Notes from Charlie

This is a slightly rambling multi-topic discusssion of my recent mass transit experiences back in Boston


Using the new RFID (radio frequency identification)-based CharlieCard is pretty cool, actually. RFID technology is great for this application--I've found that I don't even need to take the card out of my wallet: I just bump my wallet against the contact pad on the bus/turnstile, and it registers. Indy pointed out that you can see the lump in the card where the chip is probably located--I was considering clipping it out, and sewing it into the sleeve of my jacket, so I could just wave my arm over the pad when getting on the bus. Pretty geeky, yeah.

I think some people have privacy concerns about RFID tags--are people trying to track you as you're walking down the street? But as far as I can tell, it seems like the range is pretty limited. So unless people are walking around whacking everyone on the ass with electronic probes, I'm not going to bother putting my card in a metallicized bag.

The MBTA is pushing people towards these cards--the subway and bus fares are slightly discounted using these plastic RFID cards vs. the paper magnetic stripe cards ($1.70 vs. $2.00, and $1.25 vs. $1.50). Also, the transfer system works pretty smoothly--I got on the 77 bus a few blocks after getting off the Red Line at Porter, and the reader read "$0.00 Transfer"--sweet! Also, I think that when I went from the bus to the subway, it charged me only 45 cents, but I could be wrong. Also, now being forced to take the bus, I'm pretty psyched that these cards speed up bus boarding, at least a little bit, reducing total trip time.

The Bus

Being up in Arlington, I'm completely bus-dependent now--I've used the 77 to Harvard via Mass Ave, 79 to Alewife, and 80 to Lechmere. It's not that horrible--I'm glad I can just leave the car in the driveway and not deal with parking in town, and I'm planning on using it for my commute to the office in Porter. But to The Residents of Arlington from the 1970's who decided the Red Line Extension into Arlington was a Bad Thing: screw you, you short-sighted NIMBYist yutzes (two words: Davis Square). The back story, for example, as told on some blog I found while searching for "arlington red line extension":

The original plan in the 70s for the Red Line extension beyond Harvard was to go to Route 128 via Arlington, Arlington Heights and Lexington, presumably via what is now the Minuteman Bikeway. However, the money from the Feds would only pay for the Arlington part. Arlington fought against it due to concerns about increased traffic and development around the terminus, worries about those criminals and vagrants coming from the city to cause trouble, and general NIMBYism. Terminating at Alewife ended up being a decent compromise in retrospect, considering how successful it is. Also, it’s likely that more people use the Minuteman today than would ever ride the Red Line.

Yeah, I'll admit I'm a huge fan of the Minuteman Trail. And I could see major problems if they built the Albert-Speer-school-of-architecture Alewife Station/parking garage (a.k.a. "East Berlin Revival Style") anywhere but a desolate plot of industrial land (out on 128, perhaps?). But having Arlington included in Red Line land (with the subway running under the Minuteman Trail right-of-way) would have been nice.

[Edit: looks like that's what the plan was, according to this website:]

If the Red Line was to be extended it would probably be in a cut and cover tunnel under the Minuteman Bike Path. Most people wanted the Red Line to terminate somewhere around Route 128 and I share this feeling. Originally the idea was to have the line go all the way to Hanscom Airport. This could still be done with a station on Route 128 but another idea is to have the line head north and east to Burlington with a stop in North Lexington and Route 128. This would make more sense seeing there is a large mall in Burlington and Route 3 is right next to it.

Bus Rapid Transit

I had some interesting discussions/arguments with my advisor about Bus Rapid Transit--he is a huge fan, and I am completely opposed to it, given that every instance I have seen is a case of trying to do a light-rail-equivalent on the cheap (or responding to calls for transit in name only) and failing--e.g., the Silver Line. A pretty compelling discussion is on the Wikipedia page. In contrast, my advisor very rarely takes mass transit in Canada, but has spent a lot of time in Europe. There, he found that it works very well, when they have such features as dedicated busways (bus-only) and off-board fare collection (faster boarding). It is his belief that by eliminating the cost of the rail infrastructure, it reduces the overall costs enough that service frequency will be higher. Maybe in Europe, but everything I've seen on this continent points to, "screw you, you don't get rail, here's a bus instead, and you're gonna like it." Also, one important North-America-specific problem with bus rapid transit, which seems pretty unsolvable:

BRT suffers from the serious image problem of buses. Quite often buses of any kind are far less attractive to "choice" riders; i.e., riders who could take transit or drive automobiles but prefer transit for certain trips because of perceived amenities of speed, convenience and/or comfort often found in light rail and subway systems. Bus systems suffer not only from poorer speed and ride quality, but from the perception of buses as a social accommodation — a means of transportation used by those who have no other choice, called "transit dependent." ...

While many BRT systems utilize state-of-the-art buses that differ substantially from traditional buses, light rail systems are perceived of still having a higher travel quality. Some put it bluntly as "a bus is still a bus". Routes that have been converted from BRT to light rail have often seen very large ridership gains.

Like I said, Red Line. Oh well.

One final note--I wandered into a blog called Charlie on the MBTA--it seems to be some type of MBTA ombudsman/information/complaint department. A pretty interesting read, and it seems like the person/people in charge of it are pretty responsive.


At 5:31 PM, Blogger dan said...

My vague understanding was that Lexington was far more involved in the killing of the Red Line going out further than Alewife than was Arlington. I do think it makes sense to have the terminus near a major intersection; the design of the Forest Hills terminus to the Orange Line is a reasonable tale to acquaint yourself with. There, they spent forever and a day trying to pick just the perfect size for the parking garage to be so that people didn't commute to it from far away, but people in the neighbourhood could use it as part of their daily errands and the like.

Or at least that's vaguely what I remember from 1994. 's been a long while.

I think light rail systems often suck, too, but just don't have as much mind placement for most people. The one in Baltimore is exceedingly unpleasant.

At 12:21 PM, Anonymous aj said...

My bus commute is pretty reasonable, but I take an Express, so there isn't the same mucking about with frequent stops & local roads that tend to make bus routes suck. It has a few stops & then gets on the Mass Pike & goes straight into town.

There are only two problems:
1) For some reason, Inner Express bus passes are available on only in paper ticket form and not yet on the Charlie Card. Moo?
2) The route is mostly no-nonsense commuters who know the drill. But whenever there's a person who is confused, or trying to add money to his charlie card, or having trouble with the paper bill machine, that person is always one of the first on the bus, thus holding up everyone else who is waiting in the freezing cold/rain/freezing_cold_rain (with their tickets ready). Honestly, it never fails.

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Bats said...

For some reason, Inner Express bus passes are available on only in paper ticket form and not yet on the Charlie Card. Moo?

Weird. The MBTA FAQ website claims it should work--sounds worth complaining about. Also, the ombudsman/complaint website that I mentioned at the end of the post might be worth checking out/complaining to.

At 1:11 AM, Anonymous Rawhide said...

By what measure is the Silver Line a failure? I heard some people say it sucks, but in my experience with it is has been reasonably fast and much more convenient than the whole red-to-green-to-blue-to-bus-to-terminals route. It also takes advantage of a dedicated busway to the airport.

I've said this in other places online, but it seems to me that dollar for dollar, buses are probably a better bet for more people using transit than extending a subway, especially now that technology can aid in managing transfers. I've been bussing more recently, after avoiding it for some time, and it's not without its merits. I think the biggest issues for me are frequency and route planning. I think the cutoff for frequency is about 22 minute---anything more than that and the wait is too frustrating.

Route planning with buses is also just too difficult. To get from point A to point B on the T, you really only need to know your closest T station and you know how to plan the most efficient route just by looking at the map on the wall. When I get to a bus stop, there is really nothing that aids me in getting to my destination; at best there is a map of the route. I think this is an area ripe for some kick-ass designers to solve a real problem.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Bats said...

By what measure is the Silver Line a failure? I heard some people say it sucks, but in my experience with it is has been reasonably fast and much more convenient than the whole red-to-green-to-blue-to-bus-to-terminals route.

Okay, I was presenting an oversimplified version of my opinion here. I did have a recent experience that seriously soured me on it. But overall, I would agree that it is an improvement on the four seat ride to the airport (Red-Green-Blue-airport shuttle bus); I have had better and worse experiences on the Silver Line. I have not timed out the ride myself, but the Globe's story from mid 2005 said 25 minutes vs. 44 minutes.

It also takes advantage of a dedicated busway to the airport.

Well, it is on a dedicated busway where they could do so. I believe that once it leaves Silver Line Way, it is on surface streets through the Williams tunnel, and then of course, at the airport (which is the miserable part of the ride when there is congestion).

I guess I have seen enough good mass transit airport connections that I've always been disappointed by the MBTA. For instance, MDW to the Loop is great--you just walk through some parking garages, and you're on the train. I know you can get to O'Hare via train, but I'm not sure how the connection works. New York's AirTrain to JFK sounds like a similarly non-dumb thing--they used the air rights over a highway to build the elevated tracks, and it goes to all the terminals. (Incidentally--cool, it uses a linear induction motor, pushing against an aluminum strip between the tracks--no motors or moving parts besides the wheels! Whoah.)

I look at the huge amount of infrastructure that they built at Logan for the cars, and wondered, cripes, couldn't you have installed an elevated tramway or something? It also raises the comparison between the amount of money spent on the Big Dig vs. what a fraction of that could have achieved for mass transit.

One thing that has colored my opinion on the Silver Line is that I have read a fair amount about Phase I of the Silver Line (Washington Street), which sounds like, well, just a bus (on surface streets, etc). It seems to be a classic story of why people don't trust the MBTA to do the right thing--they tore down the Washington Street Elevated, and said, "Oh, it'll just be temporary bus service..."

At 9:51 PM, Blogger The Unpronounced said...

The big issue with BRT is that it's a big honking sign saying we refuse to commit to continuing this service! We want the option to knock it down on a moment's notice.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Bats said...

Holy crap... I just did another Google search for Arlington Red Line Extension, and this blog post came up as #2. WTF?! Shouldn't Google be pointing at real original information (like the sources I got my info from) rather than this blog?


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