Monday, June 30, 2008

Adult newbies

Great story in the Globe about a Somerville woman who teaches adults to ride bicycles. Watch the video, too.

Gas prices hovering above $4 per gallon have led to the busiest season so far for the woman known as Boston's Bike Whisperer, Susan McLucas, a 59-year-old chronic smiler with a reputation for teaching even the most fearful and frustrated adults to balance on two wheels. Enrollment in Bicycle Riding for Beginners, offered through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, has nearly doubled since 2006. And demand for one-on-one lessons is on the rise as well.

Having just re-taught four-year-old daughter of NS&S how to ride, I wonder if there's a place in Ms. McLucas's work for an adult version of the child's walking bike (like the Like-a-Bike). The toughest thing to do is to learn how to balance, and the walking bike (a pedal-and-chain-less bike) lets young bikers-to-be build their skills and confidence at their own speed.

In any case, great work by Ms. McLucas, who says in the video that she hates what cars are doing to our cities. She has a website, too.


What a race!

Here's hoping that the powers-that-be grease the skids to make the Boloco Heartbreak Hill Grand Prix a yearly event. We caught the opening half-hour of the main event, a twenty-lap pro race around the 2.5-mile circuit. (We were planning to return for the finish, but the weather shortened the race by four laps and disrupted our plans.) You don't need to be a hard-core bike enthusiast to have your breath taken away by fifty bikes whizzing the wrong way on Langley Road at nearly 30 mph.

It was also a great scene, with riders, family, friends, and fans milling about the closed streets. With a few tweaks, the race could be the centerpiece of a great family day in Newton Centre.


Booster Seats

Neil Swidey wonders about booster seats as new rules are about to go into effect. Previously, the law required a safety seat for children under five years and 40 lbs. After July 1, children under eight or 4' 9" have to ride in a safety seat or on a booster seat.

There's a debate about the efficacy of booster seats compared to just buckling up. Economist Stephen Levitt, he of Freakonomics fame, argues that booster seats don't add any measurable increase in safety over seat belts, except in one category of minor injury. His findings differ markedly from research by a group at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia.

Given the relative low cost of booster seats and booster seat use, I see no reason why not to insist on booster seats since there's credible data, like the Philadelphia researchers', of meaningful benefit.

I've always wondered about the effect of booster seats on seat belt use. Off-spring of NS&S are squarely in the booster demographic. When they are on their booster seats the seat belt falls more comfortably across their clavicle and chest. I'm guessing that the case for kids getting buckled and staying buckled is much easier when the seat belt is more comfortable.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Late night meters

Apparently channeling Professor Shoup, Boston City Councilor Sal LaMattina has proposed extending the meter hours to 2 A.M. from the current 8 P.M. end (for meters east of Mass. Ave.). The extra hours will generate an estimated $2 million to the $10 million in city meter collections.

Not unexpectedly, the vice president of the Newbury Street League is worried that extending meter hours will hurt business. But:

Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, sees it differently.

She believes that extending meter hours to 2 a.m. would benefit businesses because it would allow for more turnover in parking spots at a time of the day when they traditionally have been scarce. "Right now, when the meter goes off, it's like residential parking from that moment until the next morning," she said.

Give that woman a golden parking meter! One for the councilor, too.


McDonald's Climate Contribution

As if the traffic on Needham Street isn't bad enough, McDonald's has sent this truck down the street as a rolling billboard.

The irony-o-meter is pegged on this one.

Apparently, McDonald's is a happy customer of Advend Mobile. The truck is empty. It's only purpose is to drive where the traffic — and, therefore, potential viewers — are. Here's a quote from one vendor:

Our ads rotate every 8 seconds delivering your message over 1,300 times each day on the highest traveled streets in six coverage areas in North, South, & Central San Diego County (emphasis mine)

Write to McDonald's and tell them to stop clogging up our streets. Tell them it's not consistent with their global commitment to environmental leadership.

More irony. I spotted this truck just after pulling into the McDonald's on Needham Street to have our annual end-of-the-school-year dinner. That'll be our last trip for a while.

If you get pictures of any mobile ad trucks on Newton streets, send them to and I'll post them.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

O-bike-a pandering

Barack Obama met with representatives of the bike industry and promised more funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects.


From Matt Yglesias


Where else does the MBTA need racks?

Read Steve below on the need for bike racks at the Newton Highlands station. Any other stations that need racks?

Put it in the comments or send an e-mail to


Friday, June 20, 2008

Bike Rack at Highlands?

I wrote the following note to the Green Line supervisor, using the MBTA's Write to the top feature:

Steve Runge 5/19/2008 3:02 PM >>>
Dear Deborah,

I read in the Metro that the MBTA is installing bike racks all over the system.

I am hoping you can ensure that bike racks will be installed at Newton Highlands. Currently, there are none. There are always close to a dozen bikes locked at Highlands (often along railings that should be available for handicapped access... because there are no other options), and because there is no car parking provided at Highlands, ample bike parking could encourage a few people who park on local streets to use their bikes instead.

I also happened to notice that the old station building there has a "for lease" sign now. I am concerned that if the T doesn't provide bike racks, the business that occupies that building might prohibit bike parking, or make it difficult.

If you can install the racks under the eaves of the old station building (protecting bikes from weather), I would be very happy, indeed, and I would sing your praises on a blog (Newton Streets & Sidewalks).

Thanks for your time,

Steve Runge
Newton Resident,
Committee Member, Bike Newton,
Co-blogger, Newton Streets & Sidewalks

And Deborah Wong responded! (One month response time, to the day):

Dear Mr Runge,

Thank you for your comments and concerns. The bike racks will installed trough out the MBTA and also on the commuter rail. There will be a train with bike racks only for commuters who want to commute with there bikes.
I will forward your concerns to the assessment department to see if a bike rack can be implemented at Newton Highlands.

Best regards,
Margaret Fong
Supervisor, Subway Operations
Green Line

I'm not singing anyone's praises yet, but here's a baby step of progress. If other people also Write to the Top, we just might get a bike rack. (And I might have to learn to sing. Well, I could compose some doggerel, at any rate.)


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Proud day

Son of NS&S finishes first grade today with a perfect record self-propelling to school (walk, bike, scooter) for the second year in a row. (Full disclosure, we don't count days when he went to a doctor or dentist appointment before heading to school.)

It's not like he had a choice, though.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Owning the means of transportation

It occurred to me as I read this Globe article about a truck rollover on I-93, there is a big difference between the level of government accountability for transit incidents v. roadway incidents.

When the trolleys crashed on the D-Line, there was much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about the MBTA's track record (pun intended). The Herald had a whole timeline of T incidents.

But, a truck crashes on the highway and there is rarely a recap of all the incidents on the highway and the accumulated lost time to travelers stuck, like those this morning, for hours. The media doesn't treat accidents on the highway as part of a connected story of problems because there is no connection among the motor vehicle operators involved in the crashes. The exception is when there is a common operator, as with the string of recent Fung Wa problems.

This discrepancy in treatment distorts the discussion.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Wicked thoughtful

On the TAB blog, Gail Spector posted about a bit of political intrigue and a thoughtful discussion of parking policy broke out. Read the comments.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Teens and driving

As with most trend pieces, it's tough to tell from this article on the impact of high gas prices on teen habits just how extensive the trend is. But, wouldn't it be encouraging if, because of high prices, today's teens don't become addicted to driving in the first place.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Informal Newton South Observations

Just for fun I biked to Newton South this morning at 7:20. Distance: 1 3/10 miles. Elapsed time: 10 minutes. A recent walk took 25 minutes.

Car traffic en route (Parker, Hagen, Great Meadow, Brandeis) was thick: 6-10 cars were lined up waiting to turn at each intersection. Between Boylston St. and Newton South I counted 13 pedestrians and two bicyclists. I didn't count the cars, but I would estimate at least 60, many of which contained either 1 student or 1 parent and 1 student. At the main entrance of the school, 11 bicycles were parked at the bike racks, with space for one more. I didn't count car parking spaces.

I watched one pedestrian near the school's entrance waiting for a chance to cross the river of drop-offs entering from Brandeis St. Objectively, his wait wasn't that long (about 30 seconds), but it communicated volumes about what it means to walk to school at South. Walking is second-class. If you walk, you wait. The entrance is very much designed with drop-offs in mind; walkers are an afterthought.

What do we make of these numbers? Cars outnumbered walkers/bicyclists by at least 4:1. Bike parking reaches capacity at 12, and the school's entrance is car-oriented. (Kids on foot also have to walk past a gauntlet of parking student drivers, a daily reminder, no doubt, of their 2nd-class status.) It might also be the case that, being there a little late, I was observing a car-rich mix of arrivals.

If we're going to get more kids walking/biking to South, in addition to promoting it, we'll need to at least quadruple bike parking facilities (and wouldn't it be nice if they were covered?) and re-design the entrance area to make it more pedestrian-friendly.

And, of course, we'll need to convince parents that their 13-18 year olds don't need to be chauffeured.


Women in car hits mayor on bike

The Globe reports that, sometime last month, a woman ran her car into Mayor Menino while he was out on his morning bike ride. The mayor suffered minor injuries and no damage to his magnanimity. He sent the woman off with an admonition to get to work on time. And, didn't make a big deal of it.

Think this will have any effect on his ongoing effort to make Boston more bike-friendly?


Monday, June 9, 2008

T to Avalon Bay

View Larger Map

Andrea posed a good question in an e-mail: isn't there a shorter route from the Newton Highlands T station to Needham Street, Avalon Bay in particular?

Look at the map and the answer is not really. The route along Centre Street to Needham Street isn't exactly as-the-crow-flies, but it isn't that far from it. (Of course, the as-the-crow-flies route is along the Needham Street spur, which cries out for an extension of the D-Line.)

But, two things are really striking when you look hard at the map:

  • Avalon Bay is just 600 feet from the T tracks, and yet you have to walk over 3,000 feet to get to the Newton Highlands stop

  • The only thing between Avalon Bay and a direct walk to the Eliot Street is city-owned property — the Eliot Street Yard, a DPW facility

The Eliot Street Yard is a working facility with heavy equipment and supplies, but there must be a clever way to integrate a pedestrian cut-through. At the very least, it shouldn't be a problem to create a pedestrian path that skirts the yard and stays on city property.

Drawn as I've shown it, the Eliot station option only saves 500 feet or so to a like place in the front of the Avalon complex, but the advantages get much better the farther west you go down Needham Street. Plus, the walk would be much more pleasant.

I doubt there's sufficient right-of-way along the track to do the along-the-track option. But, what would it take to put another stop right behind Avalon Bay? The name writes itself: Easy Street Station. (Of course, Needham Street makes more sense.) It would benefit the east end of Needham Street as well as the Eliot Street/Boylston Street shopping center.


Why the gas tax must go up

As I have written previously, it makes no sense to keep the gas tax fixed at a per-gallon rate when a large part of what the gas tax is meant to fund gets more expensive as gas gets more expensive. USA Today reports on the obvious, the cost of building roads is going up as oil prices rise.

So, gas prices rise, gas-tax revenue is flat (or slightly lower), and the cost of building roads increases. Two possible outcomes from this scenario: neglected maintenance or an increase in the subsidy to drivers.

Time to raise the gas tax.


Red line fire and ensuing madness

Interesting stuff in the comments to this Universal Hub post about a fire on the Red Line this morning.

Apparently, some people got text messages about the fire and took to their bikes.


Beacon Street Trial

It's always encouraging to see evidence that the city is willing to try things that will improve things for bikers and pedestrians. On that basis, count this morning as very encouraging.

When Beacon Street was striped with 11-foot travel lanes — and, therefore, very wide shoulders — the NS&S response was something approaching glee. Our giddiness, however, was tempered by the subsequent realization that motorists were using the wide shoulders as second travel lanes, making life even worse for bicyclists. Our preferred solution to this unintended consequence would have been a substantial reconfiguration to create dedicated bike lanes in at least one direction. The Newton Bicycle/Pedestrian Task Force (yours truly included) recommended a second, less elaborate solution: groups of diagaonal stripes every so often to indicate that the shoulder was not for car travel. (DPW had suggested single stripes at regular intervals.) We suggested, the city painted.

We're going to throttle back the giddy this time around. It may turn out that the diagonal stripes don't have any effect. It may be that the DPW's recommendation would have been better. It may be that the clusters make sense, but need to be spaced differently.

But, those are all things that can be worked out with a department that shares the same goals — bicycle convenience and safety — and listens. And, based on those stripes above, there's some evidence that's what we've got.


So, is it safe or not?

Nice bit of sensationalism on the front page of yesterday's Globe West. Splashed across the front page of the section was a huge headline: Is this ride safe?

"I decided to take the T this morning because I wanted to save on gas," said the 45-year-old social worker, who has been riding the Green Line for three decades. "But I'm still hesitant about getting on and taking a chance with my life."

Smith's ambivalence was shared by numerous riders interviewed in the wake of the May 28 crash, which claimed the life of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority driver Terrese Edmonds, 24, of South Boston.

And, it goes on like that. A teenager who rides the T because she has no choice. A software engineer who figures the law of averages is on her side. A medical technician who doesn't think it's "any more unsafe than driving my car in Boston." And this touching vignette near the article's end:

Smith said she hopes the tragedy will convince T officials of the need to reduce speeds along the Green Line's Riverside spur, and to put stricter rules in place to ensure that drivers "are paying attention."

Until they do, she said, she will continue to ride the train with a lump in her throat and butterflies in her stomach. She now makes a point to ride in the middle of the trolley, she said, to make sure she is away from any potential impact points should a crash occur.

But, no answer to the headline.

Imagine an article bold enough to actually answer the question:

Should we fear public transportation following one of the worst transit accidents in recent MBTA history?

Turns out, the Globe itself published one of those in the very same paper!

The numbers say no. Even with several memorable trolley crashes in recent years, driving a car is still more dangerous.

Last month's crash in Newton was rare in that someone died. But there are thousands of fatal car crashes each year.

In 2006, 44,912 people died in American transportation-related accidents, according to the most recent federal statistics. Of those, 13 died while using light rail systems such as the Green Line. Thirty-two people died on subways and 27 on buses - including school, intercity, and local transit.

The vast majority - 30,521 victims - died in cars or light trucks. That doesn't include motorcycle riders and pedestrians and cyclists hit by cars, which also number well into the thousands.

Of course, if you were looking for that kind of reporting in the Globe West, you left disappointed.


Saturday, June 7, 2008

Centre / Winchester Opportunities

How would you make this stretch safer for bicyclists and pedestrians?

View Larger Map

The stretch of road between the Walnut and Centre Street intersection and the Winchester and Needham Street intersection is going to be redone as part of the upcoming project to redo Needham Street. The Newton Bicycle/Pedestrian Task Force has identifed the project as an important opportunity to improve pedestrian and bicycle conditions.

Click on the "View Larger Map" link then click on the markers and lines above to see photos and descriptions of present conditions. Then, add to the analysis with a comment here or by sending an e-mail to


Friday, June 6, 2008

More subsidies for driving

This time, safe drivers are subsidizing high-risk drivers. Auto insurance-providing Arbella Insurance Group is suing the Massachusetts insurance commissioner over the new managed-competition rules, specifically the one that allow companies that begin to sell insurance to the Commonwealth's to avoid issuing high-risk policies for two years.
Arbella claims that this puts incumbent providers at a disadvantage. Issuing high-risk policies adds as much as $150 to safe driver policies, it says.

That's outrageous. Forget about the inequity between incumbent insurance providers and newcomers. What about the inequity between high- and low-risk drivers? If Arbella's claims are true, insurance companies are forced to cover high-risk drivers at a loss on each high-risk driver. In order to make a profit overall, insurance companies raise rates on low-risk drivers.

In other words, low-risk drivers subsidize high-risk drivers.

One might reasonably ask why a pedestrian and bicycle advocate cares about the distribution of insurance costs among car drivers. Three reasons:

  1. I live in Newton, not New York City. I am also a driver. (A very safe driver, in fact.)
  2. I don't have access to numbers right now, but I supect high-risk drivers are also more likely to be involved in crashes that involve pedestrian and cyclists.
  3. We need to get to a system where private automobile travel is not subsidized, where each driver pays his or her fair share of all the costs related to his or her travel.
We should only subsidize behaviors that accrue to the common good. There is nothing but private benefit to private automobile travel. And plenty of public harm.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Robert Reich on infrastructure

Matt Yglesias says listen to Robert Reich. I agree.

Robert Reich says it's nuts that we don't have sufficient mass transit to meet demand.

Public transit has always been the poor stepchild of infrastructure development. America's usual answer to traffic congestion has been to add more lanes on highways, or more highways, or more bridges and tunnels for more cars. America hasn’t been really serious about public transit for almost a century.

Unfortunately, we've got some bridges to fix first.


Unfortunate priorities, interesting timing

On Monday, Charlie-in-chief Grabauskas's answer to excess demand for MBTA capacity: encourage the good folks responding to $4.00 gas by crowding his trains, trolleys, and buses to ride off-peak.

On Tuesday, Governor Patrick's request to the state legislature: $3 billion for state bridge repair.

The timing is coincidental, but the message is horrible. Mass transit has to make do, while car and truck drivers get an enormous boost to their existing subsidy.

But, waaaaaiiit, you cry. I'm not suggesting we let bridges fall apart am I?

No. We've got to fix them. But, drivers need to pick up the tab, or a big part of it. In the form of an increased gas tax. It's only fair.


Parking v. Biking

I've been reflecting in silence for a while (like a Zen Buddhist monk?) and my reflections have led me to parking. The Walnut Street imbroglio was all about parking. Parking won. No surprise there, really. Pit a bike against a car, and the car wins.

But what if we pit other things against cars? One can reduce on-street parking demand by providing alternatives. In the case of Walnut Street, many of the parked cars seem to be commuters using the Highlands T stop. They arrive before 9 and leave after 5, at any rate.

Here are some alternatives to all day on-street parking (which are also alternatives to pitting bike lanes directly against on-street parking):

1. Employee parking cash-out. This has been used in, of course, California. Employers offer employees a cash-equivalent of real parking costs (parking is never genuinely "free" unless the land is free) in exchange for a parking space. (The employer could contribute to the employee's monthly mass transit pass.) The employer is then free to charge market rates to lease out the parking space to, say, commuters. Not a ton of parking behind businesses in Highlands, but there is some: I see cars parked back there, at any rate. Sample transaction: Employer cashes out an employee's space for $30/month. Employer then leases the space to a commuter for $60/month. Maybe Newton chips $5 as a little incentive to cover administrative costs. Another commuter's car off the street, $30 more in the employee's pocket, and $30 for the employer. Why would a commuter go for this? See item 6.

2. Shuttle bus. Theory: most people parking at Highlands live south of Boylston Street, and the walk to the T would be unpleasant. (I wouldn't want to cross under Boylston at Centre every day, myself.) Run a shuttle from a few points central to residents there (Parker & Dedham, Winchester & Dedham) to the Highlands T.

3. Walk-to-school shuttle: Run shuttle buses from elementary schools to the closest T stops daily, during drop-off time. Parents can walk kids to school, hop on the shuttle to the T, and avoid traffic, tolls, parking, and fuel costs. Same in the afternoon: shuttle from the T to the school, pick up kids at the after-care program and walk home. (Personally, I'd love to see a fleet of cycle-rikshaws handling this, but I'd settle for a van.)

4. Facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists: secure bike parking at Highlands (put that old station building to use!), better pedestrian access extending at least 1/2 mile in every direction (BPTF is working on the Centre/Boyston area), and safe bike route markings.

5. Bring back the Newton Bus!

6. If you can't beat 'em, charge 'em: Set up a muni-meter system extending up Walnut as far north as the commuters park. If they're going to park all day, they should pay. Likewise, enforce parking overstays more systematically, and consider increasing fines for overstays.

When a selection of these strategies are in place, parking problems in Highlands will decrease to the point that we can start talking about bike lanes beating out parking along Walnut.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

This is not a drill

As noted on the TAB blog,, and Universal Hub (and probably every other media outlet in Eastern Mass.), MBTA ridership is up 6.1% for the first quarter, compared to last year.

That's really astounding. Even with $4.00 gas.

Rising gas prices are changing behaviors, to an extent that I would never have guessed. Public policy has to keep up, because there's no reason to believe that this is a blip, that gas prices will go down (at least not significantly). In fact, gas prices shouldn't go down, because we should start restoring the state gas tax to it's 1991 rate, which now would mean $1.00 on the current $3.61 pre-tax price for a gallon ($4.00 - .21 Mass. gas tax - .184 federal gas tax).

According to Charlie-in-Chief Dan Grabauskas, the MBTA infrastructure already can't absorb the surge in riders at peak periods. What's going to happen when gas goes up another 25 cents, 50 cents, a dollar?

Shouldn't this trigger a radical change in capital spending priorities? And reconsideration of the proposal to relieve the MBTA's hamstringing debt?


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Cycling surging!

There's not much new in this Herald article about increased biking in the area, but the fact of it being published is a good sign.


What price dignity?

Update: Read Jenkins and some of his colleagues' thoughtful comments on the TAB blog.

I don't understand the uncritical accolades being heaped upon first responders in the Newton trolley accident. It's a terrible shame that operator Terrese Edmonds died in the crash. But, it's downright nuts that firefighters and others put themselves in danger to free Ms. Edmonds well after there was no hope of saving her.

This was a quote from Newton firefighter Chris Jenkins (pictured), one of the firefighters on the scene, to the Boston Herald's Peter Gelzinis:

There were flames and sparks and oil. We had to pull back several times because we thought the car was close to toppling off the jacks. And we could only cut through so much metal at a time. Guys really did put their lives on the line, because the situation was very dangerous.

That's just reflects terrible priorities. I admire the selflessness of the line guys, but where were the bosses saying enough is enough, we don't want any more dead? Cover Ms. Edmonds as best you can, get the hell out of there, we'll start again when the cars have been stabilized, lines have been drained, and we're at no risk of adding to the death toll.

This isn't just idle contrarianism. There ought to be an investigation into why Newton's brass put firefighters at risk to recover a body. That's just not the proper application of bravery.