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Posts from the Boston Category

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What the Heck Is Wrong With Boston’s MBTA?

Last week, the engine on one of Boston’s Orange Line trains overheated and ignited some trash, filling traincars with smoke. Passengers broke windows to escape. Three people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

An MBTA Orange Line train caught fire last week in Boston. Photo: JIlly Sull

An MBTA Orange Line train caught fire last week in Boston. Photo: Jilly Sull

The scare focused attention on long-standing maintenance problems for the T: It’s underfunded, upkeep is falling behind, and the quality of service is suffering. Orange Line trains, many of which are three decades old, were in line for replacement later this year. Not soon enough to prevent last week’s meltdown.

The MBTA is mired in debt and has a $7.3 billion repair backlog. Following the Orange Line debacle, Mayor Marty Walsh called for a new funding source.

“The problem we have is a problem of literally decades of disinvestment,” former Massachusetts DOT director Jim Aloisi told Streetsblog.

The MBTA operates the nation’s fifth-largest transit system, serving about 1.3 million trips per day. And ridership has been growing rapidly.

But state and local support for the MBTA is far below what peer agencies receive, according to TransitCenter, leaving the agency at the whim of federal funding sources. Compared to New York’s MTA, for example, the share of the agency’s capital budget that comes from federal sources is nearly two-thirds higher. If state and local support for MBTA capital expenses were proportional to the MTA, it would add $3 billion to the agency’s five-year capital budget.

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How American Cities Can Protect Cyclists From Deadly Trucks

Side guards save lives. Photo via Vision Zero Network

Side guards save lives. Photo via Vision Zero Network

Heavy trucks kill. They account for as much as 32 percent of cyclist deaths in New York City and 58 percent in London, far out of proportion to their share of traffic. Across the U.S., 1,746 bicyclists and pedestrians have been killed in collisions with commercial trucks over the last five years.

For cities looking to reduce traffic fatalities, the dangers posed by heavy trucks must be addressed. London is a global standard bearer, but some American cities are also making progress on truck safety. A report from the Vision Zero Network [PDF] highlights some of the best policies.

1. Mandate side guards and crossover mirrors for city trucks

American cities don’t have the power to regulate vehicle designs the way British cities do, but they do have control over their own fleets. Applying effective safety standards to municipal truck fleets is a good first step for cities.

The 2012 death of 23-year-old Christopher Weigl drew attention to the problem of truck design in Boston. One feature the city’s trucks lacked was side guards, which prevent severe injuries in the event a truck driver sideswipes a pedestrian or cyclist, keeping the victim away from the path of the rear wheels.

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Boston Wants to Lower Its Speed Limit to 20 MPH — But Can’t

Twenty is plenty in Boston, according to its elected officials. The City Council voted unanimously this week to lower the default speed limit on most residential streets to 20 mph — and not for the first time.

Speeding is the number one complaint council members hear from residents. And on Boston’s narrow streets, packed with pedestrians, driving 40 mph — as people regularly do — is especially dangerous.

The current speed limit is 30 mph, and, unfortunately, changing it isn’t as easy as passing a City Council rule. The state of Massachusetts sets default speed limits, and when Boston tried to lower its speed limit before, state law prevailed.

“In the past the state has been reticent to change the prevailing speed limit because of the way it would affect so many towns,” says Walk Boston’s Brendan Kearney. “Potentially every single little city or town would have a different speed limit.”

Jackie DeWolfe at Livable Streets Boston says advocates are hopeful this time will be different, but it won’t be easy.

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What Went Wrong With Boston’s Green Line Extension?

Last week, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority abruptly cut ties with four contractors working on the 4.7-mile Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, outside Boston. The announcement came shortly after reports that the cost of the light rail project had ballooned to about $3 billion, an increase of a billion dollars.

Boston's Green Line extension plans are up in the air following some major setbacks. Image: MassDOT

After major setbacks, Boston’s Green Line extension will be delayed but probably not cancelled. Image: MassDOT

State officials said the decision doesn’t mean the project will be cancelled, although transportation chief Stephanie Pollack wouldn’t rule out that possibility, reports the Boston Globe.

The Green Line extension has a lot going for it. The project will serve some of the most densely populated areas of New England, and ridership is expected to be robust — about 49,000 trips per day. It enjoys widespread political support and will run along existing rail rights-of-way, so the political controversies that can accompany land acquisition are not an issue. It has secured nearly $1 billion in federal funding and benefits from a legal mandate requiring the state to offset some of the pollution effects of the Big Dig by improving transit.

So how did the cost rise so much and what does it mean for the project?

A major factor was the way MassDOT and the MBTA chose to contract out the project, according to Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation, a regional environmental non-profit.

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Tactical Urbanism Win: Cyclist Protects Boston Bike Lane With Flowers

Boston cyclist Jonathan Fertig created a temporary protected bike lane in Boston this week using $6 potted mums he bought at the hardware store. Photo: Jonathan Fertig

Boston cyclist Jonathan Fertig created a temporary protected bike lane in Boston this week using $6 potted mums he bought at the hardware store. Photo: Jonathan Fertig

Even the most delicate barrier between bikes and auto traffic can change the behavior of drivers and make cycling a lot more appealing. Case in point: An ingenious bit of tactical urbanism in Boston this week resulted in a bike lane protected by $6 pots of hardware store mums.

Jonathan Fertig told Streetsblog he was upset the city had striped bike lanes on Massachusetts Avenue, near where a truck driver killed surgeon Anita Kurmann in August, but hadn’t yet installed flexible posts that would prevent drivers from parking in the lane. So he took matters into his own hands Sunday by adding a row of potted mums, an idea he says he cribbed from the “Tactical Urbanism” manual written by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia. Amazingly, the plants remained in place and untouched for several days, until the city returned this week to install the posts.

“The tops of the flex posts are open, so I’m actually planning to put a bouquet of flowers in each one on my way home as a statement that I’m still here, and that honestly I’m not satisfied with the city’s solution at this intersection,” Fertig said, adding that he’d like to see a more substantial protective barrier at the site.

Fertig followed up his flower pot coup with these random orange-cone curb bumpouts this week.

Fertig followed up his flower pot coup with these random orange-cone curb bumpouts this week.

Meanwhile, Fertig’s efforts caught the attention of the Boston Globe, which published a surprisingly sympathetic story that put the city on the defensive over the delay in adding protective bollards.

Fertig used the platform to announce a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for future interventions of the same type. The campaign has raised more than $3,200 in just two days.

Fertig has used some of the money on projects like using orange cones as temporary curb extensions [pictured at right]. He said he simply dropped the cones on his way to work.

Given the large amount of money raised so far, Fertig said he might explore more comprehensive tactical urbanism projects, like a Better Block demonstration.

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The Politically-Driven, Koch-Backed Campaign to Undermine Boston Transit

Boston’s MBTA has been having a tough year.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Following a disastrous winter season marked by extreme weather and service disruptions, the agency has been inundated with charges of mismanagement.

While the MBTA has its flaws, the charges against it don’t stem from a good government campaign so much as an ideologically-driven assault, filled with exaggerations and lies and backed by groups affiliated with the Koch brothers. Transit advocates view the sustained effort to discredit the agency as an attempt to undermine public support for expanding the rail and bus network in the growing Boston region.

The charges against the MBTA stem from a few interconnected sources. Fitting a pattern that Streetsblog reported on last year, a Koch-funded “think tank” has sown misinformation about the agency, which has then been picked up by politicians with Koch ties. In June, conservative groups won a major victory, passing a law that opened the door to privatizing some parts of the MBTA.

Leading the attack is the Pioneer Institute, which has published multiple reports filled with misleading claims about MBTA spending. (The Charles Koch Institute lists the Pioneer Institute as a “partner institution.”) Piling on recently was Governor Charlie Baker, a co-founder of the Pioneer Institute. Baker ordered a report on the MBTA in the wake of last winter’s fiasco.

Any legitimate watchdogging of the MBTA has been buried underneath a pile of exaggerations and misleading claims originating from Pioneer and its allies. Let’s examine a few of them:

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Boston Says So Long to the Casey Overpass, a 1950s Highway Relic

The image shows plans for the at-grade street that will replace the overpass. Image: Arborwaymatters via MassDOT

The Casey Overpass will be replaced with an at-grade street. Image: Arborwaymatters via MassDOT

This month, Boston is demolishing a monument to 1950s-era car infrastructure: The Casey Overpass, a short elevated road built in 1955 to whisk drivers over the Forest Hills MBTA station in Jamaica Plain without encountering any pesky things like intersections or pedestrians.

The last car drove over the decrepit 1,600-foot-long structure just a few days ago, and construction crews have begun taking it apart. Soon the residents of Forest Hills will say goodbye forever to the hulking eyesore blighting their neighborhood.

The Casey Overpass had gotten so ? that it was down to just two extremely potholed lanes. Photo: Arborwaymatters

The lovely view beneath the Casey Overpass. Photo: Arborwaymatters

In its place, the state will construct an at-grade street with three lanes in each direction and a protected bike lane.

The road removal encountered its share of resistance along the way, including from a local bike shop owner, but the arguments for the teardown won out.

Removing the overpass will enable the creation of a more walkable street grid and reintegrate the neighborhood with Boston’s beloved “Emerald Necklace,” the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park system.

Tearing down the overpass also saved a lot of money compared to rebuilding it — about $21 million, according to the Boston Globe.

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Boston Cyclists Excavate Massive Snow Tunnel To Restore Bike Path

This 40-foot snow tunnel, built by Boston cyclists, made a biking and walking path useful again. Image: Dragonbeard on Youtube

This 40-foot snow tunnel made an important biking and walking path useful again. Image: Dragonbeard on Youtube

For every pedestrian and cyclist who’s had your journey interrupted by an impassable mound of snow, we bring you this story from Boston. Earlier this month, Beantown resident Ari Goldberger found his journey to the Wellington Station T stop impeded by a “15-foot mountain of snow.”

He registered his complaint to the powers that be, but he got the run-around.

“Rather than waiting on hold for a million years calling the MBTA, I posted the picture online and said, ‘If nothing is done about this, it’s going to take months to melt,'” he told BDC Wire.

So Goldberger and his friends took matters into their own hands, and after a long, beer-fueled digging session, tunneled their way through. Now people can use this route to bike or walk again, and the excavators are heroes. He’s a look at what it’s like to ride through it. Pretty awesome.

Update 2/23/15 1:27 p.m.: The tunnel was destroyed by an unknown entity late Saturday, according to Mashable. So this story has a sad ending after all. 

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Despite Problems, Boston’s MBTA Should Continue to Expand

Cross posted from the Frontier Group.

As you may have heard, we’ve been experiencing a few public transportation problems here in Boston of late. Record-smashing snowfall, coupled with extreme cold temperatures and some questionable decisions by public officials in the early days of Snowmageddon have left the city with a subway and commuter rail system that is, as I write, barely functioning. It has also focused public attention on fiscal train wreck that is our local transit system, the MBTA.

One meme that has surfaced in the recent debate is that the MBTA should not spend a dime on further expansion until it can run the core part of its system reliably. It’s a compelling argument in many ways. Clearly, one should not invest in building a new addition to one’s home if the roof is caving in. It is also clear that ensuring the smooth functioning of the city’s core subway lines – some of which rely on cars that date from the late 1960s and infrastructure that dates from God knows when – is more critically important than adding new stations and service.

But the idea of putting further expansion and improvement plans on hold indefinitely is not a perfect solution either. Doing so essentially commits Boston to a 20th century (and in some places, a 19th century) transit system – albeit, perhaps, a well-functioning one – for years, if not decades, to come.

The tension between improving the functioning of our current, inadequate transit systems and building new, modern systems comes up over and over in debates among transportation experts and transit advocates.

Is it, for example, a smart idea to spend tens of billions of dollars on a modern high-speed rail system in California at the same time that Amtrak struggles (and often fails) to provide First World-quality service on the rest of its network? Should we consider major investments in new rail lines at a time when bus service in many communities is so substandard?

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Boosting Transit Ridership With New Stations, Not New Track

Boston's new Orange Line station in Somerville is a great example of how older cities can boost transit ridership inexpensively with new stations in strategic locations. Image: MBTA

Assembly Station in Somerville, outside Boston, is a great example of how older transit systems can draw more riders with new stations in strategic locations. Image: MBTA

Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic calls them infill stations: new transit stops built in gaps along existing rail lines. Current examples include Assembly Station just outside Boston in Somerville, DC’s NoMa Station, and the West Dublin/Pleasanton BART station.

Infill stations are a pretty brilliant method to get the most out of older rail systems without spending very much, Freemark says. He’d like to see more cities adopt the strategy:

The advantages of infill stations result from the fact that people are simply more likely to use transit when they’re closer to it — and from the fact that the older transit systems in many cities have widely spaced stations that are underserving potentially significant markets. Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero, affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley, have demonstrated that people living or working within a quarter mile of a transit station produce about twice as many transit rides as people living or working more than half a mile away. In other words, with fewer stations on a line, the number of people willing to use public transportation as a whole is likely reduced.

Assembly Station, which has been in the works for several years, promises significant benefits — 5,000 future daily riders taking advantage of a 10-minute ride to the region’s central business district, at a construction cost of about $30 million. The station fits in the 1.3-mile gap between two existing stations and is the first new stop built along Boston’s T rapid transit network in 26 years. When combined with the $1.7 billion Green Line light rail extension planned for opening later this decade, 85 percent of Somerville’s residents will live within walking distance of rapid transit, up from just 15 percent today.

The cost-per-rider comparison between the two Somerville projects is indicative of the value offered by infill stations: While Assembly Station cost about $6,000 per rider served, the Green Line Extension will cost $38,000 per rider served — six times more. Both projects will provide benefits, but the cost-effectiveness of infill stations in terms of attracting riders is clear. While infill stations will reduce transit speeds to some extent, within reason the number of new riders they attract will more than make up for the change.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns comments on perverse transportation engineering standards that create dangerous streets in the name of “safety.” Systemic Failure says Caltrain will have to choose between bikes and bathrooms in its new electrified trains, and it should go with the former. And Beyond DC shares a quote that gets to the heart of the reason protected bike infrastructure is so important.