Tagged: MBTA

Why can’t you buy a fare card on the train platform?

Usually on the first (business) day of any given month, there’s a terrible line at the charlie card machine. I guess many people don’t know you can buy next month’s T pass about halfway through the current month. But I’m not here to shame procrastinators, I’m here to ask a weird dumb question about public transit payment systems. I know, you’d never expect such a thing from me.

Why aren’t there Charlie Card machines on the platforms of the T? Or MetroCard machine in the NYC subway system for that matter.

Duh, you say, you don’t need to buy or top up your transit pass when you’re on the platform, you obviously already have one or you couldn’t get there. I understand that, but while you’re waiting for the train after you’ve paid your fare is the perfect time to buy your return fare or next month’s pass! There’s less likely to be a line and there’s less time pressure since you can see when the next train is coming. Sure, you could buy the return when you get where you’re going on the way out of the station, but just as often there’s a line there of people wanting to buy a ticket to get in. Why not let people use the dead waiting time on the platform, and save a minute here or there?

MisseT Connections

It’s hard to impose order on systems that grow organically, like world-class cities. It’s also hard to create a coherent public transit system in an imperfect society. That said, there are three seemingly small gaps in the Boston public transit system that continue to baffle and confound:

Why is it so hard to get from North Station to South Station? To be fair, this sort of thing is not uncommon in the world. Remember that time you thought you were leaving Brussels Nord but your train was really at Zuidstation? Yeah, that was a barrel of laughs.

If somebody asks me for such directions in the T, I just shake my head and tell them to head up the nearest stairs to the street and walk to take a cab. It’s very likely that either method would be faster than a trip on the red and green or orange lines.

If you’re trying to get from one half of the commuter rail system to the other, you may be able to cheat by using Back Bak or Porter Square, but if you’re trying to take Amtrak from one side of Boston (for example, Maine) to the other (New York, for instance), you’ve got an awkward transfer on your hands.

Proposals for a North-South rail link have been kicking around for some time but remain in limbo at this time. This state of affairs is rendered all the more shameful now that South Station is the gateway to the Innovation District.

Why Can’t You Get from the Red Line to the Blue Line? This has been a problem for ages, but it’s a far more obvious gap now that Government Center is out of commission for a couple of years, meaning that State Street is the sole connection between the Blue Line and the rest of the system.

The prevailing thought here is to extend the Blue Line from Bowdoin to Charles Street to meet up with the Red line. With that done and Government Center back in business, you’d be able to get from any of the four main lines to any of the others directly.

The distance along Charles Street for a Red-Blue connector is about 1,500 feet. Tunneling the whole distance would cost a zillion dollars and require a new underground station beneath Charles. The estimable Amateur Planner has a modest proposal to connect the lines with a bit of tunnel and some elevated track to match up with the elevated Red Line at Charles. This would cost only half a zillion dollars, and I must say, looks like a whole lot better solution to me. Don’t hold your breath.

Why is the Silver Line split at South Station? OK, this is far less serious a gap than the other two, but it’s also far far easier to fix. the SL1 and SL2 that take you to Logan Airport, the Innovation District, and other points in South Boston. The SL4 and SL5 (don’t ask what happened to the SL3) take you between Dudley Square and central Boston. SL1, SL2, and SL4 all converge at South Station, but to get from Dudley so the airport or Innovation District requires a transfer, which seems a pointless delay when the lines use the same vehicles and the same station.

The Red Line is not divided into two segments, Alewife-South Station and South Station-Braintree/Ashmont. Why should the Silver Line be so? Are the people who live in Dudley Square not interested in jobs in the Innovation District or air travel?

Embarrassing gaps in the T

These gaps have been annoying, costly and inconvenient for years, but inertia on the North South and Red Blue connectors seems especially inexcusable in light of the city’s current trajectory and the development of the MBTA system. The South Boston Innovation District is getting all kinds of emphasis, transit oriented developments like Assembly Row and North Point are on the rise. The Green Line Extension through Somerville may actually be happening. There’s likely to be a Casino somewhere in the area soon. Why are all these new places to live and work not being connected better through the core of the city? If we want to avoid even more terrible car traffic, we’d better get digging. It’s either a world-class city or it’s not.

Assembling the price of a happy city

How long does it take to go from one of Boston’s newest hip neighborhoods, the Innovation District, to one of Somerville’s even newer, actually not quite finished, ones, Assembly Row by public transit? During evening rush hour on a weekday, this trip of about 4.5 road miles took me almost an hour as I traversed the Silver, Red and Orange lines and the #90 bus. Somebody determined enough and in decent enough shape could have run this in about half an hour or walked it it not much more than an hour. Cutting Assembly Row a bit of slack, there will be an Orange line station there later this year.

Still Assembling the Orange line

But why, you ask, would I undertake such an errand? Well, oddly enough, I was headed to a lecture on urbanism set up by the virtual and estimable Design Museum Boston. Christine McLaren, lead researcher of the book, Happy City, was giving a talk at Assembly Row’s outdoor amphitheater (!) overlooking the Mystic River. Well, that’s my second favorite local river and I do love a good amphitheater, so naturally I had to attend. Plus, I wanted to check out Assembly Row.

McLaren served up what I have to describe as the usual New Urbanist kool-aid – of which I heartily partook – but she brought a key insight I hadn’t been paying attention to. Cities, she says, are machines for happiness. The objective function of a city is not efficiency, environmental impact, or GDP, it’s happiness. The key determinant of happiness, according to McLaren’s research, is social connectedness, so urban designs that increase such connectedness are the ones that make people happier and the ones we should build.

View of the Mystic river over the amphitheater

Here’s where I partially part company with the happy city people. They say the research shows that the far-flung suburbs are isolating and so are the densest apartment towers. The happy medium – attached townhouses, for example – is where you get peak happy. That may be so (I have my doubts but my sample size is small) but how can we get all the people who want to live in a city housed if we can’t go higher than townhouses? Like Matt Yglesias, I’m partial to density and don’t think it has to reduce happiness. A well-designed apartment building of any height is just a stack of floors, each one being a group of homes sharing some common space, not unlike a townhouse or courtyard.

Back to Assembly Row. It seems to meet many (though not all, watch those unprotected bike lanes!) the criteria of Happy City, at least it will once the Orange line station opens and the rest of the development is finished. So far as I can tell, there are 195 housing units from studio to 3 bedrooms in the 5-story Avalon development. I’m already thinking this isn’t enough.  As of Bastille Day, they’ve pre-leased 2/3 of the units, including all the 3BR. Mostly studios remain, starting 451 square feet or so for $1.,985/mo. Cheaper and no doubt more modern and well-appointed than downtown Boston but not so different from many existing mixed-use neighborhoods also a few T stops from downtown.

I don’t know how much taller the apartment building could have been by law, but I have to believe that the marginal cost of the 6th floor would be less than the average cost of the first five, and would have provided a 20% increase in housing units for less than 20% more cost. Repeat this logic as high as you care to go, and eventually the supply starts to reduce the price, and equilibrium tells you where to stop.

The median household income in the Boston metro area was a bit less than $72k in 2012. If you spent 1/3 of your gross income on housing, that would be about $2,000/mo, the price of the smallest studios at Assembly Row. If the average household is more than one person (looks like it’s about 2 and a quarter) the studio won’t work so well. One bedroom units start at $2,380, and 2BR at $2,835. It looks like the rent is too damn high and happy new urbanism at Assembly Row is out of reach to the average Boston family. To be fair, the developers have no particular obligation to serve the average family but I do think the new urbanists should strive to do so. It wouldn’t hurt if lawmakers lined up better incentives for developers to do so, too.

How did I get home from Assembly Row after 8pm? The Orange line would be of no use for going to Cambridge and the buses had largely gone to bed for the night. I took Uber, 3.5 miles in 16 minutes for $10.

Man bites Trolley

Well, not exactly, but in the old saying about man bites dog being news, last Friday the estimable RunKeeper team put on a PR stunt / stupid human trick / arch critique of Boston public transit in which some guys raced a Green line trolley for four miles or so. Spoiler alert: the B line trolley came in 4th.

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Thoughts on what this says about the T

  • It’s easy to say that RunKeeper picked an easy target, but the finish was close and the trolley held the lead much of the time. I expect the longer the course the better the odds for the T.
  • Public transit that competes with other modes, like buses and the surface green line, and obeys the traffic laws is always at a disadvantage to modes that have exclusive ways, like subways, and modes that don’t obey the laws, like jaywalking pedestrians, red light running cyclists, and massholes. I don’t expect that the runkeepers stopped at red lights unless they absolutely had to.
  • The T frequently gets no respect, but it seems there’d be no harm in them participating in this event. Maybe putting their best operator at the head of the trolley in question or having Beverly Scott live tweeting from the Trolley? The T operators could use some positive PR, and It’s not like people who think the Green line is slow are going to change their mind because it beat some runners, or people who think it’s just fine will switch to running because it lost.

Thoughts on the marketing value of this event

  • Runkeeper got a ton of attention showcasing the key functions of its app with a good humored challenge to an easy target. (see above on that point)
  • It’s a win even if Runkeeper loses, though the odds of that are slim since they chose the battle field and the terms.
  • Live coverage made it an event, and that only further highlighted Runkeeper’s real time features.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is repeated annually or sooner vs other targets in other cities. And if any other fitness app tries it, everybody will know Runkeeper did it first.

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Could the event have been even better? Probably, I’d certainly want to see the T get in on the act and be more than an anonymous bugaboo target. Maybe making the event a charity race would make that more palatable to the T, or at least embarrass it into making a comment of some kind. A charity run (with a partner like FirstGiving maybe?) would generate even more PR and maybe open the field to more runners, Runkeeper membership required, of course.

Mysterious politeness on the orange line, solved

Lately I’ve noticed more and more people on the platform doing the “oh no, you go first” thing and selflessly standing by and letting others board the train first. I’ve even witnessed two or more such chivalrous folks come close to an unchivalrous argument about who should go last. That’s when it dawned on me, this is not any kind of selfless behavior, it’s the opposite kind! These people are trying to be the last on so they can be first off at their stop, and it’s starting to delay the whole boarding process when first they dawdle and squabble about who’s to be last, and then they bottleneck the door area making it harder again to get on or off at any stop till theirs. Well, that’s more like the Boston I know.

If you need a refresher on how to use the MBTA, I suggest the MBTA Etiquette Handbook, this section in particular:

3. The doors

Do not stand directly next to the doors if possible. This makes it difficult for people to exit/enter the train. If you are standing at the door because the train is too full, get off the train and let people leave. You will be the first one back on and you’ll be able to get a better spot to stand, or maybe even a seat. The train won’t leave without you if you get off for three seconds.