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From paving commuter rail tracks to Watertown water shuttles, innovators are dreaming up Boston transportation solutions

Can technology fix the broken process of getting around Boston?

Local innovators envision traffic solutions
WATCH: Innovation economy contributor Scott Kirsner shares some suggestions from local entrepreneurs to improve city traffic conditions.

It’s a summer when you’ve got great choices for getting around: slog through the MBTA’s slow zones, where trains have their speed limited by track and electricity problems, or steam in your own car as you inch through the Ted Williams tunnel, often jammed because of the closure of the Sumner Tunnel for repairs.

In an old city like Boston — our motto could be, “Cramming people into subways since 1897″ — there are people who think that all we can possibly do is try to repair the transportation system we’ve got.

But there are also entrepreneurs and academics advocating for ideas that could improve the status quo.

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Before COVID, groups like the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the shared office provider CIC, and the MIT Mobility Initiative were discussing an “innovation hub” around the future of getting around, says John Moavenzadeh, executive director of the MIT initiative. (Created in 2020, it seeks to knit together all work related to transportation at the university — and to promote new technologies with the goal of reducing carbon emissions.) That effort to create some sort of multi-party hub “has re-emerged,” says Moavenzadeh: “Can we create some sort of a platform based in the greater Boston area, to be a ‘do tank’ for transportation innovation?”

One experiment discussed among members of the group is an “autonomous vehicles only” lane on a major highway, to smooth traffic flow. (The hypothesis: With better collision avoidance technologies, autonomous vehicles could drive a consistent and safe 65 miles per hour.) Privately owned vehicles would pay a premium for access, but public transit vehicles would use the lane for free.

People driving in the normal lanes, Moavenzadeh says, would see autonomous vehicles breezing past during rush hour, “and say, ‘I can pay $4 or $5 a day to get access for my car, or I could just take that bus.’” (A similar project is already underway between Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

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Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan talks about putting an autonomous driving vehicle lane on Michigan Avenue while delivering the State of the City address at the Michigan Central Depot, in Detroit on March 7, 2023. Robin Buckson/Associated Press

A more radical notion involves paving over commuter rail tracks to open them up to more frequent service by smaller, electric, autonomous vehicles. Moavenzadeh makes the case that that could pull more single-driver vehicles from the road than today’s commuter rail service.

“We still call it commuter rail,” he says. “It was designed for the typical male breadwinner to take the train to the office and then come back – that 1950s lifestyle.”

Putting smaller vehicles onto those rights-of-way, he says, would allow service to better adjust to demand, whether a big festival in Boston, a Taylor Swift concert at Gillette, or a game at the Boston Garden. “It blows my mind that I can take the train to North Station to see a game,” Moavenzadeh says, “but the train to return leaves exactly eight minutes before the game ends.”

I’m not sure that self-driving taxis would reduce traffic or make getting around town that much easier, but a startup company called Nutonomy has worked since 2013 on the technology to make them possible. Nutonomy, now part of a business called Motional, has tested self-driving taxis in Singapore and in Las Vegas with paying passengers, but it has not yet done the same in Boston. Why?

“There is no regulatory path in Massachusetts to fully driverless operation,” says Motional CEO Karl Iagnemma. In other words, Massachusetts requires a human “safety steward” sitting in the front seat.

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As you can imagine, keeping a safety monitor in the car does not save much money. But later this year, Las Vegas will allow Motional to leave the safety monitor behind and go truly driverless.

Karl Iagnemma, CEO of Motional, says the company is still working with local and state governments to clarify what it would entail to run taxis without drivers here.Courtesy of Motional

Iagnemma says the company is still working with local and state governments to clarify what it would entail to run taxis without drivers here. But for now, Motional conducts testing in the Seaport neighborhood without passengers. (While Motional’s taxis would obviously kill jobs for Lyft, Uber, and taxi drivers, there is at least an environmental plus: the robotaxis the company builds are electric Hyundai IONIQ vehicles.)

A Watertown entrepreneur, Drew Rollert, is hoping to get permission to start running a water shuttle service on the Charles River between Watertown and Back Bay as soon as this summer. Rollert says his venture, Wada Hoppah, will initially use two small, shallow draft boats powered by biodiesel fuel. They can carry a maximum of eight passengers.

Rollert says he is having an electric boat designed for the venture, with a goal of having it running by fall. “Assuming tests go well in September and October, we’ll tweak the design, and begin to assess plans” for expanding the fleet next year, he says.

While fares haven’t been nailed down, Rollert estimates that a trip from one end to the other — Watertown to near the Hatch Shell — will cost between $35 and $50. (Rollert is also the founder of a mobile app startup called BetrSpot, which aims to help people buy and sell tables in busy venues, or places in line.)

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Since 2015, Mike Stanley, the founder of TransitX, has proposed that various cities and towns in Massachusetts build elevated tracks to run small pod-like vehicles that could carry two passengers each.Courtesy of TransitX

Since 2015, Mike Stanley, the founder of TransitX, has proposed that various cities and towns in Massachusetts build elevated tracks to run small pod-like vehicles that could carry two passengers each. The company built a small stretch of track on private land in Norfolk in 2021 — about the length of three cars, with three metal towers supporting a single rail, and a prototype vehicle hanging from it.

The TransitX website says, “A first system will be operational by 2023,” but Stanley didn’t want to share an update, beyond saying that another pilot test may take place in Hawaii or the Philippines. He expressed concerns about tipping off competitors about what the company is up to.

If we want to solve traffic and give people compelling reasons to get out of private cars in favor of shared vehicles, I’m a fan of fostering lots of experiments to see what works — as opposed to solely fixing what we built in the 19th and 20th centuries.

How about you?

Vehicles merge at the entrance to the Ted Williams Tunnel in East Boston on July 5, 2023 during the closure of the Sumner Tunnel.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him @ScottKirsner.