Communication

MassDOT Takes Pretty Pictures as Green Line Extension Gets Underway

Work is finally underway for the much-awaited first phase of the Green Line extension north to Medford. Last December, MassDOT issued the first contracts to Barletta Heavy Division and followed that with the go-ahead to start construction on a set of demolitions and bridge widening projects that will, according to the MassDOT web site:

  • Reconstruct and widen the Harvard Street Rail Bridge in Medford
  • Widen the Medford Street Rail Bridge in Somerville
  • Demolish 21 Water Street in Cambridge in preparation for the construction of the new Lechmere Station under Phase 2/2A of the GLX project
  • Construct retaining walls and noise walls adjacent to the Harvard Street Rail Bridge
  • Relocate MBTA Commuter Rail tracks in the Harvard Street Rail Bridge area
  • Upgrade and replace existing storm drain system between Harvard Street and Granville Avenue

These projects will continue for 2 years until March of 2015. During that time, the state plans to maintain its transparency and documentation through photos. According to Joe Pesutauro of the MBTA:

With strong support from the Green Line extension team, DOT Communications staff has done a total of 53 separate posts with Green Line Extension meeting, outreach, and construction information since the MassDOT blog debuted 50 months ago. More than one [post] per month on average and more than on any other single MassDOT/MBTA project.

Each of those posts was accompanied with a Tweet and link on Twitter.  Each such item is now also posted on our more recent MassDOT Facebook page, including two FB posts within the past week- one on the upcoming meeting and one displaying one of the Flickr construction photos.  We have a Flickr set established to add future construction photos.  All this in addition to the separate efforts on T social media.

The biggest highlight is MassDOT's latest album on Flickr, which captures the construction and is a great visual progress update. MassDOT has been doing this for some time to show very occasional and infrequent updates on bridge construction for the Accelerated Bridge Program, but the MTA has been posting album after album of construction updates for even less time. MassDOT started in the summer 0f 2009 with 1,165 uploads while the MTA has uploaded over four times that in half the time, starting with its first post in March of 2011.

Granted, the MTA has at least one dedicated photographer, but it has roughly the same number of ongoing capital projects and maintenance needs as MassDOT and the MBTA combined. Suffice it to say, MassDOT's planning site is well-organised, but much of the information is either hidden deep within many clicks or in lengthy PDF documents; the closest thing to a dashboard is the 'Projects' tab on the main MassDOT page. The MBTA's project page is slightly better, but is a simple table that doesn't give indication of scope or size of projects, instead listing project statuses. Deeper in, there isn't much consistency to project documentation, impact, or even format.

Other agencies have varying levels of success with building project dashboards. The CTA has a presentable planning site that highlights major upcoming projects. BART's project site is incredibly accessible through its good design via simplicity. SFMTA's site is more text-heavy, but highlights major projects well, perhaps only by default because they have fewer but wider-scoped projects. Washington Metro also has a very text-heavy project page littered with links to PDFs, but many of these are studies and preliminary analysis for projects and are well-organised into major categories on a single page. WMATA even has a rider-oriented blog-style site called PlanItMetro for focused feedback and updated on various projects, similar to MassDOT's blog. The NYC MTA, which has far more ground to cover than most in gaining public trust, has the best capital projects board; the capital projects are organised by division, similar to the way our capital projects are presented, and outlined with a breakdown of estimated and actual cost and deadline with notes for any discrepancy.

The NYC MTA has a very detailed and easily navigable dashboard that more clearly gives interested stakeholders project status.

NYC's MTA arguably has bred a similar, if not deeper, strain of distrust as the MBTA and re-constituted MassDOT, which didn't exist until nearly four years ago. The MBTA/MassDOT need this kind of visibility and information accessibility. The T and MassDOT/former EOT have come a long way to show that they hold themselves accountable to its stakeholders outside of hour-long update meetings, regardless of whether the current people in leadership are responsible for the decades of actions that have bred the distrust in the agencies. A Flickr or Twitter feed or even Facebook page are more accessible than a physical meeting or even a PDF of the PowerPoint presentation from the meeting posted to the web.

The Green Line Extension does have a Facebook page, but as of this writing is not linked from the main project site, which suffers the same disjointed branding, presentation, and deep linking of information as many of MassDOTs other project pages. This capital project is the most promising in being a consistently transparent project through regular photo updates, but this consistency needs to be pushed across all projects and start well before any shovels hit the ground. This will be hard for the much maligned and beleaguered agencies, but both Secretary Davey and MBTA GM Scott deeply know and daily act on how important transparency is to public accountability and trust. While they're just getting started turning things around, many others in their field are leapfrogging past them and we can learn from those advances going forward.

Boston's Buses Soon to Remove 'Boston Strong' Messages

A bus going through South Boston proudly displays 'Boston Strong' on its head sign and side LED sign. At yesterday's MBTA Rider Oversight Committee meeting, it was revealed by bus operations representative Dave Carney that the T would soon be spreading the word to all drivers to remove the message 'Boston Strong'  from the cycled messages on bus LED signs.

While not explicitly mandated by federal ADA law, the signs are intended for passenger information. The patriotic message takes up a full 1/3 or 1/2 of the display's time since each portion of the message is shown for the exact same amount of time. This can mean that the buses' route information may not actually be displayed long enough to determine which route the bus is serving before passing the stop, depending on how fast the bus is approaching.

Speaking frankly, Carney noted that it will be an arduous process to take the message off buses since it needs to be removed bus by bus and some drivers may refuse to remove the message despite orders from their supervisors. If it persists, the agency may have to address individual drivers about making the change. Apparently each bus' head sign is individually programmed, a potential opportunity for operations improvement with the MBTA.

Boston's Transit Network Shuts Down in Regional Manhunt - Confusion, Frustration Ensues

In coordination with local and state officials, all MBTA services were shut down early morning two Fridays ago,  to facilitate efforts in the manhunt for the remaining suspect responsible for Monday's Boston Marathon bombings.

The ease of digital broadcasts helped the MBTA communicate the shutdown to its customers, but left those without a persistent digital connection in the dark. That morning, the Globe found riders were still confused and frustrated by the closure and lack of visible notice at stations:

Jonathan Cruz of Dorchester was on his way to his apprenticeship at Youth Build Boston, a program that teaches young people construction skills. An acquaintance stopped him on his way to the JFK/UMass Red Line station, warning him service was cancelled, but Cruz kept going, hoping to get more information at the station.

He arrived at the station at about 6:30 a.m. and found no signs about service [cancellation] and no employees, he said. His program has a very low tolerance for tardiness, and he was supposed to be in Roxbury by 7 a.m.

“I think they should have put signs up but the problem is, we have the Internet and we watch TV all the time, so they thought we would know,” he said.

This further highlights the need for non-digital information dissemination, accommodating those on the other side of the digital divide. Service notices need not be vinyl wall wraps that are planned weeks in advance, but the advancing deployment of advertising displays from Titan can certainly be instrumental in making it easier to inform those who otherwise arrive at stations:

Xheni Kurdari walked up the stairs at the JFK/UMass station and tried to open the station’s doors. No luck. She could not make the short commute to her job at State Street Bank and Trust Company in Quincy.

Kurdari said she went to bed early the previous night and did not hear the news of the police chase and shoot-out with the bombing suspects. She heard some sirens in the morning, but did not think much of them.

“I was wondering why there were no people around,” she said. “I’m gonna call my husband, I’m gonna wake him up, probably, and I’m gonna have him drive to work.”

Digital notifications are still one of the least effectively advertised customer information features in stations that can prove useful outside of it. I'm still surprised daily the number of passengers I encounter who don't realise that they can sign up for text-based 'T-Alerts' to their phones via SMS that don't require a smartphone. Even fewer people realise they can go to sites like NextBus.com for realtime bus arrival times and HowsTheT.com for realtime train arrival times from their PCs before they ever leave from home or work.

The MBTA's web site very prominently features the system's closure.

Of course, the MBTA website continues to be an indispensable resource, granted you can and know how to get there. Reaching out through the press in papers, television, and radio, can help circumvent the digital divide that still very much exists, even in Boston.

Signage in and around stations remains the most effective means of communicating with the public - that's why advertisers will pay to put signs in our stations...

Mixed Feelings About Longfellow Reconstruction Process

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQsyPClwVj8] Tuesday evening, MassDOT hosted an informational meeting at Shriners Hospital as part of its community outreach to provide details on the upcoming Longfellow Bridge reconstruction. Plans were initially introduced in February and MassDOT is working to ensure that the public is well aware of the disruptions for the next three years that will restore a regional landmark. Not everyone walked away happy from the meeting though, especially car-dependent locals and advocates of the cycling community.

The Longfellow Bridge is the only bridge in Massachusetts that carries cars, trains, and pedestrians across the Charles River and one of the oldest in the Commonwealth. Opened on my birthday 107 years ago, 3 August 1906, the bridge has been neglected for nearly a century as many of the Commonwealth's other bridges. It's a critical link in the region's transport network, carrying over 28 thousand autos each day and over three times that in Red Line passengers in addition to scores of pedestrians and cyclists who enjoy the picturesque views of Boston into Charles Circle.

The last time heavy work was done on the bridge was in 1959 and that rehab was only supposed to last 50 years. This reconstruction, scheduled to be completed in 2016 at the cost of over $255 million, should last 75 years and will bring some much-needed improvements to modernise the bridge, including wider pedestrian paths and wide, buffered bike lanes on both sides of the bridge. Sedimentation basins will even be installed at the ends of the bridge to catch and filter the rain runoff from the bridge, cleaning the oil-slicked water before it gets dumped into the Charles.

A significant amount of attention will be paid to the historical elements of the bridge, requiring the careful disassembly of various decorative bridge components, from railings to cladding, and hand-restoring them off-site. The masonry of the bridge's iconic towers will also be removed block-by-block for cleaning and restoration.

A new pedestrian bridge will also be installed next to the bridge to replace the existing bridge that spans over Storrow Drive to provide wheelchair accessibility from Charles Circle to the Esplanade. The bridge will be built adjacent the existing pedestrian bridge and will open in 2015.

But what about the bikes?...

Restoration is being handled by the joint venture of White, Skanska, and Consigli. All three are high profile engineering and construction contractors, but are any of them up to the task of managing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure? White has built much of Boston's significant infrastructure projects, but most of those projects have been auto-oriented or large transit projects and none appear to have as much mode mixing as that at the approaches of the Longfellow Bridge. Tetratech will be providing traffic design for the project, but no experts in pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure design have been brought onto the project.

Bicycle advocates from MassBike and LivableStreets brought into question the approaches at the end of the bridge during construction for pedestrians and bikes and when those designs would be available for public comment. The engineers from the joint venture noted that during the final phase at 75% of design completion, there would be an opportunity for public comment, but this was only for the final bridge approach design. The group claimed interim plans for the bridge approaches already take into account public concerns about bike and pedestrian infrastructure, but they did not actually present how the approaches will look during each phase of construction, which was the focus of this informational meeting. '[The interim approaches] will be reviewed by public safety officials', said one of the presenters who later clarified those would include traffic engineers, fire department officials , and police officials, but not there will not be any opportunity for public input before construction begins.

And the cars?...

Another incendiary point of the evening was the fact that all Cambridge-bound traffic would be eliminated for all 3 years of construction. One Beacon Hill resident claimed the plan was 'incomprehensible', noting 'it’s a disaster lots of times just to get home' and further exclaiming it would significantly hinder her ability to leave the city, even with the planned detours over the adjacent Craigie Bridge. One alternate route was to direct traffic across the Harvard Bridge via Mass Ave to get to Cambridge, which as scoffed at by at least one attendee.

As a nation, we've been driving less month over month since 2004. Commissioner Thomas Tinlin of the Boston Transportation Department was there to assure her that traffic shouldn’t be as severe as she anticipates, considering the fact that stats barely flinched when one Cambridge-bound lane was closed on the bridge as a live test. Though not an official announcement, he suggested there was time before the actual bridge closure to do a live test of an entire Cambridge-bound bridge closure.

Through thick and thin, the trains will run (except for 25 weekends)

Despite auto lane closures and 25 planned weekend service diversions, the Red Line will still run in some shape or form. Dedicated bus lanes and an additional 20 buses purchased by MassHighway are planned to run during weekend service diversions per construction planning by the joint venture. Contrary to the plans noted by the Globe, the phasing appears to permit the weekend shuttles to run in both directions over the bridge instead of only one direction with the other routed over the congested Craigie Bridge. It's still up to the MBTA to determine how they'll manage the weekend service diversions and whether Red Line trains will run between Kendall and Park or Kendall and Charles-MGH.

There is a point where trains can cross over between Park and Charles-MGH so the latter is more likely since Charles would offer operations to run more like the terminal at Alewife, where trains can enter the station on either side and turn around and cross over to the correct track before reaching the next station. Let's hope for the shuttle to go between Kendall and Charles-MGH since past shuttles between Kendall and Park have been nightmares due to the number of lights and awkward routing between Charles-MGH and Park for shuttle busses.

Unfortunately for one gentleman who has lived adjacent Charles Circle for over 40 years, there's no relief in sight, including the 2 years of various phases where the Red Line will be running on temporary 'shoofly tracks' right on the road itself. The new bridge construction will not include any noise abatement walls along the tracks, so the people who live at Charles Circle won't get any relief, at least for the next 75 years.

Tuesday evening was one of the last meetings held by MassDOT before rehabilitation begins on the bridge this June.

Countdown Clock Deployment Expands

Countdown clocks at 24 stations greeted groggy commuters Monday morning. This Monday, the MBTA officially enabled countdown clocks on pre-existing LED signage boards at an additional 24 stations across the system, bringing the total to 190 individual signs now counting down the minutes to train arrivals at 30 stations. This also marked Dr. Beverly Scott's first day on the job as MBTA GM, driving home her remark that she is a 'start-up, fix-it, turnaround, transition manager...a high impact player.'

The countdown clock project itself has been in process for many years before her arrival. Richard Davey laid the groundwork the top-down changes he's made since moving from MBCR to MassDOT/MBTA three years ago. Director of Innovation Josh Robin, whom Davey brought over from MassDOT to the MBTA because of his work on the MassDOT Developers project, led actual implementation of the project. The project was first tested at South Station several months ago and full rollout has been quietly in the works.

Regardless, the introduction of countdown clocks will be beneficial for all riders, especially those at stations without cellular service where the only way to know a train is coming is by looking at a smartphone app with stale data that was last pulled before arriving at the platform.

This is a far cry from actual service improvements, but any real changes to bring an end to broken down trains and delays from switch and signal problems will carry a much higher pricetag, one neither the MBTA nor MassDOT can afford to buy or ignore. We'll have to wait and see if Dr. Scott is the 'high impact player' that can be the final cog in the machine that will get our transit system running smoothly.

'Next Bus Please' - Courtesy in Motion

I happened to be thumbing through my RSS feeds and stumbled upon the lede image in a post about an upcoming BRT project for Brooklyn. It struck me that in so few times that I've ever taken the bus in New York, these simple words on the head sign did so much to prevent the frustration when a bus blows past your stop without hesitation.

Nowadays with bus tracking enabled by NextBus.com, it's easy for most people to see when buses are bunching up, but it's not so easy to know when a bus is being flagged by dispatch to go express.

Kurt Raschke over at his blog does a great job exploring where this can go and where some agencies on the Eastern Seaboard are already taking it. With Davey pushing low-cost, high-impact changes to affect the customer experience, this should be among the top of his list to discuss with incoming MBTA GM Beverly Scott.

MBTA Steps Up Its Game, Shares (In)Visible Results

This morning, the General Manager's twitter account pointed riders to an album of photos on Flickr covering the painting that happened at the Davis Square station this weekend. They also added a few photos of the continued work on the spot repairs they have been doing to the floating slabs along the Red Line, the primary project causing the ongoing weekend service outages of the Red Line north of Harvard.

Before Rich Davey was General Manager of the MBTA three years ago, photos of work on the T were few and far between. Months after I started tweeting about the MBTA (prompted by the phenomenal 2009 derailment of the Red Line, which I experienced personally on a train) and in May 2010, shortly after Davey took office, the MBTA created their twitter account to directly address customers in real time.

Davey was able to sporadically update riders with photos covering things like his visit to Korea earlier this year to tour construction of the first cars in the MBTA's new order of bi-level commuter rail cars.  This wasn't nearly enough to assure the public of the work that it does and was far less than what the MTA in neighbouring New York City has been doing with Flickr to cover weekend work.

It's good to see the MBTA has ramped up their own behind-the-scenes coverage of work, instead of having to be at the mercy of the press to cover their overnight and weekend work. This is photographic evidence to reassure the riders and general public that work is being done to the system, especially work that is invisible, but important, to riders. Now it's up to the press, blogosphere, and twitterverse to get the word out.

At the same time, does it really matter that there are photos of work if trains are still late and the MBTA is unable to affect perceivable changes to service quality? Most riders will see these photos and immediately ask, 'Why is my Orange Line train delayed?'