Sunday, April 29, 2012

Density is different from overcrowding

As a follow-up to my previous post on density, let's take a look at number of people per housing unit, by census block. The scale ranges from blue, to green, to yellow, to orange, to red.




Most of the red are clearly college dorms, or in student areas. For example, Bay State Road next to Boston University, or Pratt Street in Allston. There is a block on the border of Roxbury and Dorchester near Shirley Square which is marked red. I actually happened to walk by this area the other week, but I don't recall anything out of the ordinary. It is possible that this is just an error in the data. Some of the other red blocks are probably flukes as well, as they are marked as having only a few housing units.

I think the most interesting feature of this map is that the densest areas of the city, such as the North End and the Fenway, are also the least overcrowded, as well as being pretty nice places to live. This is an obvious fact if you stop to think about it, but many people and planners make the mistake of confusing density and overcrowding. Or they even conflate it into one concept: "highdensityandovercrowding" as Jacobs noted. Well, it turns out that Boston has many great examples of how density and overcrowding are completely different.

The trouble with using population/housing units is that overcrowding isn't normally measured in those terms, because there is such a wide variety of housing units. Typically it is measured in units such as persons/room or per square foot. But I don't have those measures so I will have to make do with this as a proxy. I would guess that in some places, there are more families living together, and those areas will appear to have more people/unit, but that is not really a problem. This probably explains some of Dorchester's higher numbers, for example. On the other hand, in place where people tend to live alone or with a roommate, the ratio of people/unit approaches that of people/room, and therefore the measure becomes more accurate.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Density per net acre

After this discussion about 'The need for concentration' I found myself wondering about Jacobs method of measuring density in districts. She uses a metric that almost nobody else uses: dwelling or housing units per net residential acre, which counts only land designated for housing. Typical densities are expressed in terms of persons per square mile, counting all types of land. But this can include land that's really devoted to highways, parking lots, institutions, parks, or other places where people do not live. This has a tendency to skew the numbers because most boundaries are drawn to include arbitrary amounts of these non-residential uses. For example, Boston is said to have 12,752 people/sq mile, but residential neighborhoods such as Allston have a density of 18,505 people/sq mile and the North End is listed as nearly 30,000 people/sq mile, or more depending on how you draw the borders.

Thanks to a footnote in her book, we know that in 1960 the North End had a dwelling unit density of 275 per net acre of residential land, and Roxbury ranged between 21-40, according to planning commission measurements. But how does that compare to today, and to other neighborhoods? And what does it mean, anyway?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A bad sign

A quick follow-up to my previous post: When I first spotted this pictured advertisement on a Pittsburgh bus, I didn't think much of it. But then I read it, and realized that there was an attitude fundamentally wrong behind it. It's nice to say things like "Don't litter" or "Don't engage in loud or rowdy behavior." But what alarmed me was the final message: "Inconsiderate behavior can result in the loss of your bus stop!"

It took me a moment to process that. What the Port Authority seems to be claiming here is that the actions of one person can be used to justify punishment of the group of people who use that bus stop. That seems insane. I don't know if this has ever been carried out, or if this threat is empty.

But what portends for worse is the phrasing. It's about "your bus stop" and "your bus." A long time ago, I distinctly remember someone explaining proudly to me that in Pittsburgh "everyone rides the bus." It's not just for the poor and disenfranchised, as in some places, but for a diverse cross section of the population. It seemed to be quite true at the time. I have been away for many years. I don't know how things have been changing. But it is a bad sign if bus riders are being separated from the rest of society, as a class, and then treated like children whose "bus privileges" may be taken away arbitrarily. This is supposed to be everyone's bus, and everyone's bus stop. Can you imagine the city threatening to close a road because some driver littered? Why should buses get this kind of treatment?

Problems in Pittsburgh

A street in Shadyside
In a departure from my normal topic, today I am going to write about Pittsburgh, where I have just visited after a very long hiatus. I still have friends left from the time I lived there, and remember many good places to go (plenty of great dive bars, and "Happy Hour" is legal!). The city has approximately half the population of Boston, but a similar kind of "neighborhood" feel to it. There are plenty of good walking streets, and a sizable collection of parks named for the rich robber baron benefactors who still seem to hover over the city.

There are also considerable patches of empty or disinvested space. Part of this is due to geography, with the three rivers and many steep hills, it has always posed a challenge. But everyone knows Pittsburgh as the former prototypical "steel town" which collapsed, people and money fleeing outward to the sprawling suburbs and beyond. That combined with "urban renewal", bringing in civic arenas and massive elevated highways that cut off neighborhoods and blighted large areas, sent the city into a downward spiral from which it is still climbing out. It has largely reinvented itself as a financial and scientific center, with many banking headquarters as well as world class universities.
Central Northside
However, there's still a long way to go. Just take a stroll around Downtown in the early evening and you will notice a disturbing trend: shops are closing up, and the only people you see are eager to leave, waiting by the numerous bus stops. The Fort Pitt bridge and tunnel are jammed to a standstill with commuters heading home, as the immense downtown parking garages empty out. In a few hours, the city is silent and mostly empty. I had hoped this had changed in the years since I left, I know there are efforts to try and diversify uses, but it seems not to be so.

An even more disturbing crisis is brewing, one that will be familiar to Bostonians: the Port Authority (PAT) which runs the public transportation system, is facing a $64 million deficit and is proposing a plan that incorporates incredibly drastic service cuts as well as fare hikes. It eliminates nearly half of all routes, cuts service on the others, raises Zone 1 fares to $2.50, Zone 2 to $3.75, and hurts paratransit as well. As one of my friends put it, this plan will likely lead to economic devastation in Pittsburgh, as the roads and parking lots become even more clogged with additional commuters.

First Avenue Station, facing the portal

Historically, Pittsburgh has had a relatively good bus system. It is based on the very extensive trolley network that employed nearly 700 streetcars, and it was largely abandoned in the 1960s, with the exception of a few South Hills routes. The modern subway system under the streets of Downtown was mostly constructed in the 1980s, though it did re-use a couple of old tunnel sections and a railroad bridge. Curiously, it is also named the "T" and uses a very similar logo to Boston. The South Hills light rail trains access several downtown stations using this subway, and all travel within the downtown area is free of charge due to the fare collection system used by PAT. Essentially, all buses and trains collect fare on boarding when headed inbound, and on alighting when headed outbound, at least during peak. I always found the rule to be somewhat confusing, especially when taking a "crosstown" bus, but it does keep things moving in the most congested areas.

Unfortunately, the light rail system does not extend eastward to the heavily populated neighborhoods of Oakland, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, although that was proposed nearly twenty years ago. As a result, ridership on the trains only constitutes about 11% of total weekday ridership, the rest being carried by buses. Pittsburgh pioneered the use of dedicated busways in the United States, with roads running south, east and west, and they have been very successful for providing access to the outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. The inner portions of the city don't enjoy such amenities, other than a contra-flow bus lane on Fifth Avenue in Oakland. There are, however, several trunk roads which each carry a number of routes, that provides very decent effective headways for many trips.

Detached single family homes, across from a major "T" station

On March 25th, the Port Authority opened the North Shore Connector for the "T" subway. I made sure to check it out while I was visiting. It connects the subway to a new Gateway Center station downtown, and then burrows in two single-track tubes under the Allegheny river to two new stations on the North Shore. A curious thing I noticed about the new tunnels is that they have a continuous platform throughout their length, probably to enhance rescue operations. The two new stations are near the baseball stadium (PNC Park) and the football stadium (Heinz Field), as well as the science museum and the casino.

The cost of the North Shore Connector was $523.4 million for a 1.2 mile (1.9 km) line, clocking in at approximately $270 million/km. Which is actually pretty cheap when compared to other United States projects, and that includes the money which went into the overly elaborate headhouse for the Gateway Center station. The extension has been accused by Senator McCain of being a boondoggle, but that was likely a partisan (or spiteful) opinion, since it was funded partially through ARRA. However, even Governor Rendell had reservations about it, calling the Connector a mistake. There are some disturbing aspects of the project, since the two North Shore stations are swaddled in parking lots and elevated highways. However, if there is further extension into Manchester, then I think it will turn out to have been a great bargain after all.

The first thing you see upon exiting the North Side T station

It's unfortunate that the Federal government decided to play games with transportation funding in Pennsylvania, especially when they forbade the tolling of I-80. It would be especially shameful if this led to the self-destruction of PAT and the consequent economic devastation to the city of Pittsburgh. I hope, for the city's sake, that it does not come to that.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The suburbanization mindset

An all too familiar kind of mind is at work here: a mind seeing only disorder where a most intricate and unique order exists; the same kind of mind that sees only disorder in the life of city streets, and itches to erase it, standardize it, suburbanize it.
I've been away for a few days, so I am still catching up on the last week of the City Builder's Book Club. Over the weekend, I came to think more about an offhand comment made by a police officer at a community meeting last week. He came to give a presentation on a few issues relevant to us. One of the last was about the proposed parking lot revamp for one of the stores. I don't know why he was chosen to show this, but he passed around a design sketch from an architect. Parking is always a bit of a contentious issue because there's a lot of people flowing into and around the district, both by car and by foot. Anyway, right at the end, he commented that he "would rather see some of the small storefronts torn down and a big parking garage put in their place." Understandably, I got a bit upset about this, but I let it go since it was just his opinion, and he doesn't decide these things.

Representatives from the police department have also been fairly negative over the years about bringing in liquor licenses and extending restaurant hours. It makes some sense. To them, they see it as stretching their already thin resources. They look at the apparently (relatively) easy jobs in suburban precincts and seek to import that form into the city. I agree that it's perverse that adding liquor licenses to a district doesn't add additional funding for police and emergency services there. It's a function of our obsolete system of licensing, which should be replaced by proper excise taxes that pay for the local services they require. But even without that change, it is clear that the kind of "suburbanization" that the police officer desired, and that Jane Jacobs talks about in the above quote, is not the answer either.

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.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Parking, Ridership and Greenbush

I noticed something in the MBTA's Draft CIP:
Over 3,000 new parking spaces have been built on stations along the new Greenbush commuter rail line.
That number seemed familiar, so I went back to check the Blue Book. There's only approximately 3,000 inbound riders per weekday on the Greenbush line, a fairly pitiful quantity. Is it a correlation that the number of parking spaces is almost equivalent, or just a coincidence? I decided to look at some numbers from the website.



StationParking SpacesInbound Riders
Nantasket Junction 495 367
Weymouth Landing/East Braintree 290 386
Cohasset 410 391
West Hingham 214 410
East Weymouth 335 420
North Scituate 279 532
Greenbush 1000 575


Both columns add up to approximately 3,000 but they get there in different ways. Parking spaces are clearly concentrated in Nantasket, Cohasset and Greenbush. But ridership seems almost evenly distributed, and not really dependent on parking. Kind of strange, really. I decided to scrape the rest of the numbers and see if there were any system-wide patterns.

I excluded stations that were also subway stations, because their users are overwhelmingly rapid transit riders. There's a lot of scattered points on this chart, though they form a little bit of an upward trend. The slope is ~0.84 riders per parking space constructed. There's a bunch of complicating factors to this picture: some stations are in densely populated areas, some are not; some have good local bus connections, others have nothing; some may have private lots serving them. It's hard to say whether the parking lots are driving ridership, or whether ridership is motivating the MBTA to build more parking. Stations such as Kingston, Greenbush, and Nantasket Junction report 70-80% average availability on their parking lots. Gloucester reports 77% availability on its 100 spots, but has ridership over 450. Actually, the whole Newburyport/Rockport line does pretty well in this respect. The two points in the upper-left of the chart are Salem and Beverly Depot, both with high ridership despite small parking lots. The largest parking lot is at Anderson/Woburn Station, with an average weekday utilization of 60% and an above-average number of riders.
Broken down by line, it's clear that there's some appreciable differences between them when it comes to parking and ridership. Greenbush has the smallest-slope line at 0.17, so perhaps there is something unusual going on there, after all. The Providence Line (1.38) has a great deal of parking (counting Providence itself, which also serves as an Amtrak station), and a great deal of ridership, so it comes out on top. It seems that local considerations play a large part in this story, and it seems that I may have to try and come up with numbers for the regional transit systems before I can put anything else together.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Dark car

When I travel to New York City I like to take the regional train whenever possible. It's more comfortable than sitting in a bus stuck on I-84. Also, my favorite part of the trip is the section between Providence and New Haven called the Shore Line Road. The tracks wind by scenic parts of Connecticut, through the old downtown of New London, right alongside the beach near the surf, and every so often the surrounding brush opens up and give you a stunning view of the Sound. It's a lot of curvy track that will never be able to support high-speed rail, of course, but it's still a nice ride.

Anyway, coming back home along the Shore Line, this evening, it started to get dark outside, and soon it became hard to see out the window due to the interior lighting. This has also frustrated me on commuter trains. But every so often, on the regional, the interior lights will flicker out and the cabin will be left in a quiet darkness, except for the scenery sliding past the windows at up to 110 mph. Those are times that I wish that they would feature a "dark car" much like they have a "quiet car." Not a transportation essential, or anything really important, just something that would be pretty cool. One of the attractions of the train compared to the plane is the ability to look out the window and see something more interesting than clouds. But with the lights on, in a metal and glass box rolling through the night, you really can't tell there's anything outside at all.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Access Boston and pedestrian safety guidelines

I was reading through the old Access Boston (2000-2010) website, which is still featured prominently on the City of Boston's transportation website. It's a fairly old document, but it doesn't seem like there's been any update in the past decade. Here's the process you need to go through in order to implement a proposed pedestrian safety improvement:


To begin, following a "Community Initiated Request" there must be a "pre-screening" and a "before" study:
The prescreening criteria include basic roadway characteristics that allow the BTD to determine if implementing transportation safety improvement measures are appropriate for residential streets. [...] First, the study will establish a traffic baseline from which the effectiveness of the project can be compared to later.  The second purpose is to collect data to perform a level of screening to ensure that it is still appropriate to consider transportation safety improvement measures.

Then BTD will consider some simple regulatory or sign changes, known as "Stage 1 alternatives." If that fails in the "after" study, then they will only consider physical changes for pedestrian safety if: (a) the road is under 40 feet wide, (b) not an emergency or bus route, (c) no more than one lane in each direction, (d) not too steep, and (e) not curved too much. There's more. For Stage 2 changes, a neighborhood organization must be formed to study the options. Ultimately, it suggests that a petition with 75% neighborhood support must be submitted, and it must also receive 100% of support from immediate abutters. And the City retains the right to refuse the proposal. And you must find funding through a source such as TEA-21, AAA, or squeezing it out of adjacent development projects. The Stage 2 modifications cannot cause adverse effects to neighboring roads, either.

Considering all that, I'm surprised that any of these pedestrian safety proposals were ever implemented.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fare hikes, service cuts incoming

As expected, the MBTA board approved the revised plan today, despite the protests of assembled riders at the public meeting.
Director Ferdinand Alvaro, who was the only member to oppose the plan, said, “I cannot in good conscience support a budget that covers the gap and burdens the most vulnerable people in our population with covering the gap. It is time for the Legislature to come to the table.” 
Director Andrew Whittle said, “This is a hell of a way to run a railroad. ... I don’t think any of us are happy in this process.” 
But he noted that the Legislature had promised to address new revenues for transportation next year. “We’ve been told that if we act, the Legislature will act, and I think it’s important to hold them to it,” he told the packed room.
I frankly find this a bit puzzling. What motivation does the Legislature have to act in the near future, if the immediate threat of a budget apocalypse has been averted for another year? And it's not about finding "new revenues", it's about fixing the existing mechanisms, and shifting the Big Dig debt burden back where it belongs. I'd be curious to know who exactly gave that promise, and how credible it is. My feeling is that we're going to see the fare hike go into effect July 1st, and the Legislature will continue to pretend the problem doesn't exist, until we repeat the whole fiasco next year.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Attrition of automobiles / erosion of cities

Probably not what Jacobs had in mind (source)

Jacobs was far ahead of her time in writing that widening and building new roads instigates additional automobile traffic. This is an observation that had only begun to be discussed in the 60s, and people still have difficulty with it today. In 1962, Anthony Downs proposed "the fundamental law of highway congestion" which states that highway travel increases closely in proportion to highway construction. There is also a similar proposition called the Lewis-Mogridge Position. Recent work also explores this relationship in more depth.

Nowadays, responsible engineers and planners (ones not trying to profit from excessive concrete) understand this dilemma and in some places, have actually tried some different ways of fighting traffic that Jacobs would appreciate. But many people get confused when you discuss this issue with them for the first time. It is counterintuitive. Most people have experience driving on a highway that has one lane shutdown for some reason. They see the bottleneck created and exclaim that narrowing the highway permanently could only make things worse!

The confusion lies in the various different perspectives one can take on this problem. Most people are thinking in the immediate situation: the cars on the road are stuck because the highway is suddenly smaller than it was before. But that's not the perspective that road designers and city planners are supposed to take. They are supposed to think about how each road plays into the larger network of transportation, and the even larger world of development and land use, over the course of years. The construction (or removal) of highways and roads causes many people to re-evaluate their patterns of travel, their choices of residence, and how they go about getting around. It is this effect which causes observations like "fundamental law of highway congestion" to come true.

Let's look at an example: Boston's inner belt highway famously has no congestion. That's because Boston's inner belt highway doesn't exist. True, there are roads where the inner belt highway was planned, and they are often congested. But if the highway had been constructed, it too would have become congested in time, much like Rt 128 is today. And its construction would have ravaged a great swathe of land through Roxbury, Fenway/Kenmore, Brookline and Cambridge. In fact, the spot I am typing this from would have been badly affected, possibly destroyed. Thankfully, the residents of the time successfully opposed the highway. The ones that did get built have done a lot of damage, however. After all, we just spent $22 billion to bury one of the most infamous highway projects of all time. And one of the major unintended effects was to create even more congestion at the choke-points entering the city.

Fundamentally, congestion is going to happen around any attractive location, and there's almost nothing you can do about it. Automobile congestion springs up easily because cars are a particularly space-inefficient form of travel. If one person decides not to drive downtown, it is likely that somebody else is waiting to take up that space. And if more space is made available, then more drivers will take advantage of it. That's why public transportation doesn't cure congestion, and it is dishonest to claim it will. What public transportation can do is accommodate greater numbers of people than the roadways will permit. Although the congestion doesn't go away, the absolute number of people able to travel can go up, given appropriate transit options.

Only road pricing seems to have any effect on congestion. This shouldn't be too surprising to anyone who supports free markets, but many people go slightly insane when confronted with their addiction to Road Socialism. If a product is free or underpriced, then the supply becomes exhausted and queues form to obtain it. Most roads are free, or underpriced, so it is only natural that people form queues of traffic trying to use them. When road pricing is done right, it doesn't discourage travelers, it just sets a market incentive to use other modes of transportation when the roads become too busy. Sadly, it seems like it will be quite a long time before this reform is implemented around here, as it requires people to give up what many feel is an entitlement. If people could come to understand that "time is money" and either way, they're going to pay, then perhaps those stubborn impulses can be checked.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A modest proposal for the MBTA

With the MBTA in dire budget shape, we need a solution to help the people in the Metro Boston area commute and get around. There have been several proposals to try and fix the budget deficit, including fare hikes, various kinds of service cuts, debt reassignment, union negotiation, and a litany of one-time options such as the excess winter snow removal funds. I have taken some time to think about this problem and I have come up with a simple proposal that could solve the MBTA's budget woes once and for all.

While browsing their website, I found the independent auditor's report, according to which, the MBTA has $8.2 billion in capital assets (after depreciation). This includes land, guide-ways, vehicles, and other assorted physical objects. All of this supports a system on which the number of trips reaches nearly 1.3 million per weekday. Assuming that's mostly commuters, it probably means there are approximately 550-600 thousand riders. This works out to approximately $13,500 to $15,000 per rider in capital assets. By comparison, the 2012 Ford Fiesta, one of the cheapest cars on the market, costs approximately $14,000.

The new Red Line
The proposal is simple: Sell off the capital assets of the MBTA and buy several hundred thousand Ford Fiestas. This will stimulate the economy by providing many jobs to build the cars, and by opening up much valuable downtown land for new small businesses. It's a win-win for the American and Boston economies. Just think of all the advantages for the individual rider: on-demand point-to-point service, no waiting, not getting stuck on yet another broken down train, and much faster too.

I'm sure somebody (who hates America) will raise some kind of objections to this plan: What about gasoline prices? Shouldn't we try to conserve oil? How will all these new cars fit on our roads and parking lots? As for gasoline prices, the MBTA currently receives an approximate $800 million/year subsidy. That could pay for approximately $1500/person in fuel costs. And conserving oil? Well, once we stop wasting so much oil on driving around empty buses, then we'll have tons leftover! Plus, I bet if we drilled underneath some existing T stations, we'd find lots of oil just waiting to be used. Drill here, drill now! After we're done drilling, we can convert all that leftover land into nice new highways and parking lots. Problem solved!

There'll be plenty of clear right-of-ways once we remove those pesky tracks

Plus, with all the new gasoline purchasers, there'll be plenty of fuel tax revenue to help clean up the pollution from the old MBTA sites, and think of all the money we'll save by not having to subsidize commuters anymore. That will solve our highway funding problem, and then we'll be able to afford more above-ground lanes to take the load off the Big Dig Central Artery tunnel, as shown in this rendering:

Imagine, no more sitting in underground traffic!

The next board of directors meeting is coming up this week, on April 4th. The current proposal from Richard Davey is just a temporary fix that will only provide enough funding for the upcoming year. Instead of revisiting this issue again next year, the board ought to consider this modest proposal as a permanent solution to the problems of the MBTA.