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How Boston's Traffic Complicates Development

Seaport Boulevard, in the heart of South Boston’s Innovation District (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Seaport Boulevard, in the heart of South Boston’s Innovation District (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 7 years old.

On Seaport Boulevard in the heart of South Boston’s Innovation District, among new gleaming glass towers and construction cranes, many of the region’s brightest minds are firing fast. Here, the future is sparkling.

But there is also a different picture: cars, trucks and buses, stacked up at traffic signals, waiting for the green to go.

As Branner Stewart of the UMass Donahue Institute says, the traffic is both a blessing and a curse.

"What stands out is that we are one of the most congested cities in the country," says Stewart, who's studied the economic impact of transportation. "People spend, as everyone knows, a disordinate amount of time sitting in traffic. But also one thing that stands out about traffic levels is that our congestion is also a reflection of our success."

It’s the yin and yang of being a hot market.

Businesses and people want to move to Boston, creating traffic, which is, says Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, more than just an annoyance -- especially in the Innovation District.

"I think it's difficult and [traffic congestion is] unsustainable as we move forward," Walsh says. "As our population continues to grow and as companies continue to move into our city, having the amount of cars coming into our city every day, I think it's a point of great concern."

And according to Stewart, it’s only going to get worse in the Seaport.

"They've added about 10 million square feet of office and hotel and various building space in the past 10 or 15 years, and there's millions more square feet to go in," Stewart says. "So I think without adding more transportation capacity, both transit and roadway, we will see a much more congested Boston in the future."

Concerns In Dudley Square

Midday traffic moves through Dudley Square in Rxobury. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Midday traffic moves through Dudley Square in Rxobury. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Roxbury's Dudley Square is another neighborhood suffering from traffic congestion, and one that Boston officials hope will also become a thriving innovation hub.

Four of Roxbury's major streets converge around the Justice Edward O. Gourdin Veteran's Memorial Park, a triangle-shaped plaza of green in a sea of asphalt. It's such a congested trouble spot that Lee Matsueda, of the activist group Alternatives for Community and Environment, says before MBTA buses started using clean diesel fuel, area residents regularly had to clean soot from windows and tables.

Now, Matsueda says the chief concern is simply getting to where you need to go.

"I mean, when we look at the city of Boston we know that a third of the households do not have a car," Matsueda says. "And what that means is in neighborhoods like Roxbury where it's overwhelming, I believe it's at least 85 percent people of color and many low income families, we have people who depend on public transportation."

He calls it "transit justice" -- making sure improving transportation is just as much a priority in low income neighborhoods as it is in wealthier ones.

"You look at a lot of people of color living in between the Orange and Red line ... if you look on that Boston map and the MBTA map," Matsueda says. "And those people actually experience some of the longest delays in getting to their appointments and getting to jobs because it's difficult for them — they have to go bus to bus, or bus to subway, to get access downtown or other job centers."

An 'Over-Capacity' Silver Line

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

There are MBTA woes of a similar nature plaguing the bustling job center that is the Seaport.

Jim Rooney, the CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, says more MBTA bus service and more capacity on frequently packed Silver Line buses are crucial to the cultivation of the Seaport.

"If we went downstairs into the Silver Line transit station, it, during rush hour, right now, and in the morning, is over capacity," Rooney says. "People are waiting two and three vehicles to board a Silver Line vehicle. That is a problem."

Rooney argues that a more efficient, less crowded T will make bus and train commuting more attractive and will take more cars off the streets.

And Rooney is not alone.

A WBUR poll released this week finds a majority of transit users and drivers think improvements to the MBTA would improve traffic, and more than 90 percent believe making MBTA service more frequent and reliable will encourage more people to use it.

But on a recent Green Line ride with state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, she said that fixing the T is just one part of the solution.

"I think that in the future more and more people will commute different ways, different days," Pollack says. "I think what people want is choices and then real-time information so they can say, ‘Should I bike today? Should I take the T today? Should I drive my car today? Should I walk today?’ That's what people want and our system doesn't connect well enough to give people two or three different ways to get where they're going, and doesn't give people real-time information to make that choice. I think that that is the system that we can provide in the future."

Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack enters the turnstiles at the Government Center MBTA station on the Green Line during her commute to Newton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack enters the turnstiles at the Government Center MBTA station on the Green Line during her commute to Newton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

So, how fed up are commuters?

While the WBUR poll found most people are satisfied with the amount of time they spend commuting, 1 in 7 said traffic, in the last few months, has them thinking about leaving the Boston area.

Transportation researcher Stewart does not think we’re at the crisis point yet, but worries that if that time comes, we won’t actually recognize it.

"What we could see is a slow erosion, and a slow erosion is actually more insidious than possibly having an actual breaking point," Stewart says. "I mean, what could happen is we could start hearing from employers that, ‘You know what, we're not able to attract the talent that we used to be able to attract.' "

But, for now, attracting new talent seems to be a distinct draw for companies looking to open up shop in Boston, including General Electric, which announced earlier this year plans to build a new world headquarters in the Innovation District.

When asked whether he thinks businesses are choosing to relocate or expand in Boston because of an implicit promise by the state and the city that they would help solve traffic and transportation issues, the chamber's Rooney says the Boston commute is indeed a key corporate issue.

"Well, what we heard out of the GE deal was an explicit commitment to solving some of the problems from government. This was clearly part of the conversation that took place as GE was making their location decisions," Rooney says, "and it's clearly a conversation -- and I've been involved in them -- that major employers want to have, 'What's the plan? What are we going to do? Our employees want to know.' "

This segment aired on April 27, 2016.


Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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