Downtown View: Era of Ideas

This seems to be an ideas era. It’s as if we need a fresh start, that we’ve run out of old ones, that surely there’s something we can do to make this old city come alive.

The biggest idea, the Olympics, didn’t do it, except for introducing us to Widett Circle, a large acreage everyone had forgotten. Mayor Walsh has been asking for ideas for a project he calls Imagine Boston 2030—you might be surprised to realize this is only 15 years away, as short a time it has been since Y2K, which was predicted to be the end of the universe, or at least computing, as we know it.

We will know more about the Mayor Walsh-inspired ideas after the community process concludes early this winter. UMass has instituted IDEAS Mass Boston, the ideas of which haven’t gotten a lot of play, but, hey, they’re only ideas.

So why not have some publicized ideas right now. Ideas are cheap. You don’t have to build infrastructure, make sure women and minorities are represented, include affordable housing, or go through zoning. We’ve been talking so much about ideas, I wanted to hear some. I figured it was going to be up to me to ask.

So I did. I contacted friends, public officials, civic observers and just plain folks. I asked them what their ideas were for making Boston a better place to live. Wacky, unrealistic, silly or fun was all okay, since sometimes really good ideas evolve from such way-out thoughts. Serious was okay too. Some idea people wanted to remain anonymous. Others said, what the heck, use my name, so in this column I am doing so.

The most common ideas involved transportation—a challenging arena in this traffic-clogged city.

Matt Conti, who runs the popular neighborhood news website,, was inspired by Venice, Italy. He would like a more extensive water transportation system in the harbor. “Right now,” he wrote in an email, “water taxis and ferries are point-to-point and not well used.” He predicts that a “roundabout loop” of small boats that could accommodate people hopping on and off from East Boston to Charlestown, the North End, downtown, Fort Point, the Seaport District and Southie, would be better used, especially if it were “regular, flexible and cheap.”

Those attributes are true for all public transportation.

State Rep. Jay Livingstone  also focused on water transportation. He likes an idea suggested by the Cambridge City Manager of developing a water taxi service between Boston and Cambridge with several stops along the river and into Boston Harbor.

Since we can’t add many more vehicles to our streets, these water routes might be an attractive option.

Jay also wanted a continuous bike and pedestrian path from the North End to Watertown on the Boston side of the Charles and from Charlestown to Watertown on the Cambridge side, with improved connections between Boston and Cambridge. Those connections would include a long hoped-for, but buried-under-design South Bank Bridge, which would get people safely across the train tracks at North Station.

While an underpass at the Anderson Bridge on JFK Street between Cambridge and Boston is now in the works, other bridges still prevent bikes and pedestrians from freely moving along the river in safety.

Jay said he was also pushing for a better pedestrian and bike crossing near the Museum of Science.

The transportation theme continued with both former Downtown North executive director Bob O’Brien and architect Brad Bellows thinking we don’t need a new idea.

We’ve got an old one, they said. The North-South Rail Link should have been constructed long ago, but there is no time like the present. They suggested this old idea long before Governors Dukakis and Weld met with Charlie Baker this summer. They pointed out that such a link would reduce commuter trips as well as traffic within Boston itself. They say this link would support expanded real estate development opportunities and economic growth.

They think Boston is way behind other cities in this kind of transportation planning. So even though their idea is not a new one, they say it is the most obvious idea that can be brought to fruition.

Next week, there will be other ideas—not all about transportation.

Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.

5 Replies to “Downtown View: Era of Ideas

  1. As a former North Ender and property owner who visits often and as someone who has worked on education and practice of healthy, sustainable institutions, businesses and communities I think we should reopen the idea of making Hanover Street a pedestrian only zone on weekends after 8 AM. Despite the fears of local businesses, every situation that is similar to the North End has been a great success for businesses, residents and visitors. It would give area an even greater Italian/European feel.

    1. How many times does it need to be revisited and turned down before people stop suggesting this ?
      Maybe if business owners and their staff did not take up parking spaces on Hanover St and a 30 minute parking rule was put into effect there would be less double parking on Hanover St.
      Maybe if people visiting the North End would park in one of the nearby garages and parking lots (or use public transportation) or pay for the valet services that are all over the street instead of driving in circles looking for a free spot there would be less traffic.
      Maybe if the pedicabs and taxi cabs stopped trolling Hanover street looking for passengers and used the cab stand on Cross Street, there would be less traffic.

  2. One more transportation-related idea: The stop/go signs for pedestrians in the North End and nearby are ridiculous.They tell us to wait when, obviously, the cars we want to walk in front of have a red light and will continue to for a while.

    This tempts people to jaywalk–much more than they do in other cities. I can tell this from the way tourists react when I jaywalk. (“Wait — what? Should I be doing that? It would be dangerous where I come from.”) Only very occasionally does a sign for pedestrians tell the truth (“One second on the countdown means the light is going to change in one second”).

    It’s frustrating for drivers when people walk against the lights, but it’s frustrating for pedestrians that the lights for them seem almost random. Surely, transportation planners could use up-to-date technology–or common sense–to avoid having pedestrians and drivers waiting for no reason so often.

  3. Excellent comment on “walk lights” – very dangerous situation – also, when we cross a street because there are no cars coming, others cross without looking!

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