TRAFFIC CONGESTION: Why It’s Increasing and How To Reduce It

July 7, 2015

The statistics show that each of us is driving less.  So why do our roads feel more jammed up?  Why does it take longer to get anywhere?  And what can we do about it?  Some politicians have begun blaming Traffic Calming and bicycle lanes for the backups; saying that Complete Streets and pedestrian bulb-outs are making roads less safe because less accessible for emergency vehicles.  Is there any truth to this?  More fundamentally, is car congestion a problem to be solved or a solution to a problem?

A 2013 report from US PIRG showed that the average number of miles driven by the average American has been falling for about a decade, through economic booms and busts, and was down to mid-1990s levels.  Millennials, our nation’s largest-ever generational cohort, are using transit and bikes more and taking fewer and shorter car trips, resulting in a 23% drop in the average number of miles driven.  The percentage of high school seniors with a driver’s license fell 12%.  Walkable city life is increasingly attractive to both young people and retiring baby boomers.  The rise of on-line shopping, social media, and telecommuting has meant fewer quick car trips.

Despite these trends, as every driver knows, our roads are increasingly congested – not everywhere or all the time but for increasing periods at a growing number of key intersections and road segments.  Congestion radically reduces the volume of traffic passing through a road section, the through-put, thereby creating a negative feedback loop that creates more backups.   It’s estimated that USA drivers spend about 14.5 million hours every day stuck in traffic.  Congestion not only costs us time – in 2011 Boston drivers collectively lost about 137 million hours, or about 53 hours per commuter per year – but also fuel and therefore pollution, health, and money.  Not to mention frustration and occasionally murderous road rage.  Although we Bostonians believe we’ve got it worst, car congestion seems to be clogging roads like kudzu in nearly every city in the country – and, by some reports, across the globe.

It’s true that a new report has said that the first four months of 2015 has set a new record in total vehicle miles in the US – up nearly 32 billion since the previous high in 2007, pushing gas consumption as well as prices upward. Lower gasoline prices and a recovering economy (consumer spending in May, 2015 had the highest month jump in six years) are two reasons for the jump, probably augmented by the continuing lack of viable alternatives to car driving for many people.  But a four-month blip is not enough to explain years of delays.

We do know some things that are contributing to the larger problem – land use patterns and population growth are the most important.  The low-rise dense designs that make older urban areas walkable and transit-efficient is illegal to build in many places today due to parking requirements, anti-mixed use and other zoning requirements, etc.

We know some things that may appear to be causative but actually aren’t – making roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, prioritizing bus and trolley traffic, even reducing the average speed of cars.

We know some things that (counterintuitively) do not help reduce congestion – most notably building more roads or adding lanes, all of which eventually fill up as our additional drivers decide to move into the new space.

And we know some things that do improve the situation, but usually only when they are applied as a group rather than singularly – improving road use efficiency using technology (signal timing, access controls, central monitoring) and other methods (car pools, HOV lanes, car sharing, perhaps driverless cars), increasing alternative options (transit both regional and downtown, bicycling), changing land-use patterns (Smart-Growth style transit-orientated development), requiring corporate and municipal Transportation Demand Management programs (incentives to not drive alone or to not drive at all), and (most effective of all) congestion pricing of various kinds.

What is needed is the cultural and political willingness to accept this knowledge and act upon it – while also coming to grips with the reality that the continuing imbalance of potential drivers to current or any plausible future amounts of road space means that congestion is a permanent part of a car-based reality.

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June 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

June 2, 2015

Public Health has its origins in catastrophe, the realization that if an out-of-the-ordinary pestilence is suddenly sickening large numbers of people there must be a general cause rather than individual failures.  In contrast to Medicine, which traditionally is about treating an individual’s existing disease, Public Health seeks to keep large groups from getting sick.  In contrast even to Preventive Medicine, which tends to focus on increasing compliance with medical prescriptions, Public Health is about wellness and well-being – a holistic concern with an entire population’s overall quality of life.  And in Massachusetts, a national leader across a wide range of Public Health issues, one of the most innovative and powerful strategies to improve population health has been the Mass In Motion program.

Mass In Motion is, at core, a simple idea.  It starts from the reality that nearly two-thirds of the state’s adults and about a quarter of our children are either overweight or obese, with the numbers soaring in low-income communities.  Nationally, this costs us about $3.5 billion in excess health care costs each year, not to mention the pain suffered by the patients and the diminished futures facing the children.  To end the cycle, the state Department of Public Health gives small Mass In Motion grants to municipalities to set up multi-agency coordination bodies tasked to make it easier for people to secure healthy food and to make local streets and parks more walking and bicycling friendly.  The magic is that in most towns the police and public works and schools and parks departments have never before regularly met together, much less done so in the context of public health leadership.  Just getting everyone in the room to talk about how they can work together – on almost anything – is a major advance.  Having the conversation focus on how to implement a Complete Streets policy is unprecedented.  And it works: Mass In Motion communities have a statistically significant reduction in the percentage of overweight and obese school children compared with the state as a whole.

I’ve talked with the Mass In Motion coordinators in several cities and conducted workshops in a few (special shout-outs to Fall River and New Bedford!).  I’ve found that in every city there are local advocates eager to use whatever facilitating framework the government can provide to get involved.   Why government?  Because we are dealing with our shared environment, our public spaces, and because we want to improve living conditions for everyone regardless of ability to pay, it is only the government that has the legitimate authority to act for our collective wellbeing.  The strategy is not to create new prohibitions.  Rather, Mass In Motion communities create a healthier decision-making context.  They find ways to “nudge” people by making it easier, cheaper, more common, and more socially prestigious to “do the healthy thing.”  Particularly to do more walking or bicycling for which the evidence showing a positive impact on health is incontrovertible.

Street design matters.  I don’t know the statistics for other cities, but in Boston, 56% of city-owned land is taken up by streets and sidewalks.  And there are between two and three incidents every day in which a car hits a pedestrian or cyclist.  Boston has a very sophisticated Complete Street policy, but it’s new and much of the city is still dangerously car-centric.  Other cities have, at best, the same spotty safety situations. Streets designed to slow down speeding traffic, to improve sidewalks, create low-traffic-stress bike routes, make intersections safer, and promote “place-making” rather than “pass through” aesthetics reduce injuries and invite use.

The Legislature is now debating whether to continue funding Mass In Motion (line item 4513-1111).  Last year the state Legislature for the first time included explicit reference to Mass in Motion in budget language and dedicated a minimum of $250,000 for Mass in Motion as part of a larger “Heath Promotion and Disease Prevention” line item. That language is missing in the FY2016 budget proposals, forcing the Department of Public Health to squeeze Mass In Motion in among numerous other programs in a line item that has been sharply diminished over the last ten years.

At the same time, the Baker Administration is deciding what to do about the complementary Complete/Active Streets Certification/Funding Grant Program, authorized within the most recent Transportation Bond Bill.  As with most Bond Bills, this one was a “Christmas Tree” of wishes that the Administration has to choose among in order to keep total borrowing within the state’s “bond cap” and debt service payment capabilities.

Give your Representatives and Senators a call.  Let them know what you think.

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

May 22, 2015

It’s now semi-official – everyone agrees that the MBTA needs both reform and revenue.  No one says (publicly) that the current T and Commuter Rail budget is too big for its mission.  And that’s where the agreement ends – with the question of what is the MBTA’s mission, vision, and values:  what exactly are we trying to achieve?

Is our transit system a public mobility service for everyone (including the elderly, disabled, and young) for all types of uses (commuting, shopping, socializing) across all parts of the region (or perhaps the entire state) or are particular components more important than the rest?  Similarly, while increased customer service is a generally-agreed upon priority, which customers should get what level of what kinds of service at what cost?  And in the larger scale, is the T only about transportation, and should it be run to maximize its operation’s internal cost-efficiency regardless of “off-budget” externalities, or is it about a broad range of social goals and public benefits – in the Frontier Group’s words “[fulfilling] a transportation need at lower public expense than the available alternatives (e.g., adding another lane to the Big Dig),…deliver[ing] public benefits that exceed the costs (e.g., reducing air pollution or curbing congestion), or…meet[ing] a pressing and vital societal need (e.g., providing mobility to the disabled)”.   Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s recent Globe OpEd added another dimension: “The cities identified as having the highest chances for a person moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of income across generations are the cities ranked as having the best public transportation.  Through better transportation, American cities can provide opportunities for millions to escape poverty.”

At the recent Legislative hearing on MBTA reform, Governor Baker said that this winter’s collapse showed that the T was vital to our regional economy and explicitly stated that he had no interest in privatizing the MBTA, in laying off Carmen Union members, or raising fares beyond many people’s ability to pay.  This was a welcome public statement, a positive opening for future discussion.  But it can’t be the final word.

Add yours – Transportation for Massachusetts (T4Ma), the coalition leading the progressive effort for better and more public transit, has set up an email program to automatically send a message to your Representative and Senator – use it!.

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

May 14, 2015

Having a vision of the kind of city you want is an essential foundation for purposeful and effective governance.  Some cities do a coherent overall process, such as Somerville’s SomerVision or Boston’s forthcoming Imagine Boston 2030.  Cambridge has constructed its vision piecemeal, through policies around a variety of quantitative and qualitative issues.   No matter the process, these days the resulting vision statements almost all aim for a combination of livability, stainability, prosperity, and diversity with the specifics addressing things like schools, housing, services, open space, and mobility.  For example, in terms of mobility, SomerVision (slogan: “An Exceptional Place to Live, Work, Play, and Raise a Family”) sets a goal of having “50% of New Trips via Transit, Bike, or Walking.”

The most powerful, but hardest to really accept, aspect of creating a vision involves making choices – a public a statement that the city’s residents prefers one type of future over another, one direction over the multitude of other possibilities.  Like growing up, having a vision implies accepting that you can’t have it all – that achieving your top priorities means you can’t do something else, and most importantly that equalizing things means that whatever was previously getting more than its fair share will have to get a little less.

But, as most adults know, having a vision – a goal — is only the starting point for creating a future.  Making it real requires the courage of your convictions, the strength to take actions that express those values, and a willingness to accept the consequences of choosing one thing over another.  Checking the facts as you go is also important.  Maturity and perhaps wisdom comes from basing your actions on both values and evidence.

Over the past decade, cities and town have made enormous progress and gained visible benefits from movement towards a more equitable vision of transportation modality:

– giving equal weight to the needs of walkers, bicyclists, and bus or trolley riders as to car drivers (Complete Streets, Safe Routes To School),

— slowing down traffic to improve driver and everyone else’s safety (Traffic Calming, Vision Zero), and

— changing to more market-driven parking pricing to increase availability and improve circulation to retail stores.

All these have contributed to the astonishing growth of bicycling, the reduction of injury rates, the revived vitality of local business districts, and perhaps even to the slowed increase in childhood obesity.  In New York City, overall traffic injuries dropped 20%, pedestrian injuries were down 22%, and there was a reduction of bike crashes with injuries of 18 percent even though the number of trips increased 108%.

Not surprisingly, however, there has been pushback.  Parking is a common triggering issue.  Neighbors fearful of increased on-street competition for space oppose making housing more affordable by reducing the amount of on-site parking spaces developers are required to build.  Drivers blame increased congestion at key intersections and major roads on the diversion of road capacity to bike lanes.  And, most touchy of all, critics claim that making roads less car-centric makes it harder for emergency vehicles to get through, endangering us all – a question made credible after the road-narrowing snow disasters of last winter. For example, a proposed Cambridge City Council Policy Order raises several of these issues — the “Whereas” sections cite concerns that traffic calming “in particular the narrowing of major arteries used to enter and exit Cambridge…has directly led to a sharp increase in congestion, bottlenecks and motor vehicle accidents; and….presents a safety hazard… [because it] does not permit fire trucks and other large emergency vehicles to gain access….”

In several towns, these complaints are being echoed by local politicians.  In some cases this is a sincere effort to clarify the impact of recent policy changes on road use. In some cases it may be just a grandstand pandering for votes from the diminishing number of car-centric commuters. But it seems most likely that the critics really believe that we’re on the wrong track and that the questioning and demands for data are really an effort to lay the groundwork for a broader re-examination of where transportation policy is going – an effort to find some problem with multi-modal design that can be used to discredit the entire idea.

Fortunately, these attacks will fail because they ignore both the growing clarity of municipal values and the factual evidence.

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JUMP STARTING COMPLETE STREETS: Focusing on Kids (and others) When Progress Slows

May 4, 2015

Every street should be safe for walking and bicycling.  This is an essential component of the Complete Streets design philosophy that has emerged in recent years as the “new normal” for roads – although the gap between policy and practice often remains wide.   Because the core issue is mobility, Advocates compliment this “everywhere for everyone” approach with concerted efforts to create seamless networks of sidewalks and low-traffic-stress routes (paths and protected bike lanes or cycle tracks) along major “desire lines” connecting most residential areas with most schools, parks, recreational, shopping, and work areas.   Or at least a set of “key routes” across town.   Many Advocacy groups put considerable effort into sketching out these networks and routes – trying to combine directness with safety, beauty with speed, ubiquity with practicality.  To paraphrase a slogan from the Greenway Links Initiative I’ve been working on in the Metro Area:  Big enough to be inspiring, simple enough to be understandable.

However, the difficulty of getting cities to adopt the proactive, grand vision approach to transportation planning and road maintenance required for the creation of such networks forces most Advocacy groups to fall back on pragmatism.   Every time a street is repaved or restriped; every time a developer wants a curb cut; every time state or federal transportation funds become available – grab the opportunity to push for another, often disconnected stretch of improved sidewalks, redone crosswalks and intersections, bike lanes (regular or protected) or paths.   Having those draft network and key route maps helps focus Advocates efforts on those locations that will make the biggest contribution towards the ultimate goal.  But the process is still rather haphazard, catch-as-can, ending up feeling rather incoherent.  And sometimes things go nowhere.

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March 16, 2015

Parking is a problem. When it snows it’s a nightmare. We start looking around, getting frustrated, maybe nasty. There seem to be parking spots everywhere except where we want to go. Parking is the explosive trap door of community transportation meetings – anything that reduces the number of spots anywhere evokes outcry. This winter’s climate craziness has pushed people from frustration into pathology — angry notes, slashed tires, off-road rage. Forgive us, neighbors, we have space saved.

At a recent meeting of the LivableStreets Alliance Advocacy Committee, Board member Charlie Denison led a brainstorming session about how the current parking situation in Boston isn’t really benefiting anyone, especially drivers themselves. The ideas range from snow-related strategies to general management of residential and commercial parking to long-term ways to reduce the overall demand. Just as the snow finally forced state leaders to acknowledge the desperate condition of the MBTA, maybe we can use this crisis to begin addressing the parking problem as well in both residential and commercial areas, by both addressing parking policies and the city-design need for it. Here’s my take on what came up during the brainstorm…

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PARKWAYS MOVING FORWARD: DCR is Not The Highway Department

January 20, 2015

It’s a pleasure to be able to praise a government agency: civil servants who try to live up to their public service mission are over-worked and underpaid relative to private sector peers – and always under appreciated! It’s particularly a pleasure to praise the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR), a woefully underfunded agency whose roadway department has been exasperatingly difficult to work with in the past.   Which is why we have to hope that newly inaugurated Governor Baker’s announcement of a freeze on hiring and contracting will not derail DCR’s historic commitment to create an updated Master conceptual Plan for how their metro-region parkways can reclaim their Olmstedian heritage and be once again made more park-like and more bike-and-pedestrian-friendly — as well as estimates of what it would cost to properly operate such a system.

However, even in the midst of the freeze and while the Agency waits to hear who will be appointed to be its next Commissioner, there should be no delay in beginning to fulfill the promise to also make DCR’s prioritization and decision-making processes better able to incorporate community and stakeholder suggestions. The newly formed Urban Paths and Parkways Advisory Committee (UPPAC) is an obvious way to draw on the expertise of people who often know more about both local needs and national best-practices than DCR’s own too-small and over-burdened road engineering staff.

In addition, even if budget constraints slow down DCR’s recent string of successful capital projects, the Agency should move forward on its decision to re-think its approach to Parkway maintenance – incorporating the new vision into repaving and striping is a low-cost way of making meaningful improvements even when funding for big project is unavailable.

There is a palpable enthusiasm among people around the region at the prospect of a full, safe network of Greenways reaching out from the urban core to the entire metro area. Although DCR’s new direction was announced in the final days of the Patrick Administration little action has occurred. The incoming state leaders can easily take over and treat them as their own.   And if they do, they will find a lot of people eager to work with them.

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

January 12, 2015

The best and perhaps only argument for holding the 2024 Summer Olympics in Boston (and Cambridge) is that the deadlines and international media scrutiny will force us – meaning city, state, and federal governments as well as local universities – to make the infrastructure investments that we already know are needed but that are unlikely to occur given current budget pressures. The promise is that most of the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on a “car-free” Olympics will be used for upgraded public transportation and walking/bicycling facilities, for expanded student dormitories around local colleges and family-sized affordable housing, and general landscape improvements.

What if it could be so? (Full disclosure: I’d like to have one of the promised improvements be the Greenway Links project – a seamless network of walking and bicycling corridors for recreation and travel by people of all ages and abilities – that I’ve been working on for the past few years.)


Unfortunately, there are a lot more believable anti-Olympics arguments. Despite Mayor Walsh’s scheduling of a series of public meetings, the arrogant and secretive process so far by an elite group of self-interested corporate giants makes it hard to believe either that we’ll get to know everything they’ve got up their sleeves or that they will incorporate any but the most superficial public input suggestions.

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COMMONWEALTH AVENUE: Grand Boulevard, Dangerous Street

January 6, 2015

Stretching from the Public Garden out to Weston, Commonwealth Avenue meanders past sculptured medians, historic parks, heartbreaking hills, ponds and rivers, and an enormous number of residences and businesses. Although various crossings are frustratingly congested, in general the number of cars has been steadily dropping while the number of trolley passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and runners has been steadily increasing. The busiest sections are the least fancy: the Mass Ave. crossing, Kenmore Square and the BU corridor, Packards corner to around Warren Street. The BU bridge area is the thickest of all with huge numbers of rushing students, growing cohorts of cyclists, and frustrated car drivers trying to squeeze through the spaghetti mess from Longwood Medical Area to Storrow or (via Cambridge) the Mass Pike. Much of the rest of Comm Ave has relatively light (and therefore, because of the invitingly wide lanes, fast) car traffic.

Comm. Ave has been undergoing periodic renovations and re-inventions almost from the day the first luxurious Back Bay section was built in the mid-1800s. The straight Kenmore to Packards Corner section came later in the century and the curvy section up to the elegant Chestnut Hill Reservoir came near the end of the 1800s based on a landscaped Olmsted design, eventually linking up with a fancy boulevard in Newton. In the early 1900s the street cars were added to promote development, today’s Green Line. And from the 1950s onward an increasing amount of the huge width has been devoted to cars – moving, turning, and parking (as well as purchasing, fixing, refueling).   In the words of Allston activist, Matt Danish, (drawing on the writings of Bill Marchione published at the city made the road more car friendly by “cutting down more trees and laying asphalt over even more portions of the remaining grass mall. Large parking areas were created near Harvard Ave, taking the place of much of the remaining parkland. At Warren Street, an entirely new motorway was cut into the grassy side of the hill, and westbound traffic diverted across the tracks at a strange angle that persists to this day: as anyone familiar with that intersection can attest. Later, a fence was erected down the middle of the MBTA reservation, literally splitting the Allston community in two.”

Each of the changes set the tone of the Avenue for decades afterwards. Today, we’re just emerging from the “let’s make it a highway” epoch. What comes next will help define not only this historic corridor but the Walsh Administration’s transportation vision and the relationship they see between roads and the kind of city Boston will become.

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