More thoughts on the Seaport District

Relieving congestion by adding capacity doesn’t work

MY RECENT THOUGHT PIECE on how to address the growing mobility mess in the Seaport/Innovation/Fort Point Channel District (the District) triggered a fair amount of reaction, and prompted me to consider adding these additional thoughts to what has become a fairly robust civic debate.  Much of that debate has been centered on the future of the Northern Avenue Bridge and the call of many (including myself) to limit use of a rebuilt bridge to cyclists and pedestrians.

You don’t have to be a traffic engineer (I am not) to understand that allowing vehicular traffic on a rebuilt Northern Avenue Bridge would wreak havoc with traffic on Atlantic Avenue.  Access to (or egress from) the bridge would come at a point where there is much traffic and where lots of on-street parking takes place: parking for tour busses, and parking for commercial vehicles providing a variety of goods and services to the nearby law offices and hotels.  The consequences of adding an additional vehicular access and egress point at that location ought to fill the adjacent property owners and tenants with fear.  It should also cause concern for the custodians of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, because the last thing that magnificent urban open space needs is more traffic congesting the streets and polluting the air in a ring around the park.

Adding vehicles to a new bridge will also cause more gridlock by adding new choke points to the District’s built roadway environment.  History and experience show that attempts to relieve congestion by adding capacity quickly fail, fulfilling the “Field of Dreams” adage that if you build it, they will come. This is not theory or speculation.  Think about the chronically congested Leverett Circle Connector coming off Interstate 93, hailed upon opening in 1999 as a major addition to capacity, which 16 years later becomes a parking lot during many hours of the day.  We cannot keep trying to relieve traffic congestion by expanding capacity. As a strategy, it almost always fails as a lasting solution.

So from a completely practical perspective, adding vehicles to a rebuilt Northern Avenue Bridge ought to be off the table.  But practical considerations aside, there is a larger issue raised by those who call for a new bridge with vehicular traffic.  That larger issue goes directly to our urban transportation policy and whether we are ready to move away from the old auto-centric approaches of the last century and toward a more forward looking, sustainable approach to transportation design and planning.  It isn’t too late to reclaim the District as a place of transportation innovation and multi-modal mobility, but the clock is ticking.  If we aspire to make sustainable mobility a reality and not just a talking point, then we need to act accordingly.

A sustainable, modern transportation network is one that offers people a range of reliable, affordable, and green multi-modal choices.  In a dense urban environment like that epitomized by the District, sustainability means placing our focus on transit, cycling, and walking.  That emphasis must be made not because those modes are deemed greener than driving (although they are), but because they may provide the best mobility solutions to support a thriving mixed-use urban environment. When a political leader recently observed that he could have walked to a destination in the District faster than driving, and in the same breath recommended that we add vehicles to a rebuilt Northern Avenue Bridge, he is (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot) having the experience but missing the meaning. We all have had the experience of chronic traffic congestion that costs too much in time wasted, fuel spent, and air polluted. Let’s not miss the meaning of that experience, or the solutions that are readily available.

Breaking old habits is always hard to do, and that is especially true for those who grew up in a post-World War II America where the auto was king and highways were seen as the way to capture the future.  Highways certainly played an important role growing the national economy, particularly through the Interstate Highway system, but there was a large price to be paid for that kind of fossil-fuel driven modernity. In Boston, we were fortunate to have a series of political and civic leaders who understood this and who took action to correct the outdated and often destructive policies of the past.  Just read the Environmental Impact Statements for the Big Dig and you will see the emphasis placed on reclamation of open space and the importance of transit improvements as a part of the overall mix.  The Big Dig was never meant to solve congestion all by itself – it was always the case that transit improvements (like connecting the Red and Blue lines and building the Green Line extension) were critical components of an overall strategy to improve mobility and reduce carbon emissions.  But in the years following completion of the highway components of the Big Dig, we have been laggards about finishing the transit improvements that were tied to that massive project.

It seems to me that we are at a crossroads. We know that we have growing mobility problems in Greater Boston – increased congestion on the Interstate system, with peak congestion times gradually lengthening; a public transportation system that is unreliable and not resilient regardless of the weather – and we know (or ought to know) that new approaches to improving mobility are urgently needed in order to respond to 21st century mobility preferences.  We know this, and because we do we should not accept “same old” thinking about how to improve mobility in one of our most vibrant and important development and residential districts.  If we get it wrong, the Seaport/Innovation/Fort Point District will quickly become labeled as a congested and chaotic place best avoided rather than embraced.

Meet the Author

I’m reminded of Yogi Berra’s famous comment about Rigazzi’s restaurant:  “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”  Replace “crowded” with “congested,” and you get my point.

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