What a 'carbon free' Boston would mean for transit

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BOSTON — If all the recommendations laid out in Boston University’s “Carbon Free Boston” report are implemented, transit use in the historic city will grow 43 percent by 2050 while use of private vehicles will shrink 58 percent.

The report was produced under the aegis of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission at the request of Mayor Marty Walsh. Looking at transportation, buildings, electric power generation, and waste, it outlines options to get Boston to its goal of becoming carbon neutral by mid-century.

About a third of greenhouse gas emissions in Boston are from transportation, with private vehicles accounting for three-quarters of that. Every workday, the peak morning commute hour sees 400,000 people in motion to widely-dispersed destinations across the region. While most of those trips originate outside city limits, with 36 percent on public transportation, reverse commutes have become common. Nearly 100,000 people head out of the city to work, with three-fifths driving.

The city’s Go Boston 2030 mobility plan, issued in 2017, envisions adding 35 new urban rail miles. New Green Line, Orange Line, and Red Line rail vehicles are entering service this year as part of the MBTA’s five-year, $8 billion capital investment program. But even with an expanded and upgraded transit system, getting commuters out of their cars will require a culture change, the report finds.

“The transportation system is both a dynamic and interlinked system,” says Michael Walsh, tech lead on the report and a professor at BU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy. “One of the key takeaways from our report is that a number of different strategies need to be pursued both aggressively and synergistically.”

Boston needs to shift most travel from private cars to transit, biking, and walking. To accomplish that, Walsh says it will require incentive pricing, expanded and faster public transportation, and focusing future development around transit hubs.

One option from the report is a 50-percent fare discount for those who drive to a commuter rail station and free rides for those who walk or bike to the station, coupled with congestion pricing, parking or other fees to encourage mode shift. Boston city councilor Michelle Wu recently penned an opinion piece in the Boston Globe calling for free public transportation, in response to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s newly proposed increases for commuter rail, bus, subway, and ferry fares to go into effect July 1.

The agency is undertaking a two-year study, known as the Rail Vision project, to identify which commuter services riders most want, and which will be most cost-effective.

Alternatives includes frequent bi-directional rail service to better serve outbound commuters, express service to key stations, electrification of one or all lines, and introduction of electric multiple-unit or diesel multiple-unit equipment. An open house is scheduled for March 5.

Walsh says that electrifying the MBTA’s commuter rail lines is “a good opportunity for the regional transit system to both decarbonize and improve service.”

Next up, in March, will come more detailed reports looking at the policies that would be needed to implement the recommended strategies. Without investment in transit, the report concludes that traffic congestion will soar and socially vulnerable communities — low income, seniors, those with disabilities, and others — will struggle to get around.

"As we enter a new era of our city's history, we're planning for storms, climate change, and the environmental threats the next generation will face," Walsh said in a news release.

He said plans to update Boston’s climate action plan and engage with communities and partners on the recommendations in the Carbon Free Boston report.

CORRECTION: Michael Walsh is a Boston University professor at the Institute for Sustainable Energy. He was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this report. Feb. 19, 2019, 4:12 p.m. Central time.
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