My theory about Boston

I complain a lot about Boston on this site, and a lot of that complaining is about the road system (here, here, and here).

Today though, driving back from some time I spent with my little brother (from the big brothers big sisters program, not my biological brother who lives in Austin), and I was looking at all the snow and the lack of parking spaces and the really decayed store fronts and everything else, and my overarching theory about the reason for Boston’s failings as a city struck me.

Sure, Boston has good points, I can admit that. I can even admit that it may have good points that many people my age appreciate. Still, I think Boston has a lot of problems, and what is the source of these problems; the major cause of its suckiness in my eyes?

The answer goes back to the mobility problem that Boston is inadequately poised to deal with. Put in economics terms, it is very costly to move around in Boston. Some of this cannot be blamed on the city as a human institution. In other words, the climate makes things cold and creates a lot of snow and that makes it unpleasant and messy to be outdoors, not to mention filling up the streets and parking spaces with snow. The constant freezing during winter also rips up the streets. Ok, fair enough. Boston starts from behind because of its terrible location.

But Boston does nothing to remedy this state of affairs by refusing to improve roads or speed up the T, or make it run to where people want to go.

This has a wide-ranging group of consequences. One is that people just don’t travel. The cost of movement is high, so people stay in. This a verified consequence as I have seen graffiti and craigslist personals (yes, I was looking at craigslist personals as a joke, I realize that sounds like the exact sort of thing that a loser looking at craigslist personals would say, so you’re entitled to disbelieve. Still though, the truth is that I was glancing through it with some friends). A surprising number of the personals just say “I don’t meet people because its so cold that I just don’t want to go out.” Besides speaking to the lonely nature of our society, these people are explaining a profound truth about Boston: that it encourages people to just give up on movement throughout the city.

The second consequences of this is less social and more classically economic. Because the cost of moving out of one’s neighborhood is high, each little store is granted a de facto monopoly. This is why there are WAY more dunkin donuts per sq ft. than you could think was possible as well as why there are WAY more very low quality, fatty, greasy, take out place than you would have ever thought possible. The reason is that low quality stores of all types can subsist merely by being 8 blocks closer than their competitor. In Dallas, you would just travel those extra 8 blocks for the better prices/product/service because doing so costs almost nothing. In Boston though, it can take a broken axle and thirty extra minutes to travel those 8 blocks. So, you get an inability to capitalize to returns to scale which leads to inferior and higher priced products than could otherwise be the case.


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