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Where do cars fit (if they should) in Boston’s transit future?

Space limits, health turn eyes to other modes, but some say the need for cars won’t vanish

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Where do cars fit (if they should) in Boston’s transit future?
Commuters make their way through Dudley Square. Many planners promote biking, walking and public transit to combat health concerns and reduce traffic snarls, but others in the city say cars are still necessary and the needs of drivers are not always met.

While Boston’s population is growing, its roads are not—or not by enough to accommodate all the cars expected to be on the street if transit habits do not change. To avoid serious traffic snarls, as well as the pollution generated by all those idling vehicles, officials are honing in on ways to make alternatives to driving more attractive.

One prong or byproduct of that strategy may be making, or allowing, driving to become less attractive. Dudley Square Main Streets Executive Director Joyce Stanley says businesses in her area are feeling the pain as parking for customers becomes scarce. As new developments rise but add few parking spaces, the pressure on drivers and those dependent on them may only increase.

Still, many agree that alternatives to driving bring benefits, whether that’s healthier commutes for those who walk and bike, cleaner air and cooler streets or the opportunity to dodge time stuck in traffic. Mahra Holland is the health equity and community wellness coordinator at Madison Park Development Corporation and a member of the Mass in Motion initiative in Roxbury. She notes that Dudley Square, especially, has high rates of asthma and Roxbury is prone to extreme heat, something more cars would exacerbate. Holland says reducing parking spaces is a step in the right direction, but should be coupled with enhancement of other modes of transit.

“A the same time, if you’re removing parking spaces, you need to increase alternate modes of transportation,” Holland said.

The question remains whether Dudley’s parking and driving stress will continue to be a headache or if it is just a growing pain that will ease as the city implements plans to make other transit choices more viable, efficient and compelling.

Currently the city has plans under discussion on transit in Dudley Square as well as redesign of Melnea Cass Boulevard, with construction on both slated to begin in 2018. Under the first effort, the city has designated $9 million in capital funding for construction of infrastructure and streets around Dudley Square and the station, said Vineet Gupta, Boston Transportation Department director of policy and planning. The goal is to meet changing transit needs, for instance with initiatives to enhance pedestrian and cycling experiences, as well as improve intersection experiences for vehicles and buses. The Melnea Cass work falls under a separate contract, which is aimed at improving the safety for cyclists and pedestrians on the boulevard.

Driving business

Stanley says that while residents need a mix of options, parking must remain among them. Many businesses rely on customers who use cars to reach them, and ongoing construction, including utility improvement work, has discouraged some patronage.

“We need parking and keep having less and less, or it being restricted because of construction,” Stanley told the Banner. “We’re losing businesses because customers can’t park. A lot of older businesses are leaving.”

Parking spaces continue to become scarce: Many developments are not including employee or customer parking and are taking advantage of zoning policy changes that reduced the parking space requirements from one space per housing unit to 0.7 spaces per unit, Stanley said. Other buildings accommodate only their own residents and employees, and so make no strides toward alleviating existing pressures in the area.

“People want things to be open later at night and want more restaurants. But you have to have [customer] parking and employees have to have parking, too,” Stanley said. “If people want to bring businesses here, you have to have cars. They can’t all take public transportation.”

The city’s transportation plan for Dudley does not address parking needs, and seems more designed to ferry people through Dudley Square than encourage them to stop in and visit, Stanley said. The lack of parking provisions in the plan — especially given new development that brings parking demand from residents moving in and customers and employees drawn by new commercial space — was a topic at a Dudley Square Main Streets board meeting last week, she said.

Some ideas being floated would make driving more challenging, such as a proposal to narrow a major road. Under this proposal, one of the four lanes on Dudley Street would be designated as a bike lane.

Some sectors may prove difficult to move off of car use as well: Stanley said it is often inconvenient for parents with children in day care to pick them up via public transit, especially when the centers charge steep per-minute rates for late pickups. Some employers, such as the welfare office, also have employees traveling in from other states, making stringing together trips on multiple public transit lines currently an unappealing option.

More cars than city

Eric Bourassa, transportation director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, says that in general, “retail is the biggest trip generator” in the city region, although factors such as availability of free parking on either end of the trip, residents’ ability to afford vehicles and home proximity to commercial offerings all impact car use.

Already there is congestion on nearly 40 percent of major roads in Boston and eight surrounding cities during afternoon commutes, states a Boston Region Metropolitan Organization 2016 study. Congestion could hit 51 percent of roads by 2040.

Even as the average number of miles driven per person in Boston is expected to decrease by 9.4 percent, population and employment growth will keep traffic levels high — the total miles traveled on Boston’s roads is expected to increase by 5 percent by 2030, according to the Go Boston 2030 report released this year. City officials do not foresee ability to widen roads enough to comfortably serve all those vehicles.

According to the Go Boston 2030 report, without sufficient change, 37 percent of Bostonians in 2030 will be driving alone for their daily commute. In the Seaport, the rate of single-occupancy vehicle trips is expected to skyrocket by 67 percent as the number of trips there increases in general. Roxbury’s single-occupancy vehicle use is expected to grow by 13 percent, and carpooling rate by 14 percent; Dorchester’s SOV use would grow by 7 percent and high-occupancy vehicle use by 11 percent, and Mattapan would see increase in SOV use by 14 percent and HOV by 19 percent.

Roxbury also particularly could suffer from high car use, with Dudley Square already having a high rate for asthma, and Roxbury as a whole found to be one of the most extreme heat zones in the city, said Mahra Holland. Combating this means adding trees, designing with permeable pavement and reducing individual car use.

Set down the keys

Given the roads’ limited ability to support significantly more vehicles, city planners seek efficiency through designating bus priority sections to make bus travel faster and more convenient and instituting smarter traffic signal technology on roads such as Melnea Cass Boulevard. Provision of new transit links, such as between neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park and the Longwood Medical Area and Seaport district also could make driving an option, not a necessity. Go Boston 2030 states a goal of prioritizing “the movement of people over cars,” with a focus on trains and buses over single-occupancy vehicles.

In some cases, commuters are deterred from cycling or walking because of safety concerns. Holland says that steps that can make the roads more welcoming to them include the city’s recent speed limit reduction, as well as a proposal to elevate intersections (slope roads upwards as they converge, and maintain an elevated road-height for the intersection area) in order to deter speeding.

The city also is hoping that earlier initiatives to boost car-share availability will reduce residents’ desire to purchase new vehicles. It seems effective at encouraging many people to leave their second car at home, said Gina Fiandaca, Boston Transportation Department commissioner.

“In many cases, people are using parking garages to leave cars they already own,” added Vineet Gupta. “In ways that’s good because there is less pollution and fewer cars on the street.”

A trend toward online purchasing may also alleviate traffic, with one delivery vehicle going to many customers often more efficient than customers driving themselves to a brick and mortar store, Gupta said.

Elsewhere in the city, officials have piloted adjusting parking meter pricing to encourage turnover of spaces, allowing businesses a flow of customers, with the goal of ensuring one open space per block.

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