In Boston: Tomorrow's Transportation Challenges, Today!

If you want to see what’s coming down the tracks in transportation, it’s never a bad idea to turn your eyes toward my home city of Boston.

In the early 1970s, Boston was the first area to repurpose federal highway funds – originally intended to pay for a series of neighborhood-destroying freeways in the city’s core – for public transportation. In the 1980s, we saw one of the first successful transit-oriented developments with the revitalization of Davis Square on the MBTA’s Red Line. In the 1990s and 2000s, we got rid of our crumbling downtown elevated freeway (alas, by burying it as part of the multi-billion dollar Big Dig) and became one of the first U.S. adopters of bus rapid transit.

Today, Boston faces a challenge that will soon be affecting many cities – the challenge of accommodating the rapid influx of new residents and jobs to city neighborhoods. The current transportation debate in Boston is instructive, both for the creative ideas that are coming to the fore and for the things the region’s leaders aren’t yet talking about, but should be.

Here’s the back story: Boston’s population is increasing at a rapid clip, growing by 3 percent between 2010 and 2012 to a level not seen since the early 1970s. We’ve written before about the increasing tendency of young people to seek out city life, and Boston is Exhibit A.  Our outgoing mayor, Tom Menino, has plans for 30,000 new housing units by 2020 – more than 5,000 of which are currently under development. A former warehouse district on the waterfront has been dubbed the “Innovation District” and has seen the addition of 4,000 new jobs and 200 new companies since 2010. During our recent mayoral preliminary election, one of the candidates suggested that Boston should aim to reach a population of 1 million people by 2025. No one, to my knowledge, laughed at him.

All that growth, however, has brought challenges, including congestion on streets and transit lines. In the early 2000s, the MBTA helped facilitate the build-out of the Innovation District with the construction of the bus rapid transit Silver Line and connected the area to the highway network via the Big Dig. But recent growth in the area has rapidly made the area’s last transportation plan, adopted in 2000, obsolete.

The response by city officials and transportation agencies has been to throw lots of innovative, small scale fixes at the problem. Plans are under development or being put in place to install automated message boards at the exits of parking garages pointing to the best entrance to the expressway, embedding sensors in the road to alert drivers to available parking spaces (reducing congestion caused by “cruising” for parking), adding new stations for the city’s Hubway bikeshare system, and launching new ferry service on Boston Harbor. Officials are also planning to repurpose an abandoned rail line serving the area for commuter rail connection.

Transportation projects are often painfully slow to build. It can take decades for a new highway or transit line to make its way through design, regulatory approvals, funding and construction. With the rapid pace of change in technology, development patterns and consumer preferences, transportation projects run the risk of being obsolete by the time they are completed.

Boston’s is pushing back against that dynamic by taking nimble, quick, cheap actions that seek to maximize the use of existing capacity, often through the use of information technology.

In the case of the Innovation District, I’m pretty optimistic that these measures will meet with success. The bigger issue, though, and one that is not yet attracting (much) attention is that there is only so much growth that can be accommodated with Scotch tape and sealing wax solutions. At some point – and in the case of Boston, that point is coming very soon – one needs to talk about adding new infrastructure to meet new demands.

The backbone of our regional transit network is the four color-coded MBTA subway lines that meet in downtown Boston. That core network hasn’t changed in any significant sense since the early 20th century, even as our various subway and commuter rail lines have been extended further into the region’s periphery. Our core subway lines are aging, slow and increasingly crowded – barely able to keep up with today’s demand, let alone the needs of the future. At the same time, the city itself is changing, with more people living downtown and working in a number of satellite job centers along the MBTA, such as the Innovation District.

Bikesharing, carsharing and the other modern transportation tools we discussed in our recent report, A New Way to Go, are critically important. But if Boston is going to meet its potential for growth in the 21st century, we will need to add capacity to our core transit infrastructure. We will need to modernize the “T” to improve efficiency and reliability. We will need to dust off plans for the “Urban Ring” – a circumferential transit line to link together outlying job centers and take pressure off the core subway network – and build it right, as a subway or light rail line rather than a jury-rigged collection of bus lines. We will also likely need to repurpose some street capacity for bus rapid transit and bike lanes that can move more people more efficiently while using less space.

Tell this to any Bostonian and the first question you will be asked is “who will pay for it?” After all, the T is perpetually broke and raising gas taxes (or any other form of revenue) remains a political challenge.

I wish I had a great answer to that question. Capturing some of the private value created by transit investments could be part of the answer. So too could repurposing some funds that are no longer needed for highway expansion given recent trends in driving. Or using some form of congestion pricing to finance transportation improvements in the urban core.

So far, Boston has shown itself willing to come up with creative solutions to the challenges of new urban growth. Let’s hope that creativity extends to the bigger, more difficult challenges ahead.