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OPINION

Boston, unplugged from traffic. Can it last?

Our ghostly quiet streets and highways are giving Greater Boston a taste of life without noise and congestion. Can Beacon Hill use that as inspiration to reignite a serious debate about transportation?

Light evening rush hour traffic crossed Boston's Zakim Bridge in March.
Light evening rush hour traffic crossed Boston's Zakim Bridge in March.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Eleven minutes. That’s all it took to whisk 8.1 miles from home to downtown Boston at 5:25 p.m. And the true rush hour test — the return trip on 93 North — was just as fast.

Due to “quarantine fatigue,” residents are starting to venture out in public, and traffic is picking up, state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said this week. But compared with what was deemed the worst traffic congestion in America as recently as early March, the current commute is an eerie breeze.

How will that change once the COVID-19 lockdown is over? And is there a way to restore Boston’s pre-coronavirus vibrancy and leave behind its clogged streets and highways?

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“I think we can bring back the good and leave the bad in the past,” said Chris Dempsey, who heads the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts.

But that will take political will — even more political will than it did before a pandemic disrupted the highs and lows of urban living.

The derailment of a long-delayed debate over the future of transportation is one of the most frustrating policy consequences of this ongoing health care crisis. A Globe Spotlight report, published last November, focused attention on Beacon Hill’s failure to grapple with an aging transit system and traffic gridlock that choked the roads and polluted the air. Public transportation advocates like Dempsey pushed the conversation forward. In January, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston pushed it even more in his State of the City address by challenging state lawmakers to “do more than repair the system of the past. Invest in the future of our Commonwealth.”

There was reason to believe that could happen. On March 4, the Massachusetts House approved a major tax bill aimed at raising more than $500 million for assorted transportation needs by increasing fees on gasoline, corporations, and ride-hailing services. The House package didn’t fulfill everyone’s wish list, and consensus was still far off. But it was a start.

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The next week, the coronavirus shutdown began. Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency, followed up by a stay-at-home advisory. With businesses fighting for survival and close to a million residents filing for unemployment benefits, Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, is now looking at a recession. It’s counterintuitive to think that’s a good time for new taxes and fees.

On the bright side, our ghostly quiet streets and highways are giving Greater Boston a taste of life without noise and congestion. Can Beacon Hill lawmakers, with backing from Baker, use that as inspiration to reignite a serious debate about transportation?

“I remain hopeful that there is still an opportunity for action here,” said Dempsey. “If we don’t do anything, we will end up back in some version of the [transportation] crisis that we had.” According to Dempsey, there have been some conversations with Senate lawmakers, but, given the challenges of the health care crisis, “they were understandably exasperated by the fact we were even asking them about this. You can’t force people to think about that. You have to give them a little more space.”

Meanwhile, taking action means more than raising taxes. It means expanding bus and bike lanes and rethinking ways to create pedestrian-friendly streets — proposals that Walsh, for one, seems to be embracing.

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As Massachusetts inches back from its COVID-19 lockdown, what happens with MBTA ridership will ultimately have a huge impact on traffic. According to CommonWealth magazine, ridership is down 80 percent on the T’s bus system and 92 percent on the subway system. As businesses slowly reopen, at what point will more people feel safe enough to take the T? Or will they stick to the safety bubble of their cars? If that happens, congestion could increase. On the other hand, people who are now used to working from home will stay there if they can. And that will have its own negative impact on Boston’s downtown economy.

A part of me longs to curse another packed and creaky old Orange Line train at State Street and even misses the gridlock of a highway commute. But that’s the status quo Massachusetts needed to leave behind — and still does.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.