Strange Bedfellows: Freight and Bikes - How the Porter Square Tragedy Can Spark Real Change

“Our hearts go out to all of the people involved, the families of the victim and the driver too,” said Hershal Pyles, general manager. Pyles noted that the company had received harsh comments via e-mail and social media calling the company “murderers.”  He noted the company asked that the public not jump to conclusions and allow the professionals in law enforcement to complete their investigation.

He denied any accusations of the driver not being properly licensed or inexperienced. “This is a professional driver with more than 25 years experience,” Pyles added.   

Pyles made some comments about the chaotic nature of Porter Square and the growing density and frenetic nature of traffic in the Metro Boston area.

This chaotic clumsy and deadly drama is playing to a packed house every rush hour in every major league metropolitan area in the U.S. 

I happen to like eggs. I like food and books and electronics and beer and bikes. All of these things come by freight. I get it.  

This driver did not wake up intent on doing anything but making his deliveries. And truck drivers are also the victims of really bad transportation policy that is stuck in 1965.

The trucking industry is crying out for less cars and better infrastructure. This means - albeit indirectly - more transit, more bikes, better infrastructure, and way better enforcement.

Want to know more? Ask 'what can brown do for you'?

“My business is mostly about the truck. Because the last mile in the life of every product in America happens in a truck,” said Noel Massie, the Southern California District President of the United Parcel Service. One of just 20 such presidents in the country, Massie is the basis of an illuminating chapter entitled The Last Mile  in Edward Humes’ amazing new book Door to Door. “The glasses on your face, the tie you’re wearing, the phone in your pocket. It may get here in a container. It may spend on a train. It may fly in a plane. But the last mile is always in a truck.”  

Massie then chants the mantra oft repeated by trucking advocates: trucks are the most important vehicles on the highways, the lifeblood of our economy.

“It’s simple really. Trucks are like the bloodstream in the human body,” said Massie. “If your blood stops flowing, you would die. If trucks stop moving, the economy would die.”

At this point, bike advocates and transportation officials will quickly point out that the most important thing on our highways are people. And that the “lifeblood of our economy” is truly mixing tragically with the very real blood of 38,000 deaths on our roadways last year or the 2.5 million emergency room visits from roadway crashes, or the  4.5 million annual medical consultations resulting from crashes each year. That figure of medical consultations than every war America ever fought combined…..every year.

With my rant over, however, I found another paragraph in the book revelatory.

Massie itemized the failure of American government to fund infrastructure. And he wants to see greater public transportation investment “to take cars off the road.”

In short, the trucking lobby could become a tremendous ally to the bicycle lobby. More bicycle and pedestrian accommodation could greatly abet the trucking industry.

“And yet - and this is what really gets me - the general public hates trucks. People have become truck haters,” said Massie. “They want them off the road.”

Sounds a lot like bikes, right? Swap out the word “trucks” for “bikes.”

I take a curious pride in how we manage heavy snowstorms in Metro Boston. We get all the cars off the roads - both driving and parking - to enable teams to do the necessary work.

The operative word there is “necessary.”   

We need to respect that the work of truck drivers is indeed ‘necessary.”  But consider the number of bicycle riders struck and killed by truck drivers in the past few years. Surgeons, immunologists, students….Truck drivers may be driving freight, but those people on bicycles are driving our economy… in equal measure.

What truck drivers - and bicycle advocates - are begging government to do is something. Both groups simply want government to take charge of a system that is chaotic, environmentally destructive, economically unsustainable and deadly.  

What I suggest we need is the same attitude Massachusetts brings to a blizzard. We close it down for a few hours.

Anybody that has ridden a bicycle in Metro Boston during rush hour has seen the chaos. Bike lanes become loading zones, double parking lanes, drop-off zones, etc. And yet, we still have curbside policies developed in 1965.

I suggest the following six considerations:

  1. Vastly expand loading zones for deliveries.

  2. Completely eliminate cab stands. These are spatially and environmentally stupid in the 21st Century.

  3. Create drop-off zones where private citizens, cabbies, and Uber and Lyft can all do drop-offs and pickups. Those curbside zones can be flexed to serve as loading zones between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

  4. Create cell phone lots where drivers can wait for a call to service without spawning dangerous double-parking and dooring circumstances.  

  5. Integrate congestion mitigation pricing that discourages all rush-hour driving and encourages alternative transit.

  6. Discourage all deliveries - either through toll pricing or outright bans - during peak hours. Like a snow storm, just give it a few hours and let the roads clear.

This is not a wild idea. These same principles have been put in place in Europe with great effect. A big part of the reason so many Americans are enchanted with the streetscapes of Brussels or Paris or Barcelona is that the rumbling terror of trucks is restricted to off-hours.

This has been explained in detail in this EU report.

But we in bicycle advocacy must not vilify the people who are working hard to deliver the goods that we demand. We must remain vigilant in our cities to reduce the use of single-occupant automobiles, which remains the biggest problem to our environment, our public health, and our economy.

Editors note: We invite you to please read the obituary of Joe Lavins and to attend the Ghost Bike dedication this evening in Porter Square.


Recent responses