IMAGINE STORROW DRIVE transformed: quiet, soot-free, no longer a wall between the Charles River and the Back Bay and Boston University. Imagine streams of e-bikes, trikes, adaptive bikes, roller-bladers, scooters, e-pod cars, and non-“Storrow-able” electric shuttle buses, using half of the former automobile lanes as an e-mobility corridor. Alongside them are pedestrians and joggers on the Esplanade who no longer endure the noise, exhaust, tire, and brake pollution of this glorified frontage road along the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Pedestrianizing Storrow Drive would reverse a 70-year old curse. Against the wishes of Helen and James Storrow, the 4-6 lane blight on the Esplanade opened in 1951. To add insult to injury, the builders named it Storrow Drive.
Even before COVID-19 hit, cities around the world have been rethinking the enormous space we’ve ceded to automobiles. As the pandemic hit, some, like Mayor Anne Hidalgo in Paris, saw the opportunity for a win-win by accelerating efforts to make the city greener. Opening up outdoor spaces in Paris for people to move, recreate, and dine is a healthy and safe solution to the pandemic—and also happens to be wonderful for quality of life and economic vitality. It doesn’t look like Paris is going back to car dominance.
Part of the transformation has been pedestrianizing urban riverfronts, from Paris to Strasbourg to Seoul. Just this opportunity is now staring Boston in the face, along Storrow Drive. And beyond being an opportunity; it involves a choice we can no longer avoid.
Today, Massachusetts taxpayers are facing a cost of $1.7 billion and counting to reproduce this bad decision as part of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Allston Multi-Modal Project, by rebuilding all 12 lanes of the Mass. Pike and Soldiers Field Road where it becomes Storrow Drive, necessarily encroaching on and over the Charles River.
Rebuilding Storrow Drive also locks taxpayers into an unknown cost of deferred maintenance and reconstruction along Storrow Drive, including rebuilding the Bowker Overpass, which paved a highway over the mouth of Olmstead’s world renowned Emerald Necklace, and the ailing Storrow Tunnel, which holds the record for the lowest sufficiency rating in the country.
Providing safe, healthy, low-speed mobility options along the Storrow mobility corridor, and investing in transit and mobility options across Boston, will allow suburban and exurban commuters more choices than simply being forced to drive.
In her election victory speech near the location where residents successfully mounted a grassroots effort to stop the Southwest Expressway, Mayor-elect Michelle Wu could as well have been talking about Storrow Drive (and the linchpin of its future, the looming Allston Multi-Modal Project) when she said, “It is here, where…there was a 12-lane highway planned. They said it was a done deal, that stopping it would be impossible. And for a while that’s how it seemed until a coalition of activists from across our neighborhoods stood up for people over highways.”
Boston and Massachusetts residents and taxpayers now have an excellent opportunity — in fact, an unavoidable decision to make — to either rebuild the status quo, or build back better, by restoring the Esplanade to its original vision: a quiet, green, delightful civic space; a mobility corridor for people on foot and all form of clean mobility. Let’s honor the memory of Helen and James Storrow and save money, carbon, climate, and the Charles River by not doubling down on mistakes of the past. Let’s pedestrianize Storrow Drive.
Nathan Phillips is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University.