Many years ago, I was hitch-hiking east from San Francisco. (It was 1967, the summer of love – but that’s another story.) Somewhere in Wyoming, at around 2 am, with no houses or streetlights for hundreds of miles, the car started making funny noises which, given our collective state of mind, sounded ominous. We pulled over, got out, and there it was – the biggest sky I, a city dweller, had ever seen. It was both darker and brighter than I would have thought possible. Stars. And more stars. Bursting out from a background that was beyond black. It was so amazing, so surprising, so beautiful that it almost felt spiritual. I ignored the car and just stared.
I’ve never seen anything like that again. Even worse, according to the International Dark Sky Association, unless something changes it’s unlikely that I ever will. Nationally, over-illumination is growing at more than a compounding 2.2% a year; actually, even higher because sensors don’t seem to register the short-wavelength blue light that is an increasing component of brighter LED and other sources. Some Massachusetts communities are brightening at ten times that rate! The skyglow of artificial light causes the sky to be 5–10 times brighter in urban areas than a naturally dark sky. We are losing sight of between 25 and 80 stars every day, between 1 and 3 per hour. About 80% of Americans, and at least a third of the world’s people, can no longer see the Milky Way. It’s a kind of blindness that we shouldn’t let ourselves suffer.
The core idea is really simple. The eastern Massachusetts urban metro area is blessed with over 110 miles of long, tree-lined paths along its rivers and harbor, as well as through its parks and water-shed highlands – greenways -- many designed a century ago by Frederick Law Olmsted and his associates. The Charles River’s Dr. Paul Dudley White Bicycle Path. The fabulous Emerald Necklace. The Mystic River paths. The Neponset Trail. The HarborWalk. And more. But, although each piece is much used and loved, it’s all cut up into separate, stand-alone blips. Wouldn’t it be great if they were connected into a network, and extended into as many neighborhoods and areas as possible! We’d have a series of linked greenway corridors crisscrossing and connecting the entire region – improving mobility and access to jobs, reducing congestion and pollution, increasing green and family-friendly play space, and more.
That was, and is, the goal of the four-year-old Emerald Network initiative, a project of LivableStreets. Full disclosure – I’m one of the project founders and am still on the Steering Committee. And, because of that, I’m happy to be able to say that the effort seems to be paying off – over 50 additional miles have been constructed or are in process. Of the eight projects our Greenway Partners have proposed, five have been taken up by the local municipality, moving from community dream to city plans. Of course, we rely on a huge ad hoc alliance of local activists, planning firm volunteers and community experts, government agencies, funders, student project teams, and politicians. But the real pleasure comes from the details.
The surprising bottom line about the current debate over what to do with the non-functional Northern Avenue bridge is that, except for historical preservation, there is simply no reason to replace it at all. It might make sense to create an attractive space on top of the old bridge’s mid-channel foundation for push-cart vendors and hanging out. And it would make sense to connect that space to the shore with small (and relatively cheap) walking and bicycling paths -- as desired by the majority of the surrounding community (and the tourist industry). But a real transportation bridge -- whether just for buses, or adding corporate shuttles, Lyft/Uber and multi-passenger vehicles (called HOV3+), or even the throw-back demand to allow single-occupancy cars -- will cost between $80 and $100 million and (as shown by the city’s own data) do nothing to reduce the traffic congestion now clogging the Seaport's entry spots. These "full rebuild" proposals also contradict the city's Go Boston 2030 transportation plan.
Between 2008 and 2017, US drivers killed 49,340 pedestrians – 13 people per day, about one person every 1 hour and 46 minutes. While the amount of walking and driving hasn’t significantly increased over that time period, and while driving has actually gotten safer, the pedestrian body count has increased by 35 percent.
Massachusetts isn’t much better. Two-hundred thirty-four pedestrians and bicyclists have been killed on Massachusetts’ roads over the three past years. Because of poor record-keeping we have no idea how many more have been injured. Bicyclists suffer repeated close calls – doorings, right hooks and left turns across the cyclists’ paths, and harassment by horn-blasts at close range. And yet, most of the time, no charges were brought against the responsible driver – including the nine bicycle cases in which the death came at the wheels of a truck driven by a professional driver with a Commercial License who, one would have thought, would be held to a higher standard.
For over a century, Beacon Street in Brookline has been a gorgeous boulevard. But changing times bring new usage patterns. Beacon Street has previously gone through one re-creation. Is it now time for a second?
Beacon Street, from Audubon Circle to Cleveland Circle, was designed in the late 1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted as a wide, tree-lined boulevard with separate “lanes” for trolleys, carriages, pedestrians, and a bridle path for horse-back riders. Unfortunately, the triumph of motorcars led to a 1930s remake that enormously widened the already-large carriage lanes and replaced the median bridle path with angle-parking spaces and a maneuvering lane. The predictable result was faster traffic and more dangerous pedestrian crossings. Perhaps now is the time for another refinement – to bring back the original Olmsted design’s better support of diverse ways for people to travel from place to place?
For those of us in Massachusetts involved in pushing for progressive legislation around a variety of issues, the past Legislative session was a disappointment. Some good things did get through, perhaps most significantly the criminal justice reform bill. But even on that issue, and on issue after other issue, after spending months negotiating compromises to get progressive proposals approved in the State Senate, the bill would get watered down or buried in the mud of the House of Representatives. The list of issues is long: transportation safety and climate protection, civil rights and penal reform, education funding and public health, immigrant protection and tax reform, housing and zoning, and more.
If progressives hope to win victories in Massachusetts, we need a better understanding of why the House is such quicksand and better strategies for dealing with it.
The Seaport’s problems were created during Mayor Menino’s administration. But solving those problems falls to the Walsh Administration. And, despite many positive steps the city’s transportation leaders have taken in a variety of other areas, they seem to be falling into the same hole as their predecessors. Ironically, it is not because of the absence of planning, which the Walsh Administration has admirably done around several issues. Rather, it seems to come from their ignoring of their own plans and research, from prioritizing private interests over public benefits, and from bending to political pressure rather than holding to their own vision. Case in point: The Northern Avenue Bridge.
Winter is coming. Even in the midst of escalating ocean warming and climate volatility, that means tough weather conditions for New Englanders. Night falls long before we head home from work. The snow gets pushed to the side of the road, narrowing lanes, with the daily melt-freeze cycle turning the remaining slush into an invisible black-ice slickness. Depressingly frequent MBTA breakdowns push people into rise share cars and on to our already over-crowded roads. Wet shoes numb our toes; cold wind hurts our ears. Driving is hard; walking and bicycling even harder. Even year-round cyclists take days off – I simply won’t bike when the temperature goes below 20.
Now, before the climate-changed storms arrive, is the time to prepare. We need to prepare ourselves and our bikes. But we also need to demand that the public agencies in charge of our sidewalks, roads, and paths prepare as well – upgrading both infrastructure and operations to ensure safety and mobility through the winter.
Here are some of my thoughts on winter comfort and safety. I’m sure I’ve missed some good ideas – what would you add?
The “spirit” of a law or policy is really just as important as its “letter”. The frame of mind – the professional culture – of those implementing a policy, their underlying values and assumptions, will shape their decisions and actions just as much as the words. Nearly a decade ago, one of my first LivableStreets blogs, Traffic Engineering Myths Revealed, explored what seemed to be the car-focused, Interstate-derived consensus among road-design professionals. Today, while transportation policies have radically changed, too often much of the old designs still infest road projects. It’s time to promote an explicit and short description of a more progressive vision.
Here is a rough outline of what I think should be in a short summary of the framework for 21st century traffic engineering. As you can tell, much of this is drawn from past blogs. This is just a start: what do you think should be added?
This, my last blog post before taking the summer off to work on my Advocacy book, includes a series of quick, mostly one-paragraph thoughts. (Who would have thought I could write something short!) -- The need to rethink our use of urban curb space to deal with the rise of shared cars, rapid home package delivery, bicycles, and an aging population. How to increase pedestrian walk time without changing nearly anything else. A suggestion about where to put parking meters on streets with “parking protected bike lanes.” Praise for Everette’s creative use of painted lanes for placing transit, parking, and bicycles in their appropriate spots. A plea for language clarity in descriptions of different bike lane configurations. Urging greater use of “contra-flow” bike lanes. Pleasure at the simple but wonderful idea of “Park and Pedal” locations. I hope you all have a great summer!