Guest Podcast – Critical Transit: Train Crashes ARE Preventable

We’ve come a long way since this accident in 1932 between a passenger train and a freight train near Back Bay Station.

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?

While we don’t have high speed trains running through our tunnels, similar safety systems that could have prevented this summer’s accident in Spain could prevent the next Green Line accident.

 

 


MBTA ROC Proposes Solution to Student Auto-Dependence and Late Night Service Costs

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.


MBTA Vehicles Don Ribbons to Show Boston Pride

Ribbon stickers have started showing up on Green Line trains

Ribbon stickers have started showing up on Green Line trains

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.


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.


Has MassDOT Reached the End of the Road for Internal Reform?

Governor Deval Patrick delivers his presentation of the new transportation funding proposal.

Two Fridays ago, Governor Deval Patrick stated that he would unveil a proposal later this month to raise the necessary money through taxes or fees to fix the financially beleaguered transport network. Today, the details of where the money would be coming from and how much were revealed by the Governor and MassDOT.

The original Globe article on the issue highlighted that the annual gap between actual needs and what is actually raised and spent amounts to nearly $1 billion annually. This comes even after many years of reform that have consolidated a number of state agencies under MassDOT and produced efficiencies that have saved the state countless hundreds of millions of dollars over the years.

As temperatures dip far below freezing once again, it becomes painfully clear to many commuters that our aging transit system is in dire need of investment that no amount of structural reform will provide. MBCR spokesman Scott Farmelant notes, ‘There is only one way to prevent cold-weather delays: increased capital investment into the infrastructure, in particular signals, switches, and bridges.’

Likewise, there are many transit, commuter, and even high speed rail agencies that operate in similar climates in Europe that have overcome[PDF] sub-zero temperatures. By investing in weather-resistant infrastructure that is engineered to anticipate winter conditions and maintaining a modern fleet of trains, service impacts remain low. Sometimes, even the older equipment gets pulled out to help battle snow, much less extreme cold conditions, as happened in Sweden in 2010. Read the rest of this entry »


MBTA Steps Closer to Corporate-Sponsored Station Names

Corporate sponsorship is about to take advertising within the MBTA a step farther but at what cost and how effective will it be? [Photo by Flickr user nic221]

Corporate sponsorship is about to take advertising within the MBTA a step farther but at what cost and how effective will it be? [Photo by Flickr user nic221]

I’ve been fairly preoccupied with life lately, so this story (and many others) nearly flew right under my radar, but not before I had a chance to catch the original posting on the Boston subreddit.

In short, the MBTA is one step closer to making corporate-sponsored station names a reality in a last ditch and fairly ineffective attempt to grasp at straws for new revenue. No doubt the MBTA is having to continue pursuing this as a means of proving to state leaders that they are doing what they can to resolve the internal financial problems at the T to the best of their ability.

Either way, it turns out that the study by IMG Worldwide found a market for station naming rights and would bring in a potential $18.4 million a year to sell rights to 11 key stations throughout the system, leading to a total $147 million over eight years, according to the MBTA report to MassDOT. According to Mark Boyle, Assistant General Manager for Development and the representative of the MBTA who briefed MassDOT on the proposal, this could be good to go by mid-summer as sponsors line up to have their brands share sign space with historic Boston subway station names.

The unfortunate reality is that this tactic has historically failed to bring in the revenues promised here in Boston and elsewhere. It is a considerably less solid deal with corporations than encouraging developers to build on MBTA property and invite corporations to lease space within those well-situated, innercity developments to bring long-term revenue in as they have been doing for decades in Japan.

This is yet another short-term, short-sighted fix. In the 8 years these contracts would run, a well-designed contract that gives the MBTA a way out of deals that go sour and holds developers accountable for delays could build thousands of housing units (hopefully less stratified than what we already have and actually addresses the glaring housing issues plaguing Boston) and square feet of commercial office and retail space over, in, and around stations. This would further ensure sustained ridership levels, possibly increase non-rush hour ridership, and provide the sustained funds from real estate leasing to maintain and even improve our ailing system.

At the same time ridership growth threatens to overload the system in coming decades, it would be beneficial for the MBTA, Boston, and Commonwealth to create mixed-use neighbourhoods around transit (not at the far flung suburban stations) where people can walk to work and alleviate increasing uni-directional rush-hour traffic volume while still providing new revenue for the T through value capture policies.

There are precedents for doing that here in the US already and many municipalities are adopting these long-term plans to provide additional funds for further improvements from the initial investments (e.g. new light rail lines, subway extensions).

Most importantly, transit-accessible office space is far more valuable to any of these potential investors than the relative pennies they’re throwing at the MBTA to slap their name on a station. We have the potential to create new neighbourhoods, strengthen existing ones, provide housing for thousands, and bring back tax revenue from companies that have long since fled Boston proper because of its lack of accessible, modern, and affordable office space. Boston is low on the list of world-class cities playing host to Fortune 500 companies, Liberty Mutual being the only company to call Boston home. Two others, Raytheon and TJX, apparel and home fashion megachain, sit just outside of Boston in outlying suburban office parks accessible by I-95/Route 128, but hardly walkable from any commuter rail station.

While we deliberate and the MBTA/MassDOT continues to insist on calling suburban islands of development around massive commuter parking garages at its fringe stations is ‘transit-oriented development’, the Boston Metro region will continue to flounder as residents struggle to commute to work in suburban office parks only accessible by car as traffic increases and gas prices soar. Now more than ever does transit matter.


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.


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