It’s time for Boston 3.0

Forget Olympics; the T's winter meltdown is only catalyst necessary

SO NOW WHAT?

Our Olympic wrestling match is over. The international sports spectacle will move on to another venue, most likely in Europe, and most Bostonians (in our unerring spirit of generosity) wish them Godspeed. Now we are free to focus without distraction on our future. Unconstrained by the Olympic dream, we are free to think and plan and aspire to better days, a future time when the equality gap is narrowed, the public transportation system is revitalized, and the city is regarded without qualification as an American center for innovation.

If there was one central reason why the Olympics didn’t get traction locally, it wasn’t poor public relations and marketing efforts, it wasn’t a collective inability to embrace new big ideas, and it wasn’t smug complacence. The Olympics was simply the wrong idea at the wrong time. Boston in 2015 is a city managing important transitions – not political ones but transitions that go to the core of who we are, transitions that reflect changing demographics and values. Boston is passing from its historic parochialism into a new era of neighborhood engagement.

That engagement was first detected in East Boston, when 56 percent of the voters said no to a casino at Suffolk Downs despite the smug certitude of the business and political insiders who believed that a yes vote was in the bag. It was on display more visibly when disparate groups joined in a collective effort to say no to the Olympics. But neither the people of East Boston nor the anti-Olympics activists were saying no to progress. These were not NIMBYS.  Their other message, which often gets overlooked, is a strong and positive yes to a variety of initiatives that can improve the quality of life for people throughout the city and region.

For example, a group formed in East Boston after the “no casino” vote to promote five principles for development at Suffolk Downs.  East Boston 2020 (I was a co-founder of the group) put forward a vision for development at the Suffolk Downs site that was community-friendly and commercially viable. This was a determined effort to engage the city, landowners, and prospective developers in a positive vision for the site that will enable a profitable, transit-oriented, jobs-focused development on the site. So, too, those who led the fight against the Olympics have been clear that they have a positive vision for the city, one that is focused on specific needs, including housing and public transportation. They are not naysayers. They have hopeful visions for our future.

Some people ask: It’s great to have a vision, but what will be the catalyst for change now that the Olympics are gone?  To them I respond: If the MBTA winter meltdown wasn’t a sufficient catalyst for change, then nothing will do.  We cannot afford the luxury of collective amnesia, forgetting how Greater Boston was brought to its knees because our essential public transportation infrastructure failed at a time when we needed it to be resilient. We are kidding ourselves if we think that we can move forward with development of Widett Circle, or an Everett casino, or Suffolk Downs without addressing the problem of urban mobility. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can respond to the problem of inequality in our city – not just income inequality but the pernicious lack of access and opportunity that hold many people back – if we fail to offer all city residents a reliable, safe, and affordable transportation system, enabling them access to education, training, and opportunity. We are kidding ourselves if we think that the young creative class that drives the jobs-producing innovation sector will stay and invest in this city and region if they do not have a quality, multi-modal mobility platform that responds to their needs and preferences. These issues – job growth, equality and social justice, and economic growth and development – are all linked, and they depend in large part upon a stable, reliable public infrastructure.

Corey Dinopoulos, a co-founder of Boston 2024, gets this. In an open letter to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh following the Olympic demise, he called for “improving our underfunded green space, improving traffic flows & transportation, [and] building new affordable & transit-oriented development.”  That is exactly what we ought to be doing, and one can only imagine the power and potency of a combination of pro- and anti- Olympics activists coming together to build upon that program of civic improvement.  The great takeaway from the Olympics discussion is this: Boston has a large cohort of people, many of whom are young activists, who care deeply about this place and its future and who are willing to fight for their vision of a better city.

I predict that the energy that was driven by the Olympics will be redirected toward a new way of thinking about “the next big thing.”  Sometimes the next big thing can be a series of more modestly scaled initiatives that make a direct and demonstrable difference in people’s daily lives. Forests are built one tree at a time; so too, urban quality of life depends upon the successful implementation of a number of improvements neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block.

I learned this lesson from experience. When it was clear in 2009 that the proposal to build a $2.1 billion tunnel connecting the then-existing Silver Line Washington Street and South Station services was untenable, we inaugurated instead the Silver Line 4 service, connecting people from the Washington Street corridor to South Station at a total cost of $1.7 million. We did more with a lot less, and it’s been a hugely successful service from day one. Sometimes thinking big means acting at a micro level; the important thing is to get positive things done.  No one ever benefitted from the inertia that comes from sacrificing action on the altar of “big ideas.”

With no franchise on wisdom, let me offer a starting point for what could become Boston 3.0 – a vision for a 21st century city.

First, let’s embrace innovation throughout the city. For example, Boston should be introducing smart intersections at key points across the city.  These smart intersections would adopt traffic signal priority systems (systems that automatically turn the light green when they detect a bus or public safety vehicle), include variable illumination systems (lighting that can be raised or lowered remotely depending upon conditions on the ground), and perhaps even real-time traffic and transit information. I expect to write more on this later.

Second, let’s support the mayor’s efforts to develop quality, affordable housing across the city. The cost of housing in Boston has exploded, putting great stress on many people and widening the equality gap. Formerly affordable neighborhoods are becoming beyond the reach of many, and the downtown districts defined by the Back Bay, South End, and Seaport Districts are demanding increasingly unprecedented prices. Many people are engaged in this housing effort, from the leaders of groups like East Boston’s Neighborhood of Affordable Housing to entrepreneurs such as Jonathan Berk and his “BuildingBOS” focus on placemaking, transit-orientation, and innovation in the development of new housing.

Third, there is an urgent need to establish true multi-modal equity and a reliable multi-modal mobility platform. The importance of an egalitarian public transportation system that is reliable and resilient and responsive to our mobility needs cannot be overstated.  This means, among other things, establishing mobility hubs at strategic points across the city; focusing on critical mobility districts such as Columbia Point, the Seaport District, and Longwood; and moving forward with planning and action to introduce high-standard bus rapid transit along designated mobility corridors while also building a network of bicycle lanes that reflect best practices and standards.

Our ability to keep and grow jobs, maintain a high quality of life, and attract more private sector investment depends upon our ability to get this right. Of course, much of what is needed is dependent upon State House action and decision making – both in terms of funding and municipal empowerment – and developing support for these initiatives will require sustained, strategic action.

Boston 3.0 can and should be a multiplicity of positive visions, focused on fixing what needs fixing and then moving forward with a variety of appropriately scaled initiatives that reflect our needs and our values. This is the spirit that drove James Jackson Storrow, Charles Eliot, and others to champion the damming of the Charles River and the creation of the Esplanade. It’s the spirit that drove the creation of America’s first subway system between Park and Boylston Streets. It’s the spirit that built Franklin Park and the Emerald Necklace. It’s the spirit that built the Big Dig, addressing a regional traffic congestion crisis and the creating (among other improvements) of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. That is our history. That is why Boston survived and thrived when other major American cities fell into decay and decline and bankruptcy.

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We haven’t lost that spirit. Today’s citizen activists are engaged, and hopefully will remain engaged, in the evolution of the city from its often troubled 20th century past to a new era of inclusion and innovation. That new era, call it Boston 3.0 or Boston Smart, is ours to make. Let’s do it together.

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