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. A city bus (proven technology) costs $500k (for a generic, diesel bus) to more than $1m for an electric model. And somehow this new thing is going to cost not much more for an order of magnitude higher speed?
  • 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 basket. 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 range 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, or allow for transfers to the 70 and Commuter Rail in Waltham and express buses in Newton Corner.

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 recovery 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.

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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Longfellow Bike Count: Year 2

It's kind of hard to believe that it's been more than a year since my first Longfellow Bridge bike count, but it has. I've posted just a few times since then about the bridge, and seen the inbound lanes deconstructed, the towers come down, and, arch-by-arch, the bridge is now being rebuilt. I even went out in the middle of winter (and by out, I mean in to someone's office with a view of the bridge) and counted about 90 bikes per hour: 30% of the previous summer's crossings. (I think I tweeted this during the winter but didn't write a whole post.)

So it was high time for a new count. I waited for a morning with good weather (and when I wouldn't miss November Project) and set off for the bridge. After chatting with the DPW workers on my street about Hubway, I didn't make it on to the bridge until 7:45, but that meant I was there in plenty of time to hit the peak morning bike rush hour, which (still) occurs from approximately 8:10 to 9:10 on the Longfellow. While at first the bike counts seemed flat or even down, once the rush got cranking, it became clear that there are more bicyclists this year than last.

Just to review, here are the bike counts for the peak hour from last year:
Wednesday, June 19, 2013: 267 bicyclists (8:12 – 9:12)
Tuesday, July 30, 2013: 308 bicyclists (8:08 – 9:08)
Tuesday, October 15, 2013: 298 bicyclists (8:11 – 9:11)
Here's what I found this June (on the 24th, a Tuesday). The counts today peaked from 8:07 to 9:15 (that is to say, the 8:07 – 9:07 hour and the 8:15 – 9:15 hour saw the same counts). And the number of cyclists during those 60 minute blocks?
That's one bike every nine seconds for an hour. Compared with the highest count last year in July, it's an increase of 25%. Compared with the average of the three counts last year, it's an increase of 32%. In a single year.

I can't think of any single factor that would have increase bicycle usage by that much, other than more people riding bikes. So, contrary to any mitigating factors, I'm operating under the assumption that bicycling eastbound across the Longfellow is up by at least 25% this year. Between 8:30 and 9:00, there were 221 cyclists crossing the bridge and only 187 vehicles: 18% more bikes than cars. There were a few moments where the bridge looked downright Copenhagenish. With more bicyclists than vehicles crossing the bridge at peak times, perhaps it's time to revisit the design and give bikes more than 20% of the road's real estate.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tolls, traffic and unintended consequences

Back in 1996, Governor Bill Weld wanted to be Senator. John Kerry was running for his third term. Amidst the clash of blue-blooded New Englanders, Weld decided it would be a great political coup to remove tolls on two sections of the Massachusetts Turnpike. So he zeroed out the tolls in Western Mass (which mainly required new tickets—yes, that was pre-EZ-Pass—as the highway still required toll barriers; the tolls were reinstated last year to little fanfare) and nixed the toll in Weston Newton. While the Western Mass tolls were a quiet affair, the West Newton tolls were less so.

Overnight, signs went up: Toll Free. One day when I was biking home from middle school (yes, middle school, and yes, I was a commie bicyclist even then!) I noticed a peculiar sight: a backhoe was tearing in to the old toll booths, and within a few days they were gone, paved over would never be seen again. Of course, this was a transparent political ploy, and it soon surfaced that Weld hadn't publicly bid the demolition contract but instead given it to a friend. He lost the election by seven points. 

And overnight, he created a nearly-twenty-year-long traffic jam. (Yes, this was predicted by some at the time, although the Globe article is archived so you need a login, and yes, all of this really happened.)

Much of the traffic coming east on the Turnpike originates on Route 128. When the Southwest and Northwest expressways were canceled, the Pike became the only western trunk route in to the city. Up until that point, the toll to access the Turnpike at 128 was 50¢, and in West Newton it was 25¢. Traffic from the south on 128 has little incentive to stay on 128 to the Turnpike, as the diagonal Route 16 is two miles shorter and, even with traffic lights, negligibly slower, especially given the roundabout design of the 90/128 interchange, where Boston-bound motorists drive half a mile due west before swinging back east through the toll gates. Until 1996, there was a 25¢ difference between staying on the highway and taking the surface roads. In 1996, the savings went to 50¢, and when tolls were raised in 2002, to $1.00 (it stands at $1.25 today). This was a four-fold increase in the direct cost savings over those six years, and there was suddenly a much higher incentive to take the Route 16 shortcut and save a dollar.

And guess what happened on Route 16? Traffic tripled, and gridlock ensued. Exit 16—coincidentally, where Route 16 intersects the Turnpike—was never anticipated to be more than a local access exit. It has a short acceleration zone and a very short merge with poor sightlines around a bridge abutment. And it began to handle far more traffic than it had before. (On the other hand, the outbound ramp no longer required vehicles to slow through the toll plaza, and they frequently merged in to Washington Street at highway speed at a blind corner with significant pedestrian traffic.) With more cars coming off of Route 16 rather than the main line, it created a merge which caused traffic back-ups a mile back Route 16, and—given the merge—also backed up traffic on the mainline of the Turnpike. Additionally, drivers who may have, in the past, stayed on Route 16 between West Newton and Newton Corner instead used the free segment of highway, adding to the traffic along the Turnpike and causing more backups at the short exit ramp there. One shortsighted, unstudied policy change changed the economic decisions of drivers on several segments of road, changed the equilibrium, and caused several different traffic jams.

And the state lost money, to boot.

So the new electronic toll can't come soon enough. It's too hard to tell if it will rebalance the traffic, or if growing traffic volumes in the intervening 18 years have created this traffic in any event. But it will finally correct a problem nearly two decades in the making by a governor trying to score political points; a problem that never should have occurred in the first place.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The new Blue Book is out

Every few years, the MBTA publishes the Blue Book. It is a compendium of data, neatly packaged in a PDF format. (It would be nice if they published a Blue CSV, but that's asking a lot of a public transit agency.) I haven't had much time to play with it, but did download the data for the core subway lines, to compare 2013 to 2009 (the last Blue Book) and before.

This shows data for each subway line (N.B.: it only shows subway boardings for the Green Line) for the past 25 years. The Red, Orange and Blue lines all grew by 13% since 2009, and compared to their lowest count over the past quarter century, they are up 67%, 38% and 82%, respectively. All three lines saw their highest ridership in 2013. If the trains seem crowded, it's because they are carrying significantly more riders now than they were just a few years ago.

Then there's the Green Line. It seems that ridership there is flat, but I haven't had a chance to look at the branches. It might be due to it's slow speeds, arduous boarding process, arcane rules, lack of traffic priority or a combination of these factors. Or it could be that it's already basically at capacity, at least as currently configured.

I'll have more analysis—including station-by-station counts (very variable) and bus routes (they're growing)—in the coming days.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Deconstructing the "don't bike with a helmet" crowd

It seems like something that occurs every few months. Someone doesn't like wearing bike helmets, and rather than ride around without a helmet on, they decide that everyone would bike more if it wasn't for those pesky helmets, and they decide to write about it on the Internet. They find some studies, draw some conclusions, and use data to say "hey, look, it's actually safer to bike without a helmet." Here's the thing:


The latest installment comes from Howie Chong. I'm sure Howie is a heck of a guy. But before he tells people not to wear helmets, he should get his facts straighter. Here's his thesis:
I have made a careful and conscientious choice to not wear a helmet when I’m cycling in urban areas because I strongly believe that it will help improve the overall safety of cycling in the long run.
And here's what I have to say about it …
Let’s first get one thing out of the way: if you get into a serious accident, wearing a helmet will probably save your life. According to a 1989 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, riders with helmets had an 85% reduction in their risk of head injury and an 88% reduction in their risk of brain injury. That’s an overwhelming number that’s backed up study after study. Nearly every study of hospital admission rates, helmeted cyclists are far less likely to receive serious head and brain injuries.
If the piece he wrote ended here, it would be fine. Studies do back this up. If you are in a crash, a helmet will dramatically improve outcomes. Now, he's going to spend a few dozen paragraphs circling around this with some very loose logic attempting to negate all of these benefits. He describes auto traffic and goes on:
So a helmet provides a level of protection from this danger. It makes you feel safer.
 No! A helmet does not make you feel safer. This is false equivalence. On the one side, we have data showing that a helmet makes you safer. As he points out in his first paragraph, a helmet makes you safer. On the other side, we have a perception of how a bicycle rider feels (he extrapolates this to all riders). It it not touchy-feely. Helmets reduce the risk of head injury seven-fold. That's not a feeling.
But a broader look at the statistics show that cyclists’ fear of head trauma is irrational if we compare it to some other risks.
He goes on to cite a 1978 study from San Diego that attributes 6% of head injuries to bicycling and 53% to automobiles.
The studies that are out there give us mixed messages about the relative safety of the different modes of transport. What I am saying is that these statistics raise an interesting question: If we're so concerned about head injuries, why don't we wear helmets all the time? Why do places that have mandatory helmet laws for cyclists not have them for drivers or pedestrians? 
 No, they don't give us mixed messages. They just don't give us enough data. I don't have the numbers from 1978, but more recently (from 1990 to today; there has been little bicycling growth in San Diego), about 1% of San Diegans biked to work. 85% drove. Once you control for these denominators, the numbers change dramatically. Bicyclists account for 600% more head injuries than would be expected based on their mode share, cars account for 60% fewer. Drivers have seat belts designed to keep their heads away from hard objects. Pedestrians are usually on sidewalks and only interact with vehicles in intersections. Bicyclists, on the other hand, have none of these protections.

He goes on to describe a Forbes article which suggests that graduated licenses are the best way to reduce head injuries among teenager short of forcing them to wear helmets, a comment made surely in jest. His response:
Despite the fact that car accidents are the number one cause of all fatal head trauma among teenagers, the suggestion that teens wear helmets when they drive is simply brushed off. The passage treats the idea of mandatory driving helmets as completely preposterous.
Again: No! The idea of wearing helmets is preposterous because helmets would not help in a car accident. There are certainly no studies. What keeps you safe in car accidents are seat belts and headrests. If you are properly bucked in to a car and are in an accident, your risk of head injury is dramatically reduced because your head is kept away from metal and pavement. This is what headrests and seat belts and roll cages are designed to do. A helmet would just sit there flopping around. He asks "Why has cycling been singled out as an activity in need of head protection?" Because we've already addressed passive protection in cars.

He doubles down:
Bike helmets may reduce the risk of head and brain injury by 85-88%—but only for those who get into accidents.
Oh, good, I'll just never get hit by cars. Good.
If we take a closer look at the article we see that both the experiment and the control groups studied are those who have already been hospitalized for bike injuries. … Studies show that helmeted cyclists who are hospitalized are far less likely to have serious head trauma than bare-headed cyclists that have been hospitalized. But wouldn't this be true, regardless of the activity? Logically, helmeted drivers should also receive significantly fewer head injuries than bare-headed drivers. Similarly, helmeted pedestrians should be less likely to receive serious head trauma than bare-headed ones. 
But such studies don't exist because there aren't enough helmeted drivers or pedestrians to make a comparison. In other words, one of the reasons we think helmeted cyclists are safer than unhelmeted ones may be due to availability of information more than actual levels of head safety. 
Maybe that explains why there's no comparable fear of driving or walking without a helmet.
My head is spinning. Where to begin. How about "Logically, helmeted drivers [are safer]." This is illogical. Again, drivers in cars are protected by different mechanisms which achieve similar results. Seat belt use dramatically reduces the severity of head injuries. Think of the seat belt as the helmet of a car. It's the first line of defense. It serves the same purpose. And there are plenty of studies that show this. There is no information deficit. Comparing helmet use among drivers and cyclists is comparing apples to oranges. Helmet use to seat belt use is the right comparison here.

He goes on to cite a New York Times article from 2001 regarding helmet use. It, however, does not draw any conclusions, and several of the anecdotes it gives pertain to mountain biking, not the kind of bicycle commuting which has grown dramatically in the past 15 years. It doesn't conclude that more helmets correlate with higher head injury rates. If it comes to any conclusion, it's that helmet use is just a part of bicycle safety.

Then he goes on about a study which shows that drivers will give more space to an unhelmeted cyclist than a helmeted one. Fine. How about education and enforcement for cars which squeeze bicyclists, whether they're wearing a helmet or not.

The he gets in to mandatory helmet laws.
So as much as helmets decrease the chance of head injury when you get into an accident, they may actually increase your chance of getting into an injury in the first place.
Again, this is a very much false equivalence. On the one hand, helmets make you safer, and there's data to back that up. On the other hand, they may increase your chance of being in an accident, but no one knows. They may not.
There is another significant way that the use of helmets harm cyclists: Bike helmets discourage cycling. An Australian study on mandatory helmet laws concluded that laws that required cyclists to wear head protection actually decreased the number of cyclists on the road. The implication of this study? The fewer cyclists on the road, the less likely drivers will be accustomed to sharing road space with cyclists, ultimately increasing the hazards faced by cyclists and further dissuading people from hopping on their bikes.
First of all, this is regarding a mandatory helmet law. I lived in Melbourne and people were not happy about that law. But a helmet law is very different than suggesting that people wear a helmet. In the US, at least, if people don't wear a helmet they don't have to worry about being given a $100 ticket. That is much of what discourages cycling where helmets are mandatory. I agree that helmet laws are heavy-handed and bad policy (for bicyclists, anyway; they are certainly a good idea for motorcyclists).
[O]ur society has conditioned cyclists to feel unsafe without a helmet, even though wearing one might actually increase the chance of a collision with a vehicle; and even though other activities capable of inflicting serious head wounds are enjoyed bare-headed without stigma.
Again with the false equivalence. We feel unsafe without a helmet because it is statistically less safe to bike without a helmet. There is no data that shows that cyclists without helmets get in to fewer accidents.
Helmet use is very uncommon in bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where cyclists have been socialized to see cycling as a safe activity. In order to promote the same culture here, we need to encourage people who don't bike that they should give it a try.
What else do they have in Amsterdam and Copenhagen? They have protected bicycle infrastructure. They have laws which assign blame and real, actual legal remedies to drivers involved in bike-car collisions. Nearly everyone is, at some point, a cyclist, so they know to look for other cyclists, even when they're driving. The assertion that if we don't wear helmets we'll suddenly turn in to Copenhagen is ridiculous.
If there was conclusive proof that bike helmets reduce the total number of serious head injuries compared to other normal activities, then I'd reconsider my stance.
There is conclusive proof! This "other normal activities" (driving and walking) is a total red herring; we don't wear helmets when driving because we have other protections in place, and we don't walk in mixed traffic on the highway. This statement is completely illogical.
But if I'm not the kind of person who wears a helmet when I take a walk or get behind the wheel of a car, then there's no logic to me wearing one when I'm on a bike, particularly if I'm confident in my urban bike safety ability. 
Do you put on a seat belt when you get in a car? If so, you are the kind of person who wears a helmet when you get behind the wheel of a car. (I'll get to the confidence in urban bike safety in a moment.)
Meanwhile the proof is pretty strong that vehicles give me more space when I'm biking without a helmet.
Okay. So you dismiss the proof that wearing a helmet makes you safer. But when it comes to a single study that shows that unhelmeted cyclists, it holds a lot of water. The study also showed female cyclists got more room. Maybe Mr. Chong should consider a sex change, or at least a wig.
In a city biking, that's the kind of injury I'm most concerned about. 
Now, let's go in to personal anecdotes. About two years ago, I was biking to work. 2.5 miles, mostly in bike lanes, and on a route I knew very, very well. It's the exact type of situation that Mr. Chong would eschew a helmet:

  • I was on a street with a bike lane 
  • It was sunny and warm 
  • I was biking in the only League of American Bicyclists Gold-rated city on the East Coast 
  • I was in a city with a 9% bicycle mode share; the fifth highest in the country, so cars should be used to looking for cyclists
  • I was following all traffic rules 

None of this precluded a driver parked across the street blindly making a U-turn in to my path. I barely had time to brake and hit his car at full speed. I was scraped up and had a minor concussion and some residual back pain for a couple of months. I also had a helmet with a visible crack in it. Had I not had this helmet, the crack would have likely been to my head.

If I hadn't been wearing a helmet, the driver still wouldn't have seen me. He didn't look down the road and see me and say "oh, a helmeted cyclists, I am now going to make an illegal U-turn." He didn't look at all. Not wearing a helmet would have potentially turned me in to a vegetable, and that is certainly not a way to get people to bike in the long run. ("Oh, I'm not riding a bike; Ari was biking to work and some moron turned in to him and now he eats through a tube" is not a good way to encourage bike riding.) We have a long, long way to go before bicycling in America looks anything like Copenhagen or Amsterdam; we'd have to reform infrastructure, law and behavior dramatically. Until then, it most certainly makes sense to wear a bike helmet when riding a bike.

Mr. Chong, please redact this misinformed post.