Under the Hood of the Massachusetts Transportation System: Can our current transportation system serve our future needs?

Rafael Mares | @RafaelMares2

This post is part of a series on transportation issues affecting Massachusetts. Look for more from Rafael Mares and Christine Chilingerian in the coming weeks. To stay up to date, visit this www.clf.org/blog/tag/MA4Trans/ or follow the hashtag #MA4TRANS on Twitter.

If you have ever tried to get from one place to another in the Bay State, you could get the impression that everyone in Massachusetts must have a car. If you’ve ever tried to ride your bike across the Longfellow Bridge (as currently configured), or walk around Agawam, you know what I’m talking about.

You’d be surprised to find out, however, that one in every eight Massachusetts households does not have a car. Even more interesting is the fact that the percentage of Massachusetts residents of driving age without driver’s licenses has been increasing steadily from 8.67% in 2006 to 13.41% in 2010. Since few people who have a driver’s license tend to give it up, a growing number of young people are deciding not to drive. They’re taking to the streets, en masse, but on foot or on bike.

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The number of miles traveled on public transit among sixteen to thirty-four-year olds in the United States increased by 40% between 2001 and 2009. That’s an important trend to be aware of when we decide how to spend our transportation dollars going forward. When we build transportation infrastructure today, it will be used by a generation or two to come. We need to keep their habits in mind when building today or we’ll lose them tomorrow.

Regardless of young people leaving cars behind, there are other important reasons to open up travel options for people. Consider that the average cost of owning a car in the United States is almost $9,000/year for a sedan—money that can be spent in better ways when there are other options to get around. Likewise, to reduce our energy consumption, we have to look to the transportation sector. Transportation consumes roughly 33% of all the energy in Massachusetts – the most of any end-use sector. Emissions from our vehicles accounts for 36% of our entire statewide greenhouse gas emissions – and it is the portion of our emissions that is rising the fastest. Since not all ways of getting around are created equal—e.g., buses during rush hour use much less energy and don’t contribute fewer emissions per passenger per mile than SUVs—we will have to develop our transportation system with the goals of reducing energy consumption and mitigating climate change in mind.

As a result, I think it is fair to conclude, it would make little sense to spend money on maintaining our current transportation system without developing it in a way that meets our future needs. Today’s construction builds tomorrow’s infrastructure. If we build like we always have, recent trends suggest that people may not use it. That would be a waste, for our economy, our health, our environment, and our communities.

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