I’ve been to a lot of public meetings, read a lot of campaign materials, and watched a lot of candidate forums. There seems to be near-unanimous consensus that we’ve got to fix traffic congestion in Newton and that new development can’t make traffic (significantly) worse.

Maybe it’s time to rethink congestion, reject the underlying premise, and change the frame.  

There is an unspoken expectation that underlies the general concern about Newton’s growing traffic, especially new-development-generated traffic. That unspoken expectation is that neighbors should be allowed to continue with their current contribution to baseline congestion; we want to stop additional new traffic being added to our streets, but accept the existing traffic. But, even without a single new square foot of development, we drive too much. We’re killing the planet and the city. So, why should our public policy start with the expectation that we need to treat existing traffic as either inevitable or worth protecting.

To be fair, there are a number of candidates and activists who will say that we need to provide robust alternatives to car travel, so that we can get people out of their cars. And, a few might even say that new development and related infrastructure improvements may take cars off the road as people choose to walk. But, to my knowledge, nobody is saying that traffic congestion is an overstated concern. Nobody is saying, if you are worried about your ability to drive on Newton’s streets, you might be part of the problem. Nobody is saying that, as the city moves forward, we’re going to plan on current residents driving less.

A fair response might be: fine, now make Newton a city where you don’t have to drive as much. In the neighborhoods around Riverside and Northland, the developments themselves will certainly add traffic, but they will also provide opportunities for neighbors to do some things by foot that they have to drive to do now. Elsewhere, the city should be taking aggressive steps to make it much easier to walk and bike to schools and local stores. An enormous number of daily trips are under two miles, a perfectly reasonable distance on a bike, especially an electric-assist bike, provide that there are super safe, super comfortable accommodations.

Candidates and activists, please stop promising to alleviate congestion or prevent it from getting too much worse. Don’t promise to protect residents’ ability to drive. Shift the conversation. Promise to help residents walk or bike. Don’t validate congestion concerns.