A question of access: Shifting the transportation conversation

A question of access: Shifting the transportation conversation

Equity, climate, and choice are keys to developing a workable plan for the future

TRANSPORTATION AND MOBILITY matters to everyone who commutes, travels, or runs errands on a daily basis, and these everyday trips create a sense that we are all experts on transportation. For creative problem solvers, every traffic jam, transit delay, confusing intersection, or missing bike lane connection provides an opportunity to brainstorm possible solutions.

But what criteria should be used to evaluate new ideas for improving transportation? What collective future of mobility are we trying to achieve?

Historically, transportation modelling was designed around accommodating automotive trips and national data gathering from the US Census and the American Community Survey focused primarily on journey-to-work data. At the largest scales, questions of capital expenditures and fare box recovery govern infrastructure and operations investments. At the smallest scales, decisions are made based on the vehicle delays and congestion at intersections. Is this the best way to measure mobility? Do these traditional tools provide the right framework for building a better mobility future?

In Boston, a two-and-a-half year planning process resulted in a multi-modal citywide mobility plan called Go Boston 2030, which was designed to answer those questions and to prioritize the projects, policies, and programs that will shape the future of how people travel in the city. The process involved thousands of interactions with residents through digital and in person outreach balanced by fresh data analysis. The overarching goal of the process was to design a future transportation system for Boston that would make the city more equitable, more climate responsive, and better connected to economic opportunity.

Despite the geographic specificity of the plan, the three pillars of the plan provide useful criteria for creating more inclusive, sustainable, and livable urban areas as new transportation ideas are being evaluated. Whether the idea takes the form of a new transit option, a policy on autonomous vehicles, the development of a new mobility app, or the design of a traffic signal, it should be considered in light of the following:


  • Does it improve equity? Is it addressing racial and economic disparities that too many legacies transportation systems have perpetuated?
  • Does it minimize climate impacts? Is it improving local air quality and reducing the carbon emission levels that affect the planet as a whole?
  • Does it expand choice? Is it providing people with multiple options for different kinds of trips at different times of day and in different weather conditions?

Relative to most U.S. cities, Boston and the core municipalities that surround it have a rich eco-system of transit options: four subway lines more than 150 bus routes, an extensive commuter rail system, ferry service, a growing network of bike lanes and paths, and a multi-jurisdictional bike share with more than 200 docking stations. Yet these resources are spread unevenly across the area with previously red-lined neighborhoods still lacking the services that other parts of the city rely on. Meanwhile, traffic on the highways that lead into the city is legendarily congested, proving not that we need more roadways but that more transit capacity and reliability is needed to provide people with transportation choices that they can rely on in lieu of their personal cars, and particularly if switching away from private vehicles leads to lower emissions.

Go Boston 2030 established a comprehensive set of goals and targets across nine themes with a particular emphasis on expanding access to multiple travel options, improving safety, and ensuring reliable travel times. These goals and the projects selected will make the overall transportation system more robust, though individuals tend to want greater efficiency and easy access to information in addition to the goals being addressed. The present contrast between the world at our fingertips on a smart phone and the constraints and limitations of our analog transportation systems heightens this tension between a digital world where we can navigate quickly, if not instantaneously, and a physical world where we are accommodating the needs of others and the distances that must be overcome.

Efficiency and reliability are reasonable requests for a transportation system but are challenging to realize in rapidly growing cities and are especially hard to achieve if people expect that they will be able to drive with little congestion, few stops, and readily available parking. Meanwhile, the digital world also seems to provide us with endless sources of information, but many tools do not currently link the information we need to where we are in the physical world.

Finding the information we need on signs can be particularly reassuring; even as we increasingly rely on GPS for travel directions, we use roadway signage to confirm our navigation. Incorporating real-time information into signage has been very effective, but many digital-only tools are underutilized because people are unaware of their existence.

There are three particularly promising ways in which new technological solutions for transportation challenges have the potential to address equity, climate, and choice as well as the desire for efficiency and information.


Today, smartphone applications such as Waze show drivers when there is congestion ahead and provide alternate routes to avoid it; other apps identify the nearest bike share docking station, show the number of available bikes, and allow users to unlock a bike; and apps such as Transit show the exact time of the next bus allowing people to leave their house just in time to catch it.

The next generation of apps should have an expanded sense of what a multi-modal trip could entail (a bike ride to a train to a walk perhaps) and do a better job of accounting for weather, time of day, price constraints, and other factors. While smartphones have spread, not everyone has equal access to data plans and they are far from universal among older adults, so it is incredibly important this kind of information be shared in other ways. Finally, these apps are not reaching all of the users who need them; people are regularly making inconvenient travel decisions because they never thought of using an app to look at their options.


The ability to pay for bus and train tickets with a single pre-paid tap card has been a major improvement for 21st century transit users. Creating a card that works across multiple platforms and transit authorities has been a significant recent advancement. The ORCA card allows for travel on bus, ferry, rail or train in the Seattle area with either a monthly pass or a stored value. The Clipper card allows users to pay fares across 27 transit agencies in the San Francisco area and offers discounted versions for seniors and students. Starting in October of 2017, the ConnectCard began allowing transit passengers to access Pittsburgh’s Healthy Ride bike share program for free to complete the last two miles of their trip.

In the future, cities and their surrounding regions should continue to improve policies around fare media (how people pay for transit) in order to expand people’s ability to transfer between modes and service providers more easily, create systems that allow people without credit cards to access these cards conveniently, and ideally develop a program of subsidies that work like housing vouchers or food stamps to allow low-income residents to better access a range of transportation options and make their own transportation choices.

In Boston, the MBTA will be improving their fare payment systems with the anticipated rollout of Automated Fare Collection 2.0 in 2020. The local Hubway bike share program already serves a model for addressing equity by offering very reduced-cost memberships for low income residents since it launched in 2011.


This evolving technology promises to change how we get around in the future. As testing continues and policy decisions are made, it is important to remember that they will have to be shared and electric in order to lessen the climate impacts of the nation’s current vehicles. Additionally, the pricing structures must be worked out carefully in order to ensure access to transportation choice for people across the income spectrum. Also, given the density of cities that seems to foster innovation, placemaking, and diverse human interaction, there will still need to be a wide array of transportation choices available. Although a ride in an autonomous vehicle may give an individual time to work or relax, there will still be waiting involved both in mixed traffic and when a shared vehicle is on its way.

All of these innovations create another layer of concerns for transportation officials at every level of government especially as they develop partnerships with the private and non-profit sectors.


Everything from long term planning and policy-making to traffic signal timing adjustments can benefit from additional data, and city and state departments of transportation should leverage these tools to improve mobility when they can access the data being collected on their sidewalks and streets. Transportation related apps, whether they provide digital maps and directions, or physical cars and drivers, should be sharing their data with municipalities who can use it to improve transportation system operations. Waze formed a data sharing partnership with the City of Boston that has helped to measure the congestion impacts of pilot projects around the city and went on to forge a similar relationship with MassDOT. Zipcar and Enterprise car share also agreed to share data with the City in exchange for on-street parking spaces. Advocacy groups can also contribute data by surveying users, conducting counts, or monitoring pilots.


Transportation innovations have the potential to support dense urban environments, which in turn support walkability and transit ridership and can foster innovation with job clustering. This same density can also increase congestion if individuals are travelling in separate vehicles, and there are concerns that autonomous vehicles will encourage people to live even farther apart. Policies should continue to support denser development while also ensuring that innovation is serving people in less dense areas who do not have access to a personal car.


Meet the Author
Shared, electric, autonomous vehicles in particular will require a radical rethinking about how cities and states will supplement their funding if current sources disappear. Without gas taxes, parking meters, speeding and parking tickets, and possibly vehicle registrations, there must be new revenues to supplement local construction and maintenance costs for roadways and other infrastructure. Charging for vehicle miles traveled may be one way to overcome the deficit, congestion charging may be another. As creative transportation solutions to today’s problems emerge, the need for connectivity that works across a range of incomes, multiple modal choices, and with a reduced carbon footprint should be emphasized and prioritized in our investments and implementation decisions.

Alice Brown was the project manager for Go Boston 2030 and is now the director of water transportation at Boston Harbor Now.