In the aftermath of a massive general election victory by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh – and recognizing the political capital that goes along with that – it seems a good time to assess the opportunities for meaningful progress on a number of initiatives that have the potential to set Boston and the region on an irrevocable path toward a more modern, equitable, and sustainable mobility future.
I think it is important upfront to recognize the two singular achievements of Walsh’s first term that can provide the platform for what might follow. These are the planning efforts known as Go Boston 2030 and Imagine Boston 2030. I want to focus a bit on the Go Boston initiative, the importance of which is hard to overstate.
To his credit, Walsh did not come into office with preconceived notions of what Boston’s mobility future ought to look like. Instead, he directed a process of engagement and dialogue throughout the city that led to a breakthrough report, including specific recommendations and target goals, that is critically important to Boston’s mobility future.
Boston residents provided substantial input during the Go Boston engagement process, surfacing over 35,000 ideas covering all imaginable areas of urban mobility, including the issue of climate change impacts on the resilience of our legacy transit system. Those ideas were assessed, curated, and refined into a solid list of potentially actionable projects or initiatives. With its overall focus on transportation access, reliability, and safety, Go Boston places a welcome focus on practical, achievable steps forward. A few specific initiatives are worth mentioning, as they represent what might become the core of an approach to sustainable mobility that looks to affordable, incremental improvements to the daily lives of people across the city.
The city’s focus on improving service on the Fairmount Line demonstrates a commitment to both mobility and social equity. This corridor has never fulfilled its original promise, and the city appropriately is making the transformation of service on this line a priority objective.
Second, Boston’s burgeoning collaboration with Cambridge to make bus stops along the 1 bus route more responsive to the needs of riders across a spectrum of need and ability is an initiative that could be a model for municipal collaboration and innovation.
Third, Walsh’s strong, unwavering support for NightBus – bringing overnight bus transit service to Boston and the region in order to provide the thousands of men and women who work late shifts a safe and affordable way to get home via transit – will underscore that Boston is a vibrant, globally competitive 24/7 city that cares about access to jobs and the social equity issues presented by late night and early morning employment shifts.
Finally, Walsh’s leadership calling for connecting the MBTA’s Blue and Red lines is welcome, and important at three levels. Connecting the Red and Blue lines will maximize the opportunity for the Suffolk Downs site in East Boston to attract jobs and housing, create long-awaited transit connectivity in a way that will dramatically improve access to and from Logan Airport, and provide greater social equity to the communities that depend on the Blue Line as their principal transit line.
The Blue Line remains the only subway line in the MBTA system that does not connect to the Red Line, and the Red Line has become the system’s main artery. If you consider the opportunities and equities that come from connecting the Kendall Square innovation district to Suffolk Downs and Logan Airport, and connecting people in East Boston, Revere, and elsewhere directly to the doorstep of Massachusetts General Hospital, you can see that the demand for a Red/Blue connector isn’t theoretical. This project – which can be built using a cost-effective cut-and-cover approach from Bowdoin Station on the Blue Line to MGH/Charles on the Red Line (a method that ought to be fairly assessed by the T) – has been dormant for too long, and the mayor has hopefully changed that dynamic by signaling that it is important to jobs, mobility, and equity in Boston.
This is a short list, not intended to minimize the importance of other worthy initiatives, including the urgent need to embark on a sustained and aggressive effort to build and enforce safe, best practices cycling lanes.
There’s a lot to do, but there is a critical potential barrier to success: much is outside Boston’s direct control. The mayor needs a willing and supportive collaborator in Gov. Charlie Baker. The two political leaders appear to have a strong working relationship; the question will be whether their policy interests are aligned.
I remain optimistic (not commonly my frame of mind) that real progress is imminent based in large part on the first-rate team Walsh has built to help bring the Go Boston vision into reality. Chief of Streets Chris Osgood, Boston Transportation Department Commissioner Gina Fiandaca, and the city’s policy and planning director, Vineet Gupta, are people who, in my experience, can build a vision, keep a commitment, and makes things happen.
The question now is: Where do we go from here? The platform to launch groundbreaking initiatives has been built during the mayor’s first term. The time to build a legacy and deliver significant improvements to Boston residents is at hand.
This is a unique moment in the city’s history. We are no longer the Boston of the 1950s – a place on the ropes, looking for a vision and literally begging for people to invest and live in the city. We are no longer the city of the Kevin White years, a place recovering from decline but set back by deep and disruptive social change. And we are no longer the city of the Big Dig years, reinventing its downtown in a way that has proven durable and successful beyond anyone’s expectations. Boston is the beneficiary of all of the work that our predecessors undertook to transform Boston 1950 into what it is today, a vibrant, thriving magnet for investment.
This success brings with it any number of consequences, not least the income inequality and social displacement that comes with changing demographics and economic growth. The benefits and opportunities of change and growth are not always or easily shared by everyone. Sustainable, equitable mobility is one important strategy to leveling the playing field by offering all residents effective and affordable access to opportunity – to jobs, schools, and health care.
Walsh will start his second term well positioned to make a historic difference in the way Boston deals with its mobility future. He will have support from a city council with many members who are strong advocates for the kind of smart, progressive mobility system envisioned by Go Boston. And, fortunately, we are living in a time when a new generation of civic stakeholders is bringing fresh thinking and informed advocacy to support political leaders who are willing to think and act boldly, decisively, and with an eye toward a more transit-oriented future. The stars may be in the right alignment for this to be a highly productive era in the city’s mobility history.
James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation, a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group, and a member of the TransitMatters Board.