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4 questions with Mayor Wu on changing Boston’s streets

"I don't see cars as the enemy. I see traffic and wasted time as the enemy. Pollution is the enemy."

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, seen riding her bike to work from her home with a bunch of fellow Roslindale residents. David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

For the record: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is not a member of the NUMTOT Facebook group.

For those reading that last sentence and wondering what exactly the acronym stands for, it’s quite a mouthful: New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens.

And what exactly does that mean?

Urban Dictionary is pretty succinct: “The acronym is commonly used to refer to any young person that appreciates public transit as well as urban development, while fighting gentrification.”

The online community boasts over 226,000 members who post serious — and, as the name implies, not-so-serious — takes on a range of city planning and transportation issues — the kind of topics that has formed the backbone of Wu’s progressive political reputation.

The latest from City Hall

“I’m technically not in the Facebook group,” Wu says after a laugh. “But I, in spirit, definitely identify (as a NUMTOT).”

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That likely comes as no surprise.

The 37-year-old millennial mayor is one of the T’s fiercest advocates and among its most vocal challengers. She’s also attracted critics for her support of rent stabilization policies.

In the mayor’s office, she’s expanded the city’s fare-free bus program (which she helped initiate) and has pursued her vision for a Green New Deal for Boston, beginning, in part, with a green overhaul of Boston Public Schools buildings.

There’s more, but that’s a short version of a hard-to-whittle-down list.

On Tuesday, that list got a bit longer as Wu announced the city will keep a number of street changes rolled out during the 30-day shutdown of the MBTA’s Orange Line that ended Monday. The changes were initially aimed at mitigating the closure’s impact on commuters.

Here to stay are a new Chinatown MBTA SL4 bus stop, a pop-up bike lane on Columbus Avenue that will remain open until December (and possibly then become permanent), a priority bus and bike lane on Huntington Avenue from Brigham Circle to Gainsborough Street, Copley Square-area bus lanes, and additional Bluebikes docks.

Additionally, a stretch of Boylston Street between Amory and Lamartine streets will continue to be a one-way street, and parking changes in the South End will stick around to provide better curbside management. Jamaica Plain pavement marking and signage have also been improved for enhanced traffic safety and management.

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“We’ve been in a stressful period about transportation over the last 30 days with the Orange Line shut down,” Wu said in an interview on Wednesday afternoon. “But the truth is that the Greater Boston region had been going through a pretty stressful transportation experience long before that.”

Reached by phone, Wu spoke about the decision-making process behind the changes, what she learned about Boston’s transit system during the shutdown, and the impact 5 percent fewer cars on the city’s streets could have on reducing traffic congestion.

Here’s what she said:


Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. Boston.com: The people of Boston have, kind of, gotten used to some of these changes over the last 30 days. But can you tell me a little bit more about how the city decided on these changes specifically, like, out of the other ones that you could have kept? What data or methodologies are driving some of these decisions?

Wu: We’ve been in a stressful period about transportation over the last 30 days with the Orange Line shut down.

But the truth is that the Greater Boston region had been going through a pretty stressful transportation experience long before that. The pandemic changed a lot of people’s commuting patterns — in some cases temporarily and in some cases longer term. But prior to the pandemic, Boston had the worst rush hour congestion anywhere in the country. And we’re already starting to see the return of traffic and increase in commute times that affects people’s livelihoods and salaries, as well as their mental health and time we get to spend with our family and friends.

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So this is a core issue on how we can grow sustainably and equitably as a city, with transportation as a key piece of what’s accessible to residents all across our region: jobs, housing, education, and all the opportunities that we’re trying to create.

The Orange Line situation was unexpected, but our teams worked incredibly hard to prepare and plan and support the MBTA so that the above-ground (bus) shuttling operation could run as smoothly as possible while the MBTA was upgrading tracks and signals and stations underground.

In the process, we drew on information and data that we already had in some cases from some of our different streets pilots, like Copley Connect (the city’s pilot program that closed some streets in the square for public programing this summer) and other information that the Boston Traffic Management Center has always been collecting and looking at.

So, our hope throughout the 30-day period was to not only manage a stressful situation, but to measure, learn, and improve every single day during that period with an eye towards keeping lasting impact wherever possible. And so several of these bus lanes and bike lanes represent projects that the city had hoped to get done at some point anyway, or address spots that are particularly congested and dangerous when it comes to traffic and cars. So we have a good amount of information collected during this 30-day period and before to identify where it works very well for traffic flow and pedestrian safety and transit access to keep those changes.

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2. You mentioned Copley Connect so maybe you kind of answered this question already, but you’re making three bus lanes permanent in Copley Square. Obviously we’ve seen bus-only lanes springing up in different neighborhoods in recent years, but you know maybe … not as at the same (slower) rate that we’ve seen in more of the central, downtown areas like these ones will be.

What’s the key to making sure that bus lanes in these busier areas work well? Downtown and Back Bay are full of narrow, tiny streets. Is there a balance that you have to reach in deciding how to manage traffic and make sure it’s not a burden on these busier areas?

Boston is a historic, dense city, and as we grow, the capacity to move people on our streets is one of the limiting factors. We’re already at or nearing capacity of our streets in many cases, and to ensure that we can create housing so people can afford to stay and live in Boston and add jobs to the area, continue seeing opportunities in our growth sectors and in educational opportunities across the city, we have to be thinking differently in some cases about how to move even more people on the same public space that’s available on our roadways.

Bus lanes and bike lanes and other infrastructure are only as good as they are clear and used that way. I mean, I’ve been in plenty a situation where you have to go around a parked delivery truck in a bike lane, which can be quite dangerous, or see a parked car in the dedicated bus lane on my morning ride in on the bus from Forest Hills.

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And so, design decisions and enforcement resources to make sure that these are real lanes is important. And having connected connectivity between different options so that it’s not just for a short stretch that you experienced a smoother ride, but you can actually get to your destination.

3. What’s something you learned about the city’s transit system — you know, not just the MBTA itself but the ecosystem at large, if you will, — during the Orange Line shutdown period?

What’s one thing that I learned? That we can, in fact, move quickly and do big things when we choose to.

There was all of two weeks to get ready for a massive undertaking, and our teams had daily, sometimes hourly, coordination with the MBTA. It really takes that level of partnership and collaboration to fit all the pieces together. You can’t separate our subway system from buses and traffic and the City of Boston from our partner cities across the region.

So all of these pieces rely on each other. But when we all get on the same page, we can see pretty big improvements, pretty fast.

4. This Boston Herald editorial said recently that you see cars as “the enemy.” It just got me thinking: What are your critics not understanding about your vision for the city’s transit system? Maybe people see some of this change as too fast for them to handle. Is there a response to that?

I don’t see cars as the enemy. I see traffic and wasted time as the enemy. Pollution is the enemy.

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Look, I’m in a multigenerational household. I have two young kids. I know the way that our streets are currently designed. We get in the car to go places as well. And so, it’s not an all or nothing proposition to say we need to make changes so that our whole system and the many ways that people get around all fit together.

Getting rid of traffic is an urgent issue. It is choking the growth of our economy. It’s making our housing market more strained. It’s affecting so many aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. It’s miserable to be stuck in traffic to get to work, and that makes it harder for companies to locate here or for young people to connect with the internship opportunities and social activities and resources that we’re trying to create for everyone all across the city.

It doesn’t take that much to make a difference. I think when there have been studies (that suggest), and even when The Boston Globe did their Spotlight series on traffic in the region, seeing even a 5 percent reduction in the number of cars on the road opens up the space … that is the difference between gridlock and (having) traffic that can flow smoothly.

Not everyone is going to be able to or want to (not) be behind their vehicles immediately. But if we can make that 5 percent difference, that is life changing for people who are making decisions about where to live, what jobs they can take, what community they feel connected to.

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And so, we can either choose to kick the can down the road and pay for it, with even greater cost down the road, or as we’ve seen with why we needed to even have an MBTA shutdown to begin with, we can start now and roll up our sleeves to truly treat our public spaces, including roadways, as a space that should be serving the common good.

Material from previous Boston.com reports was used in this report.