Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Self-checkout" for passengers boarding trains and buses

While walking to the supermarket today, I passed by a trolley boarding a line of riders, at a station platform. One person would step up to the top stair, pay the $2.10 fare, and go inside. Then the line would slowly move along, trudging through the wind and snow.

At the supermarket, I collected my food and items, went to the self-checkout aisle, rang up $33, and paid it. I took my receipt, my bags, and went home. All of this accomplished without any waiting on line, nor with any interaction by a store employee.

As I was walking out the door, I realized how bizarre the difference was: I could be trusted to ring up and pay for $33 of assorted items at the supermarket, but not a $2.10 trolley ticket nor a $1.60 bus ticket. And that's hardly unusual. Many retail businesses have moved to the self-checkout model. It's a natural way of cutting costs and speeding up service, especially in the modern era. Yet, the MBTA continues to waste money, and everyone's time, delaying trains at stations while riders slowly file through a single door.

The stakes are higher for the T than for a retail shop. Delays to a transit vehicle add up and propagate. The long line at the station platform translates to a train that's late. Bunching gets worse. Lines get longer. The average speed of the system drops below 7 mph. Riders get antsy. Half-hour trips stretch out into an hour. People can't get on or off the vehicle easily anymore, while the driver hoarsely shouts "move to the rear!"

Wouldn't it make much more sense to use all the doors for boarding and alighting? The rear doors on the trolleys are wider as well. The newer ones have floors that are level with the platform, making it much easier for people with disabilities. Reduce delays, improve quality of service, help people with disabilities. Win, win, win.

In fact, it's such a good idea, that in San Francisco, the local agency MUNI decided to transition to all-door boarding on all of their vehicles. In the past, I have commented on my experience with MUNI's all-door boarding system. MUNI has a lot in common with the MBTA: an extensive subway-surface trolley network that uses light-rail vehicles nowadays, and many connecting buses.

Recently, MUNI released a report on their experience allowing all-door boarding of buses and trolleys system-wide. It has been a great success. The MUNI report identified three key findings:
  • Shorter Stops – Legalizing All-Door Boarding has encouraged boarding customers to distribute themselves more evenly between the front and rear doors, thereby reducing average dwell times. Pre- and post-implementation surveys at busy Muni stops found average reductions of 1.5 seconds (38%) per customer entry or exit. All-Door Boarding also has improved dwell time consistency and lowered variability, an important factor in helping reduce vehicle bunches and gaps and making service more reliable and predictable.
  • Faster Trips – From FY 2010-2011 through FY 2013-2014, average bus system speeds (including stops) improved modestly from 8.41 to 8.56 mph (2%). All-Door Boarding has helped keep Muni moving during a period of rapid growth in San Francisco and increasing demand on the transportation system. All-Door Boarding is just one of many tools such as exclusive transit lanes, transit signal priority and parking management that together can help reduce travel time.
  • Improved Fare Compliance – A series of four fare surveys between 2009 and 2014 indicate that fare compliance continues to improve. The fare evasion rate has decreased from 9.5% to 7.9% over five years and the estimated uncaptured revenue due to fare evasion has dropped from $19.2 million to $17.1 million.
I hear that, especially after this winter, the MBTA is looking for opportunities to do more with less. How about a method that is proven to improve reliability, reduce costs, and generate positive cash flow? What are they waiting for!?

And, why not do exclusive transit lanes, signal priority and parking management as well, while they're at it. It looks like they have a willing partner in the city of Boston.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Comm Ave Phase 2A public meeting: Tuesday March 24th

March 24th, 6 p.m.
565 Commonwealth Ave (Kenmore Classroom Building)
Room 101

The city is holding their long-awaited Comm Ave Phase 2A public meeting on Tuesday. This deals with the segment of Comm Ave between Packard's Corner and the BU Bridge (non-inclusive). One of the biggest topics of contention has been whether or not the bike lanes would finally be fixed on Comm Ave to match the Boston Bike Network plan for having a protected bike lane on Comm Ave.

The status quo
Good news seems to be that they will be presenting some kind of protected bike lane option at the meeting, so that represents a major step forward for the city. The precise details remain to be seen.

Another one of the major problems on the street is the lack of a crosswalk at Alcorn Street and Naples Road. On one side is a densely populated residential area, on the other side is the neighborhood supermarket. Most people simply wait and cross the street over the tracks when clear. But, the engineers believe that people should be walking over 1,000 feet out of their way, traversing 6 extra traffic lanes and waiting through extra cycles of the traffic light, simply to get across the street. While carrying heavy bags. This is a clear case of a disconnect between the planning department -- who only see this street on paper -- and the people who live here.

Even in the heavy snowfall, people would still rather cross here than go around the long way.

So, while there has been a great deal of progress made on the design, compared to where it was 3 years ago, there is still some more to go.

Finally, I would like to mention that although the MBTA has finally put out a plan for much-needed station consolidation, it is not clear that they will be ready to go before the city starts the reconstruction project. That will put us in the absurd situation of rebuilding the street around the 4 old stations. Then, presumably, the MBTA will come along and cut those out, and rebuild 2 properly accessible stations, but at that point they will simply leave the old station locations as dead space. That's a terrible waste, and a lot of extra pain too -- as the time period of construction would be lengthened. It seems to make a lot more sense to simply get both projects done simultaneously, so that the new street doesn't have to waste space, and so that the station construction can proceed in parallel with the street reconstruction, in a fully integrated fashion.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The scourge of single-story retail

A curious pattern exists in Boston (I've also noticed it in other American cities). Neighborhoods that were primarily developed between 1890 and 1960 tend to have a lot of single-story retail. Oftentimes those retail shops are adjacent to multistory residential or office buildings, but the retail buildings themselves are single-story. Many of them are cheap boxes that look awful, while some of them do have decent architectural features that seem strangely out-of-place.

I'm sifting through some of my pre-snowpocalypse photographs for this post, so we can remember Boston as it once was.

The Fenway is a densely populated vibrant neighborhood with a strange dichotomy between retail buildings and residential buildings, like many other streetcar suburbs built around the same time.

Another example from the Fenway.

Double-whammy of bad 20th century planning: surface parking and single-story retail immediately adjacent to major Green Line station in Brighton.

Same place, across the street. Typical of Comm Ave, there's a strip of single-story retail adjacent to 5-story or more apartment buildings. Some parts of Comm Ave do have ground-floor retail below residential, but it's the exception, not the rule.

Union Square, Allston, with lots of great little shops and restaurants. But almost all of them are in single-story retail buildings. The tall building behind is from the 1980s, and does have a little bit of ground floor retail included, but is separate from most of the shops you see.

Single story retail from the early 20th century. But as you can see, it used to be a whole lot better. Nowadays the building is used for storage of automotive supplies, and the intersection is a motor vehicle-dominated nightmare. In 1889, the first electric trolley line in Boston departed from the Allston depot along those tracks. Now, the Allston depot is a pizzeria with a giant surface parking lot.
In the mid-1960s this theater was torn down to be replaced by a nearly featureless single-story retail building with surface parking out front. As the zoning regulations of the time would dictate.

Single-story retail in the center of Hyde Park's business district.
Single-story retail in triple-decker Dorchester, along Blue Hill Ave, where trolleys once roamed, and where frequent buses ply today.
Single-story retail and massive surface parking near Forest Hills, a major MBTA subway, bus and commuter rail station.
Single-story retail on Comm Ave next to a Green Line station.
Tall residential, short retail, MBTA station: Brookline is no exception.

In a city with an acute housing shortage, where space is at a premium, why do we allow so much waste to take place? It seems like there are hundreds of thousands of people who would like to be able to live in these neighborhoods with decent local shops, and in some cases, places that are only steps away from frequent MBTA service. Multistory buildings with ground floor shops and upstairs residences are not new in Boston -- they were quite commonly built in the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. The oldest neighborhoods in Boston: Beacon Hill, the North End, even the Back Bay, all have streets lined with buildings that have ground floor retail and homes above. Yet, starting around 1890 or so, it seems, some kind of insanity gripped America: suddenly, neighborhoods started being developed with apartment buildings on one block and single-story retail on another. Sometimes even on the same block.

I don't have a definitive answer, but there are several pieces in play:
  • The criminally incompetent, so-called "City Planning" movement started around the turn of the 20th century, and these new planners were notoriously blind to the actual sources of city vitality and diversity. In some cases, they were opposed to city life, and actively sought to destroy it. Records from the City Planning Board of Boston show that many early discussions focused around choosing which buildings to destroy in order to widen roads. No doubt, they probably saw mixed uses as being "messy" and falsely perceived them as a source of traffic congestion.
  • Property tax laws in this country can be counterproductive: they effectively penalize landowners who invest in their properties. In some cases, building owners may have chosen to cut down floors off their own buildings to save on tax expenses. In a sane world, such crazy outcomes would result in legislative self-examination and reform of the tax laws: for example, by repealing property taxes and replacing them with something less harmful like a land-value tax. In this world, well... no.
  • In New England (and NY) it was common to quickly erect buildings that became known as "taxpayers" in order to generate some value quickly for the land without much effort. These taxpayer buildings were just enough to house some retail and then got locked into place when zoning came into effect around the mid-1950s. Many of the featureless boxes plaguing our landscape seem to fall into this category, but there are also plenty of examples of single-story retail with the kind of fine architectural detailing that seems out-of-place on a taxpayer.
  • The economics of redevelopment seem to require a significant density boost in order to replace a revenue-generating property with a new one. If floors cannot simply be added to the top of the single-story building, and if the construction requires a shutdown of the business operating within, then the end result of construction has to be much taller than what previously existed. In the case of single-story successful retail, that probably means going up to 4-6 levels.
  • And this discussion wouldn't be complete without mentioning the nefarious effect of mid-20th century zoning regulations. It is quite possible that many single-story retail buildings were intended to be temporary. But once zoning kicked in, redevelopment -- already difficult -- became near impossible. The density boost required to make redevelopment financially palatable was now illegal or required expensive variance hearings. In many cases, even the existing property was made illegal by unreasonable zoning requirements that demanded excessive amounts of parking that simply could not be provided in a space-constrained city neighborhood.
So, as a result, we have a bunch of neighborhoods where, if you somehow transported some people from 1915 one hundred years into the future to 2015, they might ask: "Why do you still have all these same crummy, single-story buildings that existed in my time?" ... After, of course, catching up on the past hundred years of history.

If we are serious about tackling the problem of rising housing costs and creating a better, more vibrant city that is accessible to all, then we will need to find a way to deal with these squat, inefficient, single-story structures. I often hear people complain that Boston is space-constrained, that we don't have room for development. That's not really true, as there are too many vacant parcels. But there are also many underutilized parcels in locations that can easily support much more. The replacement of single-story buildings that are located adjacent to frequent transit ought to be a high priority for all of the cities and towns in the region.