Rush hour traffic in East Cambridge. (Photo: Kathy Quick)

While this picture looks like one of panicked travelers fleeing an impending hurricane … it isn’t. This is rush-hour traffic on a drizzly Monday in front of the CambridgeSide mall.

If you drive in Cambridge, you know traffic is a frustrating mess, and getting worse. A state Department of Transportation study declared this year that “Massachusetts has reached a tipping point with respect to congestion.” The report identifies Monsignor O’Brien Highway and the Fresh Pond Parkway as areas in Cambridge that are “highly congested.” Route 2 eastbound approaching Alewife is so bad that it earns two spots (at 7 and 8 a.m.) on the state’s list of “Top Five Most Severe Occurrences of Congestion.”

This year Boston was crowned the most congested city in the United States during rush hour by Inrix, a traffic analytics firm. Yup, we beat Los Angeles and New York City. Inrix estimates that Boston area drivers lose an average of 164 hours sitting in traffic.

It’s time for Cambridge officials to take traffic congestion seriously and understand that roads are infrastructure – like power, water and sewage – that have finite capacity. This realization has public policy implications on upzoning and density decisions.

New England Development is petitioning the city to rezone the CambridgeSide mall area to allow high-rise buildings that are 82 percent higher than current zoning regulations. Retail space will be scaled back, some housing will be added (market and affordable) – but the majority of total square footage will be devoted to lucrative office and lab space.

While many issues are subjective in this decision, traffic is a clear-cut, objective datapoint. NED commissioned a traffic study that uses the critical sums methodology to gauge traffic. The study pegs post-redevelopment traffic at an intersection in the CambridgeSide area at 1,815 cars per hour, which is 21 percent above the critical threshold of 1,500.

In a critical sums analysis, the rule of thumb is that intersections with fewer than 1,500 cars per hour operate adequately. According to a study on the Cambridge Traffic, Parking & Transportation department’s website, once this threshold is crossed, “intersection operation starts to deteriorate exponentially.” Note the word “exponentially.”

But hold on … the expected congestion is potentially worse. The existing traffic count data used in this study is more than a year old, and it’s my understanding that the developer’s traffic study does not include future traffic from recently approved office space at the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse two blocks away, which the city estimates will draw in an additional 2,066 daily car trips. Similarly, I don’t believe it includes anticipated traffic from Cambridge Crossing (4.5 million square feet of commercial, retail and housing) or an upzoned Met Pipe building. When you take this extra traffic into account, we all should be very concerned about its exponential effects on congestion.

Allowing continuous building without considering traffic congestion is negligent toward residents and existing businesses. Many people have to drive to work because public transportation isn’t a viable option. Others may not be able to take public transportation due to health issues. If city government is going to ignore traffic, it should be upfront, declaring: “Drivers beware – we don’t care about congestion and it is not taken into account in our public policy decisions.”

Avoiding the issue and hoping for a miracle isn’t a solution. Look at all of the scrambling going on to accommodate the electrical needs of generously greenlighted developments in East Cambridge. Coaxing Eversource to not build a substation next to an elementary school is at least possible; remedying a zoning decision that balloons traffic is even harder – in a populous area, it’s almost impossible to increase roadway sizes.

Wantonly adding traffic lengthens commute times, is unhealthy for drivers, creates excessive pollution and wastes energy. I’m curious how Cambridge officials think about this matter: Can congestion continue to increase without considering its exponential consequences? If not, what role should traffic have in public policy decisions?

I, too, want a thriving mall area and more affordable housing in East Cambridge. But infrastructure limitations cannot be ignored. The developer’s traffic study provides the smoking gun in this case that we have reached a critical tipping point: Local roadways cannot support raising building heights by 82 percent above current zoning limits.


Rafi Mohammed is an economist who has lived in East Cambridge for more than 20 years. He is the author of “The Art of Pricing: How to Find the Hidden Profits to Grow Your Business” (Crown Business) and “The 1% Windfall: How Successful Companies Use Price to Profit and Grow” (HarperBusiness).

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