Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Remember: changing road pricing can have unintended consequences

A few years ago, I wrote about how the 1996 changing of the toll structure of the Turnpike in Newton dramatically affected traffic. In that case, changing the toll by $1 created a new calculus where many commuters took an alternate route to avoid the toll, leading to traffic on side roads. The state will soon change the toll structure on the Tobin Bridge, going from $2.50 in one direction to $1.25 in each way. They claim it will be revenue neutral (it will likely be somewhat revenue positive, actually; see below), but there is not talk of the traffic impact, because the amount you're charging is the same, so it won't change the traffic, right?

Wrong. There may be a major traffic impact.

First, the revenue projections. It is very likely that revenue will actually go up. Today, it costs $2.50 to go south on the Tobin, and it is free going north. For a motorist coming south on 95 in Peabody, it is usually only 2 to 3 minutes longer to loop around on 128 and 93 versus the trip straight down Route 1. (At rush hour, it depends more on traffic, but the majority of travel on the Tobin Bridge is at non-rush times.) The 128-93 route is about five miles further, but even assuming 50¢ for gas (most motorists don't figure in the full marginal cost of a mile traveled, many probably discount the extra gas anyway) it is still a saving of $2 for three minutes of time, a rate of $40 per hour. That's generally worth it.

Which is much of the reason why, in 2015, there were 51,000 northbound vehicles daily on the Tobin, but just 34,000 going southbound. (Some of this may be explained by things like the location of on- and off-ramps and traffic patterns, but most of it is likely due to the toll.)

Equalizing the toll will change this calculus dramatically. Many motorists who had balked at the $2.50 toll may be more willing to part with $1.25 to save a couple of minutes. And while some will avoid the bridge northbound, it will be far fewer than if the toll were flipped and it was charged full rate northbound, and free coming south. Guessing wildly, I'd guess that 5,000 motorists will use the bridge coming south, and 5,000 will abandon it going north. This means a lot of new toll revenue for the state.

Currently, the state collects $2.50 from each of the vehicles using the bridge southbound (we'll assume that the higher rate for larger vehicles offsets the discounted toll charged to Charlestown and Chelsea residents). With 34,215 vehicles counted per weekday in 2015, this amounts to $85,537.50 in toll revenue. My wild-guess assumption is that there will be 5,000 more northbound travelers (39,215) and 5,000 fewer southbound travelers (46,108), each paying $1.25, for a total of $106,653.75, or an additional $20,000 in toll revenue daily. Even discounting lower traffic on weekends and holidays, this will probably add in the neighborhood of five to six million additional dollars of toll revenue for the state.

The tolls will be fairer and make more sense and raises more money for the state, which can always use more money for infrastructure. This is a win-win …

… unless it has an unforeseen impact traffic. The bridge itself is nowhere near congested, especially coming southbound, where peak-hour traffic counts average just 3000 per hour (1000 per lane per hour), well below the 1500 where congestion begins in earnest (in the chart above, you can see how the northbound traffic levels off at about 4000 per hour, even dipping slightly during the 4 to 5 p.m. peak, which may be due to heavy traffic on roadways accessing the bridge reducing throughput). The issue with more inbound traffic is at the end of the bridge.

Most of the traffic (about 85%) stays on the loop ramp to the Leverett Connector and O'Neill Tunnel. An additional stream of traffic is added from Rutherford Avenue, and there is considerable merging and sorting of this traffic. With only two lanes, this is much nearer capacity; adding more vehicles may create merge traffic which will cause significant backups. The traffic on the Leverett Connector and the tunnel should be a zero-sum game, shifting users from I-93 to Route 1, much like the Turnpike toll removal didn't necessarily increase traffic, but changed where it got on and off of the highway. Even minor changes can have consequences. This one may work fine. Or it may not.

Still, I'm for this change, as it is sensible policy (even if it might have some unintended consequences). In fact, the Commonwealth should explore avenues to toll all the highways leading in to Boston at a rate equal to the Turnpike. Tolls on the Turnpike are not a detriment to the local economy, which seems fine to be churning alone just fine. And other than federal policy (which may be changing), there is no logical reason why Turnpike commuters should have to pay $5 a day to get from 128 to the city while I-93 commuters get in for free. And while the dollars from the Tobin change are relatively small, charging a sort-of congestion charge for other highways leading in to Boston could bring in big dollars. I-93 could be tolled at $2.50 in both directions from 128 to the city, with a lower toll for Route 2 ($1.25), perhaps waived for commuters parking at Alewife. The harbor tunnel tolls, currently $3.50 one way, could be reduced to $1.25 each way to match the other tolls.

At this rate, and assuming that 10% of travelers would carpool, take transit or use side roads to avoid the tolls (although with electronic tolling, it's harder to simply avoid a toll booth), this would increase the equity of the transportation system, while at the same time raising more than $600 million annually for road maintenance. Considering the age and state of many of the roadways, bridges and tunnels in the Commonwealth, this money could be spent making sure that the roadways are maintained statewide. Unlike a vehicle mile tax, this is not a new concept; it's one which has been in place on roadways throughout the Commonwealth for nearly a century (far longer if you account for the 19th century incarnations). And unlike a statewide gas tax, this targets users of the state's most crowded and overtaxed infrastructure, and may be a factor leading drivers to consider other modes. The Turnpike users already pay tolls. It's high time others did a well.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Getting Transit (Mostly) Right: Minneapolis-Saint Paul edition

Minneapolis and Saint Paul do not necessarily lend themselves to being a transit paradise. The core of the region is not particularly dense, and wide roads and a mostly-built freeway system make driving too easy. The tree-lined avenues of Minneapolis and Saint Paul are mostly lined by single-family homes and duplexes with sizable yards and alleyways, meaning that population densities are far less than the three-deckers of Boston, side-by-side bungalows of Chicago and row houses of DC, so there are fewer people to provide the necessary patronage for a dense network of frequent transit lines. The factors that push people to transit that define the urban experience in a Boston, New York or DC—heavy congestion and high parking costs—are, if not completely absent, less of an issue. And without many grade-separated lines, there are few cases where transit has a distinct time advantage over rush hour traffic.

Additionally, much of the area is pockmarked by both active and abandoned industry and transportation networks, further diluting the population (while, at the same time, providing significant potential for brownfield redevelopment). Most in-city residents live within a short walk of a bus line (the suburbs, for the most part, are less dense and even more car-dependent), but frequencies are often only every 20 or 30 minutes. Since the demise of the streetcar network (most car lines ran every 10 or 12 minutes or better, and streetcar ridership peaked at 238 million per year, triple transit ridership today) and the rise of the highways in the 1950s and 1960s, driving has just been to easy to compete with transit. Even at its peak, Minneapolis had just under 10,000 people per square mile, Saint Paul only 6,000; neither reached the peak density of large rust belt cities further east. (Both cities saw their populations bottom out in 1990 and have gained about 10% since.)

Minneapolis-Saint Paul was one of the largest cities without rail transit until its first line opened in 2004—a 12 mile line for a cost, in current dollars, $905 million (including two major elevated overpasses and a mile-long tunnel under the airport, despite exceeding initial estimates it is, in retrospect, quite cheap.)—and the second corridor, linking Minneapolis and Saint Paul, came online in 2014. These two corridors have, in their own right, made Minneapolis’s “Metro” the most heavily-used rail system to have been inaugurated since 2000, with more than 60,000 passengers per day. But there are two new smaller-scale developments which show that the Twin Cities are more forward-thinking in providing transit, and may well entice passengers out of cars while providing transit along corridors with high potential for redevelopment.

The first is the speeding up of the Green Line (formerly the Central Corridor) between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. When it first opened, the signal system of the line was not optimized for transit: trains often waited at cross streets for vehicular traffic despite the promise of transit signal priority. While the line is not perfected in the way that the Blue Line, which has gated, at-speed grade crossings, operates (and, running in the center of a city street, it likely never will be) the kinks are being worked out, and the promise of a 39-minute downtown-to-downtown ride is coming to fruition (the downtown sections are still quite slow and trains have minimal signal priority there). Speeds have also been improved, to 40 mph between most stations and 50 where there are no cross streets for long distances. (Note that this center-running light rail line runs faster than any MBTA subway or light rail service.) Further progress may be made, but the cities have not kowtowed to a few delayed drivers, and reaped both the operational efficiencies of running trains faster, as well as the potential for higher ridership. Trains run just every ten minutes, but with three 100-foot-long railcars, they have a capacity of more than 500 passengers each.

The second is the upcoming A Line bus rapid transit route in (mostly) Saint Paul. While not true BRT—there are few, if any, protected lanes, and the efficacy of transit signal priority will have to be tested—it’s the right steps towards getting more riders on to buses, and then on to trains beyond. The 84 has long been an important crosstown route running north-south between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. It connects the Green Line at Snelling Avenue with the Blue Line at 46th Street in Minneapolis, and with the rail lines has acted as a major feeder route to the two lines, albeit an urban bus route with frequent stops, often picking up just one or two passengers at each due to the density of the area, slowing down the route.

The new A Line will eliminate the Montreal joggle, a vestige
from the pre-light rail routing of the line.
Beyond this, it has had its share of issues. It has long been a frequent route—every fifteen minutes for the trunk service—but service was downgraded in 2004 when the direct trip to the airport and Mall of America was severed and required a transfer to the Blue Line. Additionally, until recently, only every other trip made the airport run, meaning service to the rail line was only available every 30 minutes, a major transfer penalty, especially changing from rail to bus. The other branch of the route dead-ended at the 54 bus, which also ran to the airport, but with less frequency (every 15 minutes) and without the passenger amenities at the transfer point. Furthermore, the line had several twists and turns. Before 2004, it made several jogs through Saint Paul en route to the airport. In the past decade, most buses serving the light rail have detoured half a mile south of the straight east-west route to the rail transfer station, providing some additional coverage but adding several minutes of extra travel time to each trip. When there are few advantages to bus travel in the first place, once a route goes out of its way in this manner, driving becomes even more logical.

No joggles! The new A Line will follow
the city street grid: the most direct route.
The new A Line BRT route will eliminate many of the factors which make driving more desirable in this corridor. First, stops will be consolidated, from eight or ten per mile to two or three, mostly at major nodes, bus transfers and “100% corners” which developed around these streetcar transfer points in the first half of the 20th century (the term has since been applied to highway interchanges in suburbia and transit transfer stations downtown). Each stop will be more developed, with heftier shelters with heating elements (important in Minnesota winters) and real-time departure information (important for everyone, but especially choice riders). Each station will have a fare machine and provide off-board fare collection, distinct vehicles with wider doors, and all-door, level boarding to minimize dwell times. Furthermore, buses will stop in the right travel lane, at a curb bump-out, so buses will not waste time pulling in and out of travel lanes. This will all enhance the speed of the route and the customer experience, and an analysis shows that it will bring many jobs closer to residents of the corridor.

Frequency will increase as well, with 10 minute headways matching headways of the light rail lines (frequency had been increased in 2014 to this level when the Blue Line opened, but not all buses ran to the Blue Line in Minneapolis), so transfers between the two lines will be minimal. Very importantly, these won’t just be rush-hour frequencies, but for midday service seven days per week (shoulder periods—before 6 a.m. weekdays, slightly later on weekends, and after 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and slightly later on weekends—will be somewhat less frequent, but still generally every 15 or 20 minutes). And the hodgepodge of coverage-based joggles will be eliminated: an every-half-hour 84 route will provide this coverage service, but the every-ten-minutes A Line will follow the grid to a T—or, as it happens, a backwards “L”—taking the most direct route possible. (The 84 will also provide service every block along Snelling Avenue, continuing a fallacy among many transit agencies that stops can not be consolidated at any cost. Thus some operational efficiencies will be lost by having empty buses running along the route, as nearly all passengers will opt for the faster and more frequent A Line. Even with stations every half mile along the Blue Line, MetroTransit still runs the 16 bus along the route, making these frequent stops. Based on limited observations, there are few, if any, riders, and it may behoove the agency to take whatever constituent hits are involved in putting this type of service out of its misery.)

New stations feature curb bump-outs so buses
board in regular traffic lanes.
Is it perfect? Certainly not. Buses will still be susceptible to congestion, especially in the crowded Midway area, where exclusive bus lanes may be a future improvement. But it’s a major improvement, and for (relatively) minor dollars. Rather than a showy BRT or rail system (the corridor is probably not dense enough for rail, and doesn’t have the traffic issues that would require a full-on, expensive BRT system) the new A Line seems to address the most salient issues with a cost-benefit analysis, with low-cost, high-impact solutions (what they call Arterial BRT). It can also be incremental; if it’s successful, it will give the political capital to make further improvements, which may mean taking car travel lanes or parking spaces for queue jump lanes of exclusive bus facilities. It will leverage the much-improved Green Line light rail connecting to the downtowns with a better connection from the Snelling corridor, and the Blue Line at the other end. This system did not have free-falling ridership that would require a Houston-level redesign (bus ridership has grown in recent years, even as a major corridor—University Avenue—was replaced by light rail), but certain corridors—like the 84—did need improvement (others still do). This is a model which should be used for other high-use corridors in the Twin Cities (which is planned), and other systems in the US as well.

I started riding the 84 in 2002 (it still carried a note that it had been renamed from the Saint Paul 4—until 2000 Minneapolis and Saint Paul parochially had duplicate route numbers in different cities, like boroughs in New York) as a first year student at Macalester College, frequently to and from the airport. It ran every half hour, but with direct service it made the terminal impressively close: even with the joggles in the route, it was less than a 20 minute ride, door-to-door. The actually service degraded in 2004 with the rail transfer: it usually took about 30 or even 35 minutes, especially with the extra trip down to Montreal Avenue, and still only every half hour.

It took ten years, but a sensible route has finally been worked out. While the new service won’t match the speed of the pre-2004 service, with a more direct route, fewer stops and 10 minute headways for both the bus and the light rail, the trip, even with a transfer, should take about 25 minutes (with a perfect transfer at non-peak times, it may actually beat the circa-2004 20-minute mark), with the bus running up to 25% faster. Considering it will come three times as often, it will (finally) take full advantage of the light rail, and provide better service to the Snelling corridor in Saint Paul. Hopefully residents will notice the improvements and avail themselves of better transit options, even if it’s never perfectly competitive with an automobile.

Update: so far people are mostly happy with it, with one curmudgeon who won't walk the extra block to a stop in the winter, supposedly.

Monday, May 30, 2016

When Boston Almost Lost Commuter Rail

The 1970s was not a good time for rail commuters in Boston. New roadways had opened and several rail lines shut, and those left had anemic schedules. In the 1950s, Commuter Rail was provided by private carriers (the Boston and Maine north of the city, the Boston and Albany—owned by the New York Central—on the Worcester Line and the New Haven elsewhere from South Station) in a manner similar to today on major lines, with less service on some branch lines (nearly all of which have since been abandoned). Many of these timetables from 1952 can be found here. In the late 1940s, South Station handled 125,000 passengers, far more than today. Only Chicago, Philadelphia and New York had similar or larger systems.

Significant cuts came in the 1950s, including the demise of the Old Colony Lines when the Southeast Expressway opened. After beginning to provide subsidies in the 1960s to commuter railroads, the T was in the midst of a many-years-long experiment to figure out how to best fund Commuter Rail, and service was often cut in towns which refused to pay up, leading to closed-door service. (This coincided with upheaval in the rail industry in general, as Penn Central and Boston and Maine both teetered on the brink of insolvency, while still operating the T's Commuter Rail system.) Termini were cut back and on the north side outer sections of rail lines often only had a single trip in the morning and evening (or as the T would say today: "twice a day").

Rail lines, owned by bankrupt freight lines (even the mostly-passenger New Haven had been merged in to the ill-fated Penn Central), fell in to disrepair. Service to South Sudbury was cut in 1971 (49 minutes Sudbury to North Station; try that today), Worcester was dropped in 1975, Bedford (35 minutes to Boston) was mothballed in 1977 and Woburn in 1981. What service remained was often run on a skeleton schedule with only a handful of inbound runs in the morning and outbound in the evening. Ridership and service would better be compared to the ill-fated lines in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit. No longer was the MBTA in the same league as Metra, SEPTA or the lines serving New York. It was a hair away from disappearing all together.

In the 1980s, however, something changed. The state bought new equipment, rebuilt track and increased the number of trips. By the 1990s, the Southwest Corridor was complete, the Old Colony Lines rebuilt (or, in the case of Kingston, overbuilt), and service reinstated to Worcester, Providence and Newburyport. Lines which saw one train a day in the 1970s (or, at times, zero) had 20, and most weekend service had been reinstated. Ridership responded: while 15,000 passengers boarded trains daily in 1972 (and most of the rest of the decade), by 2000, 60,000 passengers rode the rails each day.

The patterns of this change are interesting. Today (note that current numbers use the median ridership for the past 10 years, based on MBTA Blue Book data to account for variability in passenger counts in single years), about 46,000 passengers use lines radiating from South Station while 26,000 passengers use those from North Station. In 1972, the numbers were much lower, and the ratios reversed: 11,000 passengers used North Station, and fewer than 5,000 used South Station lines. So while North Station has grown significantly in the past 40 years—by 150%—South Station has increased by nearly ten times (1000%). It's hard to imagine how sleepy South Station must have been in the 1970s, as compared to the constant streams of commuters crowding the concourse today.

Line-by-line, even station-by-station, there are dramatic differences in the changes over the years.

Of the top five lines in 1972, four were on the North Side: Haverhill, Eastern Route (Newburyport/Rockport), Lowell, Attleboro and Fitchburg. Today, three of the top five lines are on the South Side: Providence, Eastern, Worcester, Franklin and Lowell. In 1972, the Worcester Line bested only the two-station Woburn spur and the Lexington/Bedford line, both of which were discontinued in the ensuing decade.

In 1972, the Reading Line—the single Haverhill train operated via the Wildcat Line—accounted for more than 20% of Commuter Rail's total ridership. I-93 hadn't yet fully opened to Boston, and the Orange Line ended in Everett rather than Oak Grove. While overall Haverhill ridership has increased, all of the gains have come from the outside of the line; there are fewer passengers at nearly every station from Reading inbound. The Worcester Line, on the other hand, carried just 600 passengers on three rush hour trains. Today it has that many trains per hour at rush hour, each of which carries 600 passengers (or more).

In absolute numbers, the biggest gains have been along the Providence Line and at Salem and Beverly, where several stations have seem gains of more than 1000 riders per day (some of which, like Providence and South Attleboro, had a baseline of zero). Many stations across the system have gained 500 riders a day or more. The inner Haverhill Line and nearby stations on the Woburn Branch stand out as the only stations to lose significant ridership; most other stations showing ridership declines are small stations which were closed (the largest, West Acton, now has a shuttle bus to South Acton, where parking is full before 7 a.m.).
These data can also be mapped, of course. The map shows the disparate growth on different lines, and how minimal ridership was in 1972, especially south and west of the city, compared with today.

Note that 1972 ridership is shown in B&M blue, since the B&M operated the majority of the system then.
Boston came very close to losing its commuter rail system in its entirety, something which occurred in no other city (the closest was the abandonment of the non-electrified portions of the SEPTA system in the early-1980s; while Boston's ridership began to rise in the 1980s, SEPTA and Metra saw ridership decline in the early '80s). Had the highway moratorium not come in to place in 1972 and the Southwest Corridor been built as a highway, it may have meant the end of commuter service south of the city. Worcester ridership was minimal, and the T threatened to curtail north side service entirely—the majority of the system at that point—if it couldn't buy the assets of the Boston and Maine.

Improvements and additions to trackage and rolling stock from the 1970s to 1990s fueled dramatic growth in the system, although it has leveled off in the past decade, a combination of higher fares and an aging physical plant. While the system is no longer on the brink of insolvency—even if it were, adding 60,000 cars to Boston's already strained road system would be a non-starter—it needs a new round of investment as the city, and especially the downtown core, continues to grow.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The big, dense cities of America

I was having a discussion on Twitter—as I am wont to do—about the densities of cities in the United States. The discussion turned to when various cities had reached peak density and I realized I had compiled such a list in a Google Doc several years back. When I'd created the document I'd set a lower limit to the size of city included (about 60,000) and the peak density (10,000 per square mile), but was more interested in the larger cities. Right now (well, as of the 2010 census), there are six cities with at population of at least 500,000 and a density of at least 10,000, in order:

New York (8.2m, 27k/sqmi)
Chicago (2.7m, 12k/sqmi)
Philadelphia (1.5m, 11k/sqmi)
San Francisco (805k, 17k/sqmi)
Washington DC (618k, 10k/sqmi)
Boston (618k, 13k/sqmi)

None of these cities will likely fall below either threshold any time soon (although for a few decades, DC was below 10,000 per square mile). Some cities may join: Long Beach is about 35,000 away from reaching this density, Seattle would need to add 150,000 and Los Angeles 700,000. Miami, which has a density of 11,000, would have to add 60,000 residents to reach 500,000. In addition, it should be noted that each of New York's boroughs (except Staten Island) would qualify for the list as well.

But the list hasn't been static, and in 1950, there were an additional six cities meeting this threshold, cities which are far smaller and less dense now than then. They are:

Detroit (1.8m/13k, now 713k/5.1k)
Baltimore (950k/12k, now 621k/7.7k)
Cleveland (915k/12k, now 397k, 5.1k)
St Louis (857k/14k, now 319k/5.2k)
Pittsburgh (677k, 12k, now 306k, 5.5k)
Buffalo (580k/14.2k, now 261k, 6.4k)

This almost perfectly defines the Rust Belt, and these cities have emptied out in the past 60 years. Chicago, Philadelphia, DC and Boston all started with similar trajectories in the 1960s and 1970s, but have arrested their falls and remain as large, dense cities. With the exception of Baltimore and Detroit, each of these Rust Belt cities is now below both 500,000 and 10,000, and Detroit has lost two-thirds of its population and is only above 500,000 because it's baseline—the fourth largest city in the country in 1950 (behind NYC, Chicago and Philly)—was so high. 1950 was the peak of density in the United States, and it will be a long time until we have as many large, dense cities as we had then.

While these cities certainly had less-diversified economies than the cities which have stayed on the list, they haven't done themselves any favors. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston all have extensive mass transit systems; DC and San Francisco have build them (other than Detroit, the dense Rust Belt cities all have some sort of mass transit, but nowhere near the extent of the six large cities; the Big Six today are also the cities with the highest transit mode share in the country). Most also limited the spread of highways in their urban areas, something which didn't occur in the Rust Belt cities. Policies which encouraged residents to leave the city worked too well, and these cities are now half-abandoned, or more, despite being as dense as their peers 60 years ago.

Not all cities peaked in 1950. If we expand our criteria to cities which peaked at at least 60,000 people (keeping the 10,000 density requirement) and include New York boroughs, we've seen peak population densities stretching back a century.

The first was in 1910 when Manhattan reached its all-time peak of 2.3 million residents, a density of 101,548 per square mile. The list of cities (at least those with at least one million residents) which have ever achieved such density is short: Manila. And it's only about half the size of New York. Paris, at 55,000 per square mile, is the densest western city today. In 1910, New York had as many people in half the space. Once subways opened allowing easy access off the island it was a safety valve, allowing people to move out of jammed tenements to the relatively spread-out outer boroughs.

One city, Lawrence, Mass., peaked in 1920 (the Merrimac valley could be called the linen belt 100 years ago as its textile mills moved south). Two peaked in 1930: Somerville, Mass. and Jersey City, N.J. In 1940, Providence, R.I. peaked (and is the first city on this list to have fallen below 10,000, although barely).

1950 was the peak; in addition to the cities above, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, DC and Boston peaked, as well as several smaller cities. Cities which peaked in 1950 have, in general, fared far worse than those which peaked before or after. The only cities which have seen their populations decline by more than half peaked in 1950, in fact, the average decline for 1950-peakers—65% (although this doesn't include cities like San Francisco which peaked in 1950 and have since surpassed that)—is lower than any other city on the list.

The Bronx peaked in 1980 (Queens is larger today than it has ever been), and no city, large or small, peaked in the 1990s. Several small jurisdictions peaked in 2000, and as of 2010, New York City as a whole, Queens, San Francisco and Miami and several other small cities are at their peak.

There are, however, two other "cities" which could be included on the list, that is, if you were to agglomerate small, dense suburbs of large cities. (Combined with Hialea, Miami Beach and some others, Miami would also make the list.) One is (not surprisingly) in New Jersey, where just the stretch from Bayonne to Fort Lee boasts nearly 700,000 residents at a density of 17,000 per square mile—similar to San Francisco. The other is north of Boston. Somerville, Chelsea, Cambridge, Malden and Everett all fall above 10,000, but only have 308,000 people (albeit in just 22 square miles). Add in Winthrop, Watertown, Revere, Arlington and Medford and you have an arc north of the city with 505,025 people living in 48.8 square miles—a population density of 10,340. Boston has by far the largest percentage of residents in 10,000+ jurisdictions outside the major city (37%, SF and NY are 26 and 21, the others are under 10) and all but Lawrence are contiguous. So if the cities and towns north of Boston combined to form, say, North Boston, or Chamedwathronfordville, it would be a pretty big place.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Longfellow Bike Count Update

I've been counting bikes on the Longfellow for … a while (although apparently not in 2015, slacker). In any case, with the layout of the bike lane changed appreciably over the past several months, I decided to count again. Here's a quick breakdown of the Longfellow's bicycle facilities in the past few years:

  • 2013: "Normal" pre-construction travel: bike lanes on both sides, two lanes of general traffic.
  • 2013–early 2015 construction: all traffic on the downstream side, one lane of traffic inbound, inbound bike lane, outbound contraflow lane with a buffer.
  • Early 2015–Late 2015: Inbound bike lane unchanged, but sections of outbound lane routed on to the sidewalk to accommodate work on the salt and pepper shakers.
  • Late 2015–Early 2016: Inbound bike lane eliminated for approximately 100m at the Cambridge end for Red Line shoo fly trackage; outbound lane eliminated entirely, cyclists asked to walk bikes across the bridge.
  • Early 2016–present: all cyclists on upstream sidewalk, pedestrians asked to use downstream sidewalk, outbound cyclists asked to loop under bridge to access Kendall. (The netting which broke free from the barriers in high winds has partially been removed, at least.) 
Average bicycle traffic on Broadway. The westbound
Longfellow lane has been impacted since Nov 9 2015.
Back in 2014, nearly 400 cyclists used the bridge during the peak inbound commuting hour. Since then, there have been significant disruptions to the bicycling facility, so some traffic may have chosen alternate routes. When the outbound bike lane was closed in November, there was a marked drop in westbound cyclists on Broadway; this persists this spring as many cyclists seem to be avoiding the suggested loop-the-loop under the bridge. Yes, there's data. See if you can tell when cycling west on the bridge was made more difficult?

This spring, eastbound cycling traffic in Cambridge has reached new heights, surpassing even last September's average (although this could be due to the number of weekdays and weekend days averaged). Westbound traffic has dropped, owing to the bridge construction. Has eastbound traffic?

Yes. Slightly. The count on May 18 tallied a peak of 358 cyclists between 8:02 and 9:02. This corresponds to 392 cyclists counted at the Eco-Totem on Broadway between 8:00 and 9:15, or 314 per hour. (In other words, there are a few more cyclists crossing the Longfellow than there are at the Eco-Totem; i.e. more join the flow from Main Street and elsewhere across the bridge than leave Broadway after the Eco-Totem, or miss the counter entirely.) This drop could be due to a variety of factors, from construction to noise in the data. Hard to know.

This count was different than others since to see both sides of the bridge required sitting in an office high above the bridge. This meant, however, that I was able to see whether cyclists were using the upstream sidewalk, the roadway (sans bike lane) or, in a few cases, the downstream sidewalk (intermixed with pedestrians and some very narrow passageways under the turret reconstruction). The answer? Most cyclists use the upstream sidewalk. For Boston-bound cyclists, 95% used the upstream facility. For those coming to Cambridge, only 88% used the facility, but the absolute numbers were much lower, so that meant that only about 10 riders per hour were using the downstream sidewalk. While I wasn't counting pedestrians, it seemed that most were using the downstream sidewalk, although this was the morning commute, which is not prime sightseeing time. Many of the upstream users seemed to be joggers, so at least their pace was better matched.

Westbound commuter counts were about even with the last count in 2014, although bizarrely the 2014 count peaked in the 8:15 range while the current count was highest around 8:45 (this could be noise in the data). There would probably be more marked differences looking at evening data; the Cambridge data suggests that many outbound commuters are avoiding the Longfellow in its current configuration.

What does this all mean? It means that most cyclists will roll with the punches as infrastructure changes, although the Cambridge data suggest that if it is too hard to use, cyclists will find other routes. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming phases change cyclist behavior as facilities are twice again shifted around the bridge prior to the final configuration. Finally, the Cambridge data is a great supplement to these counts, as it can give us a good idea of whether we counted on a high-use day or low, and such automated counts are obviously much more data-rich than simple eyes on the street, although it will take some time to build a multi-year data set to look at definitive trends. For instance: I counted more bikes in 2014, but there is no similar Cambridge data to compare that count to since the counter was only installed in 2015. 

But next year's count, well, that will have data. And the bridge might be shifted around. Again.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

MBTA buses need help, but Houston is not the answer

The MBTA's Control Board recently produced a document talking about spending several million dollars on a Houston-style network redesign. While the MBTA certainly needs help running their buses, what happened in Houston, for lack of a better phrase, should probably stay in Houston. The transit systems (and the cities themselves) are quite different, and the issues the MBTA has with its buses are far different than those in Houston.

Houston transit ridership, 1999-2014. Data from NTD.
Normalized to 100% in 1999.
Houston did not redesign its network not necessarily because it is forward thinking, but—and this often goes unreported—Houston's existing network was failing. (Looking at the top ten pages on Google about the network redesign, only one mentions the loss of ridership.) In 1999, Houston's transit agency carried about 100 million passengers per year. In 2004, despite a new light rail line opening, overall ridership had dropped to 95 million, with fewer than 90 million on buses. Ridership stayed flat around 100 million until 2008, when it cratered.

By 2010, total transit ridership was at 81 million, with bus ridership at 66 million. In other words: Houston, we have a problem. It's since recovered slightly, but transit ridership is still down 15% from 2000, with bus ridership down by 30%. If the MBTA lost 30% of its ridership, it would be in full-on crisis mode. And this took place over a time when Houston's population grew by 25%, so transit rides per person per year declined from 21.2 to 14.4. (No wonder Houston's big new roads do little to relieve congestion.) By comparison, Boston's metropolitan area has 86.5 transit trips per year (on the MBTA alone, likely slightly higher if you include RTAs within the area).

Bus ridership didn't decline simply because Houston ran fewer buses, as is the case in many cities. Service hours did climb slightly between 1999 and 2003, and were subsequently cut slightly when the light rail line opened. Still, Houston ran more bus service (as measured by revenue hours) in 2014 than it did in 1999, yet the system carried 30% fewer passengers. In 1999, the system carried 35 trips per revenue hour. By 2014, that number was down to 24. (In Boston, buses carry 50 trips per revenue hour.)

It was clear to Houston's planners that they had a major service issue with their bus system: vehicles were being used inefficiently and were not providing service where it was needed. Instead of doubling down on a failing system, they made a cogent decision to completely rebuild the network, reallocate resources to focus more on frequent service, and use a geographic resource—the straight and often wide street grid—to provide a system which would be more useful to the current population and destinations. The goal is to increase ridership using the same number of vehicles, and given the recent decline in ridership, there should be plenty of spare capacity.

This made sense—a lot of sense—for Houston. It would make very little sense for Boston.

Unlike Houston, Boston does not have spare resources to reallocate. At rush hour, most buses in Boston are at—and frequently over—capacity. This is not the case in Houston. Most frequent bus lines there run every 10 or 15 minutes at rush hour. This is frequent enough to provide "walk-up" service, but shows that there is not a major capacity crunch; if there were, buses would be run more often. One bus line (the 82) and one rail line in Houston run more frequently than every 10 minutes at rush hour. Even with the new route network, there is still a lot of spare capacity on Houston's buses. (Despite carrying 2/3 as many passengers—the networks carried similar numbers of passengers in 2000, but have since diverged—Houston runs 20% more service hours than Boston does.)

Houston and Boston transit ridership from NTD.
Normalized to 100% in 2009.
Note: Likely data error showed a spike for Boston bus ridership in 2004.
This has been removed for chart simplicity.
This is far from the experience in Boston. In addition to nine rail lines operating more frequently than every 10 minutes, there are 21 bus routes which do the same. There are many others which are well over capacity, yet there are not enough buses to go around to provide enough service on these routes. The 47, 64 and 70 are all at crush capacity—often leaving riders behind—even though they only run every 10 to 20 minutes at rush hour (and that's just a non-random sample of routes which run within a stone's throw of my house in Cambridgeport). This is an entirely different problem from Houston—nowhere in the Space City is there a bus line like the 7, 73 or 111 in which a full bus runs ever four or five minutes—and it requires an entirely different solution.

Unlike Houston, transit ridership in Boston has been growing, outpacing many other cities and the local rate of population growth, without any new infrastructure having been built in decades. Overall transit ridership is up 15% since 1999, and bus ridership up nearly 10%. Can Boston's ridership be attributed to increase service hours? No, bus service hours have been basically flat since 1999 (and not "basically flat" by the FMCB's definition, but actually flat, up less than 3% since 1999, despite the addition of the Silver Line during that time). So buses have been getting more crowded, not less.

This leaves out three other major factors which would preclude a Houston-style program in Boston. First, Boston's geography is not grid-based, but relies on a few corridors linking more central nodes. Most of these routes already have buses, usually traveling in relatively straight, logical lines (with some exceptions). Second, Boston does not have the level of sprawl that Houston does, and attempts to serve low-density job centers will be inherently less efficient than the current urban core-based transit system (in Houston, the old core-based system was not seeing enough use, which is certainly not the case in Boston). Finally, rail ridership makes up two thirds of Boston's overall transit ridership (only Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. carry more passengers by rail than by bus) and the bus network logically feeds in to the rail network, which can't be easily changed.

According to Jarrett Walker on Here and Now, two thirds of the routes in Houston were new, with smaller changes to the rest. In Boston, a reimagined system would likely result in most routes being largely unchanged—I'd venture to guess that it would be 80% of routes, and 90% of routes weighted by ridership, since higher-ridership routes would be less likely the be changed—and only a few areas would see dramatic reorganization. This is not to say there aren't changes that should be made: routes should be straightened (the 34 and others which make mid-route loops to serve malls), made more logical (the 70), have anachronistic quirks ironed out (the 66 jog to Union Square) or, in some cases, be blown apart altogether to provide better connections (break up the 47!).

None of this reaches the level of what was done in Houston, where there is a lot of slack to provide rides for more passengers with the existing bus fleet; they could increase ridership by 50% and still be shy of bus ridership in 1999, and far from the crowding the T sees on a daily basis. There is no spare capacity in Boston for that kind of growth without a dramatic increase in the size of the fleet. If we are really going to improve buses in Boston, we need more money to run more buses.

If that money—and the facilities to house an enlarged fleet—is unavailable in the short term, what can be done is a wholesale program to make the buses we have work better. The problem is not that the routes we have don't work for people (for instance, the 77 does, and should, run down Mass Ave), it's that the way the buses run on these routes doesn't work (it shouldn't have to sit at a traffic light while two or three cars cross in front of it). Buses with 50 passengers on board sit in the same queues as cars with one, and other than a couple miles of Silver Line lanes, there are no transit priority features in Boston. There has been some nascent movement towards solving this in recent months, but it needs to go much further. If we are going to spend several million dollars on improving buses—as the FMCB proposes—let's make sure we do it in a way that works for Boston, not Houston.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A more efficient Alewife-Harvard shuttle could save $30,000 per day

I had the opportunity yesterday to ride the rail-replacement shuttle from Alewife to Harvard. (I'm not faulting the T for such shutdowns at all, maintenance needs to happen.) But the buses are run very inefficiently, and if the route was changed, it could halve the number of buses required to provide the service, cutting the cost of operating these buses by tens of thousands of dollars, and provide better service for most riders.

The issue is that while Alewife is a pretty straight shot from Harvard by rail, it isn't by road. Somerville pushed hard to have Davis included in the Red Line extension in the 1980s, and the subway follows the old Fitchburg Cutoff from Davis to Alewife, less than a mile. But the bus route is longer: it runs out from Davis to Teele Square and Clarendon Hill, then turns on to the narrow-laned Alewife Brook Parkway (going inbound, this is a very tight turn for buses; the bus I was on was forced to drive over the sidewalk to make it) before running through the mess of an intersection at Route 2 and on to Alewife, a distance of more than two miles (with half a dozen traffic lights). And the buses here are mostly empty: on weekends, relatively few passengers board at the park-and-ride Alewife, with more coming from Davis and Porter squares.

Here's how the buses operate currently (approximately):

0:00 leave Harvard Square
0:06 leave Porter Square
0:11 leave Davis Square
0:24 arrive Alewife

From Porter and Davis, this only amounts to a three to five minute delay versus the subway (plus a transfer penalty and traffic). From Alewife, however, it's closer to a fifteen minute delay, since the trip from Davis takes so long. And even though the buses rumbling along Alewife Brook Parkway are mostly empty, the cost of operating a bus is the same whether it has 60 passengers on board or six, and there are often four empty buses lined up in a traffic jam on Alewife Brook Parkway waiting for the long light cycle at Mass Ave or Route 2.

Let's assume the T uses 4 buses per train and that there's a train every 8 minutes. That would mean that with a 48 minute round-trip operation time, there would be 24 buses on the route at any given time (this doesn't include schedule recovery time at either end of the line, and turning time at the Bennett Alley end of the Harvard Tunnel, which are the same in both scenarios). Imagine if, instead, you had the following:

  • Three buses leave Harvard with a destination of Davis stopping at Porter. With a busway, buses are able to turn at Davis, and by stopping in the busway will provide better passenger amenities there and provide a single stop in Davis.
  • One bus leaves Harvard to Alewife. This bus could either run directly to Alewife via Concord Ave, or out to Porter on Mass Ave and then via Rindge to Alewife (coming back, buses would have to use the Concord Ave routing to get to Harvard). This is about a 10 or 11 minute trip.
So, instead of every bus making a 48 minute round trip, each bus would make a 24 minute round trip. In other words, rather than every bus operating 4 miles from Harvard to Alewife, each bus would operate just 2 miles. Just like that, you'd need half as many buses to provide the same—or better—level of service, doubling the efficiency.

For Alewife riders, few are making a short trip to Davis; most are going at least to Harvard or further on the Red Line. These riders would save several minutes—even with less-frequent service—with a direct trip. Passengers going from Alewife to Porter or Davis would have a longer trip and a transfer, but there are few such riders; for the large majority passengers, the trip would be as fast or faster. The service would be slightly more complex, but could easily be explained by staff—who are present at every station during these diversions—and signage.

How much would this save? At a marginal operation cost of $125 per hour, 12 fewer buses per hour and 20 hours of service per day, this amounts to $30,000 of operational savings, perhaps more if these operators are earning overtime. And this could be implemented next weekend; even if the drivers are already scheduled, they could be paid but not drive or put on routes if other drivers called in sick. The savings wouldn't be as high immediately, but the floating slab project runs for another two years (with further shutdowns beyond then for routine maintenance). With eight or nine shutdowns per year this year and next, streamlining shuttle service would save half a million dollars per year—money that could, for example, fund half the cost of all-night service.

Would it work? I think so. In any case, it's worth a try. Do it for one weekend. If it works, and if it saves money, implement it for good. There are some pretty big dollars left sitting on the table if you don't.