Letter to the Editor
In our July-August issue, author Sumner Brown proposed a congestion pricing scheme (a sort of toll for cutting through town) to cut down on traffic. A reader responds.
The recent article, “A Cure for Belmont Traffic Congestion,” certainly highlights a problem that I see every day, since I live on Pleasant Street, right near Belmont Center. Out-of-town drivers turn the street into a veritable parking lot during rush hour.
But the problem isn’t a market failure in commuter pricing, and a metered pricing solution would be expensive and politically unrealistic anyway. We need to be honest and open-minded about how this situation came about, and the answer is that it’s us. The town of Belmont has enacted strict zoning that limits denser housing development.
As a result, we have a nice suburban community only minutes from Boston. But the flip side is that we have limited, expensive housing that forces many commuters to live outside our radius, and thus travel through town to get to work.
If we really want to reduce traffic congestion, we could start by making zoning less restrictive. According to Wikipedia, Belmont has a density of 5,300 people per square mile, which has been about constant for the last 80 years. In contrast, Arlington has 8,239 people/sq mi, and Cambridge has 15,000 people/sq mi. If we were to allow Belmont to grow through new, denser housing, then many of those cut-through commuters would move to Belmont. Instead of driving all the way through, they’d start within the town and drive on average halfway through.
But more importantly, a more densely populated Belmont would have a denser pool of participants for public transportation, and more political clout. We’d get more bus service, maybe more frequent commuter rail stops, or (can you imagine it?) an extension of the Red Line into our town.
If we really want to reduce traffic congestion, we could start by making zoning less restrictive.
There would also likely be more options for less expensive housing—such as apartments—thus potentially increasing the economic diversity of the town. With other options besides single-family homes, there would be fewer “McMansion” houses. And the higher density would even reduce the carbon footprint of residents, through more efficient housing, shorter commutes for the residents, and more use of public transportation. Ironically, perhaps, a denser Belmont could substantially reduce per-person average CO2 emissions.
The character of the town could certainly change substantially with this approach. Belmont could be far different from the town my father grew up in 80 years ago. Imagine the dynamic changes during those first decades of the 20th century, when Belmont transitioned from farmland to homes! Surely many must have thought the nature of the town was being lost. Yet now, in hindsight, we who have the benefit of living here are very happy about that transformation, knowing Belmont has changed, but is still a wonderful place.
What might Belmont become in coming decades if we allow it to evolve more naturally as a community? Of course it’s impossible to know for sure. What does seem certain is that maintaining the status quo will inevitably perpetuate the issues we face with traffic.
Jonathan Wolf, Belmont Resident