The NAIOP Massachusetts “Transportation Transformation” conference held on April 9 was one of those rare trade association meetings where you didn’t want the sessions to end. Ideas flowed from the podium and from the audience faster than the New England melting snow flowed into the Charles River.
Perhaps unwittingly, transportation thought leaders from local, state and federal agencies echoed the philosophy of legendary architect Daniel Burnham (D.C.’s Union Station, NYC’s Flatiron Building): “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence.”
Over 300 attendees heard Vinn White, Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, describe the draft “Beyond Traffic” report and how the challenges of demographic and technological trends will shape our transportation network looking 30 years into the future. After showing this well-viewed YouTube video showing traffic flow in Ethiopia’s Meskel Square, he asked what these images of chaos had in common with what you’d see in Davis Square in Medford, Massachusetts. The answer? People. People living their lives, trying get to work, bringing kids to school, or visiting friends and family. In short, Mr. White suggested, even if our major intersections thankfully don’t resemble the bedlam from Meskel Square, we may have more in common than we think.
Newly confirmed MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack described how in her view, there was no such thing as a transportation plan that existed in isolation. Rather, she wanted to know from communities what they thought their biggest challenges were, and then look to transportation infrastructure to help solve those challenges. “Don’t just pull projects off the shelf that have been there for 30 years,” she has instructed her new staff. “There’s probably a reason they’ve been up on that shelf for so long.”
Secretary Pollock’s views were supported by Jay Ash, the new Secretary of Housing and Economic Development in Massachusetts Governor Baker’s Administration. He commented to the receptive audience how unusual it must be for them to hear a Transportation Secretary and an economic development executive being so much on the same page. Secretary Ash reiterated how he had, over the course of his career in public service and in his new role, visited communities all over the Commonwealth with visionary plans. All of them demanded to some extent an improved transportation network to convey people to new centers of commerce, education, or recreation.
Finally, Gabe Klein, the former head of Washington, D.C.’s and Chicago’s Departments of Transportation, and Harriet Tregoning, the Director of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Office of Economic Resilience, both provided a glimpse into the future of urban/suburban transportation. Pedestrians, bicyclists, streetcars, and yes, even automobiles, living in harmony, operating on re-engineered streets that provide safe and reliable means of mobility.
“Change is coming faster than we believe,” Mr. Klein predicted. Autonomous vehicles could be a reality in less than 5 years, given the current pace of technological advances and investment by huge companies like Google and Amazon. Parking downtown could be a thing of the past, as people share solar-powered, self-driving cars, moving seamlessly between work and errands, never really needing a place to leave an empty, under-utilized vehicle. Imagine planning a new mixed-used development without the burden of complying with a parking ratio? Not quite worthy of a John Lennon lyric, perhaps, but even so…
Gatherings like this serve as a reminder why all of us in the development sector love our work. We get to “make big plans” and, with any luck, see them come to life.