Boston prides itself on being the first city in the United States to have built a subway system. But being the first system also means being the oldest, and while the city has grown up around the “T” (as the public transit system is locally known), it has neither maintained the system properly nor kept pace with the ever-growing need for additional service. The metro Boston region is in desperate need of transit solutions with broad public and political leadership support that the regional and state transportation agencies can afford and implement fairly quickly. But where and how to invest in solutions remains a topic of much public debate.
Against this backdrop, CBI has been working with a group of stakeholders to investigate the feasibility of a Bus Rapid Transit system, or BRT, for metro Boston. In many cities around the world BRT provides service that is equal to light rail in terms of ridership, speed, and convenience, but at a much lower capital cost. Gold Standard BRT systems feature dedicated right-of way, busway alignment, off-board fare collection, intersection treatments, and platform level boarding.
A few years ago, Boston’s transportation agencies, MassDOT and the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority (MBTA), identified a promising BRT corridor through Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester. Local communities rejected the project, both because of concerns about traffic and parking impacts, and because of longstanding grievances in these predominantly lower income communities about poor transit service and what they perceive as broken promises to provide light rail. In the wake of the project’s collapse, The Barr Foundation – a philanthropic organization with an equity-oriented smart growth agenda – wondered whether a multi-stakeholder group not directly associated with the public transportation agencies might effectively revive the BRT conversation. In late 2013, Barr asked CBI to design and facilitate the work of a Greater Boston BRT Study Group. To provide technical analysis and support to the Study Group, Barr contracted with the internationally recognized Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).
Over an 18-month period, CBI facilitated a joint assessment by the Study Group’s 15 community, business and technical leaders of the feasibility of BRT throughout greater Boston. The group was charged first with identifying specific corridors in which BRT was technically feasible and desirable. Then, the group sought to determine whether those corridors were socially and politically desirable. The Study Group established its goals and the parameters for the initial inquiry, and ITDP did the technical analysis. Because BRT is most attractive where it can significantly reduce travel times for large number of riders, much of the technical analysis focused on identifying current and potential transit corridors where delay and demand are highest. With help from CBI and ITDP, the Study Group was able to absorb a large amount of data and analysis, and debate the merits of different corridors on additional criteria such as prioritizing underserved communities, anticipating and encouraging economic development, and meeting “latent” demand by creating more direct commuting routes. After several months of work, the Study Group identified five corridors in Greater Boston that showed promise on all or most of the key criteria.
Once the group had developed a credible set of technically feasible corridors, the group began assessing the social and political feasibility of each corridor. To do so, the group first identified stakeholders in the five corridors, including political, business, and government leaders, as well as local or grassroots leadership.The group then had the task of reaching out to stakeholders in the communities through which the five corridors would pass to learn about their interests and concerns.
The process revealed the group to be amply equipped to work with the top influencers, but when it came to assessing support at the grassroots level, the group simply did not have the right networks to engage effectively. After several attempts to organize grassroots conversations and develop outreach plans, the group decided its most valuable contribution would be to share what it learned during the analysis in a transparent and accessible way to ensure that a wide range of potential metro Boston BRT stakeholders, from decision-makers and key policy influencers to local business owners and transit riders, could learn about BRT as a transit option, and understand why the five corridors it had identified were so promising. The group wrote a report and built a website (bostonbrt.org) as a way to prime the pump for ongoing leadership discussions, and for future grassroots engagement.
By creating a clear, shared understanding of the potential of BRT in greater Boston within the Study Group, and using members of the group as well as the Barr Foundation’s own leadership as ambassadors, the process laid a strong foundation for serious public consideration of BRT as a viable option for new transit investments. The Study Group’s members and Barr also discovered their own limitations when it came to grassroots engagement at the neighborhood level. The Barr Foundation is now developing a creative outreach plan to those neighborhoods, and may organize a “Phase 2” process to move forward with that outreach.