Monday, April 16, 2012

From Green, to Orange, to Red

Columbus, Tremont and Malcolm X Blvd: Roxbury Crossing
The other day I watched the documentary Equal or Better: The Story of the Silver Line (h/t: BostonUrbEx) about how the elevated Orange Line was torn down and replaced with what became the Silver Line bus service. Although I was already familiar with the topic, it was still well worth a watch, there's some great old footage, and interviews with many of the main people who were involved over the past few decades. It's interesting to see how the South End has regenerated after the Orange Line was re-aligned to the South West Corridor, and yet how the once thriving Dudley Square continues to struggle. I kept coming back to the FTA transit official who insisted that the new Orange Line was merely "blocks" away from its old corridor, Washington Street -- and therefore, he could not support any money going to help replace the service.

Malcolm X Blvd towards Dudley

Although I haven't been back to Dudley in a while, I remember the walk quite well from Roxbury Crossing. It's approximately half a mile down Malcolm X Boulevard, and you pass by several schools, community centers and Roxbury Heritage State Park. In theory, it's a pleasant walk. In actuality, you're walking down a high-speed arterial road with nothing around you but empty green space, and the cliff edge of the park. It's very automobile-centric. I can understand why fewer people would want to make this trek on a regular basis compared to the convenience of the old Dudley Station. Also, I gather that most of the residents near Dudley are coming from the south and the east of the square, and the new Roxbury Crossing T station is even further for them. One redeeming feature of Malcolm X Blvd is that it is a bus trunk line for many routes originating at Dudley Station.
Across the street from the Roxbury Crossing T Station

I started out in Brigham Circle, to grab a quick bite to eat, then I set out, headed up Tremont Street. I could have ridden the route 66 bus this way, but I wanted to stop at the crest of the hill, by the Mission Church. There's a park and a playground overlooking a nice view of downtown Boston. After that I headed back down the hill towards Roxbury Crossing. On the way I spotted a nice little community garden, and a colorful street mural depicting the Mission Hill neighborhood; sadly, it stood in contrast to the empty adjoining lot. Near the station, there is sizable parcel of undeveloped land that is surrounded by a barbed wire fence. On the fence is a cryptic sign "Farm More Mission Hill." I later looked in the BRA maps but couldn't find any designation for this piece of land. It seems like a shame that nearly a billion dollars was spent to relocate the Orange Line here, but nobody could be bothered to take advantage of it? It seems like a quixotic approach to transportation: to build where it is easiest, but not where it is most needed.

The station itself is the usual concrete Brutalist design monstrosity that was popular back in that era. It straddles the South West Corridor, which was originally going to be a highway, until protests stopped it. The cleared land was instead used to combine the Orange Line, commuter rail, and Amtrak, which all operate in a trench below-grade, occasionally covered by parks. Here, there is only a wide overpass about six lanes across, meeting an eight lane-width highway which parallels the Corridor. At the corner is one of the new Hubway stations, the bicycle sharing program that was introduced by the city last year.
Dudley from a distance

Heading towards Dudley Square, I passed by Madison Park Vocational High School on my left and the Islamic Cultural Center of Boston, in their distinctive building, on my right. After reaching the O'Bryant School, the road veers slightly to the right, with Dudley in the distance. If you take a sharp right, and go up the hill, you end up passing through a quiet neighborhood along Centre Street, which eventually winds its way towards Jamaica Plain. A few more blocks straight ahead and I reached Washington Street, followed by the large bus station which dominates the square. I could see Silver Line buses boarding passengers, getting ready to leave. This time, though, I wanted to try something I haven't done before: walking from here to the Red Line in Savin Hill. As I headed towards Dudley Street, I couldn't help but notice how many of the parcels were empty patches being used as parking lots, despite being so close to the station. It's hard to say how much the loss of the elevated had to do with this, compared to other factors. As the video points out, the travel time from Dudley to downtown Boston more than doubled with the advent of the buses. Would trolleys have done better, given a dedicated median reservation? Possibly. The trolleys would be able to use the Tremont Street tunnel, thereby avoiding the mess in Chinatown -- where 11 street parking spaces are currently blocking the implementation of a bus lane. On the other hand, there is just as much frequency of service now, if not more, than the old days, and the Silver Line does not stop every block like a normal city bus does. Nearly half of all riders board at Dudley Station.

As I headed east towards Upham's Corner, I passed through much more residential neighborhoods than before. In Shirley Square, I stopped briefly to check out St. Patrick's. Abutting that was an empty, overgrown lot with a fence, and a nice old-fashioned brick gate labeled "St. Joseph Home for the Aged." I cannot find any references to what this was or might be.
Looks ready for Rapid Transit conversion!

Arriving at the Upham's Corner commuter rail station, I noticed that the newly constructed Salvation Army center was finally completed. There are still several empty lots surrounding the station, however. Hopefully when service is improved, this may spur some development. Right now, there isn't any weekend service at all, which doesn't help. I climbed the stairs up to the station to get a good look around. Upham's Corner was rebuilt in 2006 in anticipation of the Fairmount Line upgrades which will add several infill stations and increase frequencies to 20 minute headways, potentially.

The station is just a short walk from Upham's Corner itself, a busy district adjacent to Dorchester's oldest landmark, a 17th century burying ground. As I got closer to Savin Hill, I began to notice many more of the characteristic triple-decker homes which were popular in the 19th century, and have been maintained since. After about an hour and a half of walking, admittedly at a slow and intermittent pace, I had reached the Red Line. It's about 3.3 miles from Green to Red, and it happens that Dudley and Upham's Corner are almost evenly spaced along this corridor. I don't know whether that is by design, or just coincidence, but before the Orange Line was relocated, rail transit was much more evenly spread throughout the area. Re-aligning the Orange Line to the South West Corridor broke that neat arrangement, and probably also drove the end of Green Line Arborway service to Forest Hills. The characterization given by that FTA official is simply not fair; it is more than just "a few blocks" to the Orange or Red lines for most residents in this heavily populated area. Hopefully, the efforts to restore the Fairmount Line will be successful, and the MBTA will even consider treating it more like urban rapid transit, which it should be, even if it must be used occasionally by intercity trains.
Triple-deckers overlooking I-93 and the tracks

As for Dudley, the Silver Line is not "equal or better" and the idea of marketing it as a rapid transit line is a cruel joke. However, what's done is done, and as a bus, it is remarkably successful. It receives the most ridership in the city, followed closely by the connecting 66 bus. Having peak headways under 5 minutes means much less time spent waiting, a factor which can often dominate travel time. Average interstation distance in Roxbury and the South End is a good 300 meters, although it does vary from 170m to 470m. Even though it's not a trolley, the city has been willing to designate lanes for the bus, and has made a crude attempt to install signal preemption. It seems that embarrassment over the whole debacle has pushed them to take steps that were unthinkable in the past: giving road space priority to public transit. Those lanes still need to be extended through Chinatown, and they need better enforcement, but it is a good start.

Instead of pretending that the Silver Line (SL5) is "bus rapid transit," which it is not, the MBTA should take these changes and apply them to the other key bus routes in the system, as part of the current improvement project. If they are serious about improving service and lowering costs, then they should also consider adopting more best practices, such as pre-boarding fare validation and all-doors level boarding, to considerably lower dwell times at stations. For best results, these should be applied to all bus routes in the system, not just the Silver Line.


  1. Thanks for the walking tour. Having recently watched the film also, I was curious as to what that walk to the Orange Line from Dudley would be like.

    I do hope the T and the City of Boston continue to look for ways to improve Silver Line service. It's a shame that the electric bus (trackless trolley) idea was thrown out, in part because people thought the wires would be unsightly. I barely even notice the wires in Cambridge, Watertown, and Belmont on the electric bus routes there. What I do notice is how much quieter and cleaner those buses are. Perhaps in the future the Silver Line both on Washington St and on the Waterfront Line can be converted to overhead wires for their entire routes. It would save the T from having to use the dual-mode vehicles in the Waterfront Line and would really improve the noise and pollution along Washington St.

    1. I agree, the trackless trolley would be nicer than a diesel bus. You would still need a bus lane to help speed up travel though. The advantage of a light rail connection would be the ability to re-use the Tremont Street tunnel and avoid the whole mess in Chinatown. I think that the problem on the Waterfront is that the electrical overhead contact cannot be maintained at highway speeds, and the bus needs to use the Ted Williams tunnel to get to East Boston.


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