Smart Transportation

Like all legislators, I like to report tangible good news. In the past few weeks, I’ve reported on progress (or at least efforts towards progress) on transportation projects across my district — from Back Bay to Belmont Center. Lots of that on this website.

But I wanted to share another perspective that I’m slowly absorbing from transportation planners: The era of the really big transportation project is over at least for a while. It’s mostly going to be about maintenance and repair.

The federal government doesn’t have the political and financial strength to bankroll great projects like the Big Dig or the Red Line extension. Also, we are so thoroughly built already and so committed (appropriately) to neighborhood, environmental and historical preservation, that many big projects are prohibitively complex to actually move. Not that nothing big will ever be possible, simply that physically vast transportation projects are very hard to do right now.

The good news is that, if you step back and squint, you can see that we have a huge amount of unused transportation capacity. While many of our systems are near the gridlock tipping point at rush hour, most of our roads, trains and buses have surplus capacity at other times. We have millions of five-seat automobiles rolling down the road at rush hour that are occupied by only one person. We often have intersections at which full buses are waiting for lightly occupied automobiles to cross. We also have buses standing still while people complete their fare transactions — transactions which could, with the right kind of station facility, have been completed outside the bus.

When you talk to transportation planners these days, many aren’t talking about the big projects, they are talking about intelligent transportation. They talk about transportation demand management — encouraging employers to help employees shift time and transportation mode to reduce congestion, even requiring employers to pay for their own shuttle buses as a condition of project approval. They talk about signal timing to allow traffic to flow consistently and signal command links to automatically give buses signal priority. They talk about their command centers where they watch road cameras and seek to rapidly eliminate emerging conditions (for example, stalled vehicles on major arteries) that can escalate quickly into traffic snarls. They talk about “Bus Rapid Transit” — on-street buses that only stop at closed platforms where fares are collected in advance and where people can board quickly without climbing stairs.

And then you have the ride sharing services — successors to the car sharing ideas pioneered by Zip car. Uber is one example, but I think we’re going to see entrepreneurs create many new smart phone apps and online communities that allow people to share rides with people that are not exactly strangers — people in their own neighborhood who have similar commuting needs.

As a legislator, I’ll keep working hard to fix the systems we have, to improve their carrying capacity where possible and to keep the big project dreams alive. But I’m most hopeful now about the many things we can do to make vastly better use of the transportation capacity that we have.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

16 replies on “Smart Transportation”

  1. Senator,

    I appreciate the discussion and in specific, the topic of smart transportation.

    I am very frustrated with my 2-hour round trip commute from Belmont to Government Center as my work is only 7 miles away.

    My suggestions are following:

    (1) Give buses/shuttles and other public transport higher right of way at intersections. Everyday(especially during rush hours), bus load of passengers would waste 5 to 10 minutes to get in and out of the Alewife Bus terminal. That in turn, reduce the capacity/efficiency of the MBTA bus system, forces more to drive and further congest the road. It is a vicious cycle!

    Can we engineer a specific bus on-off ramp for Alewife (or at least during rush hour)? That would provide further incentives for the behavior (riding public transportation) that you want to encourage. Reduce cost/increase revenue for MBTA and make Boston a better place to live.

    (2) In the long run, I think the Fresh-Pond to Alewife road system is so out-dated and should be redesigned.

    (3) And, to change the behavior of public, the most efficient way ( albeit painful) is to add surcharge to gasoline. This will help to reduce unnecessary reliance on personal automobiles. (Gas price in Europe, China and Japan are much more expensive in United States. If they can handle higher gas price and still prosper, why can’t we? )

  2. Thanks, Gang, we are on the same page about looking to dedicate bus lanes where possible. The only caveat is that they have to be busy — you don’t want to take a lane for buses if it is going to be empty much of the time.

    Regarding Alewife, yes, that intersection is up for an improvement. See this link:

    And yes, I’ve been a strong supporter of the gas tax — the cleanest and simplest way to pay for roads and other transportation. I’d distinguish the U.S. from Europe and Japan in that U.S. was built more during the 20th century and as a result our development patterns more heavily favor the automobile.

  3. Hi Will, thanks for replying.

    We can add flexibilities to bus lane configuration. We can do it without dedicated bus lane all the time, but only during rush hours.

    For an example, there are two entrances and exits into Alewife T station. During rush hours, if we can dedicate one entrance( for an example, the short cuts through the office complex in Cambridge. Pfizer has an office building there, and Lane and Games. )to be bus only for a 45 minutes time span, 7:45AM to 8:30AM, that will greatly increase efficiency/capacity of MBTA bus system)
    HOV passenger cars should be allowed to use this shortcut as well, that will encourage more ride sharing, which is a good behavior for us all.

    The same rule can be applied for the afternoon traffic, if the exit that goes with the bike trail can be temporarily allocated for BUS and carpools for another 45 minutes,(5:30 to 6:15PM) that will boost efficiency and make public transportation a lot more appealing to riders.

    That will be the start of a clear signal that public transportation will receive higher priority than individual automobile, during rush hour.

    These can be implemented with minimum costs while increasing the quality of commute for many MBTA riders.

    We can talk more the next time we meet.



  4. I’m sorry, but I do not share your optimism on this topic. Let’s discuss Alewife and Route 3 all through Cambridge. The City of Cambridge washes its hands of both capacity and safety issues as this is the domain the DCR. The DCR doesn’t seem to take into consideration the immense development of Kendall Square and the increase in density (1000’s of units off of Concord Ave. on the way to Belmont anyone?). The City seems to think the redline is the answer to all the density issues, but the red line is already near collapse. It’s crushing at rush hour. Cambridge, meanwhile, won’t allow construction without parking – but seems refers to the red line as the answer and washes its hands of DCR routes. People who live in those units on Concord are not going to walk to the T – they are separated from Alewife by the train tracks.

    Boston Magazine made a case that we should support the bid for the Olympics only because our infrastructure will be fixed for a while. I tend to agree. Smart transportation requires a holistic and integrated look from a regional level down to the neighborhood impacts, but our government does not work that way.

  5. Thanks, Peter,

    I agree that there is increasing congestion in the Alewife area and that existing infrastructure cannot really be expanded so as to reduce it.

    There is a smart intersection improvement in the works where Rt 2 and 16 come together . It will help materially just there, but the rest of the parkway will remain as congested as ever.

    But that’s my point. We may not be able to improve the infrastructure much, but I think I do feel that we could use make better use of it. It would make a ton of sense, for example, for people working on Cambridge Park Drive, which dumps into the Alewife intersections, to all time shift as much possible — the only way to really reduce the crazy congestion there is to move some of the traffic to a different time of day. That’s the kind of “smart” (and, I admit, not always easy) kind of change we need to make.

  6. [1]
    because of our ever growing population, having enough ‘Housing’ or ‘Roads” is a MOVING TARGET. We can never satisfy our needs unless we decide what size population is appropriate for the area. The limits of growth should be a major decider for these issues.
    Transportation is a REGIONAL ISSUE. The Rt#2 / Rt# 16 problem was compounded when the State took away turning lanes and widened the circles between Concord Ave and Alewife Station.

    Belmont people should be upset with what Cambridge has done to Concord Avenue to harass their travel through Cambridge.

    Cambridge has set a goal of 10-20% bicycle travel, and made road construction decisions based on those projections. The European cities they model on are smaller, have a milder climate, and no other options.

  7. Agreed that transportation is a regional issue! State does need to take responsibility for adding cars to the traffic flow, and for helping to alleviate the problem.

    But we do delegate to municipalities decisions about “limits of growth” — that’s done by zoning and is likely to remain a local decision.

  8. Thanks, I agree that there is opportunity in “smart” bottom-up technologies – apps telling me where the bus is has completely changed my usage patterns of bus -vs- subway. Knowing where a parking space is available is huge – we know that a large amount of traffic is circling looking for a spot.

    All great stuff, but without a top-down regional plan to set the framework, these things are only going to make impact at the margins.

    Having been to multiple ex-Olympic cities, I’m even willing to support an Olympic bid for Boston (which would undoubtedly be financially catastrophic for the region) JUST so I can see those huge investments in transportation infrastructure that occur.

  9. Will,

    First, Uber isn’t really a ride sharing service. It’s essentially a taxi/limo service:

    Next, all the talk here is about what goes on in Boston and Cambridge. Rt. 128 through Waltham, Lexington and Burlington also poses many issues and, unfortunately, public transportation is largely non-existent in the area. You’ve got a lot of white collar jobs in that section and people commuting to them from a wide surrounding area.

  10. This is what I heard on the news. There is talk about adding a 3rd bridge on the cape.
    Who and how is this going to be paid for? I think the cape should be kept the way it was intended. As a vacation resort. Making it easier to get to will turn it into another suburban sprawl mess. On top of this, it will generate more demand for gasoline. Is this what we are trying to tamp down if we believe climate change is a reality. Maybe the cape should be made a gated community where you get a permit from the RMV to drive your car across the bridge.
    (something like the tickets you buy from the steamship athority to go to Nantucket.

  11. To Peter, I think it remains to be seen how far we can go with “smart” transportation — it may be at the margin, or it just might make a very big difference.

    Uber is certainly destabilizing the cab industry. You are right Paul that it isn’t really ride sharing, but it’s verging in that direction. I think we’ll see more and more app-based approaches to connecting riders with drivers. The biggest challenges will not the technology per se, but the rules as to who participates and how you maximize safety.

    Edward, your points are well taken. The 3d bridge is a perceived need, but there is a lot of discussion that will need to happen before it becomes reality.

  12. Will, if you’re looking for cheap fixes, see if you can get Cambridge and Somerville to clean out some of their bicycling “barriers”. I’m one of the 1% who will ride in some pretty terrible places, but most people (including friends and relatives) won’t. I’m not proposing this as “everyone should bike”, but if you add a couple more percent to the bicycle ride share, you subtract a couple of percent from Red Line crowding, from traffic congestion, and from competition for parking in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston.

    Examples of problems — getting from Belmont to Davis Square is pretty easy; there’s an off-road route the entire way. Getting *through* Davis Square is fine for me, but a pain for most people. The rest of the way to Kendall Square is relatively easy; Elm is easy, Mossland is easy, Beacon is bumpy, but mostly wide enough and the traffic is slow. But the route has no obvious reverse! Mossland is one-way, Somerville Ave routes you at best into the very-busy Porter Square parking lot, or else onto Massachusetts Avenue.

    Similarly, the official route from Fresh Pond to Harvard Square (Vassal Lane) is complicated by one-way routes. Make it simpler, make it more comfortable, and more people will use it.

    And the most direct route to Harvard Square (and Kendall as well) is Concord, but it is not marked for bicycle use, and if you are further attempting to get past Harvard Square to Kendall the “official route” (and this was marked, before the paint was all scrubbed off) is through that tunnel underneath Harvard. I’ll do it, but the traffic is a little intimidating; I’d rather have jersey barriers protecting me, instead of tired old paint.

    None of these things would take a lot of money to fix compared to large-scale road projects — in some cases, some sturdier barriers to make people feel safe riding bikes where they otherwise would not, in other cases, allowing 2-way travel for bicycles on what are currently 1-way roads. None of them is a silver bullet either, but if you can carve off another 1% for not much money, that’s a win.

    Lots more good parking for bicycles would help, too. Bicycle parking is cheap, but the MIT/Kendall area is often maxed out. It wouldn’t cost much to put a cover over it, either, and that helps too.

    And I would add, anyone in Belmont who’s not happy about their access to Alewife should look into biking there. The new(ish) paved path from Brighton to Alewife is direct, gets plenty of traffic, and allows you to ride right past all those stopped cars. There’s two Pedal&Park cages for bicycles protected by card access, video and a cardboard cop (don’t laugh, it helps, and it’s cheap) and a third is under construction. (Register your CharlieCard online first for access.)

  13. Any chance state level legislation could encourage cities and towns to have smart metering for parking? Charging demand related pricing for metered parking has proven to have a positive effect on availability of spaces/turnover rates and transit use in other municipalities.

    I’d also argue for a set price floor for all metered parking so that the minimum price for an hour of parking is never below the cost of a single ride bus fare on the MBTA. It is rather perverse that an hour of parking is cheaper than bus fare.

  14. Thanks, David.

    I agree that it’s about the little things — we need to keep looking for improvements and all of your suggestions are good ones. Cambridge and Boston are really working right now to keep making things better.

    Matthew, I don’t think that there is a legislative barrier to using smart metering. I think it’s about the technology and choice. Have you heard of any municipality facing a legal barrier?

  15. I agree with Matthew that it would be great to see incentives to push cities to do smart metering. It’s been a big success in San Francisco where meter rates fluctuate based on demand, resulting in high-demand locations being more expensive and low-demand locations being less expensive (and often free). The average price to park at a meter actually went down! This reduces congestion due to people “cruising” for parking spaces, which according to studies can be up to 30% of traffic!

    Another thing that would help regarding meters in general would be to have them continue to be active on Sundays and Holidays. In Boston, Newbury St and other shopping areas are often just as busy on Sundays as they are on Saturdays, yet meters are free on those days and spaces are full nearly all day, resulting in frustrated shoppers unable to find a space and unnecessary traffic congestion. Sundays and Holidays are no longer the “days of rest” that they once were and it’s time our parking policies reflected this.

Comments are closed.