Monday, March 9, 2015

Complete Streets v. First Mile/Last Mile, a planner's dilemma.

At the recent Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s annual winter meeting, the Boston area’s regional planning agency conducted one of those board game exercises where a tableful of participants gets a certain number of poker chips and places them on a game board to represent their transportation priorities. The pot of money was supposed to be the almost $2 billion in regional discretionary funding expected over the next 25 years.

My table went overwhelmingly for something called “Complete Streets”, the planning concept that says we plan and design streets to “enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for user of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation." Sounds good, no? My group spent almost nothing on major infrastructure. Advocates for the T and for pedestrians liked this allocation, and argued passionately for it.

I didn’t like it so much and argued against it. Complete Streets, while it will have many ancillary benefits, is still a rich people’s problem. I maintained that we should have allocated less to it and more to "Community Transportation and Parking," the wedge on the game board that includes something called First Mile/Last Mile — how you get people onto a transit system and then back off again as near to their point of origin and destination as possible. It is a challenge every transportation system deals with, and it's called “First Mile/Last Mile” because the most difficult segment of that journey is covering those very first parts or the very last.

My table didn’t go for it because they overwhelmingly heard the word “parking”, as in the construction of new parking lots to handle suburban commuters. I heard something else — I heard projects that would enable poor people to gain more equitable entry to the system. I also heard a most cost-effective way of turning dollars into projects, $1.5 million for one of these projects versus $6 million for every new mile of Complete Streets.

Most of all, the focus on Complete Streets struck me as another predictable misread by affluent whites wherein they impose their values (and spending priorities) onto the poor and then congratulate themselves on having solved a problem. It sounds like a bad case of “I know what’s good for you,” but it’s really a perfect case of “I know this is good for me. Don’t you like it too?”

My own experience is that when you go into these communities, ask relevant questions and really listen to the answers, you hear something quite different from what you expect. I cannot imagine that a construction worker with a 12-mile commute on public transit to his job site cares much about Complete Streets. Nor do I think an immigrant with a 6 a.m. start time to their building cleaning gig cares much either. What they want is a simple, reliable, predictable way to get where they are trying to go, on time, day after day.

MAPC has adopted a commitment to tackle the inequities in the region, whether they be in opportunity or income or access to adequate transportation. That’s an appropriate agenda for MAPC to have.

As we move away from auto-centric thinking to a more techno-centric society, our public money should be spent on public systems that support all and particularly have extensive impacts in those areas and on those people with the fewest existing options. First Mile/Last Mile spending is particularly important in the suburbs, which are increasingly home to poorer workers as the housing costs in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and surrounding communities continue further out of reach. These workers are more reliant on public systems for employment and other important essentials of daily life.

In comparison, a Cambridge mom wanting to ride with her kids to school might be a laudable goal, but it's not equity, it’s accommodation. Accommodation is an equally valid undertaking in its own right, just as long as we call it by what it is.

At least that’s how it seems to me. I am prepared to be wrong about this — any of it or all of it. But my own experience tells me I'm not. It’s one of the great problems progressives have nowadays. It’s not clear who they actually speak for.