Monday, June 15, 2015

Might does not make right

Years ago, when I was learning how to drive, my mother made sure to emphasize the fact that a motor vehicle is a lethal weapon. Nearly two tons of steel and plastic, moving at speed, is dangerous when misused or mishandled. That's not cause to be passive, but rather, to be cognizant of the consequences and continually vigilant. As a teenager, it was easy to get excited about the new power available to me, while not considering the risks, nor giving thought to others in the world around me -- except as obstacles. And like most Americans, I managed to make it through those years without serious incident, despite some mistakes, with the help of a few lucky breaks here and there. Because I was okay personally, I didn't think much beyond that, at the time.

Having spent several years on walking, bicycling and transit advocacy, I have a different, "outside-the-windshield" perspective on these matters nowadays. The power of the motor vehicle I can still appreciate, but I can also see how it is too easily abused. With one barely perceptible pedal push, a driver can blast past a child waiting at a crosswalk, and hardly notice at all. Or seeing brake lights ahead, a driver swerves to pass the one car that had yielded, and barely skims past a person crossing the street. The noise, grit, and grime caused by the passage of fast-moving motor vehicles is out-of-sight, out-of-mind to those drivers that create it. Even if nobody is physically harmed, the physical characteristics of living environments that facilitate speeding, heavy vehicles are unfriendly to human beings.

To behave humanely behind the wheel takes hard work, and a commitment to consider the other people around you. "Might does not make right" is the ethical principle that I believe is most applicable to transportation projects in our cities and towns. My feeling is that we have an obligation to protect the vulnerable from the powerful, and not only to protect, but to promote and serve. That is what forms the ethical basis of what I try to do.

The coalition of people who promote automobile interests are usually very strong, very rich, and very powerful. Motor vehicles are expensive to own, to maintain, and are highly wasteful of space. Any available room on the roads is quickly consumed by even a small increase in the number of vehicles. The resulting congestion can be enraging to drivers, as their expensive and powerful machines are trapped in a mire of their own making. At both home and destinations, without a readily accessible 300 square-foot piece of land for storage, these machines become a enormous burden on their owners, who then proceed to lash out in frustration.

Automobiles can provide convenient and quick transportation when everything works out, but when the systems quite frequently fail, the problems that stack up are often 'solved' at the expense of other people, especially the most vulnerable. Sidewalks are narrowed. Trees are cut down. Crosswalks eliminated. Bike facilities are completely omitted. Fences are put up. Transit is dis-invested. Highways are blasted through neighborhoods. Children aren't allowed to walk to school, or the park. Desperately needed housing development is canceled for imagined fear of "parking problems." Economic growth is stifled because "it might cause traffic." We can no longer properly build cities for people because all of our modern rules and regulations are designed to produce cities that only a machine could love.

Motor vehicles are powerful, and many of the people who own them are powerful. Motor vehicles are also very useful, and are a great boon to our civilization when used safely and prudently, within reasonable limits. But that does not make it right to give in to their every need. Without check they would take away our land, our natural resources, and the quality of our air. Thankfully, over the past several decades, the work of countless citizens has produced some legislative and political help, through endless community organizing. It's a continuing effort, and it's very important that everyone participate. Being obstructive is not enough: a great deal of damage was done by the Utopian automobile idealists of the 1950s who never gave any thought to the communities that were harmed by their schemes. That damage has yet to be repaired in many cases.

To give a concrete example: on June 17th, MassDOT will present the latest installment in the ongoing saga to rebuild the Allston Mass Pike interchange (6:30 pm, Jackson-Mann school). Fifty years ago, the Mass Pike extension widened the railroad right-of-way, taking houses, and leaving behind a huge scar across the Allston/Brighton neighborhood that has never been properly managed. The crossings are decrepit and crumbling, and not accessible to many people with disabilities. The streets that were rebuilt back then were given designs that had almost no consideration for people on foot, much less on bicycle. Dangerous highway ramps cut in at sections that seem to be designed to interstate highway-spec, despite being city streets.

Some bike lanes were painted in an effort to try and do something, anything at all, but despite the well-meaning effort, the street remains a major problem.
Two years ago, the Patrick administration announced a project that had the potential to fix all kinds of problems with the interchange. A dangerous curve in the highway would be straightened. The old-fashioned tollbooths would be replaced with modern, automated systems. The whole mess of city streets left behind by the 1960s extension project could be reworked, finally reuniting North Allston with south, and building a whole new neighborhood in between. And to top it off, a new 'West Station' on the Worcester line would finally give Allston back a railroad station somewhat near the site of the original station around which the community was founded.

But it seems that potential is being squandered. Despite months of community engagement and a professed commitment to "multi-modal thinking", the design team went off for the winter and nothing came out until finally this June meeting was announced with this plan shown, that seems to have more space allocated to roadway than non-roadway:

In the past year, the DOT design team told us often that they "don't do city planning" and it appears that they don't intend anyone else to do so either. It's hard to imagine anything neighborly fitting between those massive connectors (that will rise on earthen berms above grade, by the way). West Station is included, but can you imagine making the connection to or through that while walking precariously on a pathway above 10-12 lanes of roaring highway and some number of railyard tracks? This design is a highway design, engineered for the comfort of drivers first, and everyone else second. Yes, it's an improvement over the old ways, in that it will all satisfy accessibility regulations, and there are connected sidewalks and protected bike lanes. But with this car-first design, it seems that those facilities will only be used by necessity, not by choice.

We have often been told that "the computer models" require this many lanes, or that size an intersection, etc. The models, of course, have been programmed by engineers to try and predict the future. They say that they can tell us what the behavior of people in the year 2035 will be, with precision. They will tell us that unless they build all of this road space, we will be threatened by some kind of 'traffic armageddon'. It's a bullying tactic, plain and simple. Common sense should tell anyone that trying to predict the future is impossible, much less making precise predictions about conditions on a particular road 20 years from now. The models that they create are nothing but a set of equations and parameters chosen by the people who designed it. These models are as fallible as the people behind them, and can be used to say anything at all. Usually, they are used to say whatever it is the people who hired the modelers want them to say.

In this case, the powerful have spoken, and they have said that they want more automobile capacity in our neighborhood, at our expense. Whenever you hear an engineer say "the models predict increased traffic by X" what you should translate that to is "automobile interests want increased capacity by X, and nothing else matters."

Let's contrast this situation with what it might be like if MassDOT took the other side and tried to help provide space for a new neighborhood with good connections to the surroundings. Then the street network would be laid out at a human scale, with smaller blocks, smaller streets, and a collaboration with city planners in Boston. When it came time to talk about automobile capacity, instead of sending us an ultimatum that "we must tolerate a massive additional influx of vehicles or else", they would calculate the maximum capacity that is compatible with the city planning goals, and work to keep demand for the highway under that level. For example, perhaps it could be considered that commuter bus or train tickets should not be more expensive than paying the toll on the highway. Or that all employers that offer parking benefits must also offer 'parking cash-out' as a benefit for people who chose not to drive.

The reason that this way of working is so tough for them to do, politically, is because it requires that they go to the powerful automobile-promoting interests and tell them: there is a limit, and beyond that, demand for the road is going to have to be managed somehow. An ever-increasing level of traffic on the Mass Pike is not an inevitability. That will only happen so long as more capacity is forced on us, so long as officials are too timid to use the tools of transportation demand management to control the problem at its source, and so long as might makes the right-of-way.