THE THIRD rail for the next mayor of Boston is traffic. Almost none of the 12 candidates has touched on solutions that other, more daring cities successfully implemented years ago.
At a mayoral forum on climate change this summer, I asked the candidates what they would do to ease congestion other than lobby for more public transit. I threw in the fact that Stockholm and London slashed or stabilized traffic with congestion fees at the perimeter of their city cores. I asked how they would work to bring such solutions to Boston. Four spoke: Charlotte Golar Richie, Bill Walczak, Felix Arroyo, and John Connolly.
None touched congestion fees. They all changed the topic to biking.
Biking is important but not sufficient. In a recent questionnaire for boston.comment, colleague Joanna Weiss and I asked the candidates what would be the first thing they would do to curb congestion beyond the T. Again, they retreated to bikes, more buses, coordinating traffic lights, and concepts like “complete streets,” which put pedestrians and cyclists on equal footing with vehicles.
Only Walczak added, “We should examine ways other cities have dealt with congestion and determine if these ideas [have merit] for Boston, including . . . London’s congestion zone charges.”
The next mayor will have to do more than examine. Boston is one of America’s most thriving cities, but it is killing its full potential with congestion. The Boston metro area is the nation’s ninth largest, but experienced the third highest rise in traffic delays since 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.
With the announcements in recent months of several new office, residential, and hotel skyscrapers, and with outgoing Mayor Menino wanting 30,000 new housing units by 2020, things will get much worse without courageous planning. The Globe recently reported that the Innovation District is now choked at afternoon rush hour. One of my next-door neighbors, a software CEO in Cambridge’s Central Square, told me he had considered moving his 60-person firm to the Innovation District but scotched the idea because of traffic and inadequate, jammed buses.
“Most of our employees walk and bike,” my neighbor said. “That’s the kind of city we want.”
Will the next mayor want such a city? London’s former mayor, Ken Livingstone, made it his personal mission to institute a congestion fee in 2003 and for a time it cut congestion by as much as 20 percent. Last year, the fees netted more than $200 million for mass transit. Congestion still remains a big problem, but the percentage of people who use their car as their primary form of transportation has dropped from 46 percent in 1993 to 34 percent today.
Stockholm has a voter-approved fee that has cut congestion by 20 percent since 2007, and contributed nearly $100 million to transit and highways in 2011. Milan and Singapore also have congestion fees. New York City’s outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought for one but was defeated by suburban opponents in Albany. But the momentum toward this form of paying for the privilege of congesting our roads is picking up. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are exploring fees, with Washington Mayor Vincent Gray saying, “We’re looking at adding 250,000 people over 20 years. If everyone drives, that’s unsustainable.”
Many urban planners, such as Tufts University’s Julian Agyeman, agree. “Livingstone was clever in that he really mounted a campaign with extensive community consultation to get the congestion charge understood as a way of freeing up the city for shopping, working, recreation,” Agyeman said. “Some people consider it a tax, but it actually is a way to democratize the city by making it more accessible to more people. Boston should have this conversation proactively before it is forced to have it.”
To have that conversation, Boston’s next mayor must have the energy to work with state and federal road officials, suburbanites who may view peak pricing as nothing more than a tax, and merchants and residents who cannot see past parking spaces.
All of Boston’s mayoral candidates say congestion is a big problem. But not one has emerged with the boldness to solve it.