Monthly Archives: May 2011

Green Line Extension Workshops

This is a little more pragmatic, and oddly paradoxical, appendix to a post on improving the Green Line; apparently the luminaries at the MBTA are way ahead of me in organizing an extension of the Green Line. There are some station design workshops coming up in June that should give people a real chance to influence how these stations are going to look and operate. The dates:

June 7th from 6PM – 8PM: College Avenue Station, Tufts University, 51 Winthrop Street, Medford

June 9th from 6PM – 8PM: Ball Square Station, Somerville High School Auditorium, 81 Highland Avenue

June 13th from 6PM – 8PM: Lowell Street Station, Somerville High School Auditorium, 81 Highland Avenue

June 15th from 6PM – 8PM: Gilman Square Station, Somerville High School Auditorium, 81 Highland Avenue

June 22nd from 6PM – 8PM: Union Square Station, Cummings Elementary School, 42 Prescott Street

June 23rd from 6PM- 8PM: Washington Street Station, Cummings Elementary School, 42 Prescott Street

June 30th from 6PM – 8PM: Lechmere Station, Kennedy/Longfellow School, 158 Spring Street, Cambridge

So quite the range of dates here and pretty geographically varied. The Green Line extension for those who don’t know —and I just recently became informed— is a proposal that would run the Green Line through Cambridge and Somerville where subways are essentially absent. East Cambridge and Somerville are both blue-collar neighborhoods that need access to transit outside of bus routes which, while expansive, are intermittent and shut down service early. The MBTA’s graphic is below:

 Green Line Extension Workshops

 

 

 

 

The extension will do what transit does: increase incomes, raise home values, and create jobs along its corridor. It’s a wonder why we don’t invest in this stuff more often.

Simple Solutions

Boston’s NPR station, WBUR (broadcasting out of my alma mater), has a great story on something I’ve wrote about here before: helping taxis keep more of their fares. The gist of it comes from what seems to be the well-spring of all modular and portable solutions, your cell phone. It doesn’t have to be a smart phone either, paying by text to a pre-verified PayPal account isn’t that out of the ordinary.

boston Simple Solutions

A commenter on the story also had another practical and pragmatic idea concerning easy payments that really hasn’t taken off here in the states outside of public transportation. What if, instead of using your Charlie Card (Boston’s smart transit tap card) just for getting into T stations, that card could also be loaded with real cash value in the same way that an E-Z Pass is? You have a minimum balance you keep on it, say $20, which will get you most places in Boston, and instead of swiping we just— tap. Easy as that.

Side note: The fact that the solution came out of London’s cab system shouldn’t surprise anyone. The hacks on the river Thames have to take an exam where memorization of every street in London is compulsory; it’s called “The Knowledge” which is amazingly badass. I love cabbies, and, albeit rarely, I’ve had to give directions to main areas of Brookline, Boston, or Cambridge. Driving a taxi doesn’t pay much in this country anymore, but they’re invaluable assets in a city so maybe it’s time to consider this service something that garners a better paycheck and a well-run organizational structure, without the medallion owners bleeding out the actual drivers.

london map Simple Solutions

To the Museum!

You can get most places in Boston taking the bus or the subway, you just can’t always get there without transferring a couple times. To go from MIT in Cambridge to Fenway Park, you can take the Red Line train to Park Street and transfer to the Green Line to Kenmore Square. You could also take the #1 bus to Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue—and walk another 0.6 miles. Or you can walk 1.3 miles, which would probably be a shorter trip that either of the previous options. Either way you won’t be getting to that game on time if you don’t give yourself a good 30 minute window, and that’s with one of the most urban integrated stadiums in the world.

Connections between points of interest in a city as small as Boston should be a cornerstone of transit planning, but current transportation strategies are based around short-route buses which tend to lose a few thousand dollars a day on average and effective, but still lacking, subway systems. In Boston, where subway systems are the oldest in the United States, it’s difficult to criticize only the planning policies; city plans and locations of interest change every generation, but buses have flexibility in routing with low capital sunk costs (signage, small stations). They can change.

The poorly made map below —poorly made by me, not the luminaries over at Google— shows how one would get from Back Bay, my neighborhood, to the three major museums around Boston: the Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Museum Map

The green line is the transit route: from Copley to the Museum stop, then after running around two of the better museums in the country, you get back on the train to Park Street, switch to the Red Line to South Station, and switch again to the Silver Line; then do it again on the way back. Or you could drive, which is the blue line. But you really, really don’t want to drive here.

Alright so the museums are on opposite sides of Boston, a city that has a unique geographical layout that prohibits pragmatic and predictable transit planning. It is not so unique as to prevent visitors from seeing three different museums in one day without —it depends on where your starting point but let’s use Copley Square station as an origin and endpoint— making a total of six single seat trips. Going from the Museum of Fine Arts to the Institute of Contemporary Art could take as long as hour depending on train frequency, overloaded Green Line trains, and the ambiguity of the Silver Line.

I used this example because it’s the most visually identifiable and its geographical contrast is severe. If we were going on pure self-interest I would have complained about the lack of any direct connection between Copley Square and Harvard Square; two centers of population and financial health. What needs to be considered is this:

- Boston’s aesthetic and tourist geography has changed. If we, like all great cities, want our tourists to ride mass transit without confusion and frustration, then we need to make our bus routes, and eventually our subway maps, more fluid. This isn’t to say that change we change mainlines where low-income and vulnerable communities need them most; we need to eliminate bus lines that lose money due to low ridership and create long haul routes that go between incubators of culture, commerce, and education.

- Contrary to current urban planning vogues, clustering of social institutions can be successful if done in the right way. Vienna’s Museumstrasse and Los Angeles’ burgeoning Museum Mile —funded by the billionaire philanthropist and art patron Eli Broad— can be seen as both long-term and emerging arts agglomeration projects. Museums, unlike restaurants, universities, and pedestrian squares, don’t necessarily benefit the neighborhoods they reside in; if they’re old they are products of institutional wealth in places like New York’s Upper West Side, and if they’re new they are built with neo-industrial infusions where the museum complexes become neighborhoods unto themselves. The latter is an option for a much-maligned and now defunct urban planning theory, “city beautiful”, to have a self-aware revival.

Wien Museum To the Museum!

- Buses and transit are receiving some ingenious influxes of new technologies, but the concept of the bus route hasn’t been revisited for half a century. Bus routes should be able to be fluid based on demand and need, especially for low income and disadvantaged people. We have sophisticated traffic engineering programs that can monitor everything from highway peak load to intelligent traffic signaling, isn’t it time we developed these smart programs for transit?

Radilarious | Stealing Signs

I’m a huge baseball fan (go Dodgers!) so this post from the oft-acerbic SBNation was a singular conflation of my two passions: a hilarious string of traffic signs and their human baseball player equivalents.

Note: Have a sense of humor when reading through these, especially the Kendry Morales one. Here’s a personal favorite:

 Radilarious | Stealing Signs  Radilarious | Stealing Signs

Transpo News Roundup (5/21)

Big thanks to Bernie Wagenblast of Transportation Communications Newsletter.

Los Angeles launches the stable version of its real-time bus arrival application (via The Source)

MTA arrival times are coming to a bodega near you (via NY1)

A third of riders in Boston are using apps to get their bus arrival times; buses still late, you just know they’re late now (via Transportation Nation)

Seattle is dropping $2.1 million to research their bus and rail ridership. The Sonics are still in OKC. (via Seattle Times)

Feds decide to take their rail money where people will actually use it; Gov. Rick Scott (FL) sulks. (via Washington Post)

The continuing case of fraudulent T passes ended up costing the T $4m. One can only imagine what it would have cost the MTA. (via Boston Globe)

 

 

Fixing the Green Line (Part I)

Boston’s subway system is old; the oldest in the country, it predates New York intricate subterranean paths by 7 years. Unfortunately, seniority has been decoupled from superiority. The MBTA, like many transit systems in America, is facing a crippling debt crisis sprung from a shifting budget source and a relatively low transit mode-share. There is something unavoidably outdated about the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and nowhere is that feeling more distinct than on the Green Line.

The MBTA, or “T” to reduce an acronym even further, manages every mode of public transportation in Boston: subways, commuter trains, and, staying true to their name, the ferries. The T map, like most transit maps, is a austerely graceful web of practicality:

Boston MBTA Map 2001 metro maps 46863 1024 1022 Fixing the Green Line (Part I)

The abstract fork sprawling from right to left is the Green Line, Boston’s oldest—and when you step into one of the underground stations (many parts of the Green Line are at street level) that’s pretty apparent. That isn’t really an issue though, outside of handicap accessibility which the MBTA has been working on for years. Transit logistics on the MBTA, however, don’t seem to have moved past the 19th century though.

Potential Solutions:

- The Honor System

It’s nearly impossible for the aboveground T stops to partition off the entrances to platforms; safety, access, traffic, and train mobility issues are all immediately apparent. During peak hours drivers will allow riders to hop on the car without paying, out of necessity and frustration rather than lack of integrity as some posit. Lost fares are relatively marginal, as the fares only recover about 32% of their operating costs (the linked PDF is a great breakdown of MBTA transit facts, and is available for all transit systems on the National Transit Database website) so the problem isn’t so much with money as it is with efficiency.

Passengers need to be able to board the train faster, a simple concept that cascades far down the logistical landscape offering faster service, reduced wait times, and improved public perception. The Honor System would allow passengers to board quickly and without incident—given they purchase a monthly pass which would have to have its pricing structure altered significantly. It’s worked in large and small-scale transit systems in Europe and stateside and with the Green Line’s idiosyncrasies why not attempt something as quirky as honor.

- Eliminating Stops/Extending Trains

These are two of the obvious solutions that approach the issue from disparate zones; economic and engineering respectively. There have been days when walking, at a brisk pace of course, that I can beat the T from one stop to another. A confluence of logistical issues are behind it, but put bluntly the Green Line has too many stops. There are as many as five stops that could be eliminated on the B Line alone (the B is one of the Green Line’s four forks) and their disappearance would be noticed by a minority of riders. While the money saved from ditching the above ground stations is marginal in the eight-digit budget, rider benefits go beyond monetization.

The extension of trains is something that seems obvious to me, but there is an understandable combination of logistical issues; not enough trains, track pressures, extra drivers, etc. The 3-train car approach works and reduces peak hour load significantly; I’ve never had to wait for the next train at 5 PM on a Friday when a 3-car rolls around. A 3-car train is (barely) visible below:

 Fixing the Green Line (Part I)

- Smart Lighting Systems

Green Line trains, on their worst days, operate more like slow-moving buses than their subterranean counterparts, and what do buses depend on more than anything else? Traffic lights. Santa Monica, among other cities, installed a traffic light priority system for its buses where green lights are extended and red lights are shortened via a special transponder on the bus. It’s a sort of proxy bus rapid transit system; buses are able to switch roles and function more like a subway and less like a giant car. The Green Line would be able to make sue of the same kind of things with the same brand of results.

 

That’s three to consider, and there are more on the way. The Green Line, when it works, is efficient, fast, and cheap; the MBTA would be wise to bring it up to modern standards.

Inflation Adjusted Fill Up

I found a buyer for my car and I’ll be saying goodbye to a good friend who stole a lot of money from me. Parking in Boston, just like any other city, is expensive and it’s not just the parking; the tickets, registration renewals, and gas take their toll on a newly minted undergraduate living beyond his means already. With gas prices hovering around $4.00/gal in Boston and the surrounding towns—this excellent webpage shows gas prices around the country on a pretty granular level— my yearly bill would come in north of $1,000, a portion of my salary I’d rather have in my pocket.

Forget all those numbers and look at this graph:

gas prices pic 1024x553 Inflation Adjusted Fill Up

U.S. Energy Information Administration

More about why this matters after the jump.

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Can’t Park? Don’t Drive

A lot of my friends and contemporaries in the small universe that is progressive transportation advocacy tend to bend towards the binary where the ubiquity of private automobiles exist towards one end of the spectrum with conservatives and former-Hummer dealerships. I don’t, exactly, see things the same way. I own a car, though I am in the process of selling it off, and my bloodline stretches into Southern California where cars have shaped the landscape as much as the theft of inland oases. I have a somewhat unfortunate affinity for automobiles.

5227667132 41fd9a69a81 Cant Park? Dont Drive

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Checking in on Los Angeles

I got off work early enough to see the last couple innings of the Dodgers-Cubs game on Extra Innings and somewhere between Ted Lilly’s shelling and the friendly poetry of one Vin Scully, I started to feel a little homesick for Southern California. It’s also raining something awful in Boston and from the looks of the screen it’s 80 and sunny in LA today—typical.

Southern California’s dialect is dominated by auto-infrastructure: the 5, 405, 101, and 10 look like part of the natural landscape rather than manmade additions. Save for a few areas within the LA city limits, most of us drive everywhere not because we don’t want to walk —California is aesthetically obsessive and walking is a surefire way to stave off extra pounds— but because the distance between destinations is nearly prohibitive to walking. That’s a product of planning, land, and history, though, and without going into too much detail it’s worth pointing out that Los Angeles is one of the least geographically bound cities in America. San Francisco is limited to a peninsula, Seattle to a near-archipelago, New York (Manhattan) to an island, and Boston to a harbor. We stretched out because we had the room.

 Checking in on Los Angeles

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Got Cash? Then Use It.

I got back from New York later than usual Sunday and unfortunately for me the T was closed so I had to cab it from South Station to Back Bay. I usually treat taxi trips as paid stretches of self-reflection; unless the hack starts the conversation my typical backseat commentary stops after a friendly “howyadoing?” It was late and I could use some human interaction, I had just gotten off a 4 hours bus ride, which is a universally unpleasant experience. The topic was credit cards.

Credit card readers are ubiquitous —though not always operational— in cabs throughout New York and Boston (other cities as well, I’m sure). They’ve received mixed reviews from fares and drivers alike: the machines are great—when they work, it’s great that I can pay with my card—but sometimes drivers drive away when I ask, it’s such a simple solution—but the interface is terrible. On the whole, the move to mandate these card readers is on behalf of riders, it makes it easier for us to pay if we don’t have to worry about having cash on hand which is important in an increasingly plastic-based world. There aren’t many redeeming qualities for the drivers themselves, besides a nominal increase in the amount of fares they may receive on a given night, which is marginal at best.

My driver, an older Asian man I’ll call Dave, spoke in viscous but forceful English, but gathered his thoughts deliberately, being careful not to say something he didn’t mean as a non-native linguist. He spoke in bursts of insightful commentary, like a particularly satisfying point in a Presidential debate or a Donald Trump stump speech. My first question I knew the answer to: “What percentage do the credit card readers take off the fare?” 6% is the accepted cut; my driver proffered 10%. I pressed him slightly as I knew that his estimation was too high. “10%, 6% to the card company and 4% in fees,” he said referring to the credit card companies and Boston city operating fees, respectively.

After a conciliatory comment, Dave offered another fact that I had never considered, “the machines cost $1000.” I quite literally never even considered this scenario, I just assumed that the City of Boston’s hackney division would be paying for something they mandated but apparently the drivers themselves are paying for the machines. A typical driver makes around $30k, usually a little less (the excellent piece on the NYC Taxi advocate Bhairavi Desai from the New Yorker goes into more detail on the salaries, subscription required) which is even lower than it sounds relative to cost-of-living as taxis typically operate in urban areas where simply living requires a daily account balance check.

1220087603 1198 Got Cash? Then Use It.

Dave sounded defeated by the time we came to my block. I had naively asked if there was any energy to challenge the percentage collected by the credit card companies, he kind-heartedly laughed and released a definitive “no”. He understood why people wanted to pay with cards, “People don’t have jobs, I understand they don’t have cash.” He continued, “but you know, it hurts us too because we lose money. Even people with good jobs pay with cards!”

I thanked Dave and paid my fare of $8.90 with a $10 bill and said sorry I couldn’t give him a better tip, it was all the cash I had. “At least you didn’t pay with a card!” he laughed, and I gathered my things and shut the door.

If you have the cash, use it.

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