Sunday, September 16, 2007

Do we need Storrow Drive?

Apologies to those from other cities or who are just reading this blog for health care items, but every now and then I like to dive back into the infrastructure arena. It is actually the field I am trained in, worked in for many years, and taught at MIT. So sometimes I can't resist. One of my colleagues in this field is Fred Salvucci, former MA secretary of transportation. We worked together in state government and also at MIT. We were gabbing about a bunch of topics, and both of us had been thinking about this one, and it just bubbled up. I don't know if he wanted me to make it public, but if you like the idea, give him credit. If you don't, give me the blame.

The topic is Storrow Drive, a road that began in the days of "parkways", pleasure roads that were off-limits to trucks. From the beginning, this one was controversial, in that it was built on state parkland bordering the Charles River. The Charles River basin was itself an early, successful example of regional planning, envisioned by Charles Eliot in the 1890's as a unique combination of urban parkland, flood control, and improved sanitation.

Today, Storrow Drive is a main arterial road, leading traffic to various points of downtown Boston. Most of the time, you are too busy driving around odd curves and on ramps and off ramps and avoiding aggressive Boston drivers to remember that you are on a pleasure vehicle parkway. The physical components of the road have deteriorated over the last 70 years and require major rebuilding. The current controversy is how to carry out the construction and maintain the traffic flow. A plan floated by the state is to take existing parkland -- the Esplanade -- as a temporary route during this construction period. This has raised objections from a variety of quarters. Here is an example published yesterday by two former highly respected parks commissioners, John Sears and Bill Geary.

Opportunities like this come along but rarely, and I think we should ask the question: Do we need Storrow Drive? Please understand that I have not done a detailed technical analysis -- and this idea might be all wet -- but would the City of Boston and the region be better off without a commuters' highway alongside one of the most beautiful portions of the city?

Imagine Boston without Storrow Drive, say from the BU Bridge to the Longfellow Bridge. The horrible gash isolating the Back Bay from the Charles River would be gone. There could be a walk to the river from every street between Charles and St. Mary's.

Impossible, you say? Look at San Francisco, where the Central Freeway was taken down after it was damaged in an earthquake -- or the West Side Highway in New York, which was likewise eliminated when a portion collapsed.

How to do it here? Let's say that a new BU Bridge -- and yes, the BU Bridge will have to be replaced soon because it is in terrible shape -- were connected directly to exit and on ramps from the Mass. Turnpike and then repositioned on the Cambridge side to align with Vassar Street instead of bumping into the Reid Overpass on Memorial Drive so that Turnpike drivers could go directly to their destinations at MIT and Kendall Square. Let's say the Grand Junction railroad bridge were reconfigured as an express bus and pedestrian route from Cambridge to Boston to enhance mass transit, walking, and biking between Cambridge and BU and the Longwood Area. Let's say the Longfellow Bridge -- and yes, this bridge will be rebuilt also -- had revised approaches on the Boston side. You get the idea.

The lesson from San Francisco and New York is that highways like this generate their own traffic. When they are eliminated, the traffic can be directed more rationally, and urban amenities like access to the water, walking, biking, and parklands can be enhanced. Maybe Storrow Drive is really needed. But maybe it isn't. Before we spend millions of dollars duplicating its design flaws, let's ask the question with an open mind and consider the alternatives.

19 comments:

Marc said...

Hi Paul,
The "days of the parkways" may be over, but I don't think the idea is entirely without merit. If nothing else it was a nice welcome home when I lived in Boston and Brookline and was coming back from the airport to drive that way. Of course if I could have taken the Pike then it would have been faster, but there was no exit until the Allston Tolls (and no Ted Williams tunnel then either). So it might be a good change, but I'm not sure that we should declare parkways as outmoded. In which case some of the south Brookline/West Roxbury area ones are even more problematic (well after 7 years in the area I still can't get to West Roxbury without getting lost).

David S said...

I don't think the Mass Pike can replace Storrow Drive. Your proposal would dump a lot of traffic in Boston's narrow, winding streets. This is a great proposal if you live in the Back Bay, but I think it would be bad for folks who work in Boston but live elsewhere.

Paul Levy said...

David S,

Think about traffic flows along Storrow Drive now. Where do people come from and where are they going? A bunch use it to get to Cambridge. A bunch use it to get to Government Center. A bunch use it to get to 93 north and south. The turnpike might be a better alternative now for all of those purposes now that the central artery project is completed, especially if there were direct access from the Pike to the BU bridge.

Where do you see an increase coming on to Boston's streets? From where, to where?

Marc,

It also took me a decade to learn the rotaries in Brookline and West Roxbury!

Rick Burnes said...

It's wonderful to see these types of ideas becoming less and less heretical. Despite the federal government, our transportation mindset seems to be shifting towards mass transit.

One note on the way you've framed this, though: "Do We Need Storrow Drive?" is a great polemical headline, but probably overstates the case. New York and San Francisco didn't eliminate the highways you mention, they just turned them into boulevards. Traffic still flows efficiently, but there are now lights, pedestrians cross, and restaurants have outdoor seating along the street.

Eliminating Storrow Drive will come across as a crazy idea to many, but it's hard to dismiss the idea of turning it into a slower-moving boulevard like the Embarcadero.

LA in traffic said...

dude. I live in a land of freeways. try 19 lanes of traffic not moving.

Anonymous said...

I just spent an afternoon in Zurich, strolling through a park that connects the heart of the city with the river and lake on which it sits, asking myself the same question. The construction of Storrow Drive was a huge mistake in the first place, and we just spent $15 billion to - among other things - repair the mistake of carving Boston off from its waterfront with an elevated highway. I think it's a great idea and deserves to be evaluated seriously.

Anonymous said...

Although I don't live in Boston and the topic is obtuse to me, the lesson I take away from this post is - don't succumb to groupthink, like so many do! Have the courage to come up with a new and fresh idea.

Gregg said...

It seems like a reasonable idea as long as the Mass Pike gets a few more exits between Newton and Brighton/Alston and the connection from the Pike to the BU bridge also provides an express road over to Brookline. Getting from the Pike to the BU bridge and over to Brookline without ever touching a Boston City Surface street would be a dream come true.

Flip said...

The New York and San Francisco examples are a little disingenuous. Although the old West Side Highway may be no more, it’s not as though a major road along the west side of Manhattan ceased to exist. And in the case of San Francisco, the Embarcadero Freeway was stopped by civic action as it was being built in 1959, thus never becoming much of a major thoroughfare. This is to say nothing of the fact that the Loma Prieta quake was the excuse San Franciscans needed to tear down that hated eyesore. And, as in the case of New York, it’s not as though the remaining space was replaced by unfettered parkland. Instead, San Francisco got a strip of road that splits the difference between Memorial and Storrow drives, but with first rate landscaping and light rail down the middle. I suppose my eventual point is that you can’t just disappear a major road that’s been around since 1951, especially in a city like Boston with limited points of access.

margalit said...

I think it's a miserable idea cooked up by people that can afford to pay a daily toll on the pike. If they took the pike tolls down from Weston thru Boston, then maybe, just maybe, I could see the idea with some merit. But as it is, asking people to pay money to get to work every day when they can do so for free is ridiculous. For me, and for many others like you Paul, living where we do and trying to get to Government Center or Back Bay using the pike is horrible. Having to cross the river and take Mem drive and deal with those damn lights and the restricted left and right turns and the bridges? Add a half hour to a commute time.

Nope, leave well enough alone. And add some cowbells!

Anonymous said...

As someone who lives in the neighborhood in Brookline directly across from the BU bridge, I think this idea could help alleviate alot of problems. Including the fact that the MBTA wants to run a double wide bus down Carlton St. through our neighborhood, something we have been fighting for a LONG time. A reorganization would allow those of us living here to better enjoy the benefits of life near the Esplanade as well as provide an opportunity for the neighborhoods to reach a compromise with new ideas on how to get traffic flowing through Brookline, while still protecting our neighborhoods and communitites.

Anonymous said...

Just as a note, the Grand Junction branch cannot be removed - it provides a vital link for the MBTA to move south side equipment to BET, as there are no major shops on the south side(the nearest link otherwise is out in Worchester now, I think.)

As for removing Storrow Drive, well, while a good idea, I'm not sure the traffic flow will work - though I'm sure much work could be done to make the road blend in with the area more.

Anonymous said...

To 9/17 11:44 AM anonymous:

I would LOVE to see a double-wide bus drive through Brookline. Just picture a 16-foot-wide vehicle that takes up two lanes at once, pushing parked cars out of its way...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, try coming from north of the city and wanting to get to Longwood or any interior section of the Back Bay. Without Storrow Drive, such a commute would be even more nightmare-ish than it currently is.

We live in a society that values the independence of automobile travel. While it's fine to point to cities that have had to deal with the loss of major arteries due to natural disasters (and I'm not sure everyone from those cities would go along with your suggestion that all is fine without those arteries), this is definitely not the same.

The people who live around Storrow Drive are, naturally, those who likely wouldn't mind seeing it go. The people who do not, but instead rely on it for a daily commute, could not imagine life without it (or a road of similar configuration).

Anonymous said...

The whole of Storrow and Memorial Drives and Soldier's field Road are falling into disasterous disrepair.

While closing Storrow may not be the answer, the amount of money involved and the imminent disruptions and shut-downs make pricing of alternatives imperative. These are not the only roads in the state that are in tough shape, yet they threaten to suck enormous amounts of money in the near term. That alone makes rethinking ALL of the area's traffic and roadways critically important.

If Storrow can be removed and replaced by alternative plans that account for local traffic and access to critical destinations AND it can be done in a way that gets federal money (The Pike is a federal road), then it should be removed.

Replacing what is there is not a sane option, given the extent of the damage. Unfortunately, it would be all too Boston to do just that, fearing change and demanding the impossible and underfunding the effort. That is the reputation of this state in larger highway design and construction circles. Shall we continue?

jabbett said...

A large reason I work in the medical area was to commute from Brookline on foot. Even though my former commute to Burlington was "against traffic," the time it takes to get from Brookline to a major artery (93, 95, 2, 90) is frustrating. Easy on- and off-ramps to the Pike (west and east) near the BU Bridge would be outstanding; I'd be as excited as gregg above. Were they to exist, I doubt I'd have any need for Storrow.

Margalit's concerns about tolls, though, are important. Perhaps increasing awareness that Fast Lane toll payments are tax-deductable would help.

In any case, I think the question becomes -- will anyone go for such an innovative change in our post-Big Dig political climate? If it could be done for as much or less as replacing those swaths of Storrow, you might be able to get some traction.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that your desire to eliminate Storrow Drive is driven by your love of the MGH. Nice try.

SFG said...

Why would he love MGH? Aren't they the enemy of every hospital in Boston?

Paul Levy said...

Sorry, but that's a bit too nasty. Sure there is intense competition, but I wouldn't apply the word "enemy" to hospital relationships: We are all in the same business.