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The personal side of getting transportation on the table

Using public transit is the right choice, but it can't meet its promise until we make it the best personal option

November 12, 2019

By Keith Mahoney, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs

Logos of organizations making up Transportation Table
Fourteen local organizations have joined together to make recommendations for our transportation future as The Transportation Table (T3)
The Transportation Table

I am like thousands of Massachusetts residents.

I am concerned about climate change, and believe that we need to take dramatic steps to mitigate its effects on the future of our city and our planet. I believe that we need to invest in public transportation and more walkable and bikeable environments to address this crisis.  I have seen the data, that about 20 percent of emission reductions needed to limit temperature rise need to come from trips avoided or trips shifted — from cars to trains, buses, and bikes.

I am concerned, I am well-informed, and I live in a community that gives me access to public transit. 

But I end up driving my car to work almost every day.

At a meeting with transportation and climate advocates last year we hosted last year I came clean.  And I know I’m not alone. I am among the many who know that it is a critical time to get out of our cars and on to buses or electrified public transit, but the reality is that all of our public incentives make the “right choice” far more difficult than the easy choice.

As a fairly rational person, efficiency, price and experience all factor into my daily commuting experience.  For me, that means driving 20 minutes rather than walking 15 minutes to a Green Line stop for a ride that can take, on a good day, 30 minutes and on a bad day, over an hour.  And one cannot predict what would be a good day, nor can one predict whether you will be standing in an overcrowded and overheated car.  Have an early meeting? A late event? A child to pick up or deliver to school, practice, a game, or a recital? Suddenly, the right choice becomes the risky choice. 

And it creates an unhealthy cycle. When decades of disinvestment make transit unreliable, people opt for cars or other private options. That strains infrastructure and deprives transit of revenue and ridership. So transit becomes more unreliable, people opt for cars, and the cycle continues.

I have been part of two major reports that the Foundation has commissioned on transportation.  The first, in 2013, was titled The Cost of Doing Nothing.  It examines the potential costs to the Massachusetts economy of failing to invest in repairs, upgrades and expansions of the state’s transportation network to address critical needs. The report finds that failing to address needed transportation repairs and upgrades will cost Massachusetts between $17.7 and $26 billion by 2030, while reduced productivity and higher costs would result in the loss of as many as 15,000 jobs.  The second study, The Transportation Dividend, was completed last year and focused more on the urban core, finding that because of past investments, transit helps overcome the very high cost of doing business in Boston, making it a place that people and enterprises choose. 

At the time of the release of these studies, many agreed that they made important points, and that policymakers need to address them.  The sticky issue is how to pay from them.  Often policy discussions focus on how to accomplish a goal with as little pain as possible. We focus on the cost of any fix, without recognizing the benefit, or acknowledging that money, in fact, is just one part of a needed solution. A more healthy approach is to present a convincing vision of a shared future, and then be honest about what we need to do together to get there.

Recommendations from T3 for transit Read the full report from The Transportation Table

That has been the work of a group known as The Transportation Table, or T3.  Convened by the Barr Foundation, T3 is a group of leaders across major sectors of the Commonwealth – business, industry, municipalities, and nonprofits – who have been working together to identify the major chokepoints in transportation and develop a set of recommendations to address them.

We sat together, with some found fiscal grounding provided by the Mass Taxpayers Foundation, and wrestled with where we want to go as a Commonwealth, and how do we get there.  The new report put out today is the start of a conversation – one that can’t just look at the financial cost of investing in next-gen transit, but also at the daily toll that decaying infrastructure and failing transit takes on our people, our communities, our economy, our sense of equity, and our collective psyche.

It's a systemic conversation - but with some powerfully personal dimensions. We hope you'll help us push it forward.