Building and sustaining enduring communities requires aligned goals and actions across institutions, agencies, organizations, and individuals. Moreover, change doesn’t necessarily come at once; it is the work of both the piecemeal and the coordinated.
Developing sustainable communities often involves deep culture and policies changes. These changes can be difficult within existing frameworks. Organizations and groups already going through significant change can present an ideal period to introduce culture changes and build sustainability into the foundation of the outcome organization.
Further, sustainable communities are supported and enhanced by a combination of culture and physical frameworks. The physical infrastructure of transportation, and the policies surrounding their use and funding, is a major component to creating just and sustainable communities when implemented to support them. If it is not, transportation infrastructure and in-place policies can pose a multi-generational challenge.
In 1893, the legislature created the Massachusetts Highway Commission, with the mission “to improve the public roads, and to define its powers and duties.” Members of the three-person commission were appointed by the governor. The Commission was successful; by 1919 when there was reorganization, it had grown in its scope and mission. As the newly renamed Department of Public Works, the agency was “to be in charge of a commissioner and four associate commissioners, two to be in charge of the Division of Highways and two to be in charge of the Division of Waterways and Public Lands, the commissioner to appoint a registrar of motor vehicles.” Its core values were still focused on infrastructure and operations in three categories: “road work, the registration of motor vehicles and the licensing of the operators thereof, as well as the investigation of automobile accidents.”
The Department continued until 1991. During the intervening years, new forms of transportation and delivery systems came into being: airports, ferries, parkways, interstates, turnpikes, and transit. The Department had overseen the building and maintenance of the interstates and the upgrading of state highways to near interstate-design standards, but other forms of transportation were their own agency, focused on its own mode of travel. (The turnpike was a separate legal entity because its funding source was different, though it was functionally an interstate.)
The department changed its name to the MassHighway to reflect its growing singular mission of providing safe high-speed travel on roads managed or owned by the state. MassHighway was the largest and most powerful (politically and financially) of the transportation agencies. The state (and the nation) had chosen to plan its land use fully around the automobile. The agency did little in regard to communities or sustainability; its role was to create and maintain limited-access four-lane separated highways as the design paradigm. These were no longer “public works”; the infrastructure had come to singularly serve the use of the automobile infrastructure and thus serving those with the desire and means to acquire and maintain a vehicle. The name change simply reflected this reality.
This existence of separate mode-focused continued until 2009, when the state reorganized and merged their transportation agencies into a single Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), formed from previously five entities that separately oversaw public works, transit, highways, the turnpike, automobile registration, aeronautics, bridges, and parts of the port authority.
Since the formation of MassHighway in 1991, there has a been renaissance of thinking about how our infrastructures affect land-use planning, healthy communities, the health of populations, and our reliance on fossil fuels. We have shifted our thinking from infrastructure to the people the use it and the communities through which it passes.
Taking advantage of this significant change, the legislation built the new agency on sustainable practices and policies; every part of the agency is being reviewed and subject to the implementation of a new directive: GreenDOT. It is supported and guided by several legislative efforts, from sources other than transportation:
- Climate Protection and Green Economy Act (Mass. Gen. L. c. 21N)
- Green Communities Act (Chapter 169 of the Acts of 2008)
- Healthy Transportation Compact (section 33 of Chapter 25 of the Acts of 2009)
- Leading by Example (Executive Order of Governor Patrick, no. 488)
- MassDOT’s youMove Massachusetts planning initiative
- The “Complete Streets” design standards of the 2006 MassDOT Highway Division Project Development and Design Guide, as amended
Rather than put the infrastructure first, MassDOT is founded on “customer service”; transportation planners, engineers, designers, and policy makers now design in the context of “healthy communities”. The GreenDOT directive states MassDOT “will be a national leader in promoting sustainability in the transportation sector.” And they will “[make] sustainability an integral part of every MassDOT employee’s job, and by integrating these objectives into our organizational vision and mission.”
The new MassDOT has new authority, and an opportunity. “We’d never been a DOT, which was very freeing because states that have had DOTs forever there are a lot of layers to peel back,” said Catherine Kagel, who is coordinating the GreenDOT directive. “We didn’t want to see it as limited to traditional transportation silos, so that is why the greenhouse gas emission reductions are there. We wanted to promote healthy transportation.”
Transportation affects the sustainability of communities in three main ways: energy use, transportation equity, and the health impacts – the supportive and degenerative associations with each mode use. In addition, whole societies, groups within them, and individuals are all affected in different, often obscured ways.
Energy Use affects communities because of the burning of carbon during operation, construction, and manufacturing of transport vehicles. Carbon burning has a direct link to climate change; however this effect is diffuse, distant, and disconnected. Economically, a higher demand regressively increases costs.
Individual operational energy use has increased dramatically in the US between 1970 and 2010 because of our land policies and because of our singular national focus on the building of a highly efficient, widely adopted, and broadly accessible highway system. There has been an incongruous compounding rate between the population level and the vehicle miles traveled level to roughly double. However this period saw vehicle fuel efficiency increase by just 40%. Most of the fuel used to power our vehicles comes from petroleum. Nearly half (43%) of that comes from non-North American sources, of which our governmental relationship has historically been unstable or unaligned. Seventy one percent of the oil we use as a country is used by transportation, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the US. Thus policies to reduce oil consumption have tended to focus on the transportation sector. These policies usually seek to increase fuel efficiency or promote alternative fuels, even though our rise in consumption has been more clearly linked to land use. Effective land use is always predicated on type, level, and quality of transportation, as it forms the critical infrastructure that makes land most valuable for development. Additionally, contextual system-induced demand can occur for each type; network development geared to automobile use and more driving by the population can lead to more driving overall. More development created as connected walkable communities and high-quality pedestrian infrastructure can lead to more walking.
Even though Massachusetts is state where most of the population lives in “urban” areas as defined by density, contextually, most are not walkable and have poor transit service levels. Much of the population has little choice but to rely on the use of the automobile to do daily commuting and conduct household outings—the percentage of the population chooses transit reflects this reality. To put this in perspective, Massachusetts uses twice as much energy per capita in transportation as Washington DC–even though much of DC is built on a similar neighborhood scale as the “urban” areas of Massachusetts. DC can achieve this partially because of a robust subway system, interconnected with bus lines, a general lack of urban highways, and a more walkable environment.
Transportation Equity affects how communities have access to jobs, education, shopping, and entertainment without the burden of owning a private car. Access can be increased by better quality, a denser network of stations, and increased service times. It can also be increased by the creation of walkable communities with easy to access public schools and neighborhood shops for fresh food, fitness and community centers, places of worship, local shops and cafes.
Health impacts affect transportation in terms of air quality, level of physical activity requested by each type or mode, and bodily harm due to transportation. For example, emissions from cars contribute 88% of the US share of carbon dioxide, 56% of all carbon monoxide, and 55% of our share of oxides of nitrogen. The type and level of transportation has direct effect on populations. For example, Somerville has the most excess lung cancer and heart attack deaths per square mile of any of Massachusetts’ 350 cities and towns. Its next door transit-rich neighbor Cambridge has some of the lowest rates. This difference has been proven to be caused by the disproportionate amount of diesel rail and highways in the city. Finally, though Massachusetts has the lowest rate of deaths by automobiles in the US, the state can lower the rate further by increasing access to walkable neighborhoods and extensive transit.
The GreenDOT initiative takes these three factors into account and builds them into the new organization implementation, in addition to looking at the environmental performance of the agency—how energy efficient it is, how much toxic chemicals it uses, how much waste it generates. After a directive was created in 2010, an implementation plan with sixteen sustainability goals organized under seven sustainability themes was released in December 2012, developed in collaboration with each division.
The new MassDOT is presented with a much larger set of constituents: anyone who travels within the Commonwealth utilizing any means. It is one of the largest public agencies in the state with more than 10,000 employees with an operating budget of $700 million, must contend with partner agencies and with a larger and more diverse advocacy base. Perhaps this is why the new agency’s first line of its mission is about customer service rather than the actual infrastructure. And it is why GreenDOT, as a silo-busting directive based on the outcomes of transportation policy has on citizens rather than the development and maintenance of infrastructure, works so well.
But this is very new to divisions historically closed off from decision making. Engineers tend to do things that are accurate to guidelines and directives, often written apart from geographic, social, and environmental context. Roads are built for those passing through, not for those watching the migration happen. It would be as if we built football stadiums purely for the enjoyment of the players.
Long term it would be easy to see how GreenDOT could fail. MassDOT suffers from being a public agency, not an advocacy organization. Though the directive and the implementation plan is effectively requiring it to do so by making sustainability integral to the organizational mission, the culture of MassDOT, as well as all of its engineering design standards, currently focus to the creation of infrastructure for automobiles. The transit portion of the agency suffers from a step-child syndrome. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is handled by the highway division—even though “highways” are specifically designed to exclude these modes in the name of safety and efficiency. Even with statements from the secretary, in December 2012, ““We will build no more superhighways,” this is not what is happening on the ground. With its new focus on customer service, those customers—made up of property owners and developers looking to receive maximum return on their investment which their proformas only allow for parking lots and limited constraints, to cities and towns with outdated zoning codes that cannot contend with “true” walkable urban typologies that match our historic town and city cores, to individual citizens whose only known and accepted method of travel is to drive—increasingly demand the very superhighways that the secretary has said will no longer be built. Even the new buzz of “boulevard” is often implemented as a superhighway with a sidewalk and a few trees; Columbus Avenue in Roxbury is no Commonwealth Ave in Back Bay.
Further, GreenDOT is a directive. A new secretary could change targets and goals, softening them to meet the demands of the majority of MassDOT customers expecting (though maybe not asking for) highways. But I can also see where the new MassDOT could be wildly successful, and GreenDOT can foster true sustainability.
Can a public agency change society, or is it to carry out its wishes? I would argue strongly yes. Public agencies gave us the Interstate Highway System. They brought us the MBTA. Port authorities folded in airports as the technology of flight grew. All of these were to serve the public good, as public works. What MassDOT has going for it is that after all these years, all transportation modes have to play in the same sandbox and align with each other. It isn’t the singular highway department solely serving unsustainable models. Kagel, the coordinator at MassDOT, summed it up “It is pretty exciting to be a multi-modal agency and really mean it. I’m realizing that nationally how different we are with our organization structure, because we’ve been created after the time of highways.”