The Sea Change: Going Beyond Point A to Point B


For me the challenge seemed so simple. I sat at a meeting called by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to discuss the messaging required to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians in the Bay State.

Messaging. Not enforcement. Not engineering. Not laws. But the messaging or mantra of safety.

Believe it or not, a lot of folks at MassDOT ride bikes. But the room was full of about 30 folks from transportation organizations ranging from state to federal officials, non-profits to transit agencies, and other assorted backgrounds.

Coming from a background of journalism, marketing, and sponsorship this conversation - despite some flash points - felt comfortable to me. But for many folks in attendance the exercise seemed confusing. Some wanted more data. Others wanted a more structured set of goals and objectives. Others simply needed more time. They seemed confused.

I loved the process, but realized we had a lot of work to do.

I wanted to talk about the moonwalking bear, a brilliant messaging campaign developed in the United Kingdom to promote safer and more aware motoring. You can check it out here.

We drifted into a discussion of Vision Zero, a principled, albeit Utopian concept, that government transportation policy should strive for zero fatalities. My initial reaction to this movement proved negative. I saw this as a politically untenable and ridiculous position to advance.  By that I meant it would draw ridicule to our cause.

Massachusetts has signed on to a Vision Zero approach towards transportation...And I could just hear, see and feel all the Archie Bunker commentators winding up their pitches.

But then I saw this video clip produced by the Rhode Island folks that framed it differently.

The banter went back and forth for more than an hour. I filtered through it all until a light switch flipped for me to explain why these folks were so confused and electrified at the same time. For here we were, at a historic crossroads of transportation policy. The Federal Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, coming off the lead-out of his Republican predecessor Ray LaHood, had already made bold changes in policy. The newly appointed Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack came from a board position on the Livable Streets Alliance. I had just sat through a symposium on the Boston Olympic bid and not once did the word "highway" get mentioned, as the organizers - and the detractors - agreed that hosting such an event would require an overhaul of transit, rapid bus, rail, pedestrian AND bike infrastructure.

Suddenly I recognized source of their confusion and I spoke: "For the last century, American transportation has been solely focused on getting people and freight from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. But you are all now agreeing that the focus must shift to getting people and freight from Point A to Point B as safely as possible," I said, half as a public statement and half as a personal and intellectual epiphany. "This is a massive cultural overhaul from the top policy makers to the engineers to the construction crews to the police officers...You are talking about turning an aircraft carrier around. This is huge."

Daunted ... encouraged ... and somewhat intimidated, nobody else spoke for a few seconds.

Since then I have come to reflect on this marvelous mission ahead of us. We need to start by viewing transportation policy not as Point A to Point B but as a far more complex and wonderful system. That first mile and that last mile - as we have discovered from Dallas to Denver, Miami to Milwaukee - have proven the most complicated. Points X, Y and Z are where our car-first policies have completely failed.

And in those points, transportation leadership from top to bottom now realize the bicycle provides us the greatest return on investment to enhance our public health, our public safety, and our prosperity.

Stay tuned. This could be an amazing century.


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