Photo: Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) CC BY-SA 3.0
This opinion project took several interview requests, research and thought to be able to come up a informed opinion on an unknown topic. Working with my opinion in my writing was something unfamiliar to me at the time.
Steve Shepard took public transit during his working career from locations like Rockport and Cambridge. He took it because he could not fathom driving around the city, but that doesn’t mean he thought it was reliable. Now, as a retired man, Shepard only takes transit services when he absolutely has too.
He no longer wants to deal with the crowded lines of people on the commuter rail or on the subway during rush hour. Or the inconvenience of it all.
“I sometimes have to waste two hours waiting for my train back home,” said Shepard.
Greater Boston is just as crowded on the train, as it is on the roads.
For Shepard, the idea of Boston levying a congesting pricing method that charges people to enter the city is taking a step ahead. New York City has recently announced plans to charge drivers around $11 a day. Shepard agrees that the idea of lowering congestion in Boston is a great idea but thinks officials must make the public transit system a reliable alternative before they can charge people to enter the city.
“You have to give an alternative and you have to give recourse. It is like being a parent,” said Shepard. “You have to give an alternative they would want to take.”
And right now, the transit system is just not good enough.
In the 2018 INRIX Traffic Scorecard, Boston was ranked worst in the United States and eighth in the world, with 164 hours spent in traffic in 2018. The congestion pricing plan in New York City is the first enacted in the United States, but similar systems in London, Singapore, and Stockholm have reduced traffic, improved air quality and created a steady stream of revenue according to a report from the Associated Press.
The problem, though, is that congestion pricing hurts the people with the least in control of their working lives. If you want people to take public transit rather than drive, you have to make public transit a reliable alternative before forcing them to change their behavior.
Argument Against Congestion Pricing
According to a 2018 survey by the MassINC Polling Group, 55 percent of Massachusetts voters are either strongly or somewhat opposed to the idea of raising tolls during rush hour. Seven percent of the people had no opinion.
The proposed models in Boston would do just that. Rush hours in the morning from 7-9 would see a significantly bigger fee than off-hours. For those who have the ability to enter the city at different times this could be an easily avoidable problem. Not everyone, though, has that flexibility.
Zachary Hamilton, a fifth-grade math teacher from Brighton, commutes to his school in Everett every day. The commute requires Hamilton to travel through the city. His 25-minute drive in the morning would be an hour-and-a-half commute on the train.
“The T is already congested as it is,” he said. “Unless Boston wanted to put in some good alternatives I don’t really see how they can justify it.”
Hamilton, like many others in the workforce, could not avoid extra fees from congestion pricing because they have to get to work.
Hamilton, like many others in the area, have to be to work at a certain time. Republican political analyst and former Massachusetts congressional Jeff Semon says congestion pricing is unfair.
“It is unfair to those who have the least flexibility in their employment,” said Semon. “If you’re a delivery driver or work for a company anywhere from a bakery to a package delivery service - you know we’re not exactly talking high-tech white-collar jobs here. It’s going to punish you. And it’s going to hurt your bottom line. You’re probably the least in a position to avoid it and it’s just unfair.”
Semon spoke about that the social contract that individuals have with the government. He said that people pay taxes with the idea they will get something for it. Semon argued that congestion pricing goes against this.
“It is attempted social engineering – to modify the behavior of people in the community rather than taxing them and them getting something for that tax,” said Semon.
Some people have no choice but to drive into the city with high costs of living in the Boston area and an unreliable, age-old transit system.
Northeastern student and Business and Communications major Crystal Camp must deal with commuting to the city from the South Shore in Abington. Camp has driven into the city and taken public transportation. When taking public transportation Camp had to drive half an hour to park at a commuter rail station and then wait an hour on the train. Sometimes she would have to go to the next commuter rail station because the first one would be out of parking spots.
“Public transportation has to be more accessible,” said Camp. “It costs too much to be unreliable. It [congestion pricing] make no sense. The T is ridiculously unreliable. Camp said that the commuter rail would cost her around $256 a month plus the daily parking fee.
Now, Camp deals with the $605 a month it cost to park on campus.
Improving on poor infrastructure to help alleviate the problem seems like a better solution than trying to modify the behavior of people. It is also the right thing to do.
The Other Side
Congestion in the city is a problem. No one will argue with that.
“If you just let everybody drive until the road is so polluted and so congested that it stinks then that’s the only break that’s going to stop us,” said Peter Furth, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. “Our roads are just going to keep getting congested until they are [more] congested.”
Furth suggested a model like the proposed time-based congestion pricing for Boston. If implemented everyone would start using public transportation said Furth.
“It’s not a matter of having great big wide roads. If a city is successful and driving is cheap, and roads are free, you are going to have congestion guaranteed, said Furth. “The American idea of the solution to congestion is we need to build more lanes always leads to more congestion.”
Los Angeles is an example that Furth points to.
Furth did agree that public transportation needs to be improved to offer better alternatives, but still believes that, for now, pricing the roads is the proper solution.
“It is not the MBTA’s fault. That’s our society’s fault for deciding not to expand the MBTA, not to invest in the MBTA,” said Furth. “Also, to favor and allow auto-oriented development. You can-not blame the MBTA for congestion on Route 128 when there’s all the office parks around Route 128.”
Pricing the roads is a logical idea. I will not dispute Furth on that.
According to the same 2018 survey by MassINC, 61 percent of Massachusetts registered voters would support the use of additional electronic highway tolls if the funds would go to help reduce congestion.
How can you heavily price the roads without a logical alternative? Furth points to the idea of pricing, then fixing the transit system with that money. But charging people without first offering a decent alternative only benefit those with flexibility and a strong economic situation.
The 2018 survey by MassInc said that 73 percent of Massachusetts voters think improving highways, roads and bridges is a major priority. Fifty-six percent said that better public transportation would be very effective and 32 percent said it would be somewhat effective in “improving getting around the state,” the highest of any category.
Shepard, Semon, Furth and a high percentage of Massachusetts would all agree that part of the solution to fixing congestion and traffic is in improving public transportation.
“It is not exactly convenient,” said Semon. “Right now, it’s not attractive enough people to get people out of their cars.”
Camp recalled a time when the commuter rail was so packed that she had no bar to hold on too. “I was hanging on to the ceiling, so I wouldn’t fall. I am 5 feet 5,” said Camp.
The already overcrowded transit system would be even more crowded if you implement congestion pricing.
Fixing the transit system is the first step in charging people to drive into the city. Some people have no choice until you improve the transit system. For those who have zero access to transit you can also work on building the infrastructure. The act would also be moral
“The better solution would be is if you want to build a new road that alleviates congestion, build new parking garages around MBTA stops, build new infrastructure and then you charge a fee,” said Semon. “You’re getting something for what you pay for rather than just being a punitive behavior modification attempt.”
Furth disputed road improvements as a viable solution but said paring better driving infrastructure with a working transit system could help pull people off roads and help the ones on them.
Rather then unfairly charging people to enter the city only at rush hour, why not levy higher tolls to help improve the infrastructure and transit systems? Put those proposals in place and people will be happy that you’re trying to fix their commute.
Hamilton, the elementary school math teacher, thought the idea of heavier pricing was logical, but only under certain circumstances.
“If they want to tax to fund those alternatives fine,” he said. “But they need to have those alternative proposals in place beforehand.”
Everyone will agree that congestion is a good problem to have. It means that Boston is a place people want to be.
“Nobody wants to go to Boston, it’s too crowded,” Furth said. “But wait. It’s too crowded because everybody wants to go there. So congestion is something we should be glad we have.”
Semon said that Boston is in fact a thriving city that is making it congested.
“It’s good because that means our economy is booming,” said Semon. “We have a very very low unemployment rate. Boston metro area is a magnet for high tech and biotech and all the associated jobs.”
Uncongested roads and a booming economy do not have to be mutually exclusive.
In December, Gov. Charlie Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation issued a list of 18 recommendations. “Better manage traffic congestion” was near the top. The commission recommended a smarter tolling pilot program, so it clear that the government is looking into congestion pricing.
Let’s hope state and city officials realizes the great city of Boston realizes that this is an unfair answer. It punishes those who must come into the city at certain time to make ends meet without first giving them an alternative.