Monday, August 29, 2016

What to do with Central Square

Traffic-wise, Central Square is a mess. Squeezed in to the streets are about 30,000 vehicles on Mass Ave and Prospect Streets, bus routes—most of which terminate in or near Central—serving more than 30,000 daily riders, thousands of cyclists and countless pedestrians going to and from work, home, businesses and transit. (This leaves out the tens of thousands of Red Line riders moving through under the street.) The street has been rebuilt many times, most recently between 2006 and 2009, to widen the sidewalks and realign Lafayette Square at the east end of the area. Sitting as it does adjacent to Kendall, Central has seen more traffic (of all types) in recent years, and often devolves in to gridlock at peak times.

That's a lot of space for cars, isn't it?
Still, the Square is remarkably car-oriented for a community where the majority of residents don't drive as their main means of transport. Bike lanes are an afterthought, and cyclists jockey for space as buses, taxicabs and parked cars pull in and out, crossing and frequently blocking the bike lane. It is one of the most dangerous locations in the city for cyclists, which is no surprise to anyone who bikes there. For pedestrians, crosswalks are frequent and Mass Ave and Prospect Street have five second leading pedestrian intervals, but sidewalks are still congested, especially near transit stops which often fill with riders if a bus is a few minutes off of its headway.

Back in the day, transit riders boarded streetcars in the center of the street
in Central Square (these were not exclusive lanes but rather "safety zones"
where passengers could board streetcars while automobiles passed on the
right; cars could pass on either side of the platform.
And transit riders? They have it worst. Long queues can form entering and exiting the too-narrow subway entrances at Pearl Street. Bus riders have a small shelter on Mass Ave, which is often inadequate for the number of riders waiting for the multiple routes which board there, and riders on Route 70 are forced to board buses a block away from the Square, on Green Street, with minimal shelter, narrow (just five feet wide!) sidewalks and on a grungy back street which is often so choked with traffic the bus can barely manage a crawl between the stops.

Unlike most other parts of the 1 Bus route, there are parallel streets in Central which could be used to alleviate traffic on Mass Ave and provide safer options for cyclists and pedestrians and better conditions for transit riders. It would require a major rethinking of how street space is used, changing the direction of Green Street and moving eastbound traffic one block to the south. That hurdle aside, Mass Ave could be reapportioned to allow for a safe, separated bicycle facility, bus stop consolidation at a single point adjacent to the Red Line (not, for many riders, a block away), and a transit-only facility stretching several blocks, free of the traffic snarls that routinely hold up buses. It would also (gasp) reduce some street parking, but the majority of businesses in Central cater to walk-in traffic, and there is ample parking at the too-numerous parking lots nearby and at the ugly-and-should-be-torn-down-for-housing Green Street Garage.

So, how do we create a Central Square where pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders are put first, and not an afterthought?

1. Green Street flips from west to east. This allows all of the traffic from Mass Ave to be shunted south on Pleasant Street by the Post Office and then left on to Green. (Franklin would probably also be flipped from east to west, which would have the added benefit of eliminating a the Franklin/River intersection, which has very poor sight lines.) Green would be two lanes wide, with one lane for through traffic and the other for deliveries and drop-offs and potentially parking between Magazine and Brookline. While this would increase traffic on Green Street, it would be mitigated by removing most if not all of the buses (more on that in a moment). Furthermore, there are very few residential buildings on Green Street, which is really mostly a service corridor for Central Square, so the impact of any additional traffic would be minimal. The street is 24 feet wide, which is wide enough for two 12-foot travel lanes.

Once past Pearl Street, traffic would be able to filter back to Mass Ave. Some traffic would take Brookline Street, mostly to zigzag across to Douglass Street and Bishop Allen. Traffic destined to Main Street could turn here, or signals could be changed to allow a straight-through move on Sidney Street. Traffic going towards Boston could continue on Green Street as far as Landsdowne, where the diagonal street allows for less severe turns.

2. Mass Ave eastbound is rerouted to Green Street. As described above, all traffic from Mass Ave eastbound would be diverted to Green Street at Pleasant. Traffic wishing to turn left on to Prospect would take a right on Pleasant, and a left at Western. Light timings would be changed at Western to allow for additional traffic. Mass Ave Westbound would remain as is.

Eastbound traffic patterns for traffic to and from Mass Ave. The dashed line shows where traffic would be allowed but not encouraged; signs would direct through westbound traffic to Mass Ave to proceed to Landsdowne Street, but right turns from Brookline to Mass Ave would be permitted. For simplicity, not all traffic movements are shown.
Eastbound traffic patterns for traffic to and from Mass Ave. The main change would be the split for traffic destined to Sidney Street and Pearl Street, where turning traffic would share a separate lane with buses before turning left.
3. A two-way busway would be built on the south side of Central Square from Pleasant to Sidney. Eastbound buses would be exempt from the turn to Green Street and instead proceed directly down Mass Ave. East of Pearl Street, this busway would allow for some general traffic: right turns from Brookline Street to Mass Ave and left turns from Mass Ave to Pearl. The busway would also allow emergency vehicles to bypass gridlock in Central Square, creating BRT elements in one of the most congested areas of the 1 bus route (as opposed to, say, the Silver Line, which has bus lanes in the least congested part of the route). Bus stops would be consolidated between Pearl and Essex for betteraccess to transit. (This 160-foot long section could accommodate four 40-foot buses.) Buses would be able to loop as follows:

  • 1 is a through route. CT1 should be eliminated. Short turns could be made via Pleasant-Green-Western.
  • 47 would go left from Brookline to the busway. Loop would be made via Pleasant-Green-Western. A single-bus layover would be retained at the end of Magazine Street. This would eliminate the need for passengers to walk a block to transfer.
  • 64, when not operating through to Kendall, would loop via University Park, but instead of serving stops on Green Street, it would loop back to the busway. Left turns would be allowed for buses from Mass Ave to Western.
  • 70 would loop via University Park as above, making inbound and outbound stops on Mass Ave, eliminating the walk to Green Street and the inadequate boarding facilities there.
  • 83 and 91 would use a left-turn lane for buses only on Prospect Street (currently a painted median) to allow access to the busway. An actuated signal there would allow a left turn phase when necessary (approximately once every ten minutes, which would have a negligible effect on other traffic). Buses would then loop and layover in University Park like the 70. This would allow these routes to serve the growing University Park area, which has seen significant development in recent years. 
A busway, a cycletrack, a travel lane and even some parking! Emergency vehicles would be able to use the busway, too.
4. Eastbound bus stops would remain largely where they are on the south side of the street, but any pull-ins and bulb-outs would be removed to allow vehicles to maneuver more freely. (The additinal crossing distance would be mitigated by the bus platform mid-street.) Westbound bus stops would be placed in the center of the roadway; one between Pearl and Essex (approximately 160 feet long) and another east of Sidney Street (60' long, for the 1 Bus only), where those buses (and Pearl Street turns) would be shunted to the left. These stops would be ten feet wide, significantly wider than the current stops on Green Street. Pedestrians transferring between the Red Line and westbound buses would have to cross just the westbound traffic lanes of Mass Ave, no longer making the trek to and from Green Street. West of Essex Street, the bus lanes would jog to the right to allow clearance between the headhouse and elevator for the main entrance to the Central Square station. The bus platform—which could be raised to allow level boarding akin to the Loop Link in Chicago—would span the distance between the Pearl and Essex crosswalks, allowing access from both ends of the platform. (The bus platform for eastbound buses could also be raised.)
MBTA bus routes shown, including loops for routes terminating in Central. At non-rush hours, the 64 bus would follow the route of the 70. The dashed blue line shows the ability for the 1 bus to short-turn (today known as the CT1). Other buses, such as the MASCO shuttle, could also use the busway.
East of Pearl, the busway would allow some general traffic (left-turning cars to Pearl Street). Through traffic would remain on the north side of the street, and the cycle track would have no vehicular crossings between Brookline and Prospect.
5. In between the westbound bus stop and the westbound traffic and loading zone lane would be a 10- to 12-foot-wide cycletrack, running from Sidney to Inman. Except where adjacent to the firehouse, it would be raised above grade and separated from traffic. At either end, a separate bicycle signal phase would allow cyclists to move from existing bicycle facilities to the center of the roadway. This would eliminate the constant conflicts between cyclists, motorists and buses. Bicycle traffic calming measures would be required in the vicinity of the bus stop at Pearl Street with high pedestrian traffic, but cyclists would otherwise have an unobstructed trip from Sidney to Inman (with traffic lights at Brookline and Prospect, where a bicycle phase might be necessary for right turns). For turns to Prospect and Western, bike boxes would be provided to allow two-stage turns. For turns to minor streets, cyclists could use areas adjacent to crosswalks. Since bike lanes in Central Square are frequently blocked by vehicles, this would wholly eliminate these issues.

A bus-only facility would dramatically improve facilities for transit passengers, a cycletrack would eliminate car-bike conflicts make biking through Central much safer, and a bus platform would decrease crossing distances for pedestrians. And there would still be ample room for taxis and loading zones on the westbound side of the street.
Why not side-of-street cycletracks? A few reasons. First, putting the cycletrack in the middle of the street means that you don't have right-hook issues (although right turns from the cycletrack are trickier). Second, bus stops. Central is one of the busiest bus transfers in the MBTA system without an off-street facility (think Alewife, Harvard, Forest Hills, Ashmont, Sullivan, Kenmore, etc). You'd need large floating bus stops and really need to pull the cyclists back from the street. Third: pedestrian traffic. There are a lot of pedestrians in Central Square. A successful cycletrack would need significant separation from the sidewalks to avoid becoming choked with pedestrians. This is a lot easier to do in the middle of the road than it would be alongside the sidewalks. Finally, the busway creates the need for a buffer between the westbound travel lane and the buses, which is a perfect place for the cyclists. You do have two points of conflict on either end of the cycletrack to transition from the existing lanes (which can be signalized) but otherwise have relatively clear sailing for cyclists devoid of the current maze of turn lanes, parking spaces and taxi stands.

East of Sidney Street, Mass Ave westbound would split, with left-turning traffic to Sidney and Pearl to the left of the bus stop island for the 1 bus (the floating stop on the south side of the street would serve the 1, as well as routes short-turning at University Park). The westbound bike lane could be cycletracked inside parking. Both bike lanes would have a signal phase at Sidney to allow a safe transition from the side of the street to the center-street cycletrack.
6. The westbound lanes of Mass Ave would be 22 to 24 feet wide, allowing the current travel lane as well as a wide area for a loading zone for area businesses, a taxi stand and other pick-ups and drop-offs near the transit station. These uses would no longer conflict with bicycle traffic. Some street parking could be provided, but it is probably best relegated to side streets nearby or parking lots (there are generally few on-street spots today anyway).

All of this might increase traffic congestion for some drivers. (Horrors!) But it would benefit the large majority of users of Central Square who arrive by transit, walking or biking, or a combination of all of them. Central once had transit stops in the center of Mass Ave (for streetcars), and it's time that those users were the priority for the heart of Cambridge, not an afterthought.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The odd history of the 66 Bus Wiggle

One frequently-mentioned (and usually fallacious) argument is that we need to rework our bus routes because they follow the same routes as they did in the days of the streetcars. (This is a fallacy because, in most cases, the streetcars followed the path of least resistance: straight, wide roads with mixed uses and density. In Houston the uses had changed so drastically since the streetcars it made some sense, in older, denser cities, it doesn't.) Then there's the case of the 66 bus in Boston, Brookline, Boston again, and then Cambridge, particularly the two-sides-of-a-triangle "wiggle" to Union Square in Allston. (Here's a visual primer on the 66)

This isn't entirely true. There are a lot of reasons why the
66 bus sucks. But this shows the wiggle well.
Via here.
The wiggle stems from a route realignment in 1989, where several routes were rejiggered, which is the type of route realignment I think the T should do more of. Before 1989, there were several routes which terminated in Union Square in Allston, not because it is a major activity locus, or a major transfer point, but because back in the day, there was a car barn there and BERy decided to start and end routes there. Back then, the following routes served Union Square Allston:

  • 57 Kenmore to Watertown Yard
  • 63 Cleveland Circle to Central Square via Western
  • 64 Oak Square to Central Square
  • 66 Allston to Dudley (note that there was never a streetcar line across the Anderson Bridge; this was always a bus line)
  • 86 Union Square Allston to Union Square Somerville via Harvard

After the changes, except for the 57 and 64, the routes were split apart and recombined at Union to better serve the needs of the traveling public (what a thought!). The 63 was shifted  combined with the 86 to form the current 86 bus (which was extended to Sullivan in 1981 when the Orange Line was realigned). The 66 was then extended to Harvard Square to cover the section in Lower Allston the 86 bus missed. This better focused service towards Harvard (where subway connections were, since 1985, available in both directions, and which has more terminal capacity than Central) and provided a one-seat ride between Brookline and Harvard for the first time, leaving us with the current routes:
  • 57 Kenmore to Watertown Yard
  • 64 Oak Square to Central Square
  • 66 Harvard to Dudley 
  • 86 Cleveland Circle to Sullivan
Initially, the 66 was routed straight through on Harvard Ave. Apparently there were protests (not sure by whom) and that the route no longer served Union Square and it was realigned, and since then has cost through-riding passengers (the vast majority) several minutes of travel time. The gist of the protest, as far as I can tell, is that you couldn't get to Union Square on the 66. But this is not a valid argument. The 66 intersects the 57, another high-frequency bus route, which serves Union Square. If you are unable to make the (short) walk to Union, you can instead utilize the transfer feature of the bus network. Most users can walk the 1200 feet (a 4 minute walk) to Harvard Ave; others can use the every-ten-minutes 57 bus and transfer. Apparently, planners at the time kowtowed to these complaints. It probably costs the T tens of thousands of dollars in operating costs every year, and likely reduces ridership as potential riders choose other modes because of the length of the route.

A straightened route would consolidate several stops at Harvard and Commonwealth, which could be rebuilt as a high-amenity stop (larger shelter, higher curb, real-time arrival display, signal priority, etc). The few passengers who need to get to Union Square and can not make the walk could, instead, ride the 57 (or even the 64). No stop would lose service (the entirety of the wiggle duplicates other routes) and it would make the 66 faster and more reliable.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The problem with the CT1

The 1 bus is one of the busiest routes in Boston. It runs along Massachusetts Avenue, touches three subway lines (and the Silver Line), and is an important crosstown route, despite frequent bus bunching and traffic delays. The bus is chronically overcrowded; I've regularly counted 78 people on a 40 foot bus, even with frequent service. It is supplemented by the CT1 "Limited" service route, but the CT1 is poorly planned and integrated, and winds up being a waste of resources on the route. (Speaking of resources, we've argued in the past that the corridor should have bus lanes on the Harvard Bridge and in Boston, with a more equitable allocation of space for corridor users.)

The CT1 is barely a limited service route. The two routes overlap between Central Square in Cambridge and BU Medical Center in Boston. In theory, the CT1, by making fewer stops, should be able to make the trip significantly faster than the slower 1 bus. What follows is an exhaustive list of stops that the 1 bus makes that the CT1 bus does not:
  • Mass Ave at Albany Street
  • Mass Ave opposite Christian Science Center
  • Mass Ave at Columbus Ave
That's it. 

In general, a limited stop route should serve no more than half the stops that the local service does. (For instance, limited-stop routes in Chicago make only about one in four stops the local buses serve; the Twin Cities is similar.) But in this case, the local route makes 13 stops, and the limited route makes 10. A few years ago, several poorly-utilized stops on the 1 bus were cut. (This included the particularly inane stop in the median of Commonwealth Avenue which required crossing the same number of streets as stops within a few hundred feet at Beacon and Newbury. The stop at Columbus Ave is within 500 feet of the Mass Ave Station and could be similarly consolidated. For those of you keeping track at home, that's less than a two minute walk.) If most of the stops are served by both buses, there's really no point in having the two separate routes overlap and not make the same stops. Cut Columbus and consolidate Sidney and Albany in to one mid-block stop and you can have both buses make the same stops.

Not that anyone really waits for the CT1, anyway. Passengers, for good reasons, generally will get on whichever bus comes first unless the next is visible. If a 1 bus pulls up, get on the 1 bus; it's rare for it to lose so much time at two or three stops that it gets caught by another. The CT1 is really more of a short-turn of the 1 bus (the inimitable Miles on the MBTA agrees as to its lack of usefulness), serving the busier portion of the route between Boston Medical Center and Central Square. Yet the schedules aren't integrated, so, at times, two buses are scheduled to leave Central Square within a couple of minutes with a subsequent 10-plus minute gap. 

For visual learners, this chart shows the combined 1 and CT1 bus headways
at Central Square, and a moving average of five buses. By combining the
1 and CT1, the effective headway could be reduced significantly. In other
words, the orange line shows the average headway of the bus (what would
be possible if the routes were combined and better dispatched) while the dots 
(blue and orange) show the effective headway of service provided today.
What this creates is a situation where resources go underutilized. Often a bus will leave Central Square packed to the gills, and another will leave mostly empty two minutes later—and invariably catch up with the bus in front of it—and then no bus will run for 10 minutes. Yet if the two routes were combined, rush-hour service could be provided every six or seven minutes (down from wait times as long as eight minutes in the evening and ten in the morning) at rush hours and 10 to 12 during the midday (current wait times are as long as 15 minutes midday). This is an issue related to the poor interlining of the 70 bus which this page has discussed in the past. The effective headway of the bus—the longest headway during any given time—is longer than it would otherwise be. 

Last year, through Cambridge's participatory budgeting system, voters there overwhelmingly supported signal priority for the 1 bus, and, according to Twitter, it is currently being installed. This is important, as it will allow better schedule adherence for buses which otherwise get hung up at the many lights through the city (traffic, on the other hand, is another question this page will attempt to answer in coming days). Better dispatching is important as well to allow short turns when two or three 1 buses run back-to-back (which happens all the time).

The CT1 may have made some sense when the 1 bus made more stops, but today it just serves to gum up the works. After 22 years, it's time to axe the CT1 and improve the 1 bus. Relieving the route of a few extraneous stops was a good start. Cambridge has taken another step forward with signal priority. All-door boarding and pre-payment would be easy at major stops, since most are adjacent to stations with fare machines (and others, like MIT, could have machines installed). Loop Link-like platforms and stations would help as well (Loop Link is an example of where the city and its transit agency actually talk to each other). And dedicated lanes? Well, that's probably further off, but should be part of an iterative process. Otherwise, we'll waste most of the small, but important, improvements to the 1 bus so far.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Service, Not Storage

One of the many issues with the Allston project that I have been way too involved with is that the State maintains that they need a midday layover yard for Commuter Rail equipment. Why? Because they plan to add capacity to South Station and, since they can't stack out-of-service trains in the terminal, need somewhere to store them when they're not in use in the middle of the day. (Off-topic but relevant: the need for and cost of which could be obviated completely simply by building the North-South Rail Link; thru-running is so much more efficient that in Philadelphia SEPTA runs 44 trains per hour through its four track tunnel at rush hour while the MBTA peaks at 32 trains combined on 22 tracks at North and South stations.) The relevant issue, however, is how silly it is to build large rail yards on prime real estate in order to not run service!

The supposed "need" for this whole facility could be obviated simply by running more trains in service in the midday. (Some layover space could be built between Cambridge and Everett streets in Allston without impacting transit operations and development of the Beacon Park Yards.) If you have more trains in service, you don't need storage for them. Considering that 75% of the costs of running Commuter Rail in Massachusetts are fixed, much of the marginal cost of providing increased service would be made up for by the opportunity cost of not building such an unnecessary facility. Most every other major Commuter Rail line runs more frequent midday service than the MBTA, even on lines to major anchor cities like Worcester, Providence and Brockton. In English: you have the trains, and the track, and the stations. Just run more darned trains already!

With that said, you still need to figure out where to run these darned trains. Obviously, increasing service on current lines to large cities and "Gateway Cities" makes sense. But there's actually a way to increase service to Western Massachusetts without any major investment in track, stations or additional equipment. Right now, several train sets begin and end their day in Worcester. These trains could, instead, begin their trips further west, providing service to Springfield the Pioneer Valley.

The Commonwealth and Feds recently spent $83 million to upgrade the Connecticut River Line for passenger service, and the Boston and Albany main line already hosts Amtrak trains (albeit at a pitiful top speed of 59 mph). So you might as well get some use out of it! There is a vague plan to provide commuter service in the Pioneer Valley soon linking Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield, and connecting with upgraded Springfield-Hartford-New Haven "Knowledge Corridor" service. Service couldn't start overnight, steps would include working out a track use agreement with CSX and qualifying crews west of Worcester. But the track (with the exception of layover facilities in Greenfield; I assume trains could be stored overnight on tracks in Springfield's station), stations (with the exception of Palmer where you might want to build a new station) and trains are in place. It's not a big leap to running service.

Here's what a schedule would look like for the trips serving Boston, Springfield and Greenfield. Train numbers are shown for current Amtrak or MBTA Commuter Rail service. (Amtrak 448/449 is the Lake Shore Limited to and from Chicago via Albany, 55/56 is the Vermonter from Saint Albans to Washington D.C.)

       Train # →         MBTA 508    MBTA 552      NEW      AMTK 56    AMTK 449  
Dep Greenfield--5:45--13:36--
Dep Springfield5:456:4513:0014:3517:33
Arr Boston8:209:0715:20--20:01
       Train # →           NEW      AMTK 448    AMTK 55    MBTA 521    MBTA 551  
Dep Boston9:3812:50--17:0519:35
Arr Springfield12:0015:1815:1519:3522:00
Arr Greenfield----16:1516:2220:35

Rightly or not, Western Mass often feels like it gets the short end of the bargain when it comes to transportation funding. There has been hundreds of millions of dollars spent on infrastructure (most notably the Knowledge Corridor and Springfield Union Station), yet very little service to show for it. This mistake would be compounded by overbuilding layover facilities in Boston and siloing operations in Eastern and Western Massachusetts. Any passenger movements would need to accommodate CSX freight traffic between Worcester and Springfield, and in the long term, much more increased service may require a larger investment to re-double track the B&A line to Springfield (and to increase line speed where possible as well).

In any case, rail service in Massachusetts has long been focused on Boston, with a minimal statewide transportation plan (well, beyond taking donations from Peter Pan, buying them buses and having them get stuck in traffic on the Pike). The state has taken hundreds of millions of Federal dollars (and local match) to upgrade the line in the Pioneer Valley, but it barely runs any service. It would be a politically wise move to better serve Western Mass and, given traffic and tolls, would probably attract significant ridership, too.

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 (since surpassed by Seattle's Link, which is experiencing overcrowding with its recent extension), 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. Update 2: Ridership on the corridor is up 25%.

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.