TRANSPORTATION ADVOCACY: Proclaiming Victory, Moving To The Next Level

We should celebrate: on a policy level, MassDOT now follows most of the road design values andapproaches that progressive transportation advocates began promoting a decade or more ago.Although short-fallings remain in the application of the new policies (and the state has barely begunfixing and funding our mass transit system), it’s time for advocates to begin thinking about the next levelof vision and goals.  Here are some ideas for that conversation:
  • moving the focus from streets to networks and systems,
  • emphasizing the community-creating and place-making aspects of transportation facilities,
  • becoming more explicit about the different types of economic development stimulus a transportation project can provide, 
  • putting greater emphasis on making up for past neglect of those who were previously underserved.

In November, MassDOT held its annual Moving Together conference.  I came away with the feeling that, at least at the policy level, the transportation advocacy agenda I initially got involved to push for a dozen years ago – in specific, improving conditions for bicycling and walking – has been won.  Really.  Of course there are policy omissions and endless examples of implementation failures.  It’s still too often true that good policies get ignored and that we have to fight too hard for every step forward.  There are still lots of people staffing traffic departments in state agencies and municipal governments who still think cars are king – or at least do their work in ways that embody that priority.  And the political will to deal with car-dependent backlash often still requires an infusion of advocacy energy.  But at an official level, we are over the hump.  There is absolutely no question anymore that non-motorized movement is a legitimate and accommodated component of the transportation planning process, or even that cyclists as well as pedestrians (and runners!) deserve their own distinct – even protected – travel lanes where appropriate.

Although the Baker Administration probably feels free to drop or revise the Patrick Administration’s Mode Shift commitment (tripling the number or trips taken by foot, bicycle, and transit) and GreenDOT program (looking for ways that MassDOT’s own operations could become more environmentally sustainable) the appointment of the former head of the Conservation Law Foundation as Transportation Secretary probably means that some attention will continue to be paid to these issues.  In fact, MassDOT has issued new Complete Streets Design Guidebooks, is working on new Bicycle and Pedestrian Strategic Plans, announced the availability of a draft “Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide”, and will soon roll out an incentive funding program for municipalities to adopt and begin implementing their own Complete Streets policies.   The reversal of past ignorance – at MassDOT and across the entire transportation consulting profession – about how to design bicycle facilities and hostility to their inclusion on auto-centric streets is nothing short of miraculous.

 

ONWARD AND UPWARD

Take a moment to appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment.  The current attention given to walking and bicycling didn’t fall from the sky.  It’s true that the general societal conditions were favorable (the rebirth of cities, millennials’ desire to live in walkable-bikeable neighborhoods, the rise of personal and public health concerns) and there were many “inside” public officials (both patient old-timers and some new appointees) who made critical decisions that allowed things to move forward.  But none of it would have happened without years of hard work by lots of advocates.  We should be proud!

Of course, there are plenty of fights still ahead.  Still, I believe that it’s time to move to the next level – or at least prepare ourselves to do so.   In addition to monitoring the application of the new policies, we need to shift the framing and the content of what we are asking for.  There are four trending themes that, I believe, provide the right tone and direction for future success in promoting non-motorized mobility: 

  • moving our focus from “streets” to “networks” that knit city and regional areas together and facilitate access by everyone to everywhere, particularly by the “interested but concerned” majority of potential cyclists;
  • planning our “routes” as “place making” efforts suitable for safe family recreation as much as for commuting, for environmental and aesthetic improvement as much as mobility;
  • treating road projects as part of “community and economic development” rather than simply transportation;
  • demanding more equitable treatment of low-income neighborhoods and populations.

 

NETWORKS: 

Opportunism was the necessary starting point a decade ago when we were looking for ways to start redesigning streets for use by people.  We looked for streets, or even blocks, where the utility companies were digging or where the city was already planning to repave.  We ended up with a lot of pieces.  Now we now have to connect these pieces into seamless networks.   And to the extent that the network is not fully off road (e.g. a greenway path) it has to be designed as “low traffic stress” routes where the type of walking and cycling facility to be installed is geared to the volume and speed of the nearby traffic – using a broad variety of approaches from cycle tracks and protected bike lanes (next to sidewalks) to low-speed residential “neighborways”. 

The intersections are just as important as the streets, and this is where it is vital to prioritize pedestrian needs.  There needs to be a massive campaign to give local groups – Civic Associations, Main Street Business Coalitions, Churches, and more – training on how to time intersection traffic and walk signals, and to let the city know which ones violate standards or just don’t work well. 

While the importance of creating networks is generally acknowledged, strategies for their construction remain unclear.  At the municipal level there is often a split between the planners and Public Works about the feasibility of needed road designs – narrowing car lanes, adding flex posts, paying for bike signs and signals, fixing sidewalks separate from road work.   Few cities have transformed their use of “ordinary maintenance” (including restriping and repaving) from “fixing what’s broken” to a powerful tool for implementing new designs.  Even fewer have developed bike network maps and then pro-actively prioritized work on key segments in order to expeditiously complete the network.  The potential loss of parking is another hot wire, with the public often totally ignorant of the amount of subsidy that goes into every “free” space and businesses ignorant of how little importance the two spots in front of their store actually have.    

The idea of networks is in the air, but it hasn’t yet moved into controlling policies, much less become the default starting point for every day work.

 

SOCIAL AND FAMILY SPACE

Sidewalks are only partially about walking.  They’re also about meeting, talking, and hanging out.   Cafes spill out into the sidewalk and stores move display racks outside whenever the weather permits.  People sit on benches under shade trees.   The point is that our transportation facilities are public land and we use them for our social lives as much as for mobility.  Streets are neighborhood places as much as regional routes.

Carrying that insight a bit further:  new studies confirm that many people value the nearby presence of an off-road path or trail primarily as a place for informal family or personal activity – being with their children while the kids safely bicycle or play in a playground accessible via the path, or as an aesthetically pleasing place to go for a walk or sit and talk with adult friends.  A local survey in the low-income Talbot-Norfolk-Triangle by Boston Project Ministries found that nearly 62% of questioned residents had ridden a bike in the previous year, but almost all did it for exercise and fun rather than to get to work. 

Especially in the urban core, people want a nice place to go.  And the benefits go beyond having a place to play.  There is also strong evidence that merely the nearby existence of trees and green/open spaces measurably improves people’s physical and mental health.  Trees, shrubs, grass, and open space prevent depression and colds.  Parks are the best embodiment of this beneficial presence, but so are tree-lined trees and greenways – simply being near green makes people happier.  (Not to mention the mental health and property-value benefit of having an infrastructure designed to deal with water runoff from snow and storms!)  Having compelling nearby space does not negate the value of the network, rather it anchors the system in our emotional lives – our hearts as well as our legs.

Understanding this frame of reference means moving outside the bounds of what transportation advocates and analysts usually mean by “recreation” and “mobility.”  However, if we want people to join us in pressing political leaders to continue expanding our non-car facilities, we need to tap into the broader feelings and values that motivate public engagement.

 

JOBS AND OPPORTUNITY

It is inevitable that some percentage of Millennials, having established their careers and having children, will eventually move to the suburbs and buy SUVs, perhaps a large percentage. But a lot of them will stay in the city.  And a lot of whatever generational group comes next will do the same.  Cities are hot – the place where (despite all the techno-utopian predictions of massive decentralization) new entrepreneurs set up and the up-and-coming professional workforce want to live.

However, it’s not every part of the city that the drivers of today’s (and tomorrow’s) digital economy are moving into.  They want the walkable, bikeable, low-rise (but high density), and (most of all) transit-convenient locations.  Cities that want to stay on the front edge of the increasingly footloose waves of economic growth need to provide the desired facilities and atmosphere.

But this is not just about the well-launched seeking-to-be-rich segment of the population.  A recent study pointed out that a large number of bicyclists travel late at night and early in the morning.  They are the service and manual workers who clean our buildings, cover the late night shifts at small factories, and prepare out food – working class, lower-income, often immigrants “men and women for whom biking isn’t an environmental cause or a response to an urban trend but a means of transportation that’s cheaper than a car and faster than walking…. Nationwide, 49 percent of people in the cycling category earn less than $25,000 per year.”   The census statistics from which these numbers are drawn are a bit wonky and not exactly focused on bicycling, but it’s very suggestive nonetheless. 

Advocates for nearly every cause know that in today’s anti-tax, anti-government, and “let them make it on their own” political environment it is vital to be able to describe a connection to economic development – the creation of and access to jobs.  Creating a network of walking and bicycling routes is no substitute for high quality mass transit, but it’s a lot less expensive and quicker first step.

 

EQUITY

Public investment in a low-income area is often a two-edged sword – it brings long-desired amenities to long-neglected areas but also makes the location more attractive to higher income people.  The long-planned Silver Line extension into Chelsea has already triggered a number of developments far more expensive than the current population can afford.  Transit is a particularly powerful wedge.  In contrast, the gentrifying effect of road repair, bicycle facilities, sidewalks, and revived parks is usually rather mild, especially if the area is deep within the low-income region of a city or suffers from some other gentrification-disqualifying characteristic. 

It would be great if we could somehow stop the gentrification process at an early stage, before displacement begins, when the trickle of newcomers brings additional resources, connections, and organizational skills to a previously overlooked neighborhood.  But the process seldom stops there. The inherent dynamics of a free market tilt every business towards the choices that increase profits – the higher prices the newcomers can pay shape landlord’s remodeling decisions, retail owners’ product-stocking decisions, and restauranteur’s menu decisions, as well as attracting new businesses explicitly targeted at the newcomer’s more ample wallets. 

Still, nothing is inevitable.  The falling over the displacement tipping point can be mitigated, slowed, and perhaps even checked.  The key is the political will to intervene in the housing market, not merely to promote more construction but to ensure that the new space will be affordable to families with average incomes (below $40,000 in Boston).  This includes create new types of scattered-site public housing, limited equity developments, low-interest mortgage pools, as well as expanded linkage, inclusionary zoning, subsidized rent programs, and much more for both residents and businesses.  (I’ve discussed this in greater depth in a previous blog: “STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES:Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets”.  My biggest disappointment at the Moving Together Conference was that neither Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash’s opening comments nor the panel specifically focused on the relationship between transportation and economic development discussed any of this in any detail.)

Equity requires that transportation advocates push for the creation of missing transportation facilities in previously underserved, low-income, immigrant, and non-white areas.  This goes beyond treating every neighborhood equally in the future. It requires pro-actively, affirmatively, prioritizing investment in those areas to make up for past neglect.  But it also requires including non-transportation programs in our agenda.  Advocating for a particular issue without also addressing how it interacts with other realities just perpetuates institutionalized injustice. 

 

MOVING FORWARD

Not only did MassDOT’s Moving Together conference sell out, the audience included a wonderful mix of local officials, consultants, advocates, policy wonks and practicing engineers.  On a policy level, the day was framed by an opening talk by Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash that stressed the intimate inter-dependency of land use, jobs, and transportation and through a keynote address by Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack stating that the real issue is not vehicles but the kind of communities we want to create. 

While everyone agrees that huge issues remain to be addressed  at a policy level – primarily surrounding mass transportation’s structure and funding, which Secretary Pollack correctly described as the indispensable public backbone of any viable future mobility solution – I came away from the conference feeling that state leaders are at least asking the right questions, doing the needed analyses and scenario planning, and beginning to face up to the disastrous consequences of not dealing with the short- and long-term problems.

Of course, these are all high-level statements and there is a huge distance between words and facts on the ground.  But we’re on our way.  Phase One has been successfully completed and it’s time to begin preparing for the next level of policy discussions.  It’s advocates’ job to frame the issues ways that make it easier for public agencies to move in (or, should I say, agree with us about) the way forward.

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Related previous posts:

> STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets

THE NEXT MAYOR’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating Prosperity by Lifting the Basement Instead of Raising the Roof

> PARKWAYS MOVING FORWARD:  DCR is Not The Highway Department

> ROADS ARE NOT THE DESTINATION:  Celebration and Concern on the MassPike (Allston-I-90) Project

> A NOTE FOR THE NEXT GOVERNOR:  Travel is the Least Important Thing about Transportation

 

 

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