In a classic episode of Sex and the City, “the girls” plan a trip to the suburbs to visit a friend who’s made the move to Connecticut. They rent a car (a convertible, of course) and they all jump in, but no one takes the driver’s seat. After an awkward pause, someone asks: “Does anyone know how to drive?”
Recently, MassDOT and the MBTA sponsored a conference on the issue of “the last mile,” an issue I wrote about in this space in May. An open conversation led by members of MassDOT’s planning staff, the participants represented mainly suburban and ex-urban business and community leaders.
What quickly became apparent is that there are two problems: the difficulty of travelling the last mile on public transit to your destination, and the demographic shifts that are making the suburbs less appealing as a place to live and work, because of the lack of mobility options aside from driving. The problem of the last mile, singular, is what I wrote about last month – how to get from the Portland Transportation Center to Portland’s thriving downtown, truly a mile away. The problem of mobility in the suburbs is a different, and far more difficult, one. When we were actively creating this problem during the era of post-World War II highway building and suburban sprawl, we didn’t think of it as a problem. Gas was cheap, cars were sexy, and vast areas of open land were suddenly accessible for development as a result of capacious public investment in interstate highways. The opposite of a problem, at the time people thought it was pretty terrific. Those with the means fled the cities for safe and homogeneous suburbs with verdant lawns, corporations built single-purpose office campuses separated from everything else, and everybody drove everywhere. Life was good in suburbia.
First, it became a problem of capacity and the interstates soon became clogged. It is surely anachronistic, if not ironic, that portions of I-93 are still referred to as “the Expressway.”
But now it’s also a demographic problem. What Alan Ehrenhalt writes about in “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City” was clearly on the minds of the business and community leaders at MassDOT’s conference. Americans increasingly want to live and work in cities, and particularly young people are growing more and more averse to commuting to work by car, or travelling anyplace else by car for that matter. Although the Millennial generation is the most visible cohort exhibiting these trends, I see a pretty wide spread of age groups in my South End neighborhood in Boston (while at the same time a diminishing diversity along racial and economic lines, but that’s another conversation). At least three of my definitely-older-than-Millennial friends have given up their cars in the last couple of years, and I’ve been thinking about it myself for a while. (When you go a year and half between oil changes, you’ve really got to take a look at why you still have the thing).
One conference participant stated it frankly, that the businesses in his suburban town are finding it difficult to attract the young talent they need. They want to live in the city (specifically Boston, Cambridge, and maybe Somerville). Oh, and they don’t drive.
In certain places, it is clear, businesses have gotten together to organize vanpools, shuttle buses, and other means of transportation that are suited to getting around in the suburbs without a car, often through the vehicle of a Transportation Management Association. The Route 128 Corridor Alliance, for one, seems to have figured this aspect out pretty well. And there are Regional Transit Authorities all around the state.
Millennials are tech-savvy. They grew up in the digital age. It’s second nature for them. But today almost everyone relies on information obtainable through the Internet. So it’s frustrating that the mobility options that do exist in the suburbs are so difficult to find, and the conference participants identified this as a real problem. I decided to plan a theoretical trip from Boston to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, just because I knew I could get to downtown Worcester by train, and the college is too far to walk from the train station. Here’s how it went.
The MBTA’s trip planner informs the user that there are no routes within a mile of Holy Cross. Apparently as far as the T is concerned, that ends the discussion. Google Transit helpfully offers that there is the commuter train to Worcester’s Union Station, but then cynically suggests that the traveler drive from the station to the college. Wandering over to the Worcester Regional Transit Authority’s site on my own (or from a link on MassDOT’s site) leads to a screen that lists routes, but doesn’t map them, so how then to know where they take you? Clicking on the “map” tab takes the traveler to a map of the area, also unhelpfully devoid of bus routes. In order to find the route that goes to the college, I was going to have to click on each of the listed route schedules and review each map. After checking half a dozen of the 26 listed routes, I gave up. If there’s a way to get from Union Station to the College of the Holy Cross on the WRTA, they seem to want to keep it a secret.
Checking out what Holy Cross might suggest by way of helping me get there, I find out that there is a shuttle bus operated by something called the Colleges of Worcester Consortium. At this stage, I have spent over an hour planning a 50-mile trip, and visited at least four different web sites. I didn’t keep track of the number of tabs I checked on those sites, but it was a lot.
The point is not to criticize the MBTA, the Regional Transit Authorities, or even Google, but merely to point out that, especially with regard to the younger, urban-dwelling, non-driving population – the people this group of suburban business and community leaders want to engage—the existing mobility resources for travel anywhere beyond the MBTA system are far too difficult, almost impossible, to access. You can get there from here, but how is a secret.
Politicians and public officials love capital improvements for the ribbon cuttings, but when there are less costly, easier fixes to facilitate mobility in the suburbs, why not address those first? After all, transportation is often about connectivity, and if the connections, or hyper-links, among the information needed to complete a trip aren’t available, the actual transit connections are going to be underutilized. I’m not smart enough to understand how the information about the transit services that connect with the larger MBTA system can be integrated into a user interface that allows travelers to quickly and easily plan a trip using all mobility options. But if Facebook can start posting ads on my homepage for deals on airfare, five minutes after I book a hotel room on Priceline, I’m sure some twenty-something out there can do it.
Kudos to MassDOT and the MBTA for organizing the conference, because the issues the suburbs are facing look like they are here to stay. As I once heard Mr. Ehrenhalt describe the Great Inversion: “They didn’t call it Sex and the Suburbs.”
Peter O’Connor is a real estate and economic development lawyer in Boston and a former deputy secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.