There’s no getting around

Too many proposals in Boston restrict mobility without added value for the city

THE TERM “HIDING in plain sight” has meaning beyond the obvious.  Sometimes facts and realities that are part of our daily routine get overlooked, taken for granted, accepted as part of the norm, endured as intractable problems.  When that happens – when we accept and endure an unacceptable status quo – we enable bad decisionmaking that fails to reflect current and emerging realities. This is happening in real time in Greater Boston, and its time for all of us to be alert to it.

Our near complete and total failure to redirect how we design, build and pay for best practices safe cycling lanes is one reflection of this. There’s a lot of supportive talk among officials at the state and local levels, good plans and good intentions abound, but the talk and the good intentions haven’t transitioned to a commitment to undertake a massive redirection of public investment, enabling implementation on a fast track and at a meaningful scale. This flies in the face of clearly changing mobility preferences, keeping our roadway infrastructure largely stuck in mid-20th century configurations that fail to respond to 21st century needs. It also enables a growing safety crisis.

As we wait for a major policy and investment redirection, cyclists continue to die needlessly, or suffer the daily indignities of near-death experiences as a result of driver distraction, ambivalence, and in some circumstances road rage at the very thought of sharing the road. The point is this: cars and trucks shouldn’t be sharing the road with bicycles. Bicycles should have their own clearly marked separate safe lanes. Until we bake this idea into the system, we will not witness meaningful progress on this front.

I have previously called for adoption of a Safety Impact Review (SIR) that, like current environmental review processes, would require all road and highway projects to pass certain tests to demonstrate that they meet best practices for safe cycling and walking environments.  I call once again for the adoption and implementation of an SIR as an urgent necessity.

Cycling is one reflection of a problem hiding in plain sight. So, too, is the return to 1970s style chronic traffic congestion in the urban core. If you have recently driven on the downtown segments of Interstates 90 and 93 after 3pm any weekday, if you use the Southeast Expressway as your daily commute, if you have tried to get to Logan Airport on the Silver Line, if you’ve been stuck in traffic in the Seaport District, if you sit in the parking lot of Interstate 93, a highway with a wholly inadequate HOV lane north of Boston that grinds to a halt during rush hour nearly to Route 128, if you’ve tried to use the Leverett Circle connector pretty much any time of the day – if you are one of these people, you know what I am talking about.  These are a few examples of the growing congestion, gridlock and capacity issues that plague Greater Boston’s mobility.

When a Seaport District real estate developer from Los Angeles recently told the New York Times that having a traffic congestion problem was “a good problem to have,” he was demonstrating how greed triumphs over sensible thinking.  The idea appears to be: let’s build to our heart’s (and wallet’s) content, and leave it to the government to figure out how to deal with the mobility crisis we’ve just exacerbated. This approach isn’t confined to one misguided fellow from LA.  Consider this:

The Bayside Expo Center stands (or stood) at the entrance of perhaps one of the most mobility-challenged areas in Boston.  Traffic is chronically congested on roadways that no reputable traffic engineer would lay claim to; pedestrian access from JFK station is substandard, and shuttle bus service is a poor substitute for the kind of transit connectivity that encourages consistent, widespread use. Despite this, a proposal for the development of the site as a major sports entertainment venue, a venue sure to exacerbate the mobility problems in this area unless there is massive public subsidy for the project, was recently floated.

We seem to be living in a time when the only ideas floating up through the mire of self-interest are those tied to sports events or casino gaming.  Typically, these uses attract and appeal to more people from outside the city than they do actual Bostonians. Worse still, they do not generate many permanent good paying jobs, and they tend to cause massive disruptions to a transportation system that already is groaning under the weight of bad planning (Seaport District), that is over-capacity (Red Line, Silver Line, Orange Line), and whose interstate system is chronically congested for longer periods each day.  What are people thinking?

The answer is: they aren’t thinking. How many times do bad ideas have to be floated and shot down before political and civic leaders get the drift?  A casino at Suffolk Downs, an Olympic Stadium at Widett Circle, an Indy Car race in the middle of the Innovation District, and now a soccer stadium at Bayside Expo.  What ties these ideas together is not their responsiveness to the needs or values of the citizens of Boston. Rather, these ideas seem to reflect the unrealistic dreams of aging college jocks, people who are unable or unwilling to adapt to changing times.

Watching this parade of sports and entertainment gimmicks attempt to pass muster as an economic growth plan is a little like watching an old Garland/Rooney film where the solution to every problem, the antidote to every ailment, is found within the enthusiastic exclamation: “I know, lets put on a play!”  We appear to be bereft of creative thinking when it comes to attracting uses that reflect our values, and respond to the very real and growing problems we have in housing and transportation.

Take a look at how this kind of old-think has impacted the city’s most transit oriented development site. Suffolk Downs, the size of the entire North End neighborhood, ought to be targeted for smart, residential friendly, transit-oriented development. This largely undeveloped 100+ acre site with two Blue Line transit stations already in place and two minutes from Logan Airport continues to lie dormant in a city that should be attracting 21st century jobs growth and quality mixed income housing to this unique and strategic site. But nothing positive happens as property owners search for the elusive holy grail of a sports entertainment or casino use that the neighboring community does not want and will never sanction.

This is serious business.  What are the filters through which we assess new ideas for major development or initiatives in the city?  What filters should we use to assess the merits of public sector investment and attention? There is no clear, consistent and transparent approach to evaluating the merits of ideas that pop up out of nowhere and get rapturous attention from various local media outlets.  Let me propose five questions to ask in order to effectively evaluate any large-scale project, indeed five ways to evaluate a city.

First: Is it legible?  Does it reflect somehow our history, our identity as a city, our sense of place? If it doesn’t, how does it respond to our collective values?

Second: Is it sustainable?  Does it respond to the imperative of reducing carbon emissions and restoring open space?  Is it transit oriented? Does it improve quality of life for residents? Is it fiscally viable and profitable for the private sector without being a drain on taxpayers or requiring massive public subsidy?

Third: Is it durable?  Is it designed to be a permanent asset for the city?  Does it foster upward mobility by creating good, long-term jobs?  Does it provide decent, affordable housing?  Or is it a gimmick, a one-off event, or a venue for periodic sports events?

Fourth: Is it accessible?  Is it open and available to all citizens?  Is it egalitarian?  Or are the benefits directed disproportionately to the same politically connected or wealthy few?

Fifth: Is it equitable? Does it lift people up and level the playing field of opportunity?  Is it affordable for those city residents who are not at the top of the income heap? Does it respond to neglected or underserved neighborhoods and their needs? Does it consider that roads are finite spaces that need equal and appropriate treatment for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians?

These questions provide a framework for evaluation of projects and initiatives that would ensure that they respond to city needs and community values.  If you believe such a framework isn’t needed, think again:

A group of judges who apparently would like an easier exit from their waterfront courthouse want to open the Northern Avenue Bridge to traffic, regardless of its negative impacts on both the Seaport District and Atlantic Avenue.  Their voices are heard while the Seaport District remains stuck in a growing mobility mess.

Try walking along Atlantic Avenue near the International and Boston Harbor hotels to witness first hand how corporate interests completely trumped a pedestrian safe and friendly environment.

There’s no progress on having even a discussion about raising net new revenue to bring our public transportation system into First World status, as yet another fare increase hits the wallets of T riders.

Safe, best-practices cycling lanes are parceled out in miserly fashion as cyclists are killed in circumstances that would not happen with the proper infrastructure in place.

Legislation that would provide transit riders and cyclists similar tax treatment to drivers parking in the city sits in the State House, waiting and waiting to be enacted into law.

Now I ask: Do you think that the direction and evolution of public policy and private sector investment is accurately and adequately reflecting our current values, or our mobility preferences?

Meet the Author

As we approach the lethargic dog days of summer, I hope that many people will have time to reflect on these seeming disparate but truly connected issues. When we seriously entertain a Stadium in a place that is groaning every day under the burden of an existing chaotic mobility network, does that respond to your values, to your needs, to your aspirations for the future of this city and region? When we parcel out best practices cycling lanes as if they were a quirky and exotic sideshow as opposed to an urgent public mobility and safety requirement, does that respond to your idea of an equitable and sustainable urban mobility system?  And if the answers are  “no,” then do something about it.  We need to establish and adhere to standards that reflect our vision and our aspirations for our future, and our values as a people.

James Aloisi is a former Secretary of Transportation and a principal in the Pemberton Square Group