MBTA Bus Route 80: Don’t kill it, make it wonderful!

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) bus Route 80 is on a list of routes to be eliminated under its Forging Ahead plan when the Green Line Extension (GLX) begins running to College Avenue in Medford.

Route 80 runs between Arlington Center and the current Green Line terminus at Lechmere Station. It runs parallel to the GLX, so there is a certain logic to eliminate the redundant portion of the route. That logic only extends from Lechmere to College Avenue, where the Green Line will end. Riders who use the bus between College Avenue and Arlington Center will lose their connection to the Green Line and Tufts University.

Instead of killing off Route 80, the MBTA could turn it into one of the best bus lines in the region. They should drop the redundant portion of the route east of College Avenue, and extend the line to the west beyond Arlington Center to the Arlington Heights busway.

Frequent service on an extended Route 80 could give Arlington residents fast and convenient access to the Green Line, as well as a convenient connection to the MBTA commuter rail Lowell Line at West Medford station.

Arlington pays almost $3 million in MBTA assessments, a disproportionately high amount for a municipality without fixed-rail service. Eliminating and reducing bus routes in Arlington should not be an option. Instead, the MBTA should use the Green Line Extension as an opportunity to improve service to Arlington using Route 80 to extend the benefits of the Green Line Extension into Arlington.

New Route 80

 

 

 

Professor Peter Ubertaccio’s myopic and parochial view of US 6

A few years ago, I had the joy of visiting the western end of US Route 6. There’s a big green sign in Bishop, California, proclaiming the 3,205 mile distance to Provincetown, Massachusetts. It’s a bookend for a similar sign in Provincetown, an invitation to cross the continent on our nation’s second longest highway.

It’s a shame that Professor Peter Ubertaccio can’t see the glory of this beautiful transcontinental road, and views it merely as a constipated local road centered on a small stretch from Sandwich to the Sagamore Bridge. It’s a shame to think of this great road in purely parochial terms, limited to the world east of the Cape Cod Canal.

Federal regulations require exit numbers to correspond to mile markers on the nation’s highways. Most states have moved to comply with these rules, but Massachusetts has stubbornly dragged its feet. Massachusetts is the most highly educated state in the nation, and if Maine and Pennsylvania could convert its exit numbers without imposing cognitive trauma on its drivers, we should be able to accomplish this feat.

If the good professor wanders west on the Massachusetts Turnpike, he would see some of the problems with sequential exit numbers. He would see that new exits were sandwiched between the original sequential exits, creating exits 10A and 11A. Once he passes exit 3, he would know exit 2 is the next exit, but he will need to drive 30 miles before he reaches it.

The new exit numbers on US 6 correspond to those little green mile markers on the highway, in which Mile 0 is at the Rhode Island state line. The eastern end of the Sagamore Bridge is at mile marker 55, and a little mental math can benchmark your place on the highway.  If you also remember that the Orleans rotary is at mile marker 91, and mile marker 115 is in Provincetown, you can look at the new exit numbers and the mile markers to triangulate your position on US 6.

The esteemed professor wonders, “How does one get to an exit 89 when travelling down Rt. 6 from the Sagamore bridge?” Easy. Cross the bridge and drive 34 miles because 89-55=34.

There is a happy coincidence that the distance from the Sagamore Bridge to the Rhode Island state line is equal to the distance from the bridge to downtown Boston. Our friend at exit 89 has the good fortune to know they are 89 miles from Rhode Island and 89 miles from Haymarket Square.

I hope Professor Ubertaccio will find joy in the new exit numbers, and he will have fun with the geographical mathematics infused in the new system. Even if he never comes to love the new numbers, I hope he can view the new numbers through the lens of altruism, as out-of-state visitors will be able to navigate US 6 with the system in use in the rest of the nation. And if that’s too confusing, he can always travel south on Route 28 from Falmouth to Orleans.

 

Provincetown to BishopBishop to Provincetown

 

Mass Transit reform (January 19, 2013)

The breakdown of the T has resulted in many calls for reform. I wrote this piece two years ago, and it seems worthwhile to reintroduce some of these points into the current discussion.

Governor Deval Patrick recently proposed consolidating 240 local housing authorities into six regional agencies. I don’t know what kind of impact will be felt by tenants in public housing, but I doubt it matters if the plumber comes from next door or the next town.

Transit, on the other hand, is another story. Boundaries matter. While people tend to live in one apartment at once, people who travel tend to travel across town lines. They also tend to travel across the boundaries and limits of the MBTA and the 15 regional transit authorities. Yet, in the governor’s plan for improving transportation, there was no proposal to consolidate the RTAs with the MBTA, not to mention all the little suburban bus services that don’t transcend municipal limits.

Shouldn’t we be consolidating transit systems, instead?

Fixed rail is fixed, but those buses can go almost anywhere. When they scrapped the extensive streetcar network, the argument was that buses were far more flexible. Routes could be adjusted to meet demand. Mostly, instead of offering flexibility, they offered an easy, quiet way for our transit infrastructure to disappear.

Private bus lines disappeared, replaced by regional transportation authorities. The biggest is the MBTA, but there are 14 others around the state. Two (Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) make perfect sense, as an island transportation authority doesn’t have a need for expanding its network into adjacent towns. But the other twelve?

Alewife to Lowell
Let’s look at one example of boundaries defining bus routes. Consider a trip from Alewife Station in Cambridge to the Robert B. Kennedy Bus Transfer Center at the Charles A. Gallagher Transit Terminal (also known as the Lowell MBTA station) in Lowell. You can make the 25 mile drive in about a half hour (except in rush hour). Want to travel by bus? It wil take a bit longer.

MBTA buses will take you from Alewife to Burlington, where you will need to change to a Lowell Regional Transit Authority (LRTA) bus to go the rest of the way. If the bus gods are with you, you can make the trip in 1:28, but it can also take you 2:16. If you get to Alewife later than 6:20 p.m., forget about it, because you won’t make it any farther than Chestnut Street in Burlington.

The fastest trip is the 350 that leaves Alewife at 6:20 a.m. It doesn’t make the loop to the Burlington Mall, instead it proceeds up Cambridge Street to Chestnut Street, where the route ends. This is also the south end of the LRTA Route 13, which runs through Billerica to the Kennedy Center. The 350 is scheduled to reach Chestnut Street at 7:04, and the LRTA 13 leaves at 7:10, a six minute scheduled layover.

Normally, the layover at Chestnut Street is significantly longer. Get on the 6:42 or the 6:58 leaving Alewife, you will have a 44 or 24 minute layover at Chestnut Street before the 8:10 bus leaves for Lowell.

If you leave Alewife at 8:15, the optimal strategy is to get off the bus at the Burlington Mall, where you have a 12 minute wait before LRTA Route 14 is scheduled to leave for Lowell (arriving at 9:45). Continue on to the end of the 350 at Chestnut Street, you have a 51 minute wait for the connection to LRTA Route 13, and you won’t get to Lowell until 10:38.

You get the picture? You need to get off the MBTA bus at the end of the MBTA service area, then board the LRTA bus for the journey through its towns. Oh, and you will pay two fares, though the LTRA will allow you to pay its fares with a Charlie Card.

What happens if we turn two separate lines into one line? The trip that takes from 1:28 to 2:16 is reduced to a trip of 1:06 to 1:17, eliminating layovers of up to 49 minutes. It can’t happen with two agencies with two territories, but a unified system could do it.

How do you get out of Lexington?
Note: On July 1, 2014, Lexington’s LExpress bus service was extended into Arlington Heights, and now connects with the 77 bus at its western terminus.

The Town of Lexington (with partial MBTA funding) operates LExpress, a suburban bus system that revolves around Depot Square in the center of town. The bus service does cross the line to reach the Burlington Mall, but other than that it doesn’t leave Lexington. You can make a connection to MBTA bus routes 62 or 76 in Lexington Center (two lines, both run hourly mid-day, for a 30-minute headway in Lexington Center). The LExpress buses are timed to leave Lexington Center on the hour and half-hour, and 67/76 buses are scheduled to leave for Alewife about three minutes later. Outbound buses tend to arrive in Lexington Center between 10 and 13 minutes before the LExpress buses leave Depot Square.

However, the LExpress does make its way as far east as Massachusetts Avenue and Taft Avenue, about a half-mile from the Arlington Heights terminal of the 77 (Arlington Heights – Harvard Station) and 79 (Arlington Heights – Alewife) bus lines. The LExpress doesn’t cross into Arlington, doesn’t make the connection, and doesn’t provide an option for a rider looking to travel from Arlington Center into Lexington.

Out of sync?
The Red Line runs every 12 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 12 minutes between Alewife and Briantree, after 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every six minutes.

On Saturdays, the Red Line runs every 14 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 14 minutes between Alewife and Briantree. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every seven minutes.

On Sundays, the Red Line runs every 16 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 16 minutes between Alewife and Briantree. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every eight minutes.

One of the major Red LIne connections is the 77 bus from Harvard Station to Alewife. Many of the people on the 77 bus connect from the Red Line. Let’s see how it works:

On weekday evenings, when the Red Line is running on six minute intervals, the 77 runs on intervals of 10 minutes, 11 minutes, and 13 minutes.

On Saturdays, when the Red Line is running on seven minute intervals, the 77 runs on 12 and 15 minute intervals.

On Sundays, when the Red Line is running on eight minute intervals, the 77 runs on 20 minute, 17 minute, 14 minute, and 15 minute intervals.

It’s all so close, but it’s all so far away. You can walk off the Red Line train and find good fortune and a 77 bus will come a minute later. However, you can walk off the Red Line and watch the taillights of the bus vanish and face a 10, 13, 15, or 17 minute wait. What sense does that make?

If the Red Line is running on eight minute intervals on Sunday, why not run the buses on 16 minute intervals? Why not set it up so that the bus is timed to arrive just behind every other train, reducing the wait time on the Harvard Station bus platform? How hard is it to run the buses every 16 minutes instead of every 14 minutes or every 17 minutes?

Anyone with a smart phone can download a bus app that lets us know where the buses are. If we have this technology, why can’t the MBTA use this technology to sync trains to connecting buses? Why can’t we reduce unnecessary waits for buses? Why can’t buses be timed to meet commuter rail trains in places like West Medford?

MassTransit
As long as we have all these separate bus systems, separate from the subway trains, separate from commuter rail, intermodal transit becomes slow and inconvenient. If we put it all under one operating agency, we can sync the schedules in one easy to use system. You can have different operating agencies (LRTA can run one set of buses between Lowell and Alewife, MBTA can run another), but all the buses will be the same color, have the same fare structure, and will have unified schedules.

Let’s make it one unified system. Call it MassTransit. Make it easy to get around the state using the existing resources. Make the connections, let’s reform these little agencies and transform them to a statewide transit system.

Bunches of Buses – part 2

No planes, but lots of trains and automobiles.

That was the theme for our Thanksgiving week trip to and from Florida. Even during one of the busiest travel days of the year, even on a Amtrak train that was sold out from Washington to Boston, all went well. Our travel home, on Sunday November 30, was flawless.

Until we reached Harvard Square.

It was shortly before 8:00 on a Sunday evening when we reached the 77 loading platform at Harvard Square. It was crowded, not a good sign. And we waited. And waited.

Finally, bus 0430 arrives and everyone climbs on board. Standing room only. Fully loaded, we took off up Massachusetts Avenue toward Arlington. Less than one block from Harvard Square, bus 0710 went zipping by. It was a classic case of bus bunching, even though none of the usual causes were present. Traffic on Massachusetts Avenue was minimal. Yes, the Red Line was running no farther than Harvard, with shuttle buses to Alewife. The buses were using the Harvard busway, but that was the only thing unusual on an otherwise quiet Sunday night.

bus1bus2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the way to Arlington Center, our crowded bus was escorted by an almost-empty companion.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the bunches of buses that populated Massachusetts Avenue on a quiet Saturday. Nothing changed, and 77 buses continue to bunch on an even quieter Sunday evening.

Why is this happening? I have no idea, but there is no excuse for such dramatically poor service on this bus line. Every bus rider with a smart phone can monitor MBTA buses, and they know when the buses are bunching.

If we know the buses are bunching on quiet weekends, why doesn’t the MBTA? Or, if they know the buses are bunching, why don’t they do something about it?

Buses by the bunches

It seems like my life revolved around Mass. Ave. last Saturday. Between the haircut, the Saturday meeting of the Local Government Luncheon Seminar, the cleaners, and the rest of the errands, I found myself heading up and down the avenue with amazing frequency.

In my car.

If my life revolves around the avenue, and it’s a beautiful day, why am I driving myself up and down the avenue instead of riding a bus that is scheduled to run at no more than a ten minute interval?

Wes Beal and I were heading east along Mass. Ave. near the Alewife Brook Parkway when we spotted two 77 buses heading toward Harvard Square at 12:30 p.m. “No excuses for bus bunching on a Saturday,” I remarked.

Why is this a big deal? Quite simple. If the 77 is running on schedule, a bus will come along every ten minutes. If you ride the bus often, the average wait will be five minutes and the wait will be no more than ten minutes. When they bunch, chances are the first bus is now running 10 minutes late, so the average and maximum wait doubles, and more.

Late buses mean more people waiting at bus stops, more time required to board and disembark from buses, and the bus gets later and later. Meanwhile, the next bus on the schedule zips past empty bus stops and catches the previous bus. When a 10 minute interval becomes a 0 minute interval, it creates 20+ minute gaps as well.

The research literature talks of congestion and very long bus routes as major causes of bunching. The 77 does run on very congested streets during morning and evening rush hours, but this is a Saturday on a 5.25 mile route. It’s a clear and dry Saturday.

Too much ain’t enough
But that’s not all. During the rest of the day, my trips up and down the avenue led to encounters with more bunches of buses. Bunches of people waiting at bus stops. Here’s the other three instances from Saturday, October 25.


Outbound Massachusetts Avenue at Foster Street, Arlington.
3:15 p.m.


Inbound Massachusetts Avenue at Churchill Avenue, Cambridge. 4:51 p.m.

Outbound Massachusetts Avenue at Medford Street, Arlington. 6:35 p.m.

We have bunches of buses and bunches of people delayed by the unreliable service. The chronic unreliability of the buses encourage bigger bunches of folks to avoid the bunching buses, escaping 20+ minute waits at bus stops by driving up and down Mass. Ave.

There’s no excuse for this unreliable bus service.

The MBTA can fix this, and it is imperative that they act.  Unreliable buses are the weak link in the region’s transit system, and it doesn’t take too many 20 minute waits at a bus stop for people to give up on the T and drive instead.

Vanishing Arlington?

Our beloved Route 128 is a part of Interstate 95, the main north-south route between Canada and Miami.

I-95
I-95

For the longest time, Arlington has had a presence on I-95, with signs at a couple of exits pointing drivers to our town. North or south, drivers on I-95 encounter this sign at Exit 29 as the way to go to Arlington.

Arlington Exit
Old sign for Arlington’s exit from I-95

There is currently a sign replacement project on I-95, and it looks like the new signs are going to purge Arlington from the highway. The first new sign has removed Arlington and replaced it with Boston.

Boston sign
Boston exit?

The second new sign, one of those supplemental signs which point folks to the second tier cities, lists Acton and Cambridge.

Acton and Cambridge
Acton and Cambridge

The exit for Middlesex Turnpike once listed Arlington and Burlington as destinations, but Arlington was removed when the signs were replaced. Now Arlington’s only mention on I-95 appears to be vanishing completely from the highway.

It’s likely to be a move that creates confusion and unhappiness. Route 2 to Boston? Really? Savvy drivers know that Route 2 may go to Boston, but it’s not really the best way to get downtown. Heading east, it comes to Arlington, hits the former Alewife rotary, and descends into gridlock from there.

So, MassDOT, how come Arlington is vanishing from the highway signs?