MBTA using sophisticated computer models to revamp bus routes

CityLab takes a look at the MIT researchers and their sophisticated modeling programs as a way to improve our bus routes, most still identical to 1920s streetcar routes - but adds:

While tweaking around the margins is worthwhile, ultimately, better bus service involves offering more of it, something the MBTA has so far failed to provide.



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    Interesting article.

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    Bus service in Boston could also be improved by enforcing no parking or traveling in bus lanes.

    Tickets & Cameras

    Massachusetts has an aversion to automatic ticketing which is misplaced. The buses should have license plate cameras that are used to issue tickets to vehicles stopped in bus lanes and drop-off areas. The fines need to be high too, such as $250 or $2000 billed directly to Uber/Lyft if the vehicle is registered with these services.

    Good lawd

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    The amount of posters here who hate all things cars is insane.

    I love cars

    Drive 'em all the time. I just try to think about other drivers and road users and expect the same.

    It isn't an aversion

    It has to do with the state Constitution and the requirement that you be identified personally by the officer ticketing you - aka, that you face your accuser.

    That isn't possible with robot ticketing.

    Lots of exceptions

    You can still get a parking ticket, code violation, and countless other fines in which you never see the officer ticketing you and it's entirely possible you were not directly responsible for the violation. How is someone reviewing video from a bus and issuing a ticket different from a metermaid giving you a ticket when you're parked illegally?

    Everyone should still have the right to challenge the ticket in court if they see fit.

    Other cities

    The solution in other cities is to not treat it as a moving violation when it's from automatic enforcement. You don't get points on your license, your insurance doesn't go up, etc etc. You just have to pay a ticket.

    The difference is the level

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    The difference is the level of infraction, and the consequences stemming from it.

    Parking tickets only result in a small fine, and in some cases inability to renew parking permits, etc.

    Motor vehicle violations, on the other hand, result in larger fines, higher insurance premiums, and can lead to inability to renew your license. They also follow you for 6 years.

    Code violations are explicitly linked to the owner of the property, because the owner of the property is ultimately responsible for upkeep of it. So there's no issue with seeing who is actually responsible. And parking violations would be impossible to tell regardless of whether it is a real person or a camera, so those are explicitly linked to the owner of the vehicle as well. And if the owner wasn't the one driving, they can just ask the other person to pay the fine. Since nothing results from parking tickets besides the fine, it doesn't really matter who the ticket is actually issued to.

    Also, it's an apples-to-oranges comparison because with parking tickets and code violations, a physical person is evaluating the situation and issuing a ticket if appropriate. That's the reason automated enforcement is illegal in MA - even if you pay to have an officer review each incident prior to issuing a ticket (which is actually very expensive, and not the norm in most places with cameras), they are still only seeing what the camera captured, which is not always the full picture. I can imagine scenarios where a camera might ticket someone for being in a bus lane after they pulled over to let an emergency vehicle pass, or to avoid an obstruction in the road, or to avoid a collision. These incidents might not be discernible just from the view captured by the camera.

    Finally, the following is just my personal opinion, but I feel camera enforcement may violate due process, because it assumes you're guilty unless you prove you're not, and it doesn't account for legitimate reasons to technically break a law. I actually got pulled over for an illegal lane change in a tunnel in Virginia about 10 years ago, and the trooper didn't give me a ticket after I explained that the reason I swerved into the other lane was because the car in front of me suddenly braked hard and the car behind me was following closely, so I was attempting to avoid an accident. He agreed that that made sense and justified changing lanes, then sent me on my way with a "have a nice day!". Most police officers are at least willing to consider that you had a valid reason for doing what you did. Cameras cannot. A camera would have just sent me a ticket and I would have had to somehow prove in court (if I even bothered contesting it at all) that I was avoiding a collision by doing what I did, whereas the trooper witnessed the whole sequence of events.

    Tow aggressively!

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    I was amazed at the difference in bus travel in San Francisco vs. here. Cars parked in bus stops are towed almost immediately - very well known there so very rarely happens. The buses run more on time then, allowing people to count on them. Here, the buses bunch up from traffic, sometimes caused by the buses ahead of them who can't pull over to pick people up because of illegally parked cars (or they won't because traffic won't allow them back in). So 4 buses arrive at your stop at the same time instead of 10-15 min apart - all but one will blow past or is too full to let you in because the crowds accumulated at the stop waiting for one of them to arrive finally. I stand more than sit in the mornings if I'm lucky enough to get on the bus. If the city aggressively enforced parking like SF or NYC, people would stop and traffic would be smoother. People here treat illegal parking as a birthright however so good luck with that!


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    " People here treat illegal parking as a birthright "

    Indeed some do! Imagine the cash the city could rake in if they ticketed and towed even a third of the offenders.
    Fines need to go up too. How often do you hear someone whine and say that they just factor in parking tickets as part of the cost of living without giving a thought as to how their illegal parking is endangering and/or inconveniencing others?


    I was/am waging a one-person twitter campaign about a 39 stop on Huntington that constantly has people parked in it, often blocking a hydrant too. It took me about a week of posting every day, with a fresh picture, to various departments, before anyone even responded.

    It's not just bus efficiency, it's access - if the bus cannot pull up to the curb, people in wheelchairs can't get on it.

    (Not just twitter, I usually say something to anyone who pulls up there too.)

    Thank you ...

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    ... for taking the time to do this. Every little bit helps!

    Wheelchair access

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    It's not just bus efficiency, it's access - if the bus cannot pull up to the curb, people in wheelchairs can't get on it.

    Another observation: people seem to feel entitled to idle in crosswalks, blocking the ramp. I pointed this out to a woman on Tremont Street one day. She gave me a blank look and I pointed at the person in a wheelchair who had crossed the street and was now trying to get onto the sidewalk, but couldn't because she'd blocked it with her car. To give her credit, she was mortified and moved immediately. I think, though, that many of us temporarily able-bodied people see accessibility features without really seeing the people who need them, and how important they are for those people in mitigating the challenges that they have to live with every day.

    Yes, I see that happen a lot too.

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    If we're lucky enough to grow old, we most likely will be facing mobility issues also. It's not just the disabled who benefit from ramps and curb cuts.

    What bus lanes? There are a

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    What bus lanes? There are a grand total of two routes with bus lanes in the MBTA system: the SL4 and SL5. Plus the pop-up rush hour lane in Everett, if it lasts.

    Here's the top-notch maintenance job the BTD is doing to make sure it's clear that this is a bus lane: https://goo.gl/maps/jW285LUfyk22

    If *you* were driving on Boylston to Essex, would you be able to figure out that you can't use the left lane? Note the absence of any signs at the beginning of the block, the mostly-faded "bus lane" paint in the roadway, and the half-missing diamond symbol.

    Where did they get this comically undersized sign? Did someone pick up some sticky letters at Michael's? https://goo.gl/maps/DEQPjkwwAqu

    Here's what other cities get to mark their bus lanes:

    Bus/bike lane on Essex St.

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    Even as a cyclist, it took me a while before I noticed the left lane is a bus and bike lane. No signs and the paint on the street is nearly worn off. The lane is usually jammed up with traffic. Busses and the SL are trapped behind cars.

    This one

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    Even back when the paint was fresh, drivers would flagrantly ignore this. It's difficult because if they need to make a left on Chauncy, that lane is where they need to get to, and so they usually try to get into that lane as early as possible -- but then, if everyone respected the bus lane, they wouldn't have any problems getting into it later on rather than clogging the lane for two blocks. On those occasions when I saw people actually respect the bus lane, it definitely improved the flow of traffic.

    It would be too easy if signs

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    It would be too easy if signs and pavement markings showed where you can merge left into the bus lane to prepare for a left turn.

    There are little things that

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    There are little things that can be done which the MBTA does not do.

    First, there are some stops which are too close to major intersections. In rush hour, the bus has to stop in traffic backed up behind the light, then the light turns green and the bus moves forward and picks up passengers, and then the light turns red and the bus has to wait at the same light again.

    Everybody knows where these intersections are, because they slow them down every single morning or evening. Moving the bus stop a little ways away would speed things up dramatically.


    Having stop just after intersections, rather than before, is now considered best practice, especially when combined with transit signal priority.

    1. The bus is coming to a green light about to turn red
    2. The light sees the bus, and stays green a little longer so it can get through
    3. The bus pulls into the stop
    4. The traffic behind the bus is stopped at the light, so the bus can pull into the travel lane

    Actually far side stops aren

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    Actually far side stops aren't "best practice".

    Near-side stops suck, far-side stops are better, mid-block stops are best.

    Of course even a near-side stop can work much better with a queue jump lane. To explain, basically buses have their own lane at intersections with a signal that turns green a few seconds before the other signals - this essentially lets buses jump ahead of the queue of cars, and keeps them from being stuck in the queue unable to reach a stop.

    They should try to cut some

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    They should try to cut some stops on the 57 that are just before lights. I hate it when the light is green, but the bus misses the light because someone putting in cash is holding up the line.

    When the stops on the 39 were

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    When the stops on the 39 were assessed and consolidated a few years ago, they did make an effort to realign them in this manner in SOME places, but of course not in the places where it would seem to be most needed. The stop that I use most often desperately needs to be moved away from the intersection - half the time the driver ends up letting people off the bus well before the stop anyways, because the bus is stopped in traffic and he or she wants to be able to make it through the light when it turns green (there are rarely any passengers to pick up there). Letting passengers off in the middle of the street is dangerous and I'm sure it's against the rules, but by that point the driver's probably well behind schedule and is willing to risk it.

    What would happen here with

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    What would happen here with farside stops is:
    1) Badly synchronized light turns red as the bus is approaching.
    2) Bus sits at unnecessarily long red light, while people stand near the door anxious to get out.
    3) Light turns green, bus gets to farside stop, and then has to stop again to let people off.
    4) Because of the delay from the second stop, bus misses the next green light.

    This would happen even with supposed signal priority. (Which the Silver Line supposedly has.)

    The T's zero-sum game of bus planning

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    The T has been short of buses and garages for some time. There are certainly some places where this origin-destination modeling could inform better and more efficient routes, but it's a zero-sum game without more buses on the street. Unlike somewhere like Houston, the T has next to no spare capacity at rush hour (*), so taking a bus from one route to put on another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. (Over the past 25 years, the T's bus ridership has gone up 12%, while Houston has gone down 25%, and that's with the providing fewer buses in service, with Houston providing more.) If you think your bus has gotten more crowded at rush hour, it's because it has.

    There are two ways to provide more service. One is to buy more buses (expensive). Another is to use the buses we have more efficiently. This study is definitely a start, but there are feet-on-the-ground solutions which need to happen as well. Every time a bus is delayed in traffic because god forbid we'd build a bus lane or even a queue jump to make a bus faster or more reliable, it not only delays passengers on that trip, but also subsequent trips the bus can't serve. A lot of this goes back to cities and towns, which need to step up to the plate and work with the T to implement these sorts of service improvement (Everett's bus lane was a great example, but this needs to be expanded, and the bus still gets hung up in traffic at Sweetser Circle). The T, and the Carmen's union, could also step up to the plate and work on dispatching, because that plays a role, too.

    (* case in point: Houston runs something like one route more frequently than every ten minutes at rush hour. The T runs 30, and many more are overfilled even despite being less frequent. The 64, which I take and observe frequently, runs every 20 minutes and is completely packed. There are a few routes—the 68, the 18—which have some capacity at rush hour, but these are nibbling around the edges.

    how does the new bus order

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    how does the new bus order effect this thought? Are they simply a 1:1 replacement of the old step up style buses (with limited ADA access)? I thought it was an addition of equipment that would allow more buses to be run, or more flexibility in running buses, especially shuttles during rush hour when the green line breaks down...are the older hybrids and pure diesel buses being pulled for rehab so the new buses are really replacing them but these older buses will be back in service sometime in the near future?

    It is pretty much a 1:1

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    It is pretty much a 1:1 replacement of the old CNG buses whose gas tanks are expiring. The few high-floor buses remaining will survive for a little while longer yet, but should be getting replaced pretty soon too. The problem is that even if they buy more buses, they won't have anywhere to store or maintain them, because the bus garages are all pretty much at 100% capacity, and they don't have any concrete plans to expand the ones we have or build new ones, at least in the immediate future.

    Thanks! And yeah garage

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    Thanks! And yeah garage capacity makes sense..., though they could rehab Watertown yard for additional north side capacity perhaps...and storage with some security upgrades...but it would be orders of magnitude more to actually get more capacity I think...
    Thanks for the clarification!

    Crosstown routes

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    Crosstown routes like 1 and 66 really need to be utilizing the longer articulated buses like the 39, and running with more frequency. The 39 got them because it was replacing the cut E line service, but 1 and 66 need higher capacity and frequency, too, which would allow them to both better serve current riders and increase the number of people able to make use of those routes instead of driving.

    I believe the T doesn't have

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    I believe the T doesn't have space to store any more buses. But with all the privatization efforts going on, perhaps that's no longer the case?

    “The network is not currently

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    “The network is not currently configured to serve trips from Black or African American [census] tracts very well,” he wrote in his thesis.

    Cause and effect?

    Great thesis ..

    It's a bit weird his thesis analyzes just black and white people and not other races / ethnicities, I think.

    Old trolley lines

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    Old trolley lines explain why the buses run where they run now. I'd be really interested in knowing how they can figure out where they should run. For example, as commercial real estate in downtown Boston becomes more expensive, it seems that there would be more of a need for crosstown service, which (where it exists at all) seems to exist as bandaid solutions.

    Reduce the number of stops

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    The biggest issue I often see riding the bus is that many stops are far too close. There are plenty of locations where half of the stops should be removed. The bus would be stopping a lot less and saving everyone time.

    Busses need to stop every block in normal cities where blocks are 600-1000 feet long. Here you are lucky if a block is much longer than the bus.

    For example, riding the 94/96 by Tufts, where it stops at College and Dearborn, then again just 250ft later (and then must battle traffic to get from the curb to the left lane, often taking two lights to turn left onto Boston Ave). Then there are three too-close stops on Boston Ave, lazy folks often getting off at Fairmont instead of waiting a few hundred feet to get off at Winthrop.