How To Prevent Bridge Repair Gridlock

Except for the Mass Ave bridge, every bridge in the lower Charles River basin is going to get repaired over the next five years or so. Hopefully, the end result will be structurally sound structures within a transportation system finally able to serve pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit vehicles as well as cars — and that also provide improved access to the region’s river-side parklands. However, the construction period will cause a massive reduction in the system’s car-carrying capacity. The state needs to act, now, to encourage a significant shift from cars to transit, bikes, and walking. But how can this be done? 

We already know, from bitter experience around the country and the world, that building more roads to relieve congestion will only attract more drivers until the new roads are over crowded as well. It seems that, in most transportation systems, if you build it they will come.

But the same “potential capacity causes actual volume” dynamic works in reverse. As shown by much research and Boston’s own Big Dig experience, traffic tends to shrink along with the road system’s carrying capacity – meaning that the fewer roads there are the fewer cars try to use them. The proven reality of this “shrinkage” dynamic is one of the keys to solving many of our region’s transportation problems.

Still, no matter how much traffic shrinks, and no matter how hard the state works to shorten and stagger the inevitable bridge closings, there will still be a lot of people trying to drive across the Charles River over the next five years. It is vital that state and municipal governments immediately start making it easier for people to switch from single-occupancy vehicles to car pools, or transit, or bikes BEFORE the bridge repair work brings the whole region to a gridlock. Success requires a significant and immediate expansion of commuter rail and bus service — both of which are currently hostage to the MBTA’s funding crisis.

It is likely that service additions will not be enough to create significant mode shifts from cars to transit. Obviously, the first step is re-assuring the public that the T is safe. The recently releases D’Allessandro Report listed problems such as deteriorating bridges, platform stairways, backup power generator turbines, tunnel lighting, and old cables.

Beyond basic safety, service improvement will also be needed that go beyond cleaner buses and functional subway car air conditioning. The T needs to harness today’s technology to keep the buses and trains on schedule and to let riders know when the next bus will actually arrive. The new CEO of the state’s Department of Transportation, Jeff Mullan, has publicly committed himself to both maintaining safety and utilizing available technologies. But he’ll have to operate within tight constraints — given the approaching elections, it is unlikely that politicians will feel able to address the T’s $3 billion maintenance backlog. Fortunately, Mullan’s staff has, so far, shown a degree of creativity and flexibility that may allow for visible improvements even within budget limits.

Still, inducing mode shift may require putting money into even more innovate approaches, such as the community-based social marketing programs successful run in Vancouver, Seattle, Boulder, all over Europe, and (in a limited version) in Cambridge. These programs provide personalized information and then one-on-one discussions about how to commute, shop, and run errands without using a car. The Go Boulder program offered to workplaces, schools and neighborhoods, with guaranteed rides home for workplace pass holders needing to stay late at work or in the case of an emergency. Seattle’s In Motioninitiative gave participants a yard sign that stimulated neighborhood conversation about travel options, and also increased the acceptance of travel alternatives.

And, also fortunately, the “if you build it, they will come” dynamic also works for bike lanes and cycle tracks. So while the primary mode shift of commuters away from Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOV) will have to be into trains and buses, it is vital that the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and Mass Highway Department (MHD) aggressively prioritize the inclusion of cycling and walking facilities in their bridge plans, both for the final design of the renovated structures and for the fast-approaching construction period.

Of course, one of the most powerful motivations to leave your car at home is if congestion is so bad that driving is simply not worth the effort. And since rush-hour traffic on Memorial and Storrow Drives was nearly at parking lot conditions even before any bridge repair work began, it won’t take too much to go wrong for this type of negative motivation to become a major factor as well.

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