Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How slow were our buses?

With the key bus route improvement project slowly moving ahead, but slipping its already long delayed schedule, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at average bus speeds from last year's data. Here's all routes under 10 MPH. Key/SL bus routes in bold.

Seeing the 1 and the 66 show up in the worst ten is no surprise. Both of them are massively overcrowded at most hours, which lengthens dwell times. The SL4/5 are also crowded, and they also obtain their infamy from the slow crawl through Chinatown. So much for the vaunted Bus 'Rapid' Transit. Having said that, they do have better on-time percentage than most, hitting the low-80%s, which is itself a sad reminder that most of the bus routes cannot achieve even the low service delivery standard of 75% on-time. I will be interested to see if the key bus route improvement project can do anything about the miserable slowness and on-time performance of the 1, 66, 15 and 23. Expectations are low.

Let's put aside the 114, which barely runs at all. Despite being non-key, the 69 serves significant ridership, and has a fairly straightforward routing. It just appears to be a congested corridor. The 55 runs infrequently, has low ridership, and is slow. I imagine that most of the riders in the Fenway with a choice will walk over to one of the Green Lines. Probably neither one of these has any chance of being improved in the near future (although I did notice some tinkering with stop locations on the non-key 86 route, for some unknown reason).

Another site of interest is Bostonography's bus speed map, but as you can see, their colorization is too coarse, marking anything under 10 MPH as "red." Most of the "green" is due to express segments of bus trips that occur on highways.

Buses carry about 400,000 rides per weekday in the system, and the vast majority of them are averaging under 10 MPH. A large part are averaging under 8 MPH. That's pretty bad. The MBTA along with the various cities and towns could be doing a lot more to fix this, and it would wind up saving money on operating costs. Even without bus lanes (which I encourage) a whole bunch of cheap improvements could be done: stop consolidation, curb-extensions for level boarding, off-board payment, proof-of-payment, signal priority, queue jump lanes, etc. Some of these are in the works for the key bus route improvement project, but it should not take 3 years to design and implement them. The big advantage of buses is supposed to be that it's cheap and easy to roll out and tinker with their routes. Why is that not the case here?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Cargo cult suburbanism

It seems that every time there's a proposal for a multiple unit apartment or condo building, some voices will pop up and whine, "why can't they just build some affordable single (or two-) family detached houses?!?!" Some will even go on to make the wild claim that multi-unit buildings "cause" single family detached house prices to rise.

This thought process is completely backwards: like blaming your runny nose for causing your cold. Instead, it is the rising prices on existing homes which attracts developers to build more homes, and eventually multi-unit buildings.

The reason the prices on single family homes are going up is because that kind of structure is an inefficient use of an increasingly valuable and limited resource: land.

It has nothing to do with the presence of multi-unit housing. In general, if land prices go up, then home prices will go up. If you want to reduce home prices on the open market, either: (a) find a way to reduce land prices, or (b) subdivide the land more efficiently.

Seeing this misunderstanding perpetuated, I get the feeling that some people in Boston believe in a fairy tale, what I've started to call: "cargo cult suburbanism."

In essence: the followers of this cargo cult remember a time in the past when giant single family homes were affordable, and even seemed to be the only option for families.

Therefore, they try to force everyone to build 1950s-style single family homes in the hopes of attracting families at reasonable prices. Followers of this cult have infiltrated city hall to the point where in most neighborhoods, the only development allowed by-right is this kind of suburbanism, even in areas of the city which have many apartment buildings.

The cultists believe that the ritual of forcing the development of such single family detached houses will magically, somehow, make them affordable to average families. There's no actual economic reason for that to work. It's an imitation of a form that sometimes works elsewhere under much different conditions, but is unsuitable for much of the city. That's why I'm calling it "cargo cult" thinking.

What's worse, not only does "cargo cult suburbanism" create unaffordable and unrealistic housing, the stock that remains ends up in slumlord hands, as they are the only ones with enough money to buy such large units. Then, the demand to live here is so strong, and the supply of homes is so weak, that some people feel that they have no choice but to fall into the hands of unscrupulous slumlords. The giant, detached single family homes, favored by the "cargo cultists," are easily subdivided into many illegal units. Some have been found to have twenty people living in them, such as the house which burned down this summer and claimed the life of a student.

Nobody wants to live in such conditions. We desperately need more legal, clean units to be created here. But the elected officials have failed their constituents. The zoning laws, barely changed from the 1950s, are completely out of touch with reality. The slumlords are the direct beneficiary of this screwed up situation. And who knows what kind of money changes hands behind closed doors to keep it this way.

The "cargo cultists" will claim that they just want to provide housing for families. I agree with the goal of finding ways to provide reasonably priced housing for families, but I don't buy into cargo cults. There's no reason why a diversity of housing options cannot serve families, or anyone else, just as well as (or better than) the stereotypical 1950s-style single-family detached house.

When land starts to become more expensive, it has to be used more efficiently, or else people of modest means will not be able to afford to live here anymore. Subsidized housing is a poor substitute. Some of that may be unavoidable, but for the majority of people, they ought to be able to find housing on the normal market. We need to put an end to the ridiculously bad zoning laws and arbitrary process which has defined Boston development for over two generations. The city got away with its dysfunction in the past during a time of decline and when the population was forced to sprawl. And people seemed to accept that fate. But that's no longer the case anymore. The population of the city is growing. This will be the challenge for the next mayor: to increase and provide a diversity of housing options for people of all different means and backgrounds. And to find a way to break the self-perpetuating cycle of corruption and NIMBYism which drags us down.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Bowker Overpass and Storrow Drive

Who says we don't have Green Space here?
Over a year ago, I wrote about the Bowker Overpass which divides Kenmore from the Back Bay. MassDOT held a discussion about future options to deal with the overpass, but they seemed inclined to rebuild it, over the objections of residents. Now they are preparing to do $14 million repair project in Spring 2014. The public meeting was announced recently and will be on Monday, August 13th, 6 p.m. in the BPL Copley Mezzanine.

This is an unfortunate, though not entirely unexpected development. The Bowker Overpass crosses the Mass Pike and covers the Charlesgate Park: once the "crown jewel" of Olmsted's Emerald Necklace; now reduced to an overgrown, weedy hideout for bums.

The portion over the Mass Pike can't be escaped, but the overpass of Charlesgate Park is actually redundant with the surface roads. It was built at a time when grade-separation was all the rage: the 1950s and the heady days of highways. The Bowker Overpass combines with a spaghetti mess of ramps to interchange with Storrow Drive: consuming large portions of the Esplanade which never should have been taken in the first place.

Mostly unusable "greenspace" due to the ramps (google)

All of this was constructed before the Mass Pike was extended into downtown Boston. It has not aged well. Storrow Drive is decrepit, a blight on the city that acts as a barrier between Boston and the Charles River. The Storrow Drive tunnel/double-deck roadway is in miserable shape; it was even recently rated the Most Dangerous Bridge in the country. Repairing the Bowker Overpass without talking about the Storrow Drive tunnel is irresponsible.

The fact is: the city and MassDOT need to have a serious conversation about grounding Storrow Drive. The 1950s grade-separations are falling apart: they have long exceeded their lifetimes and were not properly maintained either. And we should not shackle ourselves to outdated 1950s ideas about automobiles and the city. It is not such a fascinating idea anymore that you could drive your car on swirling ramps through the air to avoid intersections. Nowadays, we're more focused on connectivity, and accessibility; two things which grade-separation is bad at achieving within reasonable expense.

Once you manage to get on the grade-separated Storrow Drive, you're essentially trapped. You have very poor access to the various streets in Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, Kenmore, or Allston. And there are very few places to cross the highway: so if you are looking to spend time near the river, you have to find one of the few bridges across. This also hurts safety: poor connectivity leads to fewer "eyes on the park" at night, and makes it harder for police to patrol the area.

Grounding Storrow Drive and the Bowker Overpass could achieve many things:

  1. Rid us of a festering sore under the overpass.
  2. Restore a ton of parkland currently cordoned by ramps.
  3. Connect the Esplanade more closely to the city, increasing accessibility and safety.
  4. Connect more of the street grid to Storrow Drive, easing access for all modes.
  5. Save a boatload of money not rebuilding the $300+ million separation structures.
  6. Reduce construction nightmare that rebuilding the Storrow tunnel would entail.
What's the catch? Well, it might take a little bit longer to drive to your destination via the same route you used in the past. On the other hand, you might also save a lot of time by not having to go around and around in loops on one-way streets. I know that some traffic engineers will be screaming that this represents a "downgrade" but they can take that attitude back to the 1950s where it came from. For the rest of us, this would represent an upgrade: a better city. Plus, $300 million saved! Heck maybe more. I suspect that any attempt to replace the Storrow tunnel will quickly turn into it's own "little Big Dig" with rapidly inflating costs. That's a lot of money that could be put into so many other, better, actual improvements. Like making the MBTA an attractive option for people who currently feel like they have no alternative but to drive along this way.

How MassDOT approaches the impending dilemma of the Bowker Overpass and the related Storrow Drive tunnels will tell if they are really serious about their "GreenDOT" proposal or not.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The upcoming municipal election: housing

Based on the sources from the previous post, I've collected some notes about each of the candidates based on their public statements. Apologies for the rawness. I've tried to put quotation marks around text which is directly quoted and the rest is paraphrased. Candidates appear in alphabetical order, by last name, and I've included everyone who has raised at least $100,000 according to the OCPF.

Felix Arroyo

  • “One, we must increase the supply of housing. We should make sure that people who want to build housing have the opportunity to do that. It’s simple economics: supply and demand. But I don’t believe that that is the final answer.” 
  • “There are some things that government has to invest in: public schools, public streets, public safety, and affordable housing.” 
  • His parents lived in subsidized housing in the South End when he was born. 
  • “We must invest in affordable housing.” 
  • “We need to look at our zoning code to make sure that we are not by zoning code restricting the creation of different types of housing that could lead to affordability.” 
  • Transparent and predictable processes for development. 
  • “We need all types of housing & to encourage mixed use development of market, moderate rate & affordable housing “ 
  • Split the BRA into separate planning and development agencies.

John Barros

  • Worked in Boston for 13 years as executive director of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.
  • Sponsored 800 units of both market-rate and affordable housing during my time.
  • “We can create different incentives for developers to build next to transit nodes.”
  • “It’s still not easy enough to develop in Boston, the process is obscure, it’s unclear, we need to streamline it when developers are trying to do the right thing.”
  • “Transit nodes: we can drop the parking ratio, we can increase density, we shouldn’t be afraid of going high. These are kinds of things we can do to increase affordability in Boston.”
  • More realistic planning and zoning to incentivize development
  • Tax abatements, TIPS and density bonuses for parts of Boston that are not developed. “We’ve got land, too much of it, let’s take it off the city rolls and put it in production.”
  • Need to invest in transit that allows for developers to build and increase density.

Dan Conley

  • “Housing development is critical to the economic success of our city.”
  • Many entrepreneurs starting businesses here in Boston can’t afford to live here even though they want to. Need to expand workforce housing.
  • Embrace Menino’s “2020 vision” of 30,000 new units by 2020, and do even more.
  • “We need to rethink density. Density does not need to be a bad word when talking about housing policy. Look at Paris: it’s about the size of Boston geographically and has three times as many residents and is thought to be one of the great cities of the world.”
  • “Micro-units need also to be looked at, it’s not for everyone, but it’s a good opportunity for young professionals to get a foothold in the housing market.”
  • Increase the number of three-bedroom "Family Friendly" homes by making city-owned lots available for that purpose.
  • Consider density and transit oriented development.
  • Housing is also a regional problem and needs to be coordinated regionally.
  • Some kind of financial incentive for renovation of housing.
  • "Scrutiny" of off-site affordable housing.
  • Provide a "proper mix of services, entertainment and recreation options to support and sustain a community."
  • “I don't want to solve overcrowding by pricing all but the wealthiest Bostonians out of our city.”

John Connolly

  • More transparency at the BRA.
  • Term limits for BRA board members.
  • “We do too much zoning-by-variance.”
  • “Building more 3 bedroom units for young families”
  • “Increasing the supply of microlofts to create affordable options for recent graduates, young artists, and young professionals”
  • “Expanding programs that increase home ownership among our city workers.”
  • “Getting already-foreclosed properties into the hands of Community Development Corporations who can remarket units to eligible families.”

Rob Consalvo

  • We need to make funding a priority for programs like “Leading the Way
  • We need to invest in workforce housing relating to TOD, we see that now with the Fairmount line.
  • Think about linking workforce housing in places other than Innovation District, out on a different ring, in places such as Allston/Brighton, Roslindale, Readville and Hyde Park that has quick and easy access via new transportation systems to downtown.
  • Meet and exceed Menino’s “2020 Vision”.
  • Not just jamming it all downtown, or in hot spots, but moving it out to the neighborhoods of the city, where there’s real opportunity to grow more housing.
  • The zoning code should be regularly updated.
  • “We can solve overcrowding by providing more market rate and affordable housing and expanding public transportation into Boston.”
  • “With better public transportation we can connect ALL our neighborhoods to downtown and the universities – opening up new housing options citywide.”
  • “As mayor, I'll work with schools to develop more on-campus housing”
  • Increase transparency at the BRA.

Charlotte Golar Richie

  • Led DND for 8 years and served with Menino as Chief of Housing.
  • “You can’t just go to a landlord and say I want your units to be affordable, please do it out of the goodness of your heart.”
  • “As mayor I absolutely will advocate and lead the charge to get the funds that we need to buy the affordability so we have affordable units for our workforce.”
  • Build more on-campus housing for students.
  • “Will work to increase the supply of rental housing for neighborhood residents.”
  • “The BRA has important powers like eminent domain which I do not want the city to lose.”
  • Must increase transparency and predictability at the BRA.
  • “I will define more clearly the agency's planning functions and ensure that planning precedes development in a clear, predictable, and transparent manner.”

Mike Ross

  • “To create more affordable housing, we need to build more housing.”
  • “We’re not building fast enough for the graduating college kids, for the empty nesters, for the life-long residents, and for the citizens of the world who want to move here.”
  • “We need to build more, not just in the downtown core, but in all of our neighborhoods.”
  • “When I first started the Fenway was a gas station, parking lot, fast food strip along Boylston Street.”
  • Got together, planned, and over the past ten years we built the Fenway community.
  • We can do that while we build affordable housing on-site.
  • “If inclusionary zoning and affordable housing is a principle of our city then it should not be the first thing we negotiate away.”
  • “If micro-units work in some places then they should be allowed to be built in those places.”
  • “We need great education opportunities in our neighborhoods, but we also need amenities that and places to gather and go that draw people throughout the year and throughout the day.”
  • For example, worked to bring a supermarket, banks, restaurants to Mission Hill through planning.
  • Transit-oriented development, similar to what we did with restaurants and other development around the Ashmont T stop in Dorchester
  • Resilient, sustainable design principles to ensure that our buildings, infrastructure and people are prepared for climate change
  • Fast-track permitting for neighborhood-friendly housing
  • Resources for elders to remain in their homes
  • “We also need to work with our colleges and universities to build more dorms, so students can stay on campus and aren't putting more pressure on the strained housing market.”

Bill Walczak

  • “I think the first problem is that affordable housing is just not affordable -- it costs way too much to develop.”
  • “We need to construct more affordable housing throughout every neighborhood in Boston.”
  • “I favor transit oriented development -- I favor building large, dense projects closer to our subway stations, bus stations, commuter rail stations, because that’s what we need to do. The density will allow for lower cost.”
  • Convene business community, developers, construction companies, architects, to figure out why it costs so much to develop our housing in Boston.
  • Figure out ways to develop good, sound quality housing at lower cost.
  • Need to expedite processes through master planning.
  • Audit the BRA and then redesign the agency.
  • The new BRA needs transparency as its goal
  • “Planning needs to be equal in function to development”

Marty Walsh

  • Reform the BRA:
  • Need quantitative metrics for evaluating the BRA
  • Bifurcated system of permitting to separate small projects from larger projects for better efficiency.
  • A permits tracking system.
  • A system of receiving feedback and providing information to residents.
  • As a State Rep: Helped pass transit-oriented mixed-use “smart growth district” legislation
  • Has been a strong supporter of infrastructure and zoning improvements