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.)


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.

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.

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.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A short history of the new early morning bus service

Back in the halcyon days of March, 2016, I wrote a series of blog posts about overnight transit after the T unceremoniously axed late night transit service. I had them all planned out (if not fully written) and posted the first one at 8:30 on a Thursday morning before I went to work. (My blog posts in Pacific Time for no apparent reason.) The first post was about how the T should be clearer about when and where it provides early morning transit service, rather than burying the details on paper schedules and webpages.

It was popular, apparently. Several thousand views that day alone and it's still one of the most read posts on this page. It caused a shouting match of sorts on Universal Hub with one commenter saying the current schedules which showed the trips with five-point-font notes were adequate (I'm still not sure why) which resulted in Stuart Spina stepping in and dropping the mic:
Is it really that hard to just publish a special Sunrise timetable?  
AND CAN THE BUSES ACTUALLY BE SIGNED UP FOR THEIR ROUTES!!!???  
Frank's voice tells you when the doors open that the bus is "Route 192 with service to Haymarket" and yet the sign says "39 HAYMARKET" "39 VIA FOREST HILLS"…
But the best part was an email I received from the T at 11:52 a.m., barely four hours after the blog post went live from a service planner there:
Greetings. The MBTA received the following customer feedback this morning, which referenced your blog post. I can’t vouch for what he says are errors in your post, but I thought you might be interested to hear it. 
Issue Reported by the customer: Customer called to say that there is a website called amateurplanner.blogspot.com that gives a list of all the early morning bus trip . The problem is the blog is not giving out correct information. mainly on the 57 to boston and rts 117 leaving haymarket and the 109 . He would like to know if mbta could create a separate schedule in the packets for the early morning bus trip , He states that everyone does not know how to read the schedules and that’s why there is little ridership. This would stop independent bloggers from giving out incorrect information. 
As for your post, I agree that the information may be difficult to find for some users, but just like all other bus schedule info, it is available on our paper and HTML schedules for the relevant routes (e.g., the 194 trips shows up on both the 89 and 93), as well as our GTFS feed. The 191-194 numbers are purely for internal purposes in our scheduling software, and not as some sort of obfuscation. They are so different from the normal routes that we decided they should have separate route numbers rather than be listed as a variant of a normal route. Most users would likely find the normal route numbers less confusing, so that’s what the public sees when they see these trips on schedules or Trip Planner. Just as these trips are listed under the normal routes that make up the early morning trips, if you plan a trip with Google Maps or Trip Planner that uses the 194, it will display it as 89/93. 
I can see how a separate page about early AM routes might be helpful to some folks, but if I were a regular 89 or 93 rider, I would still want to have the early AM options for my route on my paper schedule for those routes, since that’s what I care about—not early AM options for the other side of town. I’ll bring up this idea for a separate sunrise service page with my colleagues, and also discuss whether we can improve how these early AM trips are described.
Let's unpack that a bit. First, in the letter written to the T, it's unclear exactly going on. A customer called to tell the T there is a website. Wait, really? Someone read my blog and was so incensed they called the T? And then they tip their hand. Note they go to "he would like to know …" and "He states …" Wait, who states? The customer? Or the website? I am convinced to this day that the T called themselves up and sent in this comment, particularly because it was sent to me barely four hours after the blog post went up.

If so, it would be either the quickest the T has ever responded to anything, or a testament to the fact that they really should have better things to do.

My response was that my information was not wrong (although I made some clarifications) and as Stuart pointed out it is confusing when the ASA announcement is different from the bus's head sign. And what would preclude keeping that information on the paper maps, as well as creating a special website? They're not mutually exclusive.

I thought my post was equivocal and fair. But apparently I'd touched a nerve.

Long story short: a week later, we'd (we = TransitMatters) proposed the entire night bus plan on this blog and in Commonwealth Magazine. Since then, we've been through several iterations of the plan with the T in fits and starts, and we're working on launching a 24/7 bus route pilot in addition to earlier service (and a dedicated web page for it, although I think some mapping would help) on these additional routes. It's been two years, but hopefully this is the start of building, as I called it two years ago: robust, equitable and efficient overnight transit.

Extend Red-Blue to … Kendall?

At some point on the Internet, I've scoffed at the idea of extending the Blue Line across the Longfellow Bridge (somehow) and then run along Main Street to some superstation at Kendall (which there's not room for) and then making a turn on the Grand Junction right-of-way (or something). I still do. You couldn't reliably run the Blue Line and Red Line together on the Longfellow and they have separate loading gauges so would need different tracks at Kendall. To facilitate a Red-Blue Connector, it makes sense to stub-end the Blue Line at Charles Station and provide an easy answer to Kendall Square.

Or does it?

This would be a short and pointless blog post if the first paragraph was 100% true. Plus, I've written that blog post before. Twice.

One of the trickiest things about the Red-Blue Connector is shoehorning a good, useful terminal in to the space under Charles Circle. It's not easy. You'd have to dig a wide tunnel, or long tail tracks, or dig out pocket tracks or tail tracks under a busy roadway and the supports for the Red Line. It would be somewhat difficult to build any sort of functional terminal: there's just not the space. You could put something under Storrow Drive (technically Embankment Road) and Ebersol fields, which would result in a decent terminal, but you'd have to dig up and rebuild the fields, and you'd be digging adjacent to the river. It would provide for good operations; you could stack in several tracks for layover, storage and recovery, rather than using crossovers and/or the Bowdoin Loop.

So Ebersol would work for operations, but you're still pushing more people in to the Red Line and the already-overburdened Kendall and Charles stations, and forcing every Kendall-bound Blue Line passenger to transfer (albeit an easier transfer than exists today). There's another potential terminal. It's bigger than Ebersol, would allow increased capacity across the Charles, the potential for further expansion and, oh, yeah, it's already somewhere where a huge hole is going to be built in the near term.

I'm speaking of the Volpe site recently bought by MIT. Since they're going to be digging a big hole, it would make sense to put something useful in it, not just more parking. It is an extra 3000 feet to tunnel from Charles Circle to Volpe, but it's mostly in a shallow river and free from utility considerations (as far a I can tell). In theory, this should be relatively cheap tunneling: it could be done in a similar manner to the Ted Williams Tunnel: building tubes off-site, digging a trench, and sinking the tubes in to place, except downscaled by a significant factor: the width of two Blue Line trains is narrower than two highway lanes. The river is 12 to 15 feet deep just downstream of the Longfellow, so it would need to be excavated down about that much to accommodate current depths. The TWT required digging through muck and in to bedrock at times to accommodate a shipping lane clearance at low tide, but the Charles has no such river traffic. The disposal and mitigation of the sludge on the river bottom may be the trickiest part, although it would be beneficial to start cleaning up the muck on the bottom of the Charles River.


Then there's the Broad Canal. This should be easy. It's 15 feet deep, doesn't need clearance for anything more than kayaks (although the waste heat from the power plant would have to be accounted for), and could be easily coffer-dammed, dug out, cleaned up, and filled in with several feet of water sheet above. To make up for any displaced water volume (hello, Waters of the United States), the canal above could be extended, Lechmere-style, to a water feature figuring in prominently in the new Volpe development.


What does this get you? A lot, actually. First of all, designing a subway loop terminal in Volpe's basement would add minimal marginal cost to the development and would make it extremely transit-oriented, and add value to the project: there'd be no need to trek through the Marriott to Kendall Square to the Red Line for trips downtown. (Do you need a loop? Probably not, but if you can get MIT to dig the hole, you might as well put a good terminal down there, although if you wanted to run trains through to Binney and beyond in the future, you could build a simpler island platform with tail and storage tracks beyond.) This north/east side of Kendall is booming. In the past 10 years, several blocks have been rebuilt from gravel lots to job sites and residential developments: below is the same corner in 2011 and 2017, for instance. It would also bring transit a bit closer to the no-man's-land in the mile between Kendall and Lechmere. With Volpe as the linchpin of several thousand more jobs and residents, expanding transit should be a priority in Kendall.

2011
2017
This plan would also give the Kendall area a direct connection to more of Downtown Boston, East Boston, the HYM Suffolk Downs site Boston is proposing for Amazon (but will be developed no matter where Amazon goes), and, most importantly, the airport (this could—maybe—provide the impetus to build a better connection to the airport from the Blue Line). It would provide more capacity across the Charles—although the north-of-Boston portion Red Line is most full from Central to Kendall—and more importantly would take some traffic out of the Kendall Station, which was never really designed for the number of people using it today.

Further down the road? The Volpe site hemmed in by Biogen to the west, but a right-of-way could be preserved over to Binney Street where a further extension could easily reach the Grand Junction. From there, much is possible. A line to Sullivan Square and Assembly via the Grand Junction. A line in the other direction linking Kendall to Allston, and then further west. Once GLX is complete, the Blue Line will be the only transit line which terminates in Downtown Boston, which is operationally inefficient. This would give it a terminal at both ends to improve operations.

I'm not sure how much this costs; I haven't been able to find a good breakdown of the order-of-magnitude for the costs for the TWT. (I did speak to Fred Salvucci about it, and he said it was the cheapest and easiest part of the Big Dig to build, although that's a pretty low bar.) I also can't find information about the specific cost of the "Haymarket North Extension" tunnel costs, but that project seemed not to have broken the bank (as far as I can tell, the below-ground portion of that line did not use boring machines). Searching the Globe archives, the entire Haymarket North project cost $180 million at the time, equivalent to $750 million today. That number includes: the five miles of the line to Oak Grove, some tricky engineering building between buildings from Haymarket to the river, and the B&M holding up the state for $18 million ($95 million today) to build the line through Charlestown (This is than half, considering 1970s inflation, of what the state would pay a couple years later to buy the entirety of the Boston and Maine lines in Massachusetts east of Fitchburg: $39.5 million, $170 million today). For this proposal, the state would only have to negotiate over a small portion of Broad Canal Way, and its owner—an REIT—would stand to benefit from better transit to the airport so might be willing to make the price right.

In any case, if Charles Station was built as a through station and not a terminal, it would reduce construction costs there (where they're expensive) and improve operations. The station could even be built with side platforms to keep the width of the subway narrower. The Volpe terminal could be built basically for free if it was integrated in to the overall Volpe development. The question comes down to the cost of the underwater tunnel. If it's reasonable—and it seems that it would be—this would make a lot of sense. What about transfers from further north on the Red Line? This would preserve the full functionality of the Red-Blue connector, except it would work even better. And if the North South Rail Link ever obviated the need for the Grand Junction to function as a freight corridor, the Blue Line could easily be extended west or north.