The End of the Road

Boston has a long history of ruining itself to make room for drivers and their infernal cars. It’s time to start taking back our streets.

Good news: The enormous parking garage near Haymarket—the 2,310-spot concrete monstrosity erected as part of the Government Center “urban renewal” project—is reportedly up for sale, and may ultimately be razed. If this happens, we should all go over there and pound the rubble with our shoes, the way the Iraqis did when that Saddam statue came down.

The obliteration of this architectural horror would mark a long-overdue reversal—a brief reprieve from the tyranny of the automobile. For all the talk of Boston being a “walking city,” we’ve gone to staggering lengths to make the place more car-friendly through the years, bulldozing countless gorgeous old buildings to accommodate drab garages, cutting a nasty gash through the middle of town to build the Central Artery, and tearing up the tracks of highly efficient trolleys to make way for a bright and glorious future of congestion, smog, rage, and traffic fatalities.

Those of us who do opt to get around on foot must endure the noise, the stink, and the ever present possibility that stepping off the curb could result in being dashed into a fetid rain of meat confetti. And if you think you can play it safe and not cross the road at all, think again. As an April headline told us: “Boston police fire on SUV for driving on the sidewalk.” Even if you discount the bullets, the conjunction of the words “SUV” and “sidewalk” indicates something’s gone awry.

A handful of people have offered ideas for easing traffic woes in the city, from a London-style commuter fee to a surcharge for suburban drivers who cause accidents in town. One guy in Cambridge even painted a happy blue mural in the middle of a busy intersection outside Huron Village to “calm” drivers. But all of this misses the point. We don’t need to slow people down or hit them with new fees. We need to start getting rid of motor vehicles altogether. It’s time to create at least one car-free throughway in every neighborhood in town. Pronto.

I recognize that suggesting such a thing is akin to eating peanut butter off a crucifix. Bostonians, as Americans, view driving as a God-given right, on par with the right to cultivate morbidly obese children and then sue Coke for it. But there are precedents. Memorial Drive in Cambridge is closed to traffic on Sundays from late April to mid-November, transforming the raging throughway into an Elysian field, only paved, where skateboarders, sunbathers, and squirrels frolic with the blithe assurance that, at least for the moment, they can do so without being killed by a speeding UPS truck. Elsewhere, places like Bogotá, Colombia, and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, have created car-free zones. If the Belgians can do it, so can we.

Before the you’ll-have-to-pry-the-steering-wheel-from-my-cold-dead-fingers crowd starts sending me hate mail—I’m not the only person suggesting this. The nonprofit LivableStreets Alliance has been working to reshape notions of how cars, people, and public transit should coexist. The Franklin Park Coalition has been lobbying for a traffic ban in that park on weekends. In October a chunk of Storrow Drive was closed off for a Hub on Wheels bike ride.

More promising still, Boston City Councilor Sal LaMattina recently proposed converting Hanover Street in the North End to a pedestrian mall. The idea, endorsed by the mayor, calls for the strip to go car-free during weekends in the summer, transforming it into an Italian-style piazza. If that works, they’ll make it permanent.

Others, meanwhile, are taking up the opposite side of the debate. In September the Boston Redevelopment Authority commissioned the Toronto-based Urban Marketing Collaborative to rebrand the blighted Downtown Crossing area; preliminary suggestions include reintroducing cars into the district. Weirdly, the lefty Globe has rallied in favor of more traffic. A recent op-ed, for instance, quoted the paper’s architecture critic, Robert Campbell: “Many of us, if asked, will say we prefer ‘open space’ to streets. But we’re far more likely to be saying this while sitting at a sidewalk café on Newbury Street than picnicking on Boston Common.” The problem with this argument is that it’s built on rickety logic—the implication being that we go to Newbury Street because of the traffic, rather than in spite of it. (Also: picnicking?)

Fact is, the reason Downtown Crossing has hit the skids has less to do with the absence of gridlock than the grim, low-rent atmosphere that hangs over the place. Actually, you could argue that, in terms of foot traffic, the Crossing has been a success. On weekends it’s wall-to-wall humanity—albeit not the kind of humanity Globe editorialists tend to mingle with.

The Newb, for its part, is already one of the city’s most popular streets, and its appeal will only grow if people are allowed to walk down it without being run over, elbowed by trundling tourists, or suffocated by the toxic cologne clouds that hang over the packed sidewalks. You’d get more foot traffic, but it would seem like less. Restaurants could expand outdoor seating. Instead of the intermingling, migraine-causing bass lines of passing cars, you could have live musicians. Sure, we’d lose the valet parking, and the posh set might wail and rend their Armani garments at the thought of having to walk an extra block, but that would be kind of funny to watch, in a class-warfare sort of way.

Of course, this idea will require a snout-to-tail overhaul of our public transit system, along with a major infusion of funds. But if the city is made less car-friendly, the T will see an increase in riders, and therefore revenues. And with more riders comes more political pressure to transform the T into the modern, efficient system the city deserves, as opposed to something you’d find at the Ninth Circle of Hell’s eBay store.

No doubt it will take time to disabuse people of the notion that car ownership is a precondition for happy and rewarding urban life, but we need to keep plugging away. Once Hanover and Newbury streets are secured, we should move on to the new development at Fort Point, then Charles Street, maybe knock off a couple of blocks in the South End. Should any of these areas suddenly become desolate, pedestrian-free wastelands, I’ll admit defeat and treat Robert Campbell to a coffee drink of his choice, to be sipped beside the Mass. Pike at rush hour.

It’ll be a bastard to pull off. It’ll require a lot of political will. It’ll raise an unholy stink from drivers, but the incessant demands of motorists are what got us to where we are today. Boston wants to be known as a progressive city, a city with big ideas. If nothing else, a serious push to reclaim the city for pedestrians would get us the world’s attention, and maybe spark similar reforms in other gridlocked, smog-filled American cities. They’d call it the “Boston Model” of urban development (sorry, Bogotá). And if all this makes driving around the city more difficult, so be it. Boston’s a city. If you like driving so much, move to Framingham. I hear there’s plenty of parking.