I attended a lecture from Richard Dimino, CEO of A Better City. Although I’m quite familiar with most of the development projects and activities in Boston, especially those related to the CA/T project, what hadn’t occurred to me that many of the ideas were rooted in activities that occurred 30-40 years ago in Boston. And how much of a difference it makes when the communities are involved in design and decision making to preserve neighborhoods and reclaim usable space.
Dimino’s lecture centered around the theme that transportation projects can provide the biggest opportunities for urban development. Despite its problems, there is no greater example than the Big Dig. It wasn’t just about building tunnels underground. And to say that it restored downtown is an understatement. The project left a new city in its wake.
I had come to believe that the next big challenge for Boston is dealing with its aging transit system. Here is an opportunity that not only effects downtown Boston but can positively impact the life an economy throughout this region. I was disheartened to hear that the continued strategy will be based on incremental improvements and bus lines.
I first heard of the proposed Silver Line many years ago. A modern light rail system to connect the unfortunate radial design of the current T system. The improved connectivity would release pressure in Boston’s congested core, restore transit to the South End after the relocation of the Orange line, and expand the reach of the system to neighborhoods in Cambridge and Boston not conveniently situated near the existing lines. What we got was a bus to the airport.
To be fair, this plan falls under the Urban Ring and is a visionary idea that dates back to the 70′s. However, my hope for Boston in 2030 isn’t a bunch of buses stuck in traffic bringing people to and from the Red Line that stops every 50 feet in rush hour. The Green Line is cute, but it shouldn’t take 20 minutes to travel a mile. Whether or not the Urban Ring is constructed, what is to come of this growing metropolis in 25 years if we don’t start taking on the big problems.
The solutions are expensive. It is evident that the downtown subway infrastructure needs to be replaced along with many of the tunnels. The old streetcar pathways cannot support rapid transit. Control systems need upgrading to pilot and manage more capacity. My all time favorite is watching a train stopped on the Longfellow because another hasn’t cleared Park Street. When you can walk faster than rapid transit, it isn’t rapid transit.
Commuter rail in eastern Massachusetts needs to be designed as rapid transit. The city has sprawled and real estate prices have forced both residents and businesses to move further out. The frequency of service forces many people to continue drive to the subway stations, if they can find a parking space, if they bother coming into town at all.
Although the current financial situation with the MBTA does not allow for implementing big ideas, it doesn’t mean we can’t have them. 35 years ago, there were big ideas put on the table, probably crazy to most at the time. We could have simply replaced the bents of the Fitzgerald expressway or run a new harbor tunnel through East Boston. These incremental actions would have been considered safe bets for the economy of the time. Incremental approaches in long range planning lead to mediocrity. If Boston wants to compete globally it also needs to compete with new urban centers that are building 21st century transit systems.