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What will happen to the Boston area’s built environment in the 2020s?

Let’s use today’s development and transportation trends to divine tomorrow’s

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In many ways, the 2010s were kind to the Boston area’s built environment. The region recovered from the Great Recession, adding jobs amid a perennially strong economy. This helped spur the development of tens of thousands of much-needed housing units. Bike-shares arose. The Green and Silver lines unspooled. Parks and other public spaces unfurled.

In other ways, though, the decade was quite cruel. Housing costs soared. Traffic worsened. Mass transit failed time and again. In fact, many of the challenges that the region faced at the start of the 2010s in terms of cost of living and mobility remain as they close out.

What’s the next decade hold? How will these challenges manifest themselves in the 2020s, and will the region ever get its aerial gondola? Let’s peer into the near future, using the trends of today to divine tomorrow. Warning: Hypotheticals ahead.


A crowd on a T train Universal Images Group via Getty

Greater Boston’s population crests 5 million residents in 2021, a couple of years faster than anyone expected. Boston proper alone tops 800,000, more residents than at any time since the 1950s. Such milestones surprise absolutely no one: The region’s population had been building for years.

But the increase—coming as it does sooner than expected—worsens the regional housing and transportation crises, leading to a scramble for fast solutions.

The state creates the Massachusetts Bay Housing Authority, a new coordinating agency designed, at least in theory, to cut through the region’s patchwork of zoning regulations and make it easier to build housing as well as mixed-use communities, especially around Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority stations. Modeled after the MBTA, in fact, the MBHA’s creation is hastened by continued allegations of bribery in Boston’s permitting process.

The new agency’s task is herculean. Though it inherits a formidable amount of funding due in large part to Boston’s 2019 decision to slap a surcharge on private property sales of at least $2 million, the need for housing for nearly every income level is so acute that simply subsidizing affordable projects won’t do. The MBHA needs the cooperation of private developers willing to build market-rate homes.

But the ballooning costs of land and construction in the new decade—as well as a buyer’s market that grew out of the previous decade—has put off such firms. This is especially true of larger projects. There will be very few new multi-building complexes constructed during the decade, and only one building more than 600 feet tallthe redevelopment of the Boston Harbor Garage.

Finally, the new MBHA finds itself at the mercy of elected officials who themselves do not have to rely on its efforts. The pace of housing construction in Greater Boston plods along during the decade, barely keeping up with demand, even during the Second Great Recession, when fewer people are looking to relocate. Soon it’s a seller’s market again, and prices escalate even higher.

On the rental side, things never really change much from the 2010s. The return of rent control to some cities and towns in 2021 slows the pace of rent increases, but does not eliminate the increases themselves. The solution remains the need for a lot more multifamily housing, but even changes at the state level can’t hasten that.

Nor can the region’s many universities, which abandon plans for more dormitories amid the same challenges that other developers face.

The large metal sign for a new dormitory. Boston Globe via Getty Images

Things are a little different in the retail and office markets. The final collapses of both brick-and-mortar retail and the coworking sector in early 2022 spur furious action in the public and private sectors. Like with the population surge, the collapses come years sooner than expected. But businesses and officials are ready.

Offices and storefronts across the region are reborn as community and creative spaces as well as R-and-D incubators for the life sciences-biotech industry, which in 2025 surpasses both health care and education as the region’s biggest employer. The successful conversion of so much space earns Greater Boston national plaudits, and those who would point out that the spaces sure seem like WeWork 2.0 are drowned thoroughly out.

The retail and coworking collapses should lead to less traffic congestion and fewer T riders. But that doesn’t happen because of the continued rise of app-hails such as Uber and Lyft, which seize on innovation in driver-less technology to flood the region with tens of thousands of autonomous vehicles.

Plus, there’s that population growth again, which officials, businesspeople, and residents saw coming for years but were still caught off-guard by. Boston-area traffic remains some of the most congested in the world. Solutions elude the region.

A state-run pilot program for congestion pricing in downtown Boston in 2021 leads to inconclusive results, for instance. The surcharges for driving private vehicles into the area at peak hours yields millions of dollars in fresh mass transportation funding—but the MBTA needs billions just to keep up with maintenance.

A spaghetti-like vehicular intersection with a lone biker trying to navigate the converging car traffic. Boston Globe via Getty Images

Moreover, commuters just stagger their hours to avoid the higher tolls. Massachusetts’ first-in-the-nation telecommuting tax credit for companies exacerbates this problem. Eleven a.m. becomes the new rush hour in Boston.

Also, a push to close downtowns throughout the region to private vehicles stalls during the winter of 2023, as a record 11 feet of snow falls on the region, crippling its mass transit. Opponents of closing downtown Boston, Cambridge’s Kendall Square, and other heavily trafficked commercial areas to cars seize on the situation. How, they ask, are people supposed to get around without being able to get around downtown in their cars?

Proponents, though, point to the ridership on the Green Line’s newest route through Somerville into Medford. Ridership grew steadily following the extension’s 2021 opening, they say, forever changing neighborhoods such as Union and Inman squares through new development hoping to take advantage of the transit proximity. But breakdowns along the line and chronic overcrowding soon undermine proponents’ arguments for banning cars in some areas.

It becomes painfully obvious toward the middle of the decade that transit-oriented development is only as successful as that first part of the phrase. And so the car remains a potent force in Greater Boston.

Three bikers rounding a corner in a protected bike lane. Boston Globe via Getty Images

By the end of the decade, there is talk of maybe banning just autonomous cars from downtown areas, more for safety than anything. But the only real bright spot as far as alleviating congestion on both mass transit and the roadways is the continued rise of micromobility. The region exits the 2020s with several dozen miles of protected bike lanes, and the state’s legalization of e-scooters in 2022 leads to an explosion in usage—and to the omnipresence of scooter parking racks to avoid sidewalk clutter.

There’s also talk, too, of an aerial gondola, though only between biotech-tech hubs.

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