As one of the most walkable cities in America, Boston could be well positioned to deal with future transportation trends, experts said at an MIT Media Lab forum on the future of transportation in Boston last night.
In the fourth of a series of Boston Futures meetings, the MIT Media Lab Monday night hosted a panel on mobility and the opportunities for transport solutions for 2024 and beyond.
Carlo Ratti, an architect, engineer and director of MIT's Senseable City Lab, has done work monitoring traffic flows and measuring the potential of ride shareability – services like Uber pool, where riders can share a lift and split the fare. And after collecting millions of data points from taxi cab pickups and drop-offs in New York City, Ratti's lab found people would still be able to get to where they needed to be within a couple of minutes with 40% less cars on the road. They just need to be willing to share. If we combined car sharing and ride sharing in Boston, Ratti said, we could get by with 20% of the vehicles we have on the road today.
Mounting questions surrounding the Boston 2024 Olympic bid, as well as Mayor Walsh's announcements of planning for Boston's future have kick-started discussions about the future of Boston's public transportation.
"Urbanity and mobility are inextricably intertwined and inseparable," said Meejin Yoon, head of the MIT Department of Architecture. As the world becomes increasingly dense and urban, she said, we are also seeing a decline in car driving. Both Americans and Europeans are choosing to drive less and teens are choosing mobile phones over mobile cars, said Yoon.
Panelists said the growing decline on car ridership could help the city prepare for a possible 2024 Olympics; the panel's suggestions for a transportation overhaul included decreasing car volume, increasing ride shares, leveraging the waterfront and increasing walkability to connect neighborhoods.
Sheila Kennedy, an MIT architecture professor, discussed leveraging one of the city's defining features, the Waterfront, to innovate for future transportation. She talked about New York, San Francisco and fellow 2024 Olympic bid city Hamburg, where ferry systems have become an integral part of daily commutes and commerce. Ferries are also extremely green, emitting a third as much carbon as a rail system and about one tenth as much as cars, she said.
Michigan State professor and panel moderator Eva Kassens-Noor, who has consulted on transportation for the 2004 Athens Olympics, 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 2009 Holy Mecca Pilgrimage planning, mentioned water as well speaking to the 2024 Olympic bid specifically. The International Olympic Committee requires designated bus lanes for athletes and officials, a potential traffic nightmare for anyone around Widett Circle, the proposed site of the athlete village and stadium. "What if water could fulfill the Olympic lane role?" Kassens-Noor asked.
WalkBoston representative Wendy Landman made the case for humanity's oldest form of transportation: our feet. Boston is already extremely walkable, she said. It has the highest walk to work score in the United States, as well as one of the lowest pedestrian fatality rates. The area for opportunity, she said, is connecting walkable places like Newbury Street and Mass Ave to less walk-friendly neighborhoods like the proposed tennis venue at Harambee Park. "We need to create corridors in parts of the city that may not have corridors that feel lively and engaged," she said.
With regards to the Boston 2024 Olympics, Landman emphasized the importance of improving areas away from the venues, such as where passengers initially get on a train to go to an event. "A lot of the excitement of the venues will be because you're with other people and it's a celebratory event," she said. "What we can leave behind is what [else] is along those routes."
Stacey Thompson of Livable Streets, an organization uniting walkers, bikers and drivers, said the Boston 2024 bid could be an opportunity to use the Games as a three week pilot for expanding "bus rapid transit" beyond the Silver Line. She said whether or not Boston gets the IOC bid however, using the bid process forces the city to think about housing and transportation issues. "[The Olympics is] an opportunity to get a lot of people together who don't normally talk to each other," she said.
Ratti agreed that the plans for a transportation overhaul need to supersede the plans for an Olympic Games. He cited successes in Barcelona and Munich, who decided to reform the city first and host the Games second. "There are lots of failures if you only focus on those two weeks," he said.
With or without the Olympics, the people of Boston want solutions to their daily Orange Line and 57 Bus woes. "It doesn't matter what [mode of transportation] you're taking," said Thompson. "What remains the same is that there's a city full of people and they're all just trying to get somewhere."