Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Lyft Shuttle doesn't solve congestion, it creates it

Recently, Lyft launched what they call "Shuttle" and what everyone else calls "the bus." It is an exceedingly inefficient bus, given that it has a maximum occupancy of 4 (but an average of likely between 1 and 2). Everyone made fun of them, so they wrote about how, no, it's actually great, because it's not a bus, even though it acts like one, and it will reduce car ownership and expand mobility.

And what they wrote is, well, kind of infuriating, but a good lesson as to how ride-hailing, even if it's one day autonomous, will not solve congestion, and may just make it worse. It shows that Lyft not only seems to have no understanding of how transit economics work, but also no understanding of how their own service works, assuming that vehicles can just appear at random to fulfill demand. Their argument begs to be broken down line by line, so I'll do that. Original indented, my comments in italics.
Recently, Lyft started testing a new product called Shuttle in two cities: Chicago and San Francisco. I’ve seen quite a few thoughtful questions — and a few good jokes — circulating about Shuttle. So as one of Lyft’s longtime resident transit nerds, I want to take the time to share why we launched Shuttle, and what it means for cities and the future of public transportation.
Okay, so you're a transit nerd. Great! Let's see how well you understand transit.
What is Shuttle? 
You can think of Shuttle as a new twist on Lyft Line, the popular dynamic carpooling option we launched in 2014, which is available in 16 cities and accounts for around 40% of all rides in those markets. Just like Line, Shuttle matches you up with other passengers going the same direction to create a high-occupancy ride for a lower price than riding alone (more people in fewer cars = win). The twist is that unlike Line, Shuttle pick-up and drop-off locations are the same every day, and so are the prices (with prices between $3–4 per ride, Shuttle is Lyft’s most affordable service, offering commuters a reliable option for far less than the average cost of car ownership, which is about $9,000 per year). And instead of coming straight to your door, Shuttle picks you up at a safe, carefully selected spot nearby.
The main quibble here is the $9000 cost of car ownership. That assumes that you live in the suburbs and actually drive your car all the time! But the rides described here are generally 2 to 5 miles. Let's assume 5 miles, both ways, 250 work days per year. That's 2500 miles. Yet the $9000 figure is based on 15,000 miles per year. If you don't have a car, Lyft will save you all the fixed costs of ownership, but if you want to go somewhere outside of commute times, you have to pay the full cost per mile in rental fees and short-term insurance. (Or take a Lyft/Uber, but that's relatively expensive, too.) And if you do have a car, Lyft is only saving you the marginal costs of about 15¢ per mile, which for 2500 miles comes out to just $375, but you'll pay $2000 for the Lyft rides (80¢ per mile, which is quite a bit more, per mile, than car ownership). You won't, at least, have to pay for parking.
As many on social media pointed out, these new features are also found in traditional public transit buses. Fair enough. But here’s what’s different and important. 
Shuttle rides are provided by the same, awesome Lyft drivers you know and love, driving their own cars — not big vans or buses.
This is a bug, not a feature! The reason why transit works economically is because it uses larger vehicles: it can scale by carrying more passengers with the same number of drivers. Sure, a 40-foot transit bus isn't efficient if it's carrying two passengers, but in a city like Chicago or San Francisco, it's not. In the corridors Lyft Shuttle serves, buses in the peak are generally full. That's much more efficient than a car, even one carrying three passengers.
As a driver in a Shuttle market, your next ride request could be an original Lyft, Line or Shuttle request; they’re all part of the mix. That means no one needs to go buy any new vehicles to turn on a Shuttle route, and they are easy to change based on feedback. And unlike a bus route, a Shuttle route is on-demand — it doesn’t happen unless a passenger requests it.
So are bus routes. None of the routes in the Shuttle areas have empty buses (or trains). In fact, the buses there are well-used enough that frequencies are based not on some minimum level of service (a bus every 15 minutes, for example) but to meet passenger demand, some as frequently as every four or five minutes. 
That means Shuttle is very efficient, never making drivers circle and waste miles when people aren’t riding it. Instead, drivers just move on to give other Lyft requests after they finish a route, or log out if requests slow down.
This completely misses the fact that cars don't appear and disappear but have to come from somewhere and go somewhere before and after a trip, usually not carrying passengers. If a driver gets downtown and drops off a fare and finds there isn't much demand (since at morning peak hour, there is far more demand going to downtown than leaving, with the opposite in the afternoon) the car doesn't just go *poof* and disappear, but it has to be driven somewhere else. The problem here is two-fold: first, this creates additional congestion, since transporting passengers for 4 miles might require the car to drive an additional 4 miles in an already congested area without any passengers. If the system were perfectly balanced with trips into and out of the core, it might work, but in San Francisco and Chicago, at rush hour, this is certainly not the case.

Second, the driver of this vehicle is not compensated for this time, so it eats in to their already-low wage. This speaks to an obvious flaw of the system: at the current price of $4 per ride, it's completely unsustainable. Let's assume that Lyft carries an average of 3 passengers per trip at $4 fare each. That's $12. Lyft takes 20% off the top, so the driver is getting $9.60. The marginal cost of a 35-minute, 4 mile trip in rush hour is probably $1 for gas and maintenance, but then the driver has to deadhead (operate without a fare, while still incurring the costs of operation) to and from the next fare, which likely adds another 4 miles ($1) and 15 minutes. Now you're earning $7.60 for 50 minutes of work, or $9.12 per hour. And that's sort of a best-case scenario, and assumes you have relatively little time in between fares, and doesn't account for time spent pumping gas, cleaning the vehicle, and other items. If we assume that every other trip, a driver will have no fare and have to deadhead 8 miles ($2, 30 minutes) out of the city, the economics collapse: the average hourly wage falls to $6. And while there is some affordable housing within 8 miles of Chicago, there certainly isn't that close to San Francisco.  
This form of flex transit capacity augments the fixed capacity of traditional transit routes at peak times when those services are maxed out with riders, brings “right-sized” service into areas which can’t support traditional transit, and melts away when it isn’t needed.
This sentence is trying to have it both ways! If traditional transit routes have fixed capacity, it means that they are full, and if they are full, it means that it doesn't serve an area that can't support traditional transit. None of the corridors described are in areas that don't support traditional transit, of course. And then the "melting away" phrase doesn't account for the fact that it would wind up with a bunch of empty vehicles driving away from downtown, adding to congestion and pollution.

This is the problem with ride-hailing and (potentially eventually) autonomous vehicles. It may reduce the number of parking spaces we need, which would be a good thing. But unless the system is perfectly balanced—and in cities, it inherently is not—parking will be traded for more vehicle miles traveled (VMT). More VMT means more congestion. Is this a good trade? I'm not so sure. 

This is a problem in the transit industry as well: full buses come downtown, drop off passengers, and operate empty to a garage to sit idle for the middle of the day. But it's an order-of-magnitude bigger problem for smaller vehicles: a bus can carry 60 passengers and make one empty trip. Cars—even with three passengers each—would require 20 such trips with 20 outbound drivers.
Shuttle’s initial routes were chosen by our data scientists, who looked at the density of Lyft Line requests during commute hours and picked a small set of initial corridors where the data showed we would be able to match up the most passengers, enabling the highest occupancies and thus the lower prices passengers want.
Or the low prices which can entice people into these cars. As mentioned above, these prices are nowhere near sustainable. Plus, passengers don't really want high occupancy. If they did, they'd ride the bus; if they didn't, they'd drive instead. Four passengers means someone has to sit in the middle seat, which is likely less comfortable than a bus line. (And on a bus, you can at least move to another seat or part of the bus if you're uncomfortable with the person next to you. Try that in the middle seat of a Corolla.) If Lyft regularly has four passengers per driver, customers will abandon the service. The practical maximum number of passengers is 3, making the average less, making the math shown above a rosy estimation.
Not surprisingly, many of these corridors align with those most heavily used by other transportation modes, including personal cars and transit. With Shuttle, we hope to reduce the need for commuters to drive their own cars on those busy corridors, giving them a more efficient option and freeing up road capacity for high-efficiency shared and transit vehicles.
This is a nice sentiment, but it only works if significantly more people switch from driving to Shuttle than from transit to shuttle. Let's imagine a congested corridor with a bus carrying 100 people and 100 cars carrying one person. In many cases, the corridors Lyft Shuttle is serving have 2-to-1 transit-drive mode share (and that's for all trips, it's probably even higher for trips to the core, see this map of Chicago, for instance). If 45 riders take shuttle at a 2-to-1 transit-to-driver ratio, this would add 18 vehicles to the roadway while removing 15 cars, meaning it would be less efficient and would certainly not free up road capacity. (This assumes zero deadhead mileage, which adds further congestion while providing no benefit.) Given recent trends of ridership declines on transit and increased congestion, Occam's Razor would suggest that's exactly what happens.
We’re For Transit  
You might have noticed that Shuttle sounds like some hybrid mashup of ridesharing and transit. You’re not wrong. It fits into a new category experts call “microtransit,” and it’s designed to do things buses can’t do and reach people buses don’t reach, helping attract a broad spectrum of riders who haven’t used transit before.
Microtransit doesn't really work. Bridj failed to make money or expand beyond Boston, even with larger vehicles than Lyft Shuttle and fares in the $5-$6 range, except for a publicly-funded foray into Kansas City. In that case, the year-long pilot project had 1480 riders. Not per day, total. At a cost of $1.3 million, it was a subsidy of $878 per ride. That pilot attempted to do things buses don't, reach people buses can't and bring in new transit riders, and it didn't exactly work. The most successful microstransit provider, Chariot, runs a few fixed route transit-style services in San Francisco, but mostly serves corporate-subsidized routes to suburban campuses. 
The Lyft team is made up of strong public transit advocates (some might say geeks), a tradition that started with our co-founder and CEO, Logan Green.
Remember when your middle school teacher—and Hemingway, apparently—would say "show, don't tell"? It's a rhetorical tell when you have to open every paragraph by telling us how you really, truly love transit. 
We come to this issue with a deep empathy for and exposure to the challenges facing traditional public transit operations. Over a decade ago, Logan served on a public transit agency board in Santa Barbara, California. He lobbied hard to improve the frequency of bus service in the city’s low-density neighborhoods to benefit riders who depended on buses, only to find that the transit agency couldn’t afford it. There just weren’t enough riders to fill more buses on those routes.
Yet Lyft Shuttle serves areas so dense that the only reason they can exist is because of transit. If Santa Barbara needs Lyft Shuttle so much, maybe it should try to operate there.
Never one to take no for an answer, Logan was inspired by the informal jitney networks he saw on a trip to Zimbabwe and became determined to find another way to expand mobility access.
Yes, since Zimbabwe is a perfect corollary for the Loop in Chicago. And in many cases, third-world jitney networks have been replaced with, you guessed it, transit.
His vision was to turn every single-occupant vehicle on the road into an extension of the transit network, which would cut traffic and make it easier for everyone to get around at a low cost — especially people who couldn’t afford to own cars. 
But Lyft and Uber don't do that: they add vehicles to the roads and generally increase traffic in already-dense areas.
Shuttle is the latest step in making that vision happen. In parallel, we’re also continuing our strong policy advocacy for expanded investment in traditional public transit, such as Measure M in Los Angeles, Proposition 1 in Seattle, and Measure RR in the Bay Area, all of which were passed by voters last fall. Our country must break down the traditional binary between cars and transit and embrace all of these strategies if we want to make gains in reducing reliance on car ownership.
The whole point of not owning a car is to not drive a car.  Or if you don't you want to save the money you spend owning a car and dealing with the hassle? Ride in a car but have a chauffeur, we'll explain how for some reason that's cheaper. (It's not, except in small doses.)
How Shuttle fits in with Transit  
New, creative and efficient ways of delivering transit are sorely needed. For over a century, public transit agencies have had two basic tools for getting people around cities: buses and trains. Like any tool, buses and trains work really well for some tasks, and not very well for others. For moving large volumes of people along heavily-traveled corridors during commute times — buses and trains can’t be beat.
So, you mean, basically every corridor Lyft Shuttle operates in. Downtown San Francisco has more transit commuters than drivers from the city. The corridors in Chicago are similar: for travelers to the Loop, 189,000 take transit, 81,000 drive.
They move the most people at the lowest cost while taking up the least space on the road — IF they are able to attract enough riders.
Again, this doesn't seem to be a problem in Chicago or San Francisco.
But for routes where there are smaller numbers of riders, traditional buses and trains struggle to provide frequent, cost-efficient service, and ridership suffers accordingly, leaving riders in those areas with few efficient options. We think Shuttle can help bridge these gaps, and it’s one reason why we launched an initial test route in a transit-underserved area on Chicago’s South Side that connects to Downtown from Brighton Park. 
That pilot would be useful if there weren't any transit options from Brighton Park to the Loop. But there are: the Orange Line or the six bus lines which serve the neighborhood every 10 minutes or better at rush hour.
The vast majority of Americans live in places outside of mass transit’s “sweet spot” — which is why only about ⅓ of jobs in major U.S. metropolitan areas are reachable by the average commuter within 90 minutes one-way by public transit.
But downtown San Francisco and Chicago are not exactly transit deserts.
And many potential transit riders live too far away from train stations to be able to use them, a classic challenge known by transit agencies as the first-and-last-mile problem.
What about bus stops? Buses are bad, but using smaller cars as buses is great?
Here again, we think Shuttle can help. Since launching Shuttle in San Francisco, we’ve found that our single most successful route is a first-and-last-mile connector to the 4th and King Caltrain station.
Then run a last-mile shuttle. Or advocate for bus lanes on streets from 4th and King to Market Street (but that would preclude Lyft pulling over in said transit lanes). But if Lyft Shuttle is going to reduce traffic, it's not going to do so by acting as a last-mile one-to-three occupant shuttle service from 4th and King. Thousands of people arrive by Caltrain at peak hour in San Francisco, there's just not enough road space for them all to get into cars for the last mile. How many of these Lyft Shuttle riders are switching from a single occupancy vehicle? Probably very few. Lyft Shuttle would probably work well for reverse-commuters way out in the suburbs, but the economics there are quite a bit harder, and it may be better solved by casual car-sharing. 
Public transit services also experience challenges on the flip side of the ridership equation. On the busiest transit routes, demand often exceeds supply at peak times, resulting in transit facilities which are severely over-capacity, unable to serve all the riders who want to use them.
But you said, three paragraphs ago, "For moving large volumes of people along heavily-traveled corridors during commute times — buses and trains can’t be beat." So the solution is obviously to, uh, add more congestion to these corridors?
And when unusual events like severe weather, traffic crashes, or service outages occur it is hard for transit systems to quickly adapt to add more service in time to meet the need.
If transit is completely full, then, yes, it is hard to add more service. But if you need a lot more service, enough cars to provide that service will just exacerbate traffic.
This problem has been exacerbated by chronic underinvestment in funding for transit infrastructure.
Ding ding ding! That's a real issue. Creating congestion and making transit less efficient isn't going to help.
Flexible microtransit services like Lyft Shuttle and Lyft Line bring additional capacity into the system when and where it’s needed most, closing the last mile gap, delivering right-sized mobility service in underserved communities, and supplementing crowded public facilities. 
First of all, if Lyft is trying to bring additional capacity into the system, it is causing congestion, which slows down transit, and reduces capacity. Low-occupancy vehicles—which a Lyft Shuttle is, compared to a bus, even if it has two or three riders—do not add capacity to an at-capacity transit system: more buses do, or the same number of buses moving faster. And Lyft Shuttle can only do so many things, but bringing mobility to underserved communities and supplementing crowded public facilities are mutually exclusive. Right now, Lyft Shuttle does the latter, to the detriment of said facilities.
The bottom line is that in a country where fewer than 5% of commuters currently use transit, where 76% of Americans drive alone to work,
Except in areas served by Lyft Shuttle, the numbers are more like 25% car, 55% transit, with the balance walking and biking. When you can figure out how Lyft Shuttle can serve exurb-to-exurb commuters better than cars, you might have a point. But that's a little harder.
and where traffic congestion continues to drag down economic productivity and quality of life,
This sounds like the old joke of a doctor, engineer and lawyer arguing about whose profession was the oldest. The doctor said God creating Eve from Adam's rib made his the oldest, the engineer counters that God created the world from chaos, making GOd an engineer. But the lawyer counters: "yes, but who created all the chaos?"

Who do you think created all the congestion? Hint: it's not buses. It's cars. Even if they're Lyft Shuttles with two passengers. 
our cities need a new spectrum of efficient, affordable transportation options to make car ownership a thing of the past.
If no one owns cars, but everyone rides around in cars, the outcome is the same. The point of reducing car ownership is to reduce the number of cars on the road. Having cars clog up bus routes and bike lanes doesn't exactly do that.
Shuttle is a new tool to help make that happen. We welcome your feedback along the way as we continue working to improve people’s lives with the world’s best transportation. 

Lyft is trying to have it both ways with the Shuttle service. Their thesis is that it will expand mobility and reduce car ownership, yet they are serving already transit-rich areas with low car ownership rates, and it only operates during peak commuting times when most people are riding transit already. They claim it's efficient, but it's only more efficient than driving alone (or riding alone in a Lyft, which—with the requisite deadhead movements—is actually less efficient and might be the outcome in a "shuttle" service anyway). But it's still far less efficient than transit, a fact which they mention several times. If Lyft can target a corridor with low transit ridership and move people to Lyft Shuttles (carpools), it will be effective in reducing congestion. (This happens when you provide a good carpool lane and minimal parallel transit.) But in congested, transit-served areas, it will provide no added mobility and increase congestion.

That's not the kind of thing we'd expect from a company that is made up of "strong public transit advocates" now, is it?

It's time to radically rethink Comm Ave in Brighton

Welcome to the now-series "It's time to Radically Rethink" where we take a roadway in the Boston area (or, in the future, elsewhere?) and really think about how it could function better. We go beyond a four-to-three conversion, as worthy as they may be, and think about how a 1950s-era street could be reformulated to serve 2020 and beyond. Our first street was Mass Ave north of Harvard Square. Next?

Comm Ave in Brighton.

Why Comm Ave? Because Comm Ave, at least west of Packard's Corner, is obscenely overbuilt, an eight-lane highway masquerading as a local road. Originally planned as a grand parkway, most of the roadway today is a 150-foot-wide sea of asphalt, interrupted by narrow green islands and the MBTA reservation. The roadway has four through lanes, as well as two frontage roads with parking. If the roadway was used by 60,000 vehicles per day, this might be necessary. But the dirty little secret is that almost no one drives on Comm Ave.

Well, not no one. But very few people. The roadway has between 11,000 and 14,000 vehicles per day, with the higher vehicle counts west of Chestnut Hill Avenue. Some other roadways with similar traffic counts? Washington Street near Saint E's, Cambridge Street near Inman Square, and Chestnut Street near Jamaica Pond. What do all of these streets have in common? They're all two lanes wide. (Many two-lane streets are significantly busier.)

Comm Ave is six lanes wide. It's a complete street for cars—and no one else.

It was originally designed as a Frederick Law Olmsted roadway (a comprehensive early history here), but you wouldn't know that from the concrete expanse of the roadway today (portions were originally significantly narrower, but was widened in the 1950s). Before the Turnpike, the roadway may have gotten more use, but today it sees little more traffic than a side street. It serves a transportation purpose, but mostly for transit; twice as many people ride the B Line as use the roadway (13,000 people board west of Packards Corner, almost all inbound, so a similar number ride this segment outbound), yet the B line crawls along, stopping frequently for traffic lights and loading passengers on substandard, non-accessible platforms.

Pedestrians are forced on to often-narrow sidewalks, and experience long crossing times (and long gaps between crosswalks) when trying to get from one side to the other. And cyclists? Options for cyclists are to ride in the highway-like traffic lanes or ride the service roads along parked cars with frequent side streets. Despite being the widest street in the city, there are no provisions for cyclists.

So it's time to radically rethink Comm Ave.

In the City of Boston's defense, they have gotten a start, but as usual, they are thinking first about cars, and then about everyone else. Their presentation gives three reasons the city wants to maintain four main lanes (six total):
  • Operational flexibility including winter
  • More signal time available for pedestrians
  • Consistent with adjacent segments = safety
Huh? None of this makes sense. First of all, there are plenty of two-lane roads which can be operated in winter (all of them, it turns out). Second, more lanes means more for pedestrians to cross, so this makes no sense. And consistency = safety? How is a wider, faster roadway safer for the majority of users (cyclists, pedestrians and transit users)? If anything, a narrower road would allow for better transitions, and pleasing the wishes of motorists to see a consistent roadway should not get in the way of building something safe for everyone.

Here's how it comes out:

There's still a lot of pavement there. Yes, there's a nice multiuse path, but there are still six lanes of traffic, and parking. And note that since the MBTA does not like trees near their right-of-way, the second-from-left tree would likely not exist. Without moving curbs—as this plan proposes—it's nearly impossible to rebuild the T stations with full accessibility, nor does it provide a staged plan where, when the Green Line tracks are rebuilt, it can sensibly be integrated with the design.

So what if, instead, all of the current traffic on Comm Ave was shifted to the outside roadways, and the middle of the road became a two-mile-long linear park? In other words, what if you built the portion of Comm Ave west of Packards Corner to more resemble Comm Ave in the Back Bay than, say, the Mass Pike?

This wouldn't be as hard as it seems, and it could be done in stages with the first stages allowing current traffic movements while providing better cycling and pedestrian facilities In the long term, by rebuilding and relocating the Green Line tracks (a project which the City of Boston should help the T to fund, similar to how other cities fund transit agency projects), it would allow a 75- to 100-foot-wide linear park stretching from Chestnut Hill Avenue to Packards Corner, unlocking the pockets of useless parkland and creating a wide, welcoming park.

Here's what Comm Ave looks like today:

It's 200 feet wide from curb to curb, yet two thirds of the spaces is devoted to cars. The two sidewalks take up 37 feet, and the T reservation another 30: beyond that it's all travel lanes, parking lanes and medians to keep the lanes apart (and encourage faster driving). The city's plan would mostly replicate this: a couple of improvements here and there, but mostly the same profile.

Here's an idea of what you could have instead:

This would still allow two lanes of traffic in each direction, but rather than being a pseudo-highway in the middle of the street, cars would instead travel along the edges, and along parallel parking, to allow easy access to local businesses. (A single lane of traffic would only reduce the width of the roadway by a couple of feet, since a certain width is needed for fire apparatus, and would also allow loading zones during the annual Allston Christmas festivities.) Two lanes of traffic in each direction is plenty for this roadway, and this profile provides it. The traffic is all shunted to the side of the roadway and might move a bit more slowly, but this is a local roadway, and slower traffic would be better.

Now, this assumes the MBTA rebuilds its track, allowing a wider roadway on the north (left side of this diagram, which looks east) side. Since that's a worthy—but longer term—project, there's a relatively easy interim stage which can be constructed: build the final alignment of the south side (eastbound traffic) of the roadway, and leave a lane of westbound traffic to the south of the MBTA reservation. It would look something like this:

This allows for most of the beneficial elements of the roadway to be built:
  • Most of the green space
  • The curb-side cycletrack on the eastbound lane (which could be shifted to the left if there were data that showed too many turning patterns, although then it is harder to access the sidewalk and businesses)
  • The center walking path and cycling facility
But it's also very scalable. Once the MBTA right-of-way was moved south in to the existing roadway to allow all westbound traffic to be moved to the north of the T tracks, the rest of the roadway could be filled in allowing for the final state with a wide green median between the two sides of the road.

There's a lot more to make this street work I'm not showing here (especially on the transit side). The T stations could be rebuilt with center platforms to ease boarding and alighting, moved back from roadways to allow easier operations, fill transit priority allowing trains to proceed at speed through intersections with minor streets (i.e. every street except Harvard Ave), smooth out some of the tighter curves for the Green Line, and place the streetcar tracks in a grassy right-of-way to allow a wide green space in the middle of Comm Ave. Combined, this would speed operations by 10% or more, allowing the T to operate more service with the same number of trains.

But let's first think a lot harder about how much pavement we actually need on Comm Ave. The city is rejiggering the current alignment. Instead, we could add several acres of parkland to the middle of Allston. We can do better.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

MassDOT's reasoning for closing Riverbend Park is a farce

If you're going to close a park for a highway project, you better have a damn good reason for it. MassDOT's reasoning for closing Riverbend Park this summer in Cambridge doesn't even come close.

Here is a letter John Hawkinson obtained which MassDOT sent to the DCR asking them to keep Memorial Drive open in Cambridge for two Sundays. This letter was never made public, and at no time has MassDOT's public traffic management plans stated that Riverbend Park would be closed. The letter does not clearly cite a threat to public safety as would be required by state law. In addition, it does not even mention any mitigation for the temporary removal of parkland to satisfy federal 4(f) regulations. None of this has been this mentioned in any MassDOT traffic management plan: the idea was to keep it quiet until the last minute.

This is unacceptable.

The letter does not remove any doubt that there was no thought given to this by MassDOT, just a reaction that more roads are always the solution. This is wrong. The third paragraph of the letter gives the rationale for requesting the removal of this park. The reasons given are:

"The approved traffic management plan requires the use of Memorial Drive as a detour route for both automobiles and MBTA buses throughout the duration of the shutdown."

However, none of the portion of Memorial Drive used for the detour is affected by the Riverbend Park closures on Sunday. I've taken the liberty of adding big red arrows showing the southern extent of the Riverbend Park closure overlaid on MassDOT's traffic management plan:

Anyone see the problem here? I sure don't. It seems that all of the detours take place away from the area which is closed on Sundays. The only portion possibly affected would be one half of the BU Bridge southbound detour, except that is adjacent to the portion of Memorial Drive closed. The Riverbend Park closure would actually improve conditions for this portion of the detour, since cars making a left from Memorial Drive to Western Avenue would have the entire green cycle to make the turn, from both lanes, since there would be no oncoming traffic.

Yet there have been no traffic studies or traffic counts.

The "rationale" continues:

"It is important that Memorial Drive remains open to all vehicular traffic during the above requested dates to ensure the smooth, orderly and safe routing of traffic around the limits of the project."

It is true that we need to have safe, orderly traffic! But Riverbend Park does not affect the portions of Memorial Drive affected by any traffic detour. In fact, by closing Memorial Drive, some drivers may choose to avoid the area altogether, reducing traffic in the project area and reducing congestion.

There is simply no explanation for MassDOT requesting that DCR keep Memorial Drive open, and Riverbend Park closed, during the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge project. With more construction upcoming in the area, we need to make sure that MassDOT has a very high standard for any adverse impacts to parkland. In this case, they have failed to meet such a standard.

Call your Representatives, call your Senators, and demand that Riverbend Park remain OPEN.

Update: I received a response to a call placed to MassDOT. The general process, which apparently happened behind closed doors, was as follows: someone from the "public safety" community asked that the road remain open. MassDOT, without any data or modeling (I asked if any existed and was told that it did not), decided that it was, in fact, a public safety issue, and requested that the DCR keep the roadway open. There was no public process, and the letter only cites the "smooth, orderly and safe routing of traffic," saying nothing about emergency vehicles.

It turns out, reading the letter closely, MassDOT doesn't even know where the park is. They request a suspension of "the ban of the use of motor vehicles on Memorial Drive between Western Avenue and Mount Auburn Street." Yet Riverbend Park extends between Western Avenue and Gerry's Landing Road; it runs parallel to but never intersects Mount Auburn Street. This is a small oversight, but shows how little mind was actually paid to this issue.

The staffer I spoke with mentioned that it would impact emergency vehicle access to Mount Auburn Hospital (which is not accessed from Memorial Drive) and to the LMA. If there were traffic, then emergency vehicles could use Memorial Drive by moving barricades (this could be staffed by state police traffic details) and then use the BU Bridge, which will be open to buses and emergency vehicles. But that wasn't brought forth as an option, there was no process involved, and instead the "close the park" was put forward as a solution, one still looking for a problem.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Call to Action: Protect Riverbend Park from DCR Overreach

Since 1975, Memorial Drive in Cambridge has been closed to cars every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., transforming in to Riverbend Park. Originally the idea of a neighbor in Cambridge Isabella Halsted, it is one of the oldest such continual "open streets" events in the country, and it is enjoyed by thousands of residents from across the Commonwealth every week, who can have eight quiet hours to walk along the river without the constant din of automobile traffic.

Except the DCR doesn't seem to like it. Columnists have noted in the past that they often let cars on to the road before the closure officially ends. The city has requested that the closings continue year-round, but to no avail. DCR is required to close the roadway to traffic by statute passed in 1985, but they do the bare minimum.

There is a condition in that statute, which is that:
the [DCR] may at its discretion suspend any authorized closings, if in the judgement of said commission such authorized closing poses a threat to public safety and should any emergency arise in which said commission in its judgement deems it necessary to alter the authorized closure.
This is sensible. If there were, for example, a fire along the roadway which required response, or if Soldiers Field Road was closed for repairs, we'd want the DCR to have the authority to open it to traffic. But this summer, the DCR is taking a different tack. With the closure of some lanes of the Turnpike for a construction project, MassDOT is worried that there might be some traffic in the area. They asked DCR to suspend the closure. Traffic is not a threat to public safety—if it were, Boston would be unsafe every day from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. (longer if the Sox are in town)—but the DCR rolled over and said "sure, we'll close it, what do we care?"

They may not care, but we do. DCR may not realize it, but this is important to many residents of Cambridge, Boston and the Commonwealth as a whole. They need to hear from us, and from our legislators. If you use Riverbend Park on Sundays—if you've taught your kid to ride a bike there, or walked along the river there, or ridden a Hubway there, or drawn in chalk there, or simply enjoyed the quiet along the riverbank there—it's time to take action. Here's how:

  1. Contact your legislator. If you don't already know your Senator and Representative, you can find your legislator here. (Here are maps of districts, you can find a zoomed-in map of House districts here and Senate districts here). Remember to contact your own representatives first. They represent you.

    Here is a sample letter to write; feel free to customize it and remember to be polite, concise and specific.

    Dear Sen ___ and Rep ___,

    You may have seen a recent Globe article that the DCR plans to close Riverbend Park in Cambridge for two weekends this summer.

    This is unacceptable. Statute stipulates that DCR may only authorize such a suspension of the park if there is a "threat to public safety". It is hard to fathom how a construction project on a separate roadway in Boston constitutes such a threat.

    Riverbend Park has been a part of Cambridge for 40 years, and I visit the park with my family every weekend to experience the riverbank without the constant drone of nearby traffic. I do not support this suspension. I would ask that you reach out to DCR and demand that they rescind this suspension immediately.

    Thank you,

    Your name
    Your address
    Your telephone/email

    Ask specifically that they follow up with you and let you know what they have found.
  2. Contact the DCR. Your state tax dollars pay for the DCR's work. Let them know you're unhappy. The contact for these announcements is Mark Steffen, and his email is Better yet, give him a call: 617-360-1715. His phone should be ringing off the hook. Contact the DCR in general as well, and remember, be firm but polite. If the DCR feels that the public is behind them, they may be more willing to change their minds. Remember, phone calls are better than emails, but both are good.
  3. Contact MassDOT. They are the ones who have made this unreasonable request in the first place. According to the project page, the best contact is James Kersten at 857-368-9041. His phone shouldn't stop ringing on Monday, either.
  4. Contact the Governor. Again, calling is better than email. Don't take too much of their time, but make sure to explain yourself and your position. The DCR works for the Governor. If they hear from enough of us, they might be able to make a call to turn this around. Here's their number: 617.725.4005.
  5. If you live in Cambridge, contact the city council. You can email all of your councilors at Note that the council has already asked that Riverbend Park be extended year-round, so they're on our side, but it's good for them to hear from their constituents about it. You can also contact the city manager to ask that he take action as well: 617-349-4300.
Obviously, wait until Monday to call. Get a message? Call again. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. It's time to be squeaky.

Is this small potatoes compared with abhorrent policy on the federal level? Yes. But in Massachusetts, we don't have much say beyond calling our legislators and asking they fight the good fight. As Cambridge's own Tip O'Neill often said: all politics is local. Your voice matters. Your voice can be heard. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

How many people use Commuter Rail? More than you might think.

In case of confusion: this is what
I am calculating here.
There seem to be misperceptions as to how many people Commuter Rail carries in Boston. So I decided to calculate how much of the capacity train lines carry compared to the total number of people traveling in the corridor (by rail and highway), to get a sense of how important the rail lines is to the overall transportation network. 33% would mean twice as many drivers as rail passengers, 50% would mean the same amount on the road versus the train. To put it another way: if everyone on the train drove, would traffic get a little worse (15%), or a whole lot worse (50%)? To put it another: if the trains were faster, more frequent and more time-competitive with driving, how much of a dent would it put in traffic, or, at least, how much increased capacity could it account for?

How did I do this? I took the CTPS train count data and calculated, for each line, the number of passengers arriving during the single peak hour of service (generally 7:30 to 8:30). For each highway or major road leading in to the city, I looked at MassDOT traffic data and calculated the number of cars coming in to the city for the same peak hour. The I grouped these together in to corridors and compared the results. (It turns out that Alon took a quite different methodology, and came up with similar results.)

What are the results? Well, before I took the results, I took a poll on Twitter to see what people think the results would be. The poll is kind of braindead and only allowed for four options, so I put in a range from 10 to 70% in increments of 15% (the answer falls somewhere in this range). If you haven't seen this poll already, go ahead and vote: [note 1]
The correct answer? From my data, and supported by Alon's, it's about 42%. [note 2] So about 80% of people are underestimating it. I can see how this happens. Good infrastructure looks empty. The Providence Line north of Hyde Park may only have a train every nine minutes, yes it carries more people than a jam-packed, four-lane highway. [note 3] If you sit on the Turnpike in traffic for half an hour you may only see one train roll by (never mind the fact that train is carrying several miles worth of traffic [note 4]).

Now, 42% is low. Mode share is much higher in New York and Chicago. [note 5] This means that Boston's lines have room to grow with better investment, which is why we need a long-term vision for the rail network and need to make sure that projects like Auburndale don't go awry and permanently crimp capacity.

Corridor Road Rail Highways CR Lines
Northeast 5956 2936 1, 1A Newburyport, Rockport
North 4647 3937 93 Haverhill, Lowell
Northwest 3966 1792 2 Fitchburg
West 8385 6646 90, 9, VFW Worcester, Needham, Franklin
South 12025 8498 95, 28, 138, 3A, Granite Ave Providence/ Stoughton, Old Colony

Or, graphically:

So, why does this matter?

First, it shows that Commuter Rail passengers account for nearly half of the commuters in some sectors, especially since these data don't account that many of the drivers on these highways aren't headed downtown but nearly all Commuter Rail riders are. (For instance, some drivers on I-93 in Quincy are probably headed to Peabody or Woburn, but few if any Commuter Rail riders are, at least until we build the North-South Rail Link.) Second, it shows that the Commuter Rail system is under-appreciated: 80% of respondents undervalue its need.

Most of all? The Commuter Rail system has room to grow. Highways most certainly do not. Here's what the throughput on I-93 looks like at rush hour (data from a week in May in 2016):

Note the dip after 7 a.m. As traffic increases and speeds decrease, both in this segment and downstream, congestion actually decreases the throughput of the roadway. There's no more room to put cars. And this occurs on most major highways in the region. If we were to drop Commuter Rail passengers on to the highways, it would be cataclysmic. Maybe in 1969—when highway volumes were a third of what they are today—Commuter Rail seemed like an antiquated concept. Even with the old, tired infrastructure the MBTA operates, that's not the case today.

We're not about to build wider highways (it's expensive and doesn't work anyway). But the region is growing: for the first time in a century the population of the Boston area is increasing at a rate faster than the country as a whole:

This chart is actually quite amazing. (no data before 1860 for the Boston MSA)
The highways are full. The subway is close. The railroads have capacity, and they link downtown to many regional centers with more available housing. They're over-utilized compared with our perceptions but under-utilized compared with their potential, and other Commuter Rail lines in other cities. From the lows of the 1970s, the lines were upgraded in the 1980s, and ridership responded. Since then both planning and ridership have stagnated. As the region grows we need a better plan for our rail assets now, and for the future.


General note on data: This is counting only people on highways and other major roads and Commuter Rail. Think of it as anyone coming from outside 128 (or outside the reach of the Rapid Transit system) to the Downtown area. There are certainly some people who take back roads that whole way, but they are probably a relatively small number in comparison. There are about 412,000 jobs based in Downtown Boston plus Seaport, Back Bay and Fenway, and maybe another 50,000 in Cambridge. This is only during peak hour; off-peak travel—when train schedules are limited and roads clearer—are likely much more car-dependent.

Note 1: As of the posting of this blog, the votes broke down as follows and have been stable in this range for several hours:

Note 2: This is a coarse, broad measurement. For certain towns with relatively good rail service and poor road connections—Attleboro/Mansfield/Sharon, Acton and Salem come to mind—the Commuter Rail mode share is likely much higher. 

Note 3: Of course, the Metro-North Park Avenue viaduct carries 47 inbound trains between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., probably carrying upwards of 40,000 passengers. You'd need half a dozen eight-lane highways to carry that many people. Some New York subway lines carry nearly double that, but over shorter distances.

Note 4: The heaviest train on the Worcester Line, train P508, carried 1179 passengers in 2012; reports are that it's closer to 1500 today. A dense traffic jam may have one car every 30 feet, or 176 cars per lane per mile, or 528 cars on a three-lane highway, so two miles of traffic wouldn't even cover all of P508. A well-patronized train, in other words, carries about as many people than a traffic jam from Newton Corner to Auburndale. Highway capacity is quite finite.

Note 5: In Chicago, for example—perhaps a better comparison since parking is cheaper than in Boston and freeways provide better downtown access than New York—Metra's BNSF line carries 60,000 passengers per day. At rush hour, there are 15 trains carrying upwards of 11,000 passengers per hour, more than the parallel Eisenhower and Stevenson freeways combined (and another 6000 ride the UP-W line in the same catchment area). Metra's busiest station, the gargantuan Route 59 park-and-ride, generates as many as 1000 people per train, and there's a train every 20 minutes at peak rush express to and from the city. Note that unlike the MBTA, the park-and-ride is in addition to, not instead of, downtown stations in nearby Naperville and Aurora.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Auburndale is broken. Here's a way to fix it.

Recently the author of this page attended a public meeting about the Auburndale Commuter Rail station and found the process completely broken. Local advocates and lawmakers had obtained earmarked funds to build an accessible station—a necessary and laudable project—and gone to the MBTA for a design. The MBTA—mostly through the sheer incompetence of its project management team—had returned with an overpriced design which is likely unusable and should not see the light of day.

The design could have the effect of creating a single-track railroad at rush hour at Auburndale in order to maintain peak-hour service to and from Boston (see Dave's blog post for more). This may not even be possible, since before 9 a.m. there are 19 trains passing through Auburndale in both directions, and two tracks are needed. There was no evidence presented at the meeting that MBTA Railroad Operations has modeled the operations, and it's quite possible that if the current design is built, it will result in the elimination of peak-hour service to and from Boston at the Auburndale station (in order to avoid the "single track" operation). If this happens, the Federal Transit Authority could (and may likely, see Cleveland) demand to be repaid for the federal portion of the money since the FTA (rightly) does not like to be in the business of reducing transit service.

The long and short of this discussion is that, as currently designed, it would be a mistake to build the station. At best, it will be a monumental misappropriation of several million dollars, and a shining example of government waste and incompetence. At worst, it will result in reduced transit options for hundreds of commuters—or potentially degrade service for the 16,000 daily riders on the Worcester Line—and the real potential that the FTA would force the MBTA to pay back funds for the project, costing the state even more.

There is, however, a logical way to fix it. In my last post I posited that, for the same price as the Auburndale Station, high-level platforms could be built at all three Newton Stations. This, however, still creates operational issues with trains crossing over between tracks at rush hour, and also sets a poor precedent: no two-track railroad should have a platform built only on one side.

Before the Turnpike, there was a crossing under the railroad
between Auburn Street and Woodland Road.
So in this post, I'll explore how, instead of building a single platform and a crossover for $11.5 million, you could easily build a full, two-platform station for the same price. In addition, I believe that there is the potential to significantly improve accessibility and connectivity in Auburndale for mobility-impaired users as well as pedestrians and students. By leveraging the construction of the station, Auburndale can build a more cohesive walking network between the two sides of the village. (There's some precedent for this: the original pre-Turnpike station had an underpass near Melrose Street.)

Let's remember the numbers. The total cost of the project is $11.5 million, in the same ballpark as South Acton ($9.5 million) and Yawkey ($13.5 million), both of which are recently constructed two-platform stations with an overpass. According to the current Auburndale plan, the cost of the high level platform is $1.7m, the station canopy $810k, station systems $180k, site work $436k and parking modifications $1.6m. The rest—$6.7m—is for the new interlocking that a two-track station would not need. My proposal is as follows (a diagram is included further down this post):

  • Platforms would be built adjacent to both tracks. The track 1 (north side, adjacent to Auburn Street) platform would be built generally as currently designed. The track 2 platform (south side, adjacent to the Turnpike) would be built along the eastern portion of the current station and under Auburn Street. This allows the platform on this side of the tracks to avoid having a platform on the inside of a curve. High level platforms on the inside of a curve require a larger gap between the platform and the door of the train: a more dangerous "mind the gap" distance. The main station canopy would be shifted to track 2 where the bulk of boardings and alightings (inbound during the morning peak, outbound during the evening peak) occur. [See Note 1]
  • Access to track 1 would be much as currently designed, with a ramp accessing the platform from the parking area and another, shorter ramp (and stairs) providing access from near Melrose Street. Access to track 2 would be via a new pedestrian overpass built near Melrose Street. Access to the overpass would use a ramp from near the parking lot (which is already located about 10 feet above the railroad, mitigating the need for a particularly lengthy ramp) and from a set of stairs near Melrose Street. It is important to note that a new overpass over the railroad is required, rather than an accessible ramp or access to the track 2 side from the existing Auburn Street bridge. The Auburn Street bridge is too steep to meet design guidelines for access. [See Note 2]
  • On the track 2 side of the new pedestrian overpass, a stairway and elevators would provide vertical circulation from the overpass to the platform. This would be a bit of a mirror image of the setup at Yawkey Station, except the overpass would span both tracks. Neither track would need to be moved during construction. A separate stairway would provide secondary access and egress at Auburn Street (similar to the existing stairway there).
  • The new pedestrian overpass over the railroad tracks would align with Hancock Street on the south side of the Turnpike, both vertically and horizontally. This would allow a pedestrian bridge to be easily installed across the Turnpike between Hancock Street and the rail overpass. Most of the cost of such bridges is the cost of ramps, landings and abutments (the actual steel for the pedestrian bridge is relatively cheap, although a more attractive bridge—which might pay homage to the original HH Richardson design—may increase costs). By taking advantage of the elevation of Hancock Street and the need for an overpass to cross over the railroad for the station, these elements would be almost entirely in place. This would also obviate the need to build a walkway to Woodland Road as passengers desiring to access the station from Woodland Road could walk along Central Street or Auburn Street to access the station.

It's this last point which, I think, really makes the case for this plan for Auburndale Station because it not only improves conditions for the several hundred passengers who use Auburndale every day, but also provides better conditions for the rest of the neighborhood. It would provide:

  • An accessible pedestrian crossing between the business district to the north and the neighborhood to the south, something which none of the 1960s-era automobile-centric bridges provide.
  • Better access for many commuters since most anyone living south of the Turnpike would have a shorter walk to the station. [Note 3]
  • Much better and safer access to the Williams School from Auburndale Square; anywhere north of Commonwealth Avenue is in the Williams district. Students who currently walk along Auburn and Grove Streets or Auburn Street and Woodland Road—busier roads with dangerous intersections—would instead be able to cross over the Turnpike and walk up the much-quieter Hancock Street to access the school.
  • A more-connected neighborhood. Today, the distance between each crossing of the Turnpike in Auburndale is about 1500 feet. [Note 4] This is not a problem if you're in a car, but makes the neighborhood much less walkable. Adding a pedestrian connection would better connect the neighborhood's business district to nearby residences.

The marginal cost of this bridge would likely be about $300,000 (since most of it would be necessary for the construction of the station), or 3% of the total cost of the project, yet would have dramatic benefits beyond the Commuter Rail station.

The rest of the station could probably be built for the same cost as the now unneeded interlocking in the original/current design. Let's first assume that the need for a separate stand-alone canopy for track 1 would be obviated since the station would be partially covered by the overpass (and most passengers would board on track 2). Let's next assume that a platform on the south side costs the same as one on the north side: $3.2 million including a platform, canopy, station systems and site work. This leaves $4.3 million for the overpass, ramps and elevators (I am basing these estimates partially on the cost estimates for the Winchester Station project):

  • Ramps should cost about what an overpass costs, since a ramp is basically an inclined overpass. There new ramp would need to gain approximately 10 feet and would probably cost about $300k. (This seems to be in line with the costs of the much-more-extensive ramps at Winchester, which rise about 24 feet and cost about double.)
  • Each stairwell probably costs about two-thirds of a ramp (since stairwells are shorter and thus require less roofing and can be easily pre-fabricated). There are three stairways, one at Auburn Street and one on each side of the overpass: $600k, although it's possible the Auburn Street stairs could be reused.
  • The overpass over the railroad would likely cost double the cost of the overpass over the highway, or approximately $500,000.
  • Elevators are expensive, and you need two of them for redundancy. They cost about $1m each (which is why, if you can get away with not-very-long ramps on the north side, it makes both financial sense and accessibility sense to design a solution which doesn't require an elevator).
  • To allow wide freight passage, it might be necessary to install a "gauntlet track" to allow freight to move away from the platform. The cost for this in Winchester is $825k. (Considering how infrequently this would be used—a few times per year, at most—it could be built, like Winchester, with hand-thrown switches, and, when in use and if necessary, could block both tracks without major detriments to the schedule outside of rush hour.)

So the total cost of these elements would be just about $4.2m, leaving $100k for an overpass to Hancock Street (I swear I didn't add these numbers up to try to equal that number, it just happens that that is the case). There'd likely be some contingency, but several MBTA Commuter Rail bids have come in below estimates (Blue Hill Ave, for example), so it's possible it could actually cost less. In any case, the extra $200,000 for, say, a bridge to Hancock Street could be funded by the City, or perhaps even a Safe Routes to School-type grant.

Here's the drawing of how this could be implemented:

It is imperative that we get Auburndale Station "right." In its current configuration, the station woefully underserves the village and the surrounding neighborhood. The new station, as currently proposed, may be worse. We need Auburndale Station to be built with the operation—current and future—of the whole line in mind. If Auburndale Station can be built to provide better connectivity to the neighborhood, that's a large bonus. And if the station here can be upgraded within this budget, it will set a blueprint towards the eventual similar upgrades of West Newton and Newtonville, both of which have the same similar accessibility problems as Auburndale. As such, they need to be future-proofed.


Note 1: The Worcester Line is left-running in the evening both to serve the one-platform Newtons as well as stations in Wellesley and Natick where it helps minimize the number of passengers who have to cross the tracks. Dave has an excellent blog post detailing this here.

Note 2: The bridges were designed in the early 1960s, well before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. The grade issues are both the overall grade as well as the cross-slope of the corners. If this is confusing, just imagine getting up from Auburndale Square to the top of the Auburn Street bridge in a wheelchair.

Note 3:  At the most extreme, it would shorten the walk to the station for someone living on Hancock Street by a quarter mile, although may residents who live south of the tracks would have a shorter walk to the station and Auburndale Square in general.

Note 4: This is significantly longer than similar distances between bridges in West Newton and Newtonville.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Good intentions, bad plans, and $7 million wasted

The Auburndale Station is a mess. It is planned for a rebuild, which it sorely needs. But thanks to the MBTA's planning process (which ignored little things like rail operations), that's a bloated mess. There have been two public meetings four years apart, and during that time a plan has been put forward which bakes in bad design and pays no mind to any larger-scale issues on the Worcester Line. It's the T's planning process at its worst, which is saying something.

The villages of Newton developed in the mid-1800s along railroad lines; the concept of the commuter—the term, indeed!—began with the Boston and Albany's "commuted" season fares in the early 1840s. If anyone can lay claim to commuters, it's Newton, even if they now enjoy some of the worst Commuter Rail service in the region. In the 1960s, when the Turnpike was planned, Newton fought a losing battle against it (way too much background here). The old stations were replaced with rickety stairs and narrow platforms, and by the early 1970s, there was minimal train service on the line. Since then, however, the number of passengers on the Worcester Line has grown many-fold (from 600 in 1972 to 16,000 today), yet the line infrastructure generally still dates to the 1960s. With dozens of steps to the platform, these rail stations were inaccessible for anyone with mobility needs, and inhospitable to others. And the single platforms were only accessible by these stairs from a bridge, cut off from the portions of the village centers not cut off by the Turnpike.

Several years ago, the local state representative, Kay Khan, worked with then-Congressman Barney Frank to earmark federal money to build an accessible station at Auburndale. While this goal is laudable and the need is clear,  due to a combination of and overall lack of vision for the line and possibly some incompetence, the team retained by the MBTA specified a project which provides few benefits with a high cost. The Worcester Line should not be fixed piecemeal, but needs an overarching vision, which is currently lacking. Still, this should not be an excuse for the lack of understanding which has led to the current state of this project.

The Newton stations are the only ones on the Worcester Line—and on pretty much any Commuter Rail line in Boston—with single platform on one side of double tracks (on the south side, which is Track 2). As such, the stations have no reverse-peak service: there's enough traffic on the line that trains can't run in and out on the same track at rush hour, so, for instance, there's no inbound train leaving Auburndale between 1:12 and 7:31 in the afternoon. The obvious—and best—solution would be to build a new facility with platforms on both sides of the tracks, although such projects—like the recent station in South Acton—cost about $10 million each.

Building a single platform in situ on the south side would not be much cheaper, since it would still require ADA accessibility which, in the case of Auburndale, would require an overpass and redundant vertical circulation, and elevators cost about $1 million each. The actual platform only costs about $2 million, but getting there costs significantly more. It may be possible to build elevators from the current bridges, but the current sidewalks leading to the bridges are too steep to meet ADA requirements, so additional bridge work would be required. In any case, it makes sense to build a platform on both sides. (There's also the question of building a gauntlet track to allow infrequent wide freight trains to bypass the platform.)

A somewhat cheaper option in Auburndale is to build a single platform on the north side of the railroad (adjacent to Track 1); this is what is proposed. This would be significantly less expensive because it is adjacent to the local street and requires minimal vertical circulation: just a couple of small ramps instead of elevators since the platform would lie only about three feet vertically below the sidewalk. It doesn't solve the reverse-peak issue and still only provides one platform for service, but it at least puts that platform in a much more accessible location. If you only have money for one platform, this makes a lot of sense, with one major caveat: you have to rebuild West Newton and Newtonville on that side as well. If you don't, it's nearly impossible to serve platforms on Track 2 at Auburndale and Track 1 at the other Newtons, and even if you can, it requires an expensive interlocking and signal changes to do so. Without an interlocking, Auburndale would lose all peak commuter service, which is used by 325 passengers per day (the busiest of the Newton stations). With an interlocking, the cost of building the station triples.

So what did the MBTA do? They, of course, proposed to rebuild Auburndale on the north side, and to install an interlocking east of the station—just a mile east of the current CP 11 (see Weston Switch at Dave's glossary)—to allow trains to move from one track to another. Setting aside the operational difficulties of having two interlockings a mile apart and switching trains frequently back and forth, the interlocking—and associated signal changes—costs a lot of money. Here's the cost breakdown they presented:

Site Work 436,138
High Platform 1,733,094
Station Canopies $810,000
Parking Lot Modifications $1,685,750
Track and Interlocking $6,685,750
Station Electrical $179,156

Now, let's break this down in to three parts. The station itself (site work, platform and canopies) costs $3.16 million. The parking lot modifications to create ADA accessible spaces costs another $1.69 million. This accounts for 42% of the total cost of the project. The rest, 58%, is for the interlocking and track and signal work associated with it. This work is entirely unnecessary. First of all, there is already a perfectly good (or at least good enough) interlocking one mile west, so this won't have any operational efficiencies for the rest of the line (and will likely cause operational issues; the project team admitted that they have not modeled the schedule impact of this). Second, the line is likely to need new signals within the next decade, so this would likely be good money thrown after bad: the signals would have to be coordinated with that project, or replaced, and the interlocking is in a sub-optimal location so close to the current switch at CP 11.

Now remember: a north side station works if the other two Newton stations also had north side platforms. And the actual cost to build a platform here costs only $3 million (this is about the right ballpark: at stations like South Acton, for instance, each platform costs $3 million and the vertical circulation costs another $4 million). If you build all three stations, you save $6.7 million by not rebuilding the interlocking, and using CP 6 in Brighton and CP 11 in Weston to move trains back and forth as needed. You also have trains on a long-enough section of track that others can pass without encountering suboptimal signal aspects. (In other words: think of passing a tractor on a country road. If there's a long straightaway with good sightlines, you can easily keep up your speed, change lanes, and make the pass. If there's just a short section, you have to slow down, make sure there is enough room, the tractor may pull to the side of the road, and you pass at a lower speed. This is what a mile between interlockings would entail.)

$6.7 million should be enough to build a north-side platform at West Newton and Newtonville. Newtonville is easy: there's actually an old, low-level platform on the north side which would provide a suitable base for a high level platform, which could be connected to the sidewalk by stairs and short ramps. There is 35 feet between the sidewalk and the edge of the track, plenty for a platform and vertical circulation. West Newton is a bit more difficult: it's only about 700 feet between bridge abutments, and the T prefers to build high level platforms 800 feet long (although an eight-car train is only 680 feet long, and Yawkey Station is that length, with tapered platform ends to accommodate the site). In addition, some excavation would be required to remove the granite blocks on the north side (these were the original supports for Washington Street which, before the Turnpike was built, crossed diagonally) although these might provide a suitable base for a high level platform. But the parking lot already has accessible parking, and there is ample room to build ramps and a platform.

The issue is not that we don't have the money, it's that we're going to spend it in about the most wasteful way possible. The question is how to—and whether we can—reallocate this money. The Auburndale Station has about $3 million of federal dollars earmarked for it, so that likely could not be reallocated. Much of the rest of the money is included in the state's five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP), a document released by the state. That money could, theoretically, be reallocated, although it would be a political process, and there is, apparently, no guarantee that the money would be reallocated to the other Newton stations (which are not in the current CIP). But here's the rub. There are three ways you can spend $11 million on the Auburndale Station:
  1. Spend ~$4 million on the Auburndale Station, and $7 million on an interlocking which has not yet been modeled and may overall degrade service on the Worcester Line and no guarantee you could provide even the current level of service.
  2. Spend ~$4 million on the Auburndale Station, and the remaining $7 million on similar improvements to West Newton and Newtonville. This would actually improve service on the line (local trains serving high-level platforms would have shorter dwell times, improving accessibility, service speed and reliability) and you could certainly provide the current level of service.
  3. Spend $11 million on the Auburndale Station, but instead of building an interlocking, build platforms on both sides with ADA accessibility. 
The first is wasteful. Either of the other two is a good start towards better service and accessibility in Newton.

Making this cahnge would require the cooperation of MassDOT and the politicians in Newton and elsewhere. There would have to be promises made—perhaps even legislation passed—reallocating the $6.7 million from the interlocking specifically to the West Newton and Newtonville stations. If you build Auburndale and build the interlocking, you waste $6.7 million on the interlocking to build a $4 million station. But if you build Auburndale without the interlocking, you waste $4 million on a barely-usable station. Unless you build two platforms, Auburndale, West Newton and Newtonville are joined at the hip. You can spend $11 million and get an attractive, accessible station at Auburndale, or spend the same $11 million and get three stations for the price of one. 

This process should have never gotten to this point, of course. The project management team is mostly to blame: they ran amok with a design which has become far too expensive and provides little, if any, benefit. In addition, the fact that the MBTA lacks any long-term vision for Commuter Rail or the Worcester Line leads to these piecemeal, wasteful approaches like this. The corridor needs a long-term vision, which is something which should be in the wheelhouse of the Worcester Line Working Group.

Coming back to Auburndale, however, there are two preferable solutions: a two-platform station, or improvements to West Newton and Newtonville. The costs are about the same, and the benefits are much higher than an interlocking you don't need. Mistakes were made. We can either double down on the mistakes—and waste $7 million taxpayer dollars—or we can make the best of the situation, spend the same amount of money, and come away with a lot more to show for it: either a two-platform Auburndale or accessible stations throughout Newton.

This has gone from being an engineering issue to a political one: and this is why we elect political officials.  As we say in Patriots Nation: Do Your Job.