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Why the Senate Transportation Bill Will Devastate Transit

Transit officials lined up today to make clear that holding transit spending at current levels — as the Senate’s transportation authorization bill does — will put transit systems at risk of falling further into dangerous disrepair.

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are "woefully insufficient."

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are “woefully insufficient.”

The backlog for transit maintenance and replacement stands “conservatively” at $86 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That backlog is expected to keep growing at a rate of $2.5 billion each year without a significant infusion of funds.

To put it another way, the country needs to spend $2.5 billion more per year – from federal, state and local sources – just to keep the state of the nation’s transit systems from getting even worse.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was determined to expose the shortcomings of the bill Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently shepherded through the Environment and Public Works Committee. While the bill’s transit title hasn’t been written yet, EPW has been clear about its intentions to keep spending at current levels plus inflation. That means no help toward the $2.5 billion boost needed to keep things from getting worse.

Menendez chaired a hearing today of the Banking Committee — the very committee tasked with writing the transit title within the framework established by EPW — to demonstrate the problem with the bill’s funding levels.

“By a simple yes or no,” Menendez asked the transit officials before him, “does anyone on the panel believe that current funding levels are enough to help you achieve a state of good repair?”

“They are insufficient,” answered Joseph Casey, general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA.

“Woefully insufficient,” added Beverly Scott, head of Boston’s MBTA and a nationally respected transportation visionary.

“No sir,” said Gary Thomas of Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

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Anthony Foxx Kicks Off Nationwide Project for Better Bike Lanes

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx praised bike infrastructure as a way to get more value out of existing U.S. streets. Photo: Green Lane Project

Staring down a highway trust fund that he described as “teetering toward insolvency” by August or September, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Monday that better bike infrastructure projects are part of the solution.

“When you have a swelling population like the USA has and will have for the next 35 years, one of the most cost-effective ways to better fit that population is to better use the existing grid,” Foxx said.

Foxx made his comments to a gathering in Indianapolis of urban transportation experts from around the country, welcoming six new cities into the PeopleForBikes Green Lane Project, a two-year program kicking off Tuesday that will help the cities — Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Seattle — add modern protected bike lanes to their streets.

“I know you are the vanguard in many was of these issues, and we at U.S. DOT want to do everything we can to be supportive,” Foxx told the crowd.

PeopleForBikes Vice President for Local Innovation Martha Roskowski singled out Indianapolis, the host city, as a particularly bright light in the constellation of towns using using curbs, planters, parked cars or posts to create low-stress streets by separating bike and auto traffic.

“This city is on fire,” Roskowski said. “You look at the Cultural Trail, you look at the other projects in the works. … You don’t really know that you’re at a tipping point until later.”

Roskowski praised Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, for six years at the front of an Indianapolis transformation that has seen the city use better bike infrastructure “to be resilient, to be sustainable, to be competitive and to beautiful.”

“Five years from now we’re going to look back and say, we really changed how we thought about transportation in America,” Roskowski said. “Yes, we’re all going to drive cars still. But there are other elements to transportation.”

Six focus cities

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Boston Doctors Now Prescribing Bike-Share Memberships

The newest tool for doctors in the fight against obesity? That’s right: Bike-share.

Doctors in Boston are now prescribing Hubway memberships. Photo: Hubway

Doctors in Boston are now prescribing Hubway memberships. Photo: Hubway

This week in Boston, doctors introduced a program called Prescribe-a-Bike, offering low-income residents struggling with obesity an annual Hubway bike sharing membership for the low price of $5. The program is being administered by Boston Medical Center in partnership with the city of Boston. Qualifying patients will have access to Hubway’s 1,100 bikes at 130 locations. Participants will also receive a free helmet.

“There is no other program like this in the country,” Mayor Marty Walsh told Boston Magazine. “Prescribe-a-Bike makes the link between health and transportation, and ensures that more residents can access the Hubway bike-share system.”

Local officials hope the program will result in about 1,000 additional memberships, according to the Boston Globe.

In the medical community this type of recommendation is known as an exercise prescription, and it is a growing practice. More doctors are prescribing exercise, the CDC says, as “lifestyle diseases” like obesity, heart disease and diabetes have become some of the leading killers in the United States. In addition, policy measures like the Affordable Care Act are providing incentives for the healthcare industry shift focus from treatment of disease to the promotion of wellness.

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Green Lane Project Picks Six New Cities to Make Big Progress on Bikeways

Austin, Texas, built this beauty of a bike lane by the University of Texas campus while it was participating in round one of the Green Lane Project. Photo: The Green Lane Project

More than 100 cities applied for the second round of the Green Lane Project, the program that helps cities build better bike infrastructure, including protected lanes.

People for Bikes, which runs the program, announced its selections for round two today: Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.

“The selected cities have ambitious goals and a vision for bicycling supported by their elected officials and communities,” said Martha Roskowski of People for Bikes. “They are poised to get projects on the ground quickly and will serve as excellent examples for other interested cities.”

Several of this year’s choices already have good wins under their belts. Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Seattle had protected bike lanes on People for Bikes’ list of the country’s ten best new protected bike lanes last year. And Pittsburgh, with its star urbanist mayor, seems poised to make big strides.

Beginning in April, the selected cities will receive expert assistance, training, and support over a two year period to build safe, comfortable protected bike infrastructure.

During the first two years of the Green Lane Project, the number of protected bike lanes in the country nearly doubled from 80 to 142, People for Bikes reports. More than half of those new lanes were in its six first-round focus cities: San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Memphis, Austin, and Washington.

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Massachusetts Official: Boston’s Winter Cyclists “Living in the Wrong City”

Bostonians making polite requests for a clear path on one of the city’s key bike routes were met with disdain from the state agency responsible for maintaining the paths.

Social media campaigns by Boston cyclists seized on some unfortunate remakrs by state officials to dramatize the plight of the city's winter cyclists. Image: Boston Cyclists Union

With a rapid-response social media campaign, Boston residents put a face on the purported “.05%” of cyclists who bike through the winter. Photo: Boston Cyclists Union

Here’s how one unnamed official from the Massachusetts’ Department of Conservation and Recreation responded in an internal email thread to a message from a Boston resident asking for better snow removal on the Southwest Corridor, an important off-street bike path. The leaked email was published on the Boston site Universal Hub (emphasis ours):

Frankly, I am tired of our dedicated team wasting valuable time addressing the less than .05% of all cyclists who choose to bike after a snow/ice event… We should not spend time debating cyclists with poor judgement [sic] and unrealistic expectations, and stick with [the staffer]‘s recommendation that they find other transportation. If someone is completely depending on a bike for year-round transportation, they are living in the wrong city.

Bikes advocates in the Boston region didn’t take those remarks lying down. The Boston Cyclists Union, working with Allston-Brighton Bikes and Southie Bikes, asked local cyclists to share photos of themselves on social media with the slogan “I am the .05%” to demonstrate their numbers and their normalcy. Local cyclists also took to tweeting under the hastag #winterbiker to explain why biking in cold weather months is their best option.

Those efforts appear to have found their target. The Boston Cyclists Union and MassBike are reporting today that DCR has agreed to meet with local cyclists to discuss their concerns regarding snow and ice clearance on bike paths.

And, for the record, cold weather cities that put real effort into making it safe to bike see little drop-off in cycling during the winter. Copenhagen, for instance, retains 80 percent of its peak-season bike traffic in the cold months.

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Real Estate Trend: Parking-Free Apartment Buildings

A wave of new residential construction projects in places like Seattle, Boston, and Miami are showing that, yes, modern American cities can build housing without any car parking on site.

A rendering of the new Lovejoy Wharf 175-unit condo development, Boston's first car-free housing development. Image: ##http://boston.curbed.com/archives/2013/12/no-parking-boston-gives-green-light-to-carless-condo.php## Curbed##

A rendering of the new 175-unit condo development, Lovejoy Wharf, in Boston. Image: Curbed

Officials in Boston gave their approval last week to what Curbed called the city’s “first big-time parking-less condo,” a 175-unit project named Lovejoy Wharf. The “plan was met with disbelief in some quarters,” according to Curbed, but the city’s redevelopment authority approved it unanimously.

Portland developers have been building housing sans parking for a few years. Last summer, NPR reported that about 40 percent of Portland’s under-construction housing was parking-free. Portland’s zoning rules have allowed zero-parking developments since the aughts, but builders and lenders weren’t pursuing that type of project until recently, the Oregonian reports. Unfortunately, the city pulled the rug out from under parking-free housing this summer, responding to car owners who feared increased competition for curbside parking spots. Portland’s new rule requires some parking in apartment buildings with more than 30 units.

Meanwhile, other cities are marching ahead. In Seattle, parking-free housing developments are becoming more common. Mark Knoll, CEO of Blueprint Capital, led the development of a 30-unit building with no parking in one of the city’s “urban villages.” These designated areas, chosen for their walkability and proximity to transit, have special zoning rules that allow Seattle developers to forgo parking. These relaxed parking requirements were set in motion by Washington state’s Growth Management Act in the 1990s, which was intended to combat urban sprawl. Since the new zoning rules came online in Seattle in 2010, between 20 and 30 parking-free projects have been developed, Knoll estimates.

Car parking is expensive: Each space in a city garage costs tens of thousands of dollars to build and hundreds of dollars annually to maintain [PDF]. Eliminating on-site parking brings down the cost of apartment construction, Knoll estimates, between 20 and 30 percent. That makes it possible for developers to deliver more affordable housing. Knoll’s California Avenue development, for instance, is targeted at people making 60 percent of area median income, or about $15 per hour.

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Boston Introduces “Super Sharrows”

Brighton Avenue in Allston is sporting some new "super sharrows." Image: ##http://www.boston.com/news/local/blogs/starts-and-stops/2013/11/20/boston-bikes-debuts-sharrows-steroids/PXrtrx9c1YO6T0JOCn3vFJ/blog.html## Boston.com##

Brighton Avenue in Allston is sporting some new “super sharrows.” Image: Boston.com

Behold, Boston’s new “super sharrows,” a spin on the often-derided shared-lane marking. Boston’s new twist is meant to give the feel of a bike lane, even when the space for one is lacking. The official term for this street treatment is “priority shared-lane markings,” and they were debuted in the last few weeks on Boston’s Brighton Avenue.

City Bike Czar Nicole Freedman told the Boston Globe that only a few cities in the country have tested this kind of bike marking, which was first proposed by civil engineering professor Peter Furth in a 2009 research paper.

What do you guys think? Would this make you feel safer or more confident?

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More Mayoral Results: Minneapolis, Houston, Boston

This week’s mayoral elections yielded good news for transit and safe streets in both Houston and Minneapolis. In Boston, meanwhile, the results are less straightforward.

Annise Parker, right, won her third term as Houston's mayor this week. She has been a proponent of safer streets. Image: Houston Tomorrow via Culture Map Houston

Transportation reformers in Minneapolis are generally pleased about the election of City Council member Betsy Hodges (runoff votes are still being counted, but the second-place contender has conceded). Hodges is a strong smart growth proponent and a supporter of the city’s streetcar plans. Some transit advocates are concerned her strong support for rail will mean less investment in buses. But she definitely speaks the livable streets language.

“In my vision of Minneapolis,” she told Streets.mn this fall, “our streets are for all residents of Minneapolis regardless of the mode of travel they choose. Our neighborhood commercial corridors should not be [our] raceways out of town, but vital destinations — in and of themselves.”

In addition, Minneapolis City Council candidates with strong transit bona fides also knocked off a few incumbents. Sam Newberg wrote today in Streets.mn that “now is the time to make some very real and meaningful changes to the development of our city.”

Meanwhile, Houston incumbent Mayor Annise Parker fought off two relatively conservative challengers to win her third term in the nation’s fourth-largest city. Parker, one of the country’s first openly gay mayors, recently instituted a complete streets policy in Houston by executive order. She has also helped move forward the city’s light rail system, building a diverse coalition around transit. Parker has been ranked as one of the country’s top 10 “green mayors.” She has promised to help make cycling safer in the city and joined in on some group rides.

In Boston, labor leader and state lawmaker Martin Walsh scored a surprise upset over City Councilor John Connolly in the race for mayor. Advocates in Beantown report that Connolly was clearly the more progressive choice on transportation. Connolly’s campaign featured bike rides around the city to highlight his complete streets plans; Walsh’s campaign focused more on bread-and-butter economic issues. Only three of the 12 mayoral candidates skipped a forum on transportation held by the nonprofit group Livable Streets in the run-up to the election, according to Boston Streets. Walsh was one of them.

While he’s not expected to be a visionary leader on transportation issues, there’s reason to think he’ll move the city in the right direction. He has stood for lower speed limits in urban areas. In his transportation plan, Walsh said his priorities include dedicated bus lanes in underserved areas and making neighborhoods more livable by improving conditions for walking and biking.

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Study: Homes Near Transit Were Insulated From the Housing Crash

Percent change in average residential sales prices relative to the region, 2006-11. Image: APTA and NAR

If you live close to a transit station, chances are you’ve weathered the recession better than your friends who don’t.

Your transportation costs are probably lower, since you can take transit instead of driving. Transit-served areas are usually more walkable and bikeable too, multiplying your options. And while home values plummeted during a recession that was triggered by a massive housing bubble, your home probably held its value relatively well – if you live near transit.

The National Association of Realtors and the American Public Transportation Association commissioned the Center for Neighborhood Technology to study the impact of transit access on home values during the recession. For the report, “The New Real Estate Mantra: Location Near Public Transportation” [PDF], CNT looked at five metro regions — Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, and San Francisco.

While nearly everyone in hard-hit cities experienced some setback from tanking housing prices, transit-served areas were largely insulated from the worst of it, CNT found:

Across the study regions, the transit shed outperformed the region as a whole by 41.6 percent. In all of the regions the drop in average residential sales prices within the transit shed was smaller than in the region as a whole or the non-transit area. Boston station areas outperformed the region the most (129 percent), followed by Minneapolis-St. Paul (48 percent), San Francisco and Phoenix (37 percent), and Chicago (30 percent).

This is consistent with a study released last year by the Center for Housing Policy showing that access to rail transit created a “transit premium” for nearby home values of between six and 50 percent. That study, like CNT’s, looked at Minneapolis and Chicago, as well as Portland. The Center for Transit Oriented Development has also looked at this phenomenon and found transit premiums as high as 150 percent.

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Will Vehicular Cyclists and the “Right to Park” Trump Safer Streets in Boston?

Beacon Street in Somerville, just outside Boston, is perhaps the most biked route in the state of Massachusetts. It also has a terrible safety record. There have been 154 collisions involving cyclists on the corridor between 2002 and 2010, according to the state Department of Transportation [PDF].

Vehicular cyclists are undermining a proposal for a protected bike lane on Beacon Street, just outside Boston, that has attracted opposition because parking spots will be eliminated. Image: Somerville Patch

“There are more bikes going down Beacon Street in a sort of subpar bike path than anywhere else in the city,” said Pete Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union. Having a safe and protected space to bike “would increase cycling numbers exponentially.”

Working with officials from the city of Somerville, bike advocates have been promoting a safe solution. And it looks like it’s on the way: The city recently presented preliminary designs that include the addition of a protected bike lane.

The Somerville proposal is the latest sign that as protected bike lanes gain currency, this type of street design isn’t just for big city transportation departments. Evanston, Illinois, an inner-ring suburb of Chicago, recently built a protected bike lane linking residential areas to its downtown.

As with protected bike lanes in other cities, Boston-area advocates are running up against some opposition in their bid to make Beacon Street safer. The dynamic in this case is a little unusual: A handful of dyed-in-the-wool vehicular cyclists are giving a big assist to residents who value on-street parking in front of their doorstep more than street safety.

Somerville’s plan calls for eliminating about 100 on-street parking spots on Beacon for the mile-long stretch where the bike lane will be installed. Although a local parking study found that there was more than enough on-street parking capacity to accommodate the reduction, some local residents have been grumpy about the proposed change. At a recent preliminary design meeting with the community, one neighbor called the plan “discriminatory” (against drivers) and said it violates their “right to park” in front of their homes.

“I want my parking place; I think this is a dumb project,” said Somerville resident Marty Filosi.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that a handful of vehicular cyclists in the region have opposed the plan. One of them is John Allen, a prominent local follower of John Forester’s transportation theories, which — against the preponderance of evidence — argue that dedicated cycling infrastructure makes cyclists less safe.

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