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With transportation, we must not return to ‘normal’ - Common Wealth Magazine


End subsidies for driving, invest in transit, trains

Welcome back to the post-pandemic world. Welcome back to being with family and friends in person and without masks. Welcome back to dining in restaurants, attending a game, seeing a show, taking a friend to lunch.

Welcome back to traffic congestion.

With vaccination rates approaching 70 percent, most of us are returning, perhaps gradually and somewhat tentatively, to many of the routines and activities we had to abandon during the (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime disruption of COVID-19 and its unwelcome family of variants. This is often referred to as a return to normalcy.

Returning to “normal” by definition means returning to the pre-COVID status quo because “normal” in this context implies something that is of long-standing, something so routine that it is taken for granted. Normal is the opposite of innovative. Normal is what’s familiar and comfortable. There’s nothing deliberate about normality; it requires little action on our part. Normality is often found by taking the path of least resistance; it is fundamentally at the core of our collective comfort zones.

The downsides of normality are embedded in its essential static quality: there can be no growth, no improvement, no innovation if one is wedded to normalcy. Emerson’s admonition that “instead of the gong for dinner let us hear a whistle from the Spartan fife” resounds in this moment as the yearning for post-pandemic normalcy obscures the urgent need to think and act differently on so many fronts, not least how we think about metropolitan and urban mobility. The great and present danger of our time is that we will come out of the pandemic having forgotten the negative externalities of unconstrained auto mobility and learned little or nothing about the benefits of building a more sustainable, inclusive, and cohesive society.

This two-part series is meant to focus attention on how, unless we take decisive action in the short term, our emergence from COVID-19 currently is more likely to build a less inclusive, less sustainable society, squandering the opportunity to use this generationally disruptive pandemic to leverage a historic redirection away from the worst of mid 20th Century transportation and urban design and planning.

The re-emergence of traffic congestion

Those who want more normalcy in their lives may be comforted by the sight of traffic congestion, a sure sign that people are out of pandemic-imposed confinement and hitting the road for destinations across the region. This is an understandable impulse given what we all have been through, but it is shortsighted. Let’s talk a little bit about traffic congestion, its causes and impacts and the ways to reduce it.

There’s a need for more mobility in metro Boston as the state ends its constraints on a variety of events and activities. Employers in those sectors privileged to have been able to adopt “work from home” protocols during the worst of the pandemic are preparing to bring employees back to the office workplace, either flexibly or full time. Colleges and universities are preparing for full on-campus reopenings in the fall. In general, there’s a lot of pent up demand for people to simply get out and about. As a direct result, traffic congestion is returning, and predictably worsening.

If you think that traffic congestion is merely an annoyance, think again. Traffic congestion steals your time, wastes your fuel, fouls the air you breathe, and lowers your productivity. The 2018 Transportation Dividendreport issued by A Better City put it succinctly: “Congestion—the loss of efficient mobility— is the enemy of regional productivity and growth.” The average metro Boston driver is wasting upwards of 60 hours every year in traffic – that’s basically like spending an entire weekend stuck in traffic.

For those who hate paying the rising price of gasoline, congestion is wasting fuel, so you are consuming many gallons of gasoline every year that literally get you nowhere, which is real money down the drain. Or, more accurately, spewed into the air. That wasted fuel is converted into carbon emissions, worsening air quality and accelerating climate change. And all that starting and stopping you do as you sit in congestion and approach or leave metro Boston’s inner core communities? That’s producing particulate matter emissions – the stuff that comes not just from the tailpipe but from tire and brake pad friction. Long-term exposure to particulates is a public health hazard, and recent studies (notably one from Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health) demonstrate that it has had a worsening effect on COVID-19 outcomes.

It stands to reason that we all should be aligned in wanting to reduce traffic congestion, but how? Traffic congestion is caused because of more driving. The only effective, lasting way to reduce traffic congestion is to enact policies that accomplish what the governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation told us must be done: move more people in fewer vehicles. This is achievable if we end the large hidden subsidies we provide to drivers while, at the same time, take action to incentivize people to mode shift from driving to transit and rail.

People don’t think often, or at all, about the significant public and private subsidies that drivers receive without even realizing it. Take free parking as one example. Who pays for that? If its parking at a shopping center, then everyone pays because the costs of building and maintaining the parking are passed along from the owner to the businesses and ultimately the consumer. Free or subsidized parking at work? Some of that is taxpayer subsidized; some gets passed along to clients as employers seek to recoup their costs of doing business.


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