OPINION: Let’s think more about parkways and bikes, and less about the dreams of the auto-centric

During my six years working in the South End, I tried very hard to ride my bike from my home in Savin Hill into Boston. I rode for health and also in an effort to pry myself from frustrating fossil-fueled trips by car in rush hour traffic. Curiously, the ride took just about the same amount of time by car or by bike. The frustration of driving just three and a half miles in stop-and-go traffic was replaced by more go than stop on a bike, but, generally, it was also a ride where fear replaced frustration.

Boston, with its narrow streets, offers few roadways that can safely accommodate both cars and bikes commuting into Boston. From the south, Blue Hill Avenue seems wide enough to allow for dedicated bike lanes, but there are no real options east of there – except for Morrissey Boulevard.

Since the 1990s, the state and city have debated what to do about that roadway, which was the subject of three articles in the Nov. 19 Dorchester Reporter. The biggest problem is that it floods regularly during full moon tides, a problem that is expected to get much worse as the earth continues to warm. The auto-centric response is to build up Morrissey so that it doesn’t flood as often.

But this reaction clashes with the plans to deal with global warming. The climate crisis has led to the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act and Boston Climate Action Goals that call for a complete reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Since transportation is the single largest contributor to CO2 emissions, you would think that the state and city would plan on roadways with their focus on how to reduce automobile traffic and promote other forms of commuting. But it seems that when given the opportunity, they punt the CO2 ball down the highway.

There is an alternative. Morrissey Boulevard is a parkway, one of many so named that are part of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) rather than municipal highway departments. They are called parkways because they are intended to be limited-access roadways with landscaping, connecting people to parklands, and beaches.

This system, which includes dozens of parkways that date back to the 1800s, was profoundly altered after World War II, when our never-ending desire to make life easier for people in the suburbs resulted in Morrissey being effectively turned into a six-lane highway, rendering it impossible for pedestrians and bicyclists to use, and blocking neighborhoods from easy access to Dorchester Bay.

Turning those parkways into high-speed highways prompted a backlash that resulted in the Commonwealth creating the Historic Parkways Preservation Initiative in 2001 “to protect the historic features of the parkways and to make all (of) them as useful and enjoyable as possible for people visiting our parks or traveling by foot, bicycle, or car.”

Recently, the Commonwealth has put off a decision on how to handle the rebuilding of the Allston interchange, where the Mass Turnpike, the Storrow Drive and Soldiers Field Road parkways, railroad lines, a pedestrian walkway, and the Charles River come together. This delay is due to a clash between auto-oriented state decision makers and residents who want better access to the river, including bike paths and walkways.

A true 21st-century city would recognize that we need to curtail automotive traffic by encouraging biking. This is where the Allston interchange and Morrissey Boulevard come into play. If we want to encourage a multi-modal transportation system that includes biking and the restoration of historic parkways, these two locations are essential steps.

The DCR developed its most recent plan for Morrissey Blvd. in 2017; it included bike lanes, pedestrian paths, greenery, and flooding mitigation. It also concluded that its restoration as a parkway involved removing a lane in each direction. The planners said that since the congestion on Morrissey was related to traffic lights and access roads, it could sustain the loss of the lanes.

The plan was about 25 percent completed when Mayor Walsh met with the planners and expressed his concerns about dropping a lane. He then said that he would have the Boston Transportation Department look at the plans.

Three years later, the plans are still at 25 percent, although state Rep. Dan Hunt says that planning could begin again soon. It needs to. The Dorchester Bay City project has ballyhooed its plans for multi-modal access. Kirk Sykes, one of the developers of this 18-block mini-city, noted “We’re … excited to be accessible by the T, pedestrian, and bike-centric paths.” Hopefully, those bike paths will connect to roads that will allow bike riders to move around safely.

Boston needs a transportation plan that details how it will meet its legal requirements to reduce CO2 emissions. It won’t be easy. Each time we build, or rebuild, our transportation infrastructure, we must make sure that these investments get us closer to our goal of zero emissions and a livable, thriving Boston. The Allston interchange and Morrissey Boulevard rebuilds should reduce car lanes, include bike lanes, and reconnect our communities to their finest natural resources – the Charles River and Dorchester Bay. We can return these DCR assets to their original vision as historic parkways while creating key elements of the multi-modal system we need to meet our climate goals.

Dorchester is just a few miles from the city’s downtown. Being able to bike into Boston in safety would be a tremendous benefit to our environment and community health, and it will make for an easier commute for everyone. We have limited time and a limited budget, and each and every infrastructure investment we make should count. State and city decision makers with vision and courage are needed now.

Bill Walczak is a Dorchester resident and past president/CEO of Codman Square Health Center.