MODE SHIFT AMPLIFIERS: The Importance of the Out-of-Vehicle Experience

In response to the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which sets deadlines for reducing Green House Gas emissions, MassDOT has recently announced plans to triple the share of travel done using transit, bicycle, and foot by 2030 — 18 years from now.  (The Act was also the impetus for MassDOT’s exemplary GreenDOT program.) Since both our population and economy are likely to grow over that time, in order to reach that mode share goal almost none of the inevitable increase in transportation activity can happen in Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOVs).  The entire rise in travel will have to use train, trolley, bus, multi-person cars, bikes, or feet.


It’s an incredibly ambitious goal, no matter what numbers are used as the baseline or exactly how the mode shares are measured (more on those issues in subsequent posts).    The payoff is equally huge – the creation of a transportation system that not only does less damage to our environment (and storm-battered weather) but that is also less costly to run, not only facilitates better health (through less pollution and more physical activity) but also promotes local business activity, not only makes travel safer but also gives people more residential choices.  And it will even reduce congestion for those who have to drive.   Success will help maintain Massachusetts’ standing as a great place to go to school, live, work, play, and raise a family.  The entire citizenry has a stake in its success!

Obviously, people can’t stop using their cars if there is no other way to get where they need to go.  So the core of the effort has to be a vast expansion of our mass transit facilities not only in the Boston area but around the state through increased funding to the Regional Transportation Agencies (RTAs):  rail, trolley, bus, and “last mile” solutions such as shuttle buses, shared-car-ride programs, and shared bike systems (e.g. Hubway).  Success also requires a vast expansion of our bicycle facilities: networks of regional “Green Routes” corridors using off-road paths or traffic-separated protected lanes for commuting (and recreational) use as well as municipal bike networks for cross-town and intra-neighborhood trips.  And all of this, as well as the maintenance of our current roads, require the development of a sustainable, equitable, and adequate revenue stream capable of dealing not only with people but freight.

However, changing people’s transportation behavior requires more than infrastructure.  The decision-making context has to also change.   The decision not to use a car needs to be made easier and more socially encouraged.  The alternatives have to be more convenient and incentivized.  Fortunately, there are ways to do this including revising bus routes, improving car-to-transit transitions, making roads safer for vulnerable users, ending parking’s free ride, getting employers involved, and the biggest of all – becoming smarter about land-use.   Some of these are challenging, many simply require leadership.

The good news is that the Patrick Administration seems to understand that reducing Green House Gas emissions via Mode Shift and other strategies requires multi-agency coordination – Transportation, Energy and Environment, Health and Human Services, Community and Economic Development, and more.  But Advocates need to internalize the same message – we need to create coalitions that bring together groups from an equally broad set of issues and we have to develop joint campaigns that integrate our various perspectives and goals into a unified whole.



One reason that more people don’t use public transportation is that they simply haven’t tried it. An MIT-based pilot study found that 25 percent of long-term car commuters stayed with public transportation after being induced to simply try it by being allowed free rides for a brief period.

Negative market-based incentives also work.   Placing toll booths (EZ Pass compatible, of course) on I-93 would force north-south commuters to share the burden now totally bourn by east-west Mass Pike drivers.  Stockholm highway traffic dropped by 20% after a fee, was imposed, virtually eliminating congestion, with both those who decided to leave their cars behind and those continuing to drive surprised and pleased with their new travel situation.  As a result, the policy’s 70% disapproval rating flipped to a 70% approval rating and the congestion fee system was made permanent.

But it’s better to be positive.  Bus routes need to be designed to more directly connect people with our region’s dispersed job locations.  The “T” already does this to some extent, but its routes are often too circuitous and slow with too many stops.  We need more Express services on more frequent schedules, starting in a greater number of locations, with lower fees.  Whether going in or out between the city and suburbs, or around from one suburb to another, it should be faster, easier, and less expensive to take the bus or train than to drive a car, particularly for the daily commute.  Where traffic congestion slows things down, the buses need to be given reserved lanes.  (On city streets, these lanes can be shared with bicyclists.  On highways they can be shared with true HOV vehicles – holding 3 or more people.)

Regular bus service is inherently limited to high-ridership routes.  So it needs to be augmented by a vast number of public and private shuttle services, perhaps run by the Regional Transportation Agencies or Transportation Management Associations (TMAs) such as the Easy Ride service in Cambridge.

TRANSITIONS:  When moving from car to bus, train, or subway, MassDOT needs to make the entire transition smooth and fast.  This may require expanding parking or even roads.  At Alewife, for example, commuters not that congested approachways sometimes makes it take almost as long getting from Route 2 or Route 16 to the station as it does getting from the suburbs to the traffic circle.

TRANSPORTATION DEMAND MANAGEMENT:  Most important would be creating both carrot and stick incentives for employers in every part of the state (or at least all employers of more than 25 or 50 people) to set up Parking and Transportation Demand Management (PTDM) programs.   Originally required by a consent order with the EPA to begin controlling air pollution, Cambridge has been running a PTDM program for nearly 13 years, with the most recent success being in Kendall Square where a building boom has caused a 40% increase in office space, occupied by thousands of newcomers while the number of cars on major streets has actually dropped by as much as 14% at some intersections.   (See the table below for Cambridge’s list of suggested PTDM measures from which employers are able to choose a set of “robust, moderate, and weaker” actions.)  The state could make eligibility for certain programs or tax breaks dependent on having a PTDM plan that meets certain criteria, or allow tax deductions of some magnitude for PTDM expenses, or prohibit any firm without a PTDM program from bidding on government contracts, or something else.

PARKING:  The ease and cost of a parking spot has a significant impact on people’s decision whether or not to use a car for a short trip.  Estimates are that up to 40% of the car traffic in certain areas is caused by people circling the block looking for a free spot.   But on-street parking is basically low-cost or free storage of personal belongings on public land.  So municipalities should be encouraged to restructure their down-town parking policies so they charge something closer to “market rate” for the busiest locations at the busiest times (probably best if combined with methods for finding open spots), thereby making it smarter for long-term parkers to leave their vehicles further out and freeing up spots for quicker-turn-over business customers.

And while parking at transit transfer points should remain enticingly low-cost (along with the addition of more weather-protected bicycle parking and improved walking routes from nearby homes), we need to balance this “carrot” with a “stick” – a local-option law allowing municipalities to levy a fee on the owners of large surface-area parking lots in out-of-downtown shopping malls or strip malls.  One idea is to do this as part of the creation of a municipal “stormwater utility” derived from those already set up in Newton, Reading, and Chicopee funded by a locally-set “rain tax.”   This water and air remediation fee could help recover the previously “externalized” costs of upgrading sewer systems and sewerage process plants to handle polluted storm-water run-off, of dealing with the reduced replenishment of regional aquifers, to off-set the increased health insurance and disability costs of the people who will develop pollution-aggravated asthma, and more.  Hopefully, the parking lot owner will begin passing on the levy to their customers by beginning to charge for parking, thereby encouraging them to consider other transportation methods.


Streets, the public right of way, constitute the largest and most valuable physical asset owned by most municipalities.  We can do better than simply turn them over for the exclusive and subsidized use of cars.   If we want people to feel more favorably about using other options, at a minimum we need to make the presence of motorized traffic less threatening to everyone else. The default state speed limit for densely populated and commercial areas should be lowered to 20 mph (as a bill proposed by state Representative Denise Provost would do) or even to 15 mph.   Traffic calming, using a variety of techniques to make it feel uncomfortable to drive faster than a set speed (regardless of the “official” speed limit) on a particular stretch of road, should be required in any road project that uses Chapter 90 money – the major source of state transportation funds used by local municipalities.

SAFETY ZONES & VULNERABLE USERS: The state should authorize every municipality to create “Safety Zones” with 15mph (or 20 mph) limits, reinforced by traffic calming measures, not only around schools but also around parks, playgroups, public swimming pools, senior centers and housing, hospitals and health centers.  And a new Vulnerable Road Users Protection law should create a “rebuttable assumption” that the operator of any vehicle that hits or dangerously crowds a “vulnerable road user” is by default primarily responsible for the incident and any negative effects, establishing (as Oregon and other state have already done) “enhanced penalties for careless drivers who hurt vulnerable users.”


In the long run, land-use patterns shape transportation usage, the state has coordinated many of its programs and policies to encourage Transportation Oriented Development (TOD), focusing new housing construction around transit stations or along bus lines.  Governor Patrick also announced the Compact Neighborhood Initiative which provides incentives for residential development near transit and town centers with the goal of creating 10,000 additional multi-family buildings each year.  These are important programs, although TOD housing programs seldom adequately deal with the fact that it is the relationship of where people live to where they work, along with the availability of nearby food and entertain sources, that determines their actual transportation activity.

ZONING: The state is also hoping promote Smart Growth by encouraging communities to use the type of entry-level Master Planning recently conducted along the proposed South Coast Rail Line to designate general areas in which to focus development or to conserve.  This is good, but not enough.  Unfortunately, real zoning reform remains bottled up in the State Legislature despite over a decade of effort.  Current zoning regulations, which are created at the local level based on guidelines set at the state level, simply don’t give municipalities the tools they need to encourage growth while avoiding car-dependent sprawl, to expand their tax base while protecting the environment, to facilitate mixed-use construction while requiring inclusionary opportunities for all.   A broad coalition is working with legislators to devise a less ambitious, “first step” reform package for the next session, but given the desperate need to get transportation funding reform passed this year, it’s not clear how much time and energy the Administration will have left to expend on zoning.

But progress can still be made on the local level.  One zoning idea is to set parking maximums rather than minimums on new development, especially on developments in urban areas or suburban centers.  Boston, and perhaps the other biggest cities, may even decide to allow different areas to regulate parking in a site-specific manner.  The idea is not to isolate people — if bus or transit service isn’t available, municipalities can require that developers include car rental or taxi services.


Meeting the state’s Climate Protection goals will require significant changes in many areas of activity.  In transportation, it will require shifting to cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles as well as a huge increase in the number and percentage of people who walk, bike, share a vehicle, or take a bus and train rather than jump in their car.  Achieving that goal will require not only require additional facilities but a change in the decision-making context so that the default choice no long involves looking for your car keys.  The first step is to analyze the options, identify those with the biggest potential for influencing transportation choices – taking into account different time frames and differences in urban-suburban-rural situations – and then making them happen.





Market-rate parking OR cash-out/ Transportation Benefit Pre-tax transit purchase Shower/locker for walk/bike employees
Daily parking rate equal to a portion of monthly rate, not monthly parking pass Bus shelters Bike buddy matching
Free shuttle, private or EZRide Bike parking for 10% of site users Loaner umbrellas
100% Transit subsidy Bike repair service MassRIDES ridematching
Park-and-ride reimbursement Loaner bicycles Promotion of location and convenience to public transportation on brochures, website, other materials
Subsidy for walkers and bicyclists Elevator large enough for 2 bikes placed horizontally on the floor Transportation Coordinator
Vanpool subsidy 10% HOV preferential parking spaces New student and employee transportation info packet
Employees paid  for days they carpool Annual transportation information event Transportation Info bulletin board in central location, intranet
HOV parking discount Car-share parking spaces Transportation Management Association membership
Raffle for non-SOV employees EV charging station–Level 2 or higher Emergency Ride Home Program
    Flexible work hours or telecommuting
    Office of Workforce Development

Thanks to Stephanie Groll and the Cambridge Community Development Department for the PTDM table.


Related Previous Postings:

ZONING REFORM: Unlocking Investment in Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities


IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

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

TRANSPORTATION FINANCES: Why Saving Public Transportation Requires Helping Car Drivers


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