Boston Traffic Sucks—Here’s How to Fix It

Our highways are stressful, infuriating, and among the most congested in the world. But everything you thought you knew about traffic—and how to fix it—is wrong.

As most commuters know, the worst part of rush hour is the 9 to 12 miles of road leading into the city from every direction. That’s mostly the domain of the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to hustle traffic through the city’s 859 signaled intersections and, in general, keep things moving. The cheapest way to do this on city streets is by literally green-lighting problematic arteries when they get jammed up. That means monkeying with the timing of lights and, in some cases, actually switching the timing by hand in the field.

Like benevolent traffic gods, the BTD’s engineers use their network of cameras around the city to monitor the flow of cars and identify traffic problems. On a single color-coded map, they watch to see whether traffic is blithely flowing (green), whether it’s beginning to snag (yellow), or whether drivers are fantasizing about taking a flamethrower to the whole city (red). They have the power to control 562 signals in the city, and can open the gates wide when they need to. As with the highways, you can’t build your way out of this problem, declares John DeBenedictis, the BTD’s director of engineering. “Volume and capacity are the issue,” he says. “We only have so much capacity.”

Lack of traffic-management foresight coupled with uncoordinated development has led to brand-new headaches for the BTD. Jams to and from the Seaport District are so bad, in fact, that the city is considering replacing the old Northern Avenue Bridge—a steel structure that many urbanists dreamed would become a park and pedestrian crossing—with a new vehicular bridge that would continue Northern Avenue, which runs in front of the Moakley Courthouse, straight over to Atlantic Avenue. U.S. Representative Stephen Lynch, in advocating for the project, complained last year about getting stuck in such bad traffic that it took him 40 minutes to get from South Boston to City Hall. “I could have walked it,” he said, unironically.

One of the worst consequences of that kind of congestion, of course, is the human cost. In 2016, there were 903 vehicle crashes in Boston requiring Emergency Medical Services, according to Brendan Kearney, of the pedestrian advocacy group WalkBoston. On January 17, 2017, alone, drivers hit nine pedestrians, including one in a wheelchair. The Boston Herald called it “a striking level of carnage.” The associated costs of these incidents are astounding, and dwarf the finances of congestion. In 2012, the BTD estimated that each auto crash costs $3,387 in property damage, another $20,085 if there’s an injury, and $4,502,544 if there’s a death. That means the 23 fatalities in 2015 totaled more than $103 million. To battle these disturbing statistics, Mayor Marty Walsh in 2015 established Boston’s Vision Zero Task Force, which advocates for safety measures such as road diets (lane reductions to slow down cars), speed bumps, and timing lights to prioritize foot traffic. The group has an important job, but it’s woefully underfunded, receiving only $3 million a year from the city.

These competing interests—speeding things up to keep traffic and the economy flowing, and slowing things down to save lives—have created a culture war on the streets. To Kearney, the solution is clear. “It’s been many years of just shoving through single-occupancy vehicles,” he says. “We need to get away from thinking about the number of cars we can push through an intersection.” Yet without additional investment in Vision Zero infrastructure, Boston’s car commuters, pedestrians, bikers, bus drivers, and delivery people are left to wage a deadly battle for space on the city’s narrow and poorly laid-out roads.


It’s not clear if or when things will improve. High real estate costs are pushing people farther out, beyond 128 and 495. Without options, they’re stuck driving, burning billions of gallons of fuel each year. Population growth will only add kindling to this particular fire. “We are projecting through 2030 about a 5 percent increase in miles traveled over the next 15 years,” says Vineet Gupta, director of planning at the BTD. “That’s mainly due to an increase in population in the city as well as an increase in jobs and economic activity.”

Some say technology will save us. Robin Chase, cofounder of Boston-based Zipcar, argues that shared autonomous cars can liberate us from our hellish, polluted world. Ofsevit, the traffic scholar, isn’t convinced. If you lower the bar for entry, he argues, everyone’s going to want door-to-door service all the time. “Right now, parking garages distribute traffic out on the street,” he says. But when everyone demands front-door service, the whole thing will grind to a halt. “It’s like when you go to an elementary school at pickup time. Everyone’s trying to get through.” He fears that a good number of the 500,000 people who currently take public transportation, walk, or ride bikes to work each day may opt to take an autonomous vehicle instead. That’ll leave us with the same old problem: too little real estate for too many cars heading for the same places.

Some traffic experts advocate the stick approach: Raise parking prices in the city and tax drivers to fund and incentivize alternative modes of transportation. This might sound cruel, but the lack of access to public transportation in many parts of the region is only adding misery to everyone’s daily commute. Indeed, if people had more dignified and faster options for getting around, they’d definitely take them, leaving the highways clear for others.

Consider Columbus Avenue, which crawls bumper to bumper every morning, turning what should be a short drive into a tedious, costly slog. A significant chunk—just about half—of Boston’s workforce lives south of downtown in the relatively affordable neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and Roslindale. Unfortunately, that affordability is due in part to a lack of efficient, dedicated public transportation: The Orange Line goes only as far as Forest Hills, while the Red Line hugs the coast.

Other solutions involve improving the efficiency and capacity of existing transit. Everett, for example, created a rapid-transit lane along Broadway that allows buses to zip along while cars sit in traffic. This could be a game-changer in Dorchester: A single rush-hour ride on a city bus without dedicated lanes will show you why an astounding 84 percent of the neighborhood’s 58,000-plus workers travel alone in their cars. The long-awaited Green Line Extension, a projected $2.3 billion investment, will make a major dent in the number of cars on the road and will certainly raise Somerville’s real estate values—if it’s ever built.

Fortunately, a new movement is afoot, one that prioritizes moving people rather than cars. In March, the city rolled out Go Boston 2030, a $4.7 billion transportation plan with an ambitious target of decreasing single-passenger commuting by half and increasing public transit use by a third over the next 13 years. How will they do it? By building a network of multi-modal streets, pursuing rapid bus transit, and working toward more-equitable transportation access.

Those goals are shared by local transportation advocates. WalkBoston’s Kearney, for one, believes many of the city’s intersections offer opportunities to prioritize increasing mobility over moving cars. At Park Street, “the sheer number of [pedestrians] is so much greater than the number of vehicles going down Tremont,” he says. “Those light cycles should be shorter. Instead of waiting a minute and a half and then getting a long pedestrian walk signal, why not cut that to 60 seconds, or 45 seconds?”

Half the people traveling along the Huntington Avenue corridor, meanwhile, are using public transportation, but only 2 percent of the vehicles on the road are Green Line trolleys or MBTA buses. “We should give them 50 percent of the space,” explains Peter Furth, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University, “so they’re protected from the congestion.”

In other words: A packed bus moving 50 people should get priority over a car carrying just one. Trains shuttling thousands of people into the city should get priority over single-occupancy vehicles. Investments like these will have a profound effect on our traffic nightmare, but the truth is, fundamentally changing the way we think about traffic will require unprecedented political will as we make difficult decisions about how to pay for these improvements, both financially and in space on the streets.

Until then, though, you’ll rise before the sun, grab your travel mug, and hop in the car, hoping that today will be a little better than yesterday—just like millions of other road warriors. The commute, it seems, truly has no end.

Additional reporting by Valerie Vande Panne.