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.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Contrarianism gone wild: the over-hyping of a study about car access and poverty

It's good to consider different ideas and opinions that go against the usual thinking. But it really helps when those different ideas have at least an ounce of common sense or consideration for why they are not widely accepted. This recent study and article by Rolf Pendall, et al, is one such example. The authors found that housing voucher recipients who owned cars were more likely to retain employment and have better outcomes than recipients without cars. Not a terribly surprising or interesting result when considered in context as a correlation. But the authors seemed to have decided to get more juice out of it by slapping a controversial title on an article, "How Access to Cars Could Help the Poor", and then somehow implying that their study produced that result (while mincing words in the actual text). They also sucked in a journalist who really ought to know better, Emily Badger.

What's so bad about creating more car subsidies for the poor? Well, if you don't think any further, then it might be hard to find an objection. But anyone with a moment's thoughtfulness should ask this question: What about the young, the elderly, and the disabled?

Pushing and subsidizing cars just leads to worse conditions for the people who cannot drive; the people who are most often harmed by automobile-oriented policies. This so-called "solution" coming from Pendall and Badger is simply inequitable. Furthermore, it completely ignores the fact that we already give A LOT of subsidies for car ownership in this country, as it is. Cheap gas, cheap parking, free highways, etc. How is it possible that more subsidies are going to help? And what is the plan to help those who cannot drive at all?

Just look at what happens in other countries that accept subsidies and promote car ownership. It's more stark in countries that are not as rich as the United States, and where corruption rules. Mass motorization in the developing world is leading to nightmarish congestion, a hideous death toll, choking amounts of smog, and growing population that is being excluded from opportunity because they do not have a car or are unable to drive. Trying to force more cars onto people just exacerbates all these problems.

Deep in Pendall's article is buried this paragraph that walks back the headline assertion:
More research is needed to determine if the relationship is causal or associative, that is, whether the car is the catalyst or if there is something deeper at work, of which the car is simply one manifestation. Cars are expensive to purchase and to maintain, even more so for families with severely limited resources. A low-income household that is somehow able, inclined, or afforded the opportunity to buy a car might also do many other things to get ahead. Motivation, opportunity, or both could be key.
Well, guess what. It doesn't take a genius to realize that a family stranded in an automobile-oriented environment is going to benefit from an automobile. But the cause of that problem is the automobile-dependency of their neighborhood. And nothing you do to promote car ownership, or even car access, is going to help the third of our population here in America that simply cannot or should not drive.

Advocates trying to help people lift themselves out of poverty will no doubt consider all sorts of means. In some cases, that might include helping people gain access to vehicles. But it would be the incredibly irresponsible to lean on a general policy that depends upon getting everyone into a private vehicle. First, and foremost, it excludes a large segment of the population. Second, it is very expensive, a burden on both parties. And finally, it does not solve the actual problem: it is just a band-aid for the distressingly inhuman public space and transportation policies of the past.

Friday, April 4, 2014

More fun with maps: walksheds and transit lines

As a follow-up to my first look at the contest data, I have mapped the "transit walkshed" coordinates from the 37 Billion Mile contest. This one took a bit more doing since the shapes were linked only to the names of stations, and those names were formatted differently from the way the MBTA official data publishes them. So some "fuzzy" string matching was in order, plus hand tweaks.


The result is worth it, I think. It shows the rapid transit lines, the Silver Line, and some of the key bus route stop walksheds (others seem to be missing). They overlap quite a bit so the colors combine into intermediate shades. The walksheds seem to be streets within a 10 minute walk of the station stop, or so. It's interesting to compare the shapes in different locations, especially seeing the effects of different block sizes and connectivity levels on accessibility.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Friends of Government Center

In honor of the shutdown of Government Center, I present you a side-by-side comparison of scenes from "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973) and the same scenes, as close as I could get, in 2014.




Although it's neat to see the similarities after 40 years, it's in the sense that: "I cannot believe they left it like this for so long." I won't miss the old brick pimple, the tiny escalators, the cramped fare gate area, or the dirty walls. Government Center is a relic of an era when architects openly longed for the aesthetic of the Soviet Union. A time when it was desired to have design that intentionally repelled life, in order to crush people's spirits, and send them fleeing from the city. Good riddance to all that. Now: what to do about the oversized, desolate plaza and the concrete monstrosity next door...



(film scenes source: DVD of "The Friends of Eddie Coyle", Paramount Pictures)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A first look at the "37 billion mile" data challenge, with some maps

MAPC has put together a data set from MassDOT that consists of the entire Commonwealth's vehicle registration data (suitably anonymized), including odometer readings, and then summed it up in quarter-kilometer square blocks. I grabbed a copy of the data and plotted a few simple Google Fusion maps to check it out:


Household Vehicle Miles per Day

You can see that the data is presented in blocks that are 250 meters on a side. MAPC prepared an estimate of how many miles per day each household travels in one of their cars. That can range from zero, for households with no cars, all the way up to this one crazy person who apparently drives 646 miles per day. I have chosen a color scheme such that the miles driven is divided up into quintiles based on city of Boston map squares. A fifth of the Boston map squares fall into the category of "0 to 11.98 mi/day", the next fifth are "11.98 to 17.65", etc. Although the map shows regional data (and state-wide data is available in the complete set), I decided to focus the color scheme on Boston because I am most interested in the car-free and car-light households.


Vehicles per Household

The same largely goes for Vehicles per Household, which is obtained by taking the number of households in each map square and dividing it from the number of vehicles registered to an address in each map square. Note that "households" is defined as the number of households counted by Census 2010, and registered vehicles were geocoded into the various map squares but that process was not always successful. There have been some slight adjustments to the numbers, according to MAPC documentation, to account for the vehicles that could not be accurately pin-pointed. I will trust their models for now.



Car-free Household Percentage

The last one just highlights where the households with the least number of cars are found on the map. I don't think there are too many surprises here, especially for people familiar with my map based on Census/ACS data. The effect of the Green Line is pretty pronounced, it's easy to see the trace of Commonwealth Ave, Beacon Street, and Huntington/S. Huntington Aves. In fact, the abrupt end to blue-colored blocks just past Heath Street seem to indicate that the loss of the Arborway trolley has really taken a toll in terms of increased car ownership around Centre Street. Or maybe it was increased car ownership that led to the cutback. Another interesting pattern is around the new Fairmount/Indigo Line stations. Most of them seem to be near pockets of car-light or car-free households, even though the stations are relatively new. No doubt, that was a key motivation in the planning of the line.

Quick note on outliers: sometimes you may spot a square that is radically different from its surrounding squares. It could easily be a matter of small sample size, or just a local facility that is skewing the data. For example, a nursing home. Or the Four Seasons hotel, which seems to have about 170 vehicles registered between it and the Boston Public Garden. Sanity checks are always a good idea.