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Yvonne Abraham

To fix Greater Boston’s traffic woes, go big or stay home

A rush-hour scene in Boston that is all too common.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File

Another day, another study telling us what is already blindingly obvious: Driving in Boston’s rush hour is soul-crushing misery.

More not-new news:

If we don’t make massive changes around here, it’s going to get worse — and not just for the lost legions who contemplate self-immolation as their cars crawl along clogged roads.

Robin Chase, cofounder and former CEO of Zipcar, sees the future (again), and it is not pretty. The continued growth of Lyft and Uber and of delivery-on-demand stores like Amazon, the arrival of autonomous vehicles, and — heaven help us — possibly self-driving mobile grocery stores, along with the decline in public transit ridership: It all adds up to road conditions that will make today’s maddening commute seem positively dreamy.


And that is to say nothing of the environmental calamity made more imminent by all of those gas-powered vehicles inching along the Pike or I-93.

“As we think about this disastrous future, we must [create] sustainable and just transportation,” said Chase, who now leads a nonprofit called the New Urban Mobility alliance. “We don’t have time to get it wrong.”

That sounds pretty urgent, right? It’s not enough to move every vehicle off fossil fuels yesterday. We have to fix it so that there are way fewer of them on the roads, period.

And provide public transit that’s attractive enough to be commuters’ first choice.

So why, when we so desperately need more people to take public transportation, is Governor Charlie Baker’s administration raising T fares again? A few weeks ago, MBTA officials announced a proposed increase of 6.3 percent — the fourth hike since 2012.

Meanwhile, gas prices are low, and the Massachusetts gas tax has barely budged in forever, let alone kept up with the cost of living. We keep cars so cheap that, of course, people with choices are going to keep driving them.


Now, this would be the point where I would argue, as I have eleventy times before, that we must do X to redress the imbalance: really grow the gas tax, raise or add tolls, spend more on the T, keep fares low, blah blah blah.

It never happens.

That’s because too many voters believe government can’t be trusted with their money, that improvements to the T don’t benefit everybody, and that they have a patriotic right to drive any vehicle they choose, whenever and wherever they please.

So we’re stuck with inch-by-inch fixes for what has become an emergency. That, and resignation.

“People think of traffic and congestion kind of like the weather, as if it’s the result of natural forces, and we can’t control it,” said Chris Dempsey, the head of Transportation for Massachusetts.

He and other advocates have been dealing with an administration that favors incremental change over bold initiatives. For sure, some of the modest stuff is good — a proposal to overhaul bus services to send more to T stops rather than all the way into downtown, for example — but it’s unequal to this moment.

Dempsey and others have been pushing for a pilot study to see if changing the cost of crossing the Tobin Bridge outside of rush hour would ease congestion, but the governor vetoed legislation to create it. Everybody on Beacon Hill seems allergic to asking commuters — apart from MBTA riders, of course — to pay more.


It’s time for big ideas, like the one City Councilor Michelle Wu is proposing: Eliminate MBTA fares entirely.

Now that would get more people on the T, and do plenty to ease traffic congestion. Only if we start talking about such radical proposals do we have any shot at achieving anything close to a transformation here.

Late last year, a commission assembled by Baker delivered its own big ideas, recommending that the state more aggressively steer people away from gas-fueled cars toward public transportation and electric vehicles, push for denser and more transit-oriented development, and prioritize redesigned streets that favor buses and bikes over cars.

It remains to be seen which of the proposals Baker and the Legislature will take up. Maybe we should just continue to put off the reckoning until every motorist cries uncle. Maybe we need more rush-hour misery, not less. Maybe then we’ll finally do something about it.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.