We cannot be passive actors in COVID recovery

Three pathways to restoring transit and rail

WELCOME TO 2021, the post-pandemic year, the year of recovery and restoration and of reclamation, when we take back the routines so abruptly removed from our lives. Welcome to a season of hope, more hopeful than perhaps it ought to be, a time when patience and persistence will count more than impetuousness and reckless abandon.

The pundits and prognosticators have had their opportunities to opine on the future. Will cities survive? Will we ever return to working in office settings? Will restaurants remain viable? Will riders return to public transportation?

On and on, the questions come and the experts (or those who claim expertise) weigh in, laying out visions for the future that make our hearts race, sometimes with excitement (we can reclaim the urban streetscape for sustainable mobility), or more often dread (driving will replace commuter rail and everyone will keep getting everything delivered to their homes).

It’s a stunning range of options we have to choose from, but since we are mere mortals without the power of clairvoyance, I would not take any expert prediction to the bank.

The inherent unreliability of predictions does not mean we should find ourselves adrift and at the mercy of the fates. We are human beings. We (or, more accurately, most of us) have the power of agency. To quote Robert Kennedy, the future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control.

The choice before us is unambiguous: we can be passive actors in the process of COVID-19 recovery, or we can be active participants engaged in “building back better.” Passive actors let others make the choices for them or rely on the “marketplace” to collectively choose what recovery looks like. Thus, here in metro Boston, waiting for riders to return before ramping up transit and rail service turns passivity into policy. I suppose that a passive policy makes sense if you believe that transit exists to respond to momentary or temporary fluctuations in ridership, but no one knowledgeable about the true impact of a highly functioning transit system – its agglomeration effects supporting a vibrant economy, its ability to help people transcend obstacles to gain access to opportunities, and the associated reductions in auto mobility (and hence reductions of vehicular emissions) – would believe that.

Just a mere two years following the Baker administration’s report on the future of transportation, a report that wisely asserted the critical importance of “moving more people and fewer vehicles” a mere few years following Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to set a statewide goal of zero emissions by 2050, a mere year or so after a Massachusetts Highway Department report acknowledging the heavy financial, economic, and air quality costs of growing chronic traffic congestion – after all that promise, we enter 2021 without a clear and comprehensive plan to direct metro Boston  mobility toward a more sustainable, equitable platform, one that could shape the area’s recovery in a generationally responsible way.

The Legislature has failed to address the urgent transportation revenue needs of the moment, retreating behind the predictable shibboleth that “this is not the right time” to raise new revenue. Not the right time? A time when gas prices are at all-time lows, when more people are driving because they are still working, when it’s critical to redesign transit and rail service delivery models and redesign urban streetscapes to enable urban density without crowding. It’s  not the right time? For too many at the State House, it’s never the right time. That is the problem.

The governor, to his credit, has advanced the Transportation Climate Initiative, or TCI, a regionally collaborative approach to reducing transportation sector emissions by imposing “cap and invest” pricing at the wholesale point-of-sale of gasoline. Similar programs elsewhere, particularly California, have reaped significant benefits measured both in emissions reductions and targeted investments in sustainable mobility and equity. Revenue generated by TCI may be substantial, but it won’t be realized until 2022, and the exact uses to which it will be put have not been decided.

In the meantime, pandemic recovery won’t wait. If we allow our urban streets to be fully reclaimed by auto mobility, we are doing a grave disservice to public health and to the small business economy. If anything is clear following the experiences of 2020, it is that urban vitality will return when people are able to walk and cycle more safely; when restaurants are able to spill out into pleasantly redesigned streets and sidewalks; when bus transit is frequent, speedy and reliable thanks in part to enforced dedicated bus lanes. All of this depends upon large-scale redesign of the urban streetscape, one that requires ample funding and a commitment on the part of the MBTA and inner core municipalities to take the work that has already been undertaken in Everett and is about to happen in Boston and elsewhere and scale it rapidly.

Metro Boston’s economy won’t continue to thrive as we have known it without strong support from the public transportation system. In its 2018 report The Transportation Dividend, the business group A Better City explored the reasons why the metro Boston economy has historically been so strong and resilient. Here is a summary of their heavily researched findings:

“Our region’s positive growth outlook is tied directly to its productivity – Metropolitan Boston produces six times as much gross domestic product per square mile as the national metropolitan average. Our driving industries – finance, medicine, education, technology, research – are transaction-based sectors that benefit from the availability of skilled labor, frequent and relatively inexpensive transportation, specialized technical and professional services, and a large client base. These factors – which economists call ‘agglomeration effects’ – diminish the cost of transactions, enabling firms to operate in higher cost locations. The highly-clustered, knowledge-based structure of our metropolitan economy – a structure geared to transit – is key to the region’s outsized performance.”

The region’s economic productivity depends on a highly and fully functioning transit and rail network. This was true before the pandemic and it will continue to be true after the pandemic. In a limited number of professional business sectors, typically the privileged who have a large measure of control over their work hours and conditions, work from home will continue, but there are reasons to doubt its long-term durability. As one forecaster recently put it, the first time a business loses a deal because its competitor decided to meet in person rather than virtually is the last time that will happen. Productivity might have increased in some sectors, but not the learning that happens when colleagues meet and share experiences or information, not the office cohesion that supports colleagues taking time to mentor or support one another, not the networking that enables upward mobility or that opens doors to new opportunities, friendships, ideas. These are the experiences that cannot be replicated by conference calls and Zoom sessions.

Many of those who have been able to work from home have had the benefit of gaining the time otherwise spent on commuting, but at what personal and social costs? Has that “found time” been used for personal growth, more family time, or more work? Technology has enabled many of us to work rather seamlessly without the resources and camaraderie of the workplace setting, but there are significant, often hidden downsides. Technology has no conscience, and comes with its own limitations, constraints, and inequities.

A wholesale shift to technology for work and entertainment comes with massive implications that relate both to human isolation and a deepening gulf between those who belong to a higher-wage privileged class (those who have reliable internet access and the financial means to participate in the internet economy, those whose jobs enable them to work remotely) and everyone else. Returning to the workplace, likely to happen gradually and in new, more flexible workday structures, is essential for the survival of urban small businesses, social cohesion, and workplace camaraderie and productivity.

We can’t build back better without transportation, land use, and housing policies that squarely meet the demands of an extraordinary time. My objective here is to address the transportation component of that triad. An overarching component of public transportation recovery will be the continuation of strict public health protocols for riders and transit employees, including bus retrofits to protect drivers, civilian-enforced mask wearing, and improved station and equipment cleaning and ventilation. Even after vaccinations take place, these basic protocols will ensure rider and employee safety and enhance confidence in use of the system.

These basics aside, there are three synergistic pathways that can help restore transit and rail, leveraging its strengths to support a healthier urban environment and stronger urban economy.

A public transportation system that provides more service with less crowding.

This means more capacity achieved by: (1) frequent all-day schedules that support two goals: responding to hospital shifts and a staggered, spread-out workday that responds to more flexible working habits that inevitably will mark the post-vaccination recovery period; (2) dedicated bus lanes and fare-free unlinked bus transit (helping support greater frequencies and reduced dwell times); and (3) protected cycling lanes (accommodating the established modal shift from transit to cycling and walking).

A regional rail system that responds to 21st Century needs.

This means an intercity rail network that runs with frequent clockface schedules all day long, providing people with reliable access to destinations across the metro region.  Massachusetts has a precious asset in its ownership of the regional rail right of way.  Current policies that essentially take a “let them all drive” attitude run contrary to the Baker administration’s stated emissions reduction goals, contrary to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s own report on traffic congestion, and contrary to the administration’s Commission on the Future of Transportation, which wisely counseled moving more people and fewer vehicles.

A system that reduces carbon and particulate emissions.

This means a deliberate transition to an all-electric bus and commuter rail fleet by 2035. The MBTA must commit in the short term to purchasing electrical multiple unit self-propelled train cars and electric buses (keeping its electric trolley bus fleet and, eventually, moving toward battery electric buses) with a forward-looking commitment to fleet replacement on a schedule: 30 percent by 2025, 75 percent by 2030, 100 percent by 2035. This requires equally prompt action on design and construction of bus maintenance and storage facilities. The Legislature must take steps to support this effort both by funding the transition and relaxing procurement requirements in order to streamline the process. Our federal congressional delegation might also be on alert to include federal funding support for this transition to cleaner energy as part of any 2021 stimulus bill.

In a speech given in 1966 in South Africa, Robert Kennedy said of different challenges in a different time, “It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny.”

Meet the Author

Our destiny remains in our hands, and we can build a better post-pandemic metro Boston only by developing broad consensus and taking decisive action. That is what leadership is all about. Passivity is no answer. Retreating to the false comfort of the pre-COVID status quo is no answer. History, and future generations, will rightly judge us harshly if we fail to take up the task of rebuilding a better, more sustainable and equitable society following COVID-19. There is no time to waste.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.