Like all legislators, I like to report tangible good news. In the past few weeks, I’ve reported on progress (or at least efforts towards progress) on transportation projects across my district — from Back Bay to Belmont Center. Lots of that on this website.
But I wanted to share another perspective that I’m slowly absorbing from transportation planners: The era of the really big transportation project is over at least for a while. It’s mostly going to be about maintenance and repair.
The federal government doesn’t have the political and financial strength to bankroll great projects like the Big Dig or the Red Line extension. Also, we are so thoroughly built already and so committed (appropriately) to neighborhood, environmental and historical preservation, that many big projects are prohibitively complex to actually move. Not that nothing big will ever be possible, simply that physically vast transportation projects are very hard to do right now.
The good news is that, if you step back and squint, you can see that we have a huge amount of unused transportation capacity. While many of our systems are near the gridlock tipping point at rush hour, most of our roads, trains and buses have surplus capacity at other times. We have millions of five-seat automobiles rolling down the road at rush hour that are occupied by only one person. We often have intersections at which full buses are waiting for lightly occupied automobiles to cross. We also have buses standing still while people complete their fare transactions — transactions which could, with the right kind of station facility, have been completed outside the bus.
When you talk to transportation planners these days, many aren’t talking about the big projects, they are talking about intelligent transportation. They talk about transportation demand management — encouraging employers to help employees shift time and transportation mode to reduce congestion, even requiring employers to pay for their own shuttle buses as a condition of project approval. They talk about signal timing to allow traffic to flow consistently and signal command links to automatically give buses signal priority. They talk about their command centers where they watch road cameras and seek to rapidly eliminate emerging conditions (for example, stalled vehicles on major arteries) that can escalate quickly into traffic snarls. They talk about “Bus Rapid Transit” — on-street buses that only stop at closed platforms where fares are collected in advance and where people can board quickly without climbing stairs.
And then you have the ride sharing services — successors to the car sharing ideas pioneered by Zip car. Uber is one example, but I think we’re going to see entrepreneurs create many new smart phone apps and online communities that allow people to share rides with people that are not exactly strangers — people in their own neighborhood who have similar commuting needs.
As a legislator, I’ll keep working hard to fix the systems we have, to improve their carrying capacity where possible and to keep the big project dreams alive. But I’m most hopeful now about the many things we can do to make vastly better use of the transportation capacity that we have.