A newcomer’s guide to a walkable lifestyle

A newcomer’s guide to a walkable lifestyle

Tom Palmer covered transportation and real estate development for 15 of his 32 years as a reporter and editor at the Boston Globe. He now owns Tom Palmer Communication, a consulting firm.

I’m a newcomer to Boston. I’ve only been here 40 years. The city has changed a lot in that time, but one thing hasn’t changed. It’s still a walkable city. My friends from the Midwest, and even some who visit from bigger cities closer to us, are invariably pleasantly surprised at how accessible and manageable it is. “I love Boston, because you can walk across town in 45 minutes,” a visitor told me.

There’s a lot of room for improvement, of course. Our walk/don’t walk/take-your-life-in-your-hands lights could be better. Pedestrians could shape up by paying attention to lights, but the streets are often so narrow it’s often tempting to make a run for it.

Another thing that hasn’t changed in my short time living in the Boston area is the price of housing. The front pages of newspapers in the 1970s lamented the high rents and home prices of the day, just like we do now. And today it’s even less affordable.

Even some Boston folks who arrived more recently than I object to the fact that Boston is growing so much, that it’s so much more congested than it was. We are lucky we have the attractions and resources – educational, business, medical, sports, cultural, entertainment – that make people want to come here and stay. In the years since Boston shook off its post-War slump and reinvented itself for the 21st century, we gradually and collectively chose to be a contemporary world-class city – competing for business and talent globally and growing to enable us to do that. As engaging as historical Old Boston was, and while we will preserve much of it, we elected not to remain a provincial, insulated community.

With that choice came the responsibility to overcome the barriers to increasing our housing supply, to accepting density. We’ve taken some steps in that direction, adding thousands of apartments just since the recent recession. Boston was at its most dense at mid-20th century, but the automobile did not yet dominate like it does in today’s car culture. People walked more and took public transportation more. The population then declined and only began growing again in about 1990. If we are going to accommodate continually increasing numbers of fellow residents of the Boston area, we must adjust our ways so we can all efficiently get where we need to go. A young professional woman I met the other day rides a fold-up electric scooter from her home in the Seaport to her job in the Back Bay, wearing a collapsible helmet that she found from a European manufacturer. We need more entrepreneurial commuters like that.

But most people in the city are going to walk at least a portion of their daily trips. Walking is healthy and social. As a counterpart, a big part of the solution to our overcrowded highways and streets is expanding our transit capacity. That means both fixing our ill-maintained existing MBTA system and eventually adding to the network. A good transit system enables and encourages walking.

Our continued economic development and our quality of life depend on it.

This article was featured in WalkBoston’s January 2017 newsletter.
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