Opinion

Mike Ross

Boston’s transportation planning can be fun

The Question Truck toured 15 neighborhoods this winter.
Go Boston 2030
The Question Truck toured 15 neighborhoods this winter.

‘Go Boston 2030,” which began last fall, is certainly ambitious — the 18-month community engagement process is designed to fix all that’s wrong with the city’s transportation system. Or at least to figure what needs to be done and how to go about doing it.

The challenge is a serious one, but Boston’s leaders wanted it to begin with some frivolity. During the winter, a fruit-colored vehicle called the Question Truck traveled through 15 neighborhoods to ask people how they envision Boston’s transportation future. Five thousand “donated” questions later — including “Will horses make a comeback?” — the engagement process has moved into its next phase.

Transportation enthusiasts and other community participants recently visited the “Vision Lab,” at the China Trade Center, to strategize about transportation in the future. Among the activities — and I am not making this up — were collage-making and poetry writing. Here’s a poem I came up with:

To fix Boston’s transportation we need an answer; far easier would it be to cure cancer.

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This may all sound far-fetched, but it’s the kind of creative thinking — and public input — we need. Gone are the days when a city engineer slapped a traffic counter on a road and made infrastructure decisions that would affect several generations of residents, based solely on the number of vehicle trips on a certain street. Or worse, when the placement of stop signs was determined by the number of complaints received about particular intersections.

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Today, we are awash in transportation data — from GPS apps to Uber. Anyone with a smartphone has a pretty good idea of the city’s traffic flow and predictable patterns. All of that information, and more, is now available to the people who are charged with figuring out what our transportation needs will be in coming years.

The Go Boston 2030 effort shows that the city may finally be getting serious about planning our comings and goings. Paid for in part by a grant from the Barr Foundation, the project brings two major-league consultants together — the Interaction Institute for Social Change, and Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, a traffic planning firm that recently undertook a similar project for Washington, D.C.

The project will address long-term issues such as whether anticipated MBTA projects like the Urban Ring — a decades long proposal to bring circumferential rapid transit, via buses, to cities and towns in the Boston region — are still what’s needed. But it will also create short-term “Early Action Projects.” Some of these initiatives already are underway: Vision Zero, for instance, aims to end traffic fatalities through “smart” evaluation of roads and by removing hazards that could cause crashes. On some streets, meters that allow you to use a mobile device to add time are being installed to promote better parking management. And a protected bike lane along Commonwealth Avenue will make a dangerous stretch much safer.

For decades, the response to Boston’s lack of real progress in traffic planning has often been something like: “What do you expect? Our roads were built on cow paths, not a traffic grid.” Given today’s technology and innovative thinking, that stock answer no longer holds. We can break the decades of traffic gridlock and — as Go Boston 2030 shows — maybe even have some fun in the process.

Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.

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