Podcast 27 - Transportation For Massachusetts (T4MA)

We're joined in the studio by Transportation For Massachusetts (T4MA) staff -- Josh Ostroff, Partnerships Director & Charlie Ticotsky, Policy Director -- to let us know what they do and share recent news on their efforts to secure more funding for transit. Visit or follow them on Twitter @T4MASS. Read about MassDOT's improved but still inadequate Capital Improvement Plan on the T4MA blog.

This episode was recorded on April 5. [Our apologies for the long break, we've been busy advocating for better transit. More shows are in the pipeline. If you're interested in helping with podcast editing and blog posting, please email]

TransitMatters advocates for fast, frequent, reliable and effective public transportation in and around Boston. As part of our vision to repair, upgrade and expand the MBTA transit network, we aim to elevate the conversation around transit issues by offering new perspectives, uniting transit advocates and promoting a level of critical analysis normally absent from other media.

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Podcast 13 - moving a vision for Boston's future transportation network

Podcast 13 - moving a vision for Boston's future transportation network

How will we get around in 15 years? What could our transit system and other public spaces look like if we develop goals and focus on achieving them? Do we even have that much time before the sea level rises and floods the whole city?

We debate these and many other questions on the future of transportation in Boston, as the city moves forward on developing a "visionary" and "transformative" action plan, GoBoston2030.

There's much we don't know yet, like how we'll communicate -- remember that 15 years ago smartphones didn't exist -- but one thing we know for sure is we'll have to move beyond fighting over every little project (and every single parking space!) and turn plans in processes so that change actually happens. And advocates like you and us need to make sure that happens!

Podcast 11 - Transit Polling with Rich Parr of MassINC

MassINC Polling Research Director Rich Parr shares his recent work and perspectives on what people think about the transportation dilemma in Boston. After the MBTA collapsed, a follow-up poll showed a dramatic increase in perceived important of transit, and most people now recognize that the region suffers without good transit. Still nobody can agree on how to fix it, and myths such as wasteful spending and mismanagement continue to lower the discourse.

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.

Get a Backbone! Cut the Bulls**t Off-Street Parking

Boston has a strange way of committing to walkability, transit accessibility, and the adjustment of cultural expectations for parking per Menino's claim that 'the car is no longer king in Boston'. A large number of transit-oriented developments in and around Boston come with a lot of parking and even more is about to be built at a development that could've easily done without it.

When news about a parking-free development in Allston started making the rounds in January, many in the neighbourhood vehemently argued against the development with the fear of increased parking pressures that we've come to expect of public comment in Boston.

Saying that the building won't have any parking is very disingenuous. The project was originally submitted to the Boston Redevelopment Authority[PDF] with the plan to have six parking spaces for car sharing services (e.g. Zipcar or Hertz Connect). Instead, the development was approved with 35 parking spaces.

Paul McMorrow nails the issue right on the head in his Globe editorial:

 Nearly every developer who has ever tried to build in Boston has run into neighborhood interference over parking. Bostonians will shiv anyone who threatens to dilute the supply of free on-street parking. It’s the city’s job to calm these fears, and strike a balance between neighbors and developers, who cover the astronomical costs of building off-street parking by collecting inflated rents. This balancing act shouldn’t be as delicate as it once was, since city-dwellers are now far less married to their cars. But it’s still up to the city to make parking regulations catch up to the market.

[Sebastian] Mariscal’s Allston development isn’t overreaching at all by zeroing out cars entirely. It’s in a part of town that will undergo a dramatic transformation over the next decade, thanks to New Balance’s New Brighton Landing development. Mariscal’s building site is three blocks from a planned commuter rail stop. It’s a 10-minute walk from the Green Line. These are hardly insurmountable distances. And the market for car-free housing is far greater than Mariscal’s doubters believe. More than half of Boston residents currently take the T, bike, or walk to work. There are now 27,000 more car-free workers living in the city than there were a decade ago. Gathering 44 of them in one building should be a layup. Getting the city’s blessing to do so should have been, too.

The concerns about increased parking pressures were, as usual, not quantified or contested despite the fact that our apartment-dwelling urbanites are re-learning how to share, car sharing significantly reduces car ownership or the potential to own a car, and a shit ton of parking will be dumped on the area when New Balance's New Brighton Landing is finished. Add to that the state's commitment to a new commuter rail stop to…mitigate the need for parking? Wait, what’s going on here?

As noted in New Balance's submitted project documents, there's already a 1,200 space parking garage for the existing development and all new parking will be provided on-site. So a new commuter rail station is being put in, but we're still anticipating a need for larger amounts of parking?

The BRA's own vision for the area is inspiring and talks about developing a walkable, transit-oriented neighbourhood, but their recommendations for transportation improvements talk more from the perspective of improving car throughput and access to the Mass Pike and leave transit improvements to the hopeful increase of bus service and eventual arrival of a commuter rail station.

Parking and the availability of it in future developments further dramatically affects transit use and the effectiveness of transit, even with increased frequency of service, despite promising to increase the area's 'traffic' throughput. In fact, it's the sheer volume of car traffic that already chokes the existing roads and, in turn, transit service. More parking will only serve to give more people the option to drive.

The area's debilitating automobile traffic is a major reason why the 57 and 57A are late at least 35% of the time, which likely is disproportionately felt by the majority of riders who use the bus during rush hours. The 64, which directly serves the New Balance site and runs past Mariscal's 37 North Beacon St, is late almost 40% of the time.

This isn't to say service can't be improved in spite of additional parking, but no plans have been revealed so far to include dedicated bus lanes or other forms of transit prioritization to improve the reliability of the existing bus service. Without it, the area will remain auto-dependent and people will continue opting to drive and sit in traffic rather than wait for late and crowded buses.

And it's not just in Allston...

Off-street parking in Chicago is abundant downtown and often gussied up like this, but it still contributes to massive traffic problems despite wide avenues. This garage is under a skyscraper immediately next to a CTA station (Merchandise Mart) and a short walk from another.

Similar visions of parking-loaded 'transit-oriented' developments have been approved immediately next to the new Yawkey Station that will also see increased commuter rail service and adjacent the new Assembly Square station on the Orange Line. The Assembly Row development in Somerville was approved with 10,066 spaces[PDF] while the Fenway Center development at Yawkey will see a more reasonable 1,290 spaces. Millennium Tower at Downtown Crossing, within walking distance of every transit line and commuter rail line in Western Massachusetts, has even been approved with 550 spaces despite thousands of public parking spaces in the neighbourhood that empty out after business hours, 822 of which sit in my office building across the street.

Fenway Center's numbers are still disproportionate to the need of the area considering its transit accessibility that will only increase over time and the further parking volume promised from other new and approved developments. The perception seems to be that Fenway games need more parking despite the fixed number of seats in the ballpark and the new two-platform commuter rail stop that will see full-time service once complete. Exacerbating neighbourhood traffic by making it more convenient to people to drive to ball games and the growing number of posh restaurants in Fenway isn't a great way to convince those very neighbourhoods that development is good.

These are all examples of transit-related capital investments being made by the state, MassDOT/MBTA, being undermined by the BRA approving adjacent 'transit-oriented' developments with large volumes of parking. While in some of these projects, the parking can and probably will be converted to other uses if/when the spaces go underutilized, but that alone is an expensive venture and the inclusion of parking into the development already increases its base cost. This increased cost translates into less housing and higher rents for those fewer units that get built.

But it can get better...

While there's not much that can be done to reduce the volume of parking at these already approved developments, the BRA, Boston Transportation Department, and MBTA can do a much better job of talking to each other in future developments about the real generator of automobile traffic: parking.

Instead of imposing parking 'guidelines', which act more as legal parking minimums, the BRA could offer 'parking credits' for developers to apportion parking off-site in existing parking structures. This would encourage more developers to build less expensive housing that would more effectively address Boston's severe housing crunch.

Additionally, the new developments don't necessarily need 1:1 or even 1:2 parking ratios because of a significant latent demand for housing without parking and the ability to address travel needs by improving the reliability of transit. Parking 'needs' can and will be further driven down by increasing the number of amenities and affordable, modern office spaces in the area, practically inherent in the act of increasing density with new development.

What else can we do with less expensive developments? Well, we can encourage developers to include modern civic and municipal spaces into new buildings. The city can even create new revenue with forward-thinking land use deals instead of selling the property outright for a one-time cash infusion. This further adds to the number of amenities within walking distance to new and existing developments and increases the livability and value of our neighbourhoods.

Again, it all comes down to our transportation choices when we have the opportunities to remake our cities block-by-block. 'When I design a building, the first thing I have to resolve is my parking,' Mariscal notes, just as every other developer before him and any to follow. By beefing up transit and actually treating it like the lifeblood of our city, we can reduce the pressure on developers to design parking into their buildings and the cost of our rent. In time, Bostonians will learn put down their shivs and not have a conniption over each development proposed without or with little parking when there's transit nearby just waiting to be improved. The BRA isn't helping by not doing its due diligence and addressing resident concerns with reason.

Get ready for a whole lot of transportation

[youtube=] Next Tuesday, 2 April 2013 is shaping up to be a reasonably big day for transportation in the Boston area. After working 6 months at 60-hours a week, I can get my feet wet again with transit issues.

Transportation Day at the State House

10:00am-1:00pm @ Massachuestts State House 

Cambridge-based LivableStreets is going to be hosting a series of talks on the steps of the State House and an opportunity to speak with regional legislators on providing better financial support for the very transportation system that provides vibrancy and value to our Commonwealth.


MBTA Public Meeting for the Government Center Rehab

6:00pm-7:30pm @ DeLeo Senior Center, 35 Harvard Street, Winthrop, MA

The MBTA is hosting its second public meeting to provide information about the upcoming major rehab of Government Center that will provide such significant improvements to the station's infrastructure that it will require complete closure for 2 years.


Cities in Motion 2 Releases

Cities in Motion 2 is the much awaited sequel to one of the most comprehensive and engaging city/business/transportation simulators made to date. Hotly anticipated features include larger map sizes, multi-player support, schedule management of transport vehicles, dedicated bus lanes, and a more responsive city that will grow based on how well your transport system facilitates movement of your city's people. Take a look at the preview above - if you pre-order on Steam before next Tuesday, you immediately gain access to the Modern Collection DLC, which includes modern vehicles of each transport mode.

2013: The Year of Games for Transit?

I've (lamentably) just finished watching the recording of a Q&A with Sim City developers at Maxis and I can't help but feel skeptical about the latest version of Sim City.

After watching the Q&A, it feels like the Maxis team is squandering its position as the largest and most famous city-building franchise to not only teach true urbanism, but to also show the wide range of transit modes available today that are crucial to life in most cities across the world. They have opted instead to expand the flexibility of its road system with various road types and fetishize the loss of the grid. Even airports have grown more nuanced with modular airports that can range from small strips to large, international airports that require multi-city cooperation to complete.

Where has transit gone? With what little Maxis has revealed, they've gotten rid of subways, likely to be brought back in only after 6 months after release but at the cost of a $60 'subterranean transit' expansion pack, also probably to be followed by an 'elevated transit' expansion pack for another $60. Railroad tracks still intersect at T-intersections (just as they do in real life, right?).

The bus depot is now modular, though there still isn't route creation - transit just runs itself, which may be beneficial for simplicity of gameplay. I was a little more than miffed that the programmers seemed flabbergasted that anyone would even be able to estimate the walkable distance to a bus stop... When all you do is work with numbers, algorithms, and statistics all day to create a game that simulates the world around you and does so with such beautiful complexity, how naïve must you be to actually be surprised that 'walkable' distance to a bus stop is something that someone somewhere who specialises in transport planning hasn't already tried to simulate or derive from similar stats you use to create the other simulation engines in your game?

Light rail is a nice addition and in some released in-game footage, we see some running along avenue medians, but this is hardly the depth and degree of choice that Sim City has been known to deliver. While I know the game is months away, the game is largely complete save a bit of engine tweaking that will come through the upcoming months of beta play leading up to the release. Suffice it to say, I'm disappointed at a game that used to be able to deliver very dense, transit-oriented cities and I fear that might be lost in a Sim City that appears more geared toward 'road geeks'.

And in the other corner...Cities in Motion 2


Unlike Sim City, Cities in Motion was much more about the detailed simulation of transit systems within a city and how to manage that puzzle in approximations of real-world cities. It took the very detailed systems approach of Sim City 4, where strategy lay in how well you could throttle civic building services to best match demand and cut waste, and applied it to transit as a pure business simulation.

Cities in Motion 2 inches closer to being a city simulator built on top of a transport simulator. Previews from this year's gamescom feature the ability to build new roads, including those with dedicated bus lanes, and how your city will grow around the infrastructure you build.

Why all the hate for Sim City?

I don't hate Sim City; I love the franchise. It was my very first city building simulator, but the landscape of gaming has expectantly changed in the nine years since its last release, Sim City 4. Cities XL has proven to be a very formidable competitor and shares it with other city simulation games set against different backdrops like Tropico 4 and the Anno franchise.

However, Sim City remains the world's most well-known city building simulator. This also makes it the world's most accessible teaching tool for understanding what builds a world-class city. Even San Francisco, Maxis' largest neighbouring city, wouldn't be what it is today without the addition of its innovative hybrid commuter-metro, BART. Let alone New York, Tokyo, Paris, or London; their productivity, culture, and sheer size are supported transparently by complex and nuanced transit systems.

For all its innovations in road simulations with new road types, this latest version of Sim City will be doing an injustice to all who play it, reinforcing for many and teaching a whole new generation the fallacy that the only way to build a successful city is with wide boulevards with light rail shoved in the middle, just for fun, to serve a street lined by buildings set back from the street by parking.

Ultimately, including a respectably wide range of transit options for construction would not negatively over-complicate the powerful simulation engine Maxis has revealed so far. Instead, it would provide a much more realistic simulation that illustrates transit's critical role in city development and viability through its efficiency and variety. While Cities in Motion is a great transport management simulator, Sim City's instructive power comes from the near omniscience and omnipotence over your city that lets you know how well or how poorly a city functions based on your infrastructure decisions.

It's interesting to note that Cities in Motion is developed by Colossal Order in Finland and Sim City by Maxis in sunny California, USA...