An early 2019 report said that Boston had the worst rush-hour traffic congestion in the U.S. of A. Other reports have reached similar conclusions and have shown that not only is the city’s gridlock particularly awful but that its commutes are particularly long.
Why is that? Myriad reasons.
Boston isn’t just “Boston.” The City of Boston is part of a densely packed confederation of cities and towns that stretches for dozens of miles, and that together contains between four and five million residents, depending on where one draws regional boundaries.
If the Boston area were in fact its own city rather than a collection of municipalities, it would be more populous than any U.S. city save New York.
Another thing about this regional melange is that transportation policy, particularly when it comes to signage and speed limits and road width—and bike lanes and bus lanes—can vary. The lack of coordinated planning can foster, and has fostered, congestion.
Relatively bountiful and cheap parking
Most municipalities in the Boston region, including the City of Boston, distribute free resident parking permits like candy on Halloween.
Plus, metered parking here is some of the cheapest in urban America. And condo and apartment developments, especially downtown, invariably include parking.
It’s only when drivers have to resort to private garages that it begins to pinch to park financially. Garage parking rates here can be comparable to those in nationwide-leading New York City.
Boston proper is still off its 1950s population peak, but it’s getting there. The city expects its population to swell to 709,000 by 2030. It’s 685,000, give or take, now. Meanwhile, surrounding municipalities such as Cambridge and Somerville are growing as well.
A lot more people can mean a lot more people driving, or taking app-hails such as Uber and Lyft or more conventional cabs.
Speaking of app-hails ...
They’re everywhere. Or at least there are a lot more of them than there used to be in Boston and the Boston area.
Take the latest data from 2017: Uber and Lyft provided more than 65 million car trips in Massachusetts that year, according to the state. Of those rides, nearly 35 million were in Boston proper, which translated into an average of 96,000 a day—or 67 Uber and Lyft rides underway during any given minute in 2017.
Sure, it’s convenient, but that many more app-hails means that many more cars.
Boston is America’s oldest major city and its region the nation’s oldest major metropolitan area. Many of its roads are old, then, and not equipped to handle today’s volume of traffic.
The region’s highways—particularly I-93 and I-90—are big and modern, and relatively easy to navigate. But in many instances, especially from the region’s outer reaches, those modern highways can only be reached via thin, poorly marked, shoulder-less ribbons of often crowded and cracked asphalt.
Public transit problems
Chronic challenges galore confront the Boston area’s public transit system—the T—including aging infrastructure, frequent delays-slash-breakdowns, escalating operating costs, and a seemingly ceaseless run of fare hikes.
Oftentimes it can be so much easier and faster to Uber it or to just hop in the car.
That reality (and the myriad causes behind it) has pushed, and continues to push, residents that much farther out in search of housing that is affordable and decent.
No wonder the region has one of the greatest shares nationally of supercommuters—those commuters who spend at least 90 minutes one way getting to and from the workplace.
Like other U.S. cities, barring major construction or a Super Bowl parade or a police action, the roadways are open 24-7 in all parts of town in all kinds of weather.
And, unless they’re paying Interstate tolls, it costs drivers the same to drive into downtown Boston at 7 a.m. on a Sunday as it does at 7 a.m. on a Monday—in other words, nothing, whether it’s rush hour or not.
Might this change via congestion pricing—charging motorists to drive into busier areas during busier parts of the day? Stay tuned.