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How changing our transit system could cut dependence on Russian oil

Vernon Burton (right) greets his friend Osman Foster (both cq) on the 28 bus on Blue Hill Avenue. Riders took advantage of the start of a new two-year program that makes MBTA bus lines 23, 28, and 29 all free of charge.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has sent world leaders from the West scrambling to end their reliance on Russian fossil fuels. The Biden administration is exploring plans to replace imports and pushing for more domestic drilling; climate activists are calling on the US to expand renewable energy.

Another approach: Conserve energy. Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency released a 10-point plan, focused on transit, that it says could slash demand by roughly 2.7 million barrels a day over the next four months. What would that look like on the ground in Greater Boston?

Unlike the policies the United States imposed during the 1970s — a response to a temporary embargo on oil from the Middle East — these strategies would stop short of a direct rationing system. Instead, the IEA suggests lowering speed limits on highways, boosting the use of public transit and bikes, eliminating the use of cars in cities on Sundays, or, even more dramatically, on alternating days of the week.

Boston has already made small strides toward some of these ideas, like making public transport cheaper and making it easier to walk, bike, and use scooters. Amid the pandemic, the city fast-tracked the construction of protected bike lanes. Last month, Mayor Michelle Wu announced three free bus routes in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. According to an analysis from her office, a pilot program on one route increased ridership by 23 percent compared to other bus routes.

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The region has also taken steps toward car-free Sundays. Boston opened a stretch of Newbury Street to only pedestrians on some Sundays last summer, and Cambridge has taken similar steps on Memorial Drive.

But expanding those programs would be difficult, said Boston Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

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“We’re very interested in exploring more opportunities for car-free time in places in the city,” he said. “But even closing down Newbury Street for one Sunday requires some pretty significant logistical coordination and planning and all of that.”

Any significant restrictions on driving in the city would also be hugely disruptive to people’s lives.

“Anytime we do something that’s disruptive at that scale, it has to be done with discussion, with trust building, with a real communal understanding of what’s at stake,” said Franklin-Hodge. “That’s just not a process that we’ve started.”

If officials were to ask residents to make such sacrifices, said Jonathan Buonocore, a research scientist at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, they’d also better make sure they would actually put a dent in emissions.

“If you’re not allowing traffic on Sundays, for example, are you moving traffic to Saturday? People might say, ‘Oh, you know, they don’t allow cars on Sunday, so we’re gonna do all our driving on Saturday,’ ” he said. “Nobody’s evaluated this yet.”

Another IEA suggestion: Encouraging people to work from home for up to three days a week. As COVID-19 restrictions have been slowly lifted, vehicular traffic in Boston has already surged back to pre-pandemic levels.

Many of the IEA’s proposals, said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the Cambridge-based public transportation advocacy group LivableStreets, would also run up against practical limitations. For instance, not all jobs can be performed from home, she noted.

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And the design of US cities makes people largely reliant on cars. Even in Boston, which consistently ranks as one of the nation’s most walkable cities, not everyone is able to easily get to work or grocery stores without driving.

Encouraging people to walk and bike is a great idea, she said, and so is increasing the affordability of transit by, for instance, implementing a low-income fare program for the MBTA.

“All of those things are no-brainers. They don’t require legislative action. They could happen quickly with the resources that we have,” Thompson said. “But it doesn’t speak to the consistent structural issues, particularly around housing and how people are physically able to get where they need to go.”

Local governments are taking steps to combat these larger issues. Massachusetts just expanded the Green Line to reach Somerville, and Boston is planning to build a new commuter line and pushing for a new transit station in Allston.

“If we want to be impactful and reduce our dependency on oil, then we need to embrace all these tools and plan in our communities for people, not cars,” said Joseph Curtatone, former mayor of Somerville and current president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council.

Rather than just imposing policies that curb consumption, he said, leaders should work to make it easy for people to use less fuel.

“If we make these options and choices easy, accessible, affordable, equitable, sustainable, we will accelerate that transition right before our eyes,” said Curtatone.

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This story has been updated to include Jonathan Buonocore’s title.


Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.