Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Bus yards vs TOD: where is the best place to store buses?

Boston has a bus problem. Beyond narrow, congested roads and routes which traverse several jurisdictions—in some cases half a dozen in the span of a single mile—there are simply not enough buses to go around. At rush hour, some MBTA bus routes only have service every 20 to 30 minutes, despite crush-capacity loads on the vehicles serving them. To add significantly more service would require the MBTA to add additional buses to the fleet, but procurement of new vehicles is not the rate-limiting factor. The larger issue is that the MBTA’s bus storage facilities are undersized and oversubscribed, so adding new buses would require adding additional storage capacity to the system, a high marginal capital cost for any increase in service.

Before doing this, the MBTA may be able to squeeze some marginal efficiency from the system. All-door boarding would reduce dwell times, speeding buses along the routes. Cities and towns are working with the agency to add queue jumps, bus lanes and signal priority, steps which will allow the current fleet to make more trips over the course of the day. Running more overnight service would mean that some number of buses would be on the road at all times of the day and night, reducing the need to store those buses during those times (although they might need to be serviced during peak hours, and may not be available for peak service). Still, all of this amounts to nibbling around the edges. Improving bus service may result in increased patronage, and any additional capacity wrung out of the system could easily be overrun by new passengers. The MBTA’s bus system is, in essence, a zero-sum game: to add any significant capacity, the system has to move resources from one route to another: to rob Peter to pay Paul.

Furthermore, Boston’s bus garages are antiquated. In the Twin Cities—a cold-weather city where a similarly-sized bus fleet provides half as many trips as Boston (although about the same number of passenger miles)—nearly every bus garage is fully-enclosed, so buses don’t sit outside during cold snaps and blizzards as they do in Boston. Every facility there has been built since 1980, while several of the MBTA’s bus yards date to the 1930s; some were originally built for streetcars. Boston desperately needs expanded bus facilities, but it also needs new bus garages: the facilities in Lynn, Fellsway and Quincy are in poor condition, and the Arborway yard is a temporary facility with very little enclosed area.

However, what Boston’s bus yards lack in size or youth they make up for in location. The MBTA bus system is unique in the country in that there is no bus service through downtown: nearly every trip to the city requires a transfer from a surface line to a rapid transit line. In the past, elaborate transfer stations were built to facilitate these transfers, with streetcar and bus ramps above and below street level (a few vestiges of this system are still in use, most notably the bus tunnel at Harvard), with bus routes radiating out from these transfer stations. When the Boston Elevated Railway, the predecessor to the MBTA, needed to build a streetcar yard, they generally built it adjacent to a transfer station, and thus adjacent to as many bus routes as possible. Many of these have become today’s bus yards, and the MBTA has some of the lowest deadhead (out of revenue service) mileage to and from the starts of its routes.

From a purely operational standpoint, this makes sense: the buses are stored close to where they are needed. But from an economic standpoint, it means that the T’s buses occupy prime real estate. Unlike rail yards, which need to be located adjacent to the lines they serve, bus yards can be located further away. While this introduces increased deadhead costs to get the buses from the yard to the route, it frees up valuable land for different uses. In recent decades, the T has sold off some of its bus garages, most notably the Bartlett Yard near Dudley and the Bennett Yard near Harvard Square, which now houses the Kennedy School. The downside is that the T currently has no spare capacity at its current yards, and needs to rebuild or replace its oldest facilities.

While the agency has no concrete plans, current ideas circulate around using park-and-ride lots adjacent to rail stations for bus storage, including at sites adjacent to the Riverside and Wellington stations. The agency owns these parcels, and the parking can easily be accommodated in a nearby garage. The issue: these parcels are prime real estate for transit oriented development, and putting bus garages next to transit stations is not the best use of the land. Riverside has plans in place, and Wellington’s parking lot sits across Station Landing, which has hundreds of transit-accessible apartments.

In addition to what is, in a sense, a housing problem for buses, the Boston area has an acute housing problem for people. The region’s largest bus yards are adjacent to Forest Hills, Broadway and Sullivan Square: three transit stations with easy downtown connections. These issues are not unrelated: there are few large parcels available for housing or transit storage (or, really, for any other use). If the region devotes land to housing, it may not have the ability to accommodate the transit vehicles needed to serve the housing (without devolving the region in to further gridlock). If it uses transit-accessible land for storing buses, it gives up land which could be used for dense, transit-accessible housing. What the transit agency needs are sites suitable for building bus depots, on publicly-owned land, and which would not otherwise have a high-level use for housing.

Consider a bus maintenance facility: it is really something no one wants in their back yard. And unlike normal NIMBYism, there actually some good reasons for this: bus yards are noisy, have light pollution, and operate at all times of day, but are especially busy for early morning operations. An optimal site for a bus yard would be away from residences, near highways (so the buses can quickly get to their routes), preferably near the outer ends of many routes, and not on land which could otherwise be used for transit-oriented development. It would also avoid greenfield sites, and preferably avoid sites which are very near sea level, although if necessary buses can be stored elsewhere during predicted seawater flood events.

The MBTA is in luck. An accident of history may provide Boston with several locations desirable for bus garages, and little else. While most sites near highways don’t have enough space for bus yards, when the regional highway system was canceled in the early 1970s, several interchanges had been partially constructed, but were no longer needed. While portions of the neighborhoods cleared for highways have been, or could be, repurposed in to developable land, the “infields” of highway ramps is not generally ripe for development. Yet they’re owned by the state, currently unused, convenient to highways and unlikely to be used for any other purpose. For many bus routes, moving to these locations would have a minimal effect on operation costs—deadhead pull-in and pull-out time—and the land will otherwise go unused. Land near transit stations is valuable. Land near highways is not.



Building bus yards in these locations would allow the T to add vehicles to the fleet while potentially closing some of its oldest, least-efficient bus yards, replacing them with modern facilities. They wouldn't serve all routes, since many routes would still be optimally served by closer-in yards with shorter deadhead movements to get the buses to the start of the route. (To take this to an extreme: it would be very cheap to build a bus yard at, say, the former Fort Devens site, but any savings would be gobbled up by increased overhead getting the buses 35 miles to Boston.) Highway ramps are optimal because it allows buses to quickly access the start and end of routes, many of which, by history and happenstance, are near the highways anyway.

Most importantly: moving buses to these locations would enhance opportunities for additional housing, not preclude it. Building thousands of new housing units adjacent to transit stations pays dividends several times over. It increases local tax revenues and also creates new, fare-paying transit riders without the need to build any new transit infrastructure. Finally, by allowing more people to use transit for their commutes, it reduces the growth of congestion, allowing people driving—and people riding transit—to move more efficiently.

Specifically, there are five highway sites in the region which could be repurposed for bus fleet facilities:

  • Quincy, in between the legs of the Braintree Split
  • Canton, on the aborted ramps of the Southwest Expressway
  • Weston, where the new all-electric tolling has allowed for streamlined land use
  • Burlington, in the land originally planned for the Route 3 cloverleaf
  • Revere, in the circle where the Northeast Expressway was originally planned to branch off of Route 1 through the Rumney Marshes.

In more detail, with buses counts from the MBTA’s 2014 Blue Book. These are in-service buses required, so the total number of buses at each location, accounting for spares, would be 15 to 20 percent higher. The system currently maintains approximately 1000 buses.

Quincy (67 buses)

All 200-series Quincy Routes

The current Quincy garage serves the 200-series routes, with a peak demand for 67 vehicles. The current garage is in need of replacement. The current yard takes up 120,000 square feet on Hancock Street, half a mile from Quincy Center station. This could easily be accommodated within or adjacent to the Braintree Split, with minimal changes to pull-out routes. Serving additional routes would be difficult, since the nearest routes run out of Ashmont, and pull-out buses would encounter rush hour traffic, creating a longer trip than from the current Cabot yard.

Canton (35 buses)

Routes 24, 32, 33, 34, 34E, 35, 36, 37, 40

This would be a smaller yard and would probably only operate during weekdays with minimal heavy maintenance facilities, but would reduce the overall number of buses requiring storage elsewhere.

Weston (71 buses)

Routes 52, 57, 59, 60, 64, 70/70A, all 500-series express bus routes.

With the recent conversion to all-electronic tolling on the Turnpike and different ramp layout, the land is newly-freed, plentiful, and many buses serving this area have long pull-out routes from Boston. The portion between the two branches of the Turnpike and east of the 128-to-Turnpike ramp is 500,000 square feet, the same size as the Arborway Yard, and there's additional room within the rest of the interchange. Without a bus yard west of Boston, any route extending west or northwest would benefit from this yard.

Burlington (50 buses)

Routes 62, 67, 76, 77, 78, 79, 134, 350, 351, 352, 354

These routes utilize serve the northwest suburbs, but most are served by the Charleston and Bennett divisions in Somerville. Most routes would have significantly shorter pull-outs.

Revere (157 buses)

The two oldest bus garages north of Boston are Lynn and Fellsway, which account for a total of 125 buses and about 200,000 square feet. They are both centrally-located to the bus network, so moving buses to the 128 corridor would result in longer pull-outs, except for a few routes noted above. However, the circle where Route 1 turns northeast and the Northeast Expressway was originally planned and graded towards Lynn across Rumney Marshes has 750,000 square feet, and the extension towards the marshes more. The fill is far enough above sea level to not worry about flooding, and grade separation allows easy exit and entry on to Route 1. Some buses may make sense to base at the Route 3 site, particularly the 130-series buses. In addition to the Lynn and Fellsway buses, this site could take over for many routes currently operating out of the Charlestown yard, freeing up capacity there for other uses.

Other routes served by the Charlestown yards would face somewhat longer pull-out times from Revere, but given the development potential in Sullivan Square, the T could consider downsizing the yard facility there and moving operations to a less valuable site. This site, at more than one million square feet, could likely replace the Charlestown bus facility entirely.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The mystery of the 600 feet between the Red and Blue lines

Last month, the MBTA presented its "Focus40" list of items it wants to complete by 2040. The Commonwealth Magazine article noted that the report states that the Blue and Red lines are only 600 feet apart, and connecting them would provide a two-minute walk in lieu of the Red-Blue connector at Charles. This sounds good. The only problem with this is that the Red and Blue lines are more than 600 feet apart. Quite a bit more. In fact, the walk from a Red Line train to a Blue Line train is more than three times as long. Where did the 600 foot figure come from? Let's find out, with old-timey maps!

The Red Line runs beneath Winter and Summer streets. The Blue Line runs under State Street. These streets are, according to Google Maps (and, I assume, in real life), more than 1500 feet apart. But it turns out, that's not even the real distance you'd have to walk between the subway lines. Boston's subways were not built in a particularly coordinated fashion (although, unlike New York, which had two competing subway companies, the Boston Elevated Railway, or BERy, was the only game in town). The Green Line tunnel was built first, the Blue Line second (and, thus, below the Green Line) and the Orange Line tunnel third below the Blue (the Orange Line running through downtown predates the Blue Line, but for 7 years it ran on the Green Line's tracks). Each newer tunnel went under the others, which is why the Green Line runs above. The Red Line wasn't built until several years later, running below both the Green and Orange lines.

All of the lines were built within the confines of Boston's notoriously old and narrow street grid, which was nearly three centuries in the making even then. So to fit stations in, and stairs between subway lines, both the Red and Blue Line stations are offset east of the Orange Line, and the Orange Line platforms are offset on separate sides of the subway to fit within the width of Washington Street.

Up until the 1960s, in fact, platforms were referred to as separate stations by the street they intersected, rather than station names. So the Downtown Crossing complex was referred to as Winter for the Forest Hills-bound platform, Summer for the Oak Grove-bound platform (then the Everett-bound platform) and Washington for the Red Line platforms. (It doesn't help matters that most road names in Boston change at Washington Street.) Similarly, State was Milk-State on the Orange Line and Devonshire on the Blue Line. This seems nonsensical, until you think about it: to get to the Milk Station, you entered on Milk Street. To get to the State station, you entered on State Street. There are more examples; as this page posted long ago.

In any case, the Blue Line platform extends east from Devonshire Street, hence the name. The Red Line platform has entrances on Washington Street, but the actual platform begins around Hawley Street. To walk from Hawley to Devonshire via Washington? That turns out to be a walk of 1900 feet, up (or down) two stairs (since the Orange Line is built under the Blue Line, and the Red Line is under the Orange Line).


So where does this 600 foot figure come from? I'm actually not quite sure. What I think the number is indicating is the distance which would have to be dug between the two Orange Line platforms to provide a pedestrian connection between the Red and Blue lines. To make sense of this, we're going to have to think in three dimensions (at least). Lucky for us, the Boston Transit Commission issued yearly reports during the construction of the subways in the early 1900s, and Ward Maps has them on their website (and has provided me with some high-resolution copies for this article, so shout out to Ward Maps for being excellent).

Remember that the Orange Line platforms are offset laterally. At Downtown Crossing, for instance, the northbound platform extends from Summer Street 350 feet north to Franklin Street, and the southbound platform south to Temple Place. In fact, the MBTA has been experimenting with new GTFS features to show the layout of Downtown Crossing, which you can view here. (Note, on the right side, the multiple levels; click B1 and B2 to toggle between.)

For the Milk-State platforms, this gets a bit more complicated. Washington Street is narrow enough at Winter/Summer: about 60 feet between buildings, but by the time you get to Milk Street, it's narrower: only about 40 feet. Some of Boston's oldest buildings stand here—the Old South Meeting House and Old State House date to the early 1700s—and the subway had to be built between the foundations; in the case of the Old State House, a subway entrance was built right in to the basement. (There are also newer buildings and, because reasons, parking garages.) This is barely wide enough for two subway tracks and a platform. So what did they do? They offset the platforms vertically: in effect, they stacked the trains.

Here's what the tunnel looked like just south of the Milk platform when it was under construction around 1906:
Original caption: Portion of platform of Milk St Station over the track for northbound cars. 
For orientation, the Old South Meeting House is approximately to your right (and above). Original file.
If you're familiar with State station, this is the platform you exit off of coming on a train from Oak Grove. To get to the Blue Line, you walk along a corridor which is sort of an extension of the platform—dubbed, apparently, the speedway (from this detailed 1909 article on the tunnel), and now home to funky colors—and then the State platform, with trains to Oak Grove also to your left, and with escalators to the Blue Line to your right.

Here's a map from 1913 showing the stations (and, yes, it's the best map I can find of the actual locations of station concourses). I've shown current station names in all-caps, and former station names in lowercase; for DTX and State, I've outlined the platforms in their current colors and labeled the platforms with their original names. Note that while the Orange Line platforms were built 350 feet long, and only had to be lengthened minimally to accommodate six-car trains. (Original file from Ward Maps)

View the full-size version.
I think the idea to connect the Red and Blue line stations comes from the fact that the Milk platform (the southbound State platform) extends to Milk Street, and the Summer platform (the northbound Downtown Crossing platform) extends to Franklin Street, and those streets are only about 300 feet apart. I'm still not sure where the 600 comes from, but 300 is half of 600, so this should be twice as easy. Right?

Well, not quite. Look back up at the photograph above and imagine extending the Milk (Southbound State) platform shown 300 feet east (towards you) to meet the Summer (Downtown Crossing) platform. It would have to extend above the Oak Grove-bound Orange Line platform. When Oak Grove trains leave Downtown Crossing, then descend quickly to dive under the Milk Street platform pictured, descending at a 5.5% grade. So this would not be a level ramp by any means; in fact, a 5.5% grade exceeds the maximum allowed by ADA regulations, so it couldn't even be built above the tracks with infinite space above. Which is kind of moot anyway, because it would also butt up in to the top of the tunnel pretty quickly. It would therefore have to jog south of Washington Street's right-of-way, under the buildings there, which would add complexity to construction and yet more distance to the walk.

From 1906, here's an elevation profile of the entirety of the Washington Street tunnel (now the Orange Line) connecting the elevateds north and south of the city (from 1901 to 1908, the elevated trains ran through what is now the Green Line, and the abandoned Pleasant Street Portal). I've added some annotation to it. The vertical orange lines show the ends of the platforms which would be used as the route for the pedestrian path. I've also shown the location of the Red Line (not built at this point) and the Blue Line (called then the East Boston Tunnel, or the E.B.T.). I've also superimposed the location of the other-direction Orange Line platforms on each drawing, and used black lines to superimpose other elements of the tunnel. I mainly want to draw attention to the fact that a passageway between the Summer and Milk platforms could not fit within the current envelope of the Orange Line, and would have to be built to the south, because to the north there are train tracks in the way, and to the south there is the minor issue of building foundations being in the way.

View the full-size version.
Again, this comes from Ward Maps, and the original file is here, and while the original has been sold (and, alas, not to me) you can get a reprint to hang on your wall (which I am considering).

So what are the takeaways from this little exercise?
  • While the Orange Line platforms and concourses would allow a connection to be made between the Red and Blue lines, it would amount to a walk of more than a third of a mile, up or down multiple staircases, and along already narrow and crowded subway platforms. That's 8 minutes of walking, plus climbing some stairs, and that's assuming you can walk at 3 mph down crowded platforms. At rush hour, it might take a good deal longer. It would probably be faster to just take the Green Line one stop from Park to Government Center, since the Green Line is directly above the Red and Blue lines.
  • The 300 feet which would be needed for an additional tunnel would have to go through and underneath the building foundations outside of the footprint of the street, because the Orange Line is already threaded under Washington Street, which is very narrow.
  • The entire utility of this connection could be realized by allowing an out-of-system transfer between Downtown Crossing and State, which will be possible with the new fare system currently being procured. It only adds one flight of stairs: two up from Red to street level, then one down to Blue.
  • This would do little to actually address the issue of core capacity, which is what the Red-Blue connector aims to address. Even if this was convenient for people to use, it wouldn't result any less crowding on the Red Line, and the Orange Line and Blue Line platforms would actually become more crowded than they are today.
As the last point alludes to, the reason for building a Red-Blue connector—a real, actual Blue Line extension to Charles/MGH—is two-fold. One is to provide a good connection between the Blue Line and the Red Line. Perhaps as important, however, is to pull some of the demand out of the core stations of the subway. Rather than crowding trains and concourses at Park, Downtown Crossing, Government Center and State, riders between East Boston and Cambridge would be able to bypass the busy core of the system altogether. You get that if you actually build a Red-Blue connector tunnel. You get that only if you actually connect the two lines, not if you build a long, arduous pedestrian connection and sell it as an innovative piece of infrastructure.

And, alas, I still have no idea where the the 600 foot figure came from.



Sunday, July 22, 2018

In the weeds: South Coast Rail

Sometimes I take some issue with CW's headlines, but I like this piece overall. (I wrote it. Suggested headline was "to build SCR, look to the roads.")


A few in-the-weeds notes:

The route straight along the right-of way in Norton looks nice, but it has a few issues. It passes quite near to several homes, and would probably raise NIMBY issues. It is mostly owned by the town of Mansfield, which has a sewage treatment facility in Norton near the Taunton Line, and uses the ROW for a sewer pipe, which might have to be relocated within the right-of-way. There are some very low-angle grade crossings which would require extensive roadwork to make safe (or require grade separation). Extending down the 495 median to bypass this makes a lot of sense.

This post assumes electrification, although the original reason for the army corps to demand electrification was something about crossing the Hockomock Swamp. Still, electrification is the only way to allow high speed operations from Boston to Taunton, and between Taunton and Fall River and New Bedford. The maximum curvature on this portion of 495 is less than 1˚, which would allow 110 mph operation. Amtrak Regional trains reach Mansfield in 25 minutes from South Station, so even making stops at Mansfield and Myles Standish, an electrified Commuter Rail train could make Taunton in under 40 minutes.

Not only is the Taunton Station located closer to downtown using this route, it is also located adjacent to the main GATRA transfer point. Of course, fixing GATRA would help; Miles is not particularly enamored with their service. It would also be adjacent to some land which would be primed for TOD, and would likely increase in value if it were 40 minutes from Downtown Boston.

Myles Standish Industrial Park is sort of the wild card here. I am considering that having passenger rail access would be a net benefit, and that providing a right-of-way would not be particularly costly. The three buildings which would require takings would cost about $10 million; the additional land taking would add a bit more. I'd propose a viaduct to access the industrial park and cross the main roadway (Myles Standish Blvd)—which the current ground profile makes relatively easy—before running in the middle of Robert Treat Paine Drive, which could be relocated on to either side of the new rail right-of-way. It is at least 240 feet between any buildings in this corridor, the southern portion of which has an overgrown and disused freight spur. A two-lane roadway could be built on either side with room to spare. The crossing of John Hancock would require an engineering decision of whether to build it at-grade or on a short overpass.

The map below shows the path through Myles Standish, with the path of a new Robert Treat Paine Drive show in dashed lines on either side of the right-of-way.


The "station area" would allow access to most of the industrial park (although better bicycle/pedestrian access would help) and may allow zoning changes and higher density. There is no housing in the park itself, but some nearby. Here's what a profile of the roadway might look like, and there is plenty of room for all of this. (And, no, I'm not sure you need an eight-foot-sidewalk plus a two-way cycletrack on each side of the roadway, nor two lanes of traffic and parking for a road which currently carries 1500 vehicles per day, but the room is there. Also, imagine the streetlights in the middle are catenary poles and wire.)

via Streetmix
There are two potential issues building in the 495 corridor. The first is environmental. 495 crosses through the Canoe River Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), a good map of which can be found here. This would raise some permitting issues, particularly since 495 crosses the Canoe River twice, to assure that steps were taken to mitigate any impact to the surrounding environment. The ACEC was designated in 1991, long after 495 had been laid out and built; it's safe to say that if the highway were built today, it would be built with a smaller footprint which would preclude its easy use as a railroad right-of-way.

The second issue is that 495 has sloping concrete bridge abutments. This would require some construction to demolish portions of the concrete, shore up the remaining concrete, and provide a trackway for rail service. An example is here. This would be a minor issue, although the rail bed might have to be undercut slightly lower than the highway to provide clearance for any freight and electrification. There are a total of five over grade bridge along the highway; the only new rail bridges required would be the two aforementioned crossings of the Canoe River.

Finally, a proposal for the Mansfield Station. Mansfield is one of the busiest Commuter Rail stations, with more than 2000 daily passengers and some trains picking up or dropping off as many as 400 passengers. By boarding at fewer doors and forcing passengers to climb stairs, this adds several minutes to each train passing Mansfield Station, potentially adding 10 minutes to the run time from Providence to Boston for busy trains. The station is on the STRACNET—the military rail network—route to Otis AFB (or whatever it's called now) and requires wider freight clearances at stations (you can find a map of STRACNET toggling around here) and that is cited as a reason high-level platforms can't be provided. 

The idea would be to rebuild Mansfield Station as a three-track, two-platform station. The existing eastbound track (the number 2 track, "inbound" towards Boston) would remain in place, and a high-level platform would be built just east of the station house. The existing westbound track (the number 1 track, "outbound" towards Providence) would also remain in place, with a high-level platform built where the platform exits today. Two additional tracks would be added. The first would be a passenger track adjacent to the platform, branching off of the NEC east of the station. This would continue on as the southbound SCR track, eventually rising up and over the NEC to access 140 and then 495. (The northbound track would not have to cross the NEC and would merge in to the existing eastbound NEC track near West Street.) The second track would be a realignment of the Framingham Secondary, which would parallel the platform before merging in to the SCR and NEC west of the station, providing a wide freight route. An additional connection could be built between the NEC and the Framingham Secondary east of Mansfield if a wide route was needed there. 

Here is the proposed layout of the Mansfield station, with red lines showing new track, and yellow showing platforms:



And here is a route map showing the general track configuration from Mansfield to 495 (interlockings and small connections are omitted):


The original map (see the top of the page) proposes a station near the Xfinity Center. The concert venue is less-used than it once was (apparently at its peak, it hosted 80 shows annually, today it is more like 36) but it still causes traffic and today can only be reached by car (or, I guess, a cab or TNC from Mansfield). A park-and-ride station at Route 140 in Norton would provide a good park-and-ride location for people on 495 or who live in Norton and currently use the Mansfield P&R (with the additional benefit of reducing the number of people driving to downtown Mansfield just to park). The site there formerly contained an indoor soccer facility and has been vacant for years; there's a plan to build a hotel there. MassDOT owns the three acres closest to the highway which could be used as a park-and-ride. As for the Xfinity Center, a train station would be about a 15 minute walk from the venue, mostly through the existing parking lots. Given the time to walk to a far-away car and get out is often longer than that, taking the train might be a good option for concert-goers.

Finally, another plug for a direct ferry connection in New Bedford with a station adjacent to downtown. Getting to the Vineyard today requires a drive to Woods Hole (or in some cases, New Bedford, Providence or elsewhere) but since the majority of travel is via Woods Hole, it requires crossing the Cape Cod Canal, in traffic, a two-hour drive from Boston or more at peak times. With parking, taking a shuttle to the canal and the ferry itself, travelers need to budget four hours to get to the Vineyard. With a 51 minute travel time to New Bedford from Boston and an hour-long ferry ride this trip could be turned on its head, with two-hour travel times from Downtown Boston. Considering that there are millions of ferry trips made each year, and that the majority of visitors to the islands don't bring a car, this would provide a much more convenient trip to the island and would probably garner high ridership.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Bus shuttle upsides: Finding opportunities from irregular operations

Starting next weekend, the Lowell Line will shut down on weekends for nearly six months, to allow the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) and expedite track work for the Green Line extension. These are worthy and necessary projects. PTC will make the Commuter Rail system safer and more reliable, and GLX will bring better transit options to tens of thousands of daily riders.

No one likes a bus shuttle, but they do give us an opportunity to try new and innovative service patterns. Yet the T has taken the Lowell Line schedule and made it all but unusable, nearly tripling the duration of a trip from Lowell to Boston, while at the same time ignoring nearby resources—the 134 bus and the Haverhill Line—which would be duplicated by the Commuter Rail replacement service. TransitMatters recently wrote about how the MBTA could optimize Orange Line shuttles in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain using parallel Commuter Rail service, and this page has written about how the MBTA could optimize the Alewife-Harvard shuttle. This is a similar idea.

The Lowell Line dates to the 1830s—one of the first railroads in the world—when the Boston and Lowell Railroad was built as a freight line to serve the factories on the Merrimac. Its proponents underestimated the potential for passenger traffic and for the most part avoided existing town centers, yet the fast travel time—a stagecoach trip took most of a day, and even in 1835 the B&L made the trip in under an hour—attracted significant passenger traffic: an early lesson in the concept of "induced demand." Two centuries later, the trip is still reasonably fast, direct and, because it was originally built to avoid town centers, hard to approximate with buses on nearby streets.

The railroad runs 25 miles from Boston to Lowell, while a bus zigzagging to serving each station runs 35, nearly all on narrow, local roadways. No wonder the schedule from Wellington to Lowell requires an hour and forty-five minutes. This is the reason that permanent replacement Commuter Rail service with buses on the weekend which is floated from time to time is a non-starter: buses are unable to efficiently make intermediate stops in town centers over a long distance. Rail service can, and, with the implementation of Regional Rail elements (i.e. level boarding platforms, faster-accelerating electric trains), could do so more quickly and efficiently than it does today.

As proposed, the Lowell Line bus replacement schedule makes use of Wellington’s proximity to I-93, and buses begin there, rather than downtown. This is similar to the busing taking place this summer on the Worcester Line, where buses have connected to the Green Line at Riverside. Yet for the Worcester Line, the T provides express service from Framingham to Riverside (which is significantly faster than the local route) and local service to serve stops in between. For the stations in Newton, no service is provided, but nearby bus routes, and the Green Line, provide service without slowing the trip from further out.

A similar concept could be applied to the Lowell Line. There is no redundant service for the outside portion of the route: a bus trip making each stop from Lowell to Anderson/Woburn is scheduled to take 45 minutes, as long as the full rail trip from Lowell to Boston. From there, rather than wending their way through Woburn, Winchester and Medford, replacement service could run express down I-93 to Wellington, reaching the Orange Line in an hour and, with a transfer, getting a traveler North Station in 1:15, not a particularly fast trip, but better than a two-hour crawl. For trips to and from Winchester and West Medford, no additional service would be required: it’s already there in the form of the 134 bus.

The 134 runs almost the exact same route as the proposed replacement shuttle. It passes through Winchester Center, within a stone’s throw of Wedgemere, and a half mile from West Medford (which is served directly by several other bus routes), from which it continues to Wellington. The service is provided hourly, which is more frequent than the Commuter Rail shuttles, so intermediate travelers from, say, Winchester to Lowell could ride into Wellington, and connect to a bus to Lowell. To provide the same span of service would require that a few buses—two on Sunday morning and two each evening—be extended by a few stops to Winchester (this might be something small enough that it could be done in the short term, without waiting for a new schedule). Most passengers would find taking the 134 as convenient, if not more so, than the replacement shuttles.

This idea would also save the T operating costs. The current Lowell Line shuttles are scheduled to take 1:45 from Lowell to Wellington, and 1:45 back. Running directly from Anderson/Woburn to Wellington would cut this to an hour, saving nearly 90 minutes of operating time for round each trip. With 16 round trips each weekend, this would save 22 hours of operation. Extending a few 134 trips to Winchester would claw back three or four additional hours of service, but it would still result in 18 hours of operating hours saved each weekend. Given that this project is slated to run from now until December, it will affect 20 weekends of service, and if a bus costs $125 per hour to operate, this would save the MBTA $45,000 in operating costs.

Another option, rather than running buses to Anderson/Woburn and on to Wellington, would be to skip the Anderson/Woburn stop—which is a large park-and-ride, so people using it could park at other, nearby stations—and run directly from Wilmington to Reading instead and connect to Haverhill Line service. This train runs parallel to the Lowell Line only a mile to the east, and Reading would be roughly a 40 minute ride from Lowell. The Haverhill Line weekend schedule would have to be increased slightly to provide the same level of service that the Lowell Line does: currently the Haverhill Line is served by only six trains on a weekend day, with three hours between trains. With the Lowell Line shut down, Keolis should have some additional staff available for these trains, since the net operation would still be less than the Lowell Line running. This would not only better-utilize existing resources and provide a better product to the traveling public on the Lowell and Haverhill lines (although the cost savings from less busing may be canceled out by running more trains), but it would draw in new riders to the Haverhill Line with more frequent service.

This table assumes a cost of $125 per hour for bus service, $750 per hour for rail service (estimated here), and that each train would only require a single bus.

AlternativeTravel Time
Lowell↔Boston
Bus HoursTrain HoursCost:
per weekend | total
Local bus to Wellington2:00560$7000 | $140,000
Express bus to Wellington1:15380$4750 | $95,000
Bus to Haverhill Line1:10269$10,000 | $200,000

Assuming you'd need two buses to handle any instances with more than 50 riders, the calculation would be:

AlternativeTravel Time
Lowell↔Boston
Bus HoursTrain HoursCost:
per weekend | total
Local bus to Wellington2:001120$14,000 | $280,000
Express bus to Wellington1:15760$95,000 | $180,000
Bus to Haverhill Line1:10529$13,250 | $265,000

While the Reading/Haverhill Line alternatives cost more (because they require more railroad operations) passengers would pay a Commuter Rail fare from Reading, nor does it take in to account additional Haverhill ridership, which would recoup some of this expense. Another alternative would be to have Amtrak's Downeaster trains stop at Reading for bus passengers to Lowell, although capacity may be an issue. These estimates do not take a detailed look at how buses would be deployed, although the current schedule seems to show buses laying over at Wellington and Lowell for more than an hour, hardly an efficient use of resources. The Haverhill Line alternative, in particular, would allow a bus to make a round-trip in two hours, matching the frequency of improved train service there.

The installation of PTC gives us opportunities to experiment with different replacement service. Instead of simply drawing a line on a map, the T should be creative in leveraging existing infrastructure to provide the best possible product to the traveling public, while at the same time finding ways to reduce operating costs. These often go hand-in-hand, and the Lowell bus service is an example of how, with some small changes, the T could save time for its passengers and money for itself.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A "vehicular cyclist" goes swimming

Let's imagine, for a moment, that John Forester (who is this? read on) teaches swimming lessons.

First, he assembles potential swimmers in a classroom. He lectures them on the particulars of swimming for several hours, noting that not everyone is cut out to be a swimmer, and that if they're not comfortable in deep water at first they shouldn't even try. Then they go to the pool. Do they start blowing bubbles, then move to kick boards, and slowly become comfortable with swimming? Nope, straight in to the deep end (the pool has no shallow end). If you don't make it, you get fished out, and told to do something else when it's warm outside. A few people probably don't make it out, but then they were never cut out to be swimmers in the first place. They should have thought about that before jumping in a deep pool.

A few people, however, survive. These are probably people who are young, fit, and maybe stubborn. Some of them might go on to swim a lot. They may go to a lap pool, take the lane, and swim back and forth, becoming more and more comfortable with deep, open water. But most of the newer swimmers are discouraged. Without infrastructure for beginners, they're left clinging to the edge of the pool, scared to move away without some kind of safety net from infrastructure which allows them to ease in to swimming. So they get out, and never come back. Forester is undeterred: he tells them they won't be able to swim if they're not planning to be "effective swimmers", and that they can't become effective swimmers if they start in the shallow end of the pool.

So what happens if everyone is taught how to swim by John Forester? First of all, not many people swim. It may be a nice warm summer day, but most people will be too afraid to enjoy the water, because they've been taught that it is dangerous unless you're able to swim a 100 meter freestyle in under two minutes. What this means is that without many swimmers, there's little demand for swimming facilities. Sure, some serious swimmers will go and find lakes and rivers to fulfill their needs, but most people will find other pastimes. That's fine with Forester. In his mind, if everyone learns to swim, they'll probably just crowd the serious swimmers out of the pool altogether.

We don't teach swimming this way. But for many years, it's how we attempted to teach people to ride bikes. Who is John Forester? He's what we'd call a "vehicular cyclist." He came up with the phrase. And he argued that he was right, and for many years, people listened. But he is little more than a privileged white male imposing his ideas on a public which doesn't want them. It's a good thing he never instructed swimming.

The Outside/In podcast had a great episode (to be fair, most of their episodes are, hi Sam) about the history of vehicular cycling. What the mantra vehicular cycling says is that there shouldn't be cycling infrastructure; rather, cyclists should behave like cars, taking the lane when necessary, and that better, safer infrastructure would just have people riding bikes cast off to side paths and banned from the road. He became a force for decades, and during that time, very few people actually rode bikes, and most of the people who were were fit men comfortable at 25 mph making a left in traffic.

Forester is nearing 90 now and is unrepentant, taking his opinions to the grave. Good riddance. In the past 15 years, his followers have been seen for the charlatans they are, and we've slowly, and often begrudgingly, begun to build infrastructure for people riding bikes which is safer and more welcoming. Like magic, more people are riding bikes. No one has banned bikes from the road because we've build bike lanes, and people comfortable in the road are free to use it. Some do. Most don't. But there are a lot more people in the latter camp.

This past week, I was at a meeting discussing what the City of Cambridge is planning for South Mass Ave (believe it or not, I have some thoughts on this). Someone suggested at a breakout session (the city did a great job of setting up the meeting to have people talk to each other) turn boxes so people who weren't comfortable making a left could do so. A local vehicular cyclist—who will remain nameless to protect the guilty (but needless to say, he's an older, white male, fancies himself a bicycling expert, and I've told him he is culpable in the deaths of many cyclists because he has argued against bike lanes for years)—said "you wouldn't need that if they made a vehicular left."

I snapped. [I'm paraphrasing]
You know what? Not everyone is comfortable doing that. Not everyone wants to shift across two lanes of traffic to get in to the left lane to make a turn, then sit in a line of cars waiting for a turn light, and if they don't move fast enough the car behind them will honk at them, or worse. No one is keeping you from undertaking that movement, but other people should have a safer option. Imagine if you were a woman, or a person of color. Imagine if you weren't as strong as you are. Put yourself in someone else's shoes. Your ideas have been proven wrong for years, and a lot of people have been injured or died because they've tried biking on the roads as you'd have them designed and all you do is blame them for not being out in the lane of traffic moving fast enough. Don't give me this baloney where you tell me that 'if they only knew how to bike correctly, they would have been fine.' That's nonsense. You're asking people on bikes to jump in to fast-moving traffic with cars and trucks and buses. That's fine for you. But it's not for everyone. So what we get is more fast moving traffic, and fewer people on bikes. Apparently that's what you want."
I'm not about to let these people get a single word in edgewise. Their time has long since passed. Vehicular cycling is dying, clung to by a few old men. It's failed, with often tragic results. It's time for it to be relegated to the dustbin of history entirely. I'm all for an open discourse, but I am done—done—giving time of day to vehicular cyclists.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Cambridge NIMBYs revisionist history

Every so often, you wonder what goes through the minds of people who don't want to build more housing where there's high demand. (Which works. The market works.) In Cambridge, there is a contingent of people who live near Fresh Pond and don't want to build more housing because there's been too much development there already (or something). They'll trot out all the tired canards: climate change (the solution to which is obviously to make people live further away from jobs and transit), traffic (the solution to which is obviously to make people live further away from jobs and transit), impact to natural resources (even if the housing is being built on brownfield sites which haven't been wetlands for decades or centuries) and the like. Does it make sense? No, of course not!

(Unless, of course, you bought your house 30 years ago for a song and have seen it appreciate it to the point that you're blinded to the housing cost and availability crisis around you. And you remember the days when Cambridge had 20% fewer residents and traffic wasn't so bad and the Red Line wasn't full. You can't have both: your home value has appreciated because of the increase in traffic, not in spite of it.)

Has Cambridge done its part? Hardly. The city has an arduous process to permit new development, and while more housing has been in the pipeline in recent years, it's not nearly enough. It is true that Cambridge does more than many of our more suburban neighbors. But that shouldn't be an excuse to sit back and wait for someone else to build the housing our region needs.

Yet here we are, with several hundred residents in the Fresh Pond area signing a petition for a "pause" for housing development. It's an absurd stance, to paraphrase: a complete and total shutdown of housing development until we can figure out what's going on. Their arguments are just as specious as as the the premise, and today this page will analyze their latest opinion piece and poke the holes necessary to ensure that well-informed discourse takes place, not discourse where one of the parties uses scare tactics to poison the dialogue.

Original in indented italics. My comments in plain text:
There’s a new housing construction clash in Cambridge, this time over a letter signed by more than 600 people hoping to push the pause button on decades of virtually unrestrained development. 
That's their opening. "Virtually unrestrained development." In a city where you have to spend 45 minutes in front of a zoning board (and certainly hours of preparation) to add a second dwelling unit to a house which was built as a two-family household when it was originally built. For something which won't really affect anyone. These are the same people who rail against protected bike lanes because it affects their parking space: when you don't get what you want through the public process, demand the public process is shut down. Doesn't work that way, nor should it. But please, go on.
Ah, yes, from the days when Alewife had genuine community.
It led to the submission of a zoning petition to be taken up by the City Council next week, demanding that the council weigh in on an essential question: What kind of communities shall be shaped by new housing, affordable and not? In a cash- and resource-rich city, why should we continue to allow the process be driven by developers focused on short-term profit rather than by urban planners and city officials focused on building genuine communities?
I'm confused. Is there something less genuine about people who move in to new apartment buildings? Most of the development in the Alewife area is taking the place of things like old industrial buildings or dilapidated night clubs. And the city may be cash-rich, but it doesn't have the resources to build new housing. Instead, the way it works is that the private sector builds new housing, and then the owners pay taxes on it. What a novel concept!
To help understand why we need more attention on city- and citizen-directed planning rather than mostly out-of-town developers of luxury rentals,
This is what we have! Who do you think sits on the planning board, and the other boards which support it? Who votes? This is a false comparison, conflating "city- and citizen-directed planning" with "out-of-town developers." But those operate together! City-directed planning is the process through which out-of-town developers of luxury rentals (and really, of anything) create housing. It's not as if out-of-town developers run the process.
one need only approach the town from the west and consider the so-called communities that have taken shape with the current “anything goes” approach.
Define "anything goes." While you may not love every piece of the development in the Alewife corridor, every project goes through a thorough zoning process. And it turns out that if you build enough luxury rentals, the overall cost of housing will come down.
By car from Belmont and Arlington on Route 2,
Apparently, the best way to understand Cambridge is from a highway.
one’s gaze is first drawn to the right, where virtually uncontrolled development sprawls across the Alewife wetland, suggesting “No Vision” vs. “Envision” Cambridge. 
Areas in yellow are impervious surfaces today. Red are
buildings. A few new parking lots near the right-most
buildings aren't shown. But those parking lots are now parks!
What about this development is "virtually uncontrolled"? If you look at the area south of Route 2, the majority is protected wetlands. It's not virtually uncontrolled. It's actually quite controlled! Here's where the revisionist history comes in: there's actually significantly less development there now than there was 50 years ago. In 1969, much of what is now the Alewife Brook Reservation was a series of parking lots, which have since been removed, remediated and turned in to a park. So, removing a parking lot and turning it in to a park is "no vision"? If that's the case, what should we envision instead? We have six acres of new parkland in the Alewife thanks to the lack of vision of the planners there. If that's what we're fighting against, I'd hate to think what we're fighting for.
Rounding the corner, one passes dilapidated, “brutalist” Alewife T architecture – untouched by enhancements or landscaping since its creation 30 years ago. 
The Alewife station is brutalist (although relatively functional, and could work better with, say, bus lanes in and out), and it is dilapidated, but it is certainly not the fault of the City of Cambridge, or that we've built too much housing.
One wonders about the asbestos-contaminated brownfield lurking behind the chain-link fence around Jerry’s Pond, across from the Rindge Towers and Jefferson Park, the largest concentration of affordable housing in the city. More than a half-century has passed since the contaminants were left there by W.R. Grace. 
In addition to having nothing to do with this housing "pause", this is kind of a chicken and egg problem. The public housing was built there probably because the nearby land uses made the land undesirable for other housing (and when the housing was built in the 1960s, there wasn't the kind of market pressure which would today turn a clay pit in to housing without governmental intervention).
Though a process with community input concluded the safest approach at the time was containment, one cannot help wondering if such corporate neglect would have been permitted in a more affluent neighborhood.
But now I'm even more confused. There was a community process, which is supposed to be good, but here you don't like the outcome, so it's a corporation's fault. If a corporation develops housing, it's bad. But if a corporation neglects an area, it's also bad. "We can't win, don't build any housing!" Finally, such neglect probably wouldn't have occurred in an affluent neighborhood, but the case is that an affluent neighborhood probably wouldn't have had such land uses next to it in the first place. (In other words: there's no quarry in the midst of Observatory Hill.) This is not an excuse for not cleaning up Jerry's Pond (for which there are new plans to remediate and clean), but also not a reason to stop building housing in the region. This whole paragraph is pablum. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can clean Jerry's Pond and build more housing: in fact, the new city revenue from the new housing may allow us more funding for laudable projects like the Jerry's Pond clean up.
Stopped at the Alewife light with a head swivel to the right, one’s gaze is drawn into “The Triangle,” a dead-end neighborhood without a name that presents like a Chinese flash city and corporate annuity for institutional investors. 
I mean, some of us call it Cambridgepark Drive. Is not having a name really that much of a sin? Also, this neighborhood has been developed over 30 years (it had a planning process at least as far back as 1979!), adjacent to the Alewife T station. It's not perfect transit oriented development (there's way too much parking) and, yes, it has corporate owners (not sure what the China hang-up is). Also, those corporate investors pay two-thirds of the city's property taxes. So that's something.
It offers egress, 
Not sure what "egress" means here, since it's a dead end, right?
impenetrable traffic jams during rush hours and virtually no amenities to suggest community.
Okay, yeah, it offers impenetrable traffic jams. So, let's do something about that. Lots of that traffic is coming from the west trying to get in to Alewife. Why? People can't afford to live in Cambridge! There are buses, and they're full, but they're no faster than the traffic they sit in. Bus lanes—which would be feasible if we put on our thinking caps—could attract a lot of these drivers if they provided a faster trip than driving. And amenities, you know how you get amenities? Build more housing! Amenities don't spring up unless there are people to use them. More people = more amenities. (Setting aside the connection to two bike paths, many walking paths and a 10 minute walk to the Whole Foods and Trader Joes across the tracks may actually count as amenities.)
Finally, up and over the railroad bridge to the south it is hard not to wonder about the dead trees, never-cleaned sidewalk grime, permanently graffiti-ridden “Alewife Parkway” plaque
Yes, the Alewife Brook Parkway bridge is a mess. It was built long-enough ago it wasn't built with sidewalks nearly wide enough. It is also a state-owned property, so beyond the purview of the city. But let's stop building housing anyway. Of course, we could build a new bridge. How do we do that? Well, it would certainly help if we had a developer build the bridge integrated with a new development.
and a mall owner and city lacking initiative to create safe and aesthetic pedestrian passage to shopping, Danehy Park and West Cambridge. Pedestrians are instead obliged to navigate a sea of traffic and parked cars. 
 And, yes, the city could probably do a better job of traffic management in the Alewife area, by incentivizing bicycling, walking and transit use. And the mall owner, which built the mall in the '70s, could have built a better mall then. But it's not a reason to not build more housing, in fact, it is a reason to build more. More local housing will mean more customers arriving by foot, giving the owner and incentive to build a more reasonable pedestrian environment to accommodate these customers, or risk losing them.
Desperately needed affordable housing should be built, but not through abandoning good planning. It should exist within the context of a city vision – one that ensures the evolution of livable communities with access to green spaces, public transit, schools, meeting areas, shopping – and safe, sensible pathways connecting our neighborhoods. 
Let's see what the Alewife area has:

√ green space, much of which has recently been reclaimed
√ public transit
√ schools (nearby and accessible by pathways, and an easy Red Line trip to CRLS for older kids)
-  meeting areas should be integrated in to new development
√ shopping across the bridge
√ safe pathways, although more are needed
Aspects of these are evident, but for such vision to take better shape, a brief pause on development is needed so we can access the nearly complete recommendations of our city-paid planning consultants. Let’s leave behind an era of disconnected, developer-driven Triangles in favor of one led by our own world-class planners, city leaders and citizens.
This doesn't make sense! What are the benefits of this "pause"? What will be done better, or differently, if we have this pause? How long do you propose this pause? Why not call it what it is: a moratorium? What in this entire article gives you an argument for a pause? And what's so disconnected about Alewife, anyway? It sits on the Red Line. It has good walk/bike paths leading to green space, and to Davis Square, Belmont and Arlington (and Lexington and Bedford and beyond). It has sidewalks to the mall, which could be improved, but are an argument for building more housing, not against it! The disconnnectedness of Cambridgepark Drive has nothing to do with housing development, and can be mitigated without any sort of housing moratorium.

Much of what has been built has been built over the course of three decades (Alewife didn't exactly open yesterday). Projects like these have plenty of vetting through various city boards and committees: if you don't believe me, go to a bicycle committee meeting where the committee vets every large project to make sure it complies with the city's bicycle ordinance, and this was a couple of pages in otherwise thick permitting documents. We have a great staff at the city and a lot of interested citizens. If you are interested in improving the built environment the best thing you can do is to get involved. But the city's goal should be to permit as much housing as it can, not to stop development in its tracks. Doing so, and ensuring that the housing crisis is exacerbated, is about the worst thing you can do.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Springtime thoughts on Seattle, Rhode Island (and Calgary)

Spring break! Woo!

What do I do on spring break? Apparently I travel places and look at their transportation networks.

Amongst other things! Last year I went to Calgary to visit a friend living there for the year (and to go skiing). This year it was Seattle for a cousin's bat mitzvah, to see friends (and to go skiing). And then I came back to Boston (Thanks to TG for the UG) and spoke at a conference in Rhode Island (where another speaker talked about Seattle). My only regret was not spending the $10 in BART fare to get to the In N Out in Millbrae during my layover there (but I did get BART to call me brilliant). Next time.

In any case, since Yonah came back from Canada tweeting about things, I am going to write up some thoughts in a blog post (old school, I know).

Calgary

I visited friends last year in Calgary, because they were only there for a year. After a day at Canmore and Lake Louise (Advice: "remember that you're skiing and to look away from the amazing view every so often.") I browsed my way around the city itself (after visiting November Project, of course), particularly interested in how a relatively new city in the Texas of Canada has such high transit use. It helps to have no downtown freeways and a progressive parking fee scheme (and high parking prices), and bus service which has grown along with the C-Train. (Much detailed here, by Yonah.) The C-Train is the stand-out service, carrying more than 300,000 passengers daily, with the routes converging on a single, at-grade segment downtown.

Outside of the city, the trains run in highway medians and rights-of-way with full signal priority, but downtown they don't. With level boarding and four-car trains, the trains are able to move in sync one light cycle every stop, allowing 30 trips per hour per direction, carrying 24,000 passengers. Each four-car light rail train carries as many passengers as an eight-car L train in Chicago, and after 35 years, the system has reached capacity. A third line is planned to be built in a subway under the city (Edmonton's also-successful light rail uses a subway downtown).

Seattle
One bus came two minutes before
it departed … but these arrival signs
sure are nice!

Before going to Seattle proper, I found myself in Bellingham for a cousin's bat mitzvah. While I didn't have the chance to ride the local transit network, I did note that it had a 15-minute network, not bad for a town with under 100,000 people (albeit many of them college students). Then it was off to the main event. The only city in the US to grow transit ridership in the last year. The 206. Seattle.

What has Seattle done right? They invest in transit, most recently voting on a 20-year, $50 billion package to expand to build 110 miles of light rail which will carry 600,000 passengers, building a system that may carry as many passengers daily as the CTA, WMATA or MBTA's rail systems. This isn't a streetcar (they have one of those too, although it's dubious how effective it is) but a heavy-duty system where three-car trains match the capacity of bigger-city subway trains. I rode most of the line four times, each including the section along MLK south of downtown where it runs in a center median on a city street. Despite a top speed of only 35 mph, it is given nearly full signal priority: in the trips I took, accounting for 15 miles of travel and 48 grade crossings we only had to stop for a signal twice; the other 96% of the time the train was lined through the crossings at track speed. Imagine what that would do on, say, the B Line in Boston. 

The Link is ready to go north.
Yet Seattle seems to have learned that for a high-capacity, trunk line, grade crossings don't really make sense, so new lines are mostly in private rights of way. The extension to the University of Washington is in a 3.2 mile, $1.7 billion dollar tunnel which was completed on time and under budget. It dead-ends at the U-Dub for now, but is planned to go further north (there are bizarre garage doors at the end of the platform) and Seattle may run in to the same issue Calgary faces: a single segment of line nearing capacity. But that's a good problem to have. And Seattle has found a sweet spot and is building tunnels at a cost of about $300 million per track per mile, stations included. At that rate, the North South Rail Link in Boston would cost about $4 billion.

So many bus lanes!
But it's not just heavy construction. I follow Dongho Chang on Twitter (you should too!) to see a constant barrage of bus and bicycling infrastructure in another city. Seattle does overnight things which seem to take years in Boston. I'm sure it's more complex than that, but Seattle is a fast growing city which seems to be planning for the future, not one ignoring growth until it's too late. What does this get you? Bus lanes seemingly anywhere there's a long traffic queue to jump by. As I'd coincidentally learn in Providence, an investment by the city in transit such that the number of people living within a 10-minute walk of a bus which comes at least every 10 minutes will rise from 25% to 72%. And this in a city barely half as dense as Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. But when the buses aren't always overcrowded and/or slow, and when they have priority lanes to get them by traffic queues, people use them. The light rail is nice, but most Seattle commuters ride the bus.

See, adding a protected bikeway isn't that hard.
Are all the roads wide enough there's plenty of room for bikes and transit? Hardly. The roads are no wider than many of the main streets in Boston. Spring Street a road with parking, a bike lane, two lanes of traffic, and a bus lane. It used to look like most roads in Boston (Beacon, Tremont, etc): three lanes of traffic and two parking lanes. Now: two lanes of traffic, a bike lane and a bus lane. Bike lanes get real protection. It's not rocket science: if you make transit fast and biking safe, people will use them. The point is not to abolish the use of cars, but to make other options more competitive.

Then there's land use. Seattle is not a very dense city, but it's growing quickly. From 1980 to now, Boston has grown from 562,000 to 673,000, gaining 20%. Seattle has gone from 494,000 to 704,000, gaining 40%. So the new light rail line? The surrounding area was rezoned. It's sprouting four-to-six story buildings with reduced parking requirements. Land use, housing and transportation go hand-in-hand. I'm sure what Seattle is doing isn't perfect, but at least they're trying.

One thing I did notice were the dockless bike share bikes around town. I'm not sure what to make of the dockless systems: I'm used to Hubway in Boston (although I've been using it less and my own bike more, partially because they moved the nearest rack about 50 meters further from my house, which matters for short trips!) and not knowing where a bike might be could be troublesome. I'd also wonder how well the bikes work in a hilly city like Seattle. The jury is still out, it seems, and the ridership numbers aren't huge given the number of bikes, but the up-front costs are certainly lower, and I'll remain interested in which model works best there and elsewhere.

Oh, and it has an all-night bus network, too. And this bus driver, who writes this blog. And there goes my evening.

Rhode Island


In Rhode Island, I saw a presentation about Seattle.
I stepped off a plane in Boston and got on a train 9 hours later to Rhode Island to be a panelist talking about regional rail in the, well, the region. I traded $4 for an hour of sleep and took Amtrak down and then a plodding MBTA train back, illustrating how messed up the Providence Line is (big idea: Strava, but for transit). The panel was a good discussion and was well-attended; it's hard to remember what was said when you're saying some of it, but I think there is still a lot for people to learn about how the rail network works (and doesn't work) in the region. I did get to poll the audience and as usual, they underestimated the percentage of people using Commuter Rail to get in to Boston. We talked about level boarding, electrification, and all the things the T really should be doing between Boston and Providence.

Just as interesting was the afternoon panel, and some of the remarks at the start. The governor talked about tearing down the 6-10 Connector and replacing it with bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure after the community said it didn't want a bigger highway (hear that, MassDOT?). The state also has a transportation master plan that looks like more than the Commonwealth's laundry list of projects thrown in to a blender and spit out. So, something to learn from our neighbors to the south.