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Editorial

Traffic takes its toll on Boston

A new study ranks Boston as having the worst traffic in the nation.
A new study ranks Boston as having the worst traffic in the nation.(KEITH BEDFORD/GLOBE STAFF/FILE)

OK, maybe Boston doesn’t really have the nation’s worst traffic. Maybe the metric used by INRIX, which gave the city that dubious distinction in a study released Tuesday, is the wrong way to measure gridlock, as the Baker administration maintains.

But let’s not kid ourselves. However it’s measured, however you define congestion, it’s bad.

“We’re not good. We’re not denying that,” said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.

So what can we do? Of course, every motorist knows the best fix: other drivers just need to drive less, and quit driving during rush hour.

In the meantime, there are also some steps policy makers can take.

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The state is in the process of analyzing congestion choke points, and Pollack says MassDOT is already considering some immediate changes. For instance, it wants to schedule more roadwork at off-peak hours and clear traffic accidents more quickly.

When roads are so congested, Pollack says, if “something goes wrong, there’s a crash, there’s a police action, the whole commute gets messed up.” Pollack says a frequent complaint from drivers is unpredictability: A trip that takes 30 minutes one day can take 90 the next, a swing that clearing up accidents faster might mitigate.

Every bit helps. But the city’s traffic problems are more deeply rooted. Boston is growing, but its size isn’t, cramming more and more people onto an antique street grid and maxed-out roads. Even if adding highway lanes would help, there might not be anywhere to put them.

Certainly an obvious priority is for the state to provide a public transit alternative that is fast, reliable, and affordable. Improving the T has been a goal of the Baker administration, and cities in Greater Boston — Everett in particular — have stepped up too. While the state continues to invest in buses and trains, it can’t do everything: More towns and cities ought to ease the way for dedicated bus lanes on streets under their control and support other transit improvements. They should also support transit-oriented development.

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Still, for many commuters, the T isn’t going to become a viable option anytime soon, especially as expensive housing pushes workers further away from the city and its transit network. Tackling traffic also means making better use of the roads we have.

One low-tech, low-cost option is more carpooling. Carpooling requires being polite to strangers, but it also reduces traffic. According to federal statistics, 7.5 percent of state commuters carpool, below the national average of 9.2 percent. A webpage at Mass.gov connects commuters to carpool and vanpool options.

The state could also take a harder look at using variable tolling to manage traffic flow. By providing a financial incentive for drivers to commute at off-peak times, congestion pricing could reduce peak traffic. The state could institute congestion tolling on the Tobin Bridge or the Mass. Pike itself, but would require a federal waiver to introduce it on other interstates.

Tolling is unpopular, and Pollack is skeptical of its value as a traffic tool. If the dreadful traffic conditions today don’t convince commuters to drive off-peak, she argues, an extra dime probably wouldn’t either. The state’s emphasis, she said, is on creating good options.

But not every driver — not even a majority of them — have to respond to the signals congestion pricing would send for the system to make a difference. Just moving a portion of the peak would help. It needn’t be either/or: Congestion tolling can work in concert with the other transportation options Pollack wants to create, and even help pay for them.

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The INRIX study based its rankings on travel speed, while the state measures the system’s performance by overall trip times. But both metrics would improve if more commuters rode the T, carpooled, or drove at off-peak hours. Creating incentives for them to do so should get Boston’s numbers moving in the right direction.