Where is the greatest amount of public space in the city of Boston? It isn’t the Common, or the Esplanade, or even Franklin Park. It’s the city’s streets and sidewalks. From narrow 17th-century cow paths to the efficient residential grids in the neighborhoods or the Back Bay, the city’s 800 miles of streets were made, as the song goes, for you and me.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than two long years ago, citizens have been engaged in a robust rethinking of streets and their uses. Rather than simply thoroughfares or — worse — storage space for cars, they’ve been repurposed into places for play dates, work meetings, sidewalk sales, band rehearsals, and of course, outdoor dining. Streets and parkways were closed to traffic so residents could find safe spaces to breathe free. The sense of possibility has been palpable.
“The pandemic made it much less fraught to try different things,” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Mayor Michelle Wu’s chief of streets, in an interview. “It has given us visibility into other ways of thinking about and using our streets.”
But as Boston emerges from many pandemic strictures, we’re in danger of slipping back into bad old ways. The fracas over street cafes in the North End is only the latest warning sign. Restaurant owners griping about fees for setting up tables in the street, residents howling about losing parking spaces and increased congestion in an already tight neighborhood — both belie a sense of entitlement toward a public resource they don’t, in fact, own.
“People love the idea of streets as public spaces until they have to give up the little corner of public space that they’ve been treating as private,” said Stacy Thompson of the Livable Streets Alliance in an interview. Thompson finds the grabby attitude some car owners have over their patch of public street (see the winter storm space-saver phenomenon) “completely unhinged.”
And the tension is not unique to Boston. Last month the Cambridge City Council delayed the installation of bike lanes along Mass. Ave near Porter Square amid complaints from merchants over lost customer parking. And streets everywhere are increasingly dangerous for bikes and pedestrians, as motorists cement some of the bad habits — like speeding or even scorning red lights — that they picked up during the pandemic’s early traffic-free days.
The rocky third-year rollout of Boston’s outdoor dining pilot shows just how hard it is to change attitudes. The city could do more to ease the transition to permanent outdoor dining regulations that some find burdensome and abruptly imposed. But it needs partners, not carpers.
A few bright spots are worth celebrating. Late last year, the city eliminated minimum parking requirements for new affordable housing developments. Parking, especially in underground lots, can add more than $100,000 to each unit price, but developers blanch at offering units with even one-to-one parking ratios. The current turbocharged housing market is a good time to break from those hidebound ways in market-rate housing as well.
Massachusetts is also catching up to 46 other states in properly classifying electric bikes. The increasingly popular e-bikes are in legislative limbo currently, so municipalities are hesitating to include them in public bike programs. Getting the classification right should relieve many e-bike owners of needless license and insurance requirements.
Franklin-Hodge knows that even a street that accommodates so-called multi-modal transportation (used not just by cars but bikes, pedestrians, and public transit) isn’t being all that it can be. Sure, streets are for getting from one place to another, but they can also serve as gathering and connecting places, vastly enriching city life. “We can have a very utilitarian lens,” he said. “What makes a street a good place to be isn’t fundamentally a transportation question.”
Better street design creates a benevolent cycle. Streets that are more welcoming — with seating, shade, bike lanes, and shops — are also safer, both because traffic moves more slowly and because more people and activity reduce crime. Add in climate imperatives to reduce car emissions, and re-setting the balance between people and cars becomes more than just a nicety.
Boston may never be Paris, which has plans to transform large swaths of the city into “tranquil zones” without cars, or even Montreal, which this week announced it would invest $12 million Canadian dollars over three years to make 10 major streets pedestrian-only in the summers. But people and cars need to co-exist, even in Boston. And understanding that the streets quite literally belong to the public is a good place to start.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.