Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Portland-Boston options

If you're going from Portland, Maine to Boston, you have several choices. You could drive … if you like to be aggravated, spend a lot, have it take no less time and lose two (or more) hours of productivity. Or, you could take the bus or the train. This page has, previously, talked about buses and trains further south along the Northeast Corridor, but the conditions are different further north.

From Boston to DC, Amtrak is a luxury product competing with air travel, boasting faster travel times and more amenities. Buses are cheap (cheaper than Boston-Portland for twice the distance) but offer cramped seats, sometimes shady equipment and the opportunity to sit in traffic for six hours if you happen to hit rush hour (likely). From Boston to Portland, travel times are faster for the bus, costs are similar, and there is a sort-of symbiotic competition between the modes; the train actually provides mostly for trips which don't traverse the whole of the route, the bus serves air travelers, and both serve as alternatives to driving (there are no Portland-to-Boston flights).

Here's a quick comparison between the bus* and the train in several metrics.

(* We'll discount the couple of Greyhound buses along this route, which take longer, have no Wifi, and an overall inferior product.)

First, why is driving a poor choice? The costs, mainly (even if you have free parking at your destination).

Other maintenance$11----


  • Bus fares: $22 one way. $27 to Logan Airport. $32 same-day round trip and discounts for college students. Train fares depend on time of day, either $20 or $25 (a few very-off-peak trips are $15, college students can buy six trips for $76).
  • Tolls $3 in Maine, $2 in NH, $3 one way in MA (using Tobin Bridge).
  • Gas: 110 miles at 27.5mpg and $3.50 per gallon. Other maintenance: 10¢ per mile.
  • Add another $35 to get the IRS-computed cost of driving (55¢ per mile)
  1. Travel time — The bus is scheduled at 1:55, the train at 2:25. This seems like an easy win, right? Not entirely. Outside of rush hours or weekend getaway and drive-back times, the bus will probably arrive at its terminal faster than the train. During rush hour? The bus could spend an hour getting in to our out of Boston. Also, it partially depends on where you are going. If you are going to the Financial district or somewhere along the Red Line, the bus will get you nearer to the Red Line, although it's a bit of a walk. For the Green Line or Orange Line, it's more of a wash, and near North Station (say, for a basketball or hockey game) you'd be better off taking the train. If there's bad traffic, the bus will spend quite a bit of time getting from one side of downtown to the other. So, verdict: Bus, but not always.
  2. Frequency — Here, the bus winds, rather handily. It runs every hour for most of the day. The train runs five trips daily, although there are more frequent trips during rush hours, quite useful for outbound commuting during rush hour when getting from South Station to Route 1 is particularly bad. Verdict: Bus, except perhaps at the peak of outbound rush hour.
  3. Guarantee of a seat — If you go to buy a ticket for the train and it says it's sold out, it's sold out, no ticket. (You could board and play dumb and buy a ticket on-board by phone, but you might wind up standing. I'm not sure if Amtrak overbooks, but if you have a ticket they will let you on. When trains are sold out they sometimes check tickets on the platform.) On the bus, you buy a ticket, and it's good, well, forever, but there are no reservations: everyone lines up for the bus, and if there are more riders than there are seats, well, you wait for the next bus. At heavy travel times, this means that you have to show up half an hour before departure, negating any real travel time savings. Amtrak suggests you show up half an hour early, but I haven't been the only one sprinting down the platform to make a train. Concord Coach would have to amend its ticketing policy to allow for seating reservations (i.e. sell tickets for specific times) to guarantee seats. Which would be nice. Verdict: Train.
  4. Comfort — Here, the train takes the cake, as it can exploit economies of scale in a way that the bus can not. A bus is, basically, an airplane with a top speed of 75 mph, legroom-wise (the windows are bigger). The train has seating pitch equivalent to airlines' domestic first class and wider seats. And you can get up and walk around on the train. Verdict: Train.
  5. Luggage — The train and bus both have advantages here. On the train, you can carry on however much luggage you'd like and store it above you on the (large) overhead luggage racks. On the bus you can put luggage in the under-bus bins. You can take skis, for example, on either. Verdict: Both
  6. Bicycles — Both modes allow bicycles, with caveats. For the bus, the caveat is that the bicycle is only taken if there is sufficient room, which may not be the case at busy times (especially weekends when many passengers have luggage). On the train, bicycles are taken at all times, but there is a $5 charge, although you could probably get on without a bike ticket and no one would be the wiser. The bike on the train doesn't go underneath with the potential to get rattled around, an issue if you have an expensive ride. Verdict: Both
  7. Arrival times — While Amtrak suggests you arrive half an hour before your train, your ticket reserves a seat. On the bus, that is not the case. (see above) If the bus is full when you show, you may be waiting for the next one. (They don't specify this on the website, but suggest arriving especially early during the holidays.) Both experience delays, although not very frequently. Verdict: Both
  8. Airport service — Concord Trailways serves the airport directly, although they charge an extra $5 for the service, it is generally direct to and from Portland. Amtrak requires two transfers to the terminal, but for a $20 ticket it's less than the bus, even with T fare. Verdict: Bus
  9. Food — On the bus, you get pretzels and a bottle of water. On the train, you can go to the cafe and buy a beer. It's not free, but if you have your own water bottle Poland Springs is not that exciting. Verdict: Train
  10. Wifi/power/entertainment — This depends on how much you like PG-rated movies. If you do, the bus provides them for free. If you don't, the train provides slightly better wifi. Both bus and train have power ports. The peak wifi connection speed on the bus is 45 KB/sec. On the train the use several providers and it's over 100 KB/sec. Neither is fast, but one will load Gmail a bit faster. (Also, you can use your iPhone for ticketing on the train.) However, the train traverses some cell-signal-free areas in New Hampshire and Maine, the signal along I-95 is better. Oh, and if you make a phone call on the bus, you get yelled at; on the train you can go to the cafe or a vestibule and talk away. Verdict: Both
  11. Restrooms — If you have the choice, use the facilities at either terminal. If you require the restroom during the trip, the one on the train is slightly better. Verdict: Train
  12. From a transportation planning perspective — This is a bit of a harder question. Ostensibly, the bus breaks even but, of course, it is subsidized, significantly, by government-built and funded roads (or roads funded by the tolls of other travelers). The train has significant government investment in infrastructure, and a direct subsidy to cover operating costs (they'd have to double costs to break even). Both are energy efficient. Both are quite advantageous over automobiles. Taking the train may take a bit longer, but it's a more comfortable ride, and, perhaps, non-drivers shouldn't be forced in to uncomfortable conditions. The bus is at its top speed, but with more patronage and investment, perhaps, a train could make a non-stop trip in 1:30, which would easily negate the bus's advantages. But, for now, we'll go with a verdict of Both
So, which wins? Well, the train wins, 4-3-4. But really, the traveling public wins, with 25 daily departures along the route. Take whichever is more convenient, especially since travel time is probably the main factor for most trips and the bus (usually) wins out there. If you're interested in comfort more than travel time, the train is where it's at. For speed (and a movie) the bus is hard to beat, especially outside of rush hour. If you're in Portland and a bus leaves in 10 minutes with a train in two hours, by all means get on the bus. Plan your day around the schedules, but it's perfectly easy to treat the corridor like a transit system (albeit one with poor headways, although they are better than most MBTA commuter rail lines). Take whichever you'd like.

I will also point out that the Concord Coach provides one of the best intercity bus experiences I've had. Unlike many Boston-to-New York routes (and I'm including Bolt and Megabus, which will make random, 15 minute stops at gas stations in Connecticut for "snack" where is sure seems like there's some payola from the gas station operator for bringing in 50 captive customers) the service is very professionally run. The buses leave from terminals, not streeetcorners, the staff answers questions, and it does not seem like a two-bit operation. Considering that 20 years ago the only bus service to Portland was provided by Greyhound, Concord Coach has proven that the market can be captured and expanded (in 1997 they only ran 9 round trips daily) with service and quality.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Expanding reverse commute options in Boston

As with any city in the United States, many jobs in Boston are located away from the central business district, although those areas are not served by transit. Many jobs in Boston—in the Downtown, Back Bay, and Cambridge, are transit accessible, but many more are located in suburban office parks, far from the center of the city and with very limited transit options. There are shuttles from various transit nodes (namely Newton Highlands and Alewife) to locations along 128, mainly in Waltham. The MBTA operates limited bus service to the outer reaches of Waltham, Lexington and Needham along 128, although they are designed mainly for inbound commuting and their outbound scheduled times are likely too long for many commuters. There is limited availability and the speeds are not designed to be even close to being time-competitive with driving. However, there is ample office space which is inexpensive in comparison to downtown, and attracts all sorts of companies, even those with more urban employee bases.

There is transit service to near the Needham-Burlington employment node along 128 via the MBTA's Riverside Line, but with a dozen suburban stops, it takes 45 minutes to reach the terminus from the core. With added shuttle times, it would create a quite-long commute. Two commuter rail lines pass through the Needham-Newton-Waltham-Lexington region, but neither has a station at 128, and their schedules are certainly not designed for reverse commuting. (It is also less desirable for park-and-ride commuters from Riverside and Woodland, as travel times to Back Bay and Downtown are not particularly speedy.) It is with these commuter lines—especially the Framingham-Worcester line—that there is potential for that to change.

There are two recent developments which make this change more feasible. One is the now-underway expansion of the Yawkey Station (named after the long-time (and racist) Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey) near Kenmore Square in Boston. Originally built to access Fenway Park, the station received limited service in the 1990s on one side platform, but is being rebuilt to accommodate stops from all trains. The station is a short walk from Boston University's campus and the large Longwood Medical Area, both of which have significant employment and expensive parking. In addition, the parking lots surrounding the station will be redeveloped in to office space. With more frequent service, the station will better serve these communities.

The other new development is the (long-awaited) transfer of the Framingham-Worcester rail line from private ownership and dispatching (CSX) to the MBTA. The private dispatching has been blamed for delays which keep on-time performance on the line low, and the MBTA has been unable to increase service on the line west of Framingham because of limits in capacity. Still, the Framingham line sees ridership of nearly 20,000 (nearly 10,000 each way) a day (see this pdf for full statistics), second only to the Providence-South Attleboro line, which sees a significant portion of its ridership board at it's own station at Route 128.

There are three major problems with the existing 128 station. The first is that it is not located near a major job node. There are virtually no jobs within walking distance, and no major job nodes nearby which could be reached in a short shuttle trip. In fact, east of the station, the Blue Hills take up several square miles of conservation land, which do not create many jobs. The station does serve about 2500 MBTA passengers daily and another 1000 Amtrak travelers. The second issue is that, when it was rebuilt in 2000, it was forecast to have more parking revenue that ultimately materialized, creating pitfalls for projects like it which are funded by parking revenues. Even with some MBTA parking facilites, like the Alewife, overflowing, 128 station sees hundreds of empty parking spaces every day. 

These are exacerbated by the third: the 128 Station is located in the center of the least-population-dense area along 128. With the aforementioned Blue Hills on one side and relatively sparsely-populated suburbs on the other, there are few commuters who traverse several exits on 128 for the speedy trip downtown. Those coming up I-95 from Providence would likely use some of the park-and-ride stations further south, which, thanks to the high-speed nature of the line, have shorter-than-auto times to Downtown Boston (from Mansfield to Back Bay, for instance, scheduled train times average nearly 60 mph, along a much straighter line than the often-jammed highways). Commuters to the southeast use the Red Line service, and those to the north are served by the paralleling Needham and Franklin commuter lines. 

A bus/rail transfer station with commuter parking at Route 128 in Weston, near the intersection with the Turnpike, however, may prove much more fruitful to the business and commuting communities, as it would address many of the issues which the current commuting options do not. First, it would be a boon to 128-bound commuters. (A local planning group is in early stages of discussion about this type of project.) The intersection of 128 and the Massachusetts Turnpike—which parallels the rail line—is only 11 miles from downtown Boston. Without freight traffic, rail service from Yawkey Station to this part of the line could be scheduled in 10 or 12 minutes—faster still if the grade-separated line was upgraded from a current speed limit of 60 mph. This would significantly shorten the transit time for many reverse commuters to the 128 corridor. Trains could be run at 20 minute intervals (they already are in the peak direction, so this would not require significant investment new equipment) with timed, coordinated shuttle transfers. In the future, an HOV/bus lane could speed these commuters to workplaces along the highway, and the current Riverside Line could be extended to this station. In addition to these outbound services, connecting bus service could be explored for inbound commuters with timed transfers at this station.

Such a station would not solely benefit non-traditional commuters. It would also be a boon to those Boston-bound (and, thus, not further encourage the less-than-ecologically sound movement of more jobs to the suburbs). With dedicated on- and off-ramps from 128 and the Turnpike, a garage could provide a seamless connection for park-and-ride commuters. Not only is I-90 more and more congested at rush hour (in both directions), but tolls are now $2.50 each way. Add in gas and parking costs, and $5 or $7 for parking to avoid the Turnpike would be a deal. In other words, there is already a $5 economic incentive to avoid the Turnpike, which could be a good push factor towards transit—if it were close to being time-competitive with driving. 

In addition, with more-frequent off-peak service levels, such a station would serve non-commuters as well. Visitors to Boston's many cultural and entertainment options could be enticed with an easy, comfortable ride, and one which would incur a significant cost savings over tolls, gas and parking. The MBTA already serves many customers going to Fenway Park, this could be expanded significantly.

Now, these options neglect to mention the fate of Newton's inner stations, which are currently served by some Framingham-Worcester trains. These stations—which once had frequent commuter service—were relegated by the Turnpike to one-platform stations with no reverse commute options. Still, these stations—Auburndale, West Newton and Newtonville, average about 400 boardings per day, more than the further-out Wellesley stations which have more service. This corridor is one of the most densely-populated in Newton (moreso than the area traversed by the Green Line), and more frequent service would certainly result in higher ridership. A local-express service could be added through "The Newtons" with local trains departing the hypothetical 128 station and stopping in Auburndale, West Newton and Newtonville (and, perhaps, additional stops in Newton Corner, Brighton and Allston) towards downtown, allowing transfers from service further west and multi-directional travel in Newton and Boston.

Here, for instance, is a potential schedule for this service and assumes some line upgrades. E = express, L = local stops, NB this is a general idea, and quite condensed, but does show that clockface scheduling (except for a peak-hour express from Worcester) would be feasible. This shows inbound scheduling; outbound would be similar (with a quick transfer at Route 128) with slightly later first and last trains:

6a - 9a, 4p-7p9a - 4p, 7p-10p
Framingham5:10a5:40a  6:10a:10:30:50:10:4011:40p

1285:30a6:00a  6:30a:10:12:30:32:50:52:00:3012:00a12:40a

Yawkey5:50a6:20a  6:40a:00:12:20:32:40:52:20:4012:20a1:00a
Back Bay5:52a6:22a  6:42a:02:14:22:34:42:55:22:4212:22a1:02a
South Sta.5:55a6:25a  6:45a:05:17:25:37:45:57:25:4512:25a1:05a

Finally, there are not-insurmountable logistics towards building this type of service. The first is the ability to run two-track service between Boston and Worcester. The main current impediment to this service is through CSX's Beacon Park Yard, which the freight railroad will mostly vacate as part of the deal with the state. This should allow the MBTA to build a second track through the area. Further west, service to the Newton stations would require platforms on both sides of the tracks, which is currently in planning stages for Auburndale (and likely relatively inexpensive for stations in West Newton and Newtonville).

The second is the ability to build a park-and-ride facility near Route 128. This, too, would present minimal issues—even for a three- or four-track station with local-express service. Why? West of Auburndale Station, the Framingham Worcester retains the four-track right-of-way which was present until the construction of the Turnpike between Back Bay and Framingham. The two tracks take up only half of the available real estate, and with shored-up embankments, there would be plenty of room for four tracks and platforms (currently, the right-of-way is 120 feet wide in this section). The office park to the north of the tracks could be connected to the station, and a parking facility could be built on the footprint of a large parking lot to the east of the offices. Furthermore, the parking facility could be connected, at rather minimal expense, to several of the ramps from 128 and the Turnpike, allowing easy access from the highways to the station. In addition, the station would allow access to the Leo J Martin Golf Course and Weston Ski Track, putting these recreational facilities within easy access of downtown Boston.

View Weston Sta. commuter rail in a larger map

Funding for this facility, and related commuter rail improvements would, of course, be a challenge. Certainly, parking revenues could help fund the parking facility, and maybe even subsidize rail operations. An additional toll surcharge could be placed on Turnpike commuters, but these drivers are already more burdened than others in Boston. Perhaps the nearby localities, which reap significant benefits from the office space in their midst, could be leaned on to help fund this type of project, which would benefit their residents and workers, and even provide some insurance to their suburban office parks against a future where higher gas prices make such car-centric facilities less economically desirable.

There is an obvious need for transit service along the Route 128 corridor. However, without smart investments in infrastructure, it will be hampered by slow service and unattractive to those who would most benefit.

(Or maybe I just want a quick train trip out to the Ski Track.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Why the 2010 census does not paint a full picture

In a recent post, Andrew Sullivan linked an article by Joel Kotkin arguing that the trends shown by the 2010 census show a continuing flight both from cities to suburbs and from denser cities to less dense ones. This page has never been a fan of Kotkin, who is continually trying to reprove his thesis from 2005 that the suburbs were the way of the future and that the cities of the future were "Orlando, Fla., San Bernardino-Riverside, Calif., Phoenix and Las Vegas." (Seriously, this 2005 piece gets just about everything wrong.)

I am not going to waste time arguing several of the points Kotkin raises (for instance, he extols falling condo prices without mentioning that suburban house prices in many markets have plummeted just as much) or go in to the politics of subsidized home ownership (Sullivan uses another blogger to point out that high urban housing prices stem from high demand and policies which restrict growth in supply, further subsidizing suburban housing). Instead, I am going to look at recent, post-housing bubble data that shows that Mr. Kotkin's thesis may be based mostly on the first half of the decade, not recent years. (He goes on to compare the 2009 American Community Survey and the 2010 Census, which are different data sets—so he's comparing apples to oranges.)

To do so, I am going to use the census data beautifully displayed by Forbes (and commented on by several, including the Kotkin). I'll concur with one of the other commentaries (all are worth reading, especially interesting is one point out the income difference between in- and out-migration) that there are large swings between 2005 and 2009, but point out that they are not only between certain cities but within them as well.

For each, I'll show the migration chart from 2005 to 2009, and then the local migration maps from 2005 and 2009. And, yes, it would be great to have data on a more granular level (i.e., by zip code) or more aggregated level (by metropolitan area) but these doen't exist, as far as I can tell.

1. Suffolk County, Mass. (Boston)

In the second half of the decade, out-migration from Suffolk Country went from well outpacing in-migration to falling behind it, and it fell while in-migration slowly rose. Locally, adjacent counties in eastern Massachusetts were recipients from Suffolk County each year, but further-flung counties, including sprawl-heavy Worcester County and those in Southern New Hampshire, flipped from receiving many migrants to giving them back.

Further afield, in 2005 Boston lost migrants to most every sprawling metropolis, including Dallas, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami. It gained population from all these centers in 2009. Middlesex County, including the very dense cities of Cambridge and Somerville (but large exurban areas as well adjacent to New Hampshire) shows similar, if less pronounced, trends.

2. Philadelphia County, Penna.

Philadelphia's migration trends are not as pronounced as Boston's—there is no switch from net out-migration to net in-migration—but it mirrors those of its northeastern neighbor. In the region, we can note a pronounced shift away from migration to far-flung suburbs, especially the second ring in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. There are similar shifts to the nearby suburbs in both years (and a similar draw from North Jersey) but the out-migration to the exurbs disappears. On the national front, there were fewer major shifts (like in Boston) but still several trends away from less-dense areas.

3. Washington, D.C.

The demographic trends for Washington show similar patterns, especially on the national scale. It's out and in migration flipped, like in Boston, although the changes were less pronounced, as it never had the same mid-decade baseline losses as Boston. Locally, there was less movement towards some outer suburbs, although this can be confounded by the presence of Baltimore to the north, which doesn't really qualify as a D.C. suburb. Still, there was less movement to counties far off in Northern Virginia in 2009 than 2005. Nationally, DC lost residents to Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. By 2009, it was gaining residents from all of these.

While I wish I could go on this thread forever, I can't, because the data (here, at least) is at the wrong scale. New York City is broken in to counties, and it's so big that each county has different trends since there is so much migration within the city, as well as in to the city from the rest of the country. San Francisco doesn't show such trends within the metropolitan area because the population is so spread across counties, and except for SF itself, most of the counties have significant urban and rural populations. But, further afield, San Francisco saw dramatic changes: in 2005 it lost significantly to LA, Las Vegas and Phoenix, in 2009 it gained population from these three cities. And in Atlanta and Chicago (Fulton and Cook counties), there weren't major changes in national out-migration, but dramatic reductions in moves to the outer suburbs.

In any case, go and explore the Forbes map. It's a lot of fun, both from a geography-nerd level and an exercise in proving Joel Kotkin wrong.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Witches and Networks

A couple items of note from the Boston Globe today (one pay-walled, one not):

1. This summer, we posted on the well-used but ill-marketed weekend train service to beaches on the MBTA's Newburyport-Rockport line. This past weekend, and this coming weekend, the T is adding several trains on that line. Why? The line goes through (quite literally, in a tunnel) Salem, that of witch trials and general spookiness. Hallowe'en is big business in Salem, with the monthlong "haunted happenings" peaking on the last two weekends of the month. With roads closed and parking limited, the city actively promotes the use of public transportation, and the T obliges. (Oh, and parking gets a lot more expensive. Supply et demand.) With the city backing, the train schedule is more than doubled on weekend afternoons.

Obviously, there's capacity on the line (which handles nearly no freight—the main choke points are Beverly Junction and the aforementioned one-track tunnel through Salem). Why is there no extra service in the summer? There are probably a couple of reasons. Salem wants as many people as to come as possible—at least before Hallowe'en evening when things can get rowdy. More feet on the ground means more dollars in the coffers. The beach towns are not likely pressing the T for more people to crowd the beaches. They'd be glad to charge drivers $25 to park, but only until the lots are full. Otherwise, there's not a lot of money to be made on beach admission. Second, the witch tourism is planned far in advance and not very weather dependent (although it likely drops off in case of rain or—this year, apparently—snow). A rainy day does not see many beach-goers. Still, there's no reason the T shouldn't at least promote the beach service they have in the summer, even if it's not to the extent of doubling spooky service.

2. There was a very interesting event on the T yesterday: a startup meetup in the last car of a midday Red Line train. (The Globe article is paywalled and I can't find a free link. Update: here's a free link) Apparently, a bunch of local startup firms all met on the Red Line, had short speeches between stops, and then networked. Great idea! As one of the top venture sites in the country (although lagging behind Silicon Valley) many of these types are already on the Red Line every day, so what a good way to get people together. Now, if only we could have rational development policies which did not underprice suburban office parks and pull these companies out to Waltham and Burlington, where innovators spend way too much time behind the wheels of their cars.

Which reminds me … this year, I've been tracking my travel. Every day, every mile, every mode. Seriously. I have a spreadsheet, and every month I post a "transport report" for that month. (Here's January; you can click to subsequent months.) At first, I had no idea what I'd use the data for (other than fun charts. hooray fun charts!). But now I have some ideas:

v 0.1: Manual data entered in to a Google Doc, manual charts made in Excel
v 0.2: Once I figure out how to make PHP and JPGraph work (any help would be appreciated, seriously), have the charts update live from a Google Doc / database when the data is entered
v 0.3: Open this to other transportation geeks who want to provide this type of data, and see if it works—and what happens. When you think about every mile you travel and every mode, you tend to drive less.
v 1.0: Track transport and mode using smart phones (doable, I think, based on discussions from Transportation Camp last spring) and gather data, and develop a social network based on where people are and when. What do you do with these data? All sorts of things. Like:

  • Real-time updates about traffic and transit problems sent to people based on their past behavior (i.e., we know you take the Red Line or drive Route 2 between 8:15 and 8:25, but there's a disabled train / traffic accident, so you should consider the #1 bus / going to Alewife instead)
  • Helpful hints to help people drive less. A system could weed out short trips which could be made by foot or bicycle. Or help people link trips together. Or even take shorter routes.
  • Let people meet others with similar commuting patterns. If enough people used the system, it might be able to pair drivers in to car pools ("we've determined that you and another driver have each driven alone from the same neighborhood to the same office park with 15 minutes of each other 23 of the last 27 days—here is a link to send them an email/fb message/tweet to try to form a carpool.") or meet people on the train or bus. To make the solitary confinement of a crowded train less—well—solitary. This would be optional, of course, but could be very powerful
  • Provide really interesting data to planners on who is going where, when and by what modes.
Obviously, some work needs to be done. But it's an idea. If you have any ideas for it, or want to be notified when I get the system off the ground (or even close to that phase) watch this page or email me at ari dot ofsevit at gmail.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On street trees

Take a look at this shot from Google Maps and see if you notice anything:

View Larger Map

If you haven't found anything, feel free to turn on the labels to show road names. Find Beals Street. (Yup, where JFK was born.) Now turn off the labels. Zoom out a bit if you want. And note that Beals Street has more treecover than any other street in the area. (Once you zoom out, you can also follow the Brighton-Brookline border by where the treecover changes south of Commonwealth Avenue, too.)

Beals Street is lined by American Sycamore trees. This isn't obvious from above, but as you walk down the street the mottled, almost camouflage bark is striking as some of the trees are several feet in diameter. Their canopy spreads over the street to the extent that sunlight rarely breaks through to the road. Most other streets in the area have less continuous tree cover, and certainly none appear as straight lines of green from an aerial view.

The question is, how long will this last? Beals Street has a monoculture tree of the same age. Even if the trees are not felled by wind all at the same time, they will likely succumb within a few years of each other (there are already a few notable gaps along the street). If there is a blight or other disease, they could die even more quickly. At that time, Beals Street will be opened to sunlight like never before. And the houses, especially those on the northwest side of the street, will no longer be shaded through most of the day. And there seem to be no efforts to plant new trees in the sycamores' stead.

Street trees have a long history, but the American Elm is probably the most telling example of what happens when a tree quickly dies off. The imported dutch elm disease began killing off elms in the 1930s in Ohio; by 1970 most of the tree's range was infected. Streets which had previously been lined with the cathedral-like elms had nothing but stumps. Many such streets have still not recovered their tree cover—Kansas City had planted mostly elms and many streets became devoid of trees in ten years.

Some elms survive along street. Luzerne Street in Johnstown, Pennsylvania has been painstakingly preserved for years as infected trees are razed and replanted. (Yes, they have a Facebook page.) Winnipeg, where the disease only spread in the late 1970s, has successfully kept the effects of Dutch elm disease manageable in the last three decades. But it doesn't come cheap: Winnipeg has significant legislation and capital costs to keep the disease at bay.

Still, the results are remarkable: on Google Maps, streets appear as strips of green between houses. Going forward, we should savor such resources, but when new street trees need to be planted, age diversity and biodiversity should be goals.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Why doesn't the MBTA better market beach service?

It's 8 a.m. on a Saturday, the sun is shining bright and the mercury is approaching 80˚. In Boston, these are signs for hundreds of thousands of city dwellers to move north and south and find refuge on the hot sands and cold waters of miles of beaches. While the states most picturesque beaches are probably on Cape Cod, there are many within an hour of downtown Boston. The ones to the north are particularly splendid, and hordes of travelers pack the roads to get there.

There's a problem. Past Peabody, Route 128 is only two lanes in each direction and can't cope with the excess traffic. And a bridge repair project has stifled I-93 from its usual four lanes to two, causing a massive back-up and extra traffic on Route 1, the only real alternate route to the northeast. (Fellow beach-goers today described traffic which only let up for a mile in a couple places.) Plus, if you brave the traffic (and survive), many beaches charge $20 or more for parking—often a long walk form the sand. And sometimes full. Tough luck after an hour-long drive.

Some close-in beaches, most notably Revere Beach (a 20 minute transit trip from downtown) are easily accessible without a car, but they are often quite crowded, and water quality is not particularly good near the city. There are, however, several beaches to the north of the city along the Rockport commuter rail line which are within a mile of train stations and can easily be reached from the city.

It's almost impossible to drive to Manchester-by-the-sea's Singing Beach, which has restricted parking (town residents only), but it may be the most accessible beach on the north shore as it is just half a mile's walk from the train station. (There is additional parking for "outsiders" for $25—at the train station.) Several beaches in Gloucester and Rockport are about a mile from stations further out on the line. And Plum Island is a long walk from Newburyport but a manageable bike ride. For the beach, the train is relatively popular; a six-car consist today was about 80% full today from North Station until the train emptied out at Manchester for the walk to the beach. (And on the way home, the platform was crowded several deep and the conductors opened all cars to accommodate the crowd.) Service was punctual, and as fast as driving. With gas near $4 per gallon, it was cheaper, too.

A full train disembarks at Manchester-by-the-sea.
Obviously the train service is working, but the T doesn't seem to realize that they have a product to market. Weekend service on the commuter lines has waxed and waned over the years, but is now provided almost universally. Headways are genearlly two hours with service in to the evening. Loads carried are light, but full, locomotive-hauled trains are operated. Except for special events (baseball games, major downtown events like the every-few-years arrival of Tall Ships) service is usually limited to one or two cars in a full-train consist. Since the trains are running anyway, any new person on the train is revenue with a marginal cost of nearly zero. So the T should promote the use of these trains whenever they can.

And sometimes they do. In the winter, Wachusett Mountain ski area has partnered with the T to promote the "Ski Train" to Fitchburg, with a shuttle service to the base of the mountain. And the T turned one of their train cars in to a "bike car" which is half seats and half bikes (similar to cars in regular service on Caltrain) which are used, weekends, only, on alternating trains to Rockport and Newburyport (all non-rush hour trains accommodate bicycles, however). They promote this car as a way to reach even more beaches (the south side has a similar car on the Greenbush line), but there's little information on, say, exactly which stop you should go to get to which beach. Or a full schedule of non-bike car trains which go near the beaches. So if you want to go to the beach on the T, you have to plan it yourself.

Beach-goers line the platform awaiting a train back to the city.
Many people certainly do just that. But the MBTA should put a line item in its publicity budget to promote weekend commuter services to the ocean. With a ridership of 1.3 million daily, there is probably a large contingent that don't know that it's possible to spend the day at the beach without a knuckle-dragging slog through traffic or exorbitant parking fee. Ads on subways and buses with brochures or—these days—QR codes could steer people to information, and the agency could develop a website with various transit-accessible options (say, a commuter rail map with the distance from each station to nearby beaches).

Most weekend services surely run at a loss—operating a six-car train with 60 passengers is not particularly cost-effective. But every bottom you put in a seat is revenue for the MBTA—and quite possibly cars off the road. The T should do more to tell people the destinations it serves outside of home and work.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How many buses on Wilshire?

Another bit about Los Angeles: while there, we decided to take the bus on Wilshire towards Santa Monica. In doing so, we boarded one of the most frequent bus routes in the country. How frequent? At certain times of day, three dozen buses run along Wilshire Boulevard per hour, one every 100 seconds. They're split between the local 20 bus (headways of 6-12 minutes; 30 minutes overnight) and the Metro Rapid 720 bus (headways of 2-9 minutes, generally less than 5). Yes, two minutes. From 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. westbound, the 720 has an astounding 51 trips, with buses arriving every 2:20 on average (not counting the 20, which adds another 20 trips.

The 720 is operated with 60-foot buses which have a capacity of 100 passengers; or 2500 per hour, with an additional 600 capacity on the 40-foot 20 buses. 3100 passengers per hour—more than a freeway lane of traffic. Yet this parade of buses has operated in regular traffic lanes, with only limited abilities to hold traffic lights. That's slated to change, as rush-hour bus-only lanes have been approved for most of the corridor. The changes, which will cost $30m, are slated to save riders 10 minutes per trip. While it's not the ideal solution (that would be a decades-long plan to build a "Subway to the Sea" under the corridor, which would serve many more people and halve transit times), it is a relatively inexpensive fix which will help thousands of riders a day.

How "relatively inexpensive" is it? There are approximately 160 affected trips daily (buses don't run in each direction at the same frequencies), and we can assume that these trips are 75% full at rush hour (75 passengers per trip). That equals savings for 12,000 passengers per day, times 10 minutes, or 2000 hours saved per weekday, or 500,000 hours saved per year. There is limited literature regarding travel time costs (how much people value the time they spend in transit) but a conservative estimate is $8 per hour; about half of the prevailing average wage. (It's possible that mobile computing will raise this considerably.) In any case, 500,000 hours at $8 per hour is equal to $4m per year, giving the project an eight year payback in this metric alone.

Of course, LACMTA stands to save as well. Saving ten minutes per trip will save the agency 1600 minutes of bus operation per day, or about 27 hours. It costs about $100 to operate a bus per hour, equating to a savings of $2700 per day, or $675,000 per year (and these are much more quantifiable savings than the time costs).

Will bus lanes give Wilshire Boulevard an acceptable level of transit? No—with the ridership the corridor sees a grade-separated line is probably necessary. But since that is many years off, this is a step in the right direction.

Los Angeles: where's the transfer?

This spring, I spent some time in Los Angeles—and most of the time I was there I spent without a car. I'd called off a planned hike of the Pacific Crest Trail and stayed with family and friends for most of a week (with an interlude to take the train out to the Grand Canyon) and explore Los Angeles, mostly by bus.

Los Angeles is, of course, synonymous with the freeway and the car. (And, of course, traffic.) While there is a coherent-and-growing network of commuter rail lines, they serve a small proportion of transit use. The rail network—a few light- and heavy-rail urban lines—see more use. However, the majority of Angelinos traveling by transit do so by bus. Of the 1.4 million daily riders, about three quarters—well more than a million—ride the bus, making it the second largest bus system in the country.

There's been a bit of news about the agency, too—namely, a New York Times article regarding the 305 bus route, which mostly ferries domestic staff from poorer neighborhoods south of downtown LA to wealthy suburbs to the city's west. The route is slated to be discontinued as the newest light rail line, the Expo Line, will open this fall. When fully completed, the Expo Line will allow for much faster east-west service from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, a route which is currently heavily traveled and quite slow. And, as with most new transit lines, local bus service will change based on its opening.

In 2004, when I was but a budding student, the Hiawatha Line opened in Minneapolis from downtown to the airport. In Saint Paul, we'd had direct service on the 84 bus (2004 schedule pdf) line every half hour from our college campus to the airport. After the light rail opened, the buses were dramatically rerouted and the trip requires a transfer to the light rail, adding a bit of time but increasing options to get to the airport; the thrice-hourly 74 bus routes near the campus as well. In fact, the 84 was just about the only route whose airport service declined in service. Most buses now have faster and/or more frequent airport service.

And, thanks to free transfers, the fare remained the same. (It's since risen, but there's no surcharge to ride the train.)

This is a major problem in Los Angeles. There are no free transfers. If your destination happens to be on the same line as your starting point, the fare is $1.50. If it's at a right angle and you have to change, it's $3.00. Given the size of the LA area, it's quite possible to take a three-legged trip (say, east, north, and east) and pay $4.50. These fares are made up to some degree with the availability of a $6 daily unlimited fare (made up for by a round-trip with transfers). Still, the tacit discrimination against people with trips that don't fall on a straight line is unwarranted.

And this is the biggest issue with the 305 bus story. If you put the trip from one end of the 305 route to the other on Google Maps, say, from Watts to Cedars Sinai (I picked these simply because they were easily identifiable landmarks near each end of the 305) the map output shows several options:
  • 1:18: Take the Blue Line to the Green Line to 550 express bus. 
  • 1:16: Take the Blue Line to the Red Line to the 14/37 bus.
  • 1:17: Take the 305.
Three very different routes, all with travel times within two minutes. The 305, following Los Angeles's grid of streets, travels the same distance, but since it is on surface streets the whole way, it travels quite slowly. The rail lines attain much faster speeds which make up for the multiple transfers. (And many other destinations along the 305 benefit from the Metro Rapid system—limited buses which run frequently and only stop every half mile. They're not that fast, but certainly speedier than buses which stop every block of miles-long routes.) The Times, which states in the lede that "It will be more than an hour before they arrive at work, and soon the same journey may stretch to nearly two hours" supports its narrative with a falsification. It goes on to use the fear of the unknown (in this case, transferring) to posit an actual detriment to service, which it is not.

Then, there's frequency! Human Transit makes exactly that point: the 305 only runs once every 45 to 60 minutes, while the other services run every five or ten. So if the 305 happens to be about to run (and, yes, LA is on NextBus) it's faster to travel by other routes. These services—plus the Expo Line—should be able to absorb the 3,000 daily travelers on the 305 without any effect. It seems very reminiscent of the axing of the 26-Valencia bus in San Francisco, an infrequent bus which paralleled Mission buses one street over and which was much-loved by some of its riders but which didn't actually provide any meaningful transit service. Transit systems across the US are filled with these sorts of historical anachronisms which drain resources without providing any actual service.

The money saved from cutting this line will not adversely affect many travelers—the "community" cited by the NYT article notwithstanding—and will result in greater efficiencies for all …

… if LA better managed their non-existent transfer system.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Poor sharrow/pothole placement

I was biking up to Arlinton to check out the black raspberries along the Minuteman Rail Trail (sadly, there are many fewer than a few years ago when I cleared several pints) and was biking up North Harvard Street in Allston towards Harvard Square. I've biked this route frequently in recent months, and it's a very convenient way to get from Brookline to Cambridge. It's always faster than the 66 bus (I love the 66, but … walking is often faster than the 66) and usually faster than driving since there are delightful bike lanes to slide by traffic in several locations of Harvard Street. And there's always traffic on Harvard Street.

Anyhow, I was approaching Western Avenue and there was a truck straddling both lanes, so I cut him a wide berth and aimed over the "sharrow" (the road marking of a bicycle and double-chevron) as I slowed towards the intersection. Since I was braking, my weight shifted forwards, and I kept my eye on the truck to my left. All of the sudden, I was looking at the sky, and a second later, I was lying on the ground. In aiming at the sharrow I had inadvertently aimed directly into the six inch deep pothole it pointed directly at (see picture below), and since my weight was already shifted forwards I managed a full-on endo.

I realized I'd hit my head and would need a new helmet, and got up, shaken, but otherwise mostly unscathed. (My most recent bicycle acrobatics involved a swerve around a car pulling out of a parking space on Chestnut Hill Aveune—and in to the streetcar tracks. I came out of that one completely unscathed since I somehow stuck the landing and wound up running down the street as my bike skidded away.) I was shaking too much to ride my bike, but there was a bike shop a couple of blocks away and I went there to buy a new helmet (my current one was only five or six years old).

I settled down and managed to get back on my bike and return to the scene of the crime. Here's a picture of the offending pothole:

The high sun angle doesn't attest to its depth. It's about six or eight inches deep and the perfect size to catch a bicycle wheel and flip a decelerating rider. Like me.

Just as impressive is the fate of my iPhone. I had it in my pocket—and thank goodness the back was facing out. It took a lot of the force, it seems:

The amazing thing is that it works perfectly! I put some packing tape over the shattered glass—which I'm sure absorbed a lot of energy—and it's good as new. And a new back costs $12 and is pretty easy to replace, so I'll get around to that. Until then, I have one badass iPhone.

So, I took a picture with it of my old helmet in the trash and the above pothole picture which I sent off to Boston's bike czar (I have her email in my gmail) and she suggested I contact the mayor's 24 hour hotline, which I did. We'll see if the hole is patched; I'm biking that route at least weekly for the next month or so. I'll be interested to see if there's much response—it's definitely a hazard to cyclists.

I am going to take off my amateur planner hat and put on my bicyclist hat (helmet?) to take away a couple of lessons from this adventure:

1. WEAR A HELMET. I am flabbergasted by the number of cyclists I see biking around the city without helmets. I know all the excuses, generally in the form of "I don't need a helmet because …"

  • I'm a good cyclist, I don't need to worry. This is the stupidest one of all—most likely you are not going to be at fault for an accident. I can't even begin to explain the inanity of this notion. I am a pretty good cyclist—I have thousands of miles of city riding under my belt—and I still have my share of mishaps.
  • I'm not biking at night. This accident occurred around noon; the pothole would have been even more invisible filled with water.
  • I don't bike in bad weather. It was 85 and sunny.
  • I don't bike in heavy traffic. There was almost no traffic when I was out midday the week of July 4.
  • I don't ride fast. I was going about 8 mph when I hit this pothole.
  • I don't take chances or run red lights/stop signs. I was slowing down to stop at a red light and giving a wide berth to a truck.
  • I don't bike drunk. I was quite sober when I had my little flight here. As a matter of fact, I've never crashed drunk.
Basically, I was biking under ideal conditions, and I had an accident where a helmet meant the difference between walking away (and, a few minutes later, biking away) and going to the hospital. Please, please, please wear a helmet!

2. A lot of people are concerned about using clipless pedals and not being able to clip out when something goes wrong. Well, I've had two incidents in the past few months (the aforementioned streetcar track gymnastics and perfect landing being the other) and both times the force of the torque of the accident easily got my feet out of the pedals—and by easily I mean I didn't have to think about clipping out, it just happened. Basically, if your feet go in a direction violently different from pedaling, you'll clip out. (At least with my SPD cleats which are probably a bit worn down and have a decent amount of play; I'm sure there are pedal adjustments which would yield different results.)

3. Watch the pavement. Even in the summer. Potholes happen.

Happy biking.

(On a very slightly related note: the fact that, nearly 20 (!) years after it opened, there is no safe route through Arlington Center on the rail trail that doesn't involve bricks and curb cuts is a travesty. How hard would it be to link the two sides of the bike path?)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Time lapse on the road

A couple years ago, before the long Minnesota winter set in, I went biking around Saint Paul taking long camera exposures to … well, to see what happened.

Other than my hands freezing (it was October, or maybe November), the shots were mostly what I had expected. The lights of the city at night streaked along during the exposure. My subject was still, but the camera was moving. By taking a long shot I was able to take a subject and almost completely abstract it, turning the lights of the city in to squiggly lines along the night sky.

I had a camera out last night in Cambridge and have to change the strap around a bit (i.e. I took a bunch of time lapse pictures of the road), but playing with the lights of the city at night is a lot of fun. And, yes, I really do want to take a bike the next time I head to New York City.

Extra credit: where were these two photographs taken?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

200 feet of grass roots

I went for a run yesterday, and as usual observed interesting things at eight miles per hour (as opposed to double that speed on a bus or bike). As I ran along Kent Street in Brookline, I saw someone ahead of me reach towards a vine-covered fence and pick something. I've often loved finding wild-growing berries in the urban landscape (which reminds me: black raspberries along the Minuteman Rail Trail are in season!) but this didn't appear wild—a strip of vegetation climbing a chain link fence between the sidewalk and the parking lot.

It's not. In fact, it's a project called the 200 Foot Garden. A couple of local residents saw the shabby patch of land and decided that they'd like to plant it, so back in 2009 they got permission from the property owner to landscape and plant the section of dirt (and, as he points out, save them the cost of landscaping). Once the fence was replaced, he helped to create a peculiar sort of community garden: one where anyone can take the produce. That's right, anyone. I spy tomato plants, and I'll be stopping by. (Now, I wonder if these are heirloom varieties. We'll soon find out.)

The sunny patch seems to grow vegetables well, and while it's actually only 180 feet long, 360 square feet of open space is a rather large plot in this part of Brookline, which has a population density of more than 25,000 per square mile (that's double the city of Boston, and about equal to New York City). 25,000 people per square mile is about one person per 1000 square feet, so this unused plot of land, in this neighborhood, was akin to the land used by a third of a person. Or, to put it another way, with a three bedroom apartment going for more than $2000, the rent for this land would probably be around $200 per month.

What's particularly splendid about this little garden is that it is a completely grass-roots, under-the-radar example of urban design. Mayor Bloomberg did not block off the street (while there are surely many Bloombergs in very-Jewish Brookline, none will ever be mayor—Brookline is, officially, a town, and it doesn't have a mayor) for pedestrian use. There's no 200 foot garden conservancy, no gala fundraisers, no executive director. Just an idea, a letter to the owner and some discounted vegetable plants from a local farm. And with surely thousands of similar weird, underused plots of land around, it's an idea which could grow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What is the busiest road in the country?

I originally drafted this in 2009 and was reminded of it by a recent Room for Debate article in the Times, which pointed out that
if the morning subway commute were to be conducted by car, we would need 84 Queens Midtown Tunnels, 76 Brooklyn Bridges or 200 Fifth Avenues.
which is about the same point I am trying to make here …)

What is the busiest road—the busiest single right of way—in the United States? The Jersey Turnpike? The George Washington Bridge? The Bay Bridge? Any number of roads in Los Angeles? Houston? Chicago? The 401 in Ontario?—okay, that's twenty lanes wide and in Canada.

But the answer is, none of the above. And no other multi-lane suburban monstrosity. In fact, quite arguably the busiest roadway in the United States is five lanes wide—of which two are for parking. And it has sidewalks! It's not particularly what goes on on the street, although the road is often congested. But, still, three lanes? Parking? Presumably traffic lights? And it is busier than dozen-lane-wide Interstates?

There's a lot of pedestrian traffic on the street too. Especially since, every eight or ten blocks, thousands of people disappear down stairways and provide most of the traffic on the street. Of course, the street is Lexington Avenue in New York, and most of the traffic comes from ridership aboard the Lexington Avenue Line. WIth 1.3 million trips daily, the line would, on its own, be the largest rapid transit system in the country, other than New York. With more than 50 trains per hour at rush hour—in each direction—the line has a crush-load capacity of close to 100,000 passengers per hour.

(Oh, yeah, there are some cars and buses and bicycles on the surface, but these are margins of error compared to the capacity underground.)

How many cars would it take to move 100,000 people per hour? Well, let's assume 1.5 people per car at rush hour. That's about 67,000 cars. Various studies have pegged the capacity of a highway lane at about 2000 cars per hour, or more than one every two seconds. Any more and the speed—and then the capacity—drops. (I can't find the source, but maximum capacity occurs at around 50 mph, after which, if you add any more vehicles, speed drops precipitously. So if you are in traffic which begins to drop below the speed limit, get ready to slow further.) Highways are relatively inefficient for their space—the five lanes of Lexington avenue, even if they were a highway, could only handle about a tenth of the capacity of the Lexington Line.

So, how many lanes would it take to move 100,000 people per hour? Well, let's make one more assumption. Crush capacity in the peak direction, and full capacity (100 per car) in the other—150,000 people, or 100,000 cars. The math is rather obvious: it would take about 50 lanes to move the number of cars as one subway line—or about the total number of north-south lanes on Central Park Drive, 5th, Madison, Park, Lexington, 3rd, 2nd, 1st and York Avenues, and FDR Drive.

Or to put it another way, every packed-full, ten-car subway train in New York City (or similarly-full trains elsewhere) is equivalent to a full lane of rush hour traffic for an hour.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The peculiarity that is Brookline

If you were dropped in to Coolidge Corner at noontime and I asked you to tell me two peculiar things about the encompassing community, you'd have trouble picking out the two of which I was thinking. Coolidge Corner is the retail center of Brookline (although stores radiate along several streets) and is also bisected by the Green Line light rail (Coolidge Corner happens to be the system's busiest surface stop, with 4000 boardings daily) and the 66 bus line, one of the busiest in the system, with more than 10,000 daily riders. It's typical turn-of-the-century mixed use, with street-level stores and apartments and offices several stories above. There are no skyscrapers, but there are several buildings which, at ten and twenty stories, would not look out of place on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

And if you go a mile in any direction, you remain in density. There are brownstones and row houses and the ubiquitous triple decker, and courtyard apartments and more recent taller (and elevator-serviced apartment towers). There are streets (particularly up nearby hills) with single family houses, but few sprawl over much space. Less than a mile north, another light rail line skirts the border with Brighton in the median of Commonwealth Avenue; to the south, a third spoke of the system runs along a grade separated right of way making fewer stops but at higher speeds since it is not at the mercy of the stop lights.

As far as municipalities go, Brookline is fairly dense: about 59,000 people live in just under 7 square miles; more than 8000 in any given square mile. But it is very unevenly developed. North of the Green Line's D-Line (the southernmost of the transit lines) and Route 9 is the housing described, but south of it, in an area encompassing about four square miles, single family homes, many of them large estates, and golf courses are the rule. If you exclude the southernmost two census tracts, 47,000 people live in 2.5 square miles (18,000 per square mile). If you take out the two tracts straddling this Route 9-Green Line line, the population density of the remaining 2 square miles is over 20,000, with some tracts peaking towards 30,000.

Brookline is not very diverse, being 80% white (and 12% Asian), with large Jewish and Russian-speaking communities. The schools are only two-thirds white, and the 2010 data (which are not on Wikipedia yet) show somewhat more diversity. It's also quite wealthy, with low poverty rates and high housing prices, although there are 2000 affordable units and many rental properties with rents similar to neighboring cities.

So, what's peculiar about Brookline? Well, if you were to walk a few blocks south of Coolidge Corner, you'd get to the town hall. Not to the city hall. Brookline is not a city. (I've judiciously avoided using the word "town" to describe it thus far for effect.) There's no mayor. There are selectmen (they serve as the executive) and a representative town meeting (with 240 members, which serves as the legislative branch).

And if you walked a block down any side street in Brookline later in the evening, you'd assuredly notice the other peculiarity: There would be no cars parked on the street. Brookline bans overnight, on-street parking. During the day, the whole town is two hour parking (and it is enforced). Finding parking in most of the dense parts of Boston (and Cambridge and Somerville) is not an enviable task. In Brookline, it's easy, provided you don't want to stay for more than two hours.

We'll discuss more about Brookline in coming weeks (I lived here last winter and am back for the summer) and explore how these peculiarities help shape the town.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Charlie and the Clipper

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I found out that they were still giving away their new, integrated, cross-agency (and boy, with Muni, BART, Samtrans, Golden Gate, Caltrain and AC Transit in the city alone there are a lot of agencies to cross) smart card, called the Clipper Card. I stuck one in my pocket and tapped on to a ferry, a bus, a train, a subway, and a streetcar. Except, it wasn't quite the tap-your-wallet convenience I've come to associate with my Charlie Card.

So I experimented. Clipper and LA TAP card worked fine. Clipper and Charlie? Not so much. And a week later in Boston, well, the Charlie Card didn't work well here unless the Clipper was out of proximity. It's too bad; proximity cards are very convenient, speed transactions and boarding, and can make a multi-agency hodgepodge like San Francisco (to say nothing of LA) somewhat more seamless. But, really, someone should assure that the cards' frequencies don't interfere with eachother.

(Or, perhaps, I can dream of a day when transit agencies nationwide are all on the same frequency, and system. Ha!)

(posted from iPhone; will clean up later)

Friday, March 18, 2011

"ten of the drivers"

A quick follow-up to my recent post about buses in the northeast:

The driver of the bus has been suspended due to discrepancies in his license. Not that surprising.

More surprising is that, according to the Times, the New York State Police pulled over 36 buses at checkpoints (probably at those "all trucks and buses stop" weigh stations that you never see open). Of those buses' drivers "Ten … had violations so serious that they were made to stop driving immediately; backup drivers were called." Emphasis mine, as this was the last line of the article (burying the lede?).

Imagine if 28% of airline pilots had enough discrepancies on their airline pilot certifications that they weren't allowed to fly? Or if more than a quarter of Amtrak engineers were unqualified? Or imagine the uproar if the MTA or MBTA or some other transit agency was found to have 28% of their drivers unfit to operate its vehicles?

Until there is any half-decent screening policy in place for bus drivers, I will think more than twice before taking the bus.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Are buses the wrong technology for the Northeast Corridor?

In the past few years, most every budget-conscious (read: cheap) traveler in the northeast corridor has jumped on the bus. Fifteen years ago, Peter Pan owned the Boston-to-New York corridor, and with an almost-monopoly charged fares which were not much less than Amtrak. Since then, the industry has changed very significantly:

  1. The trains have gotten faster, better, and more expensive. 15 years ago, train travel still required an engine change in New Haven and barely cleared 100 mph north of there. Travel times were four and a half hours. Despite Acela's lack of actual high speed, travel times have been shaved by an hour (or, for the cheaper alternatives, half an hour). And the train has gone from competing to the bus to competing with the airlines, so fares have risen (as has ridership) significantly.
  2. Bus options have multiplied and fares have dropped. It was only in the late-1990s that the Chinatown Bus fad began. While Peter Pan would charge (and I'm going on memory here) $25 to $40 each way from Boston to New York, Fung Wah and its many competitors had fares of $10—often payable in cash to the driver. They had no overhead (bus stations), very low personnel costs and, with full buses running constantly, at high rates of speed, a profitable, if uncomfortable and traffic-prone service. But, $10! Almost instantly, fares were cut by 50-80%, and the bigger players, once they caught on, came up with copycat services for lower prices. Now there are as many as half a dozen buses running between Boston and New York each hour, most of them express service. It's the free market at work.
  3. Technology has made non-air service much more productive. Fifteen years ago, if you had a laptop, it was big, clunkly and slow. Sure, you could write up a report on it, but only with the information you had on hand. Otherwise, if you got on the train, you were in the dark for four hours. Same with cell phones: keeping a connection through the wilds of Connecticut and Rhode Island was an iffy proposition at best. Oh, and if your NiMH battery ran low, well, hopefully you'd packed a magazine. Airplanes had the same downfalls, but you were only in the air for 45 minutes. Now? Cell service is uninterrupted. Most buses and trains offer free wifi (it has a way to go, but you can generally send email at least). Laptops are light and powerful, most have long battery lives, and many buses and Amtrak offer 110V power outlets. Productivity is attainable, at least on the train where you're not packed in like sardines.
To boil it down, however, the allure of buses is their cheapness. The legroom of an airplane (if that) and the speed of a car (if that). If the bus and the train were priced similarly, would anyone take the bus?

But as cheap as buses are, they have several minor deficiencies which, when compounded, make for a transportation mode which lacks many safety features of air and train travel. It's not just a question of oversight of small, fly-by-night (or, um, drive-by-night) companies. It's an issue of buses using over-capacity infrastructure clogged with other large vehicles traveling at high speeds.

Buses are, in a sense, quite scalable, which is one of their selling points but also a cause of many problems. If you run out of room on one bus, you just add another bus (although buses have to run at or near capacity to attain the efficiency which makes them so cheap). One more driver, one more set of wheels—the only issue is that peak travel times tend to have more traffic, so companies often have to charter tour buses (known as wet leasing) at these times (which may not have the same amenities). However, this further segments the industry, and means that while airplane pilots and railroad engineers have stringent training and safety guidelines, bus drivers from tour operators may be driving routes for the first time (I heard a story recently of a bus which took the Merritt and somehow didn't hit any bridges before it was pulled over by the state troopers).

The bus companies afraid to ever have prices above a set maximum (since their product is based solely on low prices), so they vary pricing on the low end of the scale (Buy in advance for $1 tickets!). No company has started charging $40 or $50 for travel on Thanksgiving weekend even though the extra $20 would be pure profit. The fear is that higher prices, even when demand may call for it, might drive their customers to other lines or other modes. But it means that during times of high demand, wet leasing is almost a given.

The issue with scalability then becomes the terminal facilities, which are more scalable than airlines and railroads simply because there is an alternative: load the buses curbside on the street. (At least in New York; Boston effectively banned this a few years back by threatening to write tickets to Chinatown buses which would block streets for twenty minutes at a time loading and unloading passengers.) This makes it much easier for the overall bus network to add capacity, but it impedes street flow in several locations in Manhattan.

Buses also seem prone to rather catastrophic failure, as is the case with most mass transit. However, while train derailments and airline mishaps—despite the over-capacity infrastructure—are rare, bus issues are commonplace. Several years ago, after watching Chinatown buses roll along well above the speed limit and seemingly take corners on two wheels, my mother offered to pay the difference between them and a more traditional bus line (whose drivers' main concern didn't seem to be their next cigarette break). It's not to say that bus travel isn't quite safe: it is. Buses on city streets never get going too fast and drivers have rest at the end of their routes, and buses on rural highways don't have much other traffic to contend with. Which leaves buses on heavily-traveled highways, with drivers behind the wheel for four hours straight, or, with traffic or weather, much more.

In a most of the country, this is not as much of an issue as in the northeast. But in the northeast, there is very little highway which resembles rural interstate. Every conceivable route between Boston and New York is three lanes wide (save 95 or 395, which is narrower in portions but significantly longer than other routes). Exit ramps are often short and abrupt, speed limits change continually, and gridlock is frequent. Complicating the matter, south of Hartford, there are several automobile-only parkways, concentrating commercial traffic on I-84, I-684 and I-95. (And thank goodness that buses aren't trying to buses aren't vying for space on the raceway known as the Merritt.) (Update: This doesn't necessarily keep buses off of low-bridge roadways; a driver in Syracuse got lost and took a cars-only parkway, resulting in four deaths in 2012.)

Finally, buses are solely dependent on the vigilance of their drivers, who often drive long shifts under less-than-ideal conditions in traffic and weather. Airlines are heavily regulated and operate under the auspices of the air traffic control system as well as their own companies' dispatchers. Oh, and they have "operator redundancy" in the form of a copilot (if one pilot nods off there's another to fly the plane). While railroads can implement systems such as positive train control, speed limiting and, in the long run, exclusive right-of-way to separate their operations from other traffic, buses assuredly can not. There's no backup safety system: one minor slip-up by the driver can result in a major incident. There's also little oversight: bus drivers are not tracked by speed (some claim to speed limit their buses, but I'm pretty sure I've seen buses over 80 on the Mass Pike), leaving that up to state highway authorities, who may not be particularly vigilant in ticketing speeding or otherwise unsafe drivers.

These are all relatively minor issues, but they compound. Let's run them down:
  1. Bus scalability results in frequent wet leases, and drivers who are unfamiliar with roads, routes and traffic patterns
  2. Buses frequently speed, increasing the likelihood of an accident
  3. Buses, due to their profile, are prone to rolling and flipping
  4. Drivers are often poorly paid and work long shifts in excruciating traffic, leading to fatigue
  5. Roads between Boston and New York are confusing and often have short merges and sharp turns, and congestion, in addition to delaying buses and fatiguing drivers, creates more dangerous traffic conditions
  6. Many roads are car-only, so buses are squeezed on to roads with heavy truck traffic.
It is this last point, truck traffic, which was responsible for the recent bus catastrophe in New York. No one knows if the bus was actually clipped by a tractor trailer or was attempting to avoid it, but it is clear that an incursion by a truck's trailer played a part in the accident (as did driver fatigue and the geometry of the roadway). And another driver cites trucks as a major problem:

“Tractor-trailers are our biggest problem,” Mr. Ha said. “When the rear of the truck slides toward you, you have to stay calm because if you steer too hard to avoid it, you might flip.”
Drivers know that trucks are a problem. And accidents—truck-related or not—are frequent. While there haven't been any accidents of this magnitude yet, the bus service in the northeast has been a powder keg with a lit fuse, and the frequent breakdowns, fires and rollovers have had remarkably few deaths. Until now. It will be interesting to see if this accident, which seems more related to the structural operation of buses over busy highways with fatigued drivers rather than glaring driver error, changes the demand curves for transportation in the NEC.

In any case, it's time to look at our regional transportation structure and decide whether the low end of our transportation structure should be road based or should be modernized for safety, speed and reliability. Amtrak's antiquated Northeast Corridor is maxed out, New York's airports are as well, and the roads are congested and not particularly safe. Perhaps Amtrak's $100b+ proposal for the Northeast Corridor, with the potential to have capacity to move most traffic off the road, is a safety issue.