Traffic Ahead

Developers tend to focus only on the nearby traffic consequences of their own project and to portray the consequences as manageable through local road improvements.  In fact, the rising congestion that we are experiencing is the cumulative result of development all across the region.

In 2013, several legislators came together to ask the state’s Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) to undertake a study of whether we have the necessary transportation capacity to support the growth we are expecting.  CTPS began the study in 2015 with the blessing of the Metropolitan Planning Organization and produced a complex report earlier this year.

Here are some of the background observations from the report.

  • Employment and population are expected to increase substantially in the urban core by 2040, while growth will be more modest in the more distant suburbs.
  • While working at home and biking to work have both increased dramatically over the last couple of decades, transit and motor vehicle use have also increased.  Transit and road demand are both expected to continue to increase over the decades to come.  It is often possible for a  household to locate so that one member is close to work, but it is hard to assure a short commute for all members of a household at once.
  • Over the last couple of decades, Red and Green Line ridership have increased over 28% and commuter rail ridership has increased by over 75%, while bus ridership has grown only 3%
  • Since 1970, total miles driven on limited access highways have doubled in the inner core and more than tripled in the outer suburbs and statewide.  This increase on limited access highways correlates with increases on all secondary roads and we experience this as increasing congestion.

Troubling projections include the following:

  • A segment of roadway starts to slow down and is considered congested when it is running at over 85% of its capacity.  In 2012, 25% of the road-miles of limited access highways and arterial streets in the core were over 85% of capacity in the morning rush and 39% were overcapacity in the evening rush.  By 2040, in the mornings, congestion will extend to 34% our road-miles and in the evening, 51%. Many other roadways will be approaching the congested level.  Note that congestion is higher in the evening because there are more non-commute trips occurring in the evening.
  • Most major routes in and serving my district are already congested on some segments.  Already congested routes that will become congested on more segments include Route 2, Concord Avenue, Fresh Pond Parkway, Mount Auburn Street, Memorial Drive, Storrow Drive, the Pike, Beacon Street, Commonwealth Avenue, the Bowker/Charlesgate Overpass, Massachusetts Avenue and Harvard Avenue.
  • By 2040, the Red Line between Alewife and Park Street, which is often near the acceptably full level today, but not (usually) “unacceptably” full, will frequently be unacceptably full with substantial delays in boarding at rush hour.  The core segments of the Green Line, which are already unacceptably full much of the time, will become consistently unacceptably full at rush hour.  The only line which is not expected to see much overcrowding is the Blue Line.
  • The 71 and 73 buses, which service Watertown and Belmont, already stand out as the two most overcrowded bus lines in the system.  They are expected to grow 8% by 2040, reaching rider-to-seat ratios of 1.6 and 1.9 respectively — the MBTA considers 1.4 the maximum acceptable.  The 70 bus, which runs from Cambridge through Watertown to Waltham, will cross the 1.4 level by 2040 for the evening commute, as will the 66 and the 86, non-radial bus lines that service Allston and Brighton.

Controlling traffic to improve local quality of life and ease the daily commute is one of my top priorities as a legislator.  I’ll be posting on some of the more helpful solutions on the table over the weeks to come. Your thoughts welcome at any time!

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for the summary on this Senator Brownsberger. I will share this with others in the general community at-large.

  2. I am often cruising around the larger perimeter roads (128, 24, 495) and see heavy congestion. I am disappointed that, at least for 128, the emphasis seems to be on increasing auto capacity by widening the roadway. Why don’t traffic planners add capacity for mass transit? There recently some discussion of adding tolls to more roads (1, 9, etc.). Maybe that would encourage mass transit, but the capacity has to be in place first. I was recently in London and was impressed by the Tube and bus system.

    1. Yes, especially since widening roads has long been shown to not be a solution at all. Induced demand just leads to wider congested highways. Public transportation is the only reasonable solution, though I am curious how self-driving technology will impact this issue in the long-term.

    2. London is a great example. They imposed a “congestion toll” on peak-hour driving into the city center. This immediately improved transit:
      1. Fewer cars = more open roads = faster bus service
      2. By selling bonds backed by revenue from present & future congestion fees, they were able to buy & lease more bus capacity right away, improving transit to serve those who could not afford or chose not to pay the congestion toll. This in turn encouraged even more people to leave the car at home.

      Let’s do this here!

  3. Build a connector of some sort from Alewife to the new end of the Green line stop. Either a Gondola, some Cable car system, or underground moving staircase.

  4. Clearly major investments are needed. Red/Green/Orange lines need to be upgraded to run more frequently and at significantly greater speeds. Commuter Rail needs to run much more frequently and throughout the day. 71/73 and Silver Line ought to be upgraded to run on tracks, more frequently, and not amongst cars. And commuting by car should be discouraged in any way possible, perhaps by raising the automobile excise and gas tax significantly and devoting the resulting revenue to public transport.

  5. We need to get serious about addressing transportation needs. In recent decades many towns including Cambridge and Belmont have narrowed arterial roads, impeding the buses, and we have only slightly increased the capacity of the subway system, while numerous new businesses moved to our area. Personally, I commuted by 73 bus for more than 15 years, but the recent narrowing of Belmont Street / Trapelo has reduced the capacity of the 73 line so that I can never get a seat in the morning, often the bus does not even open its doors at my bus stop to accept passengers since it is overcrowded, and once I manage to squeeze onto a bus it takes more than 20 minutes for the bus to travel the 2 miles from my stop to Harvard (i.e. it is traveling 6 mph; if I was a jogger I could beat the bus). So I recently decided to purchase a car, and now I am contributing to the traffic congestion. But at least I can sit down while I am commuting. We need to get serious about making a transportation system (roads + buses + subways) that has enough capacity that people can get to their jobs at rush hour in a reasonable period of time. This is only going to get worse as more businesses move to Kendall Square and the Innovation District.

  6. Will,
    Thanks for the summary. I have to go through the detailed report for more information. That said, given there are plans for a road diet on Mt. Auburn wouldn’t this report make us take pause when thinking about making 4 lanes into 2(as I have read that study and many of the intersections are at bad grade levels already). I understand the need for better pedestrian paths for crossing(needed!) though an unprotected bike lane serves almost no one(protected bike lane would serve many more). This study is a good step in facing the reality of the cumulative affect of new development, lack of good options of public transportation(from Watertown specifically) and more businesses moving into Boston from the suburbs. Possibly an additional commuter rail stop at the Brighton/Watertown/Newton line could be created to serve much of the development at the Arsenal St/Brighton/Newton/Watertown). Boston Landing takes 20 min at least to get to(rush hour) and then not much parking there either. Shuttle may help but still going to take quite sometime to get there in shuttle. The express buses are good for many but not great for SeaPort district.
    I’m wondering why Arsenal St was not included(at least from what I read in the Appendix)? I know there are changes that will occur in the next couple years(light timing certainly will help:>). This is another congested road which is heavily used today.
    Not an easy nut to crack but one we all need to attempt to crack, with multiple ideas! Thanks again.

  7. Take all those numbers with a very large grain of salt.

    Modelling is only as good as the people who program the model and the data that gets fed into it. Garbage in, garbage out.

    The people who write these models have an incentive to exaggerate — it justifies their funding and they also use it to make claims on funding for big road-building projects.

    When I examined the actual data for Allston-Brighton, available from MassDOT, a few years ago I found that between 2000 and 2012 the measured traffic counts had decreased in all but one urban counting location. This is in stark difference to the counts on the Mass Pike, which do increase. But urban streets are not like the Mass Pike! It doesn’t serve to conflate the two.

    Models never seem to predict the actually observed decline in car counts on urban streets, and when a model turns out to be wrong it is quietly forgotten instead of investigated and its lessons learned. This causes me to question the models.

    (The other reason I question the models is that I’m a computer scientist who studies program verification and I’ve seen the inside of many programs used in various models, and they are far from pristine — full of bugs and ‘hacks’ like any other computer code)

    I think that any prediction method that tries to model human beings as if they are molecules or little machines is going to fail, necessarily. Policies and methods need to be adopted that treat people as, well, people! Who respond to their environment and interact with each other as social beings.

    In other contexts the meaning of ‘congestion’ is entirely different. In Amsterdam, I’ve been amazed to find that ‘rush hour’ has very few cars. Instead the ‘traffic jam’ is on the cycle-ways, a very quiet but busy crowd of tinkling spokes and the occasional rattle, people chatting with other as they go along. Whereas in Tokyo the ‘congestion’ is almost entirely on the railway network, in stations and trains that are overcrowded but managed superbly anyway.

    1. My sense is that the predictions for the major roads are likely to be in the right ballpark. Agreed that one can’t be so sure about the side roads. The report basically acknowledges this uncertainty.

  8. I feel like this point above is too conciliatory to drivers who need not be drivers:
    “While working at home and biking to work have both increased dramatically over the last couple of decades…”

    I encounter a large number of people living in the core who choose to drive who need not do so. Building out roads more will just encourage more driving to where we hit the same congestion problems at a higher scale and after much investment and with more pollution and car noise. Instead we (or Boston) should consider congestion charges, reduced or pricey core parking and focus the bulk of investment to improve mass transit solutions, provide more dense and affordable housing close to the new businesses and continue to make roads safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. I seem to recall the number of non-car owners in the core as being somewhere over 30% in Boston vs. over 40% in NYC. Maybe we could make it a goal to catch up to NYC on this stat.

    This is a core centric approach, however when those of us in here don’t drive it also helps those on the periphery who must, in that there’s more road for you to use.

    1. NOt only are they increasing traffic (see recent “Starts and Stops” in Boston GLobe), the drivers just stop in the middle of the road to pick up/discharge passengers, slow down while looking at their map screens, and make abrupt turns to get to an address. Licensing Uber/Lyft like taxis would HELP A LOT.

      Suggestion #2: traffic cops at some intersections (eg, Mt Auburn St/Grove St) would prevent red-light rushers and intersection hoggers — far less $ than new curbs, roadways, etc.

  9. I seem to recall someone was attempting to propose a solution to bus bunching. I use the 73 bus line and during the morning commute more often than not the buses are very late, then arrive two or three together. Overcrowded buses could be relieved if this situation could be fixed. Also, is there any procedure for increasing the number of buses available in the commuting direction? Can some buses making the return trip westward in the morning, for example, run “Out of Service” in order to get back to the beginning of the trip sooner? If we can’t increase the number of buses (why not?) then can we improve the flow?

    1. Bunching happens on all transportation services that are subject to delay. When the lead bus gets held up, it starts to slow down more because it picks up more riders. Then the buses behind catch up.

      The solution in the works for bus bunching is to use GPS to see when it is starting to occur and start buses on a delay so that they won’t catch up. The T is working with MIT on algorithms to do that better.

  10. I wholeheartedly support he North South Rail Link, which will allow future electrification of the commuter rail, which in turn will mean faster, more efficient, and cheaper trains which will help increase capacity and ridership.

    I’d also suggest the Metro Boston area look into congestion pricing, which has proven successful in places like Stockholm and London. The revenue from this, along with gradually raised gas taxes and tolls, should be used to invest in dedicated bus lines, more trains, and repairs to roads and bridges.

  11. Some of my random observations:

    The B line is soooo slow. And often packed. Joggers are often faster. It is embarrassing how much faster taking my bike is than taking the T, but biking is not always practical. And a trip to the airport on public transportation (from Brighton) takes three to four time as long as driving, thanks in part to the speedy Ted Williams Tunnel.

    On Comm Ave, cars are often illegally stopped waiting to pickup or drop off people at BU. Same with package delivery trucks. They often block the bike lane and half a travel lane, squeezing everyone into one lane.

    Cars are always double parked on Brighton Ave in Allston.

    The lights on Comm Ave are never in sync, making Comm Ave slow. I often hit 3 or 4 lights when I take Comm Ave through Allston. Nice and wide Comm Ave should be fastest way through Allston, but it isn’t.

    Addressing traffic congestion now is important, thanks.

  12. Is it hopelessly naive to say resist / contain further development? Your post says to me that we’re already overpacked. The Route 2/Fresh Pond rotary converged jam happens regularly in my neighborhood– for long stretches of time and road. Honestly, what fixes that other than not adding more demand?

    1. There are huge pressures on the other side — jobs, money making opportunities and the reality of affordable housing needs. We probably can’t and may not really want to limit demand. We have to focus on the transit solutions.

  13. Thank you for update on study of the impact of development as compared to our transportation system capacity forecasts more congestion in the neighborhoods you serve. As you know the Green Committee of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) has long shared these exact concerns particularly as we try to raise awareness about the effects of increased greenhouse gas emission from new Back Bay pipeline proposed to serve the supposed needs of new development project currently under review. This new gas infrastructure will make it difficult to reach the City’s Climate Action Goals.

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