Mayor Marty Walsh keeps issuing slick, ambitious plans that herald a greener, less auto-dependent Boston. But somehow, the city just missed another chance to bring them closer to reality.
This month, crews resurfaced a wide stretch of Congress Street that, according to the transportation plan Go Boston 2030, is supposed to get protected bus and bike lanes in the future. But instead of putting the six-lane roadway on a diet now, the project preserved Congress Street in its current form — only with fresher paint and asphalt.
That’s a convenience, I guess, for drivers who glide smoothly southward along Congress between City Hall and Faneuil Hall and then step on the gas at State Street as a yellow light turns red. (It happens all the time. I’ve watched.) But even at the height of summer, when locals are on the beach and downtown Boston is crawling with tourists, this part of Congress Street is still a lousy place to walk and a scary place to ride a bike. Walsh ought to know that, since it’s right outside his office window.
Go Boston 2030, Imagine Boston 2030, Climate Ready Boston — none of these documents can come to fruition unless Boston reclaims some space from single-occupant cars. The sooner Walsh and his administration get used to that idea, the better.
Congress Street is just one modest project, but it speaks to how the bureaucracy is internalizing the city’s stated goals — or not. Adding a bike lane there was a five-year goal in a bike plan issued by the Boston Transportation Department in 2013, notes Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union. Walsh’s Go Boston plan pushes back that deadline, perhaps for a decade or more. “Planning documents just buy more time for planning,” Wolfson says, “without making any changes on the ground.”
Congress Street isn’t the only opportunity that the city has let pass. In Charlestown, Rutherford Avenue evolved over the years into a forbidding highway-like thoroughfare with high-capacity underpasses. A Tom Menino-era proposal would have reconfigured it as a surface street and freed up land for parks and transit-oriented development. In the last few months, the Walsh administration has set that plan aside and intends to build underpasses anew.
“The mayor just has not emotionally and intellectually embraced what his administration is publishing,” says Ivey St. John, a longtime Charlestown resident involved in the earlier design.
In an interview, deputy transportation commissioner James Gillooly stresses that the new Rutherford Avenue won’t just re-create the status quo — there’ll be bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly traffic light cycles, and better connections to the Charlestown street grid. He also says the traffic studies justifying the Menino approach were conducted when lots of people were out of work and gasoline cost $4 a gallon.
Still, public-works decisions aren’t mere engineering problems. They’re also value judgments. In 2017, should the city commit itself to car-focused infrastructure that is predicated on cheap gas and cuts against other public priorities?
To his credit, Walsh has pushed a lower speed limit and variable parking meter costs. But Boston is still antsier than Cambridge and Somerville about taking back travel lanes and parking spaces from private cars. For a pilot initiative in December, city officials in Everett boldly banned parking along a stretch of Broadway during rush hour to cut travel times for MBTA buses. Go Boston contemplates a similar approach along Washington Street in Roslindale. The stated time frame? Up to five years.
Boston can do better. The model for visionary leadership in this area is Janette Sadik-Khan, the pioneering former New York transportation chief who saw the need to reinvent urban streetscapes for 21st-century purposes. Yet when Sadik-Khan laid down bike lanes and took vehicular traffic out of Times Square, she also had firm support from then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire emigre from Medford who had a clear vision for modernizing the nation’s largest city and didn’t mind taking heat.
Walsh, a former construction union chief, is Bloomberg’s antithesis in many ways. Precisely because of his background, though, Walsh can be an effective conciliator between an earlier Boston, forged when residents were fleeing by the thousands, and the present-day city, where the central challenge is how to accommodate growth while promoting greater prosperity for everyone. One way to meet that challenge is to give a lower priority to $25,000 metal boxes and make more room for alternative transportation, parks, housing, and other public uses.
When Boston plans street changes without swiftly delivering them, it’s like when a car-rental company takes reservations without actually holding enough vehicles. “That’s really the most important part of the reservation: the holding,” Jerry Seinfeld’s character famously complained. “Anybody can just take them.” (Let’s hope Walsh, a hardcore “Seinfeld” fan, has seen that episode.)
Likewise, anybody can embrace buzzwords like “Vision Zero” and “complete streets” as eventual goals. But Walsh’s administration has to be judged by whether it integrates those ideas into the work it’s doing right now — including on Congress Street, where six lanes of cars whiz by, just as they always have.