Doubling down on the past

MassDOT, Boston stick with auto-centric approach

THIS IS A TALE of two transportation issues – a window on how we may be losing the opportunity moment provided by a generationally disruptive pattern break.

The pattern break, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. Every pattern break in history changes the ways we do things going forward. The example I give most often is the experience of 9/11. That pattern break changed forever the way we approach flying and aviation security, it changed the ways we enter public and private buildings, it changed the urban streetscape as barriers originally installed as ugly concrete blocks gave way to highly designed barriers that blend seamlessly into the architectural fabric of the urban landscape.

The COVID-19 pattern break will be as or more significant than the 9/11 break. The impacts of the pandemic reach into almost every aspect of our lives – how we work, how we use and enjoy public and private spaces, how we move from place to place, how we utilize essential services.  The list is nearly endless.

The pandemic won’t last forever – nothing does.  But its effects will stay with us for a long time, some perhaps permanently.  Each of us has been challenged to manage and deal with the realities of this harsh moment – the need to isolate from others, to wear masks outside the home, to significantly alter our desires and habits. But each of us also is being challenged to think about how to build a better future.

Few believe that the conditions existing before the pandemic – chronic and worsening traffic congestion, diminished air quality (which we now know made us more vulnerable to COVID-19), and a public realm given over so thoroughly to auto centric uses that safe cycling, safe walking and rapid bus service were relegated to the bottom of the list – were so good that we should gladly accept that failed recent past as the post-COVID “normal.”

I had hoped that there would be a strong consensus to reconsider how we provide transportation services to people and how the public realm is designed.  If you want small business to survive, they need more outdoor space, probably for a long, long time. If you want to stop the return of traffic congestion, you need to provide safe, reliable public transportation services that people feel comfortable using. That means new service delivery models including frequent, all day service. If you provide people the same service they had before COVID, you aren’t getting the point.

When it comes to the entwined issues of the future of our cities and the future of sustainable mobility, metro Boston is not rising to the occasion. Two examples, one of a large scale and one more modestly scaled, reveal how status quo leadership is offering status quo solutions.

The large-scale project is the rebuilding of the elevated portion of the Turnpike at Allston Landing. This project appeared to be advancing in a good direction a year ago, with design alternatives that reflected 21st century sustainability values enabling local and regional mobility in a manner that respected the environment, enhanced multi-modalism, and, in the long run, would be more cost effective than simply rebuilding the current elevated structure.

Inexplicably, MassDOT has returned to the worst, most auto-centric and least sustainable solution, repeating the design mistakes of the early 1960s.  In doing so, it has turned its back on multi-modalism, refusing to commit to keeping two tracks on the Worcester Line open at all operating times during Turnpike reconstruction.  This effectively eliminates any opportunity to utilize our existing intercity rail assets as a viable commuting alternative for residents along the metrowest/Worcester corridor.

At a time when public agencies ought to be thinking about life after the pandemic, and how to play a role in the transformation of sub-optimal status quo systems into resilient, sustainable transportation networks that encourage multi-modalism and provide better access to jobs, schools, and other key destinations, MassDOT is doubling down on the past. The pathway forward is not going to be found by rebuilding the unsustainable design mistakes of the mid-20th century.

Lest you think MassDOT is alone in embracing an uncreative, auto-centric approach to building a better future, let me reveal how the city of Boston proposes to cloak a really bad auto-centric street design in sustainability clothing.  More clever than MassDOT, Boston sticks out its chest proudly to announce a new cycling lane on a stretch of Dorchester Avenue across from Broadway Station.  Alas, upon closer inspection we see that Boston suffers from the same affection for the failed auto-centric past as does MassDOT. The French have a term for this: folie a deux.

As you can see from the sketch below, Boston proposes to add a partial cycling lane along one side of Dorchester Avenue between Broadway and 4th Street.  To accomplish this, the city has removed a planted median in order to ensure that it did not need to eliminate either a parking lane or a traffic lane. In other words, auto-centric thinking ruled the day. Adding a cycling lane is a great idea, but a mindset that thinks you cannot do that at the expense of a travel or parking lane is a pre-COVID mindset. We know that particulate matter, the stuff that comes out of vehicle tailpipes, causes higher rates of COVID vulnerability and mortality. So designs like this literally help endanger our health. It does not bode well for how Boston will emerge from the pandemic.

What does this mean in practical terms?  Well, on the opposite side of the street there are three important urban uses that the city has essentially turned its back on: two neighborhood restaurants and Broadway Station.  If you wanted to get this stretch of Dorchester Avenue right, you might consider eliminating the parking alongside the street where the restaurants and T station are, allowing for more outside dining and for better, safer bus movements.  This is, after all, where three T buses stop: the 9, the 11, and the 47.  You might also keep the planted median as a public amenity that would help soften the streetscape and improve business for the struggling restaurants.  One has to ask: is Boston rebuilding this stretch of Dorchester Avenue for its residents, or for people driving through the neighborhood to get somewhere else?

This brief summary of two current transportation initiatives ought to be sobering for everyone who hopes – indeed expects – our state and local leaders to work with us to build a better, healthier, more resilient and sustainable post-pandemic future.  Applying the old ways of thinking simply won’t cut it. We are literally sacrificing small neighborhood businesses, and transit mobility, on the altar of mid-20th century auto-mobility.

Meet the Author

I keep thinking, and saying, that we can do better. But I wonder, given examples like these, whether that is really true.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.