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Two Stripes in the Road and the Future of Transportation

Dorchester Avenue represents everything I love about my home neighborhood in Boston. It’s multicultural, unpretentious and a little rough around the edges. Dot Ave. (as it’s known to locals) is also a straight, mostly level, five-mile shot from my home to my office – a perfect route for biking to work.

Or it would be were it not also a famously congested and chaotic street on which to drive, much less bike. When Bicycling Magazine put Boston on its list of worst bicycling cities in America some years ago, it was streets like Dot Ave. that it must have had in mind. Not only is Dot Ave. narrow and plagued by double parking, delivery trucks and blind driveways, but it also contains rare treats such as Glover’s Corner, a Darwinian six-way intersection that, until recently, was governed only by a flashing yellow light.

Until recently, the idea of willingly subjecting myself to such dangers was unthinkable, leading me to take a longer and in some ways equally perilous route along Boston Harbor. But a funny thing happened this winter: the city of Boston started turning Dot Ave. into a “complete street.” There is now a bike line striped along most of Dot Ave. and “share the road” arrows along the rest. Glover’s Corner now has a functioning traffic light. And there are even new “bike boxes” to improve safety for bicyclists at intersections.

Biking on Dot Ave. still isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is now in the realm of the doable for a wimpy, fair-weather bike commuter like me.

These are the kinds of changes that provide new transportation choices to Americans – choices that are desired by young people, especially. Yesterday, we released our new report, Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What it Means for Transportation Policy, which describes a dramatic shift in the transportation patterns of young people over the last decade and suggests a number of contributing factors, ranging from high gas prices and the economy to new cultural norms and the advent of social media and other forms of technology. Among the shifts are a decline in driving and an increase in the use of alternatives such as biking and walking.

The conclusion of the report is clear: if America is going to invest in forms of transportation that serve the needs and preferences of today’s younger Americans, we are going to have to undergo a radical policy shift away from the long-time status quo. That means slowing the nation’s six decade-plus highway building boom and investing instead in the maintenance of the infrastructure we already have and the development of new transportation alternatives.

The debate over transportation policy has not yet caught up to the new reality. In fact, we are in an Alice-through-the-looking-glass moment when the most recent proposed change to our transportation funding practices was the unsuccessful move in the U.S. House to kill all dedicated federal funding for public transportation and for bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

At a time when Americans are yearning for alternatives to automobile dependence and long commutes, there is no shortage of places to invest. A series of reports we did several years ago (see our Transportation page here) highlighted dozens of important public transportation projects in a number of states – some of which have sat on the drawing board for decades. There are also thousands of smaller actions – such as the striping of bike lanes on key transportation arteries like Dot Ave. – that can make a world of difference in giving people new options for getting around without the use of a car.

But making those investments is going to require some tough choices – and it will also require goring the oxen of some entrenched and powerful special interests. For decades, those special interests have wrapped their advocacy for expanded highways and greater sprawl in the language of the “American dream.” Our new report shows that the American dream is changing, and that is changing fastest among the young.

Let’s hope our political system can respond.