For smart growth, urban development needs better transportation

by The Reminder (Pioneer Valley)

SPRINGFIELD – The conversation around this cocktail party at Theodore’s centered on one big subject: how to improve transportation options in the Pioneer Valley.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance hosted, with the help of progressive activist Corinne Wingard of Agawam,  “TODrinks” on May 3. The “TOD” stands from “transit-oriented development” described as “a type of community development that includes a mixture of housing, office, retail and/or other amenities integrated into a walkable neighborhood and located within a half-mile of quality public transportation.”

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Seven Massachusetts communities win “Complete Streets” Kudos

The Red Sox may have had a bad 2015, but Massachusetts scored big last year for adopting new “Complete Streets” policies. When Smart Growth America unveiled its national rankings today, seven Massachusetts communities were in the top 16.

Longmeadow (tied for 3rd), Weymouth (4th), Ashland, Natick and Norwell (all tied for 7th, and Lynn and Framingham (both tied for 9th) got raves in The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2015.


The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2015 (PDF)

Complete Streets is about breaking down the barriers between driving, transit, walking and biking. It is a different way of thinking—integrating the needs of people and place in the planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance of all our transportation networks.

So, it is very good news that so many Massachusetts communities made that commitment in 2015—and did it so thoughtfully. According to the Smart Growth America report, there were 82 jurisdictions nationally that made a similar commitment last year. Since 2005, when there were only 32 jurisdictions nationally with a “Complete Streets” policy, the number has grown to 843.

The Complete Streets movement has been gathering momentum nationally, with the Surgeon General in September 2015 and Congress in December 2015 promoting complete streets as the best way to think about mobility.

It is no accident that Massachusetts is beginning to score nationally—and catch up to states like New Jersey and Michigan. Starting in 2013, the Massachusetts Public Health Association led a statewide campaign that succeeded in getting a “Complete Streets” certification program into law (other key advocates included the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, MassBike and WalkBoston). Enactment of a “Complete Streets” policy is now a requirement for certain MassDOT funding and technical assistance.

As of February 2016, when MassDOT officially opened the $12.5 million program for this fiscal year, 30 communities had made the commitment. But developing a “Complete Streets” policy is not just checking a box—each community must decide how to integrate the different transportation modes given its particular conditions.

So kudos to the seven communities in Massachusetts who, in the words of Smart Growth America, developed “exceptional policy language” and can serve as national models.

Bus Rapid Transit can transform the MBTA

Do you know what BRT is?

For the past two years, the Greater Boston BRT Study Group has been exploring the potential for Bus Rapid Transit with local transportation experts, planners, and community leaders.

We are proud to support their analysis showing that Gold Standard, cost-effective BRT is possible in Greater Boston and could bring significant benefits to residents, commuters, and the economy.


The report, titled Better Rapid Transit for Greater Boston: The Potential for Gold Standard Bus Rapid Transit across the Metropolitan Area, offers the first citywide technical analysis of BRT.

Throughout this process, we have come to see BRT as a potential missing piece in the suite of transit options being considered for Greater Boston’s future. Gold Standard BRT has many characteristics that make it worth including:

  • Agility. BRT is a highly agile system that connects neighborhoods better than a traditional hub-and-spoke rail system. BRT doesn’t require tracks and connects seamlessly to bike and pedestrian transit, and its dedicated lanes (separated from traffic) are easily plowed during snow.
  • Cost-effectiveness. Because BRT does not include complex track infrastructure, it requires less upfront capital to construct. BRT can on average be up to seven times more affordable than light rail, per mile.
  • Immediacy. BRT can be implemented more quickly than rail systems, relieving pressure on the MBTA’s aging train and trolley infrastructure.

The Study Group, convened by the Barr Foundation, partnered with the non-profit Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), a world leader in the study of BRT systems, to analyze a number of potential corridors in which BRT could reduce congestion on the T, serve underserved communities or groups, provide more direct connections between neighborhoods, and bolster planned future development.

Through a comprehensive technical analysis, ITDP and the Study Group prioritized five corridors in which BRT shows particular promise.

The report can be found at Join the conversation about BRT by using the hashtag #bosBRT or tweeting to @bosBRT.

Olympics: Put Legacy First

The goal of Boston 2024 is to win the Olympic bid, but our goal at the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance is to create infrastructure and thriving neighborhoods that will strengthen Greater Boston and the Commonwealth for decades to come.  In other words, put legacy first.

That’s the message of a report issued today (June 9, 2015) by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, alliance member MAPC and close ally Transportation for Massachusetts. (MAPC is the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for 201 cities and towns in the Greater Boston region.)

Read the Report Here

With coordination and good planning, the goals of winning the bid and putting legacy first are compatible. And, as New York City has shown, planning for the Olympics can move a city forward even if it loses the bid.

We propose a coordinated planning process that focuses on the legacy impacts of the Games—the long-term, regional benefits that will last beyond 2024. Our prime recommendation is an Olympics Planning Commission to oversee public planning around the Games.

The potential smart growth legacy is real: the Olympic venues provide an opportunity to create new and vibrant neighborhoods, meaningful improvements to existing parks and open spaces, and critically-needed infrastructure, especially related to transportation.

But the report pulls no punches about the possible downside risks, especially the prospect of rising housing prices and displacement.  We make nine recommendations to prevent displacement, as well as recommendations to build affordable housing at venue sites after the Games end. We also warn against allowing the venues to sprawl throughout the state, which would force visitors into cars. This can and should be an Olympic Games that are fully accessible by transit, bike and walking.

With the Boston 2024 Committee planning to issue a significantly more detailed bid proposal on June 30, it is time to have a robust public conversation that defines the legacy we want—and how to create a public process that ensures that legacy remains our focus. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance will be part of that conversation and we hope that you will join us in putting legacy first.


The MBTA Report: Reform and Revenue


The Governor’s Special Panel to Review the MBTA is exactly right about a fundamental point: it rejects the ‘reform vs revenue’ debate because “the MBTA needs both.” The report recognizes that Massachusetts requires a strong public transportation system, including increased capacity and expansion.  We need public transit for future economic prosperity, to maximize access to jobs and services, improve quality of life in our communities, and improve our environment.  While we don’t claim insight into whether the panel is right about how to operate a well-managed transit system, it also deserves credit for focusing attention on ways to cost cuts, increase revenue within the system, and improve accountability. We welcome efforts to be more creative and efficient in how we think about public transportation.

Nevertheless, we have reservations about the implications of three important recommendations in the report.  First, from a smart growth perspective, it is short-sighted to make maximizing system revenue our overriding goal. We do not ask our roadways to maximize revenue! Instead, we should be guided by the goal of ensuring that the people of Massachusetts can get where they need to go, safely and efficiently. For example, the panel recommends using “real estate assets strategically,” and we agree. But that does not mean maximizing proceeds from selling T parcels and maximizing parking revenue.  Rather, it means using those assets to bring about the best outcome for Massachusetts.  Transit-oriented development has a multiplier effect in our economy and can be transformative in weaker markets.  Many TOD strategists think that surplus state parcels—including those owned by the MBTA—should be sold at below-market prices in exchange for affordable and middle income housing. In this way we can leverage our transportation system to address our housing crisis. We need to think outside the transportation silo.

Second, we are concerned about the panel’s recommendation that the current fare cap—restricting increases to 5% every two years—be lifted. Fares were raised an average of 23% in 2012, and the fare cap language was adopted in the last transportation reform bill to guard against future dramatic increases. Fares were raised again 5% in 2014. Eliminating the cap would undermine another of the panel’s key recommendations that the MBTA focus more on increasing its ridership. We favor retaining the fare cap, which keeps the T affordable for our low-income residents, which are its core ridership. Finally, with housing prices out of control for many families, riding the T is one of the only ways to make ends meet and reduce costs in Greater Boston. As former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi says, “To ask people to pay more for lousy service before you improve it is just completely wrong.”

Third, while we appreciate the nuanced way in which the panel handled the issue of system expansion, a “temporary moratorium” sends the wrong message and is potentially counter-productive to the state’s economic and smart growth development goals. The panel made the key distinction between increasing system capacity and expansion, wisely recommended that long-term planning proceed, and carved out certain essential expansions like the Green Line extension.  However, if businesses and developers lack confidence that Massachusetts will invest in public transportation, there is risk that they will focus on states that are creating 21st century infrastructure. It is clear that we need to not only fix the transportation system of the 1980s, but create a transportation system for 2030.

We thank the Governor for making public transit a top priority and look forward to a robust debate within the Administration, and within the legislature, on the panel’s recommendations.

Download the MBTA panel report here:

Learn about Transportation for Massachusetts here:

The Route to Growth

April 2, 2015


Yesterday, business leaders and local officials stood behind a new report called The Route to Growth showing that our state’s economic growth depends not only on reforming and modernizing the MBTA, but targeted expansion.

Here’s an example. Merrimack Valley Planning Commission Director Dennis DiZoglio highlighted a segment of the Haverhill commuter rail line where there is only one track, creating a bottleneck for trains. Building double tracks in that location will cost about $35 million, but will instantly double the capacity of the commuter rail line serving a large swath of the Merrimack Valley. That’s expansion, but it’s also a smart investment that leverages our existing system better.

Another recent example: Building a new Orange Line station at Assembly Square cost the state about $29 million but is leveraging private investment of more than a billion dollars and creation of thousands of jobs. That’s smart expansion.

Similarly, the Green Line extension will drive new investment to under-served areas and bring tens of thousands of residents within walking distance of rail. Expansion of South Station seems like another expensive Boston project, until you realize that it is needed to improve rail service throughout New England. There is simply no place to put the trains that need to run through Boston.

More controversially, South Coast Rail is a $2 billion proposed expansion project. Expensive, yes, but it will help connect an entire region of our state to the global economy. Is it worth it? The residents and leaders of Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton, and surrounding communities think so.

Perhaps the bigger question is: why do we spend less than 4% of our state budget on transportation ($1.6 billion out of a total $41.4 billion), when it is so key to jobs, housing, the environment, and quality of life?


Read the Report:  The Route to Growth

Littleton: Home of America’s Best Complete Streets Policies

The National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America, recently released its annual list of the best “complete streets” policies of 2013. The winner, in the eyes of the panelists?

Littleton, Massachusetts, and its Complete Streets Policy.

“Complete streets” policies formalize a community’s goal to create streets that function for all users—people of different ages and mobility levels; walkers and bicyclers; those taking public transportation; and, yes, those in cars and commercial vehicles. These policies will guide decision-makers as they budget and design new infrastructure to support everyone who wants to use Littleton’s streets.

Nationwide, there are 610 complete streets policies in place, many of them enacted in 2013. We’re excited to see municipalities of all sizes planning for streets that accommodate everyone safely, and are thrilled to see a Massachusetts town leading the way in making its streets accessible and safe for all.

Click here to read the report.

Want to learn how your community can develop a complete streets policy? We have resources available on our website to help you get started.

Inadequate public transportation affects household finances, access to jobs, and general mobility of Latino residents

Massachusetts often prides itself on its extensive public transportation system, but the system fails to benefit many residents who need it most.

A study released this week by Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts and the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy shows that the state’s transit systems often fail to provide convenient, viable transportation options for lower-income Latino residents, based on surveys and focus groups held in Lynn, East Boston, Worcester, and Springfield. Read the report online.

Outside of the MBTA service area, transit hours and frequency are often limited—alarmingly, “some focus group participants described their strategy of arriving at the bus stop one full hour in advance of the bus’s scheduled arrival time in order to combat ‘no-shows.’” Even when buses run on time, service often ends early in the evening and is even more infrequent or even nonexistent on weekends.

Walking, unfortunately, is rarely a convenient solution because basic goods and services such as grocery stores or doctors’ offices are often located far from respondents’ homes: in Springfield, only 18 percent reported that such daily conveniences are located in their immediate neighborhoods. It’s telling that “the most common way for East Boston respondents (31%) to access the grocery store is by private taxicab.”

Even the relatively more available MBTA service in East Boston fails to connect workers to service and other jobs which often are not located downtown – in cities with less connectivity such as Springfield, access to jobs is a huge barrier to employment.

In the face of such lacking public transit, most residents are forced to make major financial sacrifices to own and maintain cars. In each city, between 66 and 89 percent of respondents reported that they would drive less if public transportation was better – across the survey area, 38 percent reported having at some time forgone a basic necessity in order to afford transportation. The low-income Latinos on which the study focused truly have “no good choices” — public transit wastes time and severely limits mobility, but the costs of car ownership present a burden.

Despite the cost, however, “57% identified automobiles as their ‘primary’ mode of transportation – a finding explained by the high but often invisible practice of regular reliance on someone else’s car.”

So how do we break down these barriers to mobility? The study, first and foremost, recommends increasing funding for Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs); at the same time, these agencies (including the T) must rethink their routes to ensure that residents without cars can efficiently access their daily needs. Bicycling could also close many gaps, along with progressive land-use planning that creates walkable neighborhoods.

— Lucas Conwell


A doctor’s view on transportation

Why Smart Transportation Matters: Reflections from the Front Lines of Community Health

By Dr. John Raser

I’m a family doctor in Lawrence. Like my colleagues around this country, I spend much of my effort caring for people with obesity-related chronic illnesses: type-2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease. Partnering with patients to control these disorders is important and rewarding work, and I feel fortunate to be able to help. Yet I can’t shake the frustration of knowing all the pain, the disability, and the costs to individuals and to our economy related to these illnesses are almost entirely preventable.

Why don’t my patients lose the weight? Why don’t they get the hour of physical activity they need every day? After all, there is great evidence that exercise combats and/or prevents diseases ranging from diabetes and heart disease to dementia and many cancers. Is there something wrong with my patients? Is there something wrong with all of us? The truth is that it’s extremely difficult in our modern world to achieve a level of physical activity that is a basic prerequisite for health. I get tired of urging children to bike to school when traffic travels at dangerous speeds and there are literally zero bicycle lanes. It feels bad to urge a family to walk to the park or the supermarket when dangerously wide intersections, congested parking lots, and busy highways stand between them and these basic daily activities.

So what would a Massachusetts look like where it was easy to be active and healthy? Fancy gyms and programs cannot and should not be the answer for everybody. Most of us are too busy working, raising children, and simply living to go to the gym every day. In a healthy community, physical activity would not be something we do, but how we live our lives. Perhaps the biggest key to this shift is a profound change in our transportation system. It’s no coincidence that the average American spends 46 minutes commuting to work and falls 40 minutes short of reaching that vital hour of physical activity.

The Legislature has taken an important first step to address the operating deficits that our state has been running, but we need to recognize the importance of transportation infrastructure in shaping all of our lives. The status quo just isn’t good enough as we deal with an epidemic of obesity.

We need increased funding to support walking and biking, as well as investments in public transportation – all of which will increase physical activity and decrease disease burden in our communities. In Lawrence, where a third of us are under 18 and a great majority doesn’t own a car, this shift in investment just seems fairer. In a city whose great resources are historic buildings and a vibrant immigrant community, this shift in investment is also key to our economic future.

Finding more revenue for transportation isn’t easy, and people are understandably reluctant to increase public budgets. However, making these investments now is a good bet. Not only will they create local jobs in the near future, but they will save millions in health care costs for the Merrimack Valley families in the long-term.

I hope you will join me in asking the Legislature to imagine our communities as healthier and more active places-ones that entice you to walk down the street.

John Raser is a doctor at the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center. He is also sits on the Lawrence Board of Health and the Groundwork Lawrence Advisory Council.

April 9 discussion: Key findings of Orange Line study

State and local officials are hosting a public meeting on Tuesday, April 9, to discuss  key findings from the Orange Line Opportunity Study, part of a multifaceted campaign to realize the full potential of one of Boston’s busiest transit lines.

This study is intended to help municipalities, public and private developers, and community groups advocate for corridor investments and plan for the future. The corridor is poised to experience a major wave of development over the next two decades.

The event will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9, in the board room of Urban Edge, 1542 Columbus Avenue, Suite 2, Roxbury, MA 02119. [map]


The discussion will cover corridor assets, opportunities, and recommended actions, along with an overview of transportation-oriented projects already underway and an announcement about two recent corridor investments by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

The event will feature Governor Patrick, state officials, and representatives from the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and the City of Boston.

The final draft of the report is available online (PDF).

Half a loaf: the Legislature’s transportation plan

By André Leroux, Executive DirectorSmall-Suit-01w
April 3, 2013

The Legislature dropped its long-awaited transportation plan yesterday. It’s the first time I ever felt disappointment at $500 million. I believed that we had the chance to set a visionary course for a post-Big Dig transportation system. It’s like having the opportunity to invest in an exciting new business, but instead you just pay off one of your credit cards.

That being said, it’s important to acknowledge some important victories that we asked for. In terms of good news, the Legislature’s proposal:

  • Stops the practice of borrowing $234 million every year to cover salaries;
  • Closes the MBTA’s structural deficit for FY14 without fare increases or service cuts;
  • Forward funds the Regional Transit Agencies around the state and provides a small increase in funding;
  • Provides a bump for local transportation projects (basically road re-paving and some sidewalks);
  • Finally raises the gas tax for the first time since 1991 and indexes it to inflation; and
  • Does these things without further burdening low-income residents (at least this year).

But the fact remains that it will cost $19 billion just to repair existing roads, bridges, and rails. This plan has no way to pay for that. Nor is there funding for regional projects that will boost local economies and connect more people to jobs. Nor increasing walking, biking and public transportation around the state in any significant way. Even more troubling, it looks like there is a built-in reliance on hefty fare increases in future years

Why go so far and yet not finish the job? There is no question that we need to modernize and improve transportation. Families and businesses are losing time and money to a decrepit, congested system. Our economy can’t grow if we don’t increase capacity and connect the state better.

Imagine what life would be like today if we had never transformed transportation in the 1950s through the interstate system. How successful do you think we would be if we all had to use Route 9 to get from one end of Massachusetts to another? I can say with confidence that we would have far fewer jobs and far less mobility.

Now it’s 60 years later. Our society and our economy are transforming, but our thinking about transportation remains in the 1900s.

Automobiles are just one piece of the puzzle, and it’s declining. Today’s economy is driven instead by great places that attract people and investment, and which foster creativity and innovation. MassDOT has finally realized this, and set an inspiring goal of tripling the share of walking, biking and public transportation in the state. Now we need a financing plan that can enable this new generation of infrastructure to materialize.

Already, an increasing number of people are isolated because they can’t afford a car and the alternatives are inadequate. One out of eight households in the state doesn’t have a car, and fewer young people are getting drivers’ licenses. These trends will only become stronger in the coming years. We are becoming less mobile as a society because we have old-fashioned notions about getting around, and we are becoming less competitive and losing jobs to other places with better infrastructure.

There is another way. Businesses and young adults especially must speak for the future. The Legislature needs to do better.

Click here for more information.

Public forums examine the toll of underinvestment in regional transportation

MassINC and Transportation for Massachusetts are hosting a series of public forums around the state to discuss regional transportation investment, especially as it relates to Massachusetts Gateway Cities.

Last week, MassINC published a new research report – available online – that cites heavy economic toll of insufficient transit in Gateway Cities, along with above average support for transit investment among voters in these communities. The report provides a roadmap for how new public resources in regional transit can be invested with a focus on improving the economic performance of Gateway Cities.

Forums have already been held in Pittsfield and Fitchburg. Upcoming forums include:

March 12: Lowell
March 14: Lynn
March 18: Worcester
March 21: South Coast
Week of April 1: Haverhill/Lawrence
Week of April 1: Springfield
April 8: Cape Cod
April 10: Brockton (rescheduled from March 28)

In addition, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition is sponsoring a public forum, “The Time is Now for Rural Transportation Support in MA,” at 10 a.m. on Friday, March 8, at the First Baptist Church in North Adams. More information is available online.

Massachusetts is falling behind

While roads and bridges across the Commonwealth are falling apart and public transportation continues to deteriorate, other states are investing in a stronger economic future and better quality of life.


Read about and download the plan.

On January 14, Governor Patrick outlined the choices state legislators must grapple with to keep Massachusetts competitive.

The Commonwealth needs to modernize its transportation system to move people, goods, and services more effectively; to provide transportation choices all around the state; to attract people and businesses to our cities and towns; to support vibrant town centers and urban squares; and to be prepared for natural disasters and extreme weather caused by climate change.

“The Way Forward: A 21st Century Transportation Plan” calls for new revenue that will enable us to fix our roads, bridges, and public transportation.

Here’s how you and your friends can help:

  1. Read the plan or the summary.
  2. Email your legislators. (Look them up here) as well as House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray. (See the sample email text below.)
  3. Express your support on Facebook and Twitter. Forward this message to your friends and family.
  4. Receive bulletins from MA Smart Growth and Transportation for Massachusetts.
  5. Submit a letter to your local paper, comment on articles on-line, or call in to talk radio. There will be a lot of bad information, starting with the mistaken notion that the Governor wants all of the tax and fee options enacted. This is not true–we will need to adopt some of the options, along with reform and modernization.
  6. Let us know if you weigh in on this issue.

Sample text of email to your legislator:

Dear [NAME]:

I support investing in our transportation system and I am writing to ask you to do the same.

Massachusetts needs a long-term strategy that will fix what’s broken, reduce delays and congestion, and make our cities and towns healthier and more prosperous.

I use the transportation system every day. I want to know that it will work when I need it—that roads and bridges will stay open, that the trains will run on time, that sidewalks will not crumble, and that we can build the walking and bicycling trails that my community wants.

We have some hard choices, but you can make sure that we get a fair blend of revenues and modernizations that add up to the $1 billion investment that we need.

Thank you for your attention, and your action.



Read more about transportation issues and our policy agenda for 2013.

Transportation Hearings

What’s the future of public transit in Massachusetts? MassDOT seeks public comment at ongoing hearings.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is holding a series of interactive public discussions around Massachusetts to gather feedback from local residents on regional and statewide transportation needs.

The series of Your Vision, Our Future: A Transportation Conversation forums is designed to help inform the department’s board members as they develop a funding plan. MassDOT’s board must present the plan to the state legislature in January 2013.

This is a critical time for the state’s transportation system and your voice can make a big difference in moving us toward a more vibrant, safe, and reliable statewide system. Please attend one of these local events.

Date & Time Location
November 14, 2012
6-8 PM
Memorial Building – Nevins Hall
150 Concord Street, Framingham MA, 01701
November 15, 2012
5:30-7:30 PM
Mattapan Branch Library
Community Room
1350 Blue Hill Avenue, Mattapan, MA 02126
November 27, 2012
6-8 PM
McGlynn Middle School Auditorium
3002 Mystic Valley Pkwy, Medford, MA 02155
November 29, 2012
6-8 PM
Massachusetts Transportation Building
Conference Rooms 1-3
10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA 02116
December 3, 2012
6-8 PM
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Woodlawn Commons Building-Conference Room 3
285 Old Westport Road, North Dartmouth, MA 02747
December 5, 2012
6-8 PM
Lynn City Hall
City Council Chambers, Floor 4
3 City Hall Square, Lynn, Massachusetts 01901
December 6, 2012
6-8 PM
Attleboro City Hall
City Council Chamber
77 Park Street, Attleboro, MA 02703