How does Boston's urbanism compare?

Charlie_mta

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Sometimes I wonder if instead of NYC, Boston had become the major city of the new world. If it had become the new London.
I'm sure there's lots of reasons why that didn't happen, but here's my take. NYC was at the gateway to the vast burgeoning US interior of the 18th and 19th century, with the Erie Canal branching off the Hudson River, and generally better access to the west than Boston had. Also a lot more immediately buildable land, without having to fill in the vast tidal flats that Boston had to do to expand.
 

bakgwailo

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I'm sure there's lots of reasons why that didn't happen, but here's my take. NYC was at the gateway to the vast burgeoning US interior of the 18th and 19th century, with the Erie Canal branching off the Hudson River, and generally better access to the west than Boston had. Also a lot more immediately buildable land, without having to fill in the vast tidal flats that Boston had to do to expand.
Yeah - Boston was basically the defacto city/"beating" NYC up until around the Eire Canal time which I generally see as the point at which NYC starts super accelerating and vastly outpacing Boston. The Erie Canal really made NYC the defacto port, and attempts to keep Boston competitive like the rail connection to Albany (and subsequent naming/marketing of the New York Streets section of Boston after towns on the Eire Canal) were basically too little/too late. Also not saying the NYC rising and Boston's fall was entirely the Eire Canal (there were quite a few other reasons), but its always sticks out to me as that moment when we really switched places, and sent Boston down the track to what it is today.
 

34f34f

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In the interest of defining "urbanism" before launching into comparisons based on it - I personally think of urban as meaning "accessible without a car." Not everyone will agree with me on that, but I want to put that forward to put my remarks in context. If I can get around to lots of interesting things by comfortably walking and taking transit, I'm having a great urban experience. If I can live without a car, I'm having a phenomenal urban experience.

I obviously have to agree with how you placed New York and Chicago.

I have a hard time putting Boston behind SF and Philly. You say you can't put it first among peers, but I'll make a case for that. First of all, our transit ridership outstripes either SF or Philly. Adding Heavy Rail + Light Rail systems and excluding suburban commuter rail:

Boston: 167k + 67k = 234k (this is about equal to the Chicago L ridership)
San Fran: 129k + 51k = 180k (arguably BART is an HRT/CR hybrid, so that 129k should be discounted as a measure of urbanism)
Philly: 92k + 24k = 116k

We can include bus ridership, but it doesn't change the order.

In a list of cities with the highest walking mode share, Boston and Cambridge hit really high:

1. Cambridge, Massachusetts 25.76%
2. Ann Arbor, Michigan 16.52%
3. Berkeley, California 15.99%
4. New Haven, Connecticut 14.0%
5. Columbia, South Carolina 13.78%
6. Provo, Utah 13.39%
7. Boston, Massachusetts 13.36%
8. Providence, Rhode Island 12.56%
9. Washington, D.C. 12.27%
10. Madison, Wisconsin 10.99%
11. New York City, New York 10.72%
12. Syracuse, New York 10.31%
13. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 10.02%
14. San Francisco, California 9.82%
15. Wichita Falls, Texas 9.29%
16. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 9.22%

These are just a few objective metrics to support my subjective view that Boston doesn't feel like the back of this pack. I will grant that Philly should get a lot of credit for the sheer density of Center City and SF is geometrically compact and sort of feels more accessible than it objectively is.
I think this – a lifestyle where you can do everyday activities without getting in a car – captures something important about urbanism.

I'm going to push back on your specific metric, though, because it does not include bus transit. In a city like San Francisco, busses are actually useful transit (good headways, dense coverage), so your rail-only metric misses a lot of transit riders. Here are the ACS survey results, which are percentages of city population vs. raw numbers:

Here are the cities with > 20% transit share:
The following is a list of United States cities of 100,000+ inhabitants with the 50 highest rates of public transit commuting to work, according to data from the 2015 American Community Survey. The survey measured the percentage of commuters who take public transit, as opposed to walking, driving or riding in an automobile, bicycle, boat, or some other means.

1. New York City, New York – 56.5%
2. Jersey City, New Jersey – 47.6%
3. Washington, D.C. – 37.4%
4. Boston, Massachusetts – 33.7%
5. San Francisco, California – 33.1%
6. Cambridge, Massachusetts – 28.6%
7. Chicago, Illinois – 27.6%
8. Newark, New Jersey – 26.7%
9. Arlington, Virginia – 26.4%
10. Yonkers, New York – 26.4%
11. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – 26.2%
12. Alexandria, Virginia – 21.7%
13. Berkeley, California – 21.6%
14. Oakland, California – 20.3%
15. Seattle, Washington – 20.1%
So Boston and SF are pretty much equal in terms of transit ridership (and Cambridge is right behind – it probably "loses" more transit riders who choose to walk or bike instead).

Qualitatively, I think SF has another feature of urbanism that puts it slightly ahead of Boston. There's a better term for it, but I'll call it neighborhood independence: the ability to perform essentially all functions within the neighborhood. Ignoring the central business districts (which are graded on different metrics), the residential neighborhoods of SF (Inner/Outer Sunset, Inner/Outer Richmond, the Mission, Cow Hollow, etc.) have many of their own grocery markets (small storefronts that have real produce and groceries, not Tedeschi/City Convenience marts), as well as hardware stores, ice cream shops, libraries, etc. I think Boston/Cambridge are close, and they probably used to have this, but at some point the grocers in every neighborhood were replaced by big grocery stores that serve a few neighborhoods, making it more difficult for people to get by day-to-day without a weekly grocery trip (probably in a car).

And for restaurants, the liberal (as in unrestricted) beer/liquor rules in CA make it much easier for a small start-up restaurant in a less trendy neighborhood to survive (vs. the insane startup costs for restaurants in Boston due to conservative liquor licensing). When your mom and pop sandwich shop, burrito joint, and Thai restaurant make it easy to stay in your neighborhood for a good time, it builds a little stronger neighborhood identity.

Now clearly, Boston/Cambridge are doing plenty well from an urbanist perspective, no matter how you slice it. But these are my subjective experiences, based on living in similar moderate-to-high density neighborhoods in each city.
 

bakgwailo

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Qualitatively, I think SF has another feature of urbanism that puts it slightly ahead of Boston. There's a better term for it, but I'll call it neighborhood independence: the ability to perform essentially all functions within the neighborhood. Ignoring the central business districts (which are graded on different metrics), the residential neighborhoods of SF (Inner/Outer Sunset, Inner/Outer Richmond, the Mission, Cow Hollow, etc.) have many of their own grocery markets (small storefronts that have real produce and groceries, not Tedeschi/City Convenience marts), as well as hardware stores, ice cream shops, libraries, etc. I think Boston/Cambridge are close, and they probably used to have this, but at some point the grocers in every neighborhood were replaced by big grocery stores that serve a few neighborhoods, making it more difficult for people to get by day-to-day without a weekly grocery trip (probably in a car).
So... I am going to have to disagree here. Neighborhoods in Boston pretty much have pretty self sustaining eco systems (and even pretty good restaurants). Westie has multiple grocery stores/shops/etc, Rozzie has grocery stores, shops, etc, Hyde Park has grocery stores, shops, etc, Dorchester has multiple and multiple business districts, JP the same, Mattapan the same, etc. I mean, I live around Lower Mills, but, in walking distance between Lower Mills and Adams Corner I have tons of restaurants, bars, grocery store, butcher shop, fish market, bakeries, flower shop, pet store, pharmacies, two corner stores, liquor store, etc.
 

HenryAlan

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So... I am going to have to disagree here. Neighborhoods in Boston pretty much have pretty self sustaining eco systems (and even pretty good restaurants). Westie has multiple grocery stores/shops/etc, Rozzie has grocery stores, shops, etc, Hyde Park has grocery stores, shops, etc, Dorchester has multiple and multiple business districts, JP the same, Mattapan the same, etc. I mean, I live around Lower Mills, but, in walking distance between Lower Mills and Adams Corner I have tons of restaurants, bars, grocery store, butcher shop, fish market, bakeries, flower shop, pet store, pharmacies, two corner stores, liquor store, etc.
Yes, I was going to point out the same. However, I think 34f34f has a point regarding ease of beer and wine sales. My neighborhood has a good mix of restaurants, but the lower end more casual type places exist almost entirely on takeout and I think to a large degree it is because they cannot sell beer and wine. In California, every pizza, taco stand, or burger joint serves beer. That is definitely not the case here and I think it does lessen the overall liveliness of our neighborhoods.
 

FK4

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Yes, I was going to point out the same. However, I think 34f34f has a point regarding ease of beer and wine sales. My neighborhood has a good mix of restaurants, but the lower end more casual type places exist almost entirely on takeout and I think to a large degree it is because they cannot sell beer and wine. In California, every pizza, taco stand, or burger joint serves beer. That is definitely not the case here and I think it does lessen the overall liveliness of our neighborhoods.
That is absolutely 100% true. It’s ridiculously restrictive in Boston and that is a huge part of the general lack of nightlife / liveliness. You often hear people arguing for later hours for bars, or just for more bars and other drinking establishments. What would make Boston neighborhoods much more lively than those things would simply be allowing restaurants to stay open later, and to allow more eateries to serve alcohol which would probably result in many more diners opting to stay in eating establishments rather than go home or go to a bar. I think it would also normalize alcohol use, rather than funnel all drinking into establishments that only exist solely for the consumption of drinking alcohol.
 

bakgwailo

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Yes, I was going to point out the same. However, I think 34f34f has a point regarding ease of beer and wine sales. My neighborhood has a good mix of restaurants, but the lower end more casual type places exist almost entirely on takeout and I think to a large degree it is because they cannot sell beer and wine. In California, every pizza, taco stand, or burger joint serves beer. That is definitely not the case here and I think it does lessen the overall liveliness of our neighborhoods.
I guess? 34f34f did specifically call out and dedicate a paragraph to just grocery stores, hardware stores, ice cream shops, libraries, etc. I have all of those in easy walking distance in two different CBD. I would also say that the neighborhood beer/wine licenses have greatly helped, and it doesn't seem to have stymied restaurant growth in the neighborhoods that much.

That is absolutely 100% true. It’s ridiculously restrictive in Boston and that is a huge part of the general lack of nightlife / liveliness. You often hear people arguing for later hours for bars, or just for more bars and other drinking establishments. What would make Boston neighborhoods much more lively than those things would simply be allowing restaurants to stay open later, and to allow more eateries to serve alcohol which would probably result in many more diners opting to stay in eating establishments rather than go home or go to a bar. I think it would also normalize alcohol use, rather than funnel all drinking into establishments that only exist solely for the consumption of drinking alcohol.
I have multiple restaurants with 1/2am closing near me, as do other neighborhoods, most will full kitchens closing around 11, and late night menus until 1am+.
 
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FK4

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I guess? 34f34f did specifically call out and dedicate a paragraph to just grocery stores, hardware stores, ice cream shops, libraries, etc. I have all of those in easy walking distance in two different CBD. I would also say that the neighborhood beer/wine licenses have greatly helped, and it doesn't seem to have stymied restaurant growth in the neighborhoods that much.



I have multiple restaurants with 1/2am closing near me, as do other neighborhoods, most will full kitchens closing around 11, and late night menus until 1am+.
There are a few small nodes (or CBDs, if you will) that have a concentration of nighttime options. The point is that 1) outside of these nodes, there’s nothing, just utter dead zones after hours, and 2) the mom and pops and regular spots don’t have liquor licenses where in an equivalent city, they would. Boston is a great city and it’s certainly better than it was twenty year ago, but it has a long way to go.

And I’d like to address the places that have “late night menus”: while those are a welcome addition, every single place I’ve ever seen that has such a thing is, by the time it’s “late night”, really a drinking establishment that also serves food, and clearly caters to a younger crowd. Don’t get me wrong; I like this, but I would continue to point out the lack of availability of “normal, sit down” restaurants where you can grab a decent meal +/- a beer. In other cities, I have not had that problem, but in Boston, if I want an an actual meal after 10pm, it’s either pizza (and no beer), or a trendy, loud-ass place like Little Donkey (just for example), and sometimes, I want neither.
 

meddlepal

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Most of you are way under rating Seattle and over rating Boston. Yea the transportation in Boston is much better, but it's such a sleepy and boring city sometimes.

I don't find it hard to walk around Seattle either. It's more spread out but it really has nice dense urban areas that are easy to get around.
 

stick n move

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Isnt it crazy that cities like Cincinatti have wonderful art deco towers on their skyline and we were almost missed entirely... The old Hancock building definitely helps and the Custom house tower is nice, but its one of those early 1900s monument-like towers like Philly, NYC, Minneapolis have and not one of the legitimate depression era art deco office towers. We do have our fair share of low rise art deco buildings downtown that I can only imagine if they had gone taller. Youd think Boston of anywhere would have a few really nice art deco office towers on its skyline, but we really dont. The fact that we dont have 2-3 art deco set back style high rises in the downtown skyline is unfortunate in my opinion. Just goes to show how deep our nimbyism is and was that none of the examples downtown went higher.
 

34f34f

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Most of you are way under rating Seattle and over rating Boston. Yea the transportation in Boston is much better, but it's such a sleepy and boring city sometimes.

I don't find it hard to walk around Seattle either. It's more spread out but it really has nice dense urban areas that are easy to get around.
Agreed – Seattle has multiple dense urban neighborhoods all connected reasonably well. It's a joy to pick a neighborhood and explore its nooks and crannies.

Isnt it crazy that cities like Cincinatti have wonderful art deco towers on their skyline and we were almost missed entirely... The old Hancock building definitely helps and the Custom house tower is nice, but its one of those early 1900s monument-like towers like Philly, NYC, Minneapolis have and not one of the legitimate depression era art deco office towers. We do have our fair share of low rise art deco buildings downtown that I can only imagine if they had gone taller. Youd think Boston of anywhere would have a few really nice art deco office towers on its skyline, but we really dont. The fact that we dont have 2-3 art deco set back style high rises in the downtown skyline is unfortunate in my opinion. Just goes to show how deep our nimbyism is and was that none of the examples downtown went higher.
We're talking about urbanism (daily life at ground level), not skylines. There's a thread on tall buildings here: http://www.archboston.org/community/showthread.php?t=5243
 

bakgwailo

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Isnt it crazy that cities like Cincinatti have wonderful art deco towers on their skyline and we were almost missed entirely... The old Hancock building definitely helps and the Custom house tower is nice, but its one of those early 1900s monument-like towers like Philly, NYC, Minneapolis have and not one of the legitimate depression era art deco office towers. We do have our fair share of low rise art deco buildings downtown that I can only imagine if they had gone taller. Youd think Boston of anywhere would have a few really nice art deco office towers on its skyline, but we really dont. The fact that we dont have 2-3 art deco set back style high rises in the downtown skyline is unfortunate in my opinion. Just goes to show how deep our nimbyism is and was that none of the examples downtown went higher.
Cincinatti is one of the worst/depressing cities I have been to. A couple of Art Deco towers does nothing for urbanism.
 

jpdivola

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Most of you are way under rating Seattle and over rating Boston. Yea the transportation in Boston is much better, but it's such a sleepy and boring city sometimes.

I don't find it hard to walk around Seattle either. It's more spread out but it really has nice dense urban areas that are easy to get around.
I don't know about overrating Boston. But that gap between Boston and Seattle has been narrowing. Boston is clearly the more consistently urban city and still has the lead in density, urban texture.

But Seattle has a couple areas where I think it excels:
1) It has been more ambitious with new development. Both when it comes to downtown high-rises and urban village infill Seattle has been building more and a greater density. Somerville, Allston, JP, could all use some Seattle level infill.
2)Cap Hill/Belltown- Boston dosent really have similar mixed use residential area. South End has good restaurants. But Boston doesn't really seem to have a high energy East Village style residential area.
 
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BronsonShore

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2)Cap Hill/Belltown- Boston dosent really have similar mixed use residential area. South End has good restaurants. But Boston doesn't really seem to have a high energy East Village style residential area.
While I'm not going to say that Boston has any place that compares to the East Village, I would argue that Central Square, Harvard Square, Davis, and, increasingly, Union Square are all high energy residential areas.

And to the extent that Boston does lack these neighborhoods, I'd say it isn't due to lack of urbanism as much as it is to the short-sighted liquor license regime that holds down restaurant and bar development.
 
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chrisbrat

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setting aside that none of the mentioned areas are actually *in* boston proper, i was going to post almost exactly the same response.
 

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