Boston's new chief of streets to steer city beyond car-centric transportation

Dive Brief:

  • Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced Tuesday that the city's former Chief Information Officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge will serve as the city’s new chief of streets. Franklin-Hodge currently serves as the executive director of the Open Mobility Foundation and is a board member of the LivableStreets Alliance advocacy group; he will join the mayor’s cabinet in January. 
  • The role will support Boston's Transportation Department, the Public Works Department, and the Water and Sewer Commission in pursuit of a safer, more efficient and environmentally friendly transportation system.
  • The chief of streets will assist on recently elected Mayor Wu's goals for sustainable, alternative modes of transportation that include free-fare Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus routes, safer street design and a network of connected “low stress” bicycle routes. 

Dive Insight:

The chief of streets role was first created in 2015 under then-Mayor Marty Walsh to lead the repair of roadways, according to GovTech. The position was also established to oversee the city's comprehensive transportation plan, Go Boston 2030. Efforts under that plan include preparing for climate change by creating safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians, in addition to creating "smarter" streets with the installation of technology like smart traffic signals and electric vehicle charging stations in municipal parking lots. 

Franklin-Hodge will build on that work, with data playing a key role in informing decisions. "One of the things that I'm really excited about is the opportunity to use data to better understand travel patterns," Franklin-Hodge said. 

There's a lot about the city's transportation system that is based on either old data or infrequently updated data, according to Franklin-Hodge, and factors assumptions about the needs of commuters instead of the needs of families and caregivers. Now, though, there are data sources available that allow for a better understanding of what the holistic transportation needs are for a community, Franklin-Hodge said. 

Boston, like many other U.S. cities, has also experienced drastic changes to travel patterns during the pandemic. U.S. cities have seen a surge in cycling, with bike activity up 10% in the summer of 2021 compared to 2019. Traffic congestion levels also remain below pre-pandemic levels across the country, contributing to some urban roadways experiencing much faster speeds. 

The changes to travel patterns have been accompanied by more dangerous roadways as well, with traffic and pedestrian deaths climbing despite local Vision Zero efforts. 

Safe streets and equitable transportation have been major areas of emphasis for newly elected Mayor Wu. One of her first moves as mayor was to take to steps toward expanding fare-free bus service, particularly as the city’s bus service is at 53% of pre-pandemic weekly ridership. The two-year fare-free pilot, backed by an $8 million grant, will allow the city and transit partners to measure the potential benefits of such a service, including ridership, quicker routes, less congestion and business development along local routes.  

"Michelle Wu is probably definitively the most progressive transportation mayor in the country," said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance.  

Some of the sustainable modes of transportation that the city is looking to implement, according to Thompson, include expansion of the city's bikeshare system, increasing green space and walkability, expanding bus rapid transit and building more bus lines, updating how traffic and walk signals are programmed, and even potentially creating car-free districts or car-free days on streets.

Franklin-Hodge said he anticipates that government staff capacity and the general resistance to change among communities will likely be the two biggest challenges he faces in the role. 

"There's a lot of work ahead," Franklin-Hodge said. "We're still a city that is primarily focused on the car and the way the car fits into the streetscape. Under the Mayor Wu administration, we're really committed to investing beyond just automobiles to really make sure that our streets are serving everyone, no matter what mode of travel they use."

New approaches to community engagement will also be critical to support some of those changes, especially as traditional community meetings can be under-representative of a community as a whole, according to Franklin-Hodge.  

"One of the things that I'm really focused on is how do we connect with the whole community," Franklin-Hodge said. "Not just the people who can show up to a meeting on a given day at a given time. But how do we start hearing the voices of people who are impacted by this in ways good and bad?"