I sat down with Steve Miller, a long-time transportation activist, co-founder of Boston’s Hub On Wheels Bike festival, and a gubernatorial appointee on the state’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board. He currently publishes a weekly blog titled, “The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities.” and is a board member for LivableStreets. In his day job, he oversees the New England Healthy Weight Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Nutter: I wanted to get into a discussion about mode shift. Of all the things we talk about in transportation and environment and urban design and even zoning code and healthy communities and even obesity, mode shift is the knuckle, the key for everything. It’s is the hardest thing to talk about because it can be wonky — “mode shift” itself is a wonky kind of term. It seems to be about creating opportunities for everybody to make their own individual choices. Massachusetts is one of the few states where this is talked about at a high level and the state is becoming a national leader. But nobody is really sure on how to do it. There is the push and the pull and the endgame around it. There’s telling people to walk. People need to have an incentive but they need one that is real — not like a “I’ll give you $5 if you walk to work.”
Miller: When you say mode shift, what shifts are you referring to?
Nutter: I’m talking about a shift from the majority of the population — however much the transportation community wants it to be different — getting around by car to some other form of “active” transportation.
Miller: Many people believe that it’s not true, that the shift is not actually happening.
Nutter: True. And, in fact, no matter what the longer-term demographics are doing, people get around by car. We have an infrastructure that wholly and completely supports that, and really supports nothing else except for some things around the edges.
Miller: I would say inadequately supports transportation by car, actually.
Nutter: Right. It is layers on top of layers, so you have city streets which are historic and made to be for communities and then state highways which were laid on top of that in the early turn of the century, and then superhighways which were laid on top of that which were literally about from A to B. But there was never — even prior to state highways — there was no talk of mode shift. There was a sidewalk, because that is streetlife.
Miller: There is a conscientiousness and a deliberateness now instead of a “go with the flow” like there used to be: People want to drive, so we’ll make cars for roads, which will make more people drive, and therefore people will want to drive so we’ll make more roads. You sort of went with the flow, but now there is this conscientious effort to almost go against the majority flow and with the minority flow.
Nutter: I’d like to know your thoughts on how to achieve that. I know that is a huge question, but luckily we have a series of policies — GreenDOT and others — that are really about mode shift even though they may not say they are about mode shift specifically. In fact, the policies may not even be in transportation, they may be about a health initiative on getting people to walk more. In Massachusetts we are at this point where our roads are at capacity and we have no more space to build roads or add lanes, our subways and buses are at capacity and we have no more money for that, so the only way to accommodate more people and have economic growth is to get people to walk and bike more because that could pull some people away from the subways, some from the buses, some from the highways, in addition allowing for greater choice.
Miller: The first complicating issue here is that mode shift is mostly a derivative impact of other changes rather than an originating goal and strategy. There are things you can do that facilitate mode shift directly, such as creating the ability to do something other than having a car like having bike facilities, having bike festivals, having trolleys and trains. That’s the proactive, positive component. But to develop and strengthen and activate the latent demand, is all a secondary impact. Most of what creates mode shift is changes in land use and zoning, its changes in the economics, and its changes in the distribution of residences to jobs. So part of what makes this complicated is you need to be operating on both sides. And maybe a third side as well, which I’ll get back to.
The first side is you need to operating on these other primary aspects; you need Smart Growth, you need New Urbanism, you need employment justice and spatial geography balancing. These are big picture, longer range projects and movements.
Secondly you need, proactively, to make it feasible to use an alternative. If there is no bike lanes, if there are no bikes, if there are no trains, it doesn’t matter where you live.
The third leg of the stool is the disincentives. That’s where economics comes in. How do you make it cheaper to take the alternatives? Positively, you could subsidize bike purchases or subsidize T-passes. Even more powerful than that is raising the price of gas. Find ways to disincentivize purchase and use through cost and accessibility. We did this with tobacco, making it harder to find a place to smoke, raising the price of cigarettes, and having a cultural thing that makes people who smoke look stupid as opposed to cool.
Some of that is cultural and economic, but there are the physical disincentives. In the Netherlands, they took up the roads away by saying they were for pedestrians or for bikes. Or you make it so cars can’t go fast. What gets interesting about some of this is there are inadvertent ways to do it and there are explicit ways. The inadvertent is you cut your maintenance budget and you just let your potholes sit there. The proactive is you re-time all your intersections to favor bikes and peds and give buses priority even if it messes with traffic flow. That’s a two-fer because it actually incentives and disincentives.
This complication makes this a really hard thing to do. And the mega context that makes it even harder is as you said in the beginning, such a high percentage of the population is so deeply wedded to the use of a car for the fact that there is no alternative, for the the fact that it is enormously convenient. If you’re going more than 10 miles and there are five people in your family and they’re all going different places at unscheduled times, there is no substitute for a car.
Nutter: Unless you live in Manhattan.
Miller: Unless you have enormous geographic change, that’s right. Now though more and more people are living in city centers, or in villages, I think that the great suburban collapse that everybody was touting five years ago is not going to continue. The suburbs are going to re-energize themselves as money flows through the system again. There could be enormous over-developed swaths, maybe outside of Las Vegas, or parts of Atlanta, or Texas that will never recover. But lots of places will recover. So that sort of Death of the Suburbs, “everybody’s moving to the city,” that’s not going to happen. There just are not enough houses in the city.
Nutter: There aren’t enough houses, but if we went with population growth as a measure, one thing we could do is say we can’t develop any more land. Or we can only develop a quarter of the amount of land we would normally need and tied to population growth. Like air pollution. Virgin land development has basically similar long-term effects on our bodies and our communities as pollution. You start to compress people into what the existing infrastructure can hold, and that drives the incentive to develop Smart Growth and bike lanes.
Miller: Now you get into kind of density that people want. Huge fights in Cambridge over Central Square. Do we want Kendall Square to march up Main Street and come into Central Square? I have very mixed feelings. The subway is right here, you should have high rises. I don’t want to live in Manhattan. Its too damn noisy, its too dirty. Where’s the compromise, where’s the way through this?
Nutter: Paris. Also very dense.
Miller: The trick here is smaller apartments. Smaller space between the apartments. And smaller cars. If you don’t provide enough facilities for cars, you start reversing this trend. The micro-apartments in itself is ridiculous. Its never going to be a mass movement to have these 200 sf houses, but starts to set a cultural trend into “smaller is ok.” And I think that’s really important.
So I don’t think there is a particular handle that says we’re going to get mode shift. If I had to come up with a strategy, it would be a lot of this other stuff which is important for its own right and then some proactive investment in alternative facilities. The trick with all the Smart Growth-like strategies is has to make sense in both a mega principal for the future and for someone’s comfort and convenience right now. You have to connect the here and now with the future dynamic. Very few people, not a huge percent, are willing to sacrifice now for the future.
Nutter: That’s really kind of the big thing and the issue with policy and population. Policy generally tries to think about the future. But population and politics thinks about here and now. When the policy expert says “What would be great is if we all rode bikes and this is what we should do to make that happen.” The politician looks at it and says “That’s not what happens right now and my constituents need to elect me next year so I’m not going to be involved in that.” As a state, and as a nation, we have set a goal of mode shift though I wouldn’t call it that explicitly.
Miller: Right. We need a different way to frame it so that is the goal but it is not what we’re explicitly going after.
Nutter: One of the reasons I think the United States is where its at now (in terms of automobile use) is that we have a very different property rights structure than most of Europe or Japan. Because of that, if you own property you can do whatever you want with it, whether or not its for the good of the country or community.
Miller: Very few countries of the world have our kind of attitude.
Nutter: That has given us what we have, combined with these other transportation policies. When I’m looking at it I’m thinking that it has to go back to the property owners. Public infrastructure is one thing but if the built environment is created in a certain way–for example if it is spread out too much or if buildings are too large in scale–meaning the ability of the built environment to interact at the human scale–walking and biking can’t work in that system. One of the reasons why bike lanes and sidewalks aren’t used in areas with spread out development.
Property owners have to be included. They have to start thinking about different ways that they could develop or organize their property. Part of their incentive has to be based on the good that it can bring to the community. They’re not going to do it out of the kindness of their heart. Maybe one percent of them may, but if you’re a property owner, you want to maximize value. Give the property owner some sort of financial incentive to make whatever it is that they do better for the community. For example, the building next to Converse downtown, this first new building that does not have a parking garage. Their proformas initially probably said you’re supposed to have one space per whatever. Not only that, the city said you have to have one space per whatever. But they were able to find some sort of financial incentive to not do that.
Miller: The irony here is that the property owner has a huge incentive not to build parking lots. They are sort of being forced by old policies to do it.
Nutter: And old development models.
Miller: Old policies, old development models, old bank expectations, old neighborhood expectations.
Nutter: We’ve all been attuned to that “we need to provide parking.” And banks don’t give loans to projects that don’t have parking because they might feel its not going to be financially viable. Developers don’t care, property owners may or may not care. They’ll do whatever it takes to maximize the value of their property. Changing that structure seems to be one of the ways. That’s exactly what we did with the suburbs. We had all this rural real estate that had poor infrastructure to get to. If you wanted to be downtown Boston and you were 20 miles away, it took forever. But once you put a highway in, and you put in zoning codes the land instantly becomes valuable. Of course, this is happening in the context that the target customers had accessibility to automobiles and fuel made economically viable through loan programs and subsidized oil.
Miller: This is the side effect of the proactive approach. If you start making more train tracks, and subways and bus lines, people will start developing and then living around them. That’s been the experience almost everywhere. Even bike lanes might have that effect.
Nutter: I think so. I think that Beacon Street in Somerville is going to become the coolest place to live.
Miller: That’s interesting but that’s not so much direct incentive.
Nutter: Its more like a package of incentives. Its not Rich Davey getting up and saying “We’re going to have 5% mode shift.” That’s great but so many people would fight against that. So we need something else that achieves the same goal. I’m trying to figure out why these policies that created GreenDOT are in place and why they’ve taken hold. For example, how did the Healthy Transportation Compact come into being? Why is it real? I mean, it seems like a dream.
Miller: That was Denise Provost who put it in on the behalf of step in Somerville because they were worried about air pollution. Because there is enough overlap of people concerned about air pollution, climate change, bicycling, they all sort of know each other’s arguments and will support them even if they are coming from a particular priority. So on one hand Denise was doing that. On the other hand, when Patrick was first elected, i pulled together a meeting of the secretaries of public health, transportation, and environment. I knew people in the Patrick administration, I used the Harvard connection to get public health, LivableStreets had started so we had some cache in transportation, so once we got one secretary to come, then others had to come because they didn’t want to miss anything. It was right in the beginning of Patrick’s administration. We had a joint meeting with the three secretaries basically around the message that the future of public health, transportation, and environment is coming up with a joint platform.
So when the healthy transportation compact was being put in the legislative package, you already had some acceptance at the highest levels in the administration of having that there. Those two internal things started happening. Externally there has been this resurgence of bicycling, of climate change consciousness all across the country. So you have a larger context and you have a little bit of internal work and you had a champion in the legislature. Most of the people in the legislature and the administration didn’t think through the implications, they just saw the immediate language. “You want to promote healthy transportation? Sure that sounds good.” That’s how it went through. It wasn’t taken seriously for the first couple of years, partly because Aloisi and then Mullen had their hands full just dealing with organizational reform. Mullan’s primary focus was taking all these separate units and actually creating one department. It’s why Davey has some time to think more about the policies. Mullan made gestures toward the policies.
Nutter: I think that this concept of raising the price of fuel is really important. If you could do it very gradually across several years — like we’re going to raise up to $10 across 15 years, whatever it is. Something that gives everyone the ability to adjust because we have a system that is based on gas being $3 a gallon.
Miller: The problem with the gas tax is that Massachusetts can’t get too out of line with its neighboring states. Its on the lower scale of its neighbors at the moment, but more expensive than New Hampshire. We could go up maybe 10 cents to put us relatively on par with Maine and Rhode Island but cheaper than Connecticut and New York. A dime a gallon would be a great beginning, but if we go too high we might lose out. Economic change comes at the margins. The core of the system just keeps churning on. It’s like the economic meltdown. It wasn’t the core that died, it was the speculative fringe. Which is why it doesn’t matter if its two percent. That doesn’t keep it from being the tail that wags the entire dog. The bad part is a sliver of the population or business that would say “Screw Massachusetts, we’re going to New Hampshire” will control what happens to vast majority.
Nutter: Is there a way that you would propose raising the cost of fuel from a policy perspective?
Miller: I think what you’re saying is the right way, but I’m not sure if goes far enough. Now with all the fracking, the cost of fuels are dropping. One way is to continue subsidizing electric vehicles and hybrids. Another is start being really pushy about zoning and smart growth. I don’t know if you’ve been following the zoning reform efforts but it’s just some minute changes that we’ve been able to get through. It is taking forever. Somebody told me they had been working on this for 20 years. This year we have a small chance and what they’re going to accomplish is small. The best would be congestion tax. The problem with that you just reinforce the suburbs, you give incentives for businesses to move to the suburbs.
Nutter: Unless their employees don’t want to be there. Its one of the reasons Converse is relocating. I was told that prior to Google opening an office in Pittsburgh, the mayor was touting to them the education in the area, etc. But Google said they’d like to open up a place but the city didn’t have enough bike lanes. Not enough infrastructure. Their employees wouldn’t want to move there. So it’s keeping up this momentum, that you don’t want to have to drive.
Miller: How do you make that stick. How do you make culture an active policy focus? That’s a hard one. That’s about hipsters and cool and the media.
Nutter: But its also about people who do it everyday, who are not only making it work, but its their choice. I heard on the radio recently someone talking the line attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” I think that is what culture change is all about. If you are within a group of people they just start changing. But if you go up to someone and say “you should change” that’s when they’ll push back simply because you told them to change.
Miller: You have to live it. This is where bicycle ambassadors are important, those of us who just go out and do it.
Nutter: Riding my bike around Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, in the past three years has gotten immensely better. Partially because of the infrastructure but because the drivers and the community is attuned to seeing me there. Even though there are just a couple of cyclists. There is really just a smattering.
Miller: Yes, it turns out that we cyclists are the margin that is shaking the dog.