Monthly Archives: August 2011

As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

For some reason, no one wants to run transportation agencies in the Northeast. The departure of managers like Jay Walder, former MTA general manager, and the impending vacancy of MassDOT’s Jeffrey Mullan –apparently over a pay squabble with Governor Deval Patrick—shouldn’t come as a surprise: running these systems is a big headache. There’s never enough money to run subways and buses on time, not to mention the harsh winters that accelerate the wear on buses and stress on stations while simultaneously draining the budget. Clearing tons of snow doesn’t come cheap.

Walder’s replacement hasn’t been found yet, but looking for a luminary with a résumé like his —he’s credited with introducing the Oyster card in London and pushed for a tap version of the MetroCard  (coming in 2015, hopefully)— is going to be left up to a task-force headed by New York’s Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch and is quite the order.  Commissioner Mullan’s job description is broader but relatively easier; more highways, less subways. His replacement is Richard Davey, a sort of Jay Walder-lite, and he is leaving his post as the chief of the MBTA for the commissioner’s desk at the Massachusetts Transportation Building, across the Boston Common from the State House.

 As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

Jay Walder, Former MTA Chief (Copyright NY Daily News, Xanthos)

Davey isn’t taking over until September 1st, and he’s inheriting a mess of disappointment, anxiety, and general disdain for the Bay State’s infrastructure. Commuters from the West hate the tolls, Bostonians don’t like the prospect of bus and subway fare hikes (there hasn’t been one for the past five years), and there are parking lots doubling as thoroughfares in the suburbs to the south and north. Davey’s office is a crosshair of discontent making a typically easy target for public griping –public transportation—even easier to find.

Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT

-Richard Davey

The news isn’t all bad for soon-to-be Commissioner Davey: the shape of the Massachusetts economy is sturdier than the country as whole and unemployment numbers are far below the national average at 7.6%. That means that while Bay Staters may dislike any impending cost increases to their daily commute, they are in a better position to afford it. That won’t be reason enough to refrain from protest should any combination of an unholy trinity occur: toll increases, fare hikes, and gas taxes. These strategies are not levers for the sake of pulling: transportation costs for single drivers commuting from the suburbs outweighs costs for those taking public transportation as a proportion of income and the savings incurred by carpooling would make any frugal commuter from Framingham or Swampscott squeeze in the backseat between Ashley from accounting and Jackson from HR.

 As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

Richard Davey, left, Incoming MassDOT Commissioner with Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA), center. (Copyright Governor's Office)

Davey is also appreciably realistic and honest about the state of transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts (bad), the implications that has for the economy (also, bad), and the brand of strategies that need to be in play in order to shore it up (rough). But Davey has to equivocate like any holding political office–and running buses and trains in a major American city is a unique political act. “Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT,” he told WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti in an interview last week, referring to that department’s efforts to streamline operations and find savings before it went looking for new cash. Remaining mum on anything outside of a general fare increase is a shrewd but obvious reference to Governor Patrick’s failed bid to add $0.19 to the state’s paltry $0.235 gasoline excise tax, a move that would have raised $500 million annually and gone a long way towards disarming the debt bomb ticking away at 10 Park Plaza.

Overseeing a public transportation system, as Davey did for a little more than a year, is slightly worse than a thankless job. Subway and bus riders assume –just like pedestrians and motorists—that there infrastructure lacks considerable complexity in providing service at a high level and low cost. Straphangers have taken on an odd brand of roundabout logic regarding transit: the subway has been there because it’s always been there and –this is critical—it will never not be there. Complaints about efficiencies and delays sound more like an amateur chef criticizing the saltiness of a dish at Le Cirque or O Ya; a problem with a blunt, linear solution. The reality is overwhelming and complex – unless, of course, maintaining personalities, budgets, complaints, politics, and equity while simultaneously attempting to keep one’s job sounds like the managerial equivalent of making grilled cheese. Riders often neglect the basic thermodynamic logic behind a public transportation infrastructure: it is a system, and systems are inherently inefficient. Davey will, hopefully, go a long ways towards “squeezing every ounce of savings [he] can out of the organization”, but more importantly (and potentially more hopelessly) he can also educate riders, drivers, and walkers on what exactly goes into his job, a position that has remained a black box for most American cities.

Of course, these are still difficult times to get anything done in Massachusetts transportation when there is still the echo of overdrawn budgets reverberating through the Big Dig tunnels. It is harder still when you consider that the design and implementation dysfunction at that very same project may push the bottom line even higher. Davey discusses that project with the same tenor a cheater might save for a particularly terminal infidelity: “Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” Admitting institutional mistakes, even if the missteps were on someone else’s watch, is especially satisfying coming from a transportation official where colossal successes and failures are almost always cut from the same cloth, and only the former ever find an owner.

Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” -Richard Davey 

Chakrabarti’s interview with the commissioner-nominee, his first after Gov. Patrick’s announcement, centered on the one question he says will define his tenure: “What kind of transportation system do we want?” The crystalline rhetoric (what other answer could one have besides “good” or “great” or “really great”?) isn’t pointless. If Davey’s position is geared towards educating Massachusetts residents on the subtle and unglamorous issues facing infrastructure then he will have not only taken his predecessor’s path to its logical extension but also conducted an exhibition in bureaucratic pragmatism, a task only slightly more simple than fixing the Green Line.

Transportation Costs Americans Too Much of Their Income

A colleague of mine —who coincidentally was also one of my favorite transportation policy professors— has an especially esoteric collection of office memorabilia. Seeing the odd model train or toy subway car wasn’t out of the ordinary in an office dedicated solely to transportation planning and consulting. But this colleague, let’s call him Jason, has plastered most of his space with endless statistic myopia. It looks like the office of a mad scientist, obsessed with finding a solution to an impossible problem or creating a perfectly efficient, Frankenstein of a car—a KITT with a taste for biodiesel.

 Transportation is providing the utility of a faraway place.

-T.R. Lakshmannan 

When I looked a little closer and took the time to read the titles of all Jason’s charts and graphs things become a little clearer. Most of the information stuck to the wall with prismatic pushpins actually has to do with how American’s spend their money, especially when it comes to transportation. It was obvious that Jason wasn’t the only one interested in that trend; every graph, chart, and paper had a different scribe.

It costs a lot to go places. T.R. Lakshmannan once converged the theoretical and practical definitions of the mercurial subject: “transportation is providing the utility of a faraway place.” That’s the entire package: when you drive somewhere, the destination is simply providing you a benefit for a cost and the cost is the travel. It may hurt to think about but you never get to your job for free because you’re either going to pay for gas, pay for a subway ticket, pay for a bike, or pay for a new pair of shoes. In a basic sense, improving transportation is really about reducing that cost for all parties—though driving down the price of a good pair of loafers may be beyond that scope.

One chart in Jason’s office is conspicuously centralized among an ocean of otherwise scattershot pieces of paper. It shows the spending habits of Americans distributed by their income brackets. Scaled isosceles triangles exhibit how much we spend on clothes, food, and education as a function of total income. And there, in bold, is transportation. The data is gleaned from the Consumer Expenditure Survey managed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (the most recent dataset is from 2009) which breaks behavior down into earnings brackets up to $70,000 a year—American families who make more than that are clumped together, a dismissal that speaks to the purpose of a survey like this. The dataset is invaluable to breaking down the trends of the modern American consumer as well as identifying potential areas of ghastly disequilibrium.

Transportationbudgetchart 1024x662 Transportation Costs Americans Too Much of Their Income

Transportation Budget Compared to Total Income (click to enlarge)

There are sure to be sectors of the economy where poor Americans spend a terrifyingly disproportionate amount of their income, but transportation is one that has recently caught the eye of planners and journalists alike. A gas tax increase, a concept as boring as it is indispensable, has had the limelight on it locally and nationally and is, depending on whom you talk to, economically disastrous or politically unpalatable. Another concept that has gained traction in the Pacific Northwest is based on how far you drive rather than how much gas you buy. But charging for Vehicle Miles Traveled or VMT ignites an all-American brand of paranoia and conjures up images of tiny tracking devices recording your every word and perhaps even that time you got ice cream instead of going to the gym.

The issue, of course, isn’t nominal, it’s proportional. Poor Americans are spending a much higher percentage of their income on a good that should have been engineered into near-obsolescence. The problem of family transportation budgets outside of the cost of gas doesn’t get talked about in policy circles or news outlets too often because it lacks the melancholy glamour and tragedy of food prices and foreclosures. But going back and forth from work, school, and leisure can damage a family’s budget as much as any other commodity crisis. There will never be a free way to get somewhere; travel, like thermodynamics, will never hit perfect efficiency. There is room for improvement, however. If there are people making $17,000 and spending 20 cents of every dollar on transportation then maybe it’s time we started reinventing the wheel.

Innovative Public Spaces? Boston Could Take a Lesson from New York and NYCDOT

With the near-5.5 mile stretch of road closed between Park Avenue at 72nd Street and the Brooklyn Bridge closed for New York’s Summer Streets campaign, lower Manhattan took on an unfamiliar soundtrack. You could still hear the cars on Broadway a block over, but the lack of idling engines and tourist buses was unsettling in a good way. After the requisite euphoria subsided it felt like a natural oddity in a city that was doing most things right by way of transportation policy.

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Lafayette St. During Summer Streets

Walking up Lafayette Street with the cyclists, pleasantly surprised tourists, and the equally pleasant (but not surprised) natives, it was evident that New York was at the vanguard of turning threatening asphalt into remarkable experiments in public space. A Mayor with considerable disdain for the glacial pace of government and a disproportionate faith in what it can do to transform geography paired with a transportation commissioner who has considerable literacy in realpolitik and a Moses-lite attitude towards urban planning (without the highways) have taken roads and made them sidewalks. The simplicity of the transformation doesn’t negate its innovative definition, and other cities are starting to get the point—slowly.

Portland, Oregon, a sort of practice in progressive urban utopianism, would have legitimate reason to challenge a New York’s forward looking supremacy, but the Rose City does not have the same sort of entrenchment issues that New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago have. The ability for a city like Portland to have significant flexibility in its design separates it from larger cities; the bike paths and robust transit system a beneficent byproduct of that same latitude. More important than that, though, is a more apparent advantage: it’s small. Not all small cities are so easily transmuted though, and Boston in particular has stalled where there are significant opportunities.

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Lafayette St. During Summer Streets

Boston blurs the line between petite malleability and historical institutionalism—unfortunately progressive planning initiatives have been limited to fledgling bike path network and a new bike sharing network sponsored by the New England footwear brand New Balance. The city does do large-scale well though; the green hook of the Esplanade running along the Charles River and the engineering alchemy that resulted in miles of highway buried below a park.

Boston comes with its own set of quirks and planning idiosyncrasies, not least of which is its unorthodox—or organic—street map. There are neighborhoods like the North End and sectors of Allston and Brighton where the series of short darts from long thoroughfares represent a Jacobean ideal. In fact the North End, representing one of the only barrios with any community glue is experienced in getting road closure permits for public celebrations like St. Anthony’s feast in August. This transformation of major arterial roadways into a smorgasbord of street vendors and revelers shouldn’t be viewed as an annual departure from traditional ideas about roads because it’s exactly what a city like New York bases its brutally effective piecemeal approach on. You take a street, regardless of the traffic load it endures on a daily basis, and instead of talking to commuters you talk to local business-owners who would see their revenues rise if you inserted a makeshift park next door and a public space instead of a road. Those cosmetic changes are not without ancillary effects: real estate values rise, revenues go up, and traffic fatalities fall precipitously.

Lafayette Summer St 3 1024x764 Innovative Public Spaces? Boston Could Take a Lesson from New York and NYCDOT

Lafayette St. During Summer Streets

Boston has a chance to adopt the incrementalist approach that New York has put in play so effectively and gracefully. A road closure here, a public space there, a bike path yonder, and pretty soon the city has had a facelift and instead of a bisection of city space by cars you have a conflation of public geography. And pretty soon people start coming here for the space, not just the sports.

Radilarious | Vilnius Mayor Must Crush Cars Parked in Bike Lane, Proof that Tanks Make Things Better

A friend of mine shared this video with me and I have to say that while I’m kind of sorry he didn’t crush the Ferrari or the Rolls, doing some work on an old school Benz was still amazing. With all the illegal parking in Boston and New York (I’m sure it happens all over the country) it would be something to see Mayor Menino or Bloomberg rolling over a Prius with a garbage truck or see if the street sweepers have some 4-wheel drive on them.

Seriously though, don’t park in the bike lanes. Lithuania still has some soviet planes leftover and I’m pretty sure Mayor Zuokas wouldn’t mind riding a Panzer through Brooklyn.