Finally, Boston Harbor is getting the attention it deserves as an option for easing the region’s transportation woes. All it took was a massive effort to clean up pollution, the multibillion-dollar removal of an elevated expressway that blocked Bostonians’ view of the water, and a decade or more of mental distance from the dirty old harbor of yore.
Oh, and there’s one more crucial ingredient: lots and lots of people.
Recent residential and commercial development near the waterfront in the Seaport and East Boston — not to mention a slew of other projects still to be built — heralds a huge increase in the number of people living, working, dining, and playing by the water.
This intensification of activity creates new opportunities. Last week, the Pioneer Institute released a white paper on a potential expansion of ferry service. The conservative think tank is better known for pressing the MBTA to streamline its operations, so the report raised eyebrows around town.
But the appeal of more water transportation is hard to deny. It’s flexible and relatively cheap; no bridges or tunnels are required. While ferry service has obvious limits — sorry, landlocked West Roxbury, no boats for you — it’s an easy way to connect some of the fastest-growing parts of the city without forcing people into cars.
“The poster child is the Seaport District,” said Greg Sullivan, Pioneer’s research director. It’s become an expensive, highly desirable area, he said, “but it’s basically being choked by traffic problems.”
For Boston’s first three centuries, the harbor was the city’s most vital transportation asset. The idea that commuters and day-trippers might ever forget about it — much less need to rediscover it — would have boggled the minds of our forebears. But with the construction of highways and high-capacity vehicular bridges, most passenger ferries shut down.
That’s a shame. As Sullivan and coauthor Matt Blackbourn note, the T’s current ferries have solid on-time performance records and require relatively low subsidies. The Hingham ferry spares users six and a half hours of commuting time a week.
For years, though, reports urging a further revival of ferry service sat on the shelf gathering dust.
But suddenly the harbor is looking once more like the front door to the city. The Institute of Contemporary Art, once a lonely cultural outpost in the Seaport, is planning a satellite space in Eastie. The City of Boston and the Trustees of Reservations recently announced plans for a string of new parks along Fort Point Channel. This summer, the owners of Pier 6 in Charlestown and Reel House in East Boston launched what’s being called “the first restaurant-to-restaurant water shuttle in Boston.” More people than ever have occasion to gaze across the water and imagine a boat taking them to the opposite shore.
“I think it’s a huge shift if you’re looking out your window and it’s right there,” said Kathy Abbott, president of the advocacy group Boston Harbor Now.
Her organization is now trying to develop business plans for additional ferry services — connecting, perhaps, North Station to the Seaport. That would help Boston play catch-up in an area that began to fill up with buildings and activity in the absence of adequate transit service.
Especially in an age of diminished expectations and limited budgets, a city seldom functions like a formal dinner, for which an all-knowing host can figure out every last detail before the first guest even arrives. Urban life is usually more of a potluck, where all the guests bring a tray of food. Some forethought is still vital; somebody needs to provide seats, plates, forks, and napkins. But the party only takes shape when enough guests arrive.
The just-add-people principle of urban development applies in other situations, too. If you think the MBTA is already overcrowded and overwhelmed, the prospect of 50,000 new Amazon employees clamoring to use it shouldn’t scare you; it should fill you with hope. Bostonians are too fatalistic about the T. An influx of out-of-towners with engineering minds and a can-do spirit might help free us of our learned helplessness.
Likewise, the push for a North-South Rail Link would only benefit if thousands more commuter ferry passengers disembarked at Long Wharf every morning and yearned for easier connections to other points around the region.
The future of our transportation network will be determined in part by Bostonians who’ve forgotten the harbor’s bad old days, and by new residents who’ve only known it in its current form — as a scenic corridor that, by the way, can also handle many more boats.