This year has been a big year for train safety issues, in particular for nearby Metro-North Railroad in New York and Connecticut.
How safe are our trains and at what cost can we have better safety?
Last week I had a chat with Jeremy of Critical Transit talking about these critical questions about safety, including some national trends that affect commuters in Boston on a daily basis.
Ultimately, many train crashes are preventable. Computer systems on the Orange Line, Red Line, and many lines on the commuter rail protect passengers daily. The Blue Line still relies on the same physical automatic train stop system used in New York, but the Green Line still desperately needs a $721 million safety upgrade. The South Coast Rail commuter rail expansion will cost well more than twice that. Which do we fund?
The MBTA Rider Oversight Committee released a report yesterday on the viability of using funds from a proposed student pass program with the region’s innumerable universities to fund late night service. This follows months of research into other systems that have university transit pass programs in place and how those programs have succeeded phenomenally.
The MBTA ROC’s proposed program would follow in the footsteps of the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) U-Pass program, where area colleges are given the opportunity to purchase unlimited-use transit passes for no less than 100% of their full-time student body. In exchange for a 100% buy-in, the MBTA would offer semester passes to participating Boston-area colleges at a mark-down greater than the current college student discount. The program would be mutually beneficial since the students would be granted free access to all MBTA subways, light-rail vehicles, and buses, while the MBTA would receive additional revenue from the increased pass sales (the CTA, for example, generated $25 million in revenue through their U-pass program last year). Furthermore, the MBTA would be required to use that additional revenue to provide overnight service, which would be a benefit to all MBTA riders.
The biggest and nearly insurmountable hurdle will be convincing these universities that paying into the program will be buying students real mobility. The Green Line and 57/A buses along the BU and BC corridors are hardly the paragon of transit reliability and speed.
Additionally, there are many private carriers either run by the universities or contracted on their behalf that already provide a level of mobility across campus. These services could instead be given to the MBTA as an extension of the relationship with the T, but that is not explored in the report and would likely be a venture very far down the road.
The $10 million would only go to operations of extended late night bus service since the T still needs to shut down rail service for maintenance, as has been covered by numerous press outlets, including the Metro and the impressive documentary that leads this post.
Even more damning is the logistics in incorporating multiple technologies and standards into the same RFID card. Chicago’s new Ventra system uses pre-paid debit cards integrated into MasterCard’s PayPass system, which will eventually evolve into MasterPass and is already compatible with a number of RFID smartphones. HID, which provides the contactless card systems used by most colleges for integrated student ID key cards for residence halls, is also working toward integration with smartphones, which leads us even further toward the possibility that phones will be the common denominator for contactless payment and security systems.
Phones are already a conveyance for currency in Africa and have been for years. For those without NFC/RFID-enabled phones, systems like Ventra still enable fare cards that work with the contactless system. Many transit agemcies are looking to replace their expensive and proprietary fare payment systems, including the MBTA. GM Scott has already voiced her interest in replacing the CharlieCard system and New York City has been working with numerous agencies to find consensus before they replace their nearly 20-year-old MetroCard system.
CharlieCard, less than 10 years old, was delayed, well over budget, and outdated by the time it was fully implemented. The MBTA’s reaction to the MIT hack of the CharlieCard itself was a significant setback and current policy and tightness around the system is preventing its growth, as acknowledged by many within the T. Standardisation of the payment system is the only way forward and that may well mean our phones are the lowest common denominator.
This evening’s meeting in the Chelsea City Hall chambers played out like how I imagine the public meetings would have gone in the planning stages of Staten Island’s S79 SBS project, but perhaps with fewer pitchforks and much lighter attendance.
Chelsea and Staten Island share a lot in common, despite Chelsea not actually being incorporated into the City of Boston. Both are traversed by many bus routes and have largely been neglected parts of their metropolitan areas despite being so geographically close to downtown proper.
This is where the as yet unfunded Silver Line Gateway project is supposed to come in. Costing anywhere between $20 and 70 million for the conservative estimates of the three alternatives, the project will bring Chelsea within 20 minutes of the Seaport/Innovation district and few minutes more to South Station.
Internationally recognised as the picture of how not to implement bus rapid transit (BRT), this is an opportunity to build confidence that MassDOT can do it right while still including the public input and consideration that didn’t happen with the cancelled Blue Hill Ave BRT.
Weighing the Alternatives
One of the most contentious alternatives that showed up again this evening was the street-running third alternative. It proposes elimination of parking along the spine of Central Avenue from the Chelsea Street bridge to Hawthorn Street to install a dedicated bus lane with bus signal priority. Nearly 84 spaces would be eliminated, some of which would be in front of residences in a neighbourhood already stuggling to deal with parking.
The second alternative includes an in-street bus stop in front of City Hall on Broadway, enabling buses to loop around and drop off passengers on a contiguous platform and avoid crossing two lanes of traffic. If this alternative were exercised, the various routes that pass along Broadway could offer platform transfers to the Silver Line and other bus routes. This, too, would eliminate parking, but instead metered parking in front of City Hall.
One resident suggested introducing a signallised intersection at the corner of Broadway and the Washington Ave loop to allow buses to cross the 2 lanes safely, but CTPS project manager Scott Hamwey cited this decision wasn’t considered because of the noncontinuous sidewalk on the right side of Broadway opposite City Hall.
The Emotional Battle Over Parking
Chelsea’s long-forgotten status has similarly led to a fondness for parking and driving as Staten Island. Various residents, interested parties, and Chelsea council members voiced stern but understandable concern over the elimination of parking and the project’s potential to entice more people to drive and park in Chelsea to ride the Silver Line extension. All of these concerns of course not being unique to Chelsea, having been echoed all around the world at nearly every public meeting involving removal of parking for dedicated bus lanes to introduce BRT.
The cry for parking, more parking, or recouping lost on-street parking with more off-street parking is a clear symptom of many decades of being under served by transit. ‘Parking is a very emotional issue’, Hamwey said as he tried to address and acknowledge the comments on street-running alternatives.
The most emotional of these appeals was that of Matt Frank, District 3 Councillor of Chelsea. Frank cited a multi-generational concern about parking, that removing parking along Central Ave would affect families who have been in Chelsea for decades. ‘You’re telling them…to just leave’, sending the message that, ‘you can’t live here anymore just because you have to drive.’ Read the rest of this entry »
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…