On Solar Arrays, Millenials, and Resiliency - TransitCenter
August 7, 2014
On Solar Arrays, Millenials, and Resiliency
Photo by MBTA

Photo by MBTA

Judging by the presentations at the 10th Annual APTA Sustainability Workshop this past week, sustainability is as relevant as ever, but perhaps undergoing some soul searching. The noisiest buzz at the conference was best epitomized by the millennial who presented on her real-time solar array project funded by resiliency programs. I kid, I kid, but this feels like a distraction from the main points. Listening closely to the other success stories sprinkled throughout the two days, there are hints at improved practice integrating the three pillars of sustainability – environment, economy, and social equity – than before. Still, more could be done.

Case in point is a banner project for the Boston-based conference, the Green Line extension, which brings the region’s subway system through Somerville, one of the densest cities in New England. The project is the result of a long community planning process, and applies some of the best practices in integrated land use and transportation planning and design. Instead of hundreds of parking spaces, the length of the 4.3 mile extension will provide only 240 car parking spaces, complemented by 1,113 bike parking spaces. In place of vast parking lots adjacent to the station, areas around stations have been rezoned to encourage development with inclusionary housing and local retail. The $39 million bike and pedestrian trailway connection caps the utility corridor for the tracks. When it’s completed, it’s anticipated that 87 percent of the Somerville population would be within a ½ mile walk to a Green Line station.

Still, is anyone else stumped by the observation that making sustainability work is still an exception, not a rule or accepted practice, even in the 27 years since the modern definition of sustainability published by the Brundtland Commission? We understand that mass transit is good for the environment by default, but that is not enough.  We can push the envelope to make this sustainable industry even more so.  Most transit success stories are the result of some innovative, hardworking transit leaders and practitioners figuring out workable local processes while managing requirements from out-of-date policies that risk compromising their efforts. The Green Line extension benefited from the leadership of Beverly Scott, the head of the MBTA, who was recruited by the Secretary of Transportation in Massachusetts, Richard A. Davey, another sharp leader. Scott built her reputation on visionary leadership, painting red X’s on buses during the economic downturn in the Atlanta region, so the public could visualize how transit service cuts would affect their lives. Before Scott and Davey arrived on the scene though, Somerville’s planning process got its start from excellent local leadership from its Mayor and its transportation director, Hayes Morrison. They acted as conveners for this complex infrastructure project, spurring the community planning process before any designs were put on paper.

It appears that the next wave of sustainability for transit is the invisible, yet critical, bridging of multiple stakeholders and their needs through planning efforts. The HUD-EPA-DOT Partnership for Sustainability Communities provided some of the only funding available for convening multiple stakeholders for complex planning efforts. That pot of money has dried up and the partnership officially disbanded (though a version exists in the form of the Office of Economic Resiliency at HUD.) Regions lucky enough to have an active civic sector with advocacy organizations and foundations willing to provide resources are among the few who can continue to conduct such planning efforts. And perhaps what’s not often said enough is that when the planning ends, those champions must be enabled to support the plan’s implementation.

For too long, transit agencies have had to emphasize one pillar – economics – to justify their services. This has led to prioritizing things the agencies can control, such as such as solar panels on bus maintenance sheds. But true sustainability, where the forces of economics, environment, and social equity are harnessed to improve projects, requires deeper engagement and more ongoing finessing. It’s intangible, not glamorous, and may necessitate a change of the status quo to restructure entrenched bureaucracies, but it is not impossible.  Maybe transit agencies haven’t been given the tools to really capitalize on that potential. They’re often limited, for example, in being able to convene others. Imagine what these innovators could do if they were actually given the right tools.

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