Baker speaks

Six days ago Governor Baker’s Commission on the Transportation Future of Massachusetts released its report after working it for ten months. It’s certainly good to see that state government recognizes the urgency of doing more than merely repairing the MBTA; that the crucial need is to plan a NEW transportation system, to replace what we have now, geared to 1970 traffic and usage. Today’s traffic has boomed far beyond the 1970 numbers, yet MBTA ridership has not kept pace. It must catch up, now, and quickly, or the entire thing will clam up no matter what state-of-good-rep[air measures the T takes in the five to eight years ahead of us.

That said, I am disappointed by the report in two ways.

First, I think the Commission has tried to do too much. No doubt the following quote is true —

…the (interplay) of many…major forces influencing the larger system in which transportation operates:

how the regulation of land influences the cost of housing; how the cost of housing influences trip patterns; how long commutes and low-density development contribute to carbon emissions and climate change by forcing all but exclusive reliance on personal vehicles; how climate change drives the need to reinforce infrastructure and re-think long-established development preferences; and whether and how electrification and greater levels of autonomy may be able to help the Commonwealth to address these challenges.

— yet a Commission charged with prioritizing a transportation system ought to focus on transportation itself and not be cowed by, or diverted by, other factors, even those these factors all play a part in what Massachusetts communities and commerce might look like in 2040.

Governor Baker charged the Commission in these words, however :

1. Climate and Resiliency: What changes will be needed to reduce transportation
greenhouse gas emissions consistent with Commonwealth targets for 2040? What kinds of investments will be needed to make transportation infrastructure more resilient?
2. Transportation Electrification: To what extent should the Commonwealth encourage or promote electrification of personal vehicles, transit systems and other transportation systems? What changes might be needed to energy infrastructure to support electrification?
3. Autonomous and Connected Vehicles: Over what time frame will autonomous vehicles likely be deployed in Massachusetts and under what policy framework? What changes to policy and infrastructure might be needed to support deployment of autonomous and connected vehicles?
4. Transit and Mobility Services: To what extent will “mobility as a service” change
transportation in Massachusetts? How will the role of public transportation evolve if on demand and mobility-as-a-service options become more widespread in the future?
5. Land Use and Demographics: What changes in land use and demographics could either drive or be driven by the types of disruptive climate, technology and business model changes likely to occur in transportation? What other context issues should the Commonwealth consider when planning for its transportation future?

That’s a lot. I agree that all these events impact the future of transportation and may well determine what is politically doable — and that should be done — yet in my opinion Item 3 is a side matter at best, and Item One cannot be the top priority no matter how significant climate matters may be.

I’ll return to this critique later.

Second, I am troubled to see not even one community activist in the list of  Commission members whose recommendations I will be talking of :

Steven Kadish, Chair
Senior Research Fellow, Taubman Center for
State and Local Government, Harvard

Eileen McAnneny, Vice Chair
President, Massachusetts Taxpayers

Rebecca Davis
Deputy Director, Metropolitan Area Planning
Council (MAPC)

Dan Dolan
President, New England Power Generators

Gretchen Effgen
Vice President, Global Partnerships and
Business Team, Nutonomy

José Gómez-Ibáñez
Derek C. Bok Professor of Urban Planning and
Public Policy, Harvard University

Andrew Hogeland
President, Berkshire County Selectmen’s
Association; Williamstown Selectman

Kenneth Kimmell
President, Union of Concerned Scientists

Carol Lee Rawn
Senior Director of Transportation, Ceres

Timothy McGourthy
Executive Director, Worcester Regional
Research Bureau

Mark Melnik
Director, Economic and Public Policy Group,
UMass Donahue Institute

Colleen Quinn
Senior Vice President of Global Public Policy,

Karen Sawyer Conard
Executive Director, Merrimack Valley
Planning Commission

Sandra Sheehan
Administrator, Pioneer Valley Transit

Stephen Silveira
Senior Vice President, ML Strategies

Navjot Singh
Managing Partner, McKinsey Boston

Kirk Sykes
President & Managing Director, Urban
Strategy America Fund, L.P

I’m sure these are all fine people, thoroughly versed in the professional minutiae of transportation planning; yet should not the commission incorporate actual riders and community activists ? It’s for their benefit (and votes) that the commission is working. It ought to have brought at least four or five activists and riders aboard.(No doubt testimony by activists and riders was received at the five public hearings the Report’s cover letter mentions. I don’t think that’s enough.)

I would also have liked to see participation on the Commission by other advocates, such as Transportation for Massachusetts. Certainly these activist organizations have their own agenda, but a commission planning state policy for everybody ought top include, as feasible, voices of everybody.

We now come to Items 2, 4, and 5. These form the core of any realistic transportation commitments going forward. Electrification of the system is a very defensible priority. I might add that the MBTA is already developing it. Electric buses will be in use by 2023. Certainly demographic change has to determine where new transportation projects will go : you build where the riders are going to be. Mobility service is a very smart rubric for viewing tomorrow’s transportation system. Taxpayers fund a “mobility system,” in other words, a mans of getting around, other than one’s own car or bicycle. The success of Uber and Lyft should make clear to everyone that if the state doesn’t offer a superior “mobility system,” entrepreneurs may do it instead. (That might be  a good thing, except that entrepreneurs will focus on demand, as they must: but transit routes have to be available even to less demanded routes : which is why taxpayer-funded transportation was instituted to begin with.

The Commission has issued its report, so there’s no means now for influencing it. Going forward, I want to see public hearings everywhere, well advertised, so that activists of many kinds can participate (as Boston’s BPDA is now very effectively doing for its Zoning overhaul initiative) and so that workable plans can be agreed to which will establish flexible mobility services that respect climate resilience requirements and which utilize electric power chiefly, maybe altogether. There’s nothing in the Commission report that impedes these discussions or discourages public input from playing a big part in what is eventually committed to.

As the Cover Letter notes :

…against this very complex and interdependent backdrop are the ways in which
our transportation ecosystem itself is evolving rapidly. The birth of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and the advent of car-, bike-, and scooter-sharing are some of the first paradigm-shifting mobility innovations in many decades. Other paradigm shifts that we can only imagine are likely to occur by 2040, but transportation infrastructure will likely remain much as it does today: made up of bridges and roads, rails and airports, and focused on the mass movement of people and goods.

How people and goods move and on what types of infrastructure built and managed by what types of entities will determine much about whether and how the Commonwealth will thrive in 2040.

After Christmas I’ll write Part two of my report, focusing on the meat of the report itself.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere