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OPINION

Build a better city, starting with the Allston interchange

It’ll take a decade to fix some of Boston’s old highways. Let’s use that time to create a neighborhood truly suited for the 21st century.

A rendering by Northeastern University architecture graduate student Matt Rowan of a possible storm-water drainage feature in a reimagined Beacon Yards in Allston. The state Department of Transportation is planning to redevelop the Mass. Pike interchange now on the site, and the Northeastern students have been developing plans for what comes next.
A rendering by Northeastern University architecture graduate student Matt Rowan of a possible storm-water drainage feature in a reimagined Beacon Yards in Allston. The state Department of Transportation is planning to redevelop the Mass. Pike interchange now on the site, and the Northeastern students have been developing plans for what comes next.Northeastern University

Boston has the opportunity to reclaim 30 acres of prime Charles River waterfront real estate, directly across from Cambridge. But somehow, the front-running proposal is to rebuild and expand 20th-century priorities — highways — with a 1950s vision of what makes for a good city (a car in every garage).

We’re talking about the I-90 Allston interchange. You’ve definitely driven through it: acres of industrial detritus and 12 lanes of highway (eight elevated lanes of I-90 and four lanes of Soldiers Field road), spreading noise and pollution and increasing stress levels. Tens of thousands of Bostonians who live and work adjacent to these highways are cut off from one of Boston’s finest assets — the Charles River waterfront.

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It is time to envision the Allston interchange not as a highway replacement and renovation project, but as a city-building opportunity that can improve livability, expand sustainable choices, and increase equity. Instead of focusing on the vehicles passing through Allston and Boston, we should be focusing on the quality of life for the people working and living there, as well as the rest of us who would benefit from both expanded recreation along the Charles and high-quality, pollution- and congestion-free mass transit from the west.

The originally planned project — which took 10 years to agree on — has had a setback, which now gives us the opportunity to rethink it. In those 10 years, Boston has come to more viscerally understand that all new highways just congest again (despite the Big Dig, we have the worst rush-hour traffic in the country), and that the future of urban transport is sustainable and space-efficient.

We are about to spend over $1 billion and live through at least 10 years of construction. Let’s produce an outcome that will delight, a space we will linger in and not just drive through.

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The project as it stands now comes in three stages: (1) reconstruction of the highways, (2) development of housing and commercial buildings, and (3) building a new transit stop and station on the existing commuter rail.

This is a backward execution. It would produce more of what we don’t want (car-dependent infrastructure, car-dependent housing, car-dependent businesses) and less of what we do want — high-quality, high-frequency public transit as the preferred and prioritized mode of travel in the area.

We must build the commuter station first. We must do it to absorb the lost car mobility during the construction phase, to establish new behaviors for those getting into Boston, and to establish the new adjacent residential and commercial development as a transit-oriented neighborhood. MassDOT is considering the possibility of constructing a four-track rather than a three-track train stop, and we strongly agree with such expansion. The decade of construction will provide a long time in which to firmly establish new habits, which are key to travel decisions.

Secondly, we should take this disruption as an opportunity to cut back the number of high-speed vehicle travel lanes crossing the city. The project as it stands now would take eight lanes of elevated I-90 and four lanes of Soldiers Field Road and pare them to 10 lanes during the 10 years of construction. For 10 years people will choose new modes and new routes for their needs. And then one day, bingo! The new highway would be reopened, adding 20 percent car lane capacity. If we can move people for 10 years with two fewer lanes during construction and an expanded transit service, why on earth, in 2030, would we choose to expand the exact mode of travel that is being discouraged everywhere — single-occupancy vehicles?

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Lastly, let’s extend and expand the city’s, and this neighborhood’s, attachment to the river. Here’s the big idea: Once we’ve vastly improved the east/west transit along the commuter rail line, we should turn Storrow Drive and Soldiers Field Road into a surface boulevard similar to Commonwealth Avenue, with slower speeds, traffic lights, and pedestrian crossings. Storrow Drive and Soldiers Field Road were the product of 1950s transportation thinking, which tore up our neighborhoods and walled off our waterfronts with highways. We would never make such a foolish decision today. Fortunately, we have the chance to remake that decision today, and make it right. Just as we reconnected our city to its harbor, we can reconnect our city to its river. With vastly improved east/west transit and the Mass. Pike extension, which did not exist in the ’50s, as the east/west highway, we no longer need another highway walling off our waterfront. Let’s remake Storrow Drive and Soldiers Field Road into a boulevard that respects its neighborhoods and create world-class access to our river.

The Allston interchange is a newly opened frontier for Boston. Do we want to create another “neighborhood” filled with highways? Or do we want to expand access to the Charles River greenway and create a walkable neighborhood, served by commuter rail and joyful riverside bike lanes and tied to local streets?

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Infrastructure is destiny. Our choices should be shaped by the urgent emissions reductions required by Massachusetts law. Instead of thinking of this as a traditional highway reconstruction project, we should look at it as an opportunity to reimagine the city holistically.

Robin Chase is cofounder of Zipcar and NUMO and a former MassDOT board member. Doug Foy is president of Serrafix, former president of the Conservation Law Foundation, and a former Secretary of Commonwealth Development.