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.


  1. For the record: a combined bus/streetcar reservation would require about 24' of combined double-track right-of-way width, based on designs from BTD and from other places where such sharing is done. The Comm Ave reservation is about 21' wide for the movement of vehicles and even narrows down to as little as 20' in places, highly non-standard, and perhaps the narrowest right-of-way in the whole Green Line system. Allowing unguided buses onto that right-of-way would require widening of the curb-to-curb paved way to 24', before you factor in the width for station platforms, landscaping, and safety margins.

    Furthermore, I don't think it would help the 57 bus, because that section of Comm Ave is not congested and the key bus route improvement project made a positive impact. The 57 bus is more nimble than the larger Green Line trolleys and can move at a higher average speed, even in mixed traffic. Now some of this differential could be fixed through station consolidation (planned), signal priority and sane boarding procedures (proof of payment). But for the time being, there is really no motivation to arrange for 40' buses to get stuck behind 150' trains. It's true that would give people the option of boarding either vehicle while on the trunk line portion but that's already possible: come observe Packard's Corner at just about any time of day, at any day of the week.

    The third reason I've been leery of proposing a combined bus/streetcar way in the past is because that is the first step towards destroying the transit reservation. Remember what happened to what we now call the "A" line: in the 1940s, the Brighton Avenue reservation was torn up, paved over, and "opened" to private automobiles. Within twenty years, the "A" line was permanently substituted with the 57 bus. I don't know if the same thing could happen to the "B" line but you would be opening the door to it. Sure, at first it might be just buses. Then emergency vehicles would want to use it, naturally, and it only makes sense. Then suddenly private cars keep appearing on the reservation and driving down it as if it were just another car lane. Heck, they already do that on the completely grade separated "D" line every so often, even without pavement or access roads. On Comm Ave, your proposal would provide both pavement and access, and the only thing "stopping" people from driving on the reservation would be signage. Which, we all know, in this town is highly ineffective.

    I know some BRT folks have been keen on reusing the reservation between Babcock Street and Amory Street as a partial busway for an urban-ring like service. Maybe it might be worth investigating. But they do not have their ducks in a row, not even close, and you know how I feel about BRT: mostly oversold as a panacea that it isn't, and a set of techniques that should be applied to all bus routes, otherwise.

  2. Matthew, pretty much all valid points, but:

    1. Apparently the reservation has to be widened anyway. I'm not sure of the details, but I assume it's by more than inches. If you can get the buses out of harms way, great.

    2. While most of that stretch of Comm Ave isn't very congested, the area near the BU Bridge is—there are potential outbound savings there where the cross traffic can pretty well gum up that intersection. Now, you could certainly make the argument that Comm Ave should be one lane of through traffic through that whole section, but then you'd be accused of being anti-car, because so many people drive through there you need two lanes! That would save a lot of space. Anyway, I'm not making the argument that buses would go faster in the reservation, but they wouldn't have to pull in and out of stops, and they could more easily be given signal priority.

    3. The B line ain't going anywhere. The A line was lost to the 1960s-era "we can't have trains on streets" (which keeps going in Boston) and while it did have a reservation out through Allston, once in Brighton it always ran in mixed traffic. The B line does no such thing, and you really can't have the capacity of the B line (a three-car, 600 passenger train every 7 minutes) and run it in to the tunnel, so I wouldn't worry about losing it as transit.

    3. Yes, there would be a bit of a learning curve, but at least when some numbskull drove on to a paved reservation they wouldn't get stuck on the tracks like they do where it's ballasted.

    4. Future post: where BRT should be used and where it shouldn't. Note: the Urban Ring is somewhere it shouldn't. The Urban ring needs speed, grade separation and capacity. If you're doing that, bite the bullet and pay for rails.

    1. 1. The reservation is being widened for ADA platforms and some "safety margins" for track workers. If you want to have a busway, be prepared to add another 3 feet to the widening. I'm not saying that it's impossible, but it's going to come out of something else.

      2. The area near the BU Bridge gets caught up with block-boxing morons coming from Carlton Street. Thing is, even the Green Line gets jammed up by that too. So it doesn't really help to put the buses in the middle. What really needs to happen is that the whole intersection needs to be completely reworked from its current 1962, William Callahan-created mess, into something simpler and saner. MassDOT is all ready to do that, but there's a bunch of pieces moving and it will take time.

      3. Eh, I guess I just have less faith in our esteemed leaders.

      3. No, instead they would keep driving on it, because Massholes! And the cops would never do anything about it. That's why the Silver Line on Washington Street is also known as the "official double parking lane."

      4. Oh, it wasn't my BRT idea. Just saying it came up.

  3. This is a great idea, and it'll make it even easier for runners to beat the T. More seriously, dedicated busways are a must in any world-class city.

  4. Sounds like you dont ride the 57. it is faster than the B line every day outside of blizzard day. Your proposal would make service worse because buses would be stuck behind the B line and their 3 minute loading per station.

  5. I like the idea, especially after visiting Seattle and seeing their Transitway. Two things come to mind, though:

    1. As others have stated, the B line tends to travel slower than the 57. Would it be possible for the design to accommodate a bus passing a train?

    2. The 57 has more stops than the B. Each one of these would have to be built into the reservation and given pedestrian accommodations to the outside sidewalks.

    1. The bus could probably just pull into the transitway lane which is intended for opposite direction transit when it wants to pass; most of the time, there shouldn't be a conflicting vehicle in the way, especially if the platforms are all at the far sides of intersections.

      The 57 would probably need to always stop at an area behind where the train stops so that people wouldn't need to run a few hundred feet to catch an outbound 57 depending on whether it stops at the front of the stop or behind a train, given that the ADA probably does not allow an assumption that passengers can run.

  6. @James: One of the reasons the B line runs so poorly is that the T has ridiculous on-board fare payment. If this solution were to work, the T would have to figure out some way to have people pay before boarding. Fare gates probably wouldn't work (people could walk around them) but roving inspectors probably would. Then the train could stop, open all the doors, and there would be no more three minute waits. This should happen anyway.

    @Anon: Can anyone give a reason why the 57—a replacement for the old A line—needs more stops than the trolley it replaced? No? Good. As for buses passing trains, this would not be something easy to design for but (see above) if you design the system right with signal priority and off-board fare payment, you really don't need to. In cases of emergency (broken down train) the buses could exit the reservation on to the street and pass the trains, but you wouldn't want this to be normal operations.

    1. The MBTA had off board payment, in 2007. They threw it out.

  7. There's a lot to like about having two transit lines in the same dedicated running way. It would require several major changes from existing practice, all worth discussing if not implementing. But if the car is no longer king in Boston, I don't see why we can't dedicate 48 feet (four lanes) to the efficient movement of people via mass transit.

  8. The other thing is that the buses should not be the ones making sacrifices. In fact, buses should have dedicated ways, and if not, other priority measures should be used. Having buses block traffic while at bus stops is actually a means of transit priority (though usually unplanned) because it limits the number of cars ahead of the bus. Having buses pull out of the traffic stream is the worst of all as the bus must wait to merge back into traffic, not to mention a less comfortable ride with constant changing lanes. Curb extensions should be built to provide a space for waiting passengers and allow the bus to continue straight.