Saturday, December 28, 2013

Walking city, transit city

Boston is a walking city. I don't mean that the land itself gets up and moves around (which is apparently a thing), but rather that the people who live here get out and walk as a major mode of transportation. Latest data show that 15.5% of Boston commuters walk to work, putting us in the top 5 of American cities. Adding public transportation, and it accounts for just over 50% of all commutes. Of course, work is only one of the many reasons that we travel, and we shouldn't focus entirely on it. If you live in Boston, there's a strong chance that you walk to many daily activities. Only 63% of Boston's residents have access to a private vehicle. If you examine neighborhoods individually, you can find many census tracts for which fewer than half the people living there have access to a car. Some even dip below 30%, particularly in the most densely populated parts of the city. In those areas of Boston, daily life conducted on foot is the norm.

Further out, where the streetcar lines helped settle early suburbs, there are corridors of activity which also correspond to low car ownership rates and population density. Public transportation acts as a "walk accelerator" making it possible to travel on foot over longer distances and faster than a person could sustain alone. The streetcars are mostly gone, replaced by buses and light rail vehicles, but many of the land use patterns remain -- despite decades of automobile-oriented public policy.

The MBTA has a "key bus route" program which has selected 15 bus routes for certain service guarantees about span and frequency. That's great, although a bit mysterious (why those 15?). The agency has slowly pushed for improvements in those particular routes, with the construction of the improvement program coming this year (finally). While a key route program might make sense from a transit agency's point of view, it doesn't necessarily correspond to the needs of urban neighborhoods, which are broader in scope. The city needs to consider land use and transportation together when make future plans. Historically those two subjects have been the purview of separate agencies, in Boston, and as a result, both have suffered.

Today, it's becoming fairly widely understood that the presence of a subway station ought to make a big difference in how development is conducted in the vicinity. However, that's too limited a view. I believe that concept should be extended further. Non-car surface transportation, whether it be walking, biking, trolley or bus, is far too important to be neglected in the overall land use and transportation planning picture. In addition, there are plenty of neighborhoods with current residents that deserve better streets and access to the city around them.

With that in mind, I drew up a rough sketch of a "key corridor" map which is loosely based on the idea of "key bus routes" but intends to have a larger scope that encompasses land use planning, pedestrian safety improvements, and bike routes as well. The light blue lines, dots and polygons are the places where walking, biking and transit ought to be emphasized. The black lines are connections that are outside the city's developmental scope, and there's also some regions highlighted in turquoise where future changes are anticipated. The map is far from complete, so I welcome comments. The core of Boston is largely omitted, since it should all be considered a "key" region.

You'll notice that many of the key corridors follow existing bus routes (key or not). That's because there is already a strong convergence between walkable areas and bus service. But the starting point is different. Rather than saying: "here's a good, frequent bus route" I am saying "this is a corridor near densely populated areas where people walk, and it ought to have high quality, frequent transit service of some sort." For example, the corridor between Roslindale Square and Forest Hills does not have a "key bus route" but it is, nonetheless, a very heavy ridership area and those parts of Roslindale are a fairly walkable area. Western Ave in Allston is another case, where the 70 and 86 buses are well-used but neither of them is a key route. That street is going to see some major development, as is the rest of Allston, and the bus stops along it ought to be designated for improved service. In addition to Allston, other neighborhoods on the map have historically been treated poorly by transportation planners, and have an existing population that can benefit from a commitment to expand the walking city.

Mayor-elect Walsh has claimed that he wants to conduct walk audits out in the neighborhoods, explore dedicated bus lanes, and better bicycling infrastructure. These key corridors could be the starting point for those kinds of improvements, as well as a land use planning process which is oriented around supporting walkable neighborhoods with convenient, frequent transit connections. A subway station is a fairly large commitment from the transit agency to providing "good service" in a particular area. A bus stop is not much by itself. But a planning process could make real guarantees about service, and give the same kind of commitment, and the same kind of environment in which to grow neighborhoods. We're not likely going to see too many new subway stations in the next few decades, especially with Boston's geology. So it's especially important that we are able to nurture walkable neighborhoods that are based around improved surface transit, and that new development gets directed into places where it can fit good transit geometry, rather than contributing to the traffic congestion and sprawl problem.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Some praise, but also criticism of Enrique Peñalosa's TED talk about cities

I have a few comments about Enrique Peñalosa's recent TED talk, which has been making the rounds. I'll say up front that he makes a lot of very good comments and it is worth watching. He's right: a bus with 80 people ought to have dedicated lanes. The streets should be safe for children and families. We have to rein in sprawl. But I have some criticism of the example pictures that he shows. I think that they undermine his message.

(all images are from the TED talk)

Here we see his example of a bus rapid transit system in his country. I'll say that from a technical perspective, it's pretty neat. Cheap labor costs, reuse of existing roadway, good ridership all make this a cost-effective project. The big problem is the location. This is highway-median transit. Look at what the people have to walk across just to get to the station. The 3 lanes of cars that you can see are only a fraction of the total. There's even more lanes of cars outside the frame of the picture, on the other side of the pointlessly landscaped median. This is about as anti-urban a scene as you can get. For all that he talks about equity for people, this is an example of a highway where the vast majority of the space is dedicated to private automobiles. And I think that this is a miserable example and it won't inspire anyone to want to copy it. It puts the transit in a very inhospitable location.

This is an example from Guangzhou, China. It's slightly better, in that there's only 6 lanes of traffic surrounding the busway. But it's still a hideously wide, Hypertrophic corridor: there's even grade separation of pedestrians. You can't cross this street without going up and over. It's a highway. If you want to talk about superiority over subways, then you need to show us a corridor with urbanism that matches what a subway can provide. This is not that. This is not human scaled. This is a massive hole in the city.

A terrifying vision, Enrique Peñalosa's "Radiant City"
Now, at this point in the TED talk is where Peñalosa goes off the deep end. The last 2 pictures could have been dismissed as just unfortunate choices. But this here is his "vision" of the city of the future. And it is HORRIFYING!

The picture painted here is one that might make Le Corbusier's heart warm. Towers in the park. Giant highways. Grade separated pedestrian ways. It's practically a compendium of what-not-to-do in urban areas. This is a vision which was implemented in 20th century cities and turned out to be a complete disaster (e.g. 1950s public housing projects). What in the world is Enrique thinking?

I picked out these two examples of streets with large pedestrian/bikeway areas. Actually, it's not clear if the top example even has a roadway for cars. The major problem with these two pictures is: where's the life? Both are in almost completely dead scenes. There's no street life. There's no "eyes on the street" because they're both set in desolate places. Instead there's tons of "buffering greenspace." These would make fine recreational paths through a park. But for a city street, these violate the first principles of safety in numbers. Perhaps this is not his vision for a city street, he's not entirely clear. I hope not. This is not the vision of a vibrant city. At best, it is the vision of an outlying suburb. Compare that to this picture he also shows:

Isn't that obviously much better? Life, people, a human-friendly street and neighborhood. Simple. But not from Colombia.

I don't know what to make of Enrique Peñalosa in this talk. On the one hand, he says lots of good things, and even shows some nice pictures from places like Amsterdam. On the other hand, he highlights examples from his own country that look like the worst of the tragic mistakes from 1950s urban planning.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thought experiment: how much bus service can you get for the price of a parking garage?

Looking through some old data, I noticed that there's a common theme: the marginal operating cost per weekday of your typical frequent MBTA bus route is about $20,000. For example, the 1 bus is $18,456 while the 39 is $22,206. The 57 comes in at about $19,544. All of them are estimated to recover approximately half of that in fares, so overall marginal subsidy per day is about $8,000 to $12,000.

Mind you, the marginal operating cost only factors in the cost of running a bus per hour, plus the cost of driving it per mile. Maintenance, depreciation, administration and other facilities are not covered. But if they had the equipment lying around, then it might be fair to say that adding a weekday's worth of 57-like bus service costs approximately $10,000.

We know that excavating an underground parking garage can cost from $50,000 to $100,000 per parking space (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on conditions). Speaking loosely, then, each underground parking space could cover the net cost of approximately 5-10 weekdays worth of key bus route service. Let's just assume for simplicity that every day has the same cost as a weekday. Then a year's worth of key bus route service could be covered for the same cost as 36 to 73 underground parking spaces.

A year's worth of bus service. (photo source)
Does this come up in real life? I think it's fair to expect several hundred parking spaces to be built along every core bus line every year. I can think of several hundred that came online along Comm Ave just last year, including some built at a deep (expensive) level. And another few hundred planned for Washington Street in Brighton. The Fenway is seeing plenty of garage construction despite the parking maximums in the neighborhood. Then a quick browse of the BRA's website shows 216 spaces (aboveground) for Kenmore Square, 236 spaces (3 floors below ground) on Harrison Ave in the South End, and 63 underground spaces on E Street in South Boston, just to pick a few examples.

I have been talking marginal costs up until now, but spaces are typically not added one-by-one. Instead, it's whole levels at a time. For example, a developer might propose 80 dwelling units and 60 parking spaces in an underground level. Some misguided neighbors might demand more parking spaces be added. But the only way to do that would be to go yet another level underground. Perhaps the developer can add another 40 parking spaces by doing that. The garage now costs about $5 to $10 million to excavate. Those costs are passed onto to the eventual tenants, and create more traffic and pollution in the area.

Alternatively, the developer could propose to pay for a year's worth of frequent bus service. The cost of adding that additional underground level could easily cover the marginal yearly cost of running a key bus route. Furthermore, doing so would help everyone in the neighborhood rather than a handful of car-owning tenants, would ease traffic and pollution instead of increase it, and would contribute to a better urban environment. And there's likely more than one such eligible development project per year.

I have heard people propose the option of replacing parking subsidies with transit subsidies. It's also a similar idea to value capture. It seems like it may be feasible after all. Some might say that it's unfair to put the burden of providing the public service on a private project (the usual objection to value capture) but I believe it is also unfair for the government to force people to subsidize parking spaces. If you're going to have parking quotas, which are ultimately harmful to the public, then it behooves you to allow them to be replaced by transit support payments, which are beneficial to the public.