New mindset needed to address congestion, says MassDOT

By Chris McCahill

A new report from the Massachusetts DOT dives into the state’s growing traffic congestion to understand the causes and potential solutions. It points to the rapid outward growth around Boston as one of the main causes, and suggests the current situation calls for bold new solutions aimed at connecting people and places while managing demand, rather than simply keeping roads moving.

According to the report, congestion has gotten considerably worse since 2013, especially in Greater Boston. Commute trips by driving have gotten 10 percent longer and, consequently, about six percent longer by bus. Travel times on many roads have increased by more than 50 percent and stay this way for longer periods throughout the day.

Improving accessibility and reliability throughout the state while balancing sustainability and equity goals will require changes in MassDOT’s approach, according to the report. According to DOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack, the agency, like other DOTs, has focused historically on building and maintaining the network. “But if we are to make the overall system more reliable in the face of mounting congestion,” she explains, “we must expand this mindset. We must not only build and maintain the network, we must actively monitor and manage it every day.”

Today’s gridlock, according to the report, was caused by “direct, micro-level factors, such as poor signal operations and crashes, as well as in indirect macro-level phenomena.” Boston’s economy has grown, while housing prices pushed residential growth farther from job centers. That evolving landscape, paired with lower gas prices, has forced more people into cars for longer distances and longer periods of time. Crashes often push the already-crowded system to its breaking point.

Moving forward, MassDOT plans to target certain bottlenecks while taking a more active role in managing how the roads operate, clearing crashes more quickly, and working to improve people’s travel options throughout the state. New construction and technological solutions will help, but the agency will also evaluate smart pricing strategies in the most congested areas. Rail, bus, and other commuter options, including incentives for shared travel, will play a critical role.

While outside of MassDOT’s control, the report also notes how important future growth patterns will be in preventing worse problems. It points specifically to less congested Gateway Cities along major transit lines as ripe areas for growth, noting the fundamental need for concentrating affordable housing in places like these.

Chris McCahill is the Deputy Director at SSTI.