Podcast Transcript: Episode 277 – Corridors Where the Bus is King

April 9, 2020

Here’s a full transcript of episode 277 with City of Boston Transportation Planer Lindiwe Rennert.

JW: You’re listening to the Talking Headways podcast network. This is Talking Headways, a weekly podcast about sustainable transportation and urban design. I’m Jeff Wood. This week we’re joined by Lindiwe Rennert of the City of Boston’s Transportation Department. She talks with us about upgrades to the Fairmount line and planning for bus priority lanes on Warren Street in Boston. Stay with us.


Today’s podcast was produced in partnership with Railvolution and appeared first on the Railvolution podcast. You can find the Railvolution podcast on your podcatcher of choice for a deeper dive on livability issues. Or if you want to check out this year’s conference in Miami, Florida, visit railvolution.org that’s railvolution.org


JW: Lindiwe Rennert, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

LR (1m 38s): Thank you for having me.

JW (1m 39s): So before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

LR (1m 41s): Sure. I am a transit planner with the city of Boston, serving on the city’s first ever transit team, which was formed just over a year ago as a result of the city’s most recent transportation master plan, which was launched in 2017. And one of the recommendations that came out of that was that the city should have their own set of planners focused on transit who liaise between the city, Public Works, the Streets Cabinet, and the MBTA, which is our regional transit provider, who had, I guess prior to the transit team’s existence, almost exclusively handled the planning of transit in the greater Boston area, certainly for the city of Boston. I sit on a team with one other planner and one other operations manager who kind of works on our team in an interesting capacity focused on enforcement. And anytime we do a tactical project, he leads kind of the bringing out of cones and the shepherding of vehicles that aren’t used to this kind of one day pilot or one month pilot, and the spreading of information on the ground. But here at City Hall there are two of us.

JW (2m 53s): That’s really cool. So what was the impetus for the city starting to think more in the transit realm?

LR (2m 59s): I think of it is the direction that the field of transit planning is going, which is at least for this part of the country, very, very much in the “era of bus” at the moment, both for its flexibility, of course cost, and so now that we’re saying bus can be just as effective as some of our generally more popular, seen as larger infrastructure modes. You know we’re talking light/heavy rail, street cars, things like that. That brought to the city’s attention that any priority treatments we put down, be they transit signal priority, bus lanes, floating bus stops, all of those, happen within city right-of-way on city streets as opposed to I guess times when we’re dealing with rail and operating under MBTA property. And so knowing that the T is –the T is our transit provider, the MBTA– and focusing on buses, we thought that relationship would be much smoother and more focused if we had some internal experts as well.

JW (4m 4s): And then how did you get in transportation?

LR (4m 6s): How do any of us get in transportation? (Laughs) I think it’s, I think it’s that it seems to always be an early onset childhood obsession with trains of some sort. (Laughs) I think every person I’ve talked to or that I work with in the field of transit had an unhealthy, youthful obsession with even boats. Boats come into play a lot as they did for me, but I really always loved trains and buses. And then as we got older, you know, I started to obsess with the communal nature of commuting by transit, how different it was from the, what we call luxury and convenience of really an isolated box of four walls. And of course, that’s not to say that cars are your only other mode because of course they’re not. I myself am a cyclist as well, but there’s nothing like transit for a social experiment. (Laughs)

JW (4m 58s): So did you go to school for transit planning? Was it your initial idea to get into that realm? I mean, we all, a lot of us have interest in the transportation world, but I know for myself, I didn’t even know that you could do that as a job until I got to midway through college.

LR (5m 15s): Right. I think I knew I wanted to be a planner kind of as soon as I found out what planners get to do and how widecast that net is in high school. However, almost none of the schools I was applying to for college had a planning concentration or major or focus in their undergraduate colleges. So, no is the quick answer to your question. As an undergrad I was an econ major, but that was knowing that many planning schools as far as master programs accepted econ degrees. And so it seemed like, well I would gain some quantitative skills and other things that I could definitely apply to my future planning degree. So I started as an econ major.

JW (6m 1s): Cool. So I’ve been reading a lot about active transportation improvements in the Boston region and I’m curious about what you think about the direction, and you mentioned earlier much love coming out for the bus, but is there anything specific that’s happening in the region that’s interesting to you?

LR (6m 13s): Definitely. We have a lot of interesting projects, both small and mighty, all the way up to colossal, multi-year extensions of light rail, and actually huge improvements at heavy rail too. So one that’s particularly exciting but also particularly long term is Rail Vision is what it’s called. That is a kind of long term master plan set for 2040 that has significant implications for the MBTA’s heavy rail network, our commuter rail network. Certainly the goal of full electrification is in there, which would allow for improved headways in the inner core. And both the transit provider and kind of collective municipal boards have agreed early on to the implementation of a few of the elements that have come out of this visioning plan, which include electrification of certain lines that are either, I guess at the top of the list as far as equity, at the top of the list as far as ridership, or the top of the list as far as ease of implementation. So for example, our Providence line, which connects Providence and Boston and runs Amtrak along that line, is already electric capable. And so we’re starting there. But another product we have going, which is called our Fairmount line, is the only rail line, light or heavy, in the greater Boston area that has a majority minority ridership. Certainly goes through the city’s people of color concentration as well as our lower income, higher concentration of students, school-aged children and highest concentration of students that take heavy rail to and from academic activities. And so kind of that justification was a no brainer for our board as far as where first to implement electrification, both because it’s an environmental justice community and because those improved headways would really impact our students and local work and community as opposed to just our suburban to downtown commuter working community.

JW (8m 21s): That line has always been really interesting to me. I mean it’s actually one of the first projects that I worked on when I started work after college. The HUD and FTA had a project where we’re looking at affordable housing along five different lines in five different cities, and they picked the Fairmount line. And the interesting thing about the line for me was that there’s a ton of developable property, but also it’s within the city limits, right?

LR: Yup. Entirely.

JW: And all the other commuter rail lines go to other places. So that was just kind of interesting that the city of Boston had so much control over this line and then so many improvements have been made and will be made, and that’ll make it a better line for the system, which I think is really great.

LR (8m 55s): Oh absolutely. And I really commend the MBTA fiscal management control board for recently accepting a near term pilot set to go into implementation in May, also for the Fairmount line, that would add eight additional trips during the day, would expand the range of service an hour earlier in the morning, allowing first shift workers to get to kind of the employment hubs along the line in time, which they currently cannot do via the Fairmount line, and an hour later into the evening. That pilot came out of the transit team. So my colleague and I drafted that pilot with the community over the course of the last year or so. And it was just approved last month and is set to go into implementation in May. So that’s very exciting. And knowing that the community will see both immediate improvement as well as kind of this long term overhaul of reaching near subway-like headways is very exciting.

JW: Yeah, definitely. It’s, it’s been a dream for a long time. I know. Especially for folks on the line.

LR: Yeah.

JW: So what is the project you’re currently working on?

LR (9m 59s): We’ve got several going, in my personal wheelhouse, we have two very, very big ones. One of which, which is a little further along in its planning phase, is bus and bike priority treatments along Warren Street, which travels through the heart of Roxbury, Dudley Station in Nubian Square down to the intersection of Warren Street with Blue Hill Ave and Grove Hall. I realize I’m using a lot of local terminology, are you familiar with the Boston area?

JW (10m 27s): I’m familiar, but maybe folks that are listening might not be, so perhaps maybe give them an idea of how long the corridor is and maybe its approximate location related to downtown Boston.

LR (10m 39s): Absolutely. So Warren Street is a 1.3 mile long corridor through both the residential and commercial hubs of Roxbury, which is a neighborhood that sits very much in the center of Boston, about another mile and a half from downtown, and is the city’s historically black neighborhood, still functionally very black, although under the pressures of Boston’s endless gentrification. That is in question and is certainly something we’re thinking about as a part of this project as well. But Warren Street is vital to the transit network in that we have five different routes traveling down Warren Street, which allow for a bus every two to three minutes during peak. That runs the full 1.3 mile run. And when you hear that you’d think, wow, this corridor is very well served by transit, connecting to a major transit hub, which is the Dudley Station in Nubian Square that I mentioned, it’s served by dozens of bus routes connecting much of the city, including our kind of best bus facility, which we call the Silver Line, which was the city’s initial attempt at bus rapid transit, dating back to 2002 was our earliest implementation of that line. So certainly many, many riders, many to the scale of just over 20,000 a day on a weekday.

JW (12m 11s): Is that 20,000 on the 1.3 mile segment or is that 20,000 for each of the core lines on the corridor?

LR (12m 17s): That is 20,000 on the 1.3 mile segment.

JW (12m 20s): Okay. That’s pretty significant.

LR (12m 23s): Absolutely and about half of those or just shy of half of those riders board along Warren Street. The other half enter, you know, they’re, they’re the load on the bus and travel through Warren Street coming from other locations.

JW (12m 37s): So what are some of the improvements that are in the planning stages for the corridor given that so many people are riding?

LR (12m 43s): Oh, I guess I should have started by framing that the, the core issue that we’re looking at for this corridor, though well served according to the schedule, are that these buses are stuck in very severe delays. So Boston congestion has only worsened and seems to be eternally worsening. And as a result, we’re seeing buses unable to meet schedule severely. So we’re seeing on-time performances as bad as 49%, we’re seeing delays as much as 30 minutes in one direction along just 1.3 miles. So at a comfy, one could argue slow pace, you can outwalk the bus. And so what that results in is you look down Warren Street and it’s, you know, 25 buses, one after another, stuck in traffic with sometimes not even as much as a single car in between them. And that’s just in the one lane. The other lane is, of course our motorists stuck to the brim and we have no bike facilities along Warren, although it is a key connector. And so we’re working on redistributing our existing lane capacity to better serve our existing people, right, as opposed to vehicles. And so on Warren which is currently almost for its entirety two lanes of general travel, no bike facilities as I had mentioned, and a parking lane on either side with occasional turn pockets. We are re-imagining a street to feature one general travel lane, existing turning pockets, adding a few more at heavy turn locations, adding dedicated bus facilities in either direction as well as a two way cycle track in exchange for parking on the one side of the street. A choice that we can make because we ran the parking study in the fall of 2019, which showed that though the street is highly congested, it is not highly parked up. We’re seeing 49% of parking being used at parking peak. Generally we’re seeing down to 41, 44% on our weekdays and slightly higher in the evenings, but never to the point where we cannot make this exchange for parking. And the exchange is not for the entire street. We’re doing the two-way cycle track for about 60% of the street and then in the southern portion where the street narrows, we’re doing parking protected bike lanes, but that are split by direction. No longer the two-way cycle track, which allows for a little more space on-street and allows us to keep much of the parking in the southern section, the more residential portion where people are parking for kind of the entire day. Certainly overnight. It’s really just a rebalancing of what is otherwise a high capacity street to favor transit and our sustainable modes.

JW (15m 29s): And what was the reaction to the idea of taking away parking? And it seems like there’s a lot of space there to be taken away because if it’s only parked at 50% even at peak you have a lot of spaces that are empty. But what was the reaction generally? Parking’s such a lightning rod topic.

LR (15m 44s): Absolutely. And to say that the idea was welcomed with nothing but praise would not be the truth. (Laughs) We’ve certainly got some flack for even proposing the idea. But I think what has helped in getting the community on board is really framing the magnitude of the values. So when you say to community members who are proportionally quite well represented on the bus, so this is not kind of putting in a bus priority project in a driver centric neighborhood. This really is a bus project in a transit dependent neighborhood. And so framing the value in terms of not just you get back 30 minutes in one direction, so really an hour a day of your life, but so does your neighbor. Your kid starts to be on time getting to school, which well that’s another key piece is that our emergency vehicles and school buses are allowed to use our bus lanes as well. And there are 14 schools within a mile of Warren Street. So focusing on how students really benefit from bus priority treatments was key. And then really doing, doing the work. The community appreciates or thus far has certainly appreciated seeing the results of this parking study and not just being told, you know, we eyeballed it, it’s going to fit. (Laughs) And saying, you know, we’ve done the groundwork, we’re out here, we’re counting day and night, like a full 14 hours a day and here’s what we’ve seen, and we’ll do it again and again if you have an edit. You know, if you think we measured on the wrong day, we’re happy to go out again. If you think 8 to 10 PM was not the right time to make sure we’ve caught overnight resident parking, we’ll be out there 10 to midnight. It’s been very much a kind of a back and forth. But I think once, once we really showed the community that we’ve put in the work and we’re willing to edit, the conversation started to change.

JW (17m 36s): And how did you get the community involved? What kind of processes did you use to reach out to them and to discuss the changes?

LR (17m 42s): It’s a mixed bag of kind of your standard, old-school, “rarely works and yet we also continue do it” public meetings (Laughs) because there is that portion of the community that that is how they are accustomed to being engaged. That is how they would like to continue being engaged. And so we’ve hosted open houses. We’ve hosted kind of a, I won’t say design charrette, but kind of a concept comparison in our earlier days where we came out to the community with, you know, just large open maps, a few ideas, some red bus lines here and there and tweaked in live action. And then my favorite, which I think is the best way to involve voices that rarely attend kind of standard public meeting, town hall, old-school engagement style, is that we rode the bus. (Laughs) We were on board, we did surveys on board, we have conversations on board and we certainly do surveys at bus stops, which is a big one. Because of course onboard that may be a rider’s only personal me time, right? So you don’t necessarily want to take that away from them. But while waiting at the bus, people do tend to be more, you know, engaged and willing to have that portion of their commute be a social affair in which they kind of have their voice heard.

What else have we done? We’ve teamed up with two groups that are well known in the community for their organizing work. One of them is called Transit Matters, the other is called Livable Streets Alliance. Livable Streets Alliance has done their own surveys focusing on elderly communities, which has been great because their work tends to be during the middle of the day, whereas ours tends to be early morning and evening and very much centered on your standard commute, which we realize is a blind side and that’s where Livable Streets has come in and done kind of the, you know, trips to the community center and the trip to your health care provider around 1:00 PM and engaged with a group that doesn’t always get to be as loud and expressive necessarily at these public meetings. And they came up with a report that they then gave to us. I accompanied them on a few of these trips. These ride-alongs is what they’re called. And so that’s been a collaborative effort. And then with Transit Matters, we’ve organized a group of, we’re calling them our internal advisory committee. They are stakeholders with a front door along the corridor. Some of them are businesses, some of them are community groups, certainly some of the schools I had mentioned earlier, Urban League, the NAACP is also very conveniently for us right on Warren Street and has a strong hold in the community. So they’re on our advisory committee as well. So kind of this tag team effort of us and existing organizing groups has done a good job of engaging the community in multiple ways. Trying to get that comprehensive voice.

JW (20m 37s): I’m curious if you have any good stories of bus stop canvassing where you go out and ask people questions and you might find some interesting responses.

LR (20m 45s): Oh, let me think. Certainly. But they are often your, your standard responses. So on one of the ride alongs I went with Livable Streets Alliance. We were traveling with a group of women who were all in their sixties perhaps a little bit older and we did a full trip departing from the senior center. Then we walked to the nearest bus stop. At that bus stop their first concern was that the map, and this is true and unfortunate, the system-wide transit maps that is a part of the shelter was five years old, and they knew that it didn’t correspond with what existed on the actual service. And they were furious about this and they’re like, “This is a tiny thing, why has this not been updated? I’ve 311’d it in, this drives me crazy.” That was one that I thought, huh, very reasonable and also very much an oversight. Why have we not fixed that? The next was that this group of ladies, none of them sat down on the available bench. And I was surprised by that I, I thought, “OK, I mean they do definitely look like they’re all in fantastic shape, but even I want to sit on this bench right now.” And so I asked her, I said, “Why? Why aren’t any of us using the bench?” And they said it was too directly in the sun. We did this in the summer and the bench was away from the coverage of the shelter, smack directly in the sun. And I thought, “Oh, of course.” I mean I would have missed it, but if I’m sitting here for a bus that is in fact delayed 30 minutes as many of these are, then it is a big deal. I could see why the MBTA would’ve put that bench where it was, because when you’re only waiting four minutes as the schedule is designed for, then it’s actually the widest part of the sidewalk, and it’s the more enjoyable space to be. But kind of that, “Oh, I wouldn’t have caught that if I weren’t out here.” Definitely one that I remember writing down. I’m thinking this is a big deal. We need to reevaluate our stop amenities and that these women are a wonderful candidate group to give us insight on that.

JW (22m 41s): That’s so interesting. I was just recently at TRB and there was a woman from, I believe it was Spain, who was presenting one of her posters and she had a discussion about the bus stop and then when the bus stop is set back from the street, and so when it rains the schedule slows down because people have to walk from under the stop to the bus, which is an extra, you know, 10 seconds or something. And for every person and every stop, that’s an extra 10 seconds. That adds up to a lot of time along the corridor. And so these little things are so interesting that they make such a difference and they do really impact the transit experience and that’s a great example of that. I’m wondering how much data plays into the discussion as well and how much the collection of data that you all did in sharing this need for improvement helped that process along. I noticed that, for example, in the AM peak going towards the Blue Hill area, you said that 67% of people using the street are on the bus and how much that plays into the discussion of giving space for the bus rather than just for cars along the corridor.

LR (23m 44s): Absolutely. In fact, it’s such a convincing argument that that’s part of our mandatory data collection and shareback for all of our bus priority corridors now. Is to stress that to leave things as they are is in fact unfair. It is in fact an inequitable state of the way we treat our residents. I mean, as you just said, that’s a stark example, as Warren Street is within the city, of how we’re squeezing nearly 70% of street users into less than 50% of the corridor, and it’s not a 50% dedication actually, it’s 50% in mixed traffic. So functionally far less than that. Then by at least putting a dedicated busway, we get closer to that 50% of right of way split for 70% of street users. And I think when you, when you have an example that stark people really do start to get it, and there’s a kind of a self-reflection that you can see happening when you present that particular metric. That doesn’t happen with many others. It’s single occupancy vehicle riders realizing that they are in fact worsening the travel experience for such a large amount of people, and it’s difficult to, you never want to necessarily pit one group against another, but when right-of-way is limited, it truly is that case. You as a single occupancy vehicle rider have said, “Me and my metal four wall box are going to take up on this street nearly as much on some of these large cars, nearly as much as this bus that carries me times 60.” You know, it’s, it’s just wild. And to say that how that person’s commute is how they’re suffering, how they’re endlessly late, how they’re squished into their bus and how the, the system is broken for them because of congestion worsened bunching and as a result we have overcrowding on our buses, and how that is worsened by me, if I’m self-reflecting at that moment, that really hits people. And so we certainly want to bare minimum calculate that metric for each of our projects and try and use it as a, you know, “we all are in this together” type of data expression.

JW (26m 11s): Another question I have is since you’re with the city of Boston, how do you all work with the MBTA on this, the transit agency, and what kind of the interplay is between the two agencies when you’re trying to make these types of improvements?

LR (26m 22s): I think by far what we have found is the most critical piece to getting as many projects done is we’re able to do per year, as comprehensive and kind of large scale capital projects as we have gotten done per year, is this relationship that has been fostered between the city and the MBTA by way of not just the transit team, but the MBTA matched Boston’s creation of a dedicated team by creating their own team dedicated to transit priority. That’s across all of the modes that they operate. But they formed a new team which is now three people strong that looks at exactly what we’re looking at, but for all of the municipalities within the MBTA’s jurisdiction. And we work very closely with that team. When I say very closely, I’d say a meeting, at least one meeting, every two days is what we’re at right now, because we have so many projects in operation. But beyond the physical improvement to liaising between the two entities, there’s a financial piece that I cannot stress enough is the key to the success of this relationship. So all of the projects we’re working on are project managed by a member of the transit team here at the city, but are, I guess, spearheaded or are carried along by consultant contracts that exist on an on-call basis with the MBTA, that are paid for by the MBTA, and then construction plans are handed off from these consultants that we work with closely back to the city. The city handles construction and the MBTA reimburses us for an agreed upon portion of that project. Without that agreement, which is I guess really formalized in an MoU at the moment. Without that level of agreement. These projects would probably sit for a long time at the point of completed shovel-ready design, but we’ve, we’ve been able to move them through at record pace for the city.

JW (28m 23s): How did you get to that MoU? It seems like a novel approach to coordination.

LR (28m 28s): I can take absolutely no credit for that. (Laughs) I think part of that came out of leadership that was in place both at the MBTA and the city during the creation of the master plan I mentioned earlier, which is called Go Boston 2030, that master plan, on the board of that master plan sat the Chief of Streets who is as high in leadership as you can go within the Streets Cabinet, which is comprised of the Boston Transportation Department and the Public Works Department. So he oversees both of those. He and his equivalent, kind of in the world of bus and rail at the T, both sat on this master plan and decided that the pace at which the city is able to acquire consultants, launch RFPs and that particular piece of the puzzle, that piece in the timeline of a project is much slower than the rate at which the MBTA can do so very often because they’re dealing with much larger pre-existing budgets and a lot more of these on-call contracts and I know that that came out of the transportation master plan as something that should be kind of siloed into whomever does it best, let’s have them lead it, and that’s how this MoU kind of came to pass. Once that agreement happened, the creation of this MoU was led by the director of my team. That’s Matthew Moran, he and Wes Edwards at the MBTA, who is the assistant general manager for buses. The two of them have really in tandem step, made this MoU a reality over the course of about six months.

JW (30m 1s): That’s awesome. I’m curious also, how often do you all do tactical or short term innovations on the streets?

LR (30m 9s): I think the original plan was in fact for us to do more of that then we’re doing at the moment. And part of that was because I think we felt we were going to get more pushback than we expected. So again, coming out of this master plan was our first bus priority project since the Silver Line, which was as close to BRT as you can kind of get in Boston, project from 2002 that I mentioned earlier. So since 2002, since the Silver Line, we had not put in dedicated right of way transit projects until what we are calling the Roslindale Project, which is a 0.7 miles of Washington Street in a neighborhood in the South of Boston called Roslindale that travels from a commercial hub in Roslindale Village into a rapid transit station, so our, our orange line, our light rail system at Forest Hills, and there are many, many buses that feed into the bus depot there at Forest Hills, and the gross majority of riders are making that transfer. And they had been stuck on just that 0.7 miles in excessive congestion, particularly in the AM peak. Almost exclusively actually in the AM peak. And so our leadership said, let’s try something tactical, let’s get some cones up there and let’s run it as a pilot. And the pilot will be the process. We will prove to the public through the pilot that in fact this works, or we will find through this process that it doesn’t. That happened in 2018, and what that was was our operations team put out nearly a mile every single morning at 5:00 AM of cones blocking off the parking lane and existing bike lane. So 12 feet from the curb and saying this is for buses only during 5:00 AM and 9:00 AM, and then at 9:00 AM turning it back over to being a bike lane and parking lane. We did that for, I wanna say a month. This was before my time, but I want to say that pilot lasted a month, was measured closely with a lot of evaluation, which was in partner with the T and then of course a lot of public surveys afterwards saying, how did this work? Dear transit, rider, cyclist, parker, business owner, all kind of who are involved or impacted by this. And overwhelmingly people asked for this tactical implementation, this pilot to become permanent. And that was kind of the basis, the onus for us rather than doing many pilots. Going straight into full implementation just because the results were so, so powerful. So impactful.

JW (32m 47s): Yeah, I imagine so. Especially with some of the data that you collected and were able to share with folks and also probably what people saw on the street as it was happening.

LR (32m 55s): Absolutely. Absolutely. And so we’re not close to doing additional tactical or pilot projects as we see fit. And it actually in some communities as we’ve gone out and said, you know, here, here’s what we’ve measured for your major bus route through this neighborhood. Here’s how your transit riders are suffering. Here are the opportunities we see without worsening the experience for other sustainable modes or for, you know, the commercial district. And some people have actually said, you know what, we’d like a pilot. We saw it work in Roslindale but we don’t want you to come in with you know, paint already or break up curbs already and do bump outs and things like that. Can we have something temporary? Can we have a pilot and so neighborhoods that have requested it, we’ve certainly entertained it. Unfortunately those are in neighborhoods where the severity of the issue is not as strong so we haven’t gotten to them just yet because of where they fall in our priority list, but we plan to, that’s certainly something that’s on the table and so flexible that we can bring that in with relative ease. Making sure it’s at the right time because of course, this is Boston so winter’s off the table.

JW (34m 6s): Of course. You said you had two big projects, first was the bus rapid transit project. What’s the second one?

LR (34m 11s): The other one is also a bus priority treatment project, but one on a kind of an unparalleled scale. Actually probably should have said three because the Fairmount line pilot that we mentioned earlier that just got accepted is another major project that I’m super thrilled about. But the second bus related project is Blue Hill Avenue. So Blue Hill Avenue, much like Warren Street is kind of the major thoroughfare both for commercial and for throughput, but on a kind of a truly dialed up scale through the neighborhoods of Mattapan, which is our southernmost neighborhood bordering on Milton, which is our municipality to the south, Dorchester and Roxbury. So this avenue meets, in its North, meets the bottom of the Warren Street project. So this kind of allows for a full corridor all the way from Dudley Station in Nubian Square, the transit hub I mentioned earlier in the middle of the city, all the way down to our southernmost border. And it’s similar to Warren in that we’re planning to improve bike facilities tenfold, planning to add dedicated right-of-way for buses, but it’s a much larger project in that the scale of bus riders is about the same. It’s also roughly 20,000, it’s actually slightly fewer because a lot of the riders who get to Warren have come from Blue Hill Ave, but the throughput of vehicles is much, much higher. So we’re not able to as readily do exchanges in right-of-way. We have to be much more creative. And one thing we’ve turned to for this particular avenue is that we have a median, a major median, along this thoroughfare that reaches as much as 17 feet in certain parts, 17 feet wide in certain parts of the corridor, only in one tiny piece of this quarter or does it have any trees on it. It’s really a slab of huge concrete with highway style lighting and has led to highway style driving. I mean people speed a lot on Blue Hill Avenue. It’s on our high crash zone for all modes, which means it’s, it’s a biking hazard, it’s a ped hazard, it’s a driver hazard. And adding to the kind of level-up that it is from Warren is that it’s double as long. Blue Hill Ave is three miles in either direction. And so while we’re not as far along in the planning process as Warren, see Warren is reaching the 30% design place. Blue Hill Ave is very much still a community engagement conversation, and we’re just at the point with the public where we’ll be sharing concepts next week Thursday, which is very exciting, but this project also involves kind of a replanting of all the tree pits along the corridor. It’s a major greenery effort and we have quite a lot of budget for public art, which is not something that the transportation department usually gets into, but on this one, because we’re entirely changing the nature of a place, right? A major destination, a place where members of the community spend hours a week of their life on this street, we have an unprecedented budget for public art and so that has given the transit team a very interesting opportunity to bring the community in, in ways that they hadn’t thought would involve them from a mobility standpoint before, and that has helped us build trust, which is crucial when you’re totally flipping a streetscape. I’m really excited for this project. I think a lot of people have been for over a decade because the last time this street came into conversation for bus priority treatments was with stimulus money. And the project then was completely obliterated due to kind of a lack of familiarity at the time with bus priority treatments, with bus rapid transit, and a lack of trust with the community that has for many, many decades been disinvested in and not felt the most honest relationship with the government. And so for this project, we’re really building that first and foremost.

JW (38m 12s): Well, that’s really interesting. Has the explosion in guidebooks and discussions about buses really changed the conversations locally and with communities?

LR (38m 21s): You know, I, I don’t think that’s what it is. I think it’s just evidence on the streets, I think. I think before this wave that we have, this relationship with the T, these two new teams before this wave, all that the Boston community had to turn to as an example of bus priority treatments was our Silver Line. And that has a muddied past. I don’t know if you’re very familiar but…

JW: A little bit.

LR: Essentially, yeah, where the Silver Line, which is just for clarity, is a bus in its own dedicated right-of-way with in-lane boarding, not center running, no intersection treatments, a little bit of transit signal priority, so it’s kind of a silver, a medium scale BRT system. But where it runs today, used to run an elevated light rail system that used to be the orange line. That connected minority neighborhoods to downtown. And that was lowered. So that elevated rail was removed, relocated, so taken away from neighborhoods of color, placed in neighborhoods that were less of color, and buried. And so the relationship there was a promise of replacement in kind. And that never happened. For a long time there was no replacement of any service, and then after many years, that replacement was a bus lane. And a lot of people in the community felt robbed, very literally robbed of significant transit, robbed of what would have been increased housing values for those who own their properties and really felt a change in these neighborhoods demographically that they attribute to changes in transit, quite rightfully so. And so the Silver Line just has this very muddied past. And then on top of that, from a recent standpoint, how it runs today with great headways, however, very much overcrowded and also like most of our bus services struggling to meet on time performance due to congestion due to poor signal timing. And so before we have the bus priority treatments that we have in the ground today to show people as evidence of success, we only had the Silver Line and nobody wanted their own iteration of that. But times have changed, times have changed. And now we can say, look at Roslindale, we’re seeing 20 to 25% time savings. Look at Brighton Ave, we’re seeing buses no longer bunching. We’re seeing decreased crowding of up to 5%, we’re seeing five to 10 minutes of saving time over just 0.6 miles. This works, and we now have a handful more to turn to. We can even take members of the community as we have done once before for Warren, take members of the community who have questions about how this operates and do a ride along on one of our existing lanes in Brighton, like so they can experience it themselves firsthand. And that I think is what, all of these things in concert are what is really changing the familiarity and the comfort with bus priority treatments.

JW (41m 29s): That’s awesome. What’s next for Warren?

LR (41m 32s): Great question. We have an upcoming public meeting in two weeks at which we will be sharing the current state of our preferred concept, the one that is advancing into 30% design, as well as kind of going over more data that we’ve collected on overnight parking in a more qualitative way, of what students and parents have said they need to see on the street before they would feel comfortable cycling. And start having conversations of if indeed we put these in the ground, here’s the decrease we can anticipate in traffic volumes for those who will never get out of their car, those who are worried, either because they do not want to or they cannot, are worried about how going down to one lane in either direction would really worsen traffic. Kind of coming up with scenario sharing, essentially. That will happen in the first week of March. If all goes well there, we have a few more public engagement efforts planned, but the design would then bring in our Public Works crew as we would start to have conversations about moving curbs, drainage, kind of the nitty gritty of the engineering. And then the final piece for public engagement would be stop amenities, because the one thing that the T has stressed, I think almost above all else, is that in these corridors, these heavy capital investments where we are really saying, we’re putting our money where our mouth is and saying this is a quarter where bus is king, we need to see similar investments in our stop amenities. What they offer our riders. And so we’ll be introducing real time arrival signage throughout the entire corridor where currently there is none, changing the shelter canopy, increasing it in most places by 100%, so a doubling of overhead canopy, and bringing these to the community in render form cause they’re not built yet of course. But really showing that this will be an experiential change not just while onboard, but while waiting to board.

JW (43m 31s): Awesome. Well, Lindiwe, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

LR:  Thank you so much for having me.


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