Boston Finance Infrastructure Light Rail

Frequent service, not escalator access, is what attracts transit users

Boston's Green Line

» Boston’s Green Line extension, bloated after years of planning, gets slimmed down. A lesson for other cities. 

Given how reliant the people of New York City are on their Subway, an outsider just looking at ridership data might conclude that the system must be paved with gold, or at least its stations must be decent to look at. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the comfort of a transit system plays an essential role in encouraging people to abandon their cars and get on the train or bus. That’s why, some would argue, it’s so important to put amenities like USB charging and wifi into transit vehicles.

Yet anyone who has ever ridden the Subway knows first hand that its success has nothing to do with aesthetics or access to luxury amenities. Stations are hardly in good shape, trains are packed, and cell service is spotty at best. People ride the Subway in spite of these things; they ride it because it’s fast, it’s frequent, and it’s (relatively) reliable.

Too often, this simple fact is ignored by public agencies actually making decisions about how to invest. New York’s own $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub—perhaps the world’s single-most expensive station—is evidence of that; rather than improve service frequency or speed, officials chose to direct public funds to a white monument that does nothing to actually ease the lives of daily commuters.

Initial plans for the MBTA’s Green Line extension, which would extend light rail service from Cambridge into Somerville and Medford—all three are close-in suburbs of Boston—featured none of the extravagances of downtown Manhattan’s new transit terminal. Yet it too was designed with unnecessary features that, while nice, did little to actually solve the travel needs of its future users.  Its projected construction costs exploded such that officials announced last year the proposal could be cancelled. Now, after several months of review, the MBTA and the state government have voted to proceed with design changes meant to significantly bring down costs—but without compromising the quality of transit service to be offered to riders.

Agencies with pricey projects around the country should look for similar opportunities to minimize costs.

A rail line for one of the nation’s most transit-friendly communities

The seven-station extension of the Green Line proposed for Boston would be the region’s first rapid transit expansion since the completion of the Red Line extension in 1985. Running along two branches northwest from today’s terminus at Lechmere—one branch to Union Square in Somerville, the other to College Avenue, near Tufts University—the 4.7 miles of new track would run along existing commuter rail lines and connect to some of the country’s densest, most transit-friendly neighborhoods. See the Transit Explorer map for details.

The project would vastly improve connections of Somerville and Medford residents to jobs hubs in Cambridge and Boston and is expected to attract 45,000 daily riders by 2030. That would make it one of the most effective projects in the nation from the perspective of riders per mile operated.

The project has been in planning for decades. A 1990 lawsuit required that the line be completed by 2011 as a sort of trade-off in exchange for the completion of the Big Dig. But faced with limited funding, mounting MBTA debt, and a lack of adequate state political support, the project failed to gain traction and the state kept pushing it off. Finally, initial construction activity began in 2013 and the federal government agreed to provide a significant New Starts grant to the project in 2015.

Yet even as the project advanced, its estimated construction costs mounted ominously. Federal reports show total costs rising from $1.1 billion in 2013 to $1.7 billion in 2014 to $2.3 billion in early 2015. By late last year, the project’s budget had reached $3 billion, and the state announced that it was not only cancelling certain contracts related to its completion but also that, in the context of a transit agency stretched beyond anything it could handle, it was considering cancelling it altogether.*

Redesign by necessity

But the MBTA submitted the Green Line extension to a review by a project management team, and that group released its report on how to save the project yesterday. The document details how the project’s price tag could be substantially reduced, returning it to a (still-expensive but) doable $2.3 billion cost.

The changes are reasonable because, rather than cutting the quality of service provided to riders in terms of transit service, they focus on aesthetic elements that, even if they improve the general atmosphere of the system, likely do little to actually get people onto trains. The essentials, like the frequency of trains, their speed, and their capacity, are maintained.

What the team does recommend is vastly simplifying proposed station designs. As the below chart from the report indicates, the stations would be slimmed down. 15 elevators would be replaced by six (while maintaining wheelchair accessibility throughout); escalators and fare gates would be eliminated entirely; and full-length station canopies would be cut down to shelters. In total, these changes would slash almost $300 million from the project budget, with virtually no impact on ridership experience.

Changes in Green Line stations

The changes will make the MBTA’s built footprint less visible; there will be no Calatrava extravagances here. As the below images show, Ball Square station in Medford was initially designed to feature a plaza, a headhouse (a multi-story building featuring elevators and escalators), a concourse, and a fully covered platform. What would be built in its place is an open-air and very simple train stop, with more room for future transit-oriented development.

Customers may suffer through the cold for a few more minutes, but trains will come frequently enough that shouldn’t be a major concern. Meanwhile, MBTA will save itself millions of dollars of future maintenance costs not upkeeping expensive and unreliable machinery and not keeping thousands of square feet of interior space clean. These savings aren’t even accounted for in the capital costs of the project but they’ll pay off in a lower operating budget for years to come.

Initial proposal Revised proposal
ball-sq-before ball-sq-after

The management team also proposes a reduction in the size of the proposed vehicle maintenance facility and affiliated transportation building, which together will save more than $100 million and not affect the MBTA’s ability to keep trains moving. An expensive parking deck will be replaced with a parking lot. Bridges that the initial plan suggested needed to be completely replaced will be simply renovated.

If the choices about what to eliminate seem obvious, consider the alternative: The Purple Line in suburban Washington, D.C. also underwent a considerable cost-cutting process earlier this year. Yet the changes there will reduce passenger quality of service by increasing headways between trains, reducing train capacity, and lengthening the walking distance between the line and a Metro station in Silver Spring. While these efficiencies aren’t dramatic enough to imperil the overall value of the line, they will hurt the passenger experience in the long term, while those on the Green Line will not.

The changes in Boston must be approved by the Federal Transit Administration, which has final say over whether the redesigned project meets the initial project goals. And local governments need to scrounge up an additional $73 million to meet the gap in project costs that remains—without this funding, the project could still be on the chopping block. Yet these are surmountable obstacles and the project now seems likely to move forward.

Nuance by design

Boston’s example is no panacea; the quality of the transit environment does matter. While nice materials, enclosed stations, escalators, and overhead canopies may do little to expand ridership, they improve peoples’ daily experience, and that’s important. The nicer we can make the public sphere, the better our cities will be to live in.

But it’s refreshing to see a transit agency propose a cost-cutting approach that does nothing to negatively impact the level of service being proposed. Rather than take out a constricted budgetary environment on riders by reducing service, the MBTA is proposing to stick to the essentials, and that’s the right move.

Were construction costs in Boston lower, the MBTA could afford to give riders both good service and a comfortable environment. But like transit agencies around the country, the MBTA has been unable to lower costs to international standards. In this environment, it serves as a model for other agencies looking to invest in transit on a limited budget.

* There is some question as to whether the state actually can ever cancel the project, given that it was mandated through the legal process.

Image at top from Flickr user Bill Damon (cc). Other images from Green Line project management team report.

Boston Metro Rail

With infill stations, older transit agencies extend their reach

» A new station on Boston’s Orange Line prepares for opening, but infill stations of its type are all too rare.

Want to know a secret? One of the best ways to increase transit ridership at a reasonable price requires little additional service. It requires no new line extensions. And it can be done to maximize the value of existing urban neighborhoods.

This magic solution comes in the form of the infill station–a new stop constructed along an existing line, between two existing stations. Next week, Boston’s MBTA transit agency plans to open a new stop, Assembly Station, along the Orange Line in Somerville, a dense inner-ring suburb just to the northwest of downtown Boston.

Assembly is the latest in a series of recent infill stations in the U.S. located along older heavy rail lines whose other stations were generally constructed decades ago. Washington, D.C.’s NoMa Metro Station opened in 2004; the San Francisco region’s West Dublin/Pleasanton BART Station followed in 2011. In Boston, new stations have been constructed along the upgraded commuter rail-becoming-regional rail Fairmount Corridor. And Chicago has had success with the opening of two infill stations in 2012, the Morgan Station in the city’s West Loop and the Oakton-Skokie Station in the northern suburbs.

Yet those expansions are exceptions to the rule. Two infill stations are currently planned in Northern Virginia, at Potomac Yard along the Metro in Alexandria and at Potomac Shores along the VRE commuter line, and one new station is under construction along the Green Line in Chicago.

But few other cities or transit systems are even considering the possibility of investing in infill stops, even as line extensions are proliferating around the country. That’s a big disappointment.

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.

Assembly Station was made possible in part thanks to a $15 million contribution from Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is building a $1.5 billion mixed-use community adjacent to the station. This Assembly Row project will eventually include 2,100 housing units, 500,000 square feet of retail, and 1.75 million square feet of office space, in effect creating a transit-oriented mini-city in an area that was once home to an automobile plant and, after that, a strip mall.

The ingenious decision to combine the creation of a dense new development with a new transit station encourages the production of a virtuous cycle of more people living near transit who thus are more likely to use transit.

There are many other places throughout the country where there are similar opportunities for new infill stations. San Francisco’s BART studied a new subway station at 30th Street and the Mission years ago but has done little to act on the idea. Other cities have the physical conditions that are right for infill stations but little momentum to implement them. Portland’s light rail system, for example, has several long inter-station gaps: The distance between Lloyd Center and Hollywood/NE 42nd (east of downtown) is 1.7 miles, certainly long enough to justify a new station in between. In Atlanta, similarly, the gap between Arts Center and Lindbergh Center on the Red and Gold Marta lines is 2.7 miles, passing through a zone of potential redevelopment.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg; there are dozens of similar situations around the country.

Transit agencies looking for ways to maximize the use of their existing lines should look to literally fill the gaps between their existing stations. In doing so, they offer the opportunity to build additional ridership and spur redevelopment.

Image at top from MBTA.

Atlanta Boston Urbanism Washington DC

Defining Clear Standards for Transit-Oriented Development


» A new report attempts to quantify the relative merits of development near transit. What value can this tool bring for planners?

Transportation and land use are inextricably linked. Building a new rail line may expand development; new development may expand use of a rail line. The direct connection between the two makes differentiating between cause and effect difficult to measure. Transportation planners frequently make the argument that a new investment will produce new riders, for example, but whether those riders would have come anyway is not a simple question to answer. There is no counter-factual.

Nevertheless, planners have invested decades of considerable work in the pursuit of transit-oriented development (TOD), under the presumption that clustering new housing, offices, and retail will result in rising transit use and, in turn, reduce pollution, cut down on congestion, and improve quality of life. There remains some controversy about the effectiveness of TOD investments in actually increasing transit ridership, but, at least in my mind, the success of certain areas over others has as much to do with the manner in which developments are designed as the mere fact that there is construction adjacent to a rail or bus station.

For example, the considerable success of Arlington, Virginia in attracting riders to the Washington Metro, as compared to Rosemont, Illinois’ interaction with the Chicago L, is likely due to the fact that the former prioritized walkable construction immediately adjacent to subway stations while the latter put the rail line in the median of a highway, separated buildings from the station by hundreds of feet, and minimized pedestrian amenities. Getting the design of new development around transit right is often just as important as the transit itself in terms of attracting ridership.

If design matters, what has been missing has been a tool that offers empirical insight into the benefits of specific development interventions in terms of their effect on growing transit use. To fill the gap, a new tool for measuring TOD quality has recently been introduced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). It holds potential value in terms of defining the appropriate measures for creating effective TOD, but it needs further development to be useful in aiding the creation of best-practice development designs.

The TOD Standard

ITDP’s TOD Standard replicates the BRT Standard the organization finalized this year. Like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED, both are scoring systems meant to offer a quick measurement that allows projects to be compared with one another on a variety of relevant criteria.

ITDP argues that this tool allows planners, developers, and the public to assess proposed or existing projects on a wide number of measures. The report aims to identify “what constitutes urban development best practice in promoting sustainable urban transport.” In other words, the goal of the tool is to determine which development projects would do the most to positively expand public transportation usage.

From the perspective of planners who should be actively promoting urban design that increases transit use, the Standard’s recognition of “development that is pro-actively oriented toward, rather than simply adjacent to, public transport” is encouraging. If the system works, it could be an potent way to make the connection between transit and development more explicit and, if used by municipalities or developers to design projects, it could eventually result in expanded ridership.

Best practices are identified across eight design categories — walking, cycling, the transportation network, accessibility to transit, a mix of uses, density, connections to existing employment centers, and changes in parking and road use. Within those categories, 24 criteria can be analyzed individually and then combined into an overall score in which developments rate from -50 (terrible) to +100 (excellent). The tool could be used to determine how well a completed development compares to best practice, or to identify areas for potential improvement.

Vienna Town Center Plan

Testing the Standard’s Effectiveness

ITDP’s tool is designed for large-scale projects within 800 meters (one half mile) of transit stations that implement at least 20,000 square feet of new construction on an area of four or more square blocks. The tool is not meant to measure the TOD effectiveness of existing districts (which are supposed to be included in a future revision of the Standard).

To evaluate just how the tool works, I chose three large TOD projects in East-Coast cities to compare their relative advantages, and inputted project data into the Standard for comparison. The three projects I selected are the Lindbergh Town Center project in Atlanta, which is fully completed (photograph at the top of this post); the NorthPoint project in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, which is partially completed; and the Vienna MetroWest (aka Metro Town Center), outside of Washington, D.C., which is in planning (the plan is just above this section). The latter project is the now down-scaled version of the Vienna plan.* Each constitutes a major development program located immediately adjacent to a transit corridor.

The data that I inputted into into the tool produced the results seen in the following table. As the last row indicates, the MetroWest project scored most poorly, with a rating of 3 out of 100.** Lindbergh did much better, with a score of 39, and NorthPoint best, with a score of 56. It should be emphasized that neither NorthPoint nor MetroWest are completed, so upon actual construction, the final TOD scores could be significantly different.

Evaluating TOD Based on the ITDP TOD Standard
Note: These figures offer a “sketch” computation of each project’s TOD score; the score should be treated as a general figure, not a fully accurate measure of each project’s characteristics.
CriterionPotential PointsMetroWest, Vienna, VANorthPoint, Cambridge, MALindbergh, Atlanta, GA
Sidewalk access0-1000
Complete crosswalks0-500
Driveway interference1010
Active frontage101105
Permeable frontage2011
Cycle network0-10-3
Cycle parking at stations2200
Cycle parking in buildings2???
Cycle access in buildings1???
Intersection density2-1021
Small blocks5030
Prioritized pedestrian connectivity3111
Max walk distance to transit00-20
Avg walk distance to transit5555
Mix of uses10101010
Access to food1100
Affordable housing4022
Residential density10497
Non-residential density5000
Connections to existing urbanism10044
Distance to existing jobs5555
Off-street parking15050
On-street parking5???

Assessing the Standard’s Value

The tool was simple to use and its results make sense intuitively: Whereas the MetroWest project is poor urban design from the perspective of encouraging transit use, the other two are far more oriented toward the nearby rail stations. Hypothetically, if the projects were all proposed for the same site, the tool would allow decision makers to make a quick quantitative comparison between the designs and identify the best project for public transportation riders. This could offer a clear benefit in terms of, for example, choosing a winning team for the contract to develop a publicly owned site. Rather than rely on “subjective” comparisons of the aesthetics of site designs (a comparison that too often devolves into a question of individual architectural taste), the tool quantifies the physical.

The Standard could also play a useful role in improving the ability of developers to design their new transit-adjacent buildings most effectively by highlighting where plans fall short in comparison with best practices.

Yet, as beneficial as it could be, the Standard does not appear to have been developed with a clear research methodology to back its scoring system. Why is the active frontage criterion worth 10 points, but the amount of shade on nearby streets only worth 2? Perhaps I am wrong, but my sense is that residential and commercial density are the overwhelming influencers of transit use, yet those criteria only account for a quarter of the score. ITDP does not appear to have conducted a real-world analysis to demonstrate whether certain elements are more beneficial in terms of attracting transit use. Rather, the tool seems to have been created using a common sense approach, which is not as good as one might hope for a “Standard” that is explicitly designed to provide an empirical scoring system for measuring TOD effectiveness.

ITDP’s TOD Standard, though, remains a draft; it will be revised over the next year based on public and expert input. It would be beneficial if those revisions attempted to incorporate evidence about the relative effectiveness of the various criteria in terms of growing transit ridership.

Even so, for those who are already familiar with the basic principles of transit-oriented development, ITDP’s scoring system will do little more than reinforce already-acquired knowledge. Every urbanist knows quite well that good TOD requires pedestrian connectivity, a mix of uses, and bike parking — those goals might as well be imprinted on the foreheads of most people trained in planning. At most, ITDP’s guidelines may highlight slight differences between individual projects, but a quick comparison of the site plans of Vienna’s MetroWest and Cambridge’s NorthPoint is enough for most even unexperienced planners to make out which one is designed for transit, and which one isn’t.

So what added value does the Standard bring? Like WalkScore, it provides an “objective” number that can be used by non-planner decision makers to help them determine which projects would best fulfill the policy objective of maximizing transit use. The Standard must be refined, however, to focus on making that number into something that’s genuinely reflective of best practices.


* I recognize that the Vienna project profiled here may not be the project that is built; the original plan for the site envisioned much higher densities just next to the station. For this comparison, though, I wanted to pick a project that I hypothesized would score poorly using the ITDP tool, and this revision fit the bill.

** Because I could not locate data on bike access to buildings or the area devoted to on-street parking, the documented scores were really out of a total possible score of 93.

Image at top: Lindbergh City Center in Atlanta, from Cooper Carry Architects; below: Revised Vienna Metro Town Center Plan, from Paraclete Realty

Boston Commuter Rail Light Rail

Facing Funding Shortfalls and Protest, Better Rail for Boston Region is Delayed

» Opportunities for rerouting commuter rail via the Grand Junction in Cambridge are criticized by community members who fear increases in pollution. Meanwhile, the long-planned Green Line extension in Somerville is threatened by budget limitations.

Just northwest of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville are some of the nation’s exemplar cities when it comes to promoting transportation alternatives. In Somerville, 48% of the population rides transit, walks, or bikes to work; in Cambridge, 57% do. The explanation likely comes down to a strong commitment to livable streets in both cities, a large student population, high residential densities, community activism against limited-access highways, and big concentrations of jobs both in the traditional office center of Downtown Boston but also in the walkable Kendall Square-MIT and Harvard Square areas, both along the Red Line rapid transit corridor.

Yet, with the exception of the Red Line — extended north of Harvard Square in the early 1980s — reliable transit access in the two cities is limited. Buses crisscross the area, but they are stuck in traffic at all periods of the day due to the lack of reserved lanes. Commuter rail lines that extend through the area only stop once, at the Porter Square Red Line station. These limitations have strained the Red Line, which now suffers from overcrowding at peak hours, and limited the potential for growth. In addition, partially because of the penury of transit stations around which to build up, the Boston region is one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.

For years, plans for transit access improvements, clearly merited considering the area’s demographics and potential, have been under development by the Boston-area transit agency, MBTA. A circumferential bus rapid transit line, the Urban Ring, would have allowed commuters from Cambridge and Somerville to get to Boston’s jobs-heavy Longwood Medical Area or Logan Airport without passing through congested downtown — but it was put on indefinite hold last year due to a funding shortfall. Now, an extension of the Green Line light rail line into Somerville is threatened by similar concerns. And the reactivation of the Grand Junction commuter rail corridor through Cambridge has been put off by community resistance.

The Green Line extension is one of the most promising transit projects in the country. It is expected to carry about 45,000 daily riders along its four-mile, two-pronged route, with termini in Somerville’s active Union Square neighborhood and Tufts University, just across the Somerville city line in Medford (see map below of the green dotted line), following two existing commuter rail corridors in a fully separated right-of-way. The state has previously said it plans to begin construction at the end of next year, with the opening of the first stations planned for 2016. The program is expensive — about $1 billion for its completion.

The Grand Junction, meanwhile, is a lightly used railroad that runs from Boston University, across the Charles River, through Cambridge, to the existing commuter rail corridors in East Cambridge; it is the only link between the commuter rail corridors emanating from Boston’s North and South Stations, which are on opposite sides of downtown. The Grand Junction, purchased from CSX in 2010, runs through the Cambridgeport, Kendall Square, and Area IV neighborhoods of Cambridge and past MIT, as seen below dotted in purple. The plan developed by MassDOT — abandoned for now — would have routed some commuter trains from Worcester to North Station along this route in order to provide better access to Kendall and decrease congestion at South Station, which is expected to see increasing use due to higher ridership on the commuter rail network and plans for expanded Amtrak Northeast Corridor operations, which end there.

Neighbors of the Grand Junction have opposed the commuter rail rerouting project from the beginning, suggesting that it would increase air pollution due to diesel emissions from the heavy, long, unelectrified trains. State Representative Tim Toomey, in concert with many of his neighbors, hailed MassDOT’s announcement last week that it would cancel the program.

The state’s own studies suggested that the new train services, including a $30 million upgrade at Kendall Square, would do little to improve ridership; only about 300 new riders would be expected to use them. And the line’s six street grade crossings would have posed a significant problem, especially at Massachusetts Avenue, along which a huge percentage of the automobile traffic between Boston and Cambridge travels. And yet the Urban Ring, which would have partially run along the same corridor, was expected to attract 184,000 daily riders, many of them in Cambridge. What gives?

Fundamentally, the problem with the current commuter rail plans for the Grand Junction was that they would have provided infrequent, limited-stop service in an area of the region that demands frequent operations with many stops. Connecting Boston University with MIT and North Station without running through downtown remains a good idea. And neighborhood groups might get on board if the plan is adapted to include stops in Cambridgeport and Area IV, two neighborhoods with only minimal connections to the existing network. This project deserves to be resurrected using low pollution diesel multiple unit trains, electric light rail vehicle, or BRT on its ridership merits alone. Fortunately, MassDOT left the project’s development open as a future possibility.

Community opposition, on the other hand, is certainly not a problem for the Green Line extension, which has nearly universal support from Somerville residents and politicians, who are excited about the opportunity for better and faster connections throughout the city and into downtown. But funding this huge infrastructure program is the bigger concern. Following a lawsuit over the Big Dig project (which interred a highway through central Boston), the state agreed as a form of air pollution mitigation to fund a number of major transit projects, including the Green Line extension. But the costs of the project were forced on the already debt-ridden MBTA; no alternative funding plan has yet been developed.

Though the state is required by legal settlement to improve transit into Somerville, the fate of the Green Line remains up in the air; earlier this year, there were rumors that its completion might be delayed until 2018 or later. U.S. Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville sounded the alarm last week, suggesting that the state should limit its ambitions to reflect funding realities, especially while pro-transit Democratic Governor Deval Patrick remains in office. Mr. Capuano’s proposal would be to build the extension only to Union Square and Washington Street, failing altogether to address connectivity deeper into Somerville. New stations would be built on the commuter rail line to make up for the loss of light rail access.

Yet this proposal would fail to provide the all-day frequent service rapid transit lines offer the rest of the Boston region. And it would force those using the line to transfer at North Station, preventing them direct access to other destinations in downtown Boston as well as further out to Northeastern University, Boston University, the Longwood Medical Area, and Brookline. Using heavy diesel trains rather than electrified light rail vehicles — just as in the Grand Junction case — would likely increase air emissions in the area, defeating the mitigation aspect of the project altogether. Replacing the Green Line with commuter service operating less frequently would doubtless attract far fewer riders.

Like in many metropolitan areas, funding for transport in Boston and its close-in suburbs is always tight. The exciting opportunity to improve on the fantastic transportation use patterns already present in Cambridge and Somerville, however, should encourage local leaders and politicians to fight for new revenue sources. And in the process, they should argue for the refinement of existing transit plans to better serve communities along their routes.

Image at top: Very short freight train running along the Grand Junction near Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, from Flickr user SignalPAD (cc)

Boston Commuter Rail

Fairmount Corridor Construction Promotes Better Use of Commuter Lines in Boston

» Capital investments will do part of the work in expanding use of the regional rail network, but operations is where the real benefits will come.

Boston has one of the nation’s most extensive and well-used commuter rail systems, with twelve lines splayed out from its terminal stations located downtown. But use of those services within the dense core communities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville is limited. Despite the fact that the commuter lines pass through those cities as they head out into the suburbs, few residents there choose commuter rail over the subway and bus network, likely because of few stops, limited frequencies of service, and inadequate connections with te rest of the transit network, both in terms of operations and fares.

As in other American cities, this represents a significant under-use of an asset that could play a significant role in upgrading Boston’s transportation network.

With the Fairmount Corridor improvement project, however, that situation will begin to improve on a limited basis — at least within a few neighborhoods south of downtown. Last week, MBTA transit officials broke ground on an infill station at Dorchester neighborhoods’s Talbot Avenue, one of four new stops planned on this commuter rail link (only one remains unstarted). These new infill stations — the others are at Four Corners, Newmarket, and Blue Hill Avenue — and faster connections into the central business district will aid commuters by decreasing travel times and reducing necessary connections. But in order to maximize ridership, these capital investments will not be adequate.

The push for amelioration of service on the 9.2-mile Fairmount Line (whose entire route is within the City of Boston proper) has been long demanded by neighborhood groups in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, who see trains pass by them everyday but lack easy access to stations, as the route currently only has five including the termini at Readville and South Station, where connections with the Red Line subway and Silver Line busway are possible. Of the MBTA’s commuter routes, the Fairmount Line is the lowest-performing, with less than 3,000 daily riders and only 70 passengers per train on average, compared to more than 200 for all the rest.

After significant public efforts to encourage the construction of new stops along the route in the early 2000s, a court order required the completion of the four stations by December 2011 — a deadline that is unlikely to be met. But when the improvements are finished, Boston will get something like a third rapid transit line to its southern neighborhoods, joining the Orange Line to the west and the Red Line to the east.

Though many of the new stations will be within a mile of Red Line ones, the neighborhoods through which the Fairmount service goes are sufficiently dense that two rail routes through the area does not seem inappropriate, especially at the relatively minor $15-20 million cost of building each of the new infill stations.

Rapid transit, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Commuter rail service between service end points takes about 25 minutes with the existing trainsets (faster DMUs are being considered for the future), much faster than is possible using current bus or subway routes (55 minutes). But if service levels remain as they are today, it is difficult to imagine many new riders hopping on board. Only 17 round-trips are provided each day, with frequencies of every 45 minutes at rush hour and less than every hour during the midday. There is no night or weekend service.

While schedules such as those might be acceptable for people who leave their cars at park-and-ride lots in the suburbs in order to make their trips into the city in the morning and out in the evenings, they are completely inappropriate for transit-dependent populations such as those found in the areas through which the Fairmount Line runs. This, and the focus of bus services on the subways, not the commuter rail, explains the corridor’s currently low ridership in spite of the high use of other types of transit in the neighborhood, generally on par with Boston’s average of 33% public transportation mode share.

Past Fairmount Corridor feasibility studies have examined the possibility of expanding service to every 15 minutes at peak times, an operations level that planners suggest could increase ridership to more than 4,000 a day. Fare integration with the rapid transit network allowing free transfers into the subways and buses would bump up use of the line even more. To get from Readville to Downtown Boston currently costs $5.25 on the Fairmount Line, far more than the $1.70 required to take the bus.

Improvements such as those being implemented here — the creation of infill stations, expansion of frequencies, and potential fare integration — should be considered for all of the Boston area’s commuter lines since they are cheap ways to improve the quality of the public transportation network.

Like in most other American cities, commuter rail services in Boston are arbitrarily separated in terms of fares from the subway and bus networks. This in an inefficient use of resources since it encourages people to take overcrowded but lower-priced local networks instead of commuter lines that can in many cases get people to where they need to go more quickly.

Unfortunately, due to the peculiarities of transit funding in this country, due to federal support, getting capital improvements underway is a more simple process than are expanding service hours or reducing fares, both of which are mostly reliant on local funds. This results in a situation where construction projects continue even as the frequency of trains and buses declines. If the primary purpose of programs such as the Fairmount Corridor improvement project is to increase ridership, this is a problematic situation.

Whatever the fate of service along the route, local community groups have been pushing hard to encourage redevelopment around the new and existing stations. A series of urban villages have been proposed in these districts; the effort received livability funds from the Federal Transit Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Specifically, a former chemical facility near the Fairmount stop in the Hyde Park neighborhood has been targeted for a major project. This is a welcome effort by the community to take advantage of new transit resources, rather than to turn their back on them, as is far too frequent in other cities.

Image above: Boston’s South Station, from which Fairmount Line trains originate, from Flickr user Tim Sackton (cc)