Sunday, July 5, 2015

How to improve transit (including buses) in Boston, part II

In the first installment of this post, we looked at four corridors highlighted by the ITDP for "gold standard" bus rapid transit. I agreed that those corridors need investment, but questioned whether BRT was the right technology for each. However, I think there are many, many parts of Boston where better bus facilities could dramatically improve service. It just might not conform to the "gold standard" the ITDP requires (and, uh, made up).

Here again are the non-ITDP bus corridors I will examine.

Bus improvementsHigh
Arlington to HarvardN/A
Central to South End via Mass AveN/A
Arsenal-Western (70 Bus)
Mount Auburn St (71/73 bus)
111 Bus, N. Wash Bridge & Tobin
Northbound I-93 express busesN/A
Huntington Ave (39/66/E Line)
Ruggles-Jackson Sq-Seaver-AshmontN/A
Washington St, QuincyN/A
Union Sq-Kenmore
O'Brien Hwy during GLX Busing

And here they are on a map (orange: ITDP; green: others). Details below.

Mass Ave. Arlington to Harvard. The stretch of Mass Ave north of Harvard Square is wide, traversed by the often-crammed 77 bus (and others), and almost entirely given over to cars. The street had safety islands for boarding streetcars until 1955; at the time, the City of Cambridge was the main antagonist against the use of such islands. (Safety islands or "safety zones" were constructed in the middle of wider streets with a large concrete pylon at the upstream end to provide a safe waiting and boarding area for streetcar passengers while letting the streetcar stay in the center of the street; a sort of proto-BRT in the early 20th century. An impediment to cars, they were removed with the streetcars so that traffic could flow better as buses pulled to the curb, slowing transit further. Examples here and here.) Since then, Mass Ave has had a median added and been given four wide travel lanes and two parking lanes; most of the street north of Harvard is 72 feet wide.

And sometime in the next few years, the street may be up for full reconstruction. While "gold standard" BRT is unlikely, a center-running bus lane would be possible (if traffic lanes were reduced to one in each direction). This would allow the 77 bus—and the 96 from Davis—to run without delay through all of Cambridge. Many passengers don't transfer at Porter since the long escalator ride makes it less convenient than the indoors transfer at Harvard, and such a lane would allow reliable operation from Alewife Brook Parkway to Harvard.

In Arlington, a huge opportunity for better transit was missed with the reconstruction of Mass Ave. The current streetscape, which dates from the end of streetcar service in the late 1950s, is being rebuilt for cars first, then bikes, and then transit. The current single, wide lane is being rebuilt with two lanes, to provide storage for the traffic light at Alewife. However, a single bus lane could be repurposed from one of these lanes, allowing inbound buses on Mass Ave to bypass the constant congestion at ABP and feed in to the lanes to Harvard.

Before 7:00, this inbound trip is scheduled as 10 to 12 minutes. By 8:00, it is scheduled for 22 to 24 minutes. All-door boarding, bus lanes and signal priority would reduce travel times by up to 50% in this corridor. It might not fit gold standard BRT, but it would provide the same benefits.

Mass Ave. Central to South End/Columbia. Between Harvard and Central, bus rapid transit would be difficult: the path through Harvard is narrow and congested, as is Central Square west of Central. (It is also duplicated by the Red Line below.) East of there, the street gets wider, gaining a third lane, which becomes a fourth across the Harvard Bridge and in to Boston. With the 1 and CT1 buses, this is the busiest bus route in the system—apart from the Silver Line—despite heavy traffic, frequent bunching, slow travel and overcrowding. (I've had full #1 buses pass me midday and midnight.) The MASCO shuttle also runs frequently at rush hours. There is huge latent demand on this corridor which could be dealt with by providing bus rapid transit facilities.

I wrote recently about putting bus lanes on the Harvard Bridge. While this bridge is narrower than most any BRT corridor, because it is devoid of stops, lanes could be installed while keeping room for a vehicle lane and bike lane in the 53 foot width. On the Cambridge side of the bridge, the road is wide enough for BRT, although other modes need to be accommodated. From Vassar to the river, a busway through MIT's campus would certainly be possible (left turns might need to be accommodated at Vassar, but street parking is oversupplied here and could be shifted to other roads). Towards Central, one lane might work. For instance, from Lafayette Square to Central Square, buses frequently sit in a slow-moving conga line of traffic. If they could, instead, use the left-turn-to-Pearl-Street-lane and then have a signal allowing them to queue jump at Pearl Street, they could save considerable time. A much larger-scale option would be to rebuild Central Square for transit, diverting traffic off of Main Street and on to Green and Bishop Allen, allow for better bus-rail transfers, and keeping buses out of traffic. This would also improve the currently piss-poor conditions for bus riders in Central, many of whom wait for the 70 and other lines along an exposed brick wall on a narrow sidewalk.

South of the river, the street is very congested and constrained, but there are enough lanes for bus lanes, sort of. Stations are again an issue. At Beacon Street, buses could have offset stops on either side to best utilize street width. Left turns would be an issue at Beacon, Marlborough and Comm Ave, but they are low volume movements with high congestion prices: they could be eliminated. San Francisco has banned left turns on Market Street. The same could be done on Mass Ave. A slightly longer trip for a few drivers (taking a series of rights to reach their destination) would speed trips for tens of thousands of bus riders. Another option is bus and left-turn only lanes. These would require signals to trip when buses approach, allowing cars to turn left and buses to go straight, which might be more difficult to design, build and enforce.

There's plenty of room for a bus stop between Newbury Street and Boylston street at Hynes, and along Mass Ave to Symphony, the Orange Line station and beyond, to Andrew or JFK/UMass. Most of it would require a reduction in traffic lanes. But this would be a price to pay for better transit service. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Mass Ave corridor is that it connects many subway lines, providing excellent crosstown connections. In addition, most stops on the route are existing transit stops or major destinations (MIT, Symphony, Berklee), meaning that using longer buses with larger doors and all door boarding would speed boarding significantly.

Some of this overlaps with the ITDP's Dudley-Longwood corridor, but the #1 bus has proven demand and would likely carry many more passengers if it was more reliable (overcrowding, bunching, traffic). The uncoordinated 1 and CT1 could be combined in to a single, more frequent route with some consolidated stops (some extraneous stops—particularly at Comm Ave—have been removed) and capacity would be increased with the same number of operation hours if buses weren't subject to the daily whims of gridlock. Bus times currently range from 15 minutes during low-congestion times to 30 minutes—or higher—at peak hours. Again, time savings of 50% would be possible.

Arsenal-Western (70 bus). This bus, and this route, likely wouldn't be a candidate for full "gold standard" lane separation. However, there are several congested areas of the route where bypass and queue jump lanes could dramatically improve the overall performance of the route. More coherent scheduling would help as well. For instance, a queue jump lane from the Arsenal Mall to the Arsenal-Western bridge is a site of frequent delays with plenty of room. A bus lane could also be built through the Soldiers Field Road/Western/Cambridge/River joggle. While the new Western Avenue separated bike lane is a boon to cyclists, there is probably not enough room on the roadway for a bus lane. However, floating bus stops that don't require the bus to pull out of and then attempt to reenter traffic will help bus traffic along Western Avenue. (The neighbors are up in arms, so they must have done something right.)

Mount Auburn Street, especially where it is traversed by the 71 and 73 buses is much like Western Ave: it is too narrow for a full BRT treatment, but would benefit from queue jumps in a few locations. The most glaring one is at Fresh Pond Parkway, where there is plenty of room for an inbound bus lane to bypass the worst of the traffic, and a retimed priority signal could allow bus movements in between the various signal phases in the area. Other signal priority measures—especially at minor cross streets near Harvard Square—could help to speed these buses which, at peak times, operate every two to three minutes. To quote the linked article: "Saving 10 or 20 minutes a day for thousands of people is one of those little things that is actually a very big thing."

North Washington Street / Charlestown Bridge. This is one of the busiest stretches of bus route in the city, carrying the 111, 92, 93, 426 and 428 buses. The 111 is a lifeline to Chelsea, running every three to four minutes at rush hours, and the combined buses have ridership of 20,000 daily—nearly as much as traffic on the bridge. The bridge is scheduled for reconstruction in the next few years, and while it's being sold as "multimodal" it includes no transit priority provisions. There is room for transit lanes in addition to the two travel lanes, which would then allow for queue jumping at the end on to North Washington Street to Haymarket (or, perhaps, even a bus lane on that narrower stretch of street) which would save several minutes at rush hours, when these buses can sit in gridlock. Not building transit lanes here—where there is enough room and there is no parking to be lost—would be a huge missed opportunity.

The 111 could be further enhanced by bus lanes on the Tobin Bridge. Going inbound, the rightmost of the three lanes could be opened to bus traffic (and perhaps HOVs) from the entrance in Chelsea to the exit to Charlestown. Outbound is tougher, since buses have to merge from the left side of the road to the right. An entrance off of Chelsea Street might be possible, but could be quite difficult, involving short merge lanes and moved bridge supports. Still, a priority lane up Rutherford to the entrance, signal priority there and perhaps a bus lane on the entrance ram would all help buses in the outbound direction.

Rutherford Avenue north of the North Washington Bridge is another candidate for bus lanes. In theory, it parallels the Orange Line and has no current bus service. In practice, it could provide an bus lane for northbound buses to complement the southbound HOV lane on 93. It helps that the roadway is well over 100 feet wide and underutilized. As Sullivan Square is rebuilt, both local and express buses could use these lanes to access the Square, with express buses—and perhaps even intercity buses, vanpools and other HOV vehicles—could use these lanes to leapfrog some of the worst gridlock on 93, where a variety of merges cause traffic that sometimes slows to less than 10 miles per hour. Lanes could even extend along Mystic Avenue to the next exit, allowing buses to bypass even more of the worst traffic, and perhaps, for some Medford buses, to Medford Square, eliminating congestion delays on I-93 all together.

Huntington Ave. Between Brigham Circle and the Riverway, Huntington Avenue is one of the most heavily used transit corridors in the region. It is traversed by two "key" bus routes—the 39 and 66—and by the Green Line's E branch. Delays here affect the commutes of 50,000 daily passengers, whether they're in the vehicles or waiting for delayed buses or trains in that traffic jam. Peter Furth of Northeastern pointed out that by providing a center median and consolidated stops, these routes could increase speed and reliability dramatically by bypassing the chronic congestion on this stretch of roadway. Like many other bus lanes, it would also provide emergency access for ambulances which frequently access the hospitals there from Route 9 and further west. This would require removing a lane of parking or a travel lane from each side of the roadway, but like Mass Ave, the roadway is not constrained by width but by signals at either end, and thus is used mostly for storage, not throughput. With a bus or train traversing this roadway 50 times per hour, transit operations should come before slightly faster car travel.

Ruggles-Jackson Square-Seaver Street-Ashmont. This is the longest corridor that I've identified, and it dovetails well with the aforementioned Blue Hills-Washington corridor, which I argue should, in the long term, be a light rail line. This line, however, runs diagonally across it (and, for a short stretch of Blue Hill Ave, concurrent with it) from Ruggles and the LMA to Ashmont station. From Ruggles to Jackson Square through Egleston to Blue Hill Ave, there is ample room for a bus lane; in fact, Seaver Street cars ran on a separate right of way until, like many streetcars on wider streets, it was removed in the 1950s for more cars. At the time, Seaver was a major commuting street—it is less-so today. Once on Talbot Street southeast of Blue Hill Avenue, buses might run in mixed traffic, but most of the route would be in separate lanes with better stations, speeding this crosstown trip, and making a good connection with the BRT or LRT line on Blue Hill Avenue.

Washington Street, Quincy. I threw this in partly for geographic representation, but partly to show that there are some busy bus corridors in the suburbs. The 220, 221 and 222 combine for 10 trips per hour in the morning peak. There might not be the street width of political will for full BRT here, but a faster connection to the Red Line would encourage more transit use.

Union Square (Allston) to Kenmore. This stretch of Brighton Avenue, like Seaver Street once had streetcars in a median, which was removed for more traffic. There's plenty of room for such a treatment, and I've argued that with signal priority, 57 buses on Commonwealth Avenue could share the reservation with the B Line, and speed through congestion on Comm Ave, especially at the BU Bridge to the Kenmore transfer. By removing bus stops along Comm Ave, it's possible that this could actually increase street parking.

O'Brien Highway, especially during Green Line Extension construction. When the new Lechmere Station is built, the Green Line will shut down for a period of months (or even years) while the end of the viaduct is rebuilt and connected to the extension. During this time, the line will be replaced with buses running along O'Brien Highway, which devolves in to gridlock on a daily basis. (Disclosure: the EZRide Shuttle, which is managed by the Charles River TMA and for whom I work, also uses this stretch of roadway.) There are three inbound lanes and three outbound lanes west of the Craigie draw, and they are regularly stopped at rush hours, so it often takes 10 to 15 minutes to travel this half-mile corridor. Customers riding the Green Line will be subjected to this traffic if nothing is done, and with the Longfellow closed, the backups have increased.

As with many other examples, the issue is not that the road isn't wide enough, it is the throughput of the lights at the ends of the segments. So the extra lanes act just to store cars, not to move them through. Repurposing one of the lanes for buses would mean that during the Lechmere Viaduct closure, Green Line passengers would not have trips 15 minutes longer—or more—than their regular commute. There is no parking to worry about, and even without signal priority, it would allow better transit times.

Are these corridors as sexy as "gold standard" bus rapid transit? No. But they're more realistic: unlike the Silver Line, they don't over-promise and under-deliver. CityLab had an article about the ITDP report (they didn't debunk it's half-truths) in which MBTA planner Scott Hamwey (living in reality) had the following to say:
Hamwey says shorter stretches of exclusive bus lanes can still lead to better service—“even if it doesn’t add up to a brand new, shiny, four-mile corridor.”
That's exactly the point. Fixing Boston's buses will not begin an end with a couple of unrealistic corridors. There are places—the North Washington Street Bridge, or all-door boarding on the 1 bus, for example—where a few minor changes would allow much better service for the whole corridor. Making major changes—long stretches of bus lanes and the removal of significant parking—is not going to happen overnight. It will require incremental changes. A bus lane and queue jump here, a prepay bus stop there, done well. These will pave the way for better buses in other corridors. The Silver Line has been a step backwards for better buses; it's helped to convince people that Boston can't do buses well. More expensive projects with lofty promises and cloudy outlooks will only do the same. The goal should not be infrastructure that doesn't fit with the geography of the city, but instead to start picking the low hanging fruit, and to use existing infrastructure to leverage better buses in to the future.

The Silver Line—and the Boston BRT study—overpromise and underdeliver. They sell you the moon, and you get, well, a slightly faster bus. Think big, but think realistic. Build a better network, not just a better bus.


  1. Joel N. Weber IIJuly 23, 2015 at 8:31 PM

    There ought to be a Red Line station between Davis and Alewife at Mass Ave as the transfer point for 77. Also, an extension of the Red Line at least as far as Arlington Center would be good for the bus network.

    If 22 is supposed to be a diagonal, serving Ruggles seems like the wrong direction; instead, it should follow Heath St and go to Brookline Village, and maybe beyond.

    I suspect the Leveritt Circle Connector bridge may have spare capacity as it crosses the Charles which isn't currently usable due to limited connections to adjacent roadways. And a bus from North Station may be able to use that bridge to get to I-93 northbound with the existing road infrastructure, skipping some of the merging.

  2. Joel N. Weber IIJuly 26, 2015 at 6:52 PM

    The satellite photos in Google Maps seem to think that, for southbound Tobin bridge traffic, someone decided it was a good idea to have all three lanes continue on the mainline until just after the City Square exit, and then merge down to two lanes. If having traffic on the City Square exit flow freely is a goal, maybe the right lane should be exit only, with a solid double white line between it and the adjacent lane for the length of the bridge, so that the I-93 queue storage stays out of the right lane of the Tobin bridge.

    I'm also wondering what the traffic counts are for how much of the Tobin + City Square on ramp traffic goes to the I-93 mainline vs to the Leveritt Circle Connector bridge and how the latter compares to I-93 HOV lane counts. Tobin to I-93 traffic might flow better if the HOV lane ended well north of the Tobin on ramp (but South of the Leveritt off ramp), so that some of the I-93 traffic that is currently in the lane that merges directly with Tobin traffic could move left toward the currently probably only half full far left lane.

  3. On the segment of highway 28 between Leverett Circle and Museum Way, I think protected bike lanes might benefit more people than dedicated lanes for 35' buses running on 8 minute headways.

    I suspect that moving the traffic going from Nashua St to Storrow Dr underneath the signalized intersection into a new, single lane tunnel is key, because then the Storrow to Craigie Dam Bridge signal phase can be lengthened enough to reduce that movement to one lane, and then the bridge only needs to accept one lane of automobile and bus traffic from Boston.

    Whether the third lane over the bridge going toward Boston is useful is not clear to me. It seems that the right lane goes to Storrow Dr, and the other two probably mostly feed into the single lane going to I-93 southbound.

  4. One of the potential challenges with a Rutherford Ave bus lane is that the local community has been planning a road diet, and they probably would rather not have the NH buses whose only MA stops are the airport and South Station taking space away from the planned park. The proposed buses might also be frequent enough to limit the viability of signal priority, and the plan for Rutherford Ave is to remove the grade separation.

    Google Maps shows I-93 northbound over the Mystic River having just four lanes; adding an auxiliary lane all the way from the Mystic Valley Parkway on ramp to the Route 60 off ramp might increase capacity, although that may or may not help overall traffic flow if people start operating more single occupancy vehicles in response to a capacity increase.