Going nowhere fast

There are things transit planners can learn from the national obsession with parking.

The most important things about cars, the first thing that is brought up in any discussion involving them, is convenience. You don’t have to wait for your car to arrive, because it’s parked near where you already are and when you get where you’re going, you just park out front and you’re there. You don’t have to walk out of your way to or from a bus stop.

Now, obviously, there’s a hidden prior here: the car is convenient because the city has been forced to develop in such a way that its utility is maximized. If the city were built to maximize the utility from walking, as in traditional cities around the world, there would be a different development pattern. There would be small-scale commercial establishments spread throughout a neighborhood instead of concentrated in one particular corridor or intersection. This is what you tend to see in the oldest parts of European, North African and Middle Eastern cities and to a lesser extent in Japan. Japanese cities, with their great rail service, have been building shopping centers inside the stations for abouit ten years now.

But there’s another question: why are the bus stops so far from where people are going?

It’s very cold in Boston this weekend and last night I was waiting for about 15 minutes for the 66 bus in Harvard Square. Ten minutes is a typical wait, but I had the misfortune to get to the stop as a bus was pulling out. Leaving aside the absurdity of having 15 minutes between buses on a Saturday night, it occurred to me, as I was freezing, that the stop was in the middle of nowhere. If you’re waiting for the bus, the only thing you can do is wait for the bus.

That’s the stop, called Dawes Island. As you can see, to the north there’s Cambridge Common, to the south there’s a cemetary, to the west another park and to the east three lanes of traffic, a portal to the Harvard Square bus station and three more lanes of traffic. Not only that, lots of people transfer from a Red Line train to the 66 or from the 66 to the Red Line. Dawes Island and it’s outbound counterpart, Johnston Gate, are 200 feet from the entrances to the subway, 200 feet from a place you might wait at.

The other 66 stops aren’t that great, either. Moving inbound, towards Dudley Square, the Eliot St @ Bennett St stop is in front of a parking garage; Eliot St at JFK St is in front of a Harvard building, but you need to have an ID to get in and it’s quite setback from the street. The inbound stop is 50 feet from stuff and roughly 500 feet from the subway (that’s not even considering that Harvard Square has a strange and unnecesarry one-way system which means that inbound and outbound stops aren’t near one another).

When you get off the Red Line in Harvard Square, you’re right there. When you get off the bus, you’re in the middle of nowhere. It would not be an imposition for the bus stops to be right where the subway entrance is. You’d only need two, an outbound and an inbound, instead of five, and it would be easier to endure these cold spells in the Starbucks or the Harvard Coop (as well as beneficial to those businesses).

Harvard Square, via Wikimedia

Oh wait, it would be an inconvenience: for cars. Like with two way streets, cars would be seriously impeded in Harvard Square. They wouldn’t be able to go around buses and blow through the square as quickly as possible. Not that it’s very quick in practice.

The convenience of a few drivers sure is built on the inconveniencing, not to mention impoverishment, of an awful lot of non-drivers.

4 thoughts on “Going nowhere fast

  1. This is one of my biggest frustrations with the T: the way that bus to subway connections (and bus-to-bus) connections are done so poorly in the absence of explicit busways/transit centers. Sure, somewhere like Sullivan Square or even Dudley is super easy for transfers. But Harvard or Central, with no busways, have all sorts of bus stops inexplicably far from each other, sometimes in illogical places that force a large number of riders to wait at lights only to have to double back (sometimes through those same lights!) to make a connection. For what it’s worth, there’s been some interest by the City of Cambridge to look at those issues, but that’s something I still need to follow up on with the contact that I have there.

    • I don’t get the City of Cambridge. They talk a good game about the environment, but when it comes to increasing density and walkability, or something as simple as putting cycletracks in on Mass Ave and their other huge streets, they completely fall down.

      • They’re moving, just very, very slowly. They’ve actually built a significant amount of new cycletrack this year: Western Ave, Binney St, and the Dawes Island bypass which is pretty significant, if short. I don’t know that they’d be able to keep that pace of new construction into 2015 though, and I’m not sure that this pace is fast enough relative to the needed scope of work either, because the latter is absolutely enormous after nearly a century of catering to the car.

        Really, though, the biggest impact on density and the environment is zoning and planning and permitting, and I’m just not seeing nearly as much new construction (and expansion of existing stuff) as I’d expect given the sky-high real estate prices and tremendous development pressure. Plus, there doesn’t seem to be much of a citywide parking management strategy, and indeed all the new development comes with ever more parking.

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