As Boston tries to remake its transportation system for a climate-friendly future, Mayor Michelle Wu said Tuesday that the thinking around policy has to move from the wonky realm of conference rooms and to the street-level realm of the personal.
For the mayor, that means reflecting back to her days commuting to City Hall with her young sons in a stroller — a Joovy Caboose Ultralight, to be exact — where she encountered the same inconveniences met by Boston residents on a daily basis.
Delayed or overcrowded buses and trains. Cracked sidewalks. Broken elevators.
“If we’re serious about delivering a Green New Deal for cities, we must tackle the biggest contributors to the problem head on,” Wu said Tuesday about her vision of a city that tackles social justice and quality of living alongside the climate crisis. “In the most immediate sense, transportation has an enormous impact on our quality of life.”
She was speaking at a transportation summit of C40 — a global network of mayors leading cities working to confront the climate crisis. The theme was “Creating People-First Electrified Cities,” and the workshop included representatives from 13 cities across the United States and Canada, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Montreal, and New York City.
But as Wu pointed to the accomplishments of her administration so far — like the expansion of bike lanes and bike shares, fare-free bus lines, and new electric vehicle charging stations — Wu acknowledged Boston is facing a particularly vexing problem: How to convince people to stop driving, when their best alternative is an unreliable T?
“I won’t pretend that here in Boston, with the oldest subway system in the country, it hasn’t been incredibly frustrating to watch the consequences of decades of deferred maintenance play out in real time,” Wu told the group at the Boston Public Library.
Between cars being taken out of service, sections of the T closed down at times for repairs, and a crippling bus driver shortage, Boston has found itself in a bad position in that regard. Rather than taking public transportation, an increasing number of MBTA riders say they are relying on ride-hailing apps or are saving for a car.
Kate Dineen, president of A Better City, a transportation-focused business group, said on a panel at the workshop she’s hearing regularly from Boston businesses worried that the post-COVID revitalization of downtown Boston is jeopardized by problems commuters face. “Our economy can’t survive, let alone thrive without a safe, reliable, accessible system,” she said.
Beyond the challenges facing the MBTA in day-to-day operations, the transportation authority is also facing delays and blown budgets on climate-related goals like buying electric buses and rebuilding or retrofitting garages to charge them.
At the event on Tuesday, transit experts and administration officials said they are heartened by the new MBTA leadership brought on by the administration of Governor Maura Healey. And in the meantime, Wu and other administration officials said they’re continuing to roll out programs that give commuters other options, including biking and taking the bus.
By this winter, Wu said the city will have added nearly 10 more miles of bike lanes, en route to a goal of making the city 100 percent bikeable by 2030. The city is also adding 100 new Blue Bike stations, which will expand the bike share by 40 percent, and plans to roll out a program offering 10,000 free Blue Bike subscriptions to residents with Boston Public Library cards. It is also planning to launch a $1.5 million rebate program for seniors and riders with disabilities to purchase e-bikes.
In addition, Wu officials pointed to the three bus lines that were made free early in her administration, which have seen ridership return to 90 percent of prepandemic levels compared with a 75 percent return across the rest of the system.
There are more rollouts coming, too: new electric school buses to add to a fleet of 20 already in service, a goal of EV chargers within a 10-minute walk of every Boston resident by 2030, and the launch later this summer of Boston Delivers, a distribution service that allows local businesses to deliver packages with electric cargo bikes, rather than cars.
“This will not only reduce emissions, but also traffic congestion and collisions caused by delivery vehicles stopped in the middle of the street or in bus and bike lanes,” Wu said.
The aim in all of this is achieve a mode shift — that is, a switch from cars to other forms of transit to get around. In other, more sprawling or rural places, the best climate fix may be a move to electric vehicles but for Boston and other cities, the aim is to convince many drivers to ditch their vehicles entirely.
“We need to cut 50 percent of the fleet out of this country, which is controversial, but we know that needs to happen,” said Gabe Klein, executive director of the federal Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, who joined via video conference. “It’s not going to happen in exurban and rural areas. It’s going to happen in cities.”
Cities like Boston now have an opportunity, and the responsibility, to make the kinds of changes that can address the climate crisis with ambition while also making life better for residents, Wu said.
“What’s good for our environment is also good for our communities — less traffic, fewer collisions, safer streets, more affordable, more efficient and reliable transportation, more transportation options, cleaner, cheaper energy, good paying jobs, and healthier, happier cities where people can breathe easier and move and connect freely. We can have all of this,” she said. “And in fact, we don’t have any other choice but to take the big steps that are necessary and impacting our community’s health right now.”