‘Boston Public Radio,’ with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (WGBH weekdays from 11 to 2) features interesting guests and discussion. Except for the call-in segments. That’s when Margery and Jim pick a topic, riff personal rants, and throw open the lines for others to complain. I don’t see the point, except perhaps to illustrate that talk radio dialed left can be every bit as angry as talk radio dialed right. And on ‘Boston Public Radio,’ the favorite rant is: traffic. Lines light up, vitriol spills, and nothing changes.
One thing all can agree upon: Boston traffic is horrific, much worse than comparable cities our size. And its companion public transit system, the T, has the unique tragedy of being extensive in scale yet miserable in performance. It’s like a Christmas tree train set: cute, quirky, and ineffective.
Beyond that, there is no agreement. More roads? Where to put them? Better transit? The system is totally broken. More bicycles? Please, this is talk radio, where cyclists occupy the lowest level of hell.
One recent morning Jim kicked off a half-hour of collective whining by describing his 50-minute drive from Inman Square Cambridge to Boston’s South End the previous evening: a distance of 3.5 miles. His injustice fueled mighty ire.
Just before I switched off the blather, I realized, the answer to Boston’s transportation problems is straightforward, almost simple. It is also politically impossible. Although, optimist that I am, I will recategorize that as ‘politically unlikely.’
What do we need to do? Simple. Move a million people or so from multiple Points A to multiple Points B, many of whom want to travel at the same time. American wisdom suggests that we move them with as much autonomy, comfort, and speed, as fast as possible. Hence, the automobile. Hence, the highway. Hence, Los Angeles, the city that proves the more you pave, the worse traffic becomes. Unfortunately, the only examples of car-centric American cities that don’t have major traffic are those that have suffered economic contraction. Driven in Detroit lately? It’s a breeze. But that doesn’t make it a good model for Boston to emulate.
We also need to burn less fossil fuel. A lot less. True fact: when humans are extinct traffic will be manageable. But we ought to explore less extreme solutions.
In the United States, where we worship individual privacy, eliminating private transportation is not a viable option. The T can barely handle the volume it carries now. But still, we have to incentivize people out of their cars and get them traveling together. This requires change. Change implies pain. Pain triggers resistance. What can we do to shift folks from polluting cars on congested streets to reliable, efficient transit?
Let’s start with a 50 cent per gallon tax on gasoline, ear marked to public transportation.
Fifty cents a gallon? Are you kidding? That will kill our economy! Actually, it will still leave our gasoline prices short of these in California, where the economy remains strong.
Give more money to the T? You’re nuts! They can’t manage what they have now. Yes, the T needs reform and direction. We need to make sure any more money it gets goes for better service not just station facelifts.
First, the T needs make the commuter rail lines, not the subway, the primary backbone of the system. The commuter rail lines cover the entire region, and if we want folks out of cars, we have to give them something viable instead. Commuter trains should run more often, more reliably. Then, we have to make the subway more efficient. Eliminate stops that are only blocks from each other (bye-bye Boylston and Chinatown, maybe even Shawmut and Green). Give above-grade trolley lines green light bypasses; if the Green Line along Comm Ave becomes faster than driving, people will switch. Strengthen bus service. The new bus lines along Mount Auburn Street in Watertown and Cambridge give priority to bus riders, who comprise more than fifty percent of rush hour commuters in that stretch of road, while taking up less than twenty percent of the road space.
Other things will be required to transition from cars to transit, like increased density development around train stops. Wouldn’t it be sweet to live in an apartment next the Lincoln train stop? Such dreams eclipse reality.
Actually, this is all a dream. Yet we all know that we must make it a reality if we are to sustain life in this city, on this planet.
One small place we can start is with Jim and Margery. Jim complained about his 50-minute drive from Inman Square to the South End. Many callers echoed his frustration. But not one—not one—questioned why the heck he even tried driving that 3.5-mile stretch at rush hour. There are buses and subways that connect those locations. On a nice spring evening, it’s a great walk. I have no empathy for Jim’s complaints because we have to get out of the mindset that we can just drive anywhere we want any time we want. Especially when we have other options.
Let’s make more options available for everybody, and let’s promote them as the preferred way to get around Boston. You have our ears, Margery and Jim. Lead the change.