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Boston area’s population increases—along with housing costs and commute times

Is the region nearing a breaking point?


Census estimates released in mid-April showed the Boston area added more than 300,000 residents from April 2010 to July 2018—a number roughly equivalent to the population of Pittsburgh. The region’s population stood at some 4,875,390 by July of last year, and so is likely well on its way to 5 million.

Also in mid-April, poll results from a survey that MassINC conducted and that the Barr Foundation sponsored found that more than one-fifth of full-time workers living within Route 128 have considered moving away from the Boston area because of long commutes.

A report a day after that from connected vehicle company Geotab found that Boston has the third longest average commute time among major U.S. cities, with only 13 percent of commuters able to reach their destinations by vehicle or mass transit within 30 minutes.

Finally, in mid-April, brokerage Douglas Elliman and appraiser Miller Samuel were out with a report analyzing the downtown Boston housing market for the first three months of 2019. Not surprisingly, the key indicators were all high. The average sales price for a downtown condo, for instance, stood at $1,126,556.

It’s all related, this April shower of analyses that showed rising housing costs and rising exasperation with quantifiably longer commutes amid a swelling population. Together, the stats beg the question: Is the Boston area reaching a breaking point in terms of its growth?

Different stakeholders have suggested as much in recent months.

A group of Massachusetts business leaders called A Better City and the University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute released a report in February on transportation funding in the state for everything from the T to tunnels to bridges.

It was not a happy report. Instead, it painted a portrait of dire need and gnawing neglect, starting with the forecast of an $8.4 billion funding gap between 2019 and 2028.

Closing that gap between what the state’s transportation funding needs are and what it will have on hand to spend is just the start, though, according to the report: “If we can close the financing gap presented here, we will have brought our system up to 20th century standards a quarter of the way through the 21st century.”

On the housing side, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston warned at the start of April that the state—its Boston-dominated eastern half in particular—risked losing much of its subsidized housing by 2025 because of the likely expiration of government subsidies and the expected conversion of subsidized rental housing to market rate.

In the meantime, regional efforts to build more housing at all price points are plotted on years-long trajectories that have little effect on short-term prices and rents—and the effects those can have on people thinking of staying or moving here.

For instance, Boston proper is trying to facilitate the construction of 69,000 new apartments and condos by 2030, with a sizable proportion designated as affordable. “We can’t be a city just for the wealthy and affluent,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told the Globe in September 2018. “That’s not Boston.”

But the new construction probably won’t be enough to do anything about that affordability. The city has added at least 18,000 new units this decade, and prices and rents still remain high (just check out the stats above or this regarding the latest rents in the region).

At some point, will the population gains start rolling back? Will the costs and the congestion become too much for many to justify the exasperation and the expense?

The Boston area remains one of the strongest regional economies in the U.S. and the world. Companies want to be here, and those firms bring jobs and newcomers. Technology and biotechnology are particularly active—just look at yet another springtime report. And apparently millennials love the region.

But the recent convergence of housing and transportation trends, none of which bodes well for quality of life in the Boston region, is hard to ignore. That and the seeming lack of any immediate solutions to any of the challenges, beyond longer-term planning and coming up with more funding.