Transforming Transportation: Four Challenges Facing Boston (and most other cities)

Mayor Menino, like politicians around the country, has been talking about the need to create a more energy-efficient, safe, health-promoting, and community-friendly transportation system that creates less noise, has lower costs, and releases fewer green-house gasses.  He has begun a whole list of initiatives, from painting bike lanes to developing “complete streets” policies.  But going from vision to reality on a systemic, long-term, city-wide basis will not be easy.  There are at least four major challenges facing whoever takes over city hall.

1)      Moving from scattered pilots to coherent city-wide networks.

Significant change is hard to accomplish.  It takes time to move from a car-centric infrastructure to one that supports “active transportation.”  So it is perfectly legitimate to begin with scattered, small-scale pilots that opportunistically piggy-back on other projects (and funding sources), allow city staff to develop expertise, and get the public used to the new approach.  (It is also legitimate, although more risky and expensive, to start with a “grand gesture” that “moves the tracks” into a fundamentally new direction.)

The problem with the scatter-shot approach is that it may have to go on for a long time.  The city of Cambridge, which has spent over a decade carefully exploiting every road repair, private development, and utility upgrade to install pedestrian and bicycling improvements, is only now in a position to pull it all together into a continuous, city-wide network.

The challenge is making piecemeal improvements that slowly create an integrated whole.  Meeting this challenge requires that (a) it is such a top priority that no opportunity is missed to create another small link in the eventual chain, no matter how much the “normal rules” have to be stretched and (b) there is an overall – even if evolving – vision or plan of how it will all ultimately hang together.  It will be hard for Boston, and other cities, to maintain both conditions over the long haul.

2)  Assembling the resources and creativity needed for innovation

Change requires not only money, but good ideas.  Transportation transformation is not only about big ideas and headline-catching major projects but also about local ideas on how to make the general concept work on a thousand unique street corners.  No individual city employee can possibly know enough to do this.  Accessing the needed insight requires mobilizing and really listening to community groups and advocates within a framework that encourages constructive involvement.

The challenge is getting city officials to trust the public enough to risk bringing them together while finding ways to ensure that the conversation remains focused and productive.  A related challenge is getting the many different city departments – from traffic to public works, from zoning to permitting, from environment to community services, from parks to water – to work together so that they can integrate the public input into a coherent plan.

While Mayor Menino has famously spent endless hours personally meeting people in every neighborhood, and the city is chock-full of local groups, there is currently no institutionalized method of getting regular feedback on road projects.  Local groups and city-wide advocates need to have a chance to comment on the impact of traffic signal timing on pedestrian comfort, on the best way to locate bikeways, on the appropriateness of the surfaces used on sidewalks for those in wheelchairs – and then to double check afterwards to make sure the city has done what it promised and that it has had the desired effect, with the ability to ask for another revision if the first one didn’t meet its goals.

In fact, such a local group already exists in Jamaica Plain.  The Boston Police Traffic and Parking Committee has brought together representatives of the police, traffic department, pedestrian and bicycle advocacy groups, and community members for a monthly meeting that allowed everyone to develop trust and raise their collective understanding of transportation issues.  What if every neighborhood had a group like that?  What if all the neighborhood groups were regularly brought together for training about progressive transportation planning  from complete streets to traffic calming to bikeway design to traffic signal timing and all the rest?

Of course public input can be a stage-managed farce, or an unproductive stage for obnoxious (if not slightly crazy) people to vent.  Big public meetings – the kind of event that usually passes for “public input – are particularly prone to rhetorical posturing and polarizing disagreements.

But the positive effects of well organized public input outweigh the bad.  And the other good result of this kind of local involvement in transportation planning is that people are likely to be (slightly) more willing to support allocating funds for their chosen projects.

3) Overcoming Car-Dependent Inertia and Interests

We’ve spent most of the past century building a car-centric transportation system, economy, and culture.  Many people’s livelihoods, daily habits, and ego now revolve around the automobile.  They will not easily give it up.  And even if they didn’t have such a material interest in maintaining current conditions, most people simply don’t like change – they know how things currently work, it feels familiar and good enough while the future unknown makes them nervous.

The challenge is finding ways to help people see that there is no alternative to change, that maintaining the status quo is impossible or dangerous, and that their needs will be better served by the proposed changes.

For example, everyone knows that population is going to increase.  But people seldom want to deal with the reality that unless we change our transportation system, growing numbers of people mean growing numbers of car – meaning more noise, pollution, congestion, and parking problems.  Instead, people often want to freeze things as they are today – or even return to yesterday.  Not going to happen:  to do nothing is to allow today’s conditions to deteriorate on their own, like an unmaintained house that slowly rots to the ground.  Avoiding this slow collapse requires effective, trust-creating political leadership and a great deal of luck.

4)  Sustaining a Long-Term Effort

A leader’s most valuable resource is time.  Mayors, like other leaders, can only pay close attention to a few things at a time.  When a political leader pays attention to something it gets attended to.  When Governor Dukakis rode the trolley to work, the tracks were always working and the stations clean.  When Mayor Menino gets excited about bicycles, bike lanes suddenly start appearing.

But what happens when Mayoral attention moves on and he (or she) wants his inner core of effective staff leaders to focus on the next hot issue?  What happens when responsibility for continuing the transformational process, and maintaining the new facilities in excellent condition, is transferred to the depths of the competent civil servants who staff the bureaucratic maze of minimally accountable and totally over-whelmed departments whose own well-being depends on being able to avoid new demands so they can get on with doing their jobs as they’ve always done?

Many organizations, public or private, often have problems sustaining the CEO’s good ideas through the less glamorous years of implementation.  The downside of a highly personalized leadership – especially in the public sector – is that it percolates through the system and things only happen when you have a personal, family, or political connection to an appropriate insider.  It’s not corrupt in the sense that money changes hands; it’s just opaque, unfair, and prone to favoritism.

The challenge is creating an organization that is, from top to bottom, highly productive, focused on key goals, truly customer-oriented, well managed, and whose daily work is effectively evaluated.  Ultimately, this is the biggest challenge of all.

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