We Need A Transportation Transformation

By Michelle Wu

Boston City Council President


As a new mom, I think often about the world that my one-year-old son will grow up in. Twenty years from now, what will Boston look like? As excited as I am about the future of our city, one worry looms large: the increasing threat to our environment and planet.

Boston has taken tremendous steps to be a leader in sustainability. Mayor Martin Walsh’s Climate Action Plan outlines specific priorities and sets aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – by 25 percent by the year 2020 and by 80 percent by the year 2050. The City has incorporated climate preparedness into local planning and community engagement efforts, and created new tools to measure and track progress.

It’s become clearer and clearer that climate action can’t wait. Last month, scientists announced that sea levels are rising much more quickly than previously estimated, nearly doubling previous projections. Coastal cities like Boston and Miami will bear the brunt of flooding and other impacts.

And last week, researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine and Boston University School of Public Health published a study detailing the serious health risks of living near highways. In studying residents from Dorchester, Chinatown, and South Boston, they found that increased exposure to ultrafine particles from automobile exhaust significantly increases the chances of having a heart attack and other cardiovascular ailments.

Greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating climate change and making residents sick.

In other words, Boston’s traffic congestion isn’t just an inconvenience; it’s an environmental justice issue and a public health hazard. Every car on the road spewing emissions is making our future less healthy.

I feel guilty and trapped as part of the polluting cycle. The juggle to get from home to work and daycare, medical appointments and the grocery store, means abandoning the family car altogether isn’t realistic.

We must give residents better alternatives to driving. The Boston City Council has consistently advocated for more accessible and reliable MBTA service, from pushing for commuter rail fare equity, to protesting Late Night T service cuts. And we’re not waiting on the MBTA. On April 26, the Council will hold a hearing on transit signal priority to work on ways that technology and city initiatives like streetlight signal timing can make buses run faster and more reliably throughout our neighborhoods. We need cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in every neighborhood.

We must also prepare for technology that can make driving cleaner. That’s why I filed a proposal at this week’s City Council meeting to exempt electric vehicles from the motor vehicle excise tax. These cars have zero tailpipe emissions, producing no exhaust, no public health hazard.

Like many new technologies, electric cars started with a luxury price tag, but continuing innovations have brought prices closer to mass-market, and they continue to come down. As a City, we should be working on the infrastructure to be ready for more widespread electric vehicle ownership. It doesn’t make sense to install charging stations throughout the city before there is sufficient demand, but residents may not make the switch without the convenience of citywide infrastructure. Waiving the local motor vehicle excise tax for electric vehicles is one small incentive and a way to demonstrate the City’s commitment to supporting green infrastructure.

In a year when schools are struggling and there are more demands on City government than ever, I don’t propose reducing revenues for city programs lightly. Instead, I believe the uncaptured taxes will be more than made up for by the public health benefits of getting more gasoline cars off the road.

We need a transportation transformation – with a goal of walkable neighborhoods connected together by multimodal transit options. The result will be cleaner air, a stronger economy, and a healthier future for all our families.

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