Sunday, November 25, 2012

CDD Forum: Jarrett Walker

On Monday, the author and transit expert Jarrett Walker visited MIT to give a talk to the City Design and Development forum. I was fortunate enough to have time to attend. Jarrett has written a book by the name Human Transit which is intended as an introduction to good transit planning principles in a format that is accessible to everyone. I recommend it for anyone at all interested in how transit affects their communities, and how their choices affect transit.

The talk itself was familiar to me, as I have been following his blog for some time. He pitched it towards the audience -- composed primarily of urban design students -- perhaps as a sharp reminder to them that transit is often forgotten by urban planners. He touches on several points, including,

  • Mobility vs access: measuring transit by the "mobility" metric (e.g. "person-miles") is not appropriate. It values overly long trips (for example, American commuter rail) over the kind of trips that a transit system usually handles. Instead, the better way to think about transit is "access" which basically boils down to "frequency of service."
  • More access means more freedom for people, and that is ultimately what transit is about. Freedom to move around at will, without the burden of a personal vehicle which imposes costs on the user as well as the city.
  • He is well known for promoting a grid of transit which relies on easy connections for access to wider areas, as opposed to the one-seat ride school of thought. You can provide much more frequent, understandable service along well-defined corridors, and rely on good connections to other frequent service, and get a lot more transit for your dollar.
  • He took a shot at planners who are overly dependent on the notion of "ridership projections" into the future, particularly long term projections. Making predictions about the year 2032 means assuming that the people living now will behave exactly as their parents did, not to mention predicting the strange twists of history that occur along the way.
  • Transit agencies need to be more assertive about what is reasonable and feasible to expect out of their service. One of his favorite examples is the rural bus route which diverts two miles down a dirt track to serve a single user -- who may no longer even live there. The bus agency was too afraid to push back and say that this is unreasonable. Also, transit agencies need to work together with the other agencies in the city to improve matters.
  • Finally, as always, he promotes the notion that availability and quality of service is much more important than the particular mode being utilized. Whether the vehicle has rubber tires or steel wheels, or anything else, what people care about most is getting to their destination in reasonable time and in a civilized fashion.
I think we would all be a lot better off if his book was required reading for all city and transit planners. The content is actually not that complicated if you are at all familiar with the basics, but that is a good thing because it is an introduction for those folks who may not be familiar with the geometry of transit.

One moment of note came up in the Q&A session afterwards, where a local Cambridge resident stood up and asked about the brewing controversy over the crowded route 1 bus. Briefly, there is a group of residents who are attempting to oppose further development in Cambridge and along the Red Line because they feel that the roads, buses and subways are overcrowded. Jarrett's response was this: build the new stuff, capture the revenue, and use it to fund improvements. If the route 1 bus is doing so poorly, then it needs dedicated lanes, all-door boarding, and more frequent service.

Another person asked whether it was a good idea to promote buses when they are frequently powered by polluting diesel engines. Jarrett's answer was that trolleybuses are still quite a viable alternative, so it is not an intractable problem, and that there are other pollution reducing technologies available to buses. I would have also pointed out that attracting riders out of single-occupancy vehicles and into buses is still a big net win for the environment and the community, even if the buses are powered by diesel engines.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

114 moving violations in one hour

After yet-another close call with a red-light runner at Harvard and Brighton Avenues I decided to spend an hour on this lovely day recording the number of moving violations I could observe at this intersection.

I allowed for folks who had clearly committed to the intersection as the light turned yellow. If anything, this is an under-count of violations, as I was fairly forgiving of various questionable acts. For example, I did not count drivers who entered the intersection to make a left turn and got stuck. I did not count drivers who entered the intersection within a few seconds of the yellow, or who seemed to be unable to stop (and weren't egregiously speeding). I did not count drivers who ended up in the intersection after the light turned red if it was due to another driver's behavior. I looked specifically for intent -- for instance, a change of velocity indicating that the driver was responding to the yellow light and making an explicit decision to violate the law.

I have broadly categorized the violations as follows, in this summary:

  • 114 total moving violations in one hour (12:48 to 13:48)
  • 23 instances of drivers blatantly speeding through the red light, even though they had plenty of time to stop.
  • 63 instances of drivers choosing to slowly roll into the intersection when they could easily have stopped.
  • 28 illegal turns-on-red (No Turn on Red is posted on all directions).

This is a heavily trafficked intersection for people on foot because of all the businesses. I also observed a number of bicyclists who stopped and waited for the red light. I did not see any bicyclist blow through the red light.

Notable violations: a fuel tanker accelerated on Harvard south-bound dangerously and ran the red light. A police officer on a motorbike flagrantly blew through the light going east on Brighton, no lights flashing. A silver hatchback with plates MA 14XZ79 stepped on the gas to get through the red light going west on Brighton, and nearly rammed another vehicle, just stopping short in time. A heavy public works vehicle also ran the red light going south on Harvard.

I noticed (and you can see in the data) that drivers were more likely to roll through the light on Harvard Ave, but much more likely to speed through the red light on Brighton Ave. I suspect this is because traffic moves more slowly on Harvard than on Brighton; the latter functions almost as a 4 lane highway at this point. Also it became apparent that there was a significant difference regarding turn-on-red violations among the different corners: the corners with sidewalk bulb-outs saw fewer turn-on-red violations than the clipped corners. It looks like the clipped corners may actually invite more reckless turning motion.

It's easy to find cases of moving violations here. I counted 114 violations in one hour. There is no justifiable excuse for BPD D-14 to be putting any traffic safety resources they have available towards anything else until they first address the complete lack of enforcement of motor vehicle safety here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Replaying real-time bus data

A while back, the MBTA released a few days worth of high-quality, real-time bus tracking information as part of a "data contest." The contest is over but the data is still available. So, for fun, I've created a new visualization of the data: a "replay" of a day's worth of real-time data for the 57/57A buses.

Screenshot of the "replay" animation
Each triangle shows the motion of an individual bus. They are colored arbitrarily to help distinguish one from another. The red circles pop up when a stop request is pressed, and the blue circles pop up where the bus opens its doors. You can rewind, pause, or fast-forward through the day, from 5 in the morning until 2 at night.

The positions are all based on real-time GPS data, so you can watch as the schedules break down due to bunching, observe buses slowing down due to heavy traffic, or see a single bus laying over multiple times. Although the rest of the data is also available, I decided to stick with just one route for now, to keep things simple.

You can see it by clicking on this link.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

What should we do about reckless driving?

On October 31st, a white SUV crashed through a red light on Commonwealth Avenue and hit local resident and shopowner Brenda Wynne, then fled, leaving her for dead in the middle of the intersection. Coincidentally, her shop, Stingray Body Art, was tattooed by a black Jeep driven recklessly out of control on Cambridge Street only a couple weeks earlier. Also, in the video, you can see that a nearby pedestrian just barely avoided the collision by a few feet.

(other recent incidents: 1 2 3 4 5more)

It's well accepted in Boston that drivers run red lights and behave outrageously at times. It's so ingrained that whenever a pedestrian signal turns to Walk, the first thing everyone does is check to see which cars are going to roll through the red light. For example, just a little while ago, I was crossing Brighton Avenue (with the Walk signal) when two vehicles decided to roll through the red light towards the crossing pedestrians (and me). They were going slowly enough to stop, but still opted to run it. One stopped for us, the other blasted through a gap between people walking. Hardly anyone took note, as this kind of behavior is a frequent occurrence.

On another evening, a few months ago, a different story played out, one which I found rather amusing. I was standing on the same corner waiting for a friend, when the driver of a BMW waiting at a red light to make a left onto Harvard Avenue decided to wait no longer. Not only that, he pulled into a parking space on the wrong side of the road, facing the wrong way, directly in front of me. Apparently, he was trying to pick-up his date, who happened to be standing next to me.

I looked back over and noticed a police car had been waiting behind him in the same lane. After a long moment, in which I believe the officer was simply shocked, the flashing lights came on and the police car pulled up behind the BMW. The driver of the BMW, playing coy, started to inch away as if nothing had happened -- until the sirens blared. I didn't stick around to see the rest of the encounter, but it was notable for being the first time I've ever seen a police officer respond to an outright moving violation in the area. Apparently, flagrantly snubbing the law directly in front of an officer is the required impetus.

So, the questions I have are these: why do we tolerate this behavior, why do the police look the other way most of the time, and is it worthwhile trying to change it?

I believe one of the reasons we tolerate reckless driving is that it is culturally accepted here: if everyone is doing it, why not? And the police don't have any moral motivation to stop something which is culturally acceptable. What about monetary incentives? Are the fines not high enough to motivate the police force to collect them? Or do they see the money go elsewhere, and have no financial motivation? Is that necessarily a bad thing? It could lead to abuse, after all. What structural changes in governance could tilt the balance in favor of traffic safety? Should we seek the use of red light cameras? Or will that also degenerate into abuse?

One notable quote from the article linked above is that there is no evidence to pursue the hit-and-run driver because there are no cameras at the scene. This is in sharp contrast to newer MassDOT roads which are extensively monitored for safety. Perhaps that would be the first step, easy and cheap. But it's not enough.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Election Day coming up

I've tended to stay away from overtly political posts, but it's a tough thing to avoid entirely because city planning and infrastructure is a necessarily political matter. Also, the biggest political day of the year is coming up, this November 6th. I just want to mention three Massachusetts candidates, briefly, who are running in contested elections this fall, and why I support them.

This list is composed of only Democrats because I find their priorities and values to be generally in the right place, and balanced. Unfortunately, the Republican party has become dominated by unhinged lunatics who threaten our economic growth as well as the religious liberty of non-Christians. They also seem intent on diverting as much money as possible to further highway construction, and rewarding their suburban and exurban base with more government resources and borrowing. I have trouble seeing why anyone who cares about cities, or urban issues, would be able to cast a vote for a Republican -- as long as that party continue to behave in this destructive manner, they are unfit to govern.

Elizabeth Warren

For me, Elizabeth's strength is on economic issues, particularly her work on the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and reining in out-of-control banks. I also find the rest of her platform acceptable, and I know that she will work with President Obama if he is re-elected. Although her platform doesn't include too much explicitly on transportation, it does include this:
If we invest now in 21st century energy, over time we can lower the costs of production for all of our businesses. Right now, renewable energy is forced to compete with old, dirty energy sources like oil and coal that get billions in special breaks from Washington.

We need to upgrade our aging roads, bridges, mass transit and rail, water and sewage lines, port infrastructure, broadband internet - the basic pieces it takes to manufacture goods and to get them to market.
She also has a section on issues important to urban households, which is more than I can say for her opponent, who seems to treat Boston as a place for photo-ops, and nothing more.

Mike Capuano

For the most part I find Mike to be agreeable and a good fighter on issues important to my area as well as the nearby cities which I also follow. Then again, sometimes he gets weirdly pessimistic.

Here's what his website has to say about transportation:
I will continue fighting to increase access to public transportation by extending the Green Line into Somerville, making improvements to the Fairmont Line, advancing an Orange Line stop at Assembly Square, and making progress on the Urban Ring. An enhanced public transportation system will give residents greater options, increase access to employment opportunities and help protect the environment.

Will Brownsberger

The only competitive local election, in my area, this year is the State Senator for the Second Middlesex and Suffolk district. And this is perhaps the most important competitive election in terms of importance for direct, local issues. I am happy to report that State Senator Will Brownsberger is an excellent candidate. From a recent interview, when asked about his priorities, he responded:
1) The MBTA – addressing its maintenance backlog and financial sustainability.
Further on:
Business leaders agree that public transportation is the top jobs issue in the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District. [...]
So, a top priority for job creation in the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District is efficient public transportation. That starts with putting the MBTA on a sound financial footing that allows it to reduce its maintenance backlog. The MBTA's inability to properly maintain and update its core resources will lead to further degradation of service over time. Additionally, we need to look at measures to improve service on the Green Line, which serves much of the district -- changing traffic signalization on the major thoroughfares that it shares with vehicular traffic may help. Finally, longer term, we need to advance plans for improving circumferential transit service -- connecting Longwood to the other great concentration of research in Kendall Square area and also to residential areas from Everett to Roxbury where many hospital workers live. This inner belt transit concept [Urban Ring] has been on the drawing boards for years, but has been stalled by the Big Dig financial crunch.
Will has been State Senator for two years and his district stretches from his native Belmont all the way along Commonwealth Avenue to Arlington Street in the Back Bay. As you can see on this map, his district includes the Central Subway through the Back Bay, portions of Fenway/Kenmore, and the "B" branch through Allston/Brighton. So his territory includes a very heavily traveled portion of the Green Line. Which is why I'm happy to see that he takes it very seriously.

Not only that, he also is very interactive in the community, and even invites everyone to call his personal cell-phone or write to his direct e-mail address if they have issues to talk about. He updates his website frequently and personally responds to all the comments posted on the articles. It's a level of transparency and openness to which I hope that all other members of State Legislature aspire.

Whichever way you vote, the most important thing is that you remember to go out and do so by Tuesday, November 6th. And pay attention to those local races, some of them could be quite important.