A bus speeds by South Station in Boston.

It's Time to Transform Transportation in Massachusetts

At the end of 2018, Massachusetts released a bold vision for the future of transportation in the Commonwealth. To make that vision a reality, it’s our move.

For those of us who know how much better transportation could be in Massachusetts, 2018 was an exciting year. It concluded with the release of recommendations from the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation. Drawing on extensive research and listening sessions, the commission offered an ambitious agenda – calling for nothing less than transformation in how people connect to the places they work, study, live, and play in every part of our state. An ambitious vision for transformation is also what Barr’s Mobility Team has set its sights on – a vision that puts people at the center, that improves access to opportunities and quality of life for all, and that helps to address climate change.

I would like to call special attention to three of the many priorities elevated by the commission – multi-modal transportation options, including rail and Bus Rapid Transit. Yet, first, let me offer a few words of encouragement and possibility to check the doubters, cynics, and incrementalists – because it's time to say, good enough is not good enough.

The people of Massachusetts deserve, and we can create a system that works for all of us – a modern, comfortable, convenient system that meets our needs today. When it’s hard to believe that we are capable of big, bold, change, I find it helpful to reflect on how much the region has actually changed, even in my own lifetime.

Good enough is not good enough. The people of Massachusetts deserve a system that works for all of us – a modern, comfortable, convenient system that meets our needs today. Tweet This

Growing up in Jamaica Plain in the 1980s, I remember the unending Big Dig. The (elevated) Orange Line was my gateway to the city. Yet, there were vast swaths of the city my parents forbid me to go, either because they weren’t safe or, because of my Cuban roots, I wouldn’t be welcome. Today, the spectacular Rose Kennedy Greenway links a bustling downtown to the North End and to an entirely new neighborhood in the Seaport. And, Greater Boston is more diverse than ever.

Yet, even as our city has become safer and more livable, deep racial and economic inequalities persist. And climate change is a looming threat to progress on many fronts. We have so much more work to do. Yet, Boston and Massachusetts also have much to be proud of, and a centuries-long track record of sparking revolution, and radical change. We’ve done it before. We have the opportunity again today.

Personally, I let myself envision what the future might hold for my own daughter, who just turned 13. What might we be able to set in motion now, not only for ourselves, but for her generation and beyond?

Multimodal Options

We know the future of how we get around the Commonwealth will be defined by a continuing proliferation of new options – what the transportation wonks call “mixed modes.” This is something we’re already seeing among young people who naturally hop between shared app-enabled car trips, bike-share, transit, and more. As the region evolves, we can imagine a mesh of bustling, multimodal routes that allow users to shift from one to the other with minimal friction, using smartphone tools, network-connected vehicles, and common payment methods. We’re also currently supporting the Solomon Foundation’s work on individual greenway projects that, if taken to the next level, would overlay Boston’s neighborhoods with a network of inviting, creatively designed, green pathways for walking and biking.

Bus Rapid Transit

The future, as the saying goes, is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed. In parts of Massachusetts, exciting projects and planning offer glimpses of our future. In the past year, Barr has supported both MassDOT and several cities to begin taking bus service to new levels, with advanced signal technology, dedicated bus lanes, and smoother boarding. These projects are already improving commutes for thousands of people every day. Now, imagine leaping forward to a network of Gold Standard Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines, transforming our roadways to move hundreds of thousands of riders more efficiently and comfortably. BRT would bring new connections to jobs, schools, and other opportunities for Massachusetts residents. Grab a seat in Mattapan and glide through the city to Harvard Square in half the time, with comfort and dignity.

Reimagined Commuter Rail

Even with world-class BRT system, the rail lines we depend on now will always form the backbone of our region’s transportation system. Yet, these lines could do so much more for us than they do today. Imagine, a train network that runs every two or three minutes (instead of 20+, hourly, or worse), serving a much larger ridership, without ever packing people in like sardines. For equitable and sustainable growth, we need to think well beyond Boston. We can reimagine our commuter rail network, and create a web of fast, frequent, reliable, regional rail lines to support densely developed economic hubs all across the state.

This is a lot to imagine. But given the stakes, we’ve got to think big. It’s the only way we will decarbonize our transportation system as quickly as we need to, in order to limit the worst impacts of climate change, and to avoid a future of unsustainable congestion and chronic, debilitating system failures.

Given the stakes, we’ve got to think big. It’s the only way we will decarbonize our transportation system, limit the worst impacts of climate change, and avoid a future of unsustainable congestion and system failures.

So how do we get there? For one, it will take elected leaders willing to lead, and to make necessary tradeoffs to get the most value for the most people out of our shared spaces, and shared resources – like our roads, bridges, greenways, and rails. We need smart, empowered governance structures. And we need sustainable revenues that reflect what the research tells us again and again – that every dollar invested in transportation is returned many times over in the form expanding opportunities and economic growth. And each bold, new, transformative projects will build confidence and momentum towards that bold vision.

The region has changed so much just in the span of my own lifetime. But there’s no time for standing still. With the right priorities, innovation, and public will, we can once again think big, so that one day, my daughter, her children, and her children’s children will look back at our generation and, as they face their own challenges, will take inspiration from how we seized our moment, and how we made our move.

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