You Can’t Find the Cure for Cancer While Sitting in Traffic

Rather than drive the 10 miles to his home in Lexington, one Kendall Square employee sometimes runs the distance, to avoid rush hour traffic. He says it takes the same time — about an hour and thirty minutes — and it’s a lot healthier.

While jogging versus sitting in traffic for 90 minutes is an extreme example, tough trade-offs plague Kendall commutes. Many of our community members have to ask — Do I take the first (or second or third) sardine-packed subway car? Will I safely make it to work on my bike? And then, there’s the perennial: “How early should I leave home to make that 9 AM meeting?” Meanwhile, most of us miss breakfast or dinner (or both) with our families because we’re trapped inside interminable commutes.

The transportation problem is much larger than Kendall Square — Massachusetts ranks an abysmal 47th nationally for commuting times. In addition, improving any part of the infrastructure feels difficult and slow because its oversight is shared by a number of different government entities. Commitment of funding is of equal concern.

But Kendall Square organizations like Google, CIC, MIT, and Biogen must figure this out: the future of innovation is at stake. Our workforce should be focused on nanotechnology breakthroughs, improving the internet, and finding cures for rare diseases — not on dreading their commutes. Bottom line: you can’t find the cure for cancer while sitting in traffic.

At stake are also important issues of equity and inclusion. Long commutes hurt everyone, but they disproportionately affect low-income workers, preventing them from fully sharing in the benefits of a booming economy like Kendall’s. Speaking out for a better transportation system is not just about safeguarding our creative and economic success; it’s also about making sure we make it as fair and accessible as possible for all the workers who make their livelihoods and contribute to our economy, including line cooks, waiters, janitors and other hourly employees.

The KSA’s Track Record of Transportation Success

Fixing transportation has been one of the Kendall Square Association’s core priorities since our founding 10 years ago. We meet regularly with the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to monitor their work and to push for progress. We collaborate closely with leading advocacy groups like T4MA and A Better City so we can align around the best solutions and push government to make them.

In recent years, the KSA and its Transportation Committee have successfully advocated for improved driving, biking and walking infrastructure on the new Longfellow Bridge. Our President, C.A. Webb, has spoken at the State House in support of Regional Ballot Initiatives that will enable local decision-making over transit issues. Currently, we’re working to turn Allston’s future West Station into a transit hub that would provide transit connectivity to Kendall Square from Newton, Worcester and beyond, along the existing rail line that passes through Cambridge.

But improving Massachusetts’ transportation infrastructure requires getting through to the patchwork of government entities that control it. Change thus tends to be difficult and slow. Nevertheless, Kendall Square can lead on creating a transit system that works— that is, if it comes together to speak with one powerful voice.

That’s why we’re launching the Kendall Square Association’s Transportation ADVANCE initiative. More than 180 KSA members, including tech and biotech powerplayers like Draper, Google and Sanofi Genzyme, are ready to find Kendall solutions for Kendall problems.

Over the next year, we plan to build on that deep interest in and knowledge of the transportation landscape. We’ll bring the full economic power of the Kendall ecosystem to bear on a broken transportation system that inhibits progress, perpetuates inequity, and threatens Kendall’s — and given Kendall’s outsized impact, the world’s — productive future.

How Will the KSA’s Transportation ADVANCE Improve People’s Commutes?

Ultimately, the purpose of Transportation ADVANCE is to get Kendall’s employers deeply engaged and fired up to speak with a united, forceful voice on transit issues. While employers know how difficult these problems are to solve, they don’t always realize how well-placed they are to create the change they imagine.

Our Initiative aims to educate and to empower. We also think we’ll have a lot of fun along the way.

Step 1 — The Power of Play: Getting Kendall’s Attention

Our advocacy strategy has to appeal to Kendall’s early-adopter, tech-savvy, future-forward crowd, from C-suite decision-makers, to employees with a problem-solving “hacker” mentality.

So we thought we’d begin not by getting the traffic to flow — but by shutting it down. Transportation ADVANCE launches on October 23rd when we shut down Kendall Street for our “Future of Transportation Showcase.”

The Showcase is about making the future of transportation tangible, interactive and fun.

Of course, the bleeding edge of innovation will be well-represented: autonomous vehicles, traffic-predicting AI, sharing-economy electric scooters. But we’ll also showcase the best thought leadership in urbanism today: how ideas like complete streets and transit planning can improve health, environmental and equity outcomes. We’re expecting a few hundred folks who work inside Kendall companies to try out these new modes of transportation and talk with us about what they wish their commutes looked like. RSVP here.

Step 2 — The Power of Experimentation: Piloting Transportation Ideas

We want the Showcase to leave Kendall inspired, excited, and dreaming big. We’ll need that energy in the next phase, in which we intend to go deep on a number of promising transportation ideas.

We’re planning a number of pilots for this phase of the ADVANCE ranging from empathy building exercises, to behavioral experiments, to information gathering and data analysis. Each of these will expose the pain-points and difficulties of Kendall commuting — as well as the opportunities for improving it.

For example, our ride-along experiment will connect C-suite executives to accompany their employees on their commutes, taking care to cover a wide variety of transit modes, job types (including hourly, off-peak shifts), and challenges, including parental responsibilities and physical disabilities.

The KSA is also committed to piloting the “Kendall Transportation Playbook,” an ambitious program to share Kendall employers’ best-in-class transportation policies.

Beyond those pilots, the KSA’s Learning Community whipped up more experiments that we are considering, such as:

  • Different types of signage for safety, congestion and speed, which it will test with Draper’s Vision Zero “smart cameras”
  • The demand for new bus routes, as gleaned from the efficacy of temporary shuttles in and out of the Square
  • Parking space “hacks,” including Roomzilla-style hourly reservations, and daily vs. monthly passes
  • Kendall-wide flexible workdays to challenge the 9-to-5 status quo working hours and reduce peak load on the transit system and roadways

Step 3 — The Power of Experience: Taking Stock to Hone Our Collective Voice

Transportation ADVANCE will culminate in a Transportation Summit in late 2019.

By that point, we know that Kendall employers will have a better sense of the problems their employees face (and the cost of those problems to their bottom lines). In addition, Kendall employers and employees alike will have a better sense of what is within their power to solve — and where they need to look outside the Square to effectuate change.

More importantly, we hope that Kendall as a community will have begun to develop a sense of its collective power to address one of its greatest threats, and of its responsibility to address the equity issues involved.

Our vision for the Summit is a radical transformation. We see Kendall Square going from tinkerer on these issues, to assuming fully its role as a major player in transportation statewide and nationwide.

We believe Kendall will start to become the place that solves its own commuting problems through tech, creativity, smarts, and fun. And the place that shoulders the burden of serious, regional transit advocacy — and has the authority, passion and knowledge to move the conversation forward.

Sure, we’re doing this because, if we succeed, we benefit directly. But we’re also doing it because we are Kendall Square. We are the epicenter the global community inventing the cures and advances of our time for the benefit of the greater good.

We don’t have any time to lose. Improving the ability of scientists, researchers, engineers, and other talented people to get to their labs and desks is about speeding the rate at which researchers can deliver the next scientific breakthrough, or invent a life-saving drug. It’s about increasing the time tech workers can focus on improving everything from national security to cybersecurity.

There’s no doubt that Kendall is going to produce the next breakthrough to change the course of humanity. But how soon we do it depends on how soon we decide that we’re not going to let a broken transit system keep us from our work anymore.