Traffic at your fingertips

Globe tracks how on-demand adds to congestion

YOU DON’T NEED to drive a car or own a parking garage to add to Boston’s traffic woes.

Thanks to modern technology, you can do all that from the comfort of your home on your smart phone.

In the third and final installment of its data-laden survey of the region’s brake-light-hued congestion problem, the Boston Globe focused on apps.

GrubHub, Uber, Amazon, and their competitors can hide the secret sauce of their computer codes, but out on the streets everyone can see the cogs of their delivery systems at work, and it often isn’t pretty.

One nondescript UPS delivery truck racked up 238 tickets in the first half of this year, and spent the majority of at least one recent weekday stopped illegally as it made the rounds “delivering the goods to satisfy our insatiable need to get everything we want, whenever we want.”

It is just one example of the public outsourcing traffic. The elegant apps that have become synonymous with convenience are creating a heavy toll of gridlock on the roads that carry all the meals, products, and passengers.

The story written by Nicole Dungca – who is on her way to the Washington Post – suggests that new fee structures might help. Jacking up the price of ride-hailing isn’t a new idea, but Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s former chief information officer, proposed a novel way to pump the brakes on the booming food delivery industry. Call it congestion pricing for ordering in.

“How would I start to think about policies that don’t say, ‘You can’t have food delivered at 5:30,’ but say, ‘Hey, maybe you should pay a little more on that,’ as a way to encourage people to be thoughtful?” Franklin-Hodge mused.

Boston’s current arrangements with some companies facilitate traffic-clogging behavior in exchange for lucrative ticket revenue. The story documents how UPS and others have deals that allow them to amass parking violations without risking a boot that would put a truck temporarily out of service.

Many lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker have been resistant so far to the idea of using congestion pricing on all drivers to limit the amount of rush hour traffic in the busiest parts of Boston, but the new growth in app-dispatched meals and rides could offer a more limited subset of drivers on which policymakers could experiment with new approaches.

One irony of our current predicament is that smartphone apps made travel by transit – especially bus – much more convenient and pleasant than the bad old days when paper schedules provided the only solid information about how to get from A to B. But apps have made on-demand chauffeurs and online shopping even more convenient, marginalizing the MBTA among other things.

The Globe’s story makes it plain that as those types of services have skyrocketed, the slick code underpinning them often mashes up poorly with the current configuration of Boston’s streets.

The experience of one Uber Eats driver exemplifies that. Juan Reinoso was making a pickup at a Sweetgreen in the heart of bustling Harvard Square, where the parking shortage predates the internet era.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

“See, what are you supposed to do in this situation?” Reinoso asked. “It’s just the way that Boston is made.”

The Globe documents his not-so-innovative solution: “He settled on temporarily blocking a crosswalk in front of a fire hydrant, before dashing out of his car to pick up a salad order for his next customer.”