INTERVIEW: Talking Transportation with Mayor Curtatone

mayor curtatoneMayor Curtatone participates in the "first docking" of a new Hubway station. Courtesy of Somerville ResiStat.

If you’ve read the transportation feature in our March/April print edition, then you know that Hayes Morrison, Director of Transportation and Infrastructure in the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, gives Mayor Curtatone a lot of credit for the current transportation revolution taking place in Somerville. So, what does he have to say about the future of transportation in the ‘ville? We sat down with Mayor Curtatone to talk cycle tracks, the GLX and more of what’s ahead for the city.

SCOUT SOMERVILLE (SS): The Green Line Extension project is finally really getting underway. Has this process been frustrating for you?

MAYOR CURTATONE (MC): Well, where we are now is definitely historical in the sense that it is moving forward, it is under construction. I’ve been personally advocating as one resident in the city for more than 20 years, so this is a testimony to this community’s character, perseverance, grit and determination. No, I’m not frustrated. I’m excited. But determined and focused. This is only happening because there’s been such a community-based model of activism.

SS: There’s some concern that the GLX will make housing in the area less available and less affordable. What is the city doing to ease that demand?

MC: I’m concerned about housing for Somerville and the region. The region needs 435,000 units of housing by 2040. Transit doesn’t displace people; transit alleviates people from poverty. It connects them to jobs, houses and academia. My concern is that as a region [beyond Somerville] we don’t have a plan for that.

Somerville is certainly a model in this being a core value of who we are—maintaining the soul and character of our community and giving anybody who wants to be here the opportunity to stay here. But we’re not going to be able to do that on our own. In SomerVision we originally set a goal of 6,000 units of additional housing, of which I believe a little bit more than 1,200 would be permanently affordable. I’ve recommended that we adjust that now to 9,000 and proportionally adjust the affordable housing piece. But how we get there is critical. We’ve embarked on a sustainable neighborhoods initiative, to really undertake a multi-tiered approach to how we can have regulatory innovation or relief or fiscal creativity to incentivize—whether it be benevolent landlordship where you’re keeping rents affordable or to incentivize the private sector in a very speculative market but to make that speculation work in our favor—to build the type of housing we need. It’s at the core of what we’re trying to do. If we build all these great buildings and cool things and the very people that make the city great aren’t here, we’re losing our soul, and we don’t want to do that. The green line doesn’t make the city great. It’s not the redevelopment at Assembly Square. It’s people that make cities great.

SS: True. And in Somerville you have people at organizations like ESMS and USMS actively working to keep the city in touch with its roots.

MC: They’ve been an asset. That activism is critical because we’re going to make some very important decisions on the sustainable neighborhoods initiative—how we incentivize, regulate or adjust regulation to allow certain types of innovation and how we create the housing stock we need. We’re going to need their voices in all this.

We’re a gentrifying region, but that’s because we’re in the midst of the greatest demographic shift in the nation’s history. We know that by 2050, three-quarters of the world’s population will live in cities and city regions. Somerville is really the epicenter for this region. Young, creative people want to live in walkable, bikeable, lifestyle communities connected to jobs and academia. They don’t want cars. But when you bring such a dense, diverse concentration of talent and creativity, you really make stuff happen. It allows for vibrant neighborhoods and communities. The cities that envision and plan for that future—how we think of mobility, how we think of housing and sustainability—those are the ones that’ll be successful. If we don’t, we’ll not only lose our character, but we’ll impede our economic viability and growth as a region.

mayor curtatone

Rendering of the Beacon Street cycle track, courtesy of the City of Somerville

SS: One of the new mobility systems that seems to have made a big difference in how we travel is Hubway, which has made it easier not only to get around Somerville but to get from here to Cambridge or Boston.

MC: The Hubway system is a success because it was a product of regional collaboration. That is just a small example of how a little cooperation can have a huge benefit. We have businesses when they come here who want to be near a Hubway station. We’ve made it a priority to become the most bikeable, walkable community in the country, because we saw the demographic changes in our community. We saw the benefits and we know the benefits—that the higher your walk and bike score is in your community, the better it is for your local economy, the better it is for your overall health, the better it is for our environment. We want, in the next 20 years, 50 percent of all vehicle trips to be by biking, walking and public transportation. It’s part of understanding what the future holds. Who will live in our city? How do we keep them here?

SS: So really all these things, housing, transit, health—they’re all tied in together.

MC: Even the affordability piece, it’s tied into that. If you don’t need a car, you don’t have to pay for a car! You’re connected to Hubway; you’re connected to Zipcar. If we have public transportation from the city, then that allows you to move freely within the region. If we think of transportation in different forms of mobility, and we expand these different forms of mobility, the region will grow. Our economy will grow.

SS: The only problem I see is that you have a lot of citizens with different ideas about how the city should plan for that future—for example, there were some drivers and business owners who were upset about losing parking spaces due to the forthcoming Beacon Street cycle track.

MC: Well, we’re going to have a cycle track on Beacon Street. You know, we’re a changing culture. You can say, “Change is always difficult,” but realizing that change is already here … at the end of the day, it becomes a challenge of reconciling people with their own value set. Everyone wants our community to be a healthy community. I would argue that most people would like to have fewer cars on their street: less congestion, fewer particulates in the air. People would rather be connected in an easier, healthier way to their jobs and their house and to academic opportunities or healthcare. I think the disequilibrium that existed in the whole discussion about the cycle track was a convergence of what we were and where we’re heading. That’s occurring now. Change is here.

The important point is this: If you design and plan and build a city for cars, that’s what you’re going to get. We’re building a community for people. And I hope that’s not the one and only bicycle track. It’s the first in Somerville, and I’d venture to say it won’t be the last.

SS: Then how do you go about balancing the needs of bikers, walkers, drivers?

MC: The one orienting value we have is to make Somerville an exceptional place to live. The values that align with that—greater mobility for bicycles, walking, public transit to better our health, our environment and our economy are consistent or in line with that value. The great thing about Somerville is it’s diverse, and it’s diverse in opinions and beliefs. But I find that the majority of people are aligned with that overarching purpose.

mayor curtatone

SomerVision word cloud representing the shared goals of citizens

SS: Moving into the future, how do you see Somerville fitting into or even leading the region in transportation?

MC: I think we’re leading. I know we’re leading. I wish the rest of the world was a lot more like Somerville in terms of our progressive values, how we think of growing community, how we think of mobility, how we embrace diversity and multicultural strength and creativity. I think these are the core to our DNA. It’s who we are. If you look at the SomerVision word cloud, it tells you right in the face: This is who we are. We’ve thought about, over the next 20 years, not what we want to build but who we want to be, what we want to preserve as a community. Because again, it’s people that make cities great. As a people, who are we going to be when we grow up? If the region could do that too, that would be an incredible opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about biking, walking, driving and taking the T in Somerville, pick up a copy of our March/April print edition, which includes an extensive feature on the future of transportation. You can also check out the city’s full SomerVision plan online.