The geniuses in Kendall Square created the microwave oven, invented the instant camera, and synthesized penicillin.
Now, they are putting their considerable brainpower to work on what could be a tougher task: fixing the transportation woes that bedevil them every day.
Sound hard? The true challenge is actually more formidable: finding solutions that can be “scaled up” — to use a very Kendall phrase — and replicated elsewhere in the state, in places far from Cambridge.
The Kendall Square Association announced Wednesday it has convened nearly 20 major Kendall employers to tackle the issue. This particular group, which meets for the first time on Nov. 13, has given itself 18 months to test ideas and analyze their effectiveness.
It’s time to take the spirit of experimentation out of the labs and into the streets — literally.
Potential projects could involve new approaches to carpooling or infrastructure work such as dedicated bus lanes. (In many cases, another partner, such as the city of Cambridge, will need to cooperate.) Association president C.A. Webb points to one key source of inspiration: a change in transportation benefits at MIT that paid off, in a big way.
John Attanucci, a research associate at the MIT Transit Lab, said the university began fully subsidizing subway and bus trips for its nearly 11,000 employees three years ago, incorporating the “Charlie Card” chip into MIT identification cards. The school also increased its contribution for commuter rail and private bus fares to 60 percent. MIT had been subsidizing public transit rides before then, paying for half the costs, but had also been offering even deeper discounts for parking. Then MIT jacked up employee parking costs to $10 a day, from around $7 under an old monthly pass system.
The entire effort cost MIT an extra $2 million annually. The results showed up within 12 months: The average number of monthly parkers dropped, year over year, by about 10 percent. MIT could level a garage on Vassar Street and replace it with dorms. The change in behavior should also help the school curb its need for pricey underground spaces in the future. The real estate savings alone were worth it.
Can smaller employers come up with similar ideas? Webb sure hopes so, particularly if they band together. In June, her association sent a letter to state leaders on Beacon Hill, demanding they seek more revenue to fix the MBTA. The June 11 derailment of the Red Line in Dorchester, which interrupted service for most of the summer, was the final straw.
Webb says the letter helped galvanize her members on the issue. Her association won a $150,000 grant from the Barr Foundation to help fund these transportation tests. And in August it began signing up local employers, most paying $5,000 to join, that were willing to collaborate on this grand experiment. Most are life science companies. That’s not exactly a surprise, when you consider nearly two-thirds of recently polled biotech workers said they would change jobs for a better commute.
Tracy Sorrentino of Sarepta Therapeutics said her firm joined Webb’s group of experimenters because her colleagues regularly hear from current and prospective employees about their transportation challenges, and they know it’s not a problem Sarepta can solve on its own.
This issue looms large on Beacon Hill, too. House Speaker Bob DeLeo has asked the business community for solutions, including preferred revenue sources, in anticipation of a debate later this fall. A gas tax increase will likely be on the table. Expect “smart tolling” to come up as well, in which costs change depending on the time of day, to influence driver behavior.
Johannes Fruehauf, president of LabCentral, says many of the 70 startups that use his firm’s coworking lab spaces in Cambridge are eager for state officials to improve the region’s transit options. But Fruehauf, whose firm is participating in the Kendall Square transportation tests, recognizes the private sector can do more, too.
To hammer its point home, the Kendall Square Association uses the phrase, “you can’t find the cure for cancer while sitting in traffic.” But maybe, while hunting for that elusive cancer cure, they can find a remedy for traffic, as well.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.