Thursday, December 18, 2014

Lost Streetcar Infrastructure

A PCC streetcar inbound from
Watertown Square passing through
Newton Corner
(Photo by J. Appleman, August 1966)
From the late 1800s through the 1940s, Boston and vicinity had a robust streetcar infrastructure, taking riders not only on trips downtown but also connecting neighborhoods.  

A streetcar near Union Square in Somerville
Beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the 1960s, this network was trimmed down until only four lines remain.  Three run along major arterials:  Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Street, and Huntington Avenue.  The fourth was an early conversion from commuter rail, namely the Mattapan-Ashmont “High Speed” Line.  In the late 1950s, Boston picked up a second streetcar line converted from commuter rail when the Boston & Albany Railroad’s Highland Branch became the Riverside Line.

A colleague posted a narrated video of a trip from the streetcar yard at Arborway (once the terminus of the E Branch of the Green Line) to Mattapan yard (still a terminus of the “High Speed” Line.  The video illustrates that back in the day of less and slower auto traffic, the streetcar was an important mode of transport.   Link:

A PCC streetcar from Arborway to Mattapan travels along Cummings Highway.
(Still from the video.)

Approaching Mattapan Square .  (Still from the video.)
Over the years, many of the streetcar routes were first converted to “trackless trolley” (buses with overhead electric power lines) and later diesel buses.  The buses proved more flexible and less expensive to maintain and operate.

Streetcar in a median on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester

PCC streetcar bound for Dudley Square in Roxbury leaves what is now Andrew Station on Southampton Street (Collection of Joe Testagrose, year unknown)
2-car train of PCCs cars heading to the Arborway on what is known at the E Branch of the Arborway on August 13, 1970.  (Photo by Joe Testagrose)

Today, the MBTA Light Rail System is the remnant of Boston's once extensive streetcar network, This includes the Green LIne with four routes converging on the Central Subway under the Back Bay and downtown, as well as the still-running Mattapan-Ashmont Line.

A Type 8 Light Rail Vehicle is running inbound on the E Branch at Huntington Avenue and Forsythe Street by Northeastern Avenue.  It is headed through the Central Subway to the Lechmere terminal in East Cambridge. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What Does the Public Think?

Any public transportation study or project these days generally include a series of public meetings to gather public input.  In addition, there are often public input periods where comments are received on a particular report.

But do these methods of public outreach yield the public’s opinion, or only the opinions of the meeting-goers?

This is the dilemma of many officials, planners and engineers:  How do we best get a good cross-section of public opinion?

The Roxbury-Dorchester-Mattapan (RDM) Transit Needs Study:  An example of a robust public outreach program.

I mention the example of this study, dating from 2011 to 2012, as it included some of the most comprehensive methods of public outreach.  The objective was to go far beyond just the likely meeting-goers, and reach a cross section of those who live and work in these three communities within the City of Boston, Massachusetts.

The RDM Study Area
Brief Overview of the Study
This comprehensive study of the travel patterns of these transit-dependent communities was undertaken by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), coming on the heals the 28X Project, a bus rapid transit project that had failed to achieve community support and was dropped by MassDOT.  As recommended by many in the community, the new study would take a step back perform a comprehensive overview of transit needs and explore alternative strategies to meet these needs.

The wedge-shaped study area for the RDM Study is just beyond walking access to the major rail transit lines (the Orange and Red Lines). Many residents are transit-dependent and must rely on existing bus service to meet their travel needs.

Makeup of the Outreach Team
The Study Team was made up of predominantly residents and former residents of the communities.  These are primarily minority communities and, unlike the case in some studies, the Outreach Team resembled the communities.

Member of Outreach Team hands out
questionnaire to transit rider.
We believed the key to a successful study was gaining public trust in  and support for the study process. That is why we assembled a planning team lead by professionals with roots in this corridor. Putting a new, community-rooted face on the planning team was one element in demonstrating to the communities that this study was truly a new start.

Of all those working on the project, only my transportation engineer and I were the only non-minorities on the consultant team.   All-in-all, I think this strategy was key to both our team winning the assignment from MassDOT as well as being contributory to the overall success of the study.

Strategies to Reach the Community
The project included a comprehensive array of strategies to obtain a wide range of input.  The public outreach program went far beyond just public meetings and a web site.  The Study Team literally went to where the public was:  
  • to their bus stops and transit stations, 
  • on their buses,
  • to their libraries,
  • to their community centers,
  • to their community events, and
  • to the churches where they worship
Mattapan Branch Library (William 
Rawn Associates, Architects Inc.)
We learned that many in these communities simply cannot make public meetings, due to work hours, or having to come home and attend to their children.  Also, many did not have computers in their home to perform an on-line survey.

Supplementing the consultant team was a group we called the "Street Team."  Led by the organizer of a local census outreach team, these community residents performed much of the legwork of meeting the community where they were.

The Many Facets of Outreach
Public input into the study came through these various sources:

  • review of previous studies and reports
  • series of public information meetings
  • study advisory committee
  • on-line survey
  • questionnaires administered by hand-held devices
  • paper questionnaires

The Street Tream recorded responses
to the questionnaire on board buses
using hand-held devices
Access to the on-line survey was enhanced by inviting community members to come to the local libraries where Outreach Team members would assist them as needed.  The Street Team went to community bus stops and rode local bus routes to record answers to the questionnaire on hand-held devices, where the data was later downloaded and entered into the needs database.

The use of paper questionnaires allowed many more to participate.  The questionnaires were distributed at community centers, such as health centers, libraries, and churches.  They were also distributed a several major community events, at the transit stations where connecting buses serve the RDM area, and after Sunday Services at local churches.  

Publicity for the meetings and the study itself was extensive.  Besides the MassDOT and MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the local transit operator) websites, the project used Facebook, Twitter, the community newspaper (The Bay State Banner), and the local radio station (TOUCH 106.1 FM), and distribution at community centers.

The overall result of the outreach over about 2 months was 1,344 responses, yielding 154 ideas for transit improvements.   The ideas were evaluated by the Advisory Committee and the Study Team.  The results are in the Final Report for the RDM Study.

For more information on the study or to read the Final Report, visit the MassDOT website for the RDM Study.
The outreach plan was developed by the consultant team which included:

Charles W. Bradley, III, AIA (The ARCH Professional Group, Inc.)
Michael Fergus (The ARCH Professional Group, Inc.)
Patrick Belizaire (The ARCH Professional Group, Inc.)
Kelley Chunn (Kelley Chunn & Associates)
Adrienne Benton (Onyx Spectrum Technology, Inc.)
William Caines (William F Caines Landscape Architects Inc.) 
Rachel J. Burckardt, PE (Parsons Brinckerhoff)
Kristen Torrance, PE, PTOE (Parsons Brinckerhoff)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Vision Realized

Another thing I like about being a civil engineer: over 20 years ago I was the assistant project manager for a study on how to make the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) light rail system accessible to all users. 

Just today, while leaving Arlington station on the light rail Green Line, I noticed a man in a wheelchair, unassisted, take the elevator to the lobby, go through the turnstiles, and take another elevator to the street. The vision is realized and now what was impossible is just a matter-of-fact everyday event.

Getting on and off the light rail
vehicles required stairs
Back then around 1990, none of the MBTA light rail system was accessible.  There were no elevators in stations.  Passengers had to climb stairs or use an escalator where one was available.  And getting  on and off the cars also required stairs.   Thus, the system was not accessible to people with mobility limitations, especially those using wheelchairs.

Streetcars of 1950s vintage still run
on the MBTA Mattapan-Ashmont
The MBTA light rail system is one of the few in the United States that has its routes in the streetcar system that grew up in the late 1800s.  In Boston, that included the first subway in the US, which was used by nearly 40 streetcar routes and is still in service as the Green Line.  One other distant streetcar line remains, the "Mattapan-Ashmont High Speed Line," which got its name in the 1920s when a rail line was converted to streetcar use and "high speed" was defined as 30 mph.

All the streetcars used low, street or track level platforms, which required passengers to climb 3 or 4 steps up into the car.  This practice continued into the 1990s.

The MBTA Light Rail Accessibility Feasibility Study recommended a series of improvements including:

  • adding elevators to subway stations for street-to-platform access
  • acquiring a fleet of "low floor" cars that would reduce the distance between platform and the car floor
  • raising the station platforms to an "intermediate" height to be level (or near level as implemented) with the car floor
The Type 8 low floor cars feature a plate
ramp that allows a person in a wheelchair
 to have level access from platform to car.
As implemented, the MBTA acquired approximately 94 "Type 8" low floor cars, which featured two doors to the low floor section, which is a few inches above platform height.  For wheelchair users, a ramp slides out of the car and one can wheel right into the train.  See photo at right.

The platforms at most subway stations and selected at grade stops were raised.  Elevators were added to most underground and elevated stations.

While not entirely accessible yet, for many trips, using the MBTA light rail system is just a matter-of-fact experience.