THE SEAPORT: Making Up for Past Mistakes

 

My father told me that “fixing a mistake is usually a lot more difficult and expensive than doing it right the first time.”  He was right.  And the Seaport District’s multiple shortcomings are a case in point – in terms of transportation and nearly every other dimension of sustainable livability.  The area is self-destructively dependent on car-based mobility for both in/out commuting and internal circulation.  The roads do not embody the city and state’s commitment to Complete Streets. Transit options are woefully missing and, even worse, the available transit facilities are embarrassingly inefficient.  But more generally, the place is a steel and glass desert, excludingly expensive; a daytime-only enclave lacking most of what could have been done to make it a real neighborhood.  It is, unfortunately, a classic example of what happens when government doesn’t plan for the public good – when it becomes so desperate to attract business that it ceases to shape the market and allows individual firms to develop space in ways that go no further than their own immediate, profit-driven needs.

 

THE SEAPORT

It was former Mayor Menino who championed the downtown’s expansion into the huge area of filled-in (and nearly sea-level) land next to South Boston.   But the difficulty of getting the first big company to commit to the area and the general mockery of his idea of moving City Hall into the Seaport made him step back and become less visionary about the possibilities.  Perhaps for that reason he never created a fully-vetted Master Plan for the area’s development – something shaped by both city-planning expertise and public debate, something both visionary and do-able.

What might it have required?  If you are creating a new neighborhood you need to make sure that there are residential as well as employment opportunities for a variety of job categories and income levels, grocery stores as well as restaurants, schools and playgrounds and parks as much as pass-through highways, low-rise human scale buildings as well as high rise giants, waterfront access as well as a lively street-level retail presence to fill the long blocks with the 24/7 activity that makes it feel safe and inviting to be on the street.  Most of all, given that the area would have many more jobs than homes but isn’t currently served by any MBTA mass transit line, either new transit would have to be created or provision would have to be made for an enormous amount of commuter traffic – not only of professionals but also of the low-wage service workers who make all the buildings and restaurants function.  Given that the streets were being rebuilt it would have made sense to plan for dedicated bus lanes with green-light priority, two-way cycle tracks along the major roads and buffered bike lanes on the smaller ones with off-road paths along the water and running through the developments, lots of comfortable resting/social spaces for pedestrians and fewer intimidating intersections to nervously cross. 

 

MISSED OPPORTUNITY

But almost none of the planning, zoning, and developer community-benefit agreements needed to accomplish this were done.   The official excuse is that everything happened too fast – it was anticipated that the city and state would have up to twenty years to work out their plans.  As it turned out, the amount of investment anticipated to happen over those twenty years all got dumped into the area in five.  But that’s no excuse for not having created a plan, or even a vision, in the first place.  The city and state were so desperate for big developers and big companies to move in, so desperate to create Boston’s version the Kendall Square Innovation District, that they neglected to think of anything else.   The blame isn’t entirely Boston’s – the state shares some of the responsibility for the current mess:  an office-dominated rather sterile area that nearly chokes on traffic every morning and afternoon before turning into a dark tangle of empty wide streets.  Fortunately, a second wave of construction is including a lot of condos, but the market forces behind this are (as usual these days) skewing production towards small units with few bedrooms and high prices.   Lack of mobility is the not-so-invisible elephant ready to stomp on the area’s future.   For now, whatever it is, the Seaport’s not a neighborhood.  

 

RETRO-FITTING SOLUTIONS

Fixing all this now that the developers have cut their deals, the buildings are going up, and the curbs have been implanted will be a lot more complicated and costly than if it were part of the planning from the beginning.  But it can be done.  For transportation, the problem falls into two categories:  moving around the Seaport and getting in/out especially during rush hours.

The digital platform-based re-users of existing resources like Lyft, Uber, and others are helpful additions to the remaining taxis, particularly for shorter hops within the district and off-hour moves in and out.  But they all operate at much too small of a scale to make a big difference during rush hours.  Similarly, Zipcar and other shared-use car businesses are help relieve the need for personal cars but don’t solve the commuting crunch.  A better move is to coordinate and increase access to the numerous private mini-van shuttle services to South and North Stations that companies have started -- perhaps financed through a user fare plus a charge to each Seaport firm proportional to its number of employees.  This might help for internal circulation as well as make it easier for some commuters to take the train or trolley rather than drive.  Creating bus priority lanes (and traffic lights) is do-able now and will make a huge difference.

(It’s important to remember that the purpose – and effect – of transit isn’t to reduce traffic and make life easier for car commuters. In reality transit rarely reduces traffic but rather creates capacity to serve activities that wouldn't happen any other way. That's why bus priority is especially important when traffic is congested.  As Enrique Penalosa says, an overcrowded road is exactly where a lane should be reserved for buses.)

 

TRANSIT FIRST

Much more impactful for commuters would be upgrading transit, starting with the Silver Line which currently seems designed for customer dissatisfaction -- overcrowded and slow.   An easy first step is to increase the traveling speed ofe MBTA buses through the tunnel – other cities, such as Seattle, run buses through tunnels at much higher speeds. (Adding guide wheels to buses would facilitate much faster speeds and greater throughput as well.)  This would allow a few more buses to be run.  Another quick fix is giving buses signal preemption so they can move straight through the D-Street intersection. Cars have a 20 second wait if they arrive on red, buses can be held for up to 100 seconds -- the 10 or so car drivers in line at any time are treated better than the 50 or more people in the overcrowded bus.  (Insiders say this would be easy to do if MassPort, which “owns” the light, approves the change but the MBTA seems unwilling to push.)  The time-wasting loops that contort the Silver Line route need to be eliminated:  the state police ramp onto I-90E should be fixed to allow bus use and a bus-only off-ramp from I-90W – with signal priority at the intersection -- should be opened.  Now that MassDOT is a unified organization a separate bus lane should be reserved on the I-90 segment during rush hours – Enrique Penalosa used to say that car congestion is a sign that the road should be re-vamped for transit.

(Since many Silver Line workers, although few of the professionals, are using the other – still disconnected – half of the Silver Line to commute from Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury, the city and state should cooperate on another set of improvements similar to what is needed on most other “key routes.”  The bus-priority lanes should be extended to include the area between the MassPike and Downtown Crossing, using bollards and enforcement.  On-street dispatchers and supervisors should be stationed at Dudley Station and Downtown Crossing to speed boarding by checking passes in advance of a late bus arrival and, more importantly, manage the spacing between buses (the “headways”) and improve reliability by providing on-the-spot responses to problems.  There should be “no stopping” allowed the full length of Temple Street where the buses load and discharge to avoid delaying obstructions.  And most complicated but most impactful:  give buses signal priority on the entire route, especially at the longest signal delays, including near Dudley and around Chinatown and Downtown Crossing.)

 

COMPLETING THE STREETS:  Bikes and Sidewalks

Every one of the streets should have bicycle facilities – separated or buffered depending on available space and amount of traffic.  A system of off-road paths winding around the area and connecting to adjacent neighborhoods via the South Bay Harbor Trail should be designed and all future development should be required to contribute to a fund for its construction, similar to the current requirement that all harbor front developers build their section of the Harbor Walk.  The speedway-like streets should be traffic calmed with narrower lanes, bumpier pavement, wider crosswalks, and other techniques.  (Unfortunately, although the newly announced “Seaport Transportation Center” will contain space for Zipcar and Hubway bikes, its 1,500 parking spaces are likely to simply prolong the area’s traffic agony by enticing now-frustrated car commuters to continue driving.  The other new car garage simultaneously announced for Logan also misses the point -- half of the airport jobs that this facility is supposed to help serve have shifts beginning before the first T arrives at 6am. If MassPort helped fund the early morning T service recently proposed by transportation advocates they could reuse their existing employee parking lots in Chelsea and Revere and have no need to expand parking.  Full disclosure – the proposal came from my LivableStreets advocacy colleagues, Ari Ofsevit and Jeremy Mendelson, who is also a founder of Transit Matters, and former Secretary of Transportation James Aloisi.)

 

IN AND OUT:  Bridges and Greenway

Most car commuters to the Seaport travel via I-93 (going north and south) or the I-90 Mass Pike extension (going west and northeast with a connection to I-93).  Those coming from the south can hope that review of the six-month experiment of letting cars use the South Boston By-Pass truck road will confirm the initial impression that “the changes had no adverse impact”.   The Ted Williams tunnel and its multiple Seaport entry/exit ramps created as part of the Big Dig significantly increases access to the Pike but there are still traffic tie-ups getting in and out of the Boston area.  The biggest problems are faced by those heading over the three bridges towards the buried I-93 and I-90 ramps along the Rose Kennedy Greenway.   Unfortunately, this may be the direction gone by the largest percentage of car commuters.

At first glance it might seem that one idea for easing the Seaport’s commuting nightmare is to increase the number of car-carrying bridges with the hope that increasing overall capacity and dispersing traffic will reduce backups.  This is the motivation behind recent debates about what to do about the historic but structurally unsound (and now closed) Old Northern Avenue Bridge, one of our few remaining examples of an iron swing bridge with a unique truss structure.  Because Fort Point Channel, the remnant of the huge bay that once separated Old Boston from South Boston, is considered a navigable waterway, Coast Guard regulations require that the bridge either be restored and repaired so it can continue to swing aside, or ripped down, or replaced by something that provides an equally unobstructed height for passing boats.  A couple years ago, ideas were floated to use the bridge as a Public Market.  Later, the city explored ways to add lights, planters, sculpture, and other decoration to the bridge – an idea that is being revived even while the Walsh Administration seeks Coast Guard permission to demolish it.  The city has pledged up to $100 million dollars for a replacement – rumored to be part of the deal that brought GE to the city – and is currently soliciting ideas.  

But there are two major flaws in this logic.  First, the Northern Avenue bridge will not directly access the I-93 entry ramps:  any traffic leaving the Seaport will simply get stuck in (and worsen) the congestion along the Greenway.  Second, if the bridge-capacity increase does somehow actually improve car access, it will simply make it more attractive for more people to drive – which, given the huge latent demand for car use in our car-centric society, will attract more cars until traffic stops moving again.  

And there’s still another problem: once car drivers escape the Seaport jam they are dumped into the Rose Kennedy Greenway – an area with many positives but some significant mobility shortcomings.  (The Greenway is another place suffering from original sin – the absence of internal structures to support construction over the ramps, the lack of a safe and inviting bicycle infrastructure, and the distorted timing of the traffic signals that make pedestrians wait forever then have to race to cross.  At a minimum, a serious analysis needs to be done about finding room for bikes in the “missing link” between South Station and the end of the Connect Historic Boston protected bike lanes at Christopher Columbus Park.)

While what will be put in place of the old bridge remains undecided, it’s clear that without first providing massively improved transit, bicycling, and walking options the addition of more car capacity will provide, at best, only temporary relief.    Even more fundamentally, retrofitting the multi-modal ideas described above into the current transportation setup will help, but not as much as beginning to insert the full range of live-and-work facilities that would turn the Seaport into a real Neighborhood where commuting – by whatever means – would be a choice rather than a necessity.  

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Thanks to Jeremy Mendelson for feedback on a previous draft.  All opinions and remaining errors are, of course, my responsibility.

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Related Previous Posts:

> THE PURPOSE OF TRANSIT: Neither Reform Nor Revenue are the Needed Starting Point

> BUS SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT IS KEY TO TRANSIT: Local, Improved, Express, and Bus Rapid Transit

> HIGH STATUS BUS RIDES — Does Bus Rapid Transit Make Sense for Us?

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  • commented 2016-05-12 11:02:52 -0400
    Steve – thanks for this. I’ve often said that once the Seaport is built out, it will have all the charm of Kendall Square. You focused on many other shortcomings and missed opportunities in the area – I worked there from 2006-2011 (at D and Congress – watching the Silver Line buses waiting and waiting below my window) and I’m sure everything has gotten much worse over the past 5 years.
  • commented 2016-05-12 08:58:16 -0400
    I kind of like the Seaport as it is. It’s very close to Boston, but is nearly deserted at night. That makes it kind of a cool place to go. Right off I-93, easy to park a car, go for a walk along the water, stop at one of the many nice restaurants and bars. It’s not overrun with people as more accessible neighborhoods are. Isn’t there value in diversity in a city? Why can’t the Seaport be different from other neighborhoods?

    Maybe Assembly Square is a bit like the Seaport. Off I-93, commercial development with expensive condos and lots of shops. But Assembly Square has a more suburban feel, reflected by the mall-like shopping options. The Seaport has better food and drink options.
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