OF CARS, TRAFFIC, AND HAVING A CONVERSATION

tough traffic, but not unmanageable

My District Councillor, Lydia Edwards, has called for “having a conversation” about Boston’s traffic problem and how, perhaps, to reform it. I commend her for inviting conversation.

Actually, it’s already begun : at Large Councillor Michelle Wu proposed a $ 25.00 fee for resident parking stickers. How this assessment alleviates the traffic, I have no answer. Presumably Wu thinks that imposing a fee for Boston resident street parking permissions will induce many to park their cars somewhere other than on the street.

Is this feasible ? Probably not, in the zones most impacted by heavy traffic. So, is this proposal then a device for raising city revenue ? I can’t imagine any other purpose of it, and I object on that ground. Car owners are already taxed and fee-assessed : the excise tax, parking garages Downtown, car insurance, license and registration, annual inspection fee, and if you get a parking ticket, fees galore added. Car owners are easy prey for revenoo-ers : add the gas tax, the cost of a car loan, gasoline and car repair : in my own case, as my wife and I both keep a car on the road, it costs us about 1100.00 a month to pay for everything assessed or charged to us. It’s also twenty percent-plus of our monthly income. I doubt we’re the only ones. Wu’s $ 25.00 parking permission fee could not possibly be moire regressive. I reject it out of hand. It shouldn’t be part of the conversation at all..

What sort of proposal should be talked about ? I’ll suggest some at the end of this column, but first I think we ought to figure out how our traffic mess got to where it now is. Boston roads developed in stages and represent very different, clashing eras of transportation assumption. Downtown, East Boston, Charlestown, the South End, and much of South Boston were laid out long before cars existed. Most of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mission Hill, Brighton, and Jamaica Plain were planned out when cars were few. Mattapan, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Readville, and West Roxbury came about with street plans allowing for every family owning a car.

Hardly any allowance was made for cars at first, not enough allowance was made second, and full allowance came only for some of us — which means that Boston voters entertain contradictory interests in the traffic and parking.

I know of no one who lives in third-phase Boston who believes that Boston should make it more difficult for  City people to own and use a car. In first-phase Boston, however, many residents feel otherwise: they see their narrow streets filled with Airport-bound Ubers and Lyfts and visitors — for these are all tourist destination neighborhoods — parking where residents need to park. First-phase residents can’t easily drive their neighborhoods, much less get from them to other places. East Boston people see even worse, as Route 1-A brings immense volumes of North Shore commuters into and through the neighborhood on its way to the Harbor Tunnels. (Which adds a fourth phase to the three I have already outlined — Route 1-A and the Tunnels were built, in the 1930s and 1970s, onto an already existing neighborhood almost without regard to their impact on it. You could not get away with that today, but back then there was no organized neighborhood action, and what action did arise arose almost too late to make a difference.)

Charlestown has been all but cut off from surroundings by the Rutherford Avenue by-pass and a bridge to the North End that forms a traffic bottleneck almost every day. As for the North End itself, cars are almost an impossibility in its European-narrow streets, yet they’re everywhere, and parking if you’re not already in a space, is almost an impossibility.

All of that said, the requirement that you be a bona fide resident in order to to obtain a parking permit seems to me sufficient restriction.

Parking takes second place to the traffic situation, which affects everyone who needs to get to or through Downtown. The let’s-ban-cars folks say, make car use so prohibitively expensive that people are forced onto public transit. Leaving side the intolerable overreach of such proposal, public transit only goes where it wants to go and when it wants to go there. Fine, if its destination is yours, and its schedule fits your schedule, but if not, then public transit is a burden we should free to not take on.

Public transportation exists to serve those who have no other means and for those who have only one destination, not three, and who don’t want the hassle of finding parking in Downtown or paying upwards of $ 25 for it. And that is ALL it is for. Public transport can NOT be made mandatory. We live in a free society.

I have no problem with public transportation managers seeking to induce new ridership. That’s what any service provider seeks to do : attract new customers. What I object to is having a governmental authority order it, or force it by imposing taxes, fees, and street bans.

Now let’s talk about traffic in a traffic context and not as a justification for imposing other “mobility”: systems on people.

As traffic moves on roads, the conversation ought to confront the miserable design of Boston’s major roads. The Central Artery was built to traffic assumptions from forty years ago. Its designers evidently saw no problem with ( 1 ) squeezing traffic at exits down to one lane ( 2 ) building ramps onto the left lanes of a four-lane roadway barely a half mile from exit ramps on the other side of said roadway. Coming from the Ted Williams tunnel you enter the main highway from the left, then have to nudge your way across bumper to bumper traffic over to the right side in order to exit onto Massachusetts Avenue. 

These mistakes cannot just be wished away with a magic wand. Redesigning our major traffic roads, re-framing them and, perhaps, rerouting them, is out of the question. The disruption would be worse than the congestion. We’re pretty much stuck with what’s there. Nor is the congestion fatal to business. Thanks to cell phones , you can conduct a negotiation while stuck in traffic; can call whoever needs to be called, can plan ahead for when you — and your team of negotiators, or the other side — arrives at wherever. You can also schedule stuff, because even at peak traffic, it takes on average about 30 to 35 minutes to drive from the tunnel entrance at North Station to the Massachusetts Avenue exit. If you’re driving from Eastie to the other side of the Harbor you can also use the Ted Williams tunnel. From entrance to South Boston exit takes about fifteen minutes even at peak traffic. With a fully charged cell phone in your car you should be able to surmount inconvenence of this degree.

What, then, do I suggest ?

First : do not over-react. City ordinances should not be a kind of scratch to an itch.

Second : enough of dedicated lanes. Setting aside road for MBTA buses exclusively, and for bike travel does not better the situation, it worsens it. European cities set no such policy. All “mobility” types mix it up in the same traffic ; vespas, bikes, cars, jitneys. If there’s one principle of traffic management that we must apply, it is equality.

Third : It is maddening to have to find which lane allows you to turn left, or to go straight ahead, at a stop light; and drivers shifting lanes to meet the preference required by current traffic managers only thickens the jam.

Fourth : maintains roads and bridges in good repair. This is far more important than re-routing or creating dedicated lanes. Poor roads cause unnecessary car repairs (potholes everywhere), and bad bridges force complete shut-downs at the worst possible stretch of road.

Fifth : there are some road routes that do need re-thinking. The bridge at Readville, from one side of Wolcott Square and Sprague Street to the other, at Truman Parkway and Hyde Park Avenue, comes to mind. Too many roads intersect in too many competing combinations. There should be an underpass here, for through traffic, alongside the bridge for local option. I imagine there are other similar anomalies, locally defined, in our road system.

Lastly : let’s not overdo, nor make impulse decisions. Boston traffic arises from the Boston boom. It’s a consequence of prosperity and economic growth. Routing mistakes were made, in the 1930s and in the 1970s, even in the 1990s, yet it would be worse to override these now. Best to apply the principle of traffic equality and to not tax Boston resident car owners beyond the already burdensome excise tax and gas tax. We cannot require car owners to pay even more for the sake of public transportation, as a kind of punishment because the “progressives”: do not like cars. No traffic and transportation policy should ever try to punish one transportation preference in favor of another. It’s up to the people — and not to government — to decide which form of transportation they want to use.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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