More on Traffic Congestion

MassDOT just released an in-depth study of traffic congestion in Massachusetts. The study quantifies the increasing unreliability of driving as a result of congestion. While the report offers no quick fixes, it adds urgency to many ongoing projects and discussions.

The real issue is unreliability. Average commute times measured by the census bureau drifted up by 2.5 minutes in the Boston area between 2008 and 2017. That is an annoyance.

What is unacceptable, is that every week or two, when something goes wrong, the trip can take twice as long. That means that people have to plan for the possibility of longer trip times and need to leave much earlier. For example, the trip from Burlington to Kendall Square via Route 2 most commonly takes about 30 minutes, but on 1 in 10 days takes over 56 minutes and can take up to 90 minutes.

Route 2 eastbound to Alewife emerges as one of the 5 most severely congested route segments in the state, with travel times at rush hour almost 4 times longer than free flow travel times. Fresh Pond Parkway, continuing Route 2 through Alewife to the Charles is one of the most consistently congested segments in the state — it is congested for 14 hours out of the average day.

The available data do not include driving travel times on local roads, but congestion on local roads is reflected in planned speeds for MBTA buses which have declined from 12.7 miles per hour in 2009 to 11.5 miles per hour currently.

There are a few good news items. The trip time of the 501 bus from Brighton to Boston has actually dropped a little with the introduction of automatic tolling on the MassPike. The median trip time is now running just over 35 minutes. However, 10% of the time the trip takes over 45 minutes.

The study highlights the improvements for the 71 and 73 buses due to the new bus lane on Mount Auburn Street between Belmont Street and Mount Auburn hospital. Median trip times on that stretch are down by 3 minutes. Bus reliability has improved even more, with the 90th percentile trip-time dropping 5 minutes.

The study finds that the fundamental cause of congestion is prosperity. Rising population and employment have crowded the roadways, especially in the Boston area. High housing prices close to Boston push people further and further out, putting more cars on the major inbound routes.

As to solutions, the study is realistic. It re-emphasizes the importance of a number of long-term projects that are already under way, including increasing MBTA capacity and ridership.

For me, the most sobering chart in the report compares the traffic volume on major commuter corridors with the commuter rail lines that parallel them. On the major corridors, the drivers outnumber train riders by 5 to 10 fold. On the one hand, these data highlight the availability of more potential train riders. On the other hand, given parking and other constraints, the work of the Rail Vision Study suggests that it will be difficult to raise commuter rail ridership into Boston by much more than 50%. Ridership increases of this hopeful scale would mean relatively little reduction in vehicular volume, given the expectation of continued trip increases.

From Congestion in the Commonwealth, Page 89

These data suggest an eventual hard limit on central Boston employment growth unless more housing can be accommodated within the core. And, of course, housing development is already generating local concerns about crowding. The report recommends that, in addition to striving to reduce Boston congestion, we need to encourage growth in less congested gateway cities.

The report does discuss the concept of congestion pricing. It concludes that we cannot meaningfully or fairly introduce congestion pricing using the toll structures now in operation on the MassPike and regional bridges and tunnels. But it does cautiously open the conversation about the possibility of new tolling locations, preferring the approach of tolling only added “hot” lanes as opposed to tolling everyone. We will have much more discussion about congestion pricing in the months to come.

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Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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18 Comments

  1. As someone who drives almost every day to my office on the north shore from Boston and to my clients all over the metro Boston area, it’s quit obvious to me that traffic has gotten significantly worst in the past 10 years. Yes, the biggest contributor is probably the strong economy and high percentage of people working and driving to work. One thing that should be considered in decreasing the high variability of congestion and commute times is construction/road service. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scheduled a meeting at time based on knowing the traffic should be light say on the southeast expressway (going south) at 9am from Boston to Braintree only to find it gridlocked with a lane shut down for brake down lane cleaning. Really, street cleaning!?! This should be done at 1am. Seriously. Same on Rt. 1 north at 9am. Lets shut a lane down for construction and cause complete gridlock (I’m not talking about the 3 yr project). This should be done at night! I’ve seen the moving “caravan” of Mass State vehicles going down 128 during the middle of the day picking up debris in the median and causing complete gridlock. Again, do this at night. Short of adding lanes, reducing the amount of construction and just plain bone head road maintenance during the middle of the day would go a long way. This is a Baker issue that needs to come down from him. It requires paying overtime etc, but it’s necessary. One other item in the city itself and congestion is light timing. I can’t tell you how many times you get a green light, only to go to the next block and get a light change to red, and so on and so on. This causes more gridlock. The city needs to replace the timing systems or fix them. And yes, this does waste more fuel.

    The only other solution I see is a major recession like 2008. Seaport would implode (as it should with the non existent zoning and a joke of public transportation) and all those people leasing and getting car loans would get ratcheted back significantly. Office park development on the 128 belt would come to a screeching halt.

    1. Yes. This is a totally valid point. Construction should be better managed.

      MassDOT does acknowledge this in the report — if you see an example of bad decisions like this, please do let me know and I will make sure it gets attention.

    2. I agree completely. There’s a ton of work that could be relegated to night time. I find that traffic light timing is particularly irritating in Cambridge.

  2. Will – thank you for this great summary, and for keeping on the issue of transportation. It really affects our quality of living here.
    The study is very helpful, and I applaud the state for conducting it and now publishing it. It can only help in planning discussions. Two questions / concerns:
    1) I think the time between Burlington and Kendall is understated. From the methodology – “used a traffic model software program to
    send an imaginary car in both directions of the sample commute (inbound and outbound) every five minutes between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m,” it looks like we’re seeing the total number of trips together, including peak and non-peak. I wish they segmented by time as well – so we could see the number of trips and their length by time of day. I suspect rush hour is significantly more than 35 minutes a day for that route.
    2) Is there discussion of *reliability* of commuter rail? I didn’t see it – more about total ridership, which is important to call out regardless. As they do, increasing ridership even more has to be part of the solution, but I know that reliability and frequency are major hurdles for some to break the car habit. They hear about “stuff going wrong” with commuter rail and then feel like they can’t risk it.

    Thanks again, and keep up the great work.
    -Peter

    1. Thanks, Peter. You make a good point. Certainly, rush hour trips are included and are presumably those out on the tail. But the analysis does appear to include trips through the day.

      I agree it would be even more interesting to see a similar distribution for rush hour trips only.

      Regarding the rail performance, that is not in the scope of the report which was focused on traffic congestion on the roads. For data on commuter rail performance, please see this link.

  3. Thanks, Will. You do a great job keeping your constituents informed!
    Despite the high congestion on Fresh Pond Parkway from Alewife to the Charles, there are live proposals by Cambridge and the MDC to narrow that road including removing one lane towards its southern end and also removing the third lane on Mt Auburn St near its intersection with Fresh Pond Parkway. No one who commutes on Fresh Pond Parkway was on the group consulted when these plans to remove the lane were made; that group was dominated by the abutters. At the public hearings after the plan was created, many rose to oppose removing the lane but lane removal is still in the MDC’s long-term plan. Since this is such an important route affecting people from many towns, perhaps the State DOT should be involved in the decision? The current decision-making process did not include many important stakeholders.

    1. Thanks, Bill.

      You are correct that this proposal is live. I have been part of discussions about changes to the proposal and have pushed for fuller analysis to be sure we don’t make a very delicate situation worse. That is happening. When the modeling is complete, there will be a public meeting to review the final intersection redesign. Stay tuned on my email list for notice of that.

  4. How about the Legislature and citizens actually do something? Here are some ideas:

    1. Legislators: Pass the “no handheld mobile device use while driving” legislation. You’ve been working on this for how many years and it’s still not passed? The next time the light turns green and the cars in front of you don’t move right away, take a look at what the drivers are doing. They are often on their phones. Distracted drivers cause delays and accidents – and accidents cause really long delays. This is not OK and should have been banned a long time ago. What is taking the Legislature so long?
    2. Legislators: Raise the gas tax. A Lot. Whenever I visit my local convenience store – no matter the season, there are cars and trucks idling in the parking lot – sometimes without anyone inside. When I walk my daughter to school, there is one house we walk by that has two SUVs in the driveway “warming up”. They are still idling after I drop my daughter off and return home. When people treat gasoline like it’s tap water, that tells me that it’s not expensive enough. If gas was more expensive, people would buy smaller cars, share rides, take the T more often and do less damage to the planet. Don’t make the excuse that it puts a burden on those who earn less. You’re smart; you can figure out how to compensate those who cannot afford a higher gas tax. But every day I see plenty of people for whom gas is too cheap.
    3. Citizens and legislators: Drive less, buy a smaller car, take the T more, bike to work, show some more respect for the planet you live on.

    Will: Do you take the T to work?

    1. The “no handheld mobile device” should be restated as no functional mobile device in a driver accessible location in the vehicle — meaning put it the trunk in airplane mode. There are war veterans missing limbs who still can drive adeptly so one hand out of service holding a phone is not the problem. It is mind on the road not the conversation.

    2. I’ve seen Will commuting on the bus many times.
      I agree with Greg about gas prices and the fact that people consider it very cheap judging by how they waste it with idling and unnecessary trips.

    3. Texting while driving is really out of hand. I see it clearly from my vantage point on my bicycle. Very scary. Even saw a driver of a back hoe doing it a couple weeks ago.

      I also 2nd this idea of raising the gas tax, if that’s politically possible at all now.

  5. I fully expected this result (Rte 2 traffic). the MBTA is a hub and spoke radial system routing plan designed in the 1880’s and has not substantially changed since then. The T (or CTPS) in their infinite stupidity got rid of the cross town suburban routes. Good example is the #61 bus from Waltham center to Lexington center. When I was going to college, I would detour around the route 2 area either Harvard sq. to Waltham or Newton Waltham. That is no longer possible. My commute is now from Lexington Ctr to Hartwell ave. If I bike the bikeway it is 25 minutes . If I take the T (coordinating with schedules) it takes me as little as 45 minutes counting the last mile walk. If I (could) drive, it is 17 minutes. If I just plain walk, it is 57 minutes. At my company we lost so many good people who just didn’t want traffic and are now in NH or RI. I can’t help but notice tech firms keeping their sales offices here but moving R&D to other areas to get talent. I am keeping a sharp eye on the T and will leave the area if the T is not turned around. Rest in peace DOT & MBTA rest in peace

  6. The I95 Southeast corridor and I95 Northeast corridor are swapped in the table. I can’t tell how badly the numbers are scrambled, but the Providence commuter rail definitely doesn’t parallel the Northeast corridor, and Newburyport is NOT southeast of Boston

  7. “And, of course, housing development is already generating local concerns about crowding.”

    These concerns should be ignored. The core can grow significantly as long as the people living there don’t insist on having and operating cars and the bad effects silicon valley based taxi companies are having on traffic are mitigated (high fees unless they carry multiple passengers?).

    In a past post I think you wrote something along the lines that not everyone wants to live in Manhattan. Those people should move to Weston if they’re wealthy (they seem to have enough political clout there to keep their figuratively walled garden — see “Weston Whopper” campaign) or to New Hampshire otherwise. We very much should make Boston more closely resemble Manhattan, particularly in the statistics of the numbers of people who don’t own or drive their own vehicles. Aside from transit and transportion emissions problems, culturally it would be an improvement. I know a young talented programmer who gave up on Boston, being bothered by how everything closes so early and the less cosmopolitan feel it has compared to London or NYC.

    This study shows the alternatives aren’t very good (good luck adding those lanes!). In parallel, developing places like Worcester, etc., sure, that’s good, but if you look at their transit systems, they are even more car centric than Boston. The best solution here I think is more funding and ambition for local transit and infill development. Get those building rates back up to where they were in past decades. It’s no mystery that rents are high when building is happening at such a low rate. If the T doesn’t keep up, well, at least when you are within a couple miles of your job you can walk or bicycle. Unpleasant for some, but it has to beat sitting on a highway for 90 minutes.

  8. The cost of tickets to and from Waverly commuter rail in both directions need to be brought closer to T fares. It is a quick trip to Porter for Red Line transfer or shopping, dining, getting to Kendall, Boston, Arlington, Lexington. Or Waltham and Brandeis/Robert’s to Waverly bus. Is the 554 bus schedule improving? I thought I heard something about that from a Bentley student. Lowering cost at Waverly commuter would be like Atlantic Ticket in Brooklyn and Queens on LIRR.

  9. DOT and MBTA should stop this kind of investigation and start working on real project. Almost every year a research on traffic congestion is conducted with a promise to improve it. But at the end of the day we commuters need to see improvements. Every projects was hit with unnecessary delays and waste. Why would MBTA requires 48 people to control the traffic on red line? Why would it took them 8 to 10 years to put the new orange/red line cars into operation? It is beyond imagination to me.
    We already lagged behind in public transportation behind other countries by a good 10 to 15 years ( Japan, HongKong and China) One of the best example is the rail road and metro system in Tokyo or Osaka area. Their system handles a much larger metro area much more efficiently than MBTA. Unless we fix this from a top down reform/reorganization from mass DOT and MBTA?I think the chance of the catch up game is very slim. We will force people to drive and contribute more to traffic congestion and pollution.

  10. Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance today made the following statement regarding the Reason Foundation’s ranking Massachusetts at #46 in their 24th annual highway report.

    https://reason.org/policy-study/24th-annual-highway-report/

    Massachusetts declined from #44 in 2018 to #46 this year. The worst grades for Massachusetts occurred in the “cost per mile” and “administrative disbursements per mile” categories. By both metrics, Massachusetts ranked third to last at #48. The cost per mile is estimated at $216,066 per mile. When comparing these costs with neighboring NH ($64,176), and ME ($41,847), some perspective is given. For an even further look into where the money goes, the simple administrative costs per mile tell an even more extreme story. MA spends $23,950 on administrative costs per mile while NH spends $5,260 and ME, only $1,142, meaning MA spends 20 times more than ME on desk jobs instead of filling actual pot holes. Massachusetts #46, ended up behind Maine #4, Vermont #19, New Hampshire #24, Connecticut #44 and only slightly ahead of Rhode Island #48.

    The Reason Foundation report takes on special significance as State House leaders are expected to soon debate the merits of a gas tax increase and the Governor’s $18 billion dollar bond bill for transportation.

    “Every Massachusetts lawmaker should read today’s report. It shows unequivocally that throwing more money at the issue will not solve our transportation problems. More than likely, new revenues will go to fund an ever-expanding ‘Cadillac-style’ bureaucracy. This report makes perfectly clear that the Commonwealth isn’t focused on cost,” said Paul D. Craney, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.

    “Massachusetts taxpayers should be skeptical of any lawmaker who claims we need to ‘invest’ in our transportation without offering reforms. Doing that would just be throwing good money after bad. It’s like filling up a bucket with water that has holes in it. Governor Charlie Baker, Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka owe it to the taxpayers to come up with a way to drive down these costs,” stated Craney.

    “Whenever Massachusetts ranks behind Connecticut but only slightly ahead of NJ, it’s a warning sign that we are headed for trouble. Legislators and taxpayers should take note, we are about to lose our competitiveness for decades to come,” concluded Craney.

    1. It’s a lot easier to build 200 miles of highway in the woods than to build 2 miles in Belmont. We had hundreds of permissions to get from landowners on that project, just for example. The design and admin is completely different in more rural states.

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