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:


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.

Robust, equitable and efficient all-night transit for Boston

Do you think that the T should implement real, useful 7-day-a-week late night service? Make your voice heard! Email latenightservice@mbta.com by April 4. More details here

A more condensed version of this proposal can be found at Commonwealth Magazine.

The recent post regarding the T’s early morning routes has been one of the top three most popular ever posted to this page, surpassing 5000 views (and much more quickly than any previous post). But if you thought that I’d just discovered the early morning routes, you’d be wrong, I’ve known about them for some time (yet never had need to ride one). However, what piqued my interest was the fact that these routes could be used for something much larger: actual all-night service for the MBTA service area.

In the aftermath of the MBTA’s
decision to cancel its recent late night service program, it might be useful to
consider some facts that are not well known, and that may provide the pathway
toward establishing a robust late night transit service that is regional in
scope, that responds to clear needs, and that does so affordably. Of the top 15
transit agencies in the country, only three—Boston, Houston and Atlanta—fail to
provide some overnight service. The plan laid out in this proposal is built
upon the T’s current early morning service, but rather than serving only Friday
and Saturday nights, it is geared primarily toward getting people to their late
night and early morning jobs.
The MBTA currently runs
approximately a dozen
early-morning trips,
originally geared towards fare collectors and now oriented more towards
early-morning workers (they were not shown on public schedules until 1999).
These trips are shown on published schedules—often with just a small schedule
notes—but otherwise not publicized (although this page described them in some detail). These trips arrive at Haymarket around 5:00am,
with connecting service via the 117 Bus to Logan Airport
A study of early morning service
conducted by CTPS (MassDOT’s Central Transportation Planning Staff) in 2013
found these services to be well used. Indeed, there was extreme overcrowding
on one route: the single 117 trip (Wonderland-Haymarket) carried 89 riders. In
response, the MBTA added two additional trips as well as earlier trips on Bus routes
22, 23, 28 and 109.
This map shows ½ and 1 mile buffers of the proposed late night
network superimposed on the T’s current route map.
See a full-size map here.

This proposal would use these
trips (with some minor changes) as a baseline for a new, more robust
“All-Nighter” service. This would allow the use of current MBTA bus stops and
routes, and be mostly an extension of current service, not an entirely new
service. It would provide service to most of the area covered by MBTA rail and
key bus routes. The changes include:

  • The primary connection point would move from
    Haymarket to Copley. This significantly shortens many of the routes and
    avoids time-consuming travel through downtown Boston to Haymarket,
    allowing a single route to operate with one vehicle instead of two, thus keeping costs down. In
    addition, Copley is somewhat more central to late night activity centers.
  • The current early-AM routes provide good coverage
    near most rail and “key bus” corridors with the exception of the Red Line
    in Cambridge and the Orange Line north of Downtown. (This plan does not address the longer branches to Braintree and Newton which serve lower-density areas which would have lower ridership and higher operation costs.) To fill these gaps the
    Clarendon Hill route would be amended north of Sullivan Square to follow
    the route of the 101 bus serving Somerville, Medford and Malden. A new
    route would be added following Mass Ave along the Red Line/Mass Ave
    corridor to serve Cambridge, then run through Davis Square and terminate
    at the Clarendon Hill busway.
  • A separate service would be run from Copley to
    Logan Airport. It would follow surface streets from Copley to South
    Station and the Seaport making local stops, use the Ted Williams Tunnel to
    the airport, and then terminate at the Airport Station, where it would
    allow connections to the 117 bus, which would terminate there rather than
    Copley. This bus could be operated or funded by MassPort in partnership with the MBTA, much like the Silver Line, since it would directly benefit the airport. This service
    could be through-routed with the 117 bus to Wonderland via the airport,
    which wouldn’t require additional buses and would eliminate a transfer.
  • Hourly service would operate on all routes, with
    a “pulse” connection at Copley. (What’s a pulse? Here’s the answer.) All buses would be scheduled to arrive at
    approximately :25-:28 past the hour and depart at :32-:35 past, allowing
    customers to transfer between the various lines at this time. A dispatcher
    could hold buses to make sure passengers could connect between lines. With hourly headways, a timed and guaranteed connection is required to provide any network effect and allow access between routes. 
  • Cities served by these routes could set traffic
    lights to “flashing yellow” for the routes between midnight and 5 a.m. to
    best accommodate schedules (this is already the case on many of these
  • Buses to the airport would allow employees to
    arrive a few minutes before the hour, in time for shift start times, and
    would then make a second loop through the airport to pick up employees
    finishing shifts a few minutes past the hour.
  • Airport buses would also allow overnight
    travelers to make their way to downtown by foot, bicycle, Hubway, taxicab
    or TNC (Transport Network Companies like Uber and Lyft), and make the
    “last mile” to Logan on a bus. This is especially important for
    late-arriving flights to the airport at times when there are often few
    cabs available. The MBTA could explore public-private partnerships with
    TNCs or other providers to bring customers to Copley Square to access
    all-night service.
  • The :30-past pulse time would allow workers
    finishing shifts on the hour to access buses to Copley, or walk to Copley
    itself, for connections to their final destination.
This service, based on current
late-night and early-morning published schedules, would require 10 vehicles for
four hours (approximately 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.), or 40 hours of service per day (with an extra hour on Sundays). At
this time, the MBTA operates approximately 10 hours of service covering the
early-AM routes, so the net hours of service would be 30. In addition, these
trips could be added to existing shifts, so rather than a deadhead trip between
a terminal and garage at the beginning or end of service, they would utilize a
bus already in service, saving an additional 6 hours (approximately) of
service, so the net hours per day would be 24.
Assuming a marginal cost per hour
of service of $125 (since this service would require no new capital equipment or vehicle storage, because
most of the bus fleet lies idle overnight, the full cost should not be used for
these calculations), this would cost approximately $1,095,000 per year;
assuming ridership of 843 per night (based on existing counts), the net cost
would be $757,000, with a subsidy of $2.46 per rider, in line with existing bus
subsidies—the cost might be slightly higher if the T needed to assign an inspector to the overnight service and extra police personnel, but they may already be on duty at those hours and could be shifted from overnight layover facilities.
Further, if Massport provided the
link between Copley and the Airport on an in-kind basis (as they do for SL1
airport fares), it would reduce the cost to the MBTA by approximately 10%; if Massport
through-routed such services along the route of the 117 it would reduce the
MBTA’s expenditure by 20%. Thus the range of cost to the T would be somewhere
between $600,000 and $1.25 million, between 7% and 13% of the cost of the most
recent discontinued late-night service. This service would serve approximately
308,000 riders annually.
While “Night Owl” bus service was
run from 2001-2005, it was perceived as serving very different population and purpose than this
proposal, focusing on the “drunk college kid” demographic on Friday and
Saturday nights only (the most recent late night iteration had the same issue, although the T’s equity analysis showed otherwise). While that population would certainly benefit from
overnight service, this service would be aimed directly at providing better
access to overnight jobs—in addition to the airport, most routes would pass
nearby major hospital clusters—especially from low-income areas.
These routes would (unlike the
prior late night services) follow existing bus routes and stops, provide
coverage to much of the region’s core neighborhoods—but not necessarily to each rail station’s front door. For example, the Green Line in Brookline would be served
by the 57 bus along Commonwealth Ave and the 39 bus on Huntington Ave, within a
mile of the B, C and D branch stations in the town, thus providing a similar
level of service more efficiently (and obviating the need to create nighttime-only
bus stops along the rail lines). Most of the densely populated portions of
Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Revere, Malden, Somerville and
Medford would be within a mile of service, with additional service to parts of
Newton and Watertown. 

In addition, by following normal bus lines, buses
would use existing, known stops along major streets (rather than requiring
passengers to search for nighttime-only stops adjacent to or nearby rail
stations), and bus numbers could even match daytime routes (for instance routes
could be named: N15/9, N28/SL5, N32/39, N57, N1/88, N93/101, N117) to provide
continuity. The goal is to make the system both useful and easy to understand
both for regular users and customers with less-frequent overnight needs. 
(Using existing routes would also reduce the start-up costs for such a service.)

The T’s current
plans to mitigate the removal of late-night service
are anemic, targeting a
single line or a couple of trips on a single day. This proposal, on the other
hand, would bring overnight service to much of the area which hasn’t had such
service in more than 50 years. It would be a win-win solution. It would benefit
the Fiscal Management Control Board by focusing on low income areas and job
access routes while costing a small fraction of the recent late-night rail
service, and by showing that its goal was to provide better service, not just cut existing trips. But more importantly, it would benefit the traveling public, by
allowing passengers to make trips by transit to major job sites at all hours of
the day.
It would be important, as well, to run this plan with discrete goals in mind; while the late night service was painted as a failure by MassDOT, by comparing the ridership to the previous iteration of late night service, it was an unmitigated success. The T’s mitigation plans would add buses piecemeal to its early morning system with no specific performance metrics. Instead, it should look in to creating a better network with specific goals, and measure the efficacy of the system in providing better connections to people traveling at odd hours.

This plan is designed to be affordable and robust, serving
real needs across the region, responding to social and mobility equity, and
doing so without the need to turn to the private sector, which cannot and will
not offer similar service at such affordable costs. Should it work, it would
enable the MBTA to set a standard for quality 24/7 service—service which is
provided in Philadelphia, Seattle, Cleveland and Baltimore, not to mention peer cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco—and the kind of
service a city and region like ours both needs and deserves.
Here are sample schedules, assuming a :30-past-the-hour pulse at Copley. Schedules are based on current early-AM service. These times would be repeated hourly at 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. daily and 5 a.m. Sunday. Each route would require one vehicle unless otherwise noted.
Ashmont-Andrew-Copley (15 Bus, Red Line Ashmont Branch)
Dep Ashmont Station 1:02
Andrew Station 1:17
Arr Copley 1:28
Dep Copley 1:35
Andrew Station 1:46
Arr Ashmont Station 2:00

Mattapan-Dudley-Copley (28 Bus, Silver Line Washington)
Dep Mattapan Station 1:03
Dudley Square 1:14
Arr Copley 1:25
Dep Copley 1:35
Dudley Square 1:46
Arr Mattapan Station 1:57
Hyde Park-Roslindale-Forest Hills-Longwood-Copley (32 Bus, 34 Bus, 39 Bus, Orange Line, 2 vehicles)
Dep Hyde Park 12:50
Forest Hills 1:04
Longwood Medical Area 1:16
Arr Copley 1:25
Dep Copley 1:35
Longwood Medical Area 1:44
Forest Hills 1:56
Hyde Park 2:10
Watertown-Brighton-Kenmore-Copley (57 Bus, Green Line)
Dep Watertown Square 1:02
Kenmore 1:19
Arr Copley 1:25
Dep Copley 1:35
Kenmore 1:41
Arr Watertown Square 1:58
Clarendon Hill-Davis-Harvard-Copley (Red Line Alewife, 87/88/89 Bus, 1 Bus)
Dep Clarendon Hill 1:03
Davis 1:06
Harvard 1:12
Arr Copley 1:25
Dep Copley 1:35
Harvard 1:48
Davis 1:54
Arr Clarendon Hill 1:57
Malden-Medford-Sullivan Square-Haymarket-Copley (Orange Line North, 101 Bus, 93 Bus, 2 vehicles)
Dep Malden 12:49
Medford 12:59
Sullivan Square 1:07
Haymarket 1:17
Arr Copley 1:25
Dep Copley 1:35
Haymarket 1:43
Sullivan Square 1:53 
Medford 2:01
Arr Malden 2:11
Broad & Ferry-Sullivan Square-Haymarket-Copley
Broad & Ferry 1:00
Sullivan Square 1:10
Haymarket 1:17 (express via Rutherford)
Arr Copley 1:25
Dep Copley 1:33
Haymarket 1:41
Sullivan Square 1:48 (express via Rutherford)
Arr Broad and Ferry 1:58
Wonderland-Chelsea-Airport (Blue Line, 111 bus, 117 bus)
Dep Wonderland 1:31
Chelsea 1:44
Arr Airport 1:55
Dep Airport 2:00
Chelsea 2:11
Arr Wonderland 2:26
Copley-South Station-Airport
Dep Copley 1:32
Arlington via Boylston 1:34
Washington via Boylston 1:35
South Station via Essex 1:38
Seaport 1:41
Terminal A 1:45
Terminal B 1:47
Terminal C 1:49
Terminal E 1:51
Arr Airport Station 1:55
Dep Airport Station 2:04
Terminal A 2:04
Terminal B 2:06
Terminal C 2:08
Terminal E 2:10
Seaport 2:14
South Station 2:18
Washington via Kneeland 2:21
St James via Charles 2:24
Arr Copley 2:27
Alternate Copley-Airport-Wonderland through service (2 vehicles; this would provide better connections downtown but may not serve airport shifts as well from Chelsea and Revere):
Dep Wonderland 12:38
Chelsea 12:53
Terminal A 1:06
Terminal E 1:12
South Station 1:19
Arr Copley 1:25
Dep Copley 1:35
South Station 1:41
Terminal A 1:48
Terminal E 1:54
Chelsea 2:07
Arr Wonderland 2:22

Going in circles on the Silver Line. Or, how the T could save $1m tomorrow.

In my last post on the Silver Line, I wrote about how the poorly-timed light at D Street causes unnecessary delays. If you’re lucky enough to get across D Street, you then go through the power change at Silver Line Way and then begin the loop back to get on to the Ted Williams Tunnel to the airport (and soon, Chelsea). The end of Silver Line way sits right above the tunnel portal. But to get to that point requires a roundabout route, often in heavy traffic, which takes a full mile to return you right to where you started.

If only there were a better way.

There is.

After leaving the busway, the Silver Line outbound route goes down the Haul Road, merges in to a ramp from the Convention Center and D Street, and runs fully half the distance back to South Station—in mixed traffic—before finally turning on to the Turnpike towards the tunnel and the airport. What’s the point of building a bus rapid transit corridor if you then spend the same distance sitting in traffic to get back to where you started?

What’s worse, the “Bus Rapid Transit” endures two traffic lights in mixed traffic, and this traffic is often heavy, especially when when convention traffic from the nearby convention center spills on to the highway at already heavily traveled times of day. The route is more than a mile long, and in perfect conditions takes 3 or 4 minutes, but in heavy traffic can easily take 10 or 15; this traffic especially renders the “rapid” part of BRT useless.

Before entering this morass, there is access to the tunnel via a ramp next to a state police facility. If the buses could use this ramp, they would save three quarters of a mile of travel, two traffic lights, a yield at a merge and, conservatively, two minutes per trip. Combined with the potential savings at the D Street light, these two improvements could save 10% of the total round trip time between South Station and Logan—or Chelsea.

Now, perhaps there’s a technical reason the Silver Line buses couldn’t use the ramp. Maybe it was too steep for the buses. But in 2006, when part of the tunnel collapsed, the T was granted permission to use the “emergency” ramp to access the tunnel beyond the panel collapse. A Globe editorial from that summer praised the T for its quick thinking in utilizing this routing. Yet when the tunnel panels were fixed, the buses were rerouted to the roundabout course which brings them halfway back to South Station before they enter the tunnel.

MassDOT actually has these buttons.
Time to put them in to action.

There’s obviously no physical reason this ramp can’t be used, since it was used in the past. And any argument that the merge wouldn’t be long enough to be safe is unconvincing, especially since it would only be used by a bus every four or five minutes, even when the Gateway project to Chelsea is completed. The in-tunnel merge has 1/10 of a mile before the lane ends, far longer than similar merges on to the Turnpike in the Prudential Tunnel. Suggestions that this would be unsafe are protective hokum; with appropriate merge signage (perhaps even a “bus merging when flashing” light) there should be no reason why this can’t take place safely. The Transportation Department, MBTA and State Police need to convene to figure out the best way to use this facility, but the answer certainly should not be the usual “no,” or “but we’ve always done it that way.”

There’s an environmental justice piece, too, especially with the extension to Chelsea, a disadvantaged city a stone’s throw from Downtown Boston, but a slow ride away by transit. Right now, Chelsea residents are at the whim of the 111 bus—and the traffic on the Tobin Bridge. It seems foolish to build a brand new bus line to Chelsea but not to address one of the major bottlenecks on the rest of the route. If the Governor is serious about implementing reforms to improve service and save money, he should look beyond specious claims of sick time abuse and at where interagency cooperation could save time for passengers and time and money for transit operations.

Dr. Evil. Transit economist.

It costs the T $162 to operate a bus for an hour. The SL1 Airport service operates 128 trips per day, and we can reasonably expect that the Chelsea service will operate with a similar frequency. Fixing the D Street light and using this ramp could conservatively save 4 minutes for each of these 256 trips, which would equate to an operational savings of $1,000,000 per year.

Is this a drop in the bucket as far as the T’s overall revenue is concerned? Sure, it’s less than one tenth of one percent. However, it’s a million dollars that could be saved, pretty much overnight, with basically no overhead investment. We spent more than half a billion dollars building the Silver Line tunnel and stations, and acquiring the buses. And the SL1 buses actually turn a (slight) operational profit! It’s high time we removed some of the stumbling blocks it’s saddled with and let it operate with a modicum of efficiency.


Failures in mapping

Just, yuck.

I was on the Silver Line today (mostly a failure on its own, but it does get you to the airport) and noticed what has to be one of the worst maps I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s a map of Logan Airport, located in the Silver Line platform area at South Station. It has some useful information, but it is so cluttered and so ill-presented that it might as well be in Greek. Or Swahili. It’s just a horrible representation of the information a transit traveler would need to navigate the airport.

  • It’s not to scale. That’s fine, but certain parts of the map are so not-to-scale that they are misrepresentations of where features are located. For instance, did you know the Airport Blue Line station is located right next to Terminal E? Neither did I. Hey, maybe you can walk there!
  • It implies that the Airport MBTA station is not in between the ramps in to and out of the airport from Route 1A. It is.
  • The bus routes on the map are incomprehensible. Lines which shouldn’t cross do cross, there are no arrows showing that the system is one-way, and there are some places where lines representing bus routes just end (look above the cell phone lot, for instance). And the Massport bus makes a big sweeping loop over itself for no apparent reason.
  • The color scheme is … gray, gray, gray, black and so-dark-a-blue-that-it-looks-black. But the terminals are colorful! Too bad we can’t really tell much else apart. Like the airport routes and the Silver Line.
  • Terminal A is shown with its auxiliary gates, but there’s no gate detail for any other terminal. This is extraneous, and confusing; who cares what’s on the other side of security when you’re standing at South Station. Also, Terminal B isn’t shown as being two separate stops, it is just a big B in the middle of the parking. (Oh, and don’t worry, because when you get to Terminal B and don’t know which stop to get off at, there’s a chance the audio announcement will be through the whole list of airlines by the time the bus leaves the station.)
  • There are way too many roads. I don’t care how roads loop around and over each other to get to Boston. Or where car rentals are. Or even where the parking garages are. If I’m in the Silver Line Station, I’m probably not driving to the airport. I know this may be a stock map of the airport, but in that case it doesn’t belong at South Station.
  • The Silver Line routes to and from South Station should be labeled as such. They don’t even say “South Station”! Instead it’s labeled as “To South Boston.” That’s pretty misleading. Although not as misleading as calling the Ted I-90 and I-93. That’s just plain wrong. Again. Silver Line, not driving.
  • Okay, so maybe the I-93 and I-90 belong with the “to South Boston,” as in “to 90 and 93.” But it’s not to I-90, it is I-90. It’s to I-93. In any case, there should be some differentiation between what it is and what it is to. Good lord, can it get any worse?
  • And once you get to South Station, what line to you transfer to? Beats the hell out of me. God forbid they put in something about the Red Line.
  • In fact, the only time a T logo appears on the map is down at the Blue Line Station. Is there anything about that being the Blue Line? Nope. There’s some text off in the corner but this is a schematic map. Oh and the label for the station? About half way across the map. But if you were at South Station, you might see the T, and wonder if you’d wind up there after your trip. Negative.
  • Can you walk indoors from Terminal C to Terminal E? I have no idea. And this map doesn’t really make it seem one way or the other. Or let you know that you can take a sidewalk between these terminals.
  • The blue lines showing elevated, inter-terminal walkways are one of the better features of this map. However, even here the symbology is not consistent. Sometimes they end in blue circles. Sometimes the line just ends. Sometimes the line ends in the middle of a parking facility (Terminal E) with no cue as to whether you can get to the terminal, where the skyway actually extends (and if you ever miss a Silver Line bus by a hair at Terminal A, you can hustle across to Terminal C or E faster than the bus can round the airport). This is a complete graphic design fiasco!
  • I’m not even going get started on what is going on with the road through Central Parking.
  • It’s all well and good that the South Cargo Area is shown on the map, but I’m not sure how pertinent that is for anyone at South Station.
Now, I’m no graphic designer (see my Hubway data viz if you want proof of this) but in an hour on a airplane I sketched up with a better and more useful map than this. (It’s pretty bad, but not this horrible.)
Perfect? Hardly. But it is superior in every way to the photo above. It drops a lot of extraneous information, but adds in things that make it a lot more useful. Now, Massport, which is swimming in money from parking fees, should design something at least this useful on their own.

UPDATE: Posted a new/better map here.

In other words, #fail.

(As for Logan, a hodgepodge of terminals that makes little sense and is generally added to with little plan for the future, it should be added to Dave Barry’s list of airports that should be “renovated with nuclear weapons”. Although, thanks to the new tunnel, it is now easier to get to from downtown Boston than Colorado, which was not necessarily the case in 1999.)