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More buildings, fewer cars help drive economic growth

Even the deepest believers in alternative transportation did a double take on hearing that car counts in Cambridge’s Kendall Square had dropped by as much as 14 percent over the past decade despite the addition of more than 4 million square feet of commercial and institutional space.

Those statistics, from the Cambridge city government, have major implications for the entire Boston area, because they suggest that the urban center can grow considerably in both offices and residences without necessarily adding more roads and cars.

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Cambridge’s method is simple — demanding that developers who seek to build or expand parking areas make similar commitments to alternative modes of transportation, thereby helping to reduce vehicle trips and congestion. These efforts can include giving workers subsidized T passes, joining with other companies to provide shuttle services during peak hours, or even providing cash incentives for workers who walk or bike to work. Paying people not to drive may sound excessive, but it makes simple economic sense: Employers can spend hundreds of dollars per month to maintain a single parking space.

People often poke fun at Cambridge for its progressive policies. But city officials know what their residents value — clean air, unclogged roads, lively streetscapes — and what they don’t — car culture, parking lots, and commercial sprawl. In Cambridge, finding ways to eliminate car trips is seen as a basic city service along with public safety and education.

Boston, meanwhile, tries to achieve similar goals of reduced emissions and less traffic congestion through the imposition of a freeze on commercial off-street parking spaces in downtown, South Boston, and East Boston. Mayor Menino has declared that “the car is no longer king in Boston.’’ But the freeze seems more an attempt to comply formally with clean air regulations than a creative effort to encourage greater pedestrian access and use of public transportation. Boston should look to Cambridge for some fresh ideas.

Stephanie Groll, who oversees Cambridge’s parking-management efforts, said businesses and institutions are required to conduct periodic commuter surveys and traffic counts to ensure they are meeting their targets. And the city monitors compliance, retaining the right to shut down parking facilities and issue fines to companies that fail to limit traffic.

Groll said that she receives few complaints from businesses and institutions. In Cambridge, after all, fewer cars on the streets has become a sign that business is strong and growing.

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