Greater Greater Washington

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Transit


Check out this silly subway song from the 1940s

In the late 1940s, a candidate for mayor in Boston thought fares on the city's subway were too expensive, and that the exit fare structure was too complicated. So he commissioned a couple of folk singers to write a song about a man who boards the subway but can't afford to get off.

In the song, subway fares go up after a man named Charlie starts riding. Charlie doesn't have an extra nickel for the exit fare, so he spends eternity riding aimlessly through Boston's transit system. His wife does manage to bring him a sandwich every day, though.

The song became such a well-known part of Boston folklore that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority named its smart fare card the "CharlieCard."

A few years ago, WMATA lowered the maximum negative balance allowed on SmarTrip cards to $1.50 with little notice. Hopefully there aren't any Charlies stuck on the Metro!

Public Spaces


What other college towns can teach us about College Park's challenges

Our contributors recently discussed why College Park, Maryland doesn't have the same "college town" feel as the places around similar flagship universities in states like Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, or California. But College Park isn't the only place struggling with these issues. What can we learn from other college towns around the nation?


Morgantown, WV. Photo by Bill Walsh on Flickr.

Geoff Hatchard posed the question:

[What] college towns aren't the commonly-cited ones that may be "somewhat great" and are improving that College Park can look to as inspiration? I'm thinking of places that have or are overcoming obstacles. The first that comes to mind is New Haven, CT. Are there other examples anyone can think of?
Ben Ross said, "Boston University might be an example. When I lived in Boston, that stretch of Commonwealth Avenue was dominated by auto dealerships. It's much more urban now."


Photo by Wendy Brolga on Flickr.

Tracey Johnstone has an example from not too far away:

Old Dominion U. in Norfolk had/has the same problems: It's a metropolitan area with better [or worse] places to go and Hampton Blvd. divides it 1/3-2/3rds. And, to be honest, men vastly outnumber women in the Norfolk area (whereas it's the opposite in the immediate DC area) so, the demographic skews younger and more male than most college towns. In other words, college girls aren't limited to dating college boys. As a lot of first-generation college students attend Old Dominion, the income/class jump from dating college students to sailors isn't that big. And the situation is muddied by all the folks attending Old Dominion while still serving and on the GI Bill after getting out.

All that contributed to no "college" ambiance.

Toronto has a few student-oriented places near the university like the Brunswick House, but on one side is the Ontario Parliament Building and on another Toronto's "Rodeo Drive" with Cartier, Louis Vuitton, etc. Not exactly college fare.

Joe Fox fleshed out the list:
Comparisons that come to mind (for me) to UMD—being near an urban area, but not having an urban campus like GWU or ODU, in a large market—are:
  • University of Miami
  • SMU in Dallas
  • University of Richmond
  • Manhattan College
  • Rutgers
  • Seton Hall
  • UC Berkeley
  • UCLA
  • UC-Irvine
  • Arizona State
  • George Mason U
Of the above, only Tempe and Westwood, to me, have that feel. The rest are similar, or less college-like, than College Park.

San José State. Photo by HarshLight on Flickr.

Geoffrey Hatchard said, "Add SJSU in San José to that list."

SJSU is compact, dense, has 30,000 students, but turns its back on all four sides to the city around it. Parking garages are located on a couple of the corners, and the only place where there has been an active move to make the school and the outside city mix is at the northwest corner where the MLK Library, shared by the school and the city's library system (serving as its HQ), sits.
Gray Kimbrough tried to break down the "college town" challenge into some specific factors, which we quoted in the first part as well. He went on to tie them into general trends nationwide:
UMD has a pretty perfect storm of:
  1. A nearby community that is relatively hostile to the university and its students, as others have already mentioned.
  2. A location near, but not really in, a fairly major city.
  3. A campus that is relatively suburban and spread out, in addition to having little interface with the surrounding community.
  4. Its large size, especially relative to its town.
  5. Its lack of a medical center, which can often provide a built-in need for communication between the university and the community (and all the positive results that flow from that).
Universities with prototypical college towns generally lack #2. The closest thing I can think of to an exception would be Princeton, which is NYC-accessible because of NJT, but not really that close. Also Ann Arbor isn't all that far from Detroit, but it's somehow in a different world.

Universities that have condition #2 but nonetheless have good relations with the community tend to lack or have resolved at least one of the other conditions. Northwestern has the advantage that Evanston is quite a bit larger than College Park, but it also has a much denser campus that isn't completely inward facing. Minnesota isn't exactly in downtown Minneapolis, but it has a dense campus that interfaces with a commercial strip on at least one side. And despite original reluctance, UMN's leaders have come around to the idea that transit has a huge role to play in tying the campus to the broader community. Berkeley might be the closest example here, but I haven't spent enough time there to comment on what they're doing right.


Transit mall at the University of Minnesota. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
Basically think of any large university that has a decent amount of activity near campus. All of these have at least one side of campus that blends relatively seamlessly with a prime commercial strip. UMD has a pretty effective buffer on its side of campus facing US 1, and basically no part of campus faces outward. NCSU is beyond what could be considered a relatively dense core in Raleigh, yet somehow its main campus is denser than UMD's.

Also, where a university lacks a great relationship with the surrounding community, a medical center can serve as an entry point to a discussion to improve that. I see some schools that have turned their backs on their towns, like Yale and Duke, starting to take advantage of this. UMD has a vet school, but I don't think this has the same effect as a really good hospital. Even GW and Georgetown have built-in positive interactions with DC because of their med schools and hospitals.

College Park can't do much about #2, #4, or #5, but they can work to change #3 in particular, and hopefully work on #1 in the process. There needs to be an acknowledgment that the layout of UMD's campus absolutely plays a factor here. As they build out the campus, perhaps they can work to both build more densely and build connections to the surrounding area.

Jonathan Krall brought it back to walkability and the urban form:
In my experience, most universities have adjacent commercial areas, so long as zoning allows it. The ones with college towns have human-scale street grids in or adjacent to the commercial zone. This is true of UC Boulder, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSB, all of which have large cities nearby. It is not true of UM College Park or UC San Diego. I do not know how those street grids came to be, but they make all the difference. What the college-town part of Boulder (just west of the school) has over College Park isn't better shops and restaurants. It's that people like to walk and bicycle in the college-town part of Boulder (and the rest of Boulder as well, but that's another story).

However, these college towns could be considered anemic (Boulder, UCSB) or over-commercialized (Berkeley, UCLA) compared to a small college town such as Ithaca, NY, home to Ithaca College and Cornell University. The big-city effect is real, but it is the walkable street grid that is essential.


Westwood, CA. Photo by Tony Hoffarth on Flickr.

Owen Chaput pointed out that what makes a good "college town" varies depending on whose eyes you are looking through:

When we ask what makes a good college town, whose perspective are we looking at it from? Undergraduates, graduate students, staff, unaffiliated residents, and random visitors all have very different needs and interests, and what suits one group very well might be uninteresting (or a nuisance) for another group. I suspect that a great college town comes in part from having all groups present on or nearby campus, and relatively dependent on the campus business district(s) to meet their needs.

For towns looking to improve, here are a few possible factors: for undergrads, the challenge is getting them off campus and spending money or living in the surrounding community. With grad students, the challenge is enough cheap housing, beer, and culture nearby the university so the grad students don't go live somewhere more interesting and affordable. Staff (professors, admin, support) and unaffiliated community residents need to be able to live close enough to the college business districts to patronize them year-round, but require diversified housing stock and separation from the weekend rowdiness.

Ithaca, NY is the best I've ever spent time in. Hard to find fault with it, except it is far from a major city and frigid for six months of the year. But it's an easier example since it doesn't fit the UM-College Park suburban-urban rubric, and I think it benefited from natural geography keeping things crowded in two directions. Emory is bad. Surrounded by very expensive, low-density suburban housing, but only three miles from Atlanta! Very little commercial zoning. Awful, awful traffic. It has a huge medical facility and the CDC right next door, but lacks any college town feel. The walkable street grid explanation fits for Emory.

What universities around the nation do you think have lessons for UMD and College Park?

Government


Uber will give Boston planners useful data about where and when people ride

Planners in Boston, and eventually, regular residents will be able to analyze patterns of where and when people take Uber. The ride-hailing service has announced that it will give Boston data files listing all of the trips people have taken, with the locations anonymized to only show the ZIP code where they start and stop.


Photo by Kjetil Korslien on Flickr.

Cities already collect this kind of information from taxis, and it's available for services like Capital Bikeshare. But Uber doesn't provide it. In September, I suggested that as cities legalize such services and essentially deregulate the taxi market, they demand this kind of transparency in return.

However, Uber fought the idea. In New York, company representatives fiercely opposed efforts by the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission to collect the information. In DC, they more privately lobbied councilmembers not to require Uber to disclose this information, and enough didn't want to pick a fight with Uber that they didn't make it an issue.

Uber has had a run of bad press lately, and as it has grown, has encountered more criticism from the public. Emily Badger writes in Wonkblog that by making this concession, Uber may be hoping to win over some suspicious city officials and also set the terms of what data it will and won't share.

The data could be very valuable to planners, who will be able to understand where people are and want to go at various times of the day and week. This could help cities think about where transit service should go, where there is demand for new housing and retail, what happens during special events, and much more.

On the other hand, Uber is keeping secret much of the data that cities might need for consumer protection. While it's possible to compute the regular fare based on distance and time, which are part of the data set, it says nothing about surge prices or other special pricing.

Uber's data will also not reveal how long people have to wait for Ubers or whether in certain areas or certain times of day people can't get a car at all. This is something cities will want to know if, sometime in the future, Uber drivers are avoiding certain low-income or minority areas, for instance. Even if Uber itself doesn't do that, another ride-hailing company might. If Uber's data becomes an industry standard, regulators won't know that about the other company, either.

Finally, in Boston Uber is only giving the data to officials, not the public, but Badger says it will be subject to open records requests. If so, we can hope that Uber would start simply releasing the data file more publicly to save the step of making the request.

Uber representatives say the company will eventually start offering the data to other cities. Given all the facts, videos, maps, and graphs people have been able to generate from Capital Bikeshare data, we can look forward to learning fascinating things about how people travel once Uber provides the same for DC.

Bicycling


The biggest bikeshare station in each US city

Throughout 2014, DC and New York have jockeyed back and forth over which city's bikeshare system has the most stations in the United States. But who has the biggest stations?


New York’s 67-dock station. Photo from Google.

DC currently leads in the number of stations race, 335 to 324. But the number of stations only tells part of the story. New York's stations are vastly bigger than DC's, and by far the largest in the US.

New York's biggest station, which is outside of Penn Station, has a whopping 67 docks. It's almost 50% larger than the next city's largest station.

Here's the number of docks at the biggest station in America's main big-city bikeshare systems:

RankCityLargest stationDocks at largest station
1New YorkPenn Station67
2BostonSouth Station46
3WashingtonDupont Circle45
4ChicagoMichigan/Washington43
5MinneapolisCoffman Union and Lake/Knox32
6Miami Beach46th/Collins31
7tDenverREI27
7tSan FranciscoMarket/10th and 2nd/Townsend27

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Higher fares for late-night transit discourage ridership

Come spring, Boston's transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), will start offering late-night service on all subway and 15 major bus lines. Like Metro, MBTA may charge higher fares for it. Could this discourage transit use?


Photo by Justin Baugh on Flickr.

Currently, the MBTA shuts down shortly after midnight seven days a week, leaving revelers and workers of unusual hours with no recourse but automotive ones. Under the new schedule, which is a one-year pilot program, Boston will match DC's practice of staying open until 3 am on Saturday and Sunday starting this spring.

The announcement was a big deal to native Bostonians like myself, who for years have been frustrated having to choose between staying out late and being able to get home. However, the MBTA is also considering emulating WMATA in another, less desirable way: charging higher fares for late-night service.

The MBTA may consider charging $3 or $3.50 after midnight instead of the usual $2 fare for a train ride. (Boston has a flat fare that does not increase, even during rush hour.) It's not hard to understand why WMATA charges rush hour fares during the wee hours, and why the MBTA might want to follow suit. Late-night public transit is a niche service that only a small subset of the population uses.

Rather than spreading the cost of providing it across the whole transit-using population of greater Washington, late-night riders should have to pay a little more to support their customized service, right? Put another way, if WMATA is expending a constant amount of resources for fewer-than-usual users, each user needs to pay more than usual in order to meet budget.

The problem is that Metro does not apply this logic evenly. If you accept this premise, then fares should actually be lower during rush hour, when huge ridership will never have any problem sustaining even elevated frequency of service.

Instead, the correct pricing principle is one that conforms to supply and demand. Metro rightly charges peak fares during rush hour precisely because that is the busiest time of day; it knows most commuters don't have the choice to be scared away by sticker shock then, and if they are scared away it knows it can absorb the blow.

Higher fares serve to some degree as crowd control; if we have to discourage transit use (which higher fares necessarily do), we ought to do so when transit use least needs to be encouraged. And, most elegantly, people rightly pay higher fares when they are causing the most strain on the system, helping to offset the wear and tear caused by rush-hour crowds.

The flip side of this, of course, is that WMATA, and the MBTA that seeks to emulate it, should charge its lowest fares when the system is least crowded. These are the times when transit use needs more incentives, and of course entrance fees are one of the most surefire ways to manipulate that.

By charging peak fares between midnight and 3 am, Metro is creating a deterrence, even a small one, to people taking public transportation. Crucially, peak fares after midnight also do not come with the benefit of extremely frequent trains that accompany rush-hour peak fares.

Of course, there is always the chance that fare manipulation may not have a huge effect on ridership after midnight. In that case, by charging off-peak fares, WMATA would give up revenue it currently relies on. However, it's dubious to think that the laws of pricing dynamics cease to apply after midnight.

Perhaps Metro volume is fairly inelastic during rush hour, when many people have to commute to work no matter what, and when many people feel that they have no other choice but to take the train because of DC traffic and the cost of car ownership. But people certainly do have a choice about whether and how to travel late at night. Lower fares after midnight would not only result in that many fewer Uber trips, but more importantly, they would entice more people to go out.

The upside-down fare system is unfortunate in DC, but in Boston, it could be fatal to its experiment of late-night service. MBTA officials will only make late-night transit permanent if enough people use the service during the one-year trial period. If higher fares deter people from taking the train, the MBTA may very well determine that there is not as much demand for the service as it thought.

This is a realistic worry; $3.50 doesn't seem like much, but it's a 75% increase on the fare Bostonians are used to paying; and for a group of four friends out at a bar, a taxi ride would only need to cost $14 to be an equal or better deal. Indeed, excessively high fares were one reason Boston's previous foray into late-night service, "Night Owl" buses that cost up to $4 one-way, went under. (The Night Owl's failure to attract riders is more proof that late-night ridership is not inelastic.)

Thankfully, because Boston is just reacquainting itself with late-night service, there is still time to avoid these mistakes. DC has fulfilled an important role by serving as the Boston's likely model for late-night service; a fellow cash-strapped system that needs all the overnight maintenance it can squeeze in, WMATA showed the MBTA that late-night service was still possible.

It's probably no coincidence that Boston is adopting the same weekend schedule, but that doesn't mean it should copy DC's methods wholesale. At least in the way late-night fares are structured, Boston can and should do better.

Transit


All northeast US passenger rail on one awesome map

This map shows every Amtrak, commuter rail, metro, light rail, and tourist rail line from Maine to North Carolina, to scale.

It comes from NortheastRailMap.com, and you can even download it in a fully-editable Adobe Illustrator format.


Image from NortheastRailMap.com.


Image from NortheastRailMap.com.

Cross-posted to BeyondDC.

Update: The map's author has requested that you "like" their page on Facebook. Please help them out and do that!

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