Pros and cons on the Spotlight report on congestion

Good at explaining causes; less thorough on solutions

THE BOSTON GLOBE SPOTLIGHT TEAM reported this week that Greater Boston’s transportation problem is worsening and suggested the best way to deal with it would be to implement congestion pricing and use incentives to get people out of their vehicles.

The massive three-part series contained a lot of great anecdotes and volumes of data. Over the last five years, for example, Greater Boston has added 300,000 cars and trucks. Delivery trucks are clogging our roads; one UPS truck that the Spotlight Team followed over the course of a day parked illegally for a total of 5 hours and 6 minutes, blocking roadways and snarling traffic. And a survey of 21 major employers in Boston found nearly all of the firms offered commuting perks that treated driving and transit equally, resulting in most workers opting to drive.

But while the series did a great job of explaining why congestion exists in Boston, it seemed a little thin when it came to examining possible solutions to the problem. Most of the solution space was devoted to congestion pricing and the idea that drivers need a financial shock to their system to get them out of their vehicles.

Congestion pricing experiments in London and Stockholm were hailed as policies that work. In London, drivers pay the equivalent of $15 to drive into the heart of the city. In Stockholm, drivers pay tolls to get in and out of the city — $3.50 at rush hour and no more than $11.50 over the course of a day.

Among employers, MIT was applauded for recognizing congestion is a problem and moving aggressively to address it. The university offers all students, faculty, and administrative staff free subway and bus passes and subsidizes commuter rail fares. For those who insist on driving to work, the university charges $10.50 a day for parking.

This carrot and stick approach to congestion makes a lot of sense, but there are a lot of other ideas out there to reduce traffic. For example, there was little or no discussion in the Spotlight series of the ongoing work to transform the commuter rail system and upgrade the subway network to entice people to leave their cars behind.  There was some discussion of giving buses more priority on city streets, but little exploration of why the Boston area lags behind other parts of the country.

There was also no discussion of lowering fares to entice more people to use transit. A number of municipalities and agencies are experimenting with lowering or doing away with fares, and the initial results have been surprisingly good.

At times, the Spotlight series seemed more intent on placing blame than finding real solutions.

The series was critical of Baker and his administration for dismissing London’s congestion pricing program as ineffective, and slammed a Department of Transportation report for misstating the size of London’s congestion zone. London officials were quoted by the Spotlight Team as saying their congestion pricing program was working – and working well. “They’re just lying. They’re just ignoring the facts,” said former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who launched the city’s congestion pricing program.

Yet Baker stood by his characterization of the London congestion pricing program this week. He noted that Inrix, the analytics company cited by everyone (including the Globe), ranked Boston in February as the most congested city in the United States and the eighth-worst congested city in the world. Yet that same report named London as the sixth-most-congested city in the world, two spots up from Boston.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the Spotlight series was the suggestion that public officials have taken a hands-off approach to fighting congestion because they themselves drive cars to and from work. Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Karen Spilka all came under fire for driving (or being driven in cars) rather than riding public transit.

It’s an interesting philosophical argument, but one that feels a bit simplistic. One could argue that committed car drivers would be in favor of anything that reduces congestion, particularly if they aren’t paying the cost of driving. (DeLeo and Spilka tap their campaign accounts for most of their driving costs.)  It’s also unclear why a committed car driver can’t recognize the value of transit. I’m guessing John Henry, the publisher of the Globe, doesn’t ride the subway to work, yet his newspaper this week neveretheless made a powerful argument for dealing aggressively with congestion.