Downtown View:Is Traffic Bad?

January 20, 2016
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Millennium will soon finish its tower, and new people will move in. Avalon Bay’s residential tower adjacent to the Tip O’Neill building has topped off. A hotel and residential building is rising on Dalton Street in the Back Bay. 888 Boylston is going up too. Eight million square feet of construction is slated for the North Station area. Then there is Winthrop Square and the Seaport District build-out. The equivalent of 14 Prudential towers is under construction right now in Boston.

You get the picture. More people. More cars. More traffic congestion. At every public meeting held about new building projects the new traffic they will bring is the biggest complaint.

I get it. No one likes to sit in traffic. But I’m baffled. Why would anyone who lives downtown care a fig about traffic? We should know better than to get into our cars, even if we own one.  A more important question—is traffic congestion bad?

Not so much, say observers. It’s the sign of a good economy. Traffic tells you people want to be there. It’s good for small, local businesses like those along Hanover or Charles streets. Since residents depend on those businesses for goods and services, traffic actually improves downtown residents’ lives.

According to researcher Matthias Sweet of Ontario’s McMaster University, local traffic congestion is an economic stimulant. On regional routes—think I-95—it is an economic drag. (Read all about it in the Journal of Transport Geography.)

I’m not concerned about I-95 (128 to old-timers.) It’s the downtown crush that raises downtown residents’ ire. Even if it is sign of good times, is anything being done about it?

Yes. Sort of. Mayor Walsh has set in motion Go Boston 2030, now in its second year. Led by state Rep. Russell Holmes, who represents Dorchester, JP and Mattapan, and Richard Dimino, president of A Better City, and also a former Boston Transportation Commissioner, this effort is intended to engage Bostonians in identifying transportation problems and solutions. The result will be a master plan to guide transportation decisions. Its purpose is not to prevent traffic jams as much as it is to make streets safer and travel times predictable so people can plan, said Dimino.

Because of 2030, the city is already doing quick fixes, said Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets. Better signs, technology to reduce the number of cars looking for a parking space, ticketing drivers who block the box—those incremental improvements do help.

But I’m here to tell you, angry traffic haters, that you’re fighting a losing battle. No one wants the kind of traffic that signifies a bad economy or an undesirable city. “The transportation system is responsive to economic conditions,” Dimino pointed out.

And the traffic that hotel or office and residential tower near you will bring is just a drop in the bucket. Osgood said 17 million square feet is still available to be built at North Point, Allston Brighton, Roxbury Crossing. Again, you get the idea—as long as the good economy lasts, the problem isn’t going away.

We’re not going to widen streets and roads. For one thing, there’s no space. And if you build it, they will come. “The reality is that we will always have congestion because every time we add traffic capacity, it gets filled up,” said transportation engineer David Black of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin. He said the most effective way to reduce traffic is to reduce parking. If you can’t park, you won’t drive in.

Black also said that the trend toward mixed-use developments is an antidote. The Ink Block with a Whole Foods is an example. “People living there can shop without having to use a car,” he said. Building work and living spaces together also helps traffic. He pointed out that managing traffic requires many simultaneous solutions.

 There is, however, the elephant in the room. The experts I interviewed all said it. It’s money.

“We need to invest,” said Dimino. He’s talking MBTA bus lines, subways and commuter rail. With only fixes and no major investment, Boston’s economy will slow down. “My hope is that the governor and the legislature will see the economic cost of only plugging holes in the ship is too significant,” he said.

“We can’t think about a mobility plan for the city without considering how the MBTA plugs into that,” said Osgood.

The problem is “underfunding of transit and non-auto mobility,” said Black.

Funding looks bleak, however. The cost of a ride will go up, but the extra funds raised are insignificant compared to the need. And even in this good economy when many Massachusetts taxpayers are taking home more dollars than they’ve ever seen before, House Speaker Robert DeLeo recently announced that no new taxes or fees will be imposed in 2016. Maybe he plans for the MBTA to win the next Powerball jackpot as the key to maintenance and expansion.

            So for now, downtown folks, stay out of your car. Take the subway when you can, but don’t expect much improvement until some elected official is brave enough to confront the money end. You’ll see more and more traffic. The only solution is to be grateful for a good economy and walk.

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