Wu pushed some of the measures, split with Walsh on others
BOSTON MAYOR MARTY WALSH made a splash last week by announcing a bunch of new transportation initiatives, some of which were set in motion by the advocacy of Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu.
In a speech to the annual meeting of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau on Thursday, Walsh called for reducing the speed limit on neighborhood streets to 20 miles per hour, providing free T passes to every Boston student at public and private schools in grades 7 through 12, creating two new dedicated bus lane pilots, and testing a new pickup-dropoff spot for ride hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft at the intersection of Boylston and Kilmarnock Streets in the Fenway.
On the Codcast with Josh Fairchild and James Aloisi of TransitMatters, Chris Osgood, Walsh’s chief of streets, detailed the proposals and said a major goal of the city’s new transit team will be to accelerate these types of initiatives. The team currently has two members focused on planning and engineering, but Osgood said it will be expanded to six.
Osgood also outlined the mayor’s legislative goals – one bill allowing regional ballot tax initiatives to raise money for specific transportation projects and another bill placing higher assessments on ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft, which Osgood indicated are taking over the streets of Boston.
“What we’re all struck by is just the volume of Uber and Lyft rides, and TNC rides in general,” Osgood said. “I think it was 35 million [rides] started in the city of Boston in 2017, which is about 96,000 a day – more passengers than take the Blue Line on an average weekday. It’s just a huge number of people who are taking Uber and Lyft, which underscores the role [ride hailing apps] play in the mobility options in this region.”
Wu’s name came up only once during the discussion of Walsh’s initiatives, but some of the transportation measures owe a lot of their momentum to the Boston city councilor.
The push for every student to receive a free T pass, for example, gained momentum when survey research conducted by Wu’s office found the existing pass program – which excludes students who live less than two miles from their school – is discriminatory.
“It essentially creates two classes of students,” the research report said. “One class of students is afforded not only more options to get to school, but also the ability to travel around the city for free during the school year. The other class of students may have to walk up to two miles to get to school and has to constantly consider public transit costs in all their activity choices.”
Dedicated bus lane pilots have become a high priority for the MBTA, and Wu has helped dramatize the need for them through personal advocacy on behalf of the only dedicated lane in operation now – running down Washington Street in Roslindale.
There are also areas where Wu and the mayor disagree. Wu favors charging for residential parking permits, but Walsh opposes that idea. Osgood said the mayor has focused on using parking meter rates and fines to influence the way people use city streets. “In some ways, those two levers are much closer to the way people use city streets than residential parking permits,” Osgood said.
Wu has also led the fight against the MBTA’s proposed 6.3 percent average fare hike, assembling a petition urging the transit agency to leave fares alone and to embrace congestion pricing and higher fees on ride-hailing apps, both of which have won some support on the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board. She has also come out in support of free fares for everyone.
Walsh, as Osgood points out, is worried about the decrease in ridership a fare increase might cause. “So part of what the mayor has been pushing is to make sure that the MBTA is showing, if there’s going to be an increase, tell us how you’re going to spend that revenue so we understand that we’re not simply getting fewer riders, we’re actually going to get better service,” he said. Osgood also said the mayor wants to see young and old riders shielded from any increases.
Osgood indicated the mayor was not ready to embrace congestion pricing, which would require legislative action. He said Walsh would prefer to focus on issues the city can control to improve traffic flow, such as parking fines and parking meter rates. He said the mayor also believes expanded commuter rail service will reduce congestion. “High quality all-day service – higher frequency service – on commuter rail is essential,” Osgood said.