Mass Ave Bus Rapid Transit Pilot - May 16th 2018

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The town organized a public forum on its planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) pilot, which will take place later this year.

(Adam Chapdelaine) Why are we here tonight? Arlington's town leadership understands the nexus between transportation and quality of life. About a year ago, we saw an opportunity to get grant funding for a BRT pilot. We submitted a letter of intent, and were awarded a grant by the Barr Foundation https://www.barrfoundation.org/. The grant provides the funding for this (and subsequent) meetings, the pilot, and studies related to the project.

(Jenny Raitt) It's important to look at multi-modal options for increasing traffic flow, and decreasing congestion. The town plans to do a one-month pilot during morning rush hours, probably 6:00 -- 10:00. The pilot will not involve any construction. Instead, we'll use traffic cones, signage, signal changes, outreach, and education.

The main features of BRT are

  • There will be a dedicated bus lane on Mass Ave, from Lake Street to the Alewife Brook Parkway
  • Buses will get signal priority (we'll hear more about this later)
  • Queue jump lanes
  • Bus stop relocation and consolidation

The pilot won't necessarily incorporate all of these features, but we're considering them.

Project timeline:

  • April - June. Field work, analysis, and meeting with stakeholders.
  • June - August. Conceptual scenario development.
  • August. The town will hold an alternative scenarios forum.
  • October. The actual pilot.
  • November - December. Evaluation, and a final public forum

(Julia Wallerce, ITDP North America) ITDP is the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. We're an international non-profit, based in New York City.

We ask ourselves, "how can we use road space more efficiently?". Dedicated bus lanes can help with that.

The Boston region is growing in terms of population, and economically. We expect a 30% increase in mass transit use by 2035.

In many large cities, buses move more people than light rail. For example, London is known for its tube system, but more people get around the city by bus. BRT is cost-effective, and less expensive than light rail.

Julia goes through some basic components of BRT systems, which include a dedicated right-of-way for buses, busway alignment (you board buses from platforms that are the same height as the bus), and off-board fare collection.

Getting buses out of the way of other traffic is the most important element of a BRT system.

Conceptually, BRT stations are like train stations. You're able to board the bus without having to step up. This removes the need for the bus to kneel, and it helps people with limited mobility.

Traffic signals are engineered to give priority to buses.

Passenger access to BRT systems is a big factor. Compact, transit-oriented development helps a lot.

ITDP has written a series of standards on BRT transport (see https://www.itdp.org/library/standards-and-guides/), which talk about design and technical aspects.

Examples of successful BRT programs:

  • CT fast track, in Hartford
  • The Orange Line, in Los Angeles
  • The Health Connector, in Cleveland
  • Albuquerque, NM

Everett, Cambridge, Watertown, and Boston are also conducting BRT pilot projects.

(Ralph DeNisco, Stantec) These pilots are meant to start addressing traffic delay.

Ralph talks about some of the bus routes that serve Mass Ave in Arlington. The 77, 79, and 350 have a combined ridership of 10,000 people/day. Between the three routes, there should be 13--14 buses going down Mass Ave every hour. Unfortunately, the system is not that reliable. On time performance varies from 59--78%.

The buses are also crowded. More reliable service (i.e., more regular arrival times) would reduce the load factor (crowding) on buses.

Over 50% of the people who ride the 77, 79, and 350 are commuters. The rest use the bus for going about their way. 97% of riders walk or bike to the bus stop. One-third of riders are low-income. Two-thirds of riders have access to a vehicle, but choose to ride the bus.

During the pilot, we plan to look at reliability and travel time. We're also going to look at variances in trip time. Right now, the 77 bus typically has a 3--5 minute variance at the 50th percentile, and a 10--20 minute variance at the 90th percentile. This variance causes long wait times, overcrowding, and bunching.

We plan to talk with riders during the pilot, to gauge their levels of satisfaction. We'll also monitor social media.

(Wes Edwards, Director of Operational Planning and Outreach, MBTA) There are many ways to move people around on a roadway. Wes shows a picture to illustrate the amount of space required to move people by car, by bike, and by bus. There's no question that a bus occupies less space than a series of single-occupancy cars.

Mass Ave won't get any wider, so we have to thing about how to move people more efficiently.

When it comes to bus transit, the MBTA has to work in partnership with municipalities. The MBTA can help with stop locations and schedules, but the municipality owns the streets.

Examples of ways the MBTA works with towns: stop placement, route design, turn radius improvements, land restrictions, and queue jumps.

Things to consider before making changes: accessibility, speed and reliability, parking, safety, and customer comfort.

Wes talks about Traffic Signal Priority (TSP).

All buses are equipped with GPS devices, that keep track of their location. This information can be fed back into the traffic signals. For example, if a bus is running behind schedule and approaching an intersection, the signal can stay green a little longer, in order to let the bus through. The MBTA started work on their TSP systems in 2015, and they're currently in pilot.

TSP will focus on high-ridership, high delay corridors, as well as places where there can be a dedicated bus lane. TSP and dedicated lanes work very well together.

Next, there's a question and answer session.

Question: How will TSP affect pedestrian wait times at crosswalks?

We'd work with the town on this, and would make adjustments according to how the town wanted things to work.

Question: Will TSP only be in effect during rush hours?

TSP causes signaling changes if the bus is behind schedule. If the bus is on time, there's no change. Just like we don't want the bus to get behind schedule, we don't want it to get ahead of schedule either.

Question: Transportation improvements are part of Arlington's master plan, and I'm really excited that we're doing this pilot. How will bicyclists be impacted?

We don't have a final design for the pilot yet, so we can't say for sure. However, we are cognizant of the recently-added bicycle lanes on Mass Ave, and will take this into consideration.

(I get in line to speak, which means I missed taking notes on several of the questions.)

Comment: For six years, my morning commute involved walking from Arlington to Porter square, and taking the commuter rail to Concord. The reason I walked to Porter Square was the variability in bus times. Walking was faster than taking the bus, and allowing extra time for traffic delays. I applaud the town, and everyone in the room for putting the effort into improving bus transit.

Question: How do BRT systems hold up in the winter? Does snow create unique challenges for BRT?

BRT should be a robust piece of public infrastructure. Properly done, snow won't present an unusual problem.

Question: Has the MBTA ever considered a 77 Express bus to Arlington? I'm thinking of a route that stops at Harvard Station, Porter Square, then goes straight to Arlington.

The MBTA is working on a Better Bus Project (see https://mbta.com/projects/better-bus-project) . That would be a good place to consider an express route.

Question: The 77 bus routinely bunches at both ends of the route. It's not unusual for three to arrive at once. How will you make the 77 more reliable?

We want to find a way to allow the bus to get through traffic on a more regular schedule. The regularity will improve reliability.

Question: Will we need more police officers to enforce traffic laws?

This is a resource issue. In order to do more traffic enforcement, the town would need an additional police officer. That's not part of this pilot.

Question: The bump-outs on Mass Ave have created safer crossing conditions for pedestrians. But I feel bad for the bus drivers during the morning commute. Have you considered diverting routes in the morning? (By "diverting", I think the speaker meant "off Mass Ave")

The better bus project will consider consolidation on major traffic corridors.

Question: Are there plans for articulated buses in Arlington?

Not at this time. We have to be very careful with articulated buses during the winter; they have rear wheel drive, and we don't want the buses to jackknife.

Question: Will this project consider bus leapfrogging?

Leapfrogging is something that the MBTA is generally considering. (i.e., not just in relation to this pilot)

Question: I'm asking this question on behalf of local businesses. This presentation has been very interesting, but I really want to know how you see it affecting the local business community in Arlington. We're concerned that the pilot will be detrimental.

We're cognizant of the impact to businesses. We don't know the design specifics of the pilot yet. There will be outreach to local businesses, to make sure they'll be able to benefit too.

Comment: In Seattle, we engaged the Urban Land Institute to help us focus on transit-oriented business development, and a BRT system. The BRT program helped a lot.

Business impact, traffic congestion, and bike accommodations are our top three concerns. We won't be making these decisions in a vacuum.

Question: Will the pilot affect the westbound lane of Mass Ave? I'm concerned about losing parking spaces in front of my business.

The pilot will take place on the eastbound lane of Mass Ave only. There will be no impact to the westbound lane.

We will do a parking study, as part of the preliminary planning for the pilot.

Question: There's been talk about adding a traffic signal where Lake Street intersects the Minuteman bikeway. What's the timeline for the project, and how does it relate to the timeline for the BRT pilot?

The town didn't get the grant for the Lake Street signal, so we have to go back to the drawing board. Any signaling work on Lake Street will happen well after this pilot.

Question: Why are some 77 buses taken off route?

The MBTA has challenges when we're short on drivers. Sometimes we have to pull a driver from one route in order to cover another. This results in a dropped trip.

Comment: I really support the earlier speakers idea about express buses.

Question: What will be your approach to balancing the different users of the road?

We've engaged a consultant to help us figure this out, and plan to be as thoughtful as possible. This is a pilot project, and we will learn from what happens.