Boston's Accidental Stumbling Towards Environmentally Friendy Transportation

Monday, The NY Times had an interesting story about Zurich, Switzerland's intentional policy of making car-based transportation utterly miserable--and thereby convincing people to use other transit options:

While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear -- to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.

Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of "environmental zones" where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

Likeminded cities welcome new shopping malls and apartment buildings but severely restrict the allowable number of parking spaces. On-street parking is vanishing. In recent years, even former car capitals like Munich have evolved into "walkers' paradises," said Lee Schipper, a senior research engineer at Stanford University who specializes in sustainable transportation....

To that end, the municipal Traffic Planning Department here in Zurich has been working overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Closely spaced red lights have been added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections have been removed. Operators in the city's ever expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.

Around Löwenplatz, one of Zurich's busiest squares, cars are now banned on many blocks. Where permitted, their speed is limited to a snail's pace so that crosswalks and crossing signs can be removed entirely, giving people on foot the right to cross anywhere they like at any time.

As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, the city's chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. "Driving is a stop-and-go experience," he said. "That's what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers."

While Boston hasn't adopted a policy of "working overtime in recent years to torment drivers", things seem to work out that way nonetheless. And there have been minor efforts to make things more pedestrian and bicycle friendly; where implemented, they have made driving worse (and the bicycle-oriented projects create more jobs than the typical transit project). Of course, the Boston Parking Authority also works hard to make parking in Boston a miserable experience too. Granted, the public transportation options, while extensive, are...creaky and distinguished, but you can use them successfully (I personally don't own a car, and get about just fine), so there are non-car alternatives.

From an environmental perspective, serendipity can be a good thing....


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You still need to give credit where it's really due: Boston's legions of psychotic, inconsiderate, suicidally reckless, borderline retarded, mindlessly aggressive, wanna-be-bumper-cars drivers.

Seriously, I've lived all over the US and been to plenty more places, and so far Boston and Providence have the WORST drivers I've ever encountered. Other comparably-sized cities aren't nearly this bad. Shit, Florida's legions of nearly-blind, white-haired old coots who can't remember which pedal is gas aren't this bad. Downtown London and Tokyo aren't this bad. Somalia in the middle of a raging gunfight isn't this bad.

Parking and bike lanes are annoyances. Other New England drivers, however, are so outright terrifying that I've learned to *hate* driving since moving here, and avoid it every chance I get simply out of self-preservation. I cannot drive the one mile to the grocery store without seeing at least three near-misses, and the thought of driving downtown threatens to send me into a panic attack.

On the other hand, I've also completely abandoned any plans I ever had to get a bike, because I don't want to die. If I could ride on the sidewalks, maybe, but there's no way in hell I will *ever* share a road with NE drivers without a minimum of a ton of steel between me and them. And possibly also a large artillery weapon.

As long as I can remember, driving in Boston has been a torment. (I will never forget the first time I drove through Harvard Square in 1987.) OTOH, it is possible to carve out a lifestyle here with minimal dependence on a car. I walk to work, and my spouse rides his bike in all but the foulest of weather. It's not great for bikes, but it's getting better. It's not as bad as Mokele makes it out to be. The T is adequate. I grew up in a suburban town where there was no public transportation at all, and I quickly became a fan when I went to a college in an area that had it. Boston, like many European cities, is dense and well suited to mass transit. Let's not forget that sprawl is a huge obstacle to minimizing car use in much of the U.S.

When I was in Boston during the late '60s and early '70s it was very difficult to keep your bike from being stolen. I agree fully with the other comments about the bad drivers and the crazy traffic conditions---where else do you have rotaries with blinking green lights at right angles to each other---but Boston was also the bicycle-stealing capital of the world. Hopefully, the theft problem isn't as bad today.

By Paul Krombholz (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

Driving in the Boston suburbs isn't a lot better, and there are endless winding, narrow roads. I wouldn't dream of riding a bike in most communities. There's no shoulder on many roads, so you're taking your life in your hands just going out on a bike. There are some nice places to bike if you just want to bike (really nice bike path that runs from Cambridge to Lexington, for example). But for commuting, it's only for the boldest. I've known people who do it. I won't be one of them.

The drivers here really are morons. They have no ability to anticipate problems, and most of them are looking maybe 20 feet ahead (even on the interstates), so they constantly blunder into trouble. Oh, it can be fun trying to box some idiot who's coming up the right lane (of 4) at 75 mph, into a trap behind a slow dump truck, but it's only a passing pleasure.

Bike theft is still a problem, too. I know several people who've had locked bikes stolen from MBTA stations.

Mokele is right. Boston and Providence have the worst drivers. I've had so many near misses that I can't count them using both hands and both feet.

Even here in Providence, we're seeing some progress. The main street near me, Broadway, is getting some work done. They just patched up the sidewalks, installed ITS style crossing signals, and they're putting in bike lanes.

Wow, sounds lovely. Maybe I'll take a vacation there someday. Not.

By The Other Doug (not verified) on 01 Jul 2011 #permalink

Let me put this as politely as I can -- these commenters are a bunch of crybabies. Driving in Boston isn't all that bad, compared to Miami, Chicago, NY and SF, to name a few. In Miami, the biggest problem isn't the old dears who can't see and who have reaction times measured in minutes -- the real danger are the legions of Cuban and Central and South American drivers, a certain number of whom have not assimilated the idea that there even is such a thing as rules of the road, let alone that they're binding on them. In Chicago, I think the drivers actually *want* to hit you, they're so aggressive. NYC is the crab bucket of driving -- too many cars in too small a space, all they can do is get in each other's way. And the Bay Area is still the only place I've had another driver threaten me with a gun because I wouldn't let him cut in front of me on the highway.

Of course, all these cities are nothing compared to Cairo, Egypt, which for auto driving is way beyond Thunderdome. Spend a week driving there, watching drivers go though intersections without slowing at all if they've paid off the cop directing traffic there (for one example), and I guarantee that you'll weep with gratitude for the opportunity to commute daily through Harvard Square.