Association’s Vision 2020 is seeking to slow and reduce traffic on Storrow Drive in order to expand and protect that amazing parkland.  Last, but not least, the Red Sox and many Longwood Medical Area employers are desperately looking for ways to get their car-traveling patrons (and employees) more efficiently to and from their locations.

All these official and citizen efforts are finding their options relatively unsatisfying.  In almost every case, the amount of traffic that MassDOT (and sometimes Boston Transportation Department) planners anticipate requires dedicating so much space to cars that transit and non-motorized modes (and users) get short changed.  (It is likely that official projections of future car traffic are too high – there is a long national history of assuming more growth than has actually occurred.  But it will take years and enormous technical sophistication to revise current Projected Traffic Modeling software to incorporate contemporary trends of reduced car ownership and usage, increased transit and bike usage along with a huge and slowly emerging latent demand for walkable-bikeable-trainable communities.  In the meantime, we are stuck with overblown estimates that can limit and distort the available options.)

THE MASTER KEY

But here’s the amazing thing, the Master Key:  the options available in each of these situations would be radically expanded, and improved, if there were more and better off-on ramps for the Mass Pike Extension as it runs from downtown Boston to the Allston toll booths.  Not only would it move most traffic from Storrow to the Pike, it would make it easier to deal with the Allston toll plaza redesign and the other areas as well.

That’s a big claim, and there are so many intertwining components that our state’s Transportation Mage, Fred Salvucci, warns that it might be much smarter – and a lot more politically and financially realistic – to assume “that there will be no turnpike connections in this area in the short term…we might better place energy into getting public transportation means to attract people out of their cars.”

BOLDLY GOING…

But the potential payoff of coming up with a good MassPike Extension On/Off Ramp solution is so large that it’s at least worth some out-of-the-box brainstorming.  And that’s what a bunch of people in the extended LivableStreets Alliance network have been doing for the best month or so.   Some of the ideas are straightforward; some are pretty imaginative.   But it’s likely that all are technically possible.  And all would both move car traffic more efficiently while creating room for pedestrians, bicyclists, and lots more parkland.   The bottom line, as usual, is money and political will – as well as a willingness to stretch the traditional envelope:  MassDOT has done its own studies of on-off ramp possibilities and has not yet come up with a workable option.

I do not intend to give a full description of all the ideas floating around – Frank O’Dette has put together an amazing You-Tube video that gives an easy to follow and visually understandable introduction to most of them.  Although the video revolves around ways to eliminate the Bowker it includes, by necessity, a creative look at ways to eliminate the traffic flow it now serves by opening additional MassPike Extension ramps.  He calls the video A Cure for B.O.? Fixing Boston’s Armpit: the Bowker Overpass which he describes as “a relic from the 60’s, stinking up the city.”  (If that link doesn’t work, or becomes inoperative due to future revisions, go to YouTube.com and search for “boston armpit” – which will bring you to the latest version.)

OUT OF THE BOX

Here is a list of some the ideas that Frank summarizes:

  • Changing the Mass Ave. Pike on-ramp to an exit and moving the on-ramp further towards Allston;
  • Moving the shift in the RR tracks further out, creating space for an on-ramp from the Fenway;
  • Using part of the Pike breakdown lane for yet other potential on-off ramps;
  • Creating a more direct route from the Pike to the LMA;
  • Shifting a new Charlesgate-to-Fenway overpass to the side of the parkland;
  • Re-using existing pavement for new loops through the area to eliminate traffic light congestion;
  • Turning the road around the Fens into a one-way loop;
  • Building a Comm Ave bypass and Beacon Street diversion;
  • And much more…

Some of the ideas are relatively simple, some are very ambitious, and some are even further out.  But who knows – maybe it IS possible to create something that’s cheaper, safer, greener, more multimodal, and just as effective!

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Thanks to Randall Albright, Parker James, and Frank O’Dette for all the work they’ve put into this effort; and to Ken Kruckemeyer, Peter Furth, Herb Nolan, Charlie Denison, and the other brainstorm contributors!

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Some related previous posts:

> McGRATH HIGHWAY REPAIRS: The Occasional Superiority of Short-Term Solutions

> FIXING THE FUTURE McGRATH/O’BRIEN CORRIDOR: A Six-Lane Boulevard Is Still A Highway

> ALLSTON-BRIGHTON ON THE MOVE: Boston’s Most Transportation Changing Neighborhood

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

> QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative

>LEVERAGING PUBLIC SPENDING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT: Do Multiple Goals Make Projects Better — or Unmanageable?

 

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Posted in Advocacy, Commentary & Analysis, MassHighway/DOT, Road Design, ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE | Leave a comment

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.

But I left the theater extremely unsatisfied.  The movie presents all the evidence needed for a powerful conclusion, and goes as far as saying that “Master Plans” should be replaced with “Frameworks” that leave space for democratic uncertainty.  But it doesn’t really address the complexities of replacing central control with a free market of bottom-up innovation for entire cities or regions — how such an approach deals with planning for needed large-scale infrastructure for water or housing or energy or transportation that inevitably disrupts certain areas, or avoids simply turning planning over to the wealthy or ruthless, or deals with NIMBY parochialism or prejudice against various kinds of incoming “others.”

Maybe I’m jumping ahead of the movie’s own goals, however it seems to me that simply denouncing Le Corbusier and Robert Moses isn’t enough – we need to describe the alternatives.  And we have to admit that creating human scale environments requires not only a participatory, open-ended process but strong leadership as well as a large measure of good luck.

Neither top-down nor unregulated bottom-up: what cities need in order to make themselves livable is a sequence of interactive, tight-loose processes that move through the three phases of Planning, Design, and Implementation that combines broad participation with technical input, democratic debate with accountable central decision-making, long-term visioning of regional needs with sensitivity to particular circumstances, the vital role of strong leadership with the many benefits of distributed innovation, and a realistic understanding of financial realities with profit-making transparency.

Through all three phases, cities need a way to identify and prioritize needed infrastructure even if its construction will be disruptive; a way to mobilize the political momentum needed to push through often contradictory zoning, permitting, code, and regulatory requirements; and a willingness to accept that many end-stage details are simply not knowable at the start.

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Posted in Advocacy, Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, Government Reform, MassHighway/DOT | Leave a comment

PERFORMANCE MEASUREMENT FEEDBACK: It’s Hard to Stay on Route if You Don’t Know Where You’re Going

MassDOT deserves enormous credit for trying to connect its investment decisions with the desired outcomes.  It’s a challenging and complicated undertaking, constrained in many ways by federal reporting requirements, limited data, and unverified impact-calculating methodologies. The fact that their first attempt, the very impressive WeMove Massachusetts: Planning for Performance tool, is deeply flawed (for example, defining mobility solely as car travel) is much less important than the Agency’s public willingness to admit those flaws and commit itself to an iterative improvement process.  This is something that every public— and private – organization needs to take on, not merely to better serve its stakeholders but also to be better in control of its own fate.

When trying to make investments with impact, there are three major difficulties. First, you must identify and prioritize or “weight” the goals according to their relative importance, selecting carefully among possible Policy-based, User-Experience-based, and Operations-based goals.  For example, GreenDOT has declared “mode shift” to be a goal: to increase the number of people who choose to walk, bike or ride public transportation, instead of driving in a Single Occupancy Vehicle.  MassDOT also has a goal of keeping roads in a “state of good repair” – which may conflict with the mode shift goal by increasing the attractiveness of car driving relative to other modes.  Which goal gets higher priority?

Second is selecting the right metrics to evaluate progress towards each of the goals:  things that can be cost-effectively measured, can be influenced by your actions, and that are sufficiently within your scope of control.  Not only must good metrics be selected, appropriate numerical targets need to be set that reflect the “goal weighting” priorities as well as safety limits, federal requirements, and other parameters.

And third is figuring out how to model the ways and degrees that different types and amounts of investment will change operations, and that each of those operational changes will impact the metrics.  While nationally-accepted formulas already exist for translating road budgets into road improvements and then into increased car mobility (meaning greater speed and volume with fewer delays), doing the same for other modes – transit, bicycling, walking – is a still-evolving practice.  (Equally important, and also lacking in predictive tools, is exploring ways to restructure operations and infrastructure to move the metrics without major investment!)

In each category, the way a goal is defined shapes the way it is measured and the actions ultimately taken to achieve it.  For example, MassDOT’s Planning for Performance tool’s definition of “mobility” as “the number of hours of delay experienced by the average driver for every 1,000 Vehicle-Miles-Traveled”  not only ignores anything related to non-car travel, it also skews the measurement towards Single Occupancy Vehicles since it only counts delays to a driver rather than to all vehicle occupants.

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GETTING MORE EGGS FROM THE GOLDEN GOOSE: “Nobody in this Country got Rich on their Own.”

It takes resources to run a city. Of course, the most important resource is people: the capabilities and creativity of its work force, the strength and resiliency of its families and neighborhoods, the civic engagement of its residents – and if Mayor Walsh is really smart he will find many ways to encourage city volunteerism in every segment of government and social life.

But money also counts.  Transportation, parks, social services, fire, police, housing, schools, and everything else: all cost money – inescapably (and legitimately) more today than yesterday, more tomorrow than today.  State law makes cities’ revenue overwhelmingly dependent on property taxes; they provide about two-thirds of Boston’s operating budget.  And (in Massachusetts) the Prop. 2½ limits on increasing the rates on pre-1982 buildings make local governments desperate for new development, particularly commercial development which has higher tax rates than residential buildings.  (The Boston Business Journal complains that “commercial properties downtown, in the Back Bay, and the Seaport… are taxed at nearly three times the residential rate …and generate more than half of Boston’s total tax levy….”)

HANDLING THE GOLDEN GOOSE

In the absence of other sources of revenue, new development provides the budget space for public needs.  But growth has its own costs, from gentrification to traffic congestion.  A recent study of major US cities found that nearly 61% of Boston’s low-priced neighborhoods were affected by gentrification – the highest percentage in the nation.

Conservatives always warn against “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” and it is possible for a city to make it so difficult for developers to operate that they go elsewhere.  But we (and our leaders) need to humbly remember that local action has only secondary influence on the most significant economic tides.  It’s exactly when business is growing that it is most possible to require that they contribute a bit more to the health of the surrounding society that allows them to exist and prosper.  And a city totally transformed by development may lose the qualities that made it attractive in the first place.  Even more:  we need to remember that the real “makers” of our well-being are the population as a whole, with every sector playing an indispensable role.  Business leaders deserve to be rewarded for their accomplishments and risk, but only to the degree that their effort increases overall wellbeing as well as their own.

TIMIDITY IS THE BIGGEST DANGER

Rather than endangering business growth, the bigger danger is that city leaders are too timid, not imaginative enough, and therefore unable to harness business energy for the common good.  It turns out that rising tides don’t lift all boats – a better metaphor is trying to lift a house:  pulling on the roof only raises the top floor; you have to raise it from the foundation if you want to elevate every room.  In any case, the current development tide will eventually ebb, as business booms always do, leaving a lot less to be shared and making it much harder to demand additional concessions.  Now is the time!

The best approaches are those that integrate a broader range of public benefits into the businesses’ every-day operations:  inclusionary zoning, job training and hiring preferences.  It is also easy to make a case for requiring the developer to make improvements to the surrounding environment through mitigation fees or requiring that they upgrade nearby parks, roads, or other public facilities. (Why not require new developments to also construct some nearby portion of the city’s Bicycle Network, or a section of the Greenway Network that advocates are beginning to work for?)   Less obvious but equally appropriate are the linkages – housing linkage, for example – that require payment into a fund for use city-wide.  (Boston would also be smart to adopt the Community Preservation Act that imposes a surcharge on every property sale.)

Mayor Walsh is faced with an immediate budget crisis, potentially requiring short-term cuts, ultimately because of limits on the city’s revenue sources and amounts but immediately due to political unwillingness to rein-in police and firefighter pay raises.  But Boston currently ranks fourth nationally in the amount of commercial space under construction.  A “surge of wealth has flooded Boston in recent years…[and] muchof the new housing is made up of high end residences, with many apartments renting for $4,000 or more per month….Boston was among the top 30 [cities] with the highest projected demand for luxury goods over the next five years.”  In the long term, the growth and money is there and advocates should not be shy about pushing the Mayor to keep squeezing the development goose.

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THE LIMITS OF GROWTH

How far do you go to promote economic growth?  How much do you demand that developers give back to the host community?  How much do you want your city to change, and in what ways?  Who profits, in what ways, and who loses?

Unregulated markets tend towards boom and bust cycles, and almost invariably provide the biggest benefits to those with the greatest resources and power.  But cities are full of people with limited resources whose welfare is, in fact, the societal base on which successful businesses are able to grow – the absence of disruptive social unrest is key to stability.   How do you develop the underlying human assets that make business possible?  How do you keep the golden goose healthy enough to continue laying those valuable eggs without ending up with it eating through (or pooping over) the very qualities of life and neighborhood that make your city what it is – and worth investing in?

“About 90 percent of the GDP of the United States and about 86 percent of the jobs are generated on 3 percent of the landmass…our cities,” says urbanist Vishaan Chakrabarti.  The increasing importance of cities as economic and population centers, the growing complexity of urban life, the commercial economy’s inherent tendency towards inequality coupled with boom-bust cycles, and our rising expectations for justice and sustenance all continually push us to legitimately need and demand more from our governments.  Even to simply keep doing what was done in the past, the cost of running a city almost always goes up.  (This is partly because public services, like sports, education, and the arts, have an inherently lower rate of productivity increase than most other economic activities, a reality known as “Baumol’s Cost Disease.”)  But past actions are seldom sufficient – old problems seldom disappear even when new problems appear.  It is possible to find money for new programs by eliminating something less essential or doing current activities more cost-effectively.  Evaluating, re-sizing, and reforming are essential strategies even if often politically difficult.  But they are seldom sufficient.  Not all great new ideas are expensive; but they are almost never free.

REVENUE REALITIES

It is possible to raise taxes and fees.  This is a particularly good approach when there are additional non-revenue advantages: raising taxes on cigarettes has been shown to reduce smoking rates, eliminating soda’s sale-tax exception by no longer defining it as food will improve personal health and lower public medical costs.   But these are primarily under state, rather than city, control:  cities are confined to a very limited range of revenue sources, primarily the narrow and distorted sliver of family wealth represented by real property – land and buildings – whose tax rates are themselves limited by the 1980 Prop. 2½ referendum.  Still, the higher rates allowed for commercial versus residential levies gives a small progressive tilt to this source.  In Boston, as business supporters point out, “owner-occupied residences are taxed at a lower rate and also qualify for a 30-percent tax exemption, thus cutting a typical homeowner’s tax bill in half.”  However, whether on a state or city level, raising taxes is often politically difficult.

But there is a major exception to the Prop. 2½ limits  –  post-1982 new development, whose tax rate is not constrained.    Not only that, the complexities of the permitting, zoning, and neighborhood review process create enormous uncertainties that developers are happy to reduce by offering (often after some arm twisting) a variety of community benefits, mitigations to the negative impacts of their projects, or payments.  Tax breaks or permission to build a higher structure are exchanged for various public benefits – affordable housing, street improvements, or public space, although the overwhelming pro-business tilt of our political system usually makes public officials very cautious in their demands.

MANAGING THE TRADE-OFFS

If the concessions made to developers are strategically selected and kept in check, the benefits can be large.  The continuing flow of digital- and bio-tech university spin-offs gives Cambridge a steadily growing tax base that local government has used to support extensive social, cultural, and educational services as well as the state’s lowest residential property tax rate.  (How effectively those services are provided is another question; as is the issue of allowing Kendal Square’s high-rise luxury to spread into Central Square and elsewhere.)

This strategy is not without peril.  The flipside of growth is change, a side effect of capitalism’s famous creative destruction.  Pushing new development into established neighborhoods is difficult – people already live or work there and the more powerful they are the more effective their protest.  But it’s not random change:  the more upscale and professional the developing economy the more disruptive the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.  Which is why, in addition to their relatively lower land prices, development (followed, usually, by upscale gentrification) targets desirably-located low-income, less powerful neighborhoods.  This is not inevitable – a recent study of major US cities found that nearly 3/4 had a neighborhood gentrification rate below 10%.  But Boston’s 61% rate was even higher than Seattle’s 55%, NYC’s 46%, San Francisco’s 42%, and Washington, D.C.’s 35%.  Whatever the possible positives associated with upgrading, displacement is upsetting and contentious to those lives are being disrupted.

Therefore, a less disruptive strategy is to direct development towards “empty” areas, preferably those accessible by public transit.    Smart, and lucky, city leaders push growth into “empty” areas where it’s “only” artists who get displaced. In Cambridge that means around Alewife, Kendall Square, and North Point.  In Somerville it’s the old Inner Belt Industrial Area.  In Boston it’s the Seaport, but there explosive growth in the absence of subway service has created massive transportation problems.

MARKETS ARE CREATED NOT BORN

Shaping the real estate development market, making it clear what kinds of building (e.g. affordable housing) is needed or not wanted (e.g. isolating luxury high-rises) in what neighborhoods, and requiring that developers – and big landlords – contribute more to the overall health of the city will not change the underlying forces driving the Boston building boom:  our universities and medical institutions have what both high-tech and bio-tech most need – smart people.  As Mayor Walsh redirects the BRA, we can only hope that his union backers’ legitimate desire for jobs does not interfere with his mayoral imperative to get the most possible for his city.

But what Boston, and the entire region, needs to do is make sure that it remains the kind of place that people want to (and can) live in.  Mayor Menino has been widely criticized for using the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to force concessions from developers (as well as to punish his enemies and reward his friends).  However, when it comes to pressuring developers for concessions, Menino was on the right track.  Rather than cut budgets, in the long run Bostonians will do better by investing in the things and services that make our entire population stronger, more educated, healthier, and more united – and that make our area more livable.  Our schools, housing, and safety net services are probably the most important because they not only help keep new families in town but they are also the key for keeping our crime rates low and our levels of social cohesion high.  But right behind those core investments are infrastructure issues:  parks, roads, and a host of state-funded programs from water quality to mass transit.

WHO ARE THE “MAKERS”

Of course, conservatives argue that when times are good you shouldn’t do anything to rock the boat or discourage your growth leaders –– and they’re half right in that the collateral effects of new development, usually jobs and sometimes momentum for more development, are very important.  But, also of course, these are often the same people who say, when times are bad, that you shouldn’t burden anyone with additional costs – and, again, they’re half right.  During a crisis the better move is to rely on borrowing (a city’s version of deficit spending) and to push for systemic change (within your own scope of control) to address the underlying structural market problems that led to the downturn in the first place, as FDR did after the Great Depression (and Obama was not able to do after our most recent fiscal collapse).

The reality is that for all the campaign talk about being “development friendly” – and acknowledging that there are many ways that governments can be more transparent, efficient, and predictable in their relationship with businesses – sustained growth is largely dependent on trends and factors beyond immediate local control: physical facts such as location (location, location) and weather, and human/social capital such as intellectual resources, an available and properly skilled labor force, investment capital flow, and the accidents of history.  If you are able to take advantage of these (usually inherited) assets, and if the surrounding regional/national economic system is doing well, your city grows; otherwise usually not.

And business development doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Contrary to the Libertarian line that real wealth is only created by private investment, almost every business in today’s world is totally dependent on the surrounding presence of “public goods” – the often invisible parts of our lives that are not universally-enough provided by commercial markets:  clean air and rivers, sanitation and potable water, safe food and drugs, parks, culture, education, roads, social trust, and much more.  In addition, there is no such thing as a “free” or “unregulated” market.  Every commercial interaction is shaped by the surrounding context and governed by the rules of the enabling society.  Without social rules, cultural or legal, commerce turns into pillage as the strong simply take what they want from everyone else.  Without society, business doesn’t exist.  The question is not whether or not to impose constraints but how to apportion the costs and benefits of the transactions, how to assure maximum social value from every aspect of the transaction.

As Senator Elizabeth Warren famously said that “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Or, as Benjamin Franklin more radically said a long time ago, “Private Property is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing; its Contributions therefore to the public Exigencies are not to be considered as conferring a Benefit on the Publick, entitling the Contributors to the Distinctions of Honour and Power, but as the Return of an Obligation previously received, or the Payment of a just Debt.”

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Thanks to Arthur MacEwen, Jim Campen, and Larry Rosenberg for comments on previous versions; I’m responsible for all opinions and remaining errors!

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Related previous posts:

> THE NEXT MAYOR’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating Prosperity by Lifting the Basement Instead of Raising the Roof

> IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

> LIVABILITY, PUBLIC HEALTH, AND MOVING AROUND: A Healthy Society Requires Healthy People

> PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value

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

> THE ART OF TRANSPORTATION (AND URBAN) PLANNING: Going Beyond the Technical Specs

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, Government Reform | Leave a comment

SMART CITIES, POWER POLITICS, & QUALITY OF LIFE: Technology and What It’s Used For

Techno-utopians.  It wasn’t long ago that we were being told that digital Information and Communication Technologies would solve nearly every problem and transform the world in wonderful ways, small and big.  Cars would be routed around congestion; government would more accurately chart population needs. Although there were some efforts to broaden the scope of “smart” to include people as well as systems, the vision was primarily about technology.

Most of us now understand that the promised land of technology-enabled paradise isn’t going to happen, or at least that change – even transformation – is not the same as progress, that making things faster or more efficient or more connected or more data-rich is not the same as improving the quality of life.  In fact, we’ve seen numerous ways in which digital technologies –when they actually work – have made things worse, or at least simply recreated existing hierarchies, inequalities, and problems.  And there are good reasons to worry that the pursuit of “big data” capabilities will be even more dangerous – as low-income recipients of social services often already experience.

The push for Smart Cities drew much of its original energy from the techno-utopian well.  It was popularized by multi-national technology firms seeking new markets.  If we’re lucky, the wave of big ideas has crested and we’ve moved into an era of more modest, decentralized, and do-able – one good example being Boston’s own “New Urban Mechanics” program.

Technology is just a tool.  And selecting the appropriate tool, an appropriate technology, requires first deciding what you are trying to use it for – not just the immediate task but the deeper social and political conditions.  Good technology is developed or adopted in order to strengthen core values:  democracy, community, equality, individual dignity.  Quality of life, in transportation and everything else, results from the successful cultivation of these qualities. 

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Digital Eden

The vision was that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) would aggregate knowledge through crowd sourcing, wiki’s, and unlimited access to the world’s information.  Public education (and medicine) would be transformed into individualized services.  Rural areas and underdeveloped countries would become as economically vibrant as urban centers and the G-7, leading to a prosperous, innovation-based globalized economy much more resistant to war.  Our streets would be congestion- and crime-free.  Our vehicles wouldn’t pollute and we’d never get lost again.  The Internet would make censorship impossible, make everyone a content producer, and facilitate grass-roots mobilization.  The world was about to be transformed by the nearly-inevitable expansion of entrepreneurial-driven high tech that would disruptively force a paradigm shift for the much better. Our quality of life was about to be radically raised.

Things have certainly changed over the past 30 years when I was first involved with the emerging PC computer industry and began running across these rapturizing futurists, some of whom are still spouting!  Many of the changes are in line with those earlier predictions, and I welcome them.  But we certainly are not living in or even moving towards utopia.  In fact, there are ways that things are worse exactly because of the impact of the global digital web.

Network Negatives; People Positives

We now know that the Internet facilitates social separation as much as it brings people together.  The new communication tools are no barrier to the spread of fear and misinformation or the solidification of existing discriminatory or hierarchical patterns.  We’ve learned that the core needs of children (and adults) are not met through a digital screen.  Inequality has increased along with globalized business connections.  People still pour into cities because distance and proximity are still relevant.  It’s shockingly easy for both governments and terrorists to control, disrupt, or distort the flow of information.  Technology, including social media, has made possible new kinds of equally heinous crime and warfare.  And democracy is no stronger than it used to be.

What the pundits ignored is that technology is just a tool; that even if it is available to everyone, and even if it upsets some niches, those with the greatest power and wealth will be able to use it the most (or to hire people to use it for them) for the purpose of retaining their status and serving their needs and values.  To the extent that their well-being and values have a positive side-effect on the general welfare, everyone benefits. To the extent there is divergence, and to the extent that elites are not checked by internal or external constraints, the rest of us suffer.

I’m not anti-technology – which is mostly inescapable in any case.  There are some technologies, such as chemical weapons, whose dangers are so obvious that we need ways to prevent their development even, although probably impossible, at the pure science level.  But usually, it’s hard to know beforehand what a scientific discovery or a new tool can be used for.  (It would be good to create something like the Danish Citizen’s Technology Review program to help evaluate the societal implications before large investments are made.)

At the same time, regardless of the particular technology, we need to remember that the more democratic a society is, the better organized and demanding the “have less” and “have not” forces are, and the more that themes of mutual aid and equity are woven into the culture, the greater the constraints on elite self-aggrandizing there are – and the more likely it is that tools will be used to benefit broader sectors of the population.  We have to remember that issues of democracy, power, inequality, and humanistic values do not get positively resolved as an inevitable byproduct of anything else, including technological advance.  They have to be directly addressed.

Smart Cities From The Bottom Up

Which brings us to Smart Cities.  Embedding technology into our buildings, streets, cars, and governmental processes can be a good thing.  Just like Complete Streets, bike facilities, and parks.  But by themselves, neither technology nor infrastructure will fundamentally change our quality of life.   Some things may become easier.  Traffic may move more efficiently.  But the real determinants of value deal with the questions of: Which technologies; for what purposes? What infrastructure; accessible to which people?

In a recent interview, Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities, points out that after the finance industry’s catastrophic collapse in 2008, big corporations stopped buying new IT at the same time government was trying to keep the economy from totally collapsing through stimulus spending.  IBM, quickly followed by CISCO and others, then came up with various “Smarter Planet” strategies to sell “enterprise” systems to local and state governments.  The market didn’t take off, and the stimulus funds quickly stopped flowing, but this was the origin of the “Smart City” drumbeat.

Rather than the top-down, mega-project approach, which almost never initially succeed in either the private or public sectors (Healthcare.gov is simply more visible than corporate failures), Townsend touts  “incremental, ad-hoc” bottom-up kinds of experimental applications that may, eventually, be knit together by the likes of IBM and other big vendors.  (This is exactly the kind of work that will be discussed at an upcoming MIT Code For America event.)

Still, Townsend is cautious.  The value of the currently hot public-private partnership model is that “for cities those are, I don’t want to say a devil’s bargain, but they’re loaded with a lot of issues, particularly when you have data being produced about cities and citizens…[which is] where a lot of the value is for the private sector partner…[the misuse of which there are only] haphazard safeguards…And then Edward Snowden shows up and basically demonstrates that things are much, much worse than anyone feared. I don’t think there’s any level of alarm about this stuff that’s unjustified.”

In fact, even before the NSA began peering into all our homes, poor people were already experiencing exactly the type of 360-surveillance that the rest of us worry about.

Boston’s Opportunity

Former Boston Mayor Menino set a good technological tone – perhaps partly because of his own fear of losing control.  Menino’s “New Urban Mechanics” program starting by focusing on citizens’ ability to talk to and get confirmed follow-up from local government, on communication rather than data collection.  New Mayor Walsh will be smart to keep this same focus.  There is a lot to build on:  Citizens Connect that sends inquiries and complaints to the right person,  Street Bump that uses smart phones to identify road problems, One Card is a multi-purpose card for educational and transit access, Discover BPS helps parents examine possible schools for their children, Where’s My School Bus tracks the too-frequently worrisome trip to/from home, Adopt a Hydrant let’s residents take responsibility for removing snow from local fire-fighting tools, and more.

But for all the pleasure and efficiency that these types of applications provide, they are only important at an intermediary level.  The deeper level, the level that most fundamentally affects quality of life level, is about people’s day-to-day sense of security – which itself comes from the resources they have available to handle the inevitable disruptions of life, the power they have to control their environment, and the strength of their social connections.  Mayor Walsh’s own history of addictive alcoholism makes him a powerful advocate for providing a safety net for those with problems.  It will be interesting to see if his pragmatic approach will have as much impact as the more ideological egalitarian stance taken by incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

However, neither de Blasio nor Walsh will have much impact on the increasing scale of our hierarchies unless public pressure creates a progressive political environment that makes equality and democracy explicit priorities.  Tools are good; what counts is how they are used, what they are used for, and who benefits versus who doesn’t.

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I spent several years on the national board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, where I learned from some of the brightest people in the country about the ethical and social impacts of digital technological.  I particularly want to call out Gary Chapman and Cora Lee Whitcomb, both of whom led CPSR and both of whose untimely deaths leave us all the poorer.

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Previous blog posts related to this:

> THE NEXT MAYOR’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating Prosperity by Lifting the Basement Instead of Raising the Roof

> PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value

> LIVABILITY, PUBLIC HEALTH, AND MOVING AROUND: A Healthy Society Requires Healthy People

> THE ADVOCATES DILEMA: When The Need for Action is Immediate But the Pace of Change is Slow

> GUNS, TAXES, TRANSPORTATION, AND THE MEANING OF LIFE: Why Government Is A Precondition for Livability

> IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

> ELECTION EMOTIONS: Pride, Hope, Relief and the Need For More

> Thanksgiving and the Nature of Power

 

 

 

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, Government Reform, Safety | Leave a comment