Patterns of Traffic

One cannot go to any meeting in the Boston area without encountering traffic. Whether it’s the actual stuff on the way to the meeting or is being used rhetorically by neighborhood residents to oppose some project — can’t build an apartment building on this weird lot where they could easily build a mixed-use building that would generate far more car trips or they can’t put in bike lanes because a few parking spots will have to go, which will cause a traffic armagedon.

It’s certainly true, or at least, it appears to be true, that Boston has bad traffic: any driver will tell you about how bad it is, especially if they’ve lived in the area for a while and commute times do appear to be growing. Part of this is attributable to a rising metropolitan population and major roadways that are at capacity. It can take 30-40 minutes to get from Harvard Square to Hynes Convention Center on the 1 bus at rush hour and 30 minutes to get from Harvard Square all the way to Dudley Square when at off-peak times.

And yet, whenever a highway or major road is torn down or boulevardized predictions of a traffic apocolypse always fail to come true. Not with the Embarcadero, not with the Cheonggyecheon and not with the closure of Paris’ riverfront roads from the Quai des Tuileries to the Bassin de l’Arsenal through the center of the city. The traffic is invariably described as having “vanished” by astonished traffic engineers who fail to grasp the difference between cars driven by human beings capable of making choices and water.

The reason why traffic is heavy on some streets, but seems to vanish when those streets are closed is economical. Mode choice involves a lot of secondary choices. Taking a bus or train can involve sacrificing time and directness of route for savings, being able to have a few drinks, saving the environment or whatever other reason one can think of. Using a car, however, involves prioritizing speed, directness and personal convenience over other considerations for most people. Traffic engineers, not fully understanding the implications of this, have therefore gone and built major roads like limited access highways,  parkways and so on. These roads feature higher speed limits, fewer intersections and wider lanes. They implicitly promise that taking them will result in a faster, more direct route. GPS, cartographers and local governments help by directing cars on them, depicting them with wider illustrations and designating them state highways or US Routes.

But all roads have a finite capacity of vehicles, so encouraging a lot of people to use them means that they just fill up. This, in itself, is not so much of an issue, but it is where the misunderstanding comes into play. As some wise person once said “You’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” Motor vehicles come from thousands upon thousands of different origin points and have as many different destinations, but they all get shephered onto and off of the highway’s limited access points. Of course there’s lots of traffic: the roadway is designed to collect or dump all the cars at a few places.

If one lives in Brighton Center and is going to Downtown Crossing, one is incentivized to drive down Market Street and get on Soldier’s Field Road, with everyone else from the area and then they have to get off at say Mugar Way in the Back Bay to get where they’re going, along with everyone else, regardless of their actual destination. If Storrow Drive were a real street, fully integrated into the grid and with lights and pedestrian crossings and everything, yes the highest possible attainable speed would be lower, but there would be more options for everyone to get to their destination.

Connectivity is the key.

Pedestrians understand this. A street grid built around walking tends to have not only a lot of intersections, but mid-block passages, alleys and courts. In Boston, this can be seen in the North End and Beacon Hill. In contrast, Boston’s streetcar suburbs like West Roxbury, which were built around streetcars, were designed with limited connectivity. All the streets were built to funnel people towards the streetcar line because the people who owned the line were the same people who built the houses and they wanted to make sure the people they sold the houses to continued to be customers. As a result, there are a limited number of routes to take to, from and through it by automobile. It’s not really a surprise that they have a traffic problem: it was built into the neighborhood.

Improved connections in and between neighborhoods could reduce dependence upon a few big roads. There would be improvements for buses, from reduced traffic; for drivers, from reduced traffic; and for pedestrians and cyclists as today’s traffic would be widely dispersed on slower, narrower neighborhood streets.

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