How a Non Profit Roundtable Turned into a Smart City Pilot Project
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All Planning is Personal
Urban planning, rural planning, transportation planning: all of it is personal. This is something that practicing planners (and policymakers of all kinds) need to understand. The work we do influences where people can live, influences where people can work or go to school, and can transform the entire trajectory of an individual’s lived experience. This makes our work a very heavy responsibility.
If you look at the headline of any local newspaper on any given day, you will see analysis and commentary on the impact of planning decisions. Whether these decisions concern our economy, our schools, or our transit system, they are newsworthy because these decisions impact real people —real people who rarely have a direct say in the planning process. Policy decisions have traditionally been left to the sole discretion of a limited number of elected and appointed policymakers. These policymakers have tended to change with each election cycle, and rarely has the public been made privy to the process by which policymakers’ decisions were being analyzed and arrived upon.
Thus, traditional policymaking has been defined by decisions being made by an ever-changing collection of policymakers, in a context that was opaque vis-à-vis a public for whom the consequences of those decisions were at once highly personal and potentially life-altering. Given the limits of policymakers’ tenure and without the input of the most affected stakeholders, traditional transportation policymaking has ended up only planning for what policymakers could themselves imagine and control, rather than planning for what was actually needed.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the public transportation systems we have ended up with, often do not work for the public they are ostensibly created to serve. To put it more bluntly: We have public transportation systems that are neither controlled by the public, nor optimized to serve them. This needs to change – or, rather, it needs to continue to change, because there are certainly some changes already afoot.
Meeting of the Minds
The field of transportation planning needs new blood. We need new thoughts, new approaches. The traditional methods of policymaking are not working because, as already stated, we are not engaging the public in a sufficient or sufficiently meaningful way. We are also not sufficiently engaging other industries, which means that we are not inviting our traditional ways of thinking to be challenged. We need to overcome this insularity by creating policymaking contexts that bring together elected and appointed officials, diverse members of the public, and cross-industry experts.
In June of 2017, I had the pleasure of attending the Boston Mobility Summit organized by Meeting of the Minds. This event was unlike any conference I have ever attended. In fact, it was unlike anything I had previously experienced in my professional life. The Mobility Summit brought together a room full of experts from a variety of sectors and disciplines and asked them to spend a day having deeply frank discussions about transportation and mobility issues in the Boston area. In small groups that combined professionals I have known my entire career, with folks I had never imagined meeting; we were asked tough questions and then expected to be honest and deliberate in our answers. This kind of honesty was, frankly, awkward, since we were sometimes sitting across from people whom we had historically disagreed with. And yet we needed to put history and disciplinary divisions aside.
Awkward Honesty in Pursuit of Better Policy
So, on this day in June, I found myself sitting at a table with several local transit advocates, a pedestrian advocate, and a few city officials, all trying to have a discussion about how we could make bus service better. I talked about the MBTA’s plans to overhaul bus service planning, our new fleet, new technology upgrades, and other practiced talking points focused on changes that our agency could actually control. After I finished, one of the advocates asked again: “So how are you going to improve bus service?”
I took a breath and said, “I don’t know.” Now this is a phrase I was trained very early in my career to never say – not in my practice and certainly not in public. But it was true. After working with my colleagues on the turnaround of the MBTA since 2015, I (like many agency officials around the country) had come to the conclusion that I simply did not know how we were going to fix it. This awkward but honest admission kicked off one of the better discussions I have ever had with our partners.
Follow the Path of Most Resistance
Why didn’t I know how to actually improve bus service? It wasn’t that I didn’t know what the ideal bus customer experience should be. Rather, I didn’t know how we were supposed to achieve that customer experience. As I told the table, there are many things that, as an agency, we can actually control:
- We can procure a new fleet of buses.
- We can make it easier to pay to use those buses.
- We can put better technology on those buses.
- We can create better routes for those buses.
Then I told them what, as an agency, we can’t do:
- We can’t get those buses out of traffic.
- We can’t make the streetscape prioritize buses.
- We can’t create better community facilities for bus riders.
So, despite all the things we could do, we lacked the ability to change the most integral part of the bus riding experience – namely, the third-class treatment that buses and their riders experience on our roadways.
Keys to the System
Luckily for me, some of the people who do control our streets were sitting at that table. They had similarly felt hamstrung by the things that they did not control, and they were listening. So, I asked: What will it take? How do we better work together to serve the MBTA’s interests, municipality’s interests, and the interests of the public? As an agency, we needed to spend our capital funds, and we needed roadway; the municipality needed upgraded traffic signals. We needed dedicated lanes for buses, and they were willing to pilot a project in one of their major corridors.
Several months later, the Fiscal Management Control Board approved the traffic signal prioritization funds and the City of Cambridge announced their partnership with the Barr Foundation to pilot BRT. It obviously wasn’t as simple as a single conversation. However, the coordination of many groups led to the major players in the decision being in one room that day, which created the context for a more open kind of policy discussion, which led those involved in the discussion to be more willing to take a leap of faith.
Now we need to continue pushing forward, to continue moving beyond traditional modes of transportation planning. Public transportation is too critical to limit ourselves to the solutions that a single agency can actually control, or to limit the conversation to the folks who have historically been given the keys to the system. We need more frank discussions. We need more pilot programs. We need more engaged policymakers to take a leap of faith.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.