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

Congratulations on your election. As you know, that was the easy part!   Here’s something waiting for you: our transportation system is in crisis. We can’t seem to generate the political will needed to raise the money required to upgrade our decayed rails, roads, bridges, and sidewalks to meet the needs of today – much less to lay a foundation for the future. Anti-government forces have been able to shape the public perception of transportation spending as a tax rather than an investment, a cost rather than an asset. As a result, things are falling apart.


But perhaps part of the problem is that we have allowed the public imagination to remain stuck in the belief that transportation is about vehicles and the surfaces they use. Perhaps we have to stop talking about cars and trains, roads and paths; not even about congestion or pot-holes or snow plowing.

Maybe the path to funding lies through other topics, other needs, other visions: Transportation is about where we can afford to live and the jobs we are close enough to apply for.   Transportation is about the asthma and diabetes our family members suffer from, the safety of our children as they walk to school, and the ability of our seniors to avoid moving to a nursing home. Transportation is about our ability to meet our neighbors and hang out together. Transportation is actually about the livability and well-being of our families and our communities.

Transportation is an individual act based on personal decisions. But public leaders and agencies have always shaped the decision-making context through infrastructure investment and regulatory policy. It’s time to adjust that context, at both the governmental and personal levels, so that it is easier, cheaper, functional, and socially praised to make better choices – choices that serve both our own needs and our world’s. The challenge is not technical but political. We need you to take charge!

Transportation policies, even in progressive agencies and firms, are usually talked about in terms of Mode Shift (away from Single Occupancy Vehicles), Complete Streets (to include maximum-possible pedestrian, cycling, and transit facilities), Clean Vehicle (to reduce pollution and noise and increase fuel efficiency), and the occasional “Bike Network Plan. This is the level at which transportation policy is usually discussed. But once again, maybe we are framing things in the wrong way.

Perhaps connecting the daily reality of people’s lives to transportation policy, and from there to funding, requires emphasizing three strategic themes: Transportation Has to Serve the Rest of Our Needs, Being Outside Should be Safe for Everyone from 8 to 80, Creating Livable Communities Require Better Neighborhoods.   And we won’t go anywhere on this unless you lead us there.


Policy-based Decision Making: Transportation Has to Serve the Rest of Our Needs

Transportation decision-making – what projects to invest in, what kind of design to create – has traditionally started and ended with improving car Level of Service (LOS), essentially the “excess” time it takes to get through an intersection under non-optimal conditions.   Instead, we need to create a broad list of policy goals – from reducing Green House Gases and fuel consumption to achieving zero fatalities, from fostering business development to facilitating neighborhood social life, from improving safety to reducing inequity, and more. A second step is to draw on new research from around the world to have ways of predicting how much various types of transportation projects, and how various approaches to road design, will move us towards or away from the desired values and goals. And third, we need to use new technologies to measure how much the completed project actually achieved its predicted impact.

This must be tied to a reform of the Metropolitan Planning Organization decision-making processes – the 13 regional bodies across the state that determine how a substantial percentage of federal highway funds are used – to require that they give priority to the projects with the highest scores.

Creating such broad goals and evaluative criteria also requires extensive multi-agency and cross-department coordination. The Legislatively-mandated Healthy Transportation Compact has set the stage for this, even mandating a forum for on-going discussions between public agencies and key Advocates dealing with the entire range of transportation-impacted-and-impacting issues.   This breaking down of bureaucratic boundaries has to continue.

A similar process has to happen at the local level. Nearly 80 percent of the state’s roads are owned and maintained by municipalities although much of the work on those roads is paid for with “Chapter 90” state funds. Policy-based investment requires that municipalities be required to go through a similar prioritizing and road-design process for state-funded work. At the same time, the state needs to dramatically loosen the restrictions on locally-initiated pilots and experiments and low-cost temporary fixes – so long as they are based on implementing a short list of top priority policy goals.   For example, a lot of complex road changes can be prefigured using paint, planters, and signs – which gives the public a chance to experience the new idea in a non-threatening manner.

To sell transportation, we need to remember that it is only the means to a broader set of desirable ends.

Street Safety is the Opposite of Highway Design: Outside Safety for 8 to 80 

Several US cities and some European countries have already proclaimed official goals of reducing transportation fatalities to zero – and then taken the implications of that commitment seriously. The most important implication emerges from the realization that nearly everything we do to insure safety and high usage for highways is exactly the opposite of what is needed for safety and high usage on city streets.

Highways are high speed, high-volume corridors reserved for cars, trucks, and buses. Highway safety is increased by designing them to be as “driver proof” as possible: tolerant of mistakes and lapses of attention, with lots of extra space for error-correction and few visual distractions.

In contrast, residential and commercial streets are community space: full of different kinds of uses and surrounded by lots of activity.   Making that kind of road safe – not just for cars but for all users – requires that we design them to make drivers slow down, to pay more attention to what they’re doing, where they are, and what else is around. This takes more than public education exhorting everyone to look where they’re going or respect each other, or stationing a police officer at every intersection. It takes designing the road itself to shape driver behavior. We all know that, regardless of the official speed limit, we drive more carefully when the lane is narrow, the pavement is bumpy, there are lots of other people and things in (or simply visible from) the road. Traffic safety engineers have learned to apply these lessons to our city streets: narrowing travel lanes to 10’ (or even less!), bumping out intersection cross-walks and installing bolder “zebra markings”, installing bike lanes (preferably physically separated from the moving cars), widening the sidewalk and using some of the space for benches and trees and café tables, giving buses and trolleys priority at intersections.

The good news is that we now know that building safety into the road design does not increase congestion. Cars may move more slowly, but proper traffic signal timing means that “throughput” over a specified distance can stay roughly the same. The most amazing finding is that this is even true on congested main roads, the arterials: one reason is that drivers are as intelligent as anyone else. The opposite of “if you build it they will come” is also true: “if you take it away, they go away” – meaning that reducing the capacity of roads leads to fewer cars. Because people adjust their travel decisions according to the new context, they make new choices and the traffic volume goes down until the smaller road reaches its own level of “normal” over-usage. Rather than detour into neighboring streets, studies show that the missing car trips actually go to different times of day, or to different travel methods, or to more efficient trip planning.

If we want our children to safely move, on their own power, between their school to nearby parks to home; if we (or our parents) want to “age in place” rather than a nursing home; if we want our downtown business districts to retain (or regain) their vitality as places to meet our friends and do our shopping; then we need to re-orient the entire psychology and design of our transportation system around those activities – and consign highway design to the very narrow uses it really has. This – rather than widening roads or building parking garages – is the proven way to increase customer traffic into local businesses as well as to reduce the number of accidents and injuries. When our transportation system passes the “ice cream test” – when both kids and seniors feel comfortable going outside and getting a cone from a local store – we will have succeeded.

Livable Communities Require Better Neighborhoods: Land-use Shapes Road Reality

As much as anywhere in the nation, Massachusetts has learned that building more roads doesn’t eliminate congestion; it just attracts more cars until the new road also slides past peak-hour capacity. But the truism of “if you build it, they will come” also applies to sidewalks, bike facilities, and transit stops – there is a huge latent demand for all types of transportation.

The type of transportation people choose depends, first of all, on how far they have to go. The closer we live to where we work, shop, play, and hang out with friends the less we need to drive. And “the village” is where people want to live these days – as shown by the increased value of properties with higher walking and bikeability scores or nearby transit.

The good news is that density does not require turning our cities and suburban centers into mock Manhattans with skyscraper canyons. Smaller rooms and fewer parking requirements, which allow for more affordable prices, also allow greater density without extreme heights. And there’s a bonus: it opens up public space for the kind of informal interaction that makes communities thrive.

Of course, we need to clearly differentiate between rural, suburban, and urban areas – each of which requires a distinct set of policies and practices. But the reality is that our population will continue to grow – we need it to grow if we want our economy to remain strong – and we have to find the most environmentally sustainable, socially integrative, and affordable way to house those people – our children as well as newcomers. We need to create many more affordable housing units – small apartments and multi-bedroom multi-family buildings in our cities and suburban centers. We need to re-emphasize rentals, preferably with a long-term option to buy, and mixed use building with active sideway-level presences.

The path to a better transportation system turns out to run through zoning reform, affordable housing, transit-oriented development, and smart growth.

Leadership & Money

Transportation is a key component in our need for access to things, places, and people. It’s not the motion to and from that counts, it’s what we do at the endpoints and along the way.   And “we” means all of us – those with lots of choices and those with little, the well-off and the poor, the young and the old.

As you know, despite our collective fear of change the future is coming, and it will be different from what we currently have. Powerful economic, demographic, and environmental forces are swirling around us with near hurricane force. We cannot stand in front of that wind. We do not have the option of having things simply remain as they are. But we do have the ability to at least partly harness the energy flowing towards us, to influence where the water goes and how it shapes the land.

Yes, we have to suck it up and be willing to raise the funds required to pay for the transportation system we need. But the route to approval runs through pictures, not numbers. We will only move forward if our political, business, and media leaders help the public see what a positive future can look like. We need to describe the stakes – getting left behind in an increasingly dangerous, deteriorating, and dysfunctional region or taking control of our own destiny.

And at some point you will have stick your neck out and put your own political capital on the line to push, rather than simply exhort, for money.   But if all this is correct, if transportation is actually a high-leverage tool for broad improvement, then the hit will be short-term and you will find it a lot easier to get re-elected!


Related previous posts:

STEERING THE ORGANIZATION: Using Decision-Point Criteria to Achieve Goals

TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT SAFETY: Looking Beyond Traffic Lights

CHARLES RIVER BRIDGES FALL OFF THE SCHEDULE: State Needs To Find Funds Without Skimping on Surrounding Improvements

PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value







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