Monday, March 11, 2013

Guest Street and the 64 bus

Guest Street Planning Study height and density map. Purple lines are bus routes, yellow stipples show walking distance from Union Square up to a quarter-mile. The density is far from the square.
The recently proposed car-free apartment building on North Beacon Street happens to fall within the Guest Street planning area which was re-zoned last year by the BRA and a local group of residents in the production of the Guest Street Planning Study. The main feature of this area is going to be the $500 million investment by New Balance to rebuild their headquarters and create a mixed-use district. The planning study features many forward looking ideas in an attempt to tackle the difficult problem of building a brand-new neighborhood on formerly industrial land. For example, it will permit heights up to 150' and FARs of up to 4.0 in an effort to bring life and vitality to an area devoid of anything currently. Unfortunately there are some problems, which the study readily admits:
Factors that are detrimental to its attractiveness include the area’s relative lack of public transportation access to downtown and the western suburbs, lack of identity and visibility from major streets in the area, access that is less than clear, and a public realm that is lacking.
There are two bus lines which can be said to pass through the study area, both of them infrequent and unreliable: the 64 and the 86. However, two key bus routes are nearby, both of them top-5 in ridership: the 57 and the 66. The study says:
Preserve and expand bus service. In order for the Study Area to develop at all, it is imperative that MBTA bus service be improved to provide access to Downtown, the Back Bay, Longwood/Fenway, and Cambridge. 
But it does not have any specific recommendations, beyond the new commuter rail station which is now slated to be built. There are also New Balance employee shuttles to Harvard and Kenmore, which will be upgraded according to the PNF, but they do not seem likely to be usable by the general public.

The chart at the top of this post shows the permitted heights and FARs for new development in the planning area, overlaid with the public transit infrastructure currently available. The location of the future commuter rail station at Everett Street is also shown. The yellow stipples reaching out from Union Square trace a walking path of approximately one quarter-mile (~400 meters) from the center of the square. The key problem can be easily observed: almost none of the higher density parcels can be reached within a short walk from Union Square. This seems to be the result of an unfortunate compromise which means that the existing transit resources will be furthest from the developments which need them most.

A quarter-mile is a bit of an arbitrary choice but it's a commonly cited rule of thumb when trying to figure out how far people are willing to walk to transit. What's also as important is frequency: the kind of high frequency that the key bus routes 57 and 66 provide will attract people to walk to them for many purposes. But the infrequent (and often unreliable) 64 and 86 buses will probably only be tolerable for rush-hour commuting purposes, if even that. The commuter rail station, while a net benefit, will also only provide infrequent commute-oriented service.

At this point, the question is: will the Guest Street area evolve into a car-dependent insular subdivision, or will it be able to integrate into the city's transit network in a way that reduces demand for automobile travel? In the former vision, the density will come paired with enormous parking garages (in addition to what's already being planned) and will be stifled by the already jammed capacity of North Beacon Street and Union Square. But if good alternative transportation options are supplied, then we can avoid that fate while adding much needed housing and commercial space.

I believe that to achieve good public transportation in the Guest Street area, the 64 bus route will have to be boosted and remade from a meandering coverage route into an efficient ridership-oriented line. The 86 could also stand to see some improvements. And New Balance should consider coordinating their shuttle operations with the MBTA.

Let's take a closer look at the 64 bus as it currently exists:

View in a larger map

The dark blue line is the route of the 64 bus between Oak Square in Brighton and University Park/Central Square/Red Line connection in Cambridge. The bus travels another 2 minutes to Kendall Square at rush hour. In Cambridge there is a one-way pair formed by the Western Avenue and River Street bridges. The translucent blue strips are connecting bus routes. The yellow areas on the map are sites that have been identified for development in the near or long-term future. In Allston/Brighton we have the Guest Street area, the Harvard IMP area, the Beacon Park area, and in Cambridge the K2C2 study area. The nice thing about the 64 is that it can help connect these new developments with access to the existing jobs and activities in Kendall, Central, Union, Oak Square and Allston Village, and an easy link to the Red Line and all that implies.

Nowadays, there is no consistent frequency of the 64 bus, its schedule is largely dictated by the time it takes for the assigned vehicles to complete their roundtrips. At the weekday peak, there are four buses providing approximately 23 minute headways, which reduces to two buses on 30 minute headways off-peak. In practice the headways vary from as little as 15 minutes to as much as 30 minutes during the peak, and can reach 45 minutes off-peak. The weekend service was recently reduced and features hour headways and nearly non-existent service on Sundays. It is the portrait of a bus route in decline, although the ridership is surprisingly resilient in my experience.

If the Guest Street area is going to develop as a real neighborhood instead of an island in a sea of parking lots, then the 64 bus is going to have to change. There is a mutually reinforcing positive relationship that needs to be jump-started: transit oriented development requires good transit, but the cost of providing that good transit needs good development to justify it. The service improvements will probably have to be phased and given a chance to build up ridership. Here's a few suggestions

  • The Hobart Park jog needs to go. The route forms an S-shape just north of Oak Square, where the bus suddenly turns away from Faneuil Street and sweeps around Hobart Park and under the Mass Pike. This could be accomplished in two ways, either by turning directly onto Brooks Street from Faneuil Street, or by just staying on Faneuil Street all the way to Market Street, which has the benefit of shortening the trip. This change saves resources, makes the route more sensible, and avoids tiny Hobart Street which is really not well suited to carrying buses.
  • A decision needs to be made about the current Guest Street segment, which now serves the Stop-n-Shop supermarket. Either it needs to be eliminated in favor of a pure North Beacon Street trip, or the Guest Street-running portion should be lengthened all the way to Market Street in order to serve the new developments more closely.
  • Cambridge may need to reconsider the design of the Central Square bus station, which accommodates the 64 bus. The geometry of that intersection is the reason why the 64 bus must currently divert onto Magazine Street before arriving at Central Square, instead of the more intuitive River Street approach. Increased frequency may require shuffling things around.
  • It should be possible to provide consistent 20 minute off-peak headways by adding a single bus to the route. This starts to bring it within the reasonable range for all-day usage, at least for the initial phase.
  • If the other suggestions are adopted and the route is shortened, then using the T's current assumptions, it should be possible to provide 15 minute peak headways by adding only two buses to the peak hour fleet. Again, not ideal, but getting better.
  • Other ideas could include: a 64A which short-turns at Market Street and heads back to Kendall Square; or, split the route into a coverage-oriented route 64 and a ridership-oriented route 63 (to pick an available number),
I've drawn a possible route on this map:

View in a larger map

In conclusion, the Guest Street planning study recommendations have a lot of potential to revitalize a lifeless piece of Allston/Brighton. It is unfortunate that the greatest intensity of planned development is far away from the existing transit resources, and perhaps that should be addressed directly in a revision to the study. But regardless of that, there will be a significant amount of new development taking place outside the quarter-mile "walk shed" of existing frequent transit lines. The commuter rail station will help a little bit but it is no substitute for a frequent route. The 64 bus route must see significant upgrades if this area is going to be able to reach its full potential.

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