What Would It Take for Boston to Become a Car-Free City?

After generations spent building a city around cars, Boston has reached a crisis point. Here’s how we can become a place for people instead.

Illustration by Benjamen Purvis

In late May, three dozen people gathered online to ponder post-pandemic life in Boston. There were hospital workers, nannies, software developers, biotech researchers, analysts, and not one but two personal trainers. A twentysomething Boston Public School music teacher sat on his porch in Dorchester sipping a cocktail. A late-fifties beauty-industry professional in Wellesley took long drags of a cigarette between monologues. One exasperated Cambridge mother constantly hushed her school-age kids, who were jumping around just out of the frame.

Representing a broad range of ages, ethnicities, incomes, and hometowns, they’d been invited by the Barr Foundation via MassINC Polling Group to join a good, honest conversation about the fate of the city. The Great Pandemic Pause had been a major turning point in their lives, and this gathering gave them a moment to reflect on what they’d learned about themselves and life in Boston. One thing everyone could agree on was that working from home was life-changing. “I was dragged kicking and screaming out of the office,” says a human resources manager in Boston who asked to remain anonymous. “But now I love working from home. I’ve been converted.”

Workers love the freedom of being able to manage their lives from home. They also love the idea that they can work from anywhere. A retail consultant in West Peabody said, “I realized I can do what I want to do anywhere in the world. As long as there’s a solid Internet connection, I could travel for six months to Palm Springs, California, or to Miami Beach, Florida, or Bogotá, Colombia.”

Really though, most of us just want flexibility. Participants in the Barr focus group said they liked their coworkers and missed casual encounters with colleagues. But when they started talking about their companies’ plans for an office reopening, the fear was palpable: nervous laughter, a tinge of resentment, downright anger.

What could trigger such universal dread? Boston’s horrendous, world-class, stupid, shameful traffic. It’s all we can talk about. When Boston University administrators polled their 11,000 employees about returning to campus, they triggered a fraught online discussion among staff about the time and cost of getting to work. One staffer wrote, “The stress of the commute into the city not only took more than an hour each way, [it] added to an already long day away from family.”

Before the pandemic, the city’s streets leached an average of seven hours each week out of our lives; MBTA buses and trains were overcrowded, infrequent, and unreliable; our roads were dangerous and gridlocked. Even a quick trip to the supermarket could take hours. In short, Boston’s infrastructure was killing us.

If the majority of us who can work remotely decide to ditch the city for good, Boston will suffer immensely. According to data aggregator Density, 20 percent fewer people searched for apartments in Boston in 2020, and 30 percent of people living in Boston were hunting for apartments in other states. And if companies leave, or even downsize, the consequences will be dire. This year, 4.1 million square feet of premier downtown office space sits empty, the highest vacancy rate in recent memory. Lower occupancy rates could jeopardize the city’s AAA bond rating, making it more expensive for Boston to borrow money and invest in its future. If the commercial real estate tax base shrinks, the city will have little choice but to raise taxes, and those who stay will be forced to pick up the tab.

To entice the newly liberated worker and the newly hybrid company, Boston will need to become truly livable. That means abandoning its midcentury car-centric mentality for real. To free us from cars, policymakers will need to nurture urban life at a much more granular level and shift resources from drivability to livability. With a crowded mayor’s race under way, we’ve got a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the city into a place we can call home.

Here are the things Boston needs to do to win us back. For life.

Boston was designed before the car, but massive 20th-century urban renewal projects created a dependency on private vehicles that we can’t seem to shake. All those highways, on-ramps, abandoned trolley and bus lines (including the loss of the A train, which serviced Allston/Brighton—yes, there was an A, you’re welcome), and unbuilt connectors (ahem, North Station to South Station) left this medium-sized American city with a world-class traffic problem. We’ve got some of the smartest people in the world wasting their lives commuting.

As locals, we’ve sacrificed everything—our health, our beautiful parks, and our sanity—for cars. It’s estimated that an astounding 50 percent of a typical American city is paved. The 2,000 miles of road winding around Greater Boston would get you from Beacon Hill to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Put another way, add up those highways and streets and you’d get about 24 square miles of concrete—equivalent to paving over more than all of Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville.

All taxpayers finance the upkeep of the huge amount of real estate we’ve ceded to trucks and cars, whether or not they own a vehicle. It’s time to recognize that our streets—those vast spaces between buildings—are our greatest shared asset. We need to stop using them for car storage.

When Governor Charlie Baker pushed restaurant dining outdoors with his March 2020 order, people got back what was rightfully theirs. Makeshift platforms, sheds, and kiosks populated the very parking spots that business owners had once fiercely defended from bike and bus lanes. Some streets even went car-free. Along Newbury Street, pleasure spilled out into the open air, inviting shoppers and restaurant-goers to stop, sit, and sip. The air was stiller; traffic took a back seat to life. Dozens of people dined and supped where a few cars once clogged up the street. The place glittered with lights, plants, flowers, and festive umbrellas.

Vibrant with checkered tablecloths and candles, much of the North End began to look more like Rome than Boston. “Even longtime North Enders who have ‘seen it all’ have been watching in wonderment the overnight transformation of the North End’s streets and squares into European-style cafés and piazzas, complete with umbrellas, plants, and even music,” marveled the North End Waterfront last June.

During the focus group, participants unanimously expressed their love for the new outdoor dining scene. Fewer parking spots didn’t deter them—quite the opposite. The new patios and pop-up markets drew them from the suburbs to the city, and deeper into their own neighborhoods, often by foot.

It seemed like taking back our public realm for people was a no-brainer until a guy from Arlington—who said that he’d lived in several European cities—declared that car-reduction measures such as bike lanes and busways will never work in Boston. “We’re not Amsterdam or Copenhagen,” he said. “Those people built bike lanes a generation ago, so now it’s normal for them. We’re not culturally prepared to do that.” Many participants nodded helplessly along with him.

Hang on—we’re not ready? A few decades ago, Amsterdamers definitely weren’t ready, either. Same with Copenhagen. And Paris’s car-free transformation happened in the past five years. Florence, Italy, started going car-free over the past decade. It took strong, principled mayors to remove barriers to car-free living in those cities, facing outrage, even death threats, during the transition. Now, no one in their right mind would go back to the way things were.

Fortunately, focus-group participants unanimously supported a human-centric streetscape—wider sidewalks, outdoor cafés, landscaping, bike lanes—when shown permanent complete-street infrastructure. During the Zoom call, the moderator shared his screen to show local roads where proper walking and biking lanes had already been built. There were bike- and busways physically separated from traffic with curbs, more trees, and changes in construction materials to clearly indicate where different modes of movement should go. Everyone on the call softened when they saw complete designs such as these. Even the Arlington guy said, “Sure, that works for me.”

The good news is that more Bostonians than ever are ready for an enormous, generation-defining shift. A May survey of people living inside Route 128 conducted by MassINC Polling Group revealed that a plurality strongly supported dedicating more street space to outdoor dining, outdoor seating, and separated bike and bus lanes—even if it meant less space for cars. “We’ve proven that we can move more quickly than we thought we could,” said Lisa Jacobson, a senior program officer at the Barr Foundation who focuses on transportation and land use. “This feels like a time to experiment, iterate, and take some risks.”

Some mayoral candidates also recognize that Boston will need to dramatically change to remain competitive in the post-pandemic, post-9-to-5 office world. “We are in a global competition for talent and investment,” City Councilor Michelle Wu told me by phone. “Everything is mobile in terms of where you can live…. That means every city needs to make a case for why people can’t miss out being there in person. We have to resist the urge to put Band-Aids on long-standing challenges.”

The good news is that more Bostonians than ever are ready for an enormous, generation-defining shift.

If we expect people to give up their cars, we’ll need to create a Boston where no one needs them. When experts talk about inequality in the city, one of the things they’re talking about is access to services. Right now, the most privileged Bostonians save some $11,200 each year by living where walking is a pleasure and services are abundant. That’s right—the richest among us get a little richer because they don’t have to drive.

Unfortunately, contemporary planners and policymakers think about the region in terms of mobility. There’s a better way to grow the city for people. Instead of haggling with developers over every square foot, Boston’s zoning code should clearly identify the kinds of services—such as a grocery store, hardware store, pharmacy, post office, gym, café, and library—that a new project should bring into an area to reduce local car trips. That’s the thinking behind the “15-minute city,” a movement that focuses on livability in terms of access: All daily needs are located within a short walk or bike ride of one’s residence.

For Boston to become a 15-minute city, zoning will need to become more nuanced and proscriptive. For instance, Boston encourages developers to build retail space at the street level, a good idea in theory. But without further guidance, a lot of that space sits empty year after year. It’s often too big and expensive to support the variety of retailers necessary to truly service a neighborhood, and frankly, a lot of developers write it off as a loss. Eventually, along come the chain stores and banks. Which is why Boston’s streetscape is rife with “For Lease” signs and retail redundancies, forcing all of us into our cars to get the things we need.

Sadly, online shopping has only made this inadequate retail scene worse. Starved of conveniently located services, we’ve flocked to Amazon, Uber Eats, Postmates, Grubhub, DoorDash, Seamless, and Caviar. No one’s keeping track of the explosion of delivery vehicles, nor how they’re affecting traffic, but we do know that demand for warehouse space in the Boston area is up 25 percent since December 2020. As I write this, several large e-commerce and consumer product companies are scouting Greater Boston for one million square feet or more of industrial space.

To rebuild Boston for a car-free future, the next mayor will need to tackle the home-delivery conundrum. She or he will need to tell those companies where their thousands of cars and trucks can legally park while dropping off goods. Should the city charge a congestion tax? Should those vehicles be electric? Oh, and should the city provide rest stops for drivers who are reportedly so over-scheduled that they’re peeing in bottles?

We’re also going to have to rethink Boston’s notorious parking minimums—the citywide law that forces all new construction to provide up to 1.5 off-street parking spaces per dwelling unit or per 1,000 square feet. Because of these laws, the city of Boston approved an astounding 11,000 parking spots last year, with each costing roughly $50,000 to construct. If that acreage were dedicated to 2,400-square-foot homes instead, Boston would have about 1,500 new family-friendly dwellings in the pipeline, which would go toward solving our housing crisis.

Just about all of Boston, including the Fenway, the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, much of Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End would be impossible to build today, due to these odious minimums. Urbanists call parking laws “induced demand” because they normalize the presence of cars in the city. Think about what we could accomplish if we ditched them.

Liberated of parking minimums, multi-family projects in Boston would be a lot cheaper to build. And developers could get more creative about how they use space. Instead of developing piles of cramped apartments on top of massive garages, they could design courtyard buildings that wrap around large landscaped parks where neighbors could congregate in peaceful, car-free splendor. Add a library branch where kids can study and adults can work, and you’ve created the ideal live-work micro-community.

Finally, to create a car-free city, we’re going to have to clean up the MBTA. Gallons of ink have been spilled over Greater Boston’s public transportation quagmire, so there’s no need to detail the endless list of problems here. All of the focus-group participants agreed that the MBTA doesn’t serve our needs. It’s unreliable, uncomfortable, and often stuffed to the gills. The commuter rail runs too infrequently, holding people hostage at the office if they get sick during the day or have to pick up a kid early. God forbid you miss a connection or an hourly train you rely on whizzes right by (without explanation) during rush hour.

Suffice it to say that quality of life in Greater Boston has always been marred by the MBTA’s failures. It’s so grim that Uber and Lyft have become necessary evils, further contributing to the city’s traffic. About half of a ride-share driver’s time on the road is spent just driving around waiting for a customer. Every day, tens of thousands of cars—parked, cruising for spots, or waiting for passengers—do nothing but take up space on our streets. That’s a profound waste of time and space.

To get us on the right track, policymakers will need to convince Massachusetts voters that the MBTA is so critical to the state’s economy that it’s worth substantial taxpayer investment. Whether or not you ride the T, you benefit from it. Yet the burden of the system’s cost rests on riders—people who aren’t driving, aren’t parking, and aren’t adding to our traffic woes. The service is too valuable to be self-financed.

There’s nothing stopping Boston from becoming a human-centric, car-free city except, well, us. For decades, city officials have been cowed into half-measures by a few loud business owners and NIMBYs who argue that the world will come crumbling down if you put a bike lane on, for instance, Charles Street. So instead of building the infrastructure Boston’s experts already know we desperately need, the city commissions study after study. Wasting time.

Countless hours of public meetings, millions of dollars thrown at consultants—none of this money and energy will improve our quality of life. We simply have to build better.