Boston’s congestion prompted me to move

My experience puts a human face on a very serious policy issue

I MOVED TO BOSTON from New London, Connecticut, in my early thirties, in 1994. The reasons were both professional and personal. As a still young-ish lawyer interested in real estate and urban development, Connecticut cities such as New London, Hartford, and Bridgeport certainly provided interesting (if daunting) professional challenges, but far less in the way of professional opportunity and project scale than what was happening in Boston. So I hunkered down and studied for a second bar exam, and soon began working in the law department of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and later the Boston Redevelopment Authority. There were personal reasons as well.  It was difficult to be an out gay professional in Connecticut at the time, and Boston offered a far more welcoming, and socially engaging, environment.

I have no regrets, in either the professional or personal realm, about the 25 years I spent in Boston. But earlier this year I sold my South End condo and relocated back to southeastern Connecticut. The factor driving most people out of Boston, or preventing them from arriving in the first place – housing costs – did not affect me personally. Having inherited Depression-era financial mores from my late parents, I’d paid off the mortgage on my condo years before. The main reason I decided not to stay affects Bostonians generally – transportation, and the effect it has on quality of life. I share my experience here with the thought that my one example might contribute in a small way to the public debate on that subject.  While anecdotes are, well, only anecdotal, they can put a human face to policy issues.

To be fair, it was the dispersal of the gay community from the South End that first started me thinking about leaving. In Boston, in the 1990s and before, the South End was a great place for gay people – even though there were no ATMs, and it was hard to buy fresh food, and entire blocks still lay vacant after the “slum clearance” of the 1960s. And there was much more crime than today.  But there were gay bars, gay-owned restaurants, and two gay gyms. We were willing to put up with the neighborhood’s shortcomings to live in a place that was not just tolerant, but where we could thrive.  At some point this all began to change, and I started to feel more and more out of place.  For instance, in my 12-unit condo building in the South End, nine units were occupied by gay people when I moved there in 1997. Now that I’ve left, there remain only two.

By early 2012, when I left a full-time job and began consulting on my own, there was no longer a professional need for me to be in Boston.  At the same time, it started to become more evident that the seemingly unplanned growth of the city, and the failure of state and local government to make investments in the supporting infrastructure – particularly all things transportation – were impacting my quality of life.

One of the best things about the South End has always been its central location.  You can walk to any of the other urban core neighborhoods easily. You can, and I did, bike to farther reaches of the area as well. But over time these modes of travel seemed to become more difficult, even treacherous. I felt increasingly threatened by distracted or aggressive drivers and eventually gave up trying to travel by bike altogether, out of concern for my own safety. The random chaos that is the typical Boston intersection seemed like a quaint feature of life in an old city at first, but over time those same distracted and aggressive drivers, and the sheer increase in their number, as well as the unpredictable pedestrian walk lights, not to mention the endless construction, often left me nearly as exasperated after a trip by foot as by a ride on the consistently inconsistent T.

I’d stopped running outdoors except early mornings on weekends, having been nearly hit by cars enough times to put the fear of God in me. And I’d long ago begun scheduling any car trips to a 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. time window, which in the last few years slowly narrowed, until it closed completely, and there was essentially no time at which I could leave or arrive back to the city by car when it wasn’t rush hour.

For a while I thought it might just be my advancing age, or a dwindling supply of patience (see also, advancing age), but then it began to be a topic of conversation in the media and among friends, and data about pedestrian and cycling deaths, T delays, and road congestion began to appear that validated my own observations.  As I think we are all now very aware, this is a full blown crisis that threatens the economic vitality of metro Boston and the quality of life and, frankly, the safety, of everyone living there.

I admire the dogged efforts of people working with groups like Transportation for Massachusetts, Transit Matters, and WalkBoston. And some readers may, perhaps rightly, feel that I “copped out” by deciding to leave rather than stay and fight the good fight along with them.  But after a long career whose common thread has been trying to get bureaucracies to act right, I’m burned out.  I spent hours during my last year there trying to get the city to address an unsafe pedestrian situation caused by an illegally encroaching sidewalk cafe, and finally threw up my hands in defeat. If even unconsciously, everyone balances a list of “pro’s” and “con’s” when making a major life decision, such as where to live.  And when I balanced the increasing difficulty of walking, biking, running, riding public transit, driving – basically moving about the city in any way – the scales looked pretty lopsided.  I wonder if other individuals, or even large employers, may start to make similar calculations.

I don’t regret one bit the 25 years I had in Boston.  I also haven’t regretted leaving.  But I do worry about the future of the place.  Boston is full of smart, innovative people, and new ones are graduating from the world-class universities there every year. There are solutions to the transportation crisis, and they will find them. Or they will invent them. Ultimately, however, these solutions need the mechanisms of government to make them real. There are glimmers of hope, like the implementation of dedicated bus lanes in Everett, and the establishment of protected bike lanes in a few places around Boston and Cambridge. But these battles have been too hard fought, and regression is too easy. Solutions will need funding, and political will, and leadership, to succeed. I realize I tend toward pessimism, and maybe I’ve just been around government too long, but I just don’t feel hopeful about the needed leadership, political will, and funding, at least in the short term.

Meet the Author

Peter O'Connor

Lawyer and economic development consultant, Self-employed
I moved to a place where I already had attachments, and knew my way around, so transition was easy. Life here is not as different from my life in Boston as I’d expected. I still do go to Boston and New York City for some of my cultural events, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the quirky local offerings. The “gay issue” is just no longer an issue, from what I can tell.  I often walk to downtown Mystic and to the YMCA, but obviously people’s lives here are much more dependent on automobiles. They find themselves six cars back in line at a red light and they get frustrated. I just roll my eyes and laugh to myself.  “You have no idea,” I think.

Peter O’Connor is an attorney and development consultant in Mystic, Connecticut.  He can be reached at