Fixing the Bridges Won’t Solve Traffic Congestion

One of the core insights of political strategic is the need to set expectations.  Right now, the state is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the Charles River bridges from falling into the river and (after being pressured by advocates) to re-align the surface layout to provide greater access and safety for pedestrians and cyclists.  Traffic on all the bridges has been congested for years, from long before the repair work began.  Actually, the problem is mostly caused by the crazy intersections and rotaries at the entrances and exits to the bridges, rather than on the bridge span itself – although we tend not to think of it in this way.

We have short memories; most people now associate the current traffic tie-ups with the repair work.  And most people assume that traffic will flow smoothly once the work is done.

But it won’t.  There are simply too many cars for the available road capacity.  And we’ve learned that building more roads just attracts more cars.  Congestion will remain.

The risk is that the public will blame the continuing back-ups on the allocation of road space for pedestrian or cyclist use.  They will not understand that the only solution to car jams is to reduce the number of single-person automobiles, and that every additional walker or bicyclists means one less car.  And instead of building on the multi-modal momentum created by the bridge work, the Commonwealth will retreat into another era of car-pandering design.

We need, therefore, to begin setting realistic expectations about what the bridge program will accomplish and, more importantly, what we must do to create an economically sustainable, environmentally non-destructive, health-supporting, and mobility-enhancing 21st century transportation – prioritize public transportation, walking, bicycling, and shared-use vehicles.  We have to create a coordinated system of facilities, incentives, and disincentives to encourage people to not drive alone.  As people as diverse as US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino have said, “the car is no longer king.” 

Deep in America’s car-centric popular culture is the belief that we should not have to endure traffic congestion.  Our time is too valuable.  Our lives too rushed.  Traffic jams should be fixed; nothing should interfere with the free flow of our automobile, even if all we’re doing is rushing to the next red light.

For the past decade or so I have watched traffic pile up around the BU bridge  — actually, it wasn’t the bridge so much as the crazy intersections on both the Boston and Cambridge sides.  The back-up used to happen during rush hour on summer Friday’s as people headed out of town.  Then it started happening all year, then every day.  And in recent years, the traffic has coagulated along almost the entire length of Memorial Drive up to Harvard Square.  From about 3:30 to 7:00 PM it can take nearly half an hour to creep by car from the Brookline St. traffic circle to Fresh Pond Parkway.

On a bicycle it takes ten minutes.

And all this was going on before the state started repairing the bridges – although it is likely that most people now associate the traffic mess with the road work, and many probably think that the repairs are the cause of the problem.  In truth, the irrational spaghetti loops on the Boston side were always a problem, as was the poorly designed traffic circle on the Cambridge side which forced eight incoming lanes to repeated merge and separate while simultaneously crossing through each other.  A bigger problem is the lack of access from the Longwood Medical Area directly to the Mass Pike, which forces an ever-increasing number of cars to overwhelm the BU bridge area as they desperately fight their way to the highways.

Now we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to repair the bridges.  And it’s likely that people will expect the result of all that spending to be smooth running traffic.

But it won’t.

The repairs will make the bridge structure less likely to collapse.  They will make driving safer.  They will make the bridges and the approaches more welcoming and safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.  However, the ultimate cause of the congestion – too many cars, too many of which are occupied by only one person – will remain, hopefully ameliorated to some extent by frustrated drivers abandoning the increasingly time-consuming trip and finding some other method (or some other route) to get to work.

When he was in Boston, former Bogata Mayor Enrique Penalosa said that it is exactly where roads are the most clogged with cars that a lane should be reserved for high speed buses.  If road space is a limited resource, and if creating more roads will only expand the congestion, then the only solution is getting people to leave their personal cars at home.  But that can only happen if they have an alternative – the most important alternatives are car pools, high speed busses, and rail lines – as well as walking and bicycling.

This systemic approach is why LivableStreets was created as a multi-modal advocacy group.  It’s not about eliminating cars or forcing everyone to bike.  It’s about creating a more useful balance in the facilities and maintenance work given to each mode.

So our challenge is to help those motorists who aren’t able to find an alternative to their own car realize that their driving experience is made better, not worse, by the buses on the road, by the cyclists whizzing past, by the pedestrians cutting across the street.

And I look forward to the day that motorists roll down their windows to cheer me on as I cycle past them across the BU bridge.

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