Thursday, April 23, 2015

Median Zillow Rent Index per square foot in Boston and Cambridge

After seeing this article on BostInno I knew something was not quite right about their reporting. West Cambridge in the top 5 median rents? Brighton rents being a third less than any other neighborhood? Their charts use the median unit price data, which does not distinguish between different types of units. I downloaded the Zillow data myself and prepared a few charts of the Median Zillow Rent Index per square foot, which I believe produces a lot more sensible looking results. And in case you are curious, I have plotted all of the data available since 2010:

Here is the data for March 2015 in a sorted table:

Region Name City ZRI per SF
South Dorchester Boston 1.584
Mattapan Boston 1.69
West Roxbury Boston 1.708
Roxbury Boston 1.726
Roslindale Boston 1.762
Hyde Park Boston 1.78
North Dorchester Boston 1.878
East Boston Boston 2.038
West Cambridge Cambridge 2.11
Jamaica Plain Boston 2.128
Mission Hill Boston 2.22
North Cambridge Cambridge 2.22
Aggasiz - Harvard North Cambridge 2.27
The Port - Area 4 Cambridge 2.388
Cambridgeport Cambridge 2.502
Wellington-Harrington Cambridge 2.524
Peabody Cambridge 2.546
Brighton Boston 2.652
Riverside Cambridge 2.654
Charlestown Boston 2.666
South Boston Boston 2.684
Allston Boston 2.702
Mid-Cambridge Cambridge 2.868
East Cambridge Cambridge 2.918
West End Boston 3.094
Downtown Boston 3.258
South End Boston 3.276
North End Boston 3.462
Back Bay Boston 3.512
Chinatown Boston 3.622
Kenmore Boston 3.658
Beacon Hill Boston 3.726
Fenway Boston 4.144

I hope that this is more useful than the BostInno presentation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Two charts showing development in Boston over the decades

I've been playing around with the Assessing data from the city of Boston, here are a couple of charts to start. First, a summary by decade of the total amount of gross floor area, living area, and parcel land developed:

Second, the corresponding Floor Area Ratio (gross floor area divided by land area) of all properties built within each decade:

It's important to remember that the Assessing data only contains properties that continue to exist to this day, so anything demolished would not be recognized in this data set. I also noticed that in older properties, year of construction was sometimes rounded off to the nearest decade. And it's possible there are other errors. I had to correct a few more egregious and obvious ones (like fields being swapped), but more subtle errors could sneak by. Condos are handled by summing up the gross floor space for each unit and linking it to the land area used up by the overall building.

Without spending too much time on analysis (that's for later), I'll note that we live in a turn-of-the-twentieth century city: most of the floor space created and still existing seems to have occurred between 1890 and 1930. The 1930s and 1940s had some fairly obvious reasons for a lull, but construction never really picked back up afterwards at the same rate. My hypothesis: Zoning in its modern form was enacted in the mid-1950s, which has put a heavy damper on construction ever since.

The FAR chart shows that development generally hovered around 1.0 floor area to land area, but started to drop precipitously after 1930, until finally tanking at a miserable 0.21 during the 1960s. Although the amount of floor space developed increased from the 1950s into the 1960s, the amount of land area consumed zoomed up even higher.  Zoning could explain some of it, but it's not clear to me why the 1960s are such an outlier in terms of land area consumed. (Turns out it was MassPort's harbor holdings, at 101 million s.f., which I have cut out from the data). By the 1970s, overall floor area ratios returned to a more historically normal average of 1.0 or so. More recently, overall construction averages have exceeded 1.5 FAR, albeit using incomplete data for this decade.

For the curious reader, here is the result of summing over all the parcels in the database:

  • Boston parcels gross area: 651,202,719 s.f.
  • Boston parcels land area: 1,268,597,774 s.f.
  • Boston parcels FAR: 0.51

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's not so easy to re-route buses in Boston

The Boston Globe ran an editorial today calling for the MBTA to radically re-examine its bus routes:
If Charlie Baker wants to find inexpensive ways to improve the T, he might consider one fact: In 1954 — two years before he was born — the 34 bus ran from Forest Hills, down Washington Street past Roslindale, and onward to the Dedham line. 
In 2015, it still does.
The map of where the T runs its buses would appear to be etched in stone: In some cases, today’s MBTA buses are still running along the same routes as the trolleys that preceded them. Yet the city surrounding those buses is unrecognizable, with huge population shifts and the emergence of whole new employment centers.
That sounds like one of those "smart managerial" pieces of advice, but in fact, it's mostly bullshit. I'll go into why later, but first I will mention a few things that should be done with the buses to make them run better:
  • Dedicated bus lanes
  • All-door boarding, all the time
  • Signal priority
  • Queue-jump lanes where needed
  • Further stop consolidation where appropriate
  • Upgrade to full accessibility everywhere
  • Clean-up of confusing numbering or naming
  • Well-targeted re-routings that either clean up twisty "coverage" routes or,
  • Provide better routes through and into bus hubs and major stations like Dudley.
However, instead of promoting those ideas, for whatever reason, the Globe editorial aimed directly at the 34 on Washington Street. A re-routing of that bus makes little to no sense whatsoever. They want a study? I'll do a study for free, with help from you, the reader. Let's take a look at Washington Street in Roslindale:

Go ahead, zoom in and out, follow it along. What will you see? There are no parallel streets to Washington Street in Roslindale! In fact, the 34, along with a whole host of other buses along Washington Street, follows a straight line, the only possible one. Actually, as far as route geometry goes, it's nearly ideal. So if I may quote Jarrett Walker, the 34 is already mostly as good as it gets, geometrically-speaking: "An efficient transit line -- and hence one that will support good service -- connects multiple points but is also reasonably straight so that it's perceived as a direct route between any two points on the line." The 34 itself is nearly perfectly a straight line, and it serves a street that is nearly perfectly a straight line.

The companion route 34E continues that straight line, except to diverge at one point for the Dedham Mall. And at the point where it diverges to serve that suburban mall, it turns out that it's really difficult politically to do anything about that. But the problem there is that a suburban mall like that is nearly impossible to serve well with transit. The error lies with the land use, not with the bus planning, which is trying to make the best out of a mess. I'd support a re-routing that gets the 34E out of the Dedham Mall if that were possible. But that goes to my point above: a targeted re-routing. There's simply no way to take the 34/34E off of Washington Street itself because there are no alternatives. And a whole century's worth of development has taken place with the idea of there being frequent service along Washington Street. That's nothing to scoff at. That's simply how Boston has developed.

Now you could reasonably argue that perhaps the 34/34E just needs to be folded into a more comprehensive scheme of naming and numbering the various routes that ply Washington Street in Roslindale. It's a confusing soup of routes, and probably the busiest bus corridor that is not designated on any key bus route, a fact that is a travesty. You could also probably reasonably argue that Washington Street needs more buses, as well as the various street improvements that I described above. That's all good. But that's not what the Globe editorial called for:
While the T often changes the frequency of buses, treating the routes themselves as sacrosanct is a recipe for inefficiency. To make sure the T is maximizing the value of its buses and drivers, the agency should imagine how the map would look if it were building a Boston bus network from scratch, based on today’s population and economy — not that of 1954 or 1912.
First of all, the MBTA needs to do a bus service planning process update. It hasn't had the funding to do so in a few years. Getting that done is a good idea! But it won't involve re-routing buses, so apparently, that's not good enough for the Globe. Instead they'd rather have the T spend money on a study that can only come to one conclusion: that there's no alternative to Washington Street for the 34/34E. That's wasteful.

The problem, more generally

I promised earlier that I would describe why Boston's street network makes the bus re-routing style of optimization that was accomplished in other cities much harder here. Not always impossible, but of much more questionable value, especially for the really heavy workhorse routes. You could probably find some changes in a meandering route like the 51, but that's small potatoes. No, the reason that Boston's bus network largely follows the streetcar routings of a century ago has to do with the way Boston developed: as an amalgamated set of Streetcar Suburbs.

At this point, some folks might say: "Oh Boston, all those cow-paths!" Well that's a cute but apocryphal story. And it's not the part of Boston that I'm concerned with right now. The downtown streets that were laid out in the 17th and 18th centuries are wonderful, great, and not really plied by many buses at all. The streets of the Back Bay are mid-19th century and still follow that nice, connected, pre-streetcar pattern. But once you get outside of Boston proper, into the territories that were annexed in the late 19th century, into the portions that were really built by the streetcar, things change. Let's take a look:

This section of Blue Hill Ave was once served by the "29" streetcar but is now served primarily by the key bus route 28. If I may summarize the story of "Streetcar Suburbs" very quickly and very broadly: These suburbs were laid out by developers interested in maximizing their investment by providing streetcar access to as many homes as possible. The streets were often privately built and "donated" to the town/city later. What mainly characterizes these streets is the long blocks that feed primarily into a single, wide avenue where the streetcar ran, moderated by hills and valleys. The result was a kind of "hierarchy" of streets that would later be taken to extremes by auto-centric suburban planning, but at this point in history was merely a result of trying to maximize investment in the streetcar adjacent plots of land.

What you should notice right away, again, is that: there are no efficient alternative routings. This is not a freak accident. It's a very, very common pattern throughout Boston's inner streetcar suburbs. I actually brought this up at the YPT event with Jeff Speck, if anyone happened to be there, and it's an endlessly frustrating quirk of a large number of Boston's neighborhoods that impacts us in many ways other than bus routings. Besides Blue Hill Ave and Seaver Street, there's Columbus Ave and Tremont Street, Warren Street, Washington Street (Roxbury, Dorchester, South End, Roslindale, and Brighton editions!), Dorchester Ave, Columbia Road, Huntington Ave and South Huntington/Centre/South, Massachusetts Ave, Beacon Street, and Commonwealth Ave. I'm sure you could name more. These are all streets that were built in neighborhoods that have all traffic (foot and vehicular) funneled onto them. Intentionally. And there are not any easy alternatives, especially when dealing with heavy buses that shouldn't be making awkward turns onto small side streets.

The Boston Elevated Railway company understood this. That's why their version of Boston's streetcar network was based around the idea of hub-and-spoke: feeding the surface lines into big hubs around rapid transit stations. Now, Jarrett Walker's great idea in many other cities is to take a bunch of duplicative, one-seat-ride-style routes, and to reform them into a more powerful grid using connections. But Boston's surface line system is already based around the concept of using connections: to the rapid transit network, and also to each other. Yes, it's not a grid in the sense of San Francisco, but Boston doesn't have a grid of streets. It doesn't even have good connectivity of streets, outside of the core. That's why the rapid transit lines have been so important and are so heavily used in proportion to city size: because they cut through the web.

These are the major surface lines on the Boston bus network today, frequency-mapped [full-size]
The surface line network is a web of routes woven onto a set of rapid transit points. The buses largely follow the streetcar network because the streetcars built the streets in the first place. And those same streetcars laid out the development patterns in the 19th century that we still live with today. I live in a building that was erected in 1895. Most people in Boston live in buildings that are over 70 years old. That's no accident. When zoning was legalized and authorized in the 1950s, it basically squelched small, incremental redevelopment. That's one reason why we still have single-story retail. It's also one reason why most of us still live in the same places (often the same buildings) and follow the same patterns that people of a hundred years ago did. The other major reason is path-dependency: it's hard to change things that thousands of people depend upon. Such changes often came about because of massive mega-projects, and often for the worst reasons.

Change does happen

I just spent a lot of time explaining why it's hard to change bus routes in Boston. But now I will offer some examples of where change does happen. First of all, I have to be thankful for the existence of the Transit History Roster of the MBTA. Now, let's take a look at the kind of changes that we see. The 1 actually provides a good example straight away: "This route was created in September 1962 by merging Routes 76 Harvard-Mass. Station and 47 Mass. Station-Dudley." Not really a re-route, just a through-routing that was probably happening anyway for equipment management reasons. Or maybe because the trolley barn on Newbury was being closed.

Let's look at a route created in the MBTA era: 47 "This route was initiated as a brand-new Monday-Friday only cross-town service in April 1972. The route traveled in new territory between Kenmore Sq. and Dudley via Brookline Ave, Longwood Ave, Huntington Ave, Ruggles St. and Shawmut Ave." Obviously there have been further changes to the route since then, and if you go to page 190, you can read the gory details. The 47 was created in 1972 to serve one of the "new economy" nodes that the Globe crows about: Longwood Medical Area. And it is well-used, in my experience, being packed to the brim. It needs higher frequency. It needs bus lanes. It does have a few jogs that I find to be obnoxious: The U-shape it makes inside of Longwood; the loop around Ruggles; the in-and-out it does to serve Dudley. But you cannot eliminate those jogs without annoying key constituencies. Longwood, Ruggles, and Dudley are important nodes. It's really not clear how the 47 could be better routed while still serving those nodes. I bet some clever street reconfiguration could make it a lot less painful, however.

The problem that Longwood has always had, and the 47 is only a band-aide, is that it was built up in a bit of a transit dead-spot. The "D" and "E" branches of the Green Line tangentially glance off of it. Those stations are heavily used by LMA workers, despite the walk, which is great. But barring the sudden appearance of $10 billion from the sky, to dig a tunnel, the LMA will never have the same kind of powerful, frequent radial transit that the Back Bay enjoys, for example. There's some hope for the Urban Ring to descend upon us and provide a real upgrade to the 47, but I'm skeptical about it ever happening. That's another article, for another time, though.

A major change happened when the Southwest Corridor was opened and the Orange Line was moved from Washington Street. Many buses had to be rearranged slightly to connect with Ruggles Station instead of or as well as Dudley. In fact, key bus route 28 was created out of pieces of two former streetcar routes at this time, and extended to serve Ruggles. The resulting route is approximately as direct a path as you can get between Mattapan, Dudley, and Ruggles, and it also happens to pick up right in front of Roxbury Community College. It's hard to imagine what other routing could accomplish so much. It's already one of the top buses in the system, by ridership. What it needs is dedicated bus lanes, signal priority, and all-door boarding. Yes, it's possible that the 28X package that was offered up a few years ago could have achieved some of that. I wasn't involved so I don't know first-hand what went wrong. But I've heard second-hand that the reason it failed was that it was shoved suddenly and heavy-handedly, from the top-down, on a riding community that was wary of changes arriving in such a manner. Much like the Melnea Cass BRT plan from two years ago that was roundly rejected. What this teaches us is that bus routes are political topics and it's important not to approach them from a purely technocratic viewpoint, as much as such technical ideas are useful for steering the conversation.

A commission to "re-examine bus routes from scratch" would be stirring up a hornet's nest for very little gain. Maybe some twisty routes like the 51 could be rejiggered. But we're not going to be cutting new streets through existing neighborhoods anytime soon, I hope. A committee to examine the routing of the 34 bus on Washington Street (Roslindale) is going to come back with same result every time: keep it on Washington Street, duh. The 77 should stay on Mass Ave (and no, the Red Line extension to Alewife did not eliminate the need for the 77 to Harvard!). Blue Hill Ave south of Grove Hall needs to be served with lots of buses. That's not going to change. What might change the bus network is the opening of the most recent rapid transit line to be built: the Green Line Extension. But how that will change things remains to be seen.

Instead of wasting time debating the routing of the 34, the 28 or the 77, we should be focusing our resources on getting bus lanes, signal priority, full accessibility, all-door boarding, more efficient routes through stations, clearer route information, more buses, more service, and the like. We should be clear about the goals of various bus routes, whether it be "Coverage" or "Ridership". Some of this could happen through the supposedly 'biennial' service planning process, if it were funded again. And some of it requires coordination with the city of Boston and the various other municipalities in the area. Perhaps the new "future focused transportation improvements" policies from the city are an indication of changes to come.