Wednesday, March 28, 2012

MBTA releases new proposal

Boston Globe article:
MBTA riders would pay an average of 23 percent more and most service cuts would be spared under a budget-balancing plan that will be announced this morning by the T, the state’s top transportation official said in an interview.
This would raise CharlieCard subway fares to $2 and eliminate a few bus routes along with weekend service to Heath St, Needham, Greenbush, and Kingston/Plymouth. It uses a lot of one-time opportunities, including leftover snow/ice removal money, and does nothing for the long-term problems of funding. Rather pathetic overall. They need to get the legislature motivated to fix forward funding, instead of kicking the can further down the road.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Is NextBus starting to fail in Boston?

This past month or so, I've started to notice that, from time to time, a bus will pass by without appearing on my NextBus GPS-tracking feed. At first it was just once in a while, enough to make you start wondering, but not terrible. Today, I spotted two buses that never appeared on the tracking. In addition, in the evening rush hour, the feed only showed buses arriving in 24 and 96 minutes -- this on a key route which runs every 10 minutes all day. Something weird is going on. I am presuming that the GPS units inside of the buses are failing in some fashion.

I haven't had an experience as bad as these ghost buses in D.C. with NextBus in Boston. Actually, the service has been pretty good so far. It's a little optimistic about the speed of MBTA buses, so sometimes that last "1 minute" takes longer than one minute. I hope that this is just a temporary glitch. The real-time data really changed the way I used public transportation, making it a lot more convenient, and a lot less stressful.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Public comment period ends for MBTA proposal

The MBTA has wrapped up their public campaign to collect comments about the proposed service changes and fare hikes. They have published some statistics and general information about the public input in a slideshow. The highlights slide says:

•More than half, 51%, of all comments are from bus customers.
•A much larger percentage of customers oppose service cuts (78%) compared with those customers opposing fare increases (24%).
•More than 10% of replies support fare increases described in our proposals.
•Nearly 60% of comments call for the MBTA to maintain bus services.
•More than one fifth (21%) of comments call for the MBTA to maintain commuter rail service.
•17% of comments ask the MBTA to maintain ferry service.
Judging from the tone of the slides, and the fact that Davey indicates that some new plan will be proposed by April 4th, I get the feeling that they are trying to rationalize some kind of fare increase come this summer. I am disappointed that they did not categorize any letters calling for a legislative fix to forward funding, or returning the Big Dig debt to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where it rightfully belongs. The MBTA seems to have tunnel vision on this matter; considering only fare increases or service cuts, even though neither can lead to a permanent solution for the problems of funding.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Traffic queuing

Longfellow Bridge plans

I often hear traffic engineers and other people talking about "queuing" in lanes lead up to intersections (for example, near the River Street bridge). It seems to them to be very important to have enough space for vehicles to wait as they transfer between roads. From my computer science perspective, I understand where they are coming from; I have a working familiarity with queueing theory and I am wary of deadlocks. But there is a significant difference between abstract mathematical notion of queues and the reality of human-driven automobile traffic on roads. The flows between roads aren't immutable, and there are a lot of subtle feedback effects which drive patterns of congestion: the very kind of behaviors which are not handled well by queueing theory.

Rose Kennedy Greenway
If I had magical powers, I would wave a wand and make congestion problems disappear for everyone (well, after curing cancer, etc). In reality, when people talk about relieving congestion, they generally mean "add a lane." Perhaps the one lane can only hold 25 vehicles while waiting at a light, and observations have shown that there are 30 vehicles waiting at worst during peak hours -- spilling and blocking the roadway behind them. So the natural suggestion is to add a lane and accommodate up to 50 vehicles. The problem is that with all this extra capacity, more people will make the decision to use the newly widened road for their trips. Also, clearing up the blocked traffic on the feeding road gives more vehicles the opportunity to make the turn. As a result, the newly widened roads ends up overflowing with 55 vehicles instead of 30. It's just another case of 'the fundamental law of highway congestion' which, in econ-speak says: elasticity of vehicle kilometers traveled to lane kilometers is close to 1. In normal person-speak, that means that car traffic almost always fills up available road space (see also: Downs-Thomson paradox).

Near Sullivan Square
Now if adding a lane actually worked, had low costs and little other impact, there would be hardly much more to say about this. But without a magic wand, that is not the case. Expanding roadways in urban neighborhoods causes direct harm to the inhabitants of that area. It is more difficult to walk across wider roadways, it is more dangerous to be around them, and there is more pollution from the added vehicles. So by choosing to widen a road, it is likely that you have failed to solve the congestion problem, and you've made life worse for residents and other people in the area.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The rent is too damn high

I've finally gotten around to reading The Rent is Too Damn High by Matthew Yglesias and I think it is a fine long form article/e-book. It isn't going to be terribly novel to anyone who has been following these issues for a while, but it does put them together in a pretty coherent and easy form in his characteristic style. For those who don't know his writing, I will say that Yglesias has a knack for putting non-obvious ideas into terms that make you wonder why you didn't think of it that way before. He is not afraid to challenge orthodoxy on both sides of the political spectrum when it comes to cities and urban planning, and that alone makes it worthwhile to pick up and read, even if you do end up disagreeing with some of the specifics.

Since in the continuing series on Death and Life of Great American Cities we just covered the chapter on 'Self-destruction of diversity' I think it is relevant to talk about Yglesias' chapter on 'The Mirage of Gentrification' which is also the part of the e-book that I think is weakest.

He is correct to point out that higher land prices attract developers, and that it is perverse to try and keep prices low through neglect. He is also right to point out that the only way to bring down rents is to build more dwelling units. But I think he dismisses too quickly the problem of disrupting community ties and seems to presume that foes of gentrification are only interested in preserving 'neighborhood character.' It is true that some people do think that way, but there is a more subtle reason to be concerned about rapid changes and it is one that Jane Jacobs dwells upon extensively.

Now, regarding 'character' I'm going to go out on a limb and say "does it really matter?" It's a nice thing, and I certainly have my own preference for more traditional styles while despising Brutalism. But it doesn't ultimately matter (except that Brutalism is soul destroying). What does matter is people, and the relationships between people in the city that Jacobs so eloquently described. As an example: the infamous housing projects of mid-century have many problems. Everyone grimaces when I describe the characteristic Garden City-style towers and super-blocks. And those design choices were certainly bad and deadly to urban well-being. But the worst and most pernicious effect of the housing projects was the way they tore apart neighborhoods and displaced the diversity of people who lived in the old neighborhood, replacing them with a homogeneous economic strata, where people are merely measured by their wages and treated as so many interchangeable pieces.

Cities are about people, first and foremost. The smart opponents of gentrification shouldn't be aiming only to preserve 'character' or the profits of a specific set of business owners, though doing so in moderation is one possible strategy. They really should be trying to preserve the social networks between people that maintain the good workings of the neighborhood. These networks will slowly change over time as people come and go, and the neighborhood will change over time as people build or renovate their properties. But humans can adapt to that naturally. They cannot adapt to having their entire neighborhood be bulldozed and replaced by a centrally planned project. Nor can they adapt well when a developer bulldozes an entire block to build condos, or whatever happens to be the most profitable type of building at that moment in time. Or if rents rise so broadly that some critical number of people are displaced which causes a catastrophic breakdown of the relationships between the former residents.

Of course, as Yglesias points out, having developers build more housing units is the only way to ultimately lower rents. But how do you permit them to build more, and varied units to accommodate diverse lifestyles, while not displacing too many people too quickly? You face the threats of rising rents vs the threat of redevelopment, and the solution to one can exacerbate the other. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that Yglesias considers the second problem in his analysis, nor does he mention the issue of promoting diversity of use.

In Jacobs' chapter on 'The self-destruction of diversity' she makes some very specific proposals to try and prevent districts from hollowing themselves out: zoning for diversity, staunchness of public buildings, and ultimately increasing the supply of vital city streets to meet demand. By 'zoning for diversity' she means some form of rules which permit change, but not overwhelmingly of one kind, not too quickly. This is fundamentally different from zoning as it is usually practiced, and perhaps makes it a misnomer. The 'staunchness of public buildings' is another form of this same principle, one where the city can simply choose to keep its working properties different from their surroundings by not selling them off. For example, the Massachusetts State House could have been sold for the development of more condos, but its presence keeps an additional kind of primary use around the Boston Common area, to the benefit of all. Admittedly, I find the notion of 'zoning for diversity' to be a tricky one to put into practice. The intention is clearly to help preserve the four properties of successful districts, and the social networks of people who are present there. But it seems liable to be abused in practice, or to be subject to problems of corruption, where a developer could claim they were "preserving diversity" when in effect they were doing the opposite. Yglesias and Jacobs do come together in agreement on the notion that the supply of good, vital city neighborhoods must be increased, somehow.

The main difference between the work of Yglesias and Jacobs can be summarized as thus: Yglesias is interested in increasing intensity of use, but doesn't dwell on the other three characteristics of successful districts. Actually, it is curious that he doesn't mention them at all, since he is clearly aware of her work. However, his basic argument is sound: that land use regulations must be relaxed to permit more free market use of land. This is something that needs to be more widely understood by just about everyone.

Friday, March 16, 2012

River Street bridge replacement

A bit over a year ago, back when winter still meant snow on the ground, I decided one day to take the River Street bridge on my way from Cambridge to Brighton. This bridge combines with the nearby Western Avenue bridge to form the primary link between these two neighborhoods across the Charles River. Both were built at the same time, approximately 80-90 years ago, and are considered "historic." On the Cambridge side, River Street intersects with the arterial road Memorial Drive. On the Brighton side it is Cambridge Street intersecting with Soldier's Field Road. When the Mass Pike extension was built to Allston, the entrance and exit ramps were built very close to the River Street bridge intersection. Although this corridor was the historical link between Cambridge and Brighton, at the time there was little thought given to pedestrian safety, as they did not expect people to ever walk here again.

Looking at Cambridge Street overpass from the River Street bridge

Bearing this in mind, I trudged across the bridge in the heavy snow and, dodging traffic from the highway ramp, managed to reach the foot of the Cambridge Street I-90 overpass. At this point, I was standing in snow up to my knees, realizing that this sidewalk would never be plowed. I wasn't even sure where it was, exactly. What's worse, is that I could not ascend the gradient in this weather, it was too slippery. Maybe, instead, I could climb up the little bit of 'greenspace' that formed a berm for the overpass. As I considered my options, suddenly, a passing car opened its window and the driver yelled out: "WHAT are you doing?!"

It dawned on me just how screwed up this situation was. Here I am, attempting to travel along a path that has existed since the 18th century, but because I am on foot, I am now out of place.

As it turns out, I am not the only one who felt this was wrong. MassDOT is proposing to rehabilitate the Western Avenue and River Street bridges that connect Brighton and Cambridge, as part of its Accelerated Bridge Program. They held their Allston/Brighton public meeting today. Much of what was said by the public officials is contained in the PDFs, as they mostly stood up and read from the slides (bad presentation skills!). One of the main points of their plan is to fix all of the pedestrian and bicycle safety infrastructure on and surrounding the bridges. During the public comment phase, many people stood up and expressed how grateful they were that MassDOT was making such a strong effort to accommodate all modes of travel in their plans.

The strongest criticism came from those who were disappointed that the agency had decided to forgo the inclusion of pedestrian tunnels for the Charles river pathways. It's a separate issue from the traffic above, but would require fill and therefore must be subject to a "historic landmark" review process and permitting. Similarly, several people were in favor of removing the overbearing concrete barriers that serve as a railing; but they too are protected as a "historic design feature" of the bridges, although their purpose is to block views of the river (which apparently was badly polluted back then). There were many other comments, some to do with the specifics of how light phases, or bicycle lanes were going to be designed. But overall, the impression I got is that MassDOT wants to do the right thing and make this combination of bridges be accessible to all whether they be driving, walking or bicycling.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The need for aged buildings

The Filene's "Memorial Hole" in Downtown Crossing
[Continuing series about Death and Life of Great American Cities]
The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. This economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighborhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over the years.
I find this chapter of Death and Life to be the most depressing. Not because of its tone or content necessarily, but because of its implication. Three of the four characteristics of successful districts--mixed uses, small blocks, and density--can be encouraged or developed in the short term through thoughtful action, deregulation or planning. But there is only one way to get aged buildings: time.
As for really new ideas of any kind--no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be--there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.
One of the problems afflicting American cities is vast tracts of empty space in otherwise urban areas. Boston is no exception; having flattened many blocks in misguided fits of urban renewal, or for highways and parking lots. When politicians and developers get together and decide to do something about this, they usually produce mega-projects that fill up entire blocks with new construction.
Part of Assembly Square design

I can think of several such projects coming up, off the top of my head: Assembly Square, a transit oriented redevelopment of a failed mail in Somerville (more discussion). Fenway Center, which is replacing acres of parking lots and also taking "air rights" over the Mass Pike. There will be new construction in place of the old Boston Herald building. And most infamously, the "Hole" in Downtown Crossing, where a developer decided to play games with the city by knocking down the Filene's building partially and then stop for several years.

All of these projects devote many words in their planning or promotional documents to considering the needs of pedestrians and transit users. It is, after all, the fashion these days. And perhaps they are even sincere, although the amount of parking included in these packages is suspiciously large. Some of the documents carefully sketch out expected flows of people through painstakingly landscaped and architecturally intriguing corridors; replete with ground-level commerce and sidewalk cafes. It all looks quite wonderful on paper. But yet, I can't help but wonder, will these just be sterile failures? Will the promenades be promenaded? What will draw economic activity, and therefore, city vitality? The plans account for density, mixed uses, and to some extent small blocks. But none of them include old buildings, and therefore, none of the economic diversity that can only exist with low overhead.
Fenway Center rendering
So is there any way this dilemma can be avoided? Alternatively, is it possible that Jacobs was wrong about the need for aged buildings? The first impulse is to suggest "subsidization" as a means to dodge the problem of high rents. But Jacobs wrote a convincing counter to that idea: the political reality of subsidization is that only "acceptable" businesses would be permitted in the space and this "paternalistic" attitude would be just as stultifying as high rents. Also: the subsidized spaces would be the first on the chopping block when the inevitable economic realities of development took hold. Subsidies are not an alternative to low overhead.

But surely increasing the amount of commercial and residential space in a city will have beneficial effects overall? Businesses moving out from old buildings into new ones will leave space in old neighborhoods for new businesses. That is, assuming they can entice the existing businesses to give up their established home in favor of a new, unproven location. Some kinds of businesses can and do move around like this, as she does point out, using the example of Brooklyn. But this isn't really helping the diversity of the new neighborhood, just possibly the old ones. On the other hand, some of these new developments are embedded closely with existing city districts. Perhaps that is sufficient, in those cases.

Why does it seem like this dilemma is more difficult in the 21st century compared to the 19th century? For example, it was not uncommon for many cities (including Boston) to lose neighborhoods to out-of-control fires. Yet, they picked up and rebuilt everything, and didn't seem to suffer the same kind of stultifying effects that new development brings today. Perhaps it has to do with the increasing costs of providing modern facilities, up to modern safety standards. Or perhaps the same problem existed back then, but over the years became obscured and forgotten.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Road subsidies across Massachusetts

I downloaded a spreadsheet containing the FY2012 allotments for the Chapter 90 program:
The Funds provided from Transportation Bond Issues authorizes such Capital Improvement Projects for Highway Construction, Preservation and Improvement Projects that create or extend the life of Capital Facilities
The total allotment divided up among the cities and towns of Massachusetts for FY2012 adds up to approximately $200 million. I then calculated the amount of Chapter 90 state aide was being allocated to each city/town per capita, using the Census 2010 population figures. Here is a map showing how that aide was distributed, with darker green areas indicating more money per person, and lighter green areas indicating less money per person.

Some selected numbers:

Top 5:
Monroe $560.77
Hawley $538.92
Mount Washington $429.08
Rowe $375.69
Sandisfield $365.62
Bottom 5:
Somerville $14.78
Revere $15.31
Everett $15.64
Malden $15.76
Winthrop $16.04

Notably, Somerville receives the least state aide for roads, per capita, of any city or town in Massachusetts. Many parts of western Massachusetts, by comparison, get an order of magnitude more aide per capita than Somerville. What explains this discrepancy? Well, actually, it's not much of a mystery:
Factors: Source:
Road miles - 58.33% EOT&PW
Population - 20.83% Mass DOR
Employment - 20.83% Mass DET

  • This formula was developed by the Legislative Rural Caucus of the Transportation Committee.
  • Mileage factor represents city/town accepted road miles.
  • Employment factor represents employment within the town borders.

In other words, the money handed out to build new and maintain existing roads is determined largely by the length of existing roads. The metric "accepted road miles" is the same as "centerline miles" in other Massachusetts documents. "Centerline miles" are as they sound: measure of a single line followed down a road. So, a 1-mile long country road is equivalent in "centerline miles" to a 1-mile six lane arterial stretch. The result is that the Chapter 90 formula promotes the construction of new roadways by increasing the subsidy rewarded to municipalities that increase their "accepted centerline miles." That this formula was designed by the "Legislative Rural Caucus" and disproportionately benefits western Massachusetts is likely no accident either.