RECLAIMING THE LESSONS OF PAST VICTORIES: Traffic Is Not Inevitable

Although it was nearly a half-century ago it was also the starting point for most of the transportation issues we face today.  The Interstate Highway System was poised to push into the Boston metropolitan area – crashing through Somerville, Cambridge, The Fenway, the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain.  Thousands of families had already lost their homes, and thousands more were about to.

Yet, at the seemingly last minute, the destruction was stopped.  It took a combination of grass roots protest and elite power politics, but it won – stopping the highways and diverting funds to public transportation.  In the process, the anti-highway campaign transformed state and national transportation policy, pulling the War on Poverty’s citizen participation ethos into a whole new policy area, changed government’s priority from serving cars to preserving homes, and taught an entire generation of planners that traffic volume was created by public policy rather than an inevitable independent phenomena.

But the victory was short lived, or at least only thinly accepted.  Over the decades the culture and practice of road design forgot that the most important context was not the anticipated future volume of cars but the desired quality of life of the surrounding neighborhoods.  Traffic engineers forgot that the priority wasn’t to narrow the scope of their work in order to ensure success, but to broaden their concerns to incorporate a broad variety of non-transportation-related policy goals.

In recent years, some national and state leaders have tried to recapture the old lessons.  But the effort is still a work in progress, with the on-the-ground reality seldom as good as the high-level principals supposedly guiding it.

Still, there are some places – Cambridge’s Kendall Square being one – where the pressure of non-transportation policies forced decision-makers to relearn the lessons of the old anti-highway fight.  And it turns out that the resulting policies work – car volume can actually decrease without sacrificing economic and population growth.  The old lessons turn out to be true:  if you build roads, they will come by car; if you don’t build it, they  take transit, walk, or bike.

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THE TRANSFORMATION OF OFFICIAL POLICY

By 1970, a rising tide of grass-roots opposition to new urban highways in cities around the US had created political space for progressives working within city and state governments (themselves shaped by the Civil Rights, anti-poverty, and anti-war movements of the 1960s) to demand that highways stop taking precedence over homes. In the Boston area, a network of new six-to-eight lane elevated roads were poised to rip through nearly 10,000 homes in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville – the Inner Belt, the South End By Pass, the I-93, I-95, and Route 2 extensions.  The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) was already buying up every property it could in Boston’s low-income and non-white areas on the planned route, evicting families, and razing the buildings.  In Cambridge, local government, university, and business groups saw the highway as a positive development, impacting only working class families of no important to their institutional wellbeing.  In Somerville, a corrupt political machine was busy cutting deals for a cut of the action.

The only people who disagreed with all this were local neighborhood leaders – a priest, a home owner, a former union organizer.  The neighborhood movement started in Cambridgeport, just up from the BU Bridge, but allies quickly emerged in the South End, Roxbury, Somerville, and East Boston.  A group of young planners and activists, working out of a newly formed group called Urban Planning Aid, provided technical assistance and helped create a regional “Greater Boston Committee on the Transportation Crisis” as a structure able to coordinate and spread grass roots activism.  Years of creative agitation slowly turned the local political establishment around.  But the highway bulldozers were still coming.

(Personal Note:  my first job out of college was working for Urban Planning Aid at the time it was providing technical and strategic support to the anti-highway movement; my house is one of those in Cambridge that would have been knocked down; the woman we bought it from had been a key anti-highway activist.)

In 1969, Massachusetts Governor John Volpe, former head of a construction company, moved to Washington as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation, elevating blue-blooded Francis Sargent to the Corner Office.  A year later, faced with mounting anti-highway pressure, and willing to stand against the vehement opposition of his former boss, Governor Sargent announced a moratorium on new highway construction and asked Harvard Law Professor Jack Wofford to direct the Boston Transportation Planning Review, whose board included a huge range of stakeholders — people from business, transportation, government, and community groups.  The two-year BTPR ended up unanimously recommending the elimination of all the new roads except Somerville’s I-93 and substituting a massive investment in new public transportation facilities to create jobs and stimulate economic growth.  (Among the transit recommendations: extending the Red Line to Alewife.)  The study process legitimized the idea of taking non-professional, community input seriously rather than assuming that professionals were the only appropriate source of ideas.  (BTPR also recommended a HOV-only tunnel to Logan and studying the feasibility of depressing the downtown Central Artery – the start of the Big Dig, a project that despite its size did not take a single home.)  Governor Sargent’s public speech announcing the study outlined themes that are still relevant today.

It was the first time in the nation that a major highway project was stopped – even more remarkable because it happened just as construction was about to begin.  Just as significantly, Governor Sargent and his Secretary of Transportation, Alan Alschuler, worked with Tip O’Neill – Cambridge Representative and (importantly) Speaker of the House – to pass an unprecedented change in federal policy allowing the use of Highway Trust Fund money for mass transit, as he mentions in this WBUR interview

In a talk about the Inner Belt organized by the Cambridge Historical Society (and sponsored by LivableStreets Alliance along with other groups), Mr. Wofford described the radical transformation of “Assumptions, Policies, and Values” that came out of the Planning Review.

 “[Pre-BTPR] 1969 Planning Assumptions:

  • Build to meet projected demand.
  • Rise in traffic demand is independent of highway supply, and must be accommodated.
  • Balanced transportation means building both rail and road in the same corridor.
  • Dislocation and environmental damage are necessary costs for the greater good.
  • Land development patterns reflect natural demand, which must be accommodated.”

 “[Post-BTPR] November 1972 Planning Assumptions:

  • Travel demand must be influenced by public policy, not accepted as an imperative.
  • Constraint of highway supply is a determinant factor influencing total travel demand.
  • Land development patterns are influenced by configuration of transportation supply.
  • The concept of balance includes: housing supply, open space, air quality, neighborhood amenity, as well as auto amenity.
  • Public policy must determine the priority of auto-mobility, as one of many priorities.
  • In Boston, the concentration of activity fostered by mass transit is supported by community consensus.”

In other words, official transportation planning changed from an attitude of “they’re going to come, so you better build it” to “if you build it, they will come; if you don’t build it, they won’t appear.”  Traffic volume was no longer seen as an inevitable result of either economic or population growth, but of public policies including the type of transportation system that is built.

AND BACK TO THE OLD WAYS

These new insights went against the grain of traditional transportation assumptions and national policy.  During the 1990s, the state’s political and transportation leadership allowed, or even encouraged, the return of more pro-car attitudes.   It was only relatively recently that an effort has been made to reclaim the state’s ahead-of-the-curve heritage, with key policy-changes coming from the Highway Design Guide, the Healthy Transportation Compact section of the 2009 Transportation Reform Act creating MassDOT, the recent adoption of GreenDOT and Complete Streets policies, and the increased opportunities for public input at a project’s conceptual stage pioneered over the past few years by the Accelerated Bridge Program staff.

But despite this slow reclaiming of past principles, nearly every road and bridge project in the Commonwealth starts with an analysis of car needs, incorporating an assumption that traffic will inevitably increase.  The models used by the Central Transportation Planning Staff, set up after the BTPR to provide outside technical support to the state’s transportation agency, are not very transparent, so it’s hard to fully understand all the interacting and recursive formulas used to project future traffic levels.  It’s not clear that they adequately incorporate the BTPR insight that the nature of the roads is a primary influence on the amount of traffic.  We do know that most past traffic projections overestimated the eventual reality.  We also know that because “if you build it, they will come” is as true for pedestrians and bicyclists as it is for car drivers, it is almost impossible to predict future walking and cycling numbers by extrapolating from current unfriendly conditions.

And once the projections are done, while traffic engineers now (mostly) accept the need to include pedestrian and bicycling facilities, they seldom prioritize them over cars.  Every transportation project requires an endless series of compromises – there is always a limited amount of space, money, and time.  The final trade-offs are the real test of the underlying values of the planners – and of the powerful people and interests that shape their decision-making context.  So it is not surprising that the bottom line for almost every transportation project is the maintenance, or creation, of an acceptable “level of service” for cars during the few hours each day of peak travel time.  It’s true that MassDOT leadership has expressed its support for true multi-modal designs and for creating streets from the sidewalk inward.  But those values have not yet sufficiently transformed the processes, assumptions, and professional culture of the organization – much less that of the municipal transportation departments that are responsible for the bulk of the state’s roads.  We no longer (or very seldom) end up without any attention being paid to facilities for pedestrians, cyclists, and even transit; but we too often end up with the minimal possible sidewalks, bike lanes (much less buffered lanes and separated cycle tracks), or busses.  Top leadership at MassDOT clearly expresses their support for the new/old values, but for those of us who deal with actual projects around the state, it often doesn’t feel that the reality matches the ideals.  Traffic planners are happy to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists with leftover space, but are seldom willing to sacrifice  a travel lane or risk reducing throughput for cars.

The reality is that what Jack Wofford said back in 1972 is true:  traffic demand and volume is created and controlled through public policy.  We know this not only because of international studies showing that “if you take it away, they go away” happens nearly every time road capacity is reduced – “[A] characteristic comment from local transport planners [is] ‘the traffic has disappeared and we simply don’t know where it has gone to’.”  We also know it because Cambridge has successfully demonstrated that population and economic growth can occur without causing traffic increase – but only so long as government actively shapes the development marketplace.

THE CAMBRIDGE EXPERIENCE

Today, Kendall Square is a booming center of high tech and biotech with developers rushing to create housing, restaurants, and stores.  It wasn’t always that way.  In the early part of the 1900s it had been, like most of eastern and mid-Cambridge a thriving working class manufacturing area and residential area.  But, pulled by new highways, many of these jobs and people moved to the suburbs in the 1950s.  The newly created Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) was a national pioneer in urban renewal clear-cutting, having previously wiped out another East Cambridge neighborhood and replaced it with the Newtown Court housing development.  So when native son JFK became President and talked about moving NASA’s headquarters closer to MIT, the CRA condemned and razed nearly 40 acres of land around the Kendal T station – probably a lot more than NASA needed.  And then Kennedy got shot and Lyndon Johnson kept NASA in Texas.  For the next several decades the Kendal area remained empty lots, with the lonely exception of the Volpe Transportation (named after the pro-highway governor who preceded Francis Sargent and whose appointment as Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation elevated Sargent to power.)  And then came the high-tech and bio-tech booms.  Kendal Square is now part of an “innovation economy” revival, and its booming!

In a confirmation of Jack Wofford’s statement that transportation must be designed to advance other public policies in addition to moving vehicles, the passage of federal and state Clean Air Acts following the emergence of a mass Environmental Movement and the dramatic success of the first Earth Day in 1970 forced the City of Cambridge to begin changing its internal operations (e.g. buying “greener” vehicles, changing design requirements for new or refurbished public buildings, managing energy use in existing buildings, ), create or support new programs for public use (e.g. changing infrastructure to promote bicycling and walking, co-sponsoring a  new bus service to complement the T, experimenting with ways to improve bus stop informational signage), and passing regulations that changed the ways people and organizations in the city conducted their own business.

PARKING AND TRANSPORTATION DEMAND MANAGEMENT (PTDM)

Among this last category is a very strict Parking and Transportation Demand Management (PTDM) program.  The PTDM program required larger firms or developers wanting to include parking spaces in their property to mitigate the adverse effects on the environment and street congestion by encouraging alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle travel.  The list of potential tactics include:

  • Parking cash-out,
  • Charging daily market rate for SOV parking,
  • Transit and vanpool subsidies,
  • Pre-tax deduction of transit and vanpool fares,
  • Carpool and vanpool matching service,
  • Shower and locker facilities for bicyclists and walkers,
  • Secure and weatherproof bicycle parking,
  • Carpool and vanpool preferential and/or free parking,
  • On-site car-sharing vehicle,
  • Employee shuttle,
  • Emergency Ride Home (ERH) program,
  • Commuter information center (bulletin board, web site, brochure table),
  • Employee Transportation Coordinator (ETC),
  • Flexible or alternative work hours,
  • Telecommuting programs.

The key fact is that this works.  Over the past 10 years, dozens of new firms have established themselves in the Kendall area adding almost 4 million square feet of office, a 37% increase.    But because of the City’s aggressive PTDM policies, as imperfect in both design and execution as they may be, the number of SOV trips into the area has not grown at all – in fact traffic volumes have been decreasing. Broadway, Binney Street, and Third Street have all seen a decrease in average daily traffic volumes by about 10%.

BACK TO THE FUTURE:  AN ALTERNATIVE FRAMEWORK

Massachusetts was one of the national leaders in adopting Highway Design Guidelines calling for “context sensitive” planning – meaning that every project is supposedly customized to its surroundings.  However, the ways that MassDOT actually implements these policy statements is a weak descendant of its inspirational promise.  The real issue is the meaning of “context.”

Following Jack Wofford’s insight, evaluating “context” requires starting extremely broadly with a public discussion of the values and public policy goals that should guide the effort – perhaps concretized through conceptual drawings showing several alternative ways to implement the selected goals.  Architects – both landscapers and architectural – should be part of this discussion to help suggest various design solutions.  And it is only after all this has occurred that the project should be given to the traffic engineers – who also describe what they do as “design” although their professional training and institutional pressures confines their vision to a much narrower and incomplete view of what is really needed.  This is not an insult to traffic engineers – it is an inherent requirement of their job that they do whatever they can to limit the scope and requirements of their projects in order to maximize their chances of completing it on time and within budget: which is why, just as war is too important to be left to generals, transportation planning is too widely impactful to be left to engineers.

Instead of starting a bridge or road project with an analysis of current and anticipated future vehicle usage patterns (cars or any other vehicle), we need a public process to articulate and agree on the kind of community environment we are trying to create – and the type of transportation system most likely to move us towards that vision.  To move us towards the types of neighborhoods and quality of life we desire we need to design for people and places rather than pavement and vehicles.

It can be done.  They already figured out the approach in 1972.

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Related previous posts:

>THE AGONY AND THE ACTIVISM: Looking Back at the Big Dig

HOW ROADS SHAPE ECONOMIES: Why What Happens to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, Sullivan Station, and Rutherford Ave. Will Make – or Break – Local Job Opportunities and Community Well-Being In The Entire Metro Area for Decades to Come

Five Steps To Make GreenDOT Real: From Promise to Impact on Transportation and Climate

ReDefining Transportation: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making

Traffic Engineering Myths Revealed

The “Healthy Transportation Compact” in MA’s New Transportation Reform Act

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