Commentaries Transportation

Commentary: North End Nearing Its Tipping Point

North End nearing its tipping point
— A vision of a spectacular future

Definition of tipping point 

  1. the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.
Busy Hanover Street
Gridlock on Hanover Street

Hanover St., Salem St., nearby North End streets,  the Bulfinch, Haymarket and Boston Garden neighborhoods, are nearing the tipping point, when pedestrian and vehicular traffic come to a complete mother-of-all grid-locked halt, one massive bottleneck. Bookies in Vegas will soon be offering odds on exactly when this humongous congestion will happen.

Study the situation today, and you’ll see it’s inevitable,  despite the Mayor’s changing the 60-year-old name of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, BRA, to Boston Planning and Development Agency, BPDA. City planning: another Boston joke. Like the MBTA timetable. Or bicyclists’ obeying traffic signals.

On fine weekday evenings, and all day on week-ends, try to walk down Hanover St. or Salem St. It’s like trying to get through the crowds at St. Anthony’s Feast. Or break through the Patriots’ defense. Customer lines can run from Mike’s Pastry down around Prince St.. Modern Pastry’s lines may run all the way to Richmond St.. Giacomo’s lines usually run to Fleet St. The packs outside the Daily Catch could halt Blount, Gronkowski and Edelman. Thousands of tourists walk the Freedom Trail or simply drop by to visit “Little Italy”. Groups stand in the sidewalks, trying to read their maps on smart phones which are smarter than the owners. “Siri, Where’s the Fredom Trail?” Siri politely replies, “You’re standing on it.”

Sidewalk sandwich signs, few, if any of which meet city requirements, block sidewalks. Tables and chairs and benches outside some restaurants block more space. Bicycles are tied to lamp-posts, in the way of pedestrians, but at least are not speeding down sidewalks, with riders shouting, “on your right,” which is bicyclese for “Get the hell out of my way!” Flower planters are pretty, and pretty large on sidewalks. The Big Belly solar-powered trash cans can’t compact enough trash so the city has placed old fashioned trash cans next to them. They are marked “Recycle” but are filled with everything. Another Boston joke. What’s next? Containers? Valet parking signs take up more room. Some valet-parked cars get parked on nearby side street sidewalks. Cars and trucks double park. Huge trucks make deliveries.  And I’m not making this up: 18-wheelers make deliveries on Hanover St.  Pedestrians walk in the streets to get out of packed sidewalks. Motorcycles parked outside Caffe Vittoria are, happily, quiet, until they turn on the straight-muffler engines.  Sidewalk performers add background music while their “tip” boxes trip the unwary. And there’s the never-ending storefront remodeling, construction and staging for brick pointing, all taking up sidewalks. Prince Spaghetti couldn’t make the Anthony commercial today because Anthony could never run home through the crowded streets.

Bus-loads of tourists are dropped off on Commercial St. and on the Surface Rd. near Haymarket. Hundreds, thousands of tourists are brought in from cruise ships. Buses keep their engines running. Boston’s 5-minute idling law is enforced as strictly as the motorcycle muffler law, which means it ain’t enforced. Once upon a time, on North End streets one could smell the red sauce. Now you smell diesel fumes. Traffic moves so slowly on Surface Road and Cross St. they are now known as the Greenway parking lots. Traffic jams on Causeway and Commercial Streets and Atlantic Ave. are bad enough today, blocked in rush hours, thanks to absolutely no traffic planning as the Seaport became the so-called innovative district of glass-walled high-rises.  But wait, there’s more: Commercial, Causeway and Atlantic  will get worse, thanks to the brilliant new bike path boondoggle, a micro Big Dig,  taking away parking places and lanes of vehicle traffic.

Haymarket, Bulfinch and TD Garden high-rise construction is bringing in thousands of new residents and commuters. Additional riders already jam into the over-packed Green Line or North Station trains. The BRA never thought that public transport be expanded to handle the huge influx of people and traffic before approving the huge condos, apartments and offices. Like Tom Leher’s classic about the Nazi rocket master:  “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” Now, the Boston version is: “Once the buildings are up, who cares how people ride, drive, walk or play? That’s not my department, says the mayor’s BPDA.”

It’s inevitable. The North End and nearby neighborhoods are heading to the tipping point, when pedestrians, tourists, residents, cars, trucks, buses, duck boats, tour busses, fire engines, ambulances, bicyclists  will be locked in a massive immovable gridlock.  Travel writers and Yelp and TripAdviser critics will quote Yogi Berra: “Forget the North End, it’s so crowded nobody goes there any more.”

Oh, what fun it’s going to be at the tipping point. Of course, developers, restaurants and businesses — who never learned the moral of the fable of the goose and her golden eggs — might not find it funny.

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33 Replies to “Commentary: North End Nearing Its Tipping Point

  1. My favorites are when someone double parks in front of Mike’s pastry and then someone in the other lane tries to take a left and then both lanes are blocked… always high comedy.

  2. You forgot the rock band that was playing outside every Saturday night during the summer in North Sq. Because, the North End doesn’t have enough noise on Saturdays in July and August.

          1. Don’t understand what a “real northender” is or has to do with anything..loud music is loud music…regardless of who’s playing it.

            The guys were pretty talented but….it was very disruptive…it shouldn’t make a difference where you were born or how long one has lived in a particular house or neighborhood. Everyone deserves to have a good quality of life.

            I’d like to see/hear them do it during the fall when there’s less of a crowd in the neighborhood….and people wouldn’t have to have their windows open.

      1. Did they play at the level allowed by City ordinance? Had “people who enjoyed it” done so for hours upon time for all 4 Saturdays? Ir are you only talking about those who listened for 10 minutes and gushed how wonderful it is? Would you be OK with being forced to listen to them for the entire time they played without an ability to leave or turn them off? Or do you simply not care about that?

  3. The neighborhood should revisit the idea of making Hanover Street one-way, maybe keeping it two-way just from the firehouse to the Coast Guard Base. Widen the sidewalks, making Hanover more pedestrian friendly for tourists and residents alike, while forcing traffic out of the North End.

    1. Not a viable solution. This has been studied over and over. Public safety hazard, would require reconfiguring all the one way streets that feed onto Hanover. The tourists and restaurant visitors will just take over the wider sidewalks. On Monday a HUGE tour group coming from the Surface artery walked 6 abreast from the Greenway to Salem St and continued to try to walk that way on Salem St. Forced me into the street or I would have been knocked over. These people think they are in Epcot Center North and that nobody lives here or if they do they do not care since it is all about them.

      1. That’s why we need to have large groups check in and possibly signs reminding them that they aren’t at Disney (in a present way of course).

      2. FedUP,
        Making changes to accommodate an evolving cityscape is called urban planning, something that has been acutely absent during the City’s unprecedented devlopment boom of the last 5+ years. Ideally it’s done before devlopers get a green light to bypass existing zoning codes and transform neighborhoods. Making Hanover one way would alleviate many of the traffic problems cited by other commenters with only minor alterations needed to exisitng traffic patterns. It would also provide much needed loading zones and wider sidewalks that would keep pedestrians from spilling out into the streets, as they are frequently forced to do now. With all the new high-density construction yet to be completed around North Station and the Haymarket Garage, the crowds will continue to grow. Making Hanover one-way would be a relatively easy solution to a problem that is only going to get worse with time.

  4. Well written my friend. All true. The city is being over built and burden. God forbid they leave a piece of land along. BRA was alway crooked and adding a letter is not going to change that. That’s like changing the MDC to DCR. It’s still the same parks and beaches. They boast the waterfront and then build a tall building so you can’t see it. In time or it’s already here, there be no nice little, clean, safe, quaint neighborhoods anymore. The only thing that is increasing is traffic and crme. They are building housing, but no parking. They take away parking and don’t replace it. They are jamming housing in areas that really are not for housing. Why in God’s name, anyone would want to drive on Hanover, Prince, Salem streets knowing your not going anywhere quick or anywhere to park. The city has forgotten that people live in these neighborhoods. The charm is being destroyed by the city.

    1. The traffic actually helped me in Sunday night.

      Got home at around 9pm on Sunday night and was stuck in prince st.

      Saw an open spot at the very end and since we were at a complete standstill, so I put my car in park and told the driver behind me that I was going to pull in the spot and that I wasn’t making the turn and asked him to give me a little room so I could park.

      Worked great for me.

    2. I once lived in the area and loved the city but of late, I cringe when I think about going to the North End. I avoid going in to town and stay on the North Shore. The high risers are hideous and are blocking the beautiful Lenny Z. Bridge. Even if I wanted to come into the city, all of these buildings have taken away parking lots! Businesses will suffer before or even if they prosper.

  5. It would be nice if city our polticians actually gave a hoot about the neighborhood.

    Here are some ideas on “how to fix the north end” and the best part…. They cost little to nothing and can even bring in revenue (which will no doubt be redistributed to other parts of the city… Just like the tax revenues our business bring in (with the issues which don’t get redistributed)) and we don’t need the BRA (not that I have any real feelings toward then).

    1) Enforce the parking rules on the books and increase fines for commercial vehicales and non residents.

    I’ve never seen the idling law enforced and I believe the fine is something like 5k… That obviously isn’t enough to hire someone to document the numerous instances that occur every day (joking of course).

    2) make the above fines progressive … 1st instance x, 2nd instance x*1.5, 3rd instance x*2… Continued disregard, the city looks at criminal charges.

    3) work with the ride share companies to cut down on the wait time. 5 minutes is too long to wait considering riders are supposed to order cars when their ready (hey maybe a campaign to cut down on surge pricing?!?! Or maybe even use the enviorment as a good reason.).

    Less cars waiting on riders= less grid lock= less honking= less cars sitting around burning gas waiting for ONE inconsiderate person.

    I’ve actually yelled at ride share drivers as they have pulled up and immediately honked. No waiting, no trying to call and no idea who they are picking up (do you have a picture on your rider profile?). They just pulled up to the location (or the location they think they should be at) and hit the horn.

    I always ask them how they would like it if I pulled up to their house and honked my horn for their neighbor across the st, next door or whatever… Surprisingly they say they wouldn’t like it.

    Hey here is another crazy idea… How about our city pols reach out to the ride sharing companies?

    You don’t have to make it mandatory or impose fines, but the least these companies can do is send out reminders/ PSA to it’s drivers and riders to TRY and make it better for EVERYONE. One inconsiderate driver/ rider has a negative impact on so many more.

    Also maybe work with everyone to have designated pick up areas. How about the road that is supposedly closed infront of the old Martignetti’s?

    At night, maybe the parking lot for the school on commercial/ causeway?

    I know this won’t work for everyone (I know people with mobility issues who rely on the ride share companies), but we are looking to try and make things better.

    4) have a way to effectively communicate to Btd where they should look at the traffic patterns and possibly make signal adjustments.

    The lights at Atlantic by the backside of faniuel hall are a joke if you are on Atlantic making the left heading toward south station. You get through one light and then have to sit at the next and then all of the lights going forward are timed against you.

    Make the same trip and go up hanover and make the left, you can get to south station 5 minutes faster from the left on Atlantic (I’ve times it- apparently no one else can).

    Not really related to the north end, but the light/ pedestrian signal past the intercontential heading back to the north end is a joke if you are trying to get to the seaport/ innovation district. It’s a pretty long light, but about one car can make the right due to the walk signal.

    5) large group registration- Require all large groups to check in so they understand that this is a living/ working neighborhood and not colonial Williamsburg or Disney. Don’t block the side walks, cross promptly and not like a snake (it once took me 10 minutes to go from charter to north benett because of the same group crossing multiple streets like a snake- they actually managed to block 3 streets (Hanover, tileston and north benett) at the same time).

    Maybe ask for a voluntary donation of $1/ person which goes to pay for the person who does the check in and allow greater cleanup efforts

    6) signs (first suggestion that is a cost with no revenue) reminding people of the above and to show some consideration (politely of course). A little wordy, but a start…

    “Welcome to the north end

    We thank you for visiting our special and historic neighborhood.

    Please keep in mind that this is a living and working neighborhood so please be mindful and don’t block the sidewalks when walking or standing.

    The side walks are our streets and we ask you think of them as such. Just as you wouldn’t appreciate if you pulled your car out every day and we were stopped side by and completely blocking the street in your house, we don’t appreciate leaving our house and having our sidewalks completely blocked”

    7) make the establishment owners more responsible for the lines outside of their establishments.

    If you have lines that long, they should be able to hire someone to manage the lines. If they can’t then they should be able to raise their prices to cut down on the demand and make more per person.

    Also there are some establishments where people in line are doing a “new York mile” while waiting… I’m pretty sure that should put their license in jepordy, yet the owners do nothing about it.

    I know, these are all too logical to work.

    No suggestion, but it is just a matter of time (my guess is once all of the construction is done so there are not any cones alerting you to something is going on) before we have a head on crash on commercial st.

    While I think that’s inevitable, cutting down the lane heading away from the garden into the north end was probably a poor choice. Not everyone drinks and drives at garden events, but let’s be honest, it does happen and they made the lane leading away from the garden narrow with sharper turns.

    Regularly cars heading away from the garden cross the double yellow into oncoming traffic during the day.
    game/ event night could spell disaster

    1. Wow – I have lived on Fulton Street for the last 20 plus years – your comments are spot on – too much construction and not enough infrastructure to support it it. Would love to see some of your ideas realized.

  6. Last week, tourists (a mom, dad, and two kids) stopped me on Hanover Street, in front of the Green Cross, and asked, “Which way is it to the North End?” HA! I said, “You’re here!!”

  7. This article brings up a point that has been on my mind for the last few years. There’s a theory condition called “Broken Windows Theory”: Boston as a whole, as of late, and North End in particular is beginning to resemble just that, a path down the one way street that is Broken Windows theory.

    It starts with lack of enforcement of laws and city ordinances. Pretty much everything described in the article and mentioned in comments is already addressed by the city. Parking? Tickets for illegal range from $35 and up, including towing. Noise? No problem, Noise Related Regulations ( decribe the allowed sound level and fines associated with braking the regulations. Idling longer than 5 minutes – there’s a ticket just for that. Blocking intersections by a bus – there’s an associated ticket as well.

    So, why do we live in the increasingly unlivable neighborhood? Because city and police officials seem to be uninterested in consistent enforcement of the existing laws Laws, that were designed and passed to protect the community and its inhabitants from the very problems described here. And this is where we return to aforementioned Broke Windows Theory. We get double-parked cars. We get musicians playing way above the ordinance for 5-6 hours a day.

    It’s all great and wonderful for tourist who spend 10 minutes sitting in the park listening to “wonderful music” (yeah, try it for 5 hours every single day for years, incessant and obnoxious). It’s great for 2 hours of “oh my god, it’s so exotic, almost European” for a once-a-decade suburbanite visitors from Midwest. Its not OK for us, living in this neighborhood, paying property taxes, picking up someone else’s garbage, going crazy from constant noise and swerving to avoid double-parked cars.

    Hello, city of Boston! Hello, Mayor! Hello, Police Department! Hello, Community Outreach! Hello! Who will be first to stand up and enforce the rules that are on the books and that are being ignored by people who don’t even live here?

    Oh, and the Broken Windows? Do you feel that your North End is going down the right pass? How soon will we start getting the professional panhandlers that now occupy every intersection of Surface road? How soon will we get a wave of heroin overdoses (well, it’s already here). How soon, do you feel, we’ll become Combat zone redux? Or… can we actually expect some protection and enforcement before it slowly but surely slides down the proverbial drain? Which, with our luck, will be stuffed with garbage and feces already present in abundance on our North End streets?

  8. Hey ! I have an idea. Block off the North End from cars, buses, delivery trucks, and bikes. How does that sound? Remember, these delivery trucks bring goods to ALL the restaurants and convenient stores and CVS. The buses bring big business to the North End, which is what the neighborhood needs and wants $$$$. Tourists spend and spend all year long. Who wanted all the neat restaurants? We did.

      1. WE = the business people in the NE. Who else? I’m certainly not going to say “you” wanted all those restaurants. Don’t knit pick.\
        By the way, regarding the bands, we all enjoyed the group who played at North Square. They actually were ‘summoned’ by the kids and grownups in the NE. Graduates of music schools. At least they had real talent. I know you did not comment on the bands Gary.

        1. I’m glad some people enjoyed the bands. My home abuts North Sq and I live with my elderly Dad. We had to shut our windows to hear our own television.

          I enjoy that type of music, especially The Rolling Stones whose music was played. But it was extremely disruptive to homes facing the square and we were given no notice.

          I spoke to a few other people and business who abut the square who felt the same.

          It’s nothing personal and people can disagree. Perfectly fine. But I’m hoping it doesn’t happen next summer.

      2. “We” in the personal views of Sarah here, don’t care about actual people. “We” only care about businesses. What do people matter? Sarah is a business woman, she’s here to make money on tourists. Did I get the gist of it?

        Well, “we” who actually live here, don’t much care about the businesses that are not part of the neighborhood.

        1. I imagine all the people paying big bucks for a nice, romantic meal at Mamma Maria’s were not thrilled with the music, either. Let them play in a more appropriate area. And maybe learn more than three songs….

    1. I must say that his writing is atrocious but the subject is interesting… traffic has changed dramatically since expressway came down

  9. The simple solution is to avoid Hanover St on the weekends and use an alternate street toget to your destination. This is life in a tourist trap. Learn to cope.

  10. Dear Mr. Skole,
    Kudos to you. You hit this one out of the park. Now if only the “geniuses” of government would listen to us second class citizens, they could avoid an East Coast Car-mageddon. Unfortunately, brilliant men such as yourself often find the gears of big government only cause mortal damage while the machine keeps grinding away. A democracy where the government refuses to listen to its people is just an oligarchy.

  11. I love living here, but I feel your pain. The same problem–being too popular and overrun with people who have no vested interest in the community– has made Barcelona and Florence nearly impossible to visit. European cities are starting to get smart, and impose taxes at the entry to certain areas, if drivers insist on driving there, like up in the Budapest castle area. Taxis and local residents get an exemption. There are ways to deal with congested areas that can bring in the revenue to police the mobs, and fix up the streets and sidewalks. We could set a first for the US…it might be interesting to see how it worked.

  12. I’d suggest banning cars and parking for everyone that lacks a handicapped permit.
    No automobile cabs, no Uber.

    The way traffic is now the bikes would be faster, just deploy a mess of Hubway bikes, throw in some (skinny!) pedicabs for people who are not-quite-handicapped or don’t know how to ride.

    No 18-wheelers allowed, either, most stuff can be delivered in smaller trucks that won’t block the road once the parking is gone. Expand the sidewalks so people have room to walk, reserve a single lane for bikes so they stay off the sidewalks, add small buses (ought to be electric, so quiet and no diesel smoke).

    I know, what a weirdo, ban cars, but look at it this way: North End’s got no spare room. What is the very least efficient way to move people around, measured in terms of people per road width, or people per parked thing? Cars, by far. People walking beats cars by far, subways beat cars, decently full buses beat cars. Bicycles, I know pretty well, for a given width of road you can get 4x as many through per minute as you can cars. Parking, you can easily put 10 bikes in the space it takes for a single car. So ban cars, and everything that’s more efficient than cars, you try to make it nicer to do that instead. That means walking, biking, buses, subways.

    Or to put it differently, what’s your plan if you don’t ban cars? How many more cars do you think you could fit in there, and how much would that suck for everyone who lives there?

  13. When I left Boston for Providence, I was sad. I read this post during one of my regular check-ins since then and saw that the bridge I ran over at 4 a.m. some mornings in so many layers I couldn’t count — was yet another casualty from the period I treasured.

    As I ran across “the charlestown bridge,” my soul cleaned itself as my body followed. Not the reverse. Now that bridge will be gone. The rate of building and change is not anything I oppose. It’s not my business anymore. It’s a new place.

    I came to Boston from R.I. halfway done with college and desperate for something real after a disappointing year in Atlanta. My 20 were pretty much the Menino 20. My last 16 were all in the North End. It was awesome. I remember chain smoking at A Different Drummer and passing around an acoustic guitar. I remember us Bohemians coming into the neighborhood much to the chagrin of many. I became a good citizen. My career excelled. I got to know many people that opened many doors for me. I wrote a small patch in Fredda’s paper (God has her in the penthouse, let me tell ya) on the Clean Streets Committee goings on; I remember popping into and out of apartments; people switching stools and chairs to move around at local joints; street talk; sidewalk news; corner chatter. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. I got my education in a deep deep way at B.U., started my own businesses, and woke up one day wondering what I was doing. Well, that’s keeping a long story short.

    I came back to Boston across two days last week. The difference in less than a year without a single view is unfathomable. People at rush hour looking like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders coming home to pay thousands a month for a room. Traffic was at a standstill.

    Early in the day, as I drove up Salem, I saw one of the Mendoza boys. I was a regular at the oldest shop and the newest shop, especially towards the end. I gave a raised hand with no facial. He gave a knowing nod.

    I knew on the beach that evening that, in that moment, I just waved bye to a place that has become something new and something not me.

    I would wish Boston all the luck in the world, but I don’t care anymore. I now live in a place where I access things identical to all I loved in Boston, while watching G.Q.’s coolest city in America grow smart–moms-and-pops; arts galore; world renown dining ever-expanding; and streets, sidewalks, traffic patterns et cetera — all going on with very little bickering and time and energy stealing debate. I am getting just as involved here. People around me are individuals like I used to meet in Boston. There is an energy here, but also a realistic pace; density; and the manners are world class. People are considerate, kind and my neighborhood is a true community, like the one I treasured when the North End still owned its bones.

    I know this. I left Boston not feeling one ounce of the magic I felt every moment of my best 20 years there. I mourned the loss of Boston when I left, and came back to see it left anyway. No typo. There is no there there anymore.

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