Set up to fail: Housing crisis makes traffic worse in Massachusetts

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Wicked Local

Sarah MacDonald works in Cambridge, but she can’t afford to live there.

Instead, she commutes from Weymouth, and because public transportation is inconvenient to her schedule, she drives each day.

“I drive into the city, park at a meter and move it every two hours because parking also isn’t affordable,” she wrote in an email.

Within the last four months, however, her travel time has nearly doubled to over an hour on some days, a trend realized across the state as more people are choosing to drive instead of using public transportation, according to a recent state report.

More recently, the cost of keeping up her home has become too expensive, so MacDonald and her fiancé are considering a move. But finding an affordable home in Massachusetts while also maintaining a reasonable commute time is increasingly difficult, she explained.

“We’d like to stay in the Weymouth-Braintree area, but as real estate is also [expensive] ... we will be forced to go farther south, which will only increase our commute time,” MacDonald wrote in an email.

MacDonald’s story is relatively common in the Bay State where people are struggling to find affordable housing, especially in areas where good-paying jobs are plentiful, such as the greater Boston area.

The limited affordable-housing market is forcing many – including MacDonald – to live farther away from where they work, which exacerbates congestion in a state recently named for having the worst rush-hour traffic in the nation.

“You cannot separate the issue of congestion from the issue of housing,” said Stephanie Pollack, secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, during a recent transportation conference. “The roads are more congested because people cannot afford homes near where they work, so they live farther from where they work, commute farther to their jobs, and then people are shocked that the roads are busier.”

For some, including Sage Carbone, the solution for long commute times is simply to move closer to work.

“Living close to work is not just worth it, it’s a priority for us,” said Carbone, who lives in Cambridge with her husband. “We have both lived outside of the city at one point, but the hour-long commute to go a few miles takes a toll.”

Carbone said they made it work financially by applying for a middle-income rental program through the Cambridge Development Department, which has helped keep the cost of rent reasonable.

But making such a move doesn’t work for everyone, especially as housing and rental costs continue to climb in a state currently amid a housing crisis. And worsening commute times are pushing many to leave businesses for new jobs that require fewer hours in transit.

Allison Lenz, of Acton, worked at a venture capital firm for 15 years, and commuted to Cambridge for seven of them. During the last two years, however, “the commute became unbearable,” she said.

“When I used to leave at 6:15 a.m. it would take me 45 minutes or even less. But in the last year or so, it was taking me closer to 1 1/2 hours, and coming home was the worst,” she said. “I was spending over four hours a day in the car, and with three kids with busy activities every night, it just was not possible.”

Lenz decided to quit, and was quickly hired to a similar position in Waltham, where she commutes about 20-30 minutes each day. She was initially concerned she’d make less money – which didn’t end up happening – but even if that was the case, the shorter commute time would still be worth it.

“I do see some jobs that could pay a bit higher in Boston-Cambridge, but the quality of life and money I am saving on gas far exceed any slight pay discrepancy,” Lenz said.

Lenz is not alone, and the trend is especially concerning for both state officials and the private sector, as Boston-based employers are watching as employees leave for better commutes.

“I just quit the only company I’ve ever worked for after 15-plus years because my commute from Acton to the [Boston] Seaport was two hours each way,” said Andy Boncoddo. “I loved my old company, but the commute was killing me.”

A new poll by The MassInc Polling Group shows more than half of respondents – 51 percent – have considered changing jobs to get a better commute within the past few months. Nearly two-thirds said they have become stressed, angry or frustrated with their commute, and 80 percent reported traveling more than 45 minutes each morning.

“These impact numbers, especially among those with the longest commutes, should be a red flag for the business community in Massachusetts,” said Steve Koczela, MassInc president, in a statement. “The levels of frustration we are seeing in this poll suggest a significant portion of workers are reaching a breaking point when it comes to their commutes.”

For others, including Edmond Bertrand of Wenham, traffic into Boston is a nonstarter when it comes to considering job opportunities.

“I refuse to have my brains sucked out by sitting in endless hours of traffic,” Bertrand wrote in an email. “If I can’t work on the North Shore, I’ll commute to Portsmouth, N.H., or Andover, but that’s it. My time is worth too much to waste.”

Unabated, the dynamic will only worsen, as the state projects Massachusetts’ population to grow by 600,000 residents by 2040, which is roughly equivalent to adding three Worcester-sized cities in terms of residents. By comparison, Boston was home to 685,000 people in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Massachusetts’ population is currently about 6.9 million people.

State officials – including Pollack – are scrambling to make public transportation more efficient and practical, which – if successful – could remove cars from the roadways.

But boosting the supply of affordable housing to give more people the opportunity to live closer to their jobs could also go a long way toward reducing congestion, according to transportation officials.

Nonetheless, the development of affordable housing is scant in Massachusetts, which is fueling homelessness, leaving older adults unsure about their futures and preventing younger adults from entering the housing market.

Meanwhile, a recent report by The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston showed much of the state’s inventory of affordable housing is at risk of becoming unaffordable, especially for extremely low-income renter households, which could ultimately hurt the state’s economy.

“High housing costs in Massachusetts place significant financial pressure on the state’s residents, and a lack of affordable housing can decrease the region’s competitiveness,” according to the report.

For MacDonald and many others, limited affordable housing options could ultimately mean longer commute times, making respite unlikely for those already sitting in snarled traffic for hours each day.

“The commute from Weymouth is worth it right now,” she wrote. “But if we need to commute from the Hanson-Hanover area where homes are more affordable, we are looking at almost a two-hour commute via car each way.”

Eli Sherman is an investigative and in-depth reporter at Wicked Local and GateHouse Media. Email him at, or follow him on Twitter @Eli_Sherman.