The Traffic Advisory Speaker Series
In the early 1630s, our region launched its first transportation “plan” to link the economies of two emerging cities—Boston chartered a boat to sail regularly between the North End and Charlestown. Since then, at critical moments throughout our region’s history, when we have needed to adapt to periods of great change, we have responded by engaging community and civic leaders to envision and implement bold and timely transportation initiatives.
In 1891, as rapid industrialization transformed Boston into a chaotic, modern metropolis, the governor convened a commission to prepare a transportation plan to take Boston into the 20th century. Six years later we inaugurated the continent’s first subway.
In the late-1960s, as deindustrialization drained life from the region’s cities and sprawl overran the countryside, another governor convened the Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR) to reshape transportation for the second half of the 20th century. The current Green Line extension to Somerville marks completion of the resulting plan, which guided us for 40 years. (Read related ArchitectureBoston magazine issue: Turn Signal.)
Now, as innovation reshapes our economy and the region wrestles with rising seas and a widening opportunity gap, it is time to rethink regional transportation again.
Three speakers launched the Traffic Advisory speakers series last October with talks that framed the economic and social imperatives for creating a 21st century transportation system, balanced by a candid call for innovative ways to finance the improvements we need to make. Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution used charts, graphs, and common sense to point out the need to move beyond our auto-centric transportation system. To be competitive in a global knowledge economy we need a region in which people and ideas are linked by a web of convenient, accessible transit. Stephanie Pollack from Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy underscored the social equity dimension of the conversation by citing the growing numbers of people who are poor, isolated from jobs, healthcare, education, and each other by inadequate transportation. And then Beverly Scott, MBTA General Manager emphasized that it’s time to acknowledge the end of federally-financed transportation. As one of the world’s wealthiest regions, we can and must figure out now exactly how we are going pay for what we know we need.
One month later, Jeffrey Tumlin, principal with Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, described the building blocks of 21st century transportation. Meaningful planning starts with committing to fundamental quality-of-life goals—enhanced equity, economic competitiveness, public health, and sustainability. 21st century transportation should be measured by the degree to which it offers affordable, convenient connections for people across the economic spectrum to jobs, healthcare, education, and each other. The key is not futurist silver bullet projects, but seamless integration between interconnected options that include walkable streets and state-of-the-art transit systems that extend from city to suburb. 21st century realities call for diminished dependence on energy-intensive personal vehicles and the expansion of affordable access to social and economic opportunity.
The next three speakers brought a very human dimension to Jeff’s grand vision. Helle Søholt, a founding partner and CEO of Gehl Architects (Copenhagen, Denmark), described her firm’s work in transforming Copenhagen into a city of bikes and pedestrians—in which snow plows clear bike lanes before traffic lanes. As these modes displaced the primacy of cars, her city regained its human spirit. Not only did people save money and improve their health, they rediscovered the joys of spontaneity: stopping along a commute home to talk to a friend, investigate a new bakery, or listen to a street musician. Committed to the belief that all sorts of cities and cultures could enjoy these benefits, she tackled New York City next. Helle described transforming Broadway from a constantly congested urban arterial into Broadway Boulevard, an urban promenade which, day and night, invites tens of thousands of New Yorkers and visitors to stroll, listen to music, clown with street performers, and enjoy a Manhattan designed for people.
Next, Ryan Chin, managing director for the City Science Initiative at MIT Media Lab, talked about how emerging technologies can empower people by adapting transportation to individual lifestyles. In denser urban neighborhoods, technology can save people significant time, money, and frustration by delivering shared, on-demand personal transit to their doorstep. Parking structures and wide-streets will become anachronisms, setting the stage for an era of innovative public spaces and redevelopment. For those who need to drive, the Media Lab is developing an all-electric CityCar, a vehicle designed specifically to maneuver and park in very tight dimensions. Ryan is equally interested in empowering people by using technology to help them make rational decisions about their city’s future: CityScope uses 3D modeling, data simulation, and similar tools to enable people to compare the costs and benefits generated by different approaches to building their communities.
In March, John Powell, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and Executive Director of The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, emphasized the critical need to retrofit our transportation system as a tool for promoting equity. Right now this system is working in the opposite direction. Building on data that Stephanie Pollack (Dukakis Institute) reported at the first Traffic Advisory lecture, which indicated lower income households are increasingly dependent on—and at the same time isolated from—convenient transit, Professor Powell pointed out that these households are losing their access to jobs, healthcare, and education. Using a series of visual perception exercises to demonstrate that our conscious mind is often unaware of perceptions deeply ingrained in our unconscious, he made the case that even the most progressive communities need to hold a vigorous public dialogue about race and class as a precondition to equitable planning. It is far too natural for most of us to notice the shiny new buildings and new high tech jobs associated with transit-oriented-development, and not notice the anguish of people pushed further from transit by gentrification and unable to afford a car as an alternative.
In April three widely-respected individuals, charged with leadership roles in retrofitting major transportation systems, talked about their hands-on experience in three regions that offer valuable lessons for Boston. Jerry Dobrovolny, Director of Transportation for the City of Vancouver, British Columbia (and former Canadian Football League champion); Harriet Tregoning, HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities (and former-Director of the Washington, DC, Office of Planning); and Phillip Washington, General Manager of Denver’s Regional Transportation District talked about how they are linking transportation initiatives to community-building—for new and existing communities alike. Jerry opened with Vancouver 2040, an ambitious—broadly inclusive—planning process he launched to provide his region with a highly integrated transportation system that serves the needs of 21st century Vancouver—from supporting a new generation of intensive downtown growth to insuring that the system serves people from all walks of life. Harriet followed with a description of DC’s innovative transportation initiatives, including 37 miles of new streetcars, and how these green initiatives are integrated to enhance livability, economic competitiveness, and equity...while attracting sufficient private investment to fund a substantial portion of their capital and operating costs. Phil concluded, focusing more on Denver’s aggressive effort to focus growth outside of the core around new light rail stations that will absorb a substantial share of suburban development into higher density, walkable, mixed-use centers.
May’s speaker, Mayor Ignazio Marino of Rome, Italy, continued the theme of valuable lessons from other cities by reporting on a series of innovative, often controversial, and ultimately successful transportation experiments. Bringing the perspective of another city that places great value on its history, the Mayor added a new argument for reducing automobile dependence not yet heard often in Boston: historic preservation. The Mayor banned automobile traffic from Rome’s historic core, noting that to Romans the Coliseum had become a “noble” traffic island. Touching on two issues that also matter to Bostonians—promoting public health and livability—he is also banning or reducing traffic to create a series of “ecological islands” located around neighborhood squares located throughout Rome. Steps like these offer real challenges for a city with as many cars and people. To meet these challenges, Mayor Marino has declared a “new era” for transportation, which in addition to a greater emphasis on low-impact transit, walking, and biking, articulates important core principles. Innovation should address the needs of all stakeholders—“transportation changes should reward, not punish Romans.” The concept of sharing—bicycles, cars, parking spaces, etc.—should be integral to transportation planning to reduce the financial and spatial burdens of depending on private ownership. Finally, “smart mobility” should define all transportation improvements, most importantly by designing them to be adaptable to technological innovation. To all of these ideas, the Mayor attached metrics that defined goals…and made the benefits tangible.
The three speakers for last month’s Traffic Advisory series on June 19 at BSA Space literally woke many in the audience to the effectiveness of bus rapid transit (BRT), a relatively lower cost alternative to rail transit that relies on express bus routes. With the exception of the Silver Line that extends from Roxbury to Logan Airport, Boston has invested less in BRT than many cities.
Rehana Moosajee, a former member of the Mayoral Committee for Transport for Johannesburg, began by describing her ultimately successful quest to launch BRT to provide affordable transportation for poor communities long isolated around Johannesburg’s periphery. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people are now connected to jobs, healthcare, and education. Her argument that BRT’s low capital costs made it an affordable option—and a moral responsibility—for addressing transportation equity resonated with many in the Boston audience. Walter Hook, CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, next brought the discussion to North American cities and added economic development to social equity as an argument for BRT. He directly challenged the notion that BRT does not generate significant investment by noting that “high quality” BRT has generated billions of dollars in new investment. Joseph Calabrese, a former Boston region transportation official and now CEO and general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, described Cleveland’s success in creating a BRT system that has exceeded the most optimistic ridership forecasts. Cleveland’s BRT offers well-designed stations, separate rights-of-way, and technology that lets riders keep track of schedules. Together the three speakers demonstrated that BRT can be a catalyst for creating more livable and humane environments.
Speaking from the vantage point of someone who reshaped US transportation from multiple perspectives over the past decade—as transportation director in both Chicago and Washington, DC; a senior executive at Zipcar; and a national spokesperson for equity and the environment—Gabe Klein captured the spirit of the Traffic Advisory Speaker Series initiative in the lecture series’ finale, “The Future of Transportation: A practical approach,” on July 17 at BSA Space.
Rethinking urban transportation is common sense. Whether to attract millennials to staff a knowledge economy, bring vitality and investment to low-income neighborhoods, reduce carbon footprints, or increase real-estate values—investing in expensive 21st-century transit is critical.
Lower-cost innovation is just as critical—whether it involves new vehicle technologies, car sharing, or using a smartphone to summon a ride. When agencies spend transportation dollars in ways that promote community quality, communities support transportation investments. Locating a new transit station so that it sits in the midst of a main street rather than in an elevated highway increases ridership and brings that main street and the surrounding neighborhoods back to life. Designing such a station as a statement of civic-mindedness and vitality builds pride in the community and in the transit system. Whether for bus or rail, transit stations attract large numbers of people every day, so why not make them places where people want to gather—where they can find food, fun, and friends?
Finally, we are a different America, and our transportation systems have not evolved to keep pace. Instead of one-size-fits-all systems geared toward doing one thing well—connecting workers to factories, everyone to downtown, or middle-class households to suburbs—today we need transportation systems that do many things well to serve the wide-ranging needs for a truly diverse society. Will building today’s transportation be expensive? Very. Will it generate sufficient social, economic, and environmental value to justify its costs? Absolutely.