5 proven ways to turn the tables on traffic and transit

Massachusetts should be scientific about improving mobility

Getting around keeps getting harder. Yet here in the science capital of the world we ignore the evidence about how to reduce congestion. Here are five ideas, tried and proven elsewhere, that state policymakers should test:

1. Price parking and driving according to what cars actually cost society. Charge for the true costs of congestion, pollution, and infrastructure maintenance. Use the money to improve streets for walking, cycling, and buses.

How it could work

Repair more roads and bridges by supplementing state aid with local-option gas taxes. Promote walking and cycling by expanding the nationally acclaimed Complete Streets Funding Program. Fund that expansion of grants and training with:

● a vehicle-miles-traveled fee on ride-hailing companies (Uber, Lyft, etc.),

● a surcharge on garage and curbside parking,

● an increase in motor-vehicle excise fees.

Exempt elderly, handicapped, and low-income residents from fees as necessary. Increase funding for local governments that:

● abolish parking minimums,

● prohibit parking garages from selling monthly passes,

● introduce demand pricing for curbside parking & delivery,

● opt into the regional bus network.

2. Glorify the humble bus. Buses are much cheaper and more flexible than fixed rail. They are a workhorse: their ridership in Greater Boston already exceeds commuter rail. Make them a show-horse with a series of rigorous improvements, big and small.

How it could work

Design a unified, high-frequency regional bus network. Start with bus-rapid-transit (BRT) on the five corridors recommended by the Barr Foundation. Ridership will bloom with unimpeded travel lanes, off-board fare collection, and platform-level boarding.

On the routes without lanes for BRT, partner with local public works to engineer upgrades. Small adjustments compound: traffic-signal prioritization, queue-jumps in turning lanes, floating lanes on targeted stretches of road, fewer stops. Riders get more speed and reliability. Local partners get more complete streets funding.

Solve the prisoner’s dilemma for these local partners by prioritizing buses on arteries that knit together the network, like the Mass Pike. Plug in private shuttles, like those operated by the 128 Business Council.

3. Improve the frequency, reliability, and affordability of rail service before building new infrastructure. The MBTA is in a downward spiral of revenue and ridership. Arrest that decline, then consider ambitious proposals like the North-South Rail Link.

How it could work

Transform commuter rail into regional rail offering frequent, all-day service. The goal: no more than 30 minutes between trains. Reduce fares and offer free transfers between rail and buses. Electrify the system to increase reliability and reduce pollution, noise, and maintenance. Improve passenger experience and speed up boarding with raised, accessible platforms.

Pay for this transformation with cap-and-trade for transportation emissions and regional transit taxation. Regional transit authorities should build a promise-and-deliver relationship with voters. A large majority favor prioritizing public transportation — we will hold them to account.

4. Reduce the demand for transportation with incentives for walkable development. Frequent, all-day regional rail will boost land values farther from Boston. Planners and developers there should build safe, comfortable, and useful environments for pedestrians.

How it could work

The governor’s Housing Choice bill makes it easier to permit mixed-use projects. It also funds technical support for municipalities drafting walkable zoning codes. Include subscriptions to visualization software like UrbanFootprint and Coord in that technical support. Pass the bill.

Walkability should also be a prime criterion in housing and infrastructure grants. MassWorks, the Housing Development Incentive Program, the Commonwealth Site Readiness Fund, the Workforce Housing Initiative, and the Transformative Development Initiative should compel developers to build for humans, not cars.

5. Improve management at the MBTA. Eight people have led the transit authority in eight years. That is no way to run an organization where long-term planning is critical. The state legislature should demand a crack leadership team — and supervise it better.

Top to bottom, refocus on riders over regulations. It should not take 2.5 years to design accessible rail platforms, as is happening in Newton. Winning over riders will induce more local cooperation on the regional bus network.

These five ideas are not new. Indeed, they are almost mundane to experts. But, as our resident scientists know well, innovation is about imitation and adaptation. A scientific approach will get Massachusetts moving.