Improving MassDOT’s Bike/Ped Advisory Process

It’s good that road designers are professionally conservative – you don’t want bridges falling down because someone just thought it would be fun to try an off-beat idea.  But the world is changing, even though some traffic engineers aren’t always comfortable letting go of the car-centric, suburbs-oriented, Interstate-model of transportation they were trained to create.

Massachusetts’ Secretary of Transportation, Jeff Mullan, has said that he wants to create a new MassDOT that fully implements the Healthy Transportation Compact aspects of the act creating the unified agency.  The restructuring act requires MassDOT to “…encourage the construction of complete streets, designed and operated to enable safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and bus riders of all ages to safely move along and across roadways in urban and suburban areas…[and to] increase bicycle and pedestrian travel…”

Secretary Mullan knows that implementing the new vision requires a cultural sea-change in his organization, not only to merge several formerly less-than-cooperative transportation agencies, but also to alter the way roads are designed.

MAssDOT’s official pedestrian/bicyclist advisory group — the Massachusetts Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board (MABPAB) could play an useful role in helping the agency made the needed changes.  It is potentially a very important method for state engineers to tap into bike/ped advocates’ expertise during the early, conceptual stages of project planning so that road designs can successfully incorporate the state’s Complete Streets commitment.  It is also a vehicle to review completed projects to see if MassDOT’s intentions were successfully carried implemented through the entire process.

Unfortunately, at present, that potential is not being realized.  It will take clear direction from MassDOT’s top leadership to change the situation.  As discussed in more detail below, some of what must be done includes clarifying MABPAB’s role, creating a closer relationship between MABPAB and MassDOT’s six districts, restructuring MABPAB membership and providing effective staff support

But these are only my ideas – please add your own! 


State Policy Is Ahead of the Curve; But Implementation Lags

You know that things are changing when the Obama Administration issues a federal policy stating that every transportation agency should considering walking and bicycling as “equals with other transportation modes” in all projects, including on bridges and during routine repaving.  Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood stressed that transportation officials should proactively create “well-connected walking and bicycling networks” that “go beyond the minimum requirements” to anticipate “future demand by people of all ages and abilities” while insuring that bicyclists and pedestrians are “not adversely affected by other transportation projects.”  And communities should set “targets for increasing the percentage of trips made by walking and bicycling,” tracking the improvement in mode share over time.

Fortunately, Massachusetts is ahead of this curve – at least on the policy level.  The Healthy Transportation Compact section of the recent transportation restructuring act requires the new MassDOT to begin “coordination of land use, transportation and public health policy…. increase access to healthy transportation alternatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions…” as well as “…increase bicycle and pedestrian travel…encourage the construction of complete streets, designed and operated to enable safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and bus riders of all ages to safely move along and across roadways in urban and suburban areas.”

And the state’s new Highway Design Guidelines, issues in 2006, abandoned the traditional rigid requirements for highway-derived road design to allow a broader range of options for urban and other “ordinary” roads.

In support of this new vision, the Secretary of Transportation, Jeff Mullan, has written that “a strong commitment to pedestrian and bicycle transportation is a key part of the transportation vision of the new MassDOT…[and] MassDOT will strengthen this commitment through better coordination of bicycle and pedestrian projects, investments in pedestrian and bicycle safety, implementing the healthy transportation compact, and making a priority of expanding the pedestrian and bicycle facilities network statewide.”

But things are different on the operational level.  The huge, hierarchical, and veteran staff at the former Highway Department were often seen as relatively unfriendly to bikes and pedestrian concerns.  The challenge is to move away from decades in which making every road as much like a highway as possible was most engineers’ orientation.  This requires clear direction from the top, internal training, and greater accountability for the desired results.  The Secretary also knows that making the design process more transparent and involving public input are vital counter-pressures to the continuation of “business as usual.”


The Massachusetts Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board

The Massachusetts Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board (MABPAB) is the state’s official pedestrian/bicyclist advisory group.  MassDOT is creating several additional methods for public engagement, particularly around the Accelerated Bridge Program, but MABPAB remains the central channel for overall public input.  Unfortunately, the advisory group remains largely ineffective.

MABPAB is composed of representatives from MassDOT and other state agencies and from pedestrian and bicycling advocacy groups.  One symptom of the group’s weakness is that very few of the state employees regularly, or ever, attend the monthly meetings and those who do are relatively low in their agency hierarchies.  Another symptom is that so much of their meeting time is spent on “information sharing” about member activities rather than on policy discussions or project reviews.

MABPAB’s establishing legislation (Chap. 21A, Sec. 11A) is extremely open-ended:  “the Board shall oversee the state’s bicycle and pedestrian activities and advise the bicycle and pedestrian program office…. The board shall monitor the implementation of the Massachusetts statewide bicycle transportation plan and the Massachusetts statewide pedestrian transportation plan and assist the bicycle and pedestrian program office in preparing future plan updates.”

And the recent transportation restructuring act further expands its role, requiring the state, as part of the Healthy Transportation Compact section of the law, to “develop and implement, in consultation with the bicycle and pedestrian advisory board…, administrative and procedural mechanisms, including the promulgation of rules and regulations, consistent with the most current edition of the Project Development and [Highway] Design Guide, or its successor, to encourage the construction of complete streets, designed and operated to enable safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and bus riders of all ages to safely move along and across roadways in urban and suburban areas…”

But MassDOT is not effectively using MABPAB for any of these purposes.  Here are some ideas of changes that might make the group more valuable to MassDOT and the state.

I)  Clarify MABPAB’s Role

The law says that MABPAB should “oversee,” “monitor,” and “consult.”  But this is too general.  MABPAB is an advisory group, it has no decision-making power.  However, it aggregates an enormous amount of expertise and inter-agency connections that MassDOT could beneficially utilize by allowing MAB PAB to:

  • Review all MassDOT policy and regulatory proposals that might impact the bike- or pedestrian-friendliness of the state’s transportation infrastructure;
  • Review a sampling of completed projects each year to see how well MassDOT’s values and policies concerning the equal prioritization of bicycle and pedestrian modes have been realized, and to suggest policy changes to deal with shortcomings;
  • Review all requests to “except” a project design from compliance with the Highway Design Guide’s bike/ped accommodation requirements.
  • Provide a second level of review, at the conceptual design stage, for district-level projects that district-level bike/ped Advisory committees (see below) feel are providing inadequate accommodations for non-motorized modes.
  • Provide conceptual stage and 25% design review of designs for major, multi-district projects to the extent a separate public-input process has not been created for that project.
  • Provide a forum for inter-agency discussion on ways each public organization can contribute to the goals of the Healthy Transportation Compact.

II)  Create a Closer Relationship with the Districts

While MassDOT has a centralized planning division, much of the design and most of the implementation of particular projects is done in one of the six districts.  Each district is led by a District Director and contains a designated Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator – at least part of whose responsibilities include some degree of reviewing all proposed road designs in that area to make sure they comply with the bike/ped. requirements of the state’s new Highway Design Guide.  Any design that violates the requirements – for example, by not including a sidewalk – must submit an “exception request” which, in the past, were routinely approved.  In reality, the district review barely happens and final decisions on exception requests are made in the central office by the state Bike/Ped Accommodation Engineer.

MassDOT is, for the first time, setting up MABPAB meetings in the districts to discuss the Accelerated Bridge Program.  This positive step needs to be expanded and institutionalized – if only because MABPAB can be seen as too “Metro-focused” since its membership and meeting location is confined to Boston.  But it wouldn’t be hard to really make this a state-wide effort:

  • Every District should be required to create a Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (perhaps created as a subcommittee of the central MABPAB) that meets at least three times a year to do a conceptual stage review of upcoming transportation projects.
  • At least once a year, each district will host one of the monthly meetings of the central MABPAB which the subcommittee, District Coordinator, and District Director will all attend.  There will be a field visit to recently or soon to be completed projects followed by a discussion of the degree to which they have incorporated bike/ped accommodations, as well as a conceptual level discussion of probable future projects and some of the bike/ped accommodation challenges they might pose.
  • At least once a year, all district subcommittee members, Bike/Ped Coordinator, and District Directors will be invited to a central meeting at which the Secretary and the Highway Administrator will lead a discussion on MassDOT policies and actions to promote a healthy transportation system.

(The Highway Design Guidelines usually suggest a broad range of options for various road components, allowing for “context sensitive” accommodations.  This was a huge improvement of the traditional approach that used high-speed, Interstate guidelines and suburban land-use patterns as the starting point for almost all roads.  But allowing for a range of options still allows car-centric designers to consistently pick the most car-friendly choices which undercuts the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s rules.   MassDOT District Directors, Project Leaders, and Bike/Ped Coordinators need to know that the agency’s leaders want them to aggressively prioritize walking and bicycling facilities whenever compromises and trade-offs need to be made.)

III)  Restructure MABPAB Membership & Provide Staff Support

A revitalized MassDOT needs a revitalized MABPAB:

  • The current public members should all be thanked for their contributions and then asked to resign.  Then the Secretary should, after consultation with appropriate advocacy groups, bring on some new faces at both the central and district levels to join a few re-appointed existing members.  (The original authorizing legislation stipulated a wise initial combination of pedestrian and bicycling advocates and state agencies, but leaves the future composition undefined.)
  • MassDOT is already sending higher level staff to attend MABPAB meetings; a letter from the Secretary to the heads of the other represented agencies should stress the elevated role of the restructured MABPAB and urge them to do the same.
  • A new MassDOT person should be hired to provide staff support to MABPAD for at least one day a week.  In the past, the state acted like it wanted its bike/ped staff to be people who made no difference.  It’s time to change that tradition.

These are suggestions for reform, not revolution.  MABPAB is an advisory group, not an advocacy group.  An advisory group has been appointed or hired by the organization being advised and therefore is, to some extent, operating within the parameters of that organization.  Within the mandate of the advisory process or contract, advisory groups are free to give their opinion and send it around via agency channels.  The agency gains expert feedback which allows it to avoid stupid mistakes, and the advisors gain the ability to shape programs and policies while they are being formulated.  But, in exchange for being inside players with special access to information and people, an advisory group usually can not publicly question or openly oppose the basic framework of the organization’s policies and work.  Advisory groups typically help with brainstorming and provide a kind of technical review.  But if there is strong staff opposition to a particular suggestion it is unlikely to go very far no matter how strongly an advisory group wants it to happen.  At some point, advisors who develop significant differences with their agencies have to resign from their official role and work from the outside as an advocate.

While an advocate may consult with, or advise, a government (or other kind of) agency, she remains independent and is therefore free to publicly question or oppose any or all parts of the agency’s policies and actions.  The trade off is that – unless an advocacy group has significant political clout through other channels or the agency leadership is particularly smart – the more serious an advocacy group’s opposition the less likely the agency is to include them in substantive, early-stage discussions.  So, advocacy groups are often forced to oppose the “final” proposal after it is announced, mobilizing their constituency to protest and create as big a public stink as possible.  This, of course, reduces the chances that the agency will seek their advice next time – unless the advocates are strong enough to kill the agency proposal, in which case the agency will feel forced to negotiate in some manner.  And this is why it is good that many of the Commonwealth’s bike/ped advocacy groups are – or should be – represented on MABPAB.

It takes a certain degree of sophistication and skill for a person to have one foot in both roles – as an advocate and as an advisory.  The trick is knowing what can be said or done in each sphere, and how to behave in each sphere in ways that don’t violate the requirements of the other.  Fortunately, our state’s advocacy community is sophisticated enough to play this game well.  The issue is not the delicacy of their double role, but the willingness – and ability — of the state to take full advantage of what they bring to the table.

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