MBTA Commuter Rail Fares Used to Make Sense*

[* Kind of, and only at certain times of day. They don’t anymore.]

Before the pandemic, the MBTA relied on Commuter Rail fare revenue. In 2019, the service accounted for less than 9% of total transit system rides (about $32 million) but 36% of fare revenue: about $250 million dollars. While bus and transit fares are relatively low, flat fares ($1.70 and $2.40, with free transfers), Commuter Rail fares start at $6.50 (with a few exceptioons) and go up from there, to more than $12 for trips extending more than 30 miles from Downtown.

There are exceptions. Fares within 6 miles of Downtown Boston, including to Chelsea, West Medford and Allston, are priced the same as a subway ride. The Fairmount Line, which serves low-income neighborhoods of Boston, is priced at the same, lower level. “Interzone” fares, for trips between outlying stations on the same line, give about a 50% discount compared to a trip from the same station to Downtown. Overall, fares per mile are about the same as for trips on the bus and rapid transit system (35 to 40 cents per mile), although Commuter Rail fares per mile vary considerably: a trip from Belmont to Boston costs $6.50 for 6.5 miles ($1 per mile) while a trip from Worcester costs $12.25 for 44 miles (28¢ per mile).

There was some sense to Commuter Rail fares. The Commuter Rail system was optimized for a balance of fleet constraints, overall public utility and fare revenue, and generally in that order. But only at rush hour.

Transit systems have very high up-front costs to provide a base level of service, but the marginal cost of adding passengers to this base level of service is nearly zero. In the case of Commuter Rail, the fixed costs involve the right-of-way (capital costs and maintenance), maintenance facilities, signaling, control center, customer service, stations, and other fixed assets. These costs are fixed, whether you run 1 train per day or 100, and account for much of the cost of the railroad. The first decision the agency has to make is the base level of service: how many trains to you need to provide an even level of service during the day.

Pre-pandemic, the Commuter-oriented system set this at a very low level. In general, trains ran about every two hours on each line (you can find an archive of schedules here). In some cases, trains were slightly more frequent (the Lowell Line had hourly weekday service), but two hours was normal on most lines, even those to Providence and Worcester. In addition, since most trains spend the night at outlying terminals, they need to be serviced and fueled at downtown termini, meaning that trains would be cycled in and out of these every-two-hour service levels for service (although fueling and inspections do not necessarily occur daily). So the baseline cost of running the service depends on the number of trains needed to run the service at this interval, plus to cycle trains to and from centralized maintenance facilities.

In the case of the MBTA’s Commuter Rail system, the agency needed approximately 25 trains to provide this base level of service, so about 35 including trains being serviced (some are stored Downtown), of the 65 train sets operated each day.

The next decision, which is based on the base level of service, is how much additional service to add at rush hour. The cost of adding some service at rush hour is relatively low: the trains which are being serviced during the base period can be pressed into service, so the marginal additional costs to rush hour service comes mostly from additional labor. Beyond these trains (about a 50% increase in service, so a train every 1:20 or so), however, costs for additional service increase quickly. To operate a rush hour-only train the costs include:

  • The cost of additional labor, which often results in a split shift where the staff works in the morning and evening with a “midday release” during which they are paid half-time.
  • The cost of midday layover facilities, or “parking spaces for trains.”
  • The cost to operate empty trains to and from these midday layover locations, which in some cases are up to 10 miles from the terminal station. In the case of the T, this meant finding room for about 30 trains during the middle of the day. (I’ve argued before that these trains would be better used providing more service).
  • The costs for the actual additional trains. Before the pandemic, three Commuter Rail train sets made just one round trip per day, and several others made just two, meaning that they were idle for 19 to 21 hours per day, so the capital cost of a train set (about $25 million) had to be amortized across this limited service. (The single-trip trains were generally the longest, largest trains, with 8 or 9 double-decker coaches carrying nearly 2000 passengers.)

The MBTA generally scheduled as many trains as they could fit on their lines without major capital improvements. There are several limiting factors to the number of trains, including often-antiquated signal systems, sections of single-track, and terminal design and congestion. The number of trains varied by demand by line (which, in many cases, depends on parking lot capacity, since the T has made the (poor, in my opinion) decision over the years to create park-and-ride stations and not stations with high density housing nearby), line capacity, and congestion at each terminal. In some cases this meant four trains per hour, in some cases fewer than two.

Given this service, there are two ways to set fares. One is to maximize the utility of the system (getting as many people onto each train as possible) and one is to maximize revenue (set fares where they will generate the most revenue, even if it means fewer passengers). The T’s fares sort of split the difference. The fares are almost certainly not revenue-maximizing; every fare increase analysis has shown that when fares are raised, ridership drops, but the elasticity is such that it drops by less than the fare is increased. Fare maximization would have less-frequent trains (reducing marginal operating costs) carrying only the riders who for whom the train was time- and cost-competitive with driving. In fact, such a system might have come close to revenue neutrality. Running emptier trains, however, would mean more people driving on the road and more congestion and pollution, which have regional negative externalities.

In general, the agency matched passenger demand to train size, meting out train cars across the system based so that the trains would be full, but not too full (when smaller sets had to be substituted in, passengers were sometimes left behind). If fares were much lower, the trains in the system would not have been able to handle the crowding. So if the MBTA’s Commuter Rail fare system was optimized in any way, it optimized overall utility given the fleet and system constraints, and then revenue maximization given the utility. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this.

Now, is this actually how Commuter Rail fares were set? Of course not, that would make too much sense. Commuter Rail fares are higher because Commuter Rail fares have always been higher. Before the Commuter Rail system was integrated into the MBTA, fares were even higher than today. In 1971, a fare from Malden to Boston (before the Orange Line was extended there) was 95¢, versus a 25¢ subway ride. The equivalent of a Zone 1 fare was $1.10 and the equivalent of a Zone 8 fare was $2.20, which would be $8 to $16 today (these distance-based fares—in 5¢ increments—were changed to zone fares at some point during the 1970s, and multi-ride tickets were offered with a 20% discount, similar to passes today but without any reciprocity on subways and buses). Since the system was, at the time, operated by private carriers with an agency subsidy, they were more interested in maximizing revenue than utility (they certainly weren’t interested in providing service, and provided very little).

Once integrated into the MBTA, fares have generally been about 2.5 times that of a base subway fare for Zone 1 travel, with Zone 8 costing 4 to 5 times a base subway fare. Fares fell, relative to inflation, during the 1980s and 1990s (when Commuter Rail ridership grew most quickly), and have doubled, relative to inflation, since 2000. In 1999, the $2.00 Zone 1 Commuter Rail fare is equivalent to $3.31 in 2021 dollars, about half of the cost of a Zone 1 ticket today. While this increase is tied to rapid transit fares, and while commuters were willing to pay higher fares at rush hour, it has made the Commuter Rail much less price-competitive with driving at off-peak hours.

YearZone 1Zone 8Z1 2021 $Subway
1970$1.00$2.00$7.1925¢
1971$1.10$2.20$7.9125¢
1977$1.10$2.25$5.1125¢
1990$1.65$2.75$3.5275¢
1991-9$2.00$4.00$4.04-$3.3185¢
2000-3$2.50$4.75$4.02-$3.74$1
2004-7$3.25$6.00$4.77-$4.36$1.25
2007-14$4.25$7.75$5.70-$4.94$1.70
2014-6$5.75$10.50$6.68-$6.43$2.10
2017-9$6.25$11.50$6.99-$6.75$2.25
Current$6.50$12.25$2.40

Data from 1970 and 1971 taken from a photograph of a fare tariff posted at the Wayland Station in 1971, during the last months of service there.

There are two problems with this system. One, the optimization was only valid for peak rush hour! During the midday period, even with minimal service with trains every two hours, the higher fares were less competitive with driving. At rush hour, the trains could generally come close to matching driving times (in some cases bettering them) given congestion, and were less expensive than parking. (In theory, the pre-pandemic revenue-maximizing fare may have been closer to Downtown Boston parking costs.) At other times, service was slower than free-flowing traffic and more expensive than off-peak parking rates. Yet even though there was plenty of room on the trains, prices remained the same.

In 2018, the T introduced $10 weekend passes, a steep discount over normal one-way fares. These proved wildly successful, and the elasticity was such that revenue actually increased, providing much more public utility while netting the agency more revenue. (A flawed MBTA analysis attempted to cut the program short and did for a few weeks—they wouldn’t want to threaten the public with a good time—until the FTA told them that, no, it was fine, and to carry it forward.) Theoretically, a similar product could be used for midday service (for instance, unlimited daily trips for $10, excluding inbound trains before 9:30, similar to Metra’s Lollapalooza pass of years past). This was never proposed or instituted, because of the second problem: the pandemic.

Transit ridership cratered after the pandemic, but it fell unevenly. Bus ridership on some routes fell less than 50%, and in some cases has nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Rapid transit ridership fell more, but is also recovering. But Commuter Rail ridership fell by more than 90%, and it is clear that the 9-to-5 Commuter Rail market is unlikely to fully recover any time soon. The MBTA has responded to the changing trip patterns on Commuter Rail by flattening service: in most cases, there are now hourly trains on all lines, no matter the time of day (weekend service is still less), with only a few cases with more frequent rush hour trains. This provides quite a silver lining for the agency: they can provide more base service, without having the costs of midday staff releases, midday train storage and trains which are only in use for one round-trip per day. Anecdotally, ridership during rush hours remains quite depressed, but midday ridership and weekend ridership has shown significant recovery.

Fares, however, have not changed with the service levels, since the fares are still optimized for the previous 9-to-5 commuting crowd. Traffic congestion has returned, and while the peak traffic is not as congested as before the pandemic, overall volumes during the day are as high or, in some cases, higher. With ample capacity on the improved-frequency Commuter Rail system, it could provide a significant utility to the traveling public if it was priced more competitively. Yet it retains its peak-hour pricing.

The MBTA could experiment with Commuter Rail fares to provide more equitable service and attempt a different sort of optimization, choosing to optimize public utility first, and not maximize fare revenue until and unless trains experienced crowding. It turns out, however, that optimizing utility might actually increase revenues, as was experienced from weekend fares. It could also be an opportunity to make fares less complicated with fewer zones and more day-pass options. Imagine the following fare structure:

  • $2.50 single trip in the MBTA bus/subway service area (basically inside 128, current zones 1 and 2), also available with a daily/weekly/monthly “link” pass.
  • $5.00 single trip / $10.00 daily pass for trips originating at stations between 128 and 495 (current zones 3 to 6)
  • $7.50 / $15.00 daily pass outside of 495
  • $2.50 for “interzone” trips (trips not originating in what is today Zone 1A)
  • Day passes also cover all buses and subways, single trip tickets allow free transfers to buses and subways.

This would set fares near buses and subways to the same price as the parallel transit service. In the past, the T has rationalized the higher prices on Commuter Rail by saying that if Commuter Rail prices were the same as local buses, too many people would crowd onto the trains (which may have been true). This is no longer the case! This fare system would mean that stations in places like Roslindale, Lynn, Waltham, Newton and Salem would have the same fare to Boston whether a rider took a bus, subway or train. That’s the product; moving people where they need to be. There’s no longer a capacity crunch excuse to price discrimiate. Furthermore, it makes the fare system much easier to understand. Instead of more than a dozen fares the T has today, it divides the system into three fare zones, and provides transfers between modes.

Beyond 128, prices would not be much different than prices in the late 1990s, when Commuter Rail ridership increased dramatically. With more midday service in these areas, there might be significantly more ridership at those times of day, since prices would generally be lower than driving and parking. And since the trains being operated have plenty of space, revenue may actually improve. It likely won’t hit the levels it did before the pandemic for some time, but we should be trying to maximize utility, not revenue.

The densest Census tract is not in New York

Or: why it matters where you draw boundaries. (Or, more specifically, the modifiable aerial unit problem. Thanks, Twitter.)

If you go to the wonderful density.website and find the census tract with, in 2016, as close to 100,000 people per square mile as you can, you’ll wind up in Los Angeles (believe it or not). If you then click the “up” arrow, you can cycle through denser and denser census tracts, and you’ll see a lot of New York City (sometimes the map in the UI doesn’t even reload, but just recenters to a nearby tract). There are a couple of tracts in San Francisco in the 100,000 to 200,000 range, and eventually you’ll get to Le Frak City (click the link to save the trouble of clicking through) which, at 250,000 people per square mile, is the densest tract in New York (about 14,000 people living in about 1/20th of a square mile, give or take).

But go ahead and click the arrow once again.

The page will reload and you’ll be transported not to Brooklyn or Manhattan or the Bronx, but to Chicago. The tract in question has about 1600 people living in 0.003 square miles: two residential towers in Edgewater, on Lake Shore Drive, several miles from the Loop. It’s a bizarrely-drawn tract almost entirely surrounded by a much larger tract, and if the two were combined the resulting tract would be home to about 35,000 people per square mile, on par for the surrounding neighborhood but nowhere near as dense as much of New York City. (The second-densest current tract in Chicago is also made up of North Side high rises at about 90,000 per square mile, but the Robert Taylor Homes, which once housed 27,000 people on 95 acres, was in the neighborhood of 180,000. Cabrini-Green may have been denser still.)

In fact, New York isn’t even the densest city in the country, with several small cities across the river in New Jersey (and one Hasidic village in Rockland County) higher. Manhattan (New York County) is the most densely-populated county in the country at 70,000 people per square mile (although at its peak population in the early 1900s, it was over 100,000; on par with Manila). Two, three and four? Kings (Brooklyn), Bronx and Queens. Of course, New York State is the 8th most densely populated state, and that’s not counting DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. It all depends on where you draw the line.

Which brings us to a New York Times article about downtown areas and their post-covid resilience. They use downtown areas, as defined by CoStar here (the website is a time capsule from the mid-2000s). The issue: there is huge variation between the size of the defined “downtown” areas: in some cases they carefully clip out non-housing areas, in others, they just draw a box around the downtown. The thesis of the article is:

What remain[s] at the heart of many cities in the 20th century [are] blocks and blocks of office buildings filled perhaps 10 hours a day, five days a week — a precarious urban monoculture. […] That means there are few residents to support restaurants at night or to keep lunch counters open if office workers stay away, and few reasons for visitors to spend time or money there on the weekend.

Here is how the story shows the downtowns for Austin and Boston, with the black bar showing a quarter mile. They appear to be similar in size, however, Boston is about 0.37 square miles, while Austin is 1.7 square miles. Not only is that a nearly 5-fold difference, but the Boston metro area is more than twice the size of Austin, so we’d expect a more agglomerated Downtown area with more office space.

The real kicker is that Boston’s Downtown, as defined by CoStar, is surrounded by residential neighborhoods, none more than a 10 minute walk away. Except for the area in the direction of Back Bay, the gray areas surrounding Downtown Boston include Beacon Hill, the West End, the North End, Chinatown and Bay Village, all residential areas. If you take the neighborhoods on the Shawmut peninsula and Beacon Hill, it adds up to about to about 1.5 square miles, with about 41,000 people. Slightly-larger Downtown Austin? It’s grown significantly in recent years, but still is home to only about 12,000 people.

Using the insizeor app from the BPL, here is the defined CBD of Austin overlaid on Downtown Boston. Note that it covers not only the Financial District, but nearly the entire Shawmut Peninsula, as well as parts of Back Bay and the Seaport.

In the article the CBD sizes range from Boston at 0.37 miles to New York, where the CBD is defined as “everything south of 59th Street” which encompasses 9 square miles (New York’s MSA is 5 times the size of Boston’s, but the “downtown” is 24 times larger). Minneapolis is 4 square miles, Saint Paul 0.67. In many cases, the “downtown” area is defined by the highways around it. Other cities, like San Francisco, have several defined districts defined as the “CBD”; San Francisco’s “Financial District” would probably rate similarly to Boston’s in the proportion of office space, and certainly as less office-dense than their Grand Central-defined parcel in New York.

So it’s true that in the Financial District of Boston itself there aren’t many residents. Yet a similarly-drawn box carved into Austin, or most any other city noted in the article, would find the same thing. Taken to a logical extreme, a small box around a single office building would be 100% office use. Or a single tract: there’s one in Midtown Manhattan with a population density less than 1000. There are just 44 residents in the tract bounded by 5th and Park avenues, and 42nd and 49th streets. Of course, just to the east, Murray Hill and Midtown East have 100,000 people per square mile. It turns out that aggregations of this size and variability are not appropriate for this sort of analysis.

Commuting and office use patterns will certainly change post-pandemic. 9-to-5 office districts may be less valuable, and some real estate may be converted to other uses: the article notes an evolution away from single-purpose downtowns. There may be a better metric of office density, perhaps using a certain land area based on the size of the city. But comparing wildly differently-sized “downtown” areas is like saying that, because the densest census tract in the country is in Chicago, Chicago must be the most densely-populated city in the country.

A Two-lane Mem Drive Would Improve, Well, Everything

If you start walking or bicycling east in Cambridge from Mass Ave in Cambridge, you can go for six miles clockwise around the Charles River basin before you have to stop for traffic at the BU Bridge. Then the final mile back to where you started at Mass Ave requires crossing both the BU Bridge adjacent to the rotary and then Mass Ave at the foot of the Harvard Bridge. Yet if you were driving along Memorial Drive, you’d be able to proceed barrier-free: there’s grade-separation for cars, but not for people.

I’ve written before about how Memorial Drive can and should be reduced to two lanes, which would allow the parkland along the river to be widened significantly and given the traffic volumes—which match Nonantum Road in Newton, which was narrowed from four lanes to two—would not have a significant detrimental effect on traffic capacity. In fact, Memorial Drive has less than half the volume of Storrow Drive, across the river. So why shouldn’t it have half as many lanes? Indeed, the roadway was narrowed to a single lane during a sewer outfall project with no perceivable loss to traffic capacity.

The question then becomes how to handle intersections, where the current roadway crosses over or ducks under the main crossroads, with turning traffic crossing the bikeways and pedways, poorly-timed light cycles, and a number of dangerous facilities for people not driving cars. These roadways are optimized for the movement of cars, not for the safe and efficient passage of people using more space-efficient modes. However, it would be possible to move vehicles to the existing eastbound lanes and, with a few new signals to allow necessary traffic movement on and off of Memorial Drive, create a corridor which would allow the uninterrupted flow of people walking and biking from Western Ave to the Museum of Science, and allow people to make a 7-mile loop around the Charles River Basin without a single traffic light in their way.

The new signals would operate much like the signal at Charlesbank Road and Nonantum Road in Newton. They would only have a single turning movement, and would generally allow traffic movement in the through direction. Ample storage would be allowed for turning movements as required. And much of the existing ramp space would be changed from impervious land to parkland, for the use of people passing through or, given the larger parkland dimensions, spending time near the river.

Here are some detailed sketches of how each intersection could be rebuilt.

The BU Bridge

The BU Bridge rotary is crossed by the Reid Overpass, a 1930s structure which carries four lanes across the rotary. The rotary itself is poorly-designed for pedestrians and people riding bikes. The pathway is narrow, and requires crossing two separate portions of the BU Bridge roadway on walk signals, which sometimes requires a two-stage crossing. East of the rotary, the pathway is squeezed onto a narrow sidewalk along the roadway, and while a buffered bikeway has been painted to allow bicycles to more easily use the roadway, the facility is unfriendly for people. Meanwhile, through cars have a traffic-free trip across the overpass.

This plan proposes converting the Reid Overpass to a two-lane roadway and a bike path on the southern side. The existing ramps between the BU Bridge Rotary and Memorial Drive would be closed, with the northern ramps converted to two-way traffic. At the ends of each of these ramps, signals would allow traffic to move safely cross where necessary, with turning lanes provided to minimize any delays four through traffic. Westbound through traffic would encounter a single signal at the east end of the bridge, where there is not room for a merge. Eastbound traffic would encounter two signals, one at each end of the overpass. Given relatively low west-to-south and south-to-east movements, these lights would primarily allow through traffic.

This would dramatically simplify the bridge rotary, which could eliminate the traffic light allowing traffic from the rotary to enter Memorial Drive east. A traffic light may be retained for bicycles and pedestrians crossing the southern end of the rotary, but the overpass would significantly reduce this volume and it’s possible that, if it were safely redesigned, this signal could be eliminated as well. This would result in some tighter turn radii on and off of the BU Bridge rotary, but only for traffic going to and from Memorial Drive, which is a route which does not allow truck traffic outside of specific cases. Buses using the roadway (the CT2) would likely continue to be able to use the new alignment, or could be rerouted to use Waverly and Albany streets to get to Kendall Square, moving a stop a few hundred feet across the Grand Junction to do so. It’s also possible that the rotary could be reimagined as a single crossing, although the position of the bridge may make this difficult.

This plan would eliminate the right-on-red movement from the BU Bridge to Memorial Drive eastbound, which often crosses conflicting pedestrian movements (but is still better than the pre-2009 slip lane). The tighter turn radii would require slower traffic for cars entering and exiting the rotary. It would also allow a redesign of the rotary to provide safer bicycle movement and a bus priority lane, as well as significant new green space.

The Harvard Bridge

A mile to the east, Memorial Drive was routed under Mass Ave, also in the 1930s, with two lanes in each direction. Traffic from Mass Ave can turn in three of four movements; there is no provision for south-to-east turns other than a downstream U-turn, which would be eliminated if the roadway were narrowed (there are other routes to reach Memorial Drive on nearby streets). This intersection has a complex series of traffic lights and phases, and busy pedestrian movements in all directions, especially parallel to the river on the busy side path system.

This intersection would behave similarly to the BU Bridge. The riverside roadway and ramp system would be closed, with two new signals to allow traffic to move between Memorial Drive and Mass Ave as necessary. The signal at Mass Ave would be relocated to a single signal closer to MIT with, perhaps, a pedestrian phase for users who do not wish to use the underpass. Since the bridge over Memorial Drive is significantly wider than the Harvard Bridge, this would allow safe bicycle movement as well as turning lanes and queue jumps for transit vehicles in an area where these facilities are lacking today. With more room east and west of the underpass, there would be ample room for turning and merging lanes, so that while westbound traffic would have to pass through two traffic lights, eastbound traffic would be able to proceed unimpeded.

Bicycles and pedestrians would utilize a new facility on the existing eastbound lanes, which would provide a safe crossing of Mass Ave. Additional pathways could be incorporated to allow bicycle and pedestrian traffic to easily move between Mass Ave and the Memorial Drive underpass. By removing the onramps, there would be significant new green space added to the area, which would result in a 120-foot-wide Esplanade along the river by freeing up the green “island” in the middle which, today, is barely accessible because of the roadway. Some parking would be lost along Memorial Drive, but this could be compensated by adding parking spaces in the existing green space south of the two-lane roadway, and by widening the roadway slightly to allow vehicles to be parked more safely. Of course, parking should be a decision made after other users, especially bicycles and pedestrians, have been accommodated.

The Longfellow Bridge

The Longfellow Bridge does not today require pedestrians to cross a roadway (or the Red Line) at grade, but there are two major issues with the roadway and parkland at this cross-section. The path along the river is very narrow on the draw span east of the bridge, and the “HAWK” signal west of there is poorly sited (also, HAWK signals are uniformly awful). The path itself lies alongside a four-lane highway which was built on stilts in the Charles River water sheet itself, so that a high-speed roadway could funnel traffic over the river and under the Longfellow Bridge, which benefits the driver at the expense of people walking, biking, and the health of the river itself.

Unlike at the BU Bridge and Mass Ave, this design would simply narrow the existing roadway to two lanes without adding any additional traffic lights (there is an existing pedestrian crossing which might be appropriate to retain along this portion of roadway, although pedestrian crossings could be handled at the existing crosswalks at either end). The existing underpass for traffic going from Memorial Drive to the Longfellow eastbound would be retained to allow traffic to pass there without requiring the use of a signal, although this could alternatively be used for bicycle and pedestrian traffic if a signal were added in front of Sloan. The roadway would be realigned on the original riverbank with a new pathway alongside, and the existing, highway-style bridges over the river would be removed, with the river restored, and potentially with a more active riverbank installed. The image above shows the extent of the existing bridges which would be restored to open river with this plan. This would allow the pre-1950s roadway plan to be restored, albeit with a wider green space along the river itself for people walking, biking, and utilizing the park as a park, not a highway.

An aerial photograph from 1952, before the highway ramps were built in the water. From MapJunction.

Some Precedent

The DCR has begun a planning process for the western portion of Memorial Drive, from the BU Bridge past Harvard Square, but it has been widely panned as car-centric as it does not reduce the lane width or dramatically improve the pathway system, and does nothing about the BU Bridge intersection. However, there is some precedent for realigning roadways along the Charles River to benefit users, particularly those not using cars. In addition to the aforementioned Nonantum Road redesign from four lanes to two, Memorial Drive itself was relocated away from the river.

Well, not Memorial Drive exactly, but the eastern extension along Cambridge Parkway. The initial roadway followed Commercial Street, now Land Boulevard, inland from the river, with the area between the river wall and Commercial called “The Front.” In 1930, one of the earlier roadways was built on The Front and was labeled as the Northern Artery on some maps, which carried two lanes in each direction (albeit with bottlenecks at both ends). This was renamed Cambridge Parkway and became the main artery, with local traffic on Commercial Street. With the opening of the new roadways under the Longfellow in the late 1950s, the configuration was changed once again: Cambridge Parkway became the route for eastbound traffic, with westbound traffic moved back to Commercial Street. This configuration lasted until the late 1980s, when the industrial buildings were removed, the Cambridgeside Galleria built, and all traffic relocated onto a widened Commercial Street (which became Land Boulevard), with Cambridge Parkway reduced to a single lane westbound with a lane of parking. Thus, over the course of half a century, Cambridge Parkway changed its configuration nearly half a dozen times.

The rest of Memorial Drive has also been reconfigured. Until the late 1990s, the roadway was three lanes wide in each direction (imagine that!) and parking was allowed on both the inbound and outbound sides. The ramp from Mass Ave was two lanes, which merged with two other lanes, to create three lanes, plus a parking lane, which didn’t make sense except that DCR (well, at the time, MDC) seems to think that more lanes are always better. Parking was restricted and the park slightly widened at some point on the inbound side, but two lanes were retained, because gosh there have always been lots of cars here, right?

There’s no law that says that roadways must remain the same forever. In the case of Memorial Drive, what was intended to be a “pleasure drive” has become a riverside highway, with dangerous pedestrian crossings and high-speed traffic even if it doesn’t serve that many people in cars. With some common-sense, low-cost changes (except for some new roadway near the Longfellow, few of these changes would require more significant changes to roadways) could be made in a matter of months on a trial basis. Finally, with lower traffic and greater need for people to be outside, right now is the best time in the past 90 years to reclaim some of this road space for people.

NIMBYs as a barrier to HSR

$80 billion sounds like a lot of money for intercity rail, and it is a lot of money, but spread out across the country, it will not bring 90 minute, true high-speed trip times on the Northeast Corridor, as this Boston Globe article notes:

Upgrading the Northeast Corridor to a world-class high-speed system capable of traveling over 200 miles an hour would likely be too expensive even with the added funding, because it would require huge amounts of real estate purchases and infrastructure work to straighten the many curves through southern New England.

This is certainly true. While rail service from Boston to the Connecticut state line is reasonably fast—with trains averaging about 90 mph including stops at Back Bay, Route 128 and Providence, the latter of which also has about 10 miles of slow-running line—the speeds in Connecticut are markedly slower. Trains operate at about 70 mph through the rural eastern part of Connecticut, and then at about 55 mph the rest of the way to New York.

There are a number of reasons for this. Movable bridges require low speeds, and replacing them is expensive, especially across wider rivers in eastern Connecticut and more urban environments further west. In MetroNorth territory, the owner of the railroad—MetroNorth and the state of Connecticut—”optimize” the railroad for commuter service at low speed, which means that even where Amtrak could run faster trains, the track is not maintained to faster specifications. As Alon Levy—who is required reading for any NEC discussion—points out, Amtrak could buy out the Commuter lines, subsidize them forever, and still come out ahead of the game compared with the infrastructure it would take to bypass them.

There is a saying in the German-speaking world (probably from the Swiss): organization before electronics before concrete. It basically means that the highest marginal benefit-to-cost ratio comes from better organization of how transportation is delivered. Beyond that are changes to electronics: signals, power and similar systems. Beyond that is concrete: tunnels, bridges and new rights-of-way. In the case of the Northeast Corridor, much better organization is needed along much of the line, but is especially apparent west of New Haven, where internecine interagency squabbles and old scores means that Amtrak, as a tenant railroad, runs at slow speeds. If Amtrak could bump the average speed between New Have and New Rochelle to just 75 mph it would save 20 minutes (about 10% of the overall run time from Boston to New York); 90 mph would save an additional 10.

Much of the electronics on the railroad have been solved by the modern power system east of New Haven, although between Boston and Providence, there is a joint organization-electronics issue where the MBTA is steadfastly against any improvement to its rolling stock to use the high speed line and electrification, and runs passenger trains with slow acceleration and a top speed of 79 mph on a railroad which can accommodate trains at double the speed. Increasing the speed of the train would increase ridership while also increasing the overall capacity on the line, and reduce the length of any express bypass tracks which would be required to allow overtaking movements. This doesn’t affect Amtrak speeds significantly, but does affect reliability. (Electronics—specifically the 1930s-era overhead system—are a major issue between New York and Washington.)

Electronics and organization might also allow some improvement to the already-fast portions of the line between Boston and Connecticut, but these benefits would be marginal. Going from 150 mph to 180 mph over 30 miles of line would save 2 minutes of travel time. There are 60 miles of track in Rhode Island and Massachusetts good for more than 120 mph today (aside from a few 110 curves), even if it were replumbed for 180 entirely, it would only save 10 or 15 minutes, and would require a lot of concrete (for instance, a lengthy bypass of the Canton Viaduct, which is the oldest structure in the world with high-speed rail).

So, what about Eastern Connecticut. Could it be solved with organization? Not really, there’s only a bit of non-Amtrak traffic, Amtrak owns the railroad, and runs it about as well as they can. Electronics? The signals and power are not constraints. The issue is a combination of sharp curves, grade crossings and movable bridges, and eastern Connecticut has all three.

Luckily, concrete is cheapest far away from urban areas, and eastern Connecticut fits the bill. From Westerly, Rhode Island to Westbrook, Connecticut, the highest speed allowed is 110, although most of the line has speed limits of 75 or 90, and there are a number of much slower curves (including 25 mph through Downtown New London) and bridge crossings. Organization and electronics may be able to bleed out a couple of minutes of savings, but the fact that Amtrak averages better than 60 mph is already impressive given the geometric issues.

This sort of concrete was discussed in the past decade. As part of the NEC Future project (which is now archived), Amtrak proposed bypassing a 40-mile section of railroad from Westerly to Westbrook, and would mostly use the I-95 right-of-way to build a new high speed line. This line would allow operation at 180 mph without any interference from other traffic, and if it were extended a bit further west to near Kingston, would allow a 150 mph-or-better run for about 50 miles, and would save about 30 minutes compared to the current line: a 15% reduction in trip time between New York and Boston. Indeed, Alon extends this a longer distance to East Haven, and calculates a 38 minute trip time from Providence to New Haven. With some schedule padding, a 45 minute trip time between these cities would be 45 minutes faster than today, doubling the average speed between Providence and New Haven.

Simple, right? Put the train down the middle of the highway, build a couple of bridges, spend a few billion dollars, and save 45 minutes between Boston and New York. That means better fleet utilization and more passengers with higher speeds. Even without the improved speeds, Amtrak’s new rolling stock allows it to plan for hourly trips between Boston and New York, about 15 round trips per day, this could conceivably be increased to 18 with higher speeds. This is equivalent to 14,000 seats per day, each saving 45 minutes of travel time. With 2/3 of the seats occupied, it would lead to 2.5 million hours saved per year. The 3 extra trains each way would recoup somewhere on the order of an additional $50 million in fare revenue with relatively low additional costs (really just power and equipment wear, since they would use existing rolling stock and staff time).

This relatively sensible change ran into a big obstacle: NIMBYism. Nearly all of the direct benefits accrue to passengers on trains which do not stop in Connecticut: nearly every Acela train between Providence and New Haven runs nonstop. Even if it moves people from driving to the train, most drivers would use the inland route from Boston to New York, so local traffic wouldn’t be impacted. So when it was proposed in 2016, Southeastern Connecticut took little time to turn against the improvements, and brought out some particularly delicious NIMBY arguments against the project.

Some arguments:

One of the options would cut straight through the heart of the town

You know what else cuts through the heart of Old Lyme? I-95. Which is what the train would run alongside.

It would cut through Olde Mistick Village, Mystic Aquarium and a Pawcatuck golf course.

Olde Mistick Village is a shopping mall with poor spelling which is next to the Mystic Aquarium. Both are adjacent to the 340-foot-wide right-of-way for I-95 where the railroad would be sited. Cars in the distance? Fine. Trains? My heavens! The Pawcatuck golf course is in the path of Route 78, which was originally built to connect to the never-built Long Island-Westerly bridge. The golf course’s owner says: “I’m all for expanded rail, but we should use the right of ways that we already have.”

Guess what, that’s exactly what is being proposed! We have the right-of-way, and it connects right through your golf course. You chose to build a golf course in the direct path of a highway, what did you expect? (It’s worth pointing out that Alon suggests cutting from I-95 over to the existing right-of-way further east in Rhode Island to avoid a number of additional curves, negating this as an issue.)

But the NIMBYism goes on. Apparently, a new rail right-of-way along a highway would impact tourism.

“They’re going to have a fight on their hands,” said Joyce Resnikoff, co-owner of the 43-year-old Olde Mistick Village.

She said such a rerouting would be devastating to Mystic, which thrives on tourism.

“I can travel all over the world and everyone knows Mystic,” she said. “We all work very hard to support tourism here. It’s big business.”

First of all, people from across the world do not all know Mystic. How a new non-stop train line would devastate tourism is also perplexing. It’s not like crowds of travelers on Acela today pile off the train to go to Mystic’s big businesses: no Acela trains stop there. Before covid-19, there were five trains stopping (a sixth was planned), with an average of 78 passengers per day. If high-speed trains were shifted to a separate alignment, it would allow a regional New Haven-to-Providence service to run hourly (or better) along the existing coastal line, with a lot more service and, probably a lot more ridership.

“We already have rail lines coming into our communities. To go in a different direction seems bizarre to me … I think their bigger step is to fix what they have.”

Slow rail lines. It’s hard to say what seems bizarre other than this guy is a town council member, not an engineer. What we have is unfixable.

The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments sent a letter …expressing its concerns about how [the alignment] would relate to or disrupt land use and environmental resources in the region and how any of the alternative routes could result in potentially fewer train stops in New London.

There are some environmental questions, although most of the right-of-way would be adjacent to the highway and already disrupted. Then there’s just complete misunderstanding of how the railroad works:

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons agreed, saying the disruption, huge cost and effort of the project would only save riders a few minutes. He said that when the existing line was electrified for high-speed trains, the Acela cars were designed to tilt so they could navigate the curved tracks in the region without slowing down.

The tilt mechanism helps to wring a few extra minutes out of the curvy route along the coast. It does not allow 180 mph operation on a line from the 1840s.

But there was a public meeting, and the pearl clutching really got going. We got to hear about how long people have lived somewhere:

Jeff Andersen, director of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. Andersen has been working in Old Lyme for 40 years. “It’s an American treasure, and it needs to be protected and preserved,” said Andersen.

Did the Florence Griswold Museum complain when I-95 was built 1000 feet away? Probably not. But now that a train might be built in the same right-of-way, my heavens. It gets worse. Senator Blumenthal represents the local population, but should know better, especially since shaving 30 to 45 minutes off (more than “a few minutes”) would be a significant benefit for his constituents in New Haven and Stamford.

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said this is not about NIMBY, “Not In My Back Yard,” but “about our cultural and environmental survival in Old Lyme.”

Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna said the proposed bypass would shift the location of his town’s train station, which the state and town have invested in and is considered the “economic center of town.”

In East Lyme, the route would proceed through several neighborhoods, a new 400-unit apartment complex and a proposed Costco, Flanders Four Corners and possibly a recently identified site of tribal significance, East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said the new segment would bypass the Westerly train station and wipe out Mystic Aquarium, Olde Mistick Village and “the gateway” to Mystic, the state’s top tourism destination.

All of this wiping out of historic town centers (and Historic Costcos) is rather preposterous, since most of the line would be built within the existing highway right-of-way, which is generally 350 feet wide, plenty wide enough for a two-track railroad and a four-lane highway. This rhetoric, however, sank the planning process, so while we could have entered Infrastructure Week in the Biden Administration with a path forward to speed the Northeast Corridor, we’ll now have to start from scratch.

Part of the blame may go to the study’s authors, who included vague maps of the corridor which were probably not clear enough about which areas would and would not require property takings. And there is a valid concern about moving the train station in New London from Downtown to somewhere a bit further afield (although there are plenty of examples abroad of new train stations outside of old towns which maintain their legacy service).

Still, the lion’s share of blame should go to NIMBYism (it’s usually the case that if you have to start your sentence with “I’m not a NIMBY” you probably are one). It will take both better communications about what is actually going to happen (no, no one is going to bulldoze the Mystic Aquarium) as well as leaders who are willing to tell the truth to their constituents. It may even take some carrots (get on a train in New London, be in Boston in an hour). It will also take a system which allows construction costs that do not escalate to a point of oblivion: a 50 mile section of highway-ROW high speed rail with two major bridges should cost $2 billion, not $20. Before concrete, we’ll have to have organization to allay the fears of the North American NIMBY.

The future of light rail

In 1980, there were about 175 miles of what could be considered streetcar or light rail operating in the United States. This was based entirely in about half a dozen “legacy” systems which were never converted to buses (a few miles have been converted to buses since then, this figure does not include streetcars abandoned after 1980), in general because they used private rights-of-way and, in most cases, tunnels in:

  • Boston
  • San Francisco
  • Philadelphia
  • Pittsburgh
  • New Orleans
  • Cleveland
  • Newark

There had been minimal expansion since the 1930s (most notable: the MBTA’s 1959 Highland Branch) and the systems mostly used PCC cars (or older streetcars in the case of New Orleans). The ill-fated Boeing LRV cars were only first being introduced in the late-1970s.

Over the next 35 years, light rail and streetcar mileage increased by a factor of five. This began with 100 miles in the 1980s, accelerated further in the 1990s, and further more from 2002 to 2016, with 30 miles per year being added per year from 2002 to 2012, and additional increases through 2016.

These data are approximated from a variety sources and represent corridor-miles. Most, but not all, corridors are double-tracked. It doesn’t include diesel-powered lines like the River Line in New Jersey or e-BART, nor does it show lines in operation in 1980 which were then abandoned.

In 2016, however, LRT implementations stalled out. Funding protocols had changed, and in several cases, expensive light rail systems had been built in areas with marginal supporting land use, leading to stagnant or declining ridership in some areas. “Modern streetcars”, which do not add up to much mileage but had been some of the least cost-effective projects, had mostly fallen out of favor. 2017 marked the first year since 1989 with no new LRT mileage opening, and only 18 miles of new light rail have opened since (2020 was another year without any new mileage).

This will change in 2021 and 2022, when, over the course of a few months, five large light rail projects set to come online:

What is notable is that these are already some of the largest and most effective light rail systems. By total ridership, they rank, respectively, 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10, and by ridership per mile, they rank (again, respectively) 10, 2, 1, 12, and 3. Together, these projects will add 30 miles of light rail service, but they are not what we saw a lot of in the 2000s, with often suburban extensions with low ridership. In each case, the new portion will have a higher ridership density than the existing system did pre-pandemic)

  • K Line: 4050 (system: 2517)
  • Central Subway: 42941 (4479)
  • GLX: 10465 (system 7846)
  • Midcoast Trolley: 3154 (system 2157)
  • Northgate 5116 (system 3728)

These are really LINO projects, or LRT-in-name-only. (Or maybe LIVO; LRT in vehicle only.) The projected ridership would fall in the range of many existing heavy rail systems, and with the exception of the K Line in LA and the first few hundred yards of the Central Subway before the portal, there are no street grade crossings for any of these projects. They will all use two- three- or four-car trains to provide as much capacity as subway systems, just with light rail cars, providing travelers with frequent service at speeds which, during peak hours, are faster than driving.

If LIVO is the direction that light rail is headed, it is indeed a good one. Some earlier light rail systems are streetcar-light rail hybrid systems which can be stymied by surface congestion, or followed highway rights-of-way or relatively remote rail line corridors which reduced ridership potential. These decisions are often made in the name of reducing capital costs, but result in increased operating cost per rider. No one would accuse any of these five new projects of being built on the cheap: each checks in at well over $1 billion, with several miles of tunnel (in the case of Seattle and San Francisco, most of the project is tunneled) or viaduct. All should probably be less expensive per mile, but assuming travel patterns return to near some pre-covid normal, all should have high ridership.

In essence, they do what light rail can do best: fit a high-capacity transit system into an urban ecosystem where it something beyond the capacity of a busway is needed*, but where heavy rail or commuter rail would not be feasible. San Francisco’s Central Subway is a subway with a surface station and connection to existing transit lines. Seattle’s Link system is a mostly-elevated, sometimes-tunneled, and sometimes at-grade system (although after the initial segment, they seem to be moving away from at-grade portions). Los Angeles combines tunnels and at-grade segments, and San Diego’s is an extension of an at-grade system with grade crossings. Boston’s system mostly follows existing Commuter Rail lines and could have been built on those lines’ existing alignments, however to do so would have required completion of the North South Rail Link. Light rail, on the other hand, can allow existing vehicles to run through the city, rather than terminating and turning back at several congested 19th- and early 20th-Century Downtown terminals, which will serve to improve service across the entire line.

(* A note on busways: while most any of these projects could have been built as a BRT, all would have significant downsides. Once a project is nearly entirely grade-separated, the construction cost differential for BRT dissipates. BRT also has two major issues operating in tunnels. One is ventilation: without full electrification, buses require exhaust for diesel power. Buses also need more roadway width to operate, while rail can be fit into a more constrained environment. Buses also have lower per-vehicle capacity than rail, leading to higher labor and operating costs per passenger. Given the high ridership density for these routes, BRT would not likely be the appropriate mode.)

Light rail will probably not again see the kind of growth it did from 1990 to 2016. Some of these systems which are mostly at-grade and have lower ridership potential would have done better as bus rapid transit, such as Sacramento, San Jose, or Houston. Others, like Denver and Dallas’s sprawling systems mostly along rail rights-of-way, would be better suited for Commuter or Regional Rail, and indeed both these cities have shifted towards this mode. With the promise of new funding, light rail implementations will hopefully hew closer to the recent implementations than the “every city gets a light rail whether they need it or not” service of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Light rail is a bit of a chameleon. Depending on its situation, it can act as a streetcar, heavy rail, commuter rail or even something akin to a BRT, and can take on both the positive and negative qualities of each of these modes. It does best when it serves a corridor which would otherwise not be well-serviced by any single mode, and where it can provide high-speed, high-capacity, high-frequency service while shape-shifting as it moves through the urban environment.

What, me plan? The case of New Hampshire tolls

Electronic tolling in the United States took a long path to implementation. EZPass was first developed and implemented in the mid-1990s in and around New York City, and began to spread elsewhere. Maine’s not-compatible TransPass system began around the same time, before being folded into EZPass in 2004. Massachusetts implemented the compatible, but differently-named (because, who knows) FastLane system in 1998, which was eventually folded into EZPass. Overall, EZPass-compatible systems stretch from Maine west to Illinois (still called I-Pass) and south to Florida (well, some toll roads in Florida). It is a reasonable example interagency cooperation—or of the size of the New York-area toll structure dwarfing the rest of the market—despite the inherent inefficiency of 40 separate agencies each with their own distribution and service networks.

I guess once the toll-taker jobs started disappearing each state still needed some agency jobs for patronage.

The longtime hold out to electronic tolling? New Hampshire. Maine’s system was in place in 1997, and Massachusetts in 1998. More than half of the system’s revenue is from out-of-state drivers, and the I-95 Turnpike—called the Blue Star Turnpike officially—likely contributes the highest ratio of out-of-state, so most of the drivers on the Blue Star were going from one state with electronic tolling to another through a facility without it. Once Maine switched to EZPass-compatible transponders in 2004, New Hampshire couldn’t even claim that there was a technological reason for the discontinuity.

New Hampshire finally put EZPass on their roadways in the mid-2000s, and phased out the tokens, converted the Hampton toll plaza into a one-way toll with the toll doubled to combat backups by having more lanes open and eventually converted two of the toll lanes into “open road tolling” or ORT, allowing vehicles with transponders to pass through the tolls at highway speeds. It now gives a 30% discount to people who use a New Hampshire-branded EZPass, even if they live out-of-state, leading some drivers (raises hand) to swap between Massachusetts and New Hampshire transponders at the state line.

There was one major problem with this implementation: the highway has four lanes. Even in the earlier days of New Hampshire EZPass use, many turnpike drivers used the electronic system. Yet the roadway was designed such that, if it were operating at or near capacity, the toll plaza would be a bottleneck if more than 50% of drivers were using the transponders, and since its busiest times are when out-of-staters are driving north for vacations from states with higher transponder use, although these less-frequent drivers appear to be less likely to have transponders. So when traffic peaks, the Hampton Tolls are the first place to back up.

Now, I’m not one to suggest that New Hampshire should be building wider or larger highways to combat congestion. Certainly not. But in the case of the Hampton tolls, they didn’t build a wider highway. They built too-narrow of a highway. The roadway is four lanes upstream and downstream of the tollbooths. It’s hard even to believe that it was any more or less expensive to build two through lanes instead of three or four. The gantries were built to allow an additional lane, but there are large barriers between the current ORT lanes and the parallel booth lanes. Maybe it’s cheap to make this change by just moving the barriers, but in that case: why hasn’t it been done? Maybe it’s expensive because it will require work on the base of the road and regrading, in which case, it’s a planning failure. What consultant green lit this?

Why am I bringing this up now? Because I found (thanks to Casey McDermott of NHPR) New Hampshire’s weekly breakdown of toll data. I could write a blog post about the COVID drop off (the much richer data from the tolling facilities in Massachusetts hasn’t updated in a while, so I’m waiting on that), but instead, I want to focus on the percent of tolls paid with a transponder.

A few things to notice (beyond traffic dropping by two thirds during COVID):

  • Even 10 years after implementation, the rate of EZPass use has been steadily increasing, from 72% in July of 2019 to 77% now. This means that of four lanes of traffic, more than three lanes-worth would be using EZPass.
  • This may be due to seasonality. EZPass use rates are lower during non-tourist times. Rates were lower in the summer, higher in the fall (when more traffic is local) with local minima around the Christmas and New Years holidays.
  • Overall traffic is quite variable, ranging from 2.8 million vehicles per week in the summer to 2 million vehicles per week in the winter.
  • There is a steep drop off in traffic at the end of the summer, a local minimum in early fall, followed by a resurgence of traffic during “leaf season” in late September and early October. Variability for winter weeks may be due to snow storms reducing traffic.

The big takeaway is the first point: three quarters of New Hampshire toll road users are using EZPass, yet the toll booths are constructed such that only half (at Hampton) or two-thirds (at Hooksett) of the lanes are set aside for ORT. In addition to merging and sorting issues (cars on the right have to move left for ORT, and cars on the left without transponders have to move right) New Hampshire has constructed an artificial bottleneck. It was an unforced error in 2010, and, for a decade, it’s increase traffic congestion for no apparent need.

The generous take on this would be that what New Hampshire got wrong, its neighbors, Massachusetts and Maine, have improved on. That would ignore Illinois, which started building ORT gantries in 2004. Maine’s open road tolling north of Portland actually relies on a single through lane, but traffic volumes past Portland are low enough this doesn’t cause backups; its under-construction facilities in and south of Portland will not narrow the roadway through the gantries. And Massachusetts, in a fit of competence, did away with toll collection entirely, becoming one of the first legacy toll roads in the country to go to all-electronic tolling. This would also ignore NHDOT’s 20-mile road widening project now entering its 15th year of construction; while Maine argued about the Turnpike widening for decades, the actual construction was completed in only a few seasons. So I am not inclined to be generous, New Hampshire.

With COVID topping the news and traffic volumes down, of course, congestion is not an issue. But this may be a good time for New Hampshire to take the opportunity to fix a decade-old mistake. And as traffic volumes slowly increase, if nothing is done, there will be more unnecessary congestion on the New Hampshire Turnpike.

Postpone the Marathon, but not to September: it’s too hot.

I should start by stating the obvious: this isn’t really urban planning-related post. Except that shutting down a major city for a road race kind of is urban planning. And busing 30,000 people certainly is. But I’m not going to focus on that.

Some of you may know that I run marathons from time to time. Some of you may even know that I had an infamous run-in with the heat in Boston a few years ago. I have a number for this spring, and I’ve even been attempting to do some training. But with COVID-19, the whole operation appears to be grinding to a halt: the B.A.A. is planning to postpone the race to the fall, and they are rumored to be looking at dates in mid-September, when the average high temperature is in the mid-70s and one in five days eclipses 80.

Here’s my two cents on that: It’s a Bad Idea. Not the postponement: that’s probably imperative given the spread of the pandemic. September. It’s far too warm to hold a marathon in good faith.

The April version of the Boston Marathon (I kind of can’t believe this phrase, but here we are) has taken place for 124 years, just shy of the 148 years of weather data we have collected. It takes place on the third Monday in April, so the 15th to the 21st, during which time the average high temperature ranges from 55.9 to 59.6 degrees, and the average low (a decent proxy for humidity) ranges from 39.6 to 42.0 degrees. This is just about ideal temperature for a marathon race, and while there are obviously exceptions: ranging from cold and rainy to warm and hot, the average race weather is relatively amenable to a marathon. On average, the high temperature tops 80 degrees, which is really into the danger zone for a marathon, on average, once every 33 years.

September is warmer. A lot warmer. This is especially the case because, since Boston is near a large body of water, temperatures don’t cool off as quickly in the fall as they would inland. High temperatures in September start around 77.4 and fall to 67.0, so even the end of September is ten degrees warmer than the Boston Marathon in April. Minimum temperatures fall about the same amount, from 61.4 to 51.1. The chance of an 80 degree day is one in three at the start of the month and one in ten by the end, but again, much higher than April (for September 14, it’s about one in four, similar to early June).

Here are the temperatures for the past 10 years for September 14:

72 75 84 90 72 66 68 81 86 75

The 90 degree day would likely require race cancelation (like has happened in recent years in Chicago, Vermont and elsewhere). The Boston Marathon medical team is the best in the business, but holding the race when the weather is likely to be in the 70s will strain their resources. Holding the marathon in September is irresponsible and puts runners at an unnecessary risk. Note that in the chart below, mid-April temperatures don’t occur again until late October and early November. September is pretty much the same as June.

If we consider the other World Marathon Major races, a September Boston would be significantly warmer than any other race:

  • Tokyo: Average high of 53˚
  • Boston: Average high of 57˚
  • London: Average high of 61˚
  • Berlin: Average high of 63˚
  • Chicago: Average high of 64˚
  • New York: Average high of 58˚
  • Boston (September 14): Average high of 73˚

There’s a good reason why the number of marathon finishers in the US peaks in October and November, with a secondary peak in April: that’s when the weather is best for running in the United States. September has a good deal of races, but most are small: the average size of a race is just over 200 participants. Moving Boston to September would more than double the number of marathon finishers in September nationwide.

The Boston Marathon used to start at noon, but was moved up to a 10 a.m. start several years ago to better accommodate the April heat. Can the race start any earlier in the day to take advantage of lower temperatures? Very unlikely: the logistics of moving 30,000 people to a remote start that early are next to impossible. The Chicago Marathon starts earlier in the day, but it starts (and ends) downtown, so as long as people can get on trains and buses to get to the start, an 8 a.m. start (with an earlier start for elite and para athletes) is possible.

Not so for Boston. Given the logistics of transportation (aha, I knew I would tie this post in with the blog), 10 a.m. is about the earliest possible start. The transit system’s earliest arrivals in Downtown Boston, where buses leave from is in the range of 6 a.m. Early-wave runners are told to be on buses before 7. Moving the start up an hour would move the start before the start of transit service. While trains and buses could be run earlier, the cost and complexity of doing so would be quite high, and without it, the downtown area would be overrun with parking and drop offs for 30,000 runners, plus spectators and other fans, on a day when many of the major streets are closed for the race.

So the race can’t be held in September without the high likelihood of high temperatures impacting the race. Late September would be better than early, although the last two weekends of the race are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which have two major issues. The first is that it would be akin to telling many runners to run a race on Christmas or Easter (although the race does infrequently take place on Passover in April, and the day after Easter). The second is that the race passes through Newton and Brookline, and the course is home to no fewer than three major synagogues (with several others just off the course) and those two towns would likely veto either of those dates for the race. (The only option might be Monday September 21, but again, the average high that day is still 70.9 degrees, and one in six September 21s have exceeded 80 degrees.)

So that pushes the race into October or even November. This is prime marathon season: over the course of four weeks there are two other major marathons (Chicago, on the 11th, and New York, on November 1; the two largest marathons in the country) as well as the 4th (the Marine Corps, on the 25th) and the 10th (Twin Cities, on the 4th). Boston would probably want to avoid conflicting with either New York or Chicago, and might want to avoid the others. Also, October 4th is still significantly warmer than April, with high temperatures around 63 degrees. The 11th also conflicts with the BAA Half Marathon.

This leaves, in my mind, three reasonable dates for the Boston Marathon, assuming a Monday holiday is declared by the state: October 19, October 26 and November 9. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each:

October 19 makes the most sense with one exception: it is the same weekend as the Head of the Charles Regatta (which is basically the Boston Marathon of rowing). This would create a run on lodging in the region, and a run on resources. The weather: a high of 61.6, is reasonable. There are no other major races that week (although there are marathons in Maine, Vermont and Connecticut, but they are more local races) and it might be interesting to have a spotlight on Boston as the hub of the athletic universe for a weekend. But the logistics would be tricky with two major events (although it’s possible that some logistics could piggyback). Another option would be to see if HOCR would move the Regatta back a week.

October 26 makes sense except for the Marine Corps marathon. While a large race, it’s not a “World Marathon Major” race, so it probably doesn’t have the same level of conflict. The weather is a perfect approximation of mid-April, with an average high of 57 degrees. As long as Marine Corps didn’t mind Boston stepping on its toes, it might make the most sense.

November 9 is relatively late for the race, and can be cold and potentially even snowy or icy (although the average high of 53.8 is only slightly lower than April 15), but would have no major conflicts with other national races or local sporting events (the largest marathon in the northeast is the Manchester City Marathon in New Hampshire, with under 1000 runners). It would be late, but would be after foliage season, and at a time when lodging and other event space is most easily available in Boston.

Two other notes: first, the fall Boston Marathon might be significantly smaller than the spring version. The BAA will likely allow deferral to next year’s race, and many runners may take advantage, so the race might be a smaller affair, although the BAA could open late registration to more qualified runners to fill the field. After the 2013 bombing, about 5000 people were unable to finish the race and allowed deferred entry, but most of the field had already finished. This is a much larger population. It will also result in significant registration changes for next year’s race, with registration taking place after Boston, and including runners from more fall marathons, although this might be balanced by the number of races canceled this spring. The results of this will probably cascade for a few years.

Second, the BAA could potentially save resources by moving the BAA Half Marathon to the same weekend, or even day, as the full marathon. This would mean moving it from its course in Franklin Park to the second half of the Boston Marathon course, starting in Wellesley and finishing in Downtown Boston. With an early start, the half marathon racers could be mostly clear of the course by the time the full marathon finished, although it would not allow participants to run both races. Transportation would be quite simple, as the full field for the BAA half could be moved from Downtown Boston to Wellesley on half a dozen commuter trains, since the start line for the half marathon would be adjacent to the Wellesley Square train station. This, however, might put additional strain on the marathon resources, and holding the races a couple of weeks apart might be the best use of resources.

Car Free Kendall

Kendall Square is growing, but the road network around it is not, and traffic has mostly flat-lined (probably because, without a good highway network, only so many vehicles can enter the area). But as the planet burns and the region chokes on congestion, we ought to talk about how we can improve the area with less pavement and fewer cars. At the main transit node of Kendall Square, which has tens of thousands of transit riders and other pedestrians a day, the streetscape is mostly given over to automobiles, to the detriment of the vast majority of users. What could be a great, welcoming public space is instead a wide road with plenty of street parking, for no other reason than it’s always been that way. Its time for that to change: Kendall Square should be car-free.

Which of these would you prefer to spend time in?

Unlike the Seaport, Kendall Square has been successful because of its access to transit, not in spite of it. There are no highways in to Kendall, so it has had to develop around transit access, while the Seaport has developed around the Turnpike extension, with the Silver Line mostly as an afterthought. As Kendall has grown it has become less of a desert than it was, especially as surface parking lots have been replaced by buildings or open space, and as more businesses have arrived, with a new grocery store opening recently.

Development has accelerated since 2016, especially along Main Street in the heart of the square, adjacent to the MBTA station. Until quite recently, this street epitomized the “suburban office park” feel of Kendall. Low-slung office buildings with ribbon windows wouldn’t be out of place in Bedford, Burlington or Billerica. The new MIT buildings add some spice to the square, casting off red brick for more modern designs. (In my opinion, they do this quite well, say what you will about the huge underground parking garage, the buildings, at least, are attractive. I only wish they were taller.) The four-story Coop building on top of the T, which was lifted straight from Waltham (it’s hard to cast too much blame, of course, because in the ’80s, everything was still moving out of the city, and it probably seemed deft to bring the suburbs to the city), has been torn down, and a taller, denser, and more-attractive building will take it’s place.

The road design 10 years ago was even worse. The median invited vehicle drivers to speed through the Square, and pedestrians were supposed to wait for a walk light at the T station to proceed across the intersection (although few waited, leading to conflicts with these speeding cars). This was replaced with a new design, but one which kept the street parking and travel lanes because even in Cambridge, we think about cars first (this came before protected bike lanes were prioritized, so the many bicyclists through the Square have to contend with pick ups, drop offs and cars darting in and out of the curb). The current design gives somewhat more priority to pedestrians, and the raised crossing significantly slows down vehicles, but even still, of the 90 feet between buildings on Main Street, the majority—50 feet—is handed over to those on four wheels.

So, Kendall has made progress, but not enough. We’ve taken the worst of the 1980s superimposition of the suburbs onto the city and begun to build out more of a viable urban space. For the past few years, and for the foreseeable future, Main Street has been home mostly to barricades, scaffolding and construction equipment. But once this disappears, Main Street in Kendall Square will still be far from what is desired: it’s a place to pass through, but not a place to linger. Mostly because when the new buildings go up, the road will return to its early-2010s design: through lanes for cars, unprotected bicycle lanes for drivers to open doors into and metered street parking.

Cars are in the distinct minority in Kendall Square. Traffic counts show only about 5000 eastbound vehicles, and far fewer westbound since westbound traffic comes only from Third Street, not the Longfellow Bridge itself. Compare that to the Kendall Station, which has more than 15,000 boardings per day, meaning more than 30,000 people going in and out of the station. Add to that non-transit pedestrian trips and bicyclists and cars may only account for one tenth of the traffic in Kendall Square, especially once MIT’s SOMA project extends the campus into the square. Yet even after the current spate of construction, the plan for the road remains unchanged.

It’s time we change that.

There is no need for through traffic in Kendall Square. So we should get rid of through traffic in Kendall Square. Imagine if Kendall Square was a 500′-by-100′ pedestrian plaza. With benches, and trees. Maybe a water feature. Bike lanes? Yes. Bus lanes? Maybe. Car lanes? No.

Pedestrian malls have a somewhat fraught history, but recent examples in already-high pedestrian areas have been successful. As a means to revitalize an area, they have a mixed record, but in a vital area marred by traffic, (see much of Broadway in New York City), they can be quite successful. Thus, the failures often occur when there isn’t enough foot traffic to fill the space, but this is certainly not the case in Kendall. The new construction both in the Square and nearby development sites will add to the already tens of thousands of pedestrians using the space each day. MIT’s project will turn the square from a backwater of the campus lined with parking lots (some of them gravel!) to an entryway. There will be no shortage of pedestrians.

“But we can’t just take away travel lanes in Kendall Square!”

Nonsense. We already have. Broadway has gone from two lanes to one. So have both sides of the Longfellow Bridge (only partially thanks to yours truly), and a portion of Binney Street between Third and Land Blvd. So any traffic can easily be absorbed elsewhere. Binney Street, Broadway and Ames Street can distribute these vehicles to other paths of travel. As we saw with the Longfellow shutdown, any initial traffic tie-ups will dissipate as drivers choose other routes and, with safer infrastructure, other modes. And given the climate crisis globally and congestion crisis locally, making driving in Cambridge a bit more cumbersome is good: it makes people consider their many other options, and in Kendall, we have many.

Bikes would still be able to proceed through Kendall, with a two-way bicycle facility offset from the rest of the square. This could be designed with some sort of chicane system and speed calming, encouraging through cyclists to pedal at a reasonable speed for the environment and not treat it as the Tour de Kendall. Of course, ample bicycle parking would be provided. Coming west, cyclists would share a roadway with MIT delivery vehicles from Third Street; this roadway would act as a shared street or a woonerf, where any vehicles would be encouraged by the street’s design to proceed at a human pace, and couldn’t go much faster, since their only destination would be the MIT loading dock.

There is the question of what to do with the buses. Kendall is not a major transfer point, and the busiest route through the square, the CT2, has already been routed off of Main Street to a new stop on Ames. Three other routes—the 64, 68 and 85—terminate at Kendall, and more may be added as routes are realigned with the opening of the Green Line extension. One option would be to keep a single-lane busway through the square where the buses run today, allowing buses to serve the train station head house and layover, but this would eat into the potential gains in open space and walkability. A second, and I think preferable, option would be to have all buses terminate at the bus stop on Ames Street.

The parking on Ames Street adjacent to the new bike lane could be turned over to bus layover (because, again, why do need street parking everywhere in Kendall?). This would require somewhat longer transfers, up to 800 feet of walking from the inbound head house, but given that the CT2 and EZRide buses have moved out of the square with no ill effects, this may be a reasonable option, especially since most of it is through an covered concourse, and the rest would be through a pedestrian plaza. A new drop-off stop would be placed near Main Street, where arriving buses would drop passengers. There would then be space between this stop and the existing stop for buses to layover before their next trip, where they would pull forward to serve the stop.

A wide-enough corridor would be left along the southern side of the plaza for intermittent vehicular use. This would include things like major deliveries to buildings which could not be accommodated elsewhere and access for food trucks and farmers market vendors. It would also give the MBTA a path for buses during Red Line shutdowns, so that buses could still replace the Red Line when absolutely necessary between Boston and Kendall. But 99% of the time, Kendall would be car-free.

I’ve taken a plan drawing from MIT’s SOMA project and overlaid new open space as described. I’d suggest adding rows of trees to create an urban forest along the street itself, with an opening at the current crosswalk, creating a sight corridor and plaza feel through the square itself. I included a bicycle corridor (and other existing bicycle lanes), which would run between the trees, but would still leave most of the space in the square for pedestrians. I also show an emergency vehicle “lane” which would generally be a walking area, and assume there would be plenty of benches and tables in amongst the trees. I also show the bus terminal at the upper left. Gray areas show vehicular roadways on Main Street and in the rest of the SOMA area (other roadways are shown on the original plan). This is all a sketch, of course.

There would still be some asphalt in the square. From the west, a roadway would lead from Main Street to Dock Street, accessing the Kendall Hotel and continuing to MIT Medical. From the east, the planned loading dock in the SOMA project would be accessed from Third Street or Broadway, but this would be a shared street with limited, slow traffic. The parking entrance on Wadsworth Street would exit onto Broadway via Main Street, but the only entrance would be from Wadsworth and Amherst Streets (which would allow exiting traffic as well). Would this make driving somewhat less convenient for some drivers? Sure: someone headed to MIT’s SOMA parking would have to take a right on Ames, a left on Amherst and a left on Wadsworth instead of driving straight through Kendall Square.

This is a small price to pay for the tens of thousands of pedestrians would no longer have to avoid cars in Kendall. Maybe some drivers would take the train instead of driving. In the language of Kendall, this is a feature, not a bug.

The case to kill the Needham Line (and replace it with Rapid Transit)

Everything is interconnected.

That should be the lesson of any transportation infrastructure project. Everything moves together. One part is always related to another. A change to one piece of infrastructure may have effects—positive or negative—across modes, across time, and across a region. In some cases, a project in one area can have a major impact on a seemingly disparate project somewhere else. We can’t think of transportation projects in a silo; instead, we must think of everything is interrelated.

South Station Expansion: Supply vs Demand

Which brings me to the South Station Expansion (SSX) project. This behemoth is a decade-long (or more) project of dubious value. Of most value is rebuilding the Tower 1 interlocking, which, when it fails, has huge service impacts for the entirety of the south side Commuter Rail network, impacting tens of thousands of commuters. Of more cost, and less apparent benefit, are plans to buy the post office building and build more tracks at South Station. SSX poses the current capacity issues at South Station as a supply problem, and therefore sees the solution to build more supply. But what if, instead, we addressed the demand?

There are two ways to think of the demand at South Station, and how to mitigate it. One is to look at the time which it takes each train to platform, let passengers off the train, have the crew change from one end of the train to another and perform a brake test, and board passengers for the destination (the passenger movements and crew end change can happen simultaneously). Right now, at rush hour, there is a maximum of 20 Commuter Rail trains per hour at South Station, spread across 11 tracks used for Commuter Rail (the other two are used for Amtrak). This means that the average occupancy time of a track at South Station is 33 minutes. 

This is not exactly good. At outlying terminals, trains frequently turn in as little as fifteen minutes; most Worcester Line trains, for example, spend 20 minutes or less from the time they arrive at an outlying terminal to the time they leave. Even taking into account higher passenger loads at the terminal station and the need to empty the train before refilling it (given the width of the platforms), as well as extra time to traverse Tower 1, something less than 33 minutes should be possible. Let’s assume that an average turn time of 25 minutes were feasible at South Station. This would allow 26 trains per hour to use the terminal’s 11 Commuter Rail tracks, a 30% increase over the current “capacity” without building a single new track.

There’s another way to look at SSX as a demand issue rather than a supply one: run fewer trains into the station. In most cases, this is a non-starter: the trains which run into the station are near or at capacity, so running fewer would cause more crowding and provide less service; even if longer trains were run where possible, they would be even more infrequent than the service provided today. There is an exception: the Needham Line could be replaced with rapid transit service and removed from South Station entirely, freeing up 10% of the capacity there without lifting a finger, at least on the Commuter Rail side. Reducing demand to preclude building more supply could save billions of dollars, and while converting the Needham Line to rapid transit wouldn’t be cheap, it might be significantly less expensive than South Station Expansion.

Needham Line Replacement

Other than the Fairmount Line, the Needham Line is Commuter Rail’s shortest. It runs less than 14 miles, splitting off of the Northeast Corridor at Forest Hills, running through Roslindale and West Roxbury to Needham Junction, and then curving back northeast to Needham Heights. (The track beyond there originally connected to what is now the Riverside Line.) The end of the line at Needham Heights is less than 10 miles, as the crow flies, from Downtown, closer, in fact, than the Green Line terminus at Riverside. Yet a train to South Station takes 46 minutes to complete the journey, making frequent stops between Needham and Forest Hills. Service is infrequent—about every 40 minutes—yet the line is still so crowded that it sometimes leaves passengers behind. This is probably because a typical rush hour commute time is even longer: the trip from Needham to Boston by car can take well over an hour.

This page recently detailed how a mile-long extension of the Orange Line to Melrose could, for a small investment, dramatically improve the service. Replacing the Needham Line would be a similar endeavor, albeit one at a larger scale. It would involve two line extensions, extending the Green Line south from Newton Highlands to Needham, and the Orange Line west from Forest Hills to West Roxbury. Most Needham Line riders would see slightly longer trip times to downtown Boston, but this would be made up for by dramatically-increase capacity, significantly shorter waiting times and much more frequent off-peak and weekend service (the Needham Line doesn’t operate on Sundays). It would also have cascading benefits throughout the regional transportation network.

Orange Line Extension to West Roxbury

Extending the Orange Line to West Roxbury would be a relatively simple project, as far as rail extensions go. Southwest of Forest Hills, the Orange Line terminates in a small, four-track yard, where trains can be stored temporarily at the end of the line. This yard happens to be adjacent to the Needham Line tracks, which extend to Roslindale and beyond. While it was originally a two-track right-of-way, the current Needham Line operates with a combination of single track and dual track, with most stations on the single track portion. Any conversion to rapid transit would require double-tracking of the line, which is generally easy in the existing right-of-way, except for two bridges in Robert and LaGrange streets, which have wide bridge abutments, but only a single trackway. 

A trip to Back Bay station would take two or three minutes longer on the Orange Line than it does today on Commuter Rail, but rather than a train once every 40 minutes at rush hour and every two hours midday and Saturdays (and no service on Sundays), trains would come every few minutes, all day long. Given the current fare structure and the infrequency of service, many passengers would shift from taking a bus to Forest Hills and changing to the train there to a direct train trip, freeing up buses to be used on other routes in the region. 

The largest cost in converting the line to rapid transit would be from the development of stations, which would generally have to be rebuilt with new platforms and vertical circulation, as few are ADA-compliant and some rely on pedestrian grade crossings, which are not feasible with third-rail power systems. The four new stations would replace the existing Commuter Rail stations, although it may be possible to consolidate the West Roxbury, Highland and Bellevue stations, which are less than half a mile from each other. The line may benefit from having a new station to the west near the VFW parkway. This would provide access to new housing developments there, the potential for a park-and-ride facility, and a station within walking distance of the VA medical center there, which is currently difficult to reach by transit and surrounded by a sea of parking. There are also several parcels of low-density strip malls which could be redeveloped as transit-oriented development (like this one), increasing ridership at the station as well as providing much-needed housing for the region. (There’s also a major electrical substation there, which would provide power to the line.)

West of there, there may be need for a small storage yard along the current right-of-way, especially if additional vehicles were needed to provide service (the Orange Line fleet as constructed today can barely keep up with current demand, but the new expanded fleet will allow more frequent service). The right-of-way across the river could be converted into a multi-use path, extending west across the Charles, through Cutler Park to Needham Junction, the Green Line extension, and the path southwest to Dover and beyond.

Why not extend the Orange Line further west? One is technology and the line’s profile: it would only be able to run as far as Needham Junction, north of which there are grade crossings incompatible with third rail electrification. It would require rebuilding three long bridges across the Charles, a drainage in Cutler Park and 128, which are currently single-tracked, and dealing with the current grade crossing in the golf course west of Hersey. But mostly, it’s because the population profile. The stations in Needham serve a much less dense population than those in Boston, and extending the Orange Line two miles across a park to serve Hersey and Needham Junction would be far more expensive than using the Green Line, which is needed in Needham because of the grade crossings there.

Green Line Extension to Needham

The outer portion of the Needham Line, from Needham Junction to Newton, looks very little like the line in West Roxbury. Today’s Needham Line is made up of three different railroads, a branch of the Boston and Providence to Dedham built in the 1840s, the Charles River Railroad built in the 1850s, and the portion between West Roxbury and Needham Junction, built in the early 1900s. While the B&P was grade-separated, the Charles River Railroad was not, and there are eight grade crossings between Needham Junction and Newton Highlands. This lends itself far more to a light-rail operation, with overhead power and smaller stations. Luckily, the Charles River Railroad split off the Boston and Albany’s Highland Branch at Newton Highlands, and the Highland Branch is today’s D Line.

Extending the D Line the first mile to Oak Street would be simple. The right-of-way is 85 feet wide, plenty wide enough for two Green Line tracks and the parallel Upper Falls Greenway (a 2017 document suggests there might be some areas which would require additional retaining walls, although the width of the corridor can easily accommodate two tracks). There are no grade crossings, existing mixed-use areas, and significant opportunities for further development in the corridor. The costliest item may be building a junction between the lines past Newton Highlands.

West of Oak Street is trickier, as bridges over both the Charles River and Route 128 would have to be widened and replaced. The bridge over the Charles is a single track, while the bridge over 128 was removed during the wildly expensive “add-a-lane” project (originally, the scope included rebuilding the bridge, but it was deleted out as a cost-saving move; although MassDOT would be responsible for restoring the bridge if the MBTA requested it, theoretically using highway funding; abutments are built to accommodate two tracks). From there, the right-of-way extends in to Needham, where it eventually joins up with the existing Commuter Rail line. Grade crossings would have to be added and power run (there is an existing substation adjacent to the line at the junction with the current D Line, as well as high voltage power at Needham Junction) and stations built, although grade-level, Green Line stations would be far less costly than those on the Orange Line, since they would consist of little more than concrete platforms and shelters. If retaining service to Hersey was desired, it could be served by a single-track extension from a terminal at Needham Junction (and theoretically, a single track Green Line would make more sense for a line from Needham to West Roxbury than Orange Line service, if service were desired along this leg).

The trip from Needham to Downtown Boston would be five to ten minutes longer than the Commuter Rail trip (more of an impact from Needham Junction and a minimal change from Needham Highlands), although improved Green Line fare payment and boarding may help speed trips on the line. There would be a major advantage for trips to the Longwood Medical Area, however, since the Longwood Green Line station would be just 25 to 30 minutes from Needham, and it is located significantly closer to the major employment center there than the Ruggles stop on the Commuter Rail is today. And, of course, trains would run every eight or ten minutes, as compared to the less-frequent Commuter Rail service today.

Since everything is interrelated, the biggest obstacle to this project may actually be the core capacity of the Green Line subway in Back Bay. From Copley to Park, there is a train every 90 seconds, which is close to the capacity of the line. While the MBTA has proposed adding longer vehicles to the line to increase capacity, adding a branch to Needham might overload the central subway system, even if service to each of the sub-branches (Needham and Riverside) were cut to every 8 to 10 minutes at rush hour, it would put more pressure on the line. There is, however, an escape valve. The design of the Kenmore station would allow some trains to terminate there, loop over the main trunk of the subway, and turn back outbound, without impact the Copley-Park segment. While this would incur a transfer for some passengers, they could board any other train in the station and continue their trip (and any passenger going to a destination west of Kenmore, like the LMA, would have no impact). This would allow service on the Riverside and Needham branches to maintain high frequencies without adding congestion downtown. (There are other solutions as well, but may be significantly more capital intensive than this, which would be free.)

Green Line Storage Capacity

A major benefit, however, would be the ability of the Needham extension to provide additional rail car storage for the Green Line. Once the Somverille Green Line extension opens, the line will need additional cars, and if the fleet is upgraded from 75-foot cars to 100-foot cars, as is proposed, the current storage facilities will be unable to cope with the number of cars on the line. (Of course, if service were run 24 hours each day, enough cars would be operating on the line as to reduce the need for more storage.) Cars are currently stored at Riverside, Reservoir, Lake Street (at the end of the B Line) and at Lechmere. The Lechmere yard will be replaced with a new facility as part of the Green Line extension project, but there are otherwise few areas to expand train storage, and the Needham Branch would require more cars, and more storage. 

Needham Junction, however, provides that room. The current Riverside yard provides storage for 6000 linear feet of railcars, which accounts for about half of the space in the yard (the rest is the T’s heavy maintenance facility for the Green Line). Needham Junction could easily accommodate that size of facility (see a comparison here) and, if expanded to fill out the wye there and the adjacent power line right of way could store triple the amount, enough to store the entire current fleet (including the forthcoming Type 9s), so certainly enough to provide additional capacity for future fleet needs. Part of the site could also be used as a park-and-ride lot or for transit-oriented development (the portion not already owned by the T is owned by a landscaping company).

Overall Benefits

Extending the Green and Orange lines to Needham and West Roxbury would be a major undertaking: a multi-year project which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And yet, its effects would be felt far outside of Needham and West Roxbury. It would provide:

  • Much more frequent service for Needham, West Roxbury and Roslindale commuters 
  • More capacity at an unexpanded South Station, to add service to other Commuter Rail lines, and the ability to push back the huge expenditure required to add capacity to South Station
  • Additional “slots” on the Northeast Corridor, to allow more service on this particularly-constrained portion of the Commuter Rail.
  • Additional storage for Green Line trains
  • More bus service in the entire region, since many of the bus routes currently serving Forest Hills could be reduced in frequency (given the Orange Line in West Roxbury) and cut back from Forest Hills to Roslindale or other Orange Line stations. The buses saved could be reallocated to other parts of the system. In addition, the 59 bus in Newton and Needham could be truncated and replaced with the Green Line.
  • The reallocation of the three Needham Line Commuter Rail train sets, which would add capacity to the rest of the system and/or allow some of the most antiquated trains to be retired.
  • A new greenway path connecting the ends of the Orange and Green line extensions to Cutler and Millennium Parks, across the Charles River, and south and west to Needham Town Forest and parks and conservation areas beyond.

Thus, extending the Green and Orange lines will not just benefit those along the Green and Orange extension routes, but also people riding buses, people riding the rest of the Green Line, and people riding Commuter Rail, as well as allowing the state to push back the need to build out the South Station expansion, and potentially explore opportunities to further address the demand side (by reducing turn times further or building a North South Rail Link) instead.

Ari and Miles rate Boston Magazine’s “40 Ideas”

It’s transportation week here in Boston, apparently, what with the Globe Spotlight series dropping and Boston Magazine publishing their list of 40 ideas for transportation.

I started reading the 40 ideas piece and with each one had a reaction. Mostly “yeah,” “mm-hmm,” or “what, are you out of your goddamn mind?” Then I realized: I should rate these. On a scale of 1 to 10. On my blog. Because who wouldn’t want to read one person’s ranting about other people’s ideas, rated on a 1 to 10 scale.

Well, a lot of people. But what if … two people each rated the ideas, on a 1 to 10 scale. That’s a little more interesting. Certainly more fun to read. And when I think of rating transportation on a 1 to 10 scale, I think of one person: Miles “Miles on the MBTA” Taylor (well, now that he’s in undergrad in Philly, he’s going by “Miles in Transit” but we know where his loyalties lie.)

That’s right: guest co-blogging this post is the one and only Miles on the MBTA.

GET EXCITED. Set your snark detector to high.

A few notes before we dive in. First, these are listed in the order they appeared in the Boston Magazine story (on several different pages), not based on our rankings (so you don’t have to jump around, note that the magazine has the ideas grouped by mode, and I’ll link to each page). I set some ground rules: points for (or against) creativity, feasibility, is it a “big” idea, and not “staying in your lane,” i.e. if someone works for an organization which advocates for x, and their proposal is to do x, it’s not as exciting. Also, it’s worth noting that Miles wrote his ratings and responses without looking at mine.

So, we’re off. Thanks, Miles! And somehow this is under 4000 words (I should stop typing!).

Group 1: Cars

1. Congestion modeling as an investment (John Fish)


Ari: 9. Good idea, coming from a business leader. Good framing. One question: what do we do with the money? Does it go all towards transit? What if it was just put in an account and divided by the number of people in the state and returned as a tax rebate a la Canada’s carbon tax? Is this a good idea? How do we implement?
Miles: 8. Congestion pricing is awesome and Boston needs to do it. My one qualm: it’s really tough to find alternate, non-driving ways of commuting from low-income gateway cities like Brockton or Lawrence when the Commuter Rail is so inadequate. There could be equity issues here.

2. Tax garage parking (Ari!)

Ari: 10. Perfect. Do it. (But actually, a good idea, lots of precedent elsewhere, and, yeah, I’m going outside my usual transit “lane.”)
Miles: 10. Ew, Ari Ofsevit wrote this one—I can’t stand that guy. But seriously, this is a no-brainer, and every other major city has done it already.

3. Be less of a Masshole (Kenny Young)

Ari: 4. Fine idea, but doesn’t really do much. Sure, calming down is good. Looking at photos on your phone, however … demerits for that.
Miles: 3. Um, okay. Seems pretty fluffy to me. And aside from the phone use while driving (which doesn’t seem like a great way to “save transportation”), the bit about “singing at the top of your lungs” perpetuates the fact that it’s just you and your car—i.e. the geometry problem that got us into this mess in the first place. I like his title, though: “Personal driver, Kenny’s car.” That’s pretty funny.

4. Make drivers suffer (Sue O’Connell)

Ari: 9. Yes! Pedestrianization! Make it hard to drive! Although free transit is fraught.
Miles: 8. Pretty much a grander version of number 1, and it sounds amazing. I love the idea of having a city as painful to drive in as Amsterdam. O’Connell even addresses the potential equity problems with higher fees for having cars. It’s a lot, though, and pretty much a utopian vision with the current administration.

5. Late night transit (Garrett Harker)


Ari: 8. Make Boston more of a late night city? Great. Transit for late night employees? Great. Doing this through TNCs? Not sure what happens when they have to make money someday.
Miles: 6. Yeah, it would be nice to live in a city that doesn’t go to bed at 8 PM. Using a more vibrant nightlife to fuel 24-hour transit is an interesting idea, but I think the latter has to come before the former. And while it’s neat that he partnered with Lyft to get his workers home cheaply, early-morning MBTA buses get too packed to do something similar for them.

6. Autonomous cars for all (Lee Pelton)

Ari: 1. Can I go to zero? Can I go negative? Give me a break. We can all ride in an autonomous car driving around the city because there’s so much room on our roads. Seriously, Emerson? Has this guy ever looked out the window? Autonomous cars are cars. Cars in the city are bad. Please. I’ll keep him at 1 because at least he admits this is decades away.
Miles: 1. A Celtics game at TD Garden lets out. You have 20,000 people trying to get home. As the line of 20,000 individuals vehicles gets backed up along Causeway Street (and Commercial Street, and Atlantic Ave, etc. etc. etc.) waiting to pick everyone up, those autonomous cars suddenly don’t look so efficient, do they? What a shame.

7. Smarter tolls (Chris Dempsey)

Ari: 8. Good idea, should be implemented, but points off for staying too much in your lane. In other words, we know what to do? Now, how do we do it?
Miles: 9. It’s very much inside the box, but using existing infrastructure to cheaply instate congestion pricing is a great idea. The Tobin Bridge is a good place to try it, but the plan should come with a bus lane for the 111—goodness knows it needs it.

8. Fix potholes (Ernie Boch, Jr)

Ari: 2. If you don’t like potholes, move to Arizona or somewhere that doesn’t have freeze thaw cycles. Or start paying more for the roads, you Trump-loving sycophant.
Miles: 2. Are the potholes ruining your beautiful expensive cars? I’m playing the world’s smallest violin for you. Not a 1 because buses drive on the roads too, so at least they would benefit too.

9. Get cars off the road (Kristen Eck)


Ari: 10. Simple, and coming from the traffic reporter. More people without more roads = more traffic.
Miles: 6. It’s a good mindset to have, but the implementation is really vague and doesn’t do anything to fix the alternatives to driving. Sure, we can subsidize MBTA passes for employees, but if the Red Line breaks down for the 15th time that week, how valuable will those passes look?

10. Worcester-to-Boston (Mary Connaughton)

Ari: 8. Fixing the Turnpike outside of Allston is a good idea. But fixing the Worcester Line would do a lot more. People on Twitter think this could be done with toll revenue. Both, and?

Miles: 6. Kind of a mishmash of ideas here, some good, some bad. Improving Worcester Line service is a no-brainer, but keep the added service going past the time of construction, unlike what this entry seems to suggest. Fixing the monstrosity known as Newton Corner, fantastic. Increasing parking at Commuter Rail stations…fine at some of the more middle-of-nowhere ones, I guess. But building I-90 at grade just to make the project go faster? Hope you like diesel fumes!

11. Fix signage (Scott Ferson)

Ari. 2. This guy doesn’t seem to like the MUTCD. He rails against control cities. And he doesn’t understand that the exit number sign already indicates whether an exit is a left-hand exit or not. Not sure what this would do for congestion even if it made him feel better.
Miles: 3. I mean … whatever, man. Massachusetts has its share of crazy signs, but a lot of this comes down to the insane interchanges rather than problems with the signage itself. I’m not against the idea, per se, but its inclusion just feels like filler.

12. Give commercial vehicles more space (Ana Cristina Fragoso)

Ari: 5. Sort of a fine idea, I guess. More and better loading zones would make sense. Moving some stuff to rail? Fine. Ferries? Meh. More important are probably local loading zones, and getting people to stop ordering stupid shit from Amazon Prime and getting single rolls of toilet paper delivered by cars. We need a bit less Veruca Salt (“Don’t care how, I want it now!”) syndrome and a bit more walking half a mile to the corner store.
Miles: 5. Points for being a unique consideration (it’s not something I’ve ever thought about). I like the idea of focusing on other ways of getting freight into the city, although it is going to be a tough sell to dedicate entire roads to commercial vehicles.

13. End distracted driving (The Rev Laura Everett)

Ari: 10. Yes! Put your goddamn phone away. Not out of your hand. Not a glowing rectangle next to your face. No. Away-away. In the glove box until you get to your destination. Look at the directions before you start driving, like we used to do before we had phones. If you don’t know where you are going, you shouldn’t be on the road.
Miles: 8. Yeah, okay, let’s do it! This is by no means groundbreaking, but any way to eliminate pedestrian deaths is a good thing.

Group 2: Buses

14: BRT (Julia Wallerce)

Ari: 8. BRT is great, but a) not going to solve all of our problems, and b) very much in Julia’s lane. But, yeah, put in some goddamn bus lanes already.
Miles: 8. BRT is a fantastic way to improve capacity in Boston’s overcrowded bus system. While this is a rosy look (how many Boston streets are wide enough for center-running BRT?), it’s still a great system to strive for.

15. Better interior bus design (Zuleny Gonzales)

Ari: 10. I was on the 70 and an already late-and-full bus was delayed several minutes while the driver helped a mobility-impaired person safely board. Plus the driver had to deploy the ramp by hand because it was broken. Making buses work better for people with mobility issues makes buses work better for everyone (goes for trains, too).
Miles: 10. Absolutely needed. If we can make riding the bus easier for everyone, especially those who are disabled, then not only will more of those riders take the bus, but speeds will be increased—I can’t be the only one who internally groans when someone in a wheelchair gets on and I know we’ll have to endure the two-minute strap-in process. It’s not the person’s fault, it’s the vehicle design.

16. Make way for buses (Jarrett Walker)

Ari: 8. Bus lanes and bus lane enforcement. Not a bad idea at all. Getting the police to care, though …
Miles: 10. I’m not a Jarrett Walker fanboy, I swear! Seriously, though, bus lanes are sorely needed in this city, along with proper enforcement. It’s definitely inside the box, and many bus lane projects are already happening, but there’s no denying that if we want to fix Boston’s bus problem, bus lanes are objective number 1.

17. Blue Hill Ave buses (Quincy Miller)


Ari: 10. Blue Hill Ave is the top corridor in the state for BRT. Tear out the concrete medians, put in BRT, and plant some trees.
Miles: 10. This is one of the only corridors where the treatment in number 16 would work. Plus, the 28 is the MBTA’s highest-ridership bus route—what better place for a BRT line? Redundant to the others, but I can’t argue with true BRT on Blue Hill Ave.

Group 3: Rail

18. Electrification (Adam Gaffin)

Ari: 10. Adam gets it.
Miles: 10. Everyone knows this is sorely needed. It’s been talked about to death already, and it seems like the only people holding back are those up at the top. Let’s do it.

19. Build the Grand Junction (C.A. Webb)

Ari: 10. The Grand Junction is the best ROI for a rapid transit “crosstown” link. North Station-“Cambridge Crossing”–East Cambridge–Kendall–Cambridgeport–Allston. It doesn’t sound like a busy transit line today, but with ongoing development, that order of stations may soon read something more like North Station–Kendall–Kendall–Kendall–Kendall–Harvard (Allston). With the Allston project, the time to do this is now.
Miles: 8. More transit to Kendall Square is really important, and the Grand Junction is the only existing rail asset there besides the Red Line. I’ve never been a giant fan of the whole “run Worcester trains via the Grand Junction to North Station” thing, though—you end up with a reverse-branch that could potentially limit the number of trains serving South Station. Instead, how about a frequent shuttle from Allston to North Station?

20.  Gondola!!!1! (Roger Berkowitz)

Ari: 1. Bus lane!!!1! (Or if you want a subway, put trains in the Silver Line tunnel. Remember, the gondola doesn’t work just because you say words.)
Miles: 1. THE SEAPORT GONDOLA IS BACK!!!!!! Look, we have a “subway tunnel service” to the Seaport—it’s the Silver Line, and yes, it is insanely overcrowded at rush hour. Convert it to light rail and suddenly you’re going to see a lot more capacity for that “subway tunnel service.” And reopen the Northern Ave Bridge for car traffic? Ever heard of induced demand?

21. Big rail (Kathryn Carlson)

Ari: 10. Yes, regional rail! And let’s remember, those cost estimates are … high. But $30 billion (less, though, because this includes the cost of buying rolling stock, which the T has to do no matter what propulsion system is used) over the next 10 years is $600 per person per year inside of 495, much of which you could get from the feds, to completely transform the regional transportation system. It’s really not that much.
Miles: 10. Another one that’s been talked to death, and pretty much every transit advocate agrees this needs to be done. Carlson even brings up the hefty cost and defends it.

22. Better PR (Max Grinnell)

Ari: 4. I mean, better PR would be nice, but it won’t make the trains run on time.
Miles: 2. I don’t think Max Grinnell reads the MBTA’s Twitter replies. When they’re stuck in a line of trains trapped behind a broken signal, people don’t feel any better by looking at cutesy PSAs. I guess it’s a nice thought, but it’s nothing more than that: a nice thought.

23. Widett transportation hub (Tom Tinlin)

Ari: 2. Oh, it’s Track 61 again. Like the gondola, it also still doesn’t work just because your mouthparts move.
Miles: 2. Points for originality, but I’m not quite sure what the goal is here. “A Widett Circle station could let commuter-rail passengers from the southeast get to Back Bay or Ruggles without going all the way to South Station.” What? How? Track 61, I guess? And Tinlin talks about connecting the Red Line and Commuter Rail here. So there’d be a new Red Line subway station? With a 700-foot connection from Dot Ave to a new Commuter Rail station? This had better coincide with a redevelopment of the area, or else you’re going to end up with a lot of wasted money.

Group 4: Bikes

24: Franklin Park Bike Hub (Elijah Evans)

Ari: 7. This would be great, having Franklin Park be more usable by bicycles (and overall, some of the paths there are overgrown, it’s kind of weird). And I do like the idea of making roads nearby more bike-friendly. But it’s not going to solve the regional transportation issue, even if it helps some.
Miles: 7. This seems like mostly a PR campaign to make local residents more aware of the ease of biking through Franklin Park, which is not a bad thing. Importantly, though, it would have to come with better bike infrastructure on surrounding roads—the park itself isn’t really gonna get you anywhere.

25. Bike the last mile (David Montague)

Ari: 6. A fine idea, although congestion isn’t always the last mile. This is also very much in the lane for David Montague, who owns a folding bike company.
Miles: 4. A novel concept for sure. But think about a cold winter day: you’re in your warm car, and you come to the “park-and-bike” lot—do you really want to get out of your private vehicle and get on your freezing bike through the pounding snow instead? Probably not. This isn’t a problem with a typical transit-based park-and-ride system.

26. Share the road (Jenny Johnson)

Ari: 9. Give bicycles better facilities and they’ll be more law abiding? Yup. Go to Europe and see how design begets ridership? Sure.
Miles: 10. Johnson’s anecdote about bikers waiting at the light in Vienna really drives home the idea that people will follow the rules when they’re fair. In Boston, bikers get so little compared to cars—of course they’re going to rebel and run the light. Give bikers the safe corridors they need, and you’ll see a lot more harmony on our roads.

27. Helmets for Hubway (Joanne Chang)

Ari: 3. I mean, fine, but helmets don’t keep people from riding BlueBikes. In fact, these upright, Dutch-style, stable bikes are probably the ones with the least need for helmets. This does basically nothing. (I’m surprisingly libertarian on bike helmets.)
Miles: 3. No one wears helmets in Amsterdam, because bike fatalities are ridiculously low, because the streets are designed for them. While helmets may make you feel safer here, they’re not doing anything to actually solve the transportation problem for bikers.

28. Connect the paths (Juliet Eldred)

Ari: 10. NUMTOT! But even if it wasn’t NUMTOT-in-chief @drooliet, it’s also a great idea. The real last mile issue with bikes (see above) is that the last mile of a bike trip is often unsafe. So people drive. Let’s cover the city with a web of bike lanes, instead of traffic lanes.
Miles: 10. As a proud NUMTOT, it is so cool to see that Juliet made the cut here. And her idea makes so much sense: why do we have these fancy separated bike lanes that connect to lines of paint on the road? We can’t wave a magic wand and instantaneously get separated bike lanes on every street in the city, but we can at least try to connect the ones we have.

Group 5: Other

29. Podcars (Bill James)

Ari: 1. No.
Miles: 1. Aahgahgaghhhghhh.

30. Road diets (Joe Curtatone)

Ari: 9. Yes. Now, can you call over to Marty and get Boston to stop shitting all over this?
Miles: 10. Putting aside the fantastic points, ideas, and examples put forth here, it’s amazing to see that this was written by an elected official, the mayor of Somerville. It gives me hope that there are people on the top who know what’s going on and want to fix it.

31. Flying cars! (Gwen Lighter)

Ari: 1. Also no. Not as crazy as podcars because they aren’t low-capacity elevated railroads, but has anyone talked to the FAA about this?
Miles: 1. What? Is this a joke? Am I reading an Onion article?

32. Fare equity (Tanisha Sullivan)

Ari: 8. Fare equity is great. Implementation is, well, not as easy. Price discrimination allows us to do things like keeping certain services from being even more overrun when they are already near capacity. Without this, we get a tragedy of the commons with poor service and long wait times like, well, like the roads at rush hour. (Off-peak pricing, now, there’s an idea!)
Miles: 7. This is a good, moderate look at how to improve access for people. Free MBTA fares for students and seniors is more realistic than making the whole system free, while encouraging flexible work hours would ease rush hour traffic a bit. Nothing groundbreaking here, but some fine ideas.

33. Ferries (Alice Brown)

Ari: 5. Ferries are useful for a few demand corridors, but not really a game-changer regionally. And this is very in-her-lane for the head of Boston Harbor Now.
Miles: 4. Utilizing our water assets and creating new ferry routes is good in theory, but who’s taking a ferry from East Boston to Long Wharf when the Blue Line exists? Maybe the people in the expensive luxury homes near the water, but not much else. East Boston to the Seaport is better, but even then, bus lanes in the Ted Williams for the SL3 would help here, too. I just don’t want Boston to end up with a repeat of the NYC Ferry http://secondavenuesagas.com/2019/10/06/its-time-to-stop-subsidizing-the-nyc-ferry-fares/.

34. Think outside the box (Jim Canales)

Ari: 7. Let’s be a world class city with outside the box ideas is fine, but vague.
Miles: 7. This is vague as heck, but the general call to [waves hand] think outside the box is solid.

35. Dockless scooters! (Lama Bou Mjahed)

Ari: 2. Small-wheeled death traps which are expensive and still lose money. Pass.
Miles: 2. This is listed under “Big Ideas”? Dockless bikes and scooters are already being implemented around the country, and even in the Boston region! It might take a few (a few) cars off the road, but this isn’t the big solution we’re looking for. And Bluebikes already has great coverage that’s expanding.

36. Robotaxis (Karl Iagnemma)

Ari: 1. Hooray, more cars! Using technology we don’t have! Magic!
Miles: 2. Okay … I guess it’s not hyping these things as a full-on takeover, but rather a low-cost last-mile solution that’s apparently being implemented in Vegas already. One point added for being realistic.

37. Teamwork (Patrick Sullivan)

Ari: 7. Getting people together is great. But as the Globe points out, if they are all subsidizing driving, it doesn’t help that much.
Miles: 6. Working with companies to open up new transportation options…okay, I can roll with that. But the example of the North Station/Seaport Ferry shows the flip side of it: it’s great for members of participating companies, but for members of the public, the ferry is near-unknown, and you can only buy tickets online in advance. These partnerships need to ensure that the public can benefit as well, not just the private companies involved.

38. Listen to users (Ambar Johnson)

Ari: 8. Not necessarily a big idea, but having a better way to have public feedback with the agency and cities and towns, especially outside of public meetings attended by old white people, would be good.
Miles: 10. I mean … it’s probably the least revolutionary idea on here, but it’s also one of the most obvious. The users know best, and the piece summarizes it well: “Listen and trust their judgement, and just implement it.”

39. Invest in Gateway Cities (Tracey Corley)

Ari: 9. Yes. Gateway cities are an opportunity to build more housing near transit, and build more walkable, livable areas people want to live. Millennials don’t necessarily want to be in Boston (or Cambridge, or Somerville) but to live in a walkable, urban community with amenities and good transit. Gateway Cities provide this opportunity.
Miles: 8. The idea of gateway cities being self-contained, you know, cities that are disconnected from Boston is such an alien idea, so this gets major points for being outside of the box. And mention RTAs and you’ve got me hooked—the transformation of gateway cities needs to be accompanied by improvements to their bus systems, which vary wildly in quality. Regional Rail isn’t mentioned at all despite being a key factor in gateway city revitalization, though.

40. Mayor of 128 (Amy Dain)

Ari: 6. Fine, but reducing car use along 128 will be quite difficult unless we nuke all the development along 128 and rebuild it very densely around transit stations along 128.
Miles: 7. Sure, I guess. It would be good to have someone looking to the future of a corridor that is really screwed up right now. Smarter future development will at least prevent more traffic from using 128. As a big final proposal though, this is a little underwhelming.