Saturday, September 6, 2014

Vision for the Green Line moving forward: a focus on accessibility for everyone


The effort to improve Commonwealth Ave Phase 2A is well under way and there are many proposals to fix the sidewalks and the bicycle facilities that are under discussion. For this post, though, I want to discuss the MBTA Green Line, because of the reservation that runs along Comm Ave, as well as the ones that are on Beacon Street and Huntington Ave.

Generally, when other people speak of "vision" in relationship to the Green Line they probably are thinking about the Green Line Extension project at the other end in Cambridge, Somerville and Medford. That is certainly an exciting project and will make a huge difference to people living there. It's also making a big splash at $1.3 billion. However, in terms of big infrastructure, it's a decent move even at the inflated price, because it has the potential to attract many tens of thousands of riders. The main thing here is to ensure that the project is seen through to at least College Ave. Pushing for extensions to Route 16, and along the Fitchburg branch to Porter Square, are possible thoughts for the future.

The vision I have for the Green Line does not involve any further extensions, however, although it does not preclude them. After the bulk of the work on the GLX is complete, with the to-be-built Brickbottom Yard in place, the Green Line will be in a "balanced" form for the first time in modern history, with major maintenance and storage facilities both west and "east" of Park Street station. Plus, hopefully by that time, the MBTA will have concluded enough of its "power study" to comprehend what, if anything, needs to be done about the traction power system. And we'll be closer to having some new vehicles, beyond the 24 ordered for the first segment of the GLX. All this infrastructure should enable easing some long-standing Central Subway scheduling and congestion difficulties. But infrastructure is only part of the story.

Jarrett Walker made a good point in a recent post where he said that transit infrastructure does not cause ridership -- transit service causes ridership. And that is true: the frequency, reliability and speed of the transit service is what attracts (or repels) ridership. The Green Line could most certainly use improvement in frequency, reliability and speed. Although the schedule is fairly frequent, the reliability of that schedule is poor, leading to common cases of train bunching and overcrowding. The speed is well, ..., legendarily slow. The at-grade segments average between 6 and 9 mph normally, making them slower than a typical human runner. So there is definitely room for significant improvement. But I doubt that Jarrett is thinking about systems like the Green Line -- which, despite its problems, does attempt to have good frequency and attract strong ridership. He is thinking of newer systems such as Salt Lake City's S-Line that is both slow and infrequent.
Steep stairs to get on and off board:
arduous for people with mobility impairments

But the Green Line does demonstrate a point that qualifies as a slight quibble with Jarrett's argument. Yes, it is true that service levels are the most important feature of a transit system. But there is an infrastructural component that I think also qualifies as a form of "service" and that's accessibility. You could build the most wonderful light rail system in the world, with a train every few minutes that takes you speedily to your destination, but it would be totally useless if you had to cross a dangerous high-speed roadway just to get to a station. Or if the station was designed with so many fences and obstacles that just getting to the platform is a journey in itself. Obviously this is a huge issue for people with disabilities, and 24 years after the passage of the ADA we're still far behind where we should be. But accessibility is also an issue for people without disabilities. First of all, just about every person born in this world will probably deal with some kind of mobility limitations of the course of a lifetime. Whether it be broken bones, aging knees, arthritis, or anything else, it still shouldn't disqualify you from being able to access public transportation. And even if you are fortunate enough to be in perfect health, you are still probably less likely to use a service if the access path to reach it is long and arduous.

Furthermore, all these problems are exacerbated if you have to climb steep stairs to get on or off the vehicle. And if you have to push and shove through a crowd just to get to a seat -- or even merely an open space for standing. And then push just to escape from the tiny front door, and be forced to climb down those steep stairs again.

I bring this topic up because the Green Line has a serious problem with poor accessibility, both for people with and without disabilities. And it's completely unnecessary. In theory, the surface Green Line could be the most accessible of all the segments of train lines in Boston. The platforms are at the same grade as the sidewalk, which means no stairs nor elevators needed. The tracks naturally guide the vehicle close to the platform edge, nearly the same place every time, without any additional effort from the driver. We have the technology that makes low-floor vehicles possible. Modern fare collection systems can work at any door. Using the Green Line could be as easy as walking through the entrance of a building.

But in practice, it's not. People with disabilities consistently rate the Green Line as one of the worst to use. Everyone else just seems to put up with the problems. The MBTA actively makes life worse for its customers by choosing the most bizarre and inefficient operating procedures. I understand that there are fiscal constraints preventing the T from replacing the existing high floor vehicles (which are also, alas, the only reliable vehicles in the fleet). I understand that there are historical constraints in the tunnels preventing the T from purchasing widely-used, modern vehicles (although I think they could try harder to fix some of these longstanding issues). But there is really no excuse for refusing to open up all of the doors of a train at every single station (especially the low-floor doors). There is no excuse for failing to implement the modern fare collection method that SF MUNI now deploys system-wide, and that even the MBTA was going to adopt until they mysteriously decided to give up trying, a few years ago. And there is no excuse for designing stations in maximally obnoxious ways that seem to be catering more to the desires of speeding car drivers than to the needs of transit riders.

A cage for transit riders, surrounded by wide lanes for speeding motor vehicles.

Here's my vision for the MBTA Green Line going forward: doing all the little things right, the way they should have been done years ago.
  • Consolidate stations that are within a 2-3 minute walk of each other.
  • Continue the process of making every station ADA and AAB compliant.
  • Maximize pedestrian accessibility to stations:
    • multiple points of access,
    • making it as easy as possible to walk from all directions to the station platform,
    • and creating a street environment that is pedestrian-friendly all around.
  • All doors open at all stations. No excuses, no delays, no wasting time. No more forcing passengers who might have disabilities to mount those steep stairs and push into the vehicle.
  • Pre-payment on the platform and/or CharlieCard kiosks installed at every door.
  • Every intersection should have a form of signal priority installed that minimizes signal delay for Green Line trains as much as possible.
These reforms are relatively cheap up front and will save money over the long run. And by relatively cheap, I mean compared to the cost of massive capital expenditure such as extending the subway. Plus, putting the train underground causes you to lose that accessibility advantage. And anyway, it's not necessary to do expensive grade separation in order to achieve significant service improvement. We're more than capable of doing much better with the existing tracks.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Vertical farming: stupid idea, or stupidest idea?

Article: Vertical farms offer a bright future for hungry cities.

My impression: It seems like it's just another set of wildly Utopian schemes along the lines of Ebenezer Howard's "Garden Cities." Except, instead of returning people to the farm, it's returning the farm to the city. The goal seems to be the same: curing those wicked sinful city folks with some virtuous farming and "green" space (of a sort).

However, if for whatever insane reason "vertical farming" takes off, I will then propose a revolutionary idea: "horizontal farming." It's where you go out to a place with lots of cheap land, abundant water and sunshine from the sky. Then you use the natural dirt and soil to grow lots of crops at very low cost, using machines such as "tractors" and "combines" to save labor. Finally, you ship it off to market using a highly efficient, fancy new technology called a "freight train." This lets you free up all that valuable land occupied by vertical farms in cities, turning it over to be used by much needed housing developments, employment opportunities, schools and parks.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Fifty years of the MBTA: where is the vision?

Yesterday, I was riding the T towards home with a friend who lives nearby me, and I mentioned that I had canceled my monthly pass for the remainder of the summer. The value proposition just isn't there for me anymore. At least, so long as the weather remains decent, I'm not sure I will be able to use up $75 in stored value. He said that he was mulling the same issue, because at $75, it was more of a struggle for him to afford. But then he surprised me: "the fares go up regularly now, but the MBTA has no vision, no plan for improvement, no sense that things are going to get better in the future." This is coming from a person who is just a regular user of the system, not someone who probably spends too much time thinking about urban transportation issues. And, I have to admit that I am forced to agree with him.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority from the ashes of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, on August 3rd, 1964. The new authority was intended to unify mass transportation operations in the greater Boston area under one umbrella, a much larger scope than the old MTA. And in some aspects, it has been successful, or at least, impactful. The iconic  logo, the famous color-coding of rapid transit lines, the death and rebirth of commuter rail, the consolidation of management, the expansion of the Red Line, the controversial Orange Line relocation, and many other things.

The long term vision for the MBTA is called the Program for Mass Transportation (and yes, there is a broken link on their website, and this is where it's supposed to go). If you look through the Progress document, you'll see that most of the accomplishments are things like replacing vehicles, doing maintenance on right-of-way, improving accessibility, etc. I do not want to disparage any of those activities: they are very important for the proper functioning of the system. But they are not the kind of accomplishments that are going to constitute a "visionary step forward" for transportation in the Boston region, as seen by ordinary users. Actually, most of what's listed under progress are fixes that should be taken as a matter-of-course: yes, stations should be accessible, vehicles should be in working order, and tracks in good repair. That goes without saying, really.

But what has actually been accomplished in terms of expanding the "good transit" system in the past fifty years? Much of what was done was proposed, in at least a similar form, on this 1945 map from the old Boston Elevated Railway:
West is up. Also see: Larger version.
There are some things on this map that are dead letters: such as the configuration of the Red Line past Harvard, which was later designed to curve north towards Davis and Alewife instead of through Watertown. But much of what was accomplished is represented here, in a plan from 1945. Several extensions were built prior to the formation of the MBTA: what we now know as the "D" branch of the Green Line, and what we now know as the Wonderland extension of the Blue Line. After 1964, the MBTA built: the Braintree branch of the Red Line, and the extension of the Orange Line through Malden. They also attempted to build the Red Line to Arlington via a different route than shown, but were blocked by NIMBYs and cut short to Alewife. Since then, most expansion ideas have focused on what's shown above:
  • The MBTA has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to build the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, and it seems to be finally happening, 70 years after it is proposed on the above map. One difference: a second branch will be included, to Union Square.
  • The Orange Line was relocated, by the MBTA, to the Southwest corridor as part of the highway moratorium deal. I can hardly blame the Boston Elevated Railway company for not foreseeing the destruction of all elevated railways within Boston. But they did plan for a West Roxbury extension of the Orange Line, which the MBTA abandoned when blocked by NIMBYs, and is now sorely needed.
  • The shown Reading extension of the Orange Line was planned and abandoned by the MBTA, leaving a vestige third track alongside portions of the Haymarket-North route.
  • The Blue Line extension to Lynn, abandoned by the MTA in the 1950s due to lack of money, but not forgotten.
  • A rapid transit expansion along the Framingham commuter rail tracks/I-90 right-of-way that passes through Brighton. A small portion of this is covered by the Orange Line today.
Actually, the last proposal is somewhat similar to something that showed up earlier this year:
DMU proposal, MBTA 2024 (source)
Although this looks something like a "visionary plan" (hey, it says "Vision"), it's actually rather disappointing, despite the busyness of the map. In 1945, the transit commission envisioned vast sweeping expansion projects that would unite the region. In 2014, MassDOT envisions dinky diesel powered traincars that, at best, come every 15-20 minutes and only cover a small amount of territory. Also, several of the proposals are dead on arrival. Cambridge won't tolerate frequent closings of crossing gates on the Grand Junction, they even rejected infrequent commuter rail. The Track 61 connection between Back Bay and the Seaport is completely absurd, as it crosses just about every south-side railroad line at-grade. West Station is still hot air, despite recent commitments to plan it as part of the Allston I-90 Interchange Improvement Project.

The Program for Mass Transportation from 2010 lists several projects that are opportunities for system expansion and enhancement:
  • Implementing energy efficiency policies: yay, but again, not visionary.
  • Continuing to fix accessibility problems: necessary, and should go without saying.
  • Bus Rapid Transit-like service on key bus routes: interesting, but they sink themselves by saying things like this, "a careful study of roadway geometry and traffic congestion is needed...," which makes it clear what the priorities are. Hint: cars are still considered more important than buses, in the eyes of the transit agency.
  • Access to stations, which according to the MBTA, boils down to building more and more parking spaces. Sigh. That's how you end up with crazy stuff like this:
In Beverly, a brand new $34 million palace for 500 cars: $68,000 per parking space.
And the MBTA claims that they have no money. (pic source)
While, in the meantime, people who walk to stations are treated to this:


The difference is simple: the MBTA primarily sees itself as a means for getting 9-to-5 commuters from parking lot to downtown office building. Their decisions make a lot more sense when viewed in that light. Of course, not everyone thinks like that, and there are good folks there trying really hard to make things better. But institutionally, the agency was born in 1964 and still thinks like it is 1964.

Going back to the big-ticket items listed in the PMT:

  • The Red-Blue connection at Charles/MGH. An essential item if looming passenger capacity problems at Park Street are to be tackled. The Big Dig mitigation agreement required merely the design of the Red-Blue connection. Yet, the MBTA has now successfully dumped it. Even though doing the design would be cheaper than building the parking palaces on the North Shore.
  • The Silver Line Phase III, which would unite the two halves of the Silver Line with a superstation underneath Boylston Station. SL-Waterfront is currently only connected to the Red Line at South Station. That was not intended to be the final state, and the line struggles as a result. Yet, Phase III was completely insane, and would have cost many billions of dollars to build, while digging up and throwing into disarray some of the most sensitive parts of historic Boston. As a result, it will never happen, and the Silver Line continues to look like one of the worst ideas in MBTA history (although it is an example of a non-BERy-planned expansion).
  • The North/South Rail Link between North and South Stations. This was supposed to be part of the Big Dig and was deferred due to the collapse of that project's budget. If done correctly, the North/South Rail Link can be combined with a radical transformation of the commuter rail system to produce express rapid transit similar to the RER. That would be visionary and transformational to the region. Naturally, the MBTA has no interest in that, and may have actively sandbagged the proposal.
  • Things like South Coast Rail, now costing $2.3 billion, to serve 4,500 people. You know how I feel about this one.

So that's where we stand with the MBTA's vision. Parking garages, dinky diesel powered traincars, insanely expensive commuter rail expansions, and a lot of pie-in-the-sky proposals. Mostly a collection of pet ideas and political footballs, really.

I think part of the problem is that the MBTA only sees itself as a transportation agency. It's a part of MassDOT now, which makes it part of a larger transportation agency. The same problems occur at the higher level too; we have seen, as MassDOT works on redesigning the Mass Pike through Allston, they insist on compartmentalizing themselves with the "we only build roads" attitude.

The transportation-only focus is broken: transportation and land use go together and must be considered together when making plans or changes. If I were to give a set of principles for the MBTA (and MassDOT) to use when considering their vision over the next fifty years, it might look something like this:
  • What you build is what you get:  “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” -- Fred Kent
  • Models are almost entirely useless, because the interaction between human beings and their built environment is too complex for us to reliably predict most things, especially decades in the future.
  • Instead of trying to predict the future, focus on providing strong urban corridors that can adapt to any conditions. For the transportation side, that means safe, walkable, bikable streets with frequent, reliable, convenient and accessible transit service (of any mode). For the land use side, that means mixed, intense, diverse use that keeps the human scale in mind.
  • To MassDOT: uphold the GreenDOT principles, the Mode Shift Goal, and the Healthy Transportation Compact.
  • To MBTA: strengthen your frequent bus network through expansion and upgrades. Use "BRT" features on every bus route: off-board payment, all-door boarding, level-boarding, signal priority, bus lanes, etc. Stand up for your customers: don't be afraid to confront the automobile lobby when it's stealing resources away from bus riders. When designing and rebuilding suburban rapid transit and commuter rail stations, they should, as much as possible, be the core of a walkable town center -- not a parking lot desert.
  • To MBTA commuter rail: it's time to stop operating like it's the 19th century. Start moving towards reliable frequency, all-day, supporting two-way travel wherever possible. Don't be just a parking lot shuttle, be a connection from the small, walkable town center to the larger region's opportunities.
  • To urban/land use planners in the region: don't zone yourselves out. There's huge demand for nice places to live where it's not only safe to walk and bike, but also convenient and enjoyable. We used to build such places, until mid-century zoning made it illegal to do so, instead choosing to chase the impossible dream of automobile travel everywhere, all-the-time. Help build strong urban corridors through walkable neighbohoods, corridors that can be effectively served by transit, and work together with the MBTA to make it a reality.
At the beginning of this year I started to outline what a set of key urban corridors might look like for Boston. It's a rough draft and limited:


But the idea was to create a vision of where the MBTA and the city could work together in creating strong urban corridors, mostly based on existing bus routes. If the MBTA published a vision in this mold and said that "by 2024, here's where we want you to be able to catch a bus or a train within 10 minutes of showing up," that would be exciting. And if the city came along with a similar plan that said, "here's where we're going to focus on bringing economic development, on increasing housing supply, on fostering diversity, on walking, biking and safer streets," and that plan largely concurred with the MBTA's plan, then that would be exciting. And perhaps, it would represent a realistic vision that regular residents and riders could appreciate.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Boston the walking city

Spotted this data visualization by the creators of the "Human app" for the iPhone. I don't have an iPhone so I'll let them explain it:
Human is an iPhone app that runs in the background of your phone and automatically detects activities like walking, cycling, running, and motorized transport. All visualizations are solely based on aggregated data from people using the Human app. Imagery shown does not involve the use of maps, as white pixels were drawn by moving Humans.


Walking in Boston as measured by the app (source)
In addition, it finds that 46% of activity in Boston was walking, compared to 43% motorized, 4% running, and 6% bicycling. I also noticed that the visualization of motorized activity includes the surface portions of all the MBTA rail lines: if you look closely you can see them all traced out pretty clearly where they diverge from other roadways. No tunnels are included in the charts at all, presumably because GPS doesn't work underground. So, it seems that in this case, "motorized activity" also includes riding the T. Boston's high walking rate puts it in the top ten worldwide, and only behind Washington, D.C. and New York City in the United States.

I think that's a nice confirmation of what we already knew from census and survey data. If anything, it may show that those estimates were too low, especially since they often focus only on journey to work, which is usually considered to comprise about 20% of total trips. I think that the main criticism of this work, and the one thing that holds it back from being scientifically useful, is that it is only measuring people with iPhones AND the Human app. And I have no idea how well iPhones are distributed among the population, but I can guess: they probably skew towards the rich and technologically literate. So there are some fairly egregious gaps in data. For example, much of southern Boston is simply ... missing. I couldn't tell you whether that's because walking is rare there, or because iPhones are less common. Based on personal experience, I don't think walking is rare in neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester, so I think it's more likely that there are just fewer people carrying iPhones with the Human app installed.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The not-so-great train robbery: South Coast Rail now priced at $2.3 billion

I am a supporter of public transit and the MBTA. Because of that, I feel obligated to point out when transit projects are unutterably bad. South Coast Rail makes a mockery of everything I stand for. We need investment in our transit systems and expansion as well. But we need to do it intelligently, to get good value for our money. Unlike highway-mongers, we must be responsible in the way we spend taxpayer money. Unfortunately, South Coast Rail is wildly irresponsible: at $2.3 billion, it is beyond overly expensive, and it will be lightly used, at best. This is a tragedy in the making, a disaster in slow motion.

Yes, you heard me right: $2.3 billion. A recent MassDOT blog post confirmed the new price tag. As recently as last year it was expected to cost an already-unbelievable $1.8 billion, and now it has ratcheted up another $500 million. I have assembled a history of the cost of this project, as it has zoomed upwards from merely expensive all the way up toward and beyond ludicrous.

The rapidly inflating cost of South Coast Rail

Some sources: The Herald News has put together a history article. The Wikipedia page has a decent rundown as well, which served as a starting point. Based on that and more, I've now assembled a spreadsheet with various cost, trip time, and ridership estimates, along with the source of each: usually a newspaper article or official planning document. The chart at the top of this article shows how the price estimates have veered upwards over time. In summary,
For a per-rider breakdown, a section from the Final Environmental Impact Report chapter 3 (table 3.3-6) calculates that the estimated cost of South Coast Rail, both for construction and operation, will come out to be approximately $35.28 per user in 2035. And that number assumed that the capital cost was only $1.82 billion. Using the latest price of $2.3 billion, but keeping their overly generous ridership estimate, I roughly calculated that the daily per-rider cost of building and running South Coast Rail will be equivalent to about $42. And with the more reasonable (but probably still too high) ridership forecast of 4,500 then each rider would have to pay $94 every day in order for the Commonwealth to merely recoup the costs.

Other commuter rail expansions have not cost anywhere near as much. The most recent was little-used Greenbush line, which cost $534 million for a branch of the Old Colony. And that cost included an unnecessary, expensive tunnel that was installed merely to satiate a few NIMBYs. South Coast Rail doesn't involve any tunneling, yet it is projected to cost more than four times as much for a line that is only about twice as long. Greenbush has only attracted just under 3,000 riders, far below its projections. South Coast Rail is only expected to attract 4,570 riders (table 3.3-1): so the reality will likely be far worse.

Comparison to a peer project

South Coast Rail, using the selected Stoughton alternative, involves constructing approximately 52 miles (83 km) of new rail corridor (table 3.2-2). So, the cost per route-kilometer for South Coast Rail is just shy of $28 million, and that seems to put it within a reasonable range (Table 6) for a new-build metro. But this is not a new-build metro. It's supposed to be a low-frequency reactivation of an existing freight corridor as well as a mothballed 12-mile corridor, in a lightly populated mostly-rural/suburban region. It's using a lot of single-tracking, which should be a money-saving measure, but that doesn't really show. By contrast, Utah Transit Authority managed to build a 45 mile-long, similar style of commuter rail line for a total of $525 million. That clocks in at a respectable $7.3 million per km, or in other words, approximately four times cheaper than what's estimated for South Coast Rail. The expected ridership in Utah was 6,800 people, so by that measure the expenditure was approximately $77,000 per person over there. Not so great, actually, but still almost five times better than South Coast Rail's estimated $500,000 per person. We could buy each of the South Coast Rail riders their own personal helicopter for that cost!

The price tag on South Coast Rail is far out of proportion to its benefits and it is ridiculously more expensive than comparable American commuter rail projects. Supporters of South Coast Rail claim that they are doing it all for the benefit of the South Coast. I call bullshit. A dinky American commuter rail line with relatively few trips per day is not going to make a huge difference to the South Coast region, although it will make a huge difference to the consultants scooping up that money. But the real tragedy will be after that $2.3 billion (or more) is sucked dry and clearly wasted, it will be a long, long time before the Commonwealth has any appetite for helping the South Coast in ways that could really work. And that will be a double shame: first for constructing the worst, most overpriced rail line in the country, and second for screwing over the South Coast yet again.

Friday, June 13, 2014

When's the last T?

After the inauguration of late night weekend T service I cobbled together a quick web site as a convenient portal to find out when the last trip of the night would be passing nearby. I didn't get a chance to polish the interface until this month, but now I think it is usable enough for others to try out. Point your browser, desktop or mobile, at tinyurl.com/lastmbta. If you are on a mobile GPS-enabled phone, then it will attempt to pinpoint your location automatically. Or you can just click or tap a location on the map:


Press the "Submit" button and you will get an easily printable screen that lays out the options:


I hope it is useful. Feedback is welcome.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wide Boulevard Syndrome: the mistake that planners love to make, over and over again

There's an important Green Line forum coming up today but this article from the Globe today is too juicy to pass up:

Songdo City (source: Jean Chung for the Boston Globe)
Hynes had been courted by the South Korean government to build a massive city from scratch, one of the world’s largest private real estate projects, with 60-story housing complexes, a park, a waterfront golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, and amenities modeled after major cities around the world, including Boston.

Some 100 million square footage would be built, the equivalent of 83 Prudential Towers in Boston.
“I think we have an opportunity here to have a lot of fun,” he told his partner after viewing the wasteland. “Build a lot of buildings.”

New Songdo City, as the development is called, hasn’t yet turned out the way Hynes and his business partners envisioned, and he left the project four years ago. It currently feels more like a small Midwestern city than a giant international hub, with wide boulevards and newly planted trees but little hustle and bustle.
If I had a nickel for every time an architect or a planner thought that they could inspire urban vitality by building yet another "wide boulevard" then I could probably afford to build my own Songdo City. Not that I would, because it looks awful, and the Koreans seem determined to repeat every mistake possible. However, I want to focus on a particular recurring theme, right now: it seems to me that almost every architect out there gets this idea that if they replicate Parisian boulevards then they will magically create another Paris!

Reading further in the same article:
The city was planned to be about the size of downtown Boston, and the vision was grand: A wide boulevard would be like the Champs-Elysees in Paris, an opera house like the one in Sydney, and canals that would take a visitor to Venice.
.....................

A statue in Paris, which I hereby designate to be known as,
 "The patron saint of stupid architects who try to build Parisian-style boulevards everywhere."
This "Wide Boulevard Syndrome" that infects many architects and so-called urban planners is a disease that causes every street in their developments to become super-sized, nearly highway-like. As if every street is meant to be the Champs-Élysées! The syndrome blinds the planners to the fact that Parisian boulevards exist in a certain context: the already-vibrant, ancient city of Paris, which was a bustling city long before Haussmann carved out the boulevards in a fit of mid-19th-century "urban renewal." Paris is a successful city not because of the boulevards, but despite them! A city can handle a certain number of wide boulevards when it has a robust network of small streets and small blocks that are human-scaled. Like old Boston, for instance. That effect doesn't work at all when Wide Boulevard Syndrome dictates that nearly every street is super-sized!

You would think that by 2014, most people in the urban developing profession would have realized their mistakes from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Alas.
His focus now is Seaport Square, a development that aims to transform 23 acres of parking lots into a neighborhood with condominiums, offices, stores, and parks. All told, Hynes hopes to help build 20 projects totaling 6.3 million square feet. Construction will have started on about a third of the development by June and Hynes is aiming to finish by 2020, meaning his new project in the Seaport would be finished the same year as his old one in Songdo City.
Think he learned anything about Wide Boulevard Syndrome? I doubt it. The newer parts of the Seaport suffers from it just as badly as anywhere. Take a look at Northern Ave, Seaport Boulevard, Congress Street, and Summer Street.



View Larger Map

Things aren't any better on the ground, either.



And when combined with the utter failure that is Silver Line-Waterfront, is it any wonder that Downtown Crossing is so much more desirable for new businesses and general street life?

It's okay to make mistakes. It's not okay to make the same mistakes over and over and over again. When will planners learn? It's the small streets, not the big streets, that make a city great. The big streets just make people feel small.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The upcoming Red and Orange Line subway car order is massively overpriced. What's going on?

Another part in a never-ending series on mismanaged public agencies:


The MBTA is going to order hundreds of new cars for the Red and Orange subway lines, both of which are in desperate need. Some of the current subway cars have been operating since the year Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and by quick estimate, may have traveled over ten times as far!

Let's see how the cost of new equipment compares. There isn't really a market for "new subway cars" like there is for "new automobiles" but we can look at some similar agencies to get a general idea:

  • BART has ordered 410 cars at a cost of $ (2012): $2.2m/car
  • CTA ordered 706 cars at a cost of $1.137 billion (2012): $1.61m/car
  • WMATA ordered 428 cars at a cost of $886 million (2010): $2.07m/car
  • TTC ordered 234 cars at a cost of CA $710 million, approx. US $650 million (2006) of which the article claims that CA $211m is "extras", perhaps, so this may be as low as US $460 million for the cars, actually: US $1.97m/car
  • Going back a bit, NYCT ordered 660 cars at a cost of $961 million (2002): $1.46m/car
  • MBTA's most recent heavy rail order was 94 Blue Line cars at a cost of $174 million (2006) but the old CIP claims $234 million through FY10. Not clear if some of that cost included non-vehicle expenses: either $1.85m/car or $2.49m/car
  • And, looking forward, MBTA will order 226 cars for a cost of $1.3 billion (2013): $5.75m/car

Okay, let's break that down further, because the MBTA Capital Investment Program seems to indicate that the $1.3 billion actually includes the cost for things other than subway cars. It says:

  • $539 million for 152 new Orange Line cars: $3.55m/car
  • $262 million for 74 new Red Line cars: $3.54m/car

That's considerably better, but still quite high. Here's a list:
$2.2m, $1.61m, $2.07m, $1.97m, $1.46m, $1.85m, $2.49m, $3.55m, $3.54m
Two of these numbers are not like the others. Why is the Red and Orange Line procurement planned to cost so much more than any other subway car procurement in North America, that I have found so far? This seems like a scandal, a huge waste of money, and yet another weight dragging down the MBTA. The Commonwealth seems to be determined to throw away hundreds of millions of dollars. That additional 30-50% cost per car could have been put towards much desperately needed maintenance. Or additional vehicles to increase service on the overloaded Orange Line. Or on any of many worthy transit projects waiting for funding.

My hypothesis is that this 30-50% escalation in costs is a burden caused, at least in part, by the "Buy Massachusetts" requirement. Such nationalistic requirements are infamous for causing cost escalation. "Buy America" is a scam. The reason is simple: we don't have an established supply chain or industry with experience at producing subway cars. Even if it's just final assembly, we still need to bear the cost of creating the facilities from scratch, and training the workers; who will inevitably make mistakes. Stupid ideas like "Buy America" and "Buy Massachusetts" come from folks who don't understand the nature of economies and industrial policy. They try their hands at Central Planning and try to force an industry to grow when and where it isn't natural. Taxpayers pay the price, transit riders bear the burden of worse equipment (hello, Boeing), and transit systems are stifled by lack of resources. Ultimately we end up hurting the industry with this policy that was supposedly intended to help it. That's the "Buy American" way.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

About the upcoming annual Green Line forum on May 28th: recommendations and a call for action


Senator Brownsberger is hosting another Green Line forum this upcoming May 28th, 6pm, at the BPL Copley Rabb Lecture Hall. Hopefully the room will be packed with riders able to demonstrate the importance of the Green Line and fixing its numerous problems. In past years, the experience has been interesting. A good sized crowd showed up last year. Several of the speakers made some very good comments. I remember the first person to speak was a father, who brought his young son, they both stood up at the front of the room and he called upon the MBTA officials to implement signal priority: why should a train filled with hundreds of people have to wait for a few cars?

On the other hand, several of the speakers made some truly bonkers comments. Like one older gentleman, who said he had been riding for forty years, but for some reason was upset at the fact that he saw empty 2-car trains sometimes. The MBTA official who responded actually handled this one correctly, and she pointed out that an empty train in Brighton could easily be a full train further down the line.
"off-peak"

Unfortunately, the MBTA did not handle it correctly when another crazed speaker whined about seeing one or two people sneaking in the rear doors. The MBTA continues to punish all riders collectively, despite having no evidence to back up their reprehensible "front door only" policy. Refusing to open the rear doors causes massive delays and train bunching, but the MBTA clearly has no respect for the paying customers, nor for their own wasted money on overtime as delays pile up. The correct response would have been to say something like: "the importance of following schedules and keeping dwell times low far outweighs the possibility that someone might sneak in the rear door, and anyway, we are going to implement proof-of-payment soon!"


Ultimately, what came out of the process last year was a letter from Dr. Scott that briefly responded to a few issues but made very few changes. The real headline grabber was the announcement of Green Line tracking in 2015. There were a few passive changes to signalization: I noticed the change at Packard's Corner before I read the letter, actually, so I suppose it has helped a tiny bit. But that was it. We are still waiting for the public process on station consolidation, although I have heard more rumors of it brewing lately. There has been no movement on the signal priority front, despite its great potential, and despite the fact that Huntington Ave is fully modernized and ready to go anytime the T wants to try (unlike Comm Ave). And all-door boarding/proof-of-payment seems to have disappeared off the agenda entirely, although it has huge potential for accessibility and schedule-keeping improvement.

Commonwealth Ave reconstruction phases
For this year, I think we can do better. Phase 2A of the Comm Ave rebuild is going to be funded starting in October, and that will open up all kinds of possibilities, because it involves reconstructing a segment of the "B" branch that has the most closely spaced stations. I would say that the items we need to focus on pushing the MBTA to consider are:

  • Station consolidation, as described in this blog post. We need to bring the station spacing up to modern standards, which is closer to 1200-1400 feet than the current 725 feet. This will help improve speeds and simplify operations. It also reduces the number of stations the MBTA has to bring up to ADA standards, and it also frees up space for use by pedestrians and bicyclists on Comm Ave.
  • Signal priority to help reduce the schedule unreliability caused by capricious traffic signalization. This does not have to be as preemptive as Houston's in order to have a positive effect, although it would be appreciated!
  • All door boarding, if not full blown proof-of-payment. There's a few ways to go about this that don't require proof-of-payment to be implemented. For example, fare inspectors could stand in the back of random Green Line cars and ask to see the pass of anyone who steps in the rear. I know this is feasible because they used to do it on a regular basis! In the future, I think the T would be best served by implementing MUNI-style proof-of-payment, though, which basically is cash-up-front and CharlieCards-at-all-doors. Then the T should also encourage the purchase of monthly/weekly passes as much as possible. This approach is the best for both revenue protection and schedule protection, in my opinion.
  • Easy access to stations and platforms. Unfortunately, the MBTA has a terrible habit of destroying accessibility whenever they "modernize" a station. If you look at the rebuilt stations on the Green Line, many of them are harder for a pedestrian to access than the older asphalt strips. So, while they abide by the ADA legal requirements, they do so in a manner that is as obnoxious as possible. This is insane. The MBTA needs to recognize that station access time is part of every rider's journey, and optimizing it is just as important as getting signal priority or other improvements done right. In short: every MBTA platform should have at least two exits/entrances: one at either end of the platform, with crosswalks (signalized or not) to the sidewalk. Walking to the station from any direction should be achievable with as straight-line a path as reasonably possible. Nobody should ever be forced to walk 200 yards out of their way to access a station because of a stupidly placed fence. That's valuable minutes wasted (and even worse for seniors or the disabled) that could determine whether someone misses a train, or even bothers to ride at all!

The Commonwealth Ave jail: the punishment inflicted by the MBTA on riders
My suggestions spring from a simple philosophy: riding the Green Line should be as easy, accessible, and reliable as possible. Everything I advocate for comes from that principle. I know that people like to dump on the Green Line, but it actually has a lot of potential that is simply wasted by the MBTA. Fact is, the Green Line has a major advantage over buses and streetcars: it has dedicated lanes (mostly). And the Green Line has a major advantage over subways and elevated trains: it is on the surface, which should make access easy if the MBTA would only allow it, no stairs nor elevators required! If you consider door-to-door journey time, then with signal priority, all-door boarding, and station consolidation combined with convenient station accessibility, the Green Line could be quite competitive with full blown subways.

I hope that people will show up on May 28th and advocate positively for improvements to the Green Line; improvements that will truly benefit the 30,000+ people who ride it every day. You are welcome to use any of my suggestions, and I look forward to hearing some of yours as well.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Is Houston more progressive than Boston in transportation?

Okay, gotcha: not really, it's still very much a land of sprawl and crazy-large highways. But I read this article last month and then had a chance to see some of it for myself.
In fact, Houston's core neighborhoods grew around a 90-mile streetcar system, and the city has a higher WalkScore than Austin. "Houston is amazingly more progressive and more concerned about things like quality of life, walkable neighborhoods, and bike infrastructure than people realize," says Susan Rogers, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston.
After visiting, I have to concur, although they do seem to have a long way to go yet. I had to drive myself more in those two days than I did in the last two years combined (or more). I want to talk about one technical area in which Houston is doing significantly better than Boston: at-grade transit.

METRORail at Fannin South station
METRO's light rail line is just over ten years old so it does not have the venerability of Boston's Green Line. It does, however, have a lot of details implemented correctly, and it shows. I was able to ride it one evening, to get dinner downtown, and I made some observations along the way.

METRORail opened as a 7.5 mile line in 2003 and has just been extended another 5.3 miles in December for a total of 12.8 miles. It is almost entirely at-grade, although there are a few places where it ducks under or flies over other roads and infrastructure. Here's the main points that it does really well:

  • Signal priority or outright preemption at every single intersection it crosses. As the train approaches, lights flash, traffic signals change, and a sign lights up telling drivers to get out of the way of the train. In some cases, they use railroad crossing arms, in other cases, just ordinary traffic signals.
  • Proof of Payment ticketing with modern, touchless fare card technology. I got a "Day Pass" and boarding was as simple as waving my card at a box on the platform, then hopping onboard using any door I wanted. Dwell times were consistently low, approximately 20 seconds per stop before we started moving again. Accessibility is great.
  • Decent station spacing. Actually, average spacing is about 1/2 mile, which is a bit far, but there is some significant variability in that. The denser areas have shorter station gaps. At least one infill station is planned, Central Station, to assist with the upcoming expansion projects.
  • A transit mall downtown, where private vehicular traffic was limited or excluded. The train had clearly been prioritized over the automobile in terms of space.
  • Automatic cap on fare paid per day: with the "Day Pass" I pay $1.25 for the first trip, $1.25 for the second trip, $0.50 for the third trip, and nothing for all remaining trips of the day. The MBTA's Day Pass is $11.00, almost thoroughly useless, unless you are sure that you are taking more than 5 trips that day.
  • Houston did not feel the "need" to put an awful fence down the middle of the entire right-of-way, which is a big difference from the way Boston's transportation agencies treat us ordinary folks on foot.
The result is that Houston's METRORail has a one way trip time of 50 minutes meaning that it manages a respectable and reliable average speed of 15 mph without the help of expensive grade separation. By comparison, according to the published schedule, or Blue Book:
  • Boston's Green Line "B" plods along at about 8-9 mph on average, unreliably.
  • The "C" branch goes 8-11 mph depending on time of day.
  • The "D" branch, almost fully grade separated, manages to average 15-18 mph.
  • The "E" branch does 9-12 mph, on the schedule.
  • The SL5 "bus rapid transit" goes 8-10 mph as scheduled, and is slower in reality.
  • The heavy rail portions of the MBTA average 19.4 mph in general, and
  • The NYC subway system averages 17.4 mph overall.
Through sheer operational competence, Houston has managed to create a surface transit line, crossing many intersections at-grade, that is time and reliability-competitive with expensive grade-separated subways. Very impressive. This is an accomplishment of which the city should be very proud.

And it doesn't end there. Apparently, the original line was constructed for about $325 million in 2003 (including purchase of trains). That's about $50 million / mile in today's dollars. It has achieved approximately 36,000 rides per day, making it the 2nd busiest per-mile in the country. And at $9,000/daily boarding, it's a bargain in human terms.

So while Houston will never match Boston as a city in my view (although I wish them the best), I think we could really stand to learn quite a bit from METRO. Houston is supposedly the home of highway-centric thinking, and yet, they have a gem of a light rail line that could be held up as a model for the entire country. It's good transit in a red state, done cost effectively and operationally efficiently. METRO went up against what must have been an extremely strong motorist lobby... and won. Meanwhile, here in Boston, where we are supposedly so public transit friendly, we can't even get our city to support signal priority, all door boarding, or even respect a bus lane. What is wrong with us? Why are our public officials so cowardly? What are they afraid of? It cannot possibly be worse than the Texas Dept of Transportation.