Rush hour traffic on I-93 viewed from Southampton St. in Boston

A couple of days ago, a truck accident in the Sumner Tunnel turned Boston’s expressway traffic upside down. Gridlock extended for miles and lasted for hours. Thousands of drivers fumed and fussed; passengers missed appointments. Everybody was late for work, or to return home from work. Excess pollution barfed the atmosphere. It was a damned messy magillah with zero escape. Politicians swore to fix the mess. Alternative transportation became the golden calf. And so it went last Friday in Boston, a city booming with business, population, and bumper to bumper crush.

There isn’t much one can do about accidents, but that did not stop politicians from advocating all sorts of remedies that won’t work much. An accident in one of the tunnels leading into and out of Downtown definitely hits the weak points; yet it’s hard to see how our transportation system can account for them. Alternative transportation, such as ferries, doesn’t work because who would use them except during the one tenth of a percent time when an accident blocks the roads ? They’d be sitting there, bored at the dock, waiting for the magical hour of their greatest need. We could build duplicate tunnels : but the same argument applies to these. Who would use the duplicate tunnel except during a crisis ? That, or, maybe an extra tunnel would gin up extra traffic: it’s kind of an axiom that the more roads you build, the more cars will find their way to use them. In any case, it might take 20 years to plan and build extra tunnels and get them safely through 20 thousand environmental regulations.

If alternative transportation doesn’t work — it might be a good idea to create it, but on its own, not as a crisis savior — and as duplicate tunnels aren’t likely to be built, can we do anything at all to keep Boston moving during an accident in a tunnel ? We could, I suppose, forbid accidents in the first place — just penalize those who suffer an accident even more than those who cause one, by imposing a ruinous toll on big scary trucks at tunnel entrances. Perhaps we could ban vast trucks altogether and have big bulk goods transported only by Harbor barge. I dunno… Perhaps we could create truck-only lanes and wall them off from the general traffic. Only problem there is that entrances onto the Central Artery are one lane wide, not two. Oh well.

The big problem is that cities change much more flexibly than transportation systems. When you build an expressway, or a tunnel, or a rapid transit line, or exit ramps, what you build is literally cast in stone. The city around it may ebb or flow, boom or sag, grow busy or fall empty and do all of that naturally and easily because the human body can move on its own; it is NOT written in stone. Not so with roadways and rails. These use rights of way that can’t be shifted from here to there. The cement and steel they’re built with are a fact on the ground — cannot be moved. And if they can be blasted and demolished, and new ones created in their place, that’s not a project one can undertake on a whim or every time that traffic sticks.

Boston’s roads and transit lines were built in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s-1960s, or they were built in the 1990s to plans drawn up in the 20s, 30s, 50s and 60s. Their location and size concurred with traffic expectations and transport modes assumed two to three generations ago. If we now commit to a major transit and roadway overhaul, and to new devices for transporting, what we decide actually to build won’t be in service, likely, til the 2030s. By which time, who knows what Boston’s mobility demands will be ? Of course we could just decide to snuff the Boston boom out and revert to the Boston of 1970, that nobody wanted to live in, that had nothing going on, in which house prices were dirt cheap because everybody with an option at hand wanted out to the suburbs. We could go back there, perhaps, but chances are we won’t do that. Most likely the City will continue to boom and build for several decades to come. Maybe only sea rise will stop it. Which means that we and our kids and grand-kids are going to be living with stalled traffic and fewer transit lines than needed. (The Blue Line would benefit enormously from expansion to Lynn, or beyond, but this has been talked about since 1990 to no avail, nor do I hear any sort of viral outcry now to do said expansion.) There will surely be expansion in some service, and perhaps some alternative roadways and dedicated lanes, but the law of traffic likely applies : build more roads and more traffic will use them.

To sum up : we should continue to commit to T expansion where feasible, create dedicated roadway lanes, and add bus routes and increase our Harbor taxi service — not because it will cure the crush but because they make sense to provide. We can also bulk up highway and transit rescue crews — it should not take two or three hours to clear the expressway of an accident. We should NOT try to tweak the public with give-away T fares, or chivvy drivers by imposing price benefits on those who can flex their driving day into the off-peak hours (this magic is called “congestion pricing.” It would turn the work day upside down.) There is plenty, I suggest, that can be done and just as much, if not more, that shouldn’t be done. Other than these predictions, however, I have one more : almost certainly we’ll have to live with, perhaps sometimes enjoy, the density, in everything, that accompanies city prosperity.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere