CREW Boston Transit Panel: Region Needs to Move FasterMay 04, 2018 - By Mike Hoban
BOSTON — With metropolitan Boston’s transportation system operating far below the level necessary to sustain the region’s robust economic growth, there is a growing need for innovative solutions to deliver the region’s workforce to employment centers more efficiently. CREW Boston recently assembled a top-notch panel to discuss daunting commuter issues facing the Commonwealth, with a program at the Hyatt Regency entitled, “How Innovation in Transportation is Disrupting Real Estate Development, Planning and Design.”
And while attendees may have been anticipating a discussion focused on the latest technological advances in driverless cars or high-speed rail, many of the solutions put forth by the panel emphasized a more efficient use of existing technologies—including the least sexy of all transit modes—the bus.
The panel was moderated by Lisa Serafin, founding principal at Redgate, and featured Amy Korte, a principal at architectural firm Arrowstreet whose work in recent years includes research into the future of parking and driverless cars; Keri Pyke, principal at engineering firm Howard Stein Hudson, who oversees transportation planning and traffic engineering projects throughout New England; and Julia Wallerce, Boston program manager for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), who is spearheading efforts to establish a pilot Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) program in the Boston region.
Wallerce began by noting the “enormous connection” between the state of metropolitan Boston’s transportation system and its ability to attract companies. “We know that our economy today is directly the result of investments we’ve made in the past in our transit system,” she said, citing a report by Better City that found that the MBTA provides $11 billion in benefits to the region each year. “However, the MBTA is in a pronounced state of disrepair, our roads and bridges are crumbling, and we face enormous (infrastructure) challenges. So we’re at a point where we need to think strategically about the kinds and the size of investments that we’re going to make moving forward – not just to keep pace with, but to facilitate the level of economic growth that we have the potential to experience. And it is going to require enormous investments in transportation.”
Deciding where those investments should be made is the question, with panelists agreeing that investing in the infrastructure of the MBTA should be a cornerstone of any plan. “I would give $500 million to the T and upgrade, upgrade, upgrade,” said Korte, when asked how she would prioritize transportation investments. “The cities across the nation that have invested and maintained and improved their infrastructure are the ones seeing more adoption with the public transit, and have seen increases in terms of speeds of service and increases in the number of people who actually use those transit systems.”
Korte also addressed the impact that transportation network companies such as Lyft and Uber are having on transit infrastructure and traffic in the city, both positively and negatively. She referenced a study that indicated that since the introduction of TNCs, there has been a small decrease in the use of public transportation as people seek to shorten transport times by using those services. Conversely, there has also been a marked increase in traffic congestion dues to the additional vehicles on the road – as anyone who has driven in the city during peak commute times can attest. Panelists agreed that the melding of multiple transportation modes (rail, bus, TNC’s and bikes) into a more efficient model is something that is still evolving, with BRTs playing a significant role in that model.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is described by the National BRT Institute as “an innovative, high-capacity, lower-cost public transit solution that can achieve the performance and benefits of more expensive rail modes. This integrated system uses buses or specialized vehicles on roadways or dedicated lanes to quickly and efficiently transport passengers to their destinations, while offering the flexibility to meet a variety of local conditions.”
Wallerce and Pyke strongly advocated for the development of BRT throughout the discussion – not only for Boston but in the suburbs, particularly along Route 128.Not only is the system cost-effective,as the basic infrastructure (the roadways)is already in place, but the reduction incommute times that dedicated bus laneswould create would address one of the region’s most pressing issues.
Pyke referred to a recent article that stated that commute times into Boston have increased dramatically in recent years, with morning bus commutes from Fairhaven, MA and Londonderry, NH increasing by 40 and 35 minutes, respectively, over the last decade. “So if you put that bus into its own lane, and allow those commuter buses and other high occupancy vehicles to use those lanes, it would incentivize folks to use that service, because they know that using their car will take them 40 minutes longer (to reach the city),” asserted Pyke.
Wallerce said she would also like to see a BRT system developed in the Seaport, where congestion is a growing concern – rather than the $100 million gondola being floated by Millennium Partners. “In the Seaport we actually have some of the widest arterials in Boston, with street space that is enormously underutilized. There is very little bike and pedestrian infrastructure and we don’t see any dedicated bus lanes – and you could actually run a real gold standard BRT corridor there,” she stated. “The gondola opens up a great conversation as to what we could do with a $100 million for a gondola versus what we could do with a $100 million for cycle tracks, great pedestrian connections and true bus rapid transit, but it’s astronomically different . . . in my opinion (the gondola) is a very poor use of $100 million dollars.”
Following the event, Serafin weighed in with her impressions of the panel discussion. “We’re all familiar with innovation as it relates to technology, but one of the takeaways that I had was that there is a lot of innovation in terms of policy, infrastructure and design that are going to be parts of the solution to the transit problem,” she concluded.