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GreenDOT: Creating a New Cultural Infrastructure at MassDOT

Posted: May 8th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is a new agency, created in 2009 out of the integration of mode-specific transportation-related agencies. The structural change reflects current thinking in transportation projects as well as adheres better to new and upcoming financial, legislative, and regulatory environments. Though the agency has a single executive office, the structures of the departments are largely intact from their previous iterations. This presents challenges to short-term organizational change but also an opportunity. The legislation that created MassDOT required an office of sustainability, and that initiative has created space for a paradigm shift in the goals of the agency, how it implements projects, and how it frames its mission to its employees and constituents. “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 Cagel, a project manager. “We didn’t want to see it as limited to traditional transportation silos. We want to promote healthy transportation.”

In the history of state government involvement in transportation policy, iterations of the overseeing agency have moved from creating and maintaining public space, to focusing on infrastructure development for specific modes of travel. As MassDOT, the agency it has returned to the role of serving the public good. This shift is significant, from physical infrastructure to constituent needs, and has required a new cultural infrastructure in the agency in order to fulfill the new mission. “What we are doing is cultural change and messaging, about what your job is and how our jobs all fit together,” Cagel confirms.

In 1893, the legislature created the three-member Massachusetts Highway Commission, with the mission “to improve the public roads, and to define its powers and duties.” 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 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 new 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.

Land use and transportation are inextricably tied; the amount of infrastructure and options fuel the value of space. The scale of infrastructure also often corresponds to the scale of the communities surrounding it. Highways bring large scale buildings, eating up land at exponential rates. Thirty-five foot wide two-way city streets usually serve compact communities. There is constant pressure to increase the size of streets to adhere to safety and/or higher rates of traffic flow. This in turn often renders communities unwalkable. In the 20th century, 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 de facto 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 serve the singular use of the automobile 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 agency, reflecting a renaissance of thinking about how our infrastructures affect land-use planning, healthy communities, the health of populations, and our reliance on fossil fuels. Thinking has shifted from infrastructure to the people the use it and the communities through which it passes. The legislative process that created MassDOT and the GreenDOT directive was a response to changing demographics, constituent demands, and a new financial reality after a generation of system expansion.

There are national trends that all states are contending with.  More people are choosing healthy transportation options and the view of biking and walking is rapidly changing from a recreational to commuter use. Since 2005, a key metric of future road growth, vehicle miles traveled, has been dropping. Population shifts are taking place that have increased desires to be closer to urban centers and increased the demand of residential space near transit lines. The costs of ownership for private automobiles have steadily increased. The baby boom generation is driving less due to retirement and age. There has been a marked reduction in car ownership among the young, and a rise in car sharing. These factors play into the long term competitiveness of the state–its ability to keep existing and draw new residents and business—as being seen as responsive to constituent needs.

Massachusetts though is also running up against hard realities that are specific to the state. The existing infrastructure is nearing saturation point. Though the population will continue to grow—projected at 8% in the next decade–a corresponding rise among all modes would be physically difficult within existing technical benchmarks.  Some population growth can be accommodated by adding the mode-shifting options that GreenDOT strives for instead of expansion.

Funding for infrastructure is increasingly difficult.  Costs have risen due to complexity, and an overall cost rise in labor and materials. Expansion in most areas would require expensive property purchases.  Real estate values in the state have risen exponentially in the past 20 years.  The state has expanded transportation infrastructure to the point that it is facing increasing funding shortfalls for maintenance. Most new projects are paid for by debt, in the form of bonds, and Massachusetts is second in nation for debt to state GDP ratio, currently at about 20%. Income sources for transportation are stagnant; the state gas tax rate hasn’t risen in 20 years, and revenue is projected to increasingly drop as vehicle miles traveled lowers and vehicles use less fuel due to efficiency gains.

The state is also grappling with larger ecological issues that it plays a part, and its citizens have consistently shown the political will to participate in solutions.  Climate change is connected to fossil fuel burning, much of which happens through the transportation sector. Multiple agencies and institutions have given reduction targets, in addition to federal government mandates for air quality, other regulations, connected to fossils fuel burning.  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. Though advances in vehicle technologies may reduce emissions, the pressure to use land in accordance with the needs to the automobile would continue to increase if that is the only option presented to constituents as viable.

Pressure is also happening from other agencies and disciplines. Transportation choice has been proven to be connected to individual and public health, specifically to combat rise in diabetes and obesity. A North Carolina study found that those who utilize transit were 81 percent less likely to become obese in their lifetime.

Finally the transportation field is changing. New engineering standards are becoming more widely adopted by cities and towns, and organizations like National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the Complete Streets Coalition are creating new guidelines that challenge existing standards.

Taking advantage of the combination of these significant changes, 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—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 directive was issued in June 2010, and an implementation plan with sixteen sustainability goals organized under seven sustainability themes was released in December 2012. It was developed in collaboration with each division. During those 18 months, the project manager implementing GreenDOT sought the advice from a spectrum of stakeholders. She reached outside the agency to transportation advocacy groups early on and engaged internal team members. The executive level had issued the directive, and entry-level employees would be enthusiastic. It was the long-time employees and the citizen groups watching over the agency whose support would be needed to be successful in changing the culture at MassDOT.


Forming Broader Networks

MassDOT may need to go further. GreenDOT has largely been encompassed around change at MassDOT. However the goals of the initiative are woven through land use, health, and the environment, in addition to transportation infrastructure that MassDOT is charged to oversee. The ultimate success of the initiative may rest with developing action networks with state agencies that coordinate land use, health, and the environment and their correlated advocacy groups.


Developing the Right Rewards
The GreenDOT initiative aims to reduce energy use, raise transportation equity, and lower health impacts of transportation. It builds these aims into the new organization implementation.   It is exhaustive in looking at the overview of how the agency can become more “sustainable.”  Much of the plan focuses on goals that are generic enough that they could be applied to any state agency seeking to increase their environmental performance by reducing waste, lowering their effect on air quality, or accommodating multiple forms of transportation.  One section describes replacing light bulbs with more energy efficient versions. Another provides the goal of centralizing energy use reporting so there can be clear picture of reduction targets. Another suggests using spray paint only in filtered booths. Additionally there are proposals to plant native vegetation around agency-owned buildings and holding meetings near transit stops.  While all of these portions of the implementation will lead to better environmental performance, they are not much of a culture change as much as they are a routine change.

GreenDOT could be reworked to focus on mode-shift and land-use, while putting more general goals to an overarching state government initiative coordinated by the Department of Environmental Protection. GreenDOT could then reward for the transportation-related goals instead of hoping they are achieved in conjunction with departmental operating practices.

Adopting New Standards & Reframing

My focus is on the Planning, Policy, and Design section of the GreenDOT implementation plan. This is the area that focuses on mode shift and road diets, specifically the shift within the Highway Department and the increasing inner-agency power of the MBTA and those seeking “complete streets.”  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. Performance indicators of infrastructure of modern engineering standards, which have been in place for a generation,  effectively rule out new or replacement infrastructure to support walkable neighborhoods for urban areas with a large volume of traffic. This is the area most challenging to GreenDOT. This is the intersection of the drivers of change. It is the place where the agency can remove competing commitments.

Even though Massachusetts is state where most of the population lives in “urban” areas—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. 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. It can also achieve this because it is a single city; the planning zoning can work with transportation. MassDOT must contend with 351 cities and town, each with their own demands. “We’re seeing communities insist to have wide travel lanes. Every community is different. We have 351 towns and cities in the state. That changes how projects can happen.” Cagel said.

MassDOT, with their focus on customer service, wants to be open to what constituents want. This is new to a department historically closed off from decision making, both internally and externally. “It’s a big change when you’ve had an organization that’s basically militaristic, links of the chain, to where one link gets the message and everyone is supposed to know it, to all of a sudden, something come along like GreenDOT as well as transportation reform,” Cagel said. 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.


One of the challenges is that 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 allow for the sole creation of infrastructure for automobiles. Even with statements from the secretary, from 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.

Another challenge is that GreenDOT is a directive, not yet part of the mission, and doesn’t have the legitimacy of “providing safe transportation.” 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.


Finding Success

Reframing the role of the agency, and of transportation overall, will be critical to the success of the new agency and of the GreenDOT initiative. 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 years of being separate agencies, all transportation modes have to play in the same sandbox and learn from each other. Kagel, the coordinator at MassDOT, summed up it best “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 org structure, because we’ve been created after the time of highways.”

The assessment of these proposals will rest I think in the ultimate success of GreenDOT. But final assessment will rest in two areas: culture and indicators. We’ll have to see MassDOT reframed as a transportation agency and have that reframing accepted by external actors. We’ll need to see the MBTA getting financial footing. We’ll need to see bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure be integrated into every MassDOT project. We will need to see obesity, diabetes, and energy use rates lower—all the things that transportation effects.

Ultimately, we would see non-transit dependent development sustainably reduce or halt altogether and have distance to a major transit station be one of the top guiding factors in all real estate proformas.

I recently saw Boston Magazine’s annual “25 Top Places to Live,” listing places from all over the Commonwealth using metrics like schools and housing costs. As transportation options expand and automobile operating expenses rise, having the magazine feature only places where you can live car-free would be a top indicator for success; it would signify what Boston mayor Menino stated in his address at the 2011 Bike Update: “The car is no longer king.”

Lifecycle Cost of Consumption on Communities

Posted: May 3rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off

The cycle of raw materials and energy extraction to feed the industrial process to create goods for consumption is, in my view, the central issue in creating sustainable communities. This process creates multiple scales of geographic and socioeconomic inequities, is the source of much of the world’s energy use that contributes to global warming and land use decisions, and directs economies to place the most value on short term individual gains rather than generational gains centered on community.

Much of the social inequities are caused by spatial inequities because we give our space proximal value; what is farther away is less important. This ranges from the placement of highways and industrial areas in our cities to the location of manufacturing facilities needed to create goods to market to the extraction of resources from the earth to power the process. As we gain affluence, the further away our pollution becomes. (McGranahan, Songsore, Kiellen 1996). Is this because affluence requires consumption beyond our needs, thereby forcing us to take resources away from others?

The process of consumption is wholly tied to our collective energy use, in how much we use to manufacture goods, how we transport them to market, where that market takes place, to the procurement process for each individual purchase.

Secondly, our exploitation of energy resources and market failure to price it a sustainable level has distorted our ability to create land-use policies and financial models that would lead to the creation and strengthening of communities that act with an unseen hand guiding them to sustainable consumption. We didn’t create walkable cities prior to 1900 because we liked them; they were created because there wasn’t enough available energy in the system. The amount of energy in the system has given rise to exponential system-induced demand, causing consumption rates faster than population growth (Hempel, L 1999).

Manufacturing and urban development happens most fluidly when there are known and consistent inputs and models; factories need all the raw materials to be priced for overall stability and development needs proformas to market to direct and indirect investors. Large energy inputs have been used to soften volatility in commodity prices (in the form of argo-technologies) and have provided an easily replicable model of development for the expansion of land use. Both of these methods decontexualize land, weather, time, distance, and local market conditions. Prior to tapping into petroleum energy reserves, our consumption patterns were modeled on scarcity. Since then though we think in terms of a lack of scarcity in resources; consumers expect all store shelves to be stocked every day with every product they want.

Though we look to change this system, our methods generally focus on some level of coercion to change behavior: regulations and policies for industry and individuals; social pressure to change individual and household patterns; development and introduction of technologies that make existing processes more efficient; education and training to those that seek to reduce consumption. While all of these hold some value, because they generally focus on outcomes within a system that doesn’t communicate the true costs environmental and social of consumption to producers and consumers, sustaining a paradigm or policy shift may fall drastically short of meeting our goals. Systems work best with feedback loops that allow them to self-regulate. (Urban Sustainability Learning Group 1996)

Supply can determine demand. We act according to the amount of energy available in the system. When the level is lower, social connections become stronger because place a higher value labor and craftsmanship and the reuse of products. We are also forced to build at smaller scales, use less land, and everything becomes spatial closer forcing us to be in more direct contact with more diverse populations and with the extraction, production, and distribution process. Further, the more energy in the system, the more we are able to skew time and distance, allowing us to be more less connected. These change from a human scale to a mechanical scale.

To illustrate this we can select a product and follow it through its lifecycle. To keep the argument succinct, I’ve chosen vinyl siding. I think any product could be used though. Vinyl siding is widely used and highly available. It is also poses significant health and environmental risks in its lifecycle, from the oil extraction to refinement into a PVC-based consumer product to in the way it burns during house fires.

Why is vinyl siding produced? I think there are many reasons. After World War II, the boom in housing combined with the decline of wood products due to deforestation brought a need to create additional exterior cladding materials. This decrease in quality and low-cost wood supply was brought about because of the relative increase in affluence of the post-Civil War era with larger number of people entering the middle class and an increase in overall consumers coinciding with the rise of immigrant populations to the Northeast. They were drawn to the US to seek a higher level of economic prosperity and a more reliable source of food due to the lessons ingrained from the Irish potato blight and similar famines in 19th century Europe. (Warner, S 1978)

In addition there was an increasing decline in craftsmanship because of the rapid industrialization of the previous generation. Over the course of a generation, there were fewer, less skilled people to build houses and the structures had to be built more quickly to meet the market demand.

As the price of wood went up and the level of available craftsmanship went down, aluminium siding became an alternative that was valued for its durability and ease of installation. Further, aluminum siding could be (and was predominantly) made to imitate the look of wood clapboard siding. Clapboard siding was designed because the physical properties of the wood required its design in order to be the most functional in the long-term. This was valued because of the limited availability of energy and relatively high degree of skilled labor available in the system. Products could be produced at scale–and thus at lower costs–when the intersection of availability of energy, such as a running river or burning coal, could be married in time and space with a collection of craftsmen. This was a difficult occurrence.

Like many imitations, aluminium could theoretically be designed in many ways and still achieve the same performance level. But its acceptance in the marketplace predicated it be a replacement product rather than a new design for the most part.

Aluminium siding has drawbacks as an exterior cladding, notably temperature sensitivity and discoloration due to weathering. At the same time as the growing popularity of aluminum siding, we were also experiencing an increase in the availability of petroleum. Each year more was discovered globally (notably with the new reserves secured by Roosevelt on diplomatic missions to the Middle East in an effort to ensure the massive energy inputs needed to sustain war, Wikipedia 2013). Due to the global rebuilding because of the war damage, the supply kept up with demand so that oil futures could make an economic argument for further exploration and extraction of petroleum. The process was feeding upon itself and there quickly reached a saturation of oil in the marketplace.

With the availability of excess petroleum (and concurrent low cost), new value-added products were needed to take up the slack. Plastics offered this, and their rapid development to a viable consumer product opened the door for the production of polyvinyl chloride-based exterior cladding. Vinyl siding began application in the 1950s as a aluminum siding substitution but in the 1970s refinement of the product had reached modern production quality that it was a product onto its own. Further it required slightly less skill, time, and labor to install putting further devaluation on wood craftsmanship and the associated amount of apprenticeship time a new construction industry worker would require or seek, lowering his skill level, increasing his efficiency, and lowering his long-term labor value.

So in this sense, skill was replaced by energy in the form of petroleum. The increased amount of energy in the system lowered the overall earning power of that class of workers–jobs that had a lower level of barriers to entry and whose skills could be learned on the job while getting paid. This is helpful to those without the means to hold off years of earning (even though higher initial education often produces higher lifetime wages).

Vinyl siding was also produced because of all the other factors that goes into its production were available at an industrial scale: large amounts of inexpensive land near transport routes for factories, lack regulations in its production because it was a new product produced through complex methods, unsophisticated labor regulations that under-protects those that take the material through the production process, and an oversupply of a workforce population desperate to survive that was historically given little access to education and training possibilities.

Finally, vinyl siding is primarily produced in geographic areas with historically high political corruption rates making the regulatory environment favorable and industry’s ability to influence policy highly possible.

Once a product is at market though, in order for its production to continue (and all the supplemental economic activities explained above to be profitable) it needs to sell. For this to happen, the product needs to be available in sufficient quantities to meet demand. Its production needs to be scalable and its production cost needs to go down over time. It needs to have a reliable distribution network. It needs to be priced at a level that can be seen as having value.

I think there also needs to be a lack of a sophisticated consumer population. A consumer population that values the craftsmanship of wood siding and the flexibility of choice of color with paint would not be an easy sell. So there needs to be some market education happen at the individual level to influence social networks. Vinyl had this in the thousands of independent contractors given talking points by an industry set up to consistently liquidate its inventory lets natural local social connections and an individual economic reward system work to sell directly to homeowners. A quick visual survey of a neighborhood can give a salesperson easy initial targets. A few houses completed on the street provides instant marketing and a tipping point can ensue.

Lastly, there needs to be an adequate money supply on both the production and consumption ends, in the form of easy access to credit. Production requires large amounts of liquid capital. Consumption requires the ability to pay for the value addition of refinements and value add services provided by highly industrialized and marketed products. Unlike, for example, a hand-made, locally sourced wooden chair from a craftsman, little of the cost of vinyl siding in embedded in its raw materials or direct labor to produce it. The consumption cost of vinyl siding is bore out of each stage of the process and involve many direct and indirect actors, many of which are not providing value to the final product but rather the financial and logistical base that creates the industrial process to allow vinyl siding to be produced. This system is often disconnected in time, geography, and socially from the production process.


The energy inputs allow for a lower final purchase cost because it has devalued everything in the production process. The overall cost bore upon the system–from extraction to disposal and the social implications of that product life cycle though is unknown. The inputs are possible because it is inexpensive.

Further, the energy inputs put power in the hands of energy producers. Our energy sources have shifted from localized and widely distributed wood, water, and wind to distant and concentrated coal and petroleum. This shift has concentrated financial and political power into small groups, further increasing global, national, regional, and local inequities. So much energy is supplied by distant non-renewables into the system that it could not be replaced by renewables, and what non-renewables there are available will become increasingly more difficult and expensive to extract. This will be one way that we achieve a  paradigm shift in the allocation and consumption of energy from demand-led to supply constrained (Owen, Inderwildi, and King 2010).

Inexpensive energy inputs have allowed a devalued industrial system to propagate, reducing the need for skilled labor, increasing the efficiency of large-scale facilities, allowing for land further from urban cores to be initially profitable to property owners at consumption rates incongruous with population need, reducing the immediate economic argument for compact walkable neighborhoods, increasing the complexity of manufacturing to compensate for natural materials inherent complexity, and has put a financial strain on those without access and control of petroleum resources.

Increasing the cost of distant fossil fuel-based energy and the access to localized renewable sources will filter through and communicate to the market of producers and consumers for a reduction at every point of energy use. This would be more than efficiency. It would be in response to scarcity and represent sufficiency. It is this wide distribution of energy–the ability to use more than is available to your immediate proximity–that has given rise to our inequities and environmental challenges.


Hempel, L, 1999. Toward Sustainable Communities: Transition and Transformations in Environmental Policy (American and Comparative Environmental Policy). Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

McGranahan, G., Songsore, J., and Kiellen, M. 1996. Sustainability the Environment and Urbanisation. London: Earthscan.

Warner, S, 1978. Streetcar Suburbs. 2nd ed. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Urban Sustainability Learning Group. 1996. Staying in the Game: Exploring Options for Urban Sustainability. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.csu.edu/cerc/documents/StayingintheGameExploringOptionsforUrbanSustainabilityCNTJune1996.pdf. [Accessed 01 May 13]

Wikipedia. 2013. Saudi Arabia–United States relations. [ONLINE] Available at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudi_Arabia%E2%80%93United_States_relations#World_War_II. [Accessed 01 May 13].

Owen, N, Inderwildi, O, and King, D. 2010. The status of conventional world oil reserves—Hype or cause for concern?. Energy Policy, 38, 4743–4749.