Roadmap to a sustainable transportation system

By Greg St. Martin | Northeastern News | November 21, 2012

Stephanie Pol­lack, asso­ciate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy in Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, noted a decades-long shift in public thinking about the envi­ron­mental impact of energy con­sump­tion. Now, she said, a sim­ilar move­ment must be directed toward sus­tain­able transportation.

“We haven’t been able to make that par­a­digm shift on trans­porta­tion because we don’t know what the trans­porta­tion equiv­a­lent of the megawatt is,” Pol­lack said.

To this end, Pol­lack has devel­oped a new frame­work for building a more equi­table and sus­tain­able trans­porta­tion system in Greater Boston. The Dukakis Center report, “Staying on Track,” is based on an exten­sive col­lec­tion and analysis of a broad range of data and is designed to shed light on how the system does or does not work.

Pol­lack out­lined the first-of-its-kind project on Monday at the Metro Boston Con­sor­tium for Sus­tain­able Com­mu­ni­ties fall meeting, which took place in Northeastern’s Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room. The con­sor­tium is coor­di­nated by the Met­ro­pol­itan Area Plan­ning Council, a regional plan­ning agency serving more than 100 cities and towns of Met­ro­pol­itan Boston.

The sweeping analysis com­prises three dozen pro­posed indi­ca­tors and bench­marks that could be used to explain the com­pli­cated set of demo­graphic and eco­nomic fac­tors dri­ving the region’s travel pat­terns. Those indi­ca­tors and bench­marks aim to address what Pol­lack iden­ti­fies as nine attrib­utes of a sus­tain­able trans­porta­tion system: the system’s con­di­tion, funding sus­tain­ability, trans­porta­tion options, acces­si­bility, afford­ability, safety, con­ve­nience and sustainability.

In Monday’s pre­sen­ta­tion, Pol­lack cited sev­eral daunting pieces of data. She called atten­tion to the state trans­porta­tion department’s $240 mil­lion short­fall to operate its highway system in the 2014 fiscal year and a fleet of MBTA’s Orange and Red Line vehi­cles that are beyond their intended lifespan.

Not all the data, how­ever, were gloom and doom. Pol­lack pointed to a dra­matic rise in the number of people who com­mute to work via bicycle, for example, and noted the city’s efforts to install more than 50 miles of bike lanes and launch a bike-sharing pro­gram. She also said that MBTA rid­er­ship is steadily rising, though she added that the T doesn’t have the finan­cial capa­bility to make the nec­es­sary invest­ments to match this growth.

Fol­lowing this base­line data over time, she said, will help gov­ern­ment offi­cials, trans­porta­tion experts and law­makers develop effec­tive long-term poli­cies and deter­mine whether trans­porta­tion sys­tems are heading in the right direction.

Pol­lack arrived at sev­eral con­clu­sions. She noted that the state’s cur­rent trans­porta­tion system is nei­ther well main­tained nor sus­tain­ably funded, though base­line travel pat­terns reflect rel­a­tively lower amounts of dri­ving and greater amounts of transit use com­pared to peer metro areas and states. Pol­lack also found that travel options that sup­port sus­tain­able mobility are not dis­trib­uted evenly across com­mu­ni­ties, which, she said, affects equi­table access to jobs across the region.

Fol­lowing a period for public feed­back, a final trans­porta­tion report will be released later this year.

“There is no sus­tain­ability without trans­porta­tion,” said Pol­lack, noting that trans­porta­tion is the largest and fastest-growing seg­ment of green­house gas emis­sions in Massachusetts.

The Dukakis Center is also involved in two other trans­porta­tion related projects: Scoring to Under­stand Sus­tain­able Trans­porta­tion Attrib­utes and Indi­ca­tors, or SUSTAIN, which scores the state’s 351 cities and towns based on 10 attrib­utes of envi­ron­mental sus­tain­ability; and eTOD­score, a data­base and rating system for equi­table transit-oriented devel­op­ment based on neigh­bor­hoods with MBTA sta­tions and key bus routes.

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