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The Spotlight Team investigated Boston’s nightmare traffic. Here are 10 big things it found

Traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike during the morning commute. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

1 . The number of vehicles and the amount of driving has surged.

The problem has been getting worse, and it has happened fast. In the last five years, the Boston metro region has added 300,000 cars and trucks, according to state data. And 59,000 more commuters across the region reported driving alone to work.

Inside Boston’s city boundaries, there are now 31,000 more cars with resident parking stickers than there were just over a decade ago, and despite city goals to reduce the amount of driving in Boston, it actually spiked by about 14 percent from 2005 to 2017.


Govenor Charlie Baker arrives in the morning at the State House after being driven to work.David L Ryan/Globe Staff

2. Lawmakers are mostly creatures of the car.

The Globe surveyed 235 elected and municipal officials about their commuting habits: the entire Legislature, all six elected officials with statewide offices, and several city and town leaders within the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s core service area. We received 134 responses.

The results? About 85 percent say they get to work each day by car. Only five members of the Legislature hold a monthly transit pass, while all have access to free parking at the State House. Governor Charlie Baker hasn’t taken the commuter rail to work since he took office, despite living a short walk from the popular Newburyport/Rockport line.

Some key officials, including Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, partially owe their car habit to their political donors, using campaign money to pay for leases, tolls, and other auto expenses. They said they reimburse their campaigns for these costs in accordance with campaign finance guidelines.

3. The Baker administration undersold the benefits of congestion pricing.

London found some success in limiting auto traffic more than 15 years ago, when it began tolling drivers who enter the city center.

The Baker administration opposes such an initiative: A recent report on Massachusetts traffic threw cold water on the idea, and Baker suggested that London’s “congestion pricing” program hasn’t been effective.


But the report included incorrect information about the size of the congestion zone and suggested the charge hasn’t worked. London officials disputed the Baker characterization, noting the number of vehicles entering the congestion zone has fallen by 30 percent.

They also said the change freed up road space for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders.

Uzoma Okoro rides the 34 bus to Forest Hills Station, along a dedicated bus lane, on the morning commute into Boston.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

4. Among major upgrades needed on the MBTA, buses must be a priority.

The MBTA and city officials say dedicated bus lanes would make the service better. But Boston has implemented less than 3 miles of bus lanes (there are about 10 miles across the region). Compare that to the Seattle area, with about 40 miles, London with 180, or New York with 100.

Moreover, while state officials have called for more bus lanes on local roads, they do not allow buses to run exclusively on highway shoulders that they control. Shoulders are reserved for buses in at least 14 US municipalities.

5. Free or cheap parking influences many commuters to drive.

Employers have a lot of power to shape the transportation landscape with benefit packages that influence how their workers get to the office. But being generous to both drivers and transit riders is unlikely to lead to a big jump in bus or train commuting, while free or cheap parking has overwhelming power and can even counteract the impact of strong transit benefits.


Take some of the big employers in the central parts of Greater Boston, like the biotech giants Biogen and Vertex. Each offers free or highly subsidized benefits for both parking and transit, and each has higher rates of employee driving than many other organizations have.

A city program in Cambridge has influence over employer transportation benefits, but similar programs in Boston and Massachusetts are not as strong.

Jim Kogler, a software company executive from Quincy, heads toward the Neponset River Bridge. He said driving to his job in Cambridge allows him to pick up his children after work. David L Ryan/Globe Staff

6. Without powerful incentives, people are going to opt for their cars.

The car is king for so many commuters — about two-thirds in Greater Boston — because of a set of economic and emotional levers. Once you take out the “sunk costs” of paying for a car and insurance, the day-to-day price of car travel can be comparable to transit. Meanwhile, many commuters simply place a higher premium on the flexibility and privacy that come with a car commute, despite the traffic.

“There’s always been this attitude of independence,” said Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who has studied travel behavior. “I need to do what I want to do when I want to do it . . . in my car, I can sing at the top of my lungs. I can still smoke if I insist on dying young.”

Passengers wait for a Red Line train to stop at Kendall Square Station in Cambridge. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

7. MIT demonstrated how employee commuting habits can be tweaked.

In 2016, MIT made two big changes to cut down on driving to work. First, it made all bus and subway rides free for employees and boosted an already generous subsidy for commuter rail passes. Then it shifted from annual parking permits at many garages to requiring employees to pay a daily rate, with an annual cap.


In effect, MIT forced commuters to more regularly think about whether they wanted to pay to park, or instead take transit cheaply, predicting it would lead to lower demand for parking. And it did: Parking demand at gated garages fell 12 percent.

A man sprints across Congress Street near Government Center before the light changes for traffic on the evening commute. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

8. The most ticketed vehicle in Boston? A UPS truck, with the city’s blessing.

The big brown truck with the license plate R98004 has racked up more than 1,550 parking tickets over the last four years. But UPS, along with nearly 300 other companies, has a deal with Boston: Its vehicles will never be booted, no matter how many parking tickets they accumulate.

UPS argues that the best way to mitigate its trucks’ impact on traffic is to dedicate more personal parking spaces to commercial uses like deliveries.

New York has launched a program to move more deliveries to the overnight hours, but Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is not interested in a similar program, fearing it could be an unwelcome disruption in residential neighborhoods.

One researcher estimates that online purchases, including on-demand food delivery, have increased by 90 percent in the Boston metro area since 2010.

9. In some parts of the city, up to 20 percent of cars are for an on-demand service.

At certain hours in parts of Boston, Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand services flood the streets, according to data from the transportation analytics company StreetLight.


Uber expressed skepticism about the analysis, which was prepared exclusively for the Globe. But still, data made public by Uber and Lyft have spelled out just how ubiquitous ride-hail services have become. There were 42 million trips in Boston in 2018, and during one month that year, about 8 percent of all driving in Suffolk County was by ride-hail drivers.

Uber and Lyft pay a 20-cent fee on each trip in Massachusetts, which is low compared to what they pay in several other US cities. Some lawmakers and Boston officials want to boost the fees, while offering discounts for shared trips to encourage carpooling.

The governor has instead focused on getting more specific data from the companies to understand where and when they cause traffic issues.

10. Self-driving cars could make things worse.

Some experts warn that the unintended consequences of technology and transportation may be heightened by autonomous vehicles. The fear is that robo-cars, even if deployed as autonomous taxis, may just wind up circling city streets as they wait to pick up their next rides.

One expert predicted that introducing 2,000 self-driving cars in San Francisco would slow its street traffic to 2 miles per hour.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.