Carless Cambridge residents reduce pollution

Mila Peva, 53, boards the 71 MBTA bus at the Homer Avenue bus station in Cambridge, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Photo by Nicole Hoey/BU News Service

By Nicole Hoey
BU News Service

CAMBRIDGE — Along the fence of the Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Mila Peva, 53, waited for the 71 MBTA bus to arrive at the Homer Avenue station on a recent Friday. Peva relies heavily on public transportation due to vision issues, she said, and depends on the bus daily to bring her to her destination.  

“Cambridge is very accessible by public transportation,” Peva said. “In other areas, it’s not the same.”

The ratio of cars to residents has gone down slightly since 2010, according to the city, and a recent informal survey of bus riders on Mt. Auburn Street seemed to confirm getting around town without a car is getting more popular.

Ten out of 12 people who waited at Homer Avenue for the 71 and 73 bus – which run from Watertown or Waverly squares to Harvard Square – said they were not car owners.

Terse Wahler, 32, splits her car with her boyfriend, but acknowledges a person does not necessarily need a car in Cambridge. But they do come in handy.

“It’s worth it when you have to buy a lot of stuff, like groceries,” she said.

Wahler said she uses public transportation daily and is pleasantly surprised how the new Mt. Auburn bus lanes have improved her commute. She said now, the special lanes assure she gets to work “every day on time.” Recently, new bus-only lanes came online on both Mt. Auburn Street and Mass. Avenue

Dennis Green, 42, is a member of a one-car household, but he takes public transportation “every day, twice a day” to his job, he said.

Public transportation “is easier than driving” because of the parking issues he deals with, Green said.

Joshua Smith, 26, is also a regular bus-rider, but he said he plans to get a car whenever he can afford one. He is frustrated by the increasing traffic congestion around the city and by bus drivers he feels are not aggressive enough. A big issue with public transportation, he thinks, stems from what he feels are unconfident bus drivers and the rapid expansion of apartments in Cambridge.

“Bottom line? The city needs confident drivers,” he said. “With the right driver, the ride from Watertown to Harvard Square would take 15 minutes, how it’s supposed to be.”

Improving bus rides is just one aspect of the Cambridge Community Development Department’s plan to reduce the amount of cars registered in Cambridge to 15 percent below 1990’s numbers by the year 2020. The department acts as the planning agency for the city of Cambridge, covering everything from transportation to environmental needs, according to their website.

In 2010, 45 percent of city residents owned cars. That number decreased to 42 percent in 2016, with 47,933 cars registered city-wide, even as Cambridge population is at its highest at 113,630 people in 2018, according to the CCD.  

“This plan will significantly decrease the amount of cars in Cambridge,” Susanne Rasmussen, director of environmental and transportation planning for the CCD, said.

About one-third of Cambridge residents drive to work, which is a “low number,”  Rasmussen said. Comparatively, 38.9 percent of the more densely-populated Boston residents drive alone to work, according to 2016 data from the U.S Census Bureau.

In addition to encouraging lowered car-ownership rates and working with the MBTA to improve bus commuting, the CDD is also focusing on encouraging more biking and walking and car-sharing schemes.

Rasmussen said adapting city infrastructure to ensure Cambridge is a “walkable, bikeable and transport-friendly” city is key to their work. 

These infrastructure plans include working on and creating bike lanes. Rasmussen said she believes biking would increase significantly if citizens thought it was safe for people of all ages.

Another focus is teaching students about “green” transportation. Every second-grader is taught bike safety techniques, Rasmussen said, and the CCD is attempting to bring these lessons into sixth-grade classrooms as well.

“It’s a big surprise to people how far a walk in Cambridge will get you,” Rasmussen said.

Public events, forums social media also help.

The city is also promoting car-sharing programs.

Turo is one of several companies whose services can reduce the number of cars on the road, according to the CCD website. Founded in 2009, Turo lets car-owners rent out their vehicles for a short period of time, similar to the way Airbnb works, Christin Di Scipio, senior communications officer at the San Francisco-based rental car company, said.

“Most cars sit idle for 95 percent of the time,” Di Scipio said. “They could be put to better use.”

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting back on congestion and noise are major reasons for the CCD’s vehicle-oriented goal, which shows transportation can be an environmental issue, Rasmussen said.

“Climate change is being brought strongly into focus in our city,” she said.

Back at the bus stop on Mt. Auburn on a recent Friday, riders continued to show up.

One of them, Sergio Miranda, 29, said he thinks the city’s public transportation can take him everywhere he needs to go.

“I used to have a car, but I like taking the bus,” he said. “You don’t really need one here, and it’s more economical not to have one.”

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