Friday, September 26, 2014

Comments on Allston

Harry Mattison, who's leading the charge regarding the Mass Pike realignment that has been discussed for some time, asked me to reply to his email chain with some comments. I figured I'd post them here. This is what I think about the project and comments I will be submitting. Most of it is aligned with what the rest of the committee is pushing, with a bit at the end echoing some earlier ideas I've had. In any case, the more they hear from the public, the better, so please send comments to:
dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us
by the close of business on Monday, September 29. You can find another example letter here.

*****

I am writing regarding the continuing planning process for the Allston Interchange project. While the project plans have certainly progressed from the originally-proposed "suburban-style interchange" (which seemed specious at the time and hopefully wasn't a red herring to make urbanists feel like MassDOT was committed making changes), there is much work to be done. My comments will focus on several areas—overall design, development potential, transit use, bicycling and pedestrian connections and parkland—to assure that the highway utility is maintained but that this project is a positive development for the surrounding community. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake this parcel of land, and to connect Cambridge, Allston, Boston University and surrounding communities. Failing to do so will be a failure of the planning process, and a dereliction of duty for MassDOT in its GreenDOT, Health Transportation Compact and overall mode shift goals.

The overall design of the project as an urban-style interchange is certainly better than high, looping suburban ramps, but it has room for improvement. The footprint of the project, both in its width and height, must be minimized. For the width, a highway with "interstate standards" has been proposed for the viaduct section, with 12 foot breakdown lanes and a much wider viaduct looming over the Charles, and engineers argue that this is a requirement. This is risible. Much of the Central Artery project lacks such lanes, as does the current structure. It will certainly be less costly to build a narrower structure with less material (savings that could be used for other area improvements), and traffic and congestion in the area is caused by many factors, none of which is the width of this structure. The current structure should be the maximum width of the new project, not the minimum. West of the viaduct, the current proposal should be modified to assure that the maximum amount of the highway is built at or below grade to allow overhead use in the future. All surface streets should be built as city streets, with single turn lanes, low design speeds and provisions for bicycles, pedestrians and transit use.

Finally, the project team must have direct input from the planning, architecture and landscape architecture fields, with a focus on the emerging "placemaking" field. Even with changes, it seems that this is being viewed first and foremost as a highway project. It must be viewed as an economic development project, which happens to have a highway running through it.

It is very important that whatever the design of the final highway, it is minimally disruptive to overall development in the area. This area lies within a mile of Boston University, Harvard and MIT. It will have good highway connections, and (hopefully) excellent transit connections to much of the population and economy of Boston. The value of the land for housing, education and commercial uses will be almost unparalleled in the area, and there are certainly examples of high-value properties built overhead highways. (One must look no further than the Prudential Center for a good example.) The provisions for overhead decking should be built in to the project, if not the decking itself, which is far less expensive to build as part of a brownfield construction project than an existing highway. This decking should, if possible, extend over the rail corridor as well (Back Bay Station would be an example here, as would many New York City Transit properties). With more and more residents wanting to live in transit-accessible areas, we should assure that potential housing properties are kept as easily built as possible.

As this area grows, it could become the next Kendall Square: a nexus of education and technology. Currently, the rail yards and highway produce minimal tax revenue for the City of Boston, which has to deal with the air and noise pollution they create. Allowing maximum development potential here should be a priority for the Commonwealth, to allow the city future tax revenues from development here. Cambridge residents enjoy low property tax rates due to the many businesses in the Kendall Square area; extending this to Allston would benefit all of the residents of the city. Many international companies have relocated to Boston and Cambridge, and we should give them every opportunity and location to do so. The Boston Society of Architects has had some great examples of this type of development potential here.

Transit must be a priority for this project, not an afterthought. The oft-mentioned West Station should not merely be a design element of this project, it should be built as part of the project, if not before the mainline of the roadway. Further development of this area will not take place because of its proximity to a highway; transit access will drive growth in the 21st century. West Station must be built with a minimum of four rail tracks to serve both the burgeoning Worcester Line as well as potential service on the Grand Junction. The state is spending millions of dollars improving Worcester service and expanding the number of trains, and a West Station service current uses (steps from Boston University) and future growth is a must. The Grand Junction Line must be built with two full tracks for potential future service; it's ability to link Allston, Cambridge, North Station and beyond (and by doing so, provide much better connections for travelers from west of Boston wishing to get to Cambridge, the cause of much of the surface traffic in the area) should not be understated.

In addition, the plans must have provisions for future north-south transit in the area. Currently, travel from Boston University to Harvard Square requires 40 minutes and a minimum of one transfer, often with travel through the congested center of the subway network. New traffic patterns should allow for a direct connection between BU and Allston, continuing on the south end to Kenmore Square or the Longwood Medical Area, and the north side to Harvard Square. While there are certainly valid arguments that heavy car traffic should be precluded from this area, transit service should be prioritized. A transitway from the Packards Corner area via West Station to Harvard Street would fulfill objectives of the Urban Ring, as well as allow much better connectivity through the neighborhood. This should be planned with signal priority over other vehicular traffic, the potential for future grade separation, and the potential for conversion to light rail so as to meet up with the Green Line on Commonwealth Avenue. Imagine, a Green Line branch from Cleveland Circle to Harvard Square via Commonwealth Avenue and Allston. This would certainly be possible in the future if we design the appropriate rights of way today.

In addition to transit, bicycle and pedestrian travel must be well-integrated in to the project. The recent concepts put forth have certainly improved original plans, but, again, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure should be a priority, not an afterthought. Pains should be taken to assure that routes are safe, adequately wide (a minimum of 25 feet wherever possible) and direct, with minimal street crossings. A well-built bicycle and pedestrian network will make trips which are currently convoluted, roundabout and/or dangerous much more desirable, and certainly allow for better connectivity and attaining mode shift goals by shifting travelers away from cars. Other existing and future human-scale corridors should be designed for maximum efficiency in moving people without cars. Within a 30 minute walk of this area are many of the leading health, education, science and commercial institutions in the world. They should be accessible without sitting in traffic.

This project parallels the Charles River, and surround park land must be a priority. From the Charles Dam to the Eliot Bridge and beyond, much of the DCR parkland is taken up by high speed roadways. We have turned our back on the river in the name of moving vehicles, and this is something we should begin to take steps towards mitigating. This project will give us a good first stab at that. As mentioned above, no parkland should be sacrificed for a wider viaduct: we have seen too much green space appropriated as pavement in the past generations. Soldiers Field Road should be migrated as far away from the river as possible, creating a promenade or "Allston Esplanade" similar to what we have further to the east, which should connect with development alongside and above the highway. The current bike path, which is, at places such as the River Street Bridge, less than five feet wide (well below any reasonable safety standard) in the name of keeping car traffic moving must be changed: we should no longer throw the safety of cyclists and pedestrians to the wind in order to make traffic flow better. It is laudable that MassDOT is working with the DCR: they should be included in this process going forward.

Furthermore, there is a dramatic opportunity to work with Harvard to move Soldiers Field Road away from the river across a much longer distance, and in turn create one of the premiere riverfront parks in the country. This would entail looping Soldiers Field Road west of Harvard's Business School campus and the Harvard Stadium, likely in a below-grade facility to mitigate the impact on the neighborhood there. However, without sacrificing any capacity and allowing shorter distances for motorists, it would allow the DCR to decommission the roadway between the Eliot Bridge and the Allston project site, allowing a wide, linear park to form along the river, benefiting not only local residents, but all residents of the Commonwealth. (A rough outline of this plan can be found here.)

The Allston Turnpike project is an opportunity to shape the entire region for the next 100 years. We must assure that all plans allow for the maximum future development. Again, this is not merely a highway project: it is a long term development project which we must allow to have positive returns for the Commonwealth's economy and quality of life.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A tale of two systems

The MBTA recently released its monthly ridership report. The headline was generally that ridership increased despite a minor fare increase (we've discussed fare and ridership elasticity before, as the amateur economist). The spreadsheet also included ridership estimates going back several years, and if you look at ridership back to 2007, things get interesting. While overall ridership is growing, that growth is being driven almost entirely by ridership on the Red, Orange and Blue lines. Bus ridership is growing much more slowly, and Green Line and Commuter Rail ridership is falling.

I looked at several ways of graphically displaying these data and decided that the best was to show a chart for each transit mode, with colored lines ramped from red (2007) to blue (2014). It makes it easy to see if the more recent numbers are higher or lower, and to see the variability between months of the year (for instance, bus ridership drops off appreciably in the summer, other modes less so).

In 2007, the split between Commuter Rail, Buses, Light Rail and Heavy Rail was as follows:

CR     /  Bus   /  Grn   /  R-O-B
12%  /  30%  /  20%  /  38%

Since then, buses haven't changed (the overall ridership has grown, at the overall growth rate of the system). Commuter Rail and Light Rail are down appreciably, while Heavy Rail is up dramatically. The split now comes to:

10%  /  30%  /  17%  /  43%

These may not seem like big swings, but they are actually quite dramatic. In 2007, Commuter Rail carried between 137k and 147k passengers per day, peaking at 152k in late 2008. Commuter Rail ridership dropped significantly during the recession, however, and averaged in the 120k range during most of 2013, a not-insignificant drop of 10%. There were some increases this spring, but whether they will hold remains to be seen. Green Line ridership has also dropped by about 10%, from 240k to 250k per day in 2007 and 2008 to 225k today. It too saw a major drop in 2009 from which it has not recovered except for a few months in 2012; right now it is at its lowest levels since 2007. Bus ridership has increased by about 7%, from 360k passengers a day to 390k, give or take. Add these all together, and they basically offset. Commuter Rail and the Green Line have lost 30,000 passengers per day, and the bus network has gained that many.

But then there's heavy rail. The subway system is busier than ever (at least in recent memory). In 2007, there was no month with a daily average of more than 500k riders on the subway system. Every month in 2013—even the normally-quiet December—was above 500k per day, an average increase of 17% in relative terms, and 90,000 passengers in real numbers. And 2014 is, so far, outpacing 2013, it's quite possible that the heavy rail system will board more than 600k passengers per day this fall (September and October are generally the peak months). Notice how the dark blue 2014 line is far outpacing the past few years (not to mention the 2007 to 2010 period). If the average ridership growth from January to July of 2014 carries in to the fall, we'll easily crack 600,000 rides per day in October (if we crack 622k, we'll double 1990 heavy rail ridership). In other words, get ready for crowded trains this fall.

Why heavy rail is growing so quickly, and other modes less so, is likely due to a number of factors. I would put forth that increased development has helped, as has the heavy rail capacity (it was only within the past 20 years that the T increased from four to six car trains, more recently on the Blue Line). The Green Line lags because of substandard service along much of its route—especially on surface branches with no signal priority and on-board fare collection gumming up the schedule—and due to overcrowding. However, it is also illustrative of the necessity of an undelayed procurement of high quality rolling stock as most of the heavy rail equipment is at least 33 years old, and many Red Line cars are 45 years old. New equipment may well help the T keep up with ridership growth, but hopefully it won't be to little, too late.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Comm Ave conundrum—in a chart

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Street hierarchy planning sense … from Chicago

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

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


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

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

Letters, and letter responses

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

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

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

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

Update, September 21:

I'd missed this, but another retiree writes in to rebut Mr. Quitt, but this letter hits the nail on the head. Of Quitt's letter, he writes:
I would like to shorten his last sentence by five words to read: “The attraction of Boston as a cultural, medical, and business capital is greatly enhanced by its accessibility,” leaving off “to people who drive there.”
Indeed, he points out that better transit service would increase accessibility, not just more parking. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

No need to duplicate transit on Comm Ave

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

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

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

There are a variety of benefits from such a plan:

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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