Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Comm Ave conundrum—in a chart

We've been covering Commonwealth Avenue a lot recently on this page, and here's another post (likely not the last). In the last couple of days we've seen the Boston Globe editorialize that the current design is subpar, which, despite the supposed end of print media, is a decently big deal. This post will be somewhat short on words, but I think get across an important point: the current design gives drivers more room than they deserve, and gives the short shrift to everyone else: transit users, bicyclists and pedestrians. Many thanks to TransitMatters for digging through the BU transportation plan (several hundred pages, including the entire MBTA Blue Book appended to the end) and finding their peak hour traffic counts. He presented it as a table, I simplified it a bit (grouping all transit riders) and show it to the right.

It's plainly obvious who the current plan favors: automobiles. They are only 30% of the street's traffic, but are afforded 43% of the streetscape. Transit carries significantly more people but sees only two thirds of the street space, and pedestrians and bicyclists also see their portion of the street relatively small compared with the actual use. Plus, car traffic is flat or declining, while bicycling and walking grow, but instead of encouraging such growth, we're shifting them to the edge in narrow, dangerous conditions, so we can have faster vehicles.

Expressed another way, transit, vehicles and pedestrians transport between 61 (bikes) and 75 (transit) people per linear foot of street width per hour. Cars transport 39. Does it make sense to afford the most street space to the least efficient mode?

(Note, these measurements were made from the already-build segment of the street east of the BU Bridge; the new plans seem quite similar.)

Now, imagine, if the road was built according to the actual use, not prioritizing it for vehicles. Transit would go from 46 feet to 61 feet, although those 17 feet aren't really needed for transit, so they could be used for other modes. Cars would be reduced from 71 to 49. That's still enough for four 10 foot travel lanes and parking on one side. Does BU really need on-street parking lanes on both sides of the street? Pedestrians get an extra six feet, three on each side, and bikes go from 10 to 11 feet. Of course, you still have those 17 transit feet. You could put in another 9 foot parking lane (see, parking!), and then use the remaining eight feet to provide a four foot protected buffer for each of the bike lanes. (Or a three foot bike lane buffer and make the right lanes 11 feet instead of 10 since they will be host to buses.)

Or we could overbuild the road for cars at the expense of all other users.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Street hierarchy planning sense … from Chicago

I was thinking the other day about planning streets. About how the default is to plan for cars first and for other users after. And about how it should work, which is that we should decide what our priorities are for each area (some areas might have transit prioritized over bicycles, some might have bicyclists prioritized over transit) and then plan based on those assumptions. For instance, if cars are not prioritized, planning shouldn't be subjected to a level of service analysis, because vehicular delays should not affect design.

And then I saw this Tweet retweeted by Gabe Klein. And this picture:

Chicago gets it, at least in theory. Here's how it would/should play out on Comm Ave:

  1. Pedestrians come first. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) is a Pedestrian (on Comm Ave) as they access stores, shops and buildings. Design for their mobility and safety first.
  2. Transit comes next. Take the B Line, add the 57 bus and the BU shuttles and you have 40,000 users using only a fraction of the streetscape. Keep them moving, keep them safe.
  3. Then bicyclists. Bicycles don't use much space, but the space they do use is used efficiently for a relatively high speed of travel. Plus it's healthy and emission free. Keep them safe and moving.
  4. Okay, we've come to cars. Is there enough room for cars? If the answer is yes, but it doesn't meet some arbitrary delay guideline (level of service), too bad. We've accommodated everyone else. We can't close the road to cars completely, but if they lose a lane of travel, it's not the end of the world. If we lose a couple of drivers from Framingham, so be it.
So, kudos to Chicago for getting it right. And hopefully, Boston won't get it wrong.

Letters, and letter responses

This page's recent post about Comm Ave was also distilled in to a letter to the editor to the Globe that go published. And since the Globe, apparently, has a comments section, it spawned some oddly vitriolic comments. My favorite:
Remember that those hated cars are being driven by people who need to simply go to where they need to go and take care of their business, the same as anyone else. A letter like this only adds fuel to the fire of anti-bicycle bias.
Okay, first of all, did I mention bikes in the letter? Barely. This is what is so bizarre about the anti-bike people: you can write a letter about how transit should be given priority, and you're automatically pro-bike. It's not a dichotomy, guys. And second, the people on the trains, on foot and on bikes are also going to take care of their business. And there are a lot more of them than there are people in cars (using less street real estate to boot). But, right, let's make sure the few people in cars aren't delayed.

Then there's another boo hoo letter from a suburbanite. He loves the city so much he lives 20 miles away from it. I'm not here to bash the suburbs (well, only partially), but if you make a decision to live in the suburbs and want to enjoy the amenities of the city, you should expect to encounter some resistance getting there when you go in—once every week or two. That's the deal. If you want to live out on the Sudbury River, you damn well should have to sit in traffic if you're going to a show. But here's where I'm just sort of confused:
My daughter and son-in-law also love Boston, and reside there, but drive 30 and 20 miles, respectively, to their jobs. None of us would live in the city or visit it regularly if we had to rely on public transportation.
I hate to break it to you, guy, but you don't live in the city. And your daughter and son-in-law, well, they have made a choice to live in the city despite their jobs being far afield, so there must be some draw to live there. But here's the deal: if there wasn't public transportation, there wouldn't be a vibrant city. There would be Houston or Dallas or Jacksonville or some other junkhole with an oil-funded "cultural institution" surrounded by a parking lot. The doctors and shows you go to exist because it's hard to drive there. The cultural mecca of the country—one New York City—is also hard to drive to. Boston doesn't exist because it's easy to get to by car from Framingham.

So, if it becomes a little bit harder for you to drive in, you have three choices:

  1. Deal with the 5 extra minutes it takes to drive because transit vehicles and bicyclists can more safely travel a less-freeway-like Comm Ave.
  2. Not come to the city and take advantage of the world-class medical facilities in Framingham. I hear there is a world-renowned symphony orchestra and art museum over in Marlborough, too.
  3. Go to this "Framingham" you speak of and take a train (information here, guy) which runs every hour to Boston for about the price of tolls and gas (actually, since you're retired, quite a bit less), nevermind the cost of parking. Oh, and it doesn't get stuck in traffic.
Or he could move to the city.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

No need to duplicate transit on Comm Ave

NB: This got picked up on Universal Hub and there are a bunch of comments there. I'll respond to comments in both forums, but probably here more. One note of clarification: I'm not saying that this should be the plan, but that it should be considered. Like much of the Commonwealth Avenue project, the planning process has been opaque and has had no public input. Also, this comment is a great illustration of what you could have.

The Boston Globe recently ran a story about proposed changes to Commonwealth Avenue. Of issue is that while Comm Ave is wide, it is not infinitely wide, and the changes will widen the transit reservation (mainly for safety for track workers, presumably this would also allow for wider stations), narrowing the rest of the road enough that the city is reticent to add cycle tracks, because it would narrow bus stops, and stopped buses would delay vehicles. (I'm just going to touch on the fact that there really shouldn't be an issue with delaying traffic in favor of buses, bicyclists and pedestrians, but that's not the scope of this post.)

What I am going to point out is that all of these issues could be mitigated by moving the 57 bus route and the BU buses to the center reservation of Comm Ave with the trolley tracks. This would result in the removal of bus infrastructure from the sides of the street—buses could instead stop at the same stations as Green Line trains. While this would be novel for Boston, it has been used in other cities, and while it could result in delays for transit riders, with better stations and transit signal priority, it would result in a better experience for all customers.

There are a variety of benefits from such a plan:

  •  Buses would move out of mixed traffic, resulting in fewer traffic delays for buses (especially at the busy BU Bridge intersection) and fewer conflicts between buses and traffic.
  • The duplicative infrastructure of having parallel bus and trolley stops would be eliminated. In their place, larger, more substantial stations could be built in the center transit median.
  • Instead of waiting for either a bus or a trolley, riders could board "whatever comes first" for short trips between Packards Corner and Kenmore Square, and riders wishing to go further east than Kenmore could take a bus to Kenmore and transfer down to a B, C or D car.
  • Removing bus stops would eliminate the conflict with buses pulling across the bike lanes when entering and exiting stops.
  • Removing bus stops would allow for more parking spaces to be added to the street. The number would be small—probably in the 12 to 18 range—but not negligible, and would assuage the (dubious) constant calls for more parking in the area.
  • In addition, there would no longer be issues with cars and taxicabs blocking bus stops, requiring buses to stop in the travel lanes.
  • Wider stations would better serve disabled users, with higher platforms better allowing wheelchairs and other disabled users to board and alight transit vehicles.
  • Narrower side lanes (parked cars are narrower than buses) would allow for more bicycle and sidewalk space, including the possibility of cycle tracks.
  • Without bus stops, there would be no need for bus passengers to get off of buses and cross a cycling facility.
  • With signal priority implemented, transit travel times through the corridor could be improved for bus and trolley riders.

The main reason to not to do this is that it hasn't been done before. The cost to pave the trackbed—and to pave it well—wouldn't be negligible, but since the entire corridor is under construction, it would be feasible. There would have to be some study to see if the number of vehicles would cause congestion in the transit reservation.

Additionally, there would have to be a specific signal to allow buses to enter and leave the corridor at each end of the corridor—especially the east end where they would have to merge back in to traffic. However, the 57 bus would only have to merge in to and out of the left lane since it then accesses the busway at Kenmore, which is in the center of the roadway. This could be attained with a signal activated by the approaching vehicle—again, a novelty in Boston, but by no means a procedure without global precedent.

The B line has 26,000 surface boardings, most of which travel to Boston University or through the campus and in to the tunnel. The 57 bus adds 10,000 more, and the BU Bus serves countless others. There are tens of thousands of pedestrians in the corridor, and thousands of bicyclists—it is one of the most heavily-traveled bicycle corridors in the city. Yet we are planning for cars—minority users of the corridor—first, when we should be planning for transit first (by far the largest user of the corridor by the number of passengers carried), then bicyclists and pedestrians. Cars should be an afterthought, put in to the plans after other users have been accommodated, not before. Of course, had the old A line never been converted to buses, Commonwealth Avenue would not host any MBTA services, and wouldn't need any bus infrastructure. But that battle was lost 45 years ago.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The next person to say "The same as 1897" …

Every so often, someone knocks the MBTA. I know, I know, it's shooting fish in a barrel. But sometimes you hear that the T built the first subway in 1897, and hasn't made any real improvements since. (I'm looking at a certain "disruptive" transit service here: "Between 1897 and right now, there’s been some marginal improvements in how service is delivered to move massive amounts of people throughout a city.") In 1897, the underground transit in Boston was composed of streetcars. Mostly short streetcars. Here's the article about the first streetcar through the tunnel: a car from Allston via Pearl Street. Here's that streetcar (or one like it): a 29-foot car. Back then, a parade of 25-to-30 foot vehicles (most of them just eight feet wide) plied the subway. It was better than the gridlock at the surface, but didn't have a huge capacity.

By 1901, the Main Line Elevated operated first through the current Green Line tunnel, and by 1908 through its own tunnel. These ran four-car trains of 65-foot cars that were 9 feet wide—still narrow, but much larger than the 1897 cars.

In 1912, the Cambridge-Dorchester tunnel (The Red Line) opened in 1912, and the Orange Line cars had proved inadequate for the crowds, so the T opted bigger. These cars were 69 feet long and 10 feet wide, triple the size of a streetcar one level up at Park, but operating in four car trains. The tunnels were wider too, with fewer curves, allowing faster operation. In 15 years, there were trains an order of magnitude larger than the first iteration.

(A similar thing happened in New York: the IRT cars—in 1904—were built to approximately the size of the Orange Line fleet, by the time the BMT built their tunnels ten years later, they were using Red Line-sized cars.)

But let's go back to the Green Line. It took a bit longer, but the Green Line trains grew by an order of magnitude, too. By the 1940s, they were running three-car trains of PCCs, 47 feet long and more than 8 feet wide. In the 1970s, the first articulated vehicles showed up, and current Green Line trains are 8'8" wide, and 74 feet long. And they operate in three-car trains. That's 222 feet long—quite a bit longer than 29 feet—and, overall, nine times as big. It took some time—three car trains have only started running recent years—but the Green Line has improved capacity an order of magnitude, despite the 115-year-old infrastructure.

Oh, right, in 1897 (and 1997) you paid with a coin, now you pay with an RFID card. And sometimes the trains even have air conditioning! But that's another story.

In other words, knocking rapid transit for "marginal" improvements in the last 115 years isn't disingenuous: it's wrong.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Longfellow Bike Count: Year 2

It's kind of hard to believe that it's been more than a year since my first Longfellow Bridge bike count, but it has. I've posted just a few times since then about the bridge, and seen the inbound lanes deconstructed, the towers come down, and, arch-by-arch, the bridge is now being rebuilt. I even went out in the middle of winter (and by out, I mean in to someone's office with a view of the bridge) and counted about 90 bikes per hour: 30% of the previous summer's crossings. (I think I tweeted this during the winter but didn't write a whole post.)

So it was high time for a new count. I waited for a morning with good weather (and when I wouldn't miss November Project) and set off for the bridge. After chatting with the DPW workers on my street about Hubway, I didn't make it on to the bridge until 7:45, but that meant I was there in plenty of time to hit the peak morning bike rush hour, which (still) occurs from approximately 8:10 to 9:10 on the Longfellow. While at first the bike counts seemed flat or even down, once the rush got cranking, it became clear that there are more bicyclists this year than last.

Just to review, here are the bike counts for the peak hour from last year:
Wednesday, June 19, 2013: 267 bicyclists (8:12 – 9:12)
Tuesday, July 30, 2013: 308 bicyclists (8:08 – 9:08)
Tuesday, October 15, 2013: 298 bicyclists (8:11 – 9:11)
Here's what I found this June (on the 24th, a Tuesday). The counts today peaked from 8:07 to 9:15 (that is to say, the 8:07 – 9:07 hour and the 8:15 – 9:15 hour saw the same counts). And the number of cyclists during those 60 minute blocks?
That's one bike every nine seconds for an hour. Compared with the highest count last year in July, it's an increase of 25%. Compared with the average of the three counts last year, it's an increase of 32%. In a single year.

I can't think of any single factor that would have increase bicycle usage by that much, other than more people riding bikes. So, contrary to any mitigating factors, I'm operating under the assumption that bicycling eastbound across the Longfellow is up by at least 25% this year. Between 8:30 and 9:00, there were 221 cyclists crossing the bridge and only 187 vehicles: 18% more bikes than cars. There were a few moments where the bridge looked downright Copenhagenish. With more bicyclists than vehicles crossing the bridge at peak times, perhaps it's time to revisit the design and give bikes more than 20% of the road's real estate.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tolls, traffic and unintended consequences

Back in 1996, Governor Bill Weld wanted to be Senator. John Kerry was running for his third term. Amidst the clash of blue-blooded New Englanders, Weld decided it would be a great political coup to remove tolls on two sections of the Massachusetts Turnpike. So he zeroed out the tolls in Western Mass (which mainly required new tickets—yes, that was pre-EZ-Pass—as the highway still required toll barriers; the tolls were reinstated last year to little fanfare) and nixed the toll in Weston Newton. While the Western Mass tolls were a quiet affair, the West Newton tolls were less so.

Overnight, signs went up: Toll Free. One day when I was biking home from middle school (yes, middle school, and yes, I was a commie bicyclist even then!) I noticed a peculiar sight: a backhoe was tearing in to the old toll booths, and within a few days they were gone, paved over would never be seen again. Of course, this was a transparent political ploy, and it soon surfaced that Weld hadn't publicly bid the demolition contract but instead given it to a friend. He lost the election by seven points.

And overnight, he created a nearly-twenty-year-long traffic jam.

Much of the traffic coming east on the Turnpike originates on Route 128. When the Southwest and Northwest expressways were canceled, the Pike became the only western trunk route in to the city. Up until that point, the toll to access the Turnpike at 128 was 50¢, and in West Newton it was 25¢. Traffic from the south on 128 has little incentive to stay on 128 to the Turnpike, as the diagonal Route 16 is two miles shorter and, even with traffic lights, negligibly slower, especially given the roundabout design of the 90/128 interchange, where Boston-bound motorists drive half a mile due west before swinging back east through the toll gates. Until 1996, there was a 25¢ difference between staying on the highway and taking the surface roads. In 1996, the savings went to 50¢, and when tolls were raised in 2002, to $1.00 (it stands at $1.25 today). This was a four-fold increase in the direct cost savings over those six years, and there was suddenly a much higher incentive to take the Route 16 shortcut and save a dollar.

And guess what happened on Route 16? Gridlock. Exit 16—coincidentally, where Route 16 intersects the Turnpike—was never anticipated to be more than a local access exit. It has a short acceleration zone and a very short merge with poor sightlines around a bridge abutment. And it began to handle far more traffic than it had before. (On the other hand, the outbound ramp no longer required vehicles to slow through the toll plaza, and they frequently merged in to Washington Street at highway speed at a blind corner with significant pedestrian traffic.) With more cars coming off of Route 16 rather than the main line, it created a merge which caused traffic back-ups a mile back Route 16, and—given the merge—also backed up traffic on the mainline of the Turnpike. Additionally, drivers who may have, in the past, stayed on Route 16 between West Newton and Newton Corner instead used the free segment of highway, adding to the traffic along the Turnpike and causing more backups at the short exit ramp there. One shortsighted, unstudied policy change changed the economic decisions of drivers on several segments of road, changed the equilibrium, and caused several different traffic jams.

And the state lost money, to boot.

So the new electronic toll can't come soon enough. It's too hard to tell if it will rebalance the traffic, or if growing traffic volumes in the intervening 18 years have created this traffic in any event. But it will finally correct a problem nearly two decades in the making, and a problem that never should have occurred in the first place.