A CROWDED SIDEWALK — On a recent Thursday morning, more than 100 commuters stepped off the Newburyport/Rockport Commuter Rail train after arriving at North Station. Flowing in a single, snaking mass, they poured from the terminal and pushed their way toward downtown, walking toe-to-heel as they rounded street corners and jostled for any space they could secure.
Channeled by Jersey barriers and chain link fences, they moved down Canal Street, around New Chardon Street, and funneled onto a sidewalk along John F. Fitzgerald Surface Road, a path that’s grown narrower in recent years — squeezed by the demolition of the adjacent Government Center parking garage — and left only a few feet of scaffolding-wrapped sidewalk for people to fight over.
As many commuters return to Boston, construction around the garage has overtaken a swath of land near City Hall and the Boston Public Market, walling off a vital path where Merrimac Street becomes Congress Street. The changes — part of the Bulfinch Crossing development — have created early morning havoc on a slim strip of nearby pavement, and added yet another delay to Boston workers’ already troublesome commutes.
On the train tracks, it’s the slow zones that have kept some people from getting to work on time. But here, along this narrow passage — the last leg of their journey to work or school — it’s the bottlenecked walkway that’s causing frustration.
“Everybody coming out of North Station has to go through either this way, or you have to go all the way around,” said Michael O’Malley, a facilities manager, drawing a wide circle in the air and pointing to the other side of the block. “So, challenging, but everybody does it.”
O’Malley, 48, rounded out the end of the line of people as he walked through the scaffolding and headed to his job at 160 Federal Street.
He said the bottleneck developed after construction began on the site, a two-block redevelopment project first approved in 2016 that includes office towers and lab space. While some of the project is complete, construction is still behind schedule.
The garage demolition, which was supposed to wrap up in March, was delayed after a worker died in a collapse last year. A new timeline has not been announced, according to a spokesperson from The HYM Investment Group, the Boston firm developing the site in partnership with Washington, D.C.-based National Real Estate Advisors.
Two years ago, riders exiting North Station had a handful of routes to choose from, including a wide plaza by the Haymarket T station entrance and sidewalk under the garage.
A wider sidewalk along the surface road was closed for construction in August of 2021, and remains inaccessible, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu.
An underpass on the other side of the block, where Merrimac becomes Congress Street, served as a key passageway for pedestrians before it closed almost a year ago. Those roadblocks went up in July last year, according to HYM. Developers initially planned to reopen the street by that Labor Day, but it’s still closed and remains unclear when traffic will be able to return.
“The public can expect the walkways and road to reopen when demolition of the Government Center Garage concludes,” the HYM spokesperson said.
Although the bottleneck has plagued commuters like O’Malley for more than a year, he said crowds have grown denser lately as more workers from the suburbs have returned to the office following pandemic closures.
“Everyone is back now,” he said. “It’s definitely getting busier and busier, and I think as people are getting more comfortable coming back to work, you’re seeing more and more people on the trains.”
Commuter Rail ridership has increased over the last year, although it still trails pre-pandemic levels. Riders averaged more than 82,000 weekday trips in March 2023— the most recent data available — up from around 59,000 weekday trips a year earlier, according to the MBTA, although only some of those trips end at North Station.
Inside the area shrouded by scaffolding Thursday morning, people were packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Occasionally, someone moving in the opposite direction attempted to part the sea of pedestrians, slowing the foot traffic even more.
Allie E., 30, who commutes from the Beverly area and didn’t want to give her last name, said the patch of sidewalk is “always” tight.
She was among dozens who broke from the crowd and walked along the curb on the other side of the scaffolding — an even narrower, wavy slab of concrete with intentional grooves meant to discourage foot traffic. In that area, bicyclists zooming by were close enough to touch, and delivery trucks were whizzing past a few feet away.
“I don’t want to walk in there with all the people, so I walk on this path that I see people trip on every day,” said Allie, laughing. “I have definitely tripped.”
She said the sidewalk fills up most around 8:30 a.m., as two or four trains’ worth of passengers exit North Station and attempt to share the same route into downtown.
As pedestrians filled the bumpy curb she uses, some stepped into the bike lane, forcing cyclists to swerve into the street, where they jockeyed for space.
A spokesperson for the Boston Transportation Department said rerouting people around the block ensures pedestrian safety as the garage is demolished, and does not seem to affect regular traffic.
“While there has been increased pedestrian use along Surface Road between New Chardon Street and Sudbury Street, BTD has no indication that pedestrians are directly impacting vehicular traffic,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
John Anaral, a worker at the construction site, said he often sees pedestrians walking in the bike lane or crossing the street, but he hasn’t witnessed an accident.
“But could it happen? I’m sure,” he said.
Anaral said the bottleneck has formed daily since Merrimac Street closed, “usually around the same time every morning and afternoon,” as the trains carry commuters in and out of the city. He said a police officer is usually stationed by the corner to keep pedestrians off the road.
“People are impatient, and a lot of people don’t want to walk in there with other people,” Anaral said of the tunnel of scaffolding. “There’s people that refuse to walk in there. They’ll walk in the street.”
Or take their chances on the bumpy terrain.