Friday, January 23, 2015

Measuring the externalities of late night transit

On the same day that the future of the MBTA's late night service was reportedly imperiled, the Commuter Rail operator Tweeted that its trains would not be held for the end of the Garth Brooks concert slated to begin at 10:30 p.m. There was no such Tweet necessary from the core bus and subway services, because the Friday concert would certainly end in time for the late subway trains which would depart downtown around 2:30.

Which is a big deal. Concerts of this sort are permitted by the city of Boston, and without late night T service, they probably would have not occurred at all. It's not every night that a popular act will play for the first time in nearly two decades in Boston, but the possibility of scheduling later shows brings tens of thousands of extra visitors to the city and whether they ride transit or not, they support the local economy.

Are all of the concert-goers discretionary visitors? No. Certainly some would have come downtown and taken advantage of nightlife if there were not this concert. But many do. The nearest venues on Brooks's current tour are in Pittsburgh and Buffalo, so this is a regional draw; and may even attract some fans from abroad who would come to Boston for the show. There are 15 million people in New England, and only about one in six of those live within a late-night MBTA service corridor (and the Garth Brooks demographic is probably less likely to live in town). But others may book a hotel, or arrive by car for dinner, and then go and see the show.

How much is a concert of this type worth? Let's throw around some numbers (and, yes, these are all guesstimates, yell at me in the comments if I'm off by an order of magnitude but not if I'm off by 25¢):

  • The TD Garden holds about 20,000 people for concerts. The price for each ticket for these shows is $57, and according to this site, about $15 of that goes towards running the facility. That's $300,000. Add to that $10 of food and beverages purchased by each concert-goer, another $200,000. Let's assume that half of this total goes towards staffing and another 10% towards state and local taxes. That's $300,000 for the local economy.
  • What about parking? Let's say half of the people coming to the concert park downtown, and pay an average of $10 to do so (some people will find free meter parking—and may use the MBTA to get to and from it—while some will pony up $40 to park at the Garden). That's another $100,000, with about 7% captured as sales tax (and if Boston had additional parking taxes like many other cities, it could capture more).
  • But those are the direct costs. Let's say that 1000 people at the concert "make a weekend of it" and book a hotel room in town at $200 per night. That's another $200,000 (taxed at 14.45%). They'll have $100 worth of meals, too, so there's another $100,000. A good number (half?) of people will come in early before the concert and go for dinner or a beer (or both), spending, say, $25 per person, or $250,000; if the concert lets out at 12:30 a.m., some may take advantage of late night service and have a beverage afterwards as well.
  • And late night ridership? Let's say 5000 people take the T to the concert, and 1000 of those park at an outlying terminal, and half of these people already have a monthly pass. The numbers aren't huge, but it still accounts for $5000 in additional fares and $4000 in parking fees. Not huge, but not nothing.

Let's add this up. You get about $1,150,000 in additional local spending. With sales, hotel, meal and payroll taxes, local and state governments can recoup about $100,000 directly in sales taxes. And the T gets about $10,000 in additional fares. These concerts won't occur every weekend, but even if there are 10 such events per year, it would pump an extra $11 million in to the local economy, of which at least $1 million would reach tax coffers, and an extra $100,000 for the T. The total cost of running late night service is not offset by this, but these events are only feasible because of the extra service.

Then there's the real game-changer: are acts more likely to come to Boston if they can perform two shows per evening? For a busy venue like the Garden (with the Bruins and Celtics and other events like Mice on Ice), being able to squeeze multiple events per day allows an act to open for only two or three days but have five or six shows. (It's no coincidence that the Garth Brooks concert falls during the NHL All-Star break; shows don't materialize out of thin air, although they do get set up overnight.) If you get a couple extra shows to play Boston which otherwise would not, then you're getting multiple shows on nights the Garden might otherwise sit dark.

This past summer, I participated in a hackathon that showed parallel results over a longer time range: late night T service seemed to increase ridership earlier in the evening and longer-distance taxi fares later on. But we didn't examine the potential for late night events to boost the local economy. If the T looks towards cutting service, it really should make sure to look at events like this which benefit from the availability of late night service (even if not that many people use the service to get to the event). Not doing so may be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Don't use bus routes to subsidize malls …

especially if the mall isn't the final stop on the route.

I recently had the pleasure of riding the entire route of the 34E, one of the MBTA's longest bus routes. The route starts in Walpole Center, makes a beeline to Washington Street (which extends from Boston to Providence) and runs in a straight line to Forest Hill Station. A straight line, that is, except, for a bizarre figure-eight loop through the Dedham Mall. The loop-the-loop to access the mall unnecessarily lengthens the route, costs the T money, costs passengers time, and subsidizes private development, all to service the front door of an auto-centered development.

Instead of continuing on Washington Street, the mall loop takes 8 or 10 minutes as the bus leaves the street, navigates no fewer than eight stop signs and traffic signals, makes two separate looped turn-arounds and traverses the same intersection three times. The route is scheduled for a full hour for the 14 mile trip from Walpole to Forest Hills, so the detour through the mall accounts for 13 to 16% of the total run time, all to serve two stops (out of more than 80 total on the route) which would otherwise require a 2 to 5 minute walk.

In other words, for riders wishing to get to the Dedham Mall, it would likely be faster if the bus ran straight on Washington Street and they got off and walked in to the mall, rather than taking a circuitous route to be dropped near the door. And for everyone else, it would save 8 to 10 minutes each way of not riding through the mall parking lot.

I rode the route on a weekday evening a few days before Christmas. This should have been a high water mark for people using the 34E to get to the mall. While my bus was full—there were probably between 45 and 50 passengers on board at any given time (and probably 70 or more served along the route)—only two or three got on or off at the mall. So, in order to serve this small number of passengers, the rest of the bus had to loop in and out and in and out of endless parking lots and driveways, because front-door service to the mall is apparently required.

What is particularly irksome is that in this case—and it's not isolated, but, at least in Boston, perhaps the most egregious (the 350 serves the Burlington Mall with a similar detour, but much closer to the terminus of the route, meaning that many fewer passengers are inconvenienced by the route's detour)—is that anyone who rides the bus past the mall has their trip dramatically lengthened (how dramatically? 18 minutes a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year adds up to 75 hours of extra time on the bus annually). Jarrett Walker talks of "being on the way" and the mall is decidedly not; the 34E takes what should be a straight-line transit trip and degrades it to a mall circulator, despite the thousands of passengers who ride the bus daily.

In addition, running service via the mall requires several hidden subsidies which degrade service and provide a perverse incentive for people to drive instead of use transit. This one, in turn, further subsidizes the car-centric mall over pedestrian-oriented business districts, several of which are served by this route. There is also the direct subsidy to businesses at the mall. If I open a store on a street near an existing transit line, I would not (and should not) expect the transit agency to reroute the transit line to provide a stop at my front door. Yet we provide this service to the mall.

This subsidy can be quantified, in fact. The T doesn't break down service between the 34E and the 34, but let's assume that slightly more than half the passengers on the route are carried by the 34E (looking at the total number of vehicles on the route at different times of day)—or about 2500 passengers. The route costs $3.09 per passenger to operate (66¢ average bus fare paid plus $2.43 subsidy), or a total cost per day of about $7725. If we calculate 15% of this approximately $1150, meaning that over the course of a year—even given lower service levels on weekends—the cost to serve the mall is well north of $300,000 per year.

Here's another way to look at this: currently, the 20 minute evening headways on the 34E requires 6 buses running the route in about (or just under), each bus makes a round trip in two hours. If the run time were reduced to 51 minutes by omitting the mall, the same six buses could make seven round trips, reducing headways and, thus increasing capacity on the route. If you could get it to 50 minutes, the same headways could be maintained with 5 buses, which would save 1/6 of the route's operating cost while providing the same service. But, instead, we provide service to the mall, at the expense of everyone who isn't the mall.

What to do? Make the mall subsidize the route—yes, to the tune of $350,000 per year—or have them build an ADA facility from Washington Street to the mall. The extra cost of running this route in to the mall for 10 years could buy a very nice set of bus shelters, crosswalks and a ramp from Washington Street to the mall's front door. Another option would be to run the 34—which ends its route nearby—to the mall, instead of putting this joggle in the middle of the 34E. While it might not have the same cost savings, it would at least not have the effect of costing thousands of passenger hours each day. Or, abandon service to the mall all together. Malls are dying, anyway, and it should not be the business of public transit agencies to help prop them up.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hyperloop to Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook

I've made this joke before, but every time I see someone extolling the virtues of the Hyperloop, I have little choice. The Hyperloop—Elon Musk's (of Paypal and Tesla fame, and SpaceX which may or may not have crashed) futuristic pneumatic tube passenger transport system—is a completely unproven technology, and while the technology may be feasible in isolation, the political and technical realities (and costs) of building the necessary infrastructure are far beyond estimations. It would be hard to build a new two-lane road from San Francisco to LA for $8 billion, let alone an elevated, grade separated technology that has never made it off of paper.

Musk makes a mistake that many non-transportation types do: they assume that because something might be technically feasible, it will be easy to implement. The problem is that you are dealing with people, government and regulation—both the people who use the service and the other people in impacts. Sure, it might be possible to shoot a capsule through a pneumatic tube at a high rate of speed. But trying to do that from one city center to another with people on board is a lot harder.

Some background articles:
2014 information about freelancing engineers working on it.
Early Gizmodo article (2013)
2013 Alpha white paper
An article with several renderings of the Hyperloop (2014)
A blog post wondering if the Hyperloop is a joke

Here are some of the more risible fallacies of the Hyperloop, in no particular order:

The technology is unproven. Completely unproven. There might be some kinks to work out. Kinks cost money. And this will fall under local, state and federal jurisdiction for safety. They're not just going to permit it sight-unseen.

Musk claims that while the Hyperloop will be faster than an airplane (760 mph, just shy of the speed of sound) airplanes will still be faster for longer trips. Why? Wouldn't the Hyperloop always be faster?

The cost estimates are completely fantastical. The Gizmodo article has the "total cost" of the plan, of $7.5 billion. That's a tenth the cost of high speed rail! It's also completely infeasible. Setting aside the the cost per pod seems to be in the $1 million range (because, sure, the STB won't require extensive testing for a never-been-tried technology that will drive up costs), let's tackle some of the issues here:

  • I'm not going to argue with the tube construction costs, because obviously Musk has spent a lot of time spec'ing that out. The cost is slated to be $650 million for a 400 mile long tube. The tube is basically a pipeline, and a 2012 report puts pipeline costs at $200,000 per inch of diameter per mile. At that rate, a 400 mile pipeline of this width would cost $7 billion. The Alaska Pipeline, similarly elevated (although not as wide) with negligible land costs, cost $8 billion to build in 1977 for 800 miles—or $31 billion today. Using those two metrics, the cost of the tube would be somewhere on the order of 10 to 20 times this estimation.
  • Musk glosses over the supports pretty quickly, but assumes 25,000 twenty-foot-high pylons, for a total cost of $2.5 billion or so. There are some pretty, colorful pictures of the stresses the pylons will incur. There's nothing about safety measures that will likely be required for each, or security around them, or anything else that might add to the cost.
  • Musk wants to build this in the median of I-5. Apparently, undertaking heavy construction in a highway median won't cause any problems. Just the overtime for CHP to close lanes for this construction would probably run to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • The capsules. They are slated to cost $1.5 million each. For a high-tech contraption that carries 28 people at speeds reaching 700 mph. Think about that for a minute.
  • Then stations. The pods would come in to the stations, offload, move to a turntable, get turned around, come back, load, and go on their way. There would also be a seating area for people waiting, and a security area. The total cost is estimated at $125 million per station. Now the capsules will have 14 rows of seating, and since people will sort of be seated at a recline (to allow it to fit in the 7'4" diameter tube) it will probably require 48" of pitch (at least) for each row. That's 56 feet of length for seating, let's round it up to 100 to have room for luggage, power, safety equipment and aerodynamics. Each station will require room for the the pods to arrive, depart and be spun around, as well as, in theory, maintenance and storage. At a minimum, you need a 100-by-100 foot area for spinning, and another 100 feet square for loading and unloading, plus at least that much for security, seating and the like. If you're only building two stations, they're probably going to be downtown. Anyone know of a couple of 40,000 square foot parcels of land available in downtown San Francisco for a cheap price? Land acquisition alone will eat up this cost. Maybe you could build something half the size of the Transbay Transit Center. And maybe the costs would he half as much—but considering the cost of the Transbay is $4.5 billion dollars, that's still 10 to 20 times Musk's plan.
  • Maintenance, cleaning and the like. In Musk's fantasy world, the turnaround for a Hyperloop is five minutes. In the real world, you're actually carrying people. You need to clean the pods and prep them for each trip. You need to be able to deadhead them to a maintenance facility (funny, that wasn't in the cost prospectus) which often is 20% of a passenger transportation project. It's completely left out.
  • And since you're carrying people, you would qualify as a common carrier. Guess what? That means you have to comply with ADA regulations. So each of these pods is going to have accommodations for mobility impaired individuals. So add some length and cost for someone in a wheelchair (and carrying their wheelchair). Just because it's private doesn't get you out of that. Accessibility adds costs to every other project, why shouldn't it add cost to this one?
  • The cost for tunneling is estimated to be $700 million. The tunneling cost is estimated at $50 million per mile because the cute Hyperloop is so gosh-darned small that tunneling is just really cheap. Except, uh, it's not. Tunnel boring machines cost a lot of money, and tunnels that cross seismically active areas (uhm, all of California, but especially mountainous areas) cost a lot of money. Building pylons in the Central Valley is easy and cheap. Unfortunately neither San Francisco or LA is in the Central Valley.
  • The plan conveniently glosses over just how you get from the East Bay to San Francisco. One of the maps shows a station in Oakland (even though every mention of the Hyperloop is of a station in San Francisco). But let's assume a station in San Francisco (which, as I pointed out above, is not going to be easy). You have to get across the Bay. Now, someone put out a cute rendering of 20-foot pylons in the Golden Gate (which isn't even on the route, but no worries). The Golden Gate is 300 feet deep, and requires 220 feet of vertical clearance. While San Francisco Bay is shallower, it's also wider. The Eastern Half of the Bay Bridge cost $6.4 billion to replace. And, no, I don't think you're going to be able to retrofit a Hyperloop tube to the side of the bridge. (Plus, when you get to San Francisco, you're 200 feet above the street, so you have to somehow run the Hyperloop curving towards downtown. Details.) So you're looking at building a new, 5-mile-long bridge for the Hyperloop. If that comes in under $2 billion, I'd be shocked. Why not build a tunnel? The Transbay Tunnel only cost $180 million. In 1970. That's $1 billion today, but likely three or four times as much. That would be half the project's costs and 1% of the distance. As the bad joke blog post pointed out, the plans only show it operating from Sylmar to Dublin. A high speed link between outlying termini—that's called an airplane.
  • The project budgets $1 billion for permits and land. That's $2.5 million per mile. This might be fine in the Central Valley (although you have to assume the state will soak them for quite a bit of money to build on state land). But what about the first and last 20 miles in the built-up areas in San Francisco and LA. You can't just follow freeways, they're too curvy. Any deviation will require private land takings, and just the litigation will cost more than $2.5 million per mile. Even if you can get the land condemned for the tube, and you fend off the lawsuits of people who don't want 30-foot-high structures next to their houses, you still have to pay fair market value. Which in California can be quite high.
  • Unlike the high speed rail plan, the Hyperloop does not leverage existing infrastructure near cities, where land is high, but rather in the Central Valley, where land costs are orders of magnitude lower. Building something in the Central Valley is easy and cheap. But no one really wants to go from Modesto to Bakersfield at 500 miles an hour.
Overall, the estimates for any costs that I can begin to quantify seem to come in at 5 to 10 percent of the actual costs. This is without factoring in permitting, environmental review, NIMBYism and the like. If it winds up costing 10 times the estimated budget, it is no cheaper than the high speed rail system Musk derides. If it's 20 times more expensive, it's double that cost.

Let's say you somehow keep all the costs in check, there's then the question of capacity. Not necessarily the capacity to shoot these pods through the tube, who knows what that might be. That's not where capacity is constrained. It's constrained at the terminals. Musk says that loading and unloading will all take place in a few minutes. Even if you can send off a capsule every 2 minutes (as advertised) your maximum system capacity is 840 people per hour. Unfortunately, that's less than the air system capacity (in theory, you could take off a plane every 2 minutes with 100-300 people on board) and certainly less than a high speed rail system, which could run one train per hour with more seats than 30 Hyperloop pods.

Then there's the issue of maintaining the systems. Above I mentioned that the cost estimate completely neglects to mention a maintenance facility. Well, somewhere along the line—probably in the Central Valley where land is cheap—there will have to be a pod maintenance facility, complete with some way to remove the pods from service and work on them. Apparently, this is free. As for the tube, Musk mentions that if it were to develop a small leak it could be fixed during regular maintenance. Now, remember, the tube is suspended above an active highway. What are the logistics involved in bringing in a crew, blocking a lane or two, and patching leaks? Who cares, Hyperloop!

But there are 100 wicked smart (or, well, hella smart, there's my Boston bias) people working on it. In their spare time. I don't want to generalize too much, but I would bet that the 100 people who care enough about this to work on it in their spare time are not a cross-section of the type of people you'd need to, you know, actually build it. It's probably not completely technically infeasible to create a pneumatic-tube-type system which could launch a capsule at a high rate of speed. But building such a system that carries actual people places where they need to go adds orders of magnitude of complexity.

If I see a Hyperloop in my lifetime (that's not in Brockway, anyway) I'll be surprised. But if Musk can build one between Los Angeles and San Francisco for under $10 billion, I'll be beyond shocked. I'm not worried, since it's not going to happen. But you can't spell Hyperloop without Hype.

Friday, November 21, 2014

I counted bikes again

I've now counted bikes on the Longfellow five times, with the following results for the peak hour (generally 8:10 to 9:10, give or take a couple of minutes):

June: 267
July: 308
October: 298

Average: 291

June: 384
September: 391

Average: 388

Annual increase: 33%

The September count is new. I Tweeted about it and then let it go by the wayside. Sure, this confirms that bicycling on the Longfellow is up 33% over the year before, but this is barely news. Sure, there are more bikes across the Longfellow at rush hour than cars, but we knew that already.

It's just another data point showing that the number of people riding bikes—for transportation, at rush hour (not a single roadie in spandex) continues to rise.

See you in the winter.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The 70 bus is just … bizarre

The Boston Globe carried a story this week about Watertownies (Watertownians?) who want better MBTA bus service. Watertown is one of the furthest-in, densest communities in the Boston area with only bus service, and residents want improvements. Residents of Watertown are asking for more buses at peak hours (the T doesn't have the vehicles to provide this), faster service (perhaps they should invest in bus lanes) and better services overall.

There is particular sentiment about improvements along the Arsenal Street corridor, which is served by the 70 bus. And the 70 bus is one of the most interesting routes in the MBTA system, and one which could certainly stand to be improved. In fact, it's bizarre, a compilation of several separate routes, and it seems to have taken place haphazardly. The route is one of the longest in the system, and its headways are such that while it may operate on average every 15 minutes, there are frequently much longer wait times, leading to crowding, bunching and poor service levels.

The T claims to want to study the route, but can't come up with the $75,000 to do so. We here at the Amateur Planner will provide a base analysis (for free), in hopes that it can be used to improve service on this route. One concern in the article is that "There are people waiting 40 minutes for a bus that’s supposed to run every 15 minutes." Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence based on equipment failures and traffic, but rather the fact that the 70 bus route is set up with uneven headways which mean that a bus which is supposed to come every fifteen minutes might actually have schedule gaps much longer. It's a complicated story, but fixing the 70 bus should be a top priority for the MBTA.

I. The Route

The 70 bus was, like most bus lines in Boston, originally a streetcar line, much like the 71 and 73, which still run under the wires in Watertown. When the 70 was converted from streetcar to trackless in 1950 and from trackless to diesel ten years later, it was much like any other MTA route. It ran along an arterial roadway from an outlying town center (Watertown) to a subway station (Central), a similar distance as, say, the 71 or 57 (a car line until 1969) intersecting it in Watertown Square. But after that point, it's fate diverged. Most other lines continued to follow the same routes they always had. The 70, however, absorbed services of the Middlesex and Boston, leading to a much longer route. As time went on it was extended to Waltham (in 1972, combining it with the M&B Waltham-Watertown line) and then to Cedarwood. The 70A routing was only merged in to the route in the late 1980s when through Waltham–Lexington service was cut, adding a third separate line to the 70/70A hodgepodge. (More on the history of this—and every other MBTA route—here.)

It now extends—depending on the terminus—10 to 14 miles from Central Square in Cambridge to nearly the Weston town line. Along the way it serves several distinct activity nodes: Central Square in Cambridge, Barry's Corner and Western Avenue in Allston, the Arsenal Mall, Watertown Square, Central Square in Waltham, and the outlying branches. While these nodes fall in a straight line, it creates a bus route with several loading and unloading points and heavy use throughout the day. This is not a bad thing—except that the line is poorly scheduled and dispatched, so that it effectively provides far less service than it could.

II. The Schedule

To its credit, the MBTA has very few split-terminus routes. (In many cities, split-terminal routing is the norm, as one trunk route will branch out to several destinations. Since MBTA buses generally serve as feeders to rapid transit stations, it is far less prevalent.) The 34 has short-turn service (the 34E) and the 57 has some short-turns as well. A few other routes have some variations (the 111, for example) but few have the sort of service that the 70/70A has. The 70A is particularly confusing inasmuch as the morning and afternoon routes run separate directions, to better serve commuters but to the detriment of providing an easy to understand schedule. It it almost as if the T has put all of its annoying routing eggs in one basked. Or, in this case, in one route.

The issue is that while there are two routes which are generally separately scheduled, for the bulk of the route, from Waltham to Cambridge, the operate interchangeably as one. For someone going from Waltham to Cambridge or anywhere in between, there should be no difference between a 70 and 70A. If there are four buses per hour, there should be one every fifteen minutes. For those visiting the outside of the route, the buses will be less frequent, but for the majority of the passengers, it wouldn't matter.

Except, the route doesn't work this way.

It seems that the 70 and 70A are two different routes superimposed on each other with little coordination. This often manifests itself in buses that depart Waltham—and therefore Watertown—at nearly the same time, followed by a gap with no buses. If you look at nearly any bus route in Boston, it will have even (or close-to-even) frequencies during rush hours. Some—the 47, for instance—may have a certain period of time with higher frequencies to meet demand. But even then, the route quickly reverts to even headways.

This is not the case with the 70 bus. If you are in Watertown Square traveling to Cambridge on the 70, there are 16 buses between 7 and 10 a.m. This should provide service every 10 to 12 minutes. Here are the actual headways (the 70As are bolded):

16  7  9  9  6  13  8  12  8  24  0  24  5  15

Anyone want to point out the problem here? The headways are completely uneven. The route is frequent enough that it should be a "just go out and wait for the bus" but it is completely hamstrung by poor scheduling. The initial 16 minute headway will carry a heavy load—nearly twice the headway of the next trip. The next trip will operate with half the load, and more quickly, catching up on the heavily-laden bus ahead of it. Later in the morning it gets worse: headways inexplicably triple from 8 minutes to 24, followed by two buses scheduled to leave Watertown at exactly the same time. (In fact, one is scheduled to overtake the other between Waltham and Watertown.) This is followed by another long service gap. Miss the two back-to-back buses, and you're waiting nearly half an hour. This makes no sense.

And it's not just the mornings. Midday headways are just as bizarre. When traffic is at a minimum and the route should be able to operate on schedule, headways range from 10 to 25 minutes. There are at least three buses each hour (and usually four) yet there are long service gaps—the effective headway is nearly half an hour when it could conceivably be 15 minutes. It's obviously not easy to schedule a route with two termini, but the vagaries of the schedule mean that missing a bus may mean a wait of nearly half an hour, only to have two buses come with ten minutes of each other. And it's not like these buses are empty, either. They serve the bustling town centers in Waltham and Watertown, and the Arsenal mall area stops regularly see ten or more passengers per trip. Yet they are subjected to a bus that comes at odd times—not one that is really reliable.

For a time during the evening rush hour, the T actually manages to dispatch an outbound bus every 10 minutes. But overall, most of the weekday schedule is a hodgepodge of times which have no relation to each other, and mean that the route provides a much lower level of service than it could. (Intriguingly, Saturday service on the 70 is provided on an even 10 minute headway for much of the day; it's a shame this schedule can't be used on weekdays, too.)

I've been experimenting recently with graphically displaying route schedules. It shows scheduled route times as points, and headways as lines. Time of day is on the x axis, frequency and running time on the y axis. Here, for example, is the 47 bus:

Notice that while there is a major service increase during the AM rush hour, the headway lines are generally flat during different service periods during the day.

Another example is the 77 from Harvard to Arlington:
The 77 is a very frequent bus which sees 8 to 12 minute headways throughout the day. There is some minor variation at rush hours—and longer scheduled trip times at those times—but variations are minimal, and when headways change, they do so by only a couple of minutes.

Most bus routes have this sort of chart. Trip times may vary, but headways do not change drastically during the day.

Now, here's the 70 from Waltham to Boston:

This is chaos! Instead of a flat line, the headways bounce around uncontrollably, ranging from one or two minutes (this is from Waltham, so the 0 minute headway in Watertown Square is slightly different) up to nearly half an hour. If you go wait for a bus you may see two roll by in the span of five minutes, and then wind up waiting 25 minutes for the next. It's only during the evening rush hour (the flat blue line) that there is any order to the schedule; even late at night headways bounce around by five minutes or more.

Another way to visualize these data are to look at the average headway versus the effective headway. Here, the gray line shows the moving average of three headways, which smooths out some (but not all) of the variability shown above. However, the yellow line is more important: it shows the greatest of the three headways, which is the effective headway: if you go out and wait for a bus, it's the maximum amount of time you may wind up waiting. Here's the inbound route:

The average headway for bus is generally about 10 minutes at rush hours, and 15 to 20 minutes during the midday, which is not unreasonable for this type of route. However the effective headway is much worse. It is more than 20 minutes for much of the day—and often eclipses 25 minutes. For most routes, the average and effective headway would be equal (or close to it). For the 70, the effective headway is sometimes double the average.

The outbound chart shows what is possible. From 4:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon, the average and effective route are nearly even—this is when buses are sent out on equal headways (and this is what the entire day would look like for most routes). However, during much of the rest of the day, the headways are less sensible. It should be possible to operate a service every 20 minutes or better, but there are often 25 minute waits for the bus, despite the fact that the two routes share an outbound departure point in Central Square.

All of this does not align with the T's stated policy. According to the MBTA service deliver policy, "passengers using high-frequency services are generally more interested in regular, even headways." This is the practice for most routes, but not for the 70.

III. What can be done?

As currently configured, the 70's headways are particularly hamstrung by the 70A. Not only is it longer and less frequent than the Cedarwood route, but it's outer terminus is not even a terminus but instead a loop (with a short layover), so the route is practically a single 25-mile-long monstrosity beginning and ending in Central Square. Without a long layover and recovery point, the route is assigned two buses midday and can't even quite make 60 minute headways: the 10:10 departure from Cambridge doesn't arrive back until 12:11, and that's at a time of day with relatively little traffic!

It's also not clear why the 70A needs to run to Cambridge. It is a compendium of three routes—the original Central–Watertown car route, the Middlesex and Boston's Watertown–Waltham route and the Waltham portion of the M&B's Waltham–Lexington route. This is a legacy of the 1970s—and before. It would seem to make much more sense to combine the 70A portion of the route with one of the express bus routes to downtown Boston, and run the 70 as it's own route with even headways.

There seem to be two reasonable routes to combine the 70A with, each of which could probably provide better service with the same number of vehicles: the 556 and the 505. The 556 provides service from Waltham Highlands (just beyond the Square) to Downtown Boston at rush hours, and to Newton Corner at other times. It has an almost-identical span of service to the 70A and operates on similar headways (30 minutes at rush hours, 60 minutes midday). Instead of running all the way in to Cambridge, 70A buses could make a slight diversion to serve Waltham Highlands and then run inbound to downtown. Currently, the 70A is assigned five buses at rush hour, and the 556 four. It seems that using two of these buses to extend the 556 to North Waltham would easily accommodate 30 minute headways, freeing up three buses to supplement service on the 70. During the midday, one bus could provide an extended 556 service between North Waltham and Newton Corner (where connections are available downtown), and it might be possible to extend run 60 minute headways between downtown and North Waltham with just two buses, allowing the other to supplement service on the 70.

The other option would be to extend the 505. The 505 is currently a rush hour-only bus, but its span of service matches that of the 70A at either end, it is only from 10 until 3 that it provides no service. The simplicity with the 505 is that it's current terminus is in Waltham Square, so it would be a simple extension to append the 70A portion to the route. The 505 currently runs very frequently in the morning with 10 buses providing service every 8 to 9 minutes, and has 7 buses running every 15 minutes in the evening. If every third bus in the morning and every other bus in the evening were extended to North Waltham, it would provide the same level of service as the 70A, but with direct service downtown. Midday service would be more problematic, as it would require two buses to operate, and additional vehicles would be necessary to supplement the loss in service on the 70 (although the T has a surplus of buses midday, so while it would require extra service time, it would not incur new equipment needs).

Either of these solutions would allow for 10 vehicles to provide service on the 70 route at rush hour, and they could be dispatched at even intervals during that time. With recover time, the roundtrip for the 70 at rush hour is less than 120 minutes, so with ten buses it could easily provide service every 12 minutes, and perhaps be squeezed down to every 10 minutes with faster running time on the shoulders of rush hour. If every other trip was short-turned at Waltham, 10 minute service would be possible, with service every 20 minutes to Cedarwood. And the headways would be even—no more 20 minute waits in the middle of rush hour. Transfers could be made at Waltham for 70A patrons wishing to go to Watertown or Cambridge. During the midday, similar even headways of 15 or 20 minutes could be offered—no more long waits for a crowded bus with an empty one right behind.

Over the years the 70/70A has been cobbled together from a number of routes, and this has hobbled the efficacy of the route. While the exact scheduling of the route has to take in to account many other factors (pull outs and pull ins, union rules, break times, terminal locations and the like—and as someone who recently helped create a route plan for a very short route, I can attest there is more to route planning than meets the eye), it would be hard to make it any worse than it is now. With some creative thinking, the T should be able to provide better service for everyone who takes the 70 bus without expending any more resources, and should be able to increase the effective capacity, and make it a better experience for its customers.

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:
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). For commuter rail, it likely has to do with fare and parking increases, which, while proportional to other modes (for fares, at least) are higher dollar amounts (often $1 or $2 versus 25¢). 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.