If I Could Improve One Line

One Line

I was recently posed the question: If you could improve one line in the greater Boston area, which would you prioritize? This post is an attempt to answer that question using existing plans as well as my own imagination. MassDOT and the MBTA have drafted many plans for what they would like to see in Boston’s public transit, yet many remain plans and dreams until funding comes around. While time might be better spent brainstorming creative methods to raise money for infrastructure beyond highway repairs, it is good practice to go through a planning process if significant funds were every made available, be it through an increased gas tax, toll fees, or increased fares (all of which are half-solutions to the greater problem at hand). In the words of President Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

There are many approaches to this question. Do I think realistically and suggest an answer that could actually happen? Or do I take a risk and suggest something that isn’t even included in the MBTA’s long-term capital plan? My question is, why not both? There is an easy fix to the Silver Line, which I would suggest in order to provide more opportunities along the Washington Street corridor to spur business and create access to jobs. I argue that improvements on this line will spur innovative solutions to the entire transit network in the Boston region.

The story of the Silver Line is one of disappointment and compromise. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, it is the

Image from bostonstreetcars.com

Image from bostonstreetcars.com

replacement for the elevated orange line that once ran above ground from Chinatown through Dudley Square to Forest Hills until 1987. The Orange Line moved to the Southwest Corridor after Jamaica Plain activists prevented the construction of an expressway there. It resulted in a vacuum of transportation for those in the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain who had relied on the elevated.

Despite being promised an “equal or better” replacement, residents were given what we have today: the Silver Line, which is a botched implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and must confuse the heck out of tourists. Originally the plan was to provide transportation to the developing Waterfront area with a cheap alternative to rail. The SL 4 and SL 5 were afterthoughts and a way to silence the criticism of local residents and elected officials. Although the Waterfront has dedicated tunnels and lanes (see Courthouse Station, which is the epitome of lavishness but completely underutilized – so much so that no one even pays to advertise there), the BRT along Washington Street is essentially a glorified articulated bus. It is plagued by delays because of traffic, on-board payment, and overcrowding.

My improvement would be upon SL 4 and SL 5. Signal priority was a simple fix that we have already seen on normal bus routes across the region and have seen on the Silver Line. Further improvements are possible that would be simple and could increase the efficiency and ridership to this once flourishing corridor. There are three simple suggestions that would improve this line: median stations to speed boarding processes, dedicated bus lines to ensure speed, and more frequent service to accommodate ridership increases.

Median Stations

Image from sfcta.org

Image from sfcta.org

These changes require alteration of Washington Street. It is already a wide street with dedicated bus lanes along some stretches. Constructing a concrete median would eliminate a lane of traffic or make traffic lanes smaller. However, it would be consistent with MassDOT’s goals for more complete streets, which embrace all modes of transportation. Roads are intended for use by more than just cars, and it is important for infrastructure improvements to reflect this, especially as fewer people are using cars. Median stations would allow fare gates so passengers could board through all doors rather than lining up at the front to pay their fare. This would result in quicker boarding. It would create “stations” rather than just shelters and bus stops, which might then include heaters, fare machines to reload CharlieCards, and sign displaying arrival information.

A potential problem would be the exit from median stations. Obviously pedestrian safety would be a main concern. Therefore, crosswalks would be installed and colored to differentiate themselves from the street. Lights would be synced with the arrival of Silver Line buses to reduce overcrowding on station platforms and so riders can cross the road with ease. This is already seen on the Green Line B-Branch at Griggs Street/Long Avenue, but rather than pressing a button pedestrians would be open to cross immediately upon disembarking. More station infrastructure could be built along the sidewalks to increase mobility within the system, such as bike racks, Hubway stations, and more seating.

Dedicated Bus Lanes

The next suggestions would be dedicated bus lanes. Although there are already bus lanes along stretches of SL 4 and SL 5, there is room for improvement. For example, bus lanes would be moved to the center to accommodate new median stations. They would include overhead electric power to reduce tailpipe emissions, much like the underground portions of the Waterfront Silver Line and 71, 72, 73 and 77A trolleybuses in Cambridge, Belmont, and Watertown. This right-of-way removes the buses from congestion and ensures on-time arrivals according to schedule.

Frequency

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

The last improvement would be more frequent service. Currently, peak service on SL 4 and SL 5 is every 10 and 7 minutes respectively and up to 20 minutes at non-peak hours. Meanwhile, rapid transit runs every 5-7 minutes during rush hour and up to 10 minutes at non-peak hours. Currently many commuters walk to the Orange Line to travel downtown. With a better Silver Line, they may opt for a shorter walk to the Silver Line, creating more rider demand. Improved reliability and efficiency would increase ridership along the Washington Street corridor, which means already crowded buses would become even more crowded. Larger buses do not seem feasible given large articulated buses already run on the Silver Line. Therefore, more frequent service would be necessary.

But the biggest question remains unanswered: of all the problems Boston faces in terms of transportation, why should we focus on fixing the one “line” that isn’t a train? The answer comes in terms of cost: Bus rapid transit is a cheaper alternative than rail. There are minimal infrastructure costs compared to laying down rail. Stations are much more minimal. Plus, they are much more flexible to shift with city travel patterns than rail. Whereas rail is a fixed route, BRT can change when the people within cities change habits. As development continues in Dudley Square and other portions of Boston outside downtown, the “travel from outside the city to the central business district” model of commuting will be outdated. It is important for transportation to reflect the needs of the people who use it, and BRT will allow for this.

Successful implementation along the Washington Street corridor will serve as a model for the rest of the city. The Silver Line Gateway to Chelsea and East Boston will become more a reality, as will improvements in neighborhoods currently without rapid transit. Effective transportation options will become available to provide unparalleled mobility and opportunity to all Boston residents. In an age where funding for transportation is scarce, it is important to make the most of every dollar. BRT is a cost-effective solution for moving mass amounts of people with minimal infrastructure costs and costs to the environment.

The SL 4 and SL 5 are the two lines I would improve if I could, and believe the process of improving BRT in the Boston region now will pay dividends later.

Mayor Marty Walsh’s First State of the City Address

What can you take away from this speech? We’re making moves on education by creating opportunities for kids to gain practical experience, and doing so by partnering with companies and actually talking to the unions. We’re fixing affordable housing by using the carrot of tax incentives to promote low- and middle- income housing. Homelessness is a major problem, but rather than patching wounds Mayor Walsh aims to attack it at the source by creating an Office of Recovery Services to help people get back on their feet. But most of all, there was an emphasis on innovation and data-driven decision: the old-fashioned ways of doing things just won’t cut it anymore – so we’re going to need new ideas, and have to foster others’ creativity, too.

>> I was very excited after having the opportunity to attend the State of the City in person tonight. As such, what follows is a rather long reflection of Mayor Marty Walsh’s agenda and my musings on what they might actually mean for the city. <<

The Summary

Thriving. Healthy. Innovative. These three words were the theme of the night during Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s first State of the City address at Symphony Hall on January 13. As he roared through an energetic speech the crowd stopped him after nearly every sentence, erupting with applause and enthusiastic support for the Mayor’s ambitious agenda. He touched on the important topics of schools, affordable housing and the necessity of a living wage in the city while laying out the accomplishments of the first year of his tenure, and describing what lay ahead in 2015.

The night began with a handful of artistic performances, including the Kenney School Elementary Marching Band and a quartet from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Highlighting the pre-speech events were an invocation from Sister Patricia Andrews, which touched upon Boston’s storied history, and how diverse Bostonians have become. The City of Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges read aloud her craft, describing the physical and demographic changes to the city in a winding artistic rendition. The Pledge of Allegiance was even performed by naturalized and future US citizens, highlighting the opportunity Boston lends itself, holding true to the nickname “Athens of America.”

After a brief intermission, the Mayor stepped onstage. To no surprise he shared his thoughts and prayers to those in Paris, thanked those in attendance, and remembered the lives of the public servants who passed away (especially Mayor Menino), but spared no time proclaiming that the state of our city is “strong and getting stronger.” From there, he recited carefully rehearsed facts and figures, proving his steadfast dedication to numbers and data. 19,000 potholes filled, 1,061 guns off the street, and the most diverse command staff Boston has ever seen.

When the Boston 2024 Olympic bid was released, many feared that it would distract Mayor Walsh from paramount campaign promises and mayoral duties, primary the need to improve the schools. Tonight proved this to be false, as Mayor Walsh proposed a series of initiatives aimed at improving Boston schools, from the elementary level to the high school, where a whopping 30 percent of students do not graduate. In addition to the earlier news that BPS would lengthen the school day for forty additional minutes of learning, he announced an excitement partnership with tech company SAP, which would help students from Charlestown High transition to Bunker Hill Community College. He introduced financial empowerment program aimed to help children save money to fight poverty. And he described a new authority dubbed the School Building Authority, which would be a permanent program to ensure schools in every neighborhood would provide the facilities necessary for children to learn. He topped it off with the announcement that he would narrow down the applicant pool for a superintendent of schools, so that BPS would have concrete leadership. We will not be “satisfied with anything less than success.”

Staying true to the celebrated notion that Boston is a city of neighbrohoods, Boston “succeeds when it galvanizes the entire community.” This meant the welcomed investment of neighborhood innovation districts. This is exciting because it allows all of Boston to reap the benefits of innovative tech companies and startups created by its own residents. Rather than zoning a place for outsiders to come in, this idea allows the creativity and ingenuity of local residents to be translated into economic empowerment and a way to improve the world. Rooting in the power of data, Boston will continue to innovate and thrive, starting with the introduction of a parking app for phones, eliminating the need to juggle around quarters every time one parks. On the campaign trail the Mayor said he would tear down City Hall and replace it with a decentralized neighborhood setting. Well, this has yet to materialize, but the barren brick plaza at City Hall is due for a facelift, since the city itself should have as much pride in its front yard as its residents. This will be a welcomed change to complement the beautiful new head house at Government Center coming in one year.

Related to development is the obvious need for affordable housing. The Mayor acknowledged the lack of it, and repeated his October plan to create more housing by 2030. Rather than enunciate the need for more housing, Mayor Walsh outlined a plan to make the City more affordable for its longtime residents. There are 250 city-owned parcels he plans to develop for low- and middle- income housing. He announced a 30% discount on sewer rates for seniors, urging other utilities to make the same discount in order to keep our older generation in their homes. And he flexed his #MApoli muscles by explaining the bills he has put forward, including tax incentives for developers to build middle-income housing as well as a trust for seniors to continue to afford their homes.

While there were a plethora of solutions to combat the ever-climbing housing prices, Mayor Walsh seemed slim on the pressing issue of homelessness. There was no doubt that he took the issue seriously; it was evident that he lamented having to close Long Island Bridge. However, it was a necessary safety precaution and has forced us to create “real solutions.” The city just completed a homeless shelter for 200 people, but are still scrambling to house the 700 displaced form Long Island, in addition to the large amount of homeless already in Boston. The Mayor described the first-in-the-nation Office of Recovery Services, showing his dedication to the recovery community. However, it will be important for this office to include helping the homeless recover from this situation, which seemed bleak and still rather open-ended. However, as was mentioned before, Mayor Walsh understands the issue, recalling a story from Thanksgiving Day when he volunteered at Pine Street Inn. He spoke with a man working there who had once been a visitor to the shelter himself, but had turned his life around. This inspiration story provided the audience with hope that possibly the Mayor will be able to address this urgent problem with concrete steps. I certainly hope so.

Before the activities began protestors gathered outside Symphony Hall to demonstrate against police brutality made evident by the events in Ferguson and New York City. As the Mayor said, “When it comes to race and class, Boston has a lot of unfinished business.” This is undoubtedly one of the scars Boston has had to bear. While there was recognition of the cooperation between protesters and police officers, he explained the need for a continued conversation, alluding to the recent Rockefeller Grant as a way to ease these decades-old social tensions.

It was a brisk, thirty minute speech wrapped up by a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is creation of a beloved community.” These words could not be more applicable, and left the crowd energized and excited to embark on a remarkable journey to help keep Boston strong.

The Analysis

First of all, I have to stay I was surprised at how short it seemed. Reviewing my notes he covered an incredible amount of material in a brief thirty minutes, making me wonder what other policies he has up his sleeves. The press has been hard on the Mayor lately, especially in lieu of the Olympic bid. However, he has excelled in many areas that were previously challenges for leadership of the City. Most notably has been his ability to negotiate labor contracts, especially that with the Boston Teachers’ Union to extend the school day by forty minutes. This was a campaign promise by Mayor Walsh that he has held true, arguing the logic that more time in school allows more opportunities for kids to learn and to stay off the street.

It is clear that the Mayor is displeased with the current school system, which perhaps is why he has waited so long to hire a superintendent. It is better to wait for a perfect candidate than proceed with an average hire. Education policy is not my forte, but is something I am rapidly learning more about and certainly understanding the importance in creating opportunities for future generations. This is why I was thoroughly excited by the concrete programs and partnerships announced tonight. They seem like they will be able to create unprecedented opportunities for students in our city, and will allow them to contribute to the thriving innovation culture Mayor Walsh is helping nurture.

As I alluded to earlier in this article, I felt like he was short on solutions for homelessness. I understand it was necessary to make a quick decision on Long Island, and there are opportunities to attack at the core problems of homelessness. In the meantime it might be more cost-effective to put up temporary homeless shelters as we have been doing, but it also seems like there have to be more ways to get people off the streets. Haley House and Pine Street Inn can only help so many people, often crowding its lobby and kitchen during the cold winter months. Therefore I am hoping that the new Office of Recovery Services will help not only recovery and addiction efforts, but help with training in order to teach skills that will help with employment. Just as we emphasize innovation and creativity with our children, it will be beneficial to foster innovation and opportunity to help those out on the streets. In addition, more shelters will be necessary so long as Boston faces these unforgiving winters.

Now to the issues that were not necessarily developed in the speech, perhaps due to lack of time or lack of public outcry. As is the theme of this blog, transportation: Admittedly, the Mayor mentioned several improvements to transportation, such as side guards for city trucks to protect cyclists, and transit-oriented development along the orange line in Forest Hills and also in Dorchester (I’m assuming he means the Fairmount Corridor). Is there anything we can do about the Northern Ave. Bridge? The behemoth Allston Interchange Project? The Mayor has done a good job vocalizing his support for complete streets, so I am generally pleased with his complete streets approach and encourage him to continue to push development that encourages ALL modes of transportation (note: he did mention that the City is looking out for all forms of transit, so that seems like it’s in the bag, for lack of a better term).

Overall, I am very pleased with Mayor Walsh’s first year and even more excited for his second. I am a senior who will be graduating from BC in a few months, and this speech truly inspired me. I feel energized and ready to help keep Boston great. We are on the same page, and I look forward to every opportunity I have to promote a better environment for all Bostonians and the chance for equal transportation access and economic opportunity.