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)
• 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.
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.”
The cycle of raw materials and energy extraction to feed the industrial process to create goods for consumption is, in my view, the central issue in creating sustainable communities. This process creates multiple scales of geographic and socioeconomic inequities, is the source of much of the world’s energy use that contributes to global warming and land use decisions, and directs economies to place the most value on short term individual gains rather than generational gains centered on community.
Much of the social inequities are caused by spatial inequities because we give our space proximal value; what is farther away is less important. This ranges from the placement of highways and industrial areas in our cities to the location of manufacturing facilities needed to create goods to market to the extraction of resources from the earth to power the process. As we gain affluence, the further away our pollution becomes. (McGranahan, Songsore, Kiellen 1996). Is this because affluence requires consumption beyond our needs, thereby forcing us to take resources away from others?
The process of consumption is wholly tied to our collective energy use, in how much we use to manufacture goods, how we transport them to market, where that market takes place, to the procurement process for each individual purchase.
Secondly, our exploitation of energy resources and market failure to price it a sustainable level has distorted our ability to create land-use policies and financial models that would lead to the creation and strengthening of communities that act with an unseen hand guiding them to sustainable consumption. We didn’t create walkable cities prior to 1900 because we liked them; they were created because there wasn’t enough available energy in the system. The amount of energy in the system has given rise to exponential system-induced demand, causing consumption rates faster than population growth (Hempel, L 1999).
Manufacturing and urban development happens most fluidly when there are known and consistent inputs and models; factories need all the raw materials to be priced for overall stability and development needs proformas to market to direct and indirect investors. Large energy inputs have been used to soften volatility in commodity prices (in the form of argo-technologies) and have provided an easily replicable model of development for the expansion of land use. Both of these methods decontexualize land, weather, time, distance, and local market conditions. Prior to tapping into petroleum energy reserves, our consumption patterns were modeled on scarcity. Since then though we think in terms of a lack of scarcity in resources; consumers expect all store shelves to be stocked every day with every product they want.
Though we look to change this system, our methods generally focus on some level of coercion to change behavior: regulations and policies for industry and individuals; social pressure to change individual and household patterns; development and introduction of technologies that make existing processes more efficient; education and training to those that seek to reduce consumption. While all of these hold some value, because they generally focus on outcomes within a system that doesn’t communicate the true costs environmental and social of consumption to producers and consumers, sustaining a paradigm or policy shift may fall drastically short of meeting our goals. Systems work best with feedback loops that allow them to self-regulate. (Urban Sustainability Learning Group 1996)
Supply can determine demand. We act according to the amount of energy available in the system. When the level is lower, social connections become stronger because place a higher value labor and craftsmanship and the reuse of products. We are also forced to build at smaller scales, use less land, and everything becomes spatial closer forcing us to be in more direct contact with more diverse populations and with the extraction, production, and distribution process. Further, the more energy in the system, the more we are able to skew time and distance, allowing us to be more less connected. These change from a human scale to a mechanical scale.
To illustrate this we can select a product and follow it through its lifecycle. To keep the argument succinct, I’ve chosen vinyl siding. I think any product could be used though. Vinyl siding is widely used and highly available. It is also poses significant health and environmental risks in its lifecycle, from the oil extraction to refinement into a PVC-based consumer product to in the way it burns during house fires.
Why is vinyl siding produced? I think there are many reasons. After World War II, the boom in housing combined with the decline of wood products due to deforestation brought a need to create additional exterior cladding materials. This decrease in quality and low-cost wood supply was brought about because of the relative increase in affluence of the post-Civil War era with larger number of people entering the middle class and an increase in overall consumers coinciding with the rise of immigrant populations to the Northeast. They were drawn to the US to seek a higher level of economic prosperity and a more reliable source of food due to the lessons ingrained from the Irish potato blight and similar famines in 19th century Europe. (Warner, S 1978)
In addition there was an increasing decline in craftsmanship because of the rapid industrialization of the previous generation. Over the course of a generation, there were fewer, less skilled people to build houses and the structures had to be built more quickly to meet the market demand.
As the price of wood went up and the level of available craftsmanship went down, aluminium siding became an alternative that was valued for its durability and ease of installation. Further, aluminum siding could be (and was predominantly) made to imitate the look of wood clapboard siding. Clapboard siding was designed because the physical properties of the wood required its design in order to be the most functional in the long-term. This was valued because of the limited availability of energy and relatively high degree of skilled labor available in the system. Products could be produced at scale–and thus at lower costs–when the intersection of availability of energy, such as a running river or burning coal, could be married in time and space with a collection of craftsmen. This was a difficult occurrence.
Like many imitations, aluminium could theoretically be designed in many ways and still achieve the same performance level. But its acceptance in the marketplace predicated it be a replacement product rather than a new design for the most part.
Aluminium siding has drawbacks as an exterior cladding, notably temperature sensitivity and discoloration due to weathering. At the same time as the growing popularity of aluminum siding, we were also experiencing an increase in the availability of petroleum. Each year more was discovered globally (notably with the new reserves secured by Roosevelt on diplomatic missions to the Middle East in an effort to ensure the massive energy inputs needed to sustain war, Wikipedia 2013). Due to the global rebuilding because of the war damage, the supply kept up with demand so that oil futures could make an economic argument for further exploration and extraction of petroleum. The process was feeding upon itself and there quickly reached a saturation of oil in the marketplace.
With the availability of excess petroleum (and concurrent low cost), new value-added products were needed to take up the slack. Plastics offered this, and their rapid development to a viable consumer product opened the door for the production of polyvinyl chloride-based exterior cladding. Vinyl siding began application in the 1950s as a aluminum siding substitution but in the 1970s refinement of the product had reached modern production quality that it was a product onto its own. Further it required slightly less skill, time, and labor to install putting further devaluation on wood craftsmanship and the associated amount of apprenticeship time a new construction industry worker would require or seek, lowering his skill level, increasing his efficiency, and lowering his long-term labor value.
So in this sense, skill was replaced by energy in the form of petroleum. The increased amount of energy in the system lowered the overall earning power of that class of workers–jobs that had a lower level of barriers to entry and whose skills could be learned on the job while getting paid. This is helpful to those without the means to hold off years of earning (even though higher initial education often produces higher lifetime wages).
Vinyl siding was also produced because of all the other factors that goes into its production were available at an industrial scale: large amounts of inexpensive land near transport routes for factories, lack regulations in its production because it was a new product produced through complex methods, unsophisticated labor regulations that under-protects those that take the material through the production process, and an oversupply of a workforce population desperate to survive that was historically given little access to education and training possibilities.
Finally, vinyl siding is primarily produced in geographic areas with historically high political corruption rates making the regulatory environment favorable and industry’s ability to influence policy highly possible.
Once a product is at market though, in order for its production to continue (and all the supplemental economic activities explained above to be profitable) it needs to sell. For this to happen, the product needs to be available in sufficient quantities to meet demand. Its production needs to be scalable and its production cost needs to go down over time. It needs to have a reliable distribution network. It needs to be priced at a level that can be seen as having value.
I think there also needs to be a lack of a sophisticated consumer population. A consumer population that values the craftsmanship of wood siding and the flexibility of choice of color with paint would not be an easy sell. So there needs to be some market education happen at the individual level to influence social networks. Vinyl had this in the thousands of independent contractors given talking points by an industry set up to consistently liquidate its inventory lets natural local social connections and an individual economic reward system work to sell directly to homeowners. A quick visual survey of a neighborhood can give a salesperson easy initial targets. A few houses completed on the street provides instant marketing and a tipping point can ensue.
Lastly, there needs to be an adequate money supply on both the production and consumption ends, in the form of easy access to credit. Production requires large amounts of liquid capital. Consumption requires the ability to pay for the value addition of refinements and value add services provided by highly industrialized and marketed products. Unlike, for example, a hand-made, locally sourced wooden chair from a craftsman, little of the cost of vinyl siding in embedded in its raw materials or direct labor to produce it. The consumption cost of vinyl siding is bore out of each stage of the process and involve many direct and indirect actors, many of which are not providing value to the final product but rather the financial and logistical base that creates the industrial process to allow vinyl siding to be produced. This system is often disconnected in time, geography, and socially from the production process.
The energy inputs allow for a lower final purchase cost because it has devalued everything in the production process. The overall cost bore upon the system–from extraction to disposal and the social implications of that product life cycle though is unknown. The inputs are possible because it is inexpensive.
Further, the energy inputs put power in the hands of energy producers. Our energy sources have shifted from localized and widely distributed wood, water, and wind to distant and concentrated coal and petroleum. This shift has concentrated financial and political power into small groups, further increasing global, national, regional, and local inequities. So much energy is supplied by distant non-renewables into the system that it could not be replaced by renewables, and what non-renewables there are available will become increasingly more difficult and expensive to extract. This will be one way that we achieve a paradigm shift in the allocation and consumption of energy from demand-led to supply constrained (Owen, Inderwildi, and King 2010).
Inexpensive energy inputs have allowed a devalued industrial system to propagate, reducing the need for skilled labor, increasing the efficiency of large-scale facilities, allowing for land further from urban cores to be initially profitable to property owners at consumption rates incongruous with population need, reducing the immediate economic argument for compact walkable neighborhoods, increasing the complexity of manufacturing to compensate for natural materials inherent complexity, and has put a financial strain on those without access and control of petroleum resources.
Increasing the cost of distant fossil fuel-based energy and the access to localized renewable sources will filter through and communicate to the market of producers and consumers for a reduction at every point of energy use. This would be more than efficiency. It would be in response to scarcity and represent sufficiency. It is this wide distribution of energy–the ability to use more than is available to your immediate proximity–that has given rise to our inequities and environmental challenges.
Hempel, L, 1999. Toward Sustainable Communities: Transition and Transformations in Environmental Policy (American and Comparative Environmental Policy). Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.
McGranahan, G., Songsore, J., and Kiellen, M. 1996. Sustainability the Environment and Urbanisation. London: Earthscan.
Warner, S, 1978. Streetcar Suburbs. 2nd ed. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
The concept of sustainability has matured in the past decade, but its current (multiple) foundations were developed in the 1990s. I think in order for the movement or the academic study to grow and further mature, it would be helpful to re-examine these earlier guiding thoughts.
Jeb Brugmann’s paper “Is There a Method in Our Measurement? The use of indicators in local sustainable development planning” in Local Environment from 1997 is a great example of early study on achieving sustainability. His paper further galvanized my thoughts toward rejecting how we talk about sustainability in a way that focuses on outcomes. This kind of thinking has since pervaded much of the sustainability community. Further, one of the worst problems is we have siloed the interests, work, and knowledge of sustainability to a small portion of the population.
The ability for a community to be environmentally sustainable is comparable for it to be economically sustainable. All the information isn’t known to all the actors, rational decisions are often not made, and even if they were, a complex social organization forms its foundation. Indicators seek to rectify this reality by creating measurement of parts of the system. Again, economics provides an excellent model for environmental. Everybody involved in an economic system has deep motivation for participating in their most rational way. Further, everybody, no matter their interest level or political leanings or education level participates in economic systems. We have developed an extremely large body of knowledge around economic systems, and we have thousands of people each day actively examining existing and/or creating new indicators that measure, literally, everything. Any yet, our economic system–in generational terms–is broken.
Perhaps this is a critique of our economic system rather than the indicators, but my point is that even in a mature field with multiple formal and informal actors all working each day for their own motivation we have a system that often works against itself.
Indicators are an examination of outcomes. And like with economic sustainability, environmental sustainability has too many outcomes. Brugmann discusses this in regard to Seattle; that what was being measured needed broad agreement–which involves multiple discussions and a lot of time, that they developed an initial 100 indicators then shortened to 28.
But these were coming from 500 goals and policies. Which themselves were paired down in not only a political process but in capacity of human organizations to take in information and have the time to integrate it.
We could go crazy with indicators. The measurement of things is infinite. The analysis and dissemination of the results of the measurements requires not only time but to be part of any leadership agenda. Is this even possible?
I think indicators are a good place to start a conversation. However, they focus on outcomes rather than inputs. Environmental sustainability is often about consumption and is fully determined by the availability of inputs; we can’t consume what isn’t available.
Indicators have been a defacto way to argue for new reduction in consumption patterns. For example, the LEED certification process, now required in many municipalities for new buildings, is completely about indicators–measurements of a building’s impact. To reduce consumption is to restrict behavior–to say we shouldn’t or should do something, and because we live in a democratic adult world, the level of reduction often up for discussion. As if it was a choice!
The problem with sustainability is we don’t have a choice. The environment will change whether we measure its change or not. Children don’t stop growing when you stop measuring their height.
Further, indicators, while a way of understanding what is to be done, are an ineffective way to increase sustainability in the long term. As a tool for increasing sustainability, they are like trying to stop each buckshot as it is expelled from a shotgun to prevent it from hitting its target. Or rather it is like trying to stop the buckshot from a billion shotguns to prevent it from hitting a million targets.
Indicators are asking people to make a choice–at the governmental level, at the industry level, at the community level, at the individual level. But we don’t have time for that discussion, that ask. Indicators are reactive to what is happening. For true sustainability, we need preventative measures. We need to remove the source of consumption. We need to remove the ability to consume.
The Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) study looks at the health risks of highway pollution. Began in 2008 to monitor the air in Somerville around Interstate 93, the study has expanded to Dorchester, South Boston, and Chinatown. It is funded by National Institutes of Health grant to Tufts and has included several of the local organizations where there air is being studied.
While the study is large–they have collected more data than can be analyzed at the moment–the study website has a short film titled Highway to Health.
Elin Reisner, a Somerville resident and advocate, begins “There were some really bad mistakes made when they built I-93 that we’re still paying for in terms of people’s health.” I found this to be just an amazing quote (and the film fleshes it out and puts it in context), as it is as much about I-93 as it is about any urban highway.
I have been uneasy about highways in urban areas since childhood. The walkable, generally equitable town I grew up in is living through a slow decimation that began after US 50 was developed into a 4-lane overpass through the city, making it much easier to develop land outside of the core area. The highway brought with it–reciprocally with greater household incomes, the availability of inexpensive fuel, and a community mindset to match–increased car ownership and eventually system-induced demand. The walkable core became less desirable because there was limited parking, the land outside of downtown became easier to access because of the speed of the car and road infrastructure that facilitated it, and the vast streetcar network experienced dwindling ridership to the tipping point of being unprofitable. All leading to further demand for automobile travel, more parking, and more land use developed in a way that limits true walking connectivity. This is a scenario that has played out thousands of times across the US in the past 50 years in an ever-increasing rate. There are hundreds of readings and videos about this topic — it’s an old yarn by now.
And that is why the video, and the corresponding study, give me an aha moment. The other sources I’ve read or watched encompass infrastructure-driven physical and economic changes. Sometimes they include anecdotal comments about rising levels of obesity, diabetes, or loss of neighborhood social cohesion. But they leave out the localized health impacts that the CAFEH study does so well to begin to uncover.
I was amazed by two things. First, the idea of such a focused study—the highways around Boston, and specifically researching Interstate 93—is intriguing. The highways are an untapped data source that seems to receive little localized research. Most of the work happening is at the regional level, under the assumption that mobile pollution affects larger scales. What if we, as standard practice, put air quality monitoring devices every mile in urban areas? What kind of results would we see? The video described that those living within 100m of a highway have the highest exposure to mobile pollutants. Cars and trucks produce particulates–we have known that since the first internal combustion engine. However, the advances in measurement devices have brought the public health community to know that a vehicle produces different sized particles. The larger ones our bodies can filter. But the smaller ones–the ultra-fine particles–pass through our body’s natural filters making their way deep into the lungs causing cancer and sudden heart attacks. In fact, of the mortality rates of 100 surrounding communities, 14 have 75% in excess of lung cancer and heart issues. When you map them out they line up with the highways surrounding Boston. As advocate Steve Miller says in the film, it’s an “unfair distribution of benefits and costs”.
Secondly, I was surprised that we don’t do this in the first place. I am on a working group for planning changes to McGrath Highway, and it is the first transportation planning study to incorporate a Health Impact Assessment. We’ve been making urban highways for a generation and while many go through an Environmental Impact Assessment, there isn’t a lot of research on the human side of things. This video made me think more that infrastructure projects don’t focus enough on that community context. I think this should be part of the mix of every large scale project. The interstate in Somerville carries 150,000 vehicles each day. That’s more than 54 million vehicles traveling past the houses along the highway each year. The video and study showed to me that we have built first and research later in terms of infrastructure impact on communities. I think I’m still just amazed that so many urban highways were built. The fact of the work and views are rapidly changing – because of research like the CAFEH study – gives me good hope. I think is these other voices—coming from the health side and not just the planning side—that fleshes out arguments for change. In order for change to happen we need a choir of voices.
Building and sustaining enduring communities requires aligned goals and actions across institutions, agencies, organizations, and individuals. Moreover, change doesn’t necessarily come at once; it is the work of both the piecemeal and the coordinated.
Developing sustainable communities often involves deep culture and policies changes. These changes can be difficult within existing frameworks. Organizations and groups already going through significant change can present an ideal period to introduce culture changes and build sustainability into the foundation of the outcome organization.
Further, sustainable communities are supported and enhanced by a combination of culture and physical frameworks. The physical infrastructure of transportation, and the policies surrounding their use and funding, is a major component to creating just and sustainable communities when implemented to support them. If it is not, transportation infrastructure and in-place policies can pose a multi-generational challenge.
In 1893, the legislature created the Massachusetts Highway Commission, with the mission “to improve the public roads, and to define its powers and duties.” Members of the three-person commission were appointed by the governor. The Commission was successful; by 1919 when there was reorganization, it had grown in its scope and mission. As the newly renamed Department of Public Works, the agency was “to be in charge of a commissioner and four associate commissioners, two to be in charge of the Division of Highways and two to be in charge of the Division of Waterways and Public Lands, the commissioner to appoint a registrar of motor vehicles.” Its core values were still focused on infrastructure and operations in three categories: “road work, the registration of motor vehicles and the licensing of the operators thereof, as well as the investigation of automobile accidents.”
The Department continued until 1991. During the intervening years, new forms of transportation and delivery systems came into being: airports, ferries, parkways, interstates, turnpikes, and transit. The Department had overseen the building and maintenance of the interstates and the upgrading of state highways to near interstate-design standards, but other forms of transportation were their own agency, focused on its own mode of travel. (The turnpike was a separate legal entity because its funding source was different, though it was functionally an interstate.)
The department changed its name to the MassHighway to reflect its growing singular mission of providing safe high-speed travel on roads managed or owned by the state. MassHighway was the largest and most powerful (politically and financially) of the transportation agencies. The state (and the nation) had chosen to plan its land use fully around the automobile. The agency did little in regard to communities or sustainability; its role was to create and maintain limited-access four-lane separated highways as the design paradigm. These were no longer “public works”; the infrastructure had come to singularly serve the use of the automobile infrastructure and thus serving those with the desire and means to acquire and maintain a vehicle. The name change simply reflected this reality.
This existence of separate mode-focused continued until 2009, when the state reorganized and merged their transportation agencies into a single Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), formed from previously five entities that separately oversaw public works, transit, highways, the turnpike, automobile registration, aeronautics, bridges, and parts of the port authority.
Since the formation of MassHighway in 1991, there has a been renaissance of thinking about how our infrastructures affect land-use planning, healthy communities, the health of populations, and our reliance on fossil fuels. We have shifted our thinking from infrastructure to the people the use it and the communities through which it passes.
Taking advantage of this significant change, the legislation built the new agency on sustainable practices and policies; every part of the agency is being reviewed and subject to the implementation of a new directive: GreenDOT. It is supported and guided by several legislative efforts, from sources other than transportation:
Climate Protection and Green Economy Act (Mass. Gen. L. c. 21N)
Green Communities Act (Chapter 169 of the Acts of 2008)
Healthy Transportation Compact (section 33 of Chapter 25 of the Acts of 2009)
Leading by Example (Executive Order of Governor Patrick, no. 488)
The “Complete Streets” design standards of the 2006 MassDOT Highway Division Project Development and Design Guide, as amended
Rather than put the infrastructure first, MassDOT is founded on “customer service”; transportation planners, engineers, designers, and policy makers now design in the context of “healthy communities”. The GreenDOT directive states MassDOT “will be a national leader in promoting sustainability in the transportation sector.” And they will “[make] sustainability an integral part of every MassDOT employee’s job, and by integrating these objectives into our organizational vision and mission.”
The new MassDOT has new authority, and an opportunity. “We’d never been a DOT, which was very freeing because states that have had DOTs forever there are a lot of layers to peel back,” said Catherine Kagel, who is coordinating the GreenDOT directive. “We didn’t want to see it as limited to traditional transportation silos, so that is why the greenhouse gas emission reductions are there. We wanted to promote healthy transportation.”
Transportation affects the sustainability of communities in three main ways: energy use, transportation equity, and the health impacts – the supportive and degenerative associations with each mode use. In addition, whole societies, groups within them, and individuals are all affected in different, often obscured ways.
Energy Use affects communities because of the burning of carbon during operation, construction, and manufacturing of transport vehicles. Carbon burning has a direct link to climate change; however this effect is diffuse, distant, and disconnected. Economically, a higher demand regressively increases costs.
Individual operational energy use has increased dramatically in the US between 1970 and 2010 because of our land policies and because of our singular national focus on the building of a highly efficient, widely adopted, and broadly accessible highway system. There has been an incongruous compounding rate between the population level and the vehicle miles traveled level to roughly double. However this period saw vehicle fuel efficiency increase by just 40%. Most of the fuel used to power our vehicles comes from petroleum. Nearly half (43%) of that comes from non-North American sources, of which our governmental relationship has historically been unstable or unaligned. Seventy one percent of the oil we use as a country is used by transportation, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the US. Thus policies to reduce oil consumption have tended to focus on the transportation sector. These policies usually seek to increase fuel efficiency or promote alternative fuels, even though our rise in consumption has been more clearly linked to land use. Effective land use is always predicated on type, level, and quality of transportation, as it forms the critical infrastructure that makes land most valuable for development. Additionally, contextual system-induced demand can occur for each type; network development geared to automobile use and more driving by the population can lead to more driving overall. More development created as connected walkable communities and high-quality pedestrian infrastructure can lead to more walking.
Even though Massachusetts is state where most of the population lives in “urban” areas as defined by density, contextually, most are not walkable and have poor transit service levels. Much of the population has little choice but to rely on the use of the automobile to do daily commuting and conduct household outings—the percentage of the population chooses transit reflects this reality. To put this in perspective, Massachusetts uses twice as much energy per capita in transportation as Washington DC–even though much of DC is built on a similar neighborhood scale as the “urban” areas of Massachusetts. DC can achieve this partially because of a robust subway system, interconnected with bus lines, a general lack of urban highways, and a more walkable environment.
Transportation Equity affects how communities have access to jobs, education, shopping, and entertainment without the burden of owning a private car. Access can be increased by better quality, a denser network of stations, and increased service times. It can also be increased by the creation of walkable communities with easy to access public schools and neighborhood shops for fresh food, fitness and community centers, places of worship, local shops and cafes.
Health impacts affect transportation in terms of air quality, level of physical activity requested by each type or mode, and bodily harm due to transportation. For example, emissions from cars contribute 88% of the US share of carbon dioxide, 56% of all carbon monoxide, and 55% of our share of oxides of nitrogen. The type and level of transportation has direct effect on populations. For example, Somerville has the most excess lung cancer and heart attack deaths per square mile of any of Massachusetts’ 350 cities and towns. Its next door transit-rich neighbor Cambridge has some of the lowest rates. This difference has been proven to be caused by the disproportionate amount of diesel rail and highways in the city. Finally, though Massachusetts has the lowest rate of deaths by automobiles in the US, the state can lower the rate further by increasing access to walkable neighborhoods and extensive transit.
The GreenDOT initiative takes these three factors into account and builds them into the new organization implementation, in addition to looking at the environmental performance of the agency—how energy efficient it is, how much toxic chemicals it uses, how much waste it generates. After a directive was created in 2010, an implementation plan with sixteen sustainability goals organized under seven sustainability themes was released in December 2012, developed in collaboration with each division.
The new MassDOT is presented with a much larger set of constituents: anyone who travels within the Commonwealth utilizing any means. It is one of the largest public agencies in the state with more than 10,000 employees with an operating budget of $700 million, must contend with partner agencies and with a larger and more diverse advocacy base. Perhaps this is why the new agency’s first line of its mission is about customer service rather than the actual infrastructure. And it is why GreenDOT, as a silo-busting directive based on the outcomes of transportation policy has on citizens rather than the development and maintenance of infrastructure, works so well.
But this is very new to divisions historically closed off from decision making. Engineers tend to do things that are accurate to guidelines and directives, often written apart from geographic, social, and environmental context. Roads are built for those passing through, not for those watching the migration happen. It would be as if we built football stadiums purely for the enjoyment of the players.
Long term it would be easy to see how GreenDOT could fail. MassDOT suffers from being a public agency, not an advocacy organization. Though the directive and the implementation plan is effectively requiring it to do so by making sustainability integral to the organizational mission, the culture of MassDOT, as well as all of its engineering design standards, currently focus to the creation of infrastructure for automobiles. The transit portion of the agency suffers from a step-child syndrome. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is handled by the highway division—even though “highways” are specifically designed to exclude these modes in the name of safety and efficiency. Even with statements from the secretary, in December 2012, ““We will build no more superhighways,” this is not what is happening on the ground. With its new focus on customer service, those customers—made up of property owners and developers looking to receive maximum return on their investment which their proformas only allow for parking lots and limited constraints, to cities and towns with outdated zoning codes that cannot contend with “true” walkable urban typologies that match our historic town and city cores, to individual citizens whose only known and accepted method of travel is to drive—increasingly demand the very superhighways that the secretary has said will no longer be built. Even the new buzz of “boulevard” is often implemented as a superhighway with a sidewalk and a few trees; Columbus Avenue in Roxbury is no Commonwealth Ave in Back Bay.
Further, GreenDOT is a directive. A new secretary could change targets and goals, softening them to meet the demands of the majority of MassDOT customers expecting (though maybe not asking for) highways. But I can also see where the new MassDOT could be wildly successful, and GreenDOT can foster true sustainability.
Can a public agency change society, or is it to carry out its wishes? I would argue strongly yes. Public agencies gave us the Interstate Highway System. They brought us the MBTA. Port authorities folded in airports as the technology of flight grew. All of these were to serve the public good, as public works. What MassDOT has going for it is that after all these years, all transportation modes have to play in the same sandbox and align with each other. It isn’t the singular highway department solely serving unsustainable models. Kagel, the coordinator at MassDOT, summed it up “It is pretty exciting to be a multi-modal agency and really mean it. I’m realizing that nationally how different we are with our organization structure, because we’ve been created after the time of highways.”
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is new. It has been born out of a collection of several other previously fiscally and administratively disconnected agencies. Each however had a focus on transportation infrastructure development, delivery, and maintenance. For each then was a shared mission and while their combination initially proved a difficult task politically, ultimately their collection as a single agency makes sense.
In Entrepreneurial Strategies for Managing Interagency Collaboration, Page has made a survey of several recent scholars work on this topic–specifically, Behn 1991 & 1997; Moore 1995; Osborne and Plastrik 1997; Feldman and Khademan 2000; Khademan 2002; and Kettl 2000—and arrived at six strategies for entrepreneurial management in public agencies.
MassDOT, because it is a new single agency, has aspects of both interorganization initiatives and intraorganization ones. Though it is new–or perhaps because of it—the agency has exercised all six strategies in some way. This is important because the combined agency’s first mission is not infrastructure delivery. Rather, the agency has been implemented with the goal of customer service. It has moved from several inwardly focused agencies to a single outwardly focused model. This gave it new authority, and an opportunity. “We’d never been a DOT, which was very freeing because states that have had DOTs forever there are a lot of layers to peel back,” said Catherine Kagel, who is coordinating the GreenDOT directive.
One piece that Page suggests is important to the successful implementation of these six strategies is leadership and culture. MassDOT is young and not yet having strong shared culture older agencies may own. In addition, it has had three secretaries in as many years of its existence. In my analysis of MassDOT, I can see that its initial implementation was so strong—each aspect of the agency and how it was to function was laid out in a fresh legislative document with input from the implementing stakeholders—that the changing leadership was less important. Kagel noted this as well in an interview.
Even though the leadership has changed in the initial implementation, MassDOT has implemented two culture-building initiatives: “But We’ve Always Done It This Way” and GreeDOT. Both are examples of one or a combination of Page’s distilled strategies.
I will go through each strategy and reflect on how MassDOT has adopted them.
1: Establish clear mission & goals
MassDOT was established with a mission statement for the new organization: “Deliver excellent customer service to people who travel in the Commonwealth, and to provide our nation’s safest and most reliable transportation system in a way that strengthens our economy and quality of life.”
Because it is a new agency, its mission has been clearly defined and it is connected temporally to implementers. In addition, the GreenDOT initiative has brought to the foreground a set of principles that have been sourced across divisions and with the advocates and codified into an implementation plan available to all.
2: Embrace accountability to overseers
This is less clear to me in how the agency has implemented this. If it is happening, as an outsider, it is happening at an internal level.
3: Redesign production processes to enhance flexibility to customers
Since becoming MassDOT, it has systematically taken a new approach to customers through surveys, project website, and a general level of openness not seen in previous agencies.
4: Adjust administrative system to support new production processes by shifting control down
Through the “But We’ve Always Done It This Way” initiative, there has been changes in how new ideas become reality. For example, each month the secretary reports to the board, which always starts off by talking about individual employees and who their innovative ideas toward achieving the customer service model are being implemented. This is a top-level process, and I can assume—through interviews and literature—that this is a process of imbuing the agency with a culture of speaking your mind.
The GreenDOT initiative has done this in two ways: by developing a framework of achievement based on lower-level control from the outset and by creating benchmarks in that are fully in control of project and division managers.
5: Establish consequence to motivate state performance
Continuing on the topic of reporting to the board, the employees featured in that report are listed as first, second, and third place—meaning that this development of innovative ideas is a contest. It establishes how success can be had—a consequence of good ideas.
6: Change organizational culture to sustain other strategies
This has been perhaps the biggest hurdle for MassDOT, as well as with the implementation of the GreenDOT initiative. Though the other strategies have been implemented—at some level—full maturity of the organization must come from the culture change at the project manager level. As engineers, they have a much larger role in decision making that perhaps at other organizations. All projects start with an interpretation of the technical requirements based on standards and history. Each project must be signed off in a legal and professional manner—signed drawings with a stamp of the registration of the individual overseeing engineer’s name and registration number. There is a lot of personal investment in each project.
The leadership, as well as the organizational mission, have given the existing engineers the leeway to move toward a new future. So I feel the only way to achieve this strategy is through time; individual positions change, people retire, new people are hired, etc. Time is an important factor in culture change.
This is where Page hits it spot on; “managing a complex single agency is similar to managing interorganizational initiatives.” MassDOT, both because of it history and its size, fits this perfectly. Part of its strength lay in its engineers with historical knowledge. With the GreenDOT initiative, they can act as essentially interorganizational partners; they must share power with other divisions in order to achieve the goals. They could leave at any time, it could be that the economy and/or the dedication to the agency that is keeping them in place.
Finally, we can find that MassDOT is in many ways a quasi-interagency organization at the moment due to it age and competing missions (old mission vs. new missions combined with institutional history). The approach taken of the two main initiatives, GreenDOT and “But We’ve Always Done It This Way”, satisfies the six intraorganization strategies outlined by Page.
Since the end of World War II, the federal government has maintained a set of land use and economic policies that encourage growth at the edges of cities and discourages walkable and connected neighborhoods. One of the most effective ways it has succeeded in this initiative is to plan, design, and fund 90% of the Interstate Highway System. The interstates began life early in the century, but really came into force with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Though it took 35 years to complete, much of system around major population centers was to be finished by 1965. (Department of Commerce 1955)
The Interstate system is a 20th century road overlay on a 19th century railroad system with many highways built within the same right away. In fact, the final section of Interstate 80, the first transcontinental freeway, was completed just 50 miles away from the golden spike ceremony of the First Transcontinental Railroad. (Associated Press 1986)
One of the big differences between the, once the largest in the world, extensive intra and intercity railroad network and the new Interstate was a question of integration. (Dutch 1998) Railroads are not seamless with other systems; taking a train means transferring to another system at your destination—be it walking, biking, bus, subway or automobile. It creates a point of interaction with the built environment and with other people. Taking a freeway though you can get in your car in a residential neighborhood and not get out until you reach your destination; freeways are tightly integrated with all other roadways and most likely do not involve system transfers or the need for social interaction.
From a macro-level, especially in, at the time, less developed cities in the South and West, the Interstates were successful in providing safe, quick travel between major metropolitan areas and the backbone of future growth. In their implementation for infrastructurally mature cities though were devastating. The new roads either cut through existing walkable urban neighborhoods, detrimental to the existing quality of life or brought new accessibility to previously cloistered rural areas. The vastly decreased travel time through and to city centers, made the possibility of living farther away a viable option. Within a decade, large portions of rural land adjacent to city centers, and more so, smaller outskirt towns that now had direct connections to metropolitan areas, increased their property values. Real estate investment and housing construction soon followed. (The wide adoption of the mortgage as an instrument of payment worked in conjunction with road construction.)
These new policies were widely successful in their initial role of creating better automobile transportation. Aside from the destruction of mature cities, the Interstates provided a template for all new road design–limited access divided roadways–based on the hegemony of speed and efficiency of the automobile rather than a democracy of neighborhoods, social fabrics, and interactions. The unintended consequences Interstates created however contributed to the degradation of cities largely developed prior to the early to mid-20th century and the creation of largely automobile-dependent urban centers that experienced their main growth afterward. Moreover, the culture of road design they created, once dominate, began to affect public health, the environment, and land use by setting the automobile as the user rather than the pedestrian. (Indeed, the Bureau of Public Roads became the Federal Highway Administration [FHWA] focusing on that very specific type of road and mode–there are no highways for pedestrians or bicycles.)
Some of these consequences were the result of supply and demand and in collusion with other factors, but much of it largely due to governmental policy. The policies have focused on making better transportation systems, rather than making better transportation for people. The success of the new road design, and the codification of it as the de facto standard, was evident in the sustained increase in national vehicle miles traveled it encouraged, which reached a crescendo by 2005, when adjusted for population growth. (Short 2012)
In the past seven years though, for a variety of reasons, we’ve seen a dramatic drop in automobile use–especially among younger populations–down to 1995 levels. (Short 2012) The downward trend has been sustained longer than any decrease before, and began before the rise in gas prices and before the economic downtown. While this has been an overall drop of nearly 9% from the peak, among those under 34 years old, the amount of driving has dropped by 23%. (Davis, et. al. 2012) Clearly there are trends that are pointing to a growing disconnect between existing policy, resource allocation, and behavior of the population.
To better serve our changing population attitudes toward vehicle use, to lower our collective environmental impact, and to decrease our reliance on foreign energy resources, we should develop a new road design standard that is based on not only on collective use by a variety of different modes but contextual in how the standard is implemented. Instead of the Interstate as the model of all road design and everything else derivative of that, this new integrated and contextual road design can serve as the primary arterial through and connector between adjacent cities. Interstates can return to their original concept and become the special case implementation across long distances. As existing arterials are rebuilt, they can be returned to urban streets, providing integrated intracity and intercity travel for all users.
The transportation design and planning field is already underway developing this new design’s technical standard. Called a Complete Street, this standardization codification process has been going since 2003–anticipating the statistical decline in automobile use by two years. By 2005, a cross-interest national coalition of health, aging, transportation and planning agencies and advocates had been created. (Mann 2010) Turning the standards into federal law came close to passage a few years later. More than 200 municipalities in more than 20 states have already passed Complete Streets Ordinances. (National Complete Streets Coalition 2012) However, these often do not concern main arterials and focus on residential level streets. In addition, the projects are disconnected and using a Complete Street is most often an incomplete experience.
The technical details of design and some of the political will is in place for elevating the Complete Street concept to the standard bearer of design. There are also the beginnings of empirical data through Health Impact Assessments, economic assessments, and measuring regional mode shift initiatives that can prove the validity and increase the effectiveness of the implementation of Complete Streets.
One way that Interstates were able to become the dominate design is through their implementation at both the engineering and policy level; engineering standards were developed and then sold to bureaucrats, who in turn could make policy claims. Politicians could buy into the emerging standard because of this agreement among experts, and sell it to the public as economic development, progress and safety. Other industries, like construction and real estate, were able to also find value in the program.
Today, Complete Streets–and other models like it that equalizes or even removes the automobile–is at the verge of selling itself much the same way. Economic development studies have come out in recent years extolling how pedestrian and bicycle path adjacent businesses fare better than others. New York, that most pedestrian of cities, recently claimed that the businesses around the now pedestrian-zoned Times Square saw their revenues rise by nearly 50%. (NYCDOT 2012)
This of course makes sense. Interstates and roads modeled after them are, as their underlying design guide, focused on getting a car from point to point as efficiently as possible. Complete Streets disregard this entirely. This new standard is about creating places for people, roads that are multimodal public spaces for passage. They encourage pause. Maybe not enough to smell the roses, but certainly enough to run in a store for a quick purchase. Complete Streets allows users to recognize the value of where they are in addition getting to where they need to go.
The introduction of the limited access divided highways radically altered the landscape, affected the health of individuals and communities, and created a national dependence on large amounts of energy sources, and economically affected tax bases of urban areas. Evaluating Complete Streets should look at how these could change. Complete Streets are integrative in nature. Evaluating them would require a similar approach. What are the epidemiological changes?
The Interstate system is the creation of a concerted effort from government, labor, industry, banking, and commercial interests. As with many big initiatives, there is a uniting champion with the weight of legitimacy; in this case it was Thomas MacDonald, an engineer/politician and head of the Bureau of Public Roads for 34 years across seven presidents. (Wikipedia)
Complete Streets doesn’t have a central figure like MacDonald. It does have a strong coalition group though in Smart Growth America, the organization that gave the design standard its name. The coalition has created cross partnerships with the FHWA, a key step. Advocacy can only go so far though, both legally and politically. MacDonald had broad powers, formal and implied, and was working from inside. This was a different era, but for Complete Streets to be successful an appointment of advocates to the federal level is needed. And because the new policy is coming from a coalition of groups, framing Complete Streets as an integral part of the mission of environment, public health, senior, children, and disabled agencies and commissions is critical to getting it on the agenda.
Streets and roads are shared public spaces that should welcome and connect all users. Building a shared agenda item across federal level initiatives will mirror the success of the physical implementation.
Associated Press. 1986. “Around The Nation; Transcontinental Road Completed in Utah” The New York Times, August 25, 1986. Accessed Dec 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/08/25/us/around-the-nation-transcontinental-road-completed-in-utah.html
Davis, B., Dutzik, T., Baxandall, P., Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People Are Driving Less and What It Means for Transportation Policy. Boston, MA: Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 2012.
Department of Commerce. Needs of the Highway Systems 1955-1984. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1955.
Doug Short, “CHARTS: The Great Decline Of American Driving,” Business Insider, Nov. 22, 2012, accessed Nov. 22, 2012, http://www.businessinsider.com/population-adjusted-vehicle-miles-2012-11
In addition to race and class, environmental justice issues around Boston often stem from two additional sources: transportation and topology. In our site visits to Dudley Square, Chinatown, and Chelsea, these two sources are featured prominently.
First, consider topology. Dudley and Chelsea presently exist off the mental map of many regional residents. They are considered marginal areas outside of areas of importance. They get less focus as communities than they do as places needed so that other areas of the metro region can function; they are warehouses – of people and commodities – rather than the main showroom. For Dudley, for much of its history and up until a few years ago, it was storage yards for many of the buses of the area. For Chelsea, it is road salt, compressed natural gas, and food warehousing. All of these activities require large amounts of inexpensive space, and their outcomes are vital to the functioning of a city. Chinatown is a slightly different in that it is centrally located, near many “more desirable” neighborhoods. However, Chinatown suffers a similar injustice. It is the knot of the region’s interstate highways and must content with the urban fabric-bending power when high-speed, high-volume traffic infrastructure collides with low-volume, low-speed, pedestrian infrastructure. All three suffer the issue of topology in that way – they seem to be the unfortunate victim of urban-scale needs. However, some of the topological injustice is historic.
Dudley was at one point the end of the street-car suburbs, a natural terminus. It was only through poor system planning of systemic inertia, and lack of political power did it continue to function as such through many changes in public transportation infrastructure. The area that Chinatown occupies was the historic main port of the city, as well as the northeast terminus of a vast national railroad network. (Connections to the then new industrial centers of upstate New York were strong — so much so that an area adjacent to present-day Chinatown was once called the New York Streets neighborhood. Albany is the last remnant of this, the others, Seneca, Oneida, Oswego, Genesee, Rochester, and Troy are now gone.) Because the state and transportation interests already owned much of the land around the railroad and port networks, the new interstate infrastructure was built adjacent to the old.
While this was a big change in movement methods, it only further burdened the Chinatown community with increased air pollution, poor surface-level pedestrian transportation, noise, and community marginalization. Like Dudley, Chinatown has been and continues to suffer from cultural/infrastructural memories but in different ways; newly arrived immigrants (either coming from foreign ports or the other side of the country) deboard and try to take care of immediate needs—housing—often without surveying and weighing possible locations and making an informed choice. This was an especially true cultural pattern at the time of the build out of Chinatown. This pattern also gave way to the Theater District and subsequent Combat Zone. Chelsea is in similar infrastructure inertia. The area has historically been a location for water and rail transported fuel and salt storage. At one point, its diversity of ownership, intense labor needs, and smaller scale provided a working-class job base for the residents of the community. But over time, ownership has monopolized, labor needs diminished, and the scale of operations increased exponentially.
Additionally, land-use patterns of the region grew to be more far-flung, larger-scaled, less-dense, automobile-dependent development, and the systemic infrastructure that services these kind of regional needs grew in proportion. Vast grocery stores in every community (though more often in white, upper-class communities) with an unlimited and endless supply of cuisine from every part of the globe no matter the season needs equally large warehouse distribution points and the trucks that correlate to this system. Roadway design standards call for multilane interstates and regional arterials built for peak traffic volumes rather than average traffic counts. Our regional economy, based on the freedom to “live anywhere,” no matter the local weather, demand that roads remain free from snow and ice even in the worst of storms.
There isn’t an accounting of the energy – either carbon or organizational based – needed to keep this level of service in place. In a sense, we have chosen that we “all” deserve a choice to live anywhere and eat anything, anytime. Not only is this a fallacy in that only a few have a free choice to try to participate in either of these ideals, but they ignore the local weather, seasonality, geography. Most of all though, this places heavy burdens on the most vulnerable of citizens. I find it most interesting – especially in the last 20 years of cultural awareness, litigious non-profits, intense media coverage, and hard-fought legislation at every level of government – that these issues exist at the level that they do (which hasn’t changed in correlation with the level of community energy and collective headspace spent on correcting them). This isn’t a slight to the communities we’ve surveyed. Rather it is an indictment of the larger region and its policy-makers, planners, politicians, and media.
Communities at the margins of our region continue to have relative little power and this is deeply troubling. Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods seem to be able to accomplish so much more with much less community organizing. Those neighborhoods seem to revolve around bourgeois ideals: work, school, children, landscaping. When the next new coffee shop is coming. Dudley, Chelsea, and Chinatown are framed as neighborhoods of struggle. The individuals usually have their own personal struggles – immigration, historic prejudices, economic, education, and health.
How is it possible for individuals suffering these personal challenges also exist in a community environment that is viewed collectively as a giant challenge? I think it would sap human potential, severely limiting the possibilities for success of a whole population and draining the long-term resources of the larger group – no matter how much they unconsciously tried to shield themselves by moving further away and segregating themselves socially. The solution must be dialectic, engaged, and integrated. It involves new thinking at the technical level – in planning and engineering and putting those activities in the context of community and history. It requires cross election-cycle leadership from all politicians and a will to spend part of their political capital. Lastly, it requires a cultural change, an acceptance and an enthusiasm for the idea that equality of communities raises the long-term success of all communities. This begins with a realization that our communities are deeply interconnected.
I rode my bike to the Chelsea tour, across Beacham Street. I’d been on this road before, but only a few times and in a car. The intimate experience of the bicycle brought a rush of new observations, thoughts, and analysis. First of all, traffic on Beacham Street is dominated by very large trucks. There are no sidewalks. There are few streetlights or signage coming close to the standards that would be in any other community. The road is highly deteriorated and feels like it isn’t maintained at all. It feels lawless. I stopped at the intersection at Behan Street for lunch. There, two men had set up a hot dog cart, an oasis in the middle of this dusty, industrial area that looks right out of the best dystopian-future movies. From ground level, you can see nothing but warehouses, generic industrial plants and a steady stream of diesel-belching trucks driving by with little regard to ground-level pedestrian activity. Not a tree, or even a shrub, in sight. I call this area the soul of the city. Without this vast acreage of perceived wasteland, all the niceties of the city couldn’t exist.
Case in point: The intersection is the also site of the Whole Foods Kitchen. All those organic baked goods, the farm-to-table whole pre-cooked convenience chickens, the fair-trade coffee blends, the artisanal breads, and the gourmet deli vegetable dishes found in the neighborhood stores across the region are made here in the same industrial-scale fashion as most of the other food in the city. As good-hearted and guilt-ridden as their customers may be (myself included), Whole Foods is beholden to their shareholders first and foremost just like any other corporation. For them not to participate at least partially in the efficiencies of centralized production and warehousing would be against their company charter toward maximizing profit over any other value. So in the end, who is really at fault for the inequities of the communities we’ve toured?