Thursday, December 27, 2012


My oft-praised Hubway Data Challenge entry has been featured by:
The Atlantic Cities  

(My final personal Hubway data for 229 rides is coming soon.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

I love responsive government!

My commute home is almost entirely in bike lanes on Commonwealth and Massachusetts Avenues. Both are decent bicycle facilities on busy roads, but the Comm Av lane is rather unique in that it is a left-side lane. It's very nice in that there are no issues with open car doors, and it runs alongside the Comm Ave median, so there are no pedestrians nearby. This facility was studied extensively: Google has a lot of information on it; the first five links here are a good primer.

(In the long run, this might work very well as a raised, separated and wider bike lane along the Comm Ave median would be a further improvement, which could be made eight feet wide by taking a foot from the median and a foot from each of the 11-foot travel lanes, which could be narrower since Comm Ave is closed to trucks and buses.)

There are even bike boxes, so that bicyclists traveling on the left and wishing to turn right can cross in front of stopped traffic without impeding the crosswalks. It's quite nice. All of the roads are one-way, so when you're biking the street there are only four crossings in each direction where you have to worry about any cars turning in front of you from the left-hand travel lane across your travel path.

However, at those four locations, turning traffic can be dicey or dangerous. The left-hand lane is the first of its kind in the area, so drivers are not accustomed to how to behave. And state law is not particularly applicable, as bike lanes are defined as lanes and the driving manual states that you must  "turn from the lane closest to the lane you want to enter" while the statute tells you to be as close to the curb as practicable. And a bike lane is defined as a lane. So drivers might be supposed to signal, merge safely in to the bike lane and make their turn, rather than passing a cyclist and abruptly hooking in front of them. But cars don't do that, and no one really knows what drivers should do. And that's for right turns—no one has ever seen a left turn, which exists at less than a dozen locations on Comm Ave anyway.

Common sense dictates that a driver should, if they are going to make a turn, yield to cyclists if they are present, letting them cross the intersection and then make the turn. Which would be fine, but I've had multiple occasions of left-hook turns in front of me in the lane, causing me to have to slam on my brakes and nearly hit the vehicle. All of these cars had passed me and not noticed or not cared. I chased down and chastised two of these (it wasn't much of chase; they encounter a red light in the Comm Av median) and both—one a civilian and one a taxicab—said I didn't have right-of-way.

So I wrote to the city. "These are great lanes," I wrote, "but at these intersections we should have signs telling motorists to yield to bicyclists on turns. I copied the bicycle coordinator (Nicole Freedman has moved on to white pastures) on an email to the Taxi police. The last time I'd sent an email about a dangerous road, the pothole was filled. But I didn't expect much.

Until I was riding today and noticed the signs.

WOW. That's perfect. I have no idea if it's thanks to my email, but it gets the point across. It's not foolproof, but it certainly lets vehicles know that they do not have right-of-way, and should think twice before cutting in front of a cyclist.

I'm impressed, Boston Bikes.

Quick note on the sign picture. I tried taking it with my phone with the flash on, and the reflectivity washed the sign out. I tried taking it without, and it was dark. So, finally, I used the headlights of the passing vehicles to get the right exposure, and it came out, well, good enough.

Leveraging Massport money to support overnight transit in Boston

Like clockwork, talk about overnight transit has bubbled up to the surface in Boston again. No one is arguing they run the trains overnight on 100-plus year infrastructure. The list of cities that do that in the US is New York, a couple lines in Chicago and PATCO in Philly. But most major transit cities provide some sort of overnight service on at least a few major routes (such as Philly, San Francisco, Chicago, LA, Seattle, Twin Cities, Miami and others, for example, but not DC, although trains do run until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights). And most have at least some bus service past 1 a.m.

When night comes to Boston, buses wait for the last train to reach transfer stations, and then the system shuts down. Cold. A couple of routes run by 3:30, but it's not until 5 that the system comes back to life.

I've thought a lot about late-night transit service in Boston. Night Owl was useful but it provided service to the wrong constituency, and we were basically subsidizing getting drunk college kids home on weekend nights (a laudable goal if they'd otherwise be driving, but many would probably otherwise take cabs or stumbling or not going as far from home in the first place). Ed Glaeser wrote about how it is helpful to the city a couple years ago.

The way to think about this, I think, is to look at what groups require late-night service first and figure out how best to provide that. The second step is to figure out who pays for it, and it might not have to be the MBTA.

So, the groups that require late-night transit include:
  • Nightlife patrons
  • Late night / early morning employees
  • Late night / early morning travelers
The Night Owl buses were designed to serve almost solely the first group. When the service didn't pay for itself (since MBTA contract pays double-time after midnight, costs skyrocket), it looked like hardworking ridership and taxpayers were subsidizing students and twenty-somethings and their hard-drinking habits. This is not good politics, especially since the service was only provided on Friday and Saturday nights. Sure, it added incrementally to the city's nightlife accessibility, but it cost the T a lot and didn't serve any constituents which really needed to be served.

A politically expedient and lasting service would have to serve the two other groups, namely, people who are trying to get places in the middle of the night and who aren't just too drunk to drive. There are two main groups here, and as it would happen they have rather complementary travel patterns: overnight workers and late-arriving and early-departing travelers. And this creates an interesting funding mechanism: a lot of these folks are trying to get to or from the airport. In other words, make Massport pay for it.

Why Massport? They have the need, and they have the money. Right now, Massport buses hundreds of workers from an off-site garage in Chelsea to the airport, 24 hours a day. Parking at the airport is frozen by statute so in order to keep inventory available, Massport raises rates. Parking is the cash cow for the agency, and both supply and demand are inelastic and limited (demand because business travelers fill many of the spaces and are more than willing to pay for—or expense—the cost no matter how high) higher rates lead to proportionally higher revenues. Even with higher rates, parking is frequently full.

So, when parking rates when up by $3 a day recently, it netted the agency a cool $10 million. A year. Part of that has gone to reducing the prices for Logan Express, and part of it to free rides on the Silver Line (this speeds boarding, too—although it does little to speed the ride).

Let's go back to our constituencies. First, overnight employees. There are overnight employees across the city, but with Boston's parochial climate, there are not too many at bars, clubs and all-night businesses. There are, however, a lot at the airport. Flights arrive at Logan until 12:30 a.m., and those flights need ground personnel, baggage handlers and other staff to unload. And those people need to get home. The could take a bus to Chelsea and drive home from the garage; many likely do just that, as the last Silver Line bus to make connections to downtown leaves at 12:25. Plus, if flights are delayed, they are as well, so some transit options would be helpful.

Hand-in-hand with these workers are late-night plane arrivals. Now, it could be argued that these travelers should know there is no transit available to them and arrange for a ride or take a taxicab. But this all breaks down with any delay: there are no cabs at the airport after 1 a.m. It is much more lucrative for a taxi to pick up fares between Back Bay and Cambridge and Brighton than deadhead through the tunnel with no promise of a fare and a stiff toll whether they have a passenger or not. I've arrived on a delayed flight and the cab line at 3:00 was 45 minutes long. I actually thought about crashing in the terminal until the first buses started running at 5:30.

At the very least, the Silver Line—or a Massport shuttle to South Station—should run all night. It's a little easier to get a cab at South Station, anyway.

The second half of the overnight constituency is larger and perhaps more important. Since Boston is not a hub airport, many flights leave early in the morning to get to Chicago, Atlanta, Newark and other cities where passengers make connections elsewhere. The first flights leave at 5:30, and Logan runs a full flight schedule by 6:00 a.m. That happens to be the earliest a you can make a connection to the Blue or Silver Line from any other transit line on the system. So unless you're leaving after 7:00, you're out of luck taking transit to the airport.
More importantly, 6:00 flights mean 5:00 check-ins—and with post-9/11 security, 4-something arrivals. This means that everyone in the airport, from gate agents and ground crew to TSA staff to flight attendants and pilots, has to be fully-staffed no later than 5:00. To the right is, from a Massport PDF, the arrival times for Logan employees. Two thirds arrive by private auto, and the peak arrival time is between 4 and 5 a.m., well before transit service commences.

Massport already runs early-a.m. bus service. Logan Express buses, frequently used by employees, leave terminals at 3:00 and, with no traffic, arrive more than early enough for early-arriving staff and passengers. These buses serve suburban park-and-rides; there's no similar service for anyone who lives inside the 128 corridor (with a couple of minor exceptions). In other words, there's better early morning transit from the suburbs to the airport than anywhere in the city.

The MBTA actually runs very limited early-morning service as well. The MBTA's route 171 runs at 3:50 and 4:20 from Dudley Station to the airport, arriving by 4:15 as a through route the 15, and it and the 32/39, 57 and 89 have early morning runs to Haymarket and a connection via the 117 to the airport. This is all nice, even though these routes are all but hidden from the general public, although the 194 has found its way on to Yelp (more on Yelp transit maps).

Anyway, what I'm trying to point out here is that there is some ridership need, some money, and some routes already in place. Massport wouldn't run in to Pacheco issues (an arcane, if well-intentioned, law regarding operation of public services by private corporations), and likely wouldn't run in to the pay-scale issues the MBTA runs in to. Marketing service as serving overnight workers and travelers (there are some intercity buses and trains which arrive at South Station after the T stops running) rather than drunk college kids will be more palatable. And the taxi lobby, which might object to the T/Massport nudging in to their drunk college kid business, might be happy for them to deliver passengers downtown from the airport where they can get rides home.

So, here's a rough idea of what I'd propose, in order of priority and/or implementation:

  1. Run shuttles 24 hours a day from South Station to the airport. This can take the form of the Silver Line from 5:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., and then a Massport shuttle every 15 or 30 minutes overnight. In the overnight hours, the bus could stop at surface level outside South Station and skip the Silver Line tunnel, running express to and from the airport.
  2. Run Logan Express buses every hour overnight to and from termini. Right now the earliest bus leaves for the airport at 3:00 a.m. and the last leaves Logan after 1 a.m. There's already minimal layover at the termini.
  3. Incorporate overnight Logan Express buses with strategically-places transit stations. For instance, have the Peabody bus stop at Wonderland, the Woburn bus stop at Wellington, Malden and/or Alewife, the Framingham bus stop at Riverside and the Braintree bus stop at JFK/UMass. This would allow commuters near those stations to take Logan express during the non-MBTA hours, and the MBTA at the other end of their shift.
  4. Have Massport buses take over for early-morning MBTA service, or integrate this service with South Station shuttles.
  5. Integrate Massport buses serving transit nodes throughout the MBTA area with the South Station Shuttle. For instance, run Silver Line-sized buses to South Station every 30 minutes, and then have a transfer point there for buses to imperfectly trace major transit corridors. I say imperfectly because such a service needs only to travel near transit stations, not to them, allowing them to take straighter, faster lines. I'd propose the following routes, trying to serve major park-and-rides transit stations and Logan Express lots:
    • Red Line South serving JFK/UMass, Ashmont, Quincy Center, Braintree
    • Orange Line South serving Orange Line Stations and the Green Line E branch via Huntington Avenue, Tremont Street and Columbus Avenue, with a possible extension to the Route 128 Park-and-Ride. (Another option here would be to trace the route of the old Orange Line Elevated down Washington Street through Dudley and integrate the E Line with the B, C and D ines by running it down Huntington and then up to Audubon Circle)
    • Green Line (B, C and D) via Beacon Street, Route 9 to Riverside, with an overnight extension to the Framingham Logan Express.
    • Red Line North via Mass Ave to Alewife.
    • Orange Line North Malden or Oak Grove, then up 93 to Woburn.
    • Blue Line to Peabody via Wonderland and Lynn.
Here's a crude Google Map:

These lines could run every hour (and perhaps half-hour on Friday and Saturday nights), meeting shuttles at South Station from the airport. There could be full interchanges there, and possibly a secondary transfer point at Kenmore Square between the Red Line North, Green Line and Orange Line South lines. The system wouldn't perfectly serve late-night bar-goers, but it wouldn't be designed to; the fact that it would be nearby would be an ancillary benefit to their mobility. This route structure specifically leaves out Allston, for instance, where bar patrons would have the option of walking (stumbling?) less than a mile to Beacon Street or taking a taxicab and having fewer drunk-and-disruptive passengers in the system.

Assuming $125 per vehicle hour, you'd probably need two vehicles per route for hourly headways. That's $250 per hour per route, or $1500 per hour, or $7500 per night, plus a South Station-Logan shuttle, so $8000. Operating this daily would cost $3 million per year, which could be fully funded by a $1 increase in parking at the airport. Then there are savings from running fewer Logan Express buses (with early and late departures handled by this service), fewer MBTA buses, and recouping some costs from fares. At $5 for a flat fare you could reasonably expect 200 riders—or $1000 per night.

So, Massport, can we get this to happen?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Failures in mapping

Just, yuck.
I was on the Silver Line today (mostly a failure on its own, but it does get you to the airport) and noticed what has to be one of the worst maps I've seen in recent memory. It's a map of Logan Airport, located in the Silver Line platform area at South Station. It has some useful information, but it is so cluttered and so ill-presented that it might as well be in Greek. Or Swahili. It's just a horrible representation of the information a transit traveler would need to navigate the airport.

  • It's not to scale. That's fine, but certain parts of the map are so not-to-scale that they are misrepresentations of where features are located. For instance, did you know the Airport Blue Line station is located right next to Terminal E? Neither did I. Hey, maybe you can walk there!
  • It implies that the Airport MBTA station is not in between the ramps in to and out of the airport from Route 1A. It is.
  • The bus routes on the map are incomprehensible. Lines which shouldn't cross do cross, there are no arrows showing that the system is one-way, and there are some places where lines representing bus routes just end (look above the cell phone lot, for instance). And the Massport bus makes a big sweeping loop over itself for no apparent reason.
  • The color scheme is … gray, gray, gray, black and so-dark-a-blue-that-it-looks-black. But the terminals are colorful! Too bad we can't really tell much else apart. Like the airport routes and the Silver Line.
  • Terminal A is shown with its auxiliary gates, but there's no gate detail for any other terminal. This is extraneous, and confusing; who cares what's on the other side of security when you're standing at South Station. Also, Terminal B isn't shown as being two separate stops, it is just a big B in the middle of the parking. (Oh, and don't worry, because when you get to Terminal B and don't know which stop to get off at, there's a chance the audio announcement will be through the whole list of airlines by the time the bus leaves the station.)
  • There are way too many roads. I don't care how roads loop around and over each other to get to Boston. Or where car rentals are. Or even where the parking garages are. If I'm in the Silver Line Station, I'm probably not driving to the airport. I know this may be a stock map of the airport, but in that case it doesn't belong at South Station.
  • The Silver Line routes to and from South Station should be labeled as such. They don't even say "South Station"! Instead it's labeled as "To South Boston." That's pretty misleading. Although not as misleading as calling the Ted I-90 and I-93. That's just plain wrong. Again. Silver Line, not driving.
  • Okay, so maybe the I-93 and I-90 belong with the "to South Boston," as in "to 90 and 93." But it's not to I-90, it is I-90. It's to I-93. In any case, there should be some differentiation between what it is and what it is to. Good lord, can it get any worse?
  • And once you get to South Station, what line to you transfer to? Beats the hell out of me. God forbid they put in something about the Red Line.
  • In fact, the only time a T logo appears on the map is down at the Blue Line Station. Is there anything about that being the Blue Line? Nope. There's some text off in the corner but this is a schematic map. Oh and the label for the station? About half way across the map. But if you were at South Station, you might see the T, and wonder if you'd wind up there after your trip. Negative.
  • Can you walk indoors from Terminal C to Terminal E? I have no idea. And this map doesn't really make it seem one way or the other. Or let you know that you can take a sidewalk between these terminals.
  • The blue lines showing elevated, inter-terminal walkways are one of the better features of this map. However, even here the symbology is not consistent. Sometimes they end in blue circles. Sometimes the line just ends. Sometimes the line ends in the middle of a parking facility (Terminal E) with no cue as to whether you can get to the terminal, where the skyway actually extends (and if you ever miss a Silver Line bus by a hair at Terminal A, you can hustle across to Terminal C or E faster than the bus can round the airport). This is a complete graphic design fiasco!
  • I'm not even going get started on what is going on with the road through Central Parking.
  • It's all well and good that the South Cargo Area is shown on the map, but I'm not sure how pertinent that is for anyone at South Station.
Now, I'm no graphic designer (see my Hubway data viz if you want proof of this) but in an hour on a airplane I sketched up with a better and more useful map than this. (It's pretty bad, but not this horrible.)

Perfect? Hardly. But it is superior in every way to the photo above. It drops a lot of extraneous information, but adds in things that make it a lot more useful. Now, Massport, which is swimming in money from parking fees, should design something at least this useful on their own.

UPDATE: Posted a new/better map here.

In other words, #fail.

(As for Logan, a hodgepodge of terminals that makes little sense and is generally added to with little plan for the future, it should be added to Dave Barry's list of airports that should be "renovated with nuclear weapons". Although, thanks to the new tunnel, it is now easier to get to from downtown Boston than Colorado, which was not necessarily the case in 1999.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"No Headphones While Driving" goes for bikes, but moreso

Driving around Massachusetts today, I noticed some of the variable message boards—you know, the ones which usually flash YOU BOOZE, YOU CRUISE, YOU LOSE and infrequently tell you about traffic conditions were proffering a message near and dear to my heart.
This is important. Just because we've said that hands-free driving is okay (Is it as safe as undistracted driving? probably not, but a conversation can be a good way to stay awake and alert, I've found.) doesn't mean that you can rock out to your tunes on your headphones. That's a primary offense and can get you a citation. And, jesus, people, haven't you ever heard of a stereo? Or are your earbuds that good?

But here's my message to whoever will listen (we'll file these under Ari's Friendly-if-Somewhat-Passive-Aggressive Helpful Hints to Cyclists, along with "For fuck's sake, wear a helmet!" and "You're riding the wrong way down JFK Street in Harvard Square in rush hour? Seriously?"): Wearing headphones on a bike is ridiculously dumb, and it's against the law, too. When you're in a car, what you're listening for are sirens, car horns and, well that's about it, everything else gets drowned out by car noise.

When you're on a bike, you have a lot more potential to use audio cues. I've found that I actually can get more information as to the presence of vehicles by listening than a quick glance over my shoulder. I've heard other cyclists overtaking me (this happens more often on Hubway bikes than it does on real wheels), I've heard cars starting, I've heard any number of cues which affected how I cycled. And if I'd had earphones in, I would have heard none of it.

Yet so often I see people riding with earphones in. I sort-of-kind-of understand this in two situations. First, if you are a professional cyclists and your coach is telling you things in a race. Still, you don't have two. Second, and this is the sort-of-kind-of, if you're on a segregated bicycle facility (bike path) and there aren't many other users and you're going faster than them. But if that's the case, just deal with listening to nature for a few minutes.

And a quick note: if you're riding a fixed gear bike with no brakes, at night, not wearing a helmet, wearing earbuds without anything reflective and with no lights, only about half the things (brakes, lights, reflective) are illegal. But THEY'RE ALL STUPID. Colin Reuter made some similar points a few years back, so go read that.