How to Save Transportation in Boston: Cars
From imposing a tax on paid parking facilities to putting an end to distracted driving—Bostonians dish on how to fix the city's relentless traffic.
Additional reporting by Spencer Buell, Jacqueline Cain, Brittany Jasnoff, and Alyssa Vaughn.
Strategic Congestion Pricing
Chairman and CEO, Suffolk Construction
When you think about ways to address the problem, to me congestion pricing is the lesser of multiple evils that are out there. It’s least impactful to the public. The people who will be taxed for transporting during the high-peak hours are the ones who are actually using the roads and causing a lot of the challenges.
In London, people say that congestion is down by 15 percent with congestion pricing, and greenhouse gas emissions are down by 16 percent. In Stockholm, traffic congestion has decreased by 22 percent, and childhood asthma attacks have dropped 50 percent. New York just approved congestion pricing, and I believe the result will be equal to, if not better than, Stockholm or London.
In Boston, the impact will be substantially higher. I think data modeling will prove that this solution will have the biggest impact on congestion per dollar spent, or should I say per dollar invested. And I feel strongly that it will not have an impact on commerce. At the end of the day, it’s about being smart.
Tax Garage Parking
Technical advocacy director, TransitMatters
If you want to park your body at a hotel in Boston, you pay a state occupancy tax; if you park your car in a parking space, you don’t. All the money goes to the garage, and none of it goes to the city. We can change that.
Boston is pretty much the only major city in the U.S. that doesn’t tax paid parking facilities. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, DC, Miami, Pittsburgh, and other cities all tax parking at a rate of 15 to 25 percent, and, in the case of Chicago, up to 40 percent. That is money that can then be put toward additional transit, or biking and walking facilities—things that make it easier for people not to drive.
All that’s required is a state home rule law that Boston has filed; if that were passed, cities and towns could pass commercial parking fees. I estimate that a 20 percent tax would generate more than $100 million a year. And in the long run, it’s a way of prompting larger developers who own surface parking lots and garages in the city to replace those empty holes with offices or housing.
An Attitude Adjustment for Massholes
Personal driver, Kenny’s Car
As a driver, you want to keep your speed down, naturally, for the safety of your clients, and you can’t get into road rage.
I drive historian David McCullough all the time. He told me one time, “Pal, you never get rattled. I see people pulling out in front of you, jaywalkers, this, that. You never do.” But if you’re out in traffic all the time like I am, you have to go out with that mindset. Don’t get aggravated. Don’t get frustrated. Turn that music on and start singing at the top of your lungs and just give it a good one. Make the best out of it! Call someone. Do books on tape. If I’m really gridlocked, I pull out a little slideshow on my phone of my favorite place, Boothbay Harbor, and just kind of daydream.
Back when Michael Dukakis was governor, they used to have these bumper stickers: “A little courtesy won’t kill you.” I want to tell Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, bring those back, and you know what, have a little smiley face and a little thumbs-up. Just as a reminder.
Make Drivers Suffer
Political commentator, NECN
We need to make it incredibly punitive to drive a gas car, both for our mobility and for our climate. We need to close parts of the city to regular car traffic—parts of Boston, Cambridge, and elsewhere. We need to have higher fees for having cars, and a limit on how many cars a household or person can have. And we need to look at ways to automatically toll people for driving: If you drive a certain number of miles, you need to pay for that. That revenue can go into the cities, region, or state to make the roads more accessible to pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, and other public transport.
Obviously, the wealthier, more affluent, privileged folks have to shoulder more of the responsibility for this. So there would be tax breaks, or income-based qualifications, so that the people at the lowest rungs are not negatively affected in their ability to get to their jobs and take care of their kids. But we have to make pedestrians number one again. Then, any vehicle that is moving multiple people. If we put pedestrians first, make it harder to drive your car, and make mass transit free, we’ll save the world.
Fill in the After-Hours Gaps
Eastern Standard is a late-night restaurant. So in the past, I paid for certain people’s cab rides to have a reliable workforce after public transportation stopped running. In June, we partnered with Lyft to launch the Lyft Service Worker Access Program, and my people have used the service more than 1,100 times. It’s been hugely successful at three of my restaurants, and has since been expanded to five other venues in the city. For rides from the restaurant to their home between midnight and 5 a.m., Lyft pays a third, the employee pays a third, and I pay a third. It’s pretty easy, and my people are getting home safely. That’s another problem you don’t hear about in the restaurant business: We’ve had multiple cooks over the past couple of years who’ve been jumped, mugged, or stabbed. They’re traveling at that time of night when there’s bad stuff happening.
At one point, Mayor Marty Walsh was going to activate certain MBTA routes for 24 hours. I haven’t heard whether or not that was considered a success. I guess not. It got shelved. If the city were more vibrant late at night, there’d obviously be more economic pressure to figure out how to move people around or get them to work. But city regulations aren’t generally late-night-friendly. At the Hawthorne, I can’t even have candles on the tables after 11 o’clock.
Autonomous Cars for All
President, Emerson College
We know that there are a number of incentives that we can use to reduce congestion. One is through demand and congestion pricing; another is an increased tax on gasoline. We also know that the future of transportation is electrification and decarbonization. All cities should be moving toward an electric fleet and increasing charging stations within their jurisdiction.
We are moving in the direction of autonomous vehicles, and when we reach a critical mass, there won’t be a need for us to own cars. We will subscribe to an autonomous driving service that will pick us up and take us where we need to go, and that will reduce congestion and redundancy in transportation. When there’s a subscription service to autonomous driving, you won’t even need parking garages, because those cars will be in service 24 hours a day—and those cars will be electric, so they will decarbonize our environment. It’s three decades away, but we’re moving in that direction.
Director, Transportation for Massachusetts
Massachusetts should pilot smart tolling to reduce congestion on our existing toll roads, beginning by charging more to cross the Tobin Bridge during peak traffic hours and less at other times. Of the 10 most populous metropolitan areas in the United States, Greater Boston is the only one that does not have some version of variable pricing on at least some of its toll roads. It’s long past time that we caught up with those other regions that are using this technique to better manage traffic congestion.
When Seattle put smarter tolling on the SR 520 bridge, which is very similar to the Tobin Bridge, traffic volume reduced by 34 percent—and bus ridership on that bridge increased by 38 percent. They are moving people in fewer vehicles. Meanwhile, the Tobin Bridge gets jammed up for hours every day. Smarter tolling can get traffic moving more quickly, which benefits everyone who is using that road. It’s different from the cordon pricing used by London and that New York is about to implement, where you draw a ring around an area of the city and charge to drive into that ring. That has long-term benefits, but would take a long time to implement; in Boston, we could pilot smart tolling in a matter of weeks, not years. All of the infrastructure and technology is in place. The ability to charge different amounts at different times was designed into the MassDOT tolling system. We’ve just never turned it on. All we need to do is put up a couple of electronic signs along the highway telling people what they’re paying.
Ernie Boch Jr. Fix the Potholes
Ernie Boch Jr.
CEO and president, Boch Enterprises
I would put a big effort into the physical roads; they could use a little help. I think we have too many potholes. Anybody with a really nice car, a car that drives low, has to really pick their lane or pick their route when they drive around, because you could crash those cars very easily. And it’s not just really nice cars—you could trash a Prius going from Boston to the suburbs if the roads are bad. Now, fixing potholes would not fix the crisis. It would just make for a more pleasant experience. But if you’ve got to be on the expressway, and it’s bumper to bumper, at least give me a smooth ride.
Get Cars off the Road
Traffic reporter, WBZ NewsRadio
From 900 feet in the air, I marvel at how people are able to put up with the traffic day after day, especially going into Boston. It’s amazing that more people don’t lose their minds sitting in that.
One thing that’s become very obvious in this day and age, with the skyrocketing cost and scarcity of real estate inside of Route 128, is we’re never going to see another major highway built in the city. Most cities have given up on that idea. So building our way out of the problem in terms of more roads is not really a viable solution. If you can’t add roads, then you have to subtract cars somehow. Employers should be coming up with ways to either help their employees work from home or help them defray the cost of a monthly MBTA pass. Is there a way to create more incentives for businesses to say, “You know, it would be really nice if we had our workers ready to work on time, and they’re not on the edge of a meltdown because they just sat in traffic for over two hours”? I would think that has some kind of value to an employer, to have happy workers who are ready to do what they’re supposed to be doing on time.
Get the Worcester-to-Boston Connection Right
Director of government transparency, Pioneer Institute
The I-90 viaduct replacement project is a great opportunity to improve the movement of tens of thousands of people coming to Boston from the west—but it must be done in a way that minimizes disruption and makes good to those affected.
The current plan would sink the turnpike 6 feet or so, elevate Soldiers Field Road, create a new station for the Worcester commuter-rail line, and improve pedestrian and bicycle access. They say it’s an eight- to 10-year project, and it could take longer. During the construction, the turnpike will go from four lanes to three or even two. The commuter rail will go from two tracks to one at some points. That will slow down people coming into Boston every day—and have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods in Allston and Brighton, as people get off the Pike to avoid this. Instead, the state should reconsider lowering the turnpike, because building at grade would be a faster production cycle than doing another elevated structure. And doing this project as quickly as possible will reduce this massive disruption.
The inconvenience of turnpike construction will be a huge opportunity for the MBTA and MassDOT to get people off the road and onto that Worcester line. But if it isn’t providing better service, it will be an opportunity missed. They should expand commuter-rail service during construction, and never go down to a single track. Also, use public-private partnerships to increase parking near the rail stations. As part of mitigation, they should redesign spots such as Newton Corner, where cars trying to exit back up into travel lanes. People coming from the west should not endure 10 years of construction and then face the same bottlenecks.
Give Us a Sign
Public relations strategist, Liberty Square Group
In traffic management, there is a great focus on pavement: car lanes, bike lanes, merging lines. But there is seemingly almost no attention to signage. What signs there are tend to be governed by random geography, not useful directions or likely destinations. Hop onto 128, and signs direct you to Burlington. Why Burlington? Where’s Burlington in relation to where I’m going? If you don’t know, good luck.
The signage process clearly doesn’t involve anybody who knows how to communicate with customers. Signs seem to be written by engineers, and that’s not a good idea.
My pet peeve comes when getting onto a secondary road from the highway, trying to anticipate whether I have a right-hand or left-hand exit. I fight my way to the right, only to find that I need to move several lanes to the left instead. I’m causing more delays for everybody, not to mention incurring their wrath. Give us a hint, please, before the last moment.
Give Commercial Vehicles Their Own Space
Ana Cristina Fragoso
Geotechnical civil engineer, WSP USA
We need to remove a lot of the commercial vehicles from the main roads. Not just the big freight trucks, but also the single-home-heating-unit trucks, the medical-waste trucks, and smaller delivery vehicles. It’s really hard for them to get around: Restrictions on commercial traffic keep them out of tunnels and off bridges, and the geography of Boston’s roads forces them onto even smaller streets. It becomes a big backup. We need alternative commercial corridors of some kind.
There are some dedicated lanes now, but they are few and far between, and they are not thoroughfares. We need more utility corridors; maybe ferry service specifically for commercial vehicles. You can also look at rail, which handled a lot of freight traffic in the old days. But that’s more for economies of scale—it’s not likely today to work for a small-business owner who runs a heating business.
Moving commercial trucks onto alternative routes would ease traffic congestion and also be beneficial for business owners. They’re paying that driver to sit in traffic, losing money on salary, fuel, and maintenance for the vehicle.
End Distracted Driving
Reverend Laura Everett
Author, Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels
As somebody who regularly travels around the city by bike, I have a front-row seat to the distracted driving of many Bostonians. I’ve seen people texting, watching video, Snapchatting, and playing Pokemon Go! It’s this wild competitiveness and productivity we feel here; if there is a down moment, you feel like you should respond to a text or check on a score. That distraction means you are not paying attention to the people around you, and that negligence can be deadly.
If we’re going to cut down on collisions that both endanger people and add to our massive backups, we need to look at the people who can do the most damage, and far and away that is when we are behind the wheel of a car.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. Additional reporting by Spencer Buell, Jacqueline Cain, Brittany Jasnoff, and Alyssa Vaughn.