Boston’s car-free streets offer glimpse of low-carbon future

Why We Wrote This

As the global coronavirus pandemic disrupts nearly every aspect of how we live, work, and travel, it might reveal pathways to alternative ways of organizing our communities.

Michael Dwyer/AP
A man rides a bicycle on April 11, 2020, on Boston's Day Boulevard, which has been closed to traffic to allow for social distancing among cyclists and pedestrians.

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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home advisory has transformed one of the Bay State’s most enduring icons: Boston traffic. Mostly gone are the honking and cursing hordes for whom red lights are a suggestion and turn signals a sign of weakness. Taking their place on the city’s famously convoluted roadways are cyclists and pedestrians; people who, whatever other faults they may have, aren’t burning gas.

This pandemic-driven automotive vanishing act has not just reduced pollution in the city, it has also offered a potential vision of the future. Like many other cities around the globe, Boston has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. To achieve that, the city will have to dethrone the car as king of the road, replacing it with a mix of bikes, trains, electric buses, and improved infrastructure for all modes of transportation.

“Transit is key to carbon neutrality and moving people out of cars onto bicycles and other carbon-free modes is very important,” says Vineet Gupta, the director of planning and engineering at the Boston Transportation Department. “That comes first.” 

Helmet on, Peter Cheung zips up his bright green jacket, matching the rest of his attire, down to the sunglasses. Without his signature outfit, people don’t recognize him. Mr. Cheung knows the busy streets of Boston intimately. Biking in the city since his college years, the Aruba native is now a leader in Boston’s biking community.

But ever since the coronavirus pandemic emptied the streets, Mr. Cheung’s rides feel eerily quiet. From Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, to the towns of Brookline, Needham, and Newton, the cyclist now often goes through his almost daily 10-mile ride without seeing anyone on the road.

“[There’s] definitely less stress,” he says. “And it seems like cars are respecting cyclists more because they know that people are out trying to get some exercise.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

For years, organizations addressing climate change have been advocating for a reduced number of cars on the road. It’s a goal many Boston commuters can agree with, if not for environmental reasons then in hopes of taming some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion. But so far, any agreement on how to limit cars on the road has remained elusive. Then came the pandemic.

Within a month, average distances driven in Boston fell by 75% compared to February’s average. As cars step back, leaving space for other modes of transportation, the pandemic offers a glimpse of what one possible carbon-neutral future could look like.

Boston, like many other cities in the United States and around the world, is trying to reach its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But with 65% of Boston's transportation emissions coming from personal vehicles, the city will have to dethrone gasoline-powered cars as king of the road. 

“Transit is key to carbon neutrality and moving people out of cars onto bicycles and other carbon-free modes is very important,” says Vineet Gupta, the director of planning and engineering at the Boston Transportation Department. “That comes first.” 

“The worst option”

While a mostly-car-free city may look uncanny in the middle of a global pandemic, there used to be a time when that was the norm. At the turn of the 20th century, when cars first appeared on U.S. roads, they had to share the paved streets with the previous tenants – horses, bicycles, pedestrians, and carriages. 

Today, cars hold a near-monopoly. Eighty-five percent of Americans drive alone to their jobs every day. In 2019, Boston was the most congested city in the country with drivers spending 149 hours in traffic that year. And the rest of the country is no different – San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York all face congestion and pollution problems. 

“America is car-centric. You see it everywhere. In advertising at the Super Bowl, there are car commercials. Buy this car – faster, stronger,” Mr. Cheung says.     

But as the pandemic forced millions to work remotely, the reduced number of cars on the road led to a drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Recent NASA satellite data shows that nitrogen dioxide levels – primarily emitted from burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity – were about 30% lower on average in March 2020 over the Northeast compared with the previous five years. 

While these statistics look encouraging, experts expect air pollution levels to rise again when economies restart. To reach carbon neutrality, cities will need to implement lasting changes.

“You’ve got to make driving, you know, the worst option in order to change things,” says Joan Fitzgerald, professor of public policy and urban affairs at Boston's Northeastern University.

Improving bus lines and adding lanes on the road, transitioning to electric modes of transportation – whether it be buses or cars – and adding bicycle lanes throughout cities are ways to push people onto other modes of transportation, and meeting the 2050 goal.  

“That’s really the future of cities,” Julia Wallerce, the Boston program manager at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, says. “Cars are not.”

Recently, Boston closed some of its streets to automobile traffic to offer more space for pedestrians, runners, and cyclists. Cities globally are already brainstorming ways to transform initiatives taken during the pandemic into more permanent urban redesign. In Milan, over the summer, city officials will implement a bold plan to transform its streets to expand cycling and walking spaces and reduce car use as residents go back to work.   

A breath of fresh air

Sharing the roads with cars – that’s what Mr. Cheung and the Boston Cyclists Union, a nonprofit group of cyclists with paid staff, have been fighting for. For 10 years, the BCU has been campaigning for better bike infrastructure with additional bike lanes, and safer, more accessible streets throughout Boston.

Riding through a quieter and cleaner Boston, Mr. Cheung enjoys the newfound, but temporary, freedom and safety on the streets.

“A lot of people have been depressed and sad. But everyone has been saying that when they go out on their bike ride, it just totally makes them feel better, healthier, fresher,” he says. “It’s just been great just to be out on a bicycle. It really, really helps a lot of people to go through these times.”

The solutions to achieve carbon neutrality are already here, says Craig Altemose at Better Future Project, a Massachusetts organization addressing climate change; we just need to use them. The 2050 goal might even be underambitious, he says, and we might not have 30 years to tackle climate change.

“We have electric buses, we have electric trains, we have electric cars. We have bike paths, we have sidewalks – none of this is new technology. We know how to do all of this,” he says. “It is purely a question of political will to implement solutions.”

He adds: “As we see more wildfires, more hurricanes, more heat waves, more severe storms, more droughts, more floods, the political will for bold and aggressive action is only going to increase exponentially.”

This story was published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Boston Cyclist's Union is a nonprofit with paid staff and to clarify that personal vehicles account for 65% of the city's transportation-related emissions. As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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