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The Boston Globe

Opinion

  

TOM KEANE

Car-free housing in Boston would create problems

Car-free condos and apartments, the latest fad in residential living, are really little more than a gimmick: good for greens and developers, perhaps, but bad for residents.

City planners usually insist that developers of residential housing also build an allotment of parking spots — perhaps 50 for every 100 units. But doing so, says the anti-car crowd, just encourages people to own automobiles, and you know what that brings: congestion and pollution. So instead they want to emulate Manhattan, where residential buildings rarely include new parking. Thus, real estate developer Related Beal LLC is now proposing to create 175 units near TD Garden without adding in any new spots.

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There’s a certain sleight of hand to the idea, since residents wouldn’t have to abandon their cars. As Related Beal acknowledges, it’s hoping to piggyback off of existing nearby parking. So this isn’t actually a car-free building as much as it is one that dumps the problem on someone else. Such dumping is the same reason a proposed car-free building in Allston was recently killed. Residents figured that, without new parking, there would simply be more demand for existing spaces. Already tight conditions would become even tighter.

But suppose new buildings truly were car-free, with residents somehow compelled to give up their cars? A few might be persuaded to do so, but in the long run such a proposition would run headlong into one big problem: Even in Boston, people need cars. Manhattan, a uniquely dense and compact island, can get away with car-free living. Boston, spread out and part of a much larger metropolitan area, cannot.

As much as some may denounce the automobile, almost all of us own one — about 91 percent of American households, according to the US Census Bureau. In Boston, as in other cities, the numbers are lower, with only 63 percent of households having a car. Sometimes that’s an income issue; buying and maintaining a vehicle is expensive. Still, there are many city dwellers — mostly younger people — who choose not to have a car as a lifestyle decision. They can get to work without one, and find it easy to walk or bike their way around town.

Good for them. But merely because someone chooses not to have a car right now doesn’t mean things won’t change. Green intentions notwithstanding, as life goes on it becomes increasingly likely a car will come into the picture.

The average American, for example, changes jobs frequently (well more than 11 times during a working lifetime, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data). A new resident of a car-free building might be working just down the street. But two years later, another position might beckon, located, say, at one of the many office parks that have sprouted up along Routes 128 and 495. A trip to Wilmington, for example, is an easy 21-minute drive in light traffic, much of it a reverse commute going north on 93. With public transit, the best you can do is take the Lowell line out of North Station, get off at Anderson Woburn, and then walk a couple of miles. The total commute is easily over an hour. Granted, a good walk is often a nice way to start and end a day, but having to do it every day becomes a burden, especially when it’s raining or snowing. More likely, the once car-free resident will end up buying a car and moving to a place that’s more auto-friendly.

Then too, as people couple up or have kids, the need for a car rises. In Boston, most of those without cars are singles — fully 50 percent. But as household size grows, the rate of car ownership climbs to 75 percent. Anyone with children can understand why; parents spend their days shuttling their kids from playdates to school to sports to after-school activities. Cars are a necessity. By making it a hassle to own one, we push families out to the suburbs.

Sure, efforts to improve alternative forms of transportation should continue apace. But cars are not the nemesis of city living; oftentimes, having one is what makes it possible to stay.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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