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Boston’s terrible traffic congestion is a side effect of its housing market

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The city topped a ranking of the most congested American metropolises in both 2018 and 2019—prices and rents bear a large part of the blame

Aerial view of dense city traffic at night, with cars stuck on a bridge. Boston Globe via Getty Images

Boston once again topped mobility firm INRIX’s ranking of U.S. cities with the worst traffic congestion. What’s more, the firm ranked Boston the ninth worst on the entire planet, calculating that Boston drivers lost an average of 149 hours stuck in traffic in 2019—only 15 hours better than in 2018, when Boston also topped the ranking.

That lost time translates into lost money, too, according to the INRIX report. Boston drivers in 2019 forfeited $2,205 on average in lost productivity because of congestion, the highest total for any domestic city tracked. By comparison, Americans on average overall wasted 99 hours last year in traffic and lost $1,377 because of it.

There are myriad reasons for the soul-sapping traffic. Many secondary and tertiary roads are old and unable to handle the capacity. The region’s population and economy have been growing for years. There are too many Amazon et al delivery trucks on the road and too many app-hails such as Uber too. The T and the commuter rail suffer from chronic delays and breakdowns, which drives more people to drive.

But one reason sometimes gets overlooked. That’s that the Boston region’s housing prices and rents are some of the highest in the nation. And that pushes more residents farther out in search of decent digs that they can afford. That then translates into longer commutes by car, especially from places that the T and commuter rail don’t really service, like much of the North Shore and the far western and southwestern suburbs.

Not every city or town near Boston is like Cambridge or Quincy, in other words, each of which has several Red Line stops. Heck, some neighborhoods within Boston proper are not so readily served by mass transit—think Hyde Park or West Roxbury.

There is an ongoing debate over how to remedy the situation, but it’s a heavy lift. The solution hinges on developing more housing—and densely built housing, at that, such as apartment and condo complexes—near transit stops. The thinking goes that this would get more people on to trains and buses, and off the roadways, at least during peak hours.

Whether the T and commuter rail could handle the increase in ridership is one thing. But there is strong evidence that there is plenty of potential in building near transit stops. A December report from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Center for Housing Data found that areas immediately around T and commuter-rail stations could support an estimated 253,000 new housing units.

And that’s just a ballpark. The land, especially around commuter-rail stops, could support a lot more transit-oriented development.

“While this math is incredibly simple and ignores some important neighborhood factors, it does show the potential that reimagining these high-access neighborhoods could have in terms of better supporting transit while simultaneously making a huge dent in our chronic housing supply problem,” the MHP Center for Housing Data said in a summary of the report (which included a handy tool for analyzing the density around the 261 stations).

But—and there’s always a but in Boston-area development—each city and town in the Boston region has its own zoning regs and hurdles re: housing. That can turn, and often does turn, transit-oriented development proposals into risky slogs for public officials and private developers.

“Changing the way we develop around transit stations will take a lot of regional planning,” the MHP report said [emphasis Curbed Boston’s]. “Planning on a regional scale in Massachusetts is a very difficult task, however, especially when it comes to housing and land use.” Instead, each municipality gets its say, whatever the wider regional benefit.

Witness what unfolded over the past several months just over a mile away from a Green Line stop in Newton’s Upper Falls area. The Newton City Council in December approved the construction of a 22.6-acre, 14-building project with 800 apartments following years of back and forth between the developer, opponents of the project, and its proponents.

The opponents then forced a zoning-related referendum on the plan, which they worried would add to—you guessed it—traffic in the area. That referendum was defeated in early March, and construction on the project looks likely to start in 2021—more than four years after it was proposed.