Lawrence Harmon

Run, walk, hide

Road-closing events are nothing but a pain

Runners surged along Commonwealth Ave. last year for the J.P. Morgan Corporate Challenge race. Runners surged along Commonwealth Ave. last year for the J.P. Morgan Corporate Challenge race. (File 2010/The Boston Globe)
By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / June 11, 2011

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IT’S MARCHING season in Boston when residents pull out their hair as they try to maneuver around a glut of walkathons, parades, charity races, bike-a-thons, and neighborhood pride events. It seems as if there’s a special event for everyone in this city except beleaguered motorists.

Last Sunday, Bostonians were boxed in by the AIDS Walk along the Esplanade, the Dorchester Day Parade, 5k road races in West Roxbury and Dorchester, and the Santa Maria DiAnzano procession in the North End. All great causes or commemorations. But pity the family heading out to a South Shore beach or anyone having business on the other side of the BU Bridge. Navigating around charitable events in this city is like trying to find one’s way through a hedge maze.

Boston has reached its saturation point with outdoor charitable events and so-called “thons’’ that rival direct mail as a fundraising technique. Boston’s Office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events lists 194 outdoor events in 2010, not including huge blowouts like the Boston Marathon and July 4 celebration on the Hatch Shell. About 70 events took place in May and June alone. The need to secure permits from as many as 10 city departments and pay for police details and clean-up costs deter few. Face it: people with the capacity to run a half marathon aren’t going to wear out in the quest for a fistful of certificates.

This week, representatives of the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure delivered their site plans to Boston police headquarters and fielded questions from city officials about the group’s plans for a July 22-24 walk for breast cancer. In the past, 2,000 marchers concluded their 60-mile circuitous route on the Boston Common. But in recent years, the closing ceremonies have moved to UMass Boston, reflecting city efforts to push large-scale events away from downtown.

Christopher Cook, the city’s acting director of special events, calls the Susan G. Komen organizers his “perfect students.’’ The walkers depart from staging areas at staggered times and limit their enthusiasm to the sidewalks, requiring no road closures. Komen also sponsors a “sleep-in-for-the-cure’’ as a way to raise funds without flooding the streets on its coast-to-coast fundraising tour. Bad relations with host cities would be costly. Last year, the top 30 “thon’’ fundraisers generated $1.65 billion in gross revenues, according to the New York-based Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council.

A proliferation of 5k and other road races represents the opposite end of the aggravation spectrum. There were about 30 of them in Boston last year, including many that attract slower runners who create longer disruptions and road closures. This year, the city turned down two applications for half marathons, according to Cook. And all new applications are receiving “heightened scrutiny.’’

A moratorium would be good. And city officials should also consider alternative sites for longstanding events. Franklin Park in Dorchester boasts one of the premier cross-country courses in the region. Though heavily used by colleges and high schools in the fall, it could accommodate some of the races that now clog city streets in the spring and summer.

Neighborhood parades are sacrosanct in Boston. But there are other ways to celebrate community than blocking roads for hours. The Dorchester Day Parade, which takes place on the first Sunday in June, might be just as much fun if transformed into a day-long celebration at the 65-acre Pope John Paul II Park on the banks of the Neponset River.

City officials are skeptical.

“It’s hard to imagine Roslindale without the Roslindale Day Parade,’’ said Cook.

Actually, it’s not that hard.

Minimally, police could make a greater effort to keep roads open during the “thon’’ season. Boston Police sometimes allow traffic to bleed through intersections along parade and procession routes provided it poses no risk to walkers. But State Police take a more rigid approach on the state-operated roads that pass through the city. Last Sunday, for example, traffic was restricted from Dorchester’s Gallivan Boulevard long before marchers even approached the main artery.

So gear up — or hunker down — for this weekend’s Gay Pride parade, Battle of Bunker Hill parade and road race, and 5k race to benefit the Franciscan Hospital for Children, to name a few. This is the city of big hearts and big headaches.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at