The mystery of the 600 feet between the Red and Blue lines

Last month, the MBTA presented its “Focus40” list of items it wants to complete by 2040. The Commonwealth Magazine article noted that the report states that the Blue and Red lines are only 600 feet apart, and connecting them would provide a two-minute walk in lieu of the Red-Blue connector at Charles. This sounds good. The only problem with this is that the Red and Blue lines are more than 600 feet apart. Quite a bit more. In fact, the walk from a Red Line train to a Blue Line train is more than three times as long. Where did the 600 foot figure come from? Let’s find out, with old-timey maps!

The Red Line runs beneath Winter and Summer streets. The Blue Line runs under State Street. These streets are, according to Google Maps (and, I assume, in real life), more than 1500 feet apart. But it turns out, that’s not even the real distance you’d have to walk between the subway lines. Boston’s subways were not built in a particularly coordinated fashion (although, unlike New York, which had two competing subway companies, the Boston Elevated Railway, or BERy, was the only game in town). The Green Line tunnel was built first, the Blue Line second (and, thus, below the Green Line) and the Orange Line tunnel third below the Blue (the Orange Line running through downtown predates the Blue Line, but for 7 years it ran on the Green Line’s tracks). Each newer tunnel went under the others, which is why the Green Line runs above. The Red Line wasn’t built until several years later, running below both the Green and Orange lines.

All of the lines were built within the confines of Boston’s notoriously old and narrow street grid, which was nearly three centuries in the making even then. So to fit stations in, and stairs between subway lines, both the Red and Blue Line stations are offset east of the Orange Line, and the Orange Line platforms are offset on separate sides of the subway to fit within the width of Washington Street.

Up until the 1960s, in fact, platforms were referred to as separate stations by the street they intersected, rather than station names. So the Downtown Crossing complex was referred to as Winter for the Forest Hills-bound platform, Summer for the Oak Grove-bound platform (then the Everett-bound platform) and Washington for the Red Line platforms. (It doesn’t help matters that most road names in Boston change at Washington Street.) Similarly, State was Milk-State on the Orange Line and Devonshire on the Blue Line. This seems nonsensical, until you think about it: to get to the Milk Station, you entered on Milk Street. To get to the State station, you entered on State Street. There are more examples; as this page posted long ago.

In any case, the Blue Line platform extends east from Devonshire Street, hence the name. The Red Line platform has entrances on Washington Street, but the actual platform begins around Hawley Street. To walk from Hawley to Devonshire via Washington? That turns out to be a walk of 1900 feet, up (or down) two stairs (since the Orange Line is built under the Blue Line, and the Red Line is under the Orange Line).

So where does this 600 foot figure come from? I’m actually not quite sure. What I think the number is indicating is the distance which would have to be dug between the two Orange Line platforms to provide a pedestrian connection between the Red and Blue lines. To make sense of this, we’re going to have to think in three dimensions (at least). Lucky for us, the Boston Transit Commission issued yearly reports during the construction of the subways in the early 1900s, and Ward Maps has them on their website (and has provided me with some high-resolution copies for this article, so shout out to Ward Maps for being excellent).

Remember that the Orange Line platforms are offset laterally. At Downtown Crossing, for instance, the northbound platform extends from Summer Street 350 feet north to Franklin Street, and the southbound platform south to Temple Place. In fact, the MBTA has been experimenting with new GTFS features to show the layout of Downtown Crossing, which you can view here. (Note, on the right side, the multiple levels; click B1 and B2 to toggle between.)

For the Milk-State platforms, this gets a bit more complicated. Washington Street is narrow enough at Winter/Summer: about 60 feet between buildings, but by the time you get to Milk Street, it’s narrower: only about 40 feet. Some of Boston’s oldest buildings stand here—the Old South Meeting House and Old State House date to the early 1700s—and the subway had to be built between the foundations; in the case of the Old State House, a subway entrance was built right in to the basement. (There are also newer buildings and, because reasons, parking garages.) This is barely wide enough for two subway tracks and a platform. So what did they do? They offset the platforms vertically: in effect, they stacked the trains.

Here’s what the tunnel looked like just south of the Milk platform when it was under construction around 1906:

Original caption: Portion of platform of Milk St Station over the track for northbound cars. 
For orientation, the Old South Meeting House is approximately to your right (and above). Original file.

If you’re familiar with State station, this is the platform you exit off of coming on a train from Oak Grove. To get to the Blue Line, you walk along a corridor which is sort of an extension of the platform—dubbed, apparently, the speedway (from this detailed 1909 article on the tunnel), and now home to funky colors—and then the State platform, with trains to Oak Grove also to your left, and with escalators to the Blue Line to your right.

Here’s a map from 1913 showing the stations (and, yes, it’s the best map I can find of the actual locations of station concourses). I’ve shown current station names in all-caps, and former station names in lowercase; for DTX and State, I’ve outlined the platforms in their current colors and labeled the platforms with their original names. Note that while the Orange Line platforms were built 350 feet long, and only had to be lengthened minimally to accommodate six-car trains. (Original file from Ward Maps)

View the full-size version.
I think the idea to connect the Red and Blue line stations comes from the fact that the Milk platform (the southbound State platform) extends to Milk Street, and the Summer platform (the northbound Downtown Crossing platform) extends to Franklin Street, and those streets are only about 300 feet apart. I’m still not sure where the 600 comes from, but 300 is half of 600, so this should be twice as easy. Right?

Well, not quite. Look back up at the photograph above and imagine extending the Milk (Southbound State) platform shown 300 feet east (towards you) to meet the Summer (Downtown Crossing) platform. It would have to extend above the Oak Grove-bound Orange Line platform. When Oak Grove trains leave Downtown Crossing, then descend quickly to dive under the Milk Street platform pictured, descending at a 5.5% grade. So this would not be a level ramp by any means; in fact, a 5.5% grade exceeds the maximum allowed by ADA regulations, so it couldn’t even be built above the tracks with infinite space above. Which is kind of moot anyway, because it would also butt up in to the top of the tunnel pretty quickly. It would therefore have to jog south of Washington Street’s right-of-way, under the buildings there, which would add complexity to construction and yet more distance to the walk.

From 1906, here’s an elevation profile of the entirety of the Washington Street tunnel (now the Orange Line) connecting the elevateds north and south of the city (from 1901 to 1908, the elevated trains ran through what is now the Green Line, and the abandoned Pleasant Street Portal). I’ve added some annotation to it. The vertical orange lines show the ends of the platforms which would be used as the route for the pedestrian path. I’ve also shown the location of the Red Line (not built at this point) and the Blue Line (called then the East Boston Tunnel, or the E.B.T.). I’ve also superimposed the location of the other-direction Orange Line platforms on each drawing, and used black lines to superimpose other elements of the tunnel. I mainly want to draw attention to the fact that a passageway between the Summer and Milk platforms could not fit within the current envelope of the Orange Line, and would have to be built to the south, because to the north there are train tracks in the way, and to the south there is the minor issue of building foundations being in the way.

View the full-size version.

Again, this comes from Ward Maps, and the original file is here, and while the original has been sold (and, alas, not to me) you can get a reprint to hang on your wall (which I am considering).

So what are the takeaways from this little exercise?

  • While the Orange Line platforms and concourses would allow a connection to be made between the Red and Blue lines, it would amount to a walk of more than a third of a mile, up or down multiple staircases, and along already narrow and crowded subway platforms. That’s 8 minutes of walking, plus climbing some stairs, and that’s assuming you can walk at 3 mph down crowded platforms. At rush hour, it might take a good deal longer. It would probably be faster to just take the Green Line one stop from Park to Government Center, since the Green Line is directly above the Red and Blue lines.
  • The 300 feet which would be needed for an additional tunnel would have to go through and underneath the building foundations outside of the footprint of the street, because the Orange Line is already threaded under Washington Street, which is very narrow.
  • The entire utility of this connection could be realized by allowing an out-of-system transfer between Downtown Crossing and State, which will be possible with the new fare system currently being procured. It only adds one flight of stairs: two up from Red to street level, then one down to Blue.
  • This would do little to actually address the issue of core capacity, which is what the Red-Blue connector aims to address. Even if this was convenient for people to use, it wouldn’t result any less crowding on the Red Line, and the Orange Line and Blue Line platforms would actually become more crowded than they are today.
As the last point alludes to, the reason for building a Red-Blue connector—a real, actual Blue Line extension to Charles/MGH—is two-fold. One is to provide a good connection between the Blue Line and the Red Line. Perhaps as important, however, is to pull some of the demand out of the core stations of the subway. Rather than crowding trains and concourses at Park, Downtown Crossing, Government Center and State, riders between East Boston and Cambridge would be able to bypass the busy core of the system altogether. You get that if you actually build a Red-Blue connector tunnel. You get that only if you actually connect the two lines, not if you build a long, arduous pedestrian connection and sell it as an innovative piece of infrastructure.
And, alas, I still have no idea where the the 600 foot figure came from.

MBTA buses need help, but Houston is not the answer

The MBTA’s Control Board recently produced a document talking about spending several million dollars on a Houston-style network redesign. While the MBTA certainly needs help running their buses, what happened in Houston, for lack of a better phrase, should probably stay in Houston. The transit systems (and the cities themselves) are quite different, and the issues the MBTA has with its buses are far different than those in Houston.

Houston transit ridership, 1999-2014. Data from NTD.
Normalized to 100% in 1999.

Houston did not redesign its network not necessarily because it is forward thinking, but—and this often goes unreported—Houston’s existing network was failing. (Looking at the top ten pages on Google about the network redesign, only one mentions the loss of ridership.) In 1999, Houston’s transit agency carried about 100 million passengers per year. In 2004, despite a new light rail line opening, overall ridership had dropped to 95 million, with fewer than 90 million on buses. Ridership stayed flat around 100 million until 2008, when it cratered.

By 2010, total transit ridership was at 81 million, with bus ridership at 66 million. In other words: Houston, we have a problem. It’s since recovered slightly, but transit ridership is still down 15% from 2000, with bus ridership down by 30%. If the MBTA lost 30% of its ridership, it would be in full-on crisis mode. And this took place over a time when Houston’s population grew by 25%, so transit rides per person per year declined from 21.2 to 14.4. (No wonder Houston’s big new roads do little to relieve congestion.) By comparison, Boston’s metropolitan area has 86.5 transit trips per year (on the MBTA alone, likely slightly higher if you include RTAs within the area).

Bus ridership didn’t decline simply because Houston ran fewer buses, as is the case in many cities. Service hours did climb slightly between 1999 and 2003, and were subsequently cut slightly when the light rail line opened. Still, Houston ran more bus service (as measured by revenue hours) in 2014 than it did in 1999, yet the system carried 30% fewer passengers. In 1999, the system carried 35 trips per revenue hour. By 2014, that number was down to 24. (In Boston, buses carry 50 trips per revenue hour. For comparison, single train cars carry more than 100.)

It was clear to Houston’s planners that they had a major service issue with their bus system: vehicles were being used inefficiently and were not providing service where it was needed. Instead of doubling down on a failing system, they made a cogent decision to completely rebuild the network, reallocate resources to focus more on frequent service, and use a geographic resource—the straight and often wide street grid—to provide a system which would be more useful to the current population and destinations. The goal is to increase ridership using the same number of vehicles, and given the recent decline in ridership, there should be plenty of spare capacity.

This made sense—a lot of sense—for Houston. It would make very little sense for Boston.

Unlike Houston, Boston does not have spare resources to reallocate. At rush hour, most buses in Boston are at—and frequently over—capacity. This is not the case in Houston. Most frequent bus lines there run every 10 or 15 minutes at rush hour. This is frequent enough to provide “walk-up” service, but shows that there is not a major capacity crunch; if there were, buses would be run more often. One bus line (the 82) and one rail line in Houston run more frequently than every 10 minutes at rush hour. Even with the new route network, there is still a lot of spare capacity on Houston’s buses. (Despite carrying 2/3 as many passengers—the networks carried similar numbers of passengers in 2000, but have since diverged—Houston runs 20% more service hours than Boston does.)

Houston and Boston transit ridership from NTD.
Normalized to 100% in 2009.
Note: Likely data error showed a spike for Boston bus ridership in 2004.
This has been removed for chart simplicity.

This is far from the experience in Boston. In addition to nine rail lines operating more frequently than every 10 minutes, there are 21 bus routes which do the same. There are many others which are well over capacity, yet there are not enough buses to go around to provide enough service on these routes. The 47, 64 and 70 are all at crush capacity—often leaving riders behind—even though they only run every 10 to 20 minutes at rush hour (and that’s just a non-random sample of routes which run within a stone’s throw of my house in Cambridgeport). This is an entirely different problem from Houston—nowhere in the Space City is there a bus line like the 7, 73 or 111 where a full bus runs ever four or five minutes—and it requires an entirely different solution.

Unlike Houston, transit ridership in Boston has been growing, outpacing many other cities and the local rate of population growth, without any new infrastructure having been built in decades. Overall transit ridership is up 15% since 1999, and bus ridership up nearly 10%. Can Boston’s ridership be attributed to increase service hours? No, bus service hours have been basically flat since 1999 (and not “basically flat” by the FMCB’s definition, but actually flat, up less than 3% since 1999, despite the addition of the Silver Line during that time). So buses have been getting more crowded, not less.

This leaves out three other major factors which would preclude a Houston-style program in Boston. First, Boston’s geography is not grid-based, but relies on a few corridors linking more central nodes. Most of these routes already have buses, usually traveling in relatively straight, logical lines (with some exceptions). Second, Boston does not have the level of sprawl that Houston does, and attempts to serve low-density job centers will be inherently less efficient than the current urban core-based transit system (in Houston, the old core-based system was not seeing enough use, which is certainly not the case in Boston). Finally, rail ridership makes up two thirds of Boston’s overall transit ridership (only Boston, New York Washington, D.C. and Atlanta carry more passengers by rail than by bus) and the bus network logically feeds in to the rail network, which can’t be easily changed.

According to Jarrett Walker on Here and Now, two thirds of the routes in Houston were new, with smaller changes to the rest. In Boston, a reimagined system would likely result in most routes being largely unchanged—I’d venture to guess that it would be 80% of routes, and 90% of routes weighted by ridership, since higher-ridership routes would be less likely the be changed—and only a few areas would see dramatic reorganization. This is not to say there aren’t changes that should be made: routes should be straightened (the 34 and others which make mid-route loops to serve malls), made more logical (the 70), have anachronistic quirks ironed out (the 66 jog to Union Square) or, in some cases, be blown apart altogether to provide better connections (break up the 47!).

None of this reaches the level of what was done in Houston, where there is a lot of slack to provide rides for more passengers with the existing bus fleet; they could increase ridership by 50% and still be shy of bus ridership in 1999, and far from the crowding the T sees on a daily basis. There is no spare capacity in Boston for that kind of growth without a dramatic increase in the size of the fleet. If we are really going to improve buses in Boston, we need more money to run more buses.

If that money—and the facilities to house an enlarged fleet—is unavailable in the short term, what can be done is a wholesale program to make the buses we have work better. The problem is not that the routes we have don’t work for people (for instance, the 77 does, and should, run down Mass Ave), it’s that the way the buses run on these routes doesn’t work (it shouldn’t have to sit at a traffic light while two or three cars cross in front of it). Buses with 50 passengers on board sit in the same queues as cars with one, and other than a couple miles of Silver Line lanes, there are no transit priority features in Boston. There has been some nascent movement towards solving this in recent months, but it needs to go much further. If we are going to spend several million dollars on improving buses—as the FMCB proposes—let’s make sure we do it in a way that works for Boston, not Houston.

Let’s use numbers to examine the T’s late night debacle

Surprising no one, the T cut late night service. Why? Because it cost money to operate (like any transit, but still). Because it wasn’t as efficient as rush hour passengers. While we don’t have all of the T’s data, we have some, so let’s look at it, shall we?

1. Passengers per hour on a partial system 
According to the T via BostInno, the late night service carried 16,000 passengers when it ran until 2:30 (two hours of service) and 13,000 when it ran until 2:00 (90 minutes of service). Per hour, this means that the system carried 8000 and then 8700 passengers per hour. From the same post, there are 72,000 passengers during a peak commuting hour, 33,000 during a weekend afternoon, and 14,000 during the first hour of service in the morning. 
Of course, these numbers are misleading, because while all routes run at rush hour, and most run early in the morning and during the weekend, fewer than a dozen bus routes run during the late nights, accounting for 300,000 daily passengers. So the universe of people who could use late night service is only about 70% of the total passengers (and this doesn’t account for reduced train boardings because passengers can’t transfer to a bus that doesn’t run). If only the late night routes ran between 5 and 6 a.m., we’d expect ridership to be just 9800 per hour, or about what late night ridership is. (And if you were to, say, look at a Saturday morning, it’s probably significantly lower.)
So by that logic, should we cut service at any time it is less than, say, 10,000 per hour? Maybe we shouldn’t run service before 6:30 on weekdays? Or before 10 on Sundays?
2. Cost effectiveness compared to rush hours

The T has claimed time and again that late night service isn’t cost effective, because it costs more than average. I’m not making this up: the T’s chief administrator said exactly this. But that’s not how averages work, especially with a peak-demand service like transit. It is always going to cost less per passenger to provide transit at high use times, and more at low use times. The idea is where you want to draw the line. The T paints the picture of this money-hemorrhaging service during late night hours, but only compares it against the overall average, which includes times when the T makes money (yes, during rush hour, the T makes money). A much fairer comparison would be to compare it to, say, all weekend service, or 10 p.m. to end of service on weeknights. Those times probably have similar cost effectiveness. If you compare it to 8:15 a.m., it’s extraordinarily inefficient. But if we had the numbers to compare it to, say, 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, or 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday, I bet it would hold its own.
It should be notable that the stated cost for late night service went up from $7.68 in 2014 to $13.39 in 2015, a 74% increase, even as, when measured by passengers per hour, it became more efficient. This might be some more dubious—I mean, innovative—accounting from the FMCB, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve accused them of that
3. Defining success (moving the goalposts)

When the Night Owl service ended in 2005, it was a failure: at the end, only 655 passengers were using it nightly over two hours: 327 per hour. (It should be noted that in 2004, the subsidy for the service was higher than the 2013-2015 service.) The current iteration of the service carried 13,000 passengers in just 90 minutes, averaging 8667 per hour, 26.5 times as many. The service didn’t make money, but it was never going to. The beancounters saw the numbers, and declared it a failure. It’s too bad, because based on its ridership, it was a success.
I think that a lot of the work that the fiscal and management control board is doing is worthwhile, and there are certainly places in the MBTA budget where efficiencies can be found to reduce costs. (I’ve, uh, strongly suggested some on this page.) Yet when they want to cut service, they have a knack for massaging numbers to fit their narrative, even if the bigger picture doesn’t support it. This makes the whole operation much less credible: decisions made with poor data should be anathema to their process.
Unfortunately, they’re not.

Penciling out cost savings from a working D Street

Last week, I was quoted in the Globe (*) about the travesty that is the D Street light. The city has said they’ve fixed it, but they haven’t, because oh noes, cars might have to wait! So buses still wait at a 100-second-long traffic light for a green signal. Apparently they tried transit priority and it didn’t work (which is a pitiful excuse; it’s proven technology) and gave up. So we’re back to square one.

Now, there’s a lot of discussion about the T’s huge deficits and the need for fare hikes, but this sort of low hanging fruit is apparently anathema. I’ve calculated it out before, but here is a quick sketch of how much money could be saved in operational costs by having a working transit signal preemption at D Street. One caveat is that at rush hour there might actually be enough bus traffic that signals might not be able to let every bus through at speed: there are 30 buses per direction per hour, so one bus per minute, and the cross traffic needs at least, say, 20 seconds for a pedestrian signal. But given that the current average delay, with deceleration and acceleration, is one minute, even 20 seconds is a heck of a lot better.

Let’s say that the average bus experiences a 45 second delay (this is conservative, especially since schedule padding is required based on the longest time possible to wait, more than three minutes per round trip, or nearly a quarter of a Silver Line Waterfront round trip). For the Silver Line Waterfront shuttle from Silver Line Way to South Station, this accounts for 10% of the total run time, for the SL2 it’s 7% and for the SL1 4%. How many trips are affected? Based on recent schedules:

SL1: 128 trips weekdays, 99 Saturdays, 126 Sundays.
SL2: 142 trips weekdays, 75 Saturdays, 70 Sundays.
SLW: 67 trips weekdays.

Total: 337 trips weekdays, 174 trips Saturdays, 196 trips Sundays. Or 2055 trips per week. And these are one-way trips, so actually 4110 trips per week (this will go up once Silver Line Gateway service begins running). Assuming that each of those trips loses 45 seconds, we’re talking about 3082.5 minutes of operating time per week wasted sitting at the D Street light, or 51.375 hours per week. 52 weeks in a year gives you 2671.5 hours of savings, and at $163 per hour (the cost in 2013 to run a T bus) the cost savings amount to $435,455 per year. It’s probably higher by now.

Let me repeat that: by fixing D Street, the T could operate the exact same amount of service on the Silver Line, but cut costs by nearly half a million dollars. The argument that it would just be built in to schedule padding is spurious, since a more predictable light would save considerably more time, and the run times are short enough that the same amount of service could be operated with fewer vehicles, or the same vehicles could run more frequently. (For instance, if the Silver Line Waterfront service time went from 15 minutes to 13.5, a bus could make 9 round trips in two hours instead of 8.)

If the FMCB is serious about cutting costs, they should be banging down the doors at BTD for this sort of common sense solution to save money. There’s no need to cut service; in fact this would increase service quality. Yet everyone is content to pass the buck, and years later, service never improves.

(* Kind of funny story, but Nicole reached me at the Birkie Expo in Hayward Wisconsin, and I spent ten minutes going on a rant about how dumb everyone at the T and BTD is and basically said “yeah, all of this is on the record.” Because it’s all true. And if you think this blog is excitable about transit, I may get just as excited about ski marathons.)