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.

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.)

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.


The ignominious D Street light

Much has been written about Boston’s Silver Line (including on this page). It’s certainly not rapid, but it is rather convenient: I made it from Kendall Square to Terminal A in 25 minutes. The problem? It should have been 23.

I’ve noticed in the past that the Silver Line experiences long waits at the D Street grade crossing after it exits the tunnel. On my ride yesterday, I decided to find out just how long, by means of Youtube:

The bus gets to D Street, and proceeds to sit there for not 30 seconds, not a minute, but just shy of a minute and a half! This is a major service failure. The scheduled time from South Station to Logan airport and back is 45 minutes, meaning that if the bus loses 1:30 each time it crosses D Street, 7% of the route time is spent waiting for a traffic light. For the SL2 line, which is a 25 minute round trip, 3 minutes is 12% of the total operating time!

There’s this thing called “transit signal priority” which could be employed to eliminate these wait times. A sensor could be placed just outside the WTC station (and a similar one on the inbound run) which would be tripped when the bus passed by (there are already sensors which detect the bus and raise gates when the pass, and which close barriers should someone attempt to drive in to the tunnel). This would give 15 seconds to flash the don’t walk sign and change the light, allowing the bus to proceed through the intersection at full speed. Traffic would not be dramatically impacted since there light would only be red for a few seconds when the bus passes, and an algorithm could be put in to place to assure the green cycle for traffic was long enough to avoid backups (but not, you know, not 90 seconds when very few cars pass through; see above).

Transit signal priority (TSP) is not very expensive; even at the high bound it costs $35,000 per intersection. Ridership on the SL1 is, give or take, 8,000 per day. This means that in a year, for one penny per passenger, trip lengths could be reduced by more than a minute. This should be implemented immediately.

What’s more, this would result in reduced operation costs for the MBTA. Buses cost somewhere on the order of $100 per hour to operate. Even if the average time savings per bus was only 30 seconds, this would equate to 4.5 hours of operating time per day, or a $450 savings. Assuming a $35k cost for TSP implementation, it would pay for itself in 78 days—two and a half months.

The argument could be made that these times would just be built in to schedule padding at the end of the route and savings would only be from the reduced power use related to not stopping and starting. But, especially on the SL2, saving a couple of minutes could be used to decrease the overall route time and increase service, something the Seaport District desperately needs. At rush hour, decreasing the trip time from 25 to 23 minutes would allow headways to drop from 5:00 to 4:36—a capacity increase of 8%—without any additional cost. This would allow for 3 additional round trips at rush hour, or 75 additional minutes of service, which would save the T $125. By this metric, the payback would be $250 per weekday, and take 140 weekdays to pull in to the black. That’s 7 months. After that, it’s gravy.

(Another improvement: extending overhead wires along the whole of the SL2 route would allow the buses to operate without a change of power twice per trip; combined with the savings at Silver Line Way this might allow service to operate at 5 minute headways with 4 buses—a dramatic savings, albeit one with a higher initial capital cost.)

There is no logical reason that transit signal priority should not be immediately procured and installed at D Street. There is no need for a time-consuming review process; the benefits are clear and any disruption to traffic will be far less than the current disruption to the traveling public. While the Silver Line is still hobbled by a convoluted route system, low capacity, slow tunnel speeds, traffic and a poorly-designed power switch (often requiring the operator to exit the bus and manually raise the trolley poles), this inexpensive change would be a good start to dramatically improve service.

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.)

Ugh … the Silver Line

Originally posted as a comment on The Transport Politic. I’m sure I’ll write about the Silver Line again.

The Silver Line has so many problems.

First off, there’s this bizarre notion that people from Roxbury and Mattapan need to get to the airport. All the time, forever. It’s probably not the case. I’m not one to make brash generalizations, but here’s one: the people who generally use the airport are folks from affluent and/or student-infested parts of Boston. At higher rates, anyway, than the Roxbury-Mattapan. For this community, access to downtown Boston and better-than-bus service is probably paramount. It would make much more sense to take this $114m and build a spur of the blue line in to the actual airport. Build a loop to the terminals. Heck, build it in to Central Parking, where there are elevated walkways to all the terminals. Eliminate the shuttle bus (which I once tried to take before a long weekend and it was packed to the gills with college students with dozens more waiting to board).

View Logan Blue Line Spur in a larger map

Second, the Silver Line from South Station to the airport is very slow. The tunnel is fast enough—the speed is slow but it’s grade separated, so it works. The problems arise once the buses reach the surface. The then cross D Street and proceed to drop the trolley poles and switch to petroleum. The route then takes a convoluted backtrack loop back towards South Station, across D Street, through several lights, before the bus can finally turn down in to the tunnel. $15b and they couldn’t build a ramp straight to the airport, which would have been rapid.

Then, the airport. Since Boston is the furthest northeast city in the country, Logan has never developed in to a hub airport. Thus, no one has ever built one big terminal. So the airport is a hodgepodge of terminals, each with an access road which gets choked with traffic. Sure, the buses can sometimes bypass these queues, but they still have to go through the loops in to terminals A, B, C, and E (with two stops in B—Terminal D doesn’t really exist). Ten of fifteen minutes later, they loop back in to the tunnel and a mess of roads before looping back to South Station.

I’m very glad that “Phase III” has been all but nixed by the Feds. A $1.4b tunnel would not fix the main issue that trips are scheduled to take 38 minutes to go from South Station to the airport and back. As the crow flies, this is just over a mile. A Blue Line spur to the airport, with stops at Maverick and Aquarium, would tie in to the rest of the system with trip times of maybe eight minutes, tops, with faster loading and more capacity, to boot.


But that’s really actually not the worst part. Again, I’ll start by explaining that I am happy that the $1.4b tunnel from pretty much nowhere to pretty much nowhere with a couple sharp curves thrown in was not funded. From Boylston Station on the Green Line five blocks south is a disused tunnel for streetcars, and the plan was to basically decimate that tunnel to build it to bus loading gauge. Here’s the thing—the tunnel ties in to the Green Line—to a four track alignment to Park Street Station—and is grade separated, underground!, at the junction. Basically, if you turn back one line of the green line at Park Street, you could add in another without increasing capacity on the congested central subway.

And this tunnel would tie in splendidly with light rail down towards Mattipan. You build a new portal at Tremont and Oak and cut diagonally across the Turnpike and NEC from Shawmut to Washington. Washington Street is wide enough for trolley cars to not interfere with parked cars by occupying the center lanes. (Washington Street once had the elevated above it.) Stations in the center of the tracks, proof of payment ticketing perhaps, and you don’t impede traffic significantly, which could pass stopped trains.

Getting through Roxbury might be fun—but you could use the old elevated right-of-way for one or both tracks of a light rail line. Or tunnel underneath if you had the dollars. From there, Warren Street has two lanes each way plus a wide median, so congestion wouldn’t be a major issue) to Quincy Street, where you’d then have to build on a two-lanes-plus parking street to Blue Hill Avenue for less than half a mile. Cut parking to one side of the street and build wide lanes and you’d be fine.

Then you hit Blue Hill Avenue. The Avenue is three lanes each way plus a wide median all the way down to Mattapan, where you could connect with the High Speed Line. Trolley tracks could be in a separate median (like Comm Av or Beacon Street in Brighton and Brookline). In fact, this was the case in the past.

View Boylston-Roxbury-Mattapan in a larger map

For a heck of a lot less than 1.4b. (Portland can build a streetcar for $25m/mile. This is 7.5 miles. Make that $30, throw in $50 for a new portal at Tremont and $25m for a bridge across the Pike, and the cost is $300m.