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.


  1. Thanks. I was going to dream up a visualization for the data but it fell through the cracks. Only so much time in the day.

    I also did a road width analysis (based on a cross section near BU West) and came up with: Car=44%, Green Line=24%, Walk=21.3%, Biking=4%.

    My numbers are slightly different than yours. As for walking and biking, I did not count the unusable portions of the cross-section. So for pedestrians, I subtracted an amount representing all the street furniture and planting zones that block up the sidewalk. And for bikes, I subtracted a few feet for the "door zone", where you shouldn't be riding anyhow. So that left me with 32' for pedestrians (summing both sides) and 6' for bikes (summing both sides). That left about 10' over, as unusable space for anyone.

    Couldn't quite figure out how to include route 57 in this perspective, since it runs in mixed traffic.

  2. Yeah, I included the 57 bus as the domain of cars. Unless it gets its own lane, it's a car lane. You could say that one foot of the parking lane is, on average, used for bus stops and another foot for curb bump outs, but you're dealing in tiny percentages on a busy street. I just did six cross sections and the ranges are (min-avg-max)

    Bike: 6-7-7
    Ped: 21-25-29
    Car: 40-44-48
    Transit: 22-26-29

    Or pretty much what we have above. Imagine taking out parking on one side, I wonder what you could do with that?

    1. The 57 bus stops use designated space in the entire parking lane on both sides of the street all the way up and down Comm Ave. You can't have bus stops in the general lane of travel, that'd be ridiculously unsafe.

    2. There's plenty of 57 bus stops that are in the general lane of travel (e.g. St Mary St inbound). And plenty of bus stops around the city and the world that are such. It's quite normal. The bus stops, lets passengers on and off, and then continues. Without needing to wait, either, when other cars might refuse to let it merge back into traffic. That's not an issue when the bus stops in the travel lane. A nice feature for the riders.

      Do you ever ride the bus?

  3. Yes, BU needs on-street parking on both sides. It is heavily used, necessary for move-in and move-out, necessary for businesses along the streets, student/professor parking, etc. Removing parking from the BU campus area would be an abject disaster. Other than that, good thoughts.

  4. Also, having been a student at BU and lived in that neighborhood for the better part of 10 years, and walked and jogged those sidewalks thousands of times, I've never once seen the sidewalks on the stretch of Comm Ave in question (BU Bridge -> Packards) filled beyond capacity. This includes Agganis events, high volume times during classes, etc. Those sidewalks are already exceptionally wide, so widening them at the expense of on-street parking is unnecessary. Now, if they can be widened, or if the bike lanes can be widened, without removing metered parking, that'd be great. Perhaps narrowing the T space where there isn't a station, removing any other unused or unnecessary space. But to remove metered parking in that area on either side would create an enormous parking problem, especially during Agganis events.

    The sidewalks on the lower part of Comm Ave that were redone a few years back are another story, those were stupidly narrowed - though even still I've never seen them absurdly overpacked. But that could've been easily rectified by better planning of the bench/garden installments that are absurdly large and poorly placed.

    1. Agganis events can fill it, although the sidewalk in that area is extra large so it can usually handle it. When the Paradise lets out it easily fills up the sidewalk (usually with drunk people).

      But really, I don't think sidewalk widening (other than at crosswalks) is on the table, nor needs to be at this point. The big problem with the city's current plans is that they significantly narrow the sidewalk, much like the city did in phase 1 as you mention. And I have seen the phase 1 sidewalks get overpacked. I've given up on trying to get through there in between class times, actually, and I usually just walk out in the street if I have to pass thru while the BU kids are running between classes.

      The big problems with the city's plans are: narrowing the sidewalks in order to install wider car lanes, not fixing many of the pedestrian crossing issues, not fixing the bike lanes at all, and repeating the same mistakes as phase 1.

      The city is loathe to move the curbs, and BU just spent money on a design that moves the curbs in the wrong direction. It seems that the best outcome will be to keep the curbs where they are currently, for the most part.

    2. Oh, and Agganis events attract the worst drivers. The people who drive in seem to have never seen a bike or a pedestrian before. BU would probably be wise to just cordon off street parking in front of Agganis during events, make it an [un]loading zone for quick drop off/pick up, and station some attendants there to keep an eye on the crazy drivers/keep things moving.

      The relatively few street parking spaces in front of Agganis are not worth worrying about for events. They might help the local businesses at other times, but during events it just turns into bike-lane-blocking double-parking central as drivers drop off their passengers and sit around.

      BU has a much greater interest in making sure that its everyday students and staff that are walking and biking to campus are safe.

    3. Good points, Matt. Signing that parking for two hours, or putting in smart meters or signage, would allow them to clear parking for pick-up/drop-off areas during events when the extra space would be useful. Most of the time, they don't need that much room along Comm Ave.

  5. Anon, a few questions:

    1. "Having buses stop in general travel lanes would be ridiculously unsafe." Why? This is not the case. Quite often bus stops are blocked and buses stop in travel lanes anyway. And "bus bulbs" are enough of a thing that they have a Wikipedia page, and documented use in cities for years. The only "danger" is the potential for drivers to be delayed. Here is more information about bus bulbs. An article from Seattle points out that such bulbs work, but that they do impact traffic. But again, why should we prioritize minority road users at the expense of everyone else?

    2. "Parking on both sides is necessary for move-in / move-out." This encompasses a couple days of the year. Should we plan for those days at the expense of the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and transit users on the other 360 days a year? And how much of Comm Ave is residential, anyway?

    3. "Parking is necessary for businesses and student/professor parking." Any studies to cite here? Maybe people come to these businesses by bike and foot, and certainly more would if there were better options. And for students and professors? Do they all need on-street parking? If there was less parking, they might have to park further away (horrors) or pay more for parking (sacre bleu!) or walk, bike or take transit. Professors and students don't need parking, but if given it they'll use it. And the whole point I'm making is that we are giving away too much space to vehicles proportional to their use of the street, which is already skewed in their favor. Make bicycling, walking and transit safer, faster and more attractive, and even fewer people would drive.

    4. "The sidewalks aren't full, so they're plenty big." So, apparently we should make sure that they have no room to grow. But constraining growth on the road? That's preposterous!

  6. I can see the value of on-street parking for business customers and drop-off pick-up in general. Employees, students, and teachers should not be parking on the street. They should be in off street lots or garages. If there were clearly marked off-street lots for business customers even some of that on-street parking could go away. But there will always be demand for 1-2 hour parking on-street for people running quick errands or grabbing a quick bite to eat. Even with that though, that parking could be on the side streets rather than Comm Ave if need be.

    1. There is certainly a reason to have on-street parking, and it shouldn't be eliminated entirely. But there's a fallacy wherein plans go out of their way to make driving as convenient as possible (parking in front of every doorway on the same side of the street) at the expense of transit users (slower transit trips, no signal priority, narrower lanes) and bicycles (no protection, having to ride along parking. BU has plenty of off-street parking, and with better transit access, they could let the market decide how much it is worth. On-street parking is a case of the city subsidizing driving and BU at the expense of the majority of people who live in Boston and work at BU.

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