Little movement by political leaders to change car culture
“WE HAVE MET the enemy and he is us.”
That well-worn 1960s line from the Pogo comic strip could easily be deployed to describe the situation of Boston-area employers who are reaching the end of their rope over the never-ending woes of regional traffic gridlock.
For a bunch of brain-powered heavyweights, the leaders of the state’s fast-growing knowledge economy are not too smart — or consistent — when it comes to dealing with the Boston region’s growing mobility crisis. It’s a problem they regularly decry for dampening the productivity of their businesses, yet they advance workplace policies and practices that contribute mightily to the mess.
That’s the gist of today’s second installment of the Globe’s three-part Spotlight Team report on the traffic crisis facing the Boston area.
In a survey of 21 major Boston area employers, the report found the “vast majority” have commuter policies that do nothing to steer their workers toward public transit over cars. Biogen, for example, offers free or heavily subsidized MBTA passes — but also free employee parking. “But given the choice between jostling in on trains or buses or driving in alone on overcrowded roads, guess which option is preferred nearly 2 to 1? The car,” reports the Globe. Most American commuters, “are hard-wired to prefer the autonomy of driving and won’t change without powerful financial and emotional incentives.”
Vertex Pharmaceuticals, headquartered in the Seaport, offers its nearly 2,000 employees a $300 subsidy for either parking or transit passes, a jump ball that has helped induce nearly half of its workers to jam their way into the recently built-out district by car.
At the other end of the spectrum are employers like MIT, which offers all of its more than 12,000 employees free MBTA subway and bus passes, and subsidizes 50 to 60 percent of commuter rail costs, while charging $10.50 per day for campus parking. Just 18 percent of its workforce drive themselves to work, with the rest using transit, shared rides, or bicycling or walking to get to the university.
Even the most reliable, well-run transit system won’t solve Americans’ love affair with cars, experts tell the paper. In today’s frenetic world, traffic headaches aside, people enjoy the solitude and closed personal space of their own car over a crowded subway train or bus. The phenomenon even has its own name, the Globe reports: carcooning.
The report points to other states and cities that have much more aggressive policies aimed at reducing employee car commuting. Washington, DC, requires all federal agencies to provide some transit benefits, a policy that has seen a doubling of participation in such programs in just two years. California mandates that many employers providing subsidized parking allow workers not taking advantage of it to “cash out” and receive the value of the subsidy in addedpay.
The Spotlight series continues the theme from yesterday’s first installment of painting political leaders as having their heads in the sand on the growing crisis.
The report says Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said he was not even aware that major Boston employers offered parking subsidies to their workers. Meanwhile, state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack balked at the idea of big state initiatives in this area, saying she doesn’t have “any marching orders” to work directly with employers to try to push down car commuting rates.
With traffic woes clearly having hit a media take-out tipping point, Boston Magazine also rolled out a big report on the issue. More listicle than exhaustively reported analysis, it’s billed as a package of “40 Ambitious Ideas to Save Transportation in Boston.”
The magazine enlisted a range of voices, some with a background in transportation policy and some without, to offer their 2 cents on what should be done. The range of transportation expertise shows.
Legal Seafoods honcho Roger Berkowitz revives the fanciful idea of a Seaport gondola. Car dealer zillionaire Ernie Boch Jr.’s grand idea: more aggressive attention to filling potholes. Others suggestions have a bit more heft and grounding in current transportation planning ideas, including calls for bus-rapid transit from Eastern Bank president Quincy Miller, electrification of commuter rail from Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin, variable-price tolling of roadways and congestion pricing from Chris Dempsey of Transportation for Massachusetts and Suffolk Construction’s John Fish, and taxes on parking garages from Ari Ofsevit of the Charles River Management Transportation Association.
It was a full decade ago, in 2009, that then-Mayor Tom Menino, a late-in-life convert to the joys of bicycling, famously declared, with full Hyde Park inflection, “The cah is no longa king in Boston.”
His pronouncement, it seems, was a bit premature.