If you have visited Boston lately, you may have noticed an increase in bike and e-bike riders in the city and its adjacent communities. This isn’t by accident. Boston is in the midst of a longterm transportation plan that seeks to give residents better, and more equitable, transportation options.
Go Boston 2030 is a series of 57 projects aimed at revolutionizing how Boston’s citizens get around by 2030. To learn more, we spoke with Vineet Gupta, director of planning for the Boston Transportation Department, to see how a city goes about planning a multi-modal transportation plan, and executing it, even with the space constraints of a historical city like Boston.
For Boston, The opportunity to reimagine transportation started a few years ago thanks to a combination of public support and political power. The city released the plan in 2017 as cities around the world reconsidered transportation. “It was a good time to start a new process to think globally and citywide about what translation future we should be designing,” says Gupta. The city was already working to be a pedestrian friendly city and to adopt the principles of Vision Zero, but they wanted to do more. “We fundamentally changed how we had been doing public process for the last 20 years when we started Go Boston in 2030,” says Gupta.
One of the big issues with most public transportation work is that those who participate are often a passionate few and do not represent the city as a whole. This was an issue that Gupta and his department wanted to avoid. So, they went out in search of as many opinions as they could find. “It was a combination of what we heard from our residents and from professionals from City Hall,” says Gupta.
The plan involved two steps: the first sought questions and the second sought ideas. Gupta and his team wanted as many as they could gather. “Basically all you had to do was ask a question,” says Gupta. “And we got about six or seven thousand.” They used these questions to develop a vision, what transportation should look like in Boston. Then, with this vision established as a backbone, they set out on the second half of their plan, fielding ideas. “We invited people to just throw out any idea about how we could improve transportation given the vision, and again we got about 5,000 ideas,” says Gupta. And most importantly, “We got to engage people in the process who had never engaged in transportation planning before.”
Making a big change, though, requires big ideas, big goals. “The question was, should we embrace goals that are doable, or should we embrace goals that are visionary and push the city in a particular direction even though we know we won’t achieve them by 2030,” says Gupta. “We went for the latter.” This includes goals like reducing the number of commuters who drive alone by 50 percent. The Go Boston 2030 plan sets out 57 projects in an action plan, each of which originated from a citizen’s idea.
One of the benefits with such a plan is that high participation means more of your citizens are likely to buy into the project. Similarly, a framework of questions and ideas helped the transportation plan develop a series of priorities that they could rank and implement with the community.
Go Boston created 27 unique priorities for the project and overarching goals like improving safety, expanding access, reducing car use, reducing emissions, ensuring reliability and increasing affordability. With a plan, vision, goals and priorities established, it is then easier to implement the project. Currently there are 21 projects in implementation, 17 projects in design and 20 projects still to be started.
Having such a robust transportation plan in place has also given Boston the ability to adapt to new opportunities as they arise. That includes a rapid expansion of bike infrastructure over the last year. “Once the pandemic came, we were able to accelerate the installation of bike lanes in short order,” says Gupta. “We did six-and-a-half miles of protected stress-free bike lanes. Because we had a planning process it was easy to implement these bike lanes.”
All of this has created a boom in bike ridership and e-bike ridership throughout the community. For its part, the city is working to continue efforts on the supply side. “We embraced the principles of Vision Zero with a passion,” says Gupta. And these efforts have made the streets safer. “We have in fact seen a decline in fatalities for the most vulnerable of our roadway users, people walking and people on bikes. We have made progress. Safety for people who use our streets and sidewalks is our number one priority. There is no discussion. It is the single biggest thing that we care about.”
Of course when you are redesigning a city’s transportation you have to work with what you have, and Boston is quite the unique city. “The (city’s) strengths are having a more intimate street fabric which encourages people to walk, which allows for a good public spaces, and for public space to be experienced by our residents,” says Gupta. “And we have big city facilities in close proximity to each other.”
But there are also challenges. “There are constraints to right of way,” says Gupta. “Invariably hard choices have to be made when we try to be multi-modal. Invariably we do have to give up a parking lane, or choose between a bike lane or a bus lane.” But a clear vision and list of priorities gives a path forward.
While Gupta says many of these goals can be hard for an individual citizen to see in their daily life, a more tactile one is the idea of making every citizen’s transportation more convenient and full of options. “A goal, for example, is by 2030 every household in Boston should be within a 10-minute walk of a subway station, a key bus route, a car share facility and a bike share,” he says.
In pursuit of that, the bike-share program, Bluebikes, has expanded year over year and now includes more than 400 stations in Boston and its surrounding communities. These have have recorded over 13 million trips across more than 4,000 bikes. “We have expanded our bike share system aggressively,” says Gupta. “We actually own the bike share system. We actually call it public transportation. By the end of the year we will have a bike share station in every neighborhood of the city. There is no other city in the country that has that kind of universal bike share network.”
Similarly, Boston has been expanding its car share options. New developers are required to include spaces in parking garages for car share programs and the city has even begun giving car share spaces on the street to serve otherwise underserved communities that are not seeing the same new developments and garages “Interestingly enough those locations have seen a lot of use,” says Gupta. These contribute to the goals of decreasing car usage and expanding access.
Throughout it all Go Boston 2030 is committed to keeping its citizens updated about these projects. “We are particularly proud of this,” says Gupta. “If you go to the Go Boston 2030 website you’ll see the progress in implementation. As one of our most questioning advocacy groups said, Go Boston 2030 is not sitting on a shelf; it is getting implemented.”
Cyclists, pedestrians and all other citizens of Boston are showing that transforming transportation equitably requires not only a solid plan and strong leadership, but active participation, commitment, and vision to make our cities safer, more livable and more fun for all.
And it’s making Boston a great place to bike.