Boston and Olympic-bid rival Hamburg, Germany, are twins on many levels. They both have a rich mercantile port history and today are prosperous technology hubs with glittering waterfront districts and regional populations of about five million each.
But when it comes to transportation and the Olympic bid, the MBTA stands no chance against Hamburg’s transportation system.
Hamburg subways routinely arrive every five minutes as promised and buses roll through even low-income immigrant neighborhoods with stunning frequency. It is a stark contrast to the shamefully common rush-hour waits for the Orange Line, the sardine-can Red Line and dreaded delay announcements for medical emergencies, switch problems, and disabled trains.
But rather than this being a white flag for Boston’s Olympic bid, it should stir urgency. Every day that leaders bicker over the MBTA is a day Hamburg pulls away even more.
While the MBTA has a maintenance backlog of nearly $7 billion, Hamburg has new subway lines planned out to 2040 because of consistent and robust local and federal investment going back to a 1960s raising of the gas tax. According to Virginia Tech urban planning professor Ralph Buehler, Hamburg also boosted confidence in public transportation by being the first region in Germany in 1967 to coordinate timetables and unify fares across all forms of transit.
“The philosophy of transit operators was, ‘How can we mimic the car?’” said Buehler. “They wrestled with the idea of getting as close to car-like, door-to-door service as they could with trains and buses.”
Christopher Kopper, a transportation historian at the University of Bielefeld, said German planners consciously fought back at the “Los Angelization” of American cities not just by boosting public transport, but by making driving less attractive in city cores with street calming and higher parking fees.
Boston area commuters are trying mightily to vote for equal footing with cars with record ridership despite the T’s chaotic service, and dramatic growth in bike riding despite dangerous streets. The 51 percent of Boston residents who use public transportation, or walk or bike to work is not far behind Hamburg’s 58 percent.
But there is a major gulf when comparing metro areas. While greater Hamburg’s well-rounded modes of regional transportation keep car commuting at 54 percent, Boston’s car use zooms to 77 percent, according to federal data.
That last figure may be the most important, and most alarming of all for any sober assessment of Boston’s Olympic bid. After stunningly low public support for the “walkable,” subway-centric Olympics, including outright local rejection of beach volleyball on Boston Common, new venues far from Boston’s core, including Billerica and New Bedford/Fall River, are rapidly reshaping the bid into the Commuter Rail Olympics.
For now, that is a laughable thought, given the $4 million in fines in 10 months for new commuter rail operator Keolis for late and dingy trains. Antiquated trains are slow in both winter’s cold and summer’s heat, a level of unreliability that keeps too many commuters in cars. And the trains that do run are often so packed at rush hour that passengers must stand. In a Globe story this month, rush-hour rider John Carulli of Southborough said, “I feel like I’m in the Dark Ages on these trains. I haven’t sat down in this train for a year.”
Boston 2024’s new scramble for regional venues is also ironic, because back in February, organizers claimed to the Globe that the original “walkable” games only required the anticipated 2018 arrival of more new Orange and Red Line subway cars. Back then, Boston 2024 CEO Rich Davey boasted that as far as public transit went, “That must-do list is already done.”
If Boston 2024 does not want to be laughed off the Olympic stage, the must-do list must include lobbying Beacon Hill for immediate regional transportation investment beyond federal dollars, such as the much talked-about South Coast Rail. “Boston would be a terrific place for the Olympics, but we’re in an environment where if you’re not investing in transportation infrastructure, you’re not moving forward,” said Charles Knutson, senior policy adviser to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee.
That state, with bipartisan support, is seriously considering a 12-cent rise in the gas tax for roads and transit. “What struck me most about Hamburg and lots of Europe is they’ve moved beyond the modal wars, urban vs. rural, roads vs. transit,” Knutson added. “They want it all, roads, pedestrian safety, transit, bikes. They made a decision and moved on.”
Seconding that was Hamburg’s head of transport and roads, Martin Huber, who said, “We’re not here to make cars disappear, but we want good conditions for everybody.”
That is the challenge for Massachusetts, to create good conditions for everybody. Nine years remain before the Olympics. It is impossible for Boston to replicate what took Hamburg a half century to construct. But Boston can build for the next half century. It may or may not get the Olympics. But if the city can remain competitive on the world stage for decades to come, if it goes for the gold medal in public transportation.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.