Is Boston Overdeveloped?

It’s one of the complaints I’m seeing more and more at community meetings: “There’s too much development”; “It’s too dense”; “Traffic is already bad enough around here without that monstrosity adding to it”; “We need a moratorium on new development in Boston.”

Boston is too developed, these people say, and public officials need to address our infrastructure needs before they allow any more new development.

I am not going to be uncharitable and say that these people are being deliberately disingenuous, but they are not thinking. They ought to know that the City’s revenues that govern their infrastructure investments come from property taxes, which are capped in how much they raise. When the City’s population increases, as it is, and the strain on the infrastructure increases, development becomes neccesarry to pay those bills.

It’s also potentially disingenuous because the City is limited in what it can do. Boston does not run the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, parkways like Storrow Drive or major highways like the interstates. Even worse is when the City takes action, like attempting to introduce parking demand management or promote car-sharing or put in protected bike lanes and even members of the city council excoriate the administration, to say nothing of NIMBYs from South Boston to West Roxbury.

There does not appear to be an understanding of the players or why things are the way they are.

Massachusetts voters rejected automatic increases of the gas tax in 2014 and at the same time elected Charlie Baker, who does not want to spend more money on expanding MBTA service. Voters in this state would likely reject congestion prices or increases in tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Boston has some of the highest rents and home prices in the country and, thanks to excessive regulation, built fewer than 4,000 units last year — we probably need somewhere around 25,000 a year to make a difference.

Meanwhile people don’t want their property values to go down, they don’t want them to go up. They don’t want to be stuck in traffic, but they don’t want the measures that would help reduce traffic congestion. They love walkability, but not the traffic calming and pedestrians walking out in the middle of the road that comes with it.

Part of the problem is car-dependency. It’s cars, after all, that cause traffic and not buildings or people. Another problem is something I’ve written about before: American cities are heavily centralized. They’re more or less designed for everyone to being going into the center in the morning and the periphery in the evening. This sounds good on paper, but has the result that the routes to the center, whether they’re used by cars or transit, get heavily congested.

The solution, of course, is to permit greater decentralization, such as more office development in Dorchester, West, Roxbury and Brighton (or Newton and Watertown). Of course, there’d be a lot of pushback on that, too.

But the fact of the matter is that Boston is not overdeveloped. Most land in the City is hardly used intensively and there are any number of lots where the square footage devoted to parking and “green space” is equal to if not greater than that of the building on it.

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