bikes · Boston · car sharing · cars · density · freeways · highways · MBTA · urban

Beantown: Urban Form and Function

Density: The part of Boston I am staying in (Back Bay) is quite dense, especially compared to the rest of the United States. This makes sense as Boston is one of the oldest American cities. It is also very diverse and educated, being home to a massive number of universities.

The city itself is different from many of the other older American cities (Philadelphia, NYC, Wash. DC) because it is not planned on a grid system. Its streets are chaotic and ancient, creating an interesting urban area with many urban layers. Much of the current city is also built on landfill, causing adjacent neighborhoods to be sometimes completely different.

As with most major American cities, Boston went through a serious decline/ urban renewal process a few decades ago. This led to the construction of some notoriously ugly modernist buildings (Boston City Hall). However, many locations that recently were open lots/surface parking have been transformed into lofts and other new/New Urbanist developments. A major project, called the Big Dig, recently covered a major freeway with a park. Though this project has been beneficial, some residents are unhappy about the quality of the new public space and the price of the project. However, it is really encouraging to see this city recovering from a period of serious urban decline. This success is in no small part due to the previously mentioned large number of universities.

All of this information goes to the back of my head as I witness an urban battle over space occur in Boston: cars vs. everything and everyone else.

This is not a new battle; it is constantly occurring everywhere. It happens to be especially fascinating to witness in Boston due the contrast of an ancient city and a relatively modern freeway network.

As recently mentioned in this Streetsblog video, the city of Boston is quickly becoming more bike friendly. It is astounding that this city was previously bike unfriendly (did I mention how many universities are located here?!?) and the city continues to have plenty of elements of a bike unfriendly city. Looking out my hotel window, there are encouraging symbols of the future to come, with brand new bike lanes, sharrows and bike boxes all visible from my room.

Just yards away form hotel exists a major freeway. This freeway is surrounded by properties in continual decline and areas that feel dangerous at night. The continual negative externalities of a surface freeway system continue to haunt many once beautiful Boston neighborhoods. Cars continue to speed by on wide urban arterials. Drivers continue to ignore pedestrians and bicyclists. Car sharing vehicles (Zipcar, etc.) are rarely if even seen, and a bike sharing network that was supposed to be up and running is nowhere to be found. Suburban style development rubs elbows with historic neighborhoods. Some metro stations are found outdoors under double tiered freeways, creating a dangerous and unfriendly pedestrian environment. Others are found in dark, old dirty tunnels, filled with squeaky trains that frequently break down.

How do we want to develop our cities? What do we want our future cities to look like? How much sense does it make to continue heavy subsidies for a network that depends upon finite fuels and massive amounts of valuable real estate?

It’s time for a transportation revolution.


2 thoughts on “Beantown: Urban Form and Function

  1. Sounds like an awesome family trip! Question: What is your take on the park over the big dig? Was it being used when you were there? I recently posted something about this and based on everything I've read and seen, it's been a failure…but a huge opportunity as well.

  2. @TimHey, sorry for taking so long to respond. I had not noticed your comment until today. I'm glad you brought up the park. Honestly, there were quite a few people using it, especially the section by the Italian North End neighborhood. Certain parts of the park were quite abandoned, but there were many sections that were thriving. There are definitely some serious access and safety issues with the space but overall I would deem it a successful project.

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