Why doesn’t the MBTA better market beach service?

It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday, the sun is shining bright and the mercury is approaching 80˚. In Boston, these are signs for hundreds of thousands of city dwellers to move north and south and find refuge on the hot sands and cold waters of miles of beaches. While the states most picturesque beaches are probably on Cape Cod, there are many within an hour of downtown Boston. The ones to the north are particularly splendid, and hordes of travelers pack the roads to get there.

There’s a problem. Past Peabody, Route 128 is only two lanes in each direction and can’t cope with the excess traffic. And a bridge repair project has stifled I-93 from its usual four lanes to two, causing a massive back-up and extra traffic on Route 1, the only real alternate route to the northeast. (Fellow beach-goers today described traffic which only let up for a mile in a couple places.) Plus, if you brave the traffic (and survive), many beaches charge $20 or more for parking—often a long walk form the sand. And sometimes full. Tough luck after an hour-long drive.

Some close-in beaches, most notably Revere Beach (a 20 minute transit trip from downtown) are easily accessible without a car, but they are often quite crowded, and water quality is not particularly good near the city. There are, however, several beaches to the north of the city along the Rockport commuter rail line which are within a mile of train stations and can easily be reached from the city.

It’s almost impossible to drive to Manchester-by-the-sea’s Singing Beach, which has restricted parking (town residents only), but it may be the most accessible beach on the north shore as it is just half a mile’s walk from the train station. (There is additional parking for “outsiders” for $25—at the train station.) Several beaches in Gloucester and Rockport are about a mile from stations further out on the line. And Plum Island is a long walk from Newburyport but a manageable bike ride. For the beach, the train is relatively popular; a six-car consist today was about 80% full today from North Station until the train emptied out at Manchester for the walk to the beach. (And on the way home, the platform was crowded several deep and the conductors opened all cars to accommodate the crowd.) Service was punctual, and as fast as driving. With gas near $4 per gallon, it was cheaper, too.

A full train disembarks at Manchester-by-the-sea.

Obviously the train service is working, but the T doesn’t seem to realize that they have a product to market. Weekend service on the commuter lines has waxed and waned over the years, but is now provided almost universally. Headways are genearlly two hours with service in to the evening. Loads carried are light, but full, locomotive-hauled trains are operated. Except for special events (baseball games, major downtown events like the every-few-years arrival of Tall Ships) service is usually limited to one or two cars in a full-train consist. Since the trains are running anyway, any new person on the train is revenue with a marginal cost of nearly zero. So the T should promote the use of these trains whenever they can.

And sometimes they do. In the winter, Wachusett Mountain ski area has partnered with the T to promote the “Ski Train” to Fitchburg, with a shuttle service to the base of the mountain. And the T turned one of their train cars in to a “bike car” which is half seats and half bikes (similar to cars in regular service on Caltrain) which are used, weekends, only, on alternating trains to Rockport and Newburyport (all non-rush hour trains accommodate bicycles, however). They promote this car as a way to reach even more beaches (the south side has a similar car on the Greenbush line), but there’s little information on, say, exactly which stop you should go to get to which beach. Or a full schedule of non-bike car trains which go near the beaches. So if you want to go to the beach on the T, you have to plan it yourself.

Beach-goers line the platform awaiting a train back to the city.

Many people certainly do just that. But the MBTA should put a line item in its publicity budget to promote weekend commuter services to the ocean. With a ridership of 1.3 million daily, there is probably a large contingent that don’t know that it’s possible to spend the day at the beach without a knuckle-dragging slog through traffic or exorbitant parking fee. Ads on subways and buses with brochures or—these days—QR codes could steer people to information, and the agency could develop a website with various transit-accessible options (say, a commuter rail map with the distance from each station to nearby beaches).

Most weekend services surely run at a loss—operating a six-car train with 60 passengers is not particularly cost-effective. But every bottom you put in a seat is revenue for the MBTA—and quite possibly cars off the road. The T should do more to tell people the destinations it serves outside of home and work.

How many buses on Wilshire?

Another bit about Los Angeles: while there, we decided to take the bus on Wilshire towards Santa Monica. In doing so, we boarded one of the most frequent bus routes in the country. How frequent? At certain times of day, three dozen buses run along Wilshire Boulevard per hour, one every 100 seconds. They’re split between the local 20 bus (headways of 6-12 minutes; 30 minutes overnight) and the Metro Rapid 720 bus (headways of 2-9 minutes, generally less than 5). Yes, two minutes. From 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. westbound, the 720 has an astounding 51 trips, with buses arriving every 2:20 on average (not counting the 20, which adds another 20 trips.

The 720 is operated with 60-foot buses which have a capacity of 100 passengers; or 2500 per hour, with an additional 600 capacity on the 40-foot 20 buses. 3100 passengers per hour—more than a freeway lane of traffic. Yet this parade of buses has operated in regular traffic lanes, with only limited abilities to hold traffic lights. That’s slated to change, as rush-hour bus-only lanes have been approved for most of the corridor. The changes, which will cost $30m, are slated to save riders 10 minutes per trip. While it’s not the ideal solution (that would be a decades-long plan to build a “Subway to the Sea” under the corridor, which would serve many more people and halve transit times), it is a relatively inexpensive fix which will help thousands of riders a day.

How “relatively inexpensive” is it? There are approximately 160 affected trips daily (buses don’t run in each direction at the same frequencies), and we can assume that these trips are 75% full at rush hour (75 passengers per trip). That equals savings for 12,000 passengers per day, times 10 minutes, or 2000 hours saved per weekday, or 500,000 hours saved per year. There is limited literature regarding travel time costs (how much people value the time they spend in transit) but a conservative estimate is $8 per hour; about half of the prevailing average wage. (It’s possible that mobile computing will raise this considerably.) In any case, 500,000 hours at $8 per hour is equal to $4m per year, giving the project an eight year payback in this metric alone.

Of course, LACMTA stands to save as well. Saving ten minutes per trip will save the agency 1600 minutes of bus operation per day, or about 27 hours. It costs about $100 to operate a bus per hour, equating to a savings of $2700 per day, or $675,000 per year (and these are much more quantifiable savings than the time costs).

Will bus lanes give Wilshire Boulevard an acceptable level of transit? No—with the ridership the corridor sees a grade-separated line is probably necessary. But since that is many years off, this is a step in the right direction.

Los Angeles: where’s the transfer?

This spring, I spent some time in Los Angeles—and most of the time I was there I spent without a car. I’d called off a planned hike of the Pacific Crest Trail and stayed with family and friends for most of a week (with an interlude to take the train out to the Grand Canyon) and explore Los Angeles, mostly by bus.

Los Angeles is, of course, synonymous with the freeway and the car. (And, of course, traffic.) While there is a coherent-and-growing network of commuter rail lines, they serve a small proportion of transit use. The rail network—a few light- and heavy-rail urban lines—see more use. However, the majority of Angelinos traveling by transit do so by bus. Of the 1.4 million daily riders, about three quarters—well more than a million—ride the bus, making it the second largest bus system in the country.

There’s been a bit of news about the agency, too—namely, a New York Times article regarding the 305 bus route, which mostly ferries domestic staff from poorer neighborhoods south of downtown LA to wealthy suburbs to the city’s west. The route is slated to be discontinued as the newest light rail line, the Expo Line, will open this fall. When fully completed, the Expo Line will allow for much faster east-west service from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, a route which is currently heavily traveled and quite slow. And, as with most new transit lines, local bus service will change based on its opening.

In 2004, when I was but a budding student, the Hiawatha Line opened in Minneapolis from downtown to the airport. In Saint Paul, we’d had direct service on the 84 bus (2004 schedule pdf) line every half hour from our college campus to the airport. After the light rail opened, the buses were dramatically rerouted and the trip requires a transfer to the light rail, adding a bit of time but increasing options to get to the airport; the thrice-hourly 74 bus routes near the campus as well. In fact, the 84 was just about the only route whose airport service declined in service. Most buses now have faster and/or more frequent airport service.

And, thanks to free transfers, the fare remained the same. (It’s since risen, but there’s no surcharge to ride the train.)

This is a major problem in Los Angeles. There are no free transfers. If your destination happens to be on the same line as your starting point, the fare is $1.50. If it’s at a right angle and you have to change, it’s $3.00. Given the size of the LA area, it’s quite possible to take a three-legged trip (say, east, north, and east) and pay $4.50. These fares are made up to some degree with the availability of a $6 daily unlimited fare (made up for by a round-trip with transfers). Still, the tacit discrimination against people with trips that don’t fall on a straight line is unwarranted.

And this is the biggest issue with the 305 bus story. If you put the trip from one end of the 305 route to the other on Google Maps, say, from Watts to Cedars Sinai (I picked these simply because they were easily identifiable landmarks near each end of the 305) the map output shows several options:

  • 1:18: Take the Blue Line to the Green Line to 550 express bus. 
  • 1:16: Take the Blue Line to the Red Line to the 14/37 bus.
  • 1:17: Take the 305.

Three very different routes, all with travel times within two minutes. The 305, following Los Angeles’s grid of streets, travels the same distance, but since it is on surface streets the whole way, it travels quite slowly. The rail lines attain much faster speeds which make up for the multiple transfers. (And many other destinations along the 305 benefit from the Metro Rapid system—limited buses which run frequently and only stop every half mile. They’re not that fast, but certainly speedier than buses which stop every block of miles-long routes.) The Times, which states in the lede that “It will be more than an hour before they arrive at work, and soon the same journey may stretch to nearly two hours” supports its narrative with a falsification. It goes on to use the fear of the unknown (in this case, transferring) to posit an actual detriment to service, which it is not.

Then, there’s frequency! Human Transit makes exactly that point: the 305 only runs once every 45 to 60 minutes, while the other services run every five or ten. So if the 305 happens to be about to run (and, yes, LA is on NextBus) it’s faster to travel by other routes. These services—plus the Expo Line—should be able to absorb the 3,000 daily travelers on the 305 without any effect. It seems very reminiscent of the axing of the 26-Valencia bus in San Francisco, an infrequent bus which paralleled Mission buses one street over and which was much-loved by some of its riders but which didn’t actually provide any meaningful transit service. Transit systems across the US are filled with these sorts of historical anachronisms which drain resources without providing any actual service.

The money saved from cutting this line will not adversely affect many travelers—the “community” cited by the NYT article notwithstanding—and will result in greater efficiencies for all …

… if LA better managed their non-existent transfer system.

Poor sharrow/pothole placement

I was biking up to Arlinton to check out the black raspberries along the Minuteman Rail Trail (sadly, there are many fewer than a few years ago when I cleared several pints) and was biking up North Harvard Street in Allston towards Harvard Square. I’ve biked this route frequently in recent months, and it’s a very convenient way to get from Brookline to Cambridge. It’s always faster than the 66 bus (I love the 66, but … walking is often faster than the 66) and usually faster than driving since there are delightful bike lanes to slide by traffic in several locations of Harvard Street. And there’s always traffic on Harvard Street.

Anyhow, I was approaching Western Avenue and there was a truck straddling both lanes, so I cut him a wide berth and aimed over the “sharrow” (the road marking of a bicycle and double-chevron) as I slowed towards the intersection. Since I was braking, my weight shifted forwards, and I kept my eye on the truck to my left. All of the sudden, I was looking at the sky, and a second later, I was lying on the ground. In aiming at the sharrow I had inadvertently aimed directly into the six inch deep pothole it pointed directly at (see picture below), and since my weight was already shifted forwards I managed a full-on endo.

I realized I’d hit my head and would need a new helmet, and got up, shaken, but otherwise mostly unscathed. (My most recent bicycle acrobatics involved a swerve around a car pulling out of a parking space on Chestnut Hill Aveune—and in to the streetcar tracks. I came out of that one completely unscathed since I somehow stuck the landing and wound up running down the street as my bike skidded away.) I was shaking too much to ride my bike, but there was a bike shop a couple of blocks away and I went there to buy a new helmet (my current one was only five or six years old).

I settled down and managed to get back on my bike and return to the scene of the crime. Here’s a picture of the offending pothole:

The high sun angle doesn’t attest to its depth. It’s about six or eight inches deep and the perfect size to catch a bicycle wheel and flip a decelerating rider. Like me.

Just as impressive is the fate of my iPhone. I had it in my pocket—and thank goodness the back was facing out. It took a lot of the force, it seems:

The amazing thing is that it works perfectly! I put some packing tape over the shattered glass—which I’m sure absorbed a lot of energy—and it’s good as new. And a new back costs $12 and is pretty easy to replace, so I’ll get around to that. Until then, I have one badass iPhone.

So, I took a picture with it of my old helmet in the trash and the above pothole picture which I sent off to Boston’s bike czar (I have her email in my gmail) and she suggested I contact the mayor’s 24 hour hotline, which I did. We’ll see if the hole is patched; I’m biking that route at least weekly for the next month or so. I’ll be interested to see if there’s much response—it’s definitely a hazard to cyclists.

I am going to take off my amateur planner hat and put on my bicyclist hat (helmet?) to take away a couple of lessons from this adventure:

1. WEAR A HELMET. I am flabbergasted by the number of cyclists I see biking around the city without helmets. I know all the excuses, generally in the form of “I don’t need a helmet because …”

  • I’m a good cyclist, I don’t need to worry. This is the stupidest one of all—most likely you are not going to be at fault for an accident. I can’t even begin to explain the inanity of this notion. I am a pretty good cyclist—I have thousands of miles of city riding under my belt—and I still have my share of mishaps.
  • I’m not biking at night. This accident occurred around noon; the pothole would have been even more invisible filled with water.
  • I don’t bike in bad weather. It was 85 and sunny.
  • I don’t bike in heavy traffic. There was almost no traffic when I was out midday the week of July 4.
  • I don’t ride fast. I was going about 8 mph when I hit this pothole.
  • I don’t take chances or run red lights/stop signs. I was slowing down to stop at a red light and giving a wide berth to a truck.
  • I don’t bike drunk. I was quite sober when I had my little flight here. As a matter of fact, I’ve never crashed drunk.
Basically, I was biking under ideal conditions, and I had an accident where a helmet meant the difference between walking away (and, a few minutes later, biking away) and going to the hospital. Please, please, please wear a helmet!
2. A lot of people are concerned about using clipless pedals and not being able to clip out when something goes wrong. Well, I’ve had two incidents in the past few months (the aforementioned streetcar track gymnastics and perfect landing being the other) and both times the force of the torque of the accident easily got my feet out of the pedals—and by easily I mean I didn’t have to think about clipping out, it just happened. Basically, if your feet go in a direction violently different from pedaling, you’ll clip out. (At least with my SPD cleats which are probably a bit worn down and have a decent amount of play; I’m sure there are pedal adjustments which would yield different results.)

3. Watch the pavement. Even in the summer. Potholes happen.

Happy biking.

(On a very slightly related note: the fact that, nearly 20 (!) years after it opened, there is no safe route through Arlington Center on the rail trail that doesn’t involve bricks and curb cuts is a travesty. How hard would it be to link the two sides of the bike path?)