In New Boston Commuting Data, A Warning

Last week, the Census Bureau came out with its annual data on how people in Boston and around the country travel to work. The data from the American Community Survey (ACS) are not perfect (more on that later), but in recent years they have told a consistent story about commuting trends in Boston.

Since 2010, the number of people reporting that they work in Boston has ticked up every year, with the city adding more than 100,000 workers since then.[1] And, every year, the number of people taking public transportation to jobs in Boston increased. Between 2010 and 2015, an additional 59,570 people took transit to jobs in Boston, compared with 25,649 new drive-alone commuters to the city. By 2015, the number of people taking transit to work in the city had nearly equaled the number driving alone.

The ability to move more people in Boston without moving more cars is critical if the city is to continue to lure high-profile business (as it is attempting to do with Amazon), address its massive housing affordability challenges, and maintain a high quality of life.

That is why the commuting data for 2016 are so concerning. While Boston continued to add jobs in 2016, the number of people reporting that they took transit to jobs in the city actually declined for the first time since the end of the Great Recession. (See figure below.)

Drive-Alone versus Transit Commuters to Boston, with Margin of Error (data: U.S. Census Bureau)

A few caveats are in order: The change in transit ridership in 2016 is within the ACS’s copious margin of error. Also, the ACS is subject to one-year blips – a concerning decline in bike commuting in Boston that had showed up in the 2015 data, for example, disappeared this year. This year’s decline in transit commuting might be a similar hiccup, though it is consistent with data (XLS) suggesting stagnating ridership on the MBTA as a whole.

For a city undergoing rapid growth like Boston, stagnating transit ridership and increased drive-alone commuting aren’t just a problem, they are an emerging crisis. The torrent of cars now attempting to jam into the city is changing the conversation about the city’s future in unproductive ways. In my neighborhood, a proposal to humanize and downscale a drag-strip boulevard that blocks access to Boston Harbor is being challenged by the mayor because of fear about where the cars that currently pack the road at rush hour will go. Conversations about housing and development are being dominated, in my neighborhood and others, by fears stemming from parking and traffic.

With the MBTA focused on rebuilding and reform, and with the city moving deliberately (some would say glacially) to reimagine 1950s-style highway infrastructure, improve conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians, experiment with new solutions to tame traffic, and advocate for more and better transit service, there does not appear to be much light at the end of the tunnel.

That’s why vision and leadership are essential. Across the United States and around the world, city leaders are laying out new visions of a transportation future, with bold transit investments, efforts to reclaim congested streets and roads for transit, bikes and pedestrians, and adoption of new transportation technologies and service models. Leaders in these cities recognize that car-centric planning and infrastructure decisions haven’t worked to make our cities more vibrant, prosperous and livable, and doubling down on them won’t work any better in the future. They also understand that a commitment to uphold the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement is fundamentally incompatible with transportation policies that reinforce inefficient, energy-intensive dependence on single-occupancy vehicles.

Getting the public to understand all this is another matter – especially when the daily experience of commuting is so thoroughly miserable for so many. In my experience, Bostonians do seem to understand, if you talk to them for even a few minutes, that there is no room for more cars in this city. Period. Acknowledgment of that fact by our city’s leaders could be a starting point toward a much richer and more productive dialogue about the kind of transportation network we need to serve a growing, prosperous and livable Boston in the 21st century.

Treading water for another five years is not a viable option, it’s a recipe for disaster. Let’s hope our region’s leadership heeds the warning signs in this year’s commuting data and acts with urgency to meet the challenge.

[1] The Boston Planning and Development Agency estimates slightly slower growth in total jobs of nearly 88,000 between 2010 and 2015.