The City of Boston wants residents to walk, bike, or take transit. But somehow, the parking-industrial complex still gets its demands addressed first.
This past week, Mayor Martin J. Walsh launched Go Boston 2030, an ambitious new transportation plan that, among other things, calls for an overhaul of all bus routes, a citywide “green links network” of bike and walking paths, and various “complete streets” projects to retrofit major thoroughfares for use by pedestrians and cyclists, not just drivers. The plan is a tour de force of 21st-century thinking about urban transport — and offers a realistic strategy to move more people faster through Boston’s quirky old neighborhoods.
Yet over in the Seaport District, a vast new commercial and residential hub that’s being built from scratch right now, the facts on the ground point in a far different direction.
As the Globe’s Jon Chesto recently reported, plans are underway for 2,100 new parking spaces in the Seaport. City Hall is looking to hire an engineering firm to design a 550-space addition to a garage in the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Industrial Park. Not far away, the Massachusetts Port Authority has already begun construction of a $85 million, 1,550-space garage near the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
Yet grinding traffic in the afternoon rush hour suggests that the Seaport street network can barely handle the number of cars now using it. Meanwhile, the MBTA Silver Line, the bus rapid transit service that runs parallel to the waterfront, is overcrowded. Replacement buses are hard to come by. The current buses get hung up at traffic lights and in general traffic on highway ramps.
Transit improvements and parking structures aren’t mutually exclusive. If Massport and City Hall canceled their garages tomorrow, it wouldn’t speed up the Silver Line.
What’s troubling is that, as the Seaport rises amid a nationwide urban renaissance, and as the likes of General Electric and Reebok forsake the suburbs, Boston’s new nerve center on the waterfront relies so heavily on cars. On the doorstep of a bustling downtown served by the nation’s oldest subway system, we’re re-creating car-focused cities like Houston or Phoenix.
Things could get even worse. Elsewhere in the Seaport, the city is under pressure to allow general vehicular travel on any refurbished Northern Avenue bridge, in spite of the fact that there’s no hard data to support the need. There are proposals afoot to open the South Boston Bypass Road, a dedicated way for cabs and big trucks, for use by regular cars.
The danger here is induced demand — the possibility that providing more roads just leads to bigger traffic jams. Transportation planners fret about this scenario all the time. But the driving-industrial complex lurches forward anyway.
On the upside, the Go Boston action plan includes some intriguing transit solutions for the Seaport: for instance, an express bus from North Station and an expanded Inner Harbor ferry service. These initiatives would build on current efforts by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and the Seaport Transportation Management Association to consolidate the swarm of private corporate shuttles that bring employees from the subway to the waterfront.
But for some reason, we accept that transit improvements will always take forever. If all goes as expected, the Marine Industrial Park garage, which has yet to be designed, will be complete by the end of 2018. In contrast, Go Boston describes a time frame of five to 15 years for the ferry and bus projects. Even a protected bike lane along Summer Street has a listed time frame of up to five years.
We need to think bigger. In 2015, Seattle voters approved an ambitious transportation plan predicated on the West Coast tech hub’s inability to absorb more rush-hour car traffic. (“Just a fundamental fact of geometry,” as that city’s transportation director, Scott Kubly, put it at a Go Boston kickoff event Tuesday.) There was a nine-year, $930 million levy attached.
Likewise, the transportation system can only improve so much in the Seaport, or anywhere else in Boston, if there’s extra money involved. If progress on transit in the Seaport has lagged the pace of development, Massport chief Thomas Glynn argues in an interview, it’s a legacy of the long backlash against the mythical “Taxachusetts.” He’s right.
Bostonians benefit immensely from the foresight of yesterday’s civic leaders, who raced New York to build railways underground. Today, change doesn’t stop just because we can’t bring ourselves to pay for it.
Land owners, property developers, and prospective Seaport employers won’t sit around waiting to see if the transit system improves. (After all, who knows how long that’ll take?) Commuting habits are already forming. Go Boston needs money. And the Seaport needs a transit intervention — before the gridlock-industrial complex shapes the neighborhood in ways that future Bostonians will never be able to fix.