Commonwealth Magazine, Transit, 5/23/16

GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER said, “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” If ever there was an entity in need of some hope, it is the MBTA. Fortunately, this Tuesday evening the MBTA launches an extensive visioning process – Focus40 – to craft a 25-year strategic investment plan to carry the agency to 2040.

Transportation visioning has been on our minds lately, especially after our two organizations – The Alliance for Business Leadership and Transportation for Massachusetts – teamed up this past March at The Alliance’s daylong problem-solving event, ABL Leader Lab, to coordinate a track devoted to transportation issues. Nearly 200 business and civic leaders came together at Leader Lab to tackle big questions, such as the one we posed about transportation:

How does Massachusetts both shore up its current infrastructure and create the modern agencies and systems we need to compete in the 21st century?

Among many ambitious ideas, there was clear consensus around one answer: vision. Almost to a person, the leaders in the room concluded that in order to effect big change we need a big, shared vision.

So in addition to hope, we – the business community, advocates, public officials, taxpayers – must promote a direction and a goal for transportation in the Commonwealth. A vision. Focus40 promises to be a strong first step toward defining that direction and goal.

It’s not easy to focus on the future when the present seems grim. For most of us, we just hope to get to work or school on time. But transportation improvements can take decades, so it’s just not enough to fix the T’s troubles today; we need to be competitive tomorrow. And as we saw at Leader Lab, looking ahead with a sense of hope comes naturally to many of us, even though the daily experience of MBTA users can be dispiriting.

And that’s our strength. Massachusetts is a state of dreamers and doers. We are creating the future in life sciences, materials, design, and culture even as we tackle today’s challenges. Heck, we gave the world the chocolate chip cookie! We’re not done innovating.

Focus40 is kicking off with an open house and a panel discussion, before everyone rolls up their sleeves in the weeks and months ahead for a plethora of meetings, public sessions, and opportunities for input. The folks at the MBTA will receive no shortage of advice as to how best to pull this vision together, but the discussion at ABL Leader Lab yielded some key insights that are worth sharing:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Other public transportation systems are leading the world with incredibly exciting, efficient initiatives, from free transit service in congested downtowns in Denver and Salt Lake City, to gold-standard bus rapid transit systems in Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, to a focus on sustainability in Denmark, India, and China. Massachusetts should learn from them, incorporate best practices, and adapt any findings to meet local needs.
  • Use public transportation as a weapon in the fight against climate change. As Massachusetts seeks to reduce our carbon emissions, public transportation must contribute by getting cars off the roads and cutting greenhouse gasses.
  • Embrace technology and innovation. Whether it’s the “Where’s my bus?” app, the hugely popular countdown signs on T platforms, or something new and disruptive that hasn’t been thought of yet, technology and innovation can improve public transportation’s efficiency, and customer satisfaction.
  • Keep equity top of mind. It’s no secret that access to transportation often translates to access to economic opportunity. Investing in underserved communities can spur economic growth, create jobs, and support businesses.
  • Think bigger. Yes, think bigger about what the MBTA can be 25 years from now, but also think bigger than the MBTA. The Commonwealth’s entire transportation infrastructure is in desperate need of a vision – one that includes, but is not limited to, the T. Residents in central and western Massachusetts, the Cape, Islands, South Coast, and Merrimack Valley all have a stake in our transportation future.

Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman, once said, “To the person who does not know where he wants to go, there is no favorable wind.” Massachusetts is approaching a point where we must have the leadership and competitive will to know where we want to go. In other words, we need a vision, and we need hope.

Jesse Mermell is president of The Alliance for Business Leadership. Josh Ostroff is partnerships director at Transportation for Massachusetts.