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.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The need for station consolidation on the MBTA "B" branch, in one chart


A little while back, BU put together a Transportation Master Plan that included some detailed ridership data about the MBTA Green Line "B" branch. I somehow missed this appendix while looking through their master plan in the past. Thanks go to Eric Fischer for alerting me to my oversight.

The data include hour-by-hour breakdown of boardings, alightings, and line volume (the number of people riding through) for each of the surface stations Blandford Street through Warren Street, taken on a Fall 2010 day. It occurred to me that a station's importance is related to the number of people who use it, versus the number of people who would prefer to ride past it. This is also tied to the relative proximity of the stations. Multiple, closely spaced stations will divide up potential ridership and therefore, will mutually reduce the importance of each such station.

The four stations in the scope of the upcoming Commonwealth Avenue Phase 2A street rebuilding project are very closely spaced. They are some of the most closely spaced stations in the entire system, as they are placed on four consecutive city blocks approximately 730 feet apart on average. That is a 2-3 minute leisurely walk between stations. Perhaps only Back of the Hill and Heath Street are closer.

The diagram above is drawn to scale, and it shows how the stations are spaced relative to one another. Above the station names is a bar graph which shows the relative importance of each station, as measured by the number of people who use the station (boarding, alighting) divided by the number of people who ride through the station. It should come as no surprise to any frequent user of the "B" branch that Harvard Avenue is the most important station, by far, and that the four least important stations are: Babcock Street, Pleasant Street, St Paul Street, and BU West; the last being the most underutilized.

I believe that this diagram makes a strong, visual case for station consolidation during the upcoming Phase 2A project, in addition to station relocation to better accommodate signal priority. I would like to see the MBTA begin a public process, much like they did ten years ago, to work on implementing efficient station spacing for this section of the Green Line.

In addition to improving the experience for about 30,000 people, a shorter round trip time will save resources for the MBTA. If the scheduled round trip time for a train can be reduced by 6 minutes, then that means one fewer train is needed to operate the same peak schedule. That train can then be put to better use in other ways: to split it into more 3-car trains, to help bring back 5 minute frequency, or to send it out for much needed maintenance.

Even more savings are available if the MBTA finally implements all-door boarding and transit signal priority, but that's another discussion.

A quick note on the gap between BU West and BU Central: that space is mostly occupied by the Mass Pike trench, currently. The overpass of the Pike will be reconfigured as part of Phase 2B, and then I believe that BU has some air rights projects in mind. If station consolidation is properly implemented in Phase 2A, and if BU ever builds over the Pike, then it may make sense in the future to relocate BU Central further west. But until then, the most pressing issue is figuring out how to fix the Green Line problems within the scope of Phase 2A.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Yawkey Station and Fenway Park events

The new Yawkey Station is set to officially open -- finally -- on March 10th. It's a pretty big improvement over the old asphalt strip. And it will get service commensurate with its design: every train will stop there, which is one more than Back Bay gets. But I feel like there is a missed opportunity here. Everyone who rides the Green Line knows that on game days, when nearly 40,000 fans descend upon Fenway Park, the T is completely stuffed. Baseball games typically start just after 7pm which coincides with the pm peak. If you make the mistake of trying to use the Green Line in the Central Subway between the hours of 5pm and 7pm on a game night, you may not be able to board. I am, of course, very pleased that so many citizens and visitors choose to use public transportation or walk to get to the baseball game. I would say that the majority of the attendees do so, and that is to the great credit of Red Sox nation and the city of Boston; unlike the lunar-like surroundings of many other cities' stadiums, Fenway Park is in a walkable place.


Not Fenway Park!


To continue to encourage this trend, the MBTA ought to be looking at opportunities to increase capacity: especially as the remaining surface parking lots get developed, finally. Fixing problems on the Green Line is welcome, certainly, but won't come cheap or easy. It needs a power system overhaul and new vehicles, just to keep up with burgeoning ridership. But those are multi-hundred-million dollar items. Now, they are putting the finishing touches on a commuter rail station adjacent to Fenway Park, intended to help serve Fenway Park and its vicinity, but will they run the service that is needed to make the investment work?

A typical weeknight baseball game begins at about 7:10pm and lasts about 3 hours. Except, this is the Red Sox, so you have to figure it might go to four hours. Weekend games are known to generally start at 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 8pm, or even 11am for the Patriots' Day game. The scheduled service is pretty miserably bad on the weekends (every 2-3 hours), so I will not focus on that too much.

Traveling from the west


The new schedule shows the following trips:
  • Train 528 departs Worcester at 4:40pm and arrives at Yawkey at 5:59pm
  • Train 530 departs Framingham at 5:15pm and arrives at Yawkey at 6:53pm
Those are usable for just about everyone with access to the Worcester/Framingham line, and they make every stop except for the three innermost Newton stops. Going home,
  • Train 543 departs Yawkey Station at 10:36pm
  • Train 545 departs Yawkey Station at 11:36pm and is the last train of the night
So, except for the very longest games, this could work. I did stay at one game, a few years back, until past 2am -- it happens -- but pretty much everyone who was time-constrained had left long before. From 7:10pm to 11:36pm is a 4:26 window but you have to factor about 20-30 minutes for people to escape from the Park itself at the end of games.

However, this kind of trip isn't very useful for decongesting the Central Subway. It's not a clear win over driving to Riverside ("D" branch) either, but that route gets pretty busy as well and there may be people looking for alternatives.

Traveling from the south side

This is where the new schedule had much more potential to take a load off of the Green Line and I think that it failed. The Green Line and the Worcester line are not exactly parallel, but they are close, and the Worcester line connects with the Orange Line, the Red Line, and numerous commuter rail lines. This could have offered an alternative travel path for many attendees, freeing up a bit of capacity on the Green Line.

Connecting between trains is a bit more of an ask, especially for people who are not typical riders, but it could be publicized and accommodated if the organizations would be willing to try. And certainly, there is a compelling offer: go this way and don't be a sardine on the overcrowded Green Line; it's cheaper and less aggravating than driving and parking.

However, the train times don't really work out:
  • Train 535 departs South Station at 6:40pm and arrives at Yawkey Station 11 minutes later.
  • Going back, train 540 leaves Yawkey Station at 10:47pm arriving at South Station in 10 minutes.
  • And, train 542 leaves Yawkey Station at 12:27am.
Getting to Fenway is okay, although train 535 is technically part of the peak and may be crowded already, but returning is absolutely fraught with peril. Both of those are "L" stops as well, so the train may leave early. Here's another problem:
  • The Franklin line has departures at 10:35pm and 11:50pm, totally missing the connection.
  • The last Fairmount train leaves at 9:40pm.
  • The last Stoughton train is at 11pm and the last Providence train departs at 11:59pm.
  • The last Needham train leaves at 10:30pm.
  • The Greenbush line only has a departure at 10pm, but who rides that anyway?
  • The last Middleboro train leaves at 10:30pm and the last Kingston train leaves at 10:40pm.
Basically, the 10:47pm train from Yawkey to South Station does not mesh well with any of the other line schedules, and even the most closely timed line -- Stoughton -- will be missed if there is a delay of a minute or two. And 10:47pm may be too early a departure for a Red Sox game.

So this isn't looking too great. On the other hand, the connection could still help Red Line riders, which is quite a large population. And with some changes, there is utility for Providence and Franklin line users as well.

A game shuttle

Providence train 822 arrives at South Station at 6:22pm which brings it in time to make a connection to the 6:40pm departure towards Yawkey. However, Franklin train 796 doesn't get there until 6:50pm, which is too late to connect.

However, at this point, the peak time is over and it may be possible to do something a bit unorthodox for the MBTA: turn train 796 quickly and send it out towards Yawkey, at about 7pm. It can skip Back Bay station and get there before the game starts. The empty train can then proceed to Beacon Park to turn back toward South Station. This gives you two things:
  • A one-seat ride for Franklin line riders
  • A second, game-night option for all others
I would even recommend simply not checking tickets on the Yawkey leg of the trip, in order to speed up boarding and make things run as smoothly as possible.

On the way out, a similar, special trip could be planned. A large consist could be staged and prepared to pick up passengers starting about 15-20 minutes after the last out of the 9th inning (within reason). You would not want to use DMUs for this purpose because this is exactly the sort of trip that the large capacity locomotive/passenger configuration is best for. That train would move to South Station, unload passengers, and then become a Providence or Franklin train, possibly even a special, additional trip.

Conclusion

So, would this all work? Well, I think it would be attractive to Red Line users who are probably sick of the crush at Park Street pre- and post-game. The commuter rail is a bit more of a stretch but with some ingenuity, and publicity, it might be possible to get some significant ridership: especially if there were guaranteed connections timed around the baseball game. When I was spending some months in the San Francisco Bay Area, I often rode back on the special "game trains" that were added to the schedule after Giants games. AT&T Park is only two blocks from the 4th and King terminal. Caltrain, as any rider knows, is far from the cleverest agency in the world. But those trains were generally packed with baseball fans. Now, it's easier when you only have one line to coordinate. But this is something the T ought to be able to handle. It might even be good practice for the future, when frequent DMU shuttles will make the idea of connecting between commuter rail lines somewhat less quixotic. To me, it just seems really strange to invest so much into this transportation infrastructure, and then not put it to use when the capacity is really needed.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The perversity of the Beacon Hill historic district

Beacon Hill (the neighborhood, not the state house) is in the news this past week for the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission's (BHAC) refusal to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Apparently, accessible pavers and handicap ramps, they claim, would mar the historic character of the neighborhood. Adam has some fine snark in response:
Yes, they would seriously detract from the hundreds of colonial automobiles parked on colonial asphalt underneath all those colonial Resident Parking signs when their drivers (garbed in breeches, no doubt) aren't busy stopping for colonial traffic signals and colonial stop signs.
Here's what Mark Kiefer, a member of the BHAC, and apparently the most oblivious person in the city, had to say about tactile strips which help the visually impaired:
“It’s a matter of the visual impact,” he said. “We don’t want prominent things people will see commonly to smack of modernity.”
I happened to stop by Beacon Hill this weekend and it reminded me just how hypocritical, stuck-up, and snobby these BHAC cretins are. Here's Bowdoin Street, near the edge of the historic district, where a historic six-lane highway leaves hardly any room to pass by on the sidewalk. Apparently, this scene does not "smack" Mark Kiefer "of modernity" at all?

Historic SUV parked on historic asphalt next to charming lamppost blocking historically small sidewalk.
Approximately 75% of the street width is devoted to automobiles and fast-moving vehicular traffic. 
Bowdoin Street is 60 feet wide from curb-to-curb, easily enough for 4 travel lanes and 2 parking lanes. Or maybe it should be 4 horse lanes and 2 horse post lines. Because history. Anyway, BHAC is curiously silent about the heavy presence of parked cars and speeding vehicles on this street, while people walking try to squeeze by scattered obstacles and bottlenecks.

My impression of Bowdoin Street is that it is a half-victim of urban renewal, actually. It was originally constructed as a 40-foot street in 1727. I haven't found records of the widening, but, the far side of the street all looks like relatively newer construction with a historic-looking facade. If I had to take a guess, I'd say this is probably a victim of the Boston City Planning Board's insane zeal for street widening at any cost. Or, maybe Ed Logue and the BRA, since it is Government Center-adjacent. Whichever way it came about, here's how I'd describe it: not historic.

My post last year about the horrifically wide streets around the Public Garden also touches upon some Beacon Hill streets, notably Charles Street and Beacon Street:

Massive motorway -- tiny, oft-obstructed sidewalks. Ridiculous.

Nothing more historic than a four-lane highway. Right?
Beacon Hill does have some truly charming and wonderful streets. And even a historic feel, if you can overlook the omnipresent automobiles. But it's completely insane for the snobs at BHAC to be complaining about handicap ramps, unless they are prepared to stand up against all the BMW and Lexus owners who litter the historic streets. And while we're at it: modern plumbing and electricity too. Beacon Hill wants to pretend to be some kind of half-museum: pro-preservation, but only when it's convenient.

I understand the desire for historic preservation. I am, after all, a huge fan of narrow, medieval-style streets, such as those still found in some parts of Beacon Hill. I realize that historic preservation movements managed to save some parts of neighborhoods from the horrors of urban renewal and modernism. But there's a point where the movement becomes self-parody. This is one of those points: when cars are treated with more respect than people, the neighborhood has lost its way.

Remember the reason why historic preservation resonates with people: it's because the architecture of the latter 20th century is so terribly inhuman. Therefore, we cling to anything from the past, to buildings built during a time when designers still remembered how to relate to the human beings walking on the street. In a way, we're still stuck in the architectural Dark Ages, trying to feel our way out, trying to relearn was what forgotten during the modernist era. But one new idea that we do have right, in law if not in fact, is the notion that the city should be accessible to all its citizens.

Beacon Hill, get your streets in order. Put people first.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The MBTA Capital Investment Program FY15-19

MassDOT put out its capital investment plan (CIP) and the weMove Massachusetts plan recently, and the board voted on it a couple weeks ago. Actually, they voted on it at the board meeting on February 12th, while the comment deadline was February 14th, which makes it seem like they don't even maintain the pretense of listening to public comment. They did add some MBTA bus replacement funding based on the oral testimony from the public meetings, however.

The MBTA has a separate CIP with a comment deadline of February 28th though, and you can still comment by sending an email to cipinfo@mbta.com.

I recommend checking out the CIP FY15-19 document itself if you are interested in details about the system investment. There's some intriguing suggestions, such as the implementation of CharlieCard on Commuter Rail, or "identifying technology for proof-of-payment on the Green Line." I'm not entirely sure that this is new text, or if it's just leftover copy/paste from an old plan. But there's $16 million allocated to it in upcoming fiscal years.

On the other hand, there's also $308 million allocated to the disastrous South Coast Rail project, and $120 million for parking garages in Quincy, Beverly and Salem -- a highway benefit that directly hurts the MBTA's ability to attract real investment and ridership at its expensive stations.

South Coast Rail is especially pernicious because the final tally will be over $1.5 billion and it is only expected to accommodate about 5,000 riders. Those are optimistic estimates; some have ranged up to $2.1 billion and merely 3,000 riders. At a cost of over $300,000 per person, it is a boondoggle that absolutely dwarfs the Big Dig (~$100,000 per vehicle).

A recent blog post about the ridiculously high costs of American transit caught my eye with this paragraph:
Again, think of the consultant’s motivation. If they design everything to standard and it costs extra money, it’s not their money that gets spent. If they design something that doesn't meet standards, they potentially expose themselves to significant liability. What would you do? There’s a reason some consultants think the best project is the project that never gets built.
It occurs to me that this is the story of South Coast Rail: a consultant hand-out that won't ever get built. Think about this:

  • The $308 million is just for preliminary engineering and very minor track work (for freight).
  • The selected alternative requires electrification of the route, with commuter trains powered by overhead catenary. The MBTA does not operate such trains, has no facilities to maintain them, and has no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.
  • The South Coast Rail project has been a nebulous political football for decades, pumped by consultants all along.

So, there's a ton of money that gets spent on consulting work with very little construction to go with it; a service plan which is unimplementable; and a history of exploitation. To my eyes, this screams fraud.

Anyway, there's lots of stuff in it, so I recommend checking out the CIP and writing a comment by Friday.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

The last train home

Word got around at the end of last year that a new late night weekend service would be piloted this year on the MBTA. On weekend nights, trains and key bus routes will continue running past 1 a.m. with a final departure of the night around 2:30 a.m. from the downtown core. This initiative came from Govenor Patrick, and is reported to have a $20 million price tag. That seems a bit excessive, so it makes me wonder if the T is just taking this opportunity to bolster some schedules at other times of day as well, or adding some shifts to avoid being stretched thin at times. Either way, one thing that brings me concern:
The new late service, which will include the Silver Line, will be a one-year experiment. If it proves popular, it could become permanent.
I think that this foray into late night service is a very good thing (in fact, it does not go far enough, to help the late night service workers) and I am worried that we don't know what criteria will be used to judge the success of this pilot program, or what thresholds it will be expected to meet. What brought this to mind was a couple of good, recent articles on the topic of off-peak transit.

Far Beyond Rush Hour:
Metropolitan areas across the United States — whether their primary mass transit system is a metro rail or a commuter train or a bus network — are recognizing that city residents can't get by on great rush-hour service alone. They need frequent, reliable transit all hours of the day and long into the night.
The Real Barriers to Abundant, All-Day Transit Service:
The "guaranteed ride home." Peak-only services are risky. You can get trapped if you have to work late or leave early, so peak commuters value service at other times, too, even if they never use it. What's more, you won't use transit to get there unless you're sure you can get back, so the ridership at various times of day is interrelated. An empty evening bus is just a piece of an all-day offering whose availability throughout the day may be the real cause of its success.
The logic behind the need for good off-peak options also applies to very late night travel. You wouldn't want to use a transit system that could strand you at 8 p.m. and if you are out late, you don't want to use one that strands you at 1 a.m. either. But this doesn't necessarily correspond to heavy usage of the service past 1 a.m., although that would be good to see. Many people might choose to use the T to go out on the weekends, but even if they do end up coming home before 1 a.m., it is the existence of service after 1 a.m. that gives them the confidence to ride at all.

So I worry that if "success" is measured strictly by post-1 a.m. usage of the system, then it might not be reflective of all the ways the late night service is helping people. Especially if the MBTA does end up adding a surcharge to the fare: then additional people will be motivated to board earlier than 1 a.m., but they still do benefit from the commitment to offer service past 1 a.m., as a backup plan, just in case they miss the intended departure.

Having said that, there are many differences between 2005 and 2014 that could easily make up the difference between anemic usage and strong popularity. Use of the standard system (instead of replacement buses), better communication, promotion, awareness, and now real-time displays with data available online. These will all help increase ridership of the system that people already understand, late at night, with the confidence that only real-time vehicle location data can give.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Boston's narrow streets are safest for walking and riding a bike: wide streets are the most dangerous.

A wide street, Brighton Ave: 80 feet wide. Chung-Wei Yang was killed by a bus here.
I was reading an interesting Globe article on winter biking the other day when I spotted a sentence that was clearly tossed in there without much thought:
But urban biking does present risks, especially in Boston with its narrow streets and aggressive drivers. In 2012, five cyclists were killed in accidents — though none in winter.
This false, lazy sentiment about Boston's streets is unfortunately somewhat widespread. In fact, Boston doesn't really have many narrow streets. But, the narrow streets that Boston does have are one of its greatest advantages over other American cities.

In general, narrow streets are safer. From that study in Colorado:
“The most significant causal relationships to injury and accident were found to be street width and street curvature,” according to the report. “The analysis illustrates that as street width widens, accidents per mile per year increases exponentially, and that the safest residential street width is 24 feet (measured from curb face).”
Even 24 feet is fairly wide (enough for two fast-moving traffic lanes), but that town did not have any smaller streets to study. Even without the research, it's easy to see that the main purpose of wide roads is to make it easier to drive faster -- and speed is the biggest danger to life and limb. One of the reasons New York City is having so many problems with street injury is because, other than a few, relatively small areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, that city is cursed with extremely wide streets.
Huntington Ave (courtesy: Google): about 95 feet wide. Kelsey Rennebohm was killed by a bus here.
Boston is luckier in that it escaped the foolish 19th century fad for wide streets with much less damage. The oft-noted "cattle paths" (not really) of downtown Boston are not so problematic. There are some cases where arrogant city planners from the twentieth century actually tore down buildings and parks to widen streets, and that was unfortunate. But luckily we managed to save most of Beacon Hill and the North End from their depredations and those neighborhoods survive as examples of people-scaled streets. We are also lucky that when the Back Bay was built, the streets were not created as big as New York's -- although they are still quite a bit larger than they should be, and in some cases, quite dangerous.
Beacon St and Charlesgate West: at least 100 feet wide. Kanako Miura was killed by a dump truck here.
But Boston's narrow streets pretty much end after you leave the downtown area, Beacon Hill, and the North End. Outside of that scope, Boston has many wide streets, and many streets that are much wider than they ought to be. While many of the residential side streets are 24-30 feet wide, I still see many drivers using them as high speed cut-through routes. But the truly dangerous streets are the main ones, which around me range from 50 feet, to 80 feet, up to even 170 feet from sidewalk to sidewalk.

Comm Ave at St Paul St (courtesy: Google): about 110 feet wide. Chris Weigl was killed by a tractor trailer here.
This is where the perversity of the Globe article quote comes into play: all of the people who were killed while riding their bike in 2012 were killed on very wide streets. Yet, the author blames "narrow streets." With such misinformation flying around, is it any wonder when people don't know better? Wide streets continue to be designed and built, on the premise that they are safer, when nothing could be further from the truth! One time, I asked an architect about why he was creating a new street that was so wide, next to a park where children play. He told me: but that's how it is in the South End, where I live! He didn't stop to think that the South End's wide streets were a danger and a drawback to living there.

Here's some more data. BPD identified several intersections which had the most crashes involving a bicyclist in 2012:

From Cyclist Safety Report 2013: most problematic intersections
Here are the street widths:

  • Beacon St at Massachusetts Ave: 50 feet
  • Massachusetts Ave at Beacon St/Comm Ave: 60 feet
  • Harvard Ave at Brighton Ave: 50 feet
  • Brighton Ave at Harvard Ave: 80 feet
  • Comm Ave at Harvard Ave: 160 feet
  • Huntington Ave at Belvedere St: 95 feet
  • Belvedere St at Huntington Ave: 60 feet
  • Columbus Ave at Cedar St: 70 feet
  • Cedar St at Columbus Ave: 26 feet
All of those streets are very wide except for Cedar St; a small side street that is one of the only ways to walk or bike between two densely populated residential sections of Roxbury, and requires crossing the very dangerous Columbus Ave between two very long blocks.

Columbus Ave (courtesy: Google): about 65 feet wide. A woman was struck and killed here on Christmas Eve.
I could keep going on and on, but I think I've made my point quite clear: wide streets are dangerous. Unfortunately, Boston has many wide streets, and it is very difficult to fix them once they are created. The best way to create safer streets is to build them narrower from the beginning. But in the rare cases where we have that opportunity, we are still building wide streets because people do not know or understand the danger. Engineers claim to try and anticipate future traffic growth, and they do not consider the costs of the wider streets at all. Fire marshals want wider streets and turning radii for their trucks, but they don't think about the people who will be killed or injured by those design choices. Architects like wide streets because it feeds their egos: they're always trying to build the next "grand Parisian boulevard" and, at least in the bad old days, they could care less about the human cost. Even the new planners, with their "complete streets", tend to favor wider streets: to squeeze more stuff onto. That is unfortunate. Complete streets should be seen as a way to reduce the danger of overly wide streets, not as an excuse to make the mistake of building wider streets from the start.

If we want streets to be safer in the future, what we really need is a program which encourages narrow, human-scaled streets, and also celebrates the narrow streets that we have inherited from the past.