Friday, October 14, 2011

A conceptual problem: Transit for Jamaica Plain

Jamaica Plain is a practical problem. Packed into just 3.07 miles are 38,000 people, including 32,000 adults. Fully half of them work away from home, and just 1600 of them can walk or bicycle to work. This leaves 16,500 people who must leave the area in a relatively short time via a limited number of road and rail corridors.1 In practice, almost all who head into the downtown area leave by just 3 routes: Huntington Avenue in northwest side of the district, the Southwest Corridor on the east side, and Centre Street between them.

But Jamaica Plain is also a conceptual problem. What is the best way to get these 16,500 people to work? Is there a single best way? Should the goal be the quickest commute? The most environmentally friendly? Are some modes inherently better than others?

These questions have been inherent in Jamaica Plain since its inception. I believe a bit of history is in order. Starting with the coming of the West Roxbury Railroad in 1857, Jamaica Plain was designed as a "streetcar suburb" where the majority of residents would ride horse-drawn streetcars into the city.2 The first of many such lines was the West Roxbury Railroad in 1857.3 Workers could house their families 4 miles from the hustle-bustle of the Common, yet only have a forty-five-minute ride to their job. In an age without cars or even bicycles and where a horse was a major expense, this was an excellent deal for the middle class. The streetcars were electrified at the end of the century. In 1903, the last segment of the continuous line from Park Street to Arborway was completed.3

By the early 1900s, Jamaica Plain was well-connected. This 1925 Boston Electric Railway (BERy) map, drawn at the peak of the streetcar's dominance, shows numerous lines running through the area. North-south arterials to center Boston along Huntington Avenue-Centre Street-South Street (the #39 line) and Tremont Street-Columbus Avenue (#43) connected with east-west side routes like the #41 (Jamaica Plain to Dudley) which connected with the Washington Street Elevated on BERy's Main Line. From Forest Hills one could ride into Roxbury, Dorcester, or even out to Dedham, and the Huntington Avenue lines also sent cars across the Muddy River to Brookline.

(Click to go to the file page on Wikimedia Commons for a larger version)

But even though that 1925 map shows a glorious network of streetcars, it also hints at its own destruction. Already, then, downtown surface routes and outer suburban routes had begun the conversion to bus routes. Buses have certain advantages over streetcars, namely the flexibility in routes and the lack of a need to maintain track in the middle of busy streets. They also have disadvantages: they are less popular because it makes it much easier for an area to suddenly lose its service, and because they carry fewer people and get stuck in traffic where streetcars could enter the Tremont Street Subway downtown.

Gradually, Jamaica Plain lost its streetcar lines. This was not an isolated incident, but a wide nationwide trend. In places such as Los Angeles, automobile manufacturers secretly bought lines and promptly abandoned them, forcing commuters to chose between riding their buses or buying their cars. In Boston, the M.T.A. was formed in 1947 to protect the city's public transit. Some lines were saved, but not even the M.T.A. could stand against the might of the automobile. The #41 was bustituted in 1949; the #43 lasted until 1956 before being cut back.4 By 1953, the network had become this:

Even after the creation of the MBTA in 1964, the #39 survived because of high ridership. 2 After the "A" Branch of the Green Line (the Watertown Line) was "bustituted" in 1969, it looked like the cuts were at an end. Jamaica Plain still had the #39 running though its heart on Huntington Avenue, Centre Street, and South Street to Arborway (Forest Hills). Designated the "E" Branch, it joined the "B" and "C" branches and the Ashmont-Mattapan Line as the last remaining streetcar lines in Boston. (The "D" Branch runs along the Highland branch, once a commuter rail line. It did not become light rail until 1959, at which time it caused a trolley shortage that led to the end of the "A" Branch.)

But the "E" Branch was a ticking time bomb. When the Orange Line moved from the old Washington Street Elevated to the Southwest Corridor (nearer to the center of Jamaica Plain) in 1987, MBTA leaders decided that the end of the "E" Branch was redundant.2 It also happened to be the only remaining part of the system where streetcars ran in mixed traffic, rather than in a dedicated center median or private right-of-way.

A streetcar along the short remaining section of street running, here at Mission Park.

So in 1985, the "E" Branch was cut to Heath Street, leaving two miles of empty tracks through the heart of the neighborhood. That section was replaced by the #39 bus, the second-busiest bus route in the system.5 6 Jamaica Plain was devastated, and furious. The MBTA called it a "temporary suspension", but the "A" Branch had taught locals that euphemism meant "permanent".

As part of Big Dig mitigation, the MBTA was required to restore streetcar service along the Arborway Line. But public opinion was mixed; many of the area's residents are young professionals who do not miss the streetcars because they never saw them running down South Huntington Avenue. What were once poor, mostly black blocks now sport newish sedans lining the sidewalks. Studies were done and plans made; on a recent visit to the State Transportation Library I found several linear feet of materials regarding restoration.

After the MBTA failed to restore service, lawsuits were filed and quietly dismissed. The T is strongly against the return of trolley service; street running track is expensive to maintain and the T's debts are already high. The last lawsuit was dismissed in January 2011, but the local papers did not even find out until August.7

The MBTA maintained the platforms (which now serve the #39 bus) in case service did return. This sign at Forest Hills is brand new, even though no Green Line trolleys have stopped in 26 years.

So where does that 154 years of history now leave the esteemed JP? It is an area in transition, a shifting mix of black and white, rich and poor, young and old. The stub of the "E" Branch serves the northern third of the area, though only the last few stops are in residential area rather than the Longwood Medical Area. The 39 bus chugs down the middle. The Orange Line rumbles through the east side of town under grade. Rusting trolley poles still populate the two miles of the former Arboway Line. And at Forest Hills, the streetcar tracks lie silent facing the shiny new signs, the last vestige of hope for those who believe that Jamaica Plain depends on the streetcars.

South Huntington Avenue, with light poles and trolley poles

Streetcar loops at Forest Hills at night

As of the 2000 census, of the 16,500 commuting JPers, 9000 rode in cars - and 7500 (83%) drive their own car, with just 1600 carpooling.1 (Numbers are rounded.) Of the 7300 who commuted by public transportation, 2400 rode the #39 bus. 4200 walked to take the Orange Line, and 600 to the stub of the "E" Branch (almost all at Heath Street6). (Just 40 rode the commuter rail to outer areas or as an express option to South Station).1

At 38,000 people in 3.07 square miles (2000 acres)1, Jamaica Plain hosts 19 people per square acre, a figure higher than any full-sized North American city and twice that of Boston as a whole.8 Such a number is much in line with European cities, which typically cluster 20 to 30 people per acre (an acre is 200 feet on a side). However, in European cities, few people drive. Trams are more common and public transportation is generally better, and those who drive typically chose extremely small cars or mopeds.

Thus, Jamaica Plain has the worst of both words: a dense concentration of people and a large number of drivers, with one car for every 5 residents. These cars add pollution to the air - and the last thing Jamaica Plain needs is worse health. The general agreement, then, is that more commutes should be converted to public transit. But the #39 bus is at capacity, and the Orange can only add a certain capacity, especially considering that it is inconvenient for most residents in Jamaica Plain. (From Pond Street, for example, it is 1.3 miles to Green Street which is inconceivable in any bad weather, and just half that to the #39 corridor.)

Jamaica Plain, then, faces several options for its transportation future, none of which are entirely palatable. The simplest is to merely leave the transportation system as is. As the #39 gets even more crowded, some riders will choose the Orange Line instead. Although it is limited in capacity, an extra thousand riders a day from Jamaica plain would be manageable. But this plan does nothing to prepare Jamaica Plain for a sustainable, healthy, clean future.

One idea considered in some of the Arborway studies was to convert the #39 bus to electric trolleybuses. On the surface, it is an attractive option. Trolleybuses can climb hills easier, produce no pollution, and consume no costly diesel fuel. However, two problems arise. First, because of the limitations of the wires, they aren't any more flexible than a trolley car. Second, this would introduce a fleet of vehicles that don't share parts with many other buses on the MBTA system. The other two electric fleets are the four routes out of Harvard Square and the Silver Line buses. To reach either yard would require diesel running down city streets.

Trolleybus near Harvard Square

The option preferred by many but not all residents is the return of streetcar service. A two-car train (three-car trains are generally prohibited from street-running) can hold 200 people (400 at crush capacity), versus 55-70 on a regular bus or 70-90 on the longer buses used for the #39.6 (Streetcars and buses run at the same frequency)9. Streetcars have an air of (ironically) permanence that is perceived as being beneficial to neighborhood growth. Were the trolleys to return, they would be there to stay.

The nuclear option is to eliminate street-running entirely and dig a new tunnel under South Huntington Avenue. Such a tunnel would be an immense undertaking: 3 miles from Brigham Circle to Forest Hills to eliminate all street-running tracks. It would be monstrously expensive and would require either a tunnel-boring machine, or else ripping up 3 miles of Jamaica Plain's central artery. The benefit, though, would be permanent grade-separated light rail service to Jamaica Plain. If Jamaica Plain continues to grow, such a tunnel may be necessary in 50 or 70 years (unless cars are phased out and streetcar service returns to dominate the corridor), but for now it is highly unlikely.

The ultimate question, though, is not just about what type of transit is best for Jamaica Plain. It also is about what type of transit those 38,000 people want. Do they want trolleys to return even if they have to mix with traffic? Would they prefer such service to gradually return in sections, or in one fell swoop? Or would they prefer more modest upgrades to the current system? It will not be an easy decision to make.

The conceptual problem extends beyond modes to fares as well. No matter what type of transportation works for Jamaica Plain, it's costly for residents to ride. 5718 households, about 2500 of them families, live on less than $30,000 per year.1 For many of them, a $40 per month local bus pass or $59 subway/bus pass ($480 and $708 annually, respectively)10 represent a hefty barrier to transit use. These costs are only expected to rise when the MBTA implements a fare increase sometime in 2012.

The two-hundred-dollar per year difference also pushes lower-income workers to the #39 versus the Orange Line. Not only is this transit inequity unfair to the workers - as they require 26 minutes (plus traffic delays)) to reach Back Bay from Forest Hills versus 12 minutes on the Orange Line9, but it hurts the MBTA by overcrowding the bus while the Orange Line runs under capacity on most trains.

It is suggested that a leveling of the cost of the Subway and Local Bus passes would help this inequity, as would the return of the trolleys (which have more precedence over traffic than do buses). However, the root of the issue is the relatively high cost of the fares. My 1949 Boston Electric Railway fare map shows the streetcar (now local bus) fare at 5 cents and the subway fare as 10 cents. Adjusted for inflation, these equal 47 and 94 cents in 2011 dollars. At $235 and $470 per year in 2011 dollars 11 (assuming 2 trips per day, 5 days per week, 50 weeks per year), the former fares were significantly cheaper: a worker could ride the Washington Street Elevated, or a #39 streetcar into the subway, for the equivalent cost of a modern bus pass - and this on a streetcar network far superior to today's.

Especially if the fare jumps significantly (and I've seen estimates of up to 80 dollars for a monthly subway pass), transit will be moving out of the range of those Jamaica Plain residents who need it most: those who cannot afford a car. But the MBTA is significantly in debt, and the money must come from somewhere. That somewhere is a conceptual question all on its own: should those riding heavily-subsidized outer belt commuter rail pay more (and have more of them drive and pollute)? What about disabled persons who cost the system $40 per ride on The Ride's specialized vehicles? Or what about those who drive only to park in MBTA lots? Should the state pay more to benefit only the eastern third? There is no easy answer.

Works Cited

1. "JAMAICA PLAIN 2000 Census of Population and Housing". Boston Redevelopment Authority. 15 December 2003. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
2. "Jamaica Plain". City of Boston. 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
3. Greer, Michael (2002). "Streetcars in Jamaica Plain: A History". Jamaica Plain Historical Society. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
4. Wikipedia contributors. "Boston-area streetcar lines". Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 31 July 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
5. (Three bus routes are almost identical with about 14,500 riders per day: The #39, the #66, and the SL5).
6. "Ridership and Service Statistics". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 2010. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
7. Ruch, John (26 August 2011). "Trolley comeback killed by court". Jamaica Plain Gazette. Retrieved 14 October 2011
8. Newman, Peter W. G. and Kenworthy, Jeffrey R. (1989). "Gasoline Consumption and Cities". Journal of the American Planning Association, 55:1, 24-3. Retrieved 13 October 2011.
9. "Route 39 Schedule". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
10. "Bus Fares & Passes". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
11. "CPI Inflation Calculator". United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved 14 October 2011.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

MassDOT and image reuse

I recently added a link on my blogroll: "Commonwealth Conversations", the official transportation blog of MassDOT. As well as highway projects, MassDOT is in charge of projects like South Coast Rail that involve new passenger rail or transit service, so much of the content is about such projects. They also post about MBTA projects.

One such post is today's, which announces approvals for the new Assembly Square station on the Orange Line and the rebuild of Orient Heights on the Blue Line. I am very glad to see both projects advancing.

There is one image in the post: a shot of the front of Orient Heights station. I recognized it immediately, because I just moved it to Wikimedia Commons yesterday.

It is originally from Flickr, posted here. I moved it to Wikimedia Commons with using a web interface because the photo is available under a free-use Creative Commons licence. This means that it is eligible to be used freely on Wikipedia and other sites as long as the terms of the licence are met.

In this case, it's a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence. The BY term means that attribution is required: free reuse is only allowed if the author is properly credited. The SA term requires sharealike: any modification of the file must be licenced by the reuser under a similar free licence.

Use on Wikipedia meets those terms: clicking on the file takes you to a description page that credits the author, and Wikipedia itself is released under a free Creative Commons licence.

But MassDOT's use does not meet the terms. Both the Flickr version and the Wikimedia Commons reuse require attribution and sharealike. MassDOT's blog does not mention that the photograph was taken by Scott Lapierre, or provide a link to the Flickr or Wikimedia page, and it fails to release the resized version under a free licence.It's an easy and very common mistake to make, and one I've made myself in the past; I only personally became responsible about it after I started uploading files to Commons. Hopefully MassDOT, as a state agency, can set an example with correct attribution of free-use photos.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


"A picture is worth a thousand words."

Well, maybe. A picture can be worth almost nothing; take a look at 100 random images on Flickr, and you'll see that very few of the site's 6 billion images are worth more than a sentence.

But, when properly applied, a single image can replace thousands of words. I probably read through several thousand words of blog posts, forum posts, and old newspapers to trace the former Green Line branch that once surfaced at what is now Eliot Norton Park in the Theater District. Descriptions of streetcar lines and that "...the right tracks went under the grade of the left tracks and split, with the left branch going to City Point outbound..." are simply insufficient to describe a complex, multilevel three-dimensional track crossover - particularly one that has not been seen in 4 decades and thus no good pictures exist.

If I may toot my own horn a moment, then take a look at this map that I created. I designed it to quickly show a viewer which tracks went where, and in what configuration. In this case, it tells the reader as much as those thousands of words of prose and even more than the few grainy photographs available. It does not replace them; it cannot entirely replace a picture, however poor quality, that shows the actual tunnel rather than simply a schematic. It is helpful, too, to know that the Orange Line connected to the portal between 1901 and 1908, or that the #43 streetcar to Lenox Street was the last route to use the portal. Even when included with the images (as I did with the Orange Line), it still requires text. But the map both elucidates and replaces text, and thus the old maxim holds in this case.

Of course, pictures can replace words without being merely informative. A picture of, perhaps, a lonely pond can show desperation and loneliness just as a poem or story could. Our vision is one of our most powerful senses; like taste and smell, it can have a strong correlation with memory. How else, for example, could my father recognize a cousin that he had not seen in decades? His brain could combine old images with its knowledge of aging and provide a plausible composite which it then compared with each passerby until it found a match.

The human face, in particular, is a subject where image is superior to the written word. One ran write about a person and get a reasonably accurate portrait of their body, their mind, their mannerisms and even their voice. But the face is a masterpiece of subtlety; tiny variations cause huge changes in the way it is perceived. A few millimeters in the symmetry of the features and the relative locations of nose, mouth, and eyes is much of the difference between average and beauty, or especially between merely beautiful and truly gorgeous. Emotion is written almost entirely in our faces: the way the eyes change direction, the separation of the lips, and the minor movement of the eyebrows can signal almost anything. The features are difficult to quantify and even more difficult to describe in a nonvisual medium; the mediocre artist will find themself able to produce a tolerable if slightly lopsided facsimile of the human body, but the face will be downright unrecognizable. Much artistic skill is required even for the most basic outline, and even more if that outline is via prose, yet even the grainiest photograph provides instant recognition.

So a picture can be worth one word, or a thousand, or more than any writing could ever produce. A poor graphic, perhaps on a Powerpoint slide, can do more harm than good: instead of saving words, it requires more to explain it that it would to simply leave it out. When dealing with something complex yet quantifiable an image can disambiguate text and render only a caption necessary - but only if the image is in fact superior to the text. Only when dealing with subtle subjects: the face, or an object of beauty, or simply something beyond the ability of human language to render it - does the printed word fail completely.

But what about something for which there is no equivalent in words? Some photographs are true art; they tell a message which is as clear as if it was spoken. They express ideas and feelings. But others simply exist. They are not high art, even if they are artistic in style. (And by 'artistic' I mean legitimately artistic, with attention paid to exposure, color, and framing - or developed by mere stroke of luck. The trend of 'tilt the camera, vignette the edges, and make it greyscale' is not nearly as artistically interesting as its practitioners would like to believe.)

Some would say that these are not worthy photographs, that they must either be useful or meaningful, and I do not deny that there may be merit in that statement. But I would like to believe that a picture can simply be.

I carry a camera everywhere and I take pictures because I find the subject interesting. The two following are from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, where a friend attends. The first was a spur-of-the-moment shot; the second I saw in an instant but it took a few moments to align.

This was from my walk on Tuesday, where I followed Massachusetts Avenue to Harvard Square. I will confess to taking a color image here and converting it to greyscale. I did so not because I think it of artistic value, but simply because I wanted the silhouette of the church. Frequently I will use such digital post-processing to improve or modify my photos; it is one of the joys of the digital age. In this case, I actually created several copies and experimented with fill brightness, contrast, and shadows to produce the effect I wanted: a blank church against a mottled background of the incoming storm.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Even after everyone else has gone to bed, the city is still awash with light. Long after midnight, one can walk out on the Harvard Bridge and be surrounded by 360 degrees of lights. The Financial District is lit twenty-four hours a day. Even in Brookline - where nary a soul stirs past the stroke of twelve - many storefronts keep the lights on for security.

But even when the city is lit, the people are still asleep. By midnight, most major streets are empty of sober folks, and the Mass Pike slows to just a few cars per minute. Away from bars and frat houses, the only people I pass on my walks are dog walkers and a few couples returning late. At a time when much of the city is at its most beautiful, with the stillness and the overlap of dark and light, almost no one is there to appreciate it.

Even when that stillness is interrupted, there are still wonderful things. Take, for example, that most piercing of disturbances: an ambulance speeding down Commonwealth Avenue, sirens blaring. It is noisy and bright, the symbol of injury and sickness - the antithesis of everything beautiful about the night.

But take a closer look as it speeds down the avenue at midnight. Although there are none of the traffic jams present during the day, there are still a few cars at each stoplight. Each time the ambulance driver approaches a red light, a device on the truck turns the light to green (a so-called green wave) to speed its passage.

Now, watch and listen. On each block, the ambulance starts to brake several hundred feet before the light. But as soon as the light is green and the cars ahead form a clear path, the motor begins to roar. The driver downshifts this laughably overpowered vehicle and it shoots forward, accelerating cleanly through the traffic light.

So what, you may say, that the driver operates in this manner. How could it matter?

But watch the speed of the ambulance. Because it only brakes for a moment in the middle of the block, and because the driver accelerates as soon as the way ahead is open, the vehicle never slows below 30 miles per hour, and with a few clear blocks it may reach highway speeds.

Even if it saves just fractions of a second per block, over the two miles from Kenmore Square to Packard's Corner that might mean ten or even fifteen seconds. To one patient that means nothing, but over dozens and hundreds of emergency runs, that few seconds might save a life.

That to me is the essence of professionalism, that that ambulance driver handles their vehicle in this unorthodox but efficient manner. That they might perform this tedious brake-gas maneuver five or ten or twenty thousand times so that a stranger might survive, and they do this not out of charity but because they are doing their job to the very best of their ability. It is not a skill than can be acquired in a classroom, but only by experience and by the passing down on institutional knowledge.

It is no less a credit to the engineers who designed the vehicle, too, because they showed remarkable foresight when they put an eight-hundred horsepower motor in a truck barely larger than a large pickup - because they knew that someday, that vehicle might need to accelerate quickly, over and over again.

It is a peculiar notion to call beauty. Efficiency, yes, but a roaring motor is rarely beautiful. But I will call it beauty, because what is beauty but a system in perfect harmony?