INTERGRATING VISION INTO OPERATIONS: Balancing Front-Line Empowerment With Organizational Priorities at MassDOT

All too little attention and praise has been given to MassDOT’s recent announcements of state funding for the Neponset River Greenway, the inclusion of Community Path design as part of the Green Line extension, and funding for a major expansion of the Bruce Freeman Trail.  These are impressive steps – both symbolic and concrete – towards the re-orientation of the department from a highway to a multi-modal transportation agency.


But all three of these announcements feel like executive decisions.  It’s good to know that the leadership takes its own vision seriously.  We need lots more decisions like these.  But change at the top is not enough.  To truly embody its new role as set out in the 2009 Transportation Reform Act, MassDOT also needs to change its internal operations – the tools it uses, its reward and supervision structures, its culture and social dynamics.

MassDOT leadership understands this.   Secretary Davey is quite aware that MassDOT is a huge bureaucracy whose culture and history – as in most state and municipal transportation engineering departments – is both authoritarian and bureaucratic.  It’s structured like an old-style military operation with lots of layers between top and bottom.   To avoid getting in trouble you followed the rules and your orders; you didn’t talk or work with anyone outside your own chain of command; doing anything different or new was a punishable disloyalty.

To counter this, MassDOT leaders are trying to foster front-line initiative, to empower the district-level project managers and engineers.  The message is that the Central Office trusts them to do what’s best, both individually and as a district-level team, subject only to minimal central oversight.  It’s exactly the type of operational dynamic that MassDOT needs to achieve.   But it’s not enough – in fact, in the short term it may make things worse.   


The problem is that in the midst of this decentralization, many aspects of the old Highway Department culture and processes remain.  The traffic prediction tools being used still overestimate future car trip numbers and are almost incapable of bicycling or pedestrian demand analysis.  The skills of many traffic engineers still reflect the highway-based focus of their professional training.  Doing things differently requires much more time than simply repeating past practices, and the often over-worked staff often doesn’t feel that it has the luxury of being creative.

So MassDOT is stuck mid-stream.   Many MassDOT staff are working hard to embody its new direction.  But some are not.   More than one District staffer has been heard saying that cars are still what most people use and therefore what the roads should be designed for.   In other cases, it’s that neither the project managers nor their engineers simply don’t know what state-of-the-art multi-modal design entails or feel uncomfortable about incorporating such “non-standard” techniques in their work. And most of the rest of their office-peers are in the same boat.

The problem is compounded by the team loyalty that every District office has – and which they have to have in order to create a supportive and productive work environment.   No one wants to be the office critic, looking over their co-workers’ shoulder.  And in too many cases neither the District Bike/Pedestrian Coordinator (who provides the first opportunity for district-level oversight) nor the District Director or Chief Engineer (who are supposed to double check) have the time, skill, or perhaps the willingness to disrupt group cohesion to push back and require the needed revisions.

By the time local project plans get to the Central Office, the single state-wide bike/ped reviewer simply can’t catch all the problems and even when he does, his suggestions can easily be ignored because there is almost no post-construction review of what actually was done.  When things slip through the state ends up with sub-optimal designs. Non-car facilities are (usually) present, but at the minimal levels possible and neither creatively designed nor thoroughly integrated – it’s barely ok, but not really good enough.

Where progressive Transportation Advocates are able to intervene in the design process, good designs are created.  But anything done without external critiques has an unacceptably high chance of non-compliance with current MassDOT policy, or at least being a sub-optimal approach.  So Boston-area work improves; many parts of the rest of the state suffer from traditionalist designs.


The fact that MassDOT leadership has established more progressive policies is a vital first step.  Now it’s time to make sure that the entire organization follows them by eliminating the procedural corners in which old practices continue.  Some steps might include:

–  Create a stronger connection between District Bike/Ped Coordinator and Central Office – bring them in for group training & discussion; make part of their annual evaluation come from the Central Bike/Ped person.

–  Official change the responsibilities, authority, and title of District Bike/Ped Coordinator to give them power to intervene in any District project to critique plans and require changes to better achieve the state’s Mode Shift goals for transit, walking, and bicycling; re-title them as District Mode Shift Oversight Leaders.

–   Conduct annual Mode Shift Audits of each District Projects, utilizing Central Staff and appropriate outside consultants (including Advocates), to evaluate the extent to which their work is aligned with MassDOT priorities and policies.

–  Include high Mode Shift Audit “scores” as part of the evaluation criteria for District Directors and Chief Engineers.


The point of this list is not to pick on particular Districts or Project Managers, but to make it clear that this is a real and much too common problem. Here are some examples — there are probably lots more.  READERS, please let us know what other projects you would add to this list of sub-optimal designs!

  • Route 114, Peabody – The approved plan included only 4′ shoulders, the minimum allowable bicycle accommodation when there’s no parking between the bikes and the curb.  However, the District Field Engineer could not find the approved striping plan so instead used an old plan which had wide lanes and no shoulders. There are now 2 travel lanes in each direction, a center shared left turn lane, and no shoulders or bicycle accommodation of any kind. (District 4)
  • Neponset River Bridge –This started as DCR project and was inherited by MassDOT. The sidewalks are wide enough to be shared by pedestrians and slow cyclists.  But the on-road conditions for vehicular cycling are very dangerous with shoulders narrowing from 4′ in some places down to 2′ in others.  And there are neither road markings nor signed guidance when the road’s outer lanes enter and exit to Hancock St.  (District 6)
  • Route 105 at I-495, Middleborough — After LivableStreets pointed out deficiencies, MassDOT did agree to somewhat improved pedestrian safety measures, including sharks teeth yield lines at unsignalized crossings. However, bicycle accommodation is a minimal (and unmarked) shoulder of 4′ – which goes to 0′ under the I-495 bridge. Meanwhile, this project added a travel lane in each direction and a left turn lane. Turn radii for cars coming on and off of the ramps to I-495 are also much wider than they should be for pedestrian and bicycle safety (although one was tightened up a bit in response to a LivableStreets request for tightening all the turn radii). (District 5)
  • Hines Bridge, Amesbury –The rebuilt structure should have been designed to allow at least 5’ bike lanes.  Instead, bike accommodation was supposed to be handled by 1′ 8″ shoulders next to 11′ 6″ travel lanes. After LivableStreets complained, the shoulders were widened to 2′ 2″ with 11′ travel lanes – and signs were added suggesting bicyclists walk their bikes because the bridge is narrow! (District 4)
  • Fore River Bridge, Quincy/Weymouth –More worrisome than the lack of bicycle markings on the 5′ shoulders is the absence of clearly marked space guidance for cyclists in the rotary – also making it confusing for car drivers who want to avoid hitting them.  (District 6)
  • Route 5, West Springfield — MassDOT did add zebra crosswalks, concurrent signal timing in some locations, and sharks teeth yield lines and flashing pedestrian beacons at the I-91 on and off ramps, which improved the situation for pedestrians.  However, the only bicycle accommodation was 8′ shoulders that regularly disappear in favor of right turn-only lanes in many locations. Share the road signs were added as well, but it still remains a very challenging street for bicycling. And just as with the Route 105 project, turn radii for on and off ramps to I-91 are too wide for pedestrian and bicycle safety.  (District 2)
  • Kendrick and Highland Ave Bridges, Needham and Newton – These bridges are being rebuilt as part of the Route 128 Add-a-Lane project.  A new interchange is being added at Kendrick Street where one does not exist today. In both projects, travel lanes on the surface streets are being added, and interchanges are being designed with high speed merges on the surface streets. Although MassDOT has agreed to include bicycle lanes after advocates pressed them on it, the high-speed design of the roadways is at odds with pedestrian and bicycle safety and does not fit the character of these streets at the ends of the projects.  (District 6)
  • Mass Ave, Boston (South End) – After much pushing from advocates the designs were revised to include 5′ bike lanes, but not for the entire length. Two key blocks are still missing them. Also, crosswalks were poorly designed such that they overlap the path of cyclists, putting pedestrians and cyclists in conflict with each other at the intersections. Design also left a gap in the bike lanes at Columbus Ave, rather than connecting them. Sidewalk narrowing resulted in minimally ADA-compliant sidewalks in many locations.  (District 6)
  • Route 99, Everett/Boston –MassDOT’s final plan was an improvement over the original design, but at the expense of pedestrians. Because MassDOT wanted wider (11′ and 11.5′) travel lanes along with the 5′ bike lanes,  they ended up narrowing the east sidewalk from 10′ to 8′ (which includes trees) and did not widen the narrower west one (6′) at all.  (Districts 6 and 4)
  • Mass Ave, Arlington – Advocates originally asked for a single 11’ west-bound lane with a 4′ cobble-stone median for the length of the corridor.   The District 4 engineers insisted that DOT standards prohibited crossing such a median to make left turns onto private driveways, although it was never clear why this was the standard or why it wasn’t safe in the Arlington context.  So instead, the west-bound lane was to be 14-15′ to leave extra space for left-turning cars to move out of the way of thru traffic so the latter didn’t have to swerve into the bike lane.  This plan would retain the cobbled flush median but only in the heart of the business district where there are no driveways requiring a left turn over the flush median.  (District 4)
  • Route 20 (Main Street), Westfield – Main Street between Elm Street and Main Line Drive used to have 4 narrow travel lanes, no shoulders, and a green strip between the road and sidewalk.  After “improvement” the car lanes were wider, the shoulders were often smaller than the planned 4’, the green sidewalk buffer was gone, and the sidewalks were reduced to no more than 5’ – broken up by parking signs. A multi-modal approach would have either narrowed the car lanes or only included 3, added a 4’ or 5’ bike lane, and not degraded the sidewalk.  Ironically, in this case the State oversight official had rejected the District plan as inadequate, but it had been built anyway!  (District 2)


Thanks to Phil Goff and especially Charlie Denison who watch-dogs these projects and compiled this list.


Related previous posts:

NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

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

LIVABLE STREETS – From Theory to Practice


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