Railing against transportation madness

Gondolas, a 2040 West Station, and autonomous vehicles

I’M WONDERING WHETHER A TYPE OF MADNESS has infected our thinking in Greater Boston. Someone writes in the Boston Globe about how great it will be when autonomous vehicles replace transit – a truly mind-boggling piece that ignores everything about why Greater Boston benefits from smart, sustainable, equitable public transportation. Then a well-heeled private sector developer wants to snatch transportation planning and policy away from the people and the public sector and build a gondola up and down Summer Street in order to service its private sector investment. To top things off, MassDOT decides its ok to redevelop Allston Landing – one of the most strategically located development sites in the city – without insisting on it being transit oriented, deferring the construction of the proposed West Station until a generation from now, and locking in failed 20th Century rail policy.  The next thing you know, someone will want to erect an elevated pod system over the Rose Kennedy Greenway. What in the world is going on here?

I might charitably think that these ideas are springing forth from too much rum in the holiday punch, but it isn’t that late in the season. Might it be the influence of the recent Super Moon? That moon was pretty massive, and as Shakespeare’s Othello observed, the moon “comes more nearer earth than she was wont/And makes men mad.” Or could it simply be hubris? The hubris of wealthy developers who think $100 million can make a misplaced idea credible, or the hubris that informs the kind of auto-centric thinking that essentially says, “I will lock in a failed intercity rail policy at Allston Landing for generations to come because I don’t have the inclination or creativity to shape and implement a sustainable transportation policy today.” Take your pick. I think it’s the moon.

Seriously, let’s take a look at this idea for a gondola over Summer Street.  As my TransitMatters colleague Andy Monat recently observed in a magnificent Twitter thread (he’s @MBTAinfo on Twitter), “if you were trying to do transportation planning for the Seaport, you would think about how many people want to go between which places, at what times, both now and in the future based on some projections. You would also survey the existing transportation choices. Then you’d look at what kinds of things could be done to enable those trips. That includes things like: are there impediments to walking or biking over short distances? Could existing transit be enhanced, with what benefits & at what costs? What about other modes of transit?”

As I have observed more than once in CommonWealth, there’s no doubt that the Seaport District suffers from what is essentially a poor and failing mobility system. It is a fairly straightforward diagnosis: too many cars, not enough transit, and a streetscape that is harshly unfriendly to pedestrians and bicyclists.  This has not escaped the notice of planners and policymakers, and there’s some good news to report. The city, Massport, and the MBTA (among others) are taking a hard look at ways to improve the transit and public realm components of this equation. The city will soon begin work on improvements to a portion of Summer Street that will make it safer and more congenial to walking and cycling. Serious consideration is being given to bus rapid transit that would link South Station to the Flynn Maritime District, South Boston, and Logan Airport, filling gaps in service and responding to current and projected demand.  Private sector stakeholders and Seaport District residents should be supporting such efforts, which are practical, affordable, and achievable ways to provide sustainable mobility to many more people than a gondola ever can or will.

The solution to unlocking the mobility challenges of the Seaport District won’t be found in privately owned systems that cannot and will not function as part of what should be an efficient, affordable, equitable transportation network.  In Andy Monat’s Twitter thread, he notes that gondolas are typically deployed in areas where the terrain is mountainous or hilly. Summer Street is as flat at the state of Florida, which, if you didn’t know, is really flat. Moreover, gondolas are by definition highly inefficient. Proponents claim it would move up to 15,000 people a day. That’s about what a 2-way protected bikeway could move in two hours, or what bus rapid transit could move in about 1 hour, according to the highly respected National Association of City Transportation Officials.

And what happens to the gondola when the private sector developer moves on, as they always do?  Whether it is 15, 25, or 50 years hence, I can assure you that the gondola will be a white elephant that the public sector will be required to dismantle or maintain at taxpayer expense.  We can’t just laugh off this idea as a folly of the moment. Every second spent debating gondolas is a second not spent doing the important work of bringing a better bus transit system to the people of the Seaport District, South Boston, and elsewhere who need it most.

The gondola idea is an annoying distraction. But what’s about to happen at Allston Landing is a real threat to our mobility future. The official proposal to defer building West Station until 2040 – a generation from now – is truly breathtaking in its profoundly negative implications. I have also written about this before. Imagine if the Silver Line in the Seaport District, or the Orange Line station at Assembly Square, weren’t built in the early stages of the development of those districts. That would have been a mistake, just like it is a mistake for MassDOT not to insist on building West Station early in the Allston Landing development cycle.

A new West Station integrated into the intercity rail network as part of a newly conceived regional rail system is an important component of the region’s mobility future. If West Station is built and connected to the Grand Junction Line, it will offer people who now drive on the Turnpike a viable alternative to get to the Kendall Square area of Cambridge, and ultimately to North Station.  You can read more about that here. Despite this, and despite the clearly recognized need to abandon old and failing ways of utilizing our intercity rail assets, there are no firm commitments by the state (or Harvard or BU, who stand to benefit most from this) to an early construction of West Station.

Deferring construction of the station to 2040 may go down as one of the worst transportation policy decisions of the first half of this century. I cannot say it better than Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city of Boston’s chief information officer, who responded to the West Station news on Twitter:  “The idea that the region can add tens of thousands of new residents each year without major, sustained expansion of our transit system is totally bananas.” He’s completely right. The metro Boston region generates most of the state’s jobs, houses most of the state’s population, and produces most of the state’s gross domestic product. If we seriously want to continue to grow jobs – and do so in a socially and regionally equitable way – then we have no choice but to plan, build, and implement a robust regional rail system today. Not tomorrow, and certainly not a generation from now.

West Station should be designed and built in the early stages of this development, and it should (among other things) become a major bus, rail, and transit-oriented development hub, connecting travelers to Cambridge and including a robust bus transit system that could be a model for the city and region. We should be thinking about Allston Landing as a critical component of a new regional rail system, not as a sleepy way station in the middle of a mid-20th Century auto-centric wasteland.

Everyone driving in and out of Greater Boston knows this one compelling truth: traffic congestion is getting worse by the week, and unless we act within the context of a comprehensive strategy we face a mobility future that strangles growth, stifles investment, and saps our region of its vitality. A comprehensive strategy to manage this chronic traffic congestion – by some measures the nation’s worst – must include investments that encourage more people to get out of cars and onto high occupancy transit vehicles, whether that’s intercity rail or urban bus.

To do that, the MBTA needs to provide the quality, convenience, and reliability of service that simply does not exist in today’s system. That’s because today’s transit system remains largely a legacy mid-20th Century system, and as such it does not respond to the needs of the moment. Think of it this way: If we completed every element of the $7.3 billion state-of-good-repair gap, and did nothing to change the way we think about and operate intercity rail and urban bus, we would still be offering people an unappealing, unresponsive 20th Century transit system.  As we improve the system we have, we also need to adapt it to meet the needs of our times.

A transit network that includes a regional rail system providing more reliable service during all times of the day will be a breakthrough in how we think about intercity rail, and it will enable us to make good on the promise of regional equity. A better bus system (which the T to its credit is beginning to advance) is a proven, practical, and affordable way to move large numbers of people safely, affordably, and reliably throughout the inner core communities of Greater Boston. Every action that MassDOT and the MBTA take in connection with service improvement or expansion ought to be taken in a manner that advances these strategies.

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West Station now stands as the test case for whether we are advancing or frustrating a sustainable mobility future. It’s not too late to make West Station the centerpiece of a vibrant transit-oriented district at Allston Landing. Harvard and BU ought to step up and help make this happen in the short term. But if neither institution feels compelled to participate meaningfully in the effort to build a sustainable mobility system in this region, then MassDOT needs to move forward without them. Kicking the can to 2040 condemns the site to retain its mid-20th Century auto-centric characteristics, and that will do a profound disservice to the residents of Boston and Cambridge and the region.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group and serves on the TransitMatters board.