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 communities


Implementation of the state’s mode shift policy will be complicated and lengthy, requiring enormous creativity, persistence, and multi-agency collaboration at every level of government.  However, the initial challenge is not implementation: it’s making sure that the vision and goal gains enough enduring public (and political) support to get fully adopted in the first place.

It’s clear that Transportation Secretary Rich Davey is serious about the need for change, to turn MassDOT into a true, all-modes transportation agency rather than a glorified highway department with a transit appendage.  And he knows that getting MassDOT’s staff fully on-board will require cultivating internal champions as well as some organizational restructuring.

Fortunately, money is not the biggest challenge – there is plenty available in the “highway” budget to cover needed non-car improvements if there is political will to use them that way.  (Getting enough funds for T and rail improvements is another matter.)

The biggest challenge comes from the fact that most Massachusetts residents (most Americans!) use their car(s) every day; for almost every trip; which takes them longer and longer because of both growing home-work distance and greater congestion.  Looking at the world through the frame of their car windshields the idea of narrowing travel lanes and intersections, installing raised intersections or speed bumps, reducing the speed limit, or eliminating parking in order to make room for bike lanes and wider sidewalks is both stupid and insulting.  Particularly the bike lanes – which seem like a taking of valuable road space from the majority of working adults and reserving it for seasonal use by a tiny number of teens and twenty-somethings.  (Even raising fees or taxes to pay for transit – the T and rail and bus – can feel like forcing people across the state to pay for services that are only used by a few in metro-Boston.)


It’s not like the Patrick Administration is trying to justify mode shift because it will increase the number of cyclists and pedestrians.  (And what exactly is a “mode” anyway?)  But MassDOT hasn’t come up with a compelling alternative framing either.  The policy’s legal driver is the 2008 state Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires significant reductions in Green House Gas (GHG) emissions by 2020 and was also the impetus for MassDOT’s exemplary GreenDOT program.  But gas is a rather fuzzy, impersonal, and invisible symbol for the scale of change that Mode Shift implies.  From a public acceptance/marketing perspective, it’s simply not personalized and compelling enough

What is needed is a way to frame the upgrading of our transportation system as something that will improve everyone’s lives no matter how they choose to get around or what they are doing or where they live.  reducing Single-Occupancy Vehicle (SOV) trips will only happen if people feel there are better (affordable, convenient, efficient, safe) choices AND that things will be better when they do drive.

Everyone has a personal interest in not getting into a car accident on the way to work or school.  Everyone understands the value of getting more healthy exercise, preferably as part of their daily routines rather than as after-work gym time.  No one wants to be exposed to polluted air, water, and food.  Everyone wants to have lots of convenient nearby shopping, with vibrant stores that provide both goods and jobs while supporting the local tax base.  We want increased economic growth, but we don’t want to spend more time sitting in traffic jams.  We want to have options and choices rather than be forced – by law or economics – to fit someone else’s mold.

Equity – or at least fairness – must also be a central theme:  fairness for those outside Boston, fairness for the 1-in-8 state residents who don’t have access to a personal car (35% of Boston households!), fairness to those with lower incomes and wealth, fairness to those driving into Boston from the west in comparison to those coming from the North and South.  Everyone needs to give and get a fair share of the costs and the benefits.


Health, safety, prosperity, and choice.  This can’t be a verbal window dressing; it has to be true. And when the policies are being discussed, it’s not enough for these ideas to be merely mentioned in the third paragraph.  Both advocates and Administration leaders have to make them the starting point of their announcements and explanations.

In the long run, even more powerful than the barrel of Mao’s gun is getting others to see the world in ways compatible to our own.  Every year over $400 billion is spent on advertising in the US.  The businesses putting up the money aren’t stupid – advertising works: not merely by letting potential consumers know about the product but also by associating it with powerful needs and desires.  Marketeers know that repetitive exposure to something breeds familiarity and then acceptance – even positive feelings!  I think the title of this blog would make an excellent tag line:  “Healthy People, Safe Travel, Good Business, Personal Choice.”  But we need a good program title.  Here are some starters:  “Transportation Choice” or “Travel Options” or (you knew this had to be part of the list) “Livable Streets.”

Ok….help!  There’s got to be better ideas!  Maybe MassDOT should hire a marketing consultant – or sponsor a public contest!   In the meantime:  any suggestions?


Related previous blogs:

CRISIS AND OPPORTUNITY AT MASSDOT: Money, Internal Operations, and Political Support for Change.

TRANSPORTATION FINANCES: Why Saving Public Transportation Requires Helping Car Drivers

COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use


DESIGNING EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS: Mobilizing Constituencies, Developing Expertise, Sustaining Action

LIVABLE STREETS – From Theory to Practice


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