Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The MBTA Capital Investment Program FY15-19

MassDOT put out its capital investment plan (CIP) and the weMove Massachusetts plan recently, and the board voted on it a couple weeks ago. Actually, they voted on it at the board meeting on February 12th, while the comment deadline was February 14th, which makes it seem like they don't even maintain the pretense of listening to public comment. They did add some MBTA bus replacement funding based on the oral testimony from the public meetings, however.

The MBTA has a separate CIP with a comment deadline of February 28th though, and you can still comment by sending an email to

I recommend checking out the CIP FY15-19 document itself if you are interested in details about the system investment. There's some intriguing suggestions, such as the implementation of CharlieCard on Commuter Rail, or "identifying technology for proof-of-payment on the Green Line." I'm not entirely sure that this is new text, or if it's just leftover copy/paste from an old plan. But there's $16 million allocated to it in upcoming fiscal years.

On the other hand, there's also $308 million allocated to the disastrous South Coast Rail project, and $120 million for parking garages in Quincy, Beverly and Salem -- a highway benefit that directly hurts the MBTA's ability to attract real investment and ridership at its expensive stations.

South Coast Rail is especially pernicious because the final tally will be over $1.5 billion and it is only expected to accommodate about 5,000 riders. Those are optimistic estimates; some have ranged up to $2.1 billion and merely 3,000 riders. At a cost of over $300,000 per person, it is a boondoggle that absolutely dwarfs the Big Dig (~$100,000 per vehicle).

A recent blog post about the ridiculously high costs of American transit caught my eye with this paragraph:
Again, think of the consultant’s motivation. If they design everything to standard and it costs extra money, it’s not their money that gets spent. If they design something that doesn't meet standards, they potentially expose themselves to significant liability. What would you do? There’s a reason some consultants think the best project is the project that never gets built.
It occurs to me that this is the story of South Coast Rail: a consultant hand-out that won't ever get built. Think about this:

  • The $308 million is just for preliminary engineering and very minor track work (for freight).
  • The selected alternative requires electrification of the route, with commuter trains powered by overhead catenary. The MBTA does not operate such trains, has no facilities to maintain them, and has no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.
  • The South Coast Rail project has been a nebulous political football for decades, pumped by consultants all along.

So, there's a ton of money that gets spent on consulting work with very little construction to go with it; a service plan which is unimplementable; and a history of exploitation. To my eyes, this screams fraud.

Anyway, there's lots of stuff in it, so I recommend checking out the CIP and writing a comment by Friday.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The last train home

Word got around at the end of last year that a new late night weekend service would be piloted this year on the MBTA. On weekend nights, trains and key bus routes will continue running past 1 a.m. with a final departure of the night around 2:30 a.m. from the downtown core. This initiative came from Govenor Patrick, and is reported to have a $20 million price tag. That seems a bit excessive, so it makes me wonder if the T is just taking this opportunity to bolster some schedules at other times of day as well, or adding some shifts to avoid being stretched thin at times. Either way, one thing that brings me concern:
The new late service, which will include the Silver Line, will be a one-year experiment. If it proves popular, it could become permanent.
I think that this foray into late night service is a very good thing (in fact, it does not go far enough, to help the late night service workers) and I am worried that we don't know what criteria will be used to judge the success of this pilot program, or what thresholds it will be expected to meet. What brought this to mind was a couple of good, recent articles on the topic of off-peak transit.

Far Beyond Rush Hour:
Metropolitan areas across the United States — whether their primary mass transit system is a metro rail or a commuter train or a bus network — are recognizing that city residents can't get by on great rush-hour service alone. They need frequent, reliable transit all hours of the day and long into the night.
The Real Barriers to Abundant, All-Day Transit Service:
The "guaranteed ride home." Peak-only services are risky. You can get trapped if you have to work late or leave early, so peak commuters value service at other times, too, even if they never use it. What's more, you won't use transit to get there unless you're sure you can get back, so the ridership at various times of day is interrelated. An empty evening bus is just a piece of an all-day offering whose availability throughout the day may be the real cause of its success.
The logic behind the need for good off-peak options also applies to very late night travel. You wouldn't want to use a transit system that could strand you at 8 p.m. and if you are out late, you don't want to use one that strands you at 1 a.m. either. But this doesn't necessarily correspond to heavy usage of the service past 1 a.m., although that would be good to see. Many people might choose to use the T to go out on the weekends, but even if they do end up coming home before 1 a.m., it is the existence of service after 1 a.m. that gives them the confidence to ride at all.

So I worry that if "success" is measured strictly by post-1 a.m. usage of the system, then it might not be reflective of all the ways the late night service is helping people. Especially if the MBTA does end up adding a surcharge to the fare: then additional people will be motivated to board earlier than 1 a.m., but they still do benefit from the commitment to offer service past 1 a.m., as a backup plan, just in case they miss the intended departure.

Having said that, there are many differences between 2005 and 2014 that could easily make up the difference between anemic usage and strong popularity. Use of the standard system (instead of replacement buses), better communication, promotion, awareness, and now real-time displays with data available online. These will all help increase ridership of the system that people already understand, late at night, with the confidence that only real-time vehicle location data can give.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Boston's narrow streets are safest for walking and riding a bike: wide streets are the most dangerous.

A wide street, Brighton Ave: 80 feet wide. Chung-Wei Yang was killed by a bus here.
I was reading an interesting Globe article on winter biking the other day when I spotted a sentence that was clearly tossed in there without much thought:
But urban biking does present risks, especially in Boston with its narrow streets and aggressive drivers. In 2012, five cyclists were killed in accidents — though none in winter.
This false, lazy sentiment about Boston's streets is unfortunately somewhat widespread. In fact, Boston doesn't really have many narrow streets. But, the narrow streets that Boston does have are one of its greatest advantages over other American cities.

In general, narrow streets are safer. From that study in Colorado:
“The most significant causal relationships to injury and accident were found to be street width and street curvature,” according to the report. “The analysis illustrates that as street width widens, accidents per mile per year increases exponentially, and that the safest residential street width is 24 feet (measured from curb face).”
Even 24 feet is fairly wide (enough for two fast-moving traffic lanes), but that town did not have any smaller streets to study. Even without the research, it's easy to see that the main purpose of wide roads is to make it easier to drive faster -- and speed is the biggest danger to life and limb. One of the reasons New York City is having so many problems with street injury is because, other than a few, relatively small areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, that city is cursed with extremely wide streets.
Huntington Ave (courtesy: Google): about 95 feet wide. Kelsey Rennebohm was killed by a bus here.
Boston is luckier in that it escaped the foolish 19th century fad for wide streets with much less damage. The oft-noted "cattle paths" (not really) of downtown Boston are not so problematic. There are some cases where arrogant city planners from the twentieth century actually tore down buildings and parks to widen streets, and that was unfortunate. But luckily we managed to save most of Beacon Hill and the North End from their depredations and those neighborhoods survive as examples of people-scaled streets. We are also lucky that when the Back Bay was built, the streets were not created as big as New York's -- although they are still quite a bit larger than they should be, and in some cases, quite dangerous.
Beacon St and Charlesgate West: at least 100 feet wide. Kanako Miura was killed by a dump truck here.
But Boston's narrow streets pretty much end after you leave the downtown area, Beacon Hill, and the North End. Outside of that scope, Boston has many wide streets, and many streets that are much wider than they ought to be. While many of the residential side streets are 24-30 feet wide, I still see many drivers using them as high speed cut-through routes. But the truly dangerous streets are the main ones, which around me range from 50 feet, to 80 feet, up to even 170 feet from sidewalk to sidewalk.

Comm Ave at St Paul St (courtesy: Google): about 110 feet wide. Chris Weigl was killed by a tractor trailer here.
This is where the perversity of the Globe article quote comes into play: all of the people who were killed while riding their bike in 2012 were killed on very wide streets. Yet, the author blames "narrow streets." With such misinformation flying around, is it any wonder when people don't know better? Wide streets continue to be designed and built, on the premise that they are safer, when nothing could be further from the truth! One time, I asked an architect about why he was creating a new street that was so wide, next to a park where children play. He told me: but that's how it is in the South End, where I live! He didn't stop to think that the South End's wide streets were a danger and a drawback to living there.

Here's some more data. BPD identified several intersections which had the most crashes involving a bicyclist in 2012:

From Cyclist Safety Report 2013: most problematic intersections
Here are the street widths:

  • Beacon St at Massachusetts Ave: 50 feet
  • Massachusetts Ave at Beacon St/Comm Ave: 60 feet
  • Harvard Ave at Brighton Ave: 50 feet
  • Brighton Ave at Harvard Ave: 80 feet
  • Comm Ave at Harvard Ave: 160 feet
  • Huntington Ave at Belvedere St: 95 feet
  • Belvedere St at Huntington Ave: 60 feet
  • Columbus Ave at Cedar St: 70 feet
  • Cedar St at Columbus Ave: 26 feet
All of those streets are very wide except for Cedar St; a small side street that is one of the only ways to walk or bike between two densely populated residential sections of Roxbury, and requires crossing the very dangerous Columbus Ave between two very long blocks.

Columbus Ave (courtesy: Google): about 65 feet wide. A woman was struck and killed here on Christmas Eve.
I could keep going on and on, but I think I've made my point quite clear: wide streets are dangerous. Unfortunately, Boston has many wide streets, and it is very difficult to fix them once they are created. The best way to create safer streets is to build them narrower from the beginning. But in the rare cases where we have that opportunity, we are still building wide streets because people do not know or understand the danger. Engineers claim to try and anticipate future traffic growth, and they do not consider the costs of the wider streets at all. Fire marshals want wider streets and turning radii for their trucks, but they don't think about the people who will be killed or injured by those design choices. Architects like wide streets because it feeds their egos: they're always trying to build the next "grand Parisian boulevard" and, at least in the bad old days, they could care less about the human cost. Even the new planners, with their "complete streets", tend to favor wider streets: to squeeze more stuff onto. That is unfortunate. Complete streets should be seen as a way to reduce the danger of overly wide streets, not as an excuse to make the mistake of building wider streets from the start.

If we want streets to be safer in the future, what we really need is a program which encourages narrow, human-scaled streets, and also celebrates the narrow streets that we have inherited from the past.