Bostonians used to complain about the hopeless Red Sox; now they kvetch about how bad their commutes have become. If we’re not stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Southeast Expressway or Seaport Boulevard, we’re stalled on the Orange Line or the commuter rail.
The region is choking on its own success. The booming economy has created thousands of new jobs, and it seems like every tech company (and wannabe) is putting roots down in the Seaport District. Uber and Lyft drivers circling Boston streets waiting for riders have only magnified congestion, not solved overall transportation problems.
The good news is that officials from the state and the City of Boston are acutely aware of how traffic could impair economic growth. A bunch of fixes are in the works — from automated fare collection and all-door boarding on the subway to transit signal priority so buses and trolleys can request a green light as they approach intersections. The bad news is that some of these fixes will take time to implement —
Longer term, the transportation system needs many more solutions, big and small, to improve overall mobility, and those will ultimately require more money. At least there’s finally a sense of urgency from frustrated riders, business leaders, and politicians, but whether the region can get its act together before congestion truly cripples us is an open question. Where to start? How about these four ways:
Courage to change bus routes and create bus-only lanes and queue jumps
Revamping bus routes would go a long way to make commutes more reliably on time, and it wouldn’t cost the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority much money. Among the transit modes, buses have the worst on-time performance: Only 64 percent run on schedule because of street congestion.
But there’s a reason officials have put off bus-network reform for decades: The backlash would make banning space savers in Southie after snowstorms seem like a breeze . The agency is ready to face the onslaught, having pored over data for a year and identified 75 routes traversing 51 cities and towns that could use adjustments, whether by eliminating some stops or moving parts of the route to a less-congested street a block away.
“We really are ready to take that political risk,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said in an interview. “My hope is that the communities we serve and the riders we serve and our neighbors are willing to have that conversation in a civil way.”
Pollack will begin a public discussion by year’s end, and she said she would be happy if a few dozen routes got changed.
“They don’t have to agree with us,” she said, but “at least be open minded. That’s what I would ask.”
What has been less controversial is the creation of bus-only lanes. Everett embraced the idea with gusto, establishing bus-only lanes during the morning rush hour that resulted in shaving up to 7 minutes off travel times. Now the city may add bus-only lanes during the evening rush hour, too. In June, Boston set up a bus-only lane in the morning to reduce gridlock on Washington Street in Roslindale, making it the first new bus lane in the city in a decade and the only one besides a section of the Silver Line in the South End. Next should be the exploration of bus-only lanes on Summer Street in the Seaport District.
The state has encouraged municipalities to set up bus-only lanes, but what about the state itself? The Tobin Bridge could use one — just ask riders of the 111 bus from Chelsea. That’s highly unlikely, but the state should consider a so-called queue jump — a bus-only ramp that would save time. Bring it on.
Don’t give up on rail in the Seaport
It’s known as Track 61 — a 1.5-mile rail line that runs from Cabot Yard (south of South Station) through the South Boston Waterfront. Governor Deval Patrick had planned to reactivate the dormant track as a way to connect the Back Bay and the Seaport, but the Baker administration had different plans. The state is refurbishing the track so it can be used to test 252 new Red Line cars over the next several years.
Patrick may be gone, but Track 61 still has a champion in Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. The city is keeping the option for passenger rail service alive by protecting rights of way along the track, which runs past the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and toward the marine industrial park. That means developers need to keep the area around the track unobstructed. For example, in the case of the new Omni hotel in the Seaport, the city not only made sure the rail line had a clear path but room for a station to be built someday.
The fast-growing Seaport District has been so desperate for transportation fixes that some have gotten behind a $100 million gondola that would ferry passengers high above from South Station to the marine industrial park. The proposal, made by a developer, has been on hold, pending a South Boston Waterfront study focused on bus transit.
Meanwhile, let’s keep hope alive about Track 61. Here’s why: The state is already investing a lot of money to upgrade the track. After testing the Red Line fleet, the state should look at the viability of activating the track to connect commuters from the Back Bay to the Seaport, or make it an extension of the Red Line to Widett Circle. Red Line cars work on the track, and Widett Circle eventually will get redeveloped. And like the gondola, private developers should be willing to foot the bill for transit.
Consider congestion pricing*
In July, Governor Charlie Baker put the kibosh on a pilot to test whether discounted tolls during off-peak hours would reduce congestion. But he did acknowledge traffic is bad enough to order up a study.
Transportation advocates pushed the novel proposal figuring that they would never get anyone on Beacon Hill to approve increasing tolls during peak hours, which is known as congestion pricing, to discourage drivers from crowding the roads during the busiest times.
Democratic candidate for governor Jay Gonzalez, reiterated in an interview last week that he supported the pilot and exploring congestion pricing. Still, the Commonwealth shouldn’t have to wait for a new governor to consider congestion pricing.
Like changing bus routes, congestion pricing is something that works but is highly controversial. Few politicians are willing to back higher tolls.
But congestion pricing has the added benefit of raising revenue. Consider what happened when the policy was launched more than a decade ago in London: The city has reported a 30 percent reduction in traffic and an increase in average speed by 30 percent, compared to pre-congestion pricing levels. The city has raised a net revenue of $1.8 billion over the first decade, which by law was re-invested into London’s transportation infrastructure.
What was the price for a better commute? It’s steep: Drivers in London face a flat fee of about $15, Monday through Friday, between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Congestion pricing is something New York City has been wrestling with, and all of this data from London has been compiled by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit dedicated to mobility and accessibility in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The group looked at congestion pricing schemes in Stockholm and Singapore, which also cut traffic and raised funds.
Some lessons learned: Before increasing tolls, regions must invest in public transit to give commuters more alternatives to driving. Pour the new revenue back into trains, buses, and bike paths. Political will is a must.
Walk and bike before you Uber
When we think of getting around, we think of hopping into a car or jumping on the T. But the state and City of Boston are pushing bikes and good old walking. Think of the massive expansion of bike-sharing with the Bluebikes stations recently stretching into Mattapan and Roslindale; by the end of 2019, Bluebikes members will have access to 3,000 bikes in 300 stations in four cities — Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville. Often commutes get unwieldy when you have to wait for a bus or subway connection; now you can grab a bike, save time, and get exercise.
Under Pollack, the state launched “Park & Pedal,” encouraging drivers heading into Boston to park for free at designated state-owned lots. Instead of driving all the way downtown, commuters can park and cycle the last few miles into the city.
* How to spend all that extra revenue from congestion pricing? Let’s dare to expand the T and commuter rail. Consider connecting the Red and Blue Lines, in the form of a train tunnel or a pedestrian walkway. Talk about this long-discussed project was revived after Boston made the short list to house Amazon’s second corporate headquarters, but it’s a good idea whether the city lands Amazon or not. And if we want transit equity, let’s extend the Blue Line to Lynn and focus on improving the Fairmount Line that goes through Dorchester and Mattapan.