MassDOT is legitimately proud of its progressive policies about creating a sustainable, multi-modal transportation system. But the transfer from policy to facts on the ground has been very uneven and incomplete. This isn’t surprising: as with many other endeavors, road construction is a complex and multi-player process with gridlock and human life at stake. It’s not easy to turn a ship as big and disjointed as MassDOT with its highway-trained staff and its enormous web of highway-derived vendors.Read more
EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough
The Human Scale is a wonderful movie based on the powerful insights and work of progressive urban planner, Jan Gehl; it’s now available in CD format. Everyone who loves cities should see it. In potently visual scenes, the film lays out his critique of today’s automobile-focused high-rise urban design, the dangers of top-down authoritarian planning and “mega projects,” the value of allowing “ordinary” citizens to shape development goals, and the dynamism unleashed by embracing unplanned and open-ended grass-roots creativity. It’s an important message from a brilliant person who carries forward the best of the Jane Jacobs and William Whyte tradition of human-centered city life.Read more
MassDOT deserves enormous credit for trying to connect its investment decisions with the desired outcomes. It’s a challenging and complicated undertaking, constrained in many ways by federal reporting requirements, limited data, and unverified impact-calculating methodologies. The fact that their first attempt, the very impressive WeMove Massachusetts: Planning for Performance tool, is deeply flawed (for example, defining mobility solely as car travel) is much less important than the Agency’s public willingness to admit those flaws and commit itself to an iterative improvement process. This is something that every public— and private – organization needs to take on, not merely to better serve its stakeholders but also to be better in control of its own fate.Read more
It takes resources to run a city. Of course, the most important resource is people: the capabilities and creativity of its work force, the strength and resiliency of its families and neighborhoods, the civic engagement of its residents – and if Mayor Walsh is really smart he will find many ways to encourage city volunteerism in every segment of government and social life.
But money also counts. Transportation, parks, social services, fire, police, housing, schools, and everything else: all cost money – inescapably (and legitimately) more today than yesterday, more tomorrow than today. State law makes cities’ revenue overwhelmingly dependent on property taxes; they provide about two-thirds of Boston’s operating budget. And (in Massachusetts) the Prop. 2½ limits on increasing the rates on pre-1982 buildings make local governments desperate for new development, particularly commercial development which has higher tax rates than residential buildings. (The Boston Business Journal complains that “commercial properties downtown, in the Back Bay, and the Seaport… are taxed at nearly three times the residential rate …and generate more than half of Boston’s total tax levy….”)Read more
Techno-utopians. It wasn’t long ago that we were being told that digital Information and Communication Technologies would solve nearly every problem and transform the world in wonderful ways, small and big. Cars would be routed around congestion; government would more accurately chart population needs. Although there were some efforts to broaden the scope of “smart” to include people as well as systems, the vision was primarily about technology.
Tom Menino’s tenure is now measured in weeks. Deval Patrick is entering the monthly count-down period. But neither of them has left yet. And until they do, advocates (and everyone else) seeking to advance their issues will have to deal with how these elected executives and their administrations function during their lame duck days — which is directly related to what kind of legacy they hope to leave behind.Read more
It is through our built environment that we shape ourselves and the world. Living, working, and moving around in dysfunctional, cramped, unsafe, polluted, or just ugly places not only affects our mood and health but also our relations with those around us and the natural environment. The need to maximize the positive impact of our buildings, transportation systems, and even our usually hidden infrastructures will continue to grow as the weather gets weirder, resources get more expensive, and cities get more crowded.Read more
THE NEXT MAYOR’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating Prosperity by Lifting the Basement Instead of Raising the Roof
When bank-robber Willie Sutton was asked why he held up banks, he supposedly quipped, “Because that’s where the money is.” Cities, like every level of government, also have to go where the money is. In this country, government’s aren’t usually able to set up state-owned firms able feed revenue back into the general budget. So paying for social services and the huge variety of regulatory tasks needed to keep a complex society smoothly functioning requires our governments to collect taxes. And healthy tax collection requires a healthy economy, which requires successful private businesses.Read more
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.
Enthusiastic support for Public-Private Partnerships (P3) seems to extend across the entire political spectrum. The P3 label is a huge umbrella, providing space for small-government conservatives who think business can do things better, pragmatic liberals who want to harness the resources and energy of the private sector during a time of government fiscal constraint, and innovation progressives looking for strategies to extend the public sector’s positive influence.Read more