Politics is the art of the possible and getting things pass requires placating a broad variety of often competing interests. All of which makes it hard to be bold or to even fully address complicated issues. Small, incremental steps are the usual, and often appropriate, approach. So it is rather remarkable when an elected executive comes out with a visionary, risky, and courageous proposal that could actually solve several long-standing problems while setting the stage for greater prosperity and increased equity. Maybe the Governor’s decision to return to the more lucrative private sector has emboldened him, or maybe there is a real turning of the political tide, but even though there are many ways the FY2014 budget proposal and its revenue measures could be improved, it’s overall thrust – including its focus on education, health, and transportation – is truly praiseworthy.Read more
In response to the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which sets deadlines for reducing Green House Gas emissions, MassDOT has recently announced plans to triple the share of travel done using transit, bicycle, and foot by 2030 — 18 years from now. (The Act was also the impetus for MassDOT’s exemplary GreenDOT program.) Since both our population and economy are likely to grow over that time, in order to reach that mode share goal almost none of the inevitable increase in transportation activity can happen in Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOVs). The entire rise in travel will have to use train, trolley, bus, multi-person cars, bikes, or feet.
MassDOT has announced a goal of tripling the mode share of transit, walking, and bicycling over the next 18 years while also making the roads safer and more efficient for car travel. No matter how it is eventually measured (trips, vehicle or person miles traveled, or some combination), the Mode Shift policy is visionary and ambitious. If implemented, it will transform both the state’s transportation system and the Transportation Department. It will make Massachusetts a national leader in environmental and climate protection, in primary prevention and public health, in “main street” business revival and sustainable economic development, and much more. The real issue is not if a more sustainable transportation system is needed, the one we have is increasingly dysfunctional as well as unaffordable, but if such a transformative goal will be fully adopted and implemented.
One part of the problem is that cyclists are a visible and prominent part of the coalitions fighting for a better, safer, healthier transportation system. In fact, many car drivers see the entire new agenda as primarily about serving the needs of the 1% or 2% of the population who bikes. And that’s a not good: bicycling, and walking, are not how the majority of people get around. State leaders need to support and integrate bicyclists demands for better facilities, in both urban and suburban-town-center areas as well as along the regional Rail-Trail networks. But expanding bicycle facilities can’t be presented as the core reason for the new programs.
As with so many other proposals to create a stronger foundation for future growth – dealing with public health, environmental protection, and the built environment, among others – advocates and state leaders needs to find ways to frame the discussion so that a majority of citizens see how the costs and potential short-term disruption will relatively quickly lead to benefits for themselves and their communitiesRead more
Because government is the arena where so many of society’s conflicting interests fight for influence, and because nearly every decision and action can end up in court, the public sector is more rule-bound than most organizations. The biggest political sin for administrators is making a visible mistake. So public agencies typically evolve very incrementally, and if something isn’t noticeably broken there is seldom any political advantage in fixing it – or even in improving its internal operations. Which is what gives extra credence to the cliché that the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity.”
Fortunately, and unfortunately, Massachusetts’ Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is in the middle of an accelerating crisis. The most visible aspect is the MBTA’s growing revenue shortfall, a “fiscal cliff” that the state managed to avoid last year by using up most of the one-time fixes. But it’s not just the MBTA budget that’s falling apart. The fiscal health of the entire road system is dependent on a diminishing, inflation-unadjusted gas tax. As both transportation needs and maintenance costs increase, the state has been forced to pay for an increasing amount of operational expenses – planning, maintenance, and even administrative work – using bond-financed capital funds. It’s a time-bomb – taxpayers will end up paying for both the project and the interest for decades to come, making future revenues unavailable for future projects and putting the transportation system even deeper into the pothole.Read more
Causeway Street sits on top of the colonial era Mill Pond Dam, which harnessed tidal flows to generate power — which is why it’s called a “causeway.” For its time and location, the Dam was an audacious and creative effort. Unfortunately, the current plans to restructure today’s Causeway Street into a truly multi-modal and multi-functional space exhibits neither.
Causeway Street and the adjoining misshapen intersections from Lowell Square to Keany Square is a complicated place. It’s got North Station generating commuter crowds twice every day, and Boston Garden releasing post-event human flash floods nearly every third day. It’s the passageway between the Kennedy Greenway and the Charles River parklands as well as between downtown and Charlestown’s expressway on-ramps and the new Rutherford Ave cycle tracks. It’s got family residences (including a huge future development on the Boston Garden property) and businesses. It’s got social service agencies and state offices. Meeting every need of every one of those constituencies is probably impossible.Read more
Streets were once the public space between buildings – available for any purpose that people wanted to use it for: commerce, walking, horses, playing, standing, and anything else. But over the past decades, one of the largest physical assets owned by the public was turned over for the exclusive use of “motordom.” Streets became tubes for car traffic. Transportation Engineers became road designers and developed a sophisticated hierarchy of street types – from Highways to Local Streets – intended to maximize the efficient movement of as many cars as fast as possible.
But what if street design was structured around functionality – not for cars but for people? Instead of maximizing throughput volume they’d be designed to maximize the opportunity for people to participate in the full range of activity of the surrounding neighborhood. It would require that the new road design slogan of being “context sensitive” began to be taken seriously, with the “context” being social and commercial interaction rather than vehicle access and mobility to the surrounding structures.Read more
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.Read more
WILL MassDOT USE “GROUNDING MCGRATH” TO CONSOLIDATE ITS NEW DIRECTIONS, OR JUST REPEAT OLD CAR-CENTRIC BIASES: A “hidden cost” of the MBTA Funding Crisis
It’s totally understandable that Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey has been focusing on the MBTA fiscal crises. Public transit – train, subway, trolley, bus, and ferry – is the backbone that supports the entire regional transportation system, and the region’s economic well-being.
But we can only hope that the MBTA crisis will not totally pull Secretary Davey away from the highway division. A crucial test of his agency’s commitment to the GreenDOT, WeMove, Healthy Transportation Compact, and Mode Shift policies is now happening around the McGrath/O’Brien Highway Corridor – which MassDOT has designated as a key pilot project that will explore ways to embody these programs and values into transportation planning, including MassDOT’s first use of a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) process maximize the project’s positive impact on public health.Read more
It’s both a cliché and a powerful insight to remember that the solution you come up with depends on which problem you are trying to solve. A road builder sees problems in terms of the need for movement – usually meaning car capacity – and comes up the road expansion solutions. A transportation planner – as well as a livable communities developer – sees problems in terms of using the built environment as a way to improve peoples’ quality of life and comes up with solutions that stress human interaction.
The elevated section of the McGrath/O’Brien Highway from the Cambridge border to Somerville’s Highland Avenue is old and deteriorating. Working with people from the more than 20 land development and road planning efforts already happening along the corridor, LivableStreets Alliance coordinated discussionsthat endorsed five core value/vision statements for what should happen in this area:
- Reunite neighborhoods cut apart by the highway.
- Humanize the space by lowering traffic speeds, reducing noise and pollution, narrowing lane width, and reducing the current six (or more) lanes to four.
- Make traveling across and along the corridor safer and more inviting for pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders.
- Add more trees, grass, storm-water drainage, and other green features.
- Encourage local retail and job-creating businesses; including crafts-based and green-economy enterprises.