Cambridge, Massachusetts, is ranked number one in the nation for bike infrastructure and walkability.
This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Prospect. Subscribe here.
Bike rentals are popping up in every major U.S. city, a harbinger of the desire of more and more people to break the car habit. Enthusiasts have visions of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where about 40 percent of people commute to work and do many errands by bike. Yet few American cities have separate lanes in which bikes can safely travel. Meanwhile, bus rapid transit—buses moving in their own lanes that drive up to platforms and are boarded like trains—is catching on as a lower-cost alternative to expensive subways. But here’s the catch that is slowing the shift to both bikes and modern buses: There are only so many lanes on a given street, and at some point these uses compete with each other—unless cars are given less space to hog the road.
Unlike Europe, American cities tend to have a stunted, token version of these car-alternatives. Instead of separated, dedicated lanes for bikes and buses, we get what transportation planners have dubbed “sharrows” (lanes that both cars and bikes use, marked confusingly with a bike symbol); and bus-rapid-transit “lite” (a lane seemingly reserved for buses, except when it isn’t). But there’s another option. If there were fewer cars permitted in center cities, and street parking were ended to open lanes for other uses, we could move more people through cities faster, more pleasantly, and with a lot less pollution.
This is not difficult as a matter of transportation planning. In a nation addicted to cars, the problem is politics. And the underdevelopment of mass transit creates a vicious circle. The less available and attractive the alternatives, the more people cling to their cars. And the more cars dominate, the less room there is for bikes and buses. But some cities are making headway nonetheless. And the pioneers, from which we can learn, are mainly in Europe.
It’s hardly a new idea. Florence, Italy, has closed off its historic center, a 40-block area, to all but pedestrians, taxis, and buses for years, as have many other Tuscan towns. Venice is completely car-free. Freiburg, Germany, banned cars in its historic center in 1973 and built extensive bike and trolley infrastructure. The list goes on.
There is renewed enthusiasm among urban planners for rethinking city streets to meet the goal of moving people—without the assumption that cars have priority while buses, trolleys, bikes, and pedestrians take the space that’s left. Some European cities are taking the idea a step further by discouraging or eliminating cars—truly reimagining cities. Berlin, Hamburg, Madrid, and Oslo are among the European cities currently taking comprehensive action to create car-free zones and bike “superhighways”—physically separated, uninterrupted bike lanes that traverse a city. To do this, they are de-privileging cars.
The View from Oslo
With 61 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and 39 percent from cars, Oslo has developed an integrated solution for reducing pollution and emissions that features more electric vehicles, better transit, fewer cars, and more bikes and walking. Oslo has become the world’s capital for electric vehicles due to generous national subsidies, development of a charging infrastructure, and incentives such as free charging, exemption from tolls, and use of HOVlanes. In 2017, half the new-car purchases in Oslo were electric.
Sture Portvik, Oslo’s project leader on electric vehicles, tells me that expanding public transportation and making it cleaner are also key priorities. Transit ridership has been rising steadily, up 4.6 percent in 2016 alone. Frequency of service on the tram system has been increased and in 2016, Ruter, Oslo’s public transportation company, announced an unprecedented 10 billion kroner ($1.3 billion) expansion to be built over eight years. Ruter also aims to be completely fossil-free by 2020.
The tram and metro run on renewable hydropower. About 35 percent of city buses are powered by biodiesel, hydrogen, and biogas, and the first battery electric buses are being piloted this year with major bus-charging infrastructure planned for next year. By 2025, 60 percent of the bus fleet will be fully electric. Five hydrogen buses are being tested as part of a European hydrogen bus demonstration project. Portvik adds that more park-and-ride solutions are being developed to reduce the number of cars coming into the city. Combined with highly subsidized fares, he expects car traffic to be reduced significantly.
In 2015, citizens elected a progressive government made up of the Labour, Green, and Socialist Left parties. This coalition doubled down on efforts of the previous conservative city governments by proposing to create Europe’s largest car-free city center. The city’s announcement was met with considerable opposition from residents and businesses, which was a bit of a surprise to planners, given that only 12 percent of the area’s 1,000 residents owned a car and 93 percent commuted by public transit, bike, or on foot. But the business community was concerned about losing shoppers and street life generally. Residents were concerned about their communities becoming isolated.
After several months of planning, the city council devised a three-phase plan to gradually work toward having as few cars as possible by 2019. The idea is to reduce cars by shrinking parking. As of June 2017, most cars (even electric) must park in garages outside of the city center. Spaces for the disabled and delivery vehicles are being preserved. To date, 362 parking spaces have been eliminated and another 405 will be removed by June.
The city plans to add 60 kilometers (nearly 40 miles) of bike lanes, on which construction has begun, as has closing off a few streets to cars. And Oslo is converting 35 streets to bike-only, on a path for the city to become car-free by 2019. With a recently improved city bike program, the added lanes will help the city to reach its goal of 25 percent of commuting by bike by 2025. Given that Oslo is hilly, the city council appropriated 5 million kroner ($645,800) to subsidize electric bike purchases, and is piloting a small freight terminal where goods are dropped off for distribution by electric bicycles.
Kari-Anne Isaksen, political adviser to Oslo’s vice mayor on environment and transport, told me that planners are also working on improving the pedestrian network by adding amenities such as playgrounds, trees and foliage, and cultural events in pilot areas in the zone.
IN NORWAY, WHERE CARS are taxed at 100 percent and government subsidies for transit are plentiful, cities don’t have to go it alone. But in the United States, cars rule, and historically federal transportation aid has supported highways more than public transit. So American cities that are trying to reduce car traffic and promote transit, walking, and biking have a far tougher job. Two East Coast cities that say they are trying are Cambridge and Boston—cities that both have high rankings for bike-friendliness and walkability.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, is well-situated for de-emphasizing cars. It is the nation’s top-ranked medium-sized city for bike friendliness and walkability, with 24 percent of residents walking to work, and 77 percent getting to work by means other than a car. The MBTARed Line subway serves every major square, and the city is developing more dedicated bus lanes. With about 46 miles of bike facilities, bicycling has become a viable mode of transportation. Tegin Teich, a transportation planner in Cambridge, says the actions the city is taking are like Oslo’s, with goals focused on emphasizing and enhancing the more sustainable modes of walking, bicycling, and transit, but without an ultimate “zero cars” goal.
The city has focused on de-privileging cars since its 1992 Vehicle Trip Reduction Ordinance, which established a transportation demand management plan and bicycle and pedestrian programs. The ordinance requires anyone adding vehicle parking spaces to commit to an approved plan to limit the number of single-occupancy vehicle trips. There is ongoing monitoring to ensure compliance.
The unfortunate occurrence of three bicyclist fatalities in Cambridge in 2015 and 2016 motivated strong political support to expedite separated bike lanes for safety. The most recent addition of protected lanes is on Cambridge Street, a major thoroughfare with high crash rates. A community input process was essential, as creating the lane required removing 85 of 150 parking spots. And planners had to figure out how to have the protected lane while still accommodating bus pick-ups and drop-offs for the high school located on the street, handicapped parking and accessibility, and transit bus access. While residents and businesses expressed the same complaints as those in Oslo, overall response has been positive, particularly because a key motivator for creating the lanes was safety.
With an overall goal of reallocating road space to move people more sustainably, Teich and her team examined bus delays on heavily used routes. While dedicated bus lanes were an effective solution, the team had to figure out both the political and technical feasibility of creating them. And since bus corridors are often the same streets with bike lanes and heavy pedestrian use, Cara Seiderman, Cambridge’s transportation program manager, says they have been careful that the conversation not be about buses versus bikes, but about how to accommodate all modes safely.
A major bus rapid transit (BRT) project is underway on Mt. Auburn Street after it was determined that more than half of the people on the roadway during peak commute times were traveling by bus. The project includes dedicated bus lanes, “queue jump” lanes that give buses priority at intersections, and transit signal priority for bus lanes. While eliminating cars is not on the agenda, they have been de-prioritized.
Boston: A Missed Opportunity
Across the river from Cambridge, Boston’s street network can’t accommodate dedicated bike and bus lanes without curbing the space claimed by cars, which the city does not seem willing or ready to do. The city does have a new transportation plan, Go Boston 2030, which identifies 58 action items including overhaul of bus routes, a citywide network of bike lanes and walking paths, and several “complete streets” projects to retrofit major thoroughfares for use by pedestrians and cyclists. The problem is that most projects are unfunded and thus the timeline for completion is, for the most part, 5 to 15-plus years out.
To many transit, bike, and pedestrian advocates, Go Boston tinkers at the edges of the city’s transportation problems, but comes nowhere close to de-prioritizing cars to make way for the proposed bike and bus lanes. This omission is painfully evident in the Seaport District, Boston’s fastest-growing area, where priorities are mostly being set by private developers.
Instead of a much-needed transit stop, the Seaport is getting two big government-subsidized parking garages. One of them, a project of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, is a $22 million extension of an existing garage. The big one, a 1,550-space $85 million facility, referred to as the “Seaport Transportation Center” is being built by the Massachusetts Port Authority. In fairness, it is replacing lost surface parking. But a fair criticism is that including a shuttle bus stop, a Hubway bike rental station, and a taxi/Uber stand is hardly promoting public transit, walking, or biking, nor does it merit the title “transportation center.”
Instead of eliminating parking, Boston is only focused on making it more efficient. The Boston Transportation Department’s planning director, Vineet Gupta, told me of a recently completed year-long parking performance pilot in the Seaport that priced different blocks independently, changing the price every two months based on the number of available spaces. The price would increase or decrease depending on availability. While the pricing scheme only resulted in a 1 percent increase in parking availability, illegal parking that clogs streets decreased substantially. But since curbside parking, at roughly $2 an hour, is still a bargain compared with off-street lots, where entry alone costs $15 or more, the pilot only nudged things slightly in the direction of market pricing. So, the pilot ends up being just one more strategy to make it easier to drive.
Despite a desire to attract young professionals to live in the Seaport District, there are no protected bike lanes. Go Boston 2030 calls for a protected bike lane in five years, but there is no funding for it or any of the bike lane projects in the plan. The Seaport’s only public transit is the Silver Line, Boston’s only BRTservice, which is described as BRT“lite” at best because it doesn’t have dedicated lanes throughout, and where it does, there is little enforcement of vehicles parking in it. Silver Line buses serving the Seaport are overcrowded and, with no dedicated lanes, lumber along in car-congested streets.
Boston’s emphasis on cars and parking in the Seaport is creating what transportation planners call induced demand—the phenomenon in which providing more roads creates more traffic. Instead, the city could have proposed a grand vision for making the Seaport District car-free, say, by 2030, as Oslo and other cities are doing.
A key question is how to fund such a grand vision, and where leadership comes from. As several local experts and advocates told me, the current mayor, Marty Walsh, has not made transit a priority. When a distinct area like the Seaport grows, private developers should be made to contribute funding for the improvements needed within that district. Failing to do that has been an enormous planning failure. Paradoxically, its compact geography makes Boston the ideal city to establish car-free zones. What we see in Freiburg, Oslo, and other cities is that the public loves them.
SOME U.S. CITIES HAVE gotten serious about funding the kind of transportation improvements necessary for real progress. In 2016, 70 percent of Los Angeles residents voted for Measure M, a permanent half-cent raise in the sales tax that will bring in $860 million a year for a subway line expansion, a new subway line, an airport connector, biking infrastructure, and greenways. Seattle residents voted for Proposition 1 in 2015, which is raising $930 million over nine years to fund transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian paths as part of the Move Seattle plan.
While Seattle doesn’t have the subway or commuter rail network of Cambridge and Boston, Move Seattle is significant because it has no goals or actions to accommodate cars. Its focus is on improving mobility by bus, transit, biking, and walking in key corridors of the city. Among its initiatives are adding seven to ten corridors with designated protected lanes for bikes, buses, and transit; seven BRTcommuter corridors with designated lanes; 50 miles of new protected bike lanes, including bike routes to all schools; more frequent inner-city bus service; 100 blocks of new sidewalks; and improved crossings at 225 intersections. Most importantly, Seattle raised the funding to make it happen.
There is more to getting people out of cars than creating bike and bus lanes. De-prioritizing cars takes three things: political will, good urban planning, and ample funding for transit. We see all of these in Oslo, combined with a grand vision of a city designed to move people rather than cars. All three are still in short supply in too many U.S. cities.
This article has been updated.