Monday, August 29, 2016

What to do with Central Square

Traffic-wise, Central Square is a mess. Squeezed in to the streets are about 30,000 vehicles on Mass Ave and Prospect Streets, bus routes—most of which terminate in or near Central—serving more than 30,000 daily riders, thousands of cyclists and countless pedestrians going to and from work, home, businesses and transit. (This leaves out the tens of thousands of Red Line riders moving through under the street.) The street has been rebuilt many times, most recently between 2006 and 2009, to widen the sidewalks and realign Lafayette Square at the east end of the area. Sitting as it does adjacent to Kendall, Central has seen more traffic (of all types) in recent years, and often devolves in to gridlock at peak times.

That's a lot of space for cars, isn't it?
Still, the Square is remarkably car-oriented for a community where the majority of residents don't drive as their main means of transport. Bike lanes are an afterthought, and cyclists jockey for space as buses, taxicabs and parked cars pull in and out, crossing and frequently blocking the bike lane. It is one of the most dangerous locations in the city for cyclists, which is no surprise to anyone who bikes there. For pedestrians, crosswalks are frequent and Mass Ave and Prospect Street have five second leading pedestrian intervals, but sidewalks are still congested, especially near transit stops which often fill with riders if a bus is a few minutes off of its headway.

Back in the day, transit riders boarded streetcars in the center of the street
in Central Square (these were not exclusive lanes but rather "safety zones"
where passengers could board streetcars while automobiles passed on the
right; cars could pass on either side of the platform.
And transit riders? They have it worst. Long queues can form entering and exiting the too-narrow subway entrances at Pearl Street. Bus riders have a small shelter on Mass Ave, which is often inadequate for the number of riders waiting for the multiple routes which board there, and riders on Route 70 are forced to board buses a block away from the Square, on Green Street, with minimal shelter, narrow (just five feet wide!) sidewalks and on a grungy back street which is often so choked with traffic the bus can barely manage a crawl between the stops.

Unlike most other parts of the 1 Bus route, there are parallel streets in Central which could be used to alleviate traffic on Mass Ave and provide safer options for cyclists and pedestrians and better conditions for transit riders. It would require a major rethinking of how street space is used, changing the direction of Green Street and moving eastbound traffic one block to the south. That hurdle aside, Mass Ave could be reapportioned to allow for a safe, separated bicycle facility, bus stop consolidation at a single point adjacent to the Red Line (not, for many riders, a block away), and a transit-only facility stretching several blocks, free of the traffic snarls that routinely hold up buses. It would also (gasp) reduce some street parking, but the majority of businesses in Central cater to walk-in traffic, and there is ample parking at the too-numerous parking lots nearby and at the ugly-and-should-be-torn-down-for-housing Green Street Garage.

So, how do we create a Central Square where pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders are put first, and not an afterthought?

1. Green Street flips from west to east. This allows all of the traffic from Mass Ave to be shunted south on Pleasant Street by the Post Office and then left on to Green. (Franklin would probably also be flipped from east to west, which would have the added benefit of eliminating a the Franklin/River intersection, which has very poor sight lines.) Green would be two lanes wide, with one lane for through traffic and the other for deliveries and drop-offs and potentially parking between Magazine and Brookline. While this would increase traffic on Green Street, it would be mitigated by removing most if not all of the buses (more on that in a moment). Furthermore, there are very few residential buildings on Green Street, which is really mostly a service corridor for Central Square, so the impact of any additional traffic would be minimal. The street is 24 feet wide, which is wide enough for two 12-foot travel lanes.

Once past Pearl Street, traffic would be able to filter back to Mass Ave. Some traffic would take Brookline Street, mostly to zigzag across to Douglass Street and Bishop Allen. Traffic destined to Main Street could turn here, or signals could be changed to allow a straight-through move on Sidney Street. Traffic going towards Boston could continue on Green Street as far as Landsdowne, where the diagonal street allows for less severe turns.

What about westbound traffic via Bishop Allen and a transit-only corridor? There are several reasons this is suboptimal. First, it's probably good from a political and practical sense to have some vehicular access to Mass Ave. Otherwise you wind up with some dead-ended narrow streets abutting the square. Second, the right turn for through traffic from Mass Ave to Bishop Allen is very hard to figure out. The Sidney Extension-Main-Columbia turn would be implausible increased traffic. Douglas Street is only 20 feet wide and is probably too narrow for trucks. Norfolk is 24 feet, but then you're creating a busy turn right in the middle of the square. Finally, complete streets include cars. They just don't make them the priority.

2. Mass Ave eastbound is rerouted to Green Street. As described above, all traffic from Mass Ave eastbound would be diverted to Green Street at Pleasant. Traffic wishing to turn left on to Prospect would take a right on Pleasant, and a left at Western. Light timings would be changed at Western to allow for additional traffic. Mass Ave Westbound would remain as is.

Eastbound traffic patterns for traffic to and from Mass Ave. The dashed line shows where traffic would be allowed but not encouraged; signs would direct through westbound traffic to Mass Ave to proceed to Landsdowne Street, but right turns from Brookline to Mass Ave would be permitted. For simplicity, not all traffic movements are shown.
Eastbound traffic patterns for traffic to and from Mass Ave. The main change would be the split for traffic destined to Sidney Street and Pearl Street, where turning traffic would share a separate lane with buses before turning left.
3. A two-way busway would be built on the south side of Central Square from Pleasant to Sidney. Eastbound buses would be exempt from the turn to Green Street and instead proceed directly down Mass Ave. East of Pearl Street, this busway would allow for some general traffic: right turns from Brookline Street to Mass Ave and left turns from Mass Ave to Pearl. The busway would also allow emergency vehicles (including from the nearby firehouse) to bypass gridlock in Central Square, creating BRT elements in one of the most congested areas of the 1 bus route (as opposed to, say, the Silver Line, which has bus lanes in the least congested part of the route). Bus stops would be consolidated between Pearl and Essex for betteraccess to transit. (This 160-foot long section could accommodate four 40-foot buses.) Buses would be able to loop as follows:

  • 1 is a through route. CT1 should be eliminated. Short turns could be made via Pleasant-Green-Western.
  • 47 would go left from Brookline to the busway. Loop would be made via Pleasant-Green-Western. A single-bus layover would be retained at the end of Magazine Street. This would eliminate the need for passengers to walk a block to transfer.
  • 64, when not operating through to Kendall, would loop via University Park, but instead of serving stops on Green Street, it would loop back to the busway. Left turns would be allowed for buses from Mass Ave to Western.
  • 70 would loop via University Park as above, making inbound and outbound stops on Mass Ave, eliminating the walk to Green Street and the inadequate boarding facilities there.
  • 83 and 91 would use a left-turn lane for buses only on Prospect Street (currently a painted median) to allow access to the busway. An actuated signal there would allow a left turn phase when necessary (approximately once every ten minutes, which would have a negligible effect on other traffic). Buses would then loop and layover in University Park like the 70. This would allow these routes to serve the growing University Park area, which has seen significant development in recent years. 
A busway, a cycletrack, a travel lane and even some parking! Emergency vehicles would be able to use the busway, too.
4. Eastbound bus stops would remain largely where they are on the south side of the street, but any pull-ins and bulb-outs would be removed to allow vehicles to maneuver more freely. (The additinal crossing distance would be mitigated by the bus platform mid-street.) Westbound bus stops would be placed in the center of the roadway; one between Pearl and Essex (approximately 160 feet long) and another east of Sidney Street (60' long, for the 1 Bus only), where those buses (and Pearl Street turns) would be shunted to the left. These stops would be ten feet wide, significantly wider than the current stops on Green Street. Pedestrians transferring between the Red Line and westbound buses would have to cross just the westbound traffic lanes of Mass Ave, no longer making the trek to and from Green Street. West of Essex Street, the bus lanes would jog to the right to allow clearance between the headhouse and elevator for the main entrance to the Central Square station. The bus platform—which could be raised to allow level boarding akin to the Loop Link in Chicago—would span the distance between the Pearl and Essex crosswalks, allowing access from both ends of the platform. (The bus platform for eastbound buses could also be raised.)
MBTA bus routes shown, including loops for routes terminating in Central. At non-rush hours, the 64 bus would follow the route of the 70. The dashed blue line shows the ability for the 1 bus to short-turn (today known as the CT1). Other buses, such as the MASCO shuttle, could also use the busway.
East of Pearl, the busway would allow some general traffic (left-turning cars to Pearl Street). Through traffic would remain on the north side of the street, and the cycle track would have no vehicular crossings between Brookline and Prospect.
5. In between the westbound bus stop and the westbound traffic and loading zone lane would be a 10- to 12-foot-wide cycletrack, running from Sidney to Inman. Except where adjacent to the firehouse, it would be raised above grade and separated from traffic. At either end, a separate bicycle signal phase would allow cyclists to move from existing bicycle facilities to the center of the roadway. This would eliminate the constant conflicts between cyclists, motorists and buses. Bicycle traffic calming measures would be required in the vicinity of the bus stop at Pearl Street with high pedestrian traffic, but cyclists would otherwise have an unobstructed trip from Sidney to Inman (with traffic lights at Brookline and Prospect, where a bicycle phase might be necessary for right turns). For turns to Prospect and Western, bike boxes would be provided to allow two-stage turns. For turns to minor streets, cyclists could use areas adjacent to crosswalks. Since bike lanes in Central Square are frequently blocked by vehicles, this would wholly eliminate these issues.

A bus-only facility would dramatically improve facilities for transit passengers, a cycletrack would eliminate car-bike conflicts make biking through Central much safer, and a bus platform would decrease crossing distances for pedestrians. And there would still be ample room for taxis and loading zones on the westbound side of the street.
Why not side-of-street cycletracks? A few reasons. If it weren't for the location of the Red Line headhouses, it would probably make more sense to have side bike lanes, but we should assume that the Red Line infrastructure are immovable. Putting the cycletrack in the middle of the street means that you don't have right-hook issues (although right turns from the cycletrack are trickier). Second, bus stops. Central is one of the busiest bus transfers in the MBTA system without an off-street facility (think Alewife, Harvard, Forest Hills, Ashmont, Sullivan, Kenmore, etc). You'd need large floating bus stops and really need to pull the cyclists back from the street. Third: pedestrian traffic. There are a lot of pedestrians in Central Square. A successful cycletrack would need significant separation from the sidewalks to avoid becoming choked with pedestrians. This is a lot easier to do in the middle of the road than it would be alongside the sidewalks. Finally, the busway creates the need for a buffer between the westbound travel lane and the buses, which is a perfect place for the cyclists. You do have two points of conflict on either end of the cycletrack to transition from the existing lanes (which can be signalized) but otherwise have relatively clear sailing for cyclists devoid of the current maze of turn lanes, parking spaces and taxi stands.

East of Sidney Street, Mass Ave westbound would split, with left-turning traffic to Sidney and Pearl to the left of the bus stop island for the 1 bus (the floating stop on the south side of the street would serve the 1, as well as routes short-turning at University Park). The westbound bike lane could be cycletracked inside parking. Both bike lanes would have a signal phase at Sidney to allow a safe transition from the side of the street to the center-street cycletrack.
6. The westbound lanes of Mass Ave would be 22 to 24 feet wide, allowing the current travel lane as well as a wide area for a loading zone for area businesses, a taxi stand and other pick-ups and drop-offs near the transit station. These uses would no longer conflict with bicycle traffic. Some street parking could be provided, but it is probably best relegated to side streets nearby or parking lots (there are generally few on-street spots today anyway).

All of this might increase traffic congestion for some drivers. (Horrors!) But it would benefit the large majority of users of Central Square who arrive by transit, walking or biking, or a combination of all of them. Central once had transit stops in the center of Mass Ave (for streetcars), and it's time that those users were the priority for the heart of Cambridge, not an afterthought.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The odd history of the 66 Bus Wiggle

One frequently-mentioned (and usually fallacious) argument is that we need to rework our bus routes because they follow the same routes as they did in the days of the streetcars. (This is a fallacy because, in most cases, the streetcars followed the path of least resistance: straight, wide roads with mixed uses and density. In Houston the uses had changed so drastically since the streetcars it made some sense, in older, denser cities, it doesn't.) Then there's the case of the 66 bus in Boston, Brookline, Boston again, and then Cambridge, particularly the two-sides-of-a-triangle "wiggle" to Union Square in Allston. (Here's a visual primer on the 66)

This isn't entirely true. There are a lot of reasons why the
66 bus sucks. But this shows the wiggle well.
Via here.
The wiggle stems from a route realignment in 1989, where several routes were rejiggered, which is the type of route realignment I think the T should do more of. Before 1989, there were several routes which terminated in Union Square in Allston, not because it is a major activity locus, or a major transfer point, but because back in the day, there was a car barn there and BERy decided to start and end routes there. Back then, the following routes served Union Square Allston:

  • 57 Kenmore to Watertown Yard
  • 63 Cleveland Circle to Central Square via Western
  • 64 Oak Square to Central Square
  • 66 Allston to Dudley (note that there was never a streetcar line across the Anderson Bridge; this was always a bus line)
  • 86 Union Square Allston to Union Square Somerville via Harvard

After the changes, except for the 57 and 64, the routes were split apart and recombined at Union to better serve the needs of the traveling public (what a thought!). The 63 was combined with the 86 to form the current 86 bus (which was extended to Sullivan in 1981 a few years after the Orange Line was realigned). The 66 was then extended to Harvard Square to cover the section in Lower Allston the 86 bus missed. This better focused service towards Harvard (where subway connections were, since 1985, available in both directions, and which has more terminal capacity than Central) and provided a one-seat ride between Brookline and Harvard for the first time, leaving us with the current routes:
  • 57 Kenmore to Watertown Yard
  • 64 Oak Square to Central Square
  • 66 Harvard to Dudley 
  • 86 Cleveland Circle to Sullivan
Initially, the 66 was routed straight through on Harvard Ave. Apparently there were protests (not sure by whom) and that the route no longer served Union Square and it was realigned, and since then has cost through-riding passengers (the vast majority) several minutes of travel time. The gist of the protest, as far as I can tell, is that you couldn't get to Union Square on the 66. But this is not a valid argument. The 66 intersects the 57, another high-frequency bus route, which serves Union Square. If you are unable to make the (short) walk to Union, you can instead utilize the transfer feature of the bus network. Most users can walk the 1200 feet (a 4 minute walk) to Harvard Ave; others can use the every-ten-minutes 57 bus and transfer. Apparently, planners at the time kowtowed to these complaints. It probably costs the T tens of thousands of dollars in operating costs every year, and likely reduces ridership as potential riders choose other modes because of the length of the route.

A straightened route would consolidate several stops at Harvard and Commonwealth, which could be rebuilt as a high-amenity stop (larger shelter, higher curb, real-time arrival display, signal priority, etc). The few passengers who need to get to Union Square and can not make the walk could, instead, ride the 57 (or even the 64). No stop would lose service (the entirety of the wiggle duplicates other routes) and it would make the 66 faster and more reliable. We hear that the T should replicate Houston's bus realignment program (it shouldn't). But small changes like this would pay dividends.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The problem with the CT1

The 1 bus is one of the busiest routes in Boston. It runs along Massachusetts Avenue, touches three subway lines (and the Silver Line), and is an important crosstown route, despite frequent bus bunching and traffic delays. The bus is chronically overcrowded; I've regularly counted 78 people on a 40 foot bus, even with frequent service. It is supplemented by the CT1 "Limited" service route, but the CT1 is poorly planned and integrated, and winds up being a waste of resources on the route. (Speaking of resources, we've argued in the past that the corridor should have bus lanes on the Harvard Bridge and in Boston, with a more equitable allocation of space for corridor users.)

The CT1 is barely a limited service route. The two routes overlap between Central Square in Cambridge and BU Medical Center in Boston. In theory, the CT1, by making fewer stops, should be able to make the trip significantly faster than the slower 1 bus. What follows is an exhaustive list of stops that the 1 bus makes that the CT1 bus does not:
  • Mass Ave at Albany Street
  • Mass Ave opposite Christian Science Center
  • Mass Ave at Columbus Ave
That's it. 

In general, a limited stop route should serve no more than half the stops that the local service does. (For instance, limited-stop routes in Chicago make only about one in four stops the local buses serve; the Twin Cities is similar.) But in this case, the local route makes 13 stops, and the limited route makes 10. A few years ago, several poorly-utilized stops on the 1 bus were cut. (This included the particularly inane stop in the median of Commonwealth Avenue which required crossing the same number of streets as stops within a few hundred feet at Beacon and Newbury. The stop at Columbus Ave is within 500 feet of the Mass Ave Station and could be similarly consolidated. For those of you keeping track at home, that's less than a two minute walk.) If most of the stops are served by both buses, there's really no point in having the two separate routes overlap and not make the same stops. Cut Columbus and consolidate Sidney and Albany in to one mid-block stop and you can have both buses make the same stops.

Not that anyone really waits for the CT1, anyway. Passengers, for good reasons, generally will get on whichever bus comes first unless the next is visible. If a 1 bus pulls up, get on the 1 bus; it's rare for it to lose so much time at two or three stops that it gets caught by another. The CT1 is really more of a short-turn of the 1 bus (the inimitable Miles on the MBTA agrees as to its lack of usefulness), serving the busier portion of the route between Boston Medical Center and Central Square. Yet the schedules aren't integrated, so, at times, two buses are scheduled to leave Central Square within a couple of minutes with a subsequent 10-plus minute gap. 

For visual learners, this chart shows the combined 1 and CT1 bus headways
at Central Square, and a moving average of five buses. By combining the
1 and CT1, the effective headway could be reduced significantly. In other
words, the orange line shows the average headway of the bus (what would
be possible if the routes were combined and better dispatched) while the dots 
(blue and orange) show the effective headway of service provided today.
What this creates is a situation where resources go underutilized. Often a bus will leave Central Square packed to the gills, and another will leave mostly empty two minutes later—and invariably catch up with the bus in front of it—and then no bus will run for 10 minutes. Yet if the two routes were combined, rush-hour service could be provided every six or seven minutes (down from wait times as long as eight minutes in the evening and ten in the morning) at rush hours and 10 to 12 during the midday (current wait times are as long as 15 minutes midday). This is an issue related to the poor interlining of the 70 bus which this page has discussed in the past. The effective headway of the bus—the longest headway during any given time—is longer than it would otherwise be. 

Last year, through Cambridge's participatory budgeting system, voters there overwhelmingly supported signal priority for the 1 bus, and, according to Twitter, it is currently being installed. This is important, as it will allow better schedule adherence for buses which otherwise get hung up at the many lights through the city (traffic, on the other hand, is another question this page will attempt to answer in coming days). Better dispatching is important as well to allow short turns when two or three 1 buses run back-to-back (which happens all the time).

The CT1 may have made some sense when the 1 bus made more stops, but today it just serves to gum up the works. After 22 years, it's time to axe the CT1 and improve the 1 bus. Relieving the route of a few extraneous stops was a good start. Cambridge has taken another step forward with signal priority. All-door boarding and pre-payment would be easy at major stops, since most are adjacent to stations with fare machines (and others, like MIT, could have machines installed). Loop Link-like platforms and stations would help as well (Loop Link is an example of where the city and its transit agency actually talk to each other). And dedicated lanes? Well, that's probably further off, but should be part of an iterative process. Otherwise, we'll waste most of the small, but important, improvements to the 1 bus so far.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Service, Not Storage

One of the many issues with the Allston project that I have been way too involved with is that the State maintains that they need a midday layover yard for Commuter Rail equipment. Why? Because they plan to add capacity to South Station and, since they can't stack out-of-service trains in the terminal, need somewhere to store them when they're not in use in the middle of the day. (Off-topic but relevant: the need for and cost of which could be obviated completely simply by building the North-South Rail Link; thru-running is so much more efficient that in Philadelphia SEPTA runs 44 trains per hour through its four track tunnel at rush hour while the MBTA peaks at 32 trains combined on 22 tracks at North and South stations.) The relevant issue, however, is how silly it is to build large rail yards on prime real estate in order to not run service!

The supposed "need" for this whole facility could be obviated simply by running more trains in service in the midday. (Some layover space could be built between Cambridge and Everett streets in Allston without impacting transit operations and development of the Beacon Park Yards.) If you have more trains in service, you don't need storage for them. Considering that 75% of the costs of running Commuter Rail in Massachusetts are fixed, much of the marginal cost of providing increased service would be made up for by the opportunity cost of not building such an unnecessary facility. Most every other major Commuter Rail line runs more frequent midday service than the MBTA, even on lines to major anchor cities like Worcester, Providence and Brockton. In English: you have the trains, and the track, and the stations. Just run more darned trains already!

With that said, you still need to figure out where to run these darned trains. Obviously, increasing service on current lines to large cities and "Gateway Cities" makes sense. But there's actually a way to increase service to Western Massachusetts without any major investment in track, stations or additional equipment. Right now, several train sets begin and end their day in Worcester. These trains could, instead, begin their trips further west, providing service to Springfield the Pioneer Valley.

The Commonwealth and Feds recently spent $83 million to upgrade the Connecticut River Line for passenger service, and the Boston and Albany main line already hosts Amtrak trains (albeit at a pitiful top speed of 59 mph). So you might as well get some use out of it! There is a vague plan to provide commuter service in the Pioneer Valley soon linking Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield, and connecting with upgraded Springfield-Hartford-New Haven "Knowledge Corridor" service. Service couldn't start overnight, steps would include working out a track use agreement with CSX and qualifying crews west of Worcester. But the track (with the exception of layover facilities in Greenfield; I assume trains could be stored overnight on tracks in Springfield's station), stations (with the exception of Palmer where you might want to build a new station) and trains are in place. It's not a big leap to running service.

Here's what a schedule would look like for the trips serving Boston, Springfield and Greenfield. Train numbers are shown for current Amtrak or MBTA Commuter Rail service. (Amtrak 448/449 is the Lake Shore Limited to and from Chicago via Albany, 55/56 is the Vermonter from Saint Albans to Washington D.C.)

       Train # →         MBTA 508    MBTA 552      NEW      AMTK 56    AMTK 449  
Dep Greenfield--5:45--13:36--
Dep Springfield5:456:4513:0014:3517:33
Arr Boston8:209:0715:20--20:01
       Train # →           NEW      AMTK 448    AMTK 55    MBTA 521    MBTA 551  
Dep Boston9:3812:50--17:0519:35
Arr Springfield12:0015:1815:1519:3522:00
Arr Greenfield----16:15--23:00

Rightly or not, Western Mass often feels like it gets the short end of the bargain when it comes to transportation funding. There has been hundreds of millions of dollars spent on infrastructure (most notably the Knowledge Corridor and Springfield Union Station), yet very little service to show for it. This mistake would be compounded by overbuilding layover facilities in Boston and siloing operations in Eastern and Western Massachusetts. Any passenger movements would need to accommodate CSX freight traffic between Worcester and Springfield, and in the long term, much more increased service may require a larger investment to re-double track the B&A line to Springfield (and to increase line speed where possible as well).

In any case, rail service in Massachusetts has long been focused on Boston, with a minimal statewide transportation plan (well, beyond taking donations from Peter Pan, buying them buses and having them get stuck in traffic on the Pike). The state has taken hundreds of millions of Federal dollars (and local match) to upgrade the line in the Pioneer Valley, but it barely runs any service. It would be a politically wise move to better serve Western Mass and, given traffic and tolls, would probably attract significant ridership, too.