Bridge the Gap: Stay the course

We live in an era when more and more people are choosing to live in urbanized areas. These people are also more likely than their predecessors to eschew car ownership in favor of transit pass ownership. As such, cities around the country have been investing in a wave of transit infrastructure projects.

This is a worthy trend that ought to continue, both around the country and in the Boston area.

The reasons for this trend extend beyond just meeting demand for transportation. By creating a transportation network that does not rely on individual car ownership, cities across the country become more sustainable and find more room for green space. The positive effects of transit go beyond adding transportation options; transit helps make the city a more pleasant place to live.  

But despite the trend of transit expansion, there is more that could and should be done. I wrote earlier this semester about the signal system problems on the MBTA’s Red Line that prevent higher frequencies during rush hour, despite overcrowded trains. This is an example of a common sense transit project that should be prioritized.

Another incomplete — but logical — project for the Boston area would be an expansion of traffic signal priority that adjusts the duration of traffic light cycles to reduce the waiting time of transit vehicles. Since transit vehicles usually carry far more people than cars, traffic signal priority has the power to decrease cumulative waiting time among all people passing through the intersection. By improving transit speeds, transit agency operating costs would decrease and transit services would be more attractive to potential customers. But right now, only twelve MBTA locations have traffic signal priority.

The lesson to be learned is that although transit projects are important and should continue, they should also be done right, and with an eye toward maximizing the total public benefit. This means making transit more efficient whenever possible, as Amtrak’s spectacularly inefficient long distance routes demonstrate. And regarding the sustainability of transit funding, Rayn has written in a number of his columns about how transit agencies should acknowledge that they have a cost problem and should consider partnering with real estate developers to utilize transit-owned land to generate additional revenue streams. Rayn has also discussed the ways in which transit agencies should coordinate better within cohesive geographic regions. These, too, represent common sense ways to maximize the benefits from our transit networks.

I recently wrote about what people like me actually want when we say that this country needs more transit. In that article, I concluded that, on some level, there really is no substitute for on-demand personal transportation, such as the automobile (or a taxi). But consider this: imagine what Boston would look like without its transit network. Not only would traffic congestion rule the day, but it would take longer to get around without the T. Streets would be wider and sidewalks narrower. Parking lots would mushroom. Simply put, we can’t afford to not have a vibrant transit system, and in this world of high oil prices and higher demand for transit, it is only right that we continue to invest in transportation solutions that help sustain our cities into the future.

Rayn and I have enjoyed writing this column this semester.  Thank you to those who have taken the time to read it.