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

The Journey

Posted: May 6th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Journey

Mode shift means having populations change their travel behavior, usually through economic and infrastructural incentives. What I’ve found though is that’s just half of the solution, because these incentives are created by organizations — legislatures and agencies. Just as we ask populations to shift their behavior, the other side has to change as well. Both the producers and the consumers of transportation have to broaden their field of scope to see other ways of accomplishing goals. It’s a mind set.

In transportation terms, agencies and planners have previously focused on narrow methods to achieve objectives: residential areas are far from commercial areas. Traditional planning says the best possible solution is to build four lane divided highways between these two land use areas, allowing trips between the two places. Where we can’t do so because of space or financial limitations, we’ll build as close to that as possible. Done.

Mode shift takes a step back though. The mind set of mode shift says we can get from origin to destination in a variety of ways, and as policy makers, planners, and builders, we should equitably support this daily journey.

Agencies charged with making these options available may try to accomplish the goal in the same manner it built highways: come up with a solution, budget for it, and implement. Anything outside that scope might seem hard to integrate.

Taking a trip is very different than taking a journey.

Last week I was in meeting with MassDOT about, among other things, how the GreenDOT directive could influence and achieve mode shift. A host of advocacy groups were represented, though lacking any driver advocates. Perhaps we didn’t need them, as this is an agency up until a few years ago a large part of it was nearly solely focused on building highways for automobiles to get from point A to point B as quickly and safely as possible. No more. MassDOTs focus is now multimodal; planes, trains, and automobiles. Plus walking and biking.

The agency is growing into its new identity. We talked about how to achieve better mode shift and how we, as advocates could help. So many ways. There are so many projects that are being planned that there isn’t even enough time to promote them to advocates. Projects that improve pedestrian and cycling environments are being implemented at highways speeds.

There is no time to do a power map, research case studies, visualize data, or suggest bibliographies. There isn’t a quantification of what you can do, or even should do. Only what you have to do.

Our hosts were gracious. We were often thanked for our time, our insight, and our passion to partner with a state agency. But concurrently apologizing for the rushed nature of the meeting. There were projects to complete!

It is in this academic study I got to take that step back, to equitably include additional methods for mode shift: coalition building, power mapping, court cases, media and messaging. In my first post, I described mode shift partially as the perception of the public of what is possible. The “I need to go to work each day, as safely and quickly as possible at the least cost.” Right now, the only perception is generally narrow: buy a car, drive it work, park it. MassDOT has changed their focus though; all modes must be accommodated.

The outcomes of mode shift is that populations change their behavior. The challenge is letting them know that this new freedom to choose is possible, encouraged, and supported in the same way we used to do for automobiles.

Mode Shift: A conversation with a veteran dog wagger

Posted: April 1st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Mode Shift: A conversation with a veteran dog wagger

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.

Power Mapping Mode Shift

Posted: February 26th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Power Mapping Mode Shift

Microsoft PowerPoint - MPP+session+6+power+map

I recently mapped out the power struggles of achieving substantial mode shift in Massachusetts. When trying to change or enhance a specific policy, its easy to get wrapped up on a few known people or groups who oppose it. With most policies though there are few who would outright oppose it, and often a complex web of power with issues that have little to do with the policy itself.

With mode shift there are a number of individuals and groups who may choose one side or the other. The largest realization here was that there are a substantial amount of small, local players. Because mode shift involves rethinking the existing space we use for automobiles and better funding for transit, the some groups will have a larger stake in one or the other.

The most interesting strategy came out of this exercise that is a truism for all policy: making it relevant to each potential supporter and non-supporter. Groups aligned with the issue–like public health groups–may not participate because transportation isn’t part of their agenda. Other groups and individuals may initially object to individual mode shift projects but could be persuaded to be supporters if they could see how it would help them.

With mode shift, it is important to realize that Massachusetts isn’t going to become Copenhagen. Rather the goal is to develop an incentive structure that promotes choice, ultimately removing a percentage of automobile trips. This means less traffic congestion. And that can appeal to nearly everyone. As the classic Onion article headline reads: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others



Which Came First, the Infrastructure or the Mode Shift?

Posted: February 26th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Which Came First, the Infrastructure or the Mode Shift?

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.

Two Interesting Case Studies

Posted: February 5th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Two Interesting Case Studies

There are many case studies that survey the links between land use, the environment, and transportation. Here are two that I’ve found particularly interesting. The first is from 2004, by Jonathan Levine & Aseem Inam, titled “The market for transportation-land use integration: Do developers want smarter growth than regulations allow.

The authors suggest that developers are basically building within the system that they are regulated in, and that if given the choice, they would rather build walkable communities.

The second case study is from The Harvard Forest, Harvard University. Released in early 2014, Changes In The Land, describe four scenarios for the future of Massachusetts, based on land use and transportation network. The case study argues that how we shape our land use policies will affect how our forests are able to function.

One report comes from the consumption and the other from conservation. But both point to the similar outcomes: our want to live in compact, walkable, connected communities meshes well with our need to better manage our land. It is our policies inbetween these needs and wants that have been most resistant to change.

Achieving Mode Shift in Massachusetts

Posted: January 29th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Achieving Mode Shift in Massachusetts

Over the next few months I’m going to be examining the policy topic of mode shift, an specifically how it can happen in Massachusetts.

Mode shift is clearly a transportation policy phrase. Few in the public think about shifting modes when they choose walking over driving to get to a destination. Most likely they will be making the choice because its the option available to them that feels most convenient or is part of their natural behavior. If you live in compact, walkable neighborhoods where many of your daily needs can be met in short walks, and where the infrastructure takes into account for your level of ability, and where that journey is perceived as safe and pleasant, you might choose walking over driving. If there are disincentives to driving–perceived lack or high direct cost of parking, or traffic congestion–these may cause you to walk even those some of the more positive incentives are lacking.

Successful mode shift is the result of an integrated set of changes to our physical environment, land use and zoning, policy, and individual behaviors. A series of policies that are being written that help achieve these goals ranging from the direct, like making the costs of driving more transparent and achieving more equitable funding for non-automobile infrastructure, to less direct like creating large scale and coordinated conservation zones around cities and towns to limit long term sprawl so that future development will be constrained and compact to increase the walk-ability of cities and towns.

Massachusetts is taking a national lead in developing sets of policy directives (some coordinated and some not) that span transportation, environment, public health, and zoning to achieve mode shift. While mode shift is good supporter of goals in each of these areas, the state has additional reasons. We are a small state where much of our land use is constrained. We also have dense, complex, and expensive to maintain existing automobile infrastructure that is near capacity. Both of these happen in a vibrant economic environment, creating long-term population growth. One way to allow for growth is to remove some automobile trips from the system. For Massachusetts, mode shift is an economic necessity.

Brooklyn Design Published

Posted: December 31st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Brooklyn Design Published


Grounding the McGrath

Posted: November 14th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Grounding the McGrath


Vehicle Miles Travelled, Convienence Stores, & Obesity

Posted: August 12th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Vehicle Miles Travelled, Convienence Stores, & Obesity


In the past 40 years there have been substantial changes to how we transport ourselves from home to work, school, and social activities. Partially through demand of users and partly because of system-induced demand–the way we have built our cities and towns–we are driving more, walking less, and living at longer distances from our daily activities than we were before.

In addition, highway design standards have evolved to become the defacto design standard against which all other roads are judged. This has been due to the perceived safety and efficiency of a road designed to highway standards: usually divided multiple lanes in each direction, reduced crossings though substantial turning lanes at major intersections in combination with “free” rights (a single lane with a radius that allows turning without waiting for a signal change), specific grade changes and curve radii, among other features. Originally developed for the Eisenhower Interstate System for mainly rural areas, these design standards have been applied at some level to all means of road systems, often without context in mind. At the same time, we have seen an ever increasing level of public debt to pay for the new infrastructure. Together with the vast increase in disconnected suburban housing divisions that have a sole-reliance on the automobile commuting travel, these changes have been marked by an exponential increase in vehicle miles traveled. In perceived correlation, we have also seen obesity rates rise, and since the mid-1990s, rise at faster rates than before.


To begin to examine these changes, I have chosen one year in the recent past where all the necessary data is available, 2008. To further sort the data, I’ve created two groups: states that were listed as obese in that year and those that were not (where 0=not obese and 1=obese). Those states are shown in the Obesity Trends (figure 1) here as Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

My research hypothesis is that there is a positive correlation between the levels of higher highway debt as a percent of total expenditures, and higher vehicle miles traveled per licensed driver, and higher obesity rates.

This hypothesis comes from two assumptions. First, there are limited functions of government and also limited resources. A state that spends more on highways often does so as an economic investment though highways tend to serve automobile-centric sprawl in the suburbs and tends to reduce walkability in urban areas. Could it be that the bonding of highways takes resources away from programs and policies that might encourage walkable neighborhoods and discourage driving? Secondly, the hypothesis assumes that sedentary lifestyles—driving is essentially sitting—contributes to weight gain. There is some research that validates both of these assumptions; it is beyond the scope of this study to examine these any more than anecdotally.


Interestingly, while the level of the population that is measured as overweight has seen little change in the past 50 years (figure 2), while the level of obesity—those with more than 30% body fat (BMI) has risen since the late 1970’s and this roughly correlates with the 150% percent change since then in vehicle miles traveled.

I’ve also looked an additional variable beyond automobile use and infrastructure. When a road is built to highway standards it often promotes the development of specific businesses designed to perform best in automobile-centric environments; parking lots easy to access, large signs, long expanses of street frontage. One of the most successful business models has been the convenience store, often with an attached gas station. Their growth rate has risen dramatically over the past forty years and the business model is largely made possible by roads designed to highway standards. Convenience stores usually sell heavily processed food products that nutritionists claim lead to obesity. I compare the amount of convenience stores per licensed driver, the amount of vehicle miles traveled per licensed driver, to the number of lane miles available (where one lane three miles long would be the same as three lanes one mile long). As a secondary hypothesis, I propose there is a positive correlation between these variables.


All but one of the variables included in this study comes from the federal government and primarily from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Additionally, I have captured a few variables from the Census Bureau and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The FHWA and the CDC do not actively engage in data collection.[1] Rather their role is to work with the states — their highway and health departments respectively — to establish collection guidelines and to combine and publish the data. The data from the FHWA comes from the annual Highway Statistics. Data from the CDC comes from their also annually published Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System[2], a measure of behavioral risk factors of the adult population.

To find the annual expenditures of each state, I have turned to the professional membership organization National Association of State Budget Officers’ (NASBO) annual State Expenditures Report[3]. Its data is gathered directly from the budget officer of each state and all budget officers are members and report.

The Variables, in detail

1) Amount of Highway Debt. From Highway Statistics, sheet SB-1 “State Obligations for Highways – 2008, Obligations Issued or Assumed During Year”. This number describes the combined debt currently owed by the state for all years up to and including the study year. The table can be found at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2008/sb2.cfm.

2) Total Expenditures. From the National Association of State Budget Officer’s annual State Expenditures Report. The number includes nearly everything the state spends money on, no matter the source of funds. The report can be found at http://www.nasbo.org/sites/default/files/2009-State-Expenditure-Report.pdf.

3) Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). Vehicle miles traveled are the number of miles driven within the study area. Data included in this report comes from Highway Statistics, table VM-2, “Functional System Travel, Annual Vehicle – Miles” found at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2008/vm2.cfm.

4) Total Lane Miles. Defines the hypothetical length of all the lanes in the study area if they were connected in as single continuous lane. For example, a four lane one mile road would be four functional lane miles. The data comes from the table HM-60“Functional System Lane-Length – 2008 Lane-Miles”, found at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2008/hm60.cfm.

5) Obesity Rate. The Center for Disease Control classifies adults as obese is they have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30. BMI is a calculated score created by an individual’s weight divided by the square of their height and multiplied by 703. Those classified as obese are statistically prone to higher health issues. The numbers used in this study are for the population of the state as published in the 2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

6) Number of Licensed Drivers. This number is the population of all licensed drivers, therefore a reduced population number that includes only those with the ability to be the primary user of the infrastructure. This number is taken from Highway Statistics table DL-22 “Licensed Total Drivers” found at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2008/dl22.cfm.

7) Number of Convenience Stores. This number by counting the convenience stores in each state, using data from the American Fact Finder, based the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes for convenience stores (445120) and convenience stores with gas station (447110).

To develop my dataset, I took these variables and combined them into a single spreadsheet. Further, I did calculations to break several down on a per licensed driver level before bringing it into Stata.


My research hypothesis is that there is a positive correlation between the levels of higher highway debt as a percent of total expenditures, and higher vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per licensed driver, and higher obesity rates.

Using multiple regression analysis, with the obesity rate (ObesRt) as the dependent variable, we can see that vehicle miles traveled strongly correlates to obesity but we would reject that highway debt has correlation.

If nobody drove, the data is reporting that the obesity rate would be about 19%. The data shows that there is a very strong correlation between the amount a population drives and the overall obesity rate. (figure 3)


Interestingly, this correlates well with the measured rise in national obesity levels describes in the first section of this study. However, how much highway debt a state has has little significance to its rate of obesity.  In fact, this dataset shows a negative correlation; the more highway debt the lower rate of obesity in a state.
(figure 4) Additionally, to compensate for the potential “red flags” of outliers in both of these graphs, the same anayslis was performed with removing them but achieveing the same general outcomes. Further, each comparison has different outliers and comparing all states was important to the integrety of the dataset.


When looking at vehicle miles traveled broken down by states that are labeled as obese (group 1) against states that are labeled as not obese (group 0), the two groups show as be less than or equal confirming my hypothesis between VMT and obesity rates . (Stata command: ttest VMTperLD, unpaired unequal by(ObesState))


So what is it that does correlate? I took all the variables and created a correlation matrix (see attachment at the end of this paper). What it has found is that most of the correlations are market demand related (highlighted in yellow). For example, expenditures of a state correlates to the amount of highway debt; vehicle miles traveled per licensed driver correlates to the amount of lane miles a state has per licensed driver; the number of convenience stores correlates to the number of licensed drivers in the state. Among those correlations though three were less than obvious (highlighted in orange):

  1. Obesity rate to total lane miles
  2. Obesity rate to vehicle miles traveled per licensed driver
  3. Obesity rate to the number of convenience stores per licensed driver

I think there is a more complex relationship between obesity and road infrastructure—without regard to how its construction has been paid for, which is why the convenience store statistics in the dataset (though I now find them to be too limited) have been included. There are many factors at the individual-choice level that define the level of obesity in the overall population. For example, scientists often point to the intake of added sugars from soft drinks as one of many major correlations with obesity. (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sugary-drinks-fact-sheet/).  Connecting that, soft drinks are the number one selling item at convience stores, according to Convienence Store News. (http://www.examiner.com/article/the-cost-of-top-4-sellers-convenience-stores).

This dataset shows a strong correlation between the more road infrastructure and the amount of convenience stores, even when controlling for the amount of licensed drivers. (figure 5)


The more roads available, the more your population has the opportunity to drive and visit a convenience store to purchase soft drinks. This study used a combination of standalone convenience stores and those that also have a gas station, so some of this correlation is simple market response of providing fuel to drivers. However, gasoline sales have low profit margins (figure 6) and convenience store sales augment this.


The connection between roadway infrastructure and obesity illustrates a point: obesity rates are partially reflective of an infrastructure—physical and economic—that induces behavior. For example, by doing a regression analysis of just lane mile to number of convenience stores, the data shows a very high significance level.

Large-scale travel by automobile and consumption of processed food products—both of which would only occur when it is perceived as the “easiest” option and the availability of processed food also seen as “easiest” (or rather “convenient”?)—could lead to obesity. Again, this dataset shows a disconnect when trying to over-generalize. Correlation between lane miles per licensed drivers and obesity is weak. States that have the highest lane miles per licensed driver have no higher obesity rates than states with the lowest. (figure 7)


What is interesting though is that we can make connections between the amount of road infrastructure and convenience stores, and we can make connections between obesity rates and convenience stores, and between obesity rates and the amount the road infrastructure is used (via vehicle miles traveled). Connections are possible yes, but statistical correlations using the dataset given are inconclusive, and all further discussions all becomes anecdotal without further study.

One takeaway is that the tradeoffs of land use planning and government spending become apparent using the dataset. States that design their infrastructure and land use to require more use of the automobile—the sprawl model of growth—the less it spends per person. In essence, it is an inexpensive upfront cost to grow through sprawl for states. Two correlations show up in a kind of counterbalance: states that spend more per person have less convenience stores overall. When there are less convenience stores per licensed driver, the obesity rate falls in conjunction. Basically: States that spend less per person force their populations to use the automobile as their primary means of transportation (because they are not paying for the complex coordination and development of walkable neighborhoods with transit that requires a larger government role). The more automobile travel, the higher the obesity rate and the higher the obesity rate, the more convenience stores there are.

There is a bit of murkiness to the dataset and another takeaway is that my dataset is too small and/or random. To start to speak to questions about state spending would need more economic variables in the dataset—GDP, or a measure of inequality, or simply income levels set into groups.

My final takeaway was found by breaking the states into two groups: those labeled as obese and those not. The dataset seemed even more insufficient when doing analysis in this manner: states were not “obese” had significant correlations with regard to vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and their overall obesity rate, with an intercept of 20% if VMT were zero.

In the obese group of states, VMT had little significance to the obesity rate, however their intercept was 28% obese if VMT were zero.

Summarized: there is something else at play in states labeled as obese.

This brings the analysis back to the number of convenience stores. Running through multiple regression of the rates of obesity to vehicle miles traveled, lane miles, and the number of convenience stores (all by the number of licensed drivers in the state), the grouping of obese states and not obese states shows an interesting result: the number of convenience stores is the most significant finding to the obesity rate among the obese states.

Final summary correlation (but not causal) takeaway: states become overweight (heading to obesity) if they drive a lot, but only to a certain level. To become obese, they need to have a lot of convenience stores. To put another way and to put very broadly: inactivity will make you gain weight, but inactivity plus poor food choices will make you obese.

[1] From the executive summary of the FHWA report Highway Statistics, prepared by The Office of Highway Policy Information: “The vast majority of highway data are submitted by the States. Each State is analyzed for consistency against its own past years of data and also against other State and Federal data. Major issues are resolved with the help of the data provider.”

[2] From the 2008 BRFSS Overview document: “The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) is a collaborative project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. states and territories. The BRFSS, administered and supported by CDC’s Behavioral Surveillance Branch, is an ongoing data collection program designed to measure behavioral risk factors for the adult population (18 years of age or older) living in households. BRFSS field operations are managed by state health departments that follow guidelines provided by the CDC. These health departments participate in developing the survey instrument and conduct the interviews either in‑house or by using contractors. The data are transmitted to the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Behavioral Surveillance Branch for editing, processing, weighting, and analysis. An edited and weighted data file is provided to each participating health department for each year of data collection, and summary reports of state‑specific data are prepared by CDC.”

[3] From the appendix of the report: “The Fiscal Year 2009 State Expenditure Report reflects three years of data: actual fiscal year 2008, actual fiscal year 2009, and estimated fiscal year 2010.The text of this report focuses on actual fiscal year 2009 data, with a secondary focus on estimated fiscal 2010. This report documents state expenditures in six functional categories: elementary and secondary education, higher education, public assistance including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other cash assistance, Medicaid, corrections, and transportation. All other expenditures make up a seventh category. The report includes expenditures from four fund sources, including general funds, federal funds, other state funds, and bonds. States were asked to include spending from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) in the federal funds totals for the seven categories. Data for each category typically include employer contributions to current employees’ pensions and to employee health benefits for employees.”

GreenDOT: Creating a New Cultural Infrastructure at MassDOT

Posted: May 8th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on GreenDOT: Creating a New Cultural Infrastructure at MassDOT

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.”