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.