Skip to Content

Are We There Yet?

Life is short; commuting is too long

Boston won't be a world-class city until it has a world-class transportation system to serve its residents, workers, and visitors. Creating such a 21st-century system will require far more than a few extra hours of late-night service on the T. Everyone—youth and seniors, young professionals and families—needs more and better options for getting around.

Too often, transportation policy discussions in Boston turn into Car Wars: disputes between automobile owners and "others" such as pedestrians and bicyclists. The truth is, most people use different types of transportation at different times and for different purposes. The 60 percent of Boston households that have access to at least one car—as well as the 40 percent without a car—will all benefit from better walking, biking, and transit options. Boston needs to set transportation policies and priorities that help connect the city and its neighborhoods and residents, not ones that pit people against one another.

Everyone loves to complain about the traffic in Boston, but the congestion is largely a sign of economic prosperity. We're all better off with too much traffic than too little—just ask the folks in Detroit. The city's real congestion problem is on the MBTA, which studies by the Urban Land Institute and others have shown lacks the capacity to meet projected ridership growth. The future of Boston depends on securing greater investment in the MBTA, and the new mayor needs to fight hard for better T services. But public transportation is too important to Boston to rely entirely on the T. Like Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, the city should consider operating its own public transportation services—such as local bus or commuter shuttles—to supplement MBTA service.

Some of the needed changes will be difficult and unpopular. Boston has created a nationally recognized guide to building "complete streets" that accommodate the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and people in wheelchairs, as well as drivers, but it has yet to do the systematic work to add bike lanes, make sidewalks wider, and otherwise retrofit the streets to make them truly complete. The city has created 120 miles of dedicated bike lanes in the last decade, but it lacks a network that is comfortable for the casual cyclist, usually not clad head to toe in spandex, who is primarily concerned about safety. The city's proposed Bicycle Network Plan would triple the number of bicycle-lane miles and spend $30 million in the next five years—a fairly heavy lift. And, in some cases, making room for cyclists and pedestrians will require redistributing urban space as well as reallocating travel lanes and parking spaces.

Indeed, tackling Boston's antiquated parking policies may be one of the toughest challenges. Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone knows it well: He has bravely implemented comprehensive on-street parking reforms in the face of vocal opposition. In Boston, on-street parking is essentially free: Residents get parking permit stickers for free; meters cost next to nothing even in areas where demand for parking greatly exceeds supply. The solution is not to create more parking but to charge more for the limited supply that exists. Cambridge and Somerville residents pay $25 to $30 annually for on-street-parking permits, like residents of almost every major US city—except Boston.

Another challenge, but one that aligns perfectly with Mayor Martin Walsh's commitment to increasing social equity, is improving transportation choices for Boston's people of color and low-income communities. Research by the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University has found substantial time penalties for "commuting while black"—black bus riders in greater Boston, for example, spend 80 minutes more per week on their work commute than white bus riders. Both Hubway shared bicycles and Zipcar shared automobiles are less likely to be found in the city's low-income and minority neighborhoods, despite the fact that car ownership rates are lower, and residents in those communities would benefit greatly from better access to these services.

The mayor of Boston is, in reality, a chief executive of two cities: One is the permanent city with more than 600,000 residents; the other is a workday city that swells by 40 percent, to 840,000 people. If the transportation system does not meet the needs of these commuters, their employers will not continue to locate in Boston, and developers will not continue to build and renovate to accommodate those companies. The highway network and parking capacity of the city simply cannot accommodate this daily influx unless a substantial number of these workers leaves their cars at home and carpool, use transit, or walk or bike to their jobs. Otherwise, Boston could choke on its own growth.

Boston has not undertaken a comprehensive, citywide transportation plan in more than a decade, and the last truly visionary regional planning effort was the Boston Transportation Planning Review more than 40 years ago. Mayor Walsh should embrace and accelerate plans that were already underway to launch a citywide transportation visioning and planning effort, starting the process early in his first year. In addition, consistent with his pledge to work with other mayors and think regionally, he should launch a parallel regional effort with mayors from neighboring cities and suburbs. The only way to overcome persistent complaints that Boston gets more than its fair share of transportation investment—a hangover of the Big Dig era—will be to work regionally to secure resources that can benefit all Greater Boston communities.

Walsh can simultaneously be a "mayor of the neighborhoods" and the "jobs mayor" by becoming Boston's "transportation mayor." Better transportation connects workers to jobs, students to schools, seniors to services, and visitors to restaurants and attractions. Transportation planning and investment is one of the best ways to fulfill campaign promises to continue downtown's economic growth while spreading jobs, development, and a better quality of life to all of the city's neighborhoods. ■