How a Non Profit Roundtable Turned into a Smart City Pilot Project
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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I caught up recently with Sarah Charlton who is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
The research she is leading, located in both Johannesburg, South Africa and Maputo, Mozambique, looks at the interface between the mobility use by residents and transportation investments by the state. The question guiding her research is “are ordinary households using the transport modes that the government is investing in and prioritizing?” The research is a partnership between two universities across two countries and two cities.
Sarah reflects on research during the pandemic across languages, countries, histories and cultures.