I ran a survey through Facebook ads to take a pulse of Boston-area commuter happiness. As of now, I have 25 responses: not a sufficient sample size for a scientific study of the topic, but enough to start writing about on this blog. The survey will remain open for those in the Boston-area who still want to contribute. Not surprisingly, about half of my survey participants are unhappy with their commutes.
Source: Happycommutes.com survey conducted through Facebook, May-June 2016
Most of them take some form of public transportation. I had no bikers, one walker and four drivers, so a pretty transit-reliant population. About one-third (or 8 out of 25) consider themselves to be mixed mode commuters and combine public transportation with walking or driving.
The term “transit signal priority” (TSP) doesn’t sound too exciting; It’s a rather forgettable phrase. Easier to get excited about bike lanes, car share and Hyperloop as new transportation ideas than TSP. But, after a few months of becoming familiar with the idea, I now see why TSP and dedicated transit lanes are key to improving urban mobility today. When I talk about efficiency, I am referring to people’s time, pocket books, and energy use. According to TransitWiki: “TSP are operational improvements in the public transportation infrastructure that reduce dwell time at traffic lights for transit vehicles by holding green lights longer or shortening red lights.” In other words, Buses and trains get their own lights, with their own timing.
From what I’ve gathered, TSP exists in Boston in two parts of town: along several intersections of the Silver Line Bus route and at four intersections of the Bus 57 route. But the impact of TSP on bus service in these areas is minimal as the lights only speed up bus service when they are behind schedule (according to an Urban Liberty article). This adds predictability to my commute but does not help reduce the current wide gap that exists between car and bus commutes in the city.
There have been several articles recently about the impact of modes of transportation on health; for example, car drivers have higher BMIs, on average, than bikers and public transit riders (see WBUR’s recent series on traffic). But, there has been less focus on the impact of vehicle pollution on the health of city dwellers. I just learned of a study in this area at a Mass DOT planning meeting today. One of the speakers, a Tufts researcher who was advocating for an extension of the Green Line train to Medford, discussed the results of a Tufts / Boston University study on the higher health risks present in populations living close to highways.
The Boston Globe wrote about this research in April of this year: “New Evidence of the Dangers of Living near Highways”. The study looked at the blood chemistry of individuals living close to I-93 and the Mass Turnpike to those living half a mile away from these highways. Results show that individuals living within 500 feet of a highway have higher levels of three chemicals that are associated with heart disease, lung cancer and asthma. The areas studied were:Chinatown, Dorchester, Sommerville and Medford. One of the immediate actions being taken following this study is the migration of a park in Chinatown. Real estate developers and architects who are learning about these issues are talking about improving air filtration systems.
Boston is a highly walkable city (ranks third for walkability) but a study by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies shows that Boston’s public transit system doesn’t rank as highly, particularly when measuring jobs accessibility via public transit; Boston ranks third in the nation for employment, but sixth in the nation for job accessibility (based on the number of jobs accessible within a 30-minute commute). Apparently car-loving LA has better accessibility via public transit.
This issue of access to reliable transportation is being addressed through Go Boston 2030, Boston’s first transportation plan in 50 years. Access is one of three key goals for Go Boston 2030 (the other two are safety and reliability). The city’s goal for access is for every household to be “within a 10-minute walk of a rail station or key bus route, Hubway station [Boston’s bike sharing system], and car-share.” As a side note, it is interesting that car-sharing is considered an alternative to public transportation when a key goal for Boston 2030 is to reduce single-driver commutes by half in 2030 (from 40% of commutes to 20% of commutes). However, I do admire the Boston Transportation Department for putting out a very measurable goal that will give Boston households an alternative to owning a car.
Access to public transit is not equal across Boston neighborhoods, so I learned last week during Go Boston’s 2030 scenario workshops. Not surprisingly, lower-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with a high representation of non-white households tend to have poor public transit service; buses and commuter rails are too far to walk to and they are less reliable than public transit in more affluent neighborhoods. And walking often feels unsafe due to speeding drivers. As a result, individuals in these neighborhoods are more likely to be car dependent. Under 15% of Bostonians live in car dependent places, but this rises to over 30% for those in the lower income bracket (see Go Boston 2030’s Vision report).
These discrepancies in transit service mean that lower-income neighborhoods should see a larger share of transit investments over the next decade compared to more affluent neighborhoods. It appears that a key focus will be improving and/or adding transit options to the Longwood Medical Center, a key job center for lower-income neighborhoods. Addressing the transportation issues of these lower-income neighborhoods will not only address Go Boston 2030’s access goals but should accelerate progress towards an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
I am all about new transportation technology, particularly if it leads to more energy and time efficient travel, but this statement from a recent article on the Hyperloop makes me cringe:
“I think Hyperloop is going to be the fifth mode of transportation incrementally providing options for existing modes and we’ll need to connect with those modes,” he says. “We’ll need to be able to order a Hyperloop on your phone, show up at the station whenever you want and maybe catch an Uber at the other end. And that’s the kind of end to end experience that we think we’ll be delivering in an on-demand economy.”
The hyperloop is a public transportation solution after all, not a personal one. I hope to live to experience a 30 minute commute between LA and San Fran or Boston and NY at about 1/4th the energy consumption of a two passenger car, but I don’t need to program this ridiculously short commute. Get to the Hyperloop how and when you want, on demand (by Uber, or, my personal favorite, a foldable scooter). But, by all means, have a little patience to wait for the next Hyperloop.