Monday, May 30, 2016

When Boston Almost Lost Commuter Rail

The 1970s was not a good time for rail commuters in Boston. New roadways had opened and several rail lines shut, and those left had anemic schedules. In the 1950s, Commuter Rail was provided by private carriers (the Boston and Maine north of the city, the Boston and Albany—owned by the New York Central—on the Worcester Line and the New Haven elsewhere from South Station) in a manner similar to today on major lines, with less service on some branch lines (nearly all of which have since been abandoned). Many of these timetables from 1952 can be found here. In the late 1940s, South Station handled 125,000 passengers, far more than today. Only Chicago, Philadelphia and New York had similar or larger systems.

Significant cuts came in the 1950s, including the demise of the Old Colony Lines when the Southeast Expressway opened. After beginning to provide subsidies in the 1960s to commuter railroads, the T was in the midst of a many-years-long experiment to figure out how to best fund Commuter Rail, and service was often cut in towns which refused to pay up, leading to closed-door service. (This coincided with upheaval in the rail industry in general, as Penn Central and Boston and Maine both teetered on the brink of insolvency, while still operating the T's Commuter Rail system.) Termini were cut back and on the north side outer sections of rail lines often only had a single trip in the morning and evening (or as the T would say today: "twice a day").

Rail lines, owned by bankrupt freight lines (even the mostly-passenger New Haven had been merged in to the ill-fated Penn Central), fell in to disrepair. Service to South Sudbury was cut in 1971 (49 minutes Sudbury to North Station; try that today), Worcester was dropped in 1975, Bedford (35 minutes to Boston) was mothballed in 1977 and Woburn in 1981. What service remained was often run on a skeleton schedule with only a handful of inbound runs in the morning and outbound in the evening. Ridership and service would better be compared to the ill-fated lines in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit. No longer was the MBTA in the same league as Metra, SEPTA or the lines serving New York. It was a hair away from disappearing all together.

In the 1980s, however, something changed. The state bought new equipment, rebuilt track and increased the number of trips. By the 1990s, the Southwest Corridor was complete, the Old Colony Lines rebuilt (or, in the case of Kingston, overbuilt), and service reinstated to Worcester, Providence and Newburyport. Lines which saw one train a day in the 1970s (or, at times, zero) had 20, and most weekend service had been reinstated. Ridership responded: while 15,000 passengers boarded trains daily in 1972 (and most of the rest of the decade), by 2000, 60,000 passengers rode the rails each day.

The patterns of this change are interesting. Today (note that current numbers use the median ridership for the past 10 years, based on MBTA Blue Book data to account for variability in passenger counts in single years), about 46,000 passengers use lines radiating from South Station while 26,000 passengers use those from North Station. In 1972, the numbers were much lower, and the ratios reversed: 11,000 passengers used North Station, and fewer than 5,000 used South Station lines. So while North Station has grown significantly in the past 40 years—by 150%—South Station has increased by nearly ten times (1000%). It's hard to imagine how sleepy South Station must have been in the 1970s, as compared to the constant streams of commuters crowding the concourse today.

Line-by-line, even station-by-station, there are dramatic differences in the changes over the years.

Of the top five lines in 1972, four were on the North Side: Haverhill, Eastern Route (Newburyport/Rockport), Lowell, Attleboro and Fitchburg. Today, three of the top five lines are on the South Side: Providence, Eastern, Worcester, Franklin and Lowell. In 1972, the Worcester Line bested only the two-station Woburn spur and the Lexington/Bedford line, both of which were discontinued in the ensuing decade.

In 1972, the Reading Line—the single Haverhill train operated via the Wildcat Line—accounted for more than 20% of Commuter Rail's total ridership. I-93 hadn't yet fully opened to Boston, and the Orange Line ended in Everett rather than Oak Grove. While overall Haverhill ridership has increased, all of the gains have come from the outside of the line; there are fewer passengers at nearly every station from Reading inbound. The Worcester Line, on the other hand, carried just 600 passengers on three rush hour trains. Today it has that many trains per hour at rush hour, each of which carries 600 passengers (or more).

In absolute numbers, the biggest gains have been along the Providence Line and at Salem and Beverly, where several stations have seem gains of more than 1000 riders per day (some of which, like Providence and South Attleboro, had a baseline of zero). Many stations across the system have gained 500 riders a day or more. The inner Haverhill Line and nearby stations on the Woburn Branch stand out as the only stations to lose significant ridership; most other stations showing ridership declines are small stations which were closed (the largest, West Acton, now has a shuttle bus to South Acton, where parking is full before 7 a.m.).
These data can also be mapped, of course. The map shows the disparate growth on different lines, and how minimal ridership was in 1972, especially south and west of the city, compared with today.

Note that 1972 ridership is shown in B&M blue, since the B&M operated the majority of the system then.
Boston came very close to losing its commuter rail system in its entirety, something which occurred in no other city (the closest was the abandonment of the non-electrified portions of the SEPTA system in the early-1980s; while Boston's ridership began to rise in the 1980s, SEPTA and Metra saw ridership decline in the early '80s). Had the highway moratorium not come in to place in 1972 and the Southwest Corridor been built as a highway, it may have meant the end of commuter service south of the city. Worcester ridership was minimal, and the T threatened to curtail north side service entirely—the majority of the system at that point—if it couldn't buy the assets of the Boston and Maine.

Improvements and additions to trackage and rolling stock from the 1970s to 1990s fueled dramatic growth in the system, although it has leveled off in the past decade, a combination of higher fares and an aging physical plant. While the system is no longer on the brink of insolvency—even if it were, adding 60,000 cars to Boston's already strained road system would be a non-starter—it needs a new round of investment as the city, and especially the downtown core, continues to grow.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The big, dense cities of America

I was having a discussion on Twitter—as I am wont to do—about the densities of cities in the United States. The discussion turned to when various cities had reached peak density and I realized I had compiled such a list in a Google Doc several years back. When I'd created the document I'd set a lower limit to the size of city included (about 60,000) and the peak density (10,000 per square mile), but was more interested in the larger cities. Right now (well, as of the 2010 census), there are six cities with at population of at least 500,000 and a density of at least 10,000, in order:

New York (8.2m, 27k/sqmi)
Chicago (2.7m, 12k/sqmi)
Philadelphia (1.5m, 11k/sqmi)
San Francisco (805k, 17k/sqmi)
Washington DC (618k, 10k/sqmi)
Boston (618k, 13k/sqmi)

None of these cities will likely fall below either threshold any time soon (although for a few decades, DC was below 10,000 per square mile). Some cities may join: Long Beach is about 35,000 away from reaching this density, Seattle would need to add 150,000 and Los Angeles 700,000. Miami, which has a density of 11,000, would have to add 60,000 residents to reach 500,000. In addition, it should be noted that each of New York's boroughs (except Staten Island) would qualify for the list as well.

But the list hasn't been static, and in 1950, there were an additional six cities meeting this threshold, cities which are far smaller and less dense now than then. They are:

Detroit (1.8m/13k, now 713k/5.1k)
Baltimore (950k/12k, now 621k/7.7k)
Cleveland (915k/12k, now 397k, 5.1k)
St Louis (857k/14k, now 319k/5.2k)
Pittsburgh (677k, 12k, now 306k, 5.5k)
Buffalo (580k/14.2k, now 261k, 6.4k)

This almost perfectly defines the Rust Belt, and these cities have emptied out in the past 60 years. Chicago, Philadelphia, DC and Boston all started with similar trajectories in the 1960s and 1970s, but have arrested their falls and remain as large, dense cities. With the exception of Baltimore and Detroit, each of these Rust Belt cities is now below both 500,000 and 10,000, and Detroit has lost two-thirds of its population and is only above 500,000 because it's baseline—the fourth largest city in the country in 1950 (behind NYC, Chicago and Philly)—was so high. 1950 was the peak of density in the United States, and it will be a long time until we have as many large, dense cities as we had then.

While these cities certainly had less-diversified economies than the cities which have stayed on the list, they haven't done themselves any favors. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston all have extensive mass transit systems; DC and San Francisco have build them (other than Detroit, the dense Rust Belt cities all have some sort of mass transit, but nowhere near the extent of the six large cities; the Big Six today are also the cities with the highest transit mode share in the country). Most also limited the spread of highways in their urban areas, something which didn't occur in the Rust Belt cities. Policies which encouraged residents to leave the city worked too well, and these cities are now half-abandoned, or more, despite being as dense as their peers 60 years ago.

Not all cities peaked in 1950. If we expand our criteria to cities which peaked at at least 60,000 people (keeping the 10,000 density requirement) and include New York boroughs, we've seen peak population densities stretching back a century.

The first was in 1910 when Manhattan reached its all-time peak of 2.3 million residents, a density of 101,548 per square mile. The list of cities (at least those with at least one million residents) which have ever achieved such density is short: Manila. And it's only about half the size of New York. Paris, at 55,000 per square mile, is the densest western city today. In 1910, New York had as many people in half the space. Once subways opened allowing easy access off the island it was a safety valve, allowing people to move out of jammed tenements to the relatively spread-out outer boroughs.

One city, Lawrence, Mass., peaked in 1920 (the Merrimac valley could be called the linen belt 100 years ago as its textile mills moved south). Two peaked in 1930: Somerville, Mass. and Jersey City, N.J. In 1940, Providence, R.I. peaked (and is the first city on this list to have fallen below 10,000, although barely).

1950 was the peak; in addition to the cities above, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, DC and Boston peaked, as well as several smaller cities. Cities which peaked in 1950 have, in general, fared far worse than those which peaked before or after. The only cities which have seen their populations decline by more than half peaked in 1950, in fact, the average decline for 1950-peakers—65% (although this doesn't include cities like San Francisco which peaked in 1950 and have since surpassed that)—is lower than any other city on the list.

The Bronx peaked in 1980 (Queens is larger today than it has ever been), and no city, large or small, peaked in the 1990s. Several small jurisdictions peaked in 2000, and as of 2010, New York City as a whole, Queens, San Francisco and Miami and several other small cities are at their peak.

There are, however, two other "cities" which could be included on the list, that is, if you were to agglomerate small, dense suburbs of large cities. (Combined with Hialea, Miami Beach and some others, Miami would also make the list.) One is (not surprisingly) in New Jersey, where just the stretch from Bayonne to Fort Lee boasts nearly 700,000 residents at a density of 17,000 per square mile—similar to San Francisco. The other is north of Boston. Somerville, Chelsea, Cambridge, Malden and Everett all fall above 10,000, but only have 308,000 people (albeit in just 22 square miles). Add in Winthrop, Watertown, Revere, Arlington and Medford and you have an arc north of the city with 505,025 people living in 48.8 square miles—a population density of 10,340. Boston has by far the largest percentage of residents in 10,000+ jurisdictions outside the major city (37%, SF and NY are 26 and 21, the others are under 10) and all but Lawrence are contiguous. So if the cities and towns north of Boston combined to form, say, North Boston, or Chamedwathronfordville, it would be a pretty big place.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Longfellow Bike Count Update

I've been counting bikes on the Longfellow for … a while (although apparently not in 2015, slacker). In any case, with the layout of the bike lane changed appreciably over the past several months, I decided to count again. Here's a quick breakdown of the Longfellow's bicycle facilities in the past few years:

  • 2013: "Normal" pre-construction travel: bike lanes on both sides, two lanes of general traffic.
  • 2013–early 2015 construction: all traffic on the downstream side, one lane of traffic inbound, inbound bike lane, outbound contraflow lane with a buffer.
  • Early 2015–Late 2015: Inbound bike lane unchanged, but sections of outbound lane routed on to the sidewalk to accommodate work on the salt and pepper shakers.
  • Late 2015–Early 2016: Inbound bike lane eliminated for approximately 100m at the Cambridge end for Red Line shoo fly trackage; outbound lane eliminated entirely, cyclists asked to walk bikes across the bridge.
  • Early 2016–present: all cyclists on upstream sidewalk, pedestrians asked to use downstream sidewalk, outbound cyclists asked to loop under bridge to access Kendall. (The netting which broke free from the barriers in high winds has partially been removed, at least.) 
Average bicycle traffic on Broadway. The westbound
Longfellow lane has been impacted since Nov 9 2015.
Back in 2014, nearly 400 cyclists used the bridge during the peak inbound commuting hour. Since then, there have been significant disruptions to the bicycling facility, so some traffic may have chosen alternate routes. When the outbound bike lane was closed in November, there was a marked drop in westbound cyclists on Broadway; this persists this spring as many cyclists seem to be avoiding the suggested loop-the-loop under the bridge. Yes, there's data. See if you can tell when cycling west on the bridge was made more difficult?

This spring, eastbound cycling traffic in Cambridge has reached new heights, surpassing even last September's average (although this could be due to the number of weekdays and weekend days averaged). Westbound traffic has dropped, owing to the bridge construction. Has eastbound traffic?

Yes. Slightly. The count on May 18 tallied a peak of 358 cyclists between 8:02 and 9:02. This corresponds to 392 cyclists counted at the Eco-Totem on Broadway between 8:00 and 9:15, or 314 per hour. (In other words, there are a few more cyclists crossing the Longfellow than there are at the Eco-Totem; i.e. more join the flow from Main Street and elsewhere across the bridge than leave Broadway after the Eco-Totem, or miss the counter entirely.) This drop could be due to a variety of factors, from construction to noise in the data. Hard to know.

This count was different than others since to see both sides of the bridge required sitting in an office high above the bridge. This meant, however, that I was able to see whether cyclists were using the upstream sidewalk, the roadway (sans bike lane) or, in a few cases, the downstream sidewalk (intermixed with pedestrians and some very narrow passageways under the turret reconstruction). The answer? Most cyclists use the upstream sidewalk. For Boston-bound cyclists, 95% used the upstream facility. For those coming to Cambridge, only 88% used the facility, but the absolute numbers were much lower, so that meant that only about 10 riders per hour were using the downstream sidewalk. While I wasn't counting pedestrians, it seemed that most were using the downstream sidewalk, although this was the morning commute, which is not prime sightseeing time. Many of the upstream users seemed to be joggers, so at least their pace was better matched.

Westbound commuter counts were about even with the last count in 2014, although bizarrely the 2014 count peaked in the 8:15 range while the current count was highest around 8:45 (this could be noise in the data). There would probably be more marked differences looking at evening data; the Cambridge data suggests that many outbound commuters are avoiding the Longfellow in its current configuration.

What does this all mean? It means that most cyclists will roll with the punches as infrastructure changes, although the Cambridge data suggest that if it is too hard to use, cyclists will find other routes. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming phases change cyclist behavior as facilities are twice again shifted around the bridge prior to the final configuration. Finally, the Cambridge data is a great supplement to these counts, as it can give us a good idea of whether we counted on a high-use day or low, and such automated counts are obviously much more data-rich than simple eyes on the street, although it will take some time to build a multi-year data set to look at definitive trends. For instance: I counted more bikes in 2014, but there is no similar Cambridge data to compare that count to since the counter was only installed in 2015. 

But next year's count, well, that will have data. And the bridge might be shifted around. Again.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

MBTA buses need help, but Houston is not the answer

The MBTA's Control Board recently produced a document talking about spending several million dollars on a Houston-style network redesign. While the MBTA certainly needs help running their buses, what happened in Houston, for lack of a better phrase, should probably stay in Houston. The transit systems (and the cities themselves) are quite different, and the issues the MBTA has with its buses are far different than those in Houston.

Houston transit ridership, 1999-2014. Data from NTD.
Normalized to 100% in 1999.
Houston did not redesign its network not necessarily because it is forward thinking, but—and this often goes unreported—Houston's existing network was failing. (Looking at the top ten pages on Google about the network redesign, only one mentions the loss of ridership.) In 1999, Houston's transit agency carried about 100 million passengers per year. In 2004, despite a new light rail line opening, overall ridership had dropped to 95 million, with fewer than 90 million on buses. Ridership stayed flat around 100 million until 2008, when it cratered.

By 2010, total transit ridership was at 81 million, with bus ridership at 66 million. In other words: Houston, we have a problem. It's since recovered slightly, but transit ridership is still down 15% from 2000, with bus ridership down by 30%. If the MBTA lost 30% of its ridership, it would be in full-on crisis mode. And this took place over a time when Houston's population grew by 25%, so transit rides per person per year declined from 21.2 to 14.4. (No wonder Houston's big new roads do little to relieve congestion.) By comparison, Boston's metropolitan area has 86.5 transit trips per year (on the MBTA alone, likely slightly higher if you include RTAs within the area).

Bus ridership didn't decline simply because Houston ran fewer buses, as is the case in many cities. Service hours did climb slightly between 1999 and 2003, and were subsequently cut slightly when the light rail line opened. Still, Houston ran more bus service (as measured by revenue hours) in 2014 than it did in 1999, yet the system carried 30% fewer passengers. In 1999, the system carried 35 trips per revenue hour. By 2014, that number was down to 24. (In Boston, buses carry 50 trips per revenue hour. For comparison, single train cars carry more than 100.)

It was clear to Houston's planners that they had a major service issue with their bus system: vehicles were being used inefficiently and were not providing service where it was needed. Instead of doubling down on a failing system, they made a cogent decision to completely rebuild the network, reallocate resources to focus more on frequent service, and use a geographic resource—the straight and often wide street grid—to provide a system which would be more useful to the current population and destinations. The goal is to increase ridership using the same number of vehicles, and given the recent decline in ridership, there should be plenty of spare capacity.

This made sense—a lot of sense—for Houston. It would make very little sense for Boston.

Unlike Houston, Boston does not have spare resources to reallocate. At rush hour, most buses in Boston are at—and frequently over—capacity. This is not the case in Houston. Most frequent bus lines there run every 10 or 15 minutes at rush hour. This is frequent enough to provide "walk-up" service, but shows that there is not a major capacity crunch; if there were, buses would be run more often. One bus line (the 82) and one rail line in Houston run more frequently than every 10 minutes at rush hour. Even with the new route network, there is still a lot of spare capacity on Houston's buses. (Despite carrying 2/3 as many passengers—the networks carried similar numbers of passengers in 2000, but have since diverged—Houston runs 20% more service hours than Boston does.)

Houston and Boston transit ridership from NTD.
Normalized to 100% in 2009.
Note: Likely data error showed a spike for Boston bus ridership in 2004.
This has been removed for chart simplicity.
This is far from the experience in Boston. In addition to nine rail lines operating more frequently than every 10 minutes, there are 21 bus routes which do the same. There are many others which are well over capacity, yet there are not enough buses to go around to provide enough service on these routes. The 47, 64 and 70 are all at crush capacity—often leaving riders behind—even though they only run every 10 to 20 minutes at rush hour (and that's just a non-random sample of routes which run within a stone's throw of my house in Cambridgeport). This is an entirely different problem from Houston—nowhere in the Space City is there a bus line like the 7, 73 or 111 where a full bus runs ever four or five minutes—and it requires an entirely different solution.

Unlike Houston, transit ridership in Boston has been growing, outpacing many other cities and the local rate of population growth, without any new infrastructure having been built in decades. Overall transit ridership is up 15% since 1999, and bus ridership up nearly 10%. Can Boston's ridership be attributed to increase service hours? No, bus service hours have been basically flat since 1999 (and not "basically flat" by the FMCB's definition, but actually flat, up less than 3% since 1999, despite the addition of the Silver Line during that time). So buses have been getting more crowded, not less.

This leaves out three other major factors which would preclude a Houston-style program in Boston. First, Boston's geography is not grid-based, but relies on a few corridors linking more central nodes. Most of these routes already have buses, usually traveling in relatively straight, logical lines (with some exceptions). Second, Boston does not have the level of sprawl that Houston does, and attempts to serve low-density job centers will be inherently less efficient than the current urban core-based transit system (in Houston, the old core-based system was not seeing enough use, which is certainly not the case in Boston). Finally, rail ridership makes up two thirds of Boston's overall transit ridership (only Boston, New York Washington, D.C. and Atlanta carry more passengers by rail than by bus) and the bus network logically feeds in to the rail network, which can't be easily changed.

According to Jarrett Walker on Here and Now, two thirds of the routes in Houston were new, with smaller changes to the rest. In Boston, a reimagined system would likely result in most routes being largely unchanged—I'd venture to guess that it would be 80% of routes, and 90% of routes weighted by ridership, since higher-ridership routes would be less likely the be changed—and only a few areas would see dramatic reorganization. This is not to say there aren't changes that should be made: routes should be straightened (the 34 and others which make mid-route loops to serve malls), made more logical (the 70), have anachronistic quirks ironed out (the 66 jog to Union Square) or, in some cases, be blown apart altogether to provide better connections (break up the 47!).

None of this reaches the level of what was done in Houston, where there is a lot of slack to provide rides for more passengers with the existing bus fleet; they could increase ridership by 50% and still be shy of bus ridership in 1999, and far from the crowding the T sees on a daily basis. There is no spare capacity in Boston for that kind of growth without a dramatic increase in the size of the fleet. If we are really going to improve buses in Boston, we need more money to run more buses.

If that money—and the facilities to house an enlarged fleet—is unavailable in the short term, what can be done is a wholesale program to make the buses we have work better. The problem is not that the routes we have don't work for people (for instance, the 77 does, and should, run down Mass Ave), it's that the way the buses run on these routes doesn't work (it shouldn't have to sit at a traffic light while two or three cars cross in front of it). Buses with 50 passengers on board sit in the same queues as cars with one, and other than a couple miles of Silver Line lanes, there are no transit priority features in Boston. There has been some nascent movement towards solving this in recent months, but it needs to go much further. If we are going to spend several million dollars on improving buses—as the FMCB proposes—let's make sure we do it in a way that works for Boston, not Houston.