In Boston, a city overflowing with cars, and with a transit system that feels increasingly decrepit, a massive new development project is taking place at the city’s most important transit hub. But if you think this project will fix the trains, get people off the roads, and put Boston on track toward a better transportation future, think again.
The project in question is the “South Station Air Rights” skyscraper in downtown Boston, which just got its papers in order and is now moving toward construction. The 640-foot glass tower will consist of hundreds of residential, commercial, and hotel units, built right on top of Boston’s historic South Station transit hub. The project also includes features to make life better for transit users, such as better connections between rail and bus.
It is hard to imagine a development that could be any more transit oriented. Yet despite its prime location and transit improvements, the project represents a terrible missed opportunity, because it also includes 895 parking spaces – spaces that will promote more driving and more congestion for years to come.
The idea of putting hundreds of new parking spots downtown isn’t just at odds with our climate reality – it is also divorced from state and local policy. Eight years ago, Massachusetts announced a goal to triple the share of people who walk, bike and take transit by 2030 – a goal that is made harder to reach with every new car that is attracted to the streets. Similarly, the city of Boston has set a goal to “Reduce emissions through dramatic mode shifts and adaption of clean fuel vehicles.”[pdf]
Make no mistake: Research shows that when you build more parking, more people drive. For example, the State Smart Transportation Initiative concluded that “an increase in parking provision from 0.1 to 0.5 parking spaces per person is associated with an increase in automobile mode share of roughly 30 percentage points.”[pdf]
The South Station tower project isn’t the only recent project in which transportation and development decisions have clashed with broader goals to reduce driving and carbon pollution. Other projects prioritize vehicle travel and shortchange opportunities for improving other modes; and attempts to build non-car infrastructure have had to endure drawn-out fights.
How can we get projects on the ground to start aligning with our climate reality, and with the goals set by state and local government?
First, projects like the South Station tower make it clear that we won’t hit our broad state and local transportation goals unless they are backed by far stronger policy and planning. Massachusetts’ mode shift goal, for example, wasn’t even mentioned in the state’s 2018 Global Warming Solutions Act 10-Year Progress Report, despite being initially described as “an important element to our strategy” to hit state climate goals.[pdf] In Boston, there is a limit on parking, including a “freeze” on new parking in the city’s downtown neighborhood, but the policy only applies to commercial spaces that are available to the general public, and therefore doesn’t affect residential or customer-only parking projects. In the midst of a climate crisis, ambitious goals that aren’t enforced or policies with gaping loopholes simply aren’t good enough.
Second, we need to ensure that projects built today reflect today’s climate realities. The South Station tower has been in the works since 1998. Cities and states need to start evaluating all decisions around parking, road construction, and transportation pricing through a climate-tinted lens – and that means reevaluating old projects that were proposed before the urgency of climate action was as apparent as it is now.
Finally, we need to constantly improve the experience of getting around without a car. The new building at South Station will have a bird’s-eye view of the MBTA’s struggling, delay-ridden commuter rail system and the nasty, bike- and pedestrian-unfriendly spaghetti of roadway in front of the station (which is barely even functional for cars). It’s no wonder that the designers of the project could not imagine building it for people without cars. Making it easy, cheap and enjoyable to get around by transit, by bike and on foot will make it that much easier for developers and city residents to imagine projects without cars – making all of our urban transportation problems, from congestion to carbon emissions, that much easier to solve.
In the grand scheme of taking on climate, one new parking lot may not seem like a huge deal. But the South Station parking project should serve as a larger warning about the path ahead: If we can’t start creating a future with less driving for an apartment built on top of Boston’s biggest transit hub, how will we create it anywhere?
Photo: South Station, Boston's biggest transit hub, sits in an ocean of asphalt. It's tough to imagine building the new South Station project for people without cars when the outside looks like this.