Fixed guideway utilization

I’ve been part of the calls for the transformation of the MBTA’s Commuter Rail network to more of a “regional rail” network, with more frequent service, especially at off-peak times, for quite a while. The agency has been taking some very small steps towards regional rail, most notably by increasing frequencies on most lines to hourly (where, before the pandemic, midday ridership had been every two hours in many cases, and sometimes worse), and improving service on some lines on weekends (where trains in the past ran only every three hours in some cases). This had led to relatively strong ridership, despite less rush hour commuting, with reported ridership at 76% of pre-pandemic levels. (A caveat is that unlike an agency like, say, Metra, the T has not released much public data about commuter rail ridership.)

There are few “legacy” commuter rail networks in the United States, which have had service dating back to privately-run commuter service (generally in the 1800s). A short history of commuter rail (I’ll defer to Sandy Johnston for the definitive history and yes, you should read his history) is that it is almost as old as the railroad itself, with the first “commutation” fare (a reduced fare for frequent riders) showing up in 1843 in on the Boston and Worcester Railroad. Commuters became an important service and income source in certain large cities, although not in all; in many cases, interurbans or streetcars provided longer-distance services (although often with more frequency than commuter rail). For instance, Los Angeles had no historic commuter rail service, but the Southern Pacific-controlled Red Cars provided a similar service (as did the Key System in the Bay Area and even, to some extent, “Speedrail” in Milwaukee).

In the early 1950s, ridership grew as the suburbs grew, but began to quickly decline as the already worn-out physical plants deteriorated further and the services began to lose money, especially as jobs followed residents out of cities and suburban freeways made driving more time-competitive. Suburban riders often had enough political muscle to force money-losing operations to continue, and eventually Commuter Rail systems were given operating subsidies, allowing most to continue operation (although small systems in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit disappeared entirely—and Boston came close—and some lines in other cities were abandoned as well). What midday service existed was often cut back further, with some systems operating only at rush hour, and others with minimal midday service.

By the 1980s, subsidies and investment helped to improve some systems, and coupled with increasing congestion and parking costs, ridership began to improve. Before the pandemic, commuter railroads were often some of the least-subsidized forms of transit, recouping costs mostly by charging higher fares for their whiter, more-suburban ridership base while, in many cases, maintaining a 1950s operation on 1850s rights-of-way with 1950s rolling stock. This is the paradox of commuter rail service: by utilizing centuries of investment in the railroad, most of the costs are fixed. Original capital costs were paid generations ago, and many operating costs—maintenance of way, stations, signals—don’t vary depending on the amount of service provided. There is an almost-happy medium—which was attained in some cases pre-pandemic—where thousands of commuters drove to parking lots, boarded clunky, diesel trains (or, in some cases, newer electric trains on clunky, old tracks) for a ride to the city and back because while the experience may not have been particularly pleasant, it was preferable to bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Six cities have maintained this legacy service (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco). In the past 20 years, there has been some investment in new commuter rail systems, almost entirely on existing freight rail corridors (or parallel rights-of-way). In 2019, as measured by passenger-miles, 62% of commuter rail riders were in New York City, 12% in Chicago, and almost 90% in the six legacy cities (and 85% of fixed guideway passenger miles overall are in these cities). Los Angeles has built a system larger, by passenger-miles, than DC or San Francisco, but only by building a sprawling system with more track-miles operated than any other system but New Jersey Transit, which has rail lines in three states and includes operations into both New York and Philadelphia. (Metrolink carried about 400 million passenger miles in 2019, New Jersey Transit carried 2 billion. Commuter rail in New York had 8 billion rides: 20 times more than Los Angeles on a network only three times the size.)

Measuring passenger-miles is a measure of outputs, and is sort of just a stand-in for the system size and development patterns, plus factors such as the portion of the region served. Caltrain serves only one corridor in the region, but if San Francisco included BART—a system which derives significant ridership from its outer branches which act as commuter rail, albeit with much better frequencies—it would be the fifth-highest agency in the country by passenger-miles, trailing just the New York City’s subways and commuter rail agencies.

I wondered if I could measure inputs, as in, how much service is provided for each mile of track. Since so much of the cost of providing service is fixed (already paid for), the marginal cost to run more trains (which, in many cases, just means running existing rolling stock more frequently at off-peak times) is quite low. Luckily for me, the National Transit Database requires transit operators to report this (all data here is from the NTD’s 2019 data set; 2022 may begin to paint a reasonable post-pandemic picture but it won’t be released for months). I am also more interested in the number of trains operated as opposed to the number of cars operated; as a passenger, a two-car train every 15 minutes is far superior to an 8-car train every hour, and the NTD tracks this as “train miles.”

So I came up with my utilization intensity metric for fixed guideways: train miles per fixed guideway mile. It’s basically looking at frequency, but over an entire network. I then separated these by mode and agency and sorted them from lowest to highest. The results are not especially surprising, but do paint a bit of a picture of how American transit does, and doesn’t, work. (The data used here can be found in a Google Doc here.)

In the chart above, colors represent modes, where orange is heavy rail, blue light rail and gray commuter rail. Not surprisingly, New York City’s subway system is by far the most intensely-used system in the country. For every mile of track, there are more than 80,000 train miles per year, meaning that on average there is a train approximately every 6.5 minutes. PATH comes in second, followed by the MBTA’s Green Line, which ranks highly since its four branches are interlined in a high-capacity tunnel. The next ten slots are about evenly split between large heavy rail networks (Chicago, DC, Boston) and big-city light rail networks (San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, Minneapolis) which, in some cases, are being asked to perform a role similar to a heavy rail system, with grade separation, tunnels and long vehicles.

Most heavy rail networks cluster at or above 40,000, meaning a train, on average, every 12 minutes, inclusive of off-peak and overnight times. Many smaller light rail systems fall in the 20,000 to 35,000 range, which still means that they provide service every 15 minutes during much of the day, but in some cases with 20 or even 30 minute headways at off-peak times on less-used systems. And eventually, we arrive at our most intensely-used heavy rail system, two of which are above an inflection point where usage begins to drop. Given that two-thirds of commuter rail ridership is in New York City, it’s got to be in New York, right?



There’s a lot to fault about Denver’s transit system: that it follows freeways and doesn’t serve existing populations, that Colfax should have had a light rail line years ago, that new light rail and regional rail lines are sometimes built with huge parking lots instead of development, that it somehow took three years to figure out the crossing gates on the airport line, and that the light rail maybe should have been regional rail to begin with anyway.

But Denver did, and does, two things right. First, they built a 23 mile rail line in 2016 for $1.2 billion. Yes, the line follows existing rights-of-way (but separated from the freight railroad, because we can’t have nice things), but at an inflation-adjusted cost of $65 million per mile, which includes grade crossings, several flyovers, signals, full electrification, stations and rolling stock. Second, they run the service as frequent regional rail, not commute time-focused commuter rail. Which means that it is the most frequent commuter rail system in the country.

Denver’s airport service runs every 15 minutes from 4 a.m. to early evening, and then every half hour until after midnight on weekdays. And on Saturdays. And Sundays. Philadelphia has an airport service too. It’s run with the same electrified rail cars Denver uses, on a fully grade-separated line with double track the full route (Denver manages 15 minute headways with a portion of single track). It runs every 30 minutes on weekdays … and every hour on weekends (and this is still more frequent than most of Philadelphia’s “Regional Rail” lines). Denver and Philadelphia have the same level of past investment in their rail networks: electrification, grade separation, and in the case of the Airport Line in Philadelphia, level boarding. But Denver provides more than twice as much service.

The next two commuter rail agencies are in New York, MetroNorth (which nearly matches Denver) and the LIRR. Long Island and New Jersey fall down this list because they include more low-frequency tails which provide infrequent service along exurban and even quasi-rural routes (like the Port Jervis Line or Greenport, which only sees four trains per day). Then there’s SEPTA, which despite running trains only every two hours on weekends on some lines and hourly on weekdays still runs more service than other agencies. Beyond that, some newer systems, including in places like Texas, Florida and Utah, provide more service than the two largest non-New York systems: Metra in Chicago and the MBTA in Boston.

Metra doesn’t many good excuses for its lack of service. Before the pandemic, Metra services were very rush hour-focused. Take, for example, the heavily-trafficked BNSF line. With three tracks, Metra ran complex local/express service, filling trains at bus transfers and park-and-rides in the suburbs and depositing them in the city. 11 trains arrived in Chicago between 7 and 8 each morning, and another 12 between 8 and 9. The rest of the day had service every hour, and on Sundays, trains ran every two hours. More trains arrived in Chicago between 7 and 8 a.m. on a weekday than the entire day on Sunday (the 2019 summer schedule added a test train on Sunday morning and afternoon to provide hourly frequencies during part of the day).

One somewhat-reasonable excuse is that the BNSF Line, like some other Chicago-area lines (but not all), had heavy freight traffic, with dozens of freight trains operating each day. These trains were relegated to operating at non-peak times (at peak hour, passenger service occupied all three tracks), so the morning rush hour level of service wouldn’t be possible. Still, service every 30 minutes (or even 20 or 15) could be provided, potentially with some schedule padding built in for freight interference moving on and off of the corridor, with strategic investments to improve conditions (and, maybe some strategic reforms to the freight rail industry as a whole). With changing travel patterns post-pandemic, Metra is looking to move away from the high commuter skew (it has already cut schedules back at commute times based on demand) towards a more regional rail system.

Boston doesn’t have this excuse. While Chicago is the major freight logistics hub in the country, freight rail in and around Boston has dwindled to a few carloads per week aside from some through traffic that crosses the ends of a couple of the regions Commuter Rail lines. The MBTA controls nearly the entire network, and can not point to dozens of freight trains as a reason it can’t run more midday service, and it runs less service than Chicago. During the pandemic, the agency has moved to hourly service on most of its lines on weekdays (still every two hours on weekends) but in 2019 it ran 20% less service than Metra, and only 1/4 the service of Denver, despite similar base infrastructure (two-track railroad with minimal interfering traffic). This means that cities like Boston and Chicago are doing far less to leverage past investment than they could. Traffic congestion has returned—Boston is ranked fourth in the world—but with trains every hour or two, there’s little reason for most people to try to take one. The MBTA has given lip service to a “rail transformation” but actual policy has been at best lacking at at worst forays into technologic gadgetry.

The bottom of the list is populated by smaller systems: regional systems like the Keystone service between Harrisburg and Philadelphia (which, fun fact, is by far the fastest transit service in the country, averaging 56 mph) or the Downeaster from Boston to Maine (which is … not as fast). Aside from LA’s sprawling system, others are usually single-line systems in smaller cities, or, in the case of MARC in Maryland, a full-service line (the Penn Line) with rush-hour-only service on other line dragging down the average.

For other systems in cities that don’t rhyme with “Enver” there is a good policy outcome: running more trains. Everything needed to do this is in place: track, signals, trains, stations and probably even interested passengers. It requires little more than some additional staff and some additional fuel. With peak demand lower, it’s time for commuter rail agencies to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Except for Denver, they’re already here.

Highway medians and calculating curves with Google Maps

I haven’t posted here in a while (year and a half!) but with the demise of functional Twitter and figuring out HTTPS on my site (which … took me longer to do than it should have, sorry to everyone who attempted to enter their credit card to give me all the money and wound up giving it to a Nigerian Prince, but, really, I have a Patreon, it’s for my ski-related podcast but you can certainly click buttons over there) I figured it was time. In any case, I have a new job, I can probably not post about a lot of things, but now instead of long, ramblingTwitter threads, I’ll probably just post long, rambling posts here. Anyway …

Alon wrote a blog post nearly a decade ago about using highway medians for rail, and the differences between the US and Europe. It’s informative and mostly on-point, but I think he missed a couple of nuances and I’m going to go down a rabbit hole about a couple of them, specifically a) that roads are often less curvy than design limitations (with a nifty Google Maps way to measure that) and b) in most cases, European motorways/autobahns do not have wide medians, while North American roadways often do.

First, a story: this summer, I was in Berlin (having gotten there from FRA via 9€ train), and was supposed to take a train to Frankfurt, meet my girlfriend, and take another train (or maybe the same train) to Switzerland for some mountain time. Instead, I got the covid, got holed up for a few days, and walked around Berlin and looked at tram tracks. In a fit of genius, she suggested we rent a car and drive the die Autobahn mit the windows down (she’d been exposed along with me and had had it a few months before, so this seemed like a reasonable precaution) and so we rented a car at BER (which exists!) for the trip south to almost-Basel (much more expensive to return the car in CH than DE).

Was it how I had planned to cross Deutschland? Nein! But it was an interesting trip. My experience driving stick is limited to 20 years ago in New Zealand and a few days practice on her Fit. But once I got into gear in a rest stop, I could handle the autobahn fine (I even made it through a traffic jam, sorry, someone else’s clutch). I topped out at 183 km/h, slower than the ICE but plenty fast with the windows down. Sidebar to the sidebar: driving the autobahn is very civilized. There are rules: no passing on the right, overtake and then change lanes, no trucks on Sunday (this was a Sunday) and 100 mph didn’t feel that fast. 120 did, the Opel handled it fine, and I kind of wish I’d looked up the premium for renting a BMW. After 900 km we stumbled into a Michelin star restaurant (quite accidentally: it had the cheapest single rooms in Lörrach) and had a lovely meal that I could mostly taste.

Anyway, one thing I (sort of) noticed at 100 mph was that the autobahns do not have wide medians. There are some exceptions; like crossing the Swabian Jura between Stuttgart and Ulm, where the A8 splits into two roadways a mile apart, once of which runs on an old bridge under the Filstal high speed rail viaduct. with some gnarly curves, apparently this is a dangerous part of the network. But in general, medians for rural highways in Germany are only a couple of meters wide. France, too, where they sometimes get by with just a metal guardrail. Italy, Poland, Britain, Spain all seem the same.

Last year, the Wendlingen-Ulm high speed line opened along Autobahn 8, and outside of the aforementioned area (where it’s mostly tunneled) much of it follows along the side of the A8, because there’s no median. A side-running routing means that exit ramps become complex to build (such as here, in Merklingen), requiring much longer bridges and complex entry and exit ramps or, in this case, a tunnel. Putting the railroad in the median would obviate the need for any of these issues, especially retrofitting rail into an existing roadway layout, but those medians don’t exist in Europe.

They often do in the US. Newer roadways in open, rural areas often have medians which are 50 feet wide or wider. In many cases, these are grassy medians which do not require any guard rails, the assumption that if a car goes into the grass it will decelerate enough before it crosses to the other side. The medians can also be used for drainage when they slope down between the roadway.

As such, there are a number of Locations in the US where railroads already exist in highway medians. Several of these are transit lines in urban areas, where—to vehemently agree with Alon—they don’t belong (in many cases, the roadways were designed to accommodate rail lines, or even replace them). The width of these medians (between inside solid yellow lane lines) varies, and none has high speed rail:

LocationWidth (ft)TypeNotes
I-25 New Mexico100CRRetrofit, single track but designed for 2.
DC Metro65HROften in roadways designed for rail, several examples.
Chicago46-75HRWider Congress originally designed for 4 tracks
SF BART55HRDublin, other examples exist.
Albany, NY46FreightUrban area
Portland58-82LRWide inside shoulders

Many, if not most, rural interstates have wide medians. To route a rail line alongside in very rural areas, it doesn’t matter much if a median is used or not: exits are widely spaced there’s plenty of room to rebuild them, and sticking to a median may require shifting over or under the roadway for curves, so it depends on the roadway curvature. Cities rarely have wide medians and they’re decidedly bad places for transit anyway. There are, however, “happy medium” areas where median-aligned rail might make sense, especially in more built-up areas where highways have wide medians and railroads could benefit from higher—if not truly high—speeds.

Alon’s other again-valid point is that sticking to a median means sticking to the curve of the roadway. Such an alignment may require constantly varying speeds, which is not exactly good for high speeds (see, for example, the Shore Line in Connecticut). But many roadways with wide medians are straight—or close to it—and would allow higher speeds. It’s hard to figure out curve radii using just Google Maps so I’ve created a bit of a cheat sheet. If we assume that highway lanes are 12 feet wide (in general, they are), we can draw a chord across a curve tangent to the second lane of the roadway using the measure distance tool (right click to activate it):

This example, in Newton, Mass. where the Turnpike is adjacent to the railroad, shows a 600 foot chord, which, if you do the trigonometry, traverses about 18˚ of a circle. US railroad curvature is measured as “degrees of curve per 100 feet”, which in this case is about 3˚. (I selected this example because I happen to know current speed limit here—55—and a resource with the curvature, although the original railroad may have been slightly straighter.) This corresponds to about a 575 meter radius. This can be extrapolated outwards as follows (approximately, see also this conversion table, and speed information here):

Chord (feet)DegreesRadius (m)Speed
4006.8260real slow
6003575~100 km/h / 60 mph
6502.6675~120 km/h / 75 mph
8001.71020~150 km/h / 90 mph
11000.911925200 km/h / 125 mph
13000.652690250 km/h / 150 mph
16000.434070300 km/h / 186 mph

Note that this can also be done in metric, and it can also be done by drawing chords on the inside of standard gauge railroad tracks. The calculator has information for both metric and imperial for both highway (two lanes) and rail tracks. (You can probably save a sheet as your own and change the values to pretty much anything else.)

Absent steep grades, roadways with sharp curves are not really suitable for true high speed rail. Even a road like I-95 in Connecticut has several 700-foot-chord curves which would limit speeds to about 80 mph in a few places, so the median might not be suitable. Still, a route along the Connecticut Turnpike would probably be much faster than the Shore Line: some of the sharpest curves have a wide median which could allow smoother curves, tilting trains could improve speeds, and the curves on the Shore Line are far more restricting. Several other Interstate highways in the northeast have similarly restrictive curves. And older and more urban highways often have narrow medians anyway.

That said, there may be other opportunities to leverage our wide medians in the US. Back when I blogged more regularly, I proposed routing South Coast Rail via a stretch of 495, which has a 100-foot-wide median. (This somehow pissed off people in Taunton, who didn’t want a good idea to get in the way of the current iteration of SCR.) The only appreciable curve this encounters on 495 is a 1200′ chord, so … fast (getting to 495 would be trickier). Whenever I drive up I-95 to New Hampshire I think about how straight and wide the highway is and, yes, it could support high speeds (but it doesn’t really connect anything). Out in California, I-5 on the west side of the Central Valley bypasses every population center between LA and San Francisco, but if California HSR had used its median instead of the debacle of going through the Central Valley cities, it may have allowed a much easier path to construction in the valley.

Sometimes “high speed rail” is thrown about by people with no idea what they are talking about. Like as a solution to I-70 traffic in Colorado. Certainly not in the too-narrow median, but also not along the highway with sharp curves. (In Europe they’d just dig a base tunnel, of course, the mountains in Europe are narrower.) And then you have the Connecticut NIMBYs saying to build an inland route along I-84 which … has hills, curves and development. The same ones who killed I-95 high speed rail because highways adjacent to historic sites are fine, but highways and trains next to historic sites are bad. (To be fair, the Lyme portion of I-95 has a narrow median, and 900m curve radii.)

My interest was recently piqued by the continuing failure of the Cape Bridges project to garner necessary federal funding. Maybe the Feds are just not that interested in giving a couple of billion dollars to some bridges which are only at capacity a few days per year, and which MassDOT wants to widen (although they are nearly a century old). Of course, there is no mention of improving the rail link to the Cape, which currently takes 2:20 to get to Hyannis, an hour longer than driving without traffic (rare!).

In a civilized country, the Cape would be a transit-first destination. It has 220,000 year-round residents, 500,000 summer residents and significant additional short-term tourist traffic, and its 339 square miles include 100 square miles of National Seashore and military reserve. The two bridges crossing the canal create bottlenecks; when they were build in the 1930s, Barnstable County only had 32,000 residents. is a narrow peninsula which could be well-served by an arterial transit line, has many destinations with limited parking, and is most heavily-used in the summer, when bicycles should be a major transportation mode. Trips to the Cape include access to island ferry terminals: the islands have year-round populations of about 30,000, but nearly 10 times that in the summer, with the Steamship Authority providing half a million trips per month during peak season, plus other private ferries, with thousands of cars parked at mainland ferry terminals and minimal transit connections.

It isn’t. This would require good local transit, safe bicycle facilities and various ways of discouraging traffic, a fast train to Boston, Providence and beyond, and special notice given to transporting people to the island ferry terminals since many of them have to park far away and board a shuttle already (so why not shift the shuttle of the other side of the bridge?). As it is, there are commuter buses subjected to the same traffic as cars, a regional transit authority providing hourly-or-worse service 8 hours per day, 6 days per week, and three train trips per week in the summer, which run on an existing commuter line, a straight line on the mainland at reasonable speeds before crossing the old lift bridge, and then at excruciatingly slow speeds on the Cape itself. CapeFlyer, which I wrote about in 2015, is a nice alternative for some but is not making much of a dent in traffic.

Imagine a high speed link from Middleborough to Hyannis. The line would transition to the median of 495 (sharpest curve: ~1500m) and cross the Cape on a new fixed crossing where the canal splits two hills in a power line right-of-way, eliminating any need for long ramps to attain grade. From there, the power lines lead to the Midcape Highway, which has a narrow median at first (but borders miles of state-owned military reserve) and eventually has a wider one. The worst curves there are also about 1500m. So while the highest speeds might be off the table using a median alignment, averaging 100 mph—which would allow a trip from Middleborough to Hyannis in about 24 minutes and a trip from Boston in just over an hour—would be attainable.

I’m sure people would yowl about ruining the pastoral feel of the partially tree-lined highway median. And a train below a power line would harm the environment to no end. As for what to do with the pokey existing railroad? It might be a great extension of the existing rail trail, since the portion east of Hyannis is relatively sparsely-populated..

Highway medians are certainly not always the answer for rail lines. But given enough width and straight enough alignments, they can provide a good alignment for some new medium- to high-speed corridors. This requires both wide-enough medians (rare in Europe and hardly a given in the US) and straight- and flat-enough alignments. When these ingredients come together, they can provide a potential lower-cost, politically expedient means of building a railroad.

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 exceptions) 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 (the rest are stored Downtown or elsewhere), 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

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 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.