Friday, August 28, 2015

Poor transit planning: an example that proves the rule

One of the most infuriating things about transit planning is when an agency does something which is designed to cause delays and for which there is an obvious solution. Customers have some understanding about things that are beyond the railroad's direct control: trespassing, downed trees, even (to an extent) equipment, track or signal failures (although these are more preventable). But when your bus or train takes longer than necessary because of a stupid decision by the transit operator, it is far more maddening. These would include things like fare policy (the front-door boarding on the Green Line, which causes completely unnecessary delays for passengers). But that comes in relatively small doses, and it's hard to compute.

A far more concrete example is what happens late every morning on the Haverhill Line. Starting this week, all midday service between Haverhill and Boston has been sent via the Lowell Line to allow for track work on the southern section of the line. What the T did is to take all of the scheduled Haverhill trains and run them express via the Wildcat between Ballardvale and North Station. They maintain their original arrival times, but by running express via faster trackage should arrive at North Station 15 minutes early, so the arrival time is schedule padding. Except in the case of one train, 210, which will arrive late every day, because of a scheduled conflicting move.

210 leaves Haverhill at 9:05 and is scheduled in to Ballardvale at 9:29 before its express trip to Boston. Amtrak's first northbound Downeaster leaves Boston at 9:05, Woburn at 9:23 and Haverhill at 9:53. During normal operations, this works fine: 210 clears Wilmington Junction staying on the Western Route (the track towards North Wilmington) around 9:30, and Amtrak approaches northbound on the Wildcat a few minutes later. With the schedule change, however, Amtrak takes precedence on the extended single track, from Wilmington all the way past Andover, a distance of 8 miles (there is a double-track project in the area which will mitigate this issue; it is proceeding at a decidedly glacial pace). So the commuter train has to sit there for 15 to 20 minutes waiting for Amtrak to pass. Every single day.

But there's an easy fix to this: the commuter train could leave Haverhill 15 minutes later. There are no schedule conflicts, no track conflicts: the train runs 15 minutes later, approaches the single track at Andover just as the northbound Downeaster gets on to the double track, and proceeds in to Boston. Everyone on the train has a ride that's 15 minutes shorter. Everyone is happy.

I'm sure the argument against this would be something like "people are used to the train showing up at a certain time and we don't want to change the schedule on them." This is why you have a schedule change. The train would be moved later. A few people who don't pay any attention will wind up waiting 15 minutes at their station the first day. Some of them might consult a schedule posted there and realize that the schedule was changed, and not come 15 minutes later the next day. No one will miss the train, only a few people would have a longer wait. Which they are going to have anyway, because nine days out of ten the train is going to be held for conflicting traffic (unless the Downeaster is delayed significantly, and it's been running on schedule more frequently recently).

Plus, the current delays will lull passengers at Andover and Ballardvale in to thinking the train will always be 15 to 20 minutes late, so they'll start showing up then anyway (Pavlov's dog, etc). Then, on the one day that the track is open and the train operates on schedule, people will be left behind (at least 212 operates rather shortly thereafter). So by not changing the schedule to reflect reality, the following occurs:
  • All passengers from Lawrence north have a 15 to 20 minute on-train delay every day north of Andover.
  • All passengers at Andover and Ballardvale have a 15 to 20 minute on-platform delay.
  • On the occasion that the train operates on schedule, any passengers who decide to come at the actual usual arrival time at Andover and Ballardvale run the risk of missing the train, although they may decide that the 15 minutes saved most days make up for the 40 minute delay once a week.
Pushing the departures back 15 minutes would solve all of these problems, and give passengers a very fast trip in to Boston express from Ballardvale. So why doesn't this happen? Perhaps institutional inertia. Perhaps incompetence. Maybe the T doesn't even want people to get used to a faster trip when the trains are shifted back to the local schedule in a few months. But it's a sad state of affairs when the T and Keolis decide that a 20 minute delay is acceptable—every day—and the passengers are the ones who pay. 

And then they wonder why the passengers lose all faith in the transit providers. This is why.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Burying the lede: Caltrain saves money vs driving, not Uber

There's an article about a woman who replaced her car (well, SUV) with Uber and how much money she saved. A lot of the variable costs were from her commute "from home to KP in Menlo Park was 70 miles round trip and I’d go down to the office 2–3 times a week." That's quite the commute to do by Uber.

She spent $4700 on Uber last year.

The cost of an Uber from Sand Hill to San Francisco is $51 to $68, without any surge. An average roundtrip would cost $120. So if you did this two to three times per week for a year it would cost $15,000. It's pretty clear that she's not replacing Uber trips with car trips, or she wouldn't have made it to May. So without a car, how does she get to Menlo Park?

By train, of course. Caltrain runs a nice service south from the City, with frequent trains, many of them express. She uses Uber on either end (you know, there are these bike things, and buses, but those are hard). So there's probably an $8 Uber ride on either end, and the other $104 are on Caltrain (40 minutes, generally faster than traffic). Except it costs $13.50. So the whole commute costs $30, or ¼ of the cost of riding Uber both ways, all of the savings from transit.

Taking Uber both ways would cost 50% more than driving. So that doesn't work. What she really means to be saying is "I started taking transit for the majority of my commuting miles and saved a ton of money." The Uber use helps the transit work in this case, but it's Caltrain that is the main reason this works, not just Uber.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A quick look at the T's privatization bus list

If you follow this page, you'll know that I've gone on in the past about hyperbole about MBTA privatization. And today, with the list of routes out that are up for bid, a few comments. The idea, apparently, is to reallocate the resources from these routes to core services, so that there will be an increase in service by covering these few routes with other vehicles (the T can't buy any more vehicles because it is out of room to store and maintain buses), except for late night. The T breaks it down in to three groups—low ridership local routes, express buses (most but not all) and late night routes—but I'd split the first group further in to routes under 200 (core MBTA service routes originally run by the MTA) and routes numbered above 200 (peripheral or suburban routes run by other providers).

If this is as far as privatization goes, it seems to make sense, especially reallocating the service hours and vehicles of large buses being used on low volume routes to other routes and times of day. The T shouldn't spend time and money to maintain smaller vehicles, and for the few routes where smaller vehicles would work, as long as this expands service rather than replacing it (i.e., the buses are put to better use on other routes) it will help service and ridership. The fear, of course, is that in the long run the number of Carmen-operated 40-foot buses goes down, with, perhaps, a deterioration of service. I'm less sure about the express buses, where I think the idea might be to use coach-style buses for these trips, see below.

A couple of resources:
The 2014 MBTA Blue Book
Changes to transit service since 1964
Miles on the MBTA (a kid—a rising sophomore now?—who had ridden nearly every route the T operates, which is impressive)

Note: service hours are estimated, as are riders per hour and riders per trip. Ridership is from the Blue Book, cost is net cost from a separate spreadsheet from the T.

Core Routes

5. The 5 is a social service route; it completely duplicates the 10 except for the stretch along the McCormack Housing Project which would not have service during the midday. It operates with few passengers, most of whom could probably take the 10. (It's not as bad as the 48, but similar.) It could be operated with smaller buses, easily, which would probably yield cost savings.
6.5 service hours per day
161 riders, 25 riders per service hour, or 12 per trip.
$0.91/passenger mile

18. The 18 is a local route that runs on Dot Ave from Andrew to Ashmont. Because it runs roughly parallel to the Red Line on 30 to 60 minute headways, most people would opt for the Red Line. So it is likely used for short hops by people unable to walk as far. It is likely similar to the 5 in that is is more a social service route than anything else, and could also be operated with smaller vehicles.
17 service hours per day
619 riders, 36 riders per service hour, 18 riders per trip
$0.65/passenger mile

68. The 68 is a lot like the 18: it parallels the Red Line, has few passengers and rarely-if-ever a full bus (except when the Red Line has a fault, but it is doubtful that enough people know about it to use it) and has the main purpose of getting people between Kendall, Harvard, Cambridge city offices and the library. Nearly all of its functions are duplicated elsewhere, and it didn't even run between 1981 and 1998. It, too, could be operated with smaller buses to carry the passengers necessary, and the bus used for the 68 could be pressed in to service on Mass Ave where it would carry far more passengers.
12 service hours per day
468 riders, 39 riders per hour, 20 riders per trip
$1.00/passenger mile

99.  This one is harder to explain. The 99 is a subway feeder trip, and at rush hour runs every 20 minutes, which leads me to believe that if it has two or three heavy Orange Line trains empty on to it, it will need a full-sized bus. It's not a route like the 5, 18, or 68: it has a purpose other than shortening a walk slightly for a few people. It has more than the ridership of those three routes combined. Could it be better integrated with the 106 to provide even headways where they share a route? Certainly. But other than cheaper operators, I don't see how you get away with operating this with smaller buses.
30 service hours per day
1555 riders, 52 riders per service hour, 26 riders per trip
$0.49/passenger mile

201/202. These are two variations of what was Route 20 from Neponset to Fields Corner. The two trips now combine to run every 15 minutes (or so) on a variety of routes. The route is short and it seems that it has relatively low ridership per bus but high frequency; and most people who would take it instead walk to the Red Line (a station at Neponset on the Braintree Branch would obviate much of the need for the route). Depending on rush hour loads, smaller buses may suffice.
72 (?) service hours per day
1339 riders, 19 riders per hour, 9 riders per trip

Suburban routes

52. The 52 is an old M&B Route through Newton on Centre Street in Newton and through to the Dedham Mall. It has minimal rush hour feeder ridership since it traverses a not-so-dense part of Newton and most people can walk to the 57 or Green Line or Express bus instead. Whether its ridership merits a smaller bus depends on the loading at different times of day.
17 service hours per day
766 riders per day, 30 riders per hour, 23 riders per trip
$0.49/passenger mile

70A. This is really interesting. The 70 is not listed, because it's a busy trunk route which could never have smaller buses. However, it is one of the most dysfunctional routes the T runs because … of the 70A! I've advocated in the past for splitting the 70A off as a feeder or transfer route to the 70. So in theory this would accomplish exactly that; I would assume that the privatized portion of the route (the 70A) will not run all the way in to Cambridge; otherwise you'll have even less coordination between the two mostly-parallel routes with different operators. (If the T does do this, they should all be sacked.) I still think interlining the route with the 556 makes as much, or more, sense, but splitting the 70A off of the 70 could be very beneficial.

I have no idea what the 70A portion of the ridership is as it is not broken out in the Blue Book. But if the current two buses were allocated to the 70, it could provide 8 to 10 minute headways at rush hour and 15 minute headways midday, allowing it to provide a Key Route level of service, with even headways (something it does not do right now) and alleviating chronic crowding along the route. This could be a major bright spot in this privatization scheme, if implemented properly.

210 and 212 are two local routes in Quincy and Dorchester that parallel the Red Line, although they provide frequent feeder service at rush hour. The 212 is a slight variant and only runs a few trips at rush hour, and has far higher ridership per bus/trip than the 210, which has ridership spread more across the day. Since 212 is a feeder, it may require larger vehicles to cope with rush hour crowding, although 210 is more a Red Line parallel route (although it does provide direct service from Quincy to Dorchester that would otherwise require a transfer).
26 service hours per day (21: 210; 5: 212)
210: 736 riders per day, 35 riders per hour, 18 riders per trip, $0.31/pax/mi
212: 293 riders per day, 59 riders per hour, 30 riders per trip, $0.89/pax/mi

439. This is a great candidate for a smaller bus. It carries 97 riders all day, but is the only service to Nahant; it is one of few cases in the area where a town has transit service at rush hour and not at any other time of the day. Even assuming that all riders go inbound on two trips and outbound on the others, (a fair assumption) this is little more than a feeder to the Lynn Commuter Rail station (and a couple of trips to Wonderland) with 20 riders per trip, which could be handled by a smaller vehicle, and this bus could be put to better use.
6 service hours per day
97 riders, 16 riders per hour, 8 riders per trip.

451. Way out in the suburbs, this is a bus that is a Commuter Rail feeder to Salem, running at rush hours to and from Beverly. It also provides last-mile service between the Commuter Rail station and the Cummings Center. It could probably be operated with smaller vehicles.
9 service hours per day
163 riders, 18 riders per hour, 10 riders per trip

465. Most of the time, this bus runs between Salem and the North Shore and Liberty Tree malls (and you know how I feel about buses to malls; maybe the mall should pay for it). At rush hour, however, it operates like the 451, with more direct service to and from the train station. In fact, during the PM rush hour, passengers to the mall ride the commuter trip first, and can then stay on for the inbound which loops back to the mall. Which actually makes sense. Still, it has relatively low ridership, and a smaller bus may suffice. For a time, the 451 and 465 were through-routed, allowing one-seat rider from Beverly to the malls.
20 service hours per day
414 riders, 21 riders per hour, 16 riders per trip.

Express bus routes

I'm a bit more perplexed about the express routes shown. The 500-series routes to Newton, for example, are heavily used (often standing room only on 40' transit buses) and operate frequently: the type of service transit buses excel at. The same goes for the Medford buses (320 series). The 505, for example, operates 20 inbound trips with 556 inbound riders, meaning that the average load is 28 riders per bus, but this includes a few trips in the 6 and 9 o'clock hours, so at peak times—when the bus runs every 9 minutes—the buses are full. And the bus runs like a city bus from Waltham to West Newton, so a low-floor transit bus is far superior to a high-floor commuter coach. (Many transit agencies do operate coach-style bus service, but it is usually from a park and ride to downtown, which Commuter Rail provides in Boston.) The 502 and 504 provide similar service and frequencies. So in this case you'd need a 40-foot bus, so I'm not sure what the savings would be, unless the successful bidder ran a feeder system to frequent rail service on the Worcester Line that could bypass traffic.

The costs per passenger mile for these express buses ranges from $0.17 to $0.32, with higher fares and longer distances.

The 351 makes a lot more sense, in theory. It is an outbound express bus from Alewife to Burlington and carries about 20 passengers on each of its four trips, some of which may serve as pull-outs for other routes. It also serves an area akin to those served by several of the 128 Business Council's shuttles, which serve similar office parks with similar schedules, in areas which otherwise have little if any transit service. It is a good example of a private service that leverages the existing transit network (rather than competing with it) in an area which would likely be hard for the T to justify serving. (Full disclosure, I work for another TMA which operates last-mile shuttles.)

But the issue with the 351 is that it might not operate in a vacuum: some of its trips may be a pullout which then turns as a 350 or a 352. The 352 is also on the list, and I would assume that these would be sold as a package deal. Similarly, it's not surprising to not see the 170 bus because it serves basically as a revenue pull-out trip for 70 buses. (Although a later trip for the 170 during each rush hour would dramatically help that service; perhaps some of the 70A's resources could go towards that.) This is the issue with trying to privatize parts of a network: you often wind up pulling on a string and unraveling the whole sweater. These seem to be surgical enough that they won't dramatically affect it, but—to mix metaphors—it could be a slippery slope.

It will be interesting to see what kind of response the T gets. The union doesn't seem keen on letting anything out of their grasp, and there would be some perceived risk in operating a trip privately and not running afoul of the Carmen. Unlike the lead-up to Pacheco, there are no proposals to privatize an entire garage, but rather a few small routes. It's less likely to ruffle a lot of feathers, but the slippery slope argument holds. First they came for the 68, and I said nothing, because I did not drive the 68. Will they then come for the 28 or the 66?

It will be interesting.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

How the North South Rail Link could work

North South Rail Link schematic showing current train volumes for Commuter Rail
lines, potential future RER-style connections and new and existing stations.
Discussion about the North South Rail Link has bubbled up again, with Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld writing in the Globe about how it should be a priority, Commonwealth magazine calling them out on where the money would come from, and Dukakis replying that if you wanted to find the money, you certainly could. A thread started on Universal Hub with a lot of people wondering how the rail link would function. Here are my thoughts/explanations.

Efficiency. The crux of the issue is that MassDOT wants/needs more space at South Station (and eventually North Station) and is limited by the number of tracks. Turning trains around is time-consuming: you have to unboard (deboard?) the train, board the train (even at rush hour, 50-100 or more reverse commuters may be waiting), have the crew change ends, and then thread out the same slow trackage you came in. Even with the best of practices, a terminal station track can only accommodate a train every 15 minutes or so. But if trains run through, boarding and alighting is faster and easier, there's no need for the crew to change ends, and with more destinations,  fewer passengers get off at each stop. You could route 20 trains per hour per track, meaning that four tracks in the rail link could do the work of 20 at South Station (currently there are 13; the expansion would add about a half dozen more).

Electrification. You need to electrify the whole system (and maybe Amtrak to Portland). Maybe you could get away with dual mode engines, but that's lipstick on a pig. Electrification of the Commuter Rail network would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 to $2 billion dollars. Not cheap. But huge operational efficiencies: electric trains are cheaper to run, cheaper to maintain, and have faster acceleration meaning that trip times (and staff costs) are shorter, while ridership is higher (faster trains = higher ridership).

North/South imbalance and the Grand Junction. The idea behind the North South Rail Link is that trains coming in to South Station run through the tunnel and out one of the North Side lines. This is the Philadelphia model. This works well in theory (some passengers would get a one-seat ride; others would have to change), but in practice more trains run in to South Station than North Station (although this was not always the case; in 1972 there were twice as many passengers at North Station). Several pair off relatively well:
Old Colony Lines-Eastern Route
But falls apart when you realize that all the North Side routes are taken and you haven't accounted for the Worcester or Fairmount Lines. You could route them through to other terminals, say, to Anderson Woburn, but this seems wasteful; you don't need a train every 8 minutes inbound from Woburn. This is where the Grand Junction comes in. If it were grade-separated in Cambridge (or maybe even if not; there are grade crossings in downtown Chicago with 20 trains per hour at peak times), Worcester Trains could split off at West Station (hopefully) and make a loop (much like lines in Melbourne, where a similar imbalance existed), serving Yawkey, Back Bay, Downtown and Kendall. As for the Fairmount Line …

Potential for RER(/S-bahn/Crosslink)-style service. Having the rail link in place with the Grand Junction connection would not only allow you to route trains through the city, but it would also allow you to implement RER-type service filling much of the urban ring and providing more frequent service than Commuter Rail (although Commuter Rail could run more frequently as well). If all the paired lines shared one set of tunnels, the Worcester Line could share the other with the following RER-type services:
Allston to Assembly via Cambridge (Kendall) and Sullivan
Readville to Allston via Downtown and Cambridge (Kendall)
Allston to Chelsea via Downtown and Sullivan
These would operate frequently all day, every 10 to 15 minutes, allowing transfers between subway and Commuter Rail. This leverages the capacity of the rail link to create a complementary urban rail network to provide new connections and take some pressure off the existing hub-and-spoke network.

Get rid of North Station. Most ideas about the Rail Link include three downtown stations. But you only need two. Where North Station is today is convenient to very little, and the half mile to its north is taken up by highway ramps and water. A better idea would be a station between Aquarium and Haymarket. It still allows for transfers to all subway lines, and there is very little that is less than a 10 minute walk from North Station but more than a 10 minute walk from Haymarket. It would save money, too. (Obviously, the existing Green/Orange line station would remain.)

Open new land to development. Much of the land near North and South Stations is taken up by trackage, and the Rail Link, obviating the need for these stations (a couple of tracks to use in emergencies and for trains like the Lake Shore Limited might make sense, at South Station especially, although these trains could operate to West Station and provide connections there instead), and this would be very valuable land. In addition, it would render Boston Engine Terminal obsolete as maintenance would be for electric vehicles, and if maintenance facilities were rebuilt on less valuable land (say, in Billerica or next to the Anderson/Woburn station). Based on what Northpoint just sold for, it would be worth maybe half a billion dollars in development rights. A lot of this money could be captured to help pay for the rail link itself.

Will the North South Rail Link happen any time soon? Probably not. But hopefully this will help people understand its potential (which is huge!) and what we're talking about when we talk about the NSRL.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Allston: Let's look for a win-win

This is a straight quote from Fred Salvucci about the Allston viaduct: instead of talking about shared pain, we should talk about a win-win. He also referred to my plan as "genius" (or maybe me as a genius, I am too verklempt). Anyway, talk amongst yourselves; I'll give you a topic: here are a couple of updates regarding some technical-ish aspects of the Allston project, to address a couple of concerns I've heard from some people.

1. There won't be a direct yard lead from the Worcester Line trackage east in to the train stabling yard. The answer is … yes, probably, let's talk about it further. In the previous iteration, I had the Grand Junction viaduct descending from to West Station at the same time as the Worcester Line ascends. The issue is that for a Worcester yard lead to leave the Worcester alignment, it needs to stay fully at the base grade until the end of the "throat" section before crossing under the Grand Junction.

So, how do we do this? Well, first, the Grand Junction viaduct needs to continue at its grade (24' above grade) for about 50 more feet to allow the railroad track to pass under it, feasible with no more than a 1% grade. And the Worcester Line would need to proceed at its grade (0') to the end of the viaduct, before ascending to the station and assume a low grade beyond since it will be made for low-speed yard moves (let's assume 0.5%). This all works (although the yard may have to be dug out a bit lower, which will be better for eventual air rights). I discussed crossing one of the Worcester Line tracks under the Grand Junction recently, to allow for island platforms and easy transfers.

The issue is that then the Worcester Line would have to ascend to West Station, and it would have to do so at a higher grade, in this case, 1.5%. However, I think this is feasible. There is currently no freight east of the Beacon Park area on the Worcester Line. 1.5% is steep for passenger trains, but there is a mitigating factor: it would be traversed uphill by trains decelerating westbound to West Station, and downhill by trains accelerating eastbound from the station. So the gravity would actually aid the trains in and out of the station.

Here's a drawing:

2. There is a question of the support structure for the Grand Junction viaduct. I am not a structural engineer (as I've said before), and it's certainly a possibility that the single center posts would not be sufficient to support freight rail. This could be mitigated with supports on both sides of the eastbound Turnpike. While not as elegant as the single post design, it's quite possible that it would be required for 150-ton freight railcars and heavy rail passenger trains. This is obviously something that needs further study.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Quick Allston update

I've had some questions about my Allston plans along the lines of "how steep do the slopes need to be to match the grade of the Worcester Line and Grand Junction Line at the proposed West Station?" There have also been concerns about the grade of the Grand Junction rising from beneath the BU Bridge to ascend over the Turnpike.

The answer to the first question is: not very steep. I've gone over the grades before but have illustrated it in somewhat more detail below. It's perfectly feasible with a 1% grade; basically, you have about 1100 feet for the two lines to meet, and one can ascend while the other descends. This would put the grade of the track in the station at 14 feet—slightly lower than the current railroad—and about 10 feet lower than the adjacent streets in the BU Campus.

[Quick clarifying update on the above chart: dashed lines for the Grand Junction and Turnpike show areas where their alignments are outside of the constrained right of way area; for the Grand Junction, across the BU Bridge, and for the Turnpike, towards the toll plaza.]

The long and short of it is that the further west you move West Station, the lower it can sit. If it were moved to Cambridge Street, it could be at a grade of 0 feet, well below the current grade, although it would be much further from the core of the BU Campus. Wherever it is is a compromise: further east is higher (really anywhere west of Ashford Street would be a split-grade station with ramps or stairways between the two lines) and further west is lower. It would also be possible to have the Grand Junction in the center and the Worcester Line split on the outside; this might be preferable to easily enable cross-platform transfers. NB: Drawing not to scale:

Friday, August 7, 2015

It's time to radically rethink Mass Ave and Beacon St

There's an intersection in Boston, at the end of the Harvard Bridge, that I bike through all the time.

So do a lot of other people.

Today, one of those people didn't make it.

White: Roadway
Yellow: Exclusive transit
Green: Bicycle
Gray: Pedestrian
Blue: Parking
"Wavy" = barrier or curb
The corner of Mass Ave and Beacon Street is dangerous. Like, really dangerous. It's relatively narrow in both directions (i.e. not wide enough to easily separate uses), but still wide enough that cars can get up a decent amount of speed. It is heavily traveled by many modes, and has frequent buses and other large vehicles. Some of those things aren't going away (no, we can't kick the #1 bus out). We know it's dangerous; we have for some time. Yet we've done nothing about it. Today, that has yielded tragic results.

But there are certainly things we could do. The intersection is dangerous for a variety of reasons:

  • The bike lane disappears so that there can be three (3) lanes on the Boston-bound side.
  • Buses pull in and out of the bike lane to make passenger stops.
  • Bicyclists have no leading signal, so they have to go at the same time as cars.
  • Cyclists accelerate down the grade off the bridge, quickly catching up on turning traffic.
  • Trucks swing out to make wide right turns from the left lane, oblivious to bicycle traffic three, and cyclists don't see the trucks turning right; trucks then turn across these lanes.
  • There is frequently heavy traffic, so cyclists have to weave between stuck cars. When there's less traffic, wide lanes allow cars to go fast.
  • Beacon Street has three lanes of traffic east of Mass Ave, making it feel much more like a highway than a city street, despite traffic counts that would barely require two. (It has fewer cars than parallel Comm Ave, which has—wait for it—two lanes of traffic.)
  • There are minimal bicycle facilities on Beacon Street, making cycling there especially dangerous.
As usual, most of the real estate on the street is given over to cars. It was seen as a real coup when Nicole got parking removed on one side of Mass Ave and bike lanes installed in 2012 and, at the time, it was. But we've come a long way since then. Comm Ave is getting protected bike lanes. And one of the first protected intersections in the country, which is downright Dutch! We're fixing bicycling safety issues in other parts of the city: it's high time we did so at this intersection as well.

There's another element at play, too, which you can see if you look at the diagram that's been staring you in the face since you started reading this post: this is a huge transit corridor. With the 1 and CT1 buses, it handles 15,000 bus riders per day, add in the M2 Shuttle and bus passengers account for 20,000 people on Mass Ave, despite lousy service and near-constant gridlock impacting schedules. Given that traffic counts for the bridge are only about 25,000, it means that if you're crossing the bridge, there's a better than even chance that you're on a bike or a bus, as I've pointed out before. Yet even with the new lanes (thanks, MassDOT!), we still give 82% of the bridge space to cars, with no priority for transit.

So here's what you could do:
  • Put a bus lane on the Harvard Bridge, extending south along Mass Ave to Boylston Street (and perhaps beyond). Build a new station at Boylston in the center of the roadway (you'd need left-door buses for this, but these exist), safety-zone type stops like shown here but both adjacent to the Hynes station, or exclusive bus lanes on the sides with signals to allow the buses to move to the center of the roadway. (This could be extended further south as well, but traffic is usually not as bad south of Boylston.) At Beacon Street, install offset bus stations on either side of the street (there's not room for a single station) with signal priority. Modal equity is a good thing. And despite my feelings about the ITDP's bus study (this would hardly qualify as gold standard by their rankings with offset stations and lanes demarcated by paint and not concrete, but there's not room for that), I think this is a great place for bus lanes! And by putting them in the center, you reduce any instances of buses having to cross and block the lanes to make passengers stops.

    This will require removing only a couple of parking spaces on Mass Ave as the busway transitions in to the middle of the street to allow parking on one side. As far as I can tell, the businesses in the area have done fine without parking. Until Boylston, there are two ways of dealing with left turns. One would be to allow left turns from the bus lane, with a green light preceding any bus arrival to clear the lane. Even better would be to ban left turns all together, like San Francisco has on Market Street. This is safer for cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles, and addresses a major congestion issue (while allowing longer phases for straight movements). The few vehicles needing to go left could make a series of three rights (right on Comm/Newbury, right on Charlesgate, right on Marlborough/Comm) instead.

    (Why not at Beacon, too? A northbound driver past Marlborough would have to go all the way to Cambridge to get back. So the left turn lane there fits and allows that movement, although it could be reassessed if it received very little use.)
  • On Mass Ave, the southbound bike lane should be separated to the intersection. This is the most dangerous area, where cyclists are most likely to be right hooked as one was today. Bicyclists should have a separate phase to cross when there will be no other cross traffic allowed. At other times, cyclists could have a red signal for the straight or left (yes, left; more in a second) movement, but a green signal for a right turn on to Beacon Street. In addition, a curb or bollard south of the cycletrack on Beacon would require large trucks turning right to do so with much better visibility for cyclists, which could preclude the need to use specific bicycle signals to keep the users safe.
  • South of Beacon, Mass Ave would be a bike lane without separation to fit in the bus station, but would transition to a parking-protected separated facility.
  • Going northbound, the protected lane would similarly lose its protection at the stop. However, with no right turns possible, there would be no worry of a right hook. It would regain protection across the Harvard Bridge.
  • The Harvard Bridge is currently two five-foot bike lanes and four 11-foot travel lanes. By reducing the travel lanes by one foot each, a two-foot buffer is easily attainable.
  • Now, on to Beacon Street. Beacon Street is easy. It's currently three 12-foot travel lanes and two six-foot parking lanes. There is no need for three lanes given traffic volumes on the street (just 7500 to 9500 per day!); two would suffice. If you pulled the width back to ten feet, you'd have 16 feet available to add two feet to each parking lane (8 feet instead of 6), a 2 foot buffer and a 10-foot-wide, two-way protected bike lane all the way to the Common. Which is why you'd need the aforementioned left turn from Mass Ave.
This is all doable. The big hurdle is convincing people that cars might have to wait in some more traffic so that transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians—the majority of the users in the area—can have a faster and safer experience. We've seen what happens with the current layout: gridlock, congestion, pollution, with deadly results. It's high time we made a change.

Update 8/9: In the original diagram, I had near-side bus stops, but it is noted that
far-side bus stops might work better from a transit signal priority point of view, and to allow for larger vehicles to make right turns. This turned out to be the case from a physical point of view as well inasmuch as it doesn't require the busway to jog nearly as much if the parking moves from one side of Mass Ave to the other. The main issue is that cars would now be aiming right at the "safety zone" style bus stops and an errant car could drive in to a group of waiting passengers, but a protruding island could guide them towards the roadway. (By minimizing the amount of zigging and zagging, it would allow for more parking as well.) Another issue is that this would not accommodate the M2 Shuttle as well, as it turns right on to Beacon Street, but it could continue and go right on Mass Ave or have a separate stop further down Beacon Street. I've also added left turn boxes for cyclists. If you're interested, the original design is shown to the left.

I also have a design shown to the right which has much less transit priority but puts a two-way bikeway in the center of Mass Ave (with enough room for a jersey-style crash barrier on either side). While it would provide a quite-safe bicyclist experience for those going straight, there are a number of significant downsides:

  • Bicyclists turning right would have to cross traffic at an intersection, and could not pull to the curb.
  • It would be very difficult to design a means for cyclists to enter and exit this cycling facility from the Paul Dudley White bike path along the river.
  • Turning movements for cyclists between Beacon and Mass Ave would also be difficult as there would be nowhere for cyclists to wait for a turning phase, which would be required for all turns.
  • Where, inevitably, bike lanes move from the middle to the side it would be an awkward transition (as is the case with the Comm Ave bike lanes at Charlesgate). 
  • The potential for transit improvements are minimal. The main benefit is that there would be no need to transition transit from the middle to the center as would be the case in other scenarios, but buses can more easily signal across mixed traffic. However, transit would only share a lane with right-turning vehicles, and the only way to really improve bus speeds would be to somehow assure that drivers didn't use the right turn lane to bypass traffic and then attempt to merge back in. Good luck with that.
Update 8/20: Clarified a few things and slightly changed the diagram.