Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Design in isolation

There are several recent projects in the Boston/Cambridge area—some of which have been covered on this page—that have been in the conversation recently. One major flaw of all of these is that they do little to combine the features of multiple projects but rather are viewed in isolation, even though they often border each other and, in many cases, deal with the same roads, paths and transitways. These include:

These are all worthy projects, and it's mildly infuriating that there is no overarching planning agency which can corral these in to one cohesive plan. Right now, it's an alphabet soup which includes MassDOT, DCR, Cambridge, Boston, the MBTA, Harvard and MIT (they own part of the Grand Junction right of way). The issue is that these projects are often viewed as singular entities, and not in relation to the greater transportation ecosystem. For instance, I see the Allston campus, Cambridge Street Overpass and Turnpike Straightening as inextricably linked, with no small connection to the DCR paths and, down the line, the Bowker overpass. A vehicle driving over the Bowker Overpass may well have come from Harvard Square, via a DCR roadway and through the Turnpike interchange. And, heck, with better transit or bicycling connections, that vehicle might not be there at all. 

Instead of single-item traffic studies, we need to take a holistic view of the transportation infrastructure in the region, and decide what we want to see in 20 or 30 years: slightly realigned roadways which still prioritize funneling as much traffic as possible to the detriment of other uses, or a more complete transportation system. Most of the infrastructure in question is 50 or more years old, and will need to be rebuilt (or reconsidered) in coming years. Instead of rebuilding the broken infrastructure we have, we need to take a broader view of what we could create. Since we're going to have to spend the money anyway, we might as well spend it wisely now, rather than have to fix yesterday's problems tomorrow.

This page will attempt to do so in the near future.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Anecdotes in the Globe

When I write a letter to the Globe—which happens relatively often, it turns out—I try to throw something more than a personal anecdote in. I figure they don't want to hear my story in response to Joan Vennochi's (hers: "I was in traffic and a bike passed me, therefore I hate bikes"), but want me to add something their readership might be interested in. So I pick out one of her more ridiculous points ("We need more parking spaces for cars and fewer for bikes so people can go shopping.") and show why it's folly.

Which is why a couple of recent letters to the Globe regarding the DMU plan are dismaying. They get the gist of the argument right, but they anecdotes they use seem to say "look at this transit system we have, it's so bad that I can't use it because _____." Except the fill-in-the-blank of that blank is a single personal experience which is not really verifiable. (I, at least, cited a study.)

Here's letter #1. Nathan Banfield from Concord writes about taking the train from Concord. "I can drive to Porter Square from my home for, at most, $4 in gas, the same trip costs twice as much by commuter rail while taking considerably longer." Let's examine this. Yes, it's $4 in gas. Then what do you do when you get to Porter? You park—somewhere. Probably at a meter. That costs money. A garage? That costs more. And if you factor in only the cost of gas, yes, it's probably cheaper to drive. I think the 55¢ per mile (or whatever it is these days) figure quoted for cost per mile is high (it figures in fixed costs like insurance and assumes you have an expensive—and more quickly depreciating—vehicle) but it's certainly more than the cost of gas alone.

But, oh, Nathan. Taking the train takes considerably longer? You picked one of the commuter rail lines where that's not actually the case! The drive from Concord to Porter takes 22 minutes. If there's no traffic. The train? 27 for an express, 34 for a local. That's longer, but not by too much. But what if you happen to drive Route 2, say, between 6 and 10 a.m., or 2 and 7 p.m.? All of the sudden the 27 minute train ride seems like a breeze since you might spend that long waiting through the lights at Alewife. Yes, frequencies should be better. And, yes, on weekends it's probably faster to drive. But for commuters, the train is certainly faster than driving, especially along Route 2.

The award for taking a single experience and mistaking it for data, however, goes to letter #2. Sherry Alpert writes in from Canton. "I've been riding these trains for 30 years" (reminds me of this Seinfeld clip). Good for her—and she doesn't even try to claim that the train is so much slowed than driving. So, on January 8, the train was an hour late, and she missed a class. Therefore, the trains are unreliable. That may be the case, but just one late train on January 8 does not mean the train is always late. And would you rather drive at rush hour from Canton to Boston? Because that's always going to take an extra hour. Again, the sentiment that more reliable service is understandable, but stating that the system is unreliable because one train was an hour late is like saying "traffic is really bad because I got stuck in one traffic jam." If you get stuck in a traffic jam every day, then, yes, traffic is bad. If you get stuck in one specific traffic jam because, let's say a tractor trailer jackknifed, then traffic is not bad—there was an accident.

Now, if only there was somewhere to see the MBTA's arrival data. Some sort of, I don't know, monthly scorecard. Oh. Wait. The MBTA has a monthly scorecard. You know what doesn't have this kind of monthly data? The highways. But no one is writing letters saying "it took an hour to drive 12 miles on 128 today." Because, frankly, that's not really noteworthy, except maybe on Twitter. Which is where complaints about your train being delayed belong, anyway. But not in the newspaper.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Massachusetts' DMU plan could well provide better rail service

Last year (oh, wait, in 2012—gosh) I wrote about the sorry state of affairs of the MBTA's commuter rail system. Outside of rush hour, trains travel infrequently and on seemingly random schedules. Even in closer-in, denser areas, service is provided only every couple of hours. (Oh, yeah, and service is slow, too.) There is probably demand for better service but little supply, and it's partially a cost issue: running full, 1000-passenger commuter trains (with poor acceleration) is a losing proposition when few seats are filled.

Enter the DMU. The diesel multiple unit, while sparsely used in the US, is a frequent sight abroad, providing service at times when a full trainset is not needed. They leverage the direct connections between town centers that exist along rail lines, allowing fast service to the city center without rolling empty cars through the midday and evening. The plan imagines several lines utilizing DMUs on rail segments inside 128—most of which do not have paralleling subway service:

 (The full report, which appears to have been scanned as a PDF, is here.)

If implemented, this would go a long way towards improving service on several underserved corridors. The Fairmount Line currently is served infreqently by full-length commuter trains, a complete mismatch of service. Lower capacity and better acceleration would provide a much better benefit there. The Worcester Line—which will soon have added service—provides very little service in Newton, the most densely-populated portion of the line (it is served by express buses, which crawl through traffic on the Turnpike). Better service to Lynn will provide some of what a far-costlier rapid transit connection would—faster and more frequent service to Boston, and service to Woburn will provide better connectivity north of Boston, as well as further reducing the run times for trains to Lowell, currently one of the faster trips in the system, and one which, if the state of New Hampshire pays, could be extended northwards to the granite state to provide an alternative for the traffic-choked I-93.

The most interesting piece here is the inclusion of the Grand Junction through Cambridge. This page would argue for a complete rebuild of this line, with grade separation and electrification, and its operation as a crosstown link between North Station, Cambridge and Allston, currently a serpentine trip by car, much less by transit. It also would provide better access to the fast-growing Cambridge area which is currently poorly-served by highways and at the whim of the over-capacity Red Line. Currently, commuting from west of Boston to Cambridge is a bit of a black hole; there is no good connection between the Worcester Line and Cambridge without going all the way to South Station and backtracking across the Red Line. The Grand Junction is an underutilized piece of infrastructure which could be put to very good use.

What really matters is how the MBTA decides to implement DMU service. (That is, if it can be funded and overcome local opposition; double-dipping Cambridge City Councilman and State Rep Tim Toomey helped to quash a plan to route some commuter service over the Grand Junction in 2010. Needless to say, he did not receive my vote in recent council elections). If it uses it as a cost-saving measure to run the same level of service with less equipment, it will simply maintain the status quo. For instance: there are only eight commuter rail trains from the stations in Newton to Boston daily. And the Fairmount Line has 60 minute headways with no evening or weekend service. Running the same level of service with different equipment would be a wasted opportunity (if a minor cost savings).

If the state provides faster and more frequent service to these lines, say, with 15 or 20 minute headways all day, it will come much closer to providing a transit level of service, and actually providing service to these communities. With new stations at Yawkey, near New Balance and the intermediate "West Station" the Worcester Line would provide better connections through an underserved portion of Boston and Newton (with frequent, timed shuttle service across the Grand Junction a dramatic bonus). And the Fairmount Line, which currently provides piss-poor service to one of the states most disadvantaged communities, could prove an economic lifeline, if only the trains ran more than hourly.

And if DMUs are successful, they could be implemented in other parts of the system. Why run a full trainset at off-peak hours from Newburyport to Boston when a transfer at Beverly would provide the same level of service? Perhaps instead of the hourly locomotive-hauled train from Boston to Lowell, half-hourly DMUs would double the service at a minimal additional cost. Perhaps DMUs could provide service further west of Worcester to Springfield and Amherst. Hopefully, the state sees DMUs as a tool, not as a cost-cutting measure. If they implement this service better than they photoshopped the map, they could dramatically improve travel in Massachusetts.

Failures in stock photography

In relation to the 10-year transportation capital investment plan the state of Massachusetts just announced (more on that soon) I was poking around the New Hampshire plan to extend transit to Concord, potentially piggybacking on better infrastructure in Massachusetts.

As I was scrolling through, however, I found a set of images which might inadvertently show why Massachusetts really needs to improve its infrastructure. At the bottom of the seventh page of this document, there are three images of commuter rail in North America. Here they are:

Let's go right-to-left. On the right, we see the Long Island Railroad, gliding through the snow in New York. On the rails. In the center, there's Tri-Rail, complete with commuters walking towards their destinations. The train is, of course, on the track. And on the left, there's the MBTA's service, uh, derailed outside South Station! The image, which appears to be from this story from the Boston Herald, shows a minor derailment outside of South Station in 2008. Setting aside copyright issues (perhaps they bought the photo from a stock site), it certainly seems like there are plenty of images out there that, you know, don't show the T running off the tracks.

Well, maybe the Keolis contract will result in fewer derailments.