( Summer ’18) Scott Gilman, G
Scott will be working with the City of Boston’s Economic Mobility Lab. Established in December 2017, the Economic Mobility Lab is in a planning year to determine how they can work with other City departments to produce a comprehensive economic mobility strategy for Boston. Scott will evaluate several possible policies for expanding access to affordable transportation in the city, using a combination of community outreach, qualitative research, and modeling with geographic information systems (GIS). He’s excited to get a feel for working in municipal government and to investigate the links between economic opportunity and transportation.
Scott’s work this summer is supported by the DUSP-PKG Summer Fellowships, a collaboration between the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the PKG Center. Be sure to check back soon for updates on Scott’s project!
Entry 1 @ Boston City Hall
July 5, 2018
This summer, I’m working for City of Boston’s Economic Mobility Lab, a new program established in November 2017 in the Mayor’s Office at City Hall. The lab’s mission to test policies and programs that will support all Bostonians to reach a level of economic security that they can weather crises and invest in their future. Currently in a planning year, the lab is focusing on research and pilot projects to help guide their long-term strategy. Some examples of current pilot projects include a “Welcome Baby Station”, which is a way to connect new parents with important services when they come to City Hall to obtain a birth certificate, and a program that connects high schoolers employed by the City with savings accounts.
For my project, I’m evaluating the economic mobility implications of two possible public transit improvements: subway-like service on the Fairmount commuter rail line and a Bus Rapid Transit lane from Mattapan to the Longwood Medical Area. Both would improve public transit in underserved and low-income areas such as Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury.
Identifying these two projects as my focus proved to be a first look into the workings of City Hall. In April and May, I met with my supervisors at Economic Mobility Lab, Katy Gall and Dan Lesser, who also plugged in Vineet Gupta, an MIT-DUSP alum himself and Senior Planner with the Boston Transportation Department. We floated ideas around about what could be good case studies, but ultimately a conversation with Boston’s Chief of Streets identified these two possibilities as high priority projects. They could much better connect residents caught between the Red and Orange lines with emerging job centers such as the Longwood Medical Area, Newmarket Circle, and Readville.
To evaluate the economic mobility potential of these two projects, I will use a combination of interviews and GIS modelling. The interviews will include short interviews on the street and at bus and train stops primarily to get a sense of where residents of the transitshed of these projects need to go on a daily basis. They will also include longer, unstructured interviews to get a more detailed look into residents’ transportation needs and how it affects economic mobility. While traditionally research in this field has focused on improving access to jobs by reducing commute times, in keeping with the Lab’s philosophy, I will investigate all of the ways in which transit could improve economic mobility, through improved access to childcare, education, or friends and family. Instead of assuming how better transportation could improve economic mobility, I will plan to ask residents how they experience transit impacting their economic mobility.
I’m excited to have identified a project that folks in City Hall feel will actually contribute to their work, and I’m also excited that I have a clear work plan for how to execute it. I’m concerned, however, about the street interviews, since fieldwork rarely goes as planned. Language barriers will be a difficulty, since the neighborhoods where I’ll be working include many speakers of Spanish and Haitian Creole. Furthermore, where and when I choose to survey will have a major influence on the information that I collect; without knowing these neighborhoods well, it will be difficult to know if I am getting representative samples. Thankfully, the City has individuals who represent each neighborhood and can help with these barriers.
I’m also concerned about producing something that will actually inform policy instead of collecting dust on a shelf (or more likely in the remote corners of someone’s hard drive). I’ve spent a lot of my time these first few weeks meeting with individuals in City Hall who have been working on these projects for awhile and asking them about the most important questions that are still unanswered. To make sure it complements all the work that’s already been done, I’ll need to put more thought into the audience, format, and purpose of my end product.
In the best case scenario, a new perspective on the potential benefits of these two projects could inform more pilot projects that lead to permanently improved service, which is what recently happened with a BRT pilot in Roslindale. I’m excited for the weeks to come, especially for getting out into the neighborhoods that would benefit from these projects to see what they have to say about it.
Entry 2 @ City Hall/MBTA
August 5, 2018
At the outset of this project, I decided to use a combination of surveys, interviews, and GIS modelling to figure out through what means and to what extent transit improvements can improve economic mobility outcomes. I spent much of June and July putting together a survey, testing it, and going out in the field to survey dozens of people at bus and train stops in Mattapan and Dorchester. I asked respondents to locate the three most important places they needed to get to in a week, and identify where else they would go if it was easier to get around. I quickly got into a mindset of collecting as many surveys as possible.
In mid-July, in the midst of conducting these surveys, I met with Laurel Paget-Seekins, Director of Fare Policy and Analytics at MBTA. After explaining my surveying strategy to her, she said something that really stuck with me: MBTA has origin and destination for pretty much every transit trip taken, but they have no information on why people are going where they currently go, and where else riders want to go but feel as though they can’t (or it would take too long).
Laurel’s comment (and obtaining access to MBTA’s data for the corridor I was studying) caused me to reflect on the surveying process. The surveys were a great tool to collect where respondents needed to go. It was decent for collecting why they needed to get there. But I was not collecting great information on where else people wanted to go. My surveying process involved approaching folks who were in transit, often on their way to work. While they could usually rattle off three destinations for me, most seemed not to have the time or mental energy to answer an open-ended question on where else they would go with better transit. Most people I talked to either didn’t want to answer this question or gave a very generic answer like “I would get out of the city more”.
I realized that getting this information required shifting my emphasis to longer interviews during which people actually had the time to think. The interviews allowed me to approach the question from many different angles, such as, “In the past, have you ever left or turned down a job because of the commute?” and “What’s the last time you decided not to go somewhere because of how long it took?”. I’m glad that I turned to the long interviews when I did, because they proved most valuable to my presentation and recommendations. Plus, the audience of planners and policymakers at City Hall found stories that interviewees told me much more compelling than the GIS modelling that I did, which makes a lot of assumptions about a neighborhood and a transit system that they know is much more complicated than can be modelled on a computer. In many respects, I wish that I had prioritized the longer interviews from the outset. But, I recognize that in both academic research and public engagement, the hardest task is often finding the right question and the best way to answer it.
Entry 3 @ Mattapan and Longwood Medical Area
August 10, 2018
Mattapan and Dorchester – the main neighborhoods where I was working this summer – are poorly served by transit and yet among the most transit-dependent areas of the city. Residents that I talked with reacted with a mix of emotions when I brought up transportation issues: some were angry at the City and MBTA, some feel let down, many are past the point of caring. There’s a long history of transit activism within these communities, so I knew it was something residents cared deeply about, and yet I was still struck by how much certain residents have to gain from transit improvements such as a dedicated bus lane on Blue Hill Avenue from Mattapan to Longwood.
For the longer interviews, I sought out folks who currently live in Mattapan and commute to the Longwood Medical Area, an area with rapidly growing employment. Despite being approximately 5 miles apart, Mattapan residents commute for up to 2 hours one way to reach Longwood through a combination of driving, trains, busses, and walking. At that pace, for many people it would be faster to walk than to take public transit (this commute averages 2.5 mph, and average walking speed is about 3 mph). Reducing number of transfers, traffic congestion, and uncertainty along this corridor could save commuters hours every week. For most of the Longwood employees that I talked to, those hours meant spending time with family – kids, grandkids, or parents – and taking care of themselves – sleeping more, going to the gym more often, or eating breakfast.
However, some residents I spoke with were uninterested in dedicated bus lanes, but still had a lot to say about transportation. For older folks, disabled folks, and mothers who use baby strollers, the accessibility of trains and buses is much more important than a dedicated bus lane. One Roxbury resident that I talked to who uses a wheelchair recounted a time in which she missed 3 Green Line trains in a row, because there is no standard location for the accessible entrance: you have to guess where the accessible entrance will be on the next train that comes, and if you guess wrong, you don’t have enough time to make it to entrance before the train leaves. One Mattapan resident who takes her infant to work in a baby carriage takes two buses and the Orange line to and from her workplace near Park Street to avoid the Red Line and having to bring her carriage on the non-accessible Mattapan trolley. Very dishearteningly, many transit riders I talked to noted that even on buses that have accessible seating and entrances, disrespectful and ignorant bus drivers and riders made their transit experiences unpleasant and unsafe.
My conversations around who would benefit and who would not benefit (without significant accessibility improvements all around) illuminated how the assumptions that planners and policymakers make can leave out those that don’t fit those assumptions. Especially from an economic mobility perspective, it’s easy to convince yourself that the best way to improve someone’s economic mobility is to make the bus 5 min faster. But, that’s invalid if you can’t get on the bus in the first place. The City and MBTA are working hard to improve this situation, but I made sure to bring up in my presentation that economic mobility through public transit comes from very different improvements depending on who you talk to.
Entry 4 @ MIT
September 10, 2018
I greatly enjoyed working on transportation policy this summer, and it has inspired me to take a transportation policy and economics course in the fall semester and possibly work on transportation in the future. I gained a newfound appreciation for the many issues that transportation touches on – economic mobility, small business development, gentrification, carbon mitigation, climate resilience, public health, among others.
I also learned a lot from connecting with people across Boston – including residents, community organizations, and different city and regional agencies. After spending so much time talking with transit users and hearing their stories and frustrations, I will have grounded knowledge to inform what I learn in the policy and economics classes that I’m now taking. Furthermore, connecting with so many policymakers in City Hall and other agencies has helped me to understand how they work together and with communities to make things happen. Furthermore, I think that connecting the Economic Mobility Lab, Boston Transportation Department, MBTA, MAPC, and MASCO will help move the Fairmount line and Blue Hill Avenue Projects forward, since getting people in a room together is often the hardest but most important step when starting a pilot project.
Finally, I got a much more nuanced view of what it means to work in the public sector. There are two predominant narratives that you will hear about work in the public sector – one narrative portrays it as the best way to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, another portrays it as mired in red tape and organizational inefficiencies. I learned that in reality, city government work is somewhere between the two. On a daily basis, working at City Hall means contributing to a project that will make a big difference in the city. And yet, the political considerations often do make those projects happen slower than advocates would like (sometimes decades slower). And while this isn’t great, I’ve learned that it’s because balancing the interests of community, interest groups, and politicians at various levels is no easy task. And, often, if things take longer in government than in the private sector it’s because government has an incentive to make sure that as many people as possible are on board with a project before it rolls out. An example of this would be the recently deployed electric scooters – firms like Bird and Lime are claiming that Boston area nonprofits are holding back innovation while the governments are trying to fit the scooters into a comprehensive transportation strategy that benefits all citizens, not just those who are able to use the scooters. Above all, I have immense respect for the talented and dedicated folks that I worked with this summer whose work is crucial to improving Bostonians’ lives but largely takes place behind the scenes.