I am increasingly convinced that the state should make a massive investment in upgrading its regional rail network, well above and beyond the necessary maintenance investments. The conversation about that possible investment is happening at multiple levels. No decision is imminent and there are many uncertainties to struggle with, but I’m interested in starting to get feedback from my constituents.
The Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation identified two fundamental uncertainties about our future: First, how fast will new ride-sharing technologies be embraced and how far will that trend go? New ways to organize shared transportation could help reduce congestion.
Second, how will expected residential and commercial development unfold across the state? We can conceptualize three scenarios: It could be concentrated in and around Boston; it could be concentrated in multiple hubs across the state; or it could sprawl across cities, suburbs and rural areas.
Upgraded regional rail could encourage the multiple hub scenario. Currently we have very limited regional rail service connecting Boston to surrounding cities – Framingham, Worcester, Lowell, Fitchburg, etc. We are building a connection to New Bedford and Fall River. There is talk of a connection further west to Springfield. If we completed those connections and were able to provide faster and more frequent service, more of the cities in the state could perhaps share in the vibrant growth we are currently experiencing in and around Boston and Cambridge.
Here are the reasons why the multiple connected hub vision for our future and the related regional rail investment may make sense for Massachusetts:
First, Massachusetts, especially Boston and its surrounding communities, is expected to continue to grow over the next couple of decades. That growth may accelerate through the coming century. The likely impact of climate change is to drive population north, both within the United States and across our borders. Southern states are becoming hotter and more vulnerable to extreme weather. Harsh Massachusetts winters are becoming milder. Our world-class academic and health care institutions and biomedical community give us sustainable advantages and unless we make bad mistakes, we are likely to remain attractive.
Second, density is generally more efficient than sprawl. If jobs and residences are both widely dispersed, then people have to commute from everywhere to everywhere, and it is harder to share rides. Public transit will be less cost-effective and so will technology-enabled ride-sharing services. Most use of Uber and Lyft currently occurs in the inner core of Greater Boston, the same area served well by public transportation.
Third, density helps advance a vibrant knowledge economy. While telecommuting is easier than ever, it appears that biotech and other knowledge businesses still want to cluster in places that support a continuous face-to-face exchange of ideas. And many who work in knowledge businesses are drawn to residential living in walkable urban areas.
Yet, fourth, there are limits to how much density is desirable. Not everyone wants to live on Manhattan; some people want to hear birds in the morning. And our Massachusetts communities are older and not laid out for unlimited density. Continually increasing density within the urban core would require the destruction and redevelopment of existing neighborhoods and communities. Further, while walking, biking, shared rides and better public transportation can somewhat alleviate congestion, we are already seeing unacceptable congestion in many areas — I doubt we can count on transportation changes so effective as to both alleviate congestion and support unlimited growth in the urban core.
A multi-hub model offers the possibility of efficient density while not forcing over-congestion in the urban core around Boston. If regional rail is good enough, the other hubs will be able to “borrow scale,” to be an extension of the concentrated knowledge economy that exists in Boston. Biotech businesses that are tired of the congestion in Cambridge and Waltham will locate in, for example, Lowell, but maintain vibrant connection with inner core collaborators. People who want lower density will have the option of living around smaller hubs rather than enduring long-distance commutes to the core of Boston.
Additionally, if all of our economy sits in coastal Boston, we are more vulnerable to the possibility of increased flooding due to sea-level rise. I am hopeful that we will get carbon under control within a few decades, but creating the possibility of long-term diversification to higher elevations appears prudent, given our global failure to control the rise of emissions.
The north-south rail link is an important part of the multi-hub vision. Currently, the core of Boston sits at the center of radial transit connections and so is uniquely privileged as a location for development. Other hubs can now only connect to Boston. While circumferential rail on 128 or 495 is often dreamt of, there are huge challenges to making that happen. A connection between North and South Stations would allow new through connections between multiple hubs.
It is entirely possible that the multi-hub model will never be realized, that many of the possible hubs will forever be perceived as too inconvenient to densely develop. A whole range of factors need to come together for the successful creation of business clusters. But even if it turns out that Boston and Cambridge remain the uniquely vibrant center of our economy, regional rail is necessary to make Boston and surrounding communities more livable by reducing commuter congestion.
There is no question that reducing congestion depends on persuading people not to drive alone. But there is some debate about whether ride sharing (in cars or vans) or mass transit or some combination is the best long-term solution. I do not believe that there will be a universal solution — the solution has to depend on the particular region. But in greater Boston, the way forward seems clear: We have a rich existing network of rail and subway connections and very finite road capacity. We need to make the fullest possible use of the rail and subway network, increasing the carrying capacity of both. Of course, we also want to improve bus service and explore partnerships with shared-ride services to provide “last-mile” service.
There are important equity reasons for improving the rail network. In the scenario where development remains concentrated in Boston and congestion continues to increase because neither ride-sharing nor mass transit expands enough to absorb the growth, people with higher incomes will find their own solutions. They will price current residents out of the walkable, subway-served heart of Boston. And/or they will structure their lives so as to do their work at home and minimize commuting. People working in lower income service and labor roles will not have those options and will be increasingly forced to endure long and inconvenient commutes. We see these trends underway already. If we can build regional rail and ignite alternative hub development, we will need to assure that some of that development does, in fact, include affordable housing. Otherwise people with lower incomes will be continue to pushed out to more remote suburbs where their transit options and access to other services is limited.
Bottom line: Regional rail seems like the way to seed a multi-hub development pattern that will be more sustainable over the very long term. It also seems like an important strategy towards combating congestion even if our economic growth remains concentrated around Boston.
MassDOT has already initiated a Rail Vision Study. The Rail Vision team is trying to understand very specifically the rail network that already exists and the mechanics of expanding it in different ways. Towards the end of this year, that process will define some options and some order of magnitude costs associated with them.
The challenge will be to begin to move in the right direction with initial investments that offer the highest returns and the lowest project risks. It is neither intellectually honest nor politically feasible to commit to a single gigantic regional rail plan, but I hope we can reach consensus around first steps that are clearly sensible and roughly consistent with the longer term vision sketched here.
I think that there is a lot of upside for the district that I represent: Belmont, Watertown, Brighton, Fenway and Back Bay all stand to gain from improved rail connections. They are all residential sources of commuters; they are all the location of businesses to which people commute; and they are all cut-through communities for drivers who might be enticed to use higher quality rail. My hope is that the Rail Vision analysis will demonstrate clear feasibility and value for the urban elements of the regional rail vision, the elements that will bring better service to my communities.
There is a lot to talk about here — I’d especially welcome comments questioning my implicit or explicit assumptions.
Additional Thoughts, May 13, 2019
I am very grateful to all who have weighed in here. I have read all of the comments carefully from front to back. Some of them express concerns about my thinking. Some of them comment conflict with each other. I agree with all of the comments in the following sense: they all raise valid issues that we have to grapple with as we peer into the future. Having all of these thoughts together in one thread is great. Thanks again to all.
Just a couple of thoughts to underline.
- This post was not intended to cover everything we need to do about transportation, just to propose one element. There are many other critical elements.
- I especially agree with the “Fix it first” philosophy — reaching a state of good repair and increasing capacity on the core subway elements of the MBTA is the top priority.
- A few commenters emphasized increasing service frequency as an alternative to what I am advocating. But really, increasing service frequency would require substantial investment. That is what regional rail is really about — for the most part, it is not about entirely new connections.
- We should be more explicitly joining the conversation about state transportation investments together with the conversation about state involvement in local land use decisions. One useful resource identified by a reader was this one: Mitigating Climate Change Through Transportation and Land-use Policy — useful over view of possible strategies (should we be mandating zoning that permits increased density along rail lines?)
Is there a model anywhere in the world of expanded rail networks? If so, how effective is it?
There are strong rail networks in cities all over the world. Many of them work very well. Part of the Rail Vision study has been to look at other effective models.
Europe has done a lot to achieve this goal through both high speed rail service between hubs and robust inner city alternatives to service “the last mile”.
If you want examples, there are plenty. Frankfurt and Heidelburg come to mind, although I will admit to being more familiar with the German model, I’ve heard other countries operate similarly. Now, obviously, they have an advantage — they started from scratch 50 years ago and have continued to invest. (And when I say “scratch” remember that much of Europe was leveled during WWII, so “scratch” is not much of an exaggeration). Similar to what the auto industry of the 1970’s went through — the manufacturing infrastructure of Europe was wiped out and rebuilt. American industry never had that “advantage” — it just had to continue to evolve, which was much less efficient. It took the Auto Industry 50 years to come close to catching up. While this is a great vision, it’s likely that it would take 100 years or more for rapid transit in America to catch up with Europe.
Valuable thoughts Will. I think, however, that nothing like you envision can happen without electrifying the rail system. This will eliminate diesel exhaust while providing a more flexible system with trains that can accelerate much more quickly, serve stations that can be closer together, and allow for more frequent service.
Yes. I am a fan of electrification — reduce diesel exhaust and carbon emissions and also accelerate faster. Not certain whether the best technology is overhead power. Battery and fuel cell concepts are still a little early for our needs.
“….lot of upside for the district that I represent: Belmont, Watertown, Brighton, Fenway and Back Bay all stand to gain from improved rail connections. ”
Your analysis is good for the district that you represent. Increasing the frequency and hours of bus service is great. You may need to assign more priority (lanes) to buses. Unfortunately, this would make it (much) more difficult to drive in private cars or in Uber/Lyft. But perhaps that is not such a bad thing if you want to increase the occupancy in buses. An extension of the MBTA red line to Arlington would be a good idea too. Thank you for your efforts on our behalf.
The multi-hub vision is powerful and important for a more equitable regional approach to transportation. Lyft and Uber have added a lot of convenience—partially by subsidies, partially by technology and hugely by skirting regulation! As regulation catches up with these new transportation companies, it will increasingly be important to improve our true shared transportation—rail and bus and fixed location shared bicycles.
I support the multi-hub approach. Now is the time for massive investment, before the potential huge disruption of climate catastrophes make those investments impossible.
Hi Will. Thanks very much for sharing your thinking about this critical transportation problem. There is much to chew on here. A connection between North and South stations would be a boon.
By way of context I commute from Lexington to Fort Point in South Boston. There are so many problems on the Red line that I long ago gave up on it so I drive (or work from home as often as I can). If I leave Lexington (and Ways typically takes me through Belmont) by 6:45 am I can get to South Boston in about an hour. If I leave 30 minutes later it is a disaster. If I get to my parking garage before 8 am I get the “early bird’ special — $24 a day.
Transportation in greater Boston is a huge problem and I really appreciate your taking on this enormous, important challenge. It gives me hope that Beacon Hill can actually get something done on this.
getting people to switch from using their autos and soon autonomous autos to rail, bus and subway options is a major cultural/behavioral challenge for regional planning. it will require partnering with employers, hospitals, universities, and other organizations to make auto travel less attractive than rail & subway. for example, have such org’s provide van or mini-bus services to-from their facilities and to-from rail and subway locations, do not allow them to simply enlarge parking facilities, promote work from home, bring about financial incentives, etc. Thanks for taking the lead on this.
You are oversimplifying a complex issue. To start, people should trust in transportation reliability. And that is where MBTA is seriously lacking. All I hear is the late and/or missing buses, broken trains on T and cancelled commuter rail rides. That would be just the beginning. Then, there will be an issue with availability and scheduling. Imagine that you have kids. These days very few families can afford one parent to stay home. And if you work, you should be always ready to take off and rush to school or day care. Would you entrust public transportation under these circumstances, knowing that it will take you 3-4 times longer to get there than driving?
As for “encouragement”… Cambridge was trying to “encourage” use of public transportation by starting simultaneous repair on 3 (out of 6) major routs in and out of the city a few years back. Traffic was unbearable, but I don’t know any single person who would bulged (mainly because of the above issues). They were sitting in traffic, getting angry, idling their engines, but still would drive. And if you push people a bit too much, they will start leaving. Look at what’s happening in San Francisco.
Thanks you for your thoughtful analysis, Senator. It is possible that commuter rail could be made more effective and affordable if high-density zoning was adopted in areas within half a mile of train station. Newton and Winchester are places where multi-unit buildings would attract people who need to commute to Boston or Cambridge. Local opposition would be fierce. Then you could have train frequency sufficient to let them avoid car commutes.
I’m skeptical about commuter rail making other area cities into thriving hubs. The nation is gravitating to 30 or 40 cities that can attract outsiders. Except for smaller cities centered on major universities and a regional medical center the outlook is bleak. Worcester, with its colleges and med school may be able to overcome its past disastrous urban renewal schemes. And University of Lowell may be a big enough magnet for urban success. But other cities outside I-495 face bleak prospects, and investing more money in commuter rail to reach them is a waste.
I agree that rail is the best solution for congestion. But the rail that is needed is mostly subway inside the 128 beltway. That’s where we should be spending money. I understand that you need votes from the Senators from Haverhill and Brockton, so the state has to spend money there too, but it’s wasteful spending.
(FWIW — Logan Airport could have been a lot more creative in dealing with Uber & Lyft. They coild have allowed car-pool riders to be picked up and dropped off at terminals and only made the singles use central parking. I suspect the companies could have tweaked their algorithms to make that happen. )
It’s a great vision. Add onto that a program of full electrification, fare integration and system-wide level boarding. These will make the system run much more efficiently and accessibly. The cost of these latter options is not even that much and pays itself back within a few years. The main obstacle is political.
The other major item to think about is station access and land-use planning in the vicinity of stations. The area around stations should be super-friendly to walking and cycling. In particular, cycling offers the chance to expand the effective coverage area of a station by ten-fold, since even slower riders tend to cycle approximately three times faster than they can walk. This means the station could potentially be useful for ten times as many people, including those living in lower density suburban areas, as long as there are safe bike routes.
If you need an example…I can’t help but bring up what’s been accomplished over the past few decades in the Netherlands, where they have achieved nearly all of these features. High-frequency train service between the four major cities and countless small towns and villages in the Randstad: a part of the country that is comparable in size to MBTA territory. Fare integration, electrification – the only thing they lack is level boarding on the longer distance rail services. And of course the incredible bike+train integration, with easy, safe cycle routes from all directions leading to hubs of bike parking. At the destination end there’s easy bike rental available from most stations (you can get a bike with your transit smart-card). If you don’t want to bike there’s bus connections coordinated in schedule with the trains. The town planning is brilliant, with loads of pedestrianized spaces, parks and beautiful streets with people all about. In between towns is green and open land with farms and nature reserves. I know we talk about Dutch stuff a lot with regard to cycling infrastructure design but they also do public transit extremely well.
The knowledge is out there, all we have to do is copy it and catch up. The Dutch can seem light-years ahead but it’s not really. If you look at the history in the 1960-70s they were struggling with the same problems that Boston was in the 1960s-70s: there was even a big messy fight over a highway that was meant to be driven through the middle of Amsterdam. But afterwards they picked up the pieces and made decisions that they were going to do things differently from then on – and followed through.
Yes, Rotterdam, Holland is an excellent example:) It’s so efficient. Boston has the problem of very old infrastructure which needs improving first. This will take Federal $.
People in Springfield (including the mayor) and Palmer are very keen to have a high speed rail link to Boston. Here’s one group that’s organized for it, if you want a sense of where they’re coming from: https://trainsinthevalley.org/ These aren’t your constituents now, but some of us who are interact and visit with people out there. It’s also good for people in our area to be more aware of how neglected people in Western Mass feel and how resentful they are towards Boston area residents. The feeling is that there’s no limit to what can be spent if it helps us, but they get little or nothing (maybe that’s not fair, but that’s the perception people I’ve spoken to in Springfield and Holyoke have).
So if I understand them rightly, they see a high speed rail link as a way to connect to Boston jobs without having to give up their home (which they like very much, whatever people here may think about Springfield and Holyoke). They also see it as a way to boost the Springfield economy. They figure they offer affordable house prices to people who can’t afford to buy in Boston, and that having people move out there can help their economy.
Personally, I can’t imagine us spending the money for it to make sense to commute from Springfield to Boston. I go out there almost every weekend by Peter Pan and back by Amtrak (when it’s not too delayed), but commuting would be around 6 hours a day unless we magically became France or Japan and made trains lines like their people are willing to fund. So I think the link ups to focus on for Springfield should be through Connecticut (which is done already) and to Worcester.
I met a family taking the Sunday evening Lakeshore Ltd. once. They lived in Springfield and the father had found a job in Worcester (Worcester’s picking up a bit already, right?). Just connecting those two economies / labour markets should have some nice effects, never mind Boston.
If a commuter rail line from Union Station Springfield to Union Station Worcester existed that hit a couple points along the way — say Ludlow, Palmer, Auburn (maybe that’s a jagged line) — people like that family wouldn’t have to spend so long apart during the week or so much time commuting. And it would, technically, connect up with the Boston centered commuter line, so at least a trip that way is possible and could be improved over time, e.g. with express trains along the same routes.
But there’s more needed to solve the climate problem. If you look at an emissions intensity map for Massachusetts, you’ll see a big problem is the suburbs around Boston. How can their emissions be reduced? They won’t cluster or get out of their cars without some painful tax incentives, etc. But they’ll vote anything like that down. So what can be done?
It takes 30 minutes to ride my bike from Brighton Center to Kneeland Street in Boston, you can set your clock to it (it may take longer once the bike lane is finished on Comm Ave).
It takes an hour to make the same trip on public transportation, if I’m lucky and everything goes right, haha.
I’ve walked an hour from Brighton Center to Brookline Village, down Washington Street, during rush hour without a single bus passing me, despite the T website saying the next bus is coming in 5 minutes and every minute updates so the next bus is still 5 minutes away.
During snow emergencies, where parking is banned on many main streets in Brighton Center, I miss work rather than take two buses to my work in Needham, which is an hour and 10 minutes if everything goes perfectly (vs 31 minutes driving). I feel it’s too dangerous walking in the unplowed main streets of Needham at night.
The 650 unit luxury buildings they are building next to St. Elizabeth’s hospital, with only 320 parking spaces isn’t going to make things any better. (And a topic for another day….One of the Income restricted 2br apts there is only $3,127, parking and store is extra of course)
Mass transit needs to be pursued. But there are several moving parts to the discussion, such as greater density to reduce personal vehicles, providing for more flexible mixed use in properties, multi hub progress potential, funding, etc. Mass transit mode of travel needs to evolve to the point where it is the preferred mode of travel… I’ve used high speed rail, regular rail and T service in Taiwan, China, and in Europe; it seems those systems had an advantage where large numbers of people needed to use mass transit for economic reasons when compared to using a personal vehicle. And the systems were built accordingly to accommodate. I just keep thinking that until the use of a personal vehicle becomes un-affordable, that mass transit economics will be difficult to overcome.
Agree with spend a lot more money on transportation. It is the best use of money and worth taking on debt as well. Priority should be
1. North south rail.
2. Priority signaling for buses.
3. Unified payment system to increase ease of use and thereby ridership. Rail should tap in tap out with same Charlie card as buses.
4. Additional regional rail.
To put a finer point to my comment, my priority list should more like this:
1-20. A bunch of useful significant changes.
21. Additional regional rail.
Intriguing study and in general believe improving out public transportation system with multiple, connected and greener (electric) hubs sounds like a great idea. Having lived in Copenhagen for several months with a bicycle and multiple rail options I joined the 36% of citizens commuting to work, school or university by bicycle – and it was wonderful. Short hops by bike then bike friendly trains and buses could get me across town, to other towns or even other countries with ease. Increasing housing urban density can only go so far without negative impacts, while connecting less developed areas would expand to options and availablity to more people. I also applaud Cambridge’s commitment to improving bike infrastructure. Commuters cutting thru towns needs the be addressed too; maybe a tax / toll to non residents during peak hours could fund future development. Tolls for city driving too. Thanks for all you do Will.
We need at least 3 more bridges over Charles River.
We need to pave roads with new generation asphalt.
We need markings on the roads, they are terrible and people creating an accidents due to bad roads, potholes and no markings visible.
Street lighting is just terrible. You can not see much at evening, cars from opposite traffic make you blind due to no street lights, you can easy miss pedestrian, it is dangerous.
We need someone take better care about local communities and instead of letting building apartment complexes in the districts with really poor quality and narrow roads (some of them not a roads, just a directions, it is shame to call it roads) take infrastructure development issues as # 1 priority.
Belmont and Watertown building a massive apartment complexes and in 3 to 6 months later, all really poor and old bridges and area around will be stand still traffic, terrible noise and emissions most part of the day. Is it good for the Local Communities? Who benefits from this? Also, State should regulate Uber and Lyft activities – I see one solution: vans only and only pool trips. And quantity of Uber and Lyft must be regulated, otherwise it will be even more chaos than now.. Sorry for my English, but I believe it is understandable.
Watertown attempted to guide development, but the developers created a front group and purchased a seat in the Town Council. This is how most of these plans will go. Bend the knee to money first, second , and third.
Agreed. Watertown developers run (and will ruin) the place.
I agree with adding and improving bus/bicycle/walking infrastructure. Our so-called “roads” are dangerous and embarrassing. Climate change mandates fewer personal cars with lone drivers and with the fear of taxes rampant in America, these improvements should/must/could be funded by progressive taxes (gasoline, congestion pricing, Uber/Lyft).
All the concern about funding misses the point. If the FANG companies paid any taxes, we’d have all the revenue we need.
It is clear to me that the current reliance on automobiles is not sustainable. I see most cars with a driver only! For purposes of traffic congestion, energy usage etc. this must change.
People like commuting by car; so commuting by rail or bus must be improved and/or commuting by car
must become less desirable. I think that our highways should have dedicated bus lanes, at least during rush hour. Also, during rush hour there should be a requirement of at least 2 persons in a car.
I think multiple hubs are better than relying solely on Boston/Cambridge. We have several cities that could be ” hub cities” with better public transit.
Also, there is a huge need for more parking options at suburban T stations. I am sure many people use cars only because parking lots are full.
Agreed, whatever works to encourage less one-person auto trips would be a big plus.
An “easy” (not necessarily politically) way to free up parking at suburban T stations is to raise their prices, add adequate bicycle parking (at minimum, enough that it never runs out, covered to keep the rain off, video-taped to help deter theft. Perhaps an actual card-locked cage like at Alewife) and ensure that there are adequate routes for up to a mile (or two?) from the station. Anyone living closer who has the option to walk or bike, should walk or bike, and people from further away then have a greater chance of finding parking. (Obviously, reduced rates for handicapped parking, etc, since they lack the bike option.)
You can fit about 10 bikes in the space of a single parking space, so there’s room for this. And I hope also obviously, target the easier suburbs first — if there’s already easy-to-bike roads near the station in town X, do town X first, see how it works, and iterate.
The climate change problem makes this urgent — we should be doing everything proposed here, and increasing density (this has knock-on requirements for school/water/sewer/hospital/etc capacity, we should be addressing all those too), and electrifying cars and buses and trains, and installing restricted lanes for buses everywhere, and adding bicycle parking at any likely bicycle destination (racks fill up in Kendall Square in the summer, we need more space now), and, and, and.
David Chase’s comment re bike parking and fees for car parking is exactly right. This is the kind of thing the T should do immediately. It’s cheap and relatively easy.
I disagree that people actually like commuting by car or that commuting by car should be made less desirable. I think commuting by car is the prefered choice for most people because it is quickest, most flexible, and least awful. I don’t think most people enjoy sitting in traffic jams, being constantly on the lookout for being able to advance a couple of car-lengths while watching out for other cars trying to cut in in front of them, bikes and pedestrians dodging their way through the cars, listening to the sirens of emergency vehicles also stuck in the traffic, wondering if there is something they should be doing to get out of the way, but knowing they can’t. I’m sure most drivers would rather be relaxing, reading a paper or a book, listening to the radio or their music, or just looking out the window observing the scenery or people watching, and not having to be responsible for the safe navigation of their car.
What needs to be done is to make public transportation faster, more frequent and with endpoints closer to where people need to go (at both ends of their journey, both to work or school and to home.) It doesn’t have to be quite as fast as driving if you factor in searching for a parking space or the expense of paying for a permanent parking spot. But definitely not twice as long! Dedicated bus lanes, optimized signals for buses and trolleys, electric trains (with much better acceleration than diesels), and other improvements that others have mentioned can all help with this.
I don’t think David Chase’s idea to raise parking fees at suburban stations is a good one. I think it will only encourage more people to drive all the way into work. It would be much wiser to expand parking, especially at the outer (outside 128) stations which are full every day and also at those inner stations easily accessible to major highways (Alewife). I read an article not long ago in the Globe that claimed many commuter rail stations have large parking structures that are virtually unused. That may be true, but definitely not for the stations I’m most familiar with. The parking lots at all of the stations on the Providence line (at least as far as Mansfield) are totally full very early in the day. BTW, electrifying the commuter rail on this line is a no-brainer. It is already electrified. Metro North, CTrail, LIRR, NJT, SEPTA and MARTA (and maybe others) already run EMUs and electrified trains on the same tracks in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Baltimore and DC. The MBTA owns the tracks in Massachusetts, so there should be no impediment to beefing up the electrical substations where needed and electrifying some tracks at storage and maintenance yards.
David’s proposals to encourage bike access to the commuter rail (and rapid transit) stations are all excellent ideas, but I don’t think even in the best circumstances all that many people would ride bikes to the stations in the winter. Still, many people who would bike to a station in good weather would be happy to walk in much colder weather (maybe not in a blizzard) if there were safe walking routes created at the same time and along with safe bike routes feeding the stations. Also, make sure there are plentiful bike rental options at both ends, like the Blue Bikes I’m seeing all over the place in Cambridge and the Lime(? green) Bikes in Belmont.
Just for reference, it is at least possible to bike miles to work year round near Boston. I do it. Biking is pretty warm — if you can walk to a bus stop and wait for it, you would be warmer biking.
The main difficulty is the streets get narrower but the cars do not, plus of course it is dark in the winter. Decent separated cycling infrastructure fixes that in other countries, so it would work here too.
The problem with expanding parking is that people don’t much like other people’s cars — only their own — so you can only get an expanded parking lot someplace nobody lives near, which then makes it harder to get there any way other than driving. It’s also surprisingly expensive.
Agreed, make public transport better, efficient, consistent and accessible, not car driving less desirable. Biking is not an option for many folks with kids and is quite dangerous in many sections of the city( like why is there no protected bike lane in the new greenway in place of the old highway which would help bring bikers safely from north to south Boston? Just doesn’t make any sense?? Lost opportunity, just as there was no real plan for good public transportation( or public parks) in Seaport.
Ironically the Alewife Garage, when first built, was designed so that two more floors could be added as needed. Well, they are needed since the garage is usually full before mid morning, but now the garage is falling apart. An unrelated irony is that we have turned railroad Rails into Trails for biking, etc….and that is wonderful, however improved rails state wide would also be wonderful!
“Upgraded regional rail could encourage the multiple hub scenario”
I do not believe that it would be wise to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on a “Could Encourage” scenario where rail communities might share in the vibrant growth we have here in Metro Boston. First plans need to be created with commitments from business to build or expand and progress on the plans monitored before money is wasted on rail systems. These plans can also monitor climate change and the impact on our region.
Obviously there is no clear answer regarding the future of climate change and its real impact, or when it may occur in the Boston area, there is no clear answer regarding how much additional business growth we will have, so the only rational path is to create a multi-functional plan to address the problems that you wrote about and then to monitor events and the growth progress of our area and when some clarity is seen to implement the plans. Let’s not use a Ready, Fire, Aim solution.
I agree in principle with John’s remarks. The problem with rail infrastructure and hub cities is a “chicken and egg” – which comes first? At this point I think it would be hard to identify viable hubs as attractive as Boston/Cambridge, Amerhest being the sole exception and even then, I think it’s marginal. But the reality is that if you don’t make the investment in transport infrastructure, can these “alternate hubs” never get a chance to prove themselves?
Or…. maybe they already have… and the news is not so good.
Let’s take Worcester. It’s 40 miles /52 minutes by car from my house (in Belmont) to an address I picked at random at 8 am on a Friday. Not a great commute, but it benefits from being “reversed” from most traffic. Let’s assume that high speed rail can do the run at 120 MPH, that’s about 20 minutes. But then add on the time getting to and from the stations at both ends. Even assuming it’s 10 minutes in either direction to bike/drive and park and then take the (non-existent) local electric rail in Worcester, and I waste a couple minutes because I time it wrong. We’re now even again with my driving time of 52 minutes and there’s a lot more inconvenience. In other words, a high speed rail transit system would not improve upon what we already have in this case. So why isn’t Worcester more of a hub?
We have not seen massive adoption of the potential “hub cities” by high tech or biotech. Why not? I don’t think it’s lack of access to transport. There are other factors at work here. Perhaps the Hub City concept just does not work and is not worth the investment at this time.
While many in the (very urban) statehouse tend to frown on the car as a means of travel, it’s actually the most efficient solution in terms of reaching these other potential hubs, until they too become congested at which point you may need the rail systems (so plan for the future, but that may be 100 years away).
I would propose that a better alternative at this time to investing in inter-city rail lines is to insure the roadway infrastructure is more robust and couple that with community investment to grow the attractiveness of the potential hubs. Make the roads safe for 100mph travel. And before you react viscerally (“Death Mayhem Destruction Environmental Catastrophe!”) remember that congested European roads easily handle this type of traffic on a daily basis and that self-driving electric cars are already on the our roads. Maybe investing in rail solution is akin to buggy whip futures in the 1930’s. And ultimately would we be building a railway to a place no one really wants to go? Instead let’s make those places more attractive.
I personally find the vision of a European multimodal nodal architecture alluring, but I believe that Americans will never embrace it and perhaps SHOULD NOT embrace it given the revolution in personal transportation that the self-driving vehicle offers.
So maybe you’re asking the wrong question here. Technology often surprises you that way. You asked “should we invest in rail infrastructure to create Hub cities?”
If the goal is to develop hub cities, let’s figure out what will make them attractive, use the existing roadway infrastructure to facilitate transport to them and develop a plan based around that. Maybe 100 years from now we’ll need the trains, so let’s think about that in 75 years or so
Car tech surprising us is a good point. Automated car tech may be perfected in 10-20 years would mean a return to urban flight as people try to get away from cities to live but can still take a nice nap as a car efficiently platoons them to work.
Investing in mass transit ie subway and rail makes sense. What I question is our ability to manage and maintain it. Our track record, no pun intended, leaves me doubtful.
Adding additional capability and capacity is important but not if we can’t maintain and manage it effectively. Timely and reliable are practical examples of what i mean by manage and maintain.
Any plan to expand- which i encourage- needs to include a sufficiently funded plan to manage and maintain.
First step fix what we have. Then I would be willing support additional investment.
I think it is imperative that whatever transit plans are made, the needs of people in low-income neighborhoods be given precedence. More affluent folks have many choices; less affluent folks depend upon whatever public transportation exists. In planning, assessing the needs of these neighorhoods should come FIRST.
I think the bottom line is a ticket’s cost and accessibility of rail stations for travelers.
My comment is that the current infrastructure developed from the 1890’s through 1970’s is designed to move people from suburb to city. But the major congestion is now around around the city, (128 loop, 495 loop). as well as into the city. All the visions and talked about solutions do not envision an expansion of transit in some form or another and deal with the general congestion where it is the worst, Like along 128, 12-14 hours a day, in addition to bottle necked traffic along 93. Solving or improving transit that moves people in & out of the city is 1/2 or a third of the problem. Solving the whole problem creates alternatives to needing a car in the developed suburbs along 128 and plans for a similar investment in the future in the communities around 495. Not everyone will give up there car, but now in these areas you can not survive without one because you can not get to where you need to go without one. If there was light rail expansion long 128, it is possible that a percentage of people who commute from these areas would park when they got to 128 and take light rail inside of driving daily around the city to work. If the service was solid-idly reliable, & fast it is possible the percentage would even make a difference. Then making the buses and other transit improvements could help get the suburbs around the city to be accessible with less car use. The same can be said about Rapid Transit and commuter rail.
We have done a large amount of development without any corresponding investment transportation. Especially with big issues of climate change, and and how to design an urban, suburban environment, we need to solve the congestion issue and do it without fossil fuels, or end up with a dystopian society out of one of the science fiction books.
Uber and Lyft are not a solution to congestion. They cause it, if my observation driving down Huntington Ave last Thursday is an indication. These ride hail cars stop in the middle of the street blocking traffic to drop and pick up rides willy-nilly and without regard to their effect on the flow of traffic. I have seen the same in Cambridge, BackBay and Belmont. I believe they are a tiny part of any solution and to allow them more is a horrible failure on the political class. You are punting your responsibilities and privatizing what should be a public good.
While additional rail is great, there is no good way to go by public transportation from any of the towns on 95 to any other town. Their needs to be a regional solution to the overgrowth of development of huge ugly block apartments. Rail will not help. I couldn’t car pool or take public transportation if I wanted unless I left Watertown, bussed to Cambridge, took the Red Line to Alewife and bussed from there. Really? Not going to happen. Towns have old out to Developers. Rail is great but solves one tiny piece of the transportation nightmare. Like that you are thinking about this but the solutions are both regional and local. What have you don’t to prevent the overgrowth in the districts you represent or made sure their was /is affordable housing? Will wait for the answer. Thanks.
I’m a proponent of integrating efficient subway along with development and having the seamless transition door to door including that so important last mile. NYC does a great job with their subway system extending to all boroughs but does a lousy job with airport connections, with the sole exception being Newark and you can’t give NYC credit for that as it’s in NJ. Try getting from JFK or LaGuardia into midtown and it’s a nightmare. We have the same problem and made the same mistake with Logan. I guarantee we would not have congestion issues if a rail took you from all terminals directly to the center of the city or at least South Station. A bus from the terminal to blue line is a joke. This is something that so many cities worldwide have done really well (Amsterdam, London, San Francisco). Maybe a dedicated high speed train to Worcester airport would make that a viable flying hub and alleviate congestion in Boston while providing economic benefits to Worcester.
The seaport district is another example of major development with no investment in rail transport or reasonable parking. If that were an area in lower manhattan, which is a reasonable geographic comparison, there would be 6 or 8 subway stops.
Assembly row got it right, or almost right. The subway stop is there, hooray!, but should deposit you right in the heart not on the outskirts.
Our subways have to be faster, bigger, more well maintained, less prone to failure, and integrated into existing areas under served and part and parcel with any new development. For example, is the new casino going to have a subway stop right there or are we going to force more traffic to get people from Sullivan or North Station which will just mean people will drive or take an Uber.
Great piece, senator.
I’d echo many of the sentiments here and also add that the costs for parking at the various lots in and around the train stations make it substantially less cost effective to park and ride. Many of these lots are privately managed by Laz or another outfit, and they make it so that parking at the Wellesley train station and taking the train there and back is upwards of $30 per day. That’s just not in the cards for folks whose offices have free parking.
Just something to consider.
I really support the idea of regional rail. I have spent the last year living in Taipei, Taiwan. The city is served by an excellent subway (which has the advantage of being very new), but is also served by high-frequency regional rail trains that connect it to nearby cities (may of these are actually quite old). When I take the regional rail to a city about as far as Worcester is from Boston, I can see how many cars it keeps off the road. Literally hundreds of people get off at the same station as me. The trains encourage dense development. All stations have fare gates, so you pay before you get on the train, even for regional trains.
There is huge demand for housing within reasonable commuting time of Boston/Cambridge. For example they recently built high density apartments along Orange Line Malden, Wellington, Assembly Square stops. If the Regional Rail was fast/reliable and if the towns/cities allowed apartments to be built by the stations, many people would choose to live there rather than commute by car. But it requires both zoning changes to allow the high density housing by the stations plus improved rail service. Many towns currently will not even allow reasonably sized parking lots near their commuter rail stations much less high rise affordable apartments. In other places like Fairmount Line there is high housing density but the rail service is unreliable. Need both reliable rail and appropriate zoning to make this vision work
As usual you ask a lot of good questions. I used to live in Oslo Norway from 1987 to 1990 and recently visited for 3 1/2 weeks in March. It is a different culture, but rush hour traffic that was common when I lived there has disappeared. How did they do it? Though it is a different culture, they did several things we should consider.
First, totally agree with your multiple connected hub concept. Metro Oslo has expanded, but with distributed denser communities, surrounded by some more open space and connected with great transit.
This has required considerable investment. The Norwegians are fortunate to have huge oil revenues, but they are investing them very wisely to the future. We don’t have that, but we do have funding options. The problem is everybody will have to pay for a better future and everybody seems to think that they are privileged and someone else should pay for it.
The other key element is putting a toll to drive into the urban core. London is working on this, NYC is considering it. It would cause a royal uproar in Boston, but I think we need to go that way.
Other funding sources: MBTA users pay a nationally average very low portion of the true cost through fares, these should increase, period. the region as a whole greatly benefits from the economic engine of Boston; harness this engine with a sales tax addition on Suffolk, Norfolk, Bristol, Middlesex, Essex counties (basically everywhere commuter rail goes) to help fund all modes of the T. Increase the state gasoline tax significantly to primarily fund the long overdue road and bridge maintenance projects in non-metro Boston portions of the state. They need attention too. Use this funding to put subway/light rail in the Rt 128 and Rt 495 median or ring. These are our commuting patterns now, putting rapid transit could transition these vital loops from one-person car to common carrier modes.
The last mile and urban core: I’ve bike commuted from Arlington Heights to downtown Boston for 20 years. Most people won’t do that. But new things like Lime scooters, Lime e-bikes, uber, etc are transforming things. In one way they make more congestion. But in another way they reduce it. I don’t have any great answers here, but these type of services are critical to the “last mile” of a commute that is really important if we want someone to give up their car, we have to have a way of getting them from the station to their office.
Thank you for this thoughtful and detailed post. While I think regional rail is a noble goal, as others have noted, this will never happen without electrification of the entire system. I’m not sure Massachusetts has the political will to achieve this objective.
I also think the primary funding focus should be on continued modernization and expansion of the MBTA’s core services – heavy rail, light rail, and bus. These serve the densest parts of Greater Boston, and thus are the most efficient from a passenger-per-mile and farebox recovery perspective. In other words, less money can go a lot further in impacting a lot more people positively than if we dump billions into regional train services like South Coast Rail, which is already a fiscal boondoggle. GLX, AFC 2.0, Red/Orange Line modernization, BRT / priority lanes – all of these are much more important, and with the MBTA struggling as is with capital delivery projects, I don’t know if adding another behemoth on their plate in the form of regional rail at this point is wise.
Additionally, though I recognize that some people prefer more quiet suburban neighborhoods, many of the world’s most liveable and desirable cities have extremely high density. For example, Paris averages 53,000 people per sq mile, compared to ~14,500 in Boston. The city proper (and most of its surrounding suburbs) has plenty of room for infill development and increased density. On this front, we need zoning reform, elimination of parking minimums, etc. But I think it is disingenuous to suggest that “there are limits to how much density is desirable.” As you rightly note, done right, density is more cost efficient, more economically productive, more environmentally friendly, and much healthier for the populace. In my view, attacking density strays perilously close to Trumpian anti-immigration rhetoric, such as “we’re full; try somewhere else.”
Finally, I hope you support exploration of congestion pricing in Greater Boston. It’s very much needed, and leading cities such as London, Stockholm, and Singapore have implemented it effectively. Alternatively, I would love to see expansion of pedestrian / bike only zones in Boston (not that we have many currently). E.g. expand the DTX zone, ban cars from Newbury Street, make Chinatown car-free!
Thanks as always for your advocacy!
Thank you Senator for initiating this conversation. I’m impressed by your analysis of this incredibly complex issue and enormously encouraged by the informed responses you’ve received.
Obviously, there is no single solution. And a “ready, shoot, aim” approach will only make problems worse. Climate change is creating the urgent necessity to do something very soon & social justice requires a deep understanding that we are all in this together. It’s about housing, lifestyle, health and community…..and money. Whatever is done will require substantial initial investment and, more importantly, sustainable funding far into the future. Obviously, a carbon tax could play a critical role.
So thanks again for starting this discussion. Let’s move with deliberate speed & purpose and make real, substantial headway in solving these problems. We are running out of time.
Interesting… regional rail could help if the economic dynamic also adapts… look at Netherlands as a model for inspired design for trains and buses. Up
Try to solve tomorrow’s problem, not today’s inconvenience ( for instance, punishing Uber users by forcing them to come and go through the same remote location as long-term parkers is seriously missing the point… central parking is not designed for massive flow…so parkers also punished at a high price.
The current plans I see on the table are variations of the same: Radial routes in out of metropolitan areas (hub and spoke). The T is a 19th century urban planning solution to solve a 20th century traffic problem that no longer works in the 21st century. We are concentrating our focus on things like the GLX when weshould focus on a circumferential light rail (or something) along rte 128 to connect the spokes. Also I worked up in the Hartwell ave. (Lex) area for a small firm that lost so many people to the RI and NH area because of traffic and commutes. Also we need to think about fully automated monorail type driver-less trains in dedicated protected rights of way with 24-7 365 service in the suburbs for the next gen MBTA. Labor costs are crushing the T making it cost ineffective by any metric today. Also Boston is going to be flooded out, so why are we concentrating so much resources in that area? The cost of everything in Boston is chasing out firms to the suburbs. We need to rethink the concept of central cities.
The percentage of MBTA riders compared to the percentage of total population in Boston, is very low.
More people must be encouraged to use public transportation, by:
1. Reducing the fare.
2. Rounding OFF the fare to the nearest dollar, so that they don’t have to look for coins.
3. Reducing the amount of walking to get to a bus or to a train.
One of the key issues I see in public transit for Boston is that it is very, very good for getting to downtown Boston from various places in the greater metro area. What it is not good for is getting from, for example, Brighton to Jamaica Plain. To do that via public transit involves “go in to go out” – you have to get to a hub and take transit out to your destination, even if that functionally doubles the length of the journey. When it comes to changes in the transit around the immediate area of Boston, that is the big weakness. As a resident, that is when I am most likely to take a cab or use a rideshare.
For the needs of the larger Massachusetts area, I agree that investing in rail improvements is critical. Moving beyond maintenance thinking is absolutely necessary to encourage increased ridership – there will be real pushback at the cost, but the benefits will be greater both in terms of people’s access to housing/jobs as well as the very real truth that public transit investment is necessary to decrease our carbon footprint.
It depends on how and when you measure this. At rush hour, the Red Line in a single direction at “policy” rush capacity carries about 13,360 people per hours — more than 6 lanes of traffic at maximum capacity. So-called “crush” capacity is 21,500 people per hour — almost 10 lanes. Calculations here:
For longer-haul traffic, considering the freeways and commuter rail, commuter rail carries 42% of the commuters at rush hour. Calculations here:
And anyone using the freeways for a “short haul” commute when they could instead use train, subway, bus, or bicycle, is taking road space and parking space from someone with a longer commute.
Bicycle traffic follows a similar peaky pattern — and to the extent that we cannot time shift, the peak is what matters. If you bike, you mostly don’t care about traffic jams (stopped cars are safe cars, so in some way traffic jams are good if you are comfortable weaving your bike around obstacles), and so you leave exactly when you want to.
Faster, more certain service to attract commuters who live out.
Enlarge station parking lots—now congestion near any lot, any AM.
Van services for the same reason, above.
Smoother rails for comfort and reading.
Widen immigrant opportunities and for the towns where they live.
Increase affordable housing, complimentary to urban city jobs.
Economic opportunity for far-towns, now limited by local jobs.
Recreational and weekend attractions to rising young urban workforce—Lunch in Fitchburg, bike path in Ayer, hiking/skiing in Wachusett, and on and on…
Commuter rail events, such as the midnight ride before the Boston Marathon; canoeing/swimming(?) at the Quabbin Reservoir (ok, no swimming); farmers markets; and on and on…
Consider a warm spring weekend with an event or attraction in every town served by a single commuter rail—the Fitchburgh Line for example—or all lines.
A Weekend Party Rail Pass?
Reading “Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”, 2011, one was struck that the main character and many others train-to-the-country, not car.
This is a very exciting idea Will, so well thought out, and an exciting discussion, and I’m learning a lot. From what I’ve seen of rail in some European cities, I too feel we can learn a lot. Often public wellbeing is also augmented in many of those cities with nearby accessible nature (as was mentioned about Amsterdam) which people in cities really do need to thrive. Research says we’re starved for it and that it even helps reduce crime. When we do have some nature in US cities it’s rarely far enough away from industrial noise so the nature effect is minimal. So fewer cars (and much more carefully-directed traffic) and electrification seem essential not only in transportation and for global warming (including diesel trucks and buses) but in most power equipment that makes city and often suburban living unbearable–power saws, leaf-blowers, etc. at all hours. Then if we have green space it can really feel like nature. Quieter, greener cities help fight stress–that’s for sure. By the way many of those cities with good transport systems, bike trails, etc. and more nature also have many more care-free public gathering places than we tend to, and the community gets out and goes to them–also essential for human thriving. In happiness (and often health) surveys those countries tend to do much better than we do. Also I agree on climate change bringing people north, and tropical diseases moving into the southern US may make that happen even faster. Anyway I love seeing this thoughtful and inspiring discussion and thanks!
This is a great article, Will. An expanded rail line is needed. Going into Central or Western Mass there are many great towns to live in if rail service would be available for work commutes. I travel on the MBTA Fitchburg Line which is in much need of repair. As Massachusetts grows and wants to offer affordable housing then we need to expand rail service.
Thanks for the thoughtful post, Will.
I’m not sure that improving rail may not lead to multiple hubs, though, without significant incentives to effect the other hubs. Instead, it might lead to simply facilitating the movement of people from afar into Boston. Not saying it’s a bad outcome, just that it might not lead to the more distal cities becoming secondary tech hubs like Boston/Cambridge.
I think it’s important to make Uber, Lyft, and other hailing services bear the full cost of their impacts and externalities. They can be very convenient. However, they:
-lead to increased congestion
-less public transit use from people opting to use them rather than a bus
-increased gas consumption from cars driving empty or idling
-much like trucking, they’re implicitly subsidized by public road and transportation funds
-pay their “contractors” arguably slave wages
-increase inequity by focusing their services on wealthier areas.
Strong regulations of such services would have broad benefits.
Is there a parallel to the “Inner Loop”, North Station-Kendall Square-MIT-Boston? Does regional rail require a concept of the “Outer Loop”S—128/95, 495, 190?
Can our multi decade planning process for major capital improvements, meet the existential demand of Climate Change?
That is what the Urban Ring project was intended to do, but it was partially shelved due to lack of funds. It is being implemented piecemeal, with services such as CT1, CT2, CT3, and the new Silver Line service to Chelsea.
I agree with a lot of what you say here. Excellent rail service would transform the region IF the problem of the “last mile” (really the last 1-3 miles) could be solved. Could we implement congestion charges in downtown Boston to make local transportation simultaneously more efficient and more attractive relative to cars? It’s also essential to renew the T. London managed to modernize the Tube without causing the whole city to grind to a halt, surely we can.
I don’t believe that most Americans understand how transformative really good rail service can be — they’ve never seen it. Good luck with your efforts to make this a reality.
Thanks, Will, for raising this important issue. I strongly support your main point: a fully electrified rail system interconnecting gateway cities throughout the eastern Mass. region would offer great support for smart, balanced growth. I do have a couple of questions. 1) I’m not so sure about that last-mile problem and the potential for ridesharing, self-driven or otherwise, to solve it. It seems to me that multiple users going to and from multiple locations at variable times might lead to confusion, congestion and delays–but then I’m not much of a computer guy. I do think that walking and cycling are good ‘last-mile’ modalities for many (not all) of us, and I would urge that any plan include the very best complete streets and protected bicycling infrastructure–Matthew Danish’s post here offers a wonderful overview of the cycling piece. Strong encouragement of walking might be a public health campaign worth promoting. 2) A larger concern I have is equity. Building more affordable housing in satellite cities like Brockton, Lawrence, Lowell, etc., with excellent commuter rail connections, is a great idea–but only if the transit is affordable for lower-income working people. The Ile de France surrounding Paris has a strong network of commuter rail, but it has produced terribly ghettoized, failed communities, where many people never travel the 10 or 15 miles into the city because it’s too expensive. Transit, like education, health care, and child care, should be a public service largely paid for from general revenues, with perhaps a modest, means-tested co-pay. A functional commonwealth can’t leave its vulnerable members to fend for themselves in this climate-threatened, congested, income-stratified region we are at risk of creating. Thanks for the chance to toss these ideas into the hopper.
I think you’ve identified (and minimized) the two main problems with any sort of multi-hub system
1) Last mile transit. I love biking/walking, for the 8 months out of the year when there isn’t snow on the ground. But I need to commute 12 months out of the year…
2) Cost at building an efficient circumferential system, whether bus or train. Consider also that if busses come too frequently, they’re empty; too infrequently, they’re inconvenient.
I would suggest the most modest of changes- set up a flexible, door-to-door shared service. BRIDJ had the right idea, they just went belly-up too fast. But see if you can get that running- a bunch of shuttles, running around suburbia, with on-demand pickup and drop offs. At some point, MASSDOT ran Bay State Commute, a never-used website to facilitate carpools. Can they figure out a way to get that jump-started? Unfortunately, there is no easy hardware solution; we might need a way to use the infrastructure we have.
Thanks Will, very timely. Electrification of rail to modernize it and make it attractive is key, not the least to take out the pollution of diesel. You have to increase parking and make that low/no cost to park to give people incentive to use.
But I think you should also look at widening the array of modern electric, hydrogen and other zero emission buses and vans to make them much more modern and attractive so that people get on them, rather than dreading the slow smelly buses of old. Look at San Francisco, which has had electric buses for decades and people use them all over town.
Other ideas include: Locate dedicated bus lanes in the inner core to speed them up We can’t just have buses going up and down Mass Ave., consider a wider number of streets inside 128 with these modern ZEV buses/vans. Consider having many more of these modern ZEV buses, and consider making them smaller to speed them up maneuvering in the inner core, and while at it increase trip frequency and reduce per vehicle cost. If you make them more attractive, may increase utilization rates.
To get people out of single use car trips, congestion pricing is key. People respond to incentives, and if the trip is easy and cheaper on an electric train or bus, people will do it. Same goes with ride shares: State can charge a meaningful tax to get single uses down, and probably the best way to do that is to limit the daily number of single uses allowed in the network, and pricing for those single rides will go up, and the rest of “allowed ride shares” will necessarily be 2+ riders. And while you’re at it with the rules of the game for ride share companies, you should consider mandating that they increasingly have ZEV cars/vans in their networks, with the goal of 100% ZEV ride shares by a target date. That’s key, because right now we are experiencing massive pollution from all these cars driving in the inner core (I believe the figure is 40% of all GHGs are from the transportation sector). So if we start using the terms and conditions of permits to use our roads for ride sharing, the state can get the ride share companies of the future to be part of the ZEV future that we need.
So, in the end, I believe you should really go back to the design drawing board and “think small” (if you don’t mind my Steve Martin pun), both on MBTA buses/vans, and also how to incorporate more efficient, higher utilization ZEV vehicles in the ride share future. Parked cars all over the inner core is not the answer. I don’t believe telling people to take big trains is going to put a real dent on it, even though I suspect having fast electric trains will increase their utilization. Making ride share networks and surface buses look more modern, be climate-positive, and work faster to connect this fast-paced modern metro area and achieve the transportation goals of the future feels like a really important part of the solution.
Bill Bulkley’s point is well taken, but I would expand on it. The entire world is going through a second wave of urbanization that is qualitatively different from the first, which was based on geographic features, like ports or rivers. The new wave is all about skill concentration, which (alas) naturally bends toward inequality, because a) skills come in degrees. and b) skilled people like to live with each other and have the resources to do so (there is some evidence that skilled people living with lots of other skilled people are more productive than skilled people living in low-income communities), which means that everywhere in the world cities are being sorted into those that are growing and those that are not. Regions everywhere are wrestling with the same problem Boston is and we should be watching to see what everybody else does. I am encouraged by your brief comment that the Rail Vision study is doing just that.
Also I would like to endorse Matthew Danish’s observation about the Dutch. I just returned from spending a week in Amsterdam, and with the notable exceptions of getting to and from the airport the highlight of my trip with the experience of getting around in a city the same size as Boston but which seemed to have solved its transportation issues. At least for the time being.
“…the highlight of my trip *was* the experience …”
Before making large plans/investments it would be helpful to have a decent understanding of the timetable for implementation of autonomous vehicle ride-hailing services.
Estimates vary so radically that none of ’em can be considered reliable. But much more widely accepted predictions may well evolve within the next couple of years.
One possibility that seems plausible to me is that what we would see within five years in Massachusetts autonomous vehicles approved for particular streets/highways/weather conditions, with major discounts for pooled passengers, and that it would, however, be many years further off before such vehicles would be permitted to go anywhere on the roads under any conditions. But even the first phase could have dramatic impacts on use of our public transportation systems.
Will, I am impressed with the quality and quantity of the responses generated by your thoughtful piece on our Commonwealth’s transportation strategy. Please continue initiate these kinds of conversations.
I believe the concern about sea level rise should be taken quite seriously. It seems quite possible that in the foreseeable future Boston will become much less attractive as a place to work and live. Indonesia is moving its capital city. We may need to do the same at some point.
For many reasons discussed here, the Hub strategy seems like an important way to go. I would call it a “Hub and Spoke” strategy, not unlike the Internet structure. Each Hub will be meaningfully connected by its spokes to smaller neighboring mini-hubs and will be connected to all of the other Hubs not just the Big Hub. The future will provide “connections” of a quality, quantity and speed that are difficult to imagine. Add some AI and its effect on the future of work and we have a very different world of opportunities we need to be ready to take advantage of.
I know it is not directly relevant to your district, but please don’t forget to include ferries in your thinking. The new ferry service from North Station to the Seaport already has good usage and can maintain a more predictable schedule than the bus it replaced (vital for those connecting to commuter rail going north.)
I lived in Japan for several years. Please look at that Country’s rail system.
Having one similar to it would really make a difference. Send a delegation to
Some factors to consider:
1) There is a huge culture problem at the MBTA/Dept of Transportation: They do not understand that their ultimate purpose is to serve their userbase, not satisfy a bunch of metrics. The buses would be on time more often if they never stopped for passengers or didn’t run at all during rush hour, but that wouldn’t be a usable system. This is in some ways a top-down problem imposed by Gov. Baker’s policies, but if the system is to survive into the future, we have to figure out how to make the culture one of service rather than box checking.
2) A lot of the solutions proposed for funding, e.g. increasing fares or gasoline taxes, are regressive and will mostly hurt people who are already disadvantaged. There are things we could do right now that would cost very little money and make a difference, such as making it clear to both riders and drivers that the 501/503 can be used for local stops and therefore supplement the 57 during rush hour.
3) The focus on commuters leaves a lot of people out — people who don’t work 9-to-5; people who want or need to travel on weekends, late nights, or in the middle of the day; people who have strollers or wheelchairs and want to avoid the most crowded time of day; people who are travelling in the “wrong” direction…
4) Boston is always going to be the biggest draw, but by essentially assuming that it is the only draw, our current public transportation system is essentially forcing people inward. If you don’t have or don’t want to have a car, you are currently very limited in where you can live and reasonably travel. I have a really good friend whom I only see in the city because I live at the end of the C line and she lives a 20 minute drive from one of the further red line stops. Compare this to NYC, where the most limited regional rail schedule still has at least 1 train per hour going in and out on every line. This allows people to far more reasonably live outside of the city and commute in, or even “reverse” commute to New Haven and Stamford.
If the rest of the Massachusetts legislature were as thoughtful and well-informed as Senator Brownsberger, we would be making much better progress on these vital transportation issues.
I would add that value capture from real estate developers who benefit enormously from nearby transit improvements could make a real difference in funding. If the state can underwrite timely construction of transit projects, this is something developers should be willing to help sponsor with their own money. The traffic mess in the South Boston Innovation District was a major missed opportunity, which we should not repeat in the burgeoning developments in Kendall Square, Kenmore Square, Allston/Brighton, and along the Green Line extension project.
There is huge potential for housing and jobs in the satellite cities around Boston, if they can be interconnected efficiently to the Hub and to each other. Developers could move forward confidently with construction and renovation if the state had a clear longterm plan for access, jointly funded by the state and by those whose properties will soar in value from being connected.
Senator Brownsberger’s points are eloquent and well stated. There are multiple opportunities and challenges that our state will need to address in the next 5-10 years. I think of it like a juggler, who has multiple balls in the air and has to deal with all of them but in a certain order and priority. I know Climate Change is going to be a big problem, which may require a hardening of our infrastructure and more efforts to prevent flooding in Boston. We also will have to work to prevent our smaller Massachusetts communities from being hollowed out by population losses, lack of jobs, and a dearth of investment. But I believe a fundamentally issue (that I am not sure was previous addressed) in the short term would be better MBTA/Rail access to Dorchester/Roxbury/Mattapan neighborhoods. There are a lot of areas in Boston where there could be a real revitalization of neighborhoods and communities with just a bit of investment; with the key being better access for people to the T. We have seen how Somerville has grown with increased T access and Davis square has thrived. My old work building was taken over to be a new facility to repair green line trains. I think an investment in those communities (Dorchester/Roxbury/Mattapan) could do a world of good. It also may help persuade others of the moral, and ethical urgency of this project and win over new allies to its cause.
I appreciate that you are thinking practically about the matter and it seems you are inching your way closer to what I feel is the only possible, functional answer: adding rail. But I have a mantra that won’t go away when I think about all these facets of transportation: FIX THE T. We have a massive dose of misery on Boston over the T not working and all these absurd-to-me things being said about making driving less desirable (when it CANNOT BE ANY LESS DESIRABLE) or making bicycle paths to Boston but as you should know 99% of bosses won’t let you work there if you are sweaty before you even arrive… Fix the T and get a management that works. These ridiculous fantasies are useless diversions. Go to the worse bureaucracy, Russia, and the T runs every five minutes all day long, you can set your watch to it, and their trains are older than ours. The subway trains in Moscow must be 80 years old. Their winters worse. Their trains are still on time. Their traffic jams worse. Their trains on time, and every five minutes all day long. We can do this, we simply have to bust the %@lls and do it. Charlie Baker got re-elected without even a hint of aggravation over the T. Nobody cared to hold his feet to the fire, why was that? My husband’s commute went from 3 out of 5 nights having a problem to 5 out of 5 nights sitting in tunnels, not connecting to buses, often walking from Harvard at 1am after sitting on a still train in a tunnel for 35 minutes. All this energy we have for addressing the transportation issue would be so much more effective for people who have jobs if we fixed the T. Exactly why can’t we do that instead of working on all these go-around solutions?
I am happy, Senator Brownsberger, that you are dedicated to improving transportation. I will share 3 simple ideas I have that would cost little or nothing and could be implemented immediately.
1. ON STREET PARKING FOR COMMUTERS NEAR BUS STOPS
COST = ZERO TIME= NONE
Do away w/ 2-hour parking limit on streets that are near Bus Stops. (btw My house is in one of these areas and along w/ everyone else I like having no cars in front of my house, but the street does not belong to me.) It is a shame to waste this space during day time. Towns could number the parking places and the town could charge a small fee for a special pass. Alternately, just let the people park there while the commuters hop on buses to Harvard Square and beyond w/ public transportation. Years ago there was no 2 hour limit and it was fine. As for shops near by. Most people walk to those shops. Limit the time allowed in the spaces near the shops.
2. COMMON / WAVERLY STREET BUS – ACCESS TO TRAIN / Expressway BUS
COST = NOT MUCH
A rush hour bus on Common Street from Belmont Center to Watertown Square could bring commuters to the Downtown/Backbay Express Bus at Watertown Square and to the train at Belmont Center.
3. DRIVEWAY RENTAL PROGRAM
Finding a means whereby driveway owners who would be willing could connect with commuters in regards to renting driveway space during commuting days. Fees could be given to a charity if people wished.
Thank you, Senator, for all your work on improving our lives.
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