In transportation, its back to the future

In many ways the future of urban transportation is also its past. The cities around the country that are now hailed for their bicycle-friendly streets and well-used mass transit systems are often the same ones who took an off-beat path in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when highways were given out like candy on Halloween by the federal government.

Cities like Portland, Oregon, which said no to I-505 and the Mount Hood Freeway, and Boston, which said no to the Southwest Expressway and the Inner Beltway managed to funnel money into mass transit instead, preserving neighborhoods.

That era nevertheless marked a break from the eons old evolution of all cities—one that followed the far-flung patterns of the automobile rather than the tight-knit conglomerate of transit, bicycles and at that time, horses. Now, what we know about climate change points to a new direction, one that in many instances leads right back to where city planning left off before cars took over.

Dorchester’s experience is typical of a number of those urban highway projects. The Southeast Expressway was laid out along one of the lines of least resistance, the industrialized coastline of the city. Finished in 1957, it killed passenger service on the Old Colony rail line, which later became the path of the Red Line. Soon after, the Commuter Rail began again.

Also during this time period, from the late 1930s to the 1960s, trolley tracks all over the neighborhood were torn up and replaced with bus routes. Now, the neighborhood is clamoring for rapid transit along the Fairmount Line and the state is proposing a high-speed bus along Blue Hill Avenue, right down the path of one of the old number 28 trolley.

But all of that new development depends on the political will of not only the city, but the entire state. And the MBTA has not been a favored child of suburban elected officials.

What I-93, I-495 and other highways did was create a construction boom in the hinterlands, a new suburban Mecca. That ring of development has grown up now, it has Representatives, Senators, members of congress, and all of those legislators’ constituents are largely dependent on the automobile. They, along with some unlikely allies in the city, recently helped kill a 19-cent and an alternative 11-cent gas tax proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick that would have dis-incentivized cars and paid over into a fund for the MBTA and the Turnpike Authority.

It is hard to see what will be in place by 2050, given this political reality, it could, sadly, be not much different from today. But if the kind of leadership on urban transit that is being preached by Sen. John Kerry and the Obama Administration becomes practice in the near future, things could change dramatically. A new regionalism around urban centers could help soften the suburban vs. urban battles and more federal money for transit could help break the logjam on large MBTA expansion projects.

In the best-case scenario Dorchester could see the return to light rail that many western cities are already enjoying and bicycle lanes on every possible street. Right now, that future is looking bright.

Starting next Monday next week (June 8) the state’s Executive Office of Transportation is inviting the neighborhood to give input on a fast-tracked project to enhance the 28 bus to become the 28X, using a path and stations that would bring it close to a true Bus Rapid Transit line. The speed of the stimulus money’s distribution prevents the EOT from thinking light rail, but this project could feasibly mark the path of a future light rail line.

“We’re trying to reverse,” said EOT spokesman Colin Durrant. “You had trolley’s then and then you went to buses. Now we’re trying to swing the pendulum back—not all the way given the financial situation, but it’s instructive to look at what was there before.”

Once bus rapid transit or rail is in place on Blue Hill, the EOT, following the trolley routes of the past, could start crossing the radial lines coming out of downtown. Such as along the old 23 trolley, which followed Talbot from Blue Hill, connecting to Codman Square (past the site of the future Talbot Station on the Fairmount Line) and Ashmont Station. Or, following a circuitous path of several old trolley routes, a line that would connect Neponset to Fields Corner along Neponset Avenue, to Grove Hall using Geneva Avenue, Bowdoin Street and Washington Street and on to Egleston Square after jumping over to Seaver Street, with a final destination at Roxbury Crossing or Ruggles using Columbus Avenue.

Trolleys are what built Dorchester back in the 1880s when trains first began carrying large numbers of commuters out of Boston. And back in that same era, bicycles were also enjoying a huge boom. Thousands of them, including organized riding clubs, roamed Dorchester’s streets and parks, particularly on sunny weekends.

To bring those numbers back alongside today’s one-ton automobiles, and heavier buses and trucks, will require thoughtful road engineering. And that’s just what bicycle coordinator Nicole Freedman is up to.

“The automobile is not king, and the mayor wants to support and promote all modes [of travel] equally,” said Freedman in an interview last week. “I think there a trend toward biking, walking and public transit as the primary transportation. Whether that sticks who knows.”

The city has installed bike lanes on Commonwealth Avenue, plans to add them on Massachusetts Avenue, and may even put them in on parts of Dorchester Avenue. Additionally, the city is rushing to take advantage of stimulus funds to repave as many as 81 different roads in the city.

“I know there’s eight or nine roads in Dorchester, and on those, half of them we’re going to investigate putting bike lanes on,” said Freedman—though she declined to specify which roads.

Boston’s chief of environmental and energy services Jim Hunt III is also negotiating with NStar to add a bike path along side a proposed field of solar panels next to the ‘gas tank,’ which would provide a crucial missing link in the bike path that will one day stretch all the way from Southie to the Blue Hills along the coast and the Neponset River.

Given the fact that most roads are completely reconstructed every 50 years or so, and repaved or re-striped more frequently, only a change in the political winds could prevent a far more robust system of bike lanes and paths by 2050.

“We really look at them in terms of network for the entire city,” said Freedman.