Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Epic Journey Across Ruggles Street at Southwest Corridor Park

I've been gathering footage around town with my digital camera. Here's my first attempt at creating a video, about a poorly-timed signalized crosswalk near Ruggles Station:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Might does not make right

Years ago, when I was learning how to drive, my mother made sure to emphasize the fact that a motor vehicle is a lethal weapon. Nearly two tons of steel and plastic, moving at speed, is dangerous when misused or mishandled. That's not cause to be passive, but rather, to be cognizant of the consequences and continually vigilant. As a teenager, it was easy to get excited about the new power available to me, while not considering the risks, nor giving thought to others in the world around me -- except as obstacles. And like most Americans, I managed to make it through those years without serious incident, despite some mistakes, with the help of a few lucky breaks here and there. Because I was okay personally, I didn't think much beyond that, at the time.

Having spent several years on walking, bicycling and transit advocacy, I have a different, "outside-the-windshield" perspective on these matters nowadays. The power of the motor vehicle I can still appreciate, but I can also see how it is too easily abused. With one barely perceptible pedal push, a driver can blast past a child waiting at a crosswalk, and hardly notice at all. Or seeing brake lights ahead, a driver swerves to pass the one car that had yielded, and barely skims past a person crossing the street. The noise, grit, and grime caused by the passage of fast-moving motor vehicles is out-of-sight, out-of-mind to those drivers that create it. Even if nobody is physically harmed, the physical characteristics of living environments that facilitate speeding, heavy vehicles are unfriendly to human beings.

To behave humanely behind the wheel takes hard work, and a commitment to consider the other people around you. "Might does not make right" is the ethical principle that I believe is most applicable to transportation projects in our cities and towns. My feeling is that we have an obligation to protect the vulnerable from the powerful, and not only to protect, but to promote and serve. That is what forms the ethical basis of what I try to do.

The coalition of people who promote automobile interests are usually very strong, very rich, and very powerful. Motor vehicles are expensive to own, to maintain, and are highly wasteful of space. Any available room on the roads is quickly consumed by even a small increase in the number of vehicles. The resulting congestion can be enraging to drivers, as their expensive and powerful machines are trapped in a mire of their own making. At both home and destinations, without a readily accessible 300 square-foot piece of land for storage, these machines become a enormous burden on their owners, who then proceed to lash out in frustration.

Automobiles can provide convenient and quick transportation when everything works out, but when the systems quite frequently fail, the problems that stack up are often 'solved' at the expense of other people, especially the most vulnerable. Sidewalks are narrowed. Trees are cut down. Crosswalks eliminated. Bike facilities are completely omitted. Fences are put up. Transit is dis-invested. Highways are blasted through neighborhoods. Children aren't allowed to walk to school, or the park. Desperately needed housing development is canceled for imagined fear of "parking problems." Economic growth is stifled because "it might cause traffic." We can no longer properly build cities for people because all of our modern rules and regulations are designed to produce cities that only a machine could love.

Motor vehicles are powerful, and many of the people who own them are powerful. Motor vehicles are also very useful, and are a great boon to our civilization when used safely and prudently, within reasonable limits. But that does not make it right to give in to their every need. Without check they would take away our land, our natural resources, and the quality of our air. Thankfully, over the past several decades, the work of countless citizens has produced some legislative and political help, through endless community organizing. It's a continuing effort, and it's very important that everyone participate. Being obstructive is not enough: a great deal of damage was done by the Utopian automobile idealists of the 1950s who never gave any thought to the communities that were harmed by their schemes. That damage has yet to be repaired in many cases.

To give a concrete example: on June 17th, MassDOT will present the latest installment in the ongoing saga to rebuild the Allston Mass Pike interchange (6:30 pm, Jackson-Mann school). Fifty years ago, the Mass Pike extension widened the railroad right-of-way, taking houses, and leaving behind a huge scar across the Allston/Brighton neighborhood that has never been properly managed. The crossings are decrepit and crumbling, and not accessible to many people with disabilities. The streets that were rebuilt back then were given designs that had almost no consideration for people on foot, much less on bicycle. Dangerous highway ramps cut in at sections that seem to be designed to interstate highway-spec, despite being city streets.

Some bike lanes were painted in an effort to try and do something, anything at all, but despite the well-meaning effort, the street remains a major problem.
Two years ago, the Patrick administration announced a project that had the potential to fix all kinds of problems with the interchange. A dangerous curve in the highway would be straightened. The old-fashioned tollbooths would be replaced with modern, automated systems. The whole mess of city streets left behind by the 1960s extension project could be reworked, finally reuniting North Allston with south, and building a whole new neighborhood in between. And to top it off, a new 'West Station' on the Worcester line would finally give Allston back a railroad station somewhat near the site of the original station around which the community was founded.

But it seems that potential is being squandered. Despite months of community engagement and a professed commitment to "multi-modal thinking", the design team went off for the winter and nothing came out until finally this June meeting was announced with this plan shown, that seems to have more space allocated to roadway than non-roadway:

In the past year, the DOT design team told us often that they "don't do city planning" and it appears that they don't intend anyone else to do so either. It's hard to imagine anything neighborly fitting between those massive connectors (that will rise on earthen berms above grade, by the way). West Station is included, but can you imagine making the connection to or through that while walking precariously on a pathway above 10-12 lanes of roaring highway and some number of railyard tracks? This design is a highway design, engineered for the comfort of drivers first, and everyone else second. Yes, it's an improvement over the old ways, in that it will all satisfy accessibility regulations, and there are connected sidewalks and protected bike lanes. But with this car-first design, it seems that those facilities will only be used by necessity, not by choice.

We have often been told that "the computer models" require this many lanes, or that size an intersection, etc. The models, of course, have been programmed by engineers to try and predict the future. They say that they can tell us what the behavior of people in the year 2035 will be, with precision. They will tell us that unless they build all of this road space, we will be threatened by some kind of 'traffic armageddon'. It's a bullying tactic, plain and simple. Common sense should tell anyone that trying to predict the future is impossible, much less making precise predictions about conditions on a particular road 20 years from now. The models that they create are nothing but a set of equations and parameters chosen by the people who designed it. These models are as fallible as the people behind them, and can be used to say anything at all. Usually, they are used to say whatever it is the people who hired the modelers want them to say.

In this case, the powerful have spoken, and they have said that they want more automobile capacity in our neighborhood, at our expense. Whenever you hear an engineer say "the models predict increased traffic by X" what you should translate that to is "automobile interests want increased capacity by X, and nothing else matters."

Let's contrast this situation with what it might be like if MassDOT took the other side and tried to help provide space for a new neighborhood with good connections to the surroundings. Then the street network would be laid out at a human scale, with smaller blocks, smaller streets, and a collaboration with city planners in Boston. When it came time to talk about automobile capacity, instead of sending us an ultimatum that "we must tolerate a massive additional influx of vehicles or else", they would calculate the maximum capacity that is compatible with the city planning goals, and work to keep demand for the highway under that level. For example, perhaps it could be considered that commuter bus or train tickets should not be more expensive than paying the toll on the highway. Or that all employers that offer parking benefits must also offer 'parking cash-out' as a benefit for people who chose not to drive.

The reason that this way of working is so tough for them to do, politically, is because it requires that they go to the powerful automobile-promoting interests and tell them: there is a limit, and beyond that, demand for the road is going to have to be managed somehow. An ever-increasing level of traffic on the Mass Pike is not an inevitability. That will only happen so long as more capacity is forced on us, so long as officials are too timid to use the tools of transportation demand management to control the problem at its source, and so long as might makes the right-of-way.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Happy 115th birthday to the Green Line "B" branch, and thoughts on the future

Commonwealth Ave when it was provisionally named 'Massachusetts Ave' in 1885 (source)
The section of Commonwealth Avenue between Packard's Corner and Chestnut Hill Avenue was largely built in the 1890s. Trolley service along this relatively new stretch of Comm Ave began May 26th, 1900. Prior to that, service to Lake Street typically ran via Beacon Street and Chestnut Hill Avenue.

Construction of Comm Ave near Lake Street (source)

Trolley service near Wallingford Road, in the early years (source)

A description of a journey that was published in 1904:
From the Newton line, by taking a Commonwealth Avenue car, another attractive ride is afforded for the return journey. The car turns off to the left and runs through a delightful combination of city and country until it reaches the Brighton junction, off to the left being the links of the Kenilworth Golf Club. At Pleasant Street, on the left, may be seen the links of the Allston Golf Club, and one of the most picturesque county clubhouses in the country is visible across a little pond. The car comes back into Beacon Street again after passing Cottage Farm station

Yes, it existed: the Allston Golf Club house (source)
Tudor Manor, 1930 (source)
The electric streetcar service would eventually attract the transit-oriented development of the avenue that we see today, with large, graceful apartment buildings of various styles from the early to mid-twentieth century. Sadly, the current zoning code (from 1990) has chosen for aesthetic reasons to retroactively ban these kind of apartment buildings, and so none of them could be built today without many variances. That's a strange policy to maintain in a city that is ostensibly trying to generate housing units that are attainable to people of middle-class means.

Comm Ave near Allston Street, present day

1958 view from near Washington Street, during road-widening construction (source)

Snow didn't stop them in 1938, near Warren Street (source)
I was fortunate enough to view a presentation on the history of Comm Ave last year but it was not until recently that the slides and pictures were made available on-line. For more of these pictures and history, please visit the website.

What we now call the Green Line "B" branch has gone through many changes over the years. Obviously when the MBTA was formed, the rebranding changed it from merely having a streetcar number into being integrated as part of the color-coded 'rapid transit' map (sadly, while not really improving service). The reservation has been shifted towards the center as part of road-widening efforts in the 1950s and the 1970s, resulting in the awkward intersection at Warren Street, where work ceased. The trolleys gave way to big 'light rail vehicles' that now carry approximately 30,000 passengers a day, averaging a snail-like 6-10 mph due to overcrowding and degrading infrastructure. The stations have not seen much in the way of upgrades, either, largely remaining as tiny asphalt strips with the occasional concrete barrier or plastic shelter added.

Chestnut Hill Avenue station platform (for thin people only)

Looking down the hill

At times, many stops were eliminated or consolidated, most recently about ten years ago, when Mt Hood Rd, Summit Ave, Greycliff Rd, and Fordham Rd were permanently retired to help improve spacing. We're looking forward to having another four closely-spaced stations be consolidated into two appropriately-spaced, fully accessible stations. The T has promised us signal priority for years, and claims to be experimenting with it. We're still waiting for the use of all doors on the surface to help speed up boarding and alighting, as well as full accessibility for everyone.

As the twentieth century progressed, Comm Ave was turned more and more into an asphalt wasteland: big sections carved out for angled parking, with a few sickly looking trees inhabiting the neglected median islands that were left. The Green Line and its riders were largely disregarded, probably considered relics of the past that would be replaced by mass car ownership and buses. But the Green Line is a survivor. Despite how poorly it has been treated by the city and the MBTA, the "B" remains the busiest branch of the Green Line, and the surroundings remain highly transit-oriented, with some of the lowest car ownership rates outside of Boston proper.

We have an opportunity to change the future. The city is brewing up a design for what they call Comm Ave Phases 3 and 4. That covers the section of Comm Ave from Packard's Corner up to Warren and Kelton Streets. This is part of the section that was constructed in the 1890s, and it's 200 feet wide, a lot of space. Despite that, daily vehicle volumes are very low, about 12,000 ADT, a figure which is low enough that it could easily be handled even on a street with merely a single lane in each direction. Clearly, this should be a street designed for people. The city has claimed that they are going to do something to make the avenue much more friendly for walking, biking, and riding the Green Line. They claim that they will do something about the fact that there are extremely long intervals between crosswalks (and then those are also inaccessible to the disabled), with a fence blocking off part of Allston/Brighton from another. They claim that they can restore the idea of a Comm Ave 'greenway', an echo of its original conception, a park that connects from the Charles River to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. The 21st century version of Comm Ave could be a lot friendlier to the community. But only if we remember to show up and hold them to it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Median Zillow Rent Index per square foot in Boston and Cambridge

After seeing this article on BostInno I knew something was not quite right about their reporting. West Cambridge in the top 5 median rents? Brighton rents being a third less than any other neighborhood? Their charts use the median unit price data, which does not distinguish between different types of units. I downloaded the Zillow data myself and prepared a few charts of the Median Zillow Rent Index per square foot, which I believe produces a lot more sensible looking results. And in case you are curious, I have plotted all of the data available since 2010:

Here is the data for March 2015 in a sorted table:

Region Name City ZRI per SF
South Dorchester Boston 1.584
Mattapan Boston 1.69
West Roxbury Boston 1.708
Roxbury Boston 1.726
Roslindale Boston 1.762
Hyde Park Boston 1.78
North Dorchester Boston 1.878
East Boston Boston 2.038
West Cambridge Cambridge 2.11
Jamaica Plain Boston 2.128
Mission Hill Boston 2.22
North Cambridge Cambridge 2.22
Aggasiz - Harvard North Cambridge 2.27
The Port - Area 4 Cambridge 2.388
Cambridgeport Cambridge 2.502
Wellington-Harrington Cambridge 2.524
Peabody Cambridge 2.546
Brighton Boston 2.652
Riverside Cambridge 2.654
Charlestown Boston 2.666
South Boston Boston 2.684
Allston Boston 2.702
Mid-Cambridge Cambridge 2.868
East Cambridge Cambridge 2.918
West End Boston 3.094
Downtown Boston 3.258
South End Boston 3.276
North End Boston 3.462
Back Bay Boston 3.512
Chinatown Boston 3.622
Kenmore Boston 3.658
Beacon Hill Boston 3.726
Fenway Boston 4.144

I hope that this is more useful than the BostInno presentation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Two charts showing development in Boston over the decades

I've been playing around with the Assessing data from the city of Boston, here are a couple of charts to start. First, a summary by decade of the total amount of gross floor area, living area, and parcel land developed:

Second, the corresponding Floor Area Ratio (gross floor area divided by land area) of all properties built within each decade:

It's important to remember that the Assessing data only contains properties that continue to exist to this day, so anything demolished would not be recognized in this data set. I also noticed that in older properties, year of construction was sometimes rounded off to the nearest decade. And it's possible there are other errors. I had to correct a few more egregious and obvious ones (like fields being swapped), but more subtle errors could sneak by. Condos are handled by summing up the gross floor space for each unit and linking it to the land area used up by the overall building.

Without spending too much time on analysis (that's for later), I'll note that we live in a turn-of-the-twentieth century city: most of the floor space created and still existing seems to have occurred between 1890 and 1930. The 1930s and 1940s had some fairly obvious reasons for a lull, but construction never really picked back up afterwards at the same rate. My hypothesis: Zoning in its modern form was enacted in the mid-1950s, which has put a heavy damper on construction ever since.

The FAR chart shows that development generally hovered around 1.0 floor area to land area, but started to drop precipitously after 1930, until finally tanking at a miserable 0.21 during the 1960s. Although the amount of floor space developed increased from the 1950s into the 1960s, the amount of land area consumed zoomed up even higher.  Zoning could explain some of it, but it's not clear to me why the 1960s are such an outlier in terms of land area consumed. (Turns out it was MassPort's harbor holdings, at 101 million s.f., which I have cut out from the data). By the 1970s, overall floor area ratios returned to a more historically normal average of 1.0 or so. More recently, overall construction averages have exceeded 1.5 FAR, albeit using incomplete data for this decade.

For the curious reader, here is the result of summing over all the parcels in the database:

  • Boston parcels gross area: 651,202,719 s.f.
  • Boston parcels land area: 1,268,597,774 s.f.
  • Boston parcels FAR: 0.51

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's not so easy to re-route buses in Boston

The Boston Globe ran an editorial today calling for the MBTA to radically re-examine its bus routes:
If Charlie Baker wants to find inexpensive ways to improve the T, he might consider one fact: In 1954 — two years before he was born — the 34 bus ran from Forest Hills, down Washington Street past Roslindale, and onward to the Dedham line. 
In 2015, it still does.
The map of where the T runs its buses would appear to be etched in stone: In some cases, today’s MBTA buses are still running along the same routes as the trolleys that preceded them. Yet the city surrounding those buses is unrecognizable, with huge population shifts and the emergence of whole new employment centers.
That sounds like one of those "smart managerial" pieces of advice, but in fact, it's mostly bullshit. I'll go into why later, but first I will mention a few things that should be done with the buses to make them run better:
  • Dedicated bus lanes
  • All-door boarding, all the time
  • Signal priority
  • Queue-jump lanes where needed
  • Further stop consolidation where appropriate
  • Upgrade to full accessibility everywhere
  • Clean-up of confusing numbering or naming
  • Well-targeted re-routings that either clean up twisty "coverage" routes or,
  • Provide better routes through and into bus hubs and major stations like Dudley.
However, instead of promoting those ideas, for whatever reason, the Globe editorial aimed directly at the 34 on Washington Street. A re-routing of that bus makes little to no sense whatsoever. They want a study? I'll do a study for free, with help from you, the reader. Let's take a look at Washington Street in Roslindale:

Go ahead, zoom in and out, follow it along. What will you see? There are no parallel streets to Washington Street in Roslindale! In fact, the 34, along with a whole host of other buses along Washington Street, follows a straight line, the only possible one. Actually, as far as route geometry goes, it's nearly ideal. So if I may quote Jarrett Walker, the 34 is already mostly as good as it gets, geometrically-speaking: "An efficient transit line -- and hence one that will support good service -- connects multiple points but is also reasonably straight so that it's perceived as a direct route between any two points on the line." The 34 itself is nearly perfectly a straight line, and it serves a street that is nearly perfectly a straight line.

The companion route 34E continues that straight line, except to diverge at one point for the Dedham Mall. And at the point where it diverges to serve that suburban mall, it turns out that it's really difficult politically to do anything about that. But the problem there is that a suburban mall like that is nearly impossible to serve well with transit. The error lies with the land use, not with the bus planning, which is trying to make the best out of a mess. I'd support a re-routing that gets the 34E out of the Dedham Mall if that were possible. But that goes to my point above: a targeted re-routing. There's simply no way to take the 34/34E off of Washington Street itself because there are no alternatives. And a whole century's worth of development has taken place with the idea of there being frequent service along Washington Street. That's nothing to scoff at. That's simply how Boston has developed.

Now you could reasonably argue that perhaps the 34/34E just needs to be folded into a more comprehensive scheme of naming and numbering the various routes that ply Washington Street in Roslindale. It's a confusing soup of routes, and probably the busiest bus corridor that is not designated on any key bus route, a fact that is a travesty. You could also probably reasonably argue that Washington Street needs more buses, as well as the various street improvements that I described above. That's all good. But that's not what the Globe editorial called for:
While the T often changes the frequency of buses, treating the routes themselves as sacrosanct is a recipe for inefficiency. To make sure the T is maximizing the value of its buses and drivers, the agency should imagine how the map would look if it were building a Boston bus network from scratch, based on today’s population and economy — not that of 1954 or 1912.
First of all, the MBTA needs to do a bus service planning process update. It hasn't had the funding to do so in a few years. Getting that done is a good idea! But it won't involve re-routing buses, so apparently, that's not good enough for the Globe. Instead they'd rather have the T spend money on a study that can only come to one conclusion: that there's no alternative to Washington Street for the 34/34E. That's wasteful.

The problem, more generally

I promised earlier that I would describe why Boston's street network makes the bus re-routing style of optimization that was accomplished in other cities much harder here. Not always impossible, but of much more questionable value, especially for the really heavy workhorse routes. You could probably find some changes in a meandering route like the 51, but that's small potatoes. No, the reason that Boston's bus network largely follows the streetcar routings of a century ago has to do with the way Boston developed: as an amalgamated set of Streetcar Suburbs.

At this point, some folks might say: "Oh Boston, all those cow-paths!" Well that's a cute but apocryphal story. And it's not the part of Boston that I'm concerned with right now. The downtown streets that were laid out in the 17th and 18th centuries are wonderful, great, and not really plied by many buses at all. The streets of the Back Bay are mid-19th century and still follow that nice, connected, pre-streetcar pattern. But once you get outside of Boston proper, into the territories that were annexed in the late 19th century, into the portions that were really built by the streetcar, things change. Let's take a look:

This section of Blue Hill Ave was once served by the "29" streetcar but is now served primarily by the key bus route 28. If I may summarize the story of "Streetcar Suburbs" very quickly and very broadly: These suburbs were laid out by developers interested in maximizing their investment by providing streetcar access to as many homes as possible. The streets were often privately built and "donated" to the town/city later. What mainly characterizes these streets is the long blocks that feed primarily into a single, wide avenue where the streetcar ran, moderated by hills and valleys. The result was a kind of "hierarchy" of streets that would later be taken to extremes by auto-centric suburban planning, but at this point in history was merely a result of trying to maximize investment in the streetcar adjacent plots of land.

What you should notice right away, again, is that: there are no efficient alternative routings. This is not a freak accident. It's a very, very common pattern throughout Boston's inner streetcar suburbs. I actually brought this up at the YPT event with Jeff Speck, if anyone happened to be there, and it's an endlessly frustrating quirk of a large number of Boston's neighborhoods that impacts us in many ways other than bus routings. Besides Blue Hill Ave and Seaver Street, there's Columbus Ave and Tremont Street, Warren Street, Washington Street (Roxbury, Dorchester, South End, Roslindale, and Brighton editions!), Dorchester Ave, Columbia Road, Huntington Ave and South Huntington/Centre/South, Massachusetts Ave, Beacon Street, and Commonwealth Ave. I'm sure you could name more. These are all streets that were built in neighborhoods that have all traffic (foot and vehicular) funneled onto them. Intentionally. And there are not any easy alternatives, especially when dealing with heavy buses that shouldn't be making awkward turns onto small side streets.

The Boston Elevated Railway company understood this. That's why their version of Boston's streetcar network was based around the idea of hub-and-spoke: feeding the surface lines into big hubs around rapid transit stations. Now, Jarrett Walker's great idea in many other cities is to take a bunch of duplicative, one-seat-ride-style routes, and to reform them into a more powerful grid using connections. But Boston's surface line system is already based around the concept of using connections: to the rapid transit network, and also to each other. Yes, it's not a grid in the sense of San Francisco, but Boston doesn't have a grid of streets. It doesn't even have good connectivity of streets, outside of the core. That's why the rapid transit lines have been so important and are so heavily used in proportion to city size: because they cut through the web.

These are the major surface lines on the Boston bus network today, frequency-mapped [full-size]
The surface line network is a web of routes woven onto a set of rapid transit points. The buses largely follow the streetcar network because the streetcars built the streets in the first place. And those same streetcars laid out the development patterns in the 19th century that we still live with today. I live in a building that was erected in 1895. Most people in Boston live in buildings that are over 70 years old. That's no accident. When zoning was legalized and authorized in the 1950s, it basically squelched small, incremental redevelopment. That's one reason why we still have single-story retail. It's also one reason why most of us still live in the same places (often the same buildings) and follow the same patterns that people of a hundred years ago did. The other major reason is path-dependency: it's hard to change things that thousands of people depend upon. Such changes often came about because of massive mega-projects, and often for the worst reasons.

Change does happen

I just spent a lot of time explaining why it's hard to change bus routes in Boston. But now I will offer some examples of where change does happen. First of all, I have to be thankful for the existence of the Transit History Roster of the MBTA. Now, let's take a look at the kind of changes that we see. The 1 actually provides a good example straight away: "This route was created in September 1962 by merging Routes 76 Harvard-Mass. Station and 47 Mass. Station-Dudley." Not really a re-route, just a through-routing that was probably happening anyway for equipment management reasons. Or maybe because the trolley barn on Newbury was being closed.

Let's look at a route created in the MBTA era: 47 "This route was initiated as a brand-new Monday-Friday only cross-town service in April 1972. The route traveled in new territory between Kenmore Sq. and Dudley via Brookline Ave, Longwood Ave, Huntington Ave, Ruggles St. and Shawmut Ave." Obviously there have been further changes to the route since then, and if you go to page 190, you can read the gory details. The 47 was created in 1972 to serve one of the "new economy" nodes that the Globe crows about: Longwood Medical Area. And it is well-used, in my experience, being packed to the brim. It needs higher frequency. It needs bus lanes. It does have a few jogs that I find to be obnoxious: The U-shape it makes inside of Longwood; the loop around Ruggles; the in-and-out it does to serve Dudley. But you cannot eliminate those jogs without annoying key constituencies. Longwood, Ruggles, and Dudley are important nodes. It's really not clear how the 47 could be better routed while still serving those nodes. I bet some clever street reconfiguration could make it a lot less painful, however.

The problem that Longwood has always had, and the 47 is only a band-aide, is that it was built up in a bit of a transit dead-spot. The "D" and "E" branches of the Green Line tangentially glance off of it. Those stations are heavily used by LMA workers, despite the walk, which is great. But barring the sudden appearance of $10 billion from the sky, to dig a tunnel, the LMA will never have the same kind of powerful, frequent radial transit that the Back Bay enjoys, for example. There's some hope for the Urban Ring to descend upon us and provide a real upgrade to the 47, but I'm skeptical about it ever happening. That's another article, for another time, though.

A major change happened when the Southwest Corridor was opened and the Orange Line was moved from Washington Street. Many buses had to be rearranged slightly to connect with Ruggles Station instead of or as well as Dudley. In fact, key bus route 28 was created out of pieces of two former streetcar routes at this time, and extended to serve Ruggles. The resulting route is approximately as direct a path as you can get between Mattapan, Dudley, and Ruggles, and it also happens to pick up right in front of Roxbury Community College. It's hard to imagine what other routing could accomplish so much. It's already one of the top buses in the system, by ridership. What it needs is dedicated bus lanes, signal priority, and all-door boarding. Yes, it's possible that the 28X package that was offered up a few years ago could have achieved some of that. I wasn't involved so I don't know first-hand what went wrong. But I've heard second-hand that the reason it failed was that it was shoved suddenly and heavy-handedly, from the top-down, on a riding community that was wary of changes arriving in such a manner. Much like the Melnea Cass BRT plan from two years ago that was roundly rejected. What this teaches us is that bus routes are political topics and it's important not to approach them from a purely technocratic viewpoint, as much as such technical ideas are useful for steering the conversation.

A commission to "re-examine bus routes from scratch" would be stirring up a hornet's nest for very little gain. Maybe some twisty routes like the 51 could be rejiggered. But we're not going to be cutting new streets through existing neighborhoods anytime soon, I hope. A committee to examine the routing of the 34 bus on Washington Street (Roslindale) is going to come back with same result every time: keep it on Washington Street, duh. The 77 should stay on Mass Ave (and no, the Red Line extension to Alewife did not eliminate the need for the 77 to Harvard!). Blue Hill Ave south of Grove Hall needs to be served with lots of buses. That's not going to change. What might change the bus network is the opening of the most recent rapid transit line to be built: the Green Line Extension. But how that will change things remains to be seen.

Instead of wasting time debating the routing of the 34, the 28 or the 77, we should be focusing our resources on getting bus lanes, signal priority, full accessibility, all-door boarding, more efficient routes through stations, clearer route information, more buses, more service, and the like. We should be clear about the goals of various bus routes, whether it be "Coverage" or "Ridership". Some of this could happen through the supposedly 'biennial' service planning process, if it were funded again. And some of it requires coordination with the city of Boston and the various other municipalities in the area. Perhaps the new "future focused transportation improvements" policies from the city are an indication of changes to come.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Self-checkout" for passengers boarding trains and buses

While walking to the supermarket today, I passed by a trolley boarding a line of riders, at a station platform. One person would step up to the top stair, pay the $2.10 fare, and go inside. Then the line would slowly move along, trudging through the wind and snow.

At the supermarket, I collected my food and items, went to the self-checkout aisle, rang up $33, and paid it. I took my receipt, my bags, and went home. All of this accomplished without any waiting on line, nor with any interaction by a store employee.

As I was walking out the door, I realized how bizarre the difference was: I could be trusted to ring up and pay for $33 of assorted items at the supermarket, but not a $2.10 trolley ticket nor a $1.60 bus ticket. And that's hardly unusual. Many retail businesses have moved to the self-checkout model. It's a natural way of cutting costs and speeding up service, especially in the modern era. Yet, the MBTA continues to waste money, and everyone's time, delaying trains at stations while riders slowly file through a single door.

The stakes are higher for the T than for a retail shop. Delays to a transit vehicle add up and propagate. The long line at the station platform translates to a train that's late. Bunching gets worse. Lines get longer. The average speed of the system drops below 7 mph. Riders get antsy. Half-hour trips stretch out into an hour. People can't get on or off the vehicle easily anymore, while the driver hoarsely shouts "move to the rear!"

Wouldn't it make much more sense to use all the doors for boarding and alighting? The rear doors on the trolleys are wider as well. The newer ones have floors that are level with the platform, making it much easier for people with disabilities. Reduce delays, improve quality of service, help people with disabilities. Win, win, win.

In fact, it's such a good idea, that in San Francisco, the local agency MUNI decided to transition to all-door boarding on all of their vehicles. In the past, I have commented on my experience with MUNI's all-door boarding system. MUNI has a lot in common with the MBTA: an extensive subway-surface trolley network that uses light-rail vehicles nowadays, and many connecting buses.

Recently, MUNI released a report on their experience allowing all-door boarding of buses and trolleys system-wide. It has been a great success. The MUNI report identified three key findings:
  • Shorter Stops – Legalizing All-Door Boarding has encouraged boarding customers to distribute themselves more evenly between the front and rear doors, thereby reducing average dwell times. Pre- and post-implementation surveys at busy Muni stops found average reductions of 1.5 seconds (38%) per customer entry or exit. All-Door Boarding also has improved dwell time consistency and lowered variability, an important factor in helping reduce vehicle bunches and gaps and making service more reliable and predictable.
  • Faster Trips – From FY 2010-2011 through FY 2013-2014, average bus system speeds (including stops) improved modestly from 8.41 to 8.56 mph (2%). All-Door Boarding has helped keep Muni moving during a period of rapid growth in San Francisco and increasing demand on the transportation system. All-Door Boarding is just one of many tools such as exclusive transit lanes, transit signal priority and parking management that together can help reduce travel time.
  • Improved Fare Compliance – A series of four fare surveys between 2009 and 2014 indicate that fare compliance continues to improve. The fare evasion rate has decreased from 9.5% to 7.9% over five years and the estimated uncaptured revenue due to fare evasion has dropped from $19.2 million to $17.1 million.
I hear that, especially after this winter, the MBTA is looking for opportunities to do more with less. How about a method that is proven to improve reliability, reduce costs, and generate positive cash flow? What are they waiting for!?

And, why not do exclusive transit lanes, signal priority and parking management as well, while they're at it. It looks like they have a willing partner in the city of Boston.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Comm Ave Phase 2A public meeting: Tuesday March 24th

March 24th, 6 p.m.
565 Commonwealth Ave (Kenmore Classroom Building)
Room 101

The city is holding their long-awaited Comm Ave Phase 2A public meeting on Tuesday. This deals with the segment of Comm Ave between Packard's Corner and the BU Bridge (non-inclusive). One of the biggest topics of contention has been whether or not the bike lanes would finally be fixed on Comm Ave to match the Boston Bike Network plan for having a protected bike lane on Comm Ave.

The status quo
Good news seems to be that they will be presenting some kind of protected bike lane option at the meeting, so that represents a major step forward for the city. The precise details remain to be seen.

Another one of the major problems on the street is the lack of a crosswalk at Alcorn Street and Naples Road. On one side is a densely populated residential area, on the other side is the neighborhood supermarket. Most people simply wait and cross the street over the tracks when clear. But, the engineers believe that people should be walking over 1,000 feet out of their way, traversing 6 extra traffic lanes and waiting through extra cycles of the traffic light, simply to get across the street. While carrying heavy bags. This is a clear case of a disconnect between the planning department -- who only see this street on paper -- and the people who live here.

Even in the heavy snowfall, people would still rather cross here than go around the long way.

So, while there has been a great deal of progress made on the design, compared to where it was 3 years ago, there is still some more to go.

Finally, I would like to mention that although the MBTA has finally put out a plan for much-needed station consolidation, it is not clear that they will be ready to go before the city starts the reconstruction project. That will put us in the absurd situation of rebuilding the street around the 4 old stations. Then, presumably, the MBTA will come along and cut those out, and rebuild 2 properly accessible stations, but at that point they will simply leave the old station locations as dead space. That's a terrible waste, and a lot of extra pain too -- as the time period of construction would be lengthened. It seems to make a lot more sense to simply get both projects done simultaneously, so that the new street doesn't have to waste space, and so that the station construction can proceed in parallel with the street reconstruction, in a fully integrated fashion.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The scourge of single-story retail

A curious pattern exists in Boston (I've also noticed it in other American cities). Neighborhoods that were primarily developed between 1890 and 1960 tend to have a lot of single-story retail. Oftentimes those retail shops are adjacent to multistory residential or office buildings, but the retail buildings themselves are single-story. Many of them are cheap boxes that look awful, while some of them do have decent architectural features that seem strangely out-of-place.

I'm sifting through some of my pre-snowpocalypse photographs for this post, so we can remember Boston as it once was.

The Fenway is a densely populated vibrant neighborhood with a strange dichotomy between retail buildings and residential buildings, like many other streetcar suburbs built around the same time.

Another example from the Fenway.

Double-whammy of bad 20th century planning: surface parking and single-story retail immediately adjacent to major Green Line station in Brighton.

Same place, across the street. Typical of Comm Ave, there's a strip of single-story retail adjacent to 5-story or more apartment buildings. Some parts of Comm Ave do have ground-floor retail below residential, but it's the exception, not the rule.

Union Square, Allston, with lots of great little shops and restaurants. But almost all of them are in single-story retail buildings. The tall building behind is from the 1980s, and does have a little bit of ground floor retail included, but is separate from most of the shops you see.

Single story retail from the early 20th century. But as you can see, it used to be a whole lot better. Nowadays the building is used for storage of automotive supplies, and the intersection is a motor vehicle-dominated nightmare. In 1889, the first electric trolley line in Boston departed from the Allston depot along those tracks. Now, the Allston depot is a pizzeria with a giant surface parking lot.
In the mid-1960s this theater was torn down to be replaced by a nearly featureless single-story retail building with surface parking out front. As the zoning regulations of the time would dictate.

Single-story retail in the center of Hyde Park's business district.
Single-story retail in triple-decker Dorchester, along Blue Hill Ave, where trolleys once roamed, and where frequent buses ply today.
Single-story retail and massive surface parking near Forest Hills, a major MBTA subway, bus and commuter rail station.
Single-story retail on Comm Ave next to a Green Line station.
Tall residential, short retail, MBTA station: Brookline is no exception.

In a city with an acute housing shortage, where space is at a premium, why do we allow so much waste to take place? It seems like there are hundreds of thousands of people who would like to be able to live in these neighborhoods with decent local shops, and in some cases, places that are only steps away from frequent MBTA service. Multistory buildings with ground floor shops and upstairs residences are not new in Boston -- they were quite commonly built in the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. The oldest neighborhoods in Boston: Beacon Hill, the North End, even the Back Bay, all have streets lined with buildings that have ground floor retail and homes above. Yet, starting around 1890 or so, it seems, some kind of insanity gripped America: suddenly, neighborhoods started being developed with apartment buildings on one block and single-story retail on another. Sometimes even on the same block.

I don't have a definitive answer, but there are several pieces in play:
  • The criminally incompetent, so-called "City Planning" movement started around the turn of the 20th century, and these new planners were notoriously blind to the actual sources of city vitality and diversity. In some cases, they were opposed to city life, and actively sought to destroy it. Records from the City Planning Board of Boston show that many early discussions focused around choosing which buildings to destroy in order to widen roads. No doubt, they probably saw mixed uses as being "messy" and falsely perceived them as a source of traffic congestion.
  • Property tax laws in this country can be counterproductive: they effectively penalize landowners who invest in their properties. In some cases, building owners may have chosen to cut down floors off their own buildings to save on tax expenses. In a sane world, such crazy outcomes would result in legislative self-examination and reform of the tax laws: for example, by repealing property taxes and replacing them with something less harmful like a land-value tax. In this world, well... no.
  • In New England (and NY) it was common to quickly erect buildings that became known as "taxpayers" in order to generate some value quickly for the land without much effort. These taxpayer buildings were just enough to house some retail and then got locked into place when zoning came into effect around the mid-1950s. Many of the featureless boxes plaguing our landscape seem to fall into this category, but there are also plenty of examples of single-story retail with the kind of fine architectural detailing that seems out-of-place on a taxpayer.
  • The economics of redevelopment seem to require a significant density boost in order to replace a revenue-generating property with a new one. If floors cannot simply be added to the top of the single-story building, and if the construction requires a shutdown of the business operating within, then the end result of construction has to be much taller than what previously existed. In the case of single-story successful retail, that probably means going up to 4-6 levels.
  • And this discussion wouldn't be complete without mentioning the nefarious effect of mid-20th century zoning regulations. It is quite possible that many single-story retail buildings were intended to be temporary. But once zoning kicked in, redevelopment -- already difficult -- became near impossible. The density boost required to make redevelopment financially palatable was now illegal or required expensive variance hearings. In many cases, even the existing property was made illegal by unreasonable zoning requirements that demanded excessive amounts of parking that simply could not be provided in a space-constrained city neighborhood.
So, as a result, we have a bunch of neighborhoods where, if you somehow transported some people from 1915 one hundred years into the future to 2015, they might ask: "Why do you still have all these same crummy, single-story buildings that existed in my time?" ... After, of course, catching up on the past hundred years of history.

If we are serious about tackling the problem of rising housing costs and creating a better, more vibrant city that is accessible to all, then we will need to find a way to deal with these squat, inefficient, single-story structures. I often hear people complain that Boston is space-constrained, that we don't have room for development. That's not really true, as there are too many vacant parcels. But there are also many underutilized parcels in locations that can easily support much more. The replacement of single-story buildings that are located adjacent to frequent transit ought to be a high priority for all of the cities and towns in the region.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Snow daze

Spotted this while passing through -- first snow of the year and it's still fun for bicicle snow man
Blizzard returns streets to people
Best way of getting around now
No revenue service, but trains clearing snow still need a second operator apparently!
A space taken by automobiles returned to the people for one day.

Headed for the hills
Second best way of getting around in the snow (after skiing)

Such a strong desire line @ Naples Rd that people climb mounds of snow to use it
Snow soccer in what is regularly a dangerous intersection
Walking is the dominant mode of transportation on Comm Ave
Even on the deteriorating highway overpass, with tiny sidewalks
Guess who the city doesn't care about!
I could not navigate this canyon
Not a flake on the ground for drivers, however!
The bus stop is starting to disappear beneath the mounds of snow
Beautiful nearly dry pavement for motorists -- slush for people walking.
Cambridge Street overpass of I-90 is even less friendly in a blizzard
Sidewalk's gone
All that remains of the Framingham line
That Kenmore Square crosswalk STILL hasn't been cleared out
Park your car on the sidewalk and avoid shoveling snow! City says: "No violation found" either.
Relics of civilization pasT
Ah screw it
The Green Line is canceled and now what?
Snow tracks
Free (illegal) parking deemed more important than transit
Let's build a mountain of snow on the tracks!
The mountain is moving faster than the Green Line: faster than zero
The 57 cannot handle the load even late at night
Naples Rd desire line strong as ever, no matter what
They're waiting for the shuttle bus that may never come