Earlier this week, the Boston Globe reported that Boston has some of the worst commutes to work in the country and that it has gotten exponentially worse over the past decade.

In 2017, drivers spent 2 hours more in traffic than in 2016, up to 60 hours. I’m above average because I spend more than 30 minutes in traffic every day I have to drive to the office, which is 90 minutes per week times 50 weeks, which is 75 hours. And I only have to drive in 3 days a week. I also drive off-hours. I work in the office 7:30am to noon, then drive home and work the rest of the day there. When I was leaving the office between 3:30pm and 5pm, it would take 1 to 2 hours to get home, peaking on Fridays in the summer.

The article notes that bus schedules are being changed to reflect the reality of more traffic. Real estate agents have to allot more time for clients to get from property to property. Cost of housing closer to the city has skyrocketed and now even the very wealthy can’t find places they can afford.

Some people complain that the Big Dig—the massive, decades-long construction project in the middle of Boston—didn’t fulfill its promise, but the truth is it took so long that the fix it promised was overtaken by time. More people moved in. Imagine how much worse it would be without it. Census estimates tell us that 250,000 more people live in Boston since 2000 and unemployment is so low that 300,000 more people are working since January 2010. They’re all commuting to work in and around Boston.

So, we’re all agreed something has to be done. The problem is that nobody seems to be thinking realistically about it.

Bad Proposals

All the proposed solutions from pundits and average citizens alike say the same thing: More mass transit and fewer cars. Easier said than done.

The problems with more mass transit are manifold. Say we want more people to use the existing MBTA subway and commuter rail lines. Where do we put the cars? People have to drive to the train stations and park, but even the massive garages at all the available stations fill up by 6:30 or 7am every day. Where do all the extra cars go? Are we to build even more massive garages? Then that will put pressure on the roads feeding those garages. Not to mention the push back from the communities where those garages are located.

Build more stations and more subway lines, some say. Easier said than done. Just take the Green Line Extension project. The idea for it began in 1990! They didn’t start actual planning until 2005. Construction started in 2012 and is still not finished. This is for an extension that barely reaches the edge of the metro area, just 3-1/2 miles long and is expected to cost more than $2 billion. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the actual need.

Or consider the Greenbush commuter line, a rail line that extends down the South Shore to Scituate. It was first proposed in 1990, but controversy prevented any progress until it opened in 2007. The usual objections were cited: noise, traffic, danger from grade-level rail crossings. And then there’s the Silver Line, which was supposed to be a real subway line—equal to the Red, Green, Blue, and Orange lines—but which due to opposition ended up being a bus route, stuck in traffic with the cars.

That doesn’t deter the unrealistic transit boosters who say we should ignore local concerns about building more train lines, while also suggesting we should put burdensome disincentives on drivers, like massive toll increases and decreasing the number of parking spots in the city. These disincentives don’t actually give other methods for people to get to their jobs; it just penalizes them, adding the insult of penalties to the injury of increasingly horrible commutes. It also harms those who are coming to the city for non-work needs like tourists.

Realistic solutions

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Some places for our civic leaders to look could indeed include making the subway and commuter trains more efficient, but that alone isn’t enough. Perhaps employers could identify more employees who can telecommute. Other companies could be incentivized to create coworking offices where small teams of telecommuting employees could meet and work together alongside people from other employers, locating these spaces outside the city regionally.

There’s talk of fleets of Uber-like driverless cars that you can summon to your home to take you to, say, a train station, which would be less expensive than a cab. Or shuttle vans picking up groups of people in  an area. On the other hand, adding that to the cost of subway and train passes is another disincentive. Are we penalizing the poor and lower-paid workers?

Everyone agrees something needs to be done. But it needs to be done with deliberate care or we could end up creating a worse situation, chasing away companies because they can’t get employees and cratering our economy. After all, nobody wants a commute that’s easy because nobody has a job.

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