Saturday, December 26, 2009

What is Balanced Transportation?

It has been said that Peter Furth was ousted from his seat on Brookline's Transportation Board because he was "too focused on bicycles". Not even getting into the truth about Professor Furth's bona fide credentials as a world class transportation engineer, let's just stop for a minute and think about what saying that someone is "too focused on bicycles" to be on the Transportation Board means.

Bicycles are one form of transportation. A very efficient, inexpensive, accessible and non-polluting one at that. In fact, it's fair to say that we have become so biased in our view that we think myopically, assuming that "transportation" is code speak for moving cars. Can we imagine someone saying "he's too focused on cars"? By articulating how to improve conditions for bicycling, we are making an effort to nudge our thinking a bit. Our community could improve if we viewed our public streets as a community asset and amenity meant to be used in a way that promotes access, safety and livability. This means looking holistically at the needs of the those in a car, those on foot, those riding a bike, and those riding the bus and train. How do all those moving parts interact with one another?, with their environment? and how can we best provide access between to all possible origins and destinations for the benefit of the greatest number of people in the most efficient manner? We need to think about the mobility needs of all members of our community. To speak about the needs of bicyclist's is to try to broaden our thinking to include accommodating other forms of transportation besides the automobile. And so, it is in fact an act of bringing balance to the board to have a member who has such a broad perspective already and with the experience and expertise to speak for the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders and drivers.

When it comes to trying to achieve "balance" between an auto and a bicycle or pedestrian, it's a bit like talking about the "balance" between an innocent deer in the woods and a hunter with a rifle. The safety equation is heavily skewed in favor of the one with the weapon. In this case, the automobile. I read a recent article about an AARP survey of aging drivers. In a setting where complete dependence on the automobile is subsidized and fostered, it is understandable that elders fear the isolation and reduced opportunities for an active life that giving up driving entails. When asked about whether or not they considered walking an appropriate alternative to driving, the most frequent reason given for not thinking it was, was a lack of safety! Elders can no longer drive safely, yet they fear for their life as a pedestrian. This is a direct result of designing our streets and intersections to facilitate the maximum movement of cars instead of focusing on making it safe (let alone pleasant) to cross the street on foot.

At a time when obesity related health issues and the direct health implications of climate change threaten our very existence, you would think we would want to do everything we can to make it safe and enjoyable to walk and bike, whenever these modes might be a via alternative. What those who fear these accommodations don't realize is that it is not an all or nothing proposition, but rather a case of providing a viable choice for those who might wish to choose it if it were available. While many argue that accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians is catering to the "fringe few" this is a disingenuous argument. How can we gauge the "market demand" for something that doesn't even exist in the market place? Bicycle safety increases dramatically the more bicyclists there are.

It can also be said that Peter Furth does have a balanced viewpoint, or more importantly a realistic viewpoint, understanding and having expertise in all modes of transportation engineering. He has studied how people get around, around the world, and it is this breadth of understanding that allows him to see the potential for doing things better in Brookline. The changes he has advocated for in Brookline, and the one that apparently cost him his seat on the Board, was extremely modest, and he helped work towards a compromise when objections were raised. And yet those who favor the status quo above all else have made their wishes known and gotten him booted off the board. By the way, I think Bill Schwartz will be a fine addition to the Board, but a seat could have been found for him when a vacancy opened up, it did not have to be at the expense of someone of Peter's talents who was willing to serve.

It is also disappointing to contemplate the broader implications of the move to ouster Professor Furth. Here we have someone with a great deal of professional skill and expertise who volunteers their time and energies, but in making an attempt to apply themselves, arouses a few vocal opponents. This, despite the fact that the Transportation Board, Mr. Furth included, worked very hard to listen to and accommodate all concerns. The result, he is removed. This, I am afraid, does not encourage those who have valuable insights to contribute to step up and volunteer.

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