Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wide Boulevard Syndrome: the mistake that planners love to make, over and over again

There's an important Green Line forum coming up today but this article from the Globe today is too juicy to pass up:

Songdo City (source: Jean Chung for the Boston Globe)
Hynes had been courted by the South Korean government to build a massive city from scratch, one of the world’s largest private real estate projects, with 60-story housing complexes, a park, a waterfront golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, and amenities modeled after major cities around the world, including Boston.

Some 100 million square footage would be built, the equivalent of 83 Prudential Towers in Boston.
“I think we have an opportunity here to have a lot of fun,” he told his partner after viewing the wasteland. “Build a lot of buildings.”

New Songdo City, as the development is called, hasn’t yet turned out the way Hynes and his business partners envisioned, and he left the project four years ago. It currently feels more like a small Midwestern city than a giant international hub, with wide boulevards and newly planted trees but little hustle and bustle.
If I had a nickel for every time an architect or a planner thought that they could inspire urban vitality by building yet another "wide boulevard" then I could probably afford to build my own Songdo City. Not that I would, because it looks awful, and the Koreans seem determined to repeat every mistake possible. However, I want to focus on a particular recurring theme, right now: it seems to me that almost every architect out there gets this idea that if they replicate Parisian boulevards then they will magically create another Paris!

Reading further in the same article:
The city was planned to be about the size of downtown Boston, and the vision was grand: A wide boulevard would be like the Champs-Elysees in Paris, an opera house like the one in Sydney, and canals that would take a visitor to Venice.

A statue in Paris, which I hereby designate to be known as,
 "The patron saint of stupid architects who try to build Parisian-style boulevards everywhere."
This "Wide Boulevard Syndrome" that infects many architects and so-called urban planners is a disease that causes every street in their developments to become super-sized, nearly highway-like. As if every street is meant to be the Champs-Élysées! The syndrome blinds the planners to the fact that Parisian boulevards exist in a certain context: the already-vibrant, ancient city of Paris, which was a bustling city long before Haussmann carved out the boulevards in a fit of mid-19th-century "urban renewal." Paris is a successful city not because of the boulevards, but despite them! A city can handle a certain number of wide boulevards when it has a robust network of small streets and small blocks that are human-scaled. Like old Boston, for instance. That effect doesn't work at all when Wide Boulevard Syndrome dictates that nearly every street is super-sized!

You would think that by 2014, most people in the urban developing profession would have realized their mistakes from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Alas.
His focus now is Seaport Square, a development that aims to transform 23 acres of parking lots into a neighborhood with condominiums, offices, stores, and parks. All told, Hynes hopes to help build 20 projects totaling 6.3 million square feet. Construction will have started on about a third of the development by June and Hynes is aiming to finish by 2020, meaning his new project in the Seaport would be finished the same year as his old one in Songdo City.
Think he learned anything about Wide Boulevard Syndrome? I doubt it. The newer parts of the Seaport suffers from it just as badly as anywhere. Take a look at Northern Ave, Seaport Boulevard, Congress Street, and Summer Street.

View Larger Map

Things aren't any better on the ground, either.

And when combined with the utter failure that is Silver Line-Waterfront, is it any wonder that Downtown Crossing is so much more desirable for new businesses and general street life?

It's okay to make mistakes. It's not okay to make the same mistakes over and over and over again. When will planners learn? It's the small streets, not the big streets, that make a city great. The big streets just make people feel small.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The upcoming Red and Orange Line subway car order is massively overpriced. What's going on?

Another part in a never-ending series on mismanaged public agencies:

The MBTA is going to order hundreds of new cars for the Red and Orange subway lines, both of which are in desperate need. Some of the current subway cars have been operating since the year Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and by quick estimate, may have traveled over ten times as far!

Let's see how the cost of new equipment compares. There isn't really a market for "new subway cars" like there is for "new automobiles" but we can look at some similar agencies to get a general idea:

  • BART has ordered 410 cars at a cost of $ (2012): $2.2m/car
  • CTA ordered 706 cars at a cost of $1.137 billion (2012): $1.61m/car
  • WMATA ordered 428 cars at a cost of $886 million (2010): $2.07m/car
  • TTC ordered 234 cars at a cost of CA $710 million, approx. US $650 million (2006) of which the article claims that CA $211m is "extras", perhaps, so this may be as low as US $460 million for the cars, actually: US $1.97m/car
  • Going back a bit, NYCT ordered 660 cars at a cost of $961 million (2002): $1.46m/car
  • MBTA's most recent heavy rail order was 94 Blue Line cars at a cost of $174 million (2006) but the old CIP claims $234 million through FY10. Not clear if some of that cost included non-vehicle expenses: either $1.85m/car or $2.49m/car
  • And, looking forward, MBTA will order 226 cars for a cost of $1.3 billion (2013): $5.75m/car

Okay, let's break that down further, because the MBTA Capital Investment Program seems to indicate that the $1.3 billion actually includes the cost for things other than subway cars. It says:

  • $539 million for 152 new Orange Line cars: $3.55m/car
  • $262 million for 74 new Red Line cars: $3.54m/car

That's considerably better, but still quite high. Here's a list:
$2.2m, $1.61m, $2.07m, $1.97m, $1.46m, $1.85m, $2.49m, $3.55m, $3.54m
Two of these numbers are not like the others. Why is the Red and Orange Line procurement planned to cost so much more than any other subway car procurement in North America, that I have found so far? This seems like a scandal, a huge waste of money, and yet another weight dragging down the MBTA. The Commonwealth seems to be determined to throw away hundreds of millions of dollars. That additional 30-50% cost per car could have been put towards much desperately needed maintenance. Or additional vehicles to increase service on the overloaded Orange Line. Or on any of many worthy transit projects waiting for funding.

My hypothesis is that this 30-50% escalation in costs is a burden caused, at least in part, by the "Buy Massachusetts" requirement. Such nationalistic requirements are infamous for causing cost escalation. "Buy America" is a scam. The reason is simple: we don't have an established supply chain or industry with experience at producing subway cars. Even if it's just final assembly, we still need to bear the cost of creating the facilities from scratch, and training the workers; who will inevitably make mistakes. Stupid ideas like "Buy America" and "Buy Massachusetts" come from folks who don't understand the nature of economies and industrial policy. They try their hands at Central Planning and try to force an industry to grow when and where it isn't natural. Taxpayers pay the price, transit riders bear the burden of worse equipment (hello, Boeing), and transit systems are stifled by lack of resources. Ultimately we end up hurting the industry with this policy that was supposedly intended to help it. That's the "Buy American" way.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

About the upcoming annual Green Line forum on May 28th: recommendations and a call for action

Senator Brownsberger is hosting another Green Line forum this upcoming May 28th, 6pm, at the BPL Copley Rabb Lecture Hall. Hopefully the room will be packed with riders able to demonstrate the importance of the Green Line and fixing its numerous problems. In past years, the experience has been interesting. A good sized crowd showed up last year. Several of the speakers made some very good comments. I remember the first person to speak was a father, who brought his young son, they both stood up at the front of the room and he called upon the MBTA officials to implement signal priority: why should a train filled with hundreds of people have to wait for a few cars?

On the other hand, several of the speakers made some truly bonkers comments. Like one older gentleman, who said he had been riding for forty years, but for some reason was upset at the fact that he saw empty 2-car trains sometimes. The MBTA official who responded actually handled this one correctly, and she pointed out that an empty train in Brighton could easily be a full train further down the line.

Unfortunately, the MBTA did not handle it correctly when another crazed speaker whined about seeing one or two people sneaking in the rear doors. The MBTA continues to punish all riders collectively, despite having no evidence to back up their reprehensible "front door only" policy. Refusing to open the rear doors causes massive delays and train bunching, but the MBTA clearly has no respect for the paying customers, nor for their own wasted money on overtime as delays pile up. The correct response would have been to say something like: "the importance of following schedules and keeping dwell times low far outweighs the possibility that someone might sneak in the rear door, and anyway, we are going to implement proof-of-payment soon!"

Ultimately, what came out of the process last year was a letter from Dr. Scott that briefly responded to a few issues but made very few changes. The real headline grabber was the announcement of Green Line tracking in 2015. There were a few passive changes to signalization: I noticed the change at Packard's Corner before I read the letter, actually, so I suppose it has helped a tiny bit. But that was it. We are still waiting for the public process on station consolidation, although I have heard more rumors of it brewing lately. There has been no movement on the signal priority front, despite its great potential, and despite the fact that Huntington Ave is fully modernized and ready to go anytime the T wants to try (unlike Comm Ave). And all-door boarding/proof-of-payment seems to have disappeared off the agenda entirely, although it has huge potential for accessibility and schedule-keeping improvement.

Commonwealth Ave reconstruction phases
For this year, I think we can do better. Phase 2A of the Comm Ave rebuild is going to be funded starting in October, and that will open up all kinds of possibilities, because it involves reconstructing a segment of the "B" branch that has the most closely spaced stations. I would say that the items we need to focus on pushing the MBTA to consider are:

  • Station consolidation, as described in this blog post. We need to bring the station spacing up to modern standards, which is closer to 1200-1400 feet than the current 725 feet. This will help improve speeds and simplify operations. It also reduces the number of stations the MBTA has to bring up to ADA standards, and it also frees up space for use by pedestrians and bicyclists on Comm Ave.
  • Signal priority to help reduce the schedule unreliability caused by capricious traffic signalization. This does not have to be as preemptive as Houston's in order to have a positive effect, although it would be appreciated!
  • All door boarding, if not full blown proof-of-payment. There's a few ways to go about this that don't require proof-of-payment to be implemented. For example, fare inspectors could stand in the back of random Green Line cars and ask to see the pass of anyone who steps in the rear. I know this is feasible because they used to do it on a regular basis! In the future, I think the T would be best served by implementing MUNI-style proof-of-payment, though, which basically is cash-up-front and CharlieCards-at-all-doors. Then the T should also encourage the purchase of monthly/weekly passes as much as possible. This approach is the best for both revenue protection and schedule protection, in my opinion.
  • Easy access to stations and platforms. Unfortunately, the MBTA has a terrible habit of destroying accessibility whenever they "modernize" a station. If you look at the rebuilt stations on the Green Line, many of them are harder for a pedestrian to access than the older asphalt strips. So, while they abide by the ADA legal requirements, they do so in a manner that is as obnoxious as possible. This is insane. The MBTA needs to recognize that station access time is part of every rider's journey, and optimizing it is just as important as getting signal priority or other improvements done right. In short: every MBTA platform should have at least two exits/entrances: one at either end of the platform, with crosswalks (signalized or not) to the sidewalk. Walking to the station from any direction should be achievable with as straight-line a path as reasonably possible. Nobody should ever be forced to walk 200 yards out of their way to access a station because of a stupidly placed fence. That's valuable minutes wasted (and even worse for seniors or the disabled) that could determine whether someone misses a train, or even bothers to ride at all!

The Commonwealth Ave jail: the punishment inflicted by the MBTA on riders
My suggestions spring from a simple philosophy: riding the Green Line should be as easy, accessible, and reliable as possible. Everything I advocate for comes from that principle. I know that people like to dump on the Green Line, but it actually has a lot of potential that is simply wasted by the MBTA. Fact is, the Green Line has a major advantage over buses and streetcars: it has dedicated lanes (mostly). And the Green Line has a major advantage over subways and elevated trains: it is on the surface, which should make access easy if the MBTA would only allow it, no stairs nor elevators required! If you consider door-to-door journey time, then with signal priority, all-door boarding, and station consolidation combined with convenient station accessibility, the Green Line could be quite competitive with full blown subways.

I hope that people will show up on May 28th and advocate positively for improvements to the Green Line; improvements that will truly benefit the 30,000+ people who ride it every day. You are welcome to use any of my suggestions, and I look forward to hearing some of yours as well.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Is Houston more progressive than Boston in transportation?

Okay, gotcha: not really, it's still very much a land of sprawl and crazy-large highways. But I read this article last month and then had a chance to see some of it for myself.
In fact, Houston's core neighborhoods grew around a 90-mile streetcar system, and the city has a higher WalkScore than Austin. "Houston is amazingly more progressive and more concerned about things like quality of life, walkable neighborhoods, and bike infrastructure than people realize," says Susan Rogers, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston.
After visiting, I have to concur, although they do seem to have a long way to go yet. I had to drive myself more in those two days than I did in the last two years combined (or more). I want to talk about one technical area in which Houston is doing significantly better than Boston: at-grade transit.

METRORail at Fannin South station
METRO's light rail line is just over ten years old so it does not have the venerability of Boston's Green Line. It does, however, have a lot of details implemented correctly, and it shows. I was able to ride it one evening, to get dinner downtown, and I made some observations along the way.

METRORail opened as a 7.5 mile line in 2003 and has just been extended another 5.3 miles in December for a total of 12.8 miles. It is almost entirely at-grade, although there are a few places where it ducks under or flies over other roads and infrastructure. Here's the main points that it does really well:

  • Signal priority or outright preemption at every single intersection it crosses. As the train approaches, lights flash, traffic signals change, and a sign lights up telling drivers to get out of the way of the train. In some cases, they use railroad crossing arms, in other cases, just ordinary traffic signals.
  • Proof of Payment ticketing with modern, touchless fare card technology. I got a "Day Pass" and boarding was as simple as waving my card at a box on the platform, then hopping onboard using any door I wanted. Dwell times were consistently low, approximately 20 seconds per stop before we started moving again. Accessibility is great.
  • Decent station spacing. Actually, average spacing is about 1/2 mile, which is a bit far, but there is some significant variability in that. The denser areas have shorter station gaps. At least one infill station is planned, Central Station, to assist with the upcoming expansion projects.
  • A transit mall downtown, where private vehicular traffic was limited or excluded. The train had clearly been prioritized over the automobile in terms of space.
  • Automatic cap on fare paid per day: with the "Day Pass" I pay $1.25 for the first trip, $1.25 for the second trip, $0.50 for the third trip, and nothing for all remaining trips of the day. The MBTA's Day Pass is $11.00, almost thoroughly useless, unless you are sure that you are taking more than 5 trips that day.
  • Houston did not feel the "need" to put an awful fence down the middle of the entire right-of-way, which is a big difference from the way Boston's transportation agencies treat us ordinary folks on foot.
The result is that Houston's METRORail has a one way trip time of 50 minutes meaning that it manages a respectable and reliable average speed of 15 mph without the help of expensive grade separation. By comparison, according to the published schedule, or Blue Book:
  • Boston's Green Line "B" plods along at about 8-9 mph on average, unreliably.
  • The "C" branch goes 8-11 mph depending on time of day.
  • The "D" branch, almost fully grade separated, manages to average 15-18 mph.
  • The "E" branch does 9-12 mph, on the schedule.
  • The SL5 "bus rapid transit" goes 8-10 mph as scheduled, and is slower in reality.
  • The heavy rail portions of the MBTA average 19.4 mph in general, and
  • The NYC subway system averages 17.4 mph overall.
Through sheer operational competence, Houston has managed to create a surface transit line, crossing many intersections at-grade, that is time and reliability-competitive with expensive grade-separated subways. Very impressive. This is an accomplishment of which the city should be very proud.

And it doesn't end there. Apparently, the original line was constructed for about $325 million in 2003 (including purchase of trains). That's about $50 million / mile in today's dollars. It has achieved approximately 36,000 rides per day, making it the 2nd busiest per-mile in the country. And at $9,000/daily boarding, it's a bargain in human terms.

So while Houston will never match Boston as a city in my view (although I wish them the best), I think we could really stand to learn quite a bit from METRO. Houston is supposedly the home of highway-centric thinking, and yet, they have a gem of a light rail line that could be held up as a model for the entire country. It's good transit in a red state, done cost effectively and operationally efficiently. METRO went up against what must have been an extremely strong motorist lobby... and won. Meanwhile, here in Boston, where we are supposedly so public transit friendly, we can't even get our city to support signal priority, all door boarding, or even respect a bus lane. What is wrong with us? Why are our public officials so cowardly? What are they afraid of? It cannot possibly be worse than the Texas Dept of Transportation.