Work is finally underway for the much-awaited first phase of the Green Line extension north to Medford. Last December, MassDOT issued the first contracts to Barletta Heavy Division and followed that with the go-ahead to start construction on a set of demolitions and bridge widening projects that will, according to the MassDOT web site:
- Reconstruct and widen the Harvard Street Rail Bridge in Medford
- Widen the Medford Street Rail Bridge in Somerville
- Demolish 21 Water Street in Cambridge in preparation for the construction of the new Lechmere Station under Phase 2/2A of the GLX project
- Construct retaining walls and noise walls adjacent to the Harvard Street Rail Bridge
- Relocate MBTA Commuter Rail tracks in the Harvard Street Rail Bridge area
- Upgrade and replace existing storm drain system between Harvard Street and Granville Avenue
These projects will continue for 2 years until March of 2015. During that time, the state plans to maintain its transparency and documentation through photos. According to Joe Pesutauro of the MBTA:
With strong support from the Green Line extension team, DOT Communications staff has done a total of 53 separate posts with Green Line Extension meeting, outreach, and construction information since the MassDOT blog debuted 50 months ago. More than one [post] per month on average and more than on any other single MassDOT/MBTA project.
Each of those posts was accompanied with a Tweet and link on Twitter. Each such item is now also posted on our more recent MassDOT Facebook page, including two FB posts within the past week- one on the upcoming meeting and one displaying one of the Flickr construction photos. We have a Flickr set established to add future construction photos. All this in addition to the separate efforts on T social media.
The biggest highlight is MassDOT’s latest album on Flickr, which captures the construction and is a great visual progress update. MassDOT has been doing this for some time to show very occasional and infrequent updates on bridge construction for the Accelerated Bridge Program, but the MTA has been posting album after album of construction updates for even less time. MassDOT started in the summer 0f 2009 with 1,165 uploads while the MTA has uploaded over four times that in half the time, starting with its first post in March of 2011.
Granted, the MTA has at least one dedicated photographer, but it has roughly the same number of ongoing capital projects and maintenance needs as MassDOT and the MBTA combined. Suffice it to say, MassDOT’s planning site is well-organised, but much of the information is either hidden deep within many clicks or in lengthy PDF documents; the closest thing to a dashboard is the ‘Projects’ tab on the main MassDOT page. The MBTA’s project page is slightly better, but is a simple table that doesn’t give indication of scope or size of projects, instead listing project statuses. Deeper in, there isn’t much consistency to project documentation, impact, or even format.
Other agencies have varying levels of success with building project dashboards. The CTA has a presentable planning site that highlights major upcoming projects. BART’s project site is incredibly accessible through its good design via simplicity. SFMTA’s site is more text-heavy, but highlights major projects well, perhaps only by default because they have fewer but wider-scoped projects. Washington Metro also has a very text-heavy project page littered with links to PDFs, but many of these are studies and preliminary analysis for projects and are well-organised into major categories on a single page. WMATA even has a rider-oriented blog-style site called PlanItMetro for focused feedback and updated on various projects, similar to MassDOT’s blog. The NYC MTA, which has far more ground to cover than most in gaining public trust, has the best capital projects board; the capital projects are organised by division, similar to the way our capital projects are presented, and outlined with a breakdown of estimated and actual cost and deadline with notes for any discrepancy.
NYC’s MTA arguably has bred a similar, if not deeper, strain of distrust as the MBTA and re-constituted MassDOT, which didn’t exist until nearly four years ago. The MBTA/MassDOT need this kind of visibility and information accessibility. The T and MassDOT/former EOT have come a long way to show that they hold themselves accountable to its stakeholders outside of hour-long update meetings, regardless of whether the current people in leadership are responsible for the decades of actions that have bred the distrust in the agencies. A Flickr or Twitter feed or even Facebook page are more accessible than a physical meeting or even a PDF of the PowerPoint presentation from the meeting posted to the web.
The Green Line Extension does have a Facebook page, but as of this writing is not linked from the main project site, which suffers the same disjointed branding, presentation, and deep linking of information as many of MassDOTs other project pages. This capital project is the most promising in being a consistently transparent project through regular photo updates, but this consistency needs to be pushed across all projects and start well before any shovels hit the ground. This will be hard for the much maligned and beleaguered agencies, but both Secretary Davey and MBTA GM Scott deeply know and daily act on how important transparency is to public accountability and trust. While they’re just getting started turning things around, many others in their field are leapfrogging past them and we can learn from those advances going forward.
In a slightly less controversial move, the MBTA has started pasting Boston Strong stickers on vehicles in a show of solidarity after the Boston Marathon bombings. These ribbons join a growing list of ribbons that have been used to symbolize a number of causes.
The stickers are undoubtedly less obtrusive than the ‘Boston Strong’ and ‘We are one Boston’ messages that buses have started cycling on LED signs since the bombing. While the patriotic messages are inspiring, the signs are first and foremost for passenger information.
As we move farther and farther from the horrendous event, things will normalise and life will go on. This is a subtle but impactful way the MBTA can show its Boston pride.
At yesterday’s MBTA Rider Oversight Committee meeting, it was revealed by bus operations representative Dave Carney that the T would soon be spreading the word to all drivers to remove the message ‘Boston Strong’ from the cycled messages on bus LED signs.
While not explicitly mandated by federal ADA law, the signs are intended for passenger information. The patriotic message takes up a full 1/3 or 1/2 of the display’s time since each portion of the message is shown for the exact same amount of time. This can mean that the buses’ route information may not actually be displayed long enough to determine which route the bus is serving before passing the stop, depending on how fast the bus is approaching.
Speaking frankly, Carney noted that it will be an arduous process to take the message off buses since it needs to be removed bus by bus and some drivers may refuse to remove the message despite orders from their supervisors. If it persists, the agency may have to address individual drivers about making the change. Apparently each bus’ head sign is individually programmed, a potential opportunity for operations improvement with the MBTA.
In coordination with local and state officials, all MBTA services were shut down early morning two Fridays ago, to facilitate efforts in the manhunt for the remaining suspect responsible for Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings.
The ease of digital broadcasts helped the MBTA communicate the shutdown to its customers, but left those without a persistent digital connection in the dark. That morning, the Globe found riders were still confused and frustrated by the closure and lack of visible notice at stations:
Jonathan Cruz of Dorchester was on his way to his apprenticeship at Youth Build Boston, a program that teaches young people construction skills. An acquaintance stopped him on his way to the JFK/UMass Red Line station, warning him service was cancelled, but Cruz kept going, hoping to get more information at the station.
He arrived at the station at about 6:30 a.m. and found no signs about service [cancellation] and no employees, he said. His program has a very low tolerance for tardiness, and he was supposed to be in Roxbury by 7 a.m.
“I think they should have put signs up but the problem is, we have the Internet and we watch TV all the time, so they thought we would know,” he said.
This further highlights the need for non-digital information dissemination, accommodating those on the other side of the digital divide. Service notices need not be vinyl wall wraps that are planned weeks in advance, but the advancing deployment of advertising displays from Titan can certainly be instrumental in making it easier to inform those who otherwise arrive at stations:
Xheni Kurdari walked up the stairs at the JFK/UMass station and tried to open the station’s doors. No luck. She could not make the short commute to her job at State Street Bank and Trust Company in Quincy.
Kurdari said she went to bed early the previous night and did not hear the news of the police chase and shoot-out with the bombing suspects. She heard some sirens in the morning, but did not think much of them.
“I was wondering why there were no people around,” she said. “I’m gonna call my husband, I’m gonna wake him up, probably, and I’m gonna have him drive to work.”
Digital notifications are still one of the least effectively advertised customer information features in stations that can prove useful outside of it. I’m still surprised daily the number of passengers I encounter who don’t realise that they can sign up for text-based ‘T-Alerts’ to their phones via SMS that don’t require a smartphone. Even fewer people realise they can go to sites like NextBus.com for realtime bus arrival times and HowsTheT.com for realtime train arrival times from their PCs before they ever leave from home or work.
Of course, the MBTA website continues to be an indispensable resource, granted you can and know how to get there. Reaching out through the press in papers, television, and radio, can help circumvent the digital divide that still very much exists, even in Boston.
Signage in and around stations remains the most effective means of communicating with the public – that’s why advertisers will pay to put signs in our stations…
Tuesday evening, MassDOT hosted an informational meeting at Shriners Hospital as part of its community outreach to provide details on the upcoming Longfellow Bridge reconstruction. Plans were initially introduced in February and MassDOT is working to ensure that the public is well aware of the disruptions for the next three years that will restore a regional landmark. Not everyone walked away happy from the meeting though, especially car-dependent locals and advocates of the cycling community.
The Longfellow Bridge is the only bridge in Massachusetts that carries cars, trains, and pedestrians across the Charles River and one of the oldest in the Commonwealth. Opened on my birthday 107 years ago, 3 August 1906, the bridge has been neglected for nearly a century as many of the Commonwealth’s other bridges. It’s a critical link in the region’s transport network, carrying over 28 thousand autos each day and over three times that in Red Line passengers in addition to scores of pedestrians and cyclists who enjoy the picturesque views of Boston into Charles Circle.
The last time heavy work was done on the bridge was in 1959 and that rehab was only supposed to last 50 years. This reconstruction, scheduled to be completed in 2016 at the cost of over $255 million, should last 75 years and will bring some much-needed improvements to modernise the bridge, including wider pedestrian paths and wide, buffered bike lanes on both sides of the bridge. Sedimentation basins will even be installed at the ends of the bridge to catch and filter the rain runoff from the bridge, cleaning the oil-slicked water before it gets dumped into the Charles.
A significant amount of attention will be paid to the historical elements of the bridge, requiring the careful disassembly of various decorative bridge components, from railings to cladding, and hand-restoring them off-site. The masonry of the bridge’s iconic towers will also be removed block-by-block for cleaning and restoration.
A new pedestrian bridge will also be installed next to the bridge to replace the existing bridge that spans over Storrow Drive to provide wheelchair accessibility from Charles Circle to the Esplanade. The bridge will be built adjacent the existing pedestrian bridge and will open in 2015.
But what about the bikes?…
Restoration is being handled by the joint venture of White, Skanska, and Consigli. All three are high profile engineering and construction contractors, but are any of them up to the task of managing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure? White has built much of Boston’s significant infrastructure projects, but most of those projects have been auto-oriented or large transit projects and none appear to have as much mode mixing as that at the approaches of the Longfellow Bridge. Tetratech will be providing traffic design for the project, but no experts in pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure design have been brought onto the project.
Boston has a strange way of committing to walkability, transit accessibility, and the adjustment of cultural expectations for parking per Menino’s claim that ‘the car is no longer king in Boston‘. A large number of transit-oriented developments in and around Boston come with a lot of parking and even more is about to be built at a development that could’ve easily done without it.
When news about a parking-free development in Allston started making the rounds in January, many in the neighbourhood vehemently argued against the development with the fear of increased parking pressures that we’ve come to expect of public comment in Boston.
Saying that the building won’t have any parking is very disingenuous. The project was originally submitted to the Boston Redevelopment Authority[PDF] with the plan to have six parking spaces for car sharing services (e.g. Zipcar or Hertz Connect). Instead, the development was approved with 35 parking spaces.
Paul McMorrow nails the issue right on the head in his Globe editorial:
Nearly every developer who has ever tried to build in Boston has run into neighborhood interference over parking. Bostonians will shiv anyone who threatens to dilute the supply of free on-street parking. It’s the city’s job to calm these fears, and strike a balance between neighbors and developers, who cover the astronomical costs of building off-street parking by collecting inflated rents. This balancing act shouldn’t be as delicate as it once was, since city-dwellers are now far less married to their cars. But it’s still up to the city to make parking regulations catch up to the market.
[Sebastian] Mariscal’s Allston development isn’t overreaching at all by zeroing out cars entirely. It’s in a part of town that will undergo a dramatic transformation over the next decade, thanks to New Balance’s New Brighton Landing development. Mariscal’s building site is three blocks from a planned commuter rail stop. It’s a 10-minute walk from the Green Line. These are hardly insurmountable distances. And the market for car-free housing is far greater than Mariscal’s doubters believe. More than half of Boston residents currently take the T, bike, or walk to work. There are now 27,000 more car-free workers living in the city than there were a decade ago. Gathering 44 of them in one building should be a layup. Getting the city’s blessing to do so should have been, too.
The concerns about increased parking pressures were, as usual, not quantified or contested despite the fact that our apartment-dwelling urbanites are re-learning how to share, car sharing significantly reduces car ownership or the potential to own a car, and a shit ton of parking will be dumped on the area when New Balance’s New Brighton Landing is finished. Add to that the state’s commitment to a new commuter rail stop to…mitigate the need for parking? Wait, what’s going on here?
As noted in New Balance’s submitted project documents, there’s already a 1,200 space parking garage for the existing development and all new parking will be provided on-site. So a new commuter rail station is being put in, but we’re still anticipating a need for larger amounts of parking?
The BRA’s own vision for the area is inspiring and talks about developing a walkable, transit-oriented neighbourhood, but their recommendations for transportation improvements talk more from the perspective of improving car throughput and access to the Mass Pike and leave transit improvements to the hopeful increase of bus service and eventual arrival of a commuter rail station.
Parking and the availability of it in future developments further dramatically affects transit use and the effectiveness of transit, even with increased frequency of service, despite promising to increase the area’s ‘traffic’ throughput. In fact, it’s the sheer volume of car traffic that already chokes the existing roads and, in turn, transit service. More parking will only serve to give more people the option to drive.
The area’s debilitating automobile traffic is a major reason why the 57 and 57A are late at least 35% of the time, which likely is disproportionately felt by the majority of riders who use the bus during rush hours. The 64, which directly serves the New Balance site and runs past Mariscal’s 37 North Beacon St, is late almost 40% of the time.
This isn’t to say service can’t be improved in spite of additional parking, but no plans have been revealed so far to include dedicated bus lanes or other forms of transit prioritization to improve the reliability of the existing bus service. Without it, the area will remain auto-dependent and people will continue opting to drive and sit in traffic rather than wait for late and crowded buses.
And it’s not just in Allston…
Similar visions of parking-loaded ‘transit-oriented’ developments have been approved immediately next to the new Yawkey Station that will also see increased commuter rail service and adjacent the new Assembly Square station on the Orange Line. The Assembly Row development in Somerville was approved with 10,066 spaces[PDF] while the Fenway Center development at Yawkey will see a more reasonable 1,290 spaces. Millennium Tower at Downtown Crossing, within walking distance of every transit line and commuter rail line in Western Massachusetts, has even been approved with 550 spaces despite thousands of public parking spaces in the neighbourhood that empty out after business hours, 822 of which sit in my office building across the street.
Fenway Center’s numbers are still disproportionate to the need of the area considering its transit accessibility that will only increase over time and the further parking volume promised from other new and approved developments. The perception seems to be that Fenway games need more parking despite the fixed number of seats in the ballpark and the new two-platform commuter rail stop that will see full-time service once complete. Exacerbating neighbourhood traffic by making it more convenient to people to drive to ball games and the growing number of posh restaurants in Fenway isn’t a great way to convince those very neighbourhoods that development is good.
These are all examples of transit-related capital investments being made by the state, MassDOT/MBTA, being undermined by the BRA approving adjacent ‘transit-oriented’ developments with large volumes of parking. While in some of these projects, the parking can and probably will be converted to other uses if/when the spaces go underutilized, but that alone is an expensive venture and the inclusion of parking into the development already increases its base cost. This increased cost translates into less housing and higher rents for those fewer units that get built.
But it can get better…
While there’s not much that can be done to reduce the volume of parking at these already approved developments, the BRA, Boston Transportation Department, and MBTA can do a much better job of talking to each other in future developments about the real generator of automobile traffic: parking.
Instead of imposing parking ‘guidelines’, which act more as legal parking minimums, the BRA could offer ‘parking credits’ for developers to apportion parking off-site in existing parking structures. This would encourage more developers to build less expensive housing that would more effectively address Boston’s severe housing crunch.
Additionally, the new developments don’t necessarily need 1:1 or even 1:2 parking ratios because of a significant latent demand for housing without parking and the ability to address travel needs by improving the reliability of transit. Parking ‘needs’ can and will be further driven down by increasing the number of amenities and affordable, modern office spaces in the area, practically inherent in the act of increasing density with new development.
What else can we do with less expensive developments? Well, we can encourage developers to include modern civic and municipal spaces into new buildings. The city can even create new revenue with forward-thinking land use deals instead of selling the property outright for a one-time cash infusion. This further adds to the number of amenities within walking distance to new and existing developments and increases the livability and value of our neighbourhoods.
Again, it all comes down to our transportation choices when we have the opportunities to remake our cities block-by-block. ‘When I design a building, the first thing I have to resolve is my parking,’ Mariscal notes, just as every other developer before him and any to follow. By beefing up transit and actually treating it like the lifeblood of our city, we can reduce the pressure on developers to design parking into their buildings and the cost of our rent. In time, Bostonians will learn put down their shivs and not have a conniption over each development proposed without or with little parking when there’s transit nearby just waiting to be improved. The BRA isn’t helping by not doing its due diligence and addressing resident concerns with reason.