Eleven planning lessons from Boston/Cambridge

Dowtown Boston

Downtown Boston from Cambridge

I had the opportunity to visit Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts in mid-March. Here is a list of eleven planning-related lessons I took away from visiting these two dynamic cities.

  • Preserve, protect and celebrate your community’s history.
  • A varied blend of historic structures and new edifices is visually intoxicating.
  • Savor and build upon the benefits derived from being home to institutions of higher education.
  • Cultural diversity and inclusiveness makes a community much more vibrant.
  • Accessible mass transit and bike sharing systems are wonderful things.
  • Denser urban development can be softened by rich and varied public spaces.
  • The removal of an ugly freeway can reawaken once forlorn areas.
  • The heart of the city can be a great place to raise a family.
  • Pedestrians, bicyclists, transit, and cars can successfully and safely coexist.
  • A thriving city requires thriving neighborhoods – you cannot have one without the other.
  • A compact and walkable urban core is far more preferable to a sprawling mess.

The poetry of a spring bike commute

Spring Morning Commute

By Rick Brown


Wheels spin round and round

Traversing the paved terrain

They roll in cadent unison

Along the paved bike lane


Fresh air breezes past me

As fragrances abound

Spring charms once dulled senses

As my wheels spin round and round


Songbirds serenade me

With their musical delights

A cavalcade of sweet tunes

To start the day off right


One pedal before the next

While shifting gears in time

In constant, subtle harmony

A soothing, recurrent rhyme


Away from the congestion

Through canopies of bliss

My wheels roll ever onward

Cloaked in the morning mist


Freed from harried schedules

As the wheels spin on and on

To enjoy keepsake moments

Amid the day-breaking dawn.


PROVOking the birth of bike sharing

Source: recoat.blogspot.com

Source: recoat.blogspot.com

Near the conclusion of his outstanding book, entitled In the City of Bikes; The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, author Pete Jordan reveals an unknown [at least to me], yet significant part of bicycling history – the birth of the bike sharing movement. Referred to as the White Bicycles Plan and fostered/advocated by the spirited anarchist group PROVO, Amsterdam’s bike sharing program began as an act of civil disobedience against recently adopted policies which favored more cars on the city’s narrow streets.

PROVO’s goal was to place free and unlocked bicycles at various points across the center city so that anyone who wished to use one could. Initially, each bike would be donated and then painted white for visibility – painting them white also could be interpreted as a way to promote a people-powered product that is completely and humorously contrarian to the traditional black bicycle utilized throughout the Netherlands. Later, PROVO advocated that Amsterdam provide the necessary bikes, free of charge out of the city budget.

Source: quod.lib.umich.edu/s/sclnethic/x-sce00115/sce00115.tif

Source: quod.lib.umich.edu/s/sclnethic/x-sce00115/sce00115.tif

If the city’s police force had simply allowed the initial PROVO protests to take place unencumbered, the bike sharing movement may have germinated elsewhere, but they didn’t. As a result, history was made in Amsterdam. Here’s a brief chronology of the events as presented in Mr. Jordan’s book:

  • Tuesday, July 27, 1965 – Two members of PROVO are arrested while posting flyers promoting the following day’s event on a wall. (page 296)
  • Wednesday, July 28, 1965 – The White Bicycles Plan is announced by artist Robert Jasper Grootveld to approximately two-dozen people gathered to watch as they painted three old bikes white. All three bikes were confiscated by the police after being set out for public use by PROVO. (pages 300-302)
  • Saturday, July 31, 1965 – Several hundred people gather at the Amsterdam’s Het Lieverdje (the Amsterdam Rascal) statue in Spui Square to witness the whitewashing of another bicycle. Amsterdam Police responded by batoning PROVO member Roel van Duijin. (page 303)
Source: en.wikipedia.org

Het Lieverdje (the Amsterdam Rascal) statue – Source: en.wikipedia.org

  • Saturday, August 7, 1965 – 200 people again gather in Spui Square, as bikes were painted white and white paint was dumped over the head of the Het Lieverdje statue. Police confiscate one of the white bikes and during the ensuing raucous, seven people are arrested.(pages 303-304)
  • Saturday, August 14, 1965 – more than 2,000 people look on as police forcibly stop members of PROVO from laying flowers at the feet of the Het Lieverdje statue. (pages 304-305)
  • Tuesday, August 17, 1965 - Luud Schimmelpennick‘s “White Bicycles” manifesto is released in PROVO magazine. (page 306)
  • May-June 1966 – PROVO member Duco van Weerlee publishes a book entitled, What Provos Want. The number one item was adoption of the White Bicycles Plan, “for the communal possession of all Amsterdammers who want the tin-canned status symbol [cars] out of the city center.” (page 308)
  • June 1966 – PROVO member Bernhard de Vries elected to Amsterdam City Council, taking the seat previously held by the “pro-car” party. (page 308)
  • March 1967 – Duc van Weerlee replaced on Council by fellow PROVO member Luud Schimmelpennink. (page 310)
  • October 4, 1967 – The White Bicycle Plan presented to Amsterdam City Council by Luud Schimmelpinnink. It called for three actions:

“Banning cars from the city center;”

“Increasing the frequency of public transit;”

“The purchase and maintenance of 2,000 white-painted bicycles of a distinct model that will be made available for general usage in the city center…, particularly as supplementary transport for users of tram, bus, taxi, and train.” (pages 311-312)

While the White Bicycle Plan was never adopted, the actions of PROVO successfully planted the seed of an idea that germinated and fully blossoms today – bike sharing. Myths about the success and/or reach of the White Bicycles Plan grew in subsequent years following its defeat at Amsterdam City Council. Even though it never was formally implemented beyond the initial protest efforts of 1965, the urban legend about the success of the plan continued.

Source: wanderlustandlipstick.com

Source: wanderlustandlipstick.com

Despite the defeat of the White Bicycles Plan in 1967, its influence on cycling history continued to grow. Its impact expanded exponentially in 1994 when cycling advocates Tom O’Keefe and Joe Keating initiated the Yellow Bike Project in Portland, Oregon based on the principles of the White Bicycles Plan. They learned of the plan from watching a brief scene in the movie Sex, Drugs, and Democracy. Similar bike sharing programs sprang up in other North American cities based on the Portland model.

Source: imdb.com

Source: imdb.com

The anarchist group’s name, PROVO, is short for the term “provoke.” And whether or not you agree with their beliefs and/or methodology, PROVO must be credited with giving birth to the concept of bike sharing, which has spread to cities worldwide. Granted, most modern bike share programs are not free, as PROVO advocated for, but they have become an integral part of the urban cycling infrastructure. In 2014, it may not take acts of civil disobedience to get bike sharing established in one’s community, but it was those initial actions in 1965 that have allowed the rest of us to reap the benefits today. For that alone, we all should be thankful.

In many ways, “PROVO-esque” campaigns continue to take place in communities around the world.

  • If you have ever participated in a Ride of Silence, you are solemnly provoking action towards safer streets for bicyclists.
  • If you have ever been part of a Critical Mass cycling event, that is a method of provoking change.
  • If you have ever placed a ghost bike at the scene of a rider’s death, laid flowers there, or paused to reflect at one, you are provoking change.
  • If you have ever advocated to local, state, or federal legislators for bicycling projects, safety improvements, and/or infrastructure improvements, you are seeking to provoke action on the part of elected officials.
Source: thinkgree.typepad.com

Source: thinkgree.typepad.com

Granted, you may never feel the painful sting of a police baton or participate in whitewashing a bike or statue, but that doesn’t mean your impact on society isn’t being felt. Sometimes, accomplishing big improvements in cycling advocacy first require us to undertake a wobbly ride with training wheels. Thanks to our predecessors at PROVO, bike sharing has graduated from its symbolic training wheels to toddling tricycles to mature urban utilitarian bicycles. I for one, greatly appreciate and salute their efforts to effect change for social equity, for social justice, and for the overall social good.

Painted white bike presented to John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Amsterdam Hilton in 1969 - Source: jornwemmenhove.nl

Painted white bike presented to John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Amsterdam Hilton in 1969 – Source: jornwemmenhove.nl

Cambridge’s “complete” Vassar Street

IMG_1792During our Boston St. Patrick’s Day weekend, we wandered around parts of Cambridge and MIT’s campus.  One of the places we chanced upon after our bike sharing tour along the Charles River was Vassar Street. This approximate two-mile long urban thoroughfare has a very special feature, beyond the fact that it passes alongside Fran Gehry’s Strata Center — a protected bike lane on either side of the street.

What I found particularly likeable about the Vassar Street bike lanes are the two-dimensional separation from motor vehicles – horizontal and vertical. As you enter the protected bike lane, the cyclist is shielded from passing traffic by both the concrete curb island and fact that the bike lane rises to sidewalk level. It vaguely resembles a highway entrance or exit ramp.

While being parallel with the adjacent sidewalk could foreseeably create some conflicts with pedestrians, my guess is that would be a more likely scenario for visitors and newcomers than established residents and riders. The City of Cambridge addresses this concern by employing linear strip of gray concrete pavers to separate out the inner and outer edges of the bike lane from the adjacent square beige concrete pavers of the sidewalk. In addition, the bike lanes are constructed of asphalt which distinguishes them from the sidewalk and plenty of sidewalk width is afforded to pedestrians.

Source: http://www.cambridgema.gov/cdd/transportation/design/bicycling/cycletracks.aspx

Source: cambridgema.gov/cdd/transportation/design/bicycling/cycletracks.aspx

Where the bikes lanes initiate, cross entrance drives and streets, or conclude, the bike lane is painted blue with a directional arrow and cycling symbol. The city even has instructions for motorists and cyclists on a website (see above rendition).


Another great feature of the Vassar Street protected bike lanes is clear and sufficient signage and lane markings. One is neither overwhelmed with sign clutter nor hopelessly lost looking for directions along this bike route. The best way I can describe it is that the Vassar Street protected bike lanes fit perfectly with their surroundings.

My congratulations to the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts for setting a fine example of how to successfully and safely fuse multiple transportation forms into create a truly “complete” Vassar Street.


Art and architecture of Boston/Cambridge

Here are a few photos of art and architecture from our weekend trip to Boston and Cambridge. Enjoy!


Stata Center by Frank Gehry

Arthur Fielder

Arthur Fielder

At the Boston Pops stage

At the Boston Pops stage – photo by Kathy

Downtown Boston in the distance

Downtown Boston in the distance

Make Room for Ducklings - photo by Kathy

Make Room for Ducklings – photo by Kathy

Cigar store dude

Cigar store dude

Photo by Kathy

Photo by Kathy

General Patton surveying the scene

General Patton surveying the scene

Which way do we go?

Which way do we go?

Twilight ride of Paul Revere

Twilight ride of Paul Revere

A hilarious evening of improv.

A hilarious evening of improv.

Charlestown street

Charlestown streetscene

A new tower to rise in Boston

Below is an artist’s rendering of the new mixed use skyscraper planned for the Back Bay district of Boston. The 58 story, 691 foot triangular-shaped building will contain both condominiums and a hotel, making it the tallest residential building in the city and the city’s third tallest skyscraper overall. City regulators have approved the project and construction should begin soon.

Top US cities – protected green bike lane mileage

Source: bikemart.com

Source: bikemart.com

Below is a list of the twelve American cities with the most protected green bike lane mileage either completed or currently under construction as compiled by the Green Lane Project through February 28, 2014. The list does not include proposed or planned green bike lanes. With the exception of the Southeast, all geographic regions of the country are represented in this list. Kudos to these communities (Including my hometown of Indy) and The Green Lanes Project for taking the lead in providing safe and low-stress European-style cycling options. Hopefully, many more cities, including some here in Michigan will soon join the effort.

  1. New York City, NY = 45.51 miles
  2. Chicago-Evanston, IL = 29.00 miles
  3. Austin, TX – 13.50 miles
  4. San Francisco, CA = 12.94 miles
  5. Indianapolis, IN = 9.00 miles
  6. Washington, DC = 7.14 miles
  7. Boston-Cambridge, MA = 6.27 miles
  8. Champaign, IL = 6.23 miles
  9. Portland, OR = 5.23 miles
  10. Boulder, CO = 4.30 miles
  11. Seattle, WA = 3.51 miles
  12. Eugene, OR = 2.40 miles

Source: Green Bike Lane Project, “Inventory of Protected Green Bike Lanes,” as of 02/28/14

Lansing area logistics to ‘Go Green’



Scheduled to launch in Greater Lansing on Earth Day, 2014 (Tuesday, April 22nd), Go Green Trikes, LLC            (here’s the Facebook weblink) is the brainchild of local green business entrepreneur, Yvonne LeFave. Utilizing heavy-duty electric-assisted cargo trikes capable of carrying loads of up to 600 pounds, Go Green Trikes will provide prompt and sustainable delivery services throughout the urban heart of Greater Lansing – essentially an area bounded by I-96 on the south and west, I-69 on the north and Van Atta Road to the east. Here’s a maplink of the service area.

These are not your childhood tricycles folks, but industrial-grade cargo trikes designed to efficiently serve businesses while avoiding the tangles associated with trucks and street traffic. They also allow for door-to-door delivery of goods without the hassle of blocking lanes and/or customers in the process.

Source: gogreentrikellc

Source: gogreentrikellc

According to Yvonne, Greater Lansing will be at the very forefront of this cutting-edge form of “last mile” delivery/logistics service. Within North America, cargo trike delivery services such as Go Green Trikes only operate currently in Portland, Oregon (B-line); Vancouver, British Columbia (Shift Urban Cargo Delivery); Boston (Metro Pedal Power); and New York City (Revolution Rickshaws). Needless to say, Greater Lansing will be in good company, while also being the smallest urban center to support such an exciting and sustainable business venture.

If early indications are a guide, it appears Go Green Trikes, LLC will be pedaling off to a successful start, as they already have three clients lined up to date. So, starting April 22nd, keep an eye out for Yvonne LeFave as she plies her way about area streets and bike trails. Kudos to her for setting a sustainble standard for all of us to strive for!

The flaws of vehicular cycling (VC) theory

One of the first comments often heard from fellow cyclists when starting to bicycle commute was not to ride on the community’s bike pathway system because it is less safe than riding in street traffic. A whole litany of perceived dangers were cited, most commonly conflicts with vehicles entering/exiting driveways. Instead, riding amid street traffic was touted as the better and safer way to go. For those hardy souls with the skill level and nerves of steel, please feel free to ride all the busy collector roads and arterial streets that you would like to. As for the rest of us, forget about it!

Source: mitpress.mit.edu/books/city-cycling-0


This week, while reading the book entitled City Cycling, the name of the theory that appears to have fostered the pent-up angst against bikeways was discovered. First espoused in 1992, vehicular cycling (VC) theory essentially adheres to the philosophy that:

Cyclists fare best when they act as, and are treated as, operators of vehicles.” (page 114)

While it is agreed that cyclists are operators of vehicles and should rightly be treated as so when riding on streets, the contention that they “fare best” when doing so is unsupportable. Furthermore, there is no way that everyone falls into this theory’s mold. It is simply a theory of convenience for those who prefer street cycling over other forms of bicycle riding. The frustrating part is vehicular cycling (VC) theory has largely overshadowed the utilitarian “European-style” cycling modes which promote inclusive, less stressful, and more logical non-motorized transportation network designs that most of us would prefer using as opposed to competing with motorists.

Here is a paraphrased summary of the inherent flaws of VC theory articulated in pages 114-17 of City Cycling:

“It ignores the massive evidence of the European experience.

It ignores the engineering solutions developed to improve intersection safety for cyclists.

It is preoccupied with a collision type called the ‘right hook,’ which occurs when a through-going cyclist conflicts with a right-turning motorist approaching from behind.

When first postulated it had no empirical support.

Until now [2012], only one credible American study at first glance appears to support the [VC] theory…However, this study considers only crashes at intersections (including driveway junctions) and therefore gives a distorted view of overall safety.

A 2011 study by Lusk, et al. showed that when between-junction crashes are accounted for along with crashes at intersections, the sidewalk bikeway’s crash risk was not statistically different from the risk of riding in the street.

When the risk of riding the same direction as traffic flow was considered, the risk of riding along bikeways/cycle tracks is half that of riding in the streets.”

Thank heaven, not everyone is still buying into the VC theory. A number of American cities, such as Portland, New York City, Indianapolis, Cambridge, Davis, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC have seen the light from the European results. May many more do so and soon – hopefully bringing along county and state road agencies, perhaps even the ever-present foot-draggers at AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials). Cycling in general and utilitarian cyclists in particular, will be very thankful when they do.

Sharing the roads is NOT enough!

A year or so ago I wrote about how cyclists are sometimes our own worst enemies. One gist of that post was until the cycling community can come together and agree on ONE course of action regarding advocacy, it will be mired in division which weakens its overall argument. I still believe this is our greatest dilemma, as we have the competing interests between hardened and more-daring riders demanding equal access to the streets versus the rest of us who just want to be and feel safe and thus prefer clearly marked or protected bike lanes (see first photo below) and/or wholly separated bike routes (see second photo below). Sure, there is safety in numbers, but we first have to develop sufficient numbers to actually achieve the safety benefits.

Source: bostinno.streetwise.co

Source: bostinno.streetwise.co

Source: bicycling.com

Source: bicycling.com

Being more inclusive helps grow participation in bicycling and therefore raw numbers. What seasoned riders need to realize is that many women, youngsters, seniors, the disadvantaged, and those of us like me who are uncomfortable amid automobile traffic are not suited to nor capable of riding with traffic on city streets. Authors John Pucher and Ralph Buehler put it this way in the introduction to their excellent book, entitled City Cycling:

“Cycling should be made feasible, convenient, and safe for everyone; for women, as well as men, for all age groups, and for a wide range of physical abilities. The authors of this book take the view that cycling should not be limited to cyclists who are highly trained, fit, and daring enough to do battle with motor vehicles on busy roads. As demonstrated in many chapters, getting children, seniors, and women on bikes requires provision of safer and more comfortable cycling conditions than currently exist in most American, Australian, and British cities.” (page xii)

Source: mitpress.mit.edu/books/city-cycling-0

Source: mitpress.mit.edu/books/

Hallelujah to Mr. Pucher and Mr. Buehler as you have hit proverbial the nail squarely on the head. Numbers (and subsequently safety) will not appreciably increase without more participation from those who are not currently part of the non-motorized community. To advocate for road sharing (or sharrowing) is simply not enough. If the greater bicycling community wants true safety in numbers…numbers that will be noticed by motor vehicle drivers, it must advocate and promote the development of a bicycling infrastructure that accommodates all, especially those with less riding ability. Otherwise, only the hardiest, the bravest, or the most daring will venture onto city streets and roadways, rarely producing the quantity of riders that is necessary to change public perceptions or to build a dynamic and diverse cycling culture.