The Three Legs of Transportation Reform: And Why MassDOT Has To Start Standing On At Least Two Of Them
The debates leading up to the passage of the 2009 Transportation Restructuring Act had three themes:
- Organizational & Operational Reform:
- Creating a unified transportation authority that took a systemic approach and ended the infantile (and wasteful) feuding among the Turnpike, Highway Department, MBTA, Regional Transit Authorities, Mystic Bridge, and other transportation agencies.
- Systemic Transformation:
- Begin transforming our car-centric, imported fossil-fuel dependent, polluting, obesity-enabling, and increasingly dysfunctional transportation system into something better able to help Massachusetts meet the challenges of the current century.
- Financial Stability:
- Ending the funding shortfalls that have left every part of our transportation system unable to maintain current infrastructure, provide appropriate customer service, or meet growing demand.
With GreenDot, Massachusetts has placed itself among the national leaders on climate-protecting, sustainable, healthy transportation. And the challenges MassDOT has to deal with as it moves from general policies to effective action under fiscal constraint will create a path that other state’s will need to follow.Read more
For the past half century, Congress creates a new national transportation funding bill every six years or so. Originally, the primary role of the Highway Trust Fund was to send federal gas tax money to the states to subsidize construction of the Interstate Highway System and other roads. Over time, as national priorities have changed, the bill has authorized the Fund to cautiously include other modes (railroads, transit, bikeways, and walking paths) and a broader perspective (reducing traffic-related air pollution and safety). The most recent six year cycle ended in 2009, and the next Transportation Funding Bill – now being debated – will not only shape how we travel but also the nature of our communities, the cleanliness of our environment, our level of daily physical activity, and much more. All of us have a stake in the outcome.Read more
Imagine that you wanted to invent a better public mass transit system. Like a railroad it would run on an exclusive right-of-way, have weather-protected stations where people with already-bought tickets could wait, and multiple cars with comfortable accommodations. Like a subway, each car would have lots of doors so that large numbers of people, standing or in wheelchairs, could quickly get on and off from a platform that is level with the doors. Electronic signposts at every station would display the waiting time before the next pickup. Like a bus it would change its route and stopping locations as changing need requires. It would be clean and safe and fast and high-status enough to attract both rich and poor. It wouldn’t cost nearly as much nor take nearly as long to build as rail. And it would work best where traffic congestion is worst. Pretty good, right?
What you want to invent already exists. It’s called Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. I’m not talking about Boston’s Silver Line – which is no more BRT than Amtrak’s Acela is a true high-speed rail line. Both use a label that they don’t deserve to cover up their basic failures. They are a sad reminder that the most powerful way to undermine a good idea is with a bad first example. But true BRT already exists in a few cities in this country and many more around the world. We in the Boston area need to erase our negative impressions, start again learning about BRT as if the state hadn’t already spoiled the concept. In fact, there are several places in our own region that could be well served by such a system.Read more
Massachusetts’ new Transportation Reform Act mandates that the Department of Transportation collaborate with Health & Human Services, Environment & Energy, and others to create a Healthy Transportation Compact. The law also requires that the state devise a way of conducting a Health Impact Assessment of new transportation projects. But what does it mean to have a transportation system that is healthy for the environment, for our climate, for the economy, for our communities and families, for the physical and mental wellbeing of those who are moving around and those who are being passed by?
The first thing that assessing “healthy” requires is that we look at transportation as a system rather than as separate modes or separate networks (rail, trolley, bus, cars, trucks, bikes, planes, boats, and feet). Massachusetts’ creation of a Department of Transportation that brings together many of the previously separate travel agencies (MBTA, Turnpike, Mass Highway, Airports) is a good first step, but true systemic thinking will require much more.Read more
American medicine is only peripherally about health; it is primarily about treating disease. It is a sickness treatment system. Even so-called preventive medicine is really about screening and early treatment. What we need is pre-disease prevention: ways to create a lived environment that directly and through its impact on behavior significantly increases wellbeing and reduces the risk of getting sick in the first place. This is where Transportation comes in.
Public Health has traditionally focused on wellness, championing societal measures that that improve living conditions for large populations, or make it easier for individuals to make healthy choices within their everyday life. Clean water, effective sewerage, tobacco taxes and anti-smoking campaigns, eliminating trans fats and other food toxins, requiring seat belts, reducing neighborhood and domestic violence, gun control, vaccination campaigns – these can all be considered public health measures that work by improving the environment, providing services, or shaping the market.Read more
What is the single largest physical asset owned by most cities and towns, and therefore by the public? Your first guess isn’t likely to be correct. The answer is the public way – the street.
Now think of the word: “Street.” Quick – what image comes to mind?
Cars? More cars!
There are other possible images: On the Fourth of July we gather in huge crowds to watch parades go down the street. Kids play basketball, baseball, and hockey in the street. Hand-written posters announce block parties that bring neighbors together to socialize in the street. Festivals bring music or local foods or theater into the streets. In some neighborhoods, families still hang out on the stoop and socialize in the street. Some lucky commercial areas have reclaimed the entire street – the vehicular roadway, the car-parking spaces, and the pedestrian sidewalk – as shared space: full of places to sit and talk and eat and buy things and attracting additional customers to local stores. Occasionally, farmers’ markets take over parking lots. Trolleys and buses can take up part of a street, as can bike lanes and pedestrian crossings. Bus stops, benches, median strips, planted green areas, and even small gardens can be part of the street.Read more
Transportation policy is not changing because traffic engineers (or city planners) have seen the light, or because our society has finally internalized the reality that we can’t build our way out of congestion – every new road will eventually get overused. Even the growing green cultural awareness is not enough, by itself, to cause a shift. I’d like to take credit. But none of us advocates are really to blame — although we have helped push the rotting tree as it falls.Read more