Boneheaded transportation moves

Comments are so wacky, it must be August

AUGUST IS THAT MONTH when there isn’t an official federal or state holiday because so many people are assumed to be on vacation. This makes August a time when people can make remarkably bad decisions, or profoundly tone-deaf remarks, and hope no one notices, expecting that everyone is at the beach or having long languorous lunches at outdoor cafes.

Just last week, a trade industry leader objected to the city’s laudable desire to experiment with closing several blocks of Newbury Street to Sunday traffic.  The executive director of the Newbury Street League went on the record with the Boston Globe to express her deep concern for hair salons that might not fare well during a pedestrian-only Sunday afternoon.  “Do you really think people are going to spend hundreds of dollars to primp and get back on the T?” she said.

As jaw dropping as that remark is – a remark so completely arrogant in its attitude, so blind to the real-life desires of real-life people who take the T, and walk if they can, because they choose to do so – it may be expressive of a hard core group of folks who think sustainable mobility is measured by how many hands-free calls they can make while circling for a parking space.  I’d like to think, indeed I earnestly hope, that such people are a distinct minority in a city whose residents are increasingly drawn to innovation, social equity, and multi-modal mobility.

But this remark was just the icing on the cake, topping off a week of news that affirmed my view that wacky things can happen in August.

How else to explain developers seeking approval of over 1,000 parking spaces for a proposed tower above what may be the best transit oriented site in all New England?  How else to explain a disappointing bill to regulate Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft, a bill that utterly fails to take into account the impact of TNCs on transit? How else to explain the decision of the Boston Police Department’s Hackney Division to approve a husband-to-wife transfer of 362 taxi medallions by a fellow who has been charged with multiple federal tax and fraud offenses and exposed by the Globe’s Spotlight Team as a taxi baron who consistently exploited drivers laboring under oppressive working conditions?

The taxi medallion transfer was a breathtakingly brash move, ironically brought to light in the aftermath of a legislative decision to impose a fee on users of TNCs, and dedicate a portion of the money to the failing taxi industry, an extraordinary subsidy that would be like using a portion of the gas tax to prop up the whip and buggy business.

There are legitimate small business owners of a number of taxi medallions, people who sought to make a living in the previously monopolistic vehicle for hire industry.  Did they make a bad bet on an industry that became anachronistic overnight?  Are they alone in their predicament? The impact of technology and innovation on this industry isn’t fundamentally different from the impacts we’ve seen in many other sectors, from displacement of people who once staffed cash registers to fundamental changes in how we book travel arrangements, treat the sale of music, or the writing of content for publication. There may be a role for government to be helpful to all of the people whose employment has been put at risk by our techno-centric era, but providing subsidies to prop up business is rarely effective, or lasting.

Perhaps the most glaring disappointment of the TNC bill was its failure to make the connection between TNC use and transit.  Not one penny of the new fee that will be imposed on everyone using Uber, Lyft, Fasten, or Bridj is dedicated to transit. Not a single penny. Yet the impacts of TNCs and microtransit alternatives on public transportation are potentially massive.  There is a reason why Lyft is paying for a large-scale advertising campaign on the T.  Lyft has done the analysis, and they understand that their customers will largely be people of means who they can entice away from public transportation.

I don’t fault Lyft for being entrepreneurial, but the growing use and affordability of TNCs and microtransit threatens our ability to maintain an egalitarian public transportation system.  We’ve given little thought to what that will mean for the future of our urban society and our quality of life. This is an important discussion, as we face a growing threat to our ability to move toward a truly sustainable mobility platform.  And it makes me think, more frequently these days, that we have an urgent need to reimagine completely the governance and funding of public transportation, asking whether an entirely new model needs to be considered and put into place, a model that can be agile and innovative and equally responsive to the mobility needs of all citizens regardless of income. I’ll say more on that topic in another column.

The threats to our sustainable mobility future are coming from all directions.  When a developer proposes just over 1,000 new parking spaces for a tower above South Station, we all need to step back and consider how profoundly wrongheaded that is.  South Station is the hub of the MBTA system these days – the terminal for westbound and southbound commuter rail, Amtrak to the Northeast corridor, the Red Line, and the Silver Line. It is a primary transit hub linking people to the Seaport District, Logan Airport, and the Financial District.  It is the epitome of a location that should be considered a transit-oriented development site.  And yet, rather than attempt to showcase their development as a world class transit-oriented building, the developers would like to invite a thousand additional vehicles every day to come in and out of the city. Will anyone push back?

We spent massive amounts of public funds in the middle of the last century building a series of parking facilities dotted across the downtown, garages that were designed to accept the flow of vehicular traffic from the elevated Central Artery, garages that were symbols of how planners thought about the city in those days – a place that people wanted to get in and out of as quickly as possible.  We demolished those garages, and the elevated artery, and we have moved into an era where more people want to live and work in the city, more people want to invest here.  What makes a city like Boston attractive is not its fickle and often punishing weather, it is the quality of life that it offers. Growing traffic congestion and gridlock – something that is happening now, in real time, every weekday in the downtown core – diminishes that quality by costing us valuable time, making us less efficient, polluting our air, and degrading our public realm.  Inviting more cars to come into the city is 1950s policy, not likely to meet the needs or challenges of our time.

Finally, early August brought the news of the beginning of construction of the Wynn casino in Everett.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently – there is still today, with construction now underway, no credible plan for getting large numbers of people to and from the casino on public transportation, nor is there a credible plan to prevent the expansion of an already lengthening peak traffic period on Interstate 93, or the degradation of Sullivan Square and the roads that feed into it.

It will take time and leadership and advocacy to grapple with these issues and ensure that they do not derail our drive toward sustainable mobility.  There is reason to think hopefully about the future. The Sunday traffic closure of Newbury Street appears from all accounts to have been a great success, creating excitement and interest, transforming a tired street into a pedestrian friendly urban playground, enabling people to engage their city in a new way and providing businesses along that street a chance to gain new customers.

Meet the Author

Those of us who care need to push back hard on inertia, and on old-think. We need to have credible plans to offer up, plans that can gain the enthusiastic support of citizens who are tired of “more-of-the-same,” and the support of a business community that should be acting in enlightened self-interest by supporting sustainable mobility policies and initiatives. That support is necessary if we expect elected and appointed leaders to act.  I’m ready to do my part.  What about you?

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