Second of two parts (First part can be found here.)
MASSACHUSETTS STATE AND MUNICIPAL DECISION MAKERS must push a reset button and develop a template for a more comprehensive and robust regulatory framework that will guide the operation of Transportation Network Company and autonomous vehicle business models. It’s a necessary first step in the process of harnessing the power of innovative business models to serve the needs of sustainable mobility. The TNC train may have left the station, but it can be called back. With respect to autonomous vehicles, let’s get ahead of the curve. We have a generational responsibility to get this right.
What would such a reset accomplish? First, it would ensure that we are leveraging the economic power of the disruptive business model to ensure maintenance of a level playing field between its essential auto-centric nature and public transportation. A statutory and regulatory framework that advances sustainable mobility would insist on migration of all TNCs to electric vehicles by a date certain, and require all autonomous vehicles to be all-electric as a requirement of admission into the marketplace. While the transition of TNCs to electric power takes place (something that realistically would take a decade or more to achieve), a carbon impact fee would be imposed on every ride provided by a TNC vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. If you think such a fee is punitive, remember that as many as half of the vehicle miles travelled by Uber and Lyft drivers are so-called “deadhead” miles – in other words, miles without a passenger. These empty vehicles are roaming and congesting city streets, and we as a society need to step up and say clearly: that is not the kind of mobility behavior we want to encourage, there are serious negative consequences to that behavior, and we will regulate it by imposing a cost that helps compensate for those negative impacts.
In addition to a carbon fee, TNCs should be required to pay separate fees for all single passenger rides and all peak hour rides. Finally, all electric-powered TNCs and all autonomous vehicles would be required to pay a “road impact fee” as a way to compensate the public for their increased vehicle miles traveled and general impacts on road surfaces. These fees would be dedicated exclusively to public transportation, providing transit with a stable and robust source of revenue that will enable it to invest in equipment and strategic initiatives that will help make it competitive with TNCs.
Transforming how we provide transit services is of equal import to regulating TNCs. We cannot settle for simply putting a shine on the status quo. The status quo is static, by definition incapable of keeping pace with or adapting to change. We can lose no time moving forward with specific initiatives that will enable transit to provide most or all of the service that most people want and need in an affordable and egalitarian way. Three approaches offer the most promise: regional rail, better bus transit, and municipal empowerment. Each of these represents a new business model for delivering more reliable transit service.
First, an important consensus has recently developed on the topic of regional rail. Three respected advocacy groups, A Better City, TransitMatters (disclosure: I am a board member), and MassINC each published a report that addresses the urgent need to move way from the inadequate current commuter rail system, a failing approach to regional mobility based on mid-20th century thinking and an obsolete business model. A modern regional rail system would provide true regional equity in mobility by offering frequent all-day service to and from the Boston urban hub. Regional rail would improve service by offering fully accessible high-level boarding throughout the system, electrifying the rail and equipment (thereby enabling a cleaner, lower-cost, and speedier service) and ultimately connecting people across all regions of the Commonwealth via the Grand Junction Line and a link between North and South Stations.
Our region’s chronic and worsening traffic congestion will end up doing great damage to our economy unless we confront it with effective tools. In part, that means understanding that demand management (e.g. encouraging modal shift) must overtake increasing supply (e.g. expanding highways) as the only sensible and responsible approach to responding to changing mobility needs and preferences. Regional rail effectively responds to that goal.
Second, the desire for better bus transit in Greater Boston is palpable, as recent experiments with dedicated bus lanes and traffic signal priority in a number of inner core communities are being enthusiastically received by transit riders and supported by local residents who understand that better bus transit also means safer streets, better accessibility for students and seniors, and an improved public realm. Bus transit, because it is inherently agile, can adapt and respond to changing mobility preferences, demographics, and displacement – the realities of a metro Boston inner core that is experiencing a generational shift in population growth, rising housing costs, and mobility patterns.
The MBTA’s automated fare collection initiative will accomplish one major improvement goal by enabling all-door boarding of T buses. This will improve service by speeding it up. Recent pilots showcasing the advantages of dedicated bus lanes in Everett and Boston (and others soon to take place in Cambridge and Arlington), if they become permanent features, will also significantly improve the speed and reliability of bus transit service.
Perhaps the most important improvement in bus transit can come with a new business model. There is no reason why MBTA bus transit must always and only be bus service along a fixed route. Imagine a new business model that supplements the fixed route service with a more agile on-demand service in locations outside a reasonable walking distance of the fixed route, say within three-quarters of a mile of bus stops or T stations in areas of threshold density. Imagine a public shuttle system that enabled you to reserve a seat on and be taken to a specific subway station or designated mobility hub. The MBTA cannot and should not abandon this playing field to the private sector. Instead, it ought to adopt a new business model that enables it to effectively compete with TNC and private shuttles, or risk losing significant ridership – an outcome that will have dire consequences for its future viability.
The barriers to better bus transit are largely rooted in misconceptions. Many people have been accustomed to view the bus as the least desirable mode of transit, because for too long public agencies at the state and municipal levels treated it that way. Many are also concerned that better bus practices, including designated bus lanes, will reduce or eliminate travel lanes or parking spaces in dense urban neighborhoods. This need not be the case, and most locations where dedicated lanes or bus rapid transit would work effectively are ample enough in size to be able to accommodate all modes without meaningfully diminishing any existing uses. All modes can coexist in a fair and functional mobility ecosystem.
Municipal empowerment – devolving real decision-making power to leaders at the municipal level – is the third approach to reimagining and revitalizing transit in Massachusetts. We have to remove ourselves from the constraints of old-think that assumes every mobility decision must fit into a statewide priority. The various regions of the Commonwealth have many shared values when it comes to transportation, and those shared values often converge on more sustainable forms of mobility, particularly rail. However, each region has unique needs and projects, and these should not have to compete against one another for state funding attention. Taking a more regional approach to funding transportation needs means reforming our funding system to empower municipalities to act – giving them the tools to raise net new revenue for specific transportation projects and initiatives.
The efficacy of this approach was demonstrated recently in California, where voters passed a ballot question posed across nine counties that raised highway tolls over six years in order to collect and invest $4.5 billion for regional transportation improvements. We ought to be doing this in Massachusetts, enabling voters to have a larger measure of control over transportation policymaking, funding, and expenditure as it impacts their communities and regions. The current system, which forces urban, suburban, and rural legislators to compete against one another for a piece of a shrinking funding pie, consistently fails to address important mobility needs in a timely and effective way.
It is at the municipal level that political and civic leaders really know and understand their mobility needs, and they appear to be ready to act and innovate. You see this happening all over the inner core region – Everett, Arlington, Watertown, Cambridge, and Boston all advancing dedicated bus lane pilots. You see it in Boston with the mayor’s recent initiative to raise penalties on scofflaws in order to fund sustainable mobility initiatives. You see this in the support of mayors across the region for investment in modal alternatives ranging from improved bus service to intercity rail connections to ferries. Let’s harness this energy and enthusiasm in a manner that has a more direct impact on how transit policies and priorities are set.
In 1966, Robert Kennedy spoke in Utica, New York, about the imperative to redirect government action and spending in ways that were more responsive to the needs of the times. His words carry force today:
“Money by itself is no answer. Programs that are misdirected accomplish nothing. There are things more important than spending. Their names are imagination, courage, and determination.”
Advocates for better public transportation and sustainable mobility need to bring imagination, courage, and determination to our work every day. Technology and business model innovation disruptions will not cease. Those who think that, like King Canute, they can hold back the tide will soon find themselves washed away by the relentless advance of modernity. The question for sustainable mobility advocates is whether that tide will also erode public transportation ridership to dangerously low levels, and whether 20th century auto-centric models that pass for 21st century mobility innovation will ultimately degrade, or at least frustrate our ability to improve, our quality of life. We are challenged as never before to think and act creatively. Given how rapidly change is taking place, advocates must seize the moment because tomorrow may be too late.
James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.