Tagged: MBTA

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.

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 1.10.58 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 1.27.25 PM

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.