by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow
UMass Amherst faculty and UMTC Research Affiliates Dr. Song Gao and Dr. Eric Gonzales presented at the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation listening session on transit, active transportation, and mobility.
In June, Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation in Massachusetts held a listening session to discuss transit, active transportation, and mobility in Massachusetts. This session, at UMass Lowell, was the third of the Commission’s five listening sessions around the state. Each session focused on different transportation topics as the Commission gathered ideas, information and public comment that it will then incorporate into a report with recommendations for transportation investments and policies in Massachusetts for the 2020-2040 period. The report will be sent to the Governor by December 2018.
As with the other listening sessions, this session included brief presentations by UMass researchers followed by an open comment period during which members of the public could offer their suggestions and feedback on the session topic or on future transportation in Massachusetts more generally. Recording of the listening sessions can be viewed on the Commission’s website (direct link to the third session here).
Two UMTC Research Affiliates, UMass Amherst professors Song Gao and Eric Gonzales, presented at this listening session. Gonzales opened his remarks by discussing that when thinking about transit services, it’s important to not only consider specific routes and schedules, but the larger picture of the benefits individuals and society can receive with transit services, including increased mobility and efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and reduced environmental impacts. He noted too that active transportation modes, such as walking and biking, can also achieve these same benefits. Gonzales then briefly reviewed the history of transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts, including highways and the MBTA subway system, noting how investments in infrastructure can have impacts long beyond the 20-year time horizon on which the Commission is focusing, and should be considered in that context.
Gonzales also spoke about transit’s important role as “a tool for social equity and for inclusion, providing mobility to people across the socioeconomic spectrum, age, and physical ability.” He mentioned challenges for transit, including providing bus access in spread-out rural and suburban areas, but also opportunities. These opportunities could include public-private partnerships, for example, between transit agencies and ridesharing companies such as Lyft and Uber. The MBTA is currently conducting a pilot project under which MBTA paratransit customers can take get rides through Uber or Lyft as an alternative to traditional paratransit vans, to help serve these customers’ needs better; Gonzales led a MassDOT-funded study to evaluate the pilot project. There are also opportunities for more integrated services with the use of technology, where the different travel modes for trips can be better connected and accessed, for example, through a smartphone app that integrates bus, ride-share, and bike-share access and user payments. Gonzales mentioned that Helsinki, Finland has been working on such an integrated transportation service system. A recent Governing magazine article discussed the push for more seamless urban mobility in Helsinki, and similar efforts underway in the U.S.
Professor Gao’s presentation followed Gonzales’ and focused on the demand for transportation services and how this demand can be better managed. For someone traveling between an origin and a destination, Gao asked questions such as: are there alternatives to making this trip, is there flexibility on when the trip occurs – for example, what time of day – and what different travel modes are feasible for this trip and this particular traveler. Gao discussed how transportation policies and pricing can shape transportation demand and people’s decisions about when and how they travel, and if there are some trips they will not take at all. Some states are using higher pricing, also referred to as congestion pricing, to deter single-occupancy vehicles from traveling during the peak times. Gao said that one concern about congestion pricing is the equity impacts since low-income people are more adversely impacted by travel cost increases than are higher-income people.
Another approach for impacting travel demand is rewarding people who make more energy-efficient travel choices, for example, deciding to use transit or bicycle to work instead of driving, or who commute at off-peak hours. Gao mentioned a study from the Netherlands that provided participants with daily monetary and other (smartphone credits) rewards to encourage them to avoid driving during the morning rush hour. The study found that 30-40% of participants changed their behavior as a result of these incentives. Gao also discussed a study that she, and colleagues at UMass Amherst and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are conducting to develop a smartphone app to provide up-to-date travel information and incentivize people to change their travel choices to conserve energy. The app, for the Boston metro area, will use real and simulated personal travel data to reward people who change their departure times, routes, modes, or vehicles based on the app’s real-time data, and thereby reduce their energy consumption. The rewards based on energy savings will be able to be redeemed at local participating vendors. Data from preliminary testing of the app show positive results in terms of reducing energy use and travel times.
During the comment period following the presentations, a number of the commenters talked about the importance of having good infrastructure for biking and walking and better connections between modes. There was also discussion about the need to provide transportation options for the “last mile” section of trips, between where fixed-route transit services end and people’s final destinations. Ridesharing companies, also known as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) can help with those gaps. A number of the speakers encouraged the creation of more public-private partnerships to help with last-mile service and for addressing the transportation needs of those populations, such as the elderly, disabled, and low-income, who are often underserved by current transportation options and infrastructure. Professor Gao raised the point that there are great opportunities for partnership between public transit and TNCs, but that the goals of TNCs may not always be aligned with public goals since private companies are usually seeking to maximize their profits.