What, me plan? The case of New Hampshire tolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

72 75 84 90 72 66 68 81 86 75

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Car Free Kendall

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

Which of these would you prefer to spend time in?

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time we change that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything is interconnected.

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

South Station Expansion: Supply vs Demand

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

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

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

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

Needham Line Replacement

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

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

Orange Line Extension to West Roxbury

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

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

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

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

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

Green Line Extension to Needham

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

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

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

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

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

Green Line Storage Capacity

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

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

Overall Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GET EXCITED. Set your snark detector to high.

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

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

Group 1: Cars

1. Congestion modeling as an investment (John Fish)


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

2. Tax garage parking (Ari!)

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

3. Be less of a Masshole (Kenny Young)

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

4. Make drivers suffer (Sue O’Connell)

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

5. Late night transit (Garrett Harker)


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

6. Autonomous cars for all (Lee Pelton)

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

7. Smarter tolls (Chris Dempsey)

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

8. Fix potholes (Ernie Boch, Jr)

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

9. Get cars off the road (Kristen Eck)


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

10. Worcester-to-Boston (Mary Connaughton)

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

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

11. Fix signage (Scott Ferson)

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

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

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

13. End distracted driving (The Rev Laura Everett)

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

Group 2: Buses

14: BRT (Julia Wallerce)

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

15. Better interior bus design (Zuleny Gonzales)

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

16. Make way for buses (Jarrett Walker)

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

17. Blue Hill Ave buses (Quincy Miller)


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

Group 3: Rail

18. Electrification (Adam Gaffin)

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

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

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

20.  Gondola!!!1! (Roger Berkowitz)

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

21. Big rail (Kathryn Carlson)

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

22. Better PR (Max Grinnell)

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

23. Widett transportation hub (Tom Tinlin)

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

Group 4: Bikes

24: Franklin Park Bike Hub (Elijah Evans)

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

25. Bike the last mile (David Montague)

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

26. Share the road (Jenny Johnson)

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

27. Helmets for Hubway (Joanne Chang)

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

28. Connect the paths (Juliet Eldred)

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

Group 5: Other

29. Podcars (Bill James)

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

30. Road diets (Joe Curtatone)

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

31. Flying cars! (Gwen Lighter)

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

32. Fare equity (Tanisha Sullivan)

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

33. Ferries (Alice Brown)

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

34. Think outside the box (Jim Canales)

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

35. Dockless scooters! (Lama Bou Mjahed)

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

36. Robotaxis (Karl Iagnemma)

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

37. Teamwork (Patrick Sullivan)

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

38. Listen to users (Ambar Johnson)

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

39. Invest in Gateway Cities (Tracey Corley)

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

40. Mayor of 128 (Amy Dain)

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

What’s up with the taxi queue at Logan?

Early Monday morning, on Twitter, Cambridge City Councilor Jan Devereux posted this photo of the taxicab line at Logan Airport:

Then she went to check out the Uber/Lyft line and it was no better:

By 1:30, others reported that the cab line was an hour long.

What’s going on here? Where are all the taxis? Where are all the Ubers? Why are people arriving at the airport after midnight then waiting an hour for a ride home? What can we do about this?

It’s not really a simple answer. Please, though, follow me down a rabbit hole.

Logan airport is not a hub airport (okay, not really: Delta and especially JetBlue are doing their best to create a hub, but it still is mostly an origin-destination airport). This is a matter of geography: because it is tucked away at the northeast corner of the country, the airport mostly handles passengers flying in one direction, south or west, either on direct flights, or to other domestic hubs (although international travel has increased markedly in recent years, and JetBlue even has a bank of later domestic flights to accommodate connecting passengers).

Boston’s flights can be grouped in to three main types: short haul flights to non-hub cities, short-haul flights to hub cities, and long hauls, both domestic and international. Only the first group operates without geographic constraints which dictate that flights can only arrive and depart at certain times of day. Non-hub short-haul flights, mostly on JetBlue and Delta (to places like AUS, BUF, RDU, MKE) are spread more evenly throughout the day, because they don’t have to make connections at hubs. Hub-based flights within the eastern half of the United States (say, as far as MIA, DFW and MSP). These flights account for many of the early departures, but few leave Boston after early evening. They don’t arrive in Boston until mid-morning, but are the bulk of the last flights arriving later in the evening. Because of these travel patterns, Logan has a lot of early and late flights: in the morning, people want to get to a connecting hub for the first “bank” of connecting flights, and in the evening, flights have to leave the connecting hub after the last bank has occurred.

(Not all airlines utilize banking at hubs—Southwest most notably runs continuous hubs—and there are pluses and minuses to each method, about which I won’t go into too much depth here. But basically, banking decreases fleet utilization and increases congestion at hub airports since flights arrive and depart all at the same time, followed, in some cases, by periods of relatively low flight activity, but passengers have much shorter connection times at hubs since connections are coordinated. It’s actually something like a pulse system for buses, except that airports have finite numbers of vehicles which can arrive and depart at any given time, and longer dwell times. As airlines have consolidated, hubs have grown and seen more frequent banks such that they are now closer to continuous operation, especially at large airports like Atlanta and Chicago. See how this is a rabbit hole? Also, when I say people want to connect to the first bank, I mostly mean airlines, no rational human being wants to be on a flight departing at 5:15 a.m.)

Then there are longer-haul flights. Transcons have to deal with time changes, cycle times, and the fact that flights generally don’t depart or arrive between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. local time. So they arrive from the West Coast either as redeyes between 5 and 10 a.m., and then turn to depart between 6 and noon, or as day flights, arriving in the afternoon or evening. Thus, in addition to the overnight lull, there are basically no transcons which arrive in or depart Boston during the midday. International flights (mostly TATLs) generally are redeye flights going out, leaving Boston in the evening, and return during the middle of the day, arriving in the afternoon. All told, Boston has demand throughout the day, but particularly high demand for flights arriving later in the evening.

For instance, O’Hare and Atlanta, the two busiest airports in the country (by number of aircraft movements), have 29 and 24 flights scheduled to arrive after 11 p.m., respectively. Boston has 39. After 11 p.m., Boston is basically the busiest passenger airport in the country (about tied with LAX), and possibly the world (since in many countries, airports have noise regulations which limit late night flights). Yet at the same time, there are few flights departing Boston. The airport has only 14 scheduled departures after 11 p.m., and only six of these are domestic flights (all are JetBlue E190s, so they’re small planes). There is basically zero demand for passengers to get to the airport late at night. This creates a demand imbalance for ground transportation: there’s a lot of demand to leave the airport at midnight, but almost no one who wants to go there.

Here are some charts of the approximate number of airline seats arriving and leaving Boston. I adjusted for the typical arrival time at the airport (60 minutes for domestic, 120 for international) and assumed it would take 30 minutes for the average international passenger to clear customs.

(Note, the seat numbers for arrivals and departures don’t exactly match because each day at Logan is not identical and this was a snapshot of a day. This is total seats available, not total passengers, and is also a rough estimate based on plane sizes at different times of day, but should show general trends well.)

So, it’s clear that there is a good deal more demand to get to the airport in the morning, which doesn’t even out until around 9 a.m., various points of imbalance during the day, and then, starting around 7 p.m., significantly more demand to leave the airport.

A couple of personal anecdotes can illustrate this. The first illustrates the imabalce in the morning. Back before the Big Dig was completed (and, in fact, pre-Silver Line, and back when the airport had half the traffic it has today), when I was going to college, getting to the airport was, perhaps, worse than today. It involved both the elevated Central Artery and then the Sumner/Callahan tunnel complex: a trip to or from the airport to downtown could take an hour (which is, of course, not much different than it is now). For several years, however, the Ted Williams Tunnel had been open to commercial vehicles only. The connecting highways were not yet complete, so this was a way to keep the local streets from getting overrun by people trying avoid the congestion.

From Newton, where I grew up, my father came up with a solution, especially for early morning departures. He would drive me to South Station. Rather than risk the airport traffic, I’d get in a cab for the usually $10 or $12 trip under the harbor in the tunnel only cabs could use. Early one morning, I got in a cab at South Station and told the driver I was going to the airport. He quoted the fare: “$20” and didn’t turn on the meter. What I should have done is say “I’ll pay you whatever the meter quotes at the end of the ride, so it’s in your best interest to turn it on now,” but I was 18 and hadn’t quite figured that out, so at the airport, I paid him $20, noted his medallion number, and immediately reported it.

A month later my dad got a check for $20 from the Boston Police (which oversee taxi medallions), along with a note that the taxi driver had been given a stern talking to that he was never to refuse to turn on the meter for a trip within the city.

But I understand why the driver was reticent to take the fare. He would get to the airport and have two (bad) decisions. One would be to go to the taxi pool and wait in line for an fare back to the city: a long line, because there is much less demand going in to the city at 7 a.m. than there are taxis arriving at the airport. The other would be go cross back downtown without a passenger, but still incur the cost of driving, as well as the tunnel toll (which was one-way inbound at that point), with no passenger to pay it. Still, because of redeye arrivals from the West Coast in the morning, there is some traffic for cabs that do make it to the airport going back, although they have to cycle through the cab pool (or the Uber/Lyft pool) before their next fare. Even now, if you take a cab or a ride-hail vehicle to the airport in the morning, the driver is probably not particularly happy taking the fare.

The second example was an extreme example of the late-night issue. I was flying back from SLC and the flight was delayed several hours. Originally scheduled in at 11:30 (plenty of time to catch the Silver Line downtown and take the T home), the plane was more than three hours late, and didn’t arrive in Boston until about 2:30. The airport was empty. Yet a 757 had arrived with 200 passengers, and no one was making the trip at that point to pick us up. So we all converged on the cab stand, but there wasn’t a cab in sight. Immediately, people started self-pooling: it was clear that if we all took our own cabs, the line wouldn’t clear for hours. “Who’s going to Brookline?” “I’m going to JP, that’s close!” “I’m going to Concord.” “I’m going to Lexington, let’s share.” Every few minutes, a stray cab would roll up, three overtired strangers would pile in, and the line would get slightly shorter. I found a cab pretty quickly, but imagine those at the back of the line may have seen the sun rise.

Finally, here’s a picture of the departures level at Terminal A at 8 p.m. this past week.

Delta’s last domestic flight leaves at 7:45 (to MCO) and the last hub-based flight leaves at 6:56 (for ATL). Two international flights leave around 8:30. At this time, it’s a ghost town. Note: if you’re picking someone up at the airport in the evening, plan to meet them on the upper level, and note that Terminal A is a great place to wait without having State Police harass you. (Terminal B was pretty quiet, too.)

Here are scheduled arrivals and departures, by carrier, at different times of day:

Note: not all regional flights appear to be in this sample, for instance, there are no Cape Air flights shown after mid-evening, when Cape Air flies several late flights out of Boston, but these flights are minimal as far as number of arriving passengers is concerned.

Notice how departures peak in the morning, then lull in the midday, and then have a secondary peak in the evening, before domestic departures (except for JetBlue) tail off quickly after 7 p.m. International carrier flights are clustered arriving in the afternoon and leaving in the evening. But there is a clear imbalance for flights arriving and departing the airport.

In any case, this has been a problem for years, and it’s a structural issue pertinent to Logan Airport based on the airport’s geography on both a macro and micro scale. On a macro scale, the geography of the airport at the corner of the country means that, late in the evening, flights feed into it but don’t feed out. On a micro scale, the airport’s geography encourages taxi/app-ride/ride-hail use (I’ll call these taxis, for simplicity). The constrained location means that parking costs are high, because demand for parking outstrips supply. The proximity to areas with high trip generation (downtown, and high density areas nearby) means that taxi costs are often significantly lower than a day’s parking cost ($38) in the garage. The combination of these factors push many people to use taxis.

Much of the day, taxi supply roughly matches demand, and there is a minimal delay for these services. But this breaks down at the beginning and end of the day, especially in the evening. Once again, Logan’s geography comes into play. While the airport is close to the city geographically, it is expensive to get to for a taxi driver. When there is high demand for fares back to the city at 1 a.m.—especially once buses have, for the most part, stopped running—there is negligible demand to get to the airport, or even East Boston in general, so to pick up any fare would require the driver to deadhead to the airport.

Unless a driver happens to pick up a stray fare to East Boston, this requires a driver to travel several miles, and to pay the cost of the tunnel toll. Once at the airport, there is no promise that the trip home will be lucrative enough to cover these costs. They might get a $50 fare to a far-flung suburb. But it might only be a $15 fare to a downtown hotel or, worse, to Revere or Winthrop, meaning a driver would then have to drive back home—likely through the tunnel—and foot the bill for the toll both ways. Moreover, this is the end of the day for most drivers: except on a Friday or Saturday night, there is only so much demand for rides after 1 a.m. For many drivers, the potential upside of getting a decent fare from the airport doesn’t make up for the potential downsides, especially when the alternative is shutting off the app (or taximeter), driving home, and going to bed an hour earlier. There is a high disincentive to be in the last group of taxis at the airport: a driver might get one of the last passengers, but if not, there is not likely a job for several hours when the first redeye flights start to trickle in around 4 a.m. There is little incentive for taxicab drivers to go to the airport during this dwindling time, so demand is only met by drivers already in East Boston who need a fare back to the city.

This is not an easy issue to solve. It also shows why Uber and Lyft are basically just taxis: they are subject to the same supply and demand issues that affect the rest of the market. Alas, they’re providing the same service: a chauffeured ride from Point A to Point B. And the airport is pretty much the only place that cabs still have a foothold, partially because matching passengers to specific vehicles is quite inefficient with large groups, like you might find at an airport. This has been a recent point of contention at LAX, which consolidated its taxi and ride-hail facilities away from the terminals (as Logan is planning). It hasn’t gone particularly well to start, but I would venture to guess that there are similar supply and demand issues at LAX. (As several people have pointed out, the buses there are running much more smoothly, too.)

Of course, at LA, there is a temporal aspect to the complaints about #LAXit. Most of the issues are in the evening. Los Angeles has more balanced operations, with plenty of departures in the evening, both redeyes to the East Coast and transcontinentals, mostly TPACs but some TATLs as well. There is probably both more demand for cabs in the evening because LA is on the opposite side of the country as Boston, and also because most of the transcon redeyes leave before 11 p.m., and most of the later flights are international, which are fed more by connecting travelers and by passengers arriving at the airport much earlier. Thus, for the actual demand for taxis, there is a similar, if less pronounced, demand compared with Boston.

I scraped Twitter for #LAXit from the first few days and it seems clear that the issue is mostly in the evening.

But back to Boston. Here’s what the Logan cab pool Twitter feed (because of course Logan’s taxis have a Twitter feed) looked like last Sunday. There was a cab shortage by 8 p.m., and the late night arrival issue was foreseen by 10 p.m. It wasn’t a surprise. It is a market issue.

Is this feed a bot? Certainly not! Note the wrong months, typos, misspellings, random numbers of hyphens and use of quotations. The one thing that seems constant is the use of the word “need” when the airport has a cab shortage (with various qualifiers like all-caps or exclamation marks). I’m pretty sure it’s a guy standing by the taxi pool furiously typing tweets into the Twitter machine. So, I decided to scrape the feed (about 60,000 tweets), and code each tweet by whether it included the word “need” or not, to get a very rough estimate of the frequency of taxi delays at Logan.

From the charts of arrivals and departures above, we would assume that the airport would generally need cabs mid-afternoon, as well as in the evening. If we chart the arrival and departure relationship and the Twitter feed’s need for cabs together, and we shift the need for cabs back 1:15 (probably due to actual behavior of arriving passengers), voila, they match pretty darned well.

A few other notes on the need for cabs:

  • There is more demand on Sundays (36% of Tweets include the word “need”), followed by Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays (28%), with the least demand on Saturdays (20%)
  • The cab shortage is generally higher in the summer than the winter (and highest in May, June, September and October, while lowest in December, January and February), and it has been particularly high this year. In fact, the only higher demand for cabs at the airport was in February of 2015. I wonder why.

TL;DR: it is definitely getting harder to get a cab at the airport, especially during certain times of the year and at certain times of day. And when flights are delayed, this is exacerbated. Departing passengers generally still get to the airport on time, but arriving passengers get in later, meaning the cab shortage is even more acute. Which leads to situations like the one which occurred earlier this week at the start of this post, which may have taken you nearly that long to read

So what can be done about it? Well, Uber/Lyft could use their surge features to increase the cost of a trip to the point where it would make economic sense for drivers to come to the airport at this time of day. But that might double or triple the cost of a ride, so while it is a very market-based solution to the problem, it is not consumer-friendly. It (and taxi starters) could do a better job of pooling rides, and moving the Ubers and Lyfts to the same site might make pooling easier there. A very low-tech idea might be to figure out where vehicles are going and, at high-demand times, put people into lines based on regions to help them self-pool. This might nibble around the edges on the demand side, but it doesn’t help supply. It turns out that Lyft and Uber are not a magic panacea to mobility: they are subject to the same supply and demand issues as the rest of the world. And if the answer is pricing, it’s not a great answer, especially since prices might have to go up significantly to provide enough supply or suppress demand enough to satisfy market equilibrium, especially after midnight when there are really no other options available.

One solution, I think, is that rather than trying to bring supply to the demand, we should move the demand to where there is more supply: get people, en masse, downtown. This requires a magical invention: the bus. While the supply of hire cars is not limitless (there are only about 1800 taxicabs in Boston, and probably far fewer are active today, and many more Ubers and Lyfts, but a finite number), it is significantly less constrained on the other side of the Harbor. Instead of trying to entice drivers to come to the airport, we could instead move riders to where are there are more cars. Most riders are going north, west or south of the airport, and need a ride through Downtown Boston anyway. The bus might not be that appealing to a traveler at 1 a.m., but neither is a 45 minute wait for a cab. This basically takes what LA is doing, and extends it a couple of miles.

The MBTA runs the Silver Line until 1:15 a.m., which could easily bring passengers to South Station, where catching a taxi or ride hail vehicle is easier than at the airport. Massport and the T, however, do a poor job of advertising these late buses, both with signage telling passengers the hours as well as real-time information about the buses’ whereabouts (important especially if you are unsure if the last bus has left). But these are easy issues to solve. The bus real-time data is available: I have no issue pulling it up on mbtainfo.com, for instance.

Not helpful, especially if you’re trying to figure out if the last bus has left, or even deciding if it’s worth waiting in a cab line versus waiting for the bus.

And Massport could put up static signage:

NO CABS? NO PROBLEM!
GET A CAB ACROSS THE HARBOR
MBTA BUS TO SOUTH STATION
SKIP THE LINE — SAVE MONEY
BUSES EVERY 8-15 MIN UNTIL 1:15 AM
ADDITIONAL BUS AT 2:30 AM

And as I’ve written before, with some minor schedule tweaks, the T could use the Silver Line 3 returns from Chelsea to supplement this service even later, and keep one bus in service to make an extra round trip to provide service until 2:30 when, on most nights, the planes have all landed. Alternatively, or in addition, Massport could continue its Back Bay Logan Express bus later in the evening and into the early morning (or even 24/7), providing late night trips to the taxicab-rich parts of Boston when there are cab shortages at the airport (and perhaps even direct service to large hotels in the Back Bay).

Even more, the Logan Taxi Twitter feed often includes this kind of Tweet:

By 10:00 most evenings, someone at Logan knows how many late flights are coming in. So, conceivably, the bus driver could be held on duty to make extra trips in the cases of delays. Massport, which already helps to subsidize the fares for the Silver Line, could shoulder the rather minimal cost of the extra trips. And passengers arriving at midnight would no longer have to face an hour-long wait for a cab, when there are many more options across the harbor.

The market has never provided enough cabs at Logan when they are needed, and at certain times of day, lines of cabs are the rule, not the exception. Assuming the market will take care of this has never worked, and it is unlikely that it ever will. If Massport worked with the MBTA, however, it could pilot a project to move people downtown and create a secondary taxi queue there, where drivers would be much more willing to go for a fare, because even if the demand had dried up, they wouldn’t be out the tunnel tolls, mileage and time to show up at the airport.

The next 10 miles of tunnel in Boston

In the past 30 years, Boston has been a leader (at least in the US) in building tunnels. The Big Dig, which removed the eyesore Central Artery from the center of the city and doubled highway capacity to the East Boston and the airport (which likely has something to do with the making Logan Airport one of the fastest-growing in the country), was one of the largest subterranean endeavors in the country’s history. (If you really want to see tunnels, though, head to Europe or Japan. But I digress.)

In that time, however, the region has not built any new high-capacity, subterranean transit infrastructure aside from relocating the Green Line at North Station, which didn’t add any connectivity or capacity (and it was part of the Big Dig, anyway). The Silver Line is not high capacity by any stretch of the imagination (although if it were converted to light rail, it could be much higher). Even the Green Line Extension, the first new line in decades, is being built entirely at- or above-grade.

Our competitor cities, even those in the US, are not standing still. While American cities are notoriously poor at building subways with any sort of cost controls, most every other city in the country with any sort of transit system has built some amount of underground rail infrastructure. Why do I focus on going underground? Because it’s the only way to run high-capacity transportation through a dense portion of a city. Without it, we are stuck trying to push more and more people through the infrastructure we already have: our overcrowded subways and narrow streets. We can do this, to a point. But at some juncture, we need to think bigger.

Here are what other cities have been doing since the last new subway station opened in Boston (either in 1985, when Alewife opened, or 1987, when the Southwest Corridor replaced the elevated Orange Line), from west to east (approximately, and if I missed anyone, let me know):

  • Los Angeles: The entire Metro Rail system has opened, with 18.5 miles of tunnels. With in the next decade, the amount of tunnel will nearly double as the system expands dramatically.
  • San Francisco: The BART system was mostly complete by the 1980s, including the tunnels. Since then several miles of tunnel opened in South City and San Bruno with the Millbrae/SFO extension, and several more are planned as the line is built (expensively) through San Jose. Muni is building a new tunnel diagonally across San Francisco for light rail service. At some point, Caltrain, which is currently being electrified, may be extended to the Transbay Terminal.
  • Portland: While the MAX light rail system is mostly at- or above-grade, the three-mile Robertson Tunnel runs through a major ridge west of downtown.
  • Seattle originally opened its mile-long bus tunnel in 1989. It has since converted it for light rail traffic, extended the light rail south (with a mile of tunnel through Beacon Hill), north (in a deep bore tunnel) and will continue with northward expansion as part of a major infrastructure plan which involves building more than 100 miles of high-capacity light rail by 2041.
  • The middle of the country has not seen much in the way of tunneling. Denver‘s system is entirely at-grade, while Dallas has one subway station. Saint Louis has about a mile of tunnel under downtown and shorter tunnels elsewhere. Minneapolis built a mile-long tunnel under its airport. Pittsburgh built a mile-long tunnel under the Allegheny River, and Chicago built about a mile of tunnel connecting the State Subway to the Dan Ryan Branch, allowing routes to be better optimized. Buffalo‘s light rail, which runs below grade outside the city, was completed in 1986 but hasn’t been extended since.
  • While much of the DC Metro system was completed by the mid-1980s, the last bits of tunneling weren’t completed until 1999. Baltimore‘s subway was extended by a mile and a half in 1995.
  • New York hasn’t built much since 1940, but has still managed the Second Avenue Subway, the F Train under Roosevelt Island and East Side Access (the same tunnel for part of the route), the 7 Train extension and the E train to Jamaica.
  • Which leaves Atlanta and Philadelphia. In Atlanta, MARTA‘s tunnels were completed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Philly finished connecting its regional rail system in 1982. Much like Boston, these cities haven’t made large investments in transit since (although MARTA has been extended as planned, mostly above-grade).

So, why Boston? Why now? Because there are several short stretches which could dramatically enhance the network, and the overall capacity of the network needs to be expanded. The last increase to the system’s capacity was made in the early 1900s: since then, lines have been relocated, but not expanded. This doesn’t go into the need for wider-scale regional connectivity or faster, more efficient surface transit (both are important, but cover a much broader scale). It instead focuses on how a few miles of tunnels could transform transit capacity in the city. Much like, for better or for worse, the Big Dig did. It’s a very blue-sky approach and assumes a reasonably large investment (the state does have a billion dollar surplus), but each project is technically feasible and in most cases encompass projects which have been proposed at some point in the city’s history (albeit in some cases, a long time ago).

They are presented in approximate order of length (shortest to longest) and feasibility.

1. The Red-Blue connector (0.25 miles)


The Red-Blue connector would require about 1300 feet of new tunnel. It’s a good time for it: Cambridge Street above it is badly in need of a redesign, and MGH, next door, is planning adjacent construction. The MBTA is finally going to give it a fair shake, and it will hopefully see the light of day in the next few years.

But why is it important? Because it improves connectivity while at the same time reducing demand on the busiest part of the core of the system. It’s a win-win, for a very small investment, and should be feasible to build with minimal disruption to the rest of the system.

2. The Silver Line Phase III, but with rails (0.5 miles)


This connection has flown more under the radar screen. With the growth of the Seaport, the Silver Line buses are overburdened, and there is no good way to get to it from the Orange or Green lines without multiple transfers. The Silver Line and Central Artery were designed to include the Silver Line Phase III portion of the project, which would have run east from South Station to Boylston, and then made an asinine loop to run south to a portal somewhere near Tufts Medical Center station (they couldn’t use the old Green Line tunnel because, paradoxically, smaller buses require larger tunnels: louder now for those in the back or at Park Plaza, because buses don’t belong in tunnels). And it would have run buses, which, as we see today, have no place in tunnels with stops and have low speed and low capacity.

This idea leverages a third piece of infrastructure, and one much older: the never-used provisions for a branch of what is now the Green Line from east of Arlington to a terminal at Post Office Square. Instead of going to Post Office Square, this would extend east along the SL III plans to South Station, then through the Piers Transitway (a.k.a, the current Silver Line, which was designed to be converted to light rail, providing faster and higher-capacity service) and on to Silver Line Way, where it could be extended at-grade to the Convention Center, Seaport or elsewhere, maybe even down Track 61. No, Track 61 as a DMU shuttle just doesn’t work. This would mean a one-seat ride from Copley to the Seaport in 8 minutes, as opposed to two transfers and 20 minutes today.

I’ll defer to Vanshnookenragen for some detailed graphics about how this would work, and some other good thoughts on the Green Line.

Two tunnels down and we haven’t even dug a full mile.

3. Grand Junction (1.25 miles)


Now we get a bit bigger.

The Grand Junction Railroad has never carried a revenue passenger in its existence, which goes back to 1846. Until recently, the right-of-way once ran through a series of industrial lots and rail yards with little potential to carry paying customers. Now? It runs from North Station and passes Cambridge Crossing, runs through the heart of Kendall Square, and then on to Allston. Kendall has some of the highest-priced real estate on the face of the earth, and is growing by leaps and bounds, despite no direct highway access, which forces car traffic onto narrow, congested streets. It’s accessible from the Red Line, and has reasonable connections to some of the rest of the transportation system, but from the north and west, transit is not time-competitive with driving, so, people drive.

Cambridge Crossing promises more demand, as does the eventual replacement of the interchange and rail yard in Allston. This provides opportunity as well: for the construction in Allston to take place, the Grand Junction will be shut down for a period of several years. In 10 years, the Grand Junction could connect Allston (millions of square feet of new development adjacent to Harvard and BU’s campuses, as well as a transfer from the main east-west rail corridor in the state) to Kendall Square to North Station, with additional stops in Cambridgeport, East Cambridge and Cambridge Crossing (where the line passes only about 600 feet from the future Lechmere Station, which would provide a transit connection from the Green Line extension to Kendall Square).

This looks a lot like where you would want a frequent, high-capacity transit line, which would increase regional transit ridership (satisfying latent demand by providing connections which do not exist today) and take existing transfers out of the core of the system. What do I mean by this? Take the example of Boston Landing station. Before that station opened, there were no good options to use transit from Allston to Downtown Boston: The 86 or 66 bus to Harvard and the Red Line, the 64 bus to Central and then the Red Line, or the 57 bus to Kenmore and then the Green Line. Since it’s opened, ridership has far exceeded expectations. Why? Because there’s now an option to go from Allston to South Station in 14 minutes instead of 40. Some of this traffic comes from people who used to cram onto the 57 or 64 buses, and others take transit instead of driving.

The Grand Junction allows a similar time savings for travel to Kendall Square, except expands the benefit to everyone coming west of Boston. A trip from Boston Landing to Kendall today involves a 35 minute ride on the 64 bus, or taking a train to South Station and then the Red Line out; without the Grand Junction, traveling between West Station and Kendall will have a similar travel time, all for a trip which will cover, as the crow flies, little more than a mile. The Grand Junction is a straight line between the Worcester Line and Kendall Square, and cuts 20 minutes from the transit commute for every current or prospective passenger going to Kendall from west of Boston. The issue is that the Grand Junction runs across four heavily-trafficked city streets in Cambridge, and providing safe passage for even moderate operating speeds or frequency would be exceedingly difficult. Unless, of course, the line were put underground.

There are two main obstacles to tunneling the Grand Junction, but one major opportunity. The first obstacle is that it can’t be a simple, shallow cut-and-cover trench, because in addition to utilities (which are present in most subway projects) the line would have to cross under the Red Line at Main Street. This would mean tunneling down below the grade of the Red Line, with the bottom of the tunnel likely reaching down 40 or 50 feet. Insurmountable? Given how many buildings in Kendall Square have recently been built with footings and basements at least that deep, no. Difficult? Yes.

The second obstacle is the land ownership. While the state has an easement across the corridor in perpetuity, it does not actually own much of it. When the Penn Central was looking to raise cash in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it sold off portions of its railroad to whoever would buy. In the case of much of the Grand Junction, the buyer was MIT. The wide corridor allows MIT to manage deliveries to its buildings and utilities under the surface, with a transportation easement on the surface for the rail line. While MIT has acquiesced to move the Grand Junction Path forward, digging a deep tunnel would be more difficult.

The opportunity, however, is that because of the Allston project, the corridor will see no rail service for a period of several years. Unlike something like the Green Line extension, where much of the cost of the project stems from rebuilding the corridor while maintaining active Commuter Rail service, the Grand Junction corridor would be a blank slate. It’s much easier to dig a hole when you don’t have to worry about what is going on above it. Roads could be shifted (shoo-flied) to allow for construction to take place (like how Harvard shifted Western Avenue in Allston for construction of an adjacent building). Work wouldn’t have to be relegated to evenings and weekends to maintain weekday train service. Given the depth of the Red Line, MIT’s utilities between Main Street and Mass Ave could be put into a newly-built conduit above the Grand Junction, allowing far easier access than the current procedure of digging around an active rail line and holes in the middle of Mass Ave. Cut-and-cover projects can be very expensive under city streets or other active alignments. But digging what amounts to little more than a mile-long basement shouldn’t be impossible.

The Main Street is more difficult, but a concept would require closing Main Street (or shifting it), uncapping the Red Line, and digging down on both sides of the tracks while maintaining service. Once the pits on both sides were at the eventual depth of the Grand Junction passing underneath, the Red Line could be shut down for a week (perhaps the very low-ridership Christmas-to-New Years week) and a prefabricated concrete box could be assembled off-site and lowered into place, with service restored on the upper portion for the Red Line and, eventually, for the Grand Junction below. MassDOT is good at installing bridges in a weekend. This is essentially the same thing: the bridge takes the Red Line over the Grand Junction.

A few more concepts:

  • A Grand Junction station could be built between Main Street and Mass Ave, likely where MIT currently has a small, outdated building (Building 44) and an outdated parking garage (N4). North of this is a long-disused MIT property. Combined, these properties create an almost-perfect arrow shape, and comprise nearly 5 acres of developable land. A location atop a transit station could help the City leverage financial support for transit infrastructure in exchange for additional development rights.
  • On the north edge of the arrow property, an infill Red Line station could be built at Technology Square, filling a mile-long gap between the Red Line stations at Kendall and Central. This would provide better walking access not only to Tech Square, but also to other nearby developments, including NIBR, University Park and nearby residential districts, as well as a good transfer through the arrow property between the Grand Junction and Red Line. Given the rate of development in the corridor, a new transit station would help to relieve some of the crowding at the two existing stations.
  • Construction of a tunnel would allow a widening of the curve radius the Grand Junction currently uses between Main Street and Broadway. This would involve digging up much of the corridor there, but with the railroad already below the Red Line, it would provide the potential to add several hundred below-grade parking spaces below the street and above the rail line, which could be leveraged to allow nearby developers to build new buildings with less parking, or, perhaps, none at all. (In Delft, Netherlands, below-grade parking was integrated into a project burying a rail line.)
  • The tunnel would ascend to just below grade at Cambridge Street, and then rise east of there, tying in to the Fitchburg Line near McGrath Highway. This would probably require that Gore/Medford Street was raised several feet to accommodate the railroad grade.
  • This obviously would require electrification of at least this portion of the Grand Junction railroad, as well as the completion of additional track accessing North Station, which is planned
Here is a conceptual section (not to scale!) of a Grand Junction tunnel (looking from Kendall/MIT towards Central/Harvard):

Once the Grand Junction is rebuilt as part of the Allston project, demand for service will likely render this opportunity to shut the line down moot, so it would have to happen within the next decade. Given the opportunity to build a new transit line in an unused corridor, it should.

That’s two miles. Total.
4. Grove Hall-to-Dudley Subway (2 miles)

The first three projects look at core capacity, delivering workers to jobs, and moving people out of transfers in the center of the system. This next one doesn’t. If some cars which currently run to Park Street were instead split off to the Seaport, there would be more capacity at Park Street itself. Since the section of subway from Park Street to Boylston is four tracks, and the two extending south through the disused Pleasant Street Incline are grade separated, trains could be run in to the subway from the south, allowing service from Dudley Square to bypass the traffic and narrow streets downtown (because this is what the subway was designed for when it was built in … 1897). In other words, there’s plenty of capacity at Park Street, as long as it doesn’t all turn west at Boylston.

Why wasn’t the subway ever extended south from the Pleasant Portal? Probably because the railroad was in the way and already below grade. To extend the subway would require not just digging a tunnel, but digging it deeper: something that didn’t happen for decades anywhere in the system. By and large, other than crossing under each other, Boston’s original subways hewed close to the surface.

By 1914, what is now the Green Line subway was extended to just east of Kenmore Square, and only in 1932 did the subway cross under the railroad, first at Beacon Street and then at Huntington Avenue in 1941. (The Turnpike doesn’t make this crossing any easier.) The southern branch from Boylston was never extended under the wider New Haven and Boston and Albany right-of-way. But even the few existing, unused blocks of subway between Boylston and the portal would provide a major advantage: allowing service from the Washington Street corridor to bypass downtown traffic and extend north through the city. There is relatively little congestion south of there, and ample opportunity to run transit in a right-of-way on Washington Street: that’s where the Silver Line has lanes, even if it doesn’t need them. The Pleasant Portal could be reopened, and the line extended diagonally on the original route of the now-obliterated Pleasant Street across the land occupied by the 1970s-era Josiah Quincy School (which will likely need refurbishment or replacement at some point), and then down Washington Street.

Most of the rest of the corridor south through Roxbury to Mattapan on Washington Street and Blue Hill Avenue is wide enough that a modern light rail system could be put into place (think the Green Line, except completely different). Level boarding, prepaid fares, signal priority. The exceptions are two stretches, one through Dudley Square, and a second under Warren Street north of Grove Hall. Could surface transit run through these sections? Certainly, but it would be relatively slow, owing to narrow street widths on Warren Street and Washington Street and congestion at Dudley. North of Dudley, it would make sense to extend a tunnel past Melnea Cass, to avoid traffic-related impacts to transit. This tunnel would be more difficult to build than the Grand Junction and longer as well, and would probably require a tunnel boring machine and two stations (at Dudley and Malcolm X, which would probably be the first transit station named after Malcolm X). 
Still, this tunnel would leverage several physical assets already in place. It would allow transit from the center spine of Boston to get downtown without sitting in downtown traffic, like the Silver Line does today, and to potentially extend north along the route of the Green Line extension. It would provide the promised replacement for the Orange Line that was moved a generation ago. And it would use Blue Hill Avenue, perhaps the widest roadway of any length in the region, to transport far more people than the 28 bus can.
Four miles down. The next two are bigger bores, bigger miles, and bigger impact.
5. Seaport-Logan Regional Rail (North-South Rail Link, Part 1, 3.5 miles from South Station to Wood Island)
6. North-South Rail Link, Part 2 (2.5 miles from south of South Station to north of North Station)
The last two tunnels are the North-South Rail Link, about which my thinking about has evolved over time (for instance, with the redevelopment of North Station, I’m not so sure you’d want to skip it). Why split it in two? Because I think that the NSRL actually makes sense as two mostly-separate tunnels converging at South Station.
The first of these would of these would be a tunnel from South Station to East Boston, which was proposed as early as 1911 (!). Today, trains from Newburyport and Rockport (the Eastern Route) follow a straight line down the coast towards Boston until they get to Bell Circle, but then bend away to the north through Chelsea to loop around to North Station. The railroad originally operated towards a ferry in East Boston, but was rerouted to serve the city proper. Most iterations of the NSRL maintain this routing. 
There are two missed opportunities doing so. The first is the ability to halve the number of tracks in the main NSRL tunnel. With trains headed out on all four lines north of the city, a two-track tunnel would be unlikely to accommodate all of the service from the north (and certainly not all from the south), requiring the maintenance of surface stations and additional track on both ends of the system. Splitting off the Eastern Route would reduce demand on the main trunk enough that it could probably get by with two tracks in perpetuity. In other words, the NSRL would still have four tracks, they just wouldn’t be all together.
The second missed opportunity would be better service to Logan Airport. Transit service to Logan Airport today is pitiful and traffic at a breaking point, so despite sitting just three miles from Downtown Boston, it can take the better part of an hour to get from Logan to the city. Getting anywhere besides areas served by the Red or Blue lines requires multiple transfers, which are unattractive for all but the most budget-minded travelers, and adding time to airport staff. 
Yet imagine the following: half of the trains from the lines south of the city, including express trains from Providence and Worcester, would stop at Back Bay, South Station, a stop in the Seaport and then a central station at the airport. South Station to Logan would take 6 minutes, Back Bay to Logan 10, and Providence and Worcester would, assuming the necessary improvements to the rail network, have less-than-one-hour, door-to-door service. Some trains would terminate at an airport station (which could be built with enough tracks to allow trains to terminate and layover), and others would continue through a short tunnel under airport property and East Boston to the original route of the Eastern Railroad along Route 1A and north to Lynn, Salem and beyond, which would see faster trips both to the airport and Downtown Boston. The currently-used cutoff could provide continued service from the North Shore, or be used as a shuttle service from Revere through Everett to Sullivan Square, or even connecting to the Grand Junction. This would mimic the transit access to many large airports in Europe, like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zurich, Geneva, Oslo and London, where the airports are connected not only to the subway, but to larger, regional rail systems. 
Constructing such a tunnel would be difficult, but we built the Big Dig in roughly the same alignment, and constructing a parallel tunnel on the floor of the Harbor would certainly be feasible (in fact, some of the base geologic work may already be done). An airport station would be required, and expensive, but could be integrated to a major rehabilitation of the airport’s ground transportation network, which can barely cope with current traffic. This tunnel would stretch 3.5 miles—making it the longest of the tunnels proposed—yet most would be constructed under the Harbor, under open areas at the airport, or transportation corridors in East Boston. That should be easier than going straight through Downtown Boston. Although that’s a pretty low bar.
The final tunnel, about which I won’t go into further detail here, would be the classic South Station-to-North Station NSRL, only with the demand from the Eastern Route removed, and two tracks through the center of the city. All trains would connect at South Station, allowing transfers, and allowing the entire regional rail network to get to the airport with at most a single transfer. South Station is only a mile and a half from North Station and the Airport. A good transportation network would provide a simple trip to both.
Grand total: 6 tunnels, 10 miles and a bridge (so to speak) to the next century.


There’s plenty missing, of course. Vanshnook suggests a Green Line tunnel from Allston to Harvard and Northeastern to Brookline Village, for instance. Wentworth students have imagined a Blue Line link from Government Center to Kenmore. But for my money if I was given 10 miles of tunnel, this is how I would spend it.

It’s Time to Radically Rethink Memorial Drive in Cambridge

Memorial Drive in Cambridge—a pleasure roadway and a park—is actually a death trap. The wide, straight roadway encourages cars to speed, and speed they do, running over a pedestrian several times per year and killing people far too often. The roadway hosts no commercial vehicles, and the eastbound lanes serve only a couple of boating facilities between the BU and Longfellow bridges, yet the roadway—which was designed for low-speed horses and carriages—is built as if it were a highway, and any efforts to improve pedestrian safety have been stonewalled in the name of keeping traffic moving.

Except for a couple of traffic lights and poor-visibility sidewalks, traffic can proceed unimpeded from the BU Bridge to East Cambridge, on a straight, flat, mostly divided highway, where the 35 mph speed limit is honored in the breach. It’s no fun to walk across and only slightly more fun to walk or bike along. Officially, it’s a park, but it doesn’t seem like one.

Memorial Drive is part of the Charles River Basin park and there is a 2002 master plan for the basin. Portions of this plan have been implemented, including the new paths along the Cambridge side of the river, but the roadways have not been touched. (Believe it or not, until the 1990s, parking was allowed on both barrels of Memorial Drive, so there was even more pavement on Mem Drive east and a line of cars along the river.) The plan proposes narrowing the road slightly and moving the eastbound barrel inland from the river, slightly increasing the width of the park along the river. It says that other options were considered, but not advanced further in to the plan. One of these would have eliminated the eastbound roadway entirely, channeling all traffic on to the combined westbound barrel. Apparently removing the roadway would be incongruous with the historic nature of the roadway:

While there is some flexibility in applying
preservation criteria, the historic value of this cultural landscape would
be entirely lost under this alternative.

I call shenanigans. I don’t remember Frederick Law Olmsted planning for two lanes of 40 miles per hour automobile traffic in each direction, and parking. I think the DCR is afraid of reducing the number of lanes on the roadway. Rather than focusing on what the road looks like today, what if the DCR prioritized what would best serve as parkland for the public?

Instead of trying to rebuild the highway-like park (or is it a park-like highway) let’s consider moving traffic to the westbound lanes. Use this roadway for two lanes of traffic, turning lanes at intersections, pedestrian refuges between the lanes to minimize crossing distances and some parking where needed (and charge for it if you can’t figure out how to pay for the roadway changes). At the same and the eastbound lanes can be converted to parkland, increasing green space and allowing us to reclaim the dead space in between the current roadway. It might not match his parkway, but it would create a Cambridge esplanade. I think old Frederick Law would be proud.

There is an 80-foot-wide median between the two barrels of Memorial Drive today, but this is lost parkland, since it is nearly impossible to access and cut off from both MIT and the river, and who really wants to sit in a park in the middle of a highway anyway? If the roadway were consolidated, it the amount of useful parkland would go from 40 feet wide to 145 feet wide. On the MIT side, the portion of the parkland between the road and the sidewalk isn’t even grass, but instead wood chips and mud, since it receives heavy pedestrian use, so the road could actually be pushed north there. This would provide enough room for one lane of traffic in each direction, left turn bays on and off of Memorial Drive where needed, and parking spaces elsewhere. By using part of this space, no trees would be impacted (which would be the case of the roadway were moved south).

But only one lane for cars in each direction? Yes! Memorial Drive in Cambridge carries about 36,000 vehicles per day. While this is high for a single lane in each direction, it is not without precedent, especially for a roadway with few intersections or interruptions. In fact, the DCR has a very similar stretch of roadway with a single lane in each direction which carries the same number of vehicles a few miles west: Nonantum Road, along the river in Brighton and Newton. Most notably, this roadway used to have four lanes but, according to the same master plan, was reduced to two in 2010, yet with turning lanes, traffic throughput has not decreased. The new design allowed room for an expanded bicycle/pedestrian path alongside as well.

These two roadway designs carry the same number of vehicles.

2007:
2018:
The 2002 master plan is dated, but it provides a blueprint for improving Memorial Drive. The DCR and MIT have started to implement some improvements, but these are small steps. It’s time that Cambridge had an esplanade along the river, not a strip of parkland and a wide highway.

Don’t double down on the mistakes of the past: Cabot Yard edition

The Red Line derailment didn’t look too bad at first. The train stayed upright, there were no major injuries, and it appeared that the train would just have to be rerailed, the track repaired, and normal service would resume. The T did an excellent job setting up what skeleton service they could to bypass the site, providing rail service to Braintree and Ashmont without resorting to trying to put ten thousand people per hour on buses which would tie up half of the bus fleet (which is otherwise occupied at rush hour). It seemed the incident had happened in a relatively good location, one of the few where there was some redundancy, as passengers could just transfer from one side of the station to the other.

On Wednesday we found out just how bad it was. With the railcar finally removed (it is rumored that the reason the crane wasn’t placed on the Columbia Road bridge as originally proposed was because DCR didn’t know the maintenance level weight limit of the bridge and dropping the bridge on the Red Line would have been even worse) we saw what it hit. The little building next to the tracks housed the signal equipment for not only Columbia Junction—often dubbed Malfunction Junction, and that’s when the signal system works!—but several miles of track in either direction. Now the 14 trains per hour normally scheduled across the line—which are barely enough to handle rush hour traffic—are reduced to four to six, for the foreseeable future. It turns out that this derailment didn’t happen in a good location, but a bad one.

Signal systems are complex and bespoke, so a full replacement may take months or years to procure, if not longer. In 1996, when the Muddy River flooded into the Green Line, normal operations didn’t resume for months, and fixes for the system itself took years, and $40 million in repairs. The T now closes the Fenway portal during heavy rain events every few years to prevent a repeat of that situation. However, the proximate cause—flooding from the Muddy River—was a bigger issue: a century ago, the river was relocated in to culverts below Park Drive, and with only so much space in the culverts, it would back up along the Riverway during heavy rains, overtop the levee, and, once the D Line was built in 1959, pour in to Kenmore (which had happened in 1962 as well). This was eventually fixed as part of a 20-year project spearheaded by the Army Corps of Engineers and multiple other agencies, and with the new drainage in place, future flooding of the MBTA is less likely. Instead of continuing with the same reactionary system—where floodgates and sandbags were required every few years, and if they didn’t work, as occurred in 1996, the results would be catastrophic—we changed the larger ecosystem to one which would prevent the problem in the first place.

The Red Line derailment should serve as a similar wake-up call. Despite Governor Baker’s repeated calls for no new revenue, simply fixing the system we have won’t work. We—and I’m putting this in italics—can not continue to double down on the same system we have and expect different results. In the short term, this is going to require we invest in the system to make it more efficient and more resilient. In the long term, addressing wider problems will create the sort of system that will pay dividends when things like this week’s derailment occur less frequently and, when they occur, have less impact.

A short history of Cabot Yard and Columbia (a.k.a. Malfunction) Junction

The Red Line was the last of Boston’s subways to be built. The original segment operated between Harvard and Park and it was eventually extended, as the “Cambridge-Dorchester tunnel“, to Ashmont. At first, the only yard facility was on the north end of the line at the Eliot Shops, a complex of yards and shops tucked between Harvard Square and the Charles River, which is home to the Kennedy School today. When the line was extended in the 1920s, it added another yard—Codman Yard—past Ashmont station. For the next 50 years, the line would operate quite simply: trains would pull out of a yard beyond the terminal, service the line, and then pull into the yard at the terminal. This is optimal: the line requires no mid-line switches, and every train coming in or out of service simply pulls in to the first stop.

The 1970s and 1980s changed that. In 1965, the T purchased the Old Colony right-of-way to build an extension to Quincy and Braintree. This was originally planned to be an independent, express line (which is why there is no Braintree station at Savin Hill or Neponset) which would terminate at South Station. Eventually, it was aligned to be part of the Red Line, which required a new junction where the lines split at Columbia Road.

More importantly, it needed somewhere to store and service the cars. The Eliot Shops were small, cramped, and sat on valuable land eyed by Harvard for years. The T gave the land to Harvard in 1966 but needed to find a new location for its yards. The Ashmont Branch was out: Codman Yard was surrounded by housing. Braintree didn’t want a rail yard at the end of the line and blocked efforts for a yard there, so the T finally paid the Penn Central for the freight yards in South Boston to store Red Line cars. This was by no means their first choice: in order to access the line, trains would have to traverse nearly two miles of non-revenue track to get to JFK-UMass, and would then have to run the rest of the way back to Braintree to begin their inbound trips. (A small yard—called Caddigan, in keeping with an apparent rule that all Red Line facilities must begin with a hard C—exists past Braintree, but it can only store a few cars.)

This issue was exacerbated in the 1980s when the Red Line was lengthened once again. The line was extended from Harvard to Alewife, but was originally slated to go beyond. As late as 1977, the line was planned to Arlington Center (with an eventual extension) and the decision was made to curve the line past the Alewife station to aim towards Arlington, forgoing the ability to build a yard on then-vacant land just west of Alewife. The next year, the town decided it didn’t want rail service, but the deed was done, and no terminal was available at the north end of the line, either. (This was related to me by Fred Salvucci, who had some choice words for Arlington and Cambridge about this. I’ve written about an idea to build a yard below Thorndike Field beyond Route 2 to mitigate the terminal issues at Alewife.)

So Cabot is it. It serves most of the trips for the Red Line and is the only maintenance facility. It sits less than a mile from Downtown and the Seaport on what is undoubtedly valuable land. (The nearby MacAllen Building and its neighbor have 279 condos; the two northernmost portions of Cabot are about three times as big.) And Cabot is the main reason that the location where the train derailed—Malfunction Junction—is as complex as it is. In fact, the switch where the train derailed has nothing to do with splitting apart the branches of the Red Line, but rather a switch for a “yard lead” allowing trains to return to Cabot. The entire complex is conceptually designed quite well: it creates a series of “flying junctions”—not just between the two branches, but also for trains between the Braintree line and Cabot (most Ashmont trains operate out of Codman so therefore don’t require as frequent movement). This requires a series of complex switches and flyovers, but means that operationally no train ever has to cross another line.

Columbia Junction. North (towards Downtown Boston) is at the left. A snippet of a full MBTA track map (the best MBTA track map!) which can be found here.

But Columbia Junction, as built, is a known problem spot and frequent cause of delays, and this doesn’t change the fact that Cabot is in the wrong geographic location for a rail yard. In Chicago, nearly every yard is at the end of the line, or close by (the last mid-route yard—Wilson—was decommissioned in the ’90s in favor of a yard at Howard). New York, DC and San Francisco rely on yards mostly built on the outlying portions of the line. The T specializes in mid-route yards for the Orange and Blue lines (Wellington and Orient Heights), but both are located adjacent to the line, not miles away.

Thus, Cabot Yard has four major problems:

  • It connects to the wrong part of the line for a rail yard
  • It is not even close to said line
  • Where it connects to the line it requires a series of complex switches
  • It sits on otherwise valuable land, probably the most valuable land of any heavy rail yard (setting aside Commuter Rail yards downtown which, while in sensible locations operations-wise, sit on huge parcels of valuable land and which could be freed up with a North-South Rail Link, but that’s the topic of another post entirely).
The T’s plan? Rebuild Cabot Yard and Columbia Junction. The cost? At least $200 million for Cabot, and another $50 million or more for Malfunction Junction. The benefits? Negligible. Fixing the switches will help, but Cabot would still requires long non-revenue movements to get trains to the wrong part of the line to provide service and uses high-value land to store rail cars. It’s cheaper in the short run than building a new facility, but doubles down on the same issues which require extraneous operations and needless complexity. Yet this is the Charle Baker “no new revenue” vision: keep investment minimal now, continue with the same system we have even when it clearly doesn’t work, and somehow expect a different result. 
The solution, of course, would be to build a new yard facility somewhere further south along the Braintree branch of the Red Line. The question is: where?
The Braintree Split

I wrote last year about how the optimal location for bus garages is probably on state-owned land adjacent to highways, rather than next to transit stations as the T is proposing at Wellington and Riverside. No one wants a bus yard in their backyard, and building bus lots next to train stations instead of transit-oriented development is doubly wrongheaded. While rail yards are more location-constrained than bus yards (since they have to physically connect to the railroad) there is some potential to leverage the same sort of arrangement of land in Braintree for the Red Line.

If the Braintree branch were being built today, a logical location for a yard would be at what is currently the Marketplace at Braintree development. When the line was built, this was an active rail yard (a small portion still is a freight yard), and the Red Line was built on the “wrong side” of the tracks to access this parcel. Using it today would require not only nearly $100 million to buy the land and businesses, but nearly-impossible negotiations to somehow reimburse Braintree for that commercial tax base. The site south of the Braintree garage has less value (about $25 million) but is also on the “wrong side” (the Red Line is east of the Commuter Rail to allow access to what is now the Greenbush Line) and would require some sort of flyover or duck-under to gain access, while being slightly smaller than Cabot. Further south, there are some potential sites, but these would require longer lead tracks and have potential wetland impacts and NIMBY implications.

A map showing the locations of the sites mentioned above.

There is a site near Braintree, however, which would have no acquisition cost, since the state already owns it. It would have no impact on the tax base, since it has no assessed value. It will never be suitable for residential or commercial development, since it sits inside a highway interchange. It is, of course, the land within the Braintree Split. The land in the “infield” of the Braintree Split amounts to about 70 acres, which is nearly four times the size of Cabot Yard. The interchange is a “Directional-T” interchange, and designed so that at its center, three roads cross each other at the same point. The are, from lowest to highest, the mainline route from 93 north to 93 north, from Route 3 north to 93 south, and from 93 south to Route 3 south. This is important, because it would impact how a potential rail yard could be linked together.

None of the parcels bounded by the Braintree Split is as large as the entirety of the Cabot Yard (about 18 acres), although Cabot itself is split roughly evenly by the 4th Street bridge between the maintenance facility and the storage yard. Four of the sectors are roughly the same size, two are significantly smaller. Given the topographical constraints, it would be easiest to link together the 16 and 12 acre parcels. The map below shows the parcels within the Split, the size of each in acres, and, superimposed with dashed lines on the 16- and 12-acre parcels, the outlines of the Cabot shops facility and storage yard, respectively, with dashed lines.

Braintree Split parcels, with the Cabot shops and yard superimposed on the 16- and 12-acre parcels.

The Braintree Split is not as optimally located as, say, the site south of the Braintree station. It’s a bit further from the Red Line, and not at the end of the line, so some deadhead movement would be required to reach the terminal. But it’s considerably closer to both the end of the line in Braintree and to the line itself. The closest portion of the 12-acre parcel is only about 0.25 miles from the Red Line tracks, although there are some roadway ramps in between. (There are plenty of examples of rail yards interacting with highways, like the WMATA West Falls Church yard in Virginia, 98th, Rosemont and Des Plaines yards in Chicago,  and South Yard in Atlanta.

It is worth noting that Braintree Split isn’t exactly flat. If you drive from 93 south to Route 3 south, you descend from an elevation of 180 feet down to 40 feet. Rail yards have to be flat (so, you know, unmanned trains don’t roll away if their brakes fail), and rail grades, even for a rapid transit line, should be at most two or three percent. Given that the 12-acre parcel is lower than the 16-acre parcel, the two would have to be used for separate facilities, but there is no reason that the 12-acre parcel couldn’t host a storage yard with shop facilities at the 16-acre parcel. In fact, the 12-acre site is better suited for a storage facility (since it is long and narrow) while the 16-acre site would have plenty of room for a maintenance facility and potentially additional storage tracks, which might be necessary if the Red Line were one day improved to offer service every three minutes.

This would require about 1400 feet of lead tracks from the Red Line to the storage yard, and no new land acquisition as all would be built on land already owned by the state. The yard lead would extend flat over the first set of ramps and Route 3 north (the Red Line climbs at about a 3% grade out of Quincy Adams to cross over the Old Colony Commuter Rail), and would then descend down to the level of Route 3 to pass over the northbound Burgin Parkway ramp and under the southbound one. There it would split in to two, with one set of tracks leading to a level storage facility and the other extending up to the maintenance facility further north. Access to the maintenance yard would be available from near the zipper lane facility just north of the split, although parking might be better provided on the side of the highway with a pedestrian bridge for workers to access the yard. If funds were available from nearby developers, these walkways could even allow a station to provide better access to nearby office buildings to provide a shuttle service from Quincy Adams or Braintree.

Simplifying Columbia Junction and Savin Hill


There are other knock-on effects to simplifying Columbia Junction and relocating Cabot Yard.

In addition to the Old Colony Commuter Rail line running through a single-track bottleneck south of JFK-UMass (which is part of the reason only a few extra trains can be run at rush hour), there is a bottleneck on I-93 there as well. In 2012, CTPS developed a concept to add HOV lanes to I-93 and a track to the Old Colony lines (thereby removing a single-track bottleneck) near Savin Hill by burying both the Old Colony and the Red Line for the better part of a mile. Yet this concept would likely rival the Allston I-90 project in complexity and cost.

With South Coast rail now being (wrongly, in my opinion) pushed down the Old Colony Line, the FMCB has considered a similar plan. Yet this is based on the false premise that four tracks need to be provided to JFK/UMass, which is mostly required to allow access in and out of Cabot Yard from the Braintree Branch. Without the need to access Cabot Yard via a flying junction, there is no need for four tracks through Savin Hill: by combining the two Red Line branches south of Savin Hill, one of the existing Red Line tracks could be used for Commuter Rail through the Savin Hill bottleneck with only some minor modifications, at least relative to the state’s incoherent plan. In addition, by replacing Cabot Yard with a facility in Braintree, the entirety of “Malfunction Junction” could be replaced by two switches, one to split the southbound main line in to two branches, and another to combine the two northbound tracks together.

The sketches below show the current configuration of the railroads adjacent to Savin Hill, and a proposed concept. The proposed concept would have outbound trains stop at Savin Hill, but inbound trains on the Braintree Branch (which has less capacity) would bypass Savin Hill and merge in past the station (as they do today), although it could certainly be realigned to allow all trains to serve Savin Hill. North of this junction, the Red Line would operate as a simple, two-track railroad through to Andrew and on to Downtown and Alewife. Inbound passengers at JFK/UMass would no longer have to play platform roulette, or stand on the overpass and wait for the next train, as all service would take place on a single platform.

Current track layout.

Proposed track layout showing the combination of the Red Line branches moved further south.

The Cabot Yard leads and Track 61


The tracks from JFK/UMass to Cabot would not have to go unused, however. I pointed out several years ago that Track 61 could reasonably be connected to Andrew Station to provide a shuttle from JFK/UMass to the BCEC and Seaport. With the Cabot yard leads freed up, such a shuttle could instead run from JFK/UMass to the BCEC, providing a connection from Dorchester and the South Shore to the Seaport without relying on the overburdened Silver Line. There should be enough room for two light rail tracks from JFK/UMass to the Seaport (with a single-track terminal at JFK, much like the Braintree branch of the Red Line is being operated after the derailment) with the other Red Line track given over to the Commuter Rail. This would provide a useful link using the otherwise-excess right-of-way.


Cabot Yard as midday layover for Commuter Rail

While Cabot Yard is poorly-located as a Red Line facility, it is in the right place for midday Commuter Rail storage. This page is on the record saying that the best way to reduce the need for midday storage is to just run more trains, but peaks will be peaks, and having somewhere near a terminal to store trains will be important until we build the North South Rail Link (in which case trains will be able to run through the tunnel to outlying yards, freeing up land near the terminals). Today, the Commuter Rail system uses yards at Southampton (near Cabot) and Readville (at the end of the Fairmount Line, so not near Cabot, or really anything) for midday train storage.

Yet to run more trains, the agency needs more storage, so it is looking at sites in Allston and Widett Circle, despite the expense of building in these locations and their desirability as development sites. (As a participant in the planning process for Allston, the supposed need for storage drives many undesirable and expensive portions of that project.) If Cabot Yard was vacated by the Red Line, it would make a fine facility for midday storage: it’s very close to South Station and, with a rail yard on one side and bus yard on the other, a less-desirable development site. The portion of the facility between the Haul Road and 4th Street is more than double the size of Readville, and could thus replace Readville entirely while providing enough additional capacity to obviate the need for new construction in Allston or at Widett Circle.

Conclusion

As usual, actions taken in one location decades in the past cascade through the entire transportation network. NIMBYs in the 1960s pushed the T to build Cabot Yard, even if it was nowhere near the Red Line itself. A changing economy means that the land it occupies, which was little more than a post-industrial wasteland in the 1970s, is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Braintree Split, built in the 1950s, provides enough room for a rail yard in its median. Malfunction—er, Columbia—Junction has always been a solution looking for a problem. By thinking pretty far outside the box, we could correct many of the mistakes of the 1970s. But it involves making an investment in infrastructure beyond just fixing what we have.

The current administration, it seems, is willing to double down on the mistakes which got us in to this mess. When the Muddy River flooded in to the Green Line, we didn’t just build a storm barrier and hope that it would work. We looked upstream for the cause, and rebuilt the Muddy River to keep it from overflowing in the first place. While the reactive solution might seem cheaper today, in the long run, unless we take proactive, decisive action, we’ll pay for the mistakes again and again.

Charlie Chieppo, call your office

The vaunted Pioneer Institute, that of free marketry and good government, has a contest out which solicits plans to “move people and goods forward.” (Your fearless blogger is preparing an entry.) They encourage many people to apply, and say

If you are a rider, driver, transit employee, or simply an observer, we invite you to share how you would improve your commute, from immediate issues around parking, communication, safety, and station repair and design, to big ideas that will reduce congestion, advance bus rapid transit, and double the number of commuter rail riders.

So imagine my surprise when a Pioneer acolyte, Charlie Chieppo (along with a professor at D’Amore-McKim … which I’ll abbreviate as “Dim” because that’s my impression of the intellect of anyone associated with this article), goes into the pages of the Globe to argue that, no, we don’t need Commuter Rail, because it will be replaced by self-driving cars in no time. Also, come on, Boston Globe, you’re above this. (Oh, wait, except for Jeff Jacoby, he of amazing Twitter ratios. The man has no shame, so that’s something.)

As for the article: where to start? This basically hits every trope of the “cars are going to save us” argument that people make without even the faintest clue of how self driving cars are (or aren’t) working, and thinking about, you know, what you do with cars when people get out of them. But this is so chock-full of nonsense it makes sense to critique it line-by-line. Grab a beverage and hang on, because here we go. (Original in plain text indented, my comments in italics)

*****

Self-driving cars could make commuter rail obsolete

The could. Anything could. Unicorns and puppies could. Let’s see if you can make a cogent argument. I’m ready to put on my surprised hat.

The rise of shared electric self-driving cars and the transition from a world of ownership to one of consumers purchasing transportation as a service holds the promise of significant economic, environmental, and quality-of-life benefits.

Wait, this is being written in present tense? Because outside of a few very few minor prototypes, there are literally no self-driving electric cars. Certainly not operating on roads. Maybe they mean Teslas, which are electric, but are pretty far from self-driving, although they do have a tendency to self-drive their drivers in to stationary objects. Waymo, which is way ahead of Tesla on the tech front, has a CEO pointing out that not only are self-driving cars decades away, they may never be able to fully drive themselves. So let’s not pretend that this is something that is a couple of years away. Because it’s been a couple of years away for a few years now. So, maybe, use the future tense here.

But it will also pose an existential threat to public transportation in general and to commuter rail in particular.

Because … let’s see. Commuter Rail has been the least-affected by Uber and Lyft, which are basically self-driving cars with drivers. They have the same utility, and Commuter Rail ridership has gone up in the past few years (more on this in a moment). But, sure, go on.

The first recommendation in the December report from Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation is “Prioritize investment in public transit as the foundation for a robust, reliable, clean, and efficient transportation system.” In broad terms, the commission is right. But maximizing potential benefits from the unprecedented disruption of surface transportation that lies ahead will also require fundamental change at the MBTA and a hard look at which transit modes are positioned to compete in a brave new world.

Do we have any idea of what this brave new world holds? No, we do not. And why not? Because fifteen years ago Segways were the future. Three years ago we were all going to be riding hover boards. No one knows the future. Sure, we should probably think about contingencies. But we should also invest in what we have now that, you know, exists.

The commission’s charge was to look at the Commonwealth’s needs and challenges over the next 20 years. But if that horizon is extended to 40 years,

But it’s not. It’s 20 years. Why? Maybe because no one can predict the future in 40 years. In 1890, would anyone have predicted the coming of the car by 1930? In 1930—when biplanes ruled the day—would anyone have foreseen the 747 in 1970? In 1970, when gas cost a quarter a gallon, would anyone have seen $4 gas and global warming, but no flying cars or Jetsons highways? The only constant from 1970 is that cars cause traffic and traffic sucks. And you’re proposing more cars. Go on.

station-to-station service to the suburbs is unlikely to be very attractive in a world where shared electric self-driving cars will offer much faster door-to-door service at a price that won’t be much higher.

Where to begin with this word-salad. Station-to-station works because it’s a nice straight line from the city to the suburbs. Door-to-door sounds good, especially if it’s much faster, but this relies on the completely fallible assumption that somehow cars are going to solve traffic. In a region which now has the worst traffic in the country. Self-driving cars are likely to increase vehicle miles traveled (just as Uber and Lyft have), and thus congestion. The reason people take the train is that it is faster than driving (as well as cheaper than parking). And don’t show me some perfect model, because the Occam’s Razor is “you put a lot more cars on the road and you’ll get more congestion.”

Drivers are normally the largest expense for any transportation business. It currently costs about 55 cents a mile to operate a vehicle with a single occupant. But it’s estimated that the cost could fall to 15 cents a mile for autonomous vehicles carrying two or three passengers, which would significantly reduce public transit’s price advantage.

Again, the cost of driving is generally not the only reason people take Commuter Rail. The time also is. And, yes, maybe the cars will make this faster. But the jury is long out on that. Also, should we not invest in Commuter Rail, which is much more efficient at moving people than cars, for 40 years with the hope that maybe cars will somewhat get more efficient even though they haven’t—space-wise—uh, ever? That doesn’t sound like planning for the future. Also, according to this, most of the efficiency of a car comes from sharing, since 45¢ split three ways is 15¢, so not much off of 55¢. And, hey, slugging works … in a couple of dense markets with very specific conditions, most notably carpool lanes which can bypass traffic (again, time ≥ money). Those aren’t a bad idea, but can’t really replace Commuter Rail. Also, many people want to be matched with three people, not two, for safety in numbers. This is a feature of slugging, but makes the matching harder and the trips take longer. Also, if you have door-to-door service, you necessarily have a portion of the trip with two people. This isn’t terribly easy to do.

Connected vehicles will also dramatically reduce human error, resulting in big increases in throughput thanks to variables like higher travel speeds, less space between vehicles and less frequent braking in response to accidents and other travel events.

Oh, here’s the second BINGO square they’re checking off. This is nonsense. First of all, connected vehicles will leave more space between cars than people do today, because drivers today generally follow too close. Second, they may deal with some of human reaction time, which is solvable. The problem is that at highway speeds, this accounts for about 15% of braking time. The other 85% is physics. That’s a little harder to solve.

In the future, agencies like the MBTA will probably subsidize trips that are currently taken on commuter rail rather than operate them. Even with the transportation transformation in its infancy, Florida’s Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which serves the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, eliminated some bus routes further from the urban core, after it experienced an 11 percent overall drop in ridership, and replaced them with subsidies for Uber and Lyft rides. Since then, over 25 US communities have established similar partnerships — and the disruption caused by ride-hailing services is minuscule compared with what is to come.

Ah, yes, the transit mecca of … Tampa-St. Petersburg? Which has 57% the population of Boston and 3% of the transit ridership? (NTD data here and here) That seems like a great comparison. We should aspire to be the same Tampa-St. Pete which is well known as the strip club capital of the world? World class city, indeed! 

MBTA commuter rail ridership has declined.

No. It hasn’t. This is based off a Pioneer Institute study which selectively chooses a start and end to argue that Commuter Rail ridership is down. But this is based on data which basically useless, the T has all but admitted that outside of a ridership report in 2012, they really have no idea how many people are taking Commuter Rail. So the authors could have pled ignorance last month. Except that a couple of weeks ago, a new report came out, an actual rider count, and the numbers are pretty clear: Commuter Rail ridership is up. Way up. Up on every line. Up 20% in six years. Up nearly 50% on the Worcester Line. So this is just false. I can’t wait until Pioneer comes out a report that argues that the sky is green, the Pope is most decidedly not Catholic, bears defecate anywhere but the woods, and Commuter Rail ridership is down.

Nonetheless, it will remain with us for the next couple of decades. It still needs to be improved, but massive investments in new lines like South Coast Rail or, even worse, Springfield, would be a fool’s errand.

It’s been with us since 1834, so yes, that’s probably true. And we can debate the intelligence of extensions to Commonwealth’s 3rd, 6th and 10th largest cities (and I’d suggest there are certainly better ways to do so for South Coast Rail and that service to Springfield is probably more of a political issue than anything else). But let’s not pretend that people going to Springfield are going to want to get in to a car with two or three strangers for a two hour ride to Springfield. If you sit next to a smelly UberPool passenger on your way across town, you can hold your nose. If you sit next to a smelly person on the train, you can switch seats. If you’re on your way to Springfield, once you’re on the Pike, you’re on the Pike. Whoops.

The biggest challenge for the future will be making transit work in congested downtown areas. One Boston traffic simulation model showed that while shared autonomous vehicles would reduce travel times and the number of vehicles on the road even as total miles traveled rose by 16 percent overall, downtown travel times would be 5.5 percent longer because the vehicles would substitute for transit use.

Correct. Although actually this is usually the type of relationship where congestion goes up faster than vehicle miles traveled. But, correct. Something about stopped clocks and blind squirrels.

Rising to this challenge will require focusing more investment in the urban core. But success will require something more: changing the MBTA’s top priority from providing jobs and pensions to serving its riders.

During a three-year exemption from the Commonwealth’s costly anti-privatization law, the T dramatically improved performance in areas such as cash collection and reconciliation and warehousing and logistics, and saved millions. Despite this success, there was nary a peep about extending the exemption or making it permanent.

Can’t be from Pioneer if you don’t have a non-sequitur about privatization. What that has to do with focusing on the urban core is beyond me. Also, where do you think the destination of most Commuter Rail ridership is? Also, isn’t Commuter Rail privatized? My head is spinning.

Few would argue that the MBTA is skilled at putting customers first.

Well, a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The question is whether — in the face of an existential threat to public transit and with far less margin of error — political leaders, bureaucrats, and unions can change the authority’s culture and begin to lay the groundwork that will allow the T to perform the way we’ll desperately need it to in the future.

We’re back to Commuter Rail. Is this about privatization or Commuter Rail? Was the first two thirds of the article about Commuter Rail so we could segue to an argument for privatizing something which is already privatized? I’m really confused. Also: does the Globe have editors?

Part of that culture change will be recognizing that commuter rail is poorly positioned to compete over the long-term.

This article has offered exactly zero evidence to support this claim. None.

When the Patriots win the 2060 Super Bowl, stories about a suburban rail network overwhelmed with riders are likely to generate the same reaction as when we tell our kids about having to get up and walk to the television to change the channel.

First of all, Tom Brady will be 82 when the 2060 Super Bowl takes place. Also, football may not be a sport we recognize. And the Patriots, without Brady or Belichick, will be like any of the other 32 teams, giving them a 3.1% chance of winning Super Bowl XCIV. So there’s a 3.1% chance that the Patriots win the 2060 Super Bowl. And, I’d say, a 3.1% chance we don’t have a Commuter Rail network then, either.

 *****

Here’s the rub: Commuter Rail (and transit in general) is really quite good at moving many people in to a small space. Cars are singularly bad at this. A lane of cars carries about 1600 people per hour, even with two or three people in each, it may be able to handle 4000. Commuter Rail, as it runs today, carries more than this, but Commuter Rail, as it’s run today, is woefully inefficient. Electrified rail service with level boarding platforms (relatively small investments, compared to the cost of building the rights-of-way which already exist) can increase this five-fold. A well-functioning Commuter Rail line should be able to carry 10,000 passengers per hour, more than a roadway can, no matter who’s driving (unless there’s a bus lane with a bus terminal at the end).

As Jarrett Walker likes to point out: transit is a question of geometry. You can make all the taxi-summoning apps you want, but cars still take up a lot of space. (Remember, at rush hour, Commuter Rail brings in about as many people to Boston as highways do.) Get rid of Commuter Rail, even if everyone carpools (and people who don’t take Commuter Rail already probably won’t want to) and you’ll increase cars coming in to the city by a lot. And then where do those cars go? In to garages? Not enough garages. (No, they won’t go back out to the suburbs to fetch more people; rush hour is over by then.) They’ll probably do what Ubers and Lyfts do: drive more miles without passengers. Congratulations, you’ve traded parking in the city for parking outside the city and more vehicle miles traveled.

But, yes, Commuter Rail is going away.