Guiding Principles for Transportation: Leveraging Tech for Sustainability, Equity

This is the first in a series entitled The Future of Mobility, a joint project of CommonWealth and Meeting of the Minds.

Today’s news is filled with stories about disruptive technology changes and transportation. Driverless cars are being tested in several states, major automakers and new mobility companies are developing new affiliations and collaborations, and smartphone apps are changing how people get around our cities and towns.

The pace of change is breathtaking. A decade ago, few could imagine the disruptive effects of mobile phones, let alone the potential for fleets of driverless, electric shuttles – which some believe could happen in the foreseeable future.

As technology revolutionizes transportation, let’s actively shape this transformation in ways that address economic, environmental, and societal challenges. Convenience, price, and entertainment may motivate consumers, but policy choices can help these technological advances address urgent problems:

  • Isolation, and the high cost of transportation in rural Massachusetts;
  • Separation of urban, suburban, and rural residents from jobs and education due to lack of transit access;
  • The growing population of older adults “greying in place,” without reliable transportation to medical appointments or social opportunities;
  • Climate change and its effect on infrastructure and health;
  • Traffic congestion and its economic impacts;
  • Death and injury on our roads.

Given the pervasive changes underway, and the scope of the challenges we face, these problems can only be solved if we harness the transformative power of innovative mobility to address the needs of all types of people, everywhere in the Commonwealth, with a proactive focus on two broad objectives.

A healthy climate is among our most pressing issues, and transportation will either continue to be part of the problem, or be part of the solution, since transportation is a leading source of carbon emissions. But innovative mobility services that prioritize convenience are not necessarily solving climate change.

A just transportation system that ensures access to everyone is vital to our Commonwealth’s residents. But mobility services that focus on affluent riders don’t reduce barriers to opportunity.

How do we ensure that shared mobility services, driverless cars, and other innovations contribute to a convenient, efficient, and modern transportation system, as a means to a healthier, safer, more successful, just, and vibrant Commonwealth? Here are a few guiding principles:

We are one Commonwealth – but with divergent views

These connected issues of transportation, climate, and equity demand thorough examination with a broad range of participants across our diverse state.

We have pressing transportation needs. Urban residents in transit-poor neighborhoods, in Boston and beyond, need reliable transportation to work, school, and commerce. Suburban employers need to get their workforce to and from commuter rail. Car-less rural residents need affordable, reliable travel options.

We have also heard from people with distinct, and frequently opposing, views on transportation and innovative mobility.

Often, when discussing this topic, people take opposing positions about whether Uber is “good” or “bad,” or whether driverless cars will bring freedom – or gridlock.

In reality, the state, our communities, and all of us ought to look at these new services as tools that, with creativity, can help overcome longstanding barriers to efficient, affordable mobility. Making good use of this toolbox requires understanding the problems we’re trying to solve; problems as varied as the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns and our diverse population.

And there are some concerns that transcend boundaries – climate and social equity foremost.

Apply solutions to today’s pressing needs.

The explosion of high-tech transportation solutions comes at a time when Massachusetts and other states struggle to fix and fund traditional, “low-tech” public transportation options.

Seniors, youth, people with disabilities, and those with low incomes often depend on community transportation (locally based shuttles) and similar services for basic mobility, while many others choose local transit services as ways to live more sustainable and convenient lifestyles, or reduce the expense of car ownership. But, like the MBTA, these services are often underfunded, and they are not widely publicized.

The workforce in major cities and suburbs depends on outdated public transportation networks that need significant investment.

We must ensure that the allure of technology does not distract policy makers, or further degrade our transportation system. If disruptive services siphon customers, revenue, and political support for public transportation, that will upset a fragile ecosystem. Disrupting existing forms of mobility can have real consequences if we don’t place a high value on the people who are being served today.

The system we have is fragile: a senior loses the ride she depended on to get to a monthly doctor’s appointment, or an unreliable bus makes a young adult late for a job interview. Already, key transportation services around the Commonwealth have been forced to cut back or, in the case of Berkshire Rides, a longstanding service that provided rides to work for low-income people in rural Berkshire County, shut down entirely.

So even as we seek to take advantage of the benefits of innovative mobility services, we need to keep in mind that not every 75-year-old in rural Franklin County carries a smartphone, or even has mobile phone service; not all residents of urban neighborhoods have debit cards and Uber accounts; and many residents in suburban communities served by Regional Transit Authorities have limited service.

Ensuring that the mobility needs of all neighborhoods and residents are met is among the most important roles the public sector can play.

And the public sector is vital in supporting our transportation needs.  All forms of transportation require a public subsidy, because whether we drive, take the train or bus, or bike to get around, the infrastructure needed for all transportation is costly, and few of us fully “pay our own way.” The free market does not provide the entire answer, and certainly won’t address social equity and climate change without forceful policy.

Set bold objectives and mobilize resources to achieve them.

This future must make innovative mobility broadly accessible, treating transportation as a utility and not a luxury. In some cases, that means requiring providers to serve areas they otherwise wouldn’t. In others, it might mean subsidizing mobility services. In still others, it might mean directly providing service through transit agencies or other entities.

Novelist William Gibson said that “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In our cities and on our roads, the future is arriving with lightning speed. It may never be possible to ensure that the future is truly “evenly distributed,” but it’s not too much to ask that we do what we can to ensure that everyone in the Commonwealth benefits from future changes that revolutionize transportation, and that we get the very most out of that revolution in terms of addressing our common needs.

Massachusetts has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not just improve transportation, but to transform it in ways that make life dramatically better for everyone.  To get there, we need a statewide commitment to transform mobility, improve equity, and protect our climate. These are urgent matters and we must take bold action that engages service providers, employers, and community leaders.

This is a watershed moment in the Commonwealth’s history. By demanding that planners and decision-makers around the Commonwealth identify transportation, climate, and societal needs all across the state; by wielding innovative tools to address these needs; and by following through on our vision with concrete action, Massachusetts can set a standard to which other states can aspire.

About the Authors:

Rep-KulikState Rep. Stephen Kulik is the vice chair of the State of Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee.





Paul-MatthewsPaul Matthews is the executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, a public/private regional economic development nonprofit serving 35 communities.


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