Friday, August 31, 2012

MBTA ridership and demand elasticity

This spring, I wrote about how the MBTA's fares are really not that high. Fares went up on the order of 20 to 25%, and the T apparently expected ridership to fall by 5% or so. The numbers are in for the first month and while ridership did fall (the first decline, year-over-year, in 14 months), it was off by less than 1/10 of 1%.

There's a local company which builds pricing software which is not surprised. They studied the base transit fare and calculated as long as it stayed under about $2.75 there would not be a major impact on ridership. Demand for transit is rather inelastic—people have to get to work—and they're willing to pay an extra 60¢ a day (or $11 per month) in order to get to a job which pays many dollars per hour. For the average subway commuter, it's still far cheaper to pay $70 for a monthly pass than to pay gas, tolls and (especially downtown, or in Kendall or Harvard) parking.

What's interesting is where ridership fell. I expected that the increases in the cost of Commuter Rail to be a detriment to ridership. While transit and bus rose by 17% and 20%, commuter rail fares rose by 25-30%. And with higher fares to start, the nominal increase was $1.25 to $2.25. For monthly passes, which now range from $173 to $314, the increase in fares ranges from $38 to $64, which is not chump change. Commuter Rail customers are more likely to own cars than bus and transit users, and there was a lot of hand-wringing that commuters would abandon the rails and drive instead.

But that hasn't happened. Even with lighter summer traffic, commuter rail posted gains. So did buses and boat traffic. The only declines were on The Ride (where fares doubled*) and on the Subway. Commuter Rail ridership is up. But the subway, where fares rose by a quarter and a nickel, is down.

However, the more I thought about it, the more it makes sense. While the subway prices stayed well within a range where they won't have a major impact on demand, there is enough elasticity in supply to allow people to utilize other options. For most Commuter Rail riders, the trip is more than 10 miles and their only other option is driving, which is more expensive and subject to the whims of traffic. The cost of driving might be somewhat less marginally more, but it's still more. So the supply is quite inelastic—even with fare increases the train is still cheaper than driving.

For subway riders, it's a different story. Except for the Riverside and Quincy lines, most of the T's ridership is concentrated within about 6 miles of downtown. Many subway riders have a commute which is only three or four miles long. The supply here is not constrained to transit or driving, but adds walking and cycling to the mix. With a mild summer (June was 1 degree below average, July and August 2 above) and expansion of bike sharing, as well as at-capacity rush-hour trains, it's quite possible that many commuters looked at the fare hike and tested the elasticity of the short-distance travel supply. And that people looked at a mile-and-a-half ride on the train and decided to save $2 and take a half-hour walk. The price for walking or biking is essentially zero, so commuters were able to overlook the inconveniences of these modes due to the price savings. In other words, they pumped up their tires or put on their shoes.

Come winter, when it's cold and rainy (or, like in 2011, snowy) these new riders may stream back towards the turnstiles (or, uh, Charlie Card machines). In any case, I doubt the drop in subway ridership is due solely to the rise in prices as much as it is due to riders exploring other options.

* I am torn how to feel about The Ride fares. On the one hand, paratransit is a lifeline for many disabled and disadvantaged groups who would otherwise not be able to get around without it. On the other hand, it commands a subsidy on the order of $40 per ride (if that was the rate of subsidy for all MBTA riders, the annual subsidy would be on the order of $15 billion per year—the cost of one Big Dig), and its ridership is growing exponentially. Paratransit is an important government service, but because it is shouldered by the T, a service for a few thousand riders a day is subsidized heavily by over a million other riders. A good solution, perhaps, would be sequestering funding for The Ride and funding it separately from the T at large.

Ten years after I enroll, Macalester's transit is slated to improve

Ten years ago, I arrived in Saint Paul, Minnesota as a (n extremely awkward 18-year old) first-year college student at Macalester College. Recently the college tweeted that new students could follow the campus life account and hash tag to stay abreast of move-in information. This made me feel old: when I moved in, we didn't have hash tags. Or Twitter. Or Gmail. And forget about smart phones; many of us didn't even have regular phones. And the Spotlight was an anticipated publication because it had everyone's picture and phone number. In print form. Three years later, it would be fully supplanted by Facebook (which was based on a series of similar publications at Harvard).

Some things, however, have not changed. The 63 bus still bisects campus on Grand Avenue, and the 84 still runs north-south along Snelling Avenue. Even so, the public transport options from Macalester to the rest of the world (beyond the "bubble") have changed in the past ten years, and are about to change exponentially. The two bus routes which serve campus will still follow their streetcar predecessors' routes, but new rail lines will finally give them more flexibility and greatly enhance service.

Public transit lines can be very slow to change. They are rooted firmly in history; in most cities bus lines are based on streetcar lines built around 1900, and this entrenchment is not frequently updated to reflect more modern travel needs. For instance, the 63 bus runs west from Macalester and dead-ends at the University of Saint Thomas a mile to the west. This is the same route it's run since 1890. (The only changes have been in headways, which have varied between 15 and 30 minutes over the last 10 years.) It connects there with one spur route of the 21, although it's not timed, so except to get to Saint Thomas, there's little reason to take the bus west. In 1900, the neighborhood was focused on Saint Paul, and ridership was mostly to downtown. Now, with Minneapolis a major draw, the bus provides very little connectivity to the west, instead dead-ending at an unheated bus shelter with a single transfer.

The 84 is slightly-more updated. By 2002, it had shed it's streetcar-era jog up Pascal and moved to a full run on Snelling. (It also shed it's Saint Paul-specific route number in 2000 or so, when the bi-city numbering scheme was integrated.) In 2000, it had several branches, and the airport branch was only served every hour-or-so, providing quick but infrequent access to MSP. (This was dramatically improved by 2002, when, during the heyday of Macalester-airport connectivity, there was an airport-bound bus twice an hour and the single-seat trip took under 30 minutes.) In 2004, when the Hiawatha Light Rail line opened, the route was changed to provide connections to the train and thence the airport, increasing travel times (especially with the moronic Montreal loop, which adds an out-of-the-way mile to the route with no appreciable gain) and no additional airport-bound headways, although the other half of the buses do connect to the airport-bound 54 bus which makes a tolerable airport connection every 15 minutes.

As much as that particular route has devolved, connectivity to the light rail and Minneapolis has improved for the 84. And with the new line on University finally being built, Saint Paul in general, and Macalester in particular, is going to reap dramatically improved transit access.

To the south, the 84 will see an increase from four to six buses per hour. The Montreal loop will be eliminated, shaving several minutes from the Snelling-Hiawatha trip. Headways on that branch will not be improved, however, so connections to the Hiawatha Line (Apparently, the Hiawatha Line is going to become the Blue Line, and the Central Corridor the Green Line. It's probably good—unlike Hiawatha, "Central Corridor" is a pretty horrid name for a transit line, but I'm still not used to it.) will not be improved. This is too bad, and hopefully the short-turn trips at Ford Parkway could be extended across the river. Still, there is an improvement in frequency to Ford Parkway, and an improvement in time to 46th Street, both of which are gains. (In comparison, when the Hiawatha Line opened, there was no improvement in headways coupled with a loss in travel time.)

To the north, the 84 will serve its current route, but do so 50% more often. In addition, at some point it might become a "rapid bus" service and eliminate many single-patron stops, speeding the route mightily.

To the east there will be no net improvement in weekday headways, although the renewed emphasis on the 63 bus will likely mean less of a likelihood of headway reductions in the near future. (In 2001, headways were 15 minutes on the route west of Downtown, in 2003 they were expanded to Sunray, in 2005 they were reduced to 30 minutes West of Downtown and in 2009 they were finally made 20 minutes on both sides of the route.) And the weekend headways, which are currently 30 minutes on Saturday and an hour on Sunday, will be improved dramatically.

Finally, to the west, the most improvements occur. Right now, outside of rush hour, travel to Minneapolis is a trip on the 84 and a transfer to the express-bus 94 (30 minute frequencies outside of rush hour) or the 16/50 (10 minute headways at least, but horrendously slow service. The light rail will halve scheduled times, and with the 84 matching its headway, the average connection at Snelling and University will be 5 minutes in both directions. The average trip time will be 30 minutes from Macalester to Nicollet, as fast as the current connection but with no traffic delays at rush hour and triple the frequency middays.

In addition, the 63 bus will provide service west and a connection to the light rail. So, from campus, there will be 9 options per hour to get to Minneapolis, and a quick wave of the smart phone will tell you which bus is slated to arrive next. If an 84 is 9 minutes off but a 63 is due in 2, walk to Grand. If the 63 just passed, grab an 84. Coming back, if you can make a quick connection at Raymond to the 63, hop on it; otherwise, stay on the train.

When I was on campus, I rode the bus east with some frequency to Saint Paul (15 minute headways and a 15 minute ride) but rarely ventured to Minneapolis. When I lived in Saint Paul, headways on the 63 were worse and there were still no good connections to Minneapolis, so I spent a lot of time bicycling. I'd still probably bike for this trip with the Central Corridor plan in place, but I can think of multiple times where I decided not to take a trip to Minneapolis because the weather was lousy and the bus schedules uncooperative. Having improved headways to all points of the compass will be a boon for Macalester students, and a boon for the residents of Saint Paul. Hopefully they'll be enticed to come out and use it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

MBTA ridership time/distance charts

I posted a chart in reference to Alon Levy's post about commuter rail ridership distribution a few weeks left. He pointed out that the same treatment could be given to commuter rail in other cities, like Boston. Results as follows:
Note: Old Colony includes the Greenbush Line unless otherwise noted. "Eastern" is the Newburyport/Rockport Line, which is the old Eastern Railroad. Traveler distributions for its branches are pretty similar.
This chart is the same as the ones for New York. The ridership levels are lower, of course, as are the distances. Only 5% of Boston's ridership comes from beyond 60 km, while 25% of New York's ridership travels that distance. Now, since I collected these data, I can run them for other variables. Here, for example, is the same chart shown by minutes instead of kilometers:

A couple of notes: travel times were calculated for the shortest scheduled travel time, and are shown from each outlying station to North and South Stations. Service to Back Bay is 5-6 minutes shorter on the non-Old Colony South Side lines.
There's a bit more variation here. Notably, the Lowell Line shows up as having shorter travel times, since it is a relatively short line with relatively fast speeds. And the Worcester Line, which is one of the longer lines, stands out as having longer travel times, although it achieves relatively good ridership despite this. One other way to view these data is to look at average speed by line. Do note that this chart is not cumulative, but show the fastest available service for each station:
Note: these times are for inbound trains only; the Worcester Line does have some outbound trains which average 38 mph from South Station to West Natick.
Note how the Providence Line and the Lowell Line are by far the fastest in the system. The express from Mansfield to Boston averages 45 mph; the run to Back Bay averages nearly 55. The Lowell Line, which has speed limits of 70 mph, averages over 40 mph on express runs from North Billerica (less from Lowell which has a long, slow section through a yard south of the station. These lines have more spread-out stations and are mostly grade-separated; except for two grade crossings in West Medford there are no public grade crossings on the Lowell Line and none between Boston and Providence.

The Fitchburg Line is relatively fast (especially for express trains) although it's length means that trip times are long. It benefits in ridership by not paralleling a direct highway to the city and it is slated for speed upgrades which should shave 10 minutes off travel times. Other line speeds are relatively abysmal (Haverhill might see improvements based on ongoing trackwork), with a particular finger pointed at the Worcester Line.

The MBTA will soon seal the deal to buy the whole of the line to Worcester. I wouldn't hold my breath on increased speeds. The T could have purchased higher speed cars and electric motors for the Providence Line. Did they? No. The line to Worcester is double-tracked in its entirety (except for a stretch through the Allston yards, but that should be remedied) and has four grade crossings (indeed, the only four grade crossings between Boston and Springfield) in total. There is no reason that 80 mph line speeds would be difficult to attain in short order, and 110 in the longer range. But there's little about higher speeds and shorter times coming from upstairs.

There's potential for ridership with trip times equal to or better than driving. Worcester is slightly off the Turnpike, so the 45 mile trip takes closer to an hour. At rush hour, there's usually traffic adding another fifteen or thirty minutes. And the tolls—$3.60 each way—add to the cost of driving significantly, as it's the only line where the driving option is tolled. Sub-hour trip times should be easy, and 60 mph, 45 minute trip times not out of the question (beyond that, connections to Springfield and Amherst would be much more feasible if trip times to Worcester were halved). That would be progress for the state's second largest city. … As long as the T actually serves Worcester (and doesn't just build a park-and-ride on the outskirts as they seem to like to do).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

West Medford: the best candidate for an MBTA grade separation

[Some minor updates Dec 2015]

Like most commuter rail systems in the US, most of the MBTA lines have numerous grade crossings. They vary significantly by line, with some mostly grade-separated, and some having grade crossings at a rate of one per mile. For most, the current and near-term future service does not demand any major grade separation; the Northeast Corridor high speed line is already grade separated, others would not be cost-effective because of either the sheer number of grade separations that would need to be built or because building them would do little to speed travel or improve traffic.

Here is a breakdown of each line, the number of grade crossings, the distance of the first grade crossing from the terminal station (i.e. how many miles is the line grade separated before the first crossing) and the total length of the line. Also noted are any major stretches which are already grade separated. Distances taken/estimated from the MBTA's Blue Book (pdf). Here's a map and list:

  • Eastern to Beverly: 8 crossings, 18 miles, first at mile 3. 8 mile gap.
  • Rockport Branch: 20 crossings, 17 miles. 
  • Newburyport Branch: 19 crossings, 18 miles. 
  • Haverhill: 27 crossings, 33 miles, first at mile 6. 
  • Wildcat Line: 4 crossings in 2 miles.
  • Lowell: 3 crossings, 25 miles, first at mile 5. Other than two crossings in West Medford, the only other is a private crossing at Wilmington (mile 15).
  • Fitchburg: 38 crossings, 50 miles, first at mile 3.
  • Worcester: 4 crossings, 44 miles. Only crossings in pairs at miles 21 and 25.
  • Needham: 5 crossings, 14 miles, first at mile 12.
  • Franklin: 8 crossings, 30 miles, first at mile 14, second at 23, the rest between 27 and 30.
  • Providence: Fully grade separated.
  • Stoughton Branch: 8 crossings in 4 miles.
  • Middleboro/Lakeville: 13 crossings, 36 miles, first at mile 15.
  • Plymouth: 27crossings, 36miles, first at mile 11.
  • Greenbush: 25 crossings, 28 miles, first at mile 10.
A few things stand out. First of all, inside Route 128, there are numerous grade crossings on north-side lines, but none on south-side lines. And there are four branches which have particularly few grade crossings: the Providence Line (none), the Worcester Line (only four, which are in two pairs four miles apart near the midpoint of the line), the Franklin Line (two crossings in the first 27 miles) and the Lowell Line.

The obvious choices for some sort of grade separation would therefore be:
The crossings on the Worcester Line, while bothersome, are not the major reason for slowdowns on that stretch (even the fastest trains run the length of the line in 1:20, an average speed of only 33 mph). All trains stop at Framingham (where the two most congest crossings lie) and Ashland is only a few miles past. If there were plans to dramatically upgrade this line to higher speed operation, say, to provide 50 minute service times from Worcester, then the crossings would be more troublesome. For now, once the state completes the purchase of the line, they'll need to work to upgrade speeds and dispatching before they tackle bridges. Additionally, Framingham may be rebuilt to deal with traffic congestion, and such a project wouldn't be cheap since there are several intersecting freight lines which would need to be separated, too.

The Franklin Line's crossings both border stations, and the Franklin Line does not serve a large anchor city at the end of the line (an extension would be possible to Milford, but Milford is only a quarter the size of Lowell). Since the grade separations are near the end of the line, it would only benefit a few of the passengers to make costly changes. 

The Lowell Line, however, has ridership as high as the Franklin Line (in a shorter distance) and also hosts some trains from the Haverhill Line as well as Amtrak's Downeaster trains from Portland. The Worcester Line's ridership is higher, but much more spread out. Half of the Worcester Line's ridership lies east of Framingham, so a grade crossing there would add no benefit for them. Every rider on the Lowell Line would benefit from a West Medford grade separation. Additionally, with higher speeds, service currently serving Maine, and potentially serving New Hampshire, would be speedier. The Boston and Lowell—one of the first railroads in the country—was built in the 1830s to serve the mills in Lowell and has continued to be the main north-bound rail line throughout its history. Despite its age, it has low grades and wide turns and would be a good candidate for moderately-high speed train service (80-110 mph).

Then there are the operational efficiencies possible from eliminating the West Medford crossings. Most grade crossings have upkeep costs which include power and maintenance. In order to keep from having whistles blown, however, these High Street crossing has a paid attendant in little shacks 24 hours a day, one of two in the MBTA system (the other is at Greenwood on the Haverhill Line). This incurs an annual cost of $864,000 annually, or $432,000 for the Medford watchman. This still doesn't keep motorists from breaching the crossing, which can tie up train service for hours and do quite a number of the car involved (if not, in this case, the motorist).

A grade separation would have obvious benefits: it would save half a million dollars per year in crossing costs, it would speed the trip for thousands of commuters on express trains through the station, it would remove a major safety hazard and it would ease traffic congestion where trains pass every ten minutes during peak hours.

How much would it cost? Hingham recently held up the state for $40 million in order to have a grade separation in their town. This included two approaches and 900 feet of tunnel; a similar length of tunnel (albeit a single track) than would be required in West Medford (this is assuming an 800-foot station in the cut and that the less-used Canal Street crossing was closed to allow for tracks to descend off the Mystic River bridge). The higher cost of burying two active-service tracks would be mitigated by the much broader footprint in the area. The right-of-way in West Medford is 60 feet wide and mostly borders roadways and industrial properties, the right-of-way in Hingham was only about 20 feet wide in places as it wound between commercial shops. One other factor may be the water table: West Medford is only about 24 feet above sea level (the level of the Mystic River is at sea level) so the bottom of the cut would be near sea level, and possibly impacting the water table. With that said, the Hingham tunnel is similarly low.

And how would you do it? Well, I'd imagine a three-phased scenario. First, slurry walls would be built on either side of the current tracks to act as the supports for the final trench, as well as any utility work at the current crossings. The current tracks would then be replaced by shoo-fly tracks on either side and the trench excavated, and a bridge built at the High Street crossing with the road rerouted temporarily there. Finally, the tracks would be relaid through the trench and the station rebuilt akin to the Waverley Station in Belmont.

Why not an elevated station like in Winchester? In Winchester, the 1950s-era grade separation replaced half a dozen crossings, not just one or two. ( from 1955 shows the route during construction; it also shows Waverley just after it was completed.) It also created a wall across the community (albeit a wall safer than the numerous grade crossings on the busy main line). That being said, it would likely be struck down by locals today, especially by many nearby residents in Medford (which has many houses near the tracks).

The main issue would be lowering the tracks quickly enough to provide clearance. It is about 1000 feet from the end of the Mystic Bridge to High Street. Assuming the river bridge isn't rebuilt (although it might be a good time to do so) a 2% grade would lower the tracks 20 feet by High Street, more than enough for clearance. A slight deviation in the street, raising it three or five feet, would dramatically reduce the grade. Electrification of this route would solve any grade issues.

Once separated, this track, which is relatively straight from Boston to Wilmington and beyond, could be upgraded to speeds of 79, 90 or even 110 miles per hour. This would shave minutes off of travel times to Lowell and Portland, and potentially Nashua, Manchester, Concord and beyond. With Interstate 93 gridlocked for hours each day, rail service to New Hampshire and Maine makes sense, and grade separating West Medford can make this service more time-competitive while making West Medford quieter, less congested and safer.