I am passionate about intersections - organizational, social, cultural, and physical - where people come together and have to coordinate to figure out what happens next.

Which Came First, the Infrastructure or the Mode Shift?

Posted: February 26th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off

With mode shift its interesting to see how the interplay of opportunity and culture play together. How we choose to get around, specifically in our daily commutes to work or school, can be shaped heavily by land use, by the scale of buildings, by the availability of infrastructure, or by culture. And its is often all of these things together.

To examine this in the context of mode shift, I recently started checking out Social Explorer. It’s a site that allows you to map census data going back to 1790! I decided to look at walking before and after the implementation of highway infrastructure, and to also look at land use in terms of density. I’ve chosen two points, 2010 and fifty years prior, 1960. The results are interesting.

First, lets look at what percentage of people got to work by car in 1960. This map is zoomed out to about the extent of the present-day commuter rail system and to the communities that are largely served by some kind of limited-access four-lane divided highway. These are also communities that are up to about 15 miles outside the city. All of them were served at this time by some level of regional arterial, maintained and administered by what was then the Massachusetts Department of Public Works (the “highway department” didn’t come into being until the 1990′s). These were roads like Route 9, Route 38, Route 28, Route 2, or parkways like the Jamaica Way. What is interesting about these roads at the time, while they connected cities together well enough, they served the populations that lived along them rather than just those passing through.  This made passage slower for those going from point A to point B but raised the quality of life for the communities that they passed through. It also provided just enough incentive to live a little closer to work, raise the demand for public transportation, and make communities more compact. But it also gave opportunity to those wishing to drive to work or make deliveries possible without restriction

You can see that for the most part, outside of Boston’s core, about 50% of commuters drove to work. Even in bike-crazy Copenhagen, about 30% drive to work, because there is always a need for private automobiles. But this also means that 50% of the people living up to 15 miles from the commercial center of the region got to work some other way rather than driving.

Drove 1960

In 2010, after the implementation of not only Interstate 90 running east-west (and largely parallel to the more community-focused Route 9) and Interstate 93, those percentage of those driving to work changes dramatically–even though more jobs can be found 15 miles outside the city than in 1960 and we spent hundreds of millions investing in commuter rail.

Drove 2010

You can see that many census tracts approach more than 90% driving to work. Statistically you can say at that point that “everyone drives” because it is largely true. What is also interesting here is that communities that are part of Boston-proper, and are well-served by the best subway line Boston has–the Red Line–have dramatically increased their share of driving to work. Places like Dorchester and Roxbury, which are some of our lower-income neighborhoods where the burden of automobile ownership is higher, doubled their driving to work habits.

A few places, like the area around Lincoln, decreased their driving to work, along with the areas of Somerville and Cambridge that got the Red Line extension. What is also interesting is that the new Red Line stops in Somerville and Cambridge do not have a highway nearby but the areas of Dorchester that saw a rise in commuting by automobile do have Interstate 93 running parallel to the subway line. Clearly it is difficult for a  subway line to compete with a highway.

Walking is the most interesting form of commuting. In order to walk, you have to live pretty close to where you work–like less than a mile or so. Walking also creates pedestrian activity–the kind you find on Newbury Street even in the dead of winter–allowing all kinds of small, often  proprietor-owned–to be able to exist economically. Pedestrians make for great, vibrant, thriving towns and increase safety on the street.

In 1960, an amazing about of people reported that they walked to work–even if they lived 15 miles outside of the core urban area. Now I’m not saying people walked 15 miles to work. Not at all. Rather, there were more smaller shops, more opportunity for neighborhood shops, more green grocers instead of supermarkets, and so forth. All these places needed workers. And instead of working in a big office building downtown (this was just before the Prudential Center or John Hancock tower was built), commercial areas were distributed more densely across the region. So maybe a lawyer could work in a firm in Newton Center and lived a few blocks away, for example.

Walked 1960

Now in this map we can see that in many towns outside of the urban core, the amount of people walking to work falls somewhere between 4 and 16 percent. This may not seem like a lot, but that’s basically around the targets for GreenDOT’s mode shift goals. It’s a big goal. Just check out where we are today after building highways into the urban core:

Walked 2010

Basically nobody outside the urban core walks to work anymore. The exceptions are college campuses, which are–especially in New England–compact small towns where everything you need in daily life is within walking distance, even if you live off-campus.

One other thing is density. It hasn’t changed as dramatically as how we move around. Planners often talk about increasing density to make car use decline. And while that may be true, what I find is that infrastructure availability is just as important. For example, present-day Somerville is one of the densest places in the United States, and the most dense in all of New England. Yet its population has little to no opportunity to access dependable public transportation and has to rely on bus lines that get stuck in traffic and often run in highly inconvenient intervals. Consequently, the areas at the Cambridge line near the new subway stops after 1960 saw a decrease in driving to work and the areas further away saw a dramatic rise in driving to work.

DENSITY in 1960

Density 1960

DENSITY in 2010

Density 2010

One final note about density. Boston’s West and North End in 1960 has density levels that would compete with present day Hong Kong, Manila, or Dehli. One census tract in the North End had more than 114,000 people per square mile! This is about 8 times the present-day density of Cambridge, a fairly-dense city by North American standards where a third of people commute to work by either bike or walking, and where pedestrian activity is large enough to support many neighborhood centers that fulfill most daily needs.

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