“It’s not the vehicles,” points out MBTA General Manager Dr. Beverly Scott, “it’s the people and places.” She’s right – transportation is not ultimately about moving things from one place to another, not about the roads or rails, but about the world that grows up around the travel routes. The value of transportation comes from the ways it improves the health, prosperity, and well-being of the lives around it. That is why LivableStreets Alliance chose its name. And that is why it is so inexplicable that the Massachusetts’ Legislature has once again “kicked the can down the road” by drastically underfunding our transportation needs.Read more
Politics is the art of the possible and getting things pass requires placating a broad variety of often competing interests. All of which makes it hard to be bold or to even fully address complicated issues. Small, incremental steps are the usual, and often appropriate, approach. So it is rather remarkable when an elected executive comes out with a visionary, risky, and courageous proposal that could actually solve several long-standing problems while setting the stage for greater prosperity and increased equity. Maybe the Governor’s decision to return to the more lucrative private sector has emboldened him, or maybe there is a real turning of the political tide, but even though there are many ways the FY2014 budget proposal and its revenue measures could be improved, it’s overall thrust – including its focus on education, health, and transportation – is truly praiseworthy.Read more
I am old enough to remember the “Whites Only” signs on the water fountains and bathrooms in the American South, the place from which South Africa learned about Apartheid. I remember the anguish my brother went through when he came out, and the contempt of Ronald Reagan and so many others about the ravages of AIDS to which my brother eventually succumbed. I remember the fear that we felt when friends had to suffer through dangerously illegal abortions, and the shock of later learning that so many women in several generations of my extended family had gone through that horrible experience to protect their families or themselves.
So, for the second time I have ended election night in tears, amazed and thrilled that the segregated, gay-bashing, female-stereotyping, culturally repressive society I grew up in had put an African-American man into the Presidency who openly called for the end of those patterns; a BLACK man and family in the White House!Read more
It’s the season for debates. Right now it’s the candidates. But soon enough the topics will include all the issues that elected leaders will have to deal with, from transportation to health care. Debates can be great reality TV: live, dramatic, with mythic overtones. And we seem to have a special reverence for debate. We believe that the clash of opposing sides raises the likelihood of finding truth. Our entire judicial system is based on this principle.
Of course, it’s not always true: as our grandmother’s correctly pointed out years ago, we are most influenced by the opinions of the people around us – our friends and co-workers. Psychologists now say that most people are committed to their own framework of values and assumptions and actually become more entrenched in their positions when confronted with countering facts. Even beyond all that, as every High School debate team and lawyer and political media consultant knows, presentation is often even more important than content; the side that dominates the interaction wins the argument.
This depressing truth has been powerfully displayed in this year’s political campaigns. Elections have always been full of distortions and insults. However, as political strategists increasingly incorporate lessons from advertising and media, their messaging becomes ever more sophisticatedly and powerfully manipulative. Our only defense, other than strict controls over campaign financing and hate speech, is to know the ways we are being tricked. Being angry is not enough – we need to find ways to fight back.Read more
Because government is the arena where so many of society’s conflicting interests fight for influence, and because nearly every decision and action can end up in court, the public sector is more rule-bound than most organizations. The biggest political sin for administrators is making a visible mistake. So public agencies typically evolve very incrementally, and if something isn’t noticeably broken there is seldom any political advantage in fixing it – or even in improving its internal operations. Which is what gives extra credence to the cliché that the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity.”
Fortunately, and unfortunately, Massachusetts’ Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is in the middle of an accelerating crisis. The most visible aspect is the MBTA’s growing revenue shortfall, a “fiscal cliff” that the state managed to avoid last year by using up most of the one-time fixes. But it’s not just the MBTA budget that’s falling apart. The fiscal health of the entire road system is dependent on a diminishing, inflation-unadjusted gas tax. As both transportation needs and maintenance costs increase, the state has been forced to pay for an increasing amount of operational expenses – planning, maintenance, and even administrative work – using bond-financed capital funds. It’s a time-bomb – taxpayers will end up paying for both the project and the interest for decades to come, making future revenues unavailable for future projects and putting the transportation system even deeper into the pothole.Read more
Put more money into bicycling and pedestrian and railroad infrastructure, or less. Move forward from the current small steps towards sustainability (energy development, resource-focused, climate protective, land-use, and economic), or not. Build on the current stutter-steps towards rationalizing our wasteful healthcare system and providing universal access, or not. Increase controls over speculative financial markets, or not. Move cautiously on foreign interventions, or the opposite.
The coming elections provide as stark a choice as any in recent memory.Read more
QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative
In addition to opposing the destructive imposition of highways and other mega projects serving regional needs into urban neighborhoods, Jane Jacobs also advocated for urban revitalization through small-scale citizen initiatives such as the housing program she helped start in New York’s Greenwich Village. But it’s always easier to say “no” than to find a better solution; her program had only limited success.
Still, there is a lot of creative energy floating around in citizenland. Unleashing that volunteer labor could lead to important, even if usually small, improvements not only in our built environment but also in our social connections. Action creates its own tailwind – neighbors emerge from the caves of their private lives when given the opportunity to work together on something of self-evident local value.Read more
Although it was nearly a half-century ago it was also the starting point for most of the transportation issues we face today. The Interstate Highway System was poised to push into the Boston metropolitan area – crashing through Somerville, Cambridge, The Fenway, the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain. Thousands of families had already lost their homes, and thousands more were about to.
Yet, at the seemingly last minute, the destruction was stopped. It took a combination of grass roots protest and elite power politics, but it won – stopping the highways and diverting funds to public transportation. In the process, the anti-highway campaign transformed state and national transportation policy, pulling the War on Poverty’s citizen participation ethos into a whole new policy area, changed government’s priority from serving cars to preserving homes, and taught an entire generation of planners that traffic volume was created by public policy rather than an inevitable independent phenomena.Read more
MODELING POSITIVE CITY-CONSTITUENCY RELATIONS: How Boston’s Transportation Department is Working with the Bicycling Community – and Creating Better Roads
It was pretty amazing that Boston Transportation Department (BTD) Commissioner Tom Tinlin came to the annual Boston Bike program update two weeks ago. (Nichol Freedman once again won over the audience with It was also amazing that he stayed for the whole meeting taking notes on every suggestion and complaint – and that he intends to follow up and then let people know what was done.
It’s even more amazing because it’s actually the Department of Public Works (DPW) that is supposedly in charge of building and maintaining city roads, not the BTD! DPW Commissioner Joanne Massaro chairs, and her staff provides the engineering support for, the Public Improvement Commission which has the responsibility “to lay out, widen, relocate, alter, discontinue or rename public highways, and to order the making of specific repairs.”Read more
LEVERAGING PUBLIC SPENDING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT: Do Multiple Goals Make Projects Better — or Unmanageable?
Keep It Simple. Focus. You can’t walk and tie your shoes at the same time. Projects are much easier to manage, and it is easier to hold project managers accountable, if there is a single and explicit goal. Transparency is vital to maintain public trust in government, and it is best accomplished when the line from spending to result is clear and straightforward.
On the other hand, life is complicated, everything is connected, and the need for improvement is enormous. Every project impacts its audience, and the world, in complex and multiple ways. Given the scarcity of funds and the magnitude of the problems facing us, doesn’t it make sense to leverage every opportunity to create as much positive change as possible – and to increase the odds of overall success by being explicit about each of the top priority goals even if they relate to different issues?Read more