Red Line

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.

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?'

Transit Construction During the Great 'Recession'

I'm currently killing some time before heading off to a discussion at the Museum of the City of New York on the challenges facing ongoing and planned transit construction projects in the New York City metro region during these trying economic times. Boston has it's own projects that have been stalled (or in an extended design and environmental review process) for quite some time until this most recent MassDOT/MBTA Board of Directors meeting: the Orange Line infill station at Assembly Square, the Green Line Extension to Route 16 (the current project only extending to College Avenue, one stop shy of the legal requirement for the project to reach Medford), the Blue Line extension to Charles-MGH, further Blue Line extensions beyond Wonderland, drafting and design of new Red and Orange Line cars.

Thinking on that and a political comic from 1938 on the then titled 'recession' that I came across at the MCNY, infrastructure investment has always proven to be a means of driving economic recovery by putting people back to work and providing improved mobility for commerce during down economic times and after economic recovery.

The Obama administration is two years late in offering such a solution, instead having opted to deal first with the politically unpopular healthcare reform he initially promised during his campaign. Nevertheless, the Obama administration, the Federal DOT, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have outlined a budget for a more 'balanced' transportation budget, improving the budget ratio between transit and roads from 20:80 to 24:76.

Even more unfortunately, the mass transit funding debate often gets overshadowed by the high speed rail funding debate, the latter of which is currently being played out on the national political stage with sweeping action and unfortunately dramatic rejections of funding. Within mass transit funding, there are significant issues between expanding service and improving network access within cities, the former enabling more suburban settlement farther from city centers and the latter strengthening networks within cities and making them more resilient to network failures (i.e. medical emergencies, police activity, and disabled trains).

Will we 'win the future'? Maybe. But we've already lost a lot of time and money propping up companies rather than the physical infrastructure that enables us to live, work, and play.

Communication as a Service to the Customer

The MBTA's at it again with their signs. This time they had a template, but still managed to turn an opportunity to communicate with its riders into a  block of blithering text. Even worse is the fact that the text comes roughly from an MBTA press release that was verbose, redundant, and awkwardly phrased to begin with. These posters, which were first sighted Wednesday evening, were posted in few places around Alewife and Park Street stations, including on some blank A-frame sign boards next to another sign with poor body copy. The other signs present at the station posted construction updates on the switch just south of Alewife. (Photos at the bottom of the post.)

General Manager Rich Davey has stated his focus is on safety and customer service, and he reiterated this on a recent visit to Springfield. If he and the MBTA are serious about customer service, it's imperative that they get their act together and work on communicating with their patrons. It was said at the first meeting with the GM over three months ago that the MBTA does not do enough to tell its own story, to advocate for itself, and essentially keep riders informed. However, one would be hard pressed to find improvement in the communications side of customer service if many of those methods communicate very poorly to begin with.

I've focused a lot on signs and posters mostly because they're a passion of mine, but also because they are the perfect test for the agency's ability to communicate critical customer service-related information to riders efficiently and conspicuously. A family of four visiting from out of town managed to miss a sign that was right next to them at Park Street. When I asked them their thoughts on the sign, they noted that the reason they didn't notice the sign was because it simply wasn't conspicuous enough. Surely there are better ways of engineering the signs to be more conspicuous than having MBTA crew dress up like the American stereotype for a terrorist and walk around with the signs.

As of this posting, there still isn't a conspicuous notice about the emergency response drill on the main MBTA page and no immediate indication from the main page that such advisories even exist. Further, there is no information available online on the construction updates at Alewife. When all is said and done, the MBTA needs to work on communicating efficiently and clearly, in their signs, press releases, and other communication methods. If they don't, their attempts at informing riders will go unnoticed and the agency will continue to look like a bunch of bureaucrats doing an amateur job of serving the greater Boston area.

As usual, I've included my own revisions below, linked to PDFs of the revisions.

[gallery columns="3" exclude="106,118,99,100"]

New Signage Pilot due for next Service Change

After grabbing the attention of some folks on the web and at MassDOT/the MBTA, I’ve set in motion the steps to a better method of alerting fellow riders to upcoming service changes. At a meeting with my contact at the MBTA this past Friday, I handed over the template designs and uncovered a few ugly truths about signage and rider communication at the MBTA. When put to practice, the signs will not be placed within the trains themselves, as I had done the night of 6 May, for ‘union reasons’. Instead, they will likely continue to be deployed as ‘seat drops’, which basically means they’ll end up face-down on the floor under the seats after the morning rush comes in to peel them off the seats. I regret not having pressed harder for a better solution. These signs will also go up in stations, ideally in place of the large vinyl walls of text that have normally accompanied service changes.

Ultimately, all signs now deployed on the T for service changes are currently done line-by-line by each line manager, but this isn’t really news to us. What’s more distressing is that whatever design and brand integrity team that used to exist at the MBTA as part of the public relations team no longer exists, likely due to successive budget cuts and the resultant position eliminations that have happened over the past few decades of federal, state, and municipal disinvestment in transit.

A well enforced brand identity breeds comfort and familiarity and makes it easier for riders to passively spot helpful information, such as line maps, emergency procedures, or wayfinding signage. Splintering of this visual continuity hampers this and makes communicating with passengers much more difficult and energy intensive. The MBTA needs a brand and passenger communications czar; Joe Pesaturo and his team has their hands full with outward-facing communications with news media and internal communications at the MBTA.

In any case, the signs will make their way to the public relations team who will apply their touch to the designs and push them out as a template to the line managers. How it develops from there is up to them, but Josh Robin plans to keep me involved in the project. At the moment, my next step is to create a web app that will allow line managers to create the signs with an intuitive form using drop-down menus and canned statements that have been pre-approved by the public relations team. Anyone interested in contributing his/her web technologies talents should express his/her interest in comments below.

On the T with MBTA GM Rich Davey

I don't often travel on the T after 8 for various reasons, all unrelated to the number of notices I get via the T-Alerts emails about delays. Last Thursday evening it was an unavoidable affair, but it was certainly fruitful. MBTA General Manager Rich Davey, another person, and I were all heading home after the joint MBTA-MassDOT Developers event, Where's The Bus? 2.0 and we got stuck on a southbound Red Line train at Charles-MGH due to a broken down train at Park Street. Our idle chatting turned into an impromptu interview with the new GM nearly 11 weeks into his appointment.

One Story, Two Lessons

How the Red Line came off the tracks and how commuters and the MBTA dealt with it. Last week on 22 December around 16:00, immediately before the evening commute, a train set of 01800 series Red Line cars (as reported by the Boston Globe) began heading southbound from the Alewife terminal. Initial sources, including a conductor I had asked at the Harvard platform that night, noted that the derailment actually happened as the train passing over a set of points (the crossover switch) just yards south of the station. This, with the cracked wheel, brings to mind the fatal accident that happened in Eschede, Germany in 1998 with the high-speed Inter City Express. The Boston Globe placed the derailment at just a few feet out of the station, before the crossover switch.

Nonetheless, the northernmost crossover tracks were rendered unusable and trains were forced to terminate at Harvard since the next set of crossover tracks are located just yards south of Harvard station. This led to one incredibly slow rush hour commute for two reasons: the MBTA was not using Harvard station as it should have and buses can hardly replace the throughput of 6 full Red Line cars, the longest and widest cars in the system, running on its own right of way every 9 minutes (ideally) through each station.

Reduced Throughput at Harvard

The night of the incident, the MBTA was not only using just the southbound platform for loading and unloading of passengers, it had no form of crowd control to expedite the process of loading and unloading the trains. This meant people waiting to load the trains were slowing the egress of passengers on the trains and holding trains at the platforms longer than necessary - and we all know how I feel about door blockers and generally those who stand to hold trains at stations.

As far as only using the southbound platform, this meant slower service and longer delays because of how block signaling works and the simple fact that doing so reduces the throughput of trains through the station. Let's not forget that Harvard station itself used to be the northernmost terminal for the Red Line up until the extension nearly three decades ago. The MBTA has not yet released why they were not utilizing both northbound and southbound platforms - it is unlikely they were reserving the northbound platform for moving equipment to and from Alewife.

Reduced Throughput with Shuttles

If there's one thing transit advocates have been trying to repeatedly voice to the powers that be, it's that buses can never replace the capacity and timeliness of heavy rail transit. Now, 'timeliness' may not be a word Bostonians have come to associate with any of the subway lines operated by the MBTA, but it's certainly something many people who normally ride the Red Line should have noticed. Shuttle buses that replaced Red Line service were paralyzed by the normally heavy traffic on Massachusetts Ave turned absurd from the number of people who called spouses and friends to pick them up at Harvard and the added traffic from several shuttle buses occupying most of one lane.

Transit-progressive cities like New York and Portland have begun deployment of specially dedicated bus-only lanes, often opting to redesignate a lane of traffic or parking as well as redesigning the boulevard with pedestrian amenities and bump-outs [pdf] for bus stops if preserving parking lanes. Doing so to Mass Ave may not be practical if the parking lane is reserved, but there are arguments for maintaining parking lanes as a means of insulating pedestrians from otherwise harmful traffic, much like the trees that used to line boulevards before we threw out the urban road design vocabulary to turn everything into a high-speed thoroughfare (read: highway).

In any case, the lesson is that buses can't replace trains, especially if they're sharing the road with auto traffic. With that, I'd like to treat you to a rare 'extension' of the Silver Line into Somerville:

Commuter Response and MBTA Communications

Based on the NECN news report on the derailment, riders mostly took the whole thing in stride, but as I've come to know Bostonians, they're much more likely to complain quite rabidly in the digital space of the interwebs. On many news pages and on Twitter, there was a severe backlash and outrage by riders. Many claimed the MBTA should step up its inspections and maintenance operations to prevent such things as the Green Line derailment that happened just weeks before.

Admittedly, some of this chatter comes without the transit common sense that comes with years of railfanning and understanding train operations - some wheel and track failures are near impossible to detect before failure and it is impractical to inspect a train while it is in service - this last incident was next to impossible to prevent. That isn't to say that the MBTA shouldn't step up their maintenance practices and do what they can to raise awareness of the situation at hand: we have a crumbling system, there are billions of dollars of stimulus infrastructure money floating around, Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have stated their support for transit, but the oldest transit agencies in the country aren't getting the money they need to both keep it operating and keep the trains on the tracks - roads by far are getting most of the stimulus money despite the fact that transit carries millions more riders each day and by far has a much safer running record as well as a higher return on investment in terms of throughput, traffic relief, and longevity of components.

Now, more than ever, is a time to ask more of our transit agency and even more of the Commonwealth's political leaders because not only is transit on the line, but so are our lives.