MassDOT is legitimately proud of its progressive policies about creating a sustainable, multi-modal transportation system. But the transfer from policy to facts on the ground has been very uneven and incomplete. This isn’t surprising: as with many other endeavors, road construction is a complex and multi-player process with gridlock and human life at stake. It’s not easy to turn a ship as big and disjointed as MassDOT with its highway-trained staff and its enormous web of highway-derived vendors.
Fortunately, there are three high-leverage points in the project process – for transportation and in every other field – that can help speed policy implementation and adherence:
– Project Selection (both internally at MassDOT and through the MPO funding process),
– Project Design (particularly as summarized in MassDOT’s Design Criteria Workbook and Design Exception Report Guidance, which are themselves based on the new Healthy Transportation Policy Directive and the implementing E-14-001 – Design Criteria for MassDOT Highway Division Projects Engineering Directive);
Ideally, the same high-level criteria should govern each of these decision-making events, even if there is a slightly different emphasis for each. And, ideally, those criteria should have the same hierarchy:
* starting with the user experience of the problem (or need) being addressed and the proposed (or completed) solution…including both current users and potential future ones, both “in-vehicle” people and those living/working/traveling near the vehicles; then
* checking to what degree the proposed (or completed) project moves our transportation system towards key state and MassDOT policy goals; then
* noting how well the proposed (or complete) project meets (or exceeded) MassDOT’s and FHWA’s technical criteria, including whether it meet “desired” targets rather than “minimal acceptable” one; and finally
* how well the project meets budget and scheduling requirements (or expectations).
The list of Alternative Performance Measures in NACTO’s (National Association of City Transportation Officials) Urban Street Design Guide has some good initial suggestions, but we need to go further. MassDOT deserves enormous credit for beginning to develop criteria for the three high-leverage decision points, but it’s not clear that the agency sees them as a unified whole – there are three separate groups and processes dealing with each one. What’s needed are a single set of easy-to-understand metrics, not some complex (even if perfectly tuned) methodology. Coming up with a coherent, start to finish set of progressive criteria will not only be good for Massachusetts but might set the framework for a national effort to go beyond the car-centric and skimpy criteria being proposed for the federal MAP-21 Transportation program.
User-based criteria start with safety but then expand to include things like comfort, convenience, usefulness (e.g. number and type of destinations with reduced travel time), cost, socialability (the degree to which it facilitates meeting and talking with others), and neighborhood cohesion (the degree to which it helps connect both sides of the right-of-way or fits with specific nearby uses such as a school, playground, health-care facility, elderly housing, etc.)
These are not remotely similar to the criteria that Transportation Agencies, Transportation Planners, and Traffic Engineers are used to. It is likely that selecting appropriate metrics as well as do-able measuring methods will require some creativity or even the use of not-quite-perfect surrogates. “Crowd-sourcing” a brainstorming process might help – there are probably some bright people both inside MassDOT and in the general public who can help! In order for MassDOT to become the customer-oriented agency it wants to be, figuring this out should be a high priority.
States and Agencies have huge numbers of policies covering nearly every aspect of government activity. Picking the most important, “key” ones is a political decision, hopefully done with enough public input that the selections are seen as appropriate and have general public support. Again, devising appropriate metrics and measuring methods, or selecting surrogates, will be challenging.
But to start the process, I’d suggest developing criteria that measure the amount that the proposed (or completed) project moves us towards the goals derived from the following policies. Currently, most transportation planning materials require quantitative (numerical) data analysis for car traffic but only qualitative (narrative) discussion of non-motorized needs – which often provides an excuse to relegate these to the sidelines, useful only to placate the public and policy makers that they are “being considered.”
2. Mode Shift & Complete Streets: tripling the number/percentage of trips taken by walking, bicycling, and transit; maximizing the pedestrian-, cycling-, and transit-friendliness of the transportation system.
3. Safety/Speed Control: including appropriate physical attributes in the road surface, width, curvature, elevations, and shape to reduce accidents and keep drivers from exceeding the desired or “target” speed (which may be lower than the legal speed limit).
4. Environmental Protection: improving water/waste run-off problems; maximizing the “green cover” on the right-of-way.
5. Context Sensitivity: design contributes to cohesion of neighborhood on both sides of right-of-way; design fits with specific uses (e.g. school, playground, health-care facility, elderly housing) and general characteristics (e.g. rural/urban, commercial/residential) of the surrounding area, as well other known or likely public or private development that this project’s design should anticipate.
6. Economic Development and Equitable Opportunity: transportation not only shapes land use, it also provides the foundation for business development. We need to ensure that transportation projects are done in ways that both stimulate private investment and spread that investment to areas and populations that have been previously underserved.
This is where Traffic Engineers live: lane widths, corner and curve radii, elevation and sight-distances, and more. And it’s also where traditional Federal Highway constraints are most powerful. The bad news is that national guidelines are very highway-based, almost always based on a desire to move as many cars as fast as possible with little regard to either other modes or the surrounding environment – although there now are some efforts to be more open to pedestrian, bicycling, and transit concerns. The good news is that national guidelines are actually extremely flexible, allowing “professional judgment” to over-rule many of the suggested specifications. While allowing a range of options appropriately gives road designers the ability to apply their professional judgment to each unique situation, the bad news is that it is a lot of work for Road Designers to move beyond past practice – applying for an “exception” requires additional research, analysis, paperwork, approvals, and time-consuming discussions – so in addition to any personal preferences for “the way I’ve always done it and that I know is safe” there are extremely strong incentives to just go with the traditional flow.
An all-too-typical response from traffic planners to requests for more truly multi-modal designs is that “bicyclists and pedestrians are a crazy minority with far more power than they deserve—people are voting with their feet (on the accelerator) and we should accommodate cars more than other modes”. While car traffic is, and will for many years continue to be, the primary mode of the majority of Americans, the degree of car dependence varies enormously from rural to urban areas and from older to younger people – although both MassBike and WalkBoston say that they are getting increasing numbers of inquiries from suburban and even rural areas asking for help in improving non-motorized travel. In addition, numerous studies show that prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists creates streets that are also safer for car occupants with little or no additional travel-time. Even drivers benefit when more people choose to leave the car at home.
For MassDOT, and Massachusetts, to achieve its policy goals the “exception request” process is going to have to be changed so that the policy-enhancing “desired” specifications are treated as “normal” and going below (or above) them – even if within “minimally acceptable” levels – requires going through the “exception request” process. Having a “Complete Street” should mean more than just making sure there’s a basic sidewalk, or a wide right lane where bikes can go, or no parking in front of the bus stop. It means starting the design process by thinking through what would be the best possible situation for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users and then figuring out how to fit car needs into that, rather than the other way around.
There is probably no way that Massachusetts can (or should) totally avoid the limits imposed by federal requirements for Interstates and National Highway System roads. And FHWA’s proposed MAP-21 Safety Criteria may also turn out to be a problem. But in this era of increasing federalism, there is probably significant wiggle room if state leaders are willing to fight for it. Because AASHTO, the national arbiter of road design, has been so highway-focused and so slow to change, various alternatives have emerged. At the city level, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has already begun issuing alternative transportation design guidelines that MassDOT needs to officially allow their engineers and consultants to use these incredibly well thought-out and effective sources.
BUDGET AND SCHEDULING BENCHMARKS
MassDOT is pushing into policy and practices that are relatively new for US transportation agencies. It’s not totally clear that MassDOT itself understands the huge impact that would come from tight coherence among Project Selection, Design, and Evaluation – it is, in fact, the only way we are going to be able to build the kind of comprehensive, affordable, and effective transportation system we need for a better and more prosperous future. But there is experience in some pioneering cities within this country and many cities, even countries, in Europe and elsewhere. We should not only learn from them, we should blatantly steal the best they have to offer!
Thanks to Jason DeGray, Lizzi Weyant, and Mark Chase for comments on earlier drafts.
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