Boston Transportation Advocates Aren’t So Sure About Their Mayor

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is poised to cruise to a second term this year, but an expected electoral landslide doesn’t mean everyone is happy. Transportation advocates in “America’s Walking City” say the past four years have brought big promises, but not much on-the-ground progress for walking, bicycling and transit.

“The administration has done a lot of the right planning, and they’ve adopted a lot of the right policies,” says Matt Lawlor, a land use lawyer and Roslindale resident who serves on the board of pedestrian advocacy nonprofit WalkBoston and helped found StreetsPAC MASS. “The issue that a lot of us are frustrated with is that it’s not being translated into action on the streets.”

The Walsh administration, which controls the city’s roadways but not its state-run transit system, points to its successes, including protected bike lanes on Massachusetts Avenue, lowering the citywide speed limit to 25 mph, expanding the Hubway bikeshare system, and intersection improvements throughout the city.

Walsh, a state representative before he became mayor, took over nearly four years ago from Thomas Menino, who held the office since 1993. Filling Menino’s shoes is a big task, since the city charter puts a lot of power in the executive’s hands.

“Menino was in office for a very, very long time and his City Hall was a pretty well-oiled machine,” says Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston. “So there’s been a learning curve for [Walsh] and for the people in City Hall about how all of this works.”

But nearly four years into the learning curve, there’s a sinking feeling among many advocates that transportation simply isn’t a priority for the mayor.

Other issues, like housing, have attracted the mayor’s attention. Three months after taking office, Walsh created a housing task force; later that year, he unveiled a plan to build 53,000 units by 2030 and has trumpeted his progress on achieving that goal ever since. It’s a topic Walsh knows well: he led the Building Trades Council, an umbrella group of Boston-area construction unions, and was the longtime president of Laborers Local 223 before becoming mayor.

“They have produced units under a housing plan. Marty Walsh understands how that works,” Lawlor says. “We can see how he does when he really believes in something. And with transportation, that’s just not happening.”

Instead, Walsh has presided over a lot of planning for future transportation improvements. Chief among the planning processes is GoBoston 2030, which gathered input from more than 4,000 Bostonians over the course of two years before releasing a “vision and action plan” in March. One of GoBoston 2030’s priorities is Vision Zero, a goal to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2030, for which the Walsh administration released a separate action plan in 2015.

“GoBoston 2030 provides the transportation foundation,” says Gina Fiandaca, the city’s transportation commissioner. She’s been at Boston’s transportation department since 1990, overseeing parking fine collections before Walsh appointed her transportation chief at the beginning of his term.

More often than not, advocates say, Fiandaca and other Walsh administration officials are leaving opportunities on the table and putting its own plans on the shelf. A prime example: Congress Street, a wide downtown thoroughfare, is supposed to be transformed under GoBoston 2030 with protected bike lanes and busways. But when the city repaved the roadway in July, it restriped all six car lanes that had been there before, earning a rebuke from Boston Globe columnist Dante Ramos.

“All these things they say they’re going to do in GoBoston 2030 require a commitment of city resources,” Ramos tells CityLab. “I don’t have any sense that mindset has penetrated the traffic engineering department, or the people who are making plans to pave streets.”

Chris Osgood, who serves as the mayor’s Chief of Streets and is also acting public works commissioner, says the city will move forward with a new Congress Street eventually, but not every repaving will result in a redesign. “There’s a lot of coordination that happens between our repaving group and the people who are leading our bike efforts,” he says, pointing to the protected bike lanes the city installed after repaving Massachusetts Avenue.

While the administration touts individual successes, a look at the bigger picture backs up complaints about the slow pace. Since Walsh took office in 2014, Boston has installed just 2.1 miles of protected bike lanes, according to People for Bikes, a national bicycle industry coalition. Over the same period, Washington, D.C., which is similar to Boston in land area and population, has put down almost double that. Other peer cities, like Seattle, San Francisco, and auto-dominated Atlanta, have installed even more.

“The fact that we now have a comprehensive, 300-page transportation policy agenda is great,” says Michelle Wu, an at-large city councilor who is wrapping up her term as council president. “There is a big difference between having a plan and executing it quickly, though. That’s always the challenge—finding the resources.”

Tension between the Walsh administration and advocates boiled over this May after 29-year-old Rick Archer was killed on his bike by a hit-and-run driver. Advocates packed a city council hearing on the mayor’s transportation budget to demand more action from City Hall.

Less than a week later, Walsh responded to a question on WGBH radio about an increase in pedestrian fatalities, and left advocates with the impression that the slow pace from City Hall isn’t just about a lack of funding, but a lack of commitment from the mayor himself.

“People need to be more cognizant of the fact that a car is a car. Even bicyclists, when you’re riding; a car can’t stop on a dime,” Walsh said. “Pedestrians need to put their head up when they’re walking down the street, take your headphones off… you’ve got to understand, cars are going to hit you.”

Within days, advocates held a rally against the mayor’s remarks in front of City Hall. The administration announced an additional $1 million for Vision Zero, including expansion of a popular neighborhood traffic-calming program. It isn’t the first time the mayor has responded to public pressure: at the beginning of his term, Walsh added protected bike lanes to the reconstruction of Commonwealth Avenue, but only after advocates launched a campaign to convince him that they should be included.

“The mayor, in the end, made the right call,” says Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union. “It took a lot of advocacy.” But advances like Commonwealth Avenue are the exception rather than the rule. “Progress on the ground has been pretty slow. Very, very slow, actually,” she said.

“They do just enough to make it appear like they’re making progress,” said Peter Furth, a transportation advocate and civil engineering professor at Northeastern University. Meanwhile, he said, neither the mayor nor his commissioners have empowered a small cadre of energetic mid-level transportation staffers. “They are passionate and bright. They’re coming up with solutions,” he said. “They need a leader.”

“The mayor can have a much more vocal role in talking about the change that he wants to see, and have leadership trickling down into every department,” Wolfson said. “Culture change is really necessary.”

Even major backers of the Walsh administration’s planning efforts are ready to see more. Rick Dimino is president and CEO of A Better City, a coalition of business interests focused on transportation and planning. He also co-chaired Walsh’s GoBoston 2030 steering committee. “The next step for the city is to develop an implementation approach that puts the wind in the sails of that planning document,” he says. “To be honest with you, the proof will be in the next six to 12 months. If we don’t see real evidence of changes… then we’ll have to wonder whether or not we’re really going to see the kind of progress that’s warranted.”

“The city has established a really good foundation, and it’s too early to tell where it will go,” says Mary Skelton Roberts, co-director of climate programs at the Barr Foundation, which funded many of the community engagement initiatives of GoBoston 2030. “The next few months will really be key.”

Dimino and Skelton Roberts both said transit improvements, like bus lanes along Washington Street from Roslindale Square to the Forest Hills subway station, are a “no-brainer.”

It’s also a priority for city officials, who say they will install a pop-up bus lane to test the concept in the next few months, similar to a project in nearby Everett that was quickly made permanent. “We are committed to figuring out a way to install the bus lane this year. That’s our plan, and we are working on that very hard,” says Vineet Gupta, director of planning at the Boston Transportation Department.

While some advocates are hopeful, it’s easy to find skeptics. And Walsh continues to do things that disappoint transportation reformers, like backing off Menino’s plan to remove highway-style underpasses in Charlestown, increasing the amount of parking developers have to build in South Boston, or indicating he may cancel a parking meter pricing pilot before the results have been released.

Although a third of Boston households are car-free, a desire among many voters for cheap parking and easy driving can scare elected officials away from carving out more street space for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders.

“You need to take parking from people who say they need parking. You need to take travel lanes from people who say they need travel lanes,” Furth says. “The administration doesn’t want to do that.”

“It often comes down to questions about parking,” Dimino adds. “We’re going to have to step back and re-examine the use of these right-of-ways, and make tough choices.”

The first round of the mayoral election is set for September 26. So far, the campaign hasn’t forced Walsh to make many tough choices. A recent poll gives him a commanding lead over his main opponent, city councilor Tito Jackson. (Jackson’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.)

With a dud of a campaign, it’s up to advocates to hold Walsh’s feet to the fire. “Traditionally the city would say, ‘Well, we focus on potholes, and that’s basically it,’” Wu says. “Activists are coming to the table and making their concerns heard and engaging with government on a regular basis.”

Walsh, of all people, put it best in his letter introducing the GoBoston 2030 action plan in March. “Together, we will make our streets safer, good transportation options more accessible, and our entire network more reliable,” he wrote. “Now, together, let’s get to work.”