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

We’ve all seen the graph: a person hit by a car going 40 miles per hour (mph) has an 85% chance of being killed.  Reducing the speed to 30 mph cuts the odds of death in half; reducing speed to 20 mph drops the fatality rate by an astounding 94%.  Even more dramatically, at 5 mph cars (and very cautious trucks), bikes, and pedestrians can all safely share the same street space.  According to the US Department of Transportation, about 33% of vehicle-related deaths are speeding-related.  Of those, around 40% occur in urban areas.

Almost every neighborhood feels that too many cars (and trucks) are driving through too fast making too much noise and endangering everyone.   One impact is to severely limit the number of people who are willing to walk, bike, or even hang around outside with their neighbors.   Especially affected:  the elderly, the infirm, the very young, the slow moving.  Especially impaired:  public health, social connectivity, local businesses, and (because it is almost always worse in low-income communities) social equity.

The most effective way to slow traffic is through physical changes in the road and its surroundings.  But despite progressive policy statements at the state and federal levels about the need to promote walking, bicycling, and transit as much as – or even more than – car traffic, current planning and operational procedures and practices continue to generally lead to car-centric results.   Changing this requires elevating the concept of “desired” or “target” speed to a central place in all road transportation analyses and decisions, while broadening its interpretation to incorporate criteria relating to the promotion of non-car modes.  As a step towards that goal, we also need to support two bills currently in the Massachusetts Legislature that would allow the local creation of additional 20 mph Safety Zones and reduce the Legislatively-set Statutory (default) speed limits on streets without Posted Limits.

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OPERATING SPEED

After (or in fear of) an accident, or just to make their neighborhood’s public space more inviting for walking, bicycling, or simply being outside with others, the first impulse of many concerned citizens is to demand a traffic light – which unfortunately often ends up having little effect on car speeds before or after the intersection and may even cause some motorists to speed up in order to beat the light or make up for lost time.  The second impulse is to demand that the local authorities find a way to reduce car speed.

Cars’ actual operating speed is affected by many factors.  Some are specific to the individual motorist, car, or moment of time: personal attitudes and skills, vehicle capabilities, police presence, level of congestion, and the weather. However, because these vary widely across the population and times they don’t change the overall average operating speed.

Other factors are more external and permanent and affect almost every driver and car:  the road’s physical structure, the signage and pavement markings, the surrounding environment, and the speed limit.  Because they affect everyone in generally similar ways, these structural factors are considered the primary influence on overall operating speed.  Of the physical factors, the infrastructural components — the physical and painted layout and signage – are mainly preset, based on the Design Speed chosen to guide planning when the road was constructed or upgraded.

But Design Speed is a conceptual tool, not a speed limit.  Partly because straight wide roads invite it and partly because engineers understandably try to include a car-focused margin of safety to compensate for inevitable “driver errors” Federal Highway Administration researchers have shown that when roads are put into use their layout “often appear adequate for speeds far above the designated design speed.”  Making matters worse,  the higher manufacturing standards used for cars these days make going faster feel more comfortable, so motorists are likely to go even faster in a wider variety of road conditions.  And we do go fast.  Because the stress of our lives rushes us through the day, because our culture encourages us to push forward, and because it is so easy to press down on the gas pedal, most people (myself included) tend to drive as fast as the road comfortably allows.

STRUCTURE RULES

In recognition of this reality, MassDOT’s  Speed Zone Regulations state:  “Numerous studies have indicated that drivers will not significantly alter what they consider to be a safe operating speed, regardless of the posted speed limit, unless there is constant heavy enforcement…[To be] both acceptable to the prudent driver and enforceable by police…the ideal speed limit is…[based on the] prevailing speeds of motorists on a particular section of a roadway under ideal conditions.”

Obviously, the best way to reduce car speed is to change road conditions.  But, in the absence of a history of car accidents or a recent headlined tragedy, when local activists demand structural changes that would dampen traffic flow they are often rebuffed when the current legal speed limit (and local practice) allows higher speeds.   And when they try to get around this by pushing for a Speed Zone Study to justify their desire for lower speed limits they run into the “prevailing speeds” issue – current transportation policy is implemented through formulas that  speed limits can’t be lowered if as few as 15% of motorists are already going faster.  And this is almost always the case:  studies show that “the majority of speed limits are posted below the average speed of traffic.”  Even worse: if a Speed Zone Study finds that the current threshold operating speed is high than the existing Speed Limit, the Transportation Agency is required to raise the speed limit — which is why most Speed Zone Studies get cancelled before their “official” end.

Catch 22 – it was exactly because local people felt that too many cars were going too fast that led to the desire to slow things down in the first place!

UNDERLYING VALUES

The source of the problem is the car-prioritizing values and procedures that remain at the core of transportation planning and analytic methods and expressed through current practices.   According to Massachusetts’ Procedures for Speed Zoning on State and Municipal Roadways manual, “The goal of our Speed Limit Traffic Control Program has always been… in the best interest of the motoring public’s right to use a roadway in a reasonable and proper manner….”  It is theoretically possible to stretch the words “reasonable and proper” to include all the other factors relating to the impact of motorized traffic on our social environment and public health as well as the rights of non-motorists to use public space.  But, in procedural reality, the “motoring public’s right to use a roadway” to go as fast as “ideal conditions” allow takes priority.  (For another procedural tool that leads to the same car-centric results, check out the way Level of Service analysis is usually done.)

In effect, the rules and procedures for setting speed limits are entirely focused on accommodating car drivers.  Period.  There is no method to incorporate any other factor besides simplifying enforcement.   Safety of pedestrians?  Encouragement of bicycling?  Impact on the social environment in public spaces?  No mention; no formal way to include; and certainly not prioritized.

The result is that despite widespread desire and many efforts to lower car speeds, it seldom occurs.

THE ROUTE FORWARD

There is a solution.  It starts by affirming the core principal that motorist comfort should not be the primary determinant of Design Speed, road structure and markings, or the Speed Limit.  This is not actually a new or off-the-chart idea.  In fact, at both the federal and state levels, official policy now insists that the safety, comfort, and mobility of people traveling by foot, bike, bus, trolley, and train be given equal consideration as those in cars. Former US Transportation Secretary LaHood issued a new multi-modal-favoring policy and blogged that “This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized.”  In Massachusetts, because of its aggressive “mode shift” goals to triple the number of walking, bicycling, and transit trips, official policy even can be interpreted as prioritizing the needs of non-car users – an interpretation reinforced by the recent Healthy Transportation Policy Directive.

However, there remains a huge gap between policy and practice.  One way to begin operationalizing these policies is to put the concept of Target Speed – the “desired operating speed” – at the core of not only the Design Speed selection and Speed Zone Study processes but also every routine restriping, maintenance, and repair job.  This relatively new piece of Transportation jargon needs to be understood, and if necessary redefined, to include everyone’s safety; and the criteria used to calculate it must include the impact of car (and truck) movement on people’s willingness to use other modes, as well as on the large influence of transportation on the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhood.  And we need to go beyond statements of policy and principle to have the new approach incorporated in the guidelines, formulas, and evaluations of every Traffic project.

While MassDOT adjusts its internal operations, the process can be moved forward through passage of several bills now under Legislative consideration.  H.550, sponsored by  State Representative Denise Provost, will authorize locally-designated 20 mph Senior Citizen Safety Zones  in addition to the current School Zones – a first step towards allowing the creation, at local discretion, of Safety Zones near hospitals, playgrounds, railroad stations, senior housing, even business areas.  H.3129, also sponsored by Representative Provost, will set 25 mph, instead of the current 30, as the default speed limit for local roads in urban districts without explicit Speed Limit posting.   Call your Representative and let them know what you think!

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…THE REST OF THIS POST IS A DETAILED EXPANSION OF THE ABOVE MATERIAL…  

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Thanks to Tom DiPaolo and Peter Furth for extensive feedback on previous drafts; the remaining errors are entirely my own responsibility.

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Related previous blog posts:

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

> INTERSECTION 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

> MODE SHIFT AMPLIFIERS: The Importance of the Out-of-Vehicle Experience

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

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

FOR A HEALTHIER YEAR IN A HEALTHIER WORLD

Solstice.  New Years.    The annual Janus; looking both forward and backward at another year of transitions and challenges.

As we look out our windows at the energized serenity of fresh snow, hope for both personal and societal peace and progress grows anew.  Like so many of you, I spend a lot of time and energy working for positive change small and large, short- and long-term, internal and external.  Sometimes it feels like slush.

I still think that there are deep patterns and drives to human life, from individual personality development to social evolution.  I believe even more than ever that the larger context shapes whatever lies within it, that wealth and power have and will always do whatever it must to retain its status, that many people do many horrible things, and that creating a good life, both at home and in the world, requires individual and collective action.

However, I no longer believe, as I once did, that history is inherently on our side — that the universe, as Martin Luther King prophesied, “bends towards justice.”   Bad things happen. I’ve come to appreciate the importance of individual difference, the unpredictability of events, and the great unlikelihood that things turn out the way we want.  The future, of those we love and the world we live in, is always up for grabs and there is no inevitability that a lot of that future won’t be, like so much of the past, painful and destructive.

The contingency of politics and life-affirming change both adds to our individual responsibility and eases the potential guilt.  And it reminds us that the scope of our lives is more inclusive than our public role.

So, as you do what do you, enjoy life.  Eat well, and in good company. Support yourself, but hold hands with others.  Give and accept hugs, and love.  Take care of yourself and someone else.  Remember that happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, and all the other opposing pairs are actually composed of separate realities – the fact that you are now sad does not cancel out previous happiness: this, too, shall pass.  Walk, bike, and play more.  As you head for the horizon make sure to pay attention to what’s directly underfoot.

I have learned that while we can’t save the world, we can be friends.

I hope for a healthy, happy, and satisfying year to all of you, to us all.  Be well!

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

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

Boston Public Health Commissioner, Barbara Ferrer, says that while Boston has many Public Health needs, the three biggest challenges facing the city are reducing violence, making a positive health impact an explicit goal of every policy in every department, and using the new provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to get hospitals and other health-care providers to do more about prevention.

Although she probably would not object to adding obesity (with its tight connection to poor food, inadequate physical activity, and too much TV) and greater equity to the list, Commissioner Ferrer’s three challenges begin to frame a Public Health approach to livability.  Safety, at home and on the street, is the prerequisite for nearly everything from personal wellbeing to neighborhood life to economic prosperity.  Our health is not a separate phenomenon from everything else in our lives – our homes, neighborhoods, transportation methods, jobs, recreation, family and social life have a powerful effect on our well-being:  policy makers dealing with any other those areas have to make health impact a visible consideration. No public agency or department should be allowed to narrow their focus in ways that externalize burdens and costs – every program has to include a broad range of goals.  And we have to start forcing our health care system – the most technologically advance, most expensive, and least cost-effective in terms of population wellbeing of any industrialized nation in history – to pivot from prioritizing medicalized sickness treatment to helping keep people from getting sick in the first place.

Public Health is not just about living longer, but living better; not only about meeting basic needs, but the quality of people’s interactions; not just about individual health, but about population-societal well-being and equity. In this era of political polarization and cultural anxiety, Public Health provides powerful strategic insights for a variety of public issues.   So it’s probably no accident that MassDOT’s latest advance towards transportation reform is titled the “Healthy Transportation Policy Directive.”  It’s not just that Secretary Davey is using words required by the 2009 Transportation Reform Act, and it’s not that economics aren’t the most powerful underlying driver of politics.  Just the opposite: it’s that he recognizes that for transportation – as for a huge number of other sectors – having access to basic daily needs such as jobs, healthcare, food and school is a catalyst for being healthy and is a critical part of the path to economic development with a high return on investment.

But too often, invoking health is a marketing ploy, not a programmatic or policy direction. Some of the misappropriation of the term is deliberate.  Some of it comes from the confusion between Medicine’s focus (at least in our cultural image) on dramatic and quick results – the “magic pill” we all wish would solve our every problem – and Public Health’s focus on longer-term solutions and population wellness within its three themes of Prevent, Promote, Protect.  Related to this is that most of us have little understanding of what Public Health encompasses.  Rather than Medicine’s traditional focus on individualized treatment, Public Health is about maintaining wellness – prevention – and it focuses on interventions that increase resilience and reduce exposure to health risks for an entire population.  Public health is not just about improving our overall health statistics, but also about the distribution of that improvement through every sector of society.

Public Health can be thought of as having three major components:  Preventive Medicine, Standards Enforcement, and Primary Prevention, all in a context of reducing outcome disparities between subgroups.  Preventive Medicine, such vaccinations and  helping patients continue taking prescribed drugs, is what hospitals and other health service providers are beginning to do, but need to be forced to do more. Standards Enforcement, such as restaurant and housing code inspections, is one of the functions of government that we have to make sure declining budgets don’t cut into ineffectiveness.  But Primary Prevention is the most fundamental, powerful, and difficult.

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PREVENTIVE MEDICINE

Preventive Medicine is the most well-known component of Public Health.  Infectious diseases are the world’s most deadly illness, particularly to young children and new mothers.  Even today, respiratory and diarrheal infections, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB are responsible for over two-thirds of all deaths globally.  The threat of new pandemics continues to be a major Preventive Medicine focus, with modern vaccination part of the bedrocks of past and hopeful future success.

In addition to vaccination, early detection and treatment, medical providers have been paying much more attention to increasing patients’ compliance with doctor’s orders and drug prescriptions, and some have even been working to improve their staff’s cultural competency in dealing with diverse populations.  While expanding health coverage is what is best known about both Massachusetts’ Health Care Reform laws and the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka the ACA or Obamacare), both are also designed to push the medical community, particularly hospitals, to pay even more attention to these pre-admittance and follow-up preventive functions, including ensuring that patients are able to travel to their appointments, as well as to lowering the number of in-hospital infections and treatment mistakes.

(The ACA is the most important public health legislation in more than half a century.  Among its accomplishments are the creation of both a National Prevention Strategy and a Prevention And Public Health Fund includes the Community Transformation Grant program, which address both primary community-based prevention and clinical preventive services.)

Unless start-up missteps with Obamacare allow enemies to kill the entire program, some segments of our national sickness-treatment system will be switching from pay-per-procedure to pay-per-person reimbursements.  The law also creates a broader definition of the Community Benefits that non-profit hospitals are required to provide to retain their tax-exempt IRS status.   In Massachusetts, the pioneering Prevention And Wellness Trust Fund seeks to lower health care costs by reducing the impact of chronic illness. As a result hospitals and some other medical-care providers will have a greater financial interest in helping people not get sick in the first place.  As part of this, there will have to be an increased focus on coordination between different components of the health care system, anchored by the technology-enabled idea of a “medical home” or even the more expansive “health home.”

Most branches of the medical profession already understand that life-style changes are a necessary component of both Prevention and Treatment. So one component of Preventive Medicine are supportive services – programs that help people entrapped in tobacco and nicotine addiction, alcoholism and drug abuse, and obsessive gambling; programs that help people pull themselves together when faced with domestic and street violence or by the effects of war; services that help families cope with the multiple problems emanating from chronic illness or injuries. At their best, these services are structured to encourage mutual support rather than just professional ministrations, and to empower people to go beyond coping to pro-active prevention through healthy behaviors.

But even supportive services are after-the-fact.  So some progressive medical practitioners and researchers are looking for ways to reach “upstream” to where the injuries and diseases they treat really begin.  In The UpStream Doctors, Albert Schweitzer Fellow-for-Life Rishi Manchanda says that hospitals and medical practices need to change their intake questionnaires to include a broader scan for problems beyond the body in the reality of people’s homes, work, food, play, and relationships.  They need to have a person on staff whose job is to work with patients on these pre-clinical problem sources, or at least connect patients with other service and advocacy groups who can.

This is not just about medical altruism or idealism.  To keep health care costs from bankrupting their budgets, Mayors and Governors are going to be using the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to redirect some of the enormous sums now flowing through the high-end of the hospital, medical specialist, and medical technology industries towards community services.  Change is coming; the only question is how deep it goes.

STANDARDS ENFORCEMENT

Consumers, workers, the general public, and our natural environment are regularly endangered by bad products, unsafe working conditions, and polluting emissions. As a result, government has become responsible for setting and enforcing a broad array of standards including health and safety standards for restaurants, housing, workplaces, food stores, as well as for air, water, and noise quality – and transportation-related air/water quality controls.  The recent exposure of tainted drug-compounding procedures at various manufacturing firms is an example of what happens when this function is underfunded or cut-back in the name of either tax relief or reducing bureaucracy.

All this is sometimes described as “public health infrastructure.”  It has a huge impact on people’s live and it’s incredibly unsexy, and therefore, tremendously at risk of being underfunded.

PRIMARY PREVENTION

The ultimate goal of Public Health is to reduce the odds that people get sick in the first place, and improve their chances of successful recovery if they do succumb.  This doesn’t happen through one-on-one interactions but rather, through changing the larger context and environment – the things that “tilt the playing field” so that certain behaviors become easier and more frequent than others, more the general default.  Primary Prevention is a key strategy for reducing the incidence of chronic disease – the largest and most expensive type of illness.  According to the Centers for Disease Control nearly half of American adults live with at least one chronic illness which absorbs more than 75% of our total health care costs and significantly reduces the sufferer’s ability to function either at work or at home.

Mandating speed limits for cars and the use of seat belts reduces the risk of accidents and injuries on a population-wide basis.  Overall behavior patterns are more indirectly nudged by taxes (such as that on sugar-sweetened beverages) and subsidies (such as providing school lunches or creating incentives for supermarkets to locate in “food deserts”) that reshape the marketplace away from its current tilt towards unhealthy to healthier choices (such as from high-profit, empty-calorie foods to fresh fruit and vegetables). The odds that people will have some every day physical activity is increased by inserting parks and playgrounds into the built environment, and prioritizing walking and bicycling facilities in transportation planning.  Anti-smoking programs combine all these approaches: forbidding smoking in many places, making it harder to buy cigarettes, raising the cost of cigarettes, and conducting media campaigns to make smoking look uncool.

At its deepest level, Primary Prevention is about the way society’s institutional and cultural structures shape the way we live, eat, work, play, raise families, grow old, and even how we feel.  Our behaviors and wellbeing are both influenced, if not determined, by the surrounding environment.  The external, non-biologically inheritable, factors that promote wellness and resilience or put a person or population at risk of injury and disease are called the Social Determinants of Health.   It is illustrated through a Social-Ecological Model of concentric circles with the individual in the center surrounded by Interpersonal Relationships, then Community Customs, Institutional Operations, and Societal Structures.

The most powerful insight of this approach is its understanding that statistically improving the health of a society involves more than good sewerage and garbage collection, safe and affordable housing and food and working conditions, even more than clean air and water.  It also requires addressing poverty, discrimination, racism, and violence – which can be at least partly thought of as what comes out under the dysfunctionalizing pressure of the previous two.   Violence, and the fear of violence — domestic and street, against people or things, direct and indirect – isolates people, forces parents to keep their children indoors, and saps both our collective resources and good will.  Violence, like corruption, pulls the ground out from sustainability and leads only to the type of predatory interpersonal relationships and businesses that keep us poor and spiritually broken.

In the breath of its scope, Primary Prevention can be dauntingly complex. In the Commonwealth, the Department of Public Health’s Mass In Motion program encourages municipalities to create local Coordinating Committees pulling together police, Parks and Recreation, Schools, Social Services, Transportation, Public Health, and other departments that develop holistic programs to address obesity, safety, better nutrition, increased physical activity, and other risk-reducing environmental changes.  (Mass In Motion also has an important workplace wellness component.)  At both the local and state levels, at both the Cabinet and Agency levels, there is a move towards using a Health In All Policies strategy to leverage the organization’s entire portfolio of programs to create a solid floor of support for everyone.  (See the new APHA material:  Health In All Policies: A Guide for State and Local Governments.)   Zoning, street design, school activities, police programs, and more – each needs to see itself as part of the solution – an understanding that is often expressed through developing a Health Impact Assessment of a proposed policy or program.

PUBLIC HEALTH & TRANSPORTATION

All of which brings us back to transportation, the other theme of this blog.   Lurking inside each of Commissioner Ferrer’s public health challenges is the need to continue changing the way we move around – because how we move around significantly impacts not only our personal but our economic health, not only our neighborhoods but our global environment.  It’s not just the quantity of moving things, information, and people that’s important, it’s also the impact both what is in motion and on the surrounding environment.  Yes, we want our packages to arrive quickly and unbroken, our data to arrive unscrambled (and unread!), ourselves to arrive dry and safe.  But we also want the traveling process to have the least possible negative, or even the most possible positive, effect on ourselves and on overall conditions.

Even more, our ability to be active shapers of our social-ecological environment is deeply related to our ability to get to potential jobs, family, or friends, as well as the “externalized” impacts of that activity on air, water, and noise pollution.  Safe streets – safe to cross, safe to be on, safe to be around – are part of a “virtuous circle:” the safer a street is the more people will use it, the more people who use it the more it becomes part of the community, unavailable for anti-social behavior, and a launching pad for empowerment.  Transportation-related Health Impact Assessments have shown the broad impact and relative ease of addressing these issues.

Transportation is a high-leverage approach to creating a built-environment that makes it more likely that people are physically active as part of their daily routines, a key strategy for improved resilience and both physical and emotional wellness.   And the better condition people are in the more productive they are at work and the less expensive they are to treat when sick. Easy movement is good for both personal health and economic vitality, which makes transportation such a core issue for the livability and sustainability of our communities.  It is the interweaving of the themes of health, economic development, and environmental protection – along with their equitable distribution – that make transportation such an important issue for the livability and sustainability of our communities in these stage-setting years of the early 21st century.

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Thanks to Andrea Freeman, Maddie Ribble, and Jessica Collins for comments on earlier drafts.

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Related previous blog posts:

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

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

> TRANSPORTATION AND HEALTH PROPOSALS: Legislation Endorsed by the Mass Public Health Association

> HEALTHY PEOPLE, SAFE TRAVEL, GOOD BUSINESS, PERSONAL CHOICE: Framing Mode Shift

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

Both Advocates and Public Agency leaders can find a number of lessons in the multi-level effort to deal with the McGrath Highway corridor in Somerville – which has resulted not only in a commitment from MassDOT to explore ways to eventually replace the crumbling neighborhood-dividing “Chinese Wall” with a less intimidating ground-level road, but a short-term plan to significantly  improve transit, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities as part of short-term repairs to the McCarthy Overpass section.

For Advocates, the continuing struggle reinforces the need to combine protest, lobbying, and partnership in their strategic mix.  It illustrates that Advocacy is vital because most technical decisions are politically determined.  McGrath had been studied for years, it wasn’t until everyone – over a dozen community groups, the city, and the legislative team – came together that ideas turned into action.

For Public Officials, the McGrath developments show that it is possible to retain professional oversight and exercise legal responsibility while opening the door to broader input.   Listening to others, even those with no official standing or technical credentials, increases rather than decreases public respect and often leads to better solutions.  Even more humbling, but even more important: doing something significantly different from past practice requires first acknowledging that it is a challenging paradigm shift and that neither the Agency nor its traditional set of vendors may have the expertise needed for the job.

And for everyone, there is the lesson that at times, such as when the political and/or professional environment is rapidly changing, when it’s best to slice off small parts of a big job, to play with temporary pilots and experiments, and to push off some decisions into the future.

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FROM REPAIRS TO RETHINKING

The core issue was (and is) what to do with the McGrath-O’Brien Highway corridor, including the McCarthy Overpass at its center.  Like much of this nation’s infrastructure it was (and is) falling apart.  Should it simply be replaced, overpass and all?   Does the remaining amount of pass through traffic along with anticipated future development of the adjacent areas justify increasing the road’s car and truck capacity?  Or does the shift of most through traffic to I-93, the coming of the Green Line extension, the desire to re-connect the adjoining neighborhoods, and the recognition that creating walkable-bikeable-transit-friendly communities is vital for economic growth lead to a design that eliminates the overpass, reduces the size of the road, and recreates the series of city streets and blocks that existed before McGrath ripped through?

Originally, MassDOT intended to use the first option: simple replacement.  But after a series of escalating protests, organized by a broad coalition of community groups that LivableStreets Alliance helped bring together, and the subsequent supportive push-back from both city government and elected state representatives, MassDOT’s District 4 (the local office in charge of the project) announced a “Grounding McGrath” study process to reconsider the long-term options.  Success came not only from the protests but from the ability to present credible alternatives:  LivableStreets’ ability to present technically sophisticated alternatives, the bike-friendly path to prosperity envisioned by Somerville Mayor Joseph Curatone, and the clear message from MassDOT’s downtown Executive Office that they wanted the agency to become more multi-modal.

It’s a study, not a committed design.  And it already seems that MassDOT engineers will propose something merely one step down from a highway:  a multi-lane road lined with sidewalks and trees but optimized for through-traffic, which they call a “boulevard,” rather than a set of city blocks designed to reconnect adjoining neighborhoods.  But it’s still an open question, subject to the same political pressures that forced it onto the agenda in the first place, and therefore a huge victory.

THE FREEDOM OF TEMPORARY

Grounding McGrath is a long-term issue.  In fact, the current controversy was sparked by District 4’s announcement that it intended to do a ten-million-dollar “fix-as-is” repair to the overpass that would supposedly keep it going for another 15 or more years.  LivableStreets began the campaign by asking “why spend so much to fix something that shouldn’t be there in the first place?”  The Grounding McGrath Study victory was made possible by the injection of ultimate purpose and social value into the discussion.  The key issues changed from “How can we solve our immediate safety crises while keeping cars moving?” to “What kind of city and neighborhood do we want to create as we grow?”

Just as important, by making the long-term design an open and separate question, the Advocates created political space for a much more flexible approach to the short-term repairs.     The Advocacy campaign mobilized people who wanted safer and more convenient bus stops and street crossings, end-to-end bicycle facilities, and less air and noise pollution – as well as, it turned out, the ability to use some of the corridor space for community-building, small business, and arts activity.  To their credit, and probably not merely because their state leadership publicly said so, District 4 leaders understood that the ground had shifted. Even more important, they understood that they needed help building solid plans on the unfamiliar territory – hiring a new consultant with experience and commitment to progressive, multi-modal transportation.  And they had to really listen to community suggestions, not just from the city but from the Advocates and non-professional citizens who came to the meetings.

The result, the still-evolving design for temporary improvements to the overpass area of the corridor, includes radically redesigned street crossings with new signals, the closing of an existing off-ramp and tunnel, the insertion of bike lanes and even an experimental “bike priority shared lane” throughout. It’s not perfect:  an edge line or (even better) a bike lane might be better than the “priority shared lane” on parts of Medford Street, an additional bike box is needed on Medford Street, some curbs should be repositioned to protect the “Dutch Left” turning area and to create a cycle track in the “punch-through”, etc.  But it’s astonishingly better than what currently exists or what would have been done under the original “fix-as-is” proposal.  Best of all, these temporary plans create a natural experiment, a chance to show that making the area more pedestrian and bike friendly won’t stop car traffic or kill local businesses. And if, instead, these small, reversible, and relatively inexpensive steps make a positive difference, the public’s inherent nervousness about change will be soothed.  Doom-predicting critics will have a harder time scaring the community about what will happen if the changes, or others like them, are included in the final designs and made permanent.

WHEN TO JUMP; WHEN TO STEP

This bold but incremental approach is not appropriate for every situation.  As has been often said, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” – when everything is up for grabs, Advocates should go for game-changing, high leverage possibilities (as I wish the Obama Administration had done during the financial speculation crisis).  Or when the political balance of power is temporarily tilted towards your side, it’s smart to go for maximum demands.  Or when the big picture, transformative vision is exactly what you are promoting rather than any particular segment, then you may have to position yourself in an all-or-nothing situation.

But there are many more times, especially when the larger decision-making context is going through radical and rapid change in a positive direction, that it pays to chop off a little piece of a larger effort and kick the rest of the can down the road.  The smaller piece can be used to pilot, test, and educate the public (and Public Officials) about the viability and benefits of new approaches.

DIVIDED WE FALL

It is instructive to compare the outcome in the fight around the future of McGrath with what’s happened during the fight over the Casey Overpass in Boston’s Forest Hills neighborhood.  They both started at about the same time.  But the Casey moved more quickly and was focused on a final solution rather than a temporary repair.  As a result, the stakes were higher and the fighting both more divisive and intense:  almost no one wanted to recreate the collapsing old bridge but the huge amount of uncertainty about future traffic amounts and patterns led to a contentious split between those who wanted a smaller bridge versus those who wanted a surface-level approach, a split that grew more acrimonious through the very long series of public meetings.

As it turned out, MassDOT eventually decided on the surface option.  But the split in the Advocacy community made it hard, even for the pro-surface option majority, to push MassDOT much beyond their own analysis and comfort levels.   It is likely that MassDOT’s traffic projections are, as usual, too high: leading them to include too many traffic lanes, wide and pedestrian-unfriendly intersections, and a controversial bus stop placement – deficiencies that refueled the pro-bridge group.  (There are also some good aspects:  Pedestrians and Cyclists have separate, 10’-wide, individually signalized crossings and there is an off-road bike path.)  However, the continuing Advocacy disunity reduces the political maneuvering room and makes it hard to create the united political pressure needed to force MassDOT to accept what might otherwise be winnable improvements in the current proposal.

In contrast, while the long-term fight over the future of the McGrath corridor isn’t over, a combination of hard work, united effort, and fortunate sequencing has put it on the path to victory.  We now have to make sure that our temporary victory sets the stage for final triumph!

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Thanks to Mark Tedrow, Kevin Wolfson, Steven Nutter, and Mark Chasefor feedback on previous drafts.

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Related previous postings:

> HOW ROADS SHAPE ECONOMIES: Why What Happens to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, Sullivan Station, and Rutherford Ave. Will Make – or Break – Local Job Opportunities and Community Well-Being In The Entire Metro Area for Decades to Come

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

> THE THREE SISTERS – CASEY OVERPASS, McGRATH HIGHWAY, RUTHERFORD AVE: MassDOT’s Credibility Crisis and the Need to Work Together

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

 

Posted in Advocacy, Commentary & Analysis, MassDOT Transformation, Road Design, ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE | Leave a comment

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

MassDOT’s recently issued Healthy Transportation Policy Directive could actualize the most profound transformation in the state’s transportation system since the anti-highway movement convinced Governor Frank Sargent to cancel the massive Inner Belt project (the first time any state had done this) and his Transportation Secretary, Alan Altshuler, got the state’s Congressional delegation to pass legislation allowing Highway Fund money to be used for mass transit.   If carried through, it will push Massachusetts to the front of national efforts to modernize our transportation infrastructure.

On the other hand, the Directive is neither a law nor a court decree, merely an internal order issued by the current Transportation Secretary.  Its requirement that “all MassDOT funded or designed projects shall seek to increase and encourage more pedestrian, bicycle, and transit trips” could be legally ignored or (more likely) turned into an empty ritual as soon as the next governor gets elected.

But in the meantime, MassDOT Secretary Rich Davey is taking his Directive seriously.  Having the policy simultaneously signed by the heads of the Highway Division, Planning Office, MBTA, and even Aeronautics which sends a message to staff that anyone still clinging to traditional car-centric priorities will no longer have upper-level allies.  Even more important, Davey is also aggressively moving the multi-modal vision from policy to procedures, embedding new criteria into decision-making processes such as changing the way project proposals are evaluated and impact assessments are done.  And at the level of organizational culture, all this top-level posturing has the additional effect of emboldening those staff members who have bought into the new vision.

MassDOT’s transformation is not complete or assured.  At the Central Office, the small group of outside people brought in to develop a framework for sustainability planning expressed in both the GreenDOT operational suggestions and the Mode Shift policies have moved back out to non-MassDOT jobs and will be hard to replace.  Even more fundamentally, most of MassDOT’s road design and construction oversight is actually done in the six Highway Department District offices, whose staffs work closely with local Transportation Departments which are often reluctant to deviate from past car-centric priorities.  Other than the District Director and his/her Assistant Directors there are no authorized “change champions” in the District offices – people empowered to push for decision-making, design, operational, and attitudinal changes needed to fully implement the state’s Complete Streets and Mode Shift policy goals.  There is a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in each District, but few have much experience creating state-of-the-art bicycle and walking facilities.  Transit planning is done by the 15 separate Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs), whose boundaries differ from the Highway Districts, and it isn’t always clear how transit needs are integrated with road designs.  The absence in most towns outside metro-Boston of ped-bike-transit Advocacy groups, or even Advisory Councils, deprives District staff of vital feedback and insights – as well as a vital source of local political support for effort’s to break out of the District offices’ past practices.

Nonetheless, the Healthy Transportation Directive, along with Secretary Davey’s efforts to institutionalize the new orientation, is a giant step towards accomplishing the third leg of Transportation Reform.  The first leg was creating a coordinated transportation system, pulling our scattered and warring transportation agencies into one organization.  The second leg was putting the system on a more sustainable and adequate financial footing – something that has not yet been accomplished (especially given the Legislature’s repeal, without any replacement, of the software-tax component of the already inadequate 2013 Transportation Financing bill).  The third leg, the one that makes the other two worthwhile, is using the consolidated governance structure and financing to create a 21st century transportation system.  It’s good to see it moving forward.

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THE ECONOMIC IMPERATIVE

The Healthy Transportation Policy Directive is officially derived from the Healthy Transportation Compact section of the state’s 2009 Transportation Reform Act and from the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solution’s Act.   The later, requiring the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, was itself shaped by a 2001 regional Climate Change Action Plan negotiated among the New England States and eastern Canadian Provinces and the subsequent Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) signed by Governors of northeastern states from Maryland to Maine.

However, the deeper driver, and one reason why Massachusetts’ next governor may leave the Directive in place, is powerfully articulated by Secretary Davey in economic development terms:  any chance Massachusetts has for future prosperity both depends on and will result in increased transportation in a context where it is simply no longer possible to build highways.  If we want to have more jobs and population we have to find non-automotive ways to move the growing number of people and things.

This fundamental shift, reversing the previous assumption that car-based transportation was the driver of economic growth, is the reason two other Cabinet-level Secretaries – Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Gregory Bialecki, and Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan Jr. – as well as MassPort CEO Tom Glynn all came to the recent Moving Together conference to say they’re bringing their own agencies around to support the same vision, embodied in the Patrick Administration’s Planning Ahead For Growth effort to coordinate transportation and land use planning.

THE URBAN IMPERATIVE

And the foci of the growth they all desire is increasingly urban:  the Boston region, some of the Gateway Cities, even the “town centers” of various suburbs.  Metro Boston already generates nearly two-thirds of the state’s GDP.   Stephanie Pollack, of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center (full disclosure:  she and I are both on the LivableStreets Alliance board) points out that the focus is even tighter:  the “transit shed” of walkable distances from MBTA trolley and bus lines includes only 4% of the region’s land but contains 22% of its population, and about 28% of those households don’t even own a car.  Car travel will continue to be useful for many people some of the time, but it will not be the engine for future development.

Despite the constant complaining from car drivers that our roads are increasingly congested, Ms. Pollack points out that the real overcrowding is on our subways, buses, bike paths, and sidewalks.    As growth continues to consolidate in transit-rich areas, as Millennials and Boomers continue to move to places that support a more active life style, as the “property-sharing” economy makes ownership of vehicles (and office space) less necessary, these components of our transportation system will become further overburdened and an economic drag – unless we focus on their improvement.

THE DIRECTIVE’S TEETH

Economic development is why the new Healthy Transportation Policy is so important, and has a chance of surviving the next election no matter who takes office.  But even before that transition, the Directive not only makes its goals clear, it also begins to integrate them into routine procedures – the real key to operationalization.  It requires that “all projects currently under MassDOT design oversight” except those already in the construction bid and work process be reviewed for “conformance with the specifications and spirit” of the new Policy by the end of 2013.  And it states (the underline is in the original!) that “projects should not advance in the design process until they have undertaken this review” – an amazing requirement compared to the usual demand to move things along.  Projects that “fail to provide facilities for healthy transportation modes [walking, bicycling, and taking transit],” other than limited access and Interstate Highways, can proceed only if they get a special signoff from the Secretary.

In addition, “all design notices and public communication for projects” must describe what bike/ped/transit facilities are within the project area as well as any “existing or proposed [healthy transportation] networks within a 2-mile radius…[including] critical connections to downtowns or transit facilities.”  It states that “in urbanized areas,” and on “every bridge, overpass or underpass… sidewalks [shall be included] on both sides of the road, even if comparable facilities do not yet exist on the abutting road segments.”  And in all areas “wherever adjacent land uses include commercial development or residential development of greater than five units per acre, a sidewalk should be provided along the roadway adjacent…Design features to consider shall include, but not [be] limited to: wider sidewalks, street trees, landscaped buffers, benches, lighting, frequent crossing opportunities and strong intermodal connectivity to transit.”

The Directive includes not only new construction but also the more frequent “retrofit and maintenance….pavement restoration and resurfacing projects” requiring that they “seek to add facilities that increase and encourage healthy transportation…including opportunities to meet ADA compliance.”

Any location with “clustered incident [accident] sites” involving pedestrians, cyclists, or people using transit, starting in Environmental Justice communities, will get a safety audit to “improve customer safety for more vulnerable users” – the start, perhaps, of Safe Routes To The T program or Safe Routes for Seniors programs!  Just as important: “this process shall include the development of metrics for success and identify a reasonable completion date” for each location.

Trail and path advocates will be happy that the Directive builds on the Secretary’s previous letter allowing “rail-with-trail” projects by ordering the creation of a guide for “shared use paths on or along rail beds…[including] along active or future railroad rights-of-way…”

Finally, the Director allows designers to go beyond the traditional road engineering “bibles” put out by national highway officials to also consider ideas from the progressive National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).   (Hopefully, MassDOT will also encourage traffic engineers to use Boston’s new Complete Streets Guidelines as another source of ideas.)

NEXT STEPS

The very strength of the Healthy Transportation Policy Directive means that full implementation will require significant additional reform of decision-making criteria and process within MassDOT as well as in other public bodies that impact the state’s transportation infrastructure and regulation.  The 13 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), composed of representatives from both state agencies and municipal governments that set transportation funding priorities in each region of the state, have traditionally favored road expansion projects desired by local commercial developers.   The MPOs have a huge backlog of old road-building requests, and even if they are subject to the Directive’s all-modes review and revision most of them will remain fundamentally car-focused.  It will be politically difficult to dump these long-desired projects in favor of more balanced efforts.

The state’s contractors, the people who actually build things, will simply keep doing what they’ve always done without very clear new instructions, training, and oversight, perhaps including visits to best-practice sites that include appropriate construction-period mitigation.   MassDOT also needs more leverage expanding the fortunately growing but still too small number of municipal Transportation Directors who aren’t still stuck with their head in the gas tank.  And it’s not always obvious that all of MassDOT’s own staff has the training, experience, or desire to impose the new direction on their long-time colleagues in the construction industry.

Key to the sustainability of the new policy, and its full implementation, is the activation of public support.  It is partly the job of Advocacy Groups and individual concerned citizens in every part of the state to get involved.  But MassDOT, the MPOs, and the RTAs could significantly help the process of public engagement by creating, and providing training for, “Mode Shift Advisory Councils” composed of ped-bike-bus-train users and advocates with the authority to review all plans and make suggestions for multi-modal improvements.  (The Advisory Councils might also include representatives of local family or pediatric medical groups or local Public Health Boards as well as members of local Environmental or Climate action groups.)

MassDOT is embarked on a complicated and multi-leveled evolution.  We should not be surprised or disappointed that it is happening slowly.  And there are some extremely hopeful signs that the change is taking root:  for example, the about-to-be-released 10-year interim plans for McGrath Highway in Somerville incorporate state-of-the-art improvements for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders.    (For details, go to the Public Meeting on November 13, 6pm, at the Argenziano School, 290 Washington St, Somerville – and remember that this doesn’t settle the long-term plans for the outmoded highway or guarantee progress on the Community Path component of the Green Line Extension.)   But we should not forget that the McGrath interim victory only occurred because Advocates organized and spoke out, Somerville Mayor Curtatone and his staff pushed, MassDOT’s project managers were open to new ideas, good consultants were hired, and MassDOT leaders in both District 4 and the Central Office were willing to give the process the time and resources it needed.

If our goal is to duplicate those conditions everywhere else, the Healthy Transportation Policy Directive is a positive step.

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Related previous postings:

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

> 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

> MODE SHIFT AMPLIFIERS: The Importance of the Out-of-Vehicle Experience

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

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, CREATING SUSTAINABLE CHANGE, MassDOT Transformation, MassHighway/DOT, Public Health, Safety | Leave a comment

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

MassDOT’s recently issued Healthy Transportation Policy Directive could actualize the most profound transformation in the state’s transportation system since the anti-highway movement convinced Governor Frank Sargent to cancel the massive Inner Belt project (the first time any state had done this) and his Transportation Secretary, Alan Altshuler, got the state’s Congressional delegation to pass legislation allowing Highway Fund money to be used for mass transit.   If carried through, it will push Massachusetts to the front of national efforts to modernize our transportation infrastructure.

On the other hand, the Directive is neither a law nor a court decree, merely an internal order issued by the current Transportation Secretary.  Its requirement that “all MassDOT funded or designed projects shall seek to increase and encourage more pedestrian, bicycle, and transit trips” could be legally ignored or (more likely) turned into an empty ritual as soon as the next governor gets elected.

But in the meantime, MassDOT Secretary Rich Davey is taking his Directive seriously.  Having the policy simultaneously signed by the heads of the Highway Division, Planning Office, MBTA, and even Aeronautics which sends a message to staff that anyone still clinging to traditional car-centric priorities will no longer have upper-level allies.  Even more important, Davey is also aggressively moving the multi-modal vision from policy to procedures, embedding new criteria into decision-making processes such as changing the way project proposals are evaluated and impact assessments are done.  And at the level of organizational culture, all this top-level posturing has the additional effect of emboldening those staff members who have bought into the new vision.

MassDOT’s transformation is not complete or assured.  At the Central Office, the small group of outside people brought in to develop a framework for sustainability planning expressed in both the GreenDOT operational suggestions and the Mode Shift policies have moved back out to non-MassDOT jobs and will be hard to replace.  Even more fundamentally, most of MassDOT’s road design and construction oversight is actually done in the six Highway Department District offices, whose staffs work closely with local Transportation Departments which are often reluctant to deviate from past car-centric priorities.  Other than the District Director and his/her Assistant Directors there are no authorized “change champions” in the District offices – people empowered to push for decision-making, design, operational, and attitudinal changes needed to fully implement the state’s Complete Streets and Mode Shift policy goals.  There is a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in each District, but few have much experience creating state-of-the-art bicycle and walking facilities.  Transit planning is done by the 15 separate Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs), whose boundaries differ from the Highway Districts, and it isn’t always clear how transit needs are integrated with road designs.  The absence in most towns outside metro-Boston of ped-bike-transit Advocacy groups, or even Advisory Councils, deprives District staff of vital feedback and insights – as well as a vital source of local political support for effort’s to break out of the District offices’ past practices.

Nonetheless, the Healthy Transportation Directive, along with Secretary Davey’s efforts to institutionalize the new orientation, is a giant step towards accomplishing the third leg of Transportation Reform.  The first leg was creating a coordinated transportation system, pulling our scattered and warring transportation agencies into one organization.  The second leg was putting the system on a more sustainable and adequate financial footing – something that has not yet been accomplished (especially given the Legislature’s repeal, without any replacement, of the software-tax component of the already inadequate 2013 Transportation Financing bill).  The third leg, the one that makes the other two worthwhile, is using the consolidated governance structure and financing to create a 21st century transportation system.  It’s good to see it moving forward.

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Posted in Commentary & Analysis | 1 Comment

OPENING STREETS, CHANGING POLICIES: Creating Space for Neighborhood Revival and Transportation Reform

Movement building requires organizing activities and programs that have inherent value and meet people’s immediate needs while also raising their awareness of the importance of larger reforms and putting pressure on relevant officials and power brokers to implement those changes.   It’s a tricky combination to achieve.  Providing free breakfast to low-income kids, for example, makes access to good nutrition more affordably available but doesn’t necessarily force the commercial food system to change.

In recent years, enthusiasm for Open Streets programs has spread among progressive transportation, community renewal, and other advocates wanting to change the way cities use their largest physical asset, the space normally devoted to car traffic and parking.  The excitement has its roots in the CicloVia program started nearly 40 years ago in Bogota, Columbia, where over two million people, nearly a third of the city population, come out for a few hours every weekend to play, exercise, do yoga, dance, walk, run, bicycle, enjoy endless vendor offerings, and simply hang out with each other along nearly 76 miles of car-free roads. (The roads aren’t “closed to cars”, they are “open for people”!)   Open Streets are now held around the globe including at least 90 US cities.

OPEN STREETS ARE PEOPLE PLACES

Open Streets are neither a block party nor a themed festival, neither a concert nor a parade, neither a race nor a party – although it’s a bit of all of them.  Open Streets events are an opportunity to experience  a new use of public space—a temporary reclamation of our streets for non-motorized activity. Open Streets events create a long enough stretch of safe road that kids and adults-everyone- can (at least for a few hours) get a good workout by jogging or cycling, moving between nodes of activity along the way.   They are usually run by cities, service agencies, and advocacy groups – often by a combination of all three – and funded by a similar combination of public funds, foundation grants, private donations, and corporate sponsorships.

In the USA, New York’s Summer Streets, run by the city Transportation Department, opens 7 miles of mid-town Avenues for three Saturdays in August and attracts over 250,000 people each time.  In NYC, local business district associations can also bid on the right to host one of the two dozen “Weekend Walk” events each year.  Los Angeles’ CicLAvia, organized by a non-profit group, opens about 10 miles of road twice a year for about 100,000 participants.  San Francisco’s Sunday Streets, is hosted by an advocacy coalition in cooperation with the city and rotates around the city each month, with additional “Play Street” and “Healthy Saturday” events regularly closing a couple neighborhood blocks and Golden Gate Park roads.

It’s not just the big cities:  Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, and dozens more in the Mid-west and South have events.  Atlanta Streets Alive, organized by the city’s Bicycle Coalition, had over 80,000 people at its last event with “no significant musical performance, arts festival or sudsy brouhaha that attracted these people; instead it was the absence of something, a four-hour reprieve from the vehicles that choke Atlanta’s roadways and wall people away from each other.”

Boston, too, has an Open Streets initiative called Circle The City (CTC), hosted by the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and run as a partnership with LivableStreets Alliance (full disclosure:  I served on the CTC Steering Committee on behalf of LivableStreets), Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness, Boston Cyclists Union, and the City of Boston.  While much smaller (and less funded) than other programs, over the past two years CTC has organized five Open Streets events, each about a mile long, in Franklin Park (with the Franklin Park Coalition),  in Jamaica Plain, on the Kennedy Greenway (with the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy), along Huntington Avenue (with the Fenway Alliance), and most recently (and successfully!) along Blue Hill Avenue (with the Sustainability Guild International).  Start-up funding came from the Barr Foundation and Blue-Cross of Massachusetts Foundation and the City of Boston, and for the 2013 initiative there was support from the Solomon Foundation.

THREE IMPACTS

It feels like a movement.  In fact, the US-based Alliance for Bicycling and Walking has adopted Open Streets as one of its strategies for urban transportation reform.  But besides providing a good time what do these events actually accomplish?  There are probably three types of outcomes: Community Building, Modeling Alternative Street Usage, and Creating Momentum and a Constituency for Change.  Which outcome actually occurs and to what extent depends on local circumstances.  And while it’s not yet clear if it all ends up leading to real reform it sure is fun and gets lots of people outside together doing much-needed physical activity.

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COMMUNITY BUILDING

Open Streets is a useful, if short-term, community building process – at least when it is done in the middle of a community with a lot of local involvement.  In Boston, although downtown is beginning to be repopulated it still remains more touristy than residential, so it’s not surprising that the downtown Greenway event was the least attended while also being the most disruptive of traffic.   In contrast, the original CTC happening in JP and the most recent on in Roxbury were full of both neighbors and activity.  The extensive outreach around Blue Hill Avenue by the Sustainability Guild, the City of Boston, and the CTC staff convinced nearly 80 community groups, churches, and businesses to set up booths or lead activities.   In an area too frequently known for violence, drugs, and gangs, Circle The City was a hugely significant positive statement that people from all the surrounding blocks could safely and peacefully share their common ground.  We heard repeatedly that it was the first time in many people’s memories that a festive coming together like this had happened in their neighborhood.  People kept saying that they were thrilled and that they wanted it to happen again.  Successful repetition will significantly increase the value of the CTC events.  However, like all good movement-building activities, the long-term value of Circle The City to this community depends on how local organizers are able to build on it.

The Huntington Avenue event was faced with more challenges, the first of which was the heat—most people will choose the shade of sidewalk trees over 90 degrees on the street.  The route didn’t quite reach to Mission Hill and the big cultural, educational, and medical institutions lining the Fenway Cultural District, while supportive, didn’t have much of a spill-over effect.  It’s possible that repeating the event in the same place, and collaboration with another Outside The Box arts program, could make it a must-do activity for the Metro region – a very worthwhile achievement and a real boost to both attendance at the adjoining cultural venues and the local economy but not the same as neighborhood community building.

ON-STREET ACTIVITY

Secondly, Circle The City clearly demonstrated that streets are more than parking lots and vehicular thru-ways.  The key was making sure that the “activity nodes” were actually located in the closed streets.   It takes careful and persistent nudging for people to get over being nervous about stepping into “car territory.”  At the Kennedy Greenway event, for example, most of the booths were set up on the wide sidewalks and the streets ended up mostly empty and little unused – much to the annoyance of the displaced motorists.  In both JP and Roxbury the on-street location of dance, food, drawing, and other activities drew people in.  This is not a new phenomena in Jamaica Plain which already has Wake Up The Earth and other festivals.  But an “open to all” non-ethnic event was a revelation on Blue Hill Avenue.  Once the cars were blocked off the first to discover the joy of stepping off the curb on to “forbidden turf” were the little kids on bikes who raced up and down laughing at their own boldness.  After the kids came the parents and the rest of their family, including the people getting out of church.  The music and kids-focused nodes attracted the biggest crowds.

Notably absent from all the CTC events, however, were “serious” bicyclists.  Cycling was, in fact, the best way to experience the entire length of activity spread out along each route.  The Boston Bike program set up well-attended kid’s activities, and some families brought their little kids’ bikes.  But fewer adults than expected were pedaling, possibly  because in contrast with the  Open Street events in NYC or LA  the routes were short.  And it is extremely easy to get out of Boston for long rides in the countryside, so there is less excitement about short, temporary in-town routes, even if they are car-free.

While CTC made a powerful statement on upper Blue Hill Avenue, it’s not clear that its message about the flexibility of streets as space for non-motorized activity was as loudly heard across the city as a whole.  Boston is famously full of street festivals – religious, musical, culinary – so Circle The City wasn’t as unique a phenomena as it might have been elsewhere, again partly because of its relatively short length.  In addition, while not nearly as developed as New York City’s Play Street program (which allows neighborhoods to keep cars off their streets on a regular schedule over the summer as well as invite a range of city programs to help activate the space), Boston is reviving its dormant Play Streets which allows one-time “opening” of a block.

SUPPORT FOR POLICY CHANGE

Finally, it’s not clear how much CTC can be leveraged to impact Boston’s long term transportation policies.  The City already has a Complete Streets Policy and a Bicycle Network Plan.  Heavily attended Open Streets events are a good way to spark conversation about the value of Complete Streets.  And there is a long haul from idea to implementation, a gap that is only closed through sustained pressure from a mobilized public – and (at least in Roxbury) Circle The City did activate local leaders who can probably be counted as allies in future city hall campaigns. And that is probably its most significant impact:  non-white and low-income areas will continue to get less attention until local residents find ways to make themselves effectively visible.  Having African-American and Latino participants in Transportation Policy fights will increase the odds that their concerns, their streets, will be addressed. But, once again, the long-term value of the CTC event will depend on how campaign organizers build on the connections and relationships that it created.

THE BOSTON APPROACH

Circle The City got its name because it originated as an idea to create a series of multi-mile road closures that would prefigure, and build support for, a car-free network for non-motorized travel around the metro area.  This vision of regional greenways has evolved into the GreenRoutes Initiative, a separate effort.

The CTC partnership, for a variety of reasons, instead focused on creating shorter-distance Open Streets events in a series of neighborhoods in locations that circled the city  — inspired, in part, by San Francisco’s “movable feast” of Sunday Streets activity.  But CTC retained the goal of using the public experience of car-free streets to help people realize that our streets could be used for something besides transportation and to build momentum for the expansion of pedestrian and bicycling facilities.  In addition, because of the central role of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy in the project, it added the goal of helping people connect to the city’s wonderful parks and to realize that every public park is available to every person from every part of the city.  And organizers hoped that people would come from around the city to discover the pleasures of each of the area’s where the successive events were held.

Because Boston requires street-event organizers to go through a complex, intimidating, and time-consuming permitting process – which CTC had to repeatedly endure because of the changing location for each event – a huge percentage of staff time (and therefore of budgetary funds) was absorbed in getting permission rather than marketing or outreach.  Still, except for the first event in Franklin Park, nearly 5,000 people attended each of the events, with the largest turnout on September 29, 2013 on Blue Hill Avenue where estimates ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 – not bad for an underfunded start-up.  It is likely that regular appearance in the same location(s) would lead to greater public awareness and attendance.  It is also certain that a larger budget would attract much more media and public attention.

In any event, Circle The City organizers is moving on, securing permits for next summer and looking for future funding, particularly sponsorships.  Anyone interested?

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Thanks to Jessica Parsons and Julie Crockford for their feedback on earlier drafts.

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Related previous postings:

> OPEN STREETS: How Public Space Creates Civic Culture – and Democracy

> OPEN STREETS & CYCLOVIAS: Creating Space For Urban Transformation

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

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

 

Posted in Advocacy, Commentary & Analysis, Public Health, STREET LIFE & LAND USE, Walking | Leave a comment

OPENING STREETS, CHANGING POLICIES: Creating Space for Neighborhood Revival and Transportation Reform

Movement building requires organizing activities and programs that have inherent value and meet people’s immediate needs while also raising their awareness of the importance of larger reforms and putting pressure on relevant officials and power brokers to implement those changes.   It’s a tricky combination to achieve.  Providing free breakfast to low-income kids, for example, makes access to good nutrition more affordably available but doesn’t necessarily force the commercial food system to change.

In recent years, enthusiasm for Open Streets programs has spread among progressive transportation, community renewal, and other advocates wanting to change the way cities use their largest physical asset, the space normally devoted to car traffic and parking.  The excitement has its roots in the CicloVia program started nearly 40 years ago in Bogota, Columbia, where over two million people, nearly a third of the city population, come out for a few hours every weekend to play, exercise, do yoga, dance, walk, run, bicycle, enjoy endless vendor offerings, and simply hang out with each other along nearly 76 miles of car-free roads. (The roads aren’t “closed to cars”, they are “open for people”!)   Open Streets are now held around the globe including at least 90 US citiesContinue reading

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

Tom Menino’s tenure is now measured in weeks.  Deval Patrick is entering the monthly count-down period.  But neither of them has left yet.  And until they do, advocates (and everyone else) seeking to advance their issues will have to deal with how these elected executives and their administrations function during their lame duck days — which is directly related to what kind of legacy they hope to leave behind.

Legacy is important because the incoming Administrations will have their hands full for at least their first six months assembling their teams, repackaging existing programs in their own image (and to their own political credit), and focusing their personal attention on the issues that got them elected. For John Connelly the focus will be on the schools.  While it’s still unclear what will be the theme of Marty Walsh’s first 100 days, for neither candidate is it likely to be transportation (except, perhaps, for school busing), public health, human services, or other “soft” issues.   So the plans and programs that the departing Administration leaves – and that are well positioned to be picked up by the incoming Transition Advisory Team will quietly continue.

Close out Administrations seem to follow a mixture of four different approaches:  the fade away, the goal-line defense, the project and people cementer, and the go for broke.  Each presents opportunities and problems for Advocates who, ultimately, have to also weigh the advantages of playing to the outgoing versus the incoming team.

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SLIP SLIDING AWAY

If the elected leader’s exit has come sooner than desired, usually as the result of a failed re-election campaign, the Administration might deflate like a torn balloon.  This is partly what happened to the final Dukakis Administration after the Presidential Campaign fiasco, despite the Governor’s own efforts to keep things going. (Full disclosure: that’s when I began my five-year stint in State Government by acting as staff for a Management Reform Commission of outsiders asked by the Governor to suggest ways to save money and make things more efficient.)

A nasty variation of this “exit without grace” was the departing Bush Administration’s scorched earth retreat, done to make it as difficult as possible for incoming Obama people. But whether it is a benign or malevolent departure, there’s nothing positive going on.  The best advocates can do is to focus on the incoming transition team.

POLISHING THE MIRROR

A more common approach, particularly for retiring politicians, is to let past accomplishments stand on their own.  For them, the final task is to prevent any last-minute tarnishing of their image.  In the coming weeks, Mayor Menino, whose reputation is so positive that he wasn’t even criticized in the campaign to replace him (compare this to what’s happening in NYC!), is unlikely to expend much political capital on anything that might upset people. While trying to lock in the commercial developments that would preserve his vision of the city’s future, Menino backed off from the BRA appointments when that provoked criticism.  Even his furious outburst at the wild-cat school bus driver strike was actually a safe move — it was an unauthorized disruption and everyone hates unruly public servants who hurt kids!  The Globe (reflecting its own mostly negative attitude towards the labor movement) applauded his statements as a return of the old Menino energy, which was a double positive!

Leaders and Administrations whose priority is avoiding negative press are difficult to pressure.  The best Advocates can do is point out actions that will clean up possible messes and increase the odds that the incoming Administration won’t find something dirty hidden under the rug after  they take office.  Once again, it’s probably better to start learning how to work with the newcomers.

FINISHING NAILS IN THE CARPENTRY

Usually, concern for image protection is combined with a rush to insure project permanence.   Both Menino and Patrick have initiated a variety of programs and projects.  These often take a long time to get started; the bigger and more ambitious the longer they take.  Patrick has only had seven years (with one to go).  Even Menino, the longest serving Mayor in Boston history, has begun numerous projects in recent years, shaping the city, and he clearly wants to get as many going as possible before he leaves.

Robert Moses, the famous Highway (and park!) builder of New York, always made sure that his projects had advanced a bit too far for incoming officials to comfortably stop.  (A trick that Governor Pataki claimed to have copied in order to get what he wanted as replacements for the World Trade Towers in NYC.)  Most Boston projects are privately developed, so the Mayor has relatively little control over construction schedules.  However, various city departments have unfinished agendas:  the recent winning of a $15.5 million grant for the Connect Historic Boston project may be a way to nail down some downtown visions.  The governor, however, has numerous public projects on his list.  In transportation, we should look for moves by the Patrick Administration to nail down the Green Line Extension, purchase some DMU trolleys (Diesel Multiple Unit cars), and push for the South Coast Rail Line.  And Secretary Davie has aggressively promoted policies to advance MassDOT’s GreenDOT and mode-shift goals, despite some internal resistance.

For those projects that are just beginning, there is a rush to make them “shovel ready” with designs and permits in place and if possible funding all lined up.  And if even that isn’t possible, there are efforts to create symbolic starts — ground breaking, paint-and-signage prefigurations, or simply press announcements that make it seem like the project is moved into inevitability.

The rush to insure project futures makes things a little wild.  Everyone inside and outside the departing Administration is trying to get something on the “nail it down so it can’t be removed” list, but exactly because time is short only a few things will get done.   As at all previous times, it’s best if your proposal is easy, non-controversial, low-cost, with high symbolic value or actual leverage towards one of the Elected Official’s long-time themes (e.g. economic development in one place or another) — or has the vocal support of a key supporter or friend of a highly placed person in the Administration.   In fact, without at least one (or preferably two) of those attributes, you might as well start lobbying the incoming transition team

But, of course, anything that is too identified as part of the outgoing Administration is unlikely to get on the incoming transition team’s short list of “good ideas to show you’re moving forward after taking office.”  At a minimum, old programs need to be wrapped into new labels and frames that the new team can take credit for.  So at some point advocates have to make a choice:  can the action be locked in or do you jump to the next round?

FINAL FIREWORKS

Finally, some elected officials go out swinging; Michael Bloomberg, for example.  Perhaps they are positioning themselves for the next election, or an appointed position in a higher level of government, or they just are gazillionaires who think they can leverage their money to impact the larger political scene — a “golden rule” process (“those with the gold make the rules”) that the US Supreme Court seems intent on expanding.  Hitching your wagon to their well-fed horse you might be in for an exciting ride!  However, it probably means you’ll be burning any chance of being able to influence the newly elected replacement team.

No matter who wins the upcoming elections, we’re in for an interesting time!

—————–

Related Previous Posts:

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

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

> SNOW REMOVAL ON BIKE LANES; SEAPORT TRAFFIC JAMS

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Menino’s tenure is now measured in weeks.  Deval Patrick is entering the monthly count-down period.  But neither of them has left yet.  And until they do, advocates (and everyone else) seeking to advance their issues will have to deal with how these elected executives and their administrations function during their lame duck days — which is directly related to what kind of legacy they hope to leave behind.

Legacy is important because the incoming Administrations will have their hands full for at least their first six months assembling their teams, repackaging existing programs in their own image (and to their own political credit), and focusing their personal attention on the issues that got them elected. For John Connelly the focus will be on the schools.  While it’s still unclear what will be the theme of Marty Walsh’s first 100 days, for neither candidate is it likely to be transportation (except, perhaps, for school busing), public health, human services, or other “soft” issues.   So the plans and programs that the departing Administration leaves – and that are well positioned to be picked up by the incoming Transition Advisory Team will quietly continue.

Close out Administrations seem to follow a mixture of four different approaches:  the fade away, the goal-line defense, the project and people cementer, and the go for broke.  Each presents opportunities and problems for Advocates who, ultimately, have to also weigh the advantages of playing to the outgoing versus the incoming team. Continue reading

Posted in Commentary & Analysis | Leave a comment

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

You might have the impression, as once did I, that the passage of a bill by the Legislature and it’s signing by the chief executive makes it a law.  But trial lawyers know better.  A law is just a bunch of words waiting for judicial interpretation.

Case in point:  It’s true that bicycles aren’t cars, and aren’t (and in my opinion shouldn’t be) always treated exactly the same as cars.  But you might have had the impression that because bicycles are legally defined as “vehicles” (in Title 720 of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations paragraph 9.01*) they have the same right as cars to use our public ways – our roads.  After all Chapter 85, paragraph 11B of the Massachusetts General laws state, ““Every person operating a bicycle upon a way, as defined in section one of chapter ninety, shall have the right to use all public ways in the commonwealth except limited access or express state highways where signs specifically prohibiting bicycles have been posted, and shall be subject to the traffic laws and regulations of the commonwealth and the special regulations contained in this section….”

On the state level, the Massachusetts Supreme Court has indeed ruled that bicycles “are expressly authorized by statute to use most public ways,” (Opinion of the Justices to the Senate, 352 N.E.2d 197, 200 (Mass. 1976)).  However, perhaps because both common practice and common sense make the question silly, the right of a bicyclist to ride in the street has never been officially tested in a federal court.  Until now.

*Please excuse the complex source citations in this blog: at least it’s better than footnotes!

—————- 

TAKING THE LANE

In the _/Damon/_ case (Case 3:11-cv-30203-KPN (Document 88 Filed 08/09/13), US Magistrate Judge Kenneth Neiman of the Federal Court for the Western District of Massachusetts has ruled that “the court, in light of the plain language of the statutory provisions, has little trouble concluding that Massachusetts law requires a slower-traveling bicyclist to pull to the right to allow a faster-traveling motorist to pass when it is safe to do so under the circumstances…. Such safety, of course, would include the configuration of the roadway and its shoulders, as well as their conditions and/or states of repair.”

The most important aspect of the Judge’s decision, according to lawyer Andrew Fischer who represented the bicyclist, is that it goes further than the previous state ruling by establishing that cars do not take priority and that cyclists have a right to the full lane, and need not yield until and unless it is safe to do so. According to Fischer, this is the first confirmation of this right in any federal court.  While this ruling is not binding on other Federal or state courts, it can be cited as persuasive in Federal courts around the country and used by bicycle advocates as a Federal court decision.  (Full disclosure:  Andy is a contributor to LivableStreets Alliance which hosts this blog).

ALLOWING CARS TO PASS, SAFELY

At the same time, if a bicycle is a vehicle then, unless explicitly exempted, bike riders have to obey vehicular road rules.  This includes the provisions of Title 720 C.M.R. §9.06(5) that “the driver of a vehicle when about to be overtaken and passed by another vehicle approaching from the rear shall give way to the right when practicable in favor of the overtaking vehicle, on suitable and visible signal being given by the driver of the overtaking vehicle….”  This is made explicit for bicycles in Title 720 C.M.R. §9.06(a), which prohibits bicyclists from “unnecessarily” obstructing “the normal movement of traffic” as well as M.G.L. Chapter 89, §2, which requires bicyclists to “give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle” and M.G.L. c. 85, §11B that says that “[n]othing in this clause shall relieve a bicyclist of the duty to facilitate overtaking as required by section 2 of chapter 89,”

Of course, when it comes to the legal system, nothing is simple.  In a confusing juxtaposition the Judge first stated that “there is nothing in M.G.L. c. 89, §2, or any other statutory or regulatory provision which indicates that the obligation of bicyclists to ‘give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle’ does not apply on multi-lane roadways.”  So a cyclist still has to pull over, when it’s safe to do so, when a car comes up behind even if there is an empty lane in either direction on their left.

And then the Judge also noted that M.G.L. chapter 90, §14 requires that “motorists approaching and seeking to pass a bicyclist also must ‘slow down and pass at a safe distance and at a reasonable and proper speed.’”  And when it is not safe for the cyclist to move to the right, Mass Gen. Laws Chapter 89, §2, provides that “If it is not possible to overtake a bicycle or other vehicle at a safe distance in the same lane, the overtaking vehicle shall use all or part of an adjacent lane if it is safe to do so or wait for a safe opportunity to overtake.”   It is not clear how future court decisions will balance these somewhat conflicting requirements.

WHEN IS IT SAFE?

By his own admission, the bicyclist regularly rode in the middle of the lane no matter who or what was behind him based on a belief that he had “the right to use public roads in the same manner as motorists”.  This had already led to several run-ins with the local police.  The Judge rejected the idea that state law gives any unrestricted right to the middle of the lane for any vehicle.  But the Judge’s Summary Judgment Ruling deferred to a Jury’s deliberation in a future trial (should one occur) the factual question of the situational accuracy of the bicyclist’s statement that riding in the center of the lane even when cars or trucks are trying to pass “is often safer than riding closer to the shoulder of the road because motorists approaching from behind will notice him earlier, “perceive [him] as relevant and be able to react earlier if [he is] in a prominent position.”

However, in a footnote the Judge quoted the Criminal Model Jury Instruction for Use in the District Court, Instruction 5.240 (MCLE 2013), “Operating Negligently so as to Endanger”, which lists so many things that a “reasonable person” could be expected to take into account in determining the safety of an on-road situation that any defendant with a decent set of objective concerns should be able to avoid the charge.

Instruction 5.240 says, “In determining whether the defendant drove negligently in a manner that might have endangered the public, you should take into account all the facts of the situation: the defendant’s rate of speed and manner of operation, the defendant’s physical condition and how well he (she) could see and could control his (her) vehicle, the condition of the defendant’s vehicle, what kind of road it was and who else was on the road, what the time of day, the weather and the condition of the road were, what any other vehicles or pedestrians were doing, and any other facts that you think are relevant… the defendant’s subjective intent is irrelevant; the issue is whether or not he (she) drove as a reasonable person would have under the circumstances.”

POLICE POWERS

On the other hand (once again), the Judge did accept the policeman’s argument that he had to confiscate the bicycle in his role as “community caretaker” because “he felt its continued operation [in the middle of the lane even when overtaking motorists wanted to pass] would be dangerous.”  This very open-ended aspect of the law is usually applied to drunk drivers or situations where a “vehicle was disabled or the operator was arrested and, thus, the vehicle would otherwise be left on the roadway unattended. See, e.g., Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d at 785-86; Commonwealth v.Motta, 676 N.E.2d 795, 801 (Mass. 1997). The doctrine, however, is not limited to that kind of situation; if anything, courts have defined an officer’s authority under the community caretaking role in quite broad terms. See Coccia, 446 F.3d at 238 (‘In performing this community caretaking role, police are “expected to . . . prevent potential hazards from materializing and provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect public safety.”’ (quoting Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d at 784-85)). Moreover, the court has not found any case which establishes that an officer may not impound a vehicle (or bicycle) under this doctrine when the operator indicates that he or she will continue to operate in an unsafe manner.”

As it turned out, the Judge ruled not that the seizure of the bicycle was lawful but that the policeman should receive the benefit of the doubt if he says he thought that the seizure was lawful – which seems like a giant loophole to me.  Compounding the insult is that in this case the police forced the cyclists to walk nearly two miles to the station in order to retrieve his bike – which the Judge also found acceptable.

Still, while the reliance of the judgment entirely on Massachusetts law may limit its applicability in other states, the opinion’s reasoning, language and conclusions can be cited as persuasive in other courts, particularly since it was authored by a Federal judge.  And the bottom line is that the Judge said that “The statutes also create reciprocal obligations on the part of both motorists and bicyclists to ensure that passing would occur only at a time when it is safe to do so and only in a safe manner.” So, for what it’s worth, we now have federal precedent on our side!

Ride safely!

————————–

Thanks to Andrew Fischer for bringing this case to my attention and helping me through the jargon!

————————–

Related previous posts:

> Bikes Are Vehicles; But They’re Not Cars

> BICYCLING SAFETY: Preventing Injury Requires Multiple Strategies

> Time to Stop Behaving Badly on Bikes

> SAFE CYCLING – Actual, Subjective, Social; Solo or Group

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

> IF VEHICLE MILES TRAVELED IS DECLINING, WHY DOES TRAFFIC KEEP GETTING WORSE

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

 

 

 

Posted in bike culture, Commentary & Analysis, Safety, TRANSPORTATION HEALTH and SAFETY | Leave a comment

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

You might have the impression, as once did I, that the passage of a bill by the Legislature and it’s signing by the chief executive makes it a law.  But trial lawyers know better.  A law is just a bunch of words waiting for judicial interpretation.

Case in point:  It’s true that bicycles aren’t cars, and aren’t (and in my opinion shouldn’t be) always treated exactly the same as cars.  But you might have had the impression that because bicycles are legally defined as “vehicles” (in Title 720 of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations paragraph 9.01*) they have the same right as cars to use our public ways – our roads.  After all Chapter 85, paragraph 11B of the Massachusetts General laws state, ““Every person operating a bicycle upon a way, as defined in section one of chapter ninety, shall have the right to use all public ways in the commonwealth except limited access or express state highways where signs specifically prohibiting bicycles have been posted, and shall be subject to the traffic laws and regulations of the commonwealth and the special regulations contained in this section….”

On the state level, the Massachusetts Supreme Court has indeed ruled that bicycles “are expressly authorized by statute to use most public ways,” (Opinion of the Justices to the Senate, 352 N.E.2d 197, 200 (Mass. 1976)).  However, perhaps because both common practice and common sense make the question silly, the right of a bicyclist to ride in the street has never been officially tested in a federal court.  Until now.

*Please excuse the complex source citations in this blog: at least it’s better than footnotes!

—————- 

TAKING THE LANE

In the _/Damon/_ case (Case 3:11-cv-30203-KPN (Document 88 Filed 08/09/13), US Magistrate Judge Kenneth Neiman of the Federal Court for the Western District of Massachusetts has ruled that “the court, in light of the plain language of the statutory provisions, has little trouble concluding that Massachusetts law requires a slower-traveling bicyclist to pull to the right to allow a faster-traveling motorist to pass when it is safe to do so under the circumstances…. Such safety, of course, would include the configuration of the roadway and its shoulders, as well as their conditions and/or states of repair.”

The most important aspect of the Judge’s decision, according to lawyer Andrew Fischer who represented the bicyclist, is that it goes further than the previous state ruling by establishing that cars do not take priority and that cyclists have a right to the full lane, and need not yield until and unless it is safe to do so. According to Fischer, this is the first confirmation of this right in any federal court.  While this ruling is not binding on other Federal or state courts, it can be cited as persuasive in Federal courts around the country and used by bicycle advocates as a Federal court decision.  (Full disclosure:  Andy is a contributor to LivableStreets Alliance which hosts this blog).

ALLOWING CARS TO PASS, SAFELY

At the same time, if a bicycle is a vehicle then, unless explicitly exempted, bike riders have to obey vehicular road rules.  This includes the provisions of Title 720 C.M.R. §9.06(5) that “the driver of a vehicle when about to be overtaken and passed by another vehicle approaching from the rear shall give way to the right when practicable in favor of the overtaking vehicle, on suitable and visible signal being given by the driver of the overtaking vehicle….”  This is made explicit for bicycles in Title 720 C.M.R. §9.06(a), which prohibits bicyclists from “unnecessarily” obstructing “the normal movement of traffic” as well as M.G.L. Chapter 89, §2, which requires bicyclists to “give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle” and M.G.L. c. 85, §11B that says that “[n]othing in this clause shall relieve a bicyclist of the duty to facilitate overtaking as required by section 2 of chapter 89,”

Of course, when it comes to the legal system, nothing is simple.  In a confusing juxtaposition the Judge first stated that “there is nothing in M.G.L. c. 89, §2, or any other statutory or regulatory provision which indicates that the obligation of bicyclists to ‘give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle’ does not apply on multi-lane roadways.”  So a cyclist still has to pull over, when it’s safe to do so, when a car comes up behind even if there is an empty lane in either direction on their left.

And then the Judge also noted that M.G.L. chapter 90, §14 requires that “motorists approaching and seeking to pass a bicyclist also must ‘slow down and pass at a safe distance and at a reasonable and proper speed.’”  And when it is not safe for the cyclist to move to the right, Mass Gen. Laws Chapter 89, §2, provides that “If it is not possible to overtake a bicycle or other vehicle at a safe distance in the same lane, the overtaking vehicle shall use all or part of an adjacent lane if it is safe to do so or wait for a safe opportunity to overtake.”   It is not clear how future court decisions will balance these somewhat conflicting requirements.

WHEN IS IT SAFE?

By his own admission, the bicyclist regularly rode in the middle of the lane no matter who or what was behind him based on a belief that he had “the right to use public roads in the same manner as motorists”.  This had already led to several run-ins with the local police.  The Judge rejected the idea that state law gives any unrestricted right to the middle of the lane for any vehicle.  But the Judge’s Summary Judgment Ruling deferred to a Jury’s deliberation in a future trial (should one occur) the factual question of the situational accuracy of the bicyclist’s statement that riding in the center of the lane even when cars or trucks are trying to pass “is often safer than riding closer to the shoulder of the road because motorists approaching from behind will notice him earlier, “perceive [him] as relevant and be able to react earlier if [he is] in a prominent position.”

However, in a footnote the Judge quoted the Criminal Model Jury Instruction for Use in the District Court, Instruction 5.240 (MCLE 2013), “Operating Negligently so as to Endanger”, which lists so many things that a “reasonable person” could be expected to take into account in determining the safety of an on-road situation that any defendant with a decent set of objective concerns should be able to avoid the charge.

Instruction 5.240 says, “In determining whether the defendant drove negligently in a manner that might have endangered the public, you should take into account all the facts of the situation: the defendant’s rate of speed and manner of operation, the defendant’s physical condition and how well he (she) could see and could control his (her) vehicle, the condition of the defendant’s vehicle, what kind of road it was and who else was on the road, what the time of day, the weather and the condition of the road were, what any other vehicles or pedestrians were doing, and any other facts that you think are relevant… the defendant’s subjective intent is irrelevant; the issue is whether or not he (she) drove as a reasonable person would have under the circumstances.”

POLICE POWERS

On the other hand (once again), the Judge did accept the policeman’s argument that he had to confiscate the bicycle in his role as “community caretaker” because “he felt its continued operation [in the middle of the lane even when overtaking motorists wanted to pass] would be dangerous.”  This very open-ended aspect of the law is usually applied to drunk drivers or situations where a “vehicle was disabled or the operator was arrested and, thus, the vehicle would otherwise be left on the roadway unattended. See, e.g., Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d at 785-86; Commonwealth v.Motta, 676 N.E.2d 795, 801 (Mass. 1997). The doctrine, however, is not limited to that kind of situation; if anything, courts have defined an officer’s authority under the community caretaking role in quite broad terms. See Coccia, 446 F.3d at 238 (‘In performing this community caretaking role, police are “expected to . . . prevent potential hazards from materializing and provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect public safety.”’ (quoting Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d at 784-85)). Moreover, the court has not found any case which establishes that an officer may not impound a vehicle (or bicycle) under this doctrine when the operator indicates that he or she will continue to operate in an unsafe manner.”

As it turned out, the Judge ruled not that the seizure of the bicycle was lawful but that the policeman should receive the benefit of the doubt if he says he thought that the seizure was lawful – which seems like a giant loophole to me.  Compounding the insult is that in this case the police forced the cyclists to walk nearly two miles to the station in order to retrieve his bike – which the Judge also found acceptable.

Still, while the reliance of the judgment entirely on Massachusetts law may limit its applicability in other states, the opinion’s reasoning, language and conclusions can be cited as persuasive in other courts, particularly since it was authored by a Federal judge.  And the bottom line is that the Judge said that “The statutes also create reciprocal obligations on the part of both motorists and bicyclists to ensure that passing would occur only at a time when it is safe to do so and only in a safe manner.” So, for what it’s worth, we now have federal precedent on our side!

Ride safely!

————————–

Thanks to Andrew Fischer for bringing this case to my attention and helping me through the jargon!

————————–

Related previous posts:

> Bikes Are Vehicles; But They’re Not Cars

> BICYCLING SAFETY: Preventing Injury Requires Multiple Strategies

> Time to Stop Behaving Badly on Bikes

> SAFE CYCLING – Actual, Subjective, Social; Solo or Group

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

> IF VEHICLE MILES TRAVELED IS DECLINING, WHY DOES TRAFFIC KEEP GETTING WORSE

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

 

 

 

Posted in Commentary & Analysis | 5 Comments

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

It is through our built environment that we shape ourselves and the world.  Living, working, and moving around in dysfunctional, cramped, unsafe, polluted, or just ugly places not only affects our mood and health but also our relations with those around us and the natural environment.   The need to maximize the positive impact of our buildings, transportation systems, and even our usually hidden infrastructures will continue to grow as the weather gets weirder, resources get more expensive, and cities get more crowded.

The foundational level for doing this is complying with the lengthening checklist of technical requirements for safety, energy and material usage, density, and accessibility.  Having (and enforcing) standards for the work of planners and implementers is one way to prevent flagrantly incompetent work.  It is also a vital barrier to the inescapable “race to the bottom” temptation of cutting corners, or even producing dangerously defective products and services, and then passing on the externalized hidden costs to those who come later, or to nature.

But is the foundational level of basically acceptable and reliably functional enough?  Don’t we want – need – to go beyond merely competent work?  Even putting aside for a moment the ethical issue of what kinds of projects a professional should refuse to do*, wouldn’t it be better – perhaps increasingly necessary – for our buildings, parks, and transportation facilities to be “great,” “inspirational,” or even “socially transformational”?   It’s a lofty and perhaps vague goal.  It raises the question of what are the characteristics of the built environment that causes it to make (or at least raises the odds that it can make) a positive contribution to the social wealth and health of its immediate neighborhood and larger society?   And can we even hope for, perhaps demand, such an impact?

I used to say that we, as citizens and human beings, need to demand that our city planners, landscape and building architects, transportation engineers, and contractors use both their heads and their hearts.   They need to more deeply think and feel their way through the core questions:  who will use the facilities and space, for what purposes, and what do we want the experience to be like?

However, “head and hearts” may not be the best description of what is needed.  I recently heard a 2014 Loeb Fellow from Australia, Helen Lochhead, say that once a project meets all the required technical specs what distinguishes great projects is ”design and social inclusion.”  After studying projects around the world, she found that these qualities are what unleash creativity and turn the adequate into the wonderful.  But what does that mean, and how can it be operationalized?

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DESIGN AND DEMOCRACY

Design is one of those magic words beloved by architects, landscapers, and product developers but rather nebulous to the rest of us.  Even designers don’t agree about the meaning of the term.  (My personal favorite is “design is art that makes itself useful,” although I am sympathetic to the counter argument that design is supposed to solve problems while art’s responsibility is to raise questions.)

For the rest of us, we know it when we see it; feel it when we’re in the midst of it; notice its absence when it goes away.  But other than knowing that good design involves more than efficient functionality we’re often unable to describe or evaluate it – much less ask for or even require it.  And yet we need to do exactly that.

In the private sector, wealthy individuals and corporations have the resources to demand that things built for their own use are artfully and pleasingly designed; corner-cutting more typically occurs in commercial efforts intended for others’ use, particularly if it’s a mass-market customer.

In the public sector, the combination of fewer resources, less in-house expertise, the difficulty of supervising complex projects or demanding that outside vendors do more than adhere to contractual specs, the vulnerability of the chosen aesthetics to veto by a huge variety of citizens groups, and the fact that most public sector work is – by definition – being created for use by others all tends to reduce the ability to demand top-level design.   In addition, the requirement that everything be done according to law-suit-defendable procedures can create endless paperwork and bureaucratic frustrations, thereby discouraging the most innovative designers.   This tendency is reinforced because avoiding blame is the prime directive of political survival making leadership sometimes overly risk aversive.  Writing about the disappointing results of endless fights over what would replace the collapsed World Trade Towers in New York, Elizabeth Greenspan, who just published Battle for Ground Zero, states, “It doesn’t seem like the most creative, imaginative solution, but it’s good enough. What I’ve learned about the democratic process is: if you end up with something that is good enough, in our system, that’s actually not so bad.”

But “good enough” should not be good enough.  Design is vital.  Good design provides a sense of beauty and appropriateness to a building, space, or facility.  However, it goes beyond aesthetics.  On one side it shades into the excited superficiality of fashion; on another side into the pleasure of structurally-communicated ease of use.  It is, as we used to say in the software industry, the “look and feel” of the thing or the system – part technical skill, part cultural sensitivity, part art, part luck.  The goal of design is that the structure, space, product, or service invites you in, makes you feel comfortable, even happy, and serves your needs – even the ones you weren’t aware of you had — no matter who you are!

SOCIAL INCLUSION

“No matter who you are” — of the two qualities needed for greatness, Social Inclusion is both the easier to define and the harder to accomplish.   It means involving all potential users in the planning and creating something that makes all users feel as though it works for them.  But who are “all potential users?”

Because of the legal pressure of the Americans With Disabilities (ADA) laws, planners (usually) assume they include both able-bodied and the handicapped.  In architecture the concept is sometimes expanded to also mean the short and the tall (whose accommodations can also be enforced through ADA regulation) and the old and young (who are increasingly important market segments).  In transportation the scope of concern is starting to include pedestrians and cyclists as well as car drivers.

Still too often left out are the non-English speaking, the illiterate, the poor, and those who are unable to get away from their second (or third) jobs or their children to attend public meetings.   Including them is not merely a step towards equity,

OPENING THE DOORS

As brilliant and well-meaning as a planner may be, creating something that works well – that works wonderfully – for all people cannot be an inside job.  It requires finding ways to include the entire range of potential users (and stakeholders) in the planning process.  The collapse of MassDOT’s Route 28 Bus Rapid Transit proposal in Boston was caused more by the lack of community input and ownership as by any inherent and unfixable technical weaknesses in the plan.

But inclusion requires doing more than opening your door and waiting for people to come in and talk, or to provide “feedback” to a largely finished design.  Providing translators is only the beginning.  People need to be invited in.  It is a planner’s (or the proposing agency’s) responsibility to reach out into the appropriate community, using people who are known and trusted by that community, to interact with individuals and groups in a manner that meets them on their own terms.  This might require using photographs or drawings instead of schematic plans.  It might include having prepaid postcards for people to fill out.  It might require standing on the sidewalk to talk to people passing by.  It certainly will mean listening to long tirades and tangential comments that appear to have little relevance – except for the fact that someone who might be impacted by the project is saying it.  As good public workers already know, soliciting public input is a complicated sometimes frustrating and always exhausting process.

But if it increases the odds not only of getting the project done but also of having it be great (and appreciated) rather than ordinary and merely tolerated, then it is worth the investment.

LEADERSHIP AND VISION

The possibility for a building, or place, or transportation system to be transformational – to help inspire people, to bring them together, to make their lives a little better – depends not just on the professionals and staff but, even more, on the vision and energy and leadership of those in charge.  Ultimately, they are what makes it possible for everyone else to be better than “good enough.”  This doesn’t let everyone else off the hook – every one of us is either part of the solution or part of the problem – but it does provide a starting point for understanding the challenge.

Welcomed rather than simply used.  Great rather than acceptable.  Transformative rather than merely functional.  Why not?

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*In architecture, a national push for progressive ethical standards comes from Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility.  I am unaware of anything similar for traffic engineers or transportation planners.

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Some related previous posts include:

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

> PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS: The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value

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

> GOOD GOALS: From Effort To Results

> REDEFINING TRANSPORTATON: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making

> WAYFINDING THROUGH POLITICAL DEBATE: Accidents Waiting To Happen

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

 

 

 

 

Posted in Commentary & Analysis, Government Reform, Project Management, Public Health, Road Design, ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE | Leave a comment

CYCLING ACROSS MASSACHUSETTS: Connecting With Nature, and Why We Need Urban Greenways

I love cities.  They are the engines of our nation’s energy, diversity, cultural opportunities, social interaction, and entrepreneurial vibrancy.  Cities are where most of our population lives and where most of our economic growth originates.   Cities are the base from which we’ll create the future.

But I also love the natural world.  I think a connection to nature is essential for our peace of mind, for appreciating that we all eat (and live) on the table set by the natural world (and how vulnerable it is to our exploitation of it), and our understanding that the world and the universe is bigger and older than any of us and will survive long after we are gone.

You can get a bit of a nature fix in the city.  Sometimes a city-wide bike ride gives you a glimpse of what you know you should go back and explore some other time:  Boston’s Hub On Wheels and the Transportation Alternatives New York Century are always worth the effort.  (My condolences to everyone who let the early-morning rain keep them from this year’s Hub ride – by the time we started at 8am the rain had stopped and by 11 the sun was out in full bloom: a wonderful day!)  Our parks, our riverbanks, the harbor, the forests and farms that somehow exist within the metropolitan area – all these are vital for our mental and physical and even societal well-being.

But sometimes it’s really good to get out.  Really far out.

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WALK, HIKE, BIKE

Thoreau famously walked for dozens of miles, not just to get somewhere but mostly to just experience the world and think.  A group called FreeWalkers continues that tradition today.

Large bodies of water always feel infinite.  My wife likes to be next to the ocean, with its endless waves and openness.  Best is walking along an empty beach in the off-season, with the wind and still-warm sun beating down.  Or spending a day (or an overnight tenting trip) on Boston’s most overlooked natural resource, the Harbor Islands.

Myself, I like high-altitude backpacking and cross country bike trips.  Foot and bike.  Every year or two my friend Larry and I lift 40 pounds or so and head up.  We’ve gone to the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas, the Alps, and even the Whites.  On my bike I’ve gone around Vermont and Massachusetts and across Maine (all with my cousin and brother), on the Bon Ton Roulet ride around the Finger Lakes (where the wine tasting rivals the cycling), across part of Massachusetts with the Mass BikePike tour, and this past week about 100 of us did the totally wonderful first annual, fully supported, Berkshires to Boston bike ride:  three days of gorgeous scenery (have you ever noticed that Vermont is really only an extension of western Massachusetts?) culminating on the fourth day with Hub On Wheels’ great circle around Boston.

(A note of special appreciation:  Berkshires to Boston is organized by the visionary and hyper-energetic Gary Briere, who somehow also finds time to be the Chief of Recreation for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), as well as MassBike and lots of local people in each of the delightful towns we passed through.)

FROM FARM TO CITY

On a long ride over so many different types of paths and roads, the differences really stand out.  The comfort and pleasure of riding on low-traffic, tree-lined, relatively smooth pavement is tangible.   The tension of being next to heavy or high-speed traffic, the physical discomfort (and safety concerns) of riding on cracked and pot-holed asphalt, the ugliness of some of our commercialized streetscapes (although built-up areas can also be well designed) – all turn joy into jumpiness.

For those of us who live in cities, or simply recognize their central role in a sustainable future, the lesson is clear, at least for what it will take to get more people out of their cars and outdoor on foot or on bikes for commuting, recreation, exercise, or even for short trips to shop, visit, or for family time.  We need to step up our development of rail-to-trail and rail-with-trail conversions, our off-road paths through our parks and along water-ways, and our upgrading of low-traffic residential streets into pedestrian-and-cyclist-priority “neighborways” with low-speed limits. We need to line each of these routes with trees and storm-water-catching “swales” so that they become extensions of our parks, of nature, deep into our neighborhoods.  And we need these walkable and bikeable greenways not only in the suburbs but in the urban core.

Creating a regional Green Routes system that attracts large amounts of pedestrian and bicycle usage requires both lots of local efforts as well as a regional coalition.  Over the past year there has been a new effort, with significant technical support from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), to push forward on town-by-town projects.   In the “urban core” – the sweeping area between the lower reaches of the Mystic, Charles, and Neponset rivers – an effort has begun to identify gaps in the existing greenway segments and to link those segments together with each other and the larger regional system.   Regionally, there have been intermittent gatherings of people from advocacy groups, municipal government, environmental and recreation groups to explore how to work together for policy and funding changes to facilitate the local projects.   The opportunity for success has been immeasurably improved as a result of MassDOT’s recent “Healthy Transportation Policy Directive” (policy P-13-0001, issued 9/9/13 but not yet posted as of this writing).  It is a powerful statement that puts teeth into the requirement that sustainable ped/bike facilities must be included in every departmental project.  (We, the concerned public, need to make sure that it gets quickly integrated into every aspect of MassDOT policy and procedure so that it will survive the upcoming change in gubernatorial administration!)

We can’t, and shouldn’t want to, escape from nature.  But we must increasingly live in, and should welcome, the higher built-density of our expanding urban areas – both in the cities and in the emerging suburban “town centers.”  Combining the two imperatives is not only necessary, it’s do-able – but only if we make it happen!

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Recent related postings:
> NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks
> THE FUTURE OF RAILROADS: Why Rail-To-Trail Conversion Is The Key To Both Eventual Rail Restoration and Current Off-Road Networks
> RECLAIMING THE LESSONS OF PAST VICTORIES: Traffic Is Not Inevitable
> HEALTHY PEOPLE, SAFE TRAVEL, GOOD BUSINESS, PERSONAL CHOICE: Framing Mode Shift
> GREEN ROUTES TO THE FUTURE: Combining Regional Vision and Local Initiative to Revitalize Urban Transportation and Well-Being

 

 

Posted in Commentary & Analysis | 2 Comments

IF VEHICLE MILES TRAVELED IS DECLINING, WHY DOES TRAFFIC KEEP GETTING WORSE

Our roads feel more congested than ever.  It takes forever to get down Mass Avenue across Boston or Cambridge.  Memorial Drive, near where I live, is now backed up starting at about 4pm and continuing until nearly 7!  Route 93 out of Boston is perpetually stop and go, every day, at nearly every hour.  Sure, we all like to complain, but this is more than personal whining:  according to a new study, “even after $24 billion in Big Dig construction, Boston’s legendary traffic woes are still making the top 10 nationally for rush-hour tie-ups.  Boston is also leading the nation in year-to-year congestion level increases.”  Globe columnist Derrick Jackson points out that, “The Boston metro area is the nation’s ninth largest, but experienced the third highest rise in traffic delays since 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. With the announcements in recent months of several new office, residential, and hotel skyscrapers, and with outgoing Mayor Menino wanting 30,000 new housing units by 2020, things will get much worse…”

My own experience is that it is almost always faster to cover 5 miles or less across town by bike than by car, or even by subway – unless you are starting and ending less than a block away from a station and you are lucky enough to immediately catch an arriving train.

But data also shows that each of us is driving fewer miles each year.  In 2012 Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per person hit the lowest level since 1996.  Massachusetts drivers’ 8,318 average annual miles driven, down 4% since 2004, puts us near the bottom of the national list: 41st! It’s not simply about the poor economy and unemployed people not needing to commute; there seem to be deeper trends. The percentage of women entering the workforce has leveled off, removing a key reason for the past increase in commuter traffic.  Cars no longer have the cultural cache of sexy masculinity or provide a symbol of adult freedom or even simply feel like fun – these days, they’re just glorified computers with mobile sound systems!   For the past decade or so, “Millennials” under age 30 have been driving and even getting their driver’s licenses less frequently than any previous similar-age cohort.  In fact, despite continuing population increases the nation’s total VMT has dropped nearly 1% over the past eight years.  More urgently, the actual levels of traffic have been lower than nearly all the predicted traffic volumes calculated using the state’s modeling formula over the past several decades.

So….where are all the cars coming from? 

THE STANDARD STORY

I’ve heard people say that it’s because of the building construction and bridge/road repair.  However, the traffic jams started appearing several years ago, even before the current boom in Stimulus-initiated road repair (which we were lucky to finally get after years of neglect under the banner of “no more taxes”).

Maybe it’s because even though we’re driving fewer miles overall, and even spending less time per day in a car, we’re taking more short trips?  Has the growing 18% of our  retail economy that happens on-line economy increased, rather than reduced the daily average of ten trips generated per household – commuting, shopping, visitors, pizza deliveries, mail, trash, newspapers?   It’s probably not primarily about population growth – of which our state has had relatively little in recent years.  Perhaps it is that our population is getting more urbanized and concentrated so that those who still rely on cars are moving around in a smaller overall area?

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that we can’t build enough new road capacity to de-congest without ripping down huge swaths of our city.  And even if we did, experience shows that expanding road capacity simply attracts more cars until it, too, solidifies into jam.  Roads can be improved.  We can improve intersections and signal timing.  We can fix potholes.  But, ultimately, there simply is no way to make more than minor improvements.   Some of our political and transportation leaders seem to understand that this new reality requires new policies – the GreenDOT program at MassDOT and Boston’s Complete Streets/Bike Network plans are good examples.  The state’s quick development of a T-line plan between Back Bay and the already congested Seaport boom zone is another.  It should be obvious that we need a vast expansion of transit, bicycling, and walking options.  But public understanding still lags behind and is expressed through complaints about lack of traffic-encouraging projects as well as fury about inadequate parking spots.

ANOTHER APPROACH?

At the same time that we expand non-car infrastructure, we also need to discourage over-use of cars by charging for downtown access, which might begin to help cover the true cost of allowing cars.  Globe columnist Derrick Jackson recently pointed out that London, Stockholm, Milan, Singapore, and domestically, New York, San Francisco, and Washington DC have all either implemented or proposed using congestion pricing and/or charging market-rates for parking to better control and limit downtown traffic.  As for the former idea,  Tufts University’s Julian Agyeman, says, “Some people consider [congestion fees] a tax, but it actually is a way to democratize the city by making it more accessible to more people.”

Our city and regional economy will flounder and our quality of life will suffer if we can’t create a cost- and time-efficient transportation system.  Facilitating increased car traffic won’t get us there.

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Some relevant previous posts:

> 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

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

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

 

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SNOW REMOVAL ON BIKE LANES; SEAPORT TRAFFIC JAMS

PREPARING FOR SNOW:  WHEN SHOULD BIKE LANES GET PRIORITY?

Most municipalities and most state agencies have carefully negotiated lists of which streets get plowed clear of snow in what priority order.  First priority usually goes to busy highways and arterials, hospitals and schools, fire stations and emergency services.

But in some communities, a major portion of daily travel occurs by bicycle or on foot.   The corridor from Somerville through Cambridge to Boston (Beacon-Hampshire-Broadway-Main-Longfellow Bridge) often has more bikes than cars during the morning commute.  And there are key walking areas between bus and subway/trolley stops and nearby workplaces.

Carice Pingenot, who has just opened the area’s newest bike store called Bicycle Belle, recently asked me if it wasn’t about time that municipalities and state agencies created and publicized Priority Snow Removal Areas focused on bike and foot traffic?   Bike-lane priority streets would, like major car roads, have parking bans during snow emergencies.  Plows would remove the snow rather than push it to the side as is typically done on other streets – making room for cars but making it extremely unsafe for cyclists.  And where the priority route contained a cycle track, the responsible agency would have appropriate width plows available nearby.

In walking priority areas, nearby property owners would be regularly served with notices reminding them of (if necessary, newly passed) regulations requiring rapid and adequate shoveling.  If the sidewalk was public property, the city or state agency would either have contractors ready to go or create a plan for utilizing its own employees in a timely manner.

Climate change doesn’t just mean warmer overall weather.  It also means more extreme weather events.  As bicycling and walking become more important methods of urban travel, we need to be ready to make the surfaces they use as available as streets are for cars.

SEAPORT TRAFFIC JAMS

New development generates more trips.  Banks and contractors wouldn’t build residences, stores, or workplaces if they didn’t expect people to come to them.  However, these profit-seeking investments would seldom occur if governments didn’t spend other people’s money – the public’s tax money – to prepare an area for development and to deal with the inevitable transportation needs.  Unfortunately, land use and transportation planning are usually treated as separate processes in this country, and neither is integrated with quality of life, environmental, and sustainability issues.  In the absence of serious planning and spending for alternative ways to get into and around a newly developed area, travelers’ default option is to drive, usually by themselves in a Single Occupancy Vehicle (SOV).  This is especially true if the roads are the only transportation facility that has been upgraded.

But if you build it they will come.  So it should be no surprise that Boston’s rapidly developing Seaport District, which has already reached anticipated 2025 levels of development, already has traffic jams:  “everyone seems to head out at 5 p.m., creating bumper-to-bumper traffic along the main spine on Seaport Boulevard, spilling out onto Atlantic Avenue, and clogging side roads throughout the area.”

As far back as the early 1990s, planners knew that the water front area would eventually need better transit facilities.  But, as the Massachusetts Sierra Club points out, the proposed Red Line branch was scrapped in favor of “an inadequate Silver Line bus tunnel that forces passengers into an awkward series of transfers to get almost anyplace else.”

Government’s short-term response is to open up more roads:  promoting use of the B Street tunnel to I-93, opening up the Haul Road to commuters during rush hour, eliminating the downtown HOV lane on 93 North.   While there is also discussion of encouraging the use of the No. 4 bus from North Station and adding another commuter ferry, these are wholly insufficient for the scale of the problem – which is too much drive-alone travel.  Worse – by making driving easier these steps will only encourage more driving.

The biggest need is to increase alternatives to SOV commuting, if only because thousands of waterfront area parking spaces are about the disappear: dropping from about 6,000 to 750!  Car pools are a start.  Express buses from the edges of the area, or even from outside the city, into the Seaport are another step.  There needs to be a more extensive network of bus routes – probably using mini-buses or vans – across the entire Waterfront and extending into adjacent areas.  A real Bus Rapid Transit line needs to be developed, perhaps using a current car lane on various roads and getting traffic signal priority at intersections.  The Silver Line needs to be upgraded, perhaps even turned into a light rail system and integrated into the rest of the MBTA system.

Non-motorized travel facilities need to be drastically expanded as well.  More Hubway stations.  Every building should be required to have a large amount of both outside bike parking areas (both open and covered) near entrances and indoor secure facilities.  Cycle tracks, or at least buffered bike lanes, need to be installed along each of the major roads and through the larger development parcels with connections to the South Bay Harbor Trail, South Boston’s Harbor Paths, and nearby MBTA stations.  A low-traffic-stress Green Routes system, suitable for bicycle commuting, needs to extend outward through Boston to the suburbs.  And the surfaces of both the bikeways and sidewalks need to be maintained and given priority treatment for snow removal.

Just as important: planners need to push for more residential construction so that people who work in the district can live there as well; no commuting needed.  This implies the need for retail stores, parks, and even schools – all of which should be paid for by the developers reaping fortunes from the public’s preparatory work.

In fact, developers should also be required to significantly contribute to the cost of upgrading the area’s transportation system.  This will only happen if the city, acting  through the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), and the state, acting through MassPort and MassDOT, work together with a unified goal of creating alternatives to SOV travel rather than simply facilitating driving.

The Innovation District has already been priced out of reach of the small start-ups that made it an economic driver; it is quite possible that lack of transportation will choke the rest of it to death.

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THE FUTURE OF RAILROADS: Why Rail-To-Trail Conversion Is The Key To Both Eventual Rail Restoration and Current Off-Road Networks

Posted in Commentary & Analysis | Leave a comment

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

There are situations where the danger is so great, the potential damage so devastating, the outrage to decency so powerful that you feel that immediate, radical change becomes an emotional and moral imperative.   And you do everything you can to advocate, to make the world take notice, to make people in power take action.  Right now.

But, with few exceptions, change happens slowly. Creating change requires getting decision-makers to act, attracting the support of powerful interests, or mobilizing important enough segments of the media and/or the public – none of which usually happens quickly.  And then implementing significant change requires transforming systems, which almost always have enormous inertial drag towards the status quo.  And having an impact requires the changed processes and outcomes to replace current conditions, which can be incremental and uncertain.

Advocates are sometimes wrong.  The problem may not be as big or as bad as they believe.   Or it is; but decision-makers, even those who want to address the issue, are not free to act as decisively as needed.   It is true that in moments of transfixing emergency – a devastating hurricane, a terrorist attack, a spreading pandemic – the government is able to command the entire society and mobilize a broad response; although George Bush showed us that such efforts are not necessarily well done and can create as many problems as they solve.   But in more ordinary circumstances, public (or even corporate) leaders are remarkably constrained.  At last year’s Boston Bicycle Update, when someone asked Nicole Freedman why she was talking about paint and signs when we needed to redesign our streets to stop the killing of cyclists, Nicole said, “paint can be laid down in months, moving curbs takes years.”  And that’s true, even were Mayor Menino to order it done.

Still, the more drastic the consequences of non-action the stronger the tension.  For some people, the distance between what should be and what is causes them to lose touch with reality and end up in violent dead ends that violate the very values that originally motivated them.  Other people are inspired to leap over the gap through symbolic action of ethical heroism.  However, most of the time, for most people, a belief in the possibility of change gives them the fortitude to endure the countless conversations, endless meetings, and repeated disappointments that are the necessary foundation for their eventual partial success – although they often hope for the emergence of a mass movements capable of driving their issue through the swamp of transformation.  In fact, it is exactly in the intolerable space between what ought to be and what is that advocacy (and most of life) occurs.

GOING TO EXTREMES

The inability to change the world can lead to cynicism or, more commonly, the focus on purely personal affairs that shapes most lives.  But it can push people to the other side of the spectrum:  extreme “voluntarism” – the belief that radical social change can be catalyzed at any time through the action of hyper-committed individuals.  (Che Guevarra’s “foco” strategies were a revolutionary version of this, with predictably disastrous results in Bolivia.)  This doesn’t only come from elitist or “vanguardist” arrogance.  Letting yourself feel too much of others’ pain can drive you crazy, especially if you believe it could be stopped and that you are partially responsible for making that happen.   Given a particular personality type and the dynamics of small, isolated, or beleaguered groups (both political and religious) the stress can lead to such poor analyses of reality that ideological perspectives over-rule understanding and violence seems to make sense.  The “Weatherman” spin-off of the anti-Vietnam War movement believed the killing would only stop if they “brought the war home” by attacks within the USA; immediately.  Earth First activists felt the globe-threatening destruction of our forests and environment had to be stopped; immediately.  Anti-abortion activists feel that women have to be stop ending their pregnancies, immediately.   The lack of immediate and complete success drove (and for the anti-abortionists still drives) each of them to violence.

Even if not pushed to extreme action, the effect of this tension can be dramatic and emotional.  Some friends of mine were panic-stricken this year as we passed the 400ppm point of no return for atmospheric carbon dioxide.   I saw the same angry intensity on the faces of people last winter as they demanded the city do something to stop the surge of cyclists’ deaths on Boston roads.

A different type of extreme behavior happens when advocates channel their commitment, and (especially when the action is individualistic) perhaps their egos, into self-sacrificing civil disobedience.  In a way, they ignore the limits of current reality and act, even if only symbolically, to force awareness of the problem and point to the final goal.  These people are the stuff of legends.  The people who poured real (or fake) blood on draft system files in the 1960s; the people who sailed into nuclear testing zones or the Greenpeace efforts to stand between harpooning whale ships and their intended victims– these and the others like them set a high bar of what it takes to live out your values.  But they are sometimes so far ahead of the rest of society that while they may bring attention to an issue and sometimes inspire future work, they seldom make an immediate difference – or sometimes any difference at all.

No less heroic, but much more effective as Movement building strategies, are collective actions — which often pass from symbolic to actual transformations of established power relations.  The thousands of people, a majority of whom were “ordinary” African-Americans, who risked or suffered beatings and arrest during the Civil Rights Movement, are our epoch’s most important examples.

THE MAGIC OF MASS MOVEMENTS

Rather than pretend they can create large scale transformation, many advocates (and others) wait for a Mass Movement to arise that will create enough pressure to force the leaders of government or business to take the desired actions.  In fact, Mass Movements are the desired but elusive goal of most advocacy efforts.  A Movement is not simply a protest, an outburst of anger at an intolerable situation or an effort to veto a threatening change.  It is also a demand for a more positive alternative, perhaps even a somewhat idealist vision.  At best, it is the mass application of bottom-up People Power — although the support of various sectors of the Establishment is usually welcomed and vitally needed!

And those of us who have participated in mass Movements, who have experienced the joy and affirmation  of being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of like-minded comrades, who have internalized the life-altering realization that nearly everything about human existence is shaped by human beings and can be changed through collective action – we are the lucky ones!  We know that “the personal is political” in ways that have given meaning, satisfaction, and community to our lives.

But Movement’s aren’t created; they emerge.  True:  this usually happens only after years of preparatory work by organizers and funders (the 40 years of care and cultivation that led to the rise of today’s Right-wing movement is a perfect example!).  But the exact timing of the emergence, the exact combination of events that trigger it, the extent to which is becomes not merely a ripple in the social fabric but a tsunami surging across the land – all this is utterly unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Movements often start out with transformational implications and hopes.  But they usually succeed by discarding their more radical overtones and finding ways to become “reforms” – minor or even major improvements to the overall functioning of the surrounding society or in the inclusion of formerly excluded groups into the established mainstream.  (This inclusionary dynamic is, in fact, one of the distinguishing and wonderful aspects of US society as compared to most countries of the world.)

The Women’s Liberation Movement originally envisioned the total transformation of sexual relationships, family dynamics, as well as the structure and culture of the business world.    It’s true that fathers now spend more time with their kids than they used to, and day care is no longer described as an excuse for maternal inadequacy.  But feminism’s biggest impact was to force business to open up the job market to individual women.  The Gay Liberation movement once sought to redefine sexuality; but its successful fight for Same Sex Marriage only came after re-oriented itself to demand inclusion into the once-denounced conservative institution of legal family bonds.   The Civil Rights Movement has not ended racism, but it has made it impossible to explicitly exclude people because of their skin color – and for a man of color to become President while people who remember lynchings are still alive.

On the other hand, even as they evolve, Movements often spawn other Movements.  Over the past 70 years it was the Civil Rights Movement, confronting (still) the historic core contradiction of our democratic self-definition and the capitalist nature of our economy, that was the mother of most others.   The first Student Movement activists were those who brought their Southern experiences back to the campus.  They began the Anti-Vietnam War (and anti-Imperialist) Movements.  The Women’s Liberation Movement spun off from those, and then birthed Gay Liberation, which laid the base for the explosion of activism around AIDS, which led to today’s Marriage Equality efforts.

DAY-TO-DAY ADVOCACY

Unfortunately, most issues will never generate mass Movements.  Movements require that a substantial number of people feel significantly threatened and that they believe there is a chance to protect themselves.  The anti-Vietnam War student movement got a great deal of its energy from the prospect of being drafted and sent into the jungle.  The Civil Rights movement was both a fight for survival and a demand for dignity.

Having the right combination of underlying interests, demographic latency, and triggering incidents for a Movement is an unusual occurrence.  As a result, most of the time advocates channel their feelings into nondramatic, issue-oriented work.   They may adopt some aspects of “being the change they wish to create” and they may be willing to play a “pushy” role as leaders and organizers, but their key attribute is their long-term commitment and their ability to envision an alternative to the present reality.   It can be a very satisfying effort.

There is plenty to do.  The day-to-day reality of advocacy combines protesting to stop the unwanted, lobbying to get decision-maker’s attention and impact policy, and partnership with agency staff to make things work as well as possible.   Much of this has significant but small impact.  It is “reform” rather than “revolution.”  Still, it makes a difference.  And it is what advocates have to do to lay the groundwork for being able to take advantage of moments of major-change-allowing crisis or the emergence of a society-changing “Movement.”

Most advocacy campaigns never get beyond the contested issue level.   No matter — issue-oriented Advocacy is good, important work.  Combined with the emerging understanding of “tactical urbanism” – the focus on small, Do-It-Yourself, low-cost, and even temporary improvements done by agencies or citizens – it takes advantage of the currently possible to point the way for the desperately needed.   Without it, Movements would have no vision and society would get no better.

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Thanks to Victor Silverman, the “raft rower,” for feedback on an earlier draft.

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Related previous postings:

> SUCCESSFUL ADVOCACY: Lessons of the BU Bridge Campaign

> THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development

> CHARITY, CHANGE, AND POWER: Advocacy and Movements

> OUR NEW EXTENDED FAMILIES: How the Built Environment and Public Services Shape Social Relationships and Democratic Government

> ADVOCACY 102: Advice For Job Seekers and Volunteers

 

 

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

The revelation during the hunt for the Marathon Bombers of how totally we are all tracked by the rapidly expanding web of electronic systems, and Edward Snowden’s disclosure of how easily it is for government’s security agencies to tap into those data streams, should change the nature of the comparatively trivial debate about installing red-light violation cameras at dangerous intersections.  But it has also revealed a generation fault line in people’s perceptions about the trade-offs involved.

Red light violation cameras, already installed in numerous US cities, clearly reduce violations.  Once the light turns red a sensor notices if any cars are in the intersection and reads the offender’s license plate, triggering an automate moving violation ticket being sent to the owner of the car – who can protest if s/he can prove someone else was driving at the time (except in New York, where the ticket is treated like a parking violation and the owner is legally responsible for the actions of anyone s/he has allowed to use the vehicle).

There are reports of jurisdictions setting the yellow light interval extremely short in order to generate revenue, although lengthening the yellow to give extra time is much more common.  And there are stories that fearful motorists jam on their brakes when the light turns, increasing the chances of getting hit by the unsuspecting following driver – although it is possible that these people were going too fast or close in the first place.   And there are cases of camera malfunction.

But these seem to be isolated exceptions – the overwhelming impact of the cameras is to reduce violations, slow traffic, and lower the accident rates.   And to give the police a new source of information about the location of individuals’ cars – not just when they run a light but, potentially, should their software be secretly changed and the supposed “civil liberty safeguards” ignored, for everyone passing through the intersection.  Despite this danger, as readers of this blog know, I am (warily) in favor of their installation – the increased safety seems to outweigh the potential civil rights infringements.

(Note:  this discussion about red light violation cameras does NOT include police surveillance cameras that monitor public spaces or political/cultural events, which raise a different and much more troublesome set of issues.)

BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY

Like many other people, I’ve had numerous recent conversations about data, privacy, and civil liberties.  Nearly everyone is favor of doing whatever is necessary to prevent bombings and terrorism.  No one wants to risk another 9/11 – although there is some debate about the ability of the government to do the job in less intrusive ways.  What’s fascinating is how quickly these discussions show that people under 40, and definitely those under 35, seem totally at ease with the idea that information about themselves is floating around.  In general, it is us older folks who seem the most concerned.

Partly, I assume, younger people have simply grown up in a digital world structured around data sharing.  Not just about their public action (walking down the street or attending a concert), or even their private social actions (at a party or on a group trip), but even of their personal details (birthday, home address, job history, family connections).   Years ago, during my High Tech days, I was on the national Board of a group called Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR).  This was so long ago – 15 or so years –  that the World Wide Web was just beginning to be invented and absolutely no one foresaw the tsunami of commercialization that would almost immediately transform the Internet from a special space to an interactive mall.  However, even then CPSR understood that data sharing was built into the very structure of the Internet and we were warning that unless privacy controls were integrated into every layer of the system, there would quickly be no way to protect data security.  We lost that fight, rather overwhelmingly, and the business dynamics of cyber space have normalized an open-data version of reality for the “digital natives.”

WHO DEFINES THE ENEMY?

The other reason for the generation divide, I believe, is that younger people have not lived through a period of time when they were the enemy.  They don’t remember Nixon’s “enemies list” and the resulting IRS reviews and wire taps, or the FBI’s harassment of anti-war and civil rights activists much less its murderous “cointelpro” program, or the witch-hunting blacklists against the labor movement and their progressive supporters.   Those of us who were around back then, who were active in protest groups and movements have no doubt that if any of the currently available tools had been available back then, they would have been used against us – to keep us under surveillance, to facilitate the work of provocateurs trying to get our groups to do stupid things, to make getting jobs more difficult, to disrupt our personal lives, and perhaps to set up for court cases, jail time, or physical injury.  Those of us who were there know that these types of things happened – and probably still happen — and have little confidence that the new tools and powers will be only used against the “real” terrorists that we all agree should be stopped.

It is, as we should all recognize, a balance.  And when it comes to preventing injuries at intersections, I tilt towards safety.

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Related previous posts:

> ANOTHER GENIE OUT OF THE BOTTLE: Be Careful What You Wish For; You Might Get It.

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

> ROAD RAGE, GUNS, & DEMOCRACY: Why Road Safety is About More Than Traffic Lights

 

 

 

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

When bank-robber Willie Sutton was asked why he held up banks, he supposedly quipped, “Because that’s where the money is.”  Cities, like every level of government, also have to go where the money is.   In this country, government’s aren’t usually able to set up state-owned firms able feed revenue back into the general budget.  So paying for social services and the huge variety of regulatory tasks needed to keep a complex society smoothly functioning requires our governments to collect taxes.  And healthy tax collection requires a healthy economy, which requires successful private businesses.

The big question for the people running for Boston mayor, and next year for Massachusetts’ governor, is what do we mean by a “healthy economy” and what strategies should we pursue to achieve it?

The current standard wisdom – in academia, the media, and government – is that business success comes from investment, and that only comes from the rich.   From this conservative (or “neo-liberal) perspective, it doesn’t matter if the well-off get insanely richer than ever before in history, eventually the goodies will flow down to the rest of us.  In these post-Regan years of free-market ideological dominance, greed is good.   Allowing the 1% to do whatever they want is the best strategy for solving nearly every problem.  Pulling the roof higher will supposedly drag the rest up the building upwards as well.

Even though, as the increasing amount of inequality and objective poverty in this country (and around the globe) makes it clear that this strategy seldom works as advertised, today’s political dynamics makes it hard to propose any other approach.  So it is probably a really good thing for Boston that Mayor Menino has never articulated a “grand strategy” for the city.  Ironically, Menino’s lack of an articulated development strategy has allowed him to develop a wonderfully varied set of piecemeal programs that actually pay attention to local Main Streets as well as sky-scraper developments, to public health as well as elite pursuits.  He’s shown its actually possible to pay attention to the neighborhoods as well as downtown – something we should demand of the candidates to replace him as well.

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PROSPERITY THROUGH INCLUSION

In the early 1900s, Progressives like Republican Teddy Roosevelt showed that government was an essential agent for dealing with domestic well-being.  During the1930s the Progressive vision shifted to the Democratic Party as Franklin Roosevelt groped for a response to disastrous collapse of employment caused by Wall Street’s frantic pursuit of speculative profits.  The New Deal strategy for prosperity was to both regulate financial institutions while also directly bolstering working class stability.  Refusing to continue the government’s traditional attacks on unions and the creation of a broad range of public institutions and social services laid the basis for a new strategy for a healthy economy and a business recover.    Instead of pulling the government back or reducing taxes,  the approach sought to use government programs to make sure that ordinary people had enough money and security to buy what they needed (and even what they wanted), while business (particularly the financial sector) would be prevented from blowing it all on short-term bubbles.    Prosperity would come from the bottom-up.

The New Deal’s innovation came from accepting the reality that trickle-down profits only followed the easiest and narrowest of channels.  Like water on a hill, the money flowing from business profits gather in pre-existing stream beds, differentially helping those already best positioned to secure the benefits but, short of flood conditions, not providing enough nourishment for the rest of the social landscape.  Making the rich richer mostly enriches those already well-off or well established – which is why those with power always prefer this approach.  However, the Great Depression (and, one would have hoped, our recent series of bursting dot-com and financial speculation bubbles) showed the failure of top-down strategies to solve basic malfunctioning.   Although he was no revolutionary, FDR saw that he could build a successful electoral coalition based on saving capitalism through using public programs to rebalance the power of various population sectors.

TWO-TIER URBANISM

The New Deal is gone.  The political coalition that promoted it was torn into shreds by the recist push-back against civil rights, the war on Vietnam, lack of funds, and the demands of business to lower costs (especially labor costs) in a global market.  The rhetoric is libertarian – pushing for laissez-faire freedom of action for business and, among many GOP leaders, for the rejection of nearly every public program created since the Progressive era began. But the actually practice is more authoritarian than libertarian, more pro-business than compasionate, using the government to enforce conservative values and hierarchies.

Fortunately, at the city level, mayors are more aware of the inescapable need in contemporary society to use government as a tool for local well-being.   Of course, even activist mayors can share the top-down vision – as most graphically demonstrated by New York’s Mayor Bloomberg.   In fact, the contrast between Menino and Bloomberg is a vivid demonstration of both Menino’s accomplishment and the challenge faced by his successors.

In New York, Bloomberg has aggressively favored the needs of the financial, real estate, media, and high tech businesses while using his power to create a city attractive to those who work in those high-flying sectors.  He has improved public safety, enacted public health and environmental sustainability measures, promoted radical approaches to ending mid-town traffic gridlock (including aggressive promotion of bicycle facilities!), and run a relatively well-managed and corruption-free administration.  As the Nation magazine’s editor’s point out, “Bloomberg’s is a vision of the city forged primarily around the care and feeding of thought leaders, professionals, and strivers – with little concern, and sometimes active contempt, for the ones who do the care and feeding….This is a fundamentally two-tier style of urbanism, one in which a cool, creative and well-managed metropolis glitters like something lovely, its radiance drawing attention away from the dimmed surroundings…. New York in 2013: a city of dazzling resurrection and official neglect, remarkable wealth and even more remarkable inequality….” Contributor Joshua Freeman adds, “…for hundreds of thousands of working-class families with unsteady work, low wages, unaffordable housing, crummy schools, and no union representation, New York City has failed miserably.”

BOSTON IS MORE THAN ITS LEADERS

The hot leaders of Boston’s economy — the “Ed, Med, and Tech” sectors and their spin-offs – are a key component of any conceivable prosperous future.  Their needs, and the needs of those who lead their creative efforts, must be addressed.  But there are other possible components of a vibrant city and a healthy economy, and the cool, hip, young, and active aren’t the only members of our population.

Mayor Menino has started programs that address many of the key issues – the next mayor needs to not merely continue them but to make them his/her own by massively increasing their scope and impact as well as addressing the missing gaps.   Housing:  Reclaiming foreclosed or abandoned houses in ways that preserve their long-term affordability by low-to-mid-income families.  Business Development:  incubators for small service and manufacturing start-ups in Dorchester neighborhoods full of immigrants with currently untapped skills and aspirations.   Wage Levels:  raising the minimum wage, enacting a higher Living Wage, expanding Union apprenticeships.   Schools: Expanding in-school tutorial and enrichment programs as well as afterschool sports and skills activities.  Open Space: Upgrading our non-famous parks and playgrounds, as well as the sidewalks and street furniture that makes nearby stores and residences attractive.  Transportation:  Improving bus service and creating a city-wide network of non-motorized paths to allow people to get to jobs without cars and families to play safely together.  And more, and more.

We do need lots of specific ideas from the candidates.  But even more, we need a believable commitment to improving our economy in ways that lift all boats, a convincing promise that the city will be an active agent for a democratic range of interests, a credible program that sees the long-term success of the rich and rising as based on the well-being of those who make the city’s everyday operations possible.   Thomas Menino stepped up to city-wide leadership from his Main Streets efforts; on what will the next mayor stand?

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Some related previous posts:

> 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?

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

> PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value

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

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

 

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OPEN STREETS: How Public Space Creates Civic Culture – and Democracy

The importance of the two Circle The City events this summer – July 14 on Huntington Ave. (“Avenue of the Arts”) and September 29 on Blue Hill Ave – go beyond the ability to walk, bike, roll, dance, play, eat, and hang out on car-free streets.   It’s more than the zumba, street games, yoga classes, vendors, music and participatory arts activities, and multiple miles of safe space for family-friendly cycling, strolling, and hanging out.

Yes: Circle The City is about good, clean, healthy fun.  It promotes local businesses and connects neighborhoods to nearby parks.   It helps promote discussion about how we can best use our largest publicly-owned physical asset – our streets – as more than and underpriced subsidy for car storage and movement.

But the more fundamental role of the 80 or so Open Streets Initiatives in North America, and more in other countries, it that it brings people together to not only build a sense of community but to also re-invigorate our civic culture.   Civic culture is the shared assumptions and trust which allows an extremely diverse and fragmented public to live together.  At a minimum, it allows tolerance of difference and formal civility.  At its best, it fosters inclusion and appreciation of multi-sourced contributions to our societal well-being and strengthens our commitment to egalitarian democracy. Civic culture is about seeing ourselves as one people.

CIVIC CULTURE IS A BUILT ENVIRONMENT

But civic culture requires both space and cultivation.  It does not happen on its own and, in fact, much of our commercial media and current politics thrives on making us all more fearful of each other, less trusting of those different from us, more insecure about our material well-being – dividing us into nervous isolation.  We need space, time, events, and reminders that if “Boston Strong” means anything in the long run, it means finding ways to express and be glad about the fact that we’re all in this together.

That is why Open Streets events are ultimately about rejecting the paranoia.  It’s about regaining the ability to walk down the street without assuming we’ll be mugged, to interact with others without assuming we’ll be cheated, to enjoy other people’s presence and voice.  And it isn’t pushing too hard to say that this is part of what allows us to send our children to school without assuming they’ll be mistreated, to gather in community meetings without assuming they’ll end in violence, to see our changing demographics as simply a fact (or even as an opportunity) without assuming it’s a cause of alarm.

The power of Open Streets comes exactly from its positive simplicity.  A stretch of reclaimed pavement, long enough for a real bike ride, with “activity nodes” spread along the way that make strolling worthwhile.   It’s bigger than a block party, more diverse than an ethnic festival, more city-wide than a neighborhood play street, more spread out than a parade, and more organized than a spontaneous “happening.”  It’s a place where people come together, to share with others, to enjoy the collective energy, to remember that our city is full of people who are both very different and quite the same as ourselves.

Circle The City is a unique partnership of the City, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, LivableStreets Alliance, the Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness, the Fenway Cultural Alliance, the Boston Bicycle Union, the Sustainability Guild, and you – come!

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Thanks to Jessica Parsons, Circle The City’s Project Manager, for leading the charge, and to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and the Barr Foundation for their support!

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Some related previous postings:

> OPEN STREETS & CYCLOVIAS: Creating Space For Urban Transformation

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

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

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

 

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

All too little attention and praise has been given to MassDOT’s recent announcements of state funding for the Neponset River Greenway, the inclusion of Community Path design as part of the Green Line extension, and funding for a major expansion of the Bruce Freeman Trail.  These are impressive steps – both symbolic and concrete – towards the re-orientation of the department from a highway to a multi-modal transportation agency.

But all three of these announcements feel like executive decisions.  It’s good to know that the leadership takes its own vision seriously.  We need lots more decisions like these.  But change at the top is not enough.  To truly embody its new role as set out in the 2009 Transportation Reform Act, MassDOT also needs to change its internal operations – the tools it uses, its reward and supervision structures, its culture and social dynamics.

MassDOT leadership understands this.   Secretary Davey is quite aware that MassDOT is a huge bureaucracy whose culture and history – as in most state and municipal transportation engineering departments – is both authoritarian and bureaucratic.  It’s structured like an old-style military operation with lots of layers between top and bottom.   To avoid getting in trouble you followed the rules and your orders; you didn’t talk or work with anyone outside your own chain of command; doing anything different or new was a punishable disloyalty.

To counter this, MassDOT leaders are trying to foster front-line initiative, to empower the district-level project managers and engineers.  The message is that the Central Office trusts them to do what’s best, both individually and as a district-level team, subject only to minimal central oversight.  It’s exactly the type of operational dynamic that MassDOT needs to achieve.   But it’s not enough – in fact, in the short term it may make things worse.   

MassDOT IN MIDSTREAM

The problem is that in the midst of this decentralization, many aspects of the old Highway Department culture and processes remain.  The traffic prediction tools being used still overestimate future car trip numbers and are almost incapable of bicycling or pedestrian demand analysis.  The skills of many traffic engineers still reflect the highway-based focus of their professional training.  Doing things differently requires much more time than simply repeating past practices, and the often over-worked staff often doesn’t feel that it has the luxury of being creative.

So MassDOT is stuck mid-stream.   Many MassDOT staff are working hard to embody its new direction.  But some are not.   More than one District staffer has been heard saying that cars are still what most people use and therefore what the roads should be designed for.   In other cases, it’s that neither the project managers nor their engineers simply don’t know what state-of-the-art multi-modal design entails or feel uncomfortable about incorporating such “non-standard” techniques in their work. And most of the rest of their office-peers are in the same boat.

The problem is compounded by the team loyalty that every District office has – and which they have to have in order to create a supportive and productive work environment.   No one wants to be the office critic, looking over their co-workers’ shoulder.  And in too many cases neither the District Bike/Pedestrian Coordinator (who provides the first opportunity for district-level oversight) nor the District Director or Chief Engineer (who are supposed to double check) have the time, skill, or perhaps the willingness to disrupt group cohesion to push back and require the needed revisions.

By the time local project plans get to the Central Office, the single state-wide bike/ped reviewer simply can’t catch all the problems and even when he does, his suggestions can easily be ignored because there is almost no post-construction review of what actually was done.  When things slip through the state ends up with sub-optimal designs. Non-car facilities are (usually) present, but at the minimal levels possible and neither creatively designed nor thoroughly integrated – it’s barely ok, but not really good enough.

Where progressive Transportation Advocates are able to intervene in the design process, good designs are created.  But anything done without external critiques has an unacceptably high chance of non-compliance with current MassDOT policy, or at least being a sub-optimal approach.  So Boston-area work improves; many parts of the rest of the state suffer from traditionalist designs.

RECONCILING POLICY AND PACTICE

The fact that MassDOT leadership has established more progressive policies is a vital first step.  Now it’s time to make sure that the entire organization follows them by eliminating the procedural corners in which old practices continue.  Some steps might include:

–  Create a stronger connection between District Bike/Ped Coordinator and Central Office – bring them in for group training & discussion; make part of their annual evaluation come from the Central Bike/Ped person.

–  Official change the responsibilities, authority, and title of District Bike/Ped Coordinator to give them power to intervene in any District project to critique plans and require changes to better achieve the state’s Mode Shift goals for transit, walking, and bicycling; re-title them as District Mode Shift Oversight Leaders.

–   Conduct annual Mode Shift Audits of each District Projects, utilizing Central Staff and appropriate outside consultants (including Advocates), to evaluate the extent to which their work is aligned with MassDOT priorities and policies.

–  Include high Mode Shift Audit “scores” as part of the evaluation criteria for District Directors and Chief Engineers.

NOT GOOD ENOUGH

The point of this list is not to pick on particular Districts or Project Managers, but to make it clear that this is a real and much too common problem. Here are some examples — there are probably lots more.  READERS, please let us know what other projects you would add to this list of sub-optimal designs!

  • Route 114, Peabody – The approved plan included only 4′ shoulders, the minimum allowable bicycle accommodation when there’s no parking between the bikes and the curb.  However, the District Field Engineer could not find the approved striping plan so instead used an old plan which had wide lanes and no shoulders. There are now 2 travel lanes in each direction, a center shared left turn lane, and no shoulders or bicycle accommodation of any kind. (District 4)
  • Neponset River Bridge –This started as DCR project and was inherited by MassDOT. The sidewalks are wide enough to be shared by pedestrians and slow cyclists.  But the on-road conditions for vehicular cycling are very dangerous with shoulders narrowing from 4′ in some places down to 2′ in others.  And there are neither road markings nor signed guidance when the road’s outer lanes enter and exit to Hancock St.  (District 6)
  • Route 105 at I-495, Middleborough — After LivableStreets pointed out deficiencies, MassDOT did agree to somewhat improved pedestrian safety measures, including sharks teeth yield lines at unsignalized crossings. However, bicycle accommodation is a minimal (and unmarked) shoulder of 4′ – which goes to 0′ under the I-495 bridge. Meanwhile, this project added a travel lane in each direction and a left turn lane. Turn radii for cars coming on and off of the ramps to I-495 are also much wider than they should be for pedestrian and bicycle safety (although one was tightened up a bit in response to a LivableStreets request for tightening all the turn radii). (District 5)
  • Hines Bridge, Amesbury –The rebuilt structure should have been designed to allow at least 5’ bike lanes.  Instead, bike accommodation was supposed to be handled by 1′ 8″ shoulders next to 11′ 6″ travel lanes. After LivableStreets complained, the shoulders were widened to 2′ 2″ with 11′ travel lanes – and signs were added suggesting bicyclists walk their bikes because the bridge is narrow! (District 4)
  • Fore River Bridge, Quincy/Weymouth –More worrisome than the lack of bicycle markings on the 5′ shoulders is the absence of clearly marked space guidance for cyclists in the rotary – also making it confusing for car drivers who want to avoid hitting them.  (District 6)
  • Route 5, West Springfield — MassDOT did add zebra crosswalks, concurrent signal timing in some locations, and sharks teeth yield lines and flashing pedestrian beacons at the I-91 on and off ramps, which improved the situation for pedestrians.  However, the only bicycle accommodation was 8′ shoulders that regularly disappear in favor of right turn-only lanes in many locations. Share the road signs were added as well, but it still remains a very challenging street for bicycling. And just as with the Route 105 project, turn radii for on and off ramps to I-91 are too wide for pedestrian and bicycle safety.  (District 2)
  • Kendrick and Highland Ave Bridges, Needham and Newton – These bridges are being rebuilt as part of the Route 128 Add-a-Lane project.  A new interchange is being added at Kendrick Street where one does not exist today. In both projects, travel lanes on the surface streets are being added, and interchanges are being designed with high speed merges on the surface streets. Although MassDOT has agreed to include bicycle lanes after advocates pressed them on it, the high-speed design of the roadways is at odds with pedestrian and bicycle safety and does not fit the character of these streets at the ends of the projects.  (District 6)
  • Mass Ave, Boston (South End) – After much pushing from advocates the designs were revised to include 5′ bike lanes, but not for the entire length. Two key blocks are still missing them. Also, crosswalks were poorly designed such that they overlap the path of cyclists, putting pedestrians and cyclists in conflict with each other at the intersections. Design also left a gap in the bike lanes at Columbus Ave, rather than connecting them. Sidewalk narrowing resulted in minimally ADA-compliant sidewalks in many locations.  (District 6)
  • Route 99, Everett/Boston –MassDOT’s final plan was an improvement over the original design, but at the expense of pedestrians. Because MassDOT wanted wider (11′ and 11.5′) travel lanes along with the 5′ bike lanes,  they ended up narrowing the east sidewalk from 10′ to 8′ (which includes trees) and did not widen the narrower west one (6′) at all.  (Districts 6 and 4)
  • Mass Ave, Arlington – Advocates originally asked for a single 11’ west-bound lane with a 4′ cobble-stone median for the length of the corridor.   The District 4 engineers insisted that DOT standards prohibited crossing such a median to make left turns onto private driveways, although it was never clear why this was the standard or why it wasn’t safe in the Arlington context.  So instead, the west-bound lane was to be 14-15′ to leave extra space for left-turning cars to move out of the way of thru traffic so the latter didn’t have to swerve into the bike lane.  This plan would retain the cobbled flush median but only in the heart of the business district where there are no driveways requiring a left turn over the flush median.  (District 4)
  • Route 20 (Main Street), Westfield – Main Street between Elm Street and Main Line Drive used to have 4 narrow travel lanes, no shoulders, and a green strip between the road and sidewalk.  After “improvement” the car lanes were wider, the shoulders were often smaller than the planned 4’, the green sidewalk buffer was gone, and the sidewalks were reduced to no more than 5’ – broken up by parking signs. A multi-modal approach would have either narrowed the car lanes or only included 3, added a 4’ or 5’ bike lane, and not degraded the sidewalk.  Ironically, in this case the State oversight official had rejected the District plan as inadequate, but it had been built anyway!  (District 2)

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Thanks to Phil Goff and especially Charlie Denison who watch-dogs these projects and compiled this list.

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Related previous posts:

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

> CRISIS AND OPPORTUNITY AT MASSDOT: Money, Internal Operations, and Political Support for Change.

> LIVABLE STREETS – From Theory to Practice

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

We’ve all done it; cruising around the block looking for an open parking space.  In fact, we all do it so much that studies suggest between 8% and an incredible 75% of the traffic in high demand areas have already reached their destination and are wasting time (and gas) looking for a place to pull over.  Studies in 10 cities found that it took between 3.5 and 13.9 minutes to find an on-street parking spot.  In Harvard Square, nearly a third of the drivers were cruising at peak time, with an average search taking 11.5 minutes.   (It’s even worse overseas: the global average of cruising time is 20 minutes, and in Nairobi it’s not unheard of to spend an hour searching for a spot!)

Parking is the emotional volcano in our conflicted relationship with car dependency.   Even though 99% of auto trips start and end in a “free” parking space, we have what consultant Mark Chase describes as a “famine mentality” – we are always afraid of its disappearance.  And the current method of apportioning the available on-street spots using residence permits, free or low-cost meters in commercial areas, handicapped reservations, loading zone and no parking areas simply doesn’t assuage our anxiety.  Until we have created enough viable alternatives to using our cars –improved public transportation, better bicycle and pedestrian facilities, a whole range of car-sharing and taxi-like services — we need a way to ensure that parking spots are available for those who really need or want them.

The way forward starts by recognizing that we are already paying a very high price for our dysfunctional parking policies through air pollution, wasted fuel (and the resulting climate volatility), time,  and aggravation.   Some of that cost comes directly out of our own hide, much of it is externalized to the more vulnerable members of society and the world at large – and to our children.  The second step towards a solution is understanding that by changing the way we price parking, we can solve or at least reduce many of those costs.  Parking, like most things, has never been and will never be truly free.  But at least we can cut a better deal. 

THE BEST DEAL IN TOWN

Why do we do it – driving and driving to find an on-street parking spot?  One reason is our desire for convenience – we all have a fantasy of pulling in right in front of the store or the friend’s house or our workplace and just rolling in.  We’re so committed to this vision that at least 10% of us (based on a UK report) are willing to sneak into reserved handicapped spots.     We have this fantasy even though we also rush out before or after work to spend an hour sweating at the local gym or running/biking through every kind of weather.  Somehow, the idea of walking from the car to our goal always registers as inconvenience rather than exercise, as an assault from the elements rather than a chance to breathe the outdoor air.

Partly we do it because it’s so cheap.  In most residential areas it’s free, available on an unlimited basis for the minimal cost of an annual resident’s sticker.  Even in metered downtown areas, we get to use public street-space in high-cost districts for a minuscule fraction of the going rental price of adjacent property.  In Boston, parking costs $1.25 per hour – less than a cup of coffee!  And anytime the city proposes an increase everyone denounces it as a horrible way to raise additional revenue, a piling on of insult to the existing pain of finding spots.

And mostly we do it because off-street private parking is so expensive.   Because on-street parking is cheap everyone wants it, which makes it so hard to find on-street spots that the garages can exorbitantly jack up prices.  And even without price-gouging, building an off-street space is expensive:  each spot on a lot costs about$10,000 to create; each spot in a garage costs more than twice as much; and underground parking built in the Boston Area cost more than $100,000 per space to build!   Recently, a single parking space in Boston’s Back Bay sold for $300,000!

THE BILL COMES DUE

The result is that a huge percentage of our street space is pulled out of circulation and dedicated to passive storage of a single type of object for the 95% of the time that it is not in use.   Taxpayers subsidize the cost.  Economist Edward Glaeser points out that “on-street parking carries a huge opportunity cost. Boston could get far more than $30,000 [a year’s maximum possible total of meter fees] for a permanent parking spot on Newbury Street, which could be used by a food truck or even a mobile boutique.”  And if it is going to be given away to facilitate transportation, why just to cars?  Glaeser adds that the space “could also be used for other valuable purposes, such as bike lanes or extra pedestrian space.”

The costs also seep into housing prices.  A San Francisco study found that requiring new developments to include off-street parking raised housing prices by an average of $47,000 and increased the household income necessary to purchase a home by over 13%.   And into public health – increased traffic-related air and water pollution are a major source of respiratory and other problems.  And into the overall livability and attractiveness of our country – the insatiable demand for parking drives much city planning and suburban design, leading to wasteful use of space and less friendly neighborhoods.  A case in point is the recent spectacle of a developer in transit-rich Allston who wanted to provide Zip-car and bike parking but no car parking in exchange for lower purchase fees – but who got trashed by neighbors who wanted to protect their own on-street spaces.   (His brilliant solution: include only half the normal number of spots, on a 1 spot per 2 units basis,  and offer to hire valets if the 180 spot capacity is exceeded who place cars tightly enough to fit even if it required temporarily blocking in long-term parkers. )

Our current parking system also hurts business.  Many retail shops think that the presence of a parking spot right in front of their door is key to attracting customers.  However, that spot is most likely being taken by an employee of that business or a neighboring business who got there early and keeps feeding the meter.  Furthermore, one parking place equals only one customer, who has no incentive to move their car even after they’ve left the store.  In fact, study after study shows that most downtown customers have walked to the store.   (Of course they did – even if they came by car it’s unlikely they would have found an empty spot right in front of that store!)  Which makes the creation of an inviting environment the key to keeping customers around while they meander from store to store – trees, benches, places to meet and talk with friends, and less intimidating and smelly and noisy traffic.

Parking garages might seem an easy fix.  But as noted above, they are extremely expensive to build and on street spaces will still be packed if the garage is more expensive.  Existing off-street parking space already uses enough land to cover the state of Connecticut –the first public garage was constructed in Boston in 1898!  We need to better use what we have before building more.  And, as with highways, expansion is an expensive and only short-term solution: if you build it, they will come, and come, and come – increasing car traffic until the new facilities are just as congested as the old ones and the competition for off-street spots is even worse.

Simply reserving more on-street space for parking won’t work either.   So long as it’s free or extremely low-cost, the only “cost” is convenience so drivers will give excessive value to spots closest to their desired destination and keep circling until they can get one.   The hard reality is that there will never be enough free parking to fully satisfy the potential latent demand.  So we ration it in a variety of ways.  Currently, we mostly use a “first come, first served” approach and we reserve spots for people with certain residence or workplace or handicapped stickers.  Increasingly, cities are limiting the total time a spot can be continuously used by one car.   We all know about the problems with each of these approaches.

TOWARD PARKING REFORM

So what to do?  Requiring all employers and residential developments to create Transportation Demand Management programs would be a great foundation.  TDM implements strategies to reduce single-occupancy vehicle travel by facilitating car-pooling, providing subsidized transit passes, setting up better bike parking and even bicycle purchasing benefits, and reducing the amount of on-site parking.

But TDM is long-range and indirect.  We need something that is more visible and fast-acting.   UCLA professor Donald Shoup posits that we should charge just enough for parking so that there are always a few available spaces.    And what if parking fees were recycled back for communities to use for local improvements and ways to make the public way – streets, sidewalks, parks — friendlier, safer, and more inviting?  And what if doing this would also make housing less expensive, increase local business, and reduce both injuries and illness?

Of course there’s a price – we’d have to start thinking about parking not as a guaranteed right but as a commodity to be sold.   Markets are a form of rationing, usually by ability to pay but potentially by allowing a trade-off between price and convenience.  We also need to consider the needs of low-income people who need a car (and a place to park).  We can accommodate them through targeted discounted parking.

New technologies allow cities to adjust the cost of every parking spot (or every group of parking spots) according to the demand for that location.   In the more advanced systems, the price can change every hour of the day, every day of the week.  The more demand at a particular time the higher the price until it reaches a level where at least a few spots are always open for someone who wants to be there so badly that they’re willing to pay that premium for the privilege.   When and where demand is lower the prices are too, as the distance from the high-demand area increases cost drops until, a couple blocks further away, it’s nearly free – meaning that people who are willing to walk get the best deals.  If that lower-demand area or time is where or when you want to go, you’re in double luck – an available and low cost spot!   In Pasadena, a similar system has been created and fine-tuned so that 15% of the possible parking spots are always free – if you really have to park near a particular place you can.

In San Francisco, the SFpark program has put these theories into practice on a large scale by installing sensors in ten neighborhoods throughout the city. After having the pilot system in place for over two years and almost a dozen price adjustments (the price is adjusted $0.25 at a time up or down every six weeks depending on measured parking occupancy), in 1/3 of spaces the cost of parking has gone up, 1/3 of spaces have stayed the same, and 1/3 of spaces have seen prices increase. Overall, the cost of parking has gone down as underutilized spaces are being accurately priced and better used.  This approach is  scalable and just as applicable in a small downtown as they are in urban neighborhoods.

To further reduce the demand for on-street parking in the most congested areas as well as put some downward pressure on the prices charged by private garages, cities could lower the cost of using a public garage – perhaps making the first 90 minutes free.   And replacing an occasional parking spot in front of a willing store, such as a café, with a bike parking corral creates space for up to 10 customers instead of just one!

A market-oriented approach is not problem-free.  Markets seldom embody the “voluntary exchange between willing participants” that capitalist mythology describes, if only because the two sides so seldom have equivalent levels of knowledge, choices, or power.  And markets seldom create as much social as private value, if only because the pressure to externalize long-term costs affects all participants so strongly.   But markets are very good at “clearance” – using price differentials to find a buyer for every product.  However, to avoid at least some of the discriminatory effects that markets inevitably create, reserved handicapped spots would remain and low-income families could apply for discounted parking cards or get annual rebates of their parking fees.

The transportation benefits go beyond the availability of parking.  One study suggests that a $1 parking surcharge in Boston would cut traffic enough to roughly halve the time it takes a driver to get through the central business district – an impact equivalent to imposing a $1 congestion fee.

THE CARROT AT THE END OF THE STICK

The best part of this approach is what could be done with the parking money.  For example, at least half of all revenue, after expenses, could be available to the community as part of a “Neighborhood Improvement Fund” to pay for sidewalk repair, tree planting, benches and table, cultural events, and anything else that neighbors decide would make their street space better.   This would create the political will within neighborhoods to advocate for parking pricing.

Of course, this is just the beginning.  Subsidized parking creates an incentive for people to use their cars rather than transit or bicycle, which leads to even greater traffic congestion.   Current zoning rules create additional perverse incentives.  Boston zoning requires a minimum of one off-street parking spot for every unit of housing, and once you’ve paid for a spot it feels silly not to use it for a car…which you then drive rather than find an alternative.  Zoning provisions are almost entirely focused on avoiding tenants parking their cars on street.  If the price was set correctly, a new development would not result in net new cars, but in a gradual, perhaps imperceptible increase in the cost of parking.

In areas with abundant transit options, if developers were allowed to leave out the parking they could both add additional units and lower the sale price.  To encourage this, some cities have parking space maximums instead of minimums.   To keep on-street parking demand low developers are urged to negotiate agreements with car-sharing and car-rental firms for discounted use, and often required to provide ample indoor bike-parking facilities.   When off-street parking is required, developers are allowed to set up arrangements for the use of an existing nearby parking garage for long-term parking.  Put all together, it is likely that the much feared new-development spill-over of cars onto neighborhood streets might be avoided.

At a minimum, zoning laws should be changed to require landlords to separate the cost of the housing from the cost of the off-street parking and allow tenants to opt-out of the parking purchase if they wish.  However, separating the cost of parking from a unit will have the intended effect only  when the price of parking on street is high enough to encourage use of the garage over a City permit – and Boston’s are currently free!

TIME TO GROW UP

Change will be controversial.  Parking is an emotional trigger for the feeling of vulnerability caused by our dependence on our cars.   We love our cars, but they are expensive and troublesome.  For most,  given our current transportation system and land-use sprawl we can’t escape needing them.  So the idea of having our ability to park taken away is infuriating.  We get pretty agitated about it.   It would be short-sighted and insulting – as well as political suicide – to expect everyone, or even most people, to suddenly give up their cars. Happily we don’t need to do this to solve the parking problem.   We only need to  provide enough incentive for a few people to willingly walk further to park, or to use a car-sharing service instead of their own vehicle.  We need to find ways to create choices, and to begin shaping the decision-making context so that it makes sense to park elsewhere – or to not drive at all!

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Thanks to Mark Chase and Mike Izzo for feedback and facts.

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Related previous blogs:

> NEW GARAGES FOR THE DOWNTOWN: How Can We Get What We Need?

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

> AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

> Streets Are Public Property: Revitalized Streets are a Lever to Revitalize Public Life

 

 

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

Paradigm shift.  A fundamental change in one’s core understanding of a situation.  It’s hard to do.  It takes abandoning everything you’ve been taught and believed and that made sense, then adopting something totally new and perhaps both untried and unsettling.  It takes going from a belief that the sun goes around the earth to understanding that it’s exactly the opposite.  And, as Galileo found out, there is often a powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – an Inquisition – ready to attack you for questioning orthodoxy.

In transportation, shifting paradigm means switching from a belief that roads are primarily about carrying through traffic to prioritizing their power to facilitate local neighborhood livability.  It means switching the starting point for road design, even of busy roads, from a highway to a city street – understanding that softening the edges of a highway still results in something very different than a city street with peak-hour flexibility.

Paradigm shifts are often the necessary (even if not sufficient) foundation for a change in an organization’s strategic direction.  The car – and its attendant roads, parking spaces, garages, and dealerships – were once seen as the basis for economic growth and personal success.  We now know better.  We now know that we need a more balance transportation (and energy and land use) agenda.  MassDOT needs to play a central role in this transformation – a fact the state government and MassDOT itself understand as reflected in the Healthy Transportation Compact section of the Transportation Reform Act and in the Greenhouse Gas Emission reduction laws, as well as in MassDOT’s own GreenDOT program with its energy conservation and efficiency goals and its commitment to triple the number of trips made by bike and foot and transit.

But despite constant waving of the new multi-modal banners, MassDOT’s actual work is still a frustrating combination of new rhetoric and old practices. What’s happening around the McGrath/O’Brien Highway is a case in point.   MassDOT’s proposed short-term repair and long-term replacement designs are much, much better than what now exists or what MassDOT had originally planned to do.  But underneath the talk of “boulevards” and “accessibility” is still an 8-lane behemoth justified by faulty assumptions about the inevitability of future traffic growth and traffic engineer’s inability to give priority to anything besides car-movement level of service.

What Somerville needs is the replacement of the highway – no matter what it is called or how many trees are planted alongside – with a design that has as its deepest goal the knitting together of the city’s road-brutalized neighborhoods.   Commuters heading into or out from East Somerville, the Union Square area, and the Innerbelt zone will be as richly served by non-car transportation as any other place in the region.   MassDOT’s opportunity, and its possible paradigm shift, is to start by designing city streets and an over-abundant set of state-of-the-art facilities for non-motorized movement.  Transportation and land use are the twin determinants of much of our built environment.  MassDOT has been working very hard to re-invent itself as a transportation agency rather than as a highway department.  They’ve come a long way.  McGrath is a chance to push further, to show that their commitment to health and sustainability will be expressed not just in words but in concrete – and paint and grass and the revitalization of Somerville.  Continue reading

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BICYCLING SAFETY: Preventing Injury Requires Multiple Strategies

In recent years, bicycling has increased nationwide.  However, the growing numbers are most visible in urban areas where car congestion and mixed-use density make cycling particularly useful, which also gives bicylists the political clout to push for improved safety facilities.

Bicycling isn’t just faster and cheaper than other forms of urban travel, it’s also healthier.  Regular bicyclists live, on average two years longer than non-cyclists and a level of fitness equivalent to someone 10 years younger.  Students who bike (or walk) to school perform better on tests, regardless of the amount of other out-of-school physical activity.  Overweight adolescents who bicycle at least half the week are 85% more likely to become normal-weight adults.  The health benefits of cycling have a positive impact 20 times larger than the negative impact of safety risks experienced by cyclists.

Which isn’t to say that anyone wants to be in a bike accident, or that cycling is safe enough.  But there are no “silver bullet” single solutions.  Success requires understanding the full range of strategies and implementing as much as possible of each.

Around 75% of bicycling accidents are “solo” events, due to potholes or the rider’s own errors.  But these tend to cause minor injuries rather than death.  Being hit by a car, truck, or bus is more serious.  Aggressive passing, turning into a cyclist’s path, speeding, running red lights or stop signs – these are the driver actions that are at least a contributing cause in up to 85% of cyclist fatalities.  According to the Boston Bicycle program, the city had 8,329 car crashes in 2012 of which 426 involved a bicyclist, leading to 5 cyclist deaths.  The small increase in bike injuries from 2010 to 2012 occurred almost entirely during the darker winter months when the rent-a-bike Hubway stations were closed.  And while only 2% of Emergency Room visits resulting from bike accidents are for head injuries, these lead to 36% of the subsequent move from ER triage to a hospital admission.

Just as Medicine focuses on making sick people better, there are ways at both the individual and policy levels to reduce the severity of accidents.  Public Health, in contrast, seeks to prevent people from becoming ill in the first place – and there are also a very broad range of actions at both the individual and policy levels to reduce the likelihood that an accident will happen.

Post-accident, injury reducing actions are mostly and best done voluntarily by individuals (for example: wearing a MIPS helmet or signing up for a bike skills training class) although there are a few things that can be done on a policy basis to protect people from accident-caused injury (such as requiring trucks and buses to have “side guards”).   Fortunately, however, there are many things that can be done to reduce the odds of having an accident in the first place.  These range from increased training, to road design (providing more traffic-separated protected bike lanes of various kinds), to bans on distracting driving (and cycling!), and more.  Increased safety for bicyclists, and for everyone else, requires understanding each of the approaches suggested by each strategy, and then making sure that as many as possible get implemented.

Policy changes can be focused on the transportation context or on society at large.  As with the public health hierarchy illustrated in CDC Director Dr. Thomas Friedman’s Health Impact Pyramid the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle – actions that provide the greatest amount of improvement for the largest number of people at the least per-person cost and are most likely to be both technically and politically do-able.  Continue reading

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ANOTHER GENIE OUT OF THE BOTTLE: Be Careful What You Wish For; You Might Get It.

Genie’s are, by mythological definition, very powerful.  They can open cave walls, turn dirt into gold, and make carpets fly.  They are also devious, granting wishes in ways that turn benefits into burdens – an autonomous force from whom, in exchange for letting them out of the lamp, we can demand short-term assistance but whose ultimate actions and effect are beyond our control.

The unpredictable long-term impact of liberated genies crossed my mind last Friday as I stared out my window at the absolutely empty streets and sidewalks.  The marathon bombing victims were in the hospital, the killers were shooting in the streets.  An entire metropolitan area had been asked to “shelter in place” – to lock ourselves down – and we, myself included, complied with a willing conformity even greater than during previous emergencies such as when we were ordered to stay off the streets during last winter’s blizzard. We all, myself included, applauded at the equally unprecedented coordination among every type of police and emergency agency and every level of government, rather than the turf-protecting disarray that has so frequently characterized such interaction.  We all, myself included, were amazed and relieved that so many images of the bombers were able to be found and analyzed so quickly from so many sources and merged with information from cell phones and even more sources that we had never before realized could be so effectively tapped.  We wanted the situation dealt with, and we were all, myself included, very glad that the bastards were found, using any means necessary.

But looking out the window I suddenly thought, “it wasn’t so long ago that I was part of a small minority of the population who were fighting to stop the US invasion of Southeast Asia, and most of the country – including elected officials and police leaders at nearly every level of government – thought we were traitors; now that there has been a precedent of unrolling the full might of the government over an entire region, will it become easier to use the same tools to attack the next effort by US citizens to stop the country from catastrophic actions.”

The answer is obviously “yes.”   In fact,  given how frequently local police and the national FBI have tracked, harassed, framed, and even killed  people whose opinions they find offensive, both in the past and today, it is difficult to imagine that these tools are not already being used in less dramatic ways for the same purposes.   Continue reading

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PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value

Enthusiastic support for Public-Private Partnerships (P3) seems to extend across the entire political spectrum. The P3 label is a huge umbrella, providing space for small-government conservatives who think business can do things better, pragmatic liberals who want to harness the resources and energy of the private sector during a time of government fiscal constraint, and innovation progressives looking for strategies to extend the public sector’s positive influence.

Many government leaders, elected or appointed, also wave the pro-P3 banner.  For good reason:  Public-Private-Partnerships can substitute for budget increases or even fill-in after budget cuts. A P3 allows public agencies to potentially tap into expertise or funding they would otherwise lack, allowing them to do mission-accomplishing things that would be otherwise unlikely or even impossible. The private partners sometimes add legitimacy to a project and can provide powerful institutional voices calling for increased public funding in their area of interest.  P3s can also leverage public assets to promote job-creating private investment, including targeted training and entry-level opportunities for underserved populations or in key growth industries.  In some areas, as in parks, the private partner’s ability to see revenue opportunities in a traditionally “passive” asset adds to the sustainability of the public resource.

Public-Private-Partnerships are relationships – structured as anything from simple gifts to informal working relationships to legally enforceable contracts around some task, service, or project – between a public (or semi-public) agency and some non-governmental non-profit or for-profit organization.   The contract can be a lease for use of a public asset by the private partner, usually with some degree of exclusivity and control over its use by others, and often combined with a promise to improve and/or maintain it for the duration.  Or even the sale of public assets either absolutely or “in-effect” through extremely long-term leases or more subtle de-facto control over a particular location or asset.

MANAGING DIVERSE MOTIVATIONS

Like market and product regulation, P3s are a way to try to align private effort and investment with public purposes while managing the inherent tension between the two.  Too often, Public Agency officials want private sector dollars and help but don’t want to either give up control or allow any return on the investment. Too often, private partners think Public Officials are just selfishly (or incompetently) making things difficult, and come across as pretentious or arrogant rather than respectful of the public agency’s own plans.  For a partnership to succeed, the public agency has to have a predictable, transparent, and timely decision-making process around partnership proposals that makes it less tempting for well-endowed proposers to make a political end run to the Governor’s office or the Legislative leadership. And the private proposer has to use its relatively less constrained freedom to innovate as a way to enhance public value rather than simply self-aggrandizement.

P3s hang off the public sector in many directions, each of which has its particular characteristics and issues.  They are becoming a standard part of Park and Open Space operations, especially around the new types of downtown mini-parks that are expensive to create and program and are often run as economic development projects by nearby Business Associations or Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) rather than the city.  In transportation, a public-private partnership is often, as stated by Mass. Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey, simply “an alternative financing strategy.”  And education-oriented partnerships can range from truly learning-helpful to insidiously channeling the next generation of consumers towards brand loyalty.  A lot of what is called Partnership is simply outsourcing – the privatization of our prison system, social services, and many other once-public activities has had as many negative as positive results.  Continue reading

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FIX IT NOW: Postponing the Necessary is Dangerous Policy and Misguided Politics

“It’s not the vehicles,” points out MBTA General Manager Dr. Beverly Scott, “it’s the people and places.”  She’s right – transportation is not ultimately about moving things from one place to another, not about the roads or rails, but about the world that grows up around the travel routes.  The value of transportation comes from the ways it improves the health, prosperity, and well-being of the lives around it.  That is why LivableStreets Alliance chose its name. And that is why it is so inexplicable that the Massachusetts’ Legislature has once again “kicked the can down the road” by drastically underfunding our transportation needs.

The Governor first released a huge 10-year transportation plan, “The Way Forward”, and then asked for a huge increase in revenue – nearly $1.9 billion a year – to cover both transportation and educational improvements needed to maintain, and in some ways to simply regain, our economic competitiveness.  Next step is a bond bill to provide the funds, to be paid back via the new revenue, to get started.  (The education money will go towards universal pre-kindergarten, extended hours for struggling schools, and millions in reverse some previous and massive cut-backs to public higher education.)   As several business advisory groups have repeatedly said, not investing in those areas will eventually cost even more – an estimated $11 billion in property damage, injury and loss of life as well as the loss of up to 15,600 jobs!

The Legislators’ political fear is clear.  Most of them intend to run for re-election. They remember that Bill Weld ended a long streak of Democratic gubernatorial success by running against the “big spenders on Beacon Hill.” It will be electorally useful to say, “I helped hold the line.”    However, a majority of the state’s residents support raising taxes and fees dedicated to transportation (61% and 62% for gas tax and income tax respectively).   The sobering experience of unemployment and budget cuts has reduced public support for the Tea Party’s reactionary anti-tax, anti-government hysteria.

Even more important, from an Establishment perspective, while the business community used to be the primary denouncer of “Taxachusetts,” most of their organizations are now in favor of increased spending on transportation and education.   Even the Massachusetts Taxpayer’s Association proposed transportation spending several hundred million more than the Legislature.  One reason is that, as another group has pointed out, “taxes in Massachusetts are stubbornly average, [by both] income [and] gross state product measures…. taxes are actually lower in Massa­chusetts than they are in nominally low-tax states like Kansas, West Virginia, and Indiana….They have been for the past three decades, and they would remain so even under Patrick’s … $1.9 billion tax proposal.”  A new national study ranks Massachusetts “the most competitive state for business, again!

There is, of course, another perspective. The state is eventually going to have to upgrade its transportation system – or risk economic deterioration.  As both the Boston Globe and Governor Patrick have said, if you’re going to get attacked for raising taxes anyway why not go high enough so that your constituents gain something of real benefit as a result?  Isn’t it worse to have to go back and ask for more later on?  If you’re in for a dime, you’re in for the dollar!  Continue reading

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WIDENING MELNEA CASS BOULEVARD: When an Old Vision Blocks Future Progress

If you build it, they will come.  Given the starting assumptions, Boston planners have come up with an excellent design for the reconstruction of Melnea Cass Boulevard in lower Roxbury.  It is a layout worthy of the Urban Ring vision that inspired it.

Unfortunately, the assumptions are flawed and, therefore, so is the proposed design.  The Field of Dreams magic doesn’t work if you only build half a baseball field.  And building a short stretch of roadway won’t bring Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service, or any other kind of public transportation, if there are no plans to build the rest of the system.  Melnea Cass Boulevard needs improvements that will promote economic development, reknit the abutting neighborhoods, and facilitate alternatives to car traffic. Money is available, up to $9.5 million, using state and city funds to supplement a $5.5 million earmark Congressman Capuano inserted in a federal bill.  But for all the still-needed functionality of a city-encircling transit system, an Urban Ring to complement our mostly in-and-out commuter lines, the city’s currently proposed design – which will create a 0.9-mile segment of the long-planned Bus Rapid Transit network – will serve neither the still-needed Urban ring nor the through-rushing car commuters, nor the adjacent neighborhoods.

The critical component of the proposed redesign is the insertion of two additional lanes for eventual use by BRT buses, and until then as a “priority lane” by emergency vehicles and various buses that use all or part of Melnea Cass – although the temptation to allow cars might be hard to resist.  Because a “transit reserve” was created along the road after the BRA wiped out the residential neighborhood in the 1960s, no private property needs to be taken for the project, which will simply occupy the existing “right of way.”  However, even though the official term for the project is “reconstruction” the reality is that the new design is a dramatic, 40-foot widening of the asphalt.

The required 40-foot expansion of the road will create a longer, 108-foot crossing for pedestrians (similar to Beacon Street at Coolidge Corner) mitigated by a mid-passage pedestrian island.  It would remove up to 40 feet of grass and trees from most of the Lower Roxbury (northeast) side, as well as trees and planting adjacent to the townhouses on the Madison Park (southwest) side of the Boulevard.   The 200 mature trees to be eliminated would be replaced by 300 (admittedly less attractive or shady) young saplings and a storm-water-handling bio-swale.

There will be 8’ sidewalks on both sides of the boulevard with a two-way bike path on the in-land side. On-street parking will be added along several blocks to both support future retail shops and calm currently fast traffic.  At key intersections, left-turning lanes will eliminate a major cause of wait times and backed-up congestion.

However, most of these improvements could be done without adding the two lanes, the component that has sparked intense community opposition.  The “Friends and Neighbors of Melnea Cass Boulevard” would like to see traffic speed reduced through retiming the traffic lights for a 20 mph signal progression through the Boulevard, longer walk signal duration with raised cross-walks, and improved bike path (on both sides of the road, as planned in the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan) connections with the Southwest Corridor path and the South Bay Harbor Trail to make an inviting connection to downtown.   (While pedestrian connections are vital, bicycling is better for weight control because most people walk too slowly to impact calorie accumulation.)  The community groups also support better bus service throughout the area on both Key and Regular route as described in the Roxbury/Dorchester/Mattapan Transportation Improvements Study.

The community critics are correct in pointing out that it is hard to show that the current design will achieve any of the Melnea Cass Project’s own goals to “return the street to the neighborhood”, “create a street for the community rather than for vehicle traffic passing through”, “enhance pedestrian safety”, and “encourage activity/create attractive front yards for new developments.”

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

Motor vehicles hit more bicyclists and pedestrians on Commonwealth Avenue in front of Boston University than anywhere else in the city.  Last year, five bicyclists were killed in the metro-Boston area, in almost every case by getting hit then run over by a truck (which, in almost every case, made the fact that they were wearing a helmet irrelevant).  One of those happened on Comm. Ave.  It’s partly that a growing number of BU students ride bikes, and not all of them are as careful as they should be.  It’s partly that drivers aren’t as careful as they should be, especially truck drivers making right turns which, because of the size of their vehicle, they have to do illegally from the left lane, compounding the danger caused by their mirrors’ large blind spot.  It’s partly that, as Boston Traffic Department (BTD) Commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin has pointed out, “It’s the one spot in the city that truly has all modes of transportation” – cars, trucks, trolleys, cyclists, pedestrians, skate boarders, and more.  But mostly it’s that the street layout is simply unsafe.

To its credit, BTD and the Boston Bike Program have come up with a number of innovative improvements for Comm. Ave. which, if they prove effective, may be used in other danger areas as well.  New signage will tell drivers to “yield to bicycles when turning right” and “suggest” that cars go no more than 25 mph even though the official speed limit (set by state law) is 30.  Bike lanes will be outlined with recessed highway reflectors on wider (6”) lane-lines. Non-skid green paint will show the continuation of the bike lane through intersections.

The city’s proposals are real improvements over current conditions and will bring the bike lanes to a higher safety level without having to do expensive construction. (Hopefully, they will also fix any pot-holed sections of bike lane pavement, as well as ensure that all drains are properly working along the way.)  Of course, better still would be protected bike lanes, created either by installing rubber posts (removable during snow season) along with cross-hatch striping, or by a curb separation that forms a street-level or sidewalk-level cycle track.  And there should be separate bicycle traffic lights synchronized with Green Line, car, and pedestrian signals to create a “green wave” street allowing steady progress at a safe 15 mph.
Unfortunately, cyclists will continue to be killed on Commonwealth Avenue, and elsewhere, unless police enforce the “no right turn from the left lane” law — meaning that distributors will have to use appropriate-sized trucks for city deliveries instead of gigantic 18-wheelers.  Just as important: both trucks and buses, starting with public vehicles, must be required to have “side guards” that prevent hit pedestrians and cyclists from getting thrown under the wheels.

But the biggest long-term issue for safety on Commonwealth Avenue — for car occupants and pedestrians as much as cyclists — is what will happen with the Turnpike overpass area between Mountfort Street and the BU Bridge.  The city and state are being pressured to adopt a plan that would prioritize car traffic, recreating conditions that will be unsafe for bicyclists and pedestrians – including potentially eliminating the new bike lanes on the BU Bridge. Unless MassDOT and BTD stand up against this violation of their own Complete Streets policies, the presence of reflectors, green paint, and thicker lines further up the road won’t mean very much.

The resurgence of bicycle as a valuable transportation vehicle over the past twenty years, first in Europe and now in the US, a still very much a work-in-progress.  Boston has taken progressive and creative positions in several key road redesign projects, most recently by opting for the “surface option” on Rutherford Avenue in Charlestown which will help re-knit the neighborhood across the current asphalt wound.  Cars are becoming more expensive, traffic congestion more pervasive, and people are looking for better alternatives.  We need to increase safety for everyone on the road regardless of their method of travel.  Hopefully, these first steps on Commonwealth Avenue are just the beginning of a continuing process of experimentation and improvement.

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Related Previous Postings:

> A BICYCLE BOULEVARD ON COMMONWEALTH AVENUE?

> 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”

> SIGNS, PAINT, AND FLEXIBILITY: Creative No-Cost Ways To Improve Road Intelligibility

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