Get a Backbone! Cut the Bulls**t Off-Street Parking

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…

Off-street parking in Chicago is abundant downtown and often gussied up like this, but it still contributes to massive traffic problems despite wide avenues. This garage is under a skyscraper immediately next to a CTA station (Merchandise Mart) and a short walk from another.

Off-street parking in Chicago is abundant downtown and often gussied up like this, but it still contributes to massive traffic problems despite wide avenues. This garage is under a skyscraper immediately next to a CTA station (Merchandise Mart) and a short walk from another. Can Boston learn from Chicago’s mistakes or does Boston need to make its own?

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.


Mayor Menino Weighs in on Draconian MBTA Cuts, Fare Hikes

Menino has weighed in on MBTA cuts, fare hikes, but is long-term relief on its way from legislators on the hill? (Photo via Flickr user Dan4th)

Boston’s longest serving mayor, has now joined the pool of politicians to opine about the cut and hike proposals and put forth his recommendations for political and financial action. He joins Middlesex and Essex Senator ClarkWoburn State Representative Dwyer, Somerville State Representative Provost, Somerville State Senator Jehlen, and Governor Patrick himself, all of whom have essentially expressed interest and intent to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1991, to solve the Commonwealth’s growing transport funding problem.

Menino is clear in his support for the MBTA and the search for a better funding solution in his letter to MassDOT Secretary Davey and Governor Patrick:

As an alternative to fare increases and service reductions, I am eager to work with you, Governor Patrick and the legislature to identify solutions that will address the long-term fiscal debt at the MBTA. Transportation Reform has allowed the Commonwealth to operate much more efficiently, but we also need targeted investment in our entire transportation infrastructure. Despite the severity of the current proposal, it represents a one-year band aid. We are in desperate need of a dedicated revenue source and immediate action is needed to identify sustainable funding for the MBTA. I have long supported efforts to increase the gas tax and am very willing to discuss other revenue options as well. I also hope you consider efforts that may help relieve some of the Big Dig-related debt load that has been unfairly saddled on the MBTA.

Menino has thus far been very hands-off about an official stance on transportation, but has supported it through various initiatives that enable walkability and better health in Boston, including the build-up of bike lanes, support for the introduction of the HubWay bike rental system, and parking freezes within the city of Boston.

While I laud Menino for voicing his support for transit, I also hope he is also willing to offer raising the transit assessment for Boston for the City of Boston to pay more for the transport system that provides its citizens the mobility that enables it to not only be one of the most walkable cities in the US, but also enables it to exist in the first place.

Also on his agenda should be true parking reform and better cooperation with the MBTA to properly allocate road space to higher throughput transit services that force buses packed full of riders to compete with single-occupant vehicles during rush hour.

The current leader in parking reform has been San Francisco’s SFPark program, which has enabled San Francisco to maximise the revenue from its municipal lots and reduce the estimated 30% of city traffic that results from drivers circling the block looking for parking with market pricing of all off- and on-street parking.

Further, many cities like New York are reallocating portions or entire lanes of their roads to enable buses to make them more effective at moving people and keep them on schedule. Perhaps the road planners in the Boston Transportation Department need to expand their road design vocabulary and learn how to use the tools available to cities to squeeze more people moving capacity (not car moving capacity) out of their roads through this handy transport game.

We will soon find out if any of these politicians can put their money where their mouth is. Will they actually raise the gas tax and how far behind will public support be?

I will soon be posting a long overdue MBTA service cuts and fare hikes summary post in order to provide an easy, well-collected primer on the issue at hand, where this should go, and how to take action.


MBTA Releases Commuter Rail Realtime Data to Developers

Realtime data or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bus and How You Might Also Love the Commuter Rail

Your MBTA app(s) will soon tell you whether or not your train is on schedule. (Image via Flickr)

The MBTA released realtime bus tracking data for all bus routes at the end of last summer and they haven’t looked back. Realtime tracking of buses has taken most of the worry out of riding the bus; even if it does have its glitches, it’s reliable enough to make riding more accessible for a whole swath of people who had previously been averse to riding buses, including this blogger.

Yesterday, the MBTA opened even more data up to the development community with realtime tracking data for commuter rail. Josh Robin, Director of Special Projects and Innovation at the T, led the announcement, impressing upon developers the fact that the feed is still in beta since there are still gaps in the data. In order to improve the consistency of the data, various backend technologies and practises still need to be improved at the MBCR, the MBTA’s contractor for commuter rail services. Read the rest of this entry »


Raising Safety, Efficiency, and Platforms

High level platforms on the US' top 3 commuter railroads enable them to safely carry volumes of passengers every day.

High level platforms on the US top 3 commuter railroads enable those operators to safely carry large volumes of passengers every day. (Image via Flickr)

With this winter’s delays on the commuter rail, it’s clear that legislators and MBTA and MBCR administrators need to push harder for better infrastructure and the funds with which to furnish it. But let’s take a look at an issue that comes up every once in a while. Despite the MBCR’s best efforts at preventing boarding and alighting accidents, through policy or physically securing doors, these accidents happen. In the winter, steps that accumulate ice from billowing snow kicked up as the train moves along can be a liability for passenger accidents and hampers boarding and alighting efforts, even increasing boarding times as people take their time to prevent slips and falls.

I’m down on Long Island for a few days and I’m quickly remembering what fast, frequent, and convenient commuter rail service is like. I can take a train from Penn Station to my parents’ stop out in Wantagh, over 50km or about the distance from Boston South Station to Worcester, and reliably be there in 1 hour. Trains on my branch run every 30 minutes to every hour, depending on time of day. This is not only because the electric M-7s the LIRR runs have better acceleration rates than diesel trains, but also because of how passengers can get on and off of the train.

When visiting most any other commuter railroad in first world countries or even our neighbouring commuter railroads to the south, the contrast is very clear. Passengers board and exit at any door along the length of the train from automated doorways that sense obstructions and prevent the train from moving if any of them are open. This is how heavy rail transit, like the Red, Orange, or Blue lines, operate (except when rollingstock on rapid transit is also so old that door sensors don’t sense when people or objects are caught).

Ground level platforms are inexpensive, but that benefit is offset by lost time in boardings and liability from related accidents. (Image via Flickr)

The top two commuter railroads, Metro North and Long Island Railroads, only have high-level platforms like those pictured above. On the MBTA network, very few stations have full high-level platforms and many have portions that exist only to make the stations ADA-compliant, the construction of which has been furnished by MBTA a multi-year, $1+ billion ADA compliance project.

Even if the Legislature and federal grants furnished the money required for the MBTA to raise its platforms, newer passenger cars (rollingstock) would still need to be purchased in order to fully seize the benefits of high-level boarding. The current and on-order bi-level cars have the latent ability to coordinate closing and opening of doors along the length of the train. Almost none of the older single level cars have this ability; conductors would need to go to every door to open and close them, otherwise lock doors in place to prevent the train from moving with open doors.

New Jersey Transits bi-level cars with quarter-point doors over the trucks of the train only allow for high-level boarding, but give riders more options. (Image via Flickr)

Newer commuter rail trains also benefit from the flexibility of having doors not located at end vestibules in order to allow passengers to board and alight more quickly since doors are more evenly spaced along the length of the train. New Jersey Transit’s bi-level cars have ‘quarter-point’ doors, which sit over the trucks (the sets of wheels on a train), in addition to the conventional vestibular doors with ‘trap doors’ that permit low-level boarding. This isn’t the most optimal door configuration, even for bi-level cars, but permits greater flexibility for passengers who are boarding or alighting at high-level platforms.

Aside from platform improvements, a capital expense that would likely cost tens of millions to billions to complete, depending on engineering practices and station geometries, there are several changes inside trains that can happen, namely electronic fare payment. The CharlieCard is now three years late in arriving on commuter rail and I quite frequently still see tweets of people thanking the MBTA for not coming to collect their fare on the train.

If you look at the conductor in the lede photo, you’ll notice a small grey device on her belt – all Metro North conductors are equipped with one. This is a portable electronic ticketing machine and allows her to process credit and debit cards so passengers can pay for their fare without juggling cash. It is likely these machines can be upgraded to validate fare with RFID cards or future NFC technologies that the MTA is currently exploring with the MBTA and other regional transit operators. With deals and decisions to be made in the coming years, it’s likely the MBTA and others are cooling their heels and waiting for a standard to come in before purchasing soon-to-be-outdated portable fare collection equipment. Long Island Railroad was promised these handy devices in about the same time as the MBTA Commuter Rail, but LIRR conductors still don’t have them.

When all is said and done, both raising platforms, reconfiguring stations, and procuring portable fare collection devices will cost money, admittedly money no one seems to have, most especially the MBTA. Though, let’s remember that these are expenses that fall under the capital budget, which is almost exclusively furnished by MassDOT, state grants, and federal grants from USDOT funding programs and other agencies. Much of these capital expenses can also be covered by investments from the private sector in the form of associated transit improvements to improve the appeal of or as part of transit-oriented developments around commuter rail stations.

These improvements need to happen in order to improve safety and running times of commuter rail trains, which already suffer from conditions not seen anywhere else in the burgeoning metropolitan regions of the Northeast Megaregion.

Note: MBTA Commuter Rail trains do have to make one accommodation that LIRR, Metro North, and most NJ Transit trains don’t – MBTA shares many of its tracks with long, slow-moving CSX trains that are also important to Boston’s economy. It will take a much greater amount of infrastructure investment to solve that problem, but that isn’t to say DMU or EMU operation of MBTA Commuter Rail trains wouldn’t improve service.


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