LivableStreets Alliance – Rethinking Urban Transportation in Boston

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It wasn’t long ago that Boston was labelled the worst city for bicycling in the United States. This was during a time that Boston’s advocacy groups fought separately, with limited success, to improve conditions for their individual modes: walking, cycling, handicap access, transit, trains, and cars. Boston-area advocates for transportation, public health, city planning, smart growth, environmental protection, watershed conservation, and park and green space preservation hardly talked to each other.

LivableStreets Alliance was started in 2005 to bring these different groups and people together around a common strategic vision – a belief that improving our transportation system provides enormous leverage for making Boston a healthier, friendlier, more sustainable, and affordable place to live, work, play, shop, go to school, raise families, and grow old. Key to that vision was transforming the fragmented pieces of our transportation networks into a coordinated whole that balances transit, walking, biking, and handicap access with automobiles.

The organisation practices an “inside and outside” approach to advocacy: working closely with government and private sector professionals who support positive policies and projects, educating and mobilising the public to pressure those who do not. We try to work within the tension of wanting radical changes and achieving realistic victories. It is important to know if a possible compromise design for new infrastructure allows for future incremental improvement or if it locks in unsafe conditions for the next 50 years.

LivableStreets Alliance has helped change the nature of Boston transportation advocacy – and many aspects of official transportation planning. Working with the City of Boston and has helped reform parking policies, road designs, and bike parking in nearby urban municipalities. We also have seats on state-level advisory committees.  By combining advocate mobilisation with calls to state agencies, has helped to convince Boston transportation officials to improve plans for a major street – even though plans were already approaching completion. The original designs contained no bicycle accommodations, had narrow sidewalks, poor pedestrian signals, did not prioritise public transit and included an additional car lane. As a result, significant improvements were implemented – although there is continued monitoring of future developments.

When a deadly bridge collapsed in Minnesota, it pushed Massachusetts to finally focus on its own dilapidated infrastructure. The state originally planned to simply rebuild its bridges as they were, despite their notoriously lack of safety for pedestrians, bikes, buses, and even cars! In response, we suggested well designed options, and safety improvements highlighted which could change a hostile public into a cheering squad. After months of public and private discussions, the state came around and adopted a more multi-modal approach.

Reaching out the People

The Boston advocacy group pays attention to media and public education as much as advocacy. Our weekly summary of transportation headlines and our monthly StreetLife newsletter reach thousands of policy-makers, advocates and citizens. Our monthly StreetTalk presentations introduce innovators from around the world to a growing local audience, while our special events creates awareness that ripples through the community.

Because our organising principles include quality of life, health, vibrant neighbourhoods, and economic vitality, we face the challenge of dealing not only with transportation issues, but with urban existence as a whole – housing, economic growth, employment, recreation, health, and more. We need to be holistic while remaining focused on making gains in particular battles.

We are hopeful. National and state level transportation planning is changing, at least rhetorically. The externalised costs of our car-centric transportation system have finally become too obvious to be ignored.  After the collapse of the deregulated financial industry and now that the auto industry has (at least temporarily) lost its normal political clout, the opportunity has arisen for ideas promoted by progressive advocates to have a larger-than-normal impact on local, state, and even national transportation policies.

It is unlikely that we will be able to win our most radical demands, but by uniting around a core set of structural changes and finding ways to take advantage of the current economic and political turmoil, there is a good chance of making some key advances. It is this vision, of a broad multi-issue coalition united around a vision of “active, sustainable, transportation” that motivates us and shapes our strategies.

By Steven E. Miller

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