5 fixes for Seaport District

Bus Rapid Transit pilot should be tried

CALL IT THE SEAPORT DISTRICT, the South Boston Seaport, the Innovation District, Fort Point Channel – call it whatever you want, Boston’s busy development boomtown is in the throes of a mobility crisis. The roadway system is chronically congested; the streetscape is generally unfriendly to pedestrians; there are no best-practices bicycle lanes; the Silver Line is pretty much at or near capacity. Despite these shortcomings, the district is one of the hottest real estate markets in the region, with tens of millions of dollars being made by property flippers and speculators.

The Seaport/Innovation/Ft. Point District (let’s call it the “District” for purposes of this article) is a prime example of the power of public sector investments to spark private sector action.  Before the development frenzy, there was a wasteland, and it wasn’t until the public sector started investing – in the Convention Center, in the federal Courthouse, in the Silver Line, the Big Dig and the Moakley Bridge – that the private sector had the confidence to invest.  The deep pocket pioneers of the 1980s – Fidelity and John Drew – who reclaimed Commonwealth Pier and built the Seaport Hotel, were just that: pioneers who had a vision and were first in line to take advantage of superb harbor views and proximity to both the downtown and Logan Airport.  Now that everyone, including the likes of General Electric, is lining up to get a piece of the action, we are reaping the bitter fruit of poor transportation planning as we search for an agile, responsive approach to the District’s urgent mobility needs.

The central question that must be asked and answered is this: how do we define the District from an urban identity point of view? Is this an urban office park?  Is it a residential community? Is it a tourist/visitor destination? The answer is probably “all of the above,” and that requires a strategic mix of mobility choices and action to ensure that the public realm responds to those choices and the people using them.  In a time of constrained financial resources and with the basic infrastructure cake already well baked, adapting the District to meet its current and anticipated mobility needs is a daunting task, yet one that must be undertaken if we are serious about supporting this level of private sector investment and replicating it (or some version of it) in other strategic locations in the city (Widett Circle and Suffolk Downs come to mind).

With this background, I offer five ways to address these mobility and public realm issues in a meaningful and affordable way, in the hope that these ideas may spark public and private sector interest in coalescing around an action plan that is practical, affordable, responsive to unambiguous mobility needs, and achievable in the relatively short term.

Step 1: Improve existing transit service by (1) deploying a traffic signal priority system for the Silver Line exiting the tunnel at D Street, and (2) adding Silver Line nonstop shuttle service from Logan to South Station, using the HOV lane that was specifically built to improve access to South Station as part of the Big Dig construction.  These two initiatives are low cost/high impact approaches to immediately improving transit service in the District.

Step 2: Create a mobility hub at or near the World Trade Center Silver Line station. A mobility hub would offer, at a minimum, (1) Hubway and Zipcar services and (2) one or more interactive kiosks providing real-time information, transit schedules, and drive times to and from key destinations, and information regarding ridesharing options.  My vision for a highly functional mobility hub is a place that anyone can use to improve his or her access to the right mobility choice for that day and time. Empowering people with both accurate real-time information and a range of mobility choices is an essential step toward unlocking both real and perceived mobility gridlock.

Step 3: Begin designing, and start building, a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service that connects South Station to two destinations: the Convention Center and Logan Airport.  This Summer Street BRT would relieve the existing Silver Line and provide people a fast transit alternative on a corridor that is currently underserved.  A true BRT system that stopped at the Convention Center, and then used the Ted Williams Tunnel ramp to head to Logan, is the solution to relieving congestion on the existing Silver Line system, and improving mobility to two high-demand destinations.  It is also an excellent place to pilot a BRT system in Boston – something that can become an affordable game-changer in the way we provide bus transit services in the city and region.

Step 4: Reopen the Northern Avenue Bridge only to pedestrians and bicycles.  Adding more automobile traffic – and congestion – to what is already a gridlocked environment will degrade mobility and public safety. The main objective of improving mobility in the area ought to be reducing vehicle miles travelled, and that means offering people improved modal alternatives (as described in Steps 1, 2 and 3). Restoring vehicular traffic on the Northern Avenue Bridge – which is basically like restoring a 1950s mobility solution to the Innovation District – will exacerbate traffic problems in both the District and on Atlantic Avenue, and make the District less friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

Step 5: Improve the public realm by developing and implementing a streetscape improvement plan that embraces the best practices of Complete Streets (a concept that focuses on pedestrian safety and convenience) and prohibits parking along the District’s main thoroughfares, establishing in its place safe, best-practices cycling lanes. Parking in this district ought to be largely confined to garage parking. Once the public realm is reclaimed as a more pedestrian and cycling-friendly environment, it will transform the district into a more livable environment, which will respond to the often overlooked fact that much of the area is either residential or geared to a tourist/convention visitor environment where walking to destinations ought to be made as safe and pleasant as possible.

Meet the Author

These five steps represent mobility and public realm goals that are (with the exception of restoring the Northern Avenue Bridge) relatively inexpensive to implement and highly achievable in the short term. Making them a part of an overall action plan for the District would go a long way toward transforming this area from what it is today – a congested, cacophonous, mobility-challenged environment – to one that can serve as a model not just for Boston for other cities nationally.

James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.