71 (Watertown Square-Harvard)

As of the time of this writing (May 3, 2013), Watertown is exactly two week removed from the most intense day of its 383 years of existence and its international day in the sun for better or worse. Aside from bombers in boats, Watertown is known for one of four things:

1: It’s place in the Amenian dispora in the United States (1/4 of Watertown’s population is of Armenian origin or decent).
2: The Watertown and Arsenal malls, though seen worldwide as a police staging area. The former has a Target, the latter has the iconic scoreboard from the old Boston Garden.
3: The home to NESN’s studios where sports-related magic and the occassional misery (Dan Duquette Jr’s “NESN Nation” segments) originates.
4: The 71, one of the MBTA’s three trackless trolley routes originates.

For the focus of this article, let’s focus on the 71 which I recently rode not even 18 hours after said bomber was found in said boat. Starting at its terminal loop at Watertown Square, it takes a straightforward route down Mount Auburn Avenue straight through to the Harvard Bus Tunnel. Having boarded at Watertown Square before, I decided to take a challenge and walk up the street to the Starbucks inside an obvious former Friendly’s to see how Watertownians were holding up. Save for a couple of journalists with cameras getting footage, you wouldn’t have thought you were on a town which less than 24 hours before was in lockdown.

Getting on the 71, you start to see the heart of Watertown being the sleepy suburb it usually is. A mix of small businesses and houses which are indicitive of Watertown’s past as a streetcar suburb. There are also a smattering of churches, at least two of which have had their buildings converted to condos. In contrast to the heavily commercialized district on Route 20 to its south, it is very, very quaint even in contrast to the slightly more commerercial 73. Eventually, the two join each other for their joint run through Cambridge, boardered for much of the initial stretch by Mount Auburn Cemetery with a few exceptions, namely Mount Auburn Hosptial and the interchange with Memorial Drive with its very old exit signs. The home stretch is mostly residential save for some office buildings near Harvard Square.

Trackless routes are always a treat and for that alone, the 71 is worth the ride even if there isn’t as much “stuff” as its sister the 73. Still a good route to ride

Route: 71 (Watertown Square-Harvard)
Rating (1-10): 8

Ridership: Heading inbound, most people ride through to Harvard with the two biggest stops otherwise being the aforementioned Mount Auburn Hospital and the Shaw’s Star Market across the Cambridge Line (with beer/wine/liquor!). Riding outbound has the same patterns, most board at Harvard or those two and ride straight through to their destination.

Pros: Trolleybuses are rare and you should ride them. At least here the poles don’t come off the wire regularly and a driver won’t crush your pinkie toe as a driver on the SEPTA 66 accidentally did to me once. Bonus points to the billboard raising awareness of the Armenian Genocide which often gets swept under the rug for political reasons.

Cons: Outside of showing some slight bias to the 73 – fording the intersection of routes 16 and 20 can be a pain sometimes – I wonder why stringing a few hundred feet of wire across the Charles to Watertown Yard can’t be done. Not to complain about a 2 minute walk, but wouldn’t it make sense to consolidate to one terminal?
Dishonorable mention: Who knew there would be diesel buses running on the trackless routes on a Saturday afternoon? The day I rode there were two running on the 71 and one on the 72 laying over outside Harvard.

Nearby and Noteworthy: The Deluxe Town Diner is a Watertown landmark which is a very good example of a 1940s vintage diner and has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Some Quick Easy Fixes

Well, it looks like the doomsday threats are coming back, and this time on top of the threats of killing weekend commuter rail are the threats of ending all bus service after 11:00 PM and cutting 30 bus routes. Here are some simple fixes that the MBTA should consider.

1: MassDOT merged everyone together into a bickering blended family. They should own up to their Big Dig debt.
As much as the crowd outside of 495 will claim that they should not pay for the debt of the Big Dig because it’s solely inside Boston, truth is that it is a utility for the entire Commonwealth and beyond. The Big Dig benefits just as much benefits those from Salisbury to Sheffield to Sandwich as it does for those in Southie and Somerville with improved vehicular capacity through town, improved access to Logan, and more.  When the Commonwealth merged everyone under the MassDOT umbrella, they should have demerged the Big Dig debt which the Cellucci Administration forced upon the MBTA for something they really did not contribute to. One umbrella, one debt.

2: Merge some lesser bus routes into singular routes.
Several years back when the Port Authority in Pittsburgh had their own Doomsday cuts, they ended up merging several routes which shared a common terminal into singular routes to help boost efficiency and maintain as much service as possible. I was going to suggest these in a proposal post but here are a few which could be done.

  • Merging the 62 and 76 full-time as the current 62/76 operates on Saturdays.
  • Combining either the 70 or 70A with the 91, running straight through Central between Waltham and Sullivan.
  • At least on middays and weekends, merging the 108 with the local portion of the 426 (which would help West Lynn, East Saugus, and northeastern Revere as the Blue Line will  soon be an eunuch).
  • The 354 is extended over the local portion of the 352 after rush hours. As much as it’d be bad for Burlington commuters outside of 95/128, making this the core route would not be  bad thing.
  • Merge the 131 and the northern/eastern portion of the 430 while terminating the 430 at Square One Mall. This would not only add an elusive bus connection between Saugus and Melrose, but would also redirect the 430’s resources where it’s needed.

(Everyone, join in and leave your suggestions in the comments!)

3: Make pass prices resemble something resembling reality.
Right now a weekly pass ($18) is only 1.6 times the cost of a one-day pass ($11) and is equal to nine rail rides paid via CharlieCard. I understand the one-day pass is a bit of a tourist tax but seriously the weekly pass could be raised to around $24 and still be seen as a bargain. Similarly, $70 for a monthly pass is still quite low compared to the MBTA’s peer agencies and could be hiked beyond $80 and still be seen as a bargain.

4: Charge for CharlieCards (and maybe CharlieTickets too)
When I was living in and around DC,the initial cost for a SmarTrip was (as is now) $5. In contrast, the CharlieCard is free. I’m not saying to emulate WMATA – nobody ever should – but even if the MBTA charged as little as $2 for a CharlieCard it’d make some money. Imagine how much they could’ve made over the last eight years off of CharlieCards for a nominal fee.
Similarly, the MTA in New York is now charging $1 for a new MetroCard. I think even a 50 cent surcharge on getting a new CharlieTicket would raise some extra funds and would show those that use them that getting a CharlieCard would be a good move to make.

5: One More Quarter
Compared to peer agencies, even with last year’s fare increases CharlieCard fares are still cheap at $1.50 for bus and $2.00 for rail. Hiking these by a quarter while leaving the $2.00/$2.50 cash fare as-is would still have the MBTA on the low end of their peer agencies. Ideally, going to one united fare would be good but the insistence of having bus be cheaper than rail would need to be put on the back burner.

6: Peak hour MBCR surcharges
Being from the New York area, I’m used to the concept of a peak-hour surcharge on both Metro North and the LIRR, charging a higher fare going into Penn/Grand Central in the morning and out in the evening. I know the MBCR lines don’t have the intensive levels of service that their New York counterparts have, but a surcharge of a couple of dollars for trains during rush hour would help raise some extra money from suburbanites. There are some problems with this, namely if the Zone 1A and Fairmount Line stations should be made exempt or not, but it’s worth the thought.

7: Take one for the team, Local 589
With service cuts come the inevitable complaints about unionized labor and all the negative stereotypes of unions and the “typical” unionized employee. While Local 589 doesn’t have the overtime abuse problems of TWU 100 and the other MTA unions or the mass corruption at ATU 689 at WMATA, I think that it might be a good PR move for Local 589 to make some concessions to help protect their jobs. Given the choice between voluntarily taking a pay rollback of a couple of percent and having jobs flat-out eliminated, I’d be willing to take that most Local 589 members would seriously consider the former. Such a move would be a sign of solidarity and would send a good message to a union-cynical public in a time when unions need the good PR.

I have one other bigger idea I’ll share in another post, but these would be better than getting rid of all weekend Commuter Rail service or ending bus service a good two hours before subway service. Then again, doomsday is doomsday and often doomsday never comes.

 

 

66 (Harvard-Dudley via Allston & Brookline)

Early in this Adventure, I reviewed the 1 and harped about its crosstown time-saving abilities even in the face of its being prone to chaos and bunching (and if you’re new here, I recommend going back and reading it). Now imagine if the 1 moved a couple miles east for most of its route and gained more chaos. Then you would have the 66, the 1’s wilder and we assume younger sister.

The first time I rode the 66 was on the advice of a friend who then was at grad school at BU after getting lunch in Brighton one day several years ago. Having been an out-of-towner who stuck to the familiar and who was ready to take the B back to Park to get the Red to Harvard, at the time I wouldn’t have known of it otherwise until she suggested it to me. I walk to the corner of Brighton & Harvard Avenues and wait for the 66 to come. Coming from Dudley, it had worked its way past an Orange Line connection at Roxbury Crossing and had a whole bevy of meetings with the Green Line: the 66 parallels the E from Museum of Fine Arts to Riverway and meets the D at Brookline Village, the C at Coolidge Corner, and the B just down the street at Brighton Ave.

When it arrives, it’s packed with a heavily college student crowd with a veritable melting pot filling the balance as the diverse population of Allston can attest to. By some miracle, I got the last seat and was able to take some notice of the rest of the route including Harvard’s athletic facilities and the BU Bridge even through the throng of people made noticing hard as with any route with college-heavy ridership. As with the 1, it stops right outside Harvard station for ease of routing purposes. Since then, there has been a common debate about if the 1 or the 66 is the more chaotic route. I decided to take little study to see if the 66 was actually the more chaotic one.

In about two hours camped at the Starbucks at Coolidge Corner on a weekday with school not in session, I noticed that the average 66 ranged from ¾ full minimum to being packed to the gills maximum without any missed runs or bunching. But watching buses while trying to pursue a better life isn’t the point of this blog. Therefore, I got on a mostly full 66, took a seat, and rode for a bit. A bit less young than years earlier but still busy. Harvard Street in Brookline is a slice of charming suburbia and is worth the trip on this portion of the 66. Eventually I get off at Brookline Village while the 66 eventually works its way back into Boston and onto Huntington Ave.

Route: 66 (Harvard-Dudley via Allston & Brookline)
Rating (1-10): 7

 

Ridership: Heavily on the young side when school is in session though not prone to being a party full of the male “bro crowd” (thanks @nikkif610) and/or the female “Uggs and yogas crowd” a la the B and E. You see a decent amount of people using this as an outer transfer between branches and lines too.

Pros: Similar as the 1. Invaluable route that connects many transfer points and can link together many outer points with a one-seat ride. As one of a few north-south routes to operate in Brookline, it is also invaluable for crosstown travel in that direction versus the more covered east-west corridors.

Cons: Ridership is heavy and when schools are in session packed buses often are the norm. If someone has the idea to get more CNG artics, this route with the 1 would both be prime candidates for them.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Hidden among Harvard’s athletic complex on the south bank of the Charles is Bright Hockey Center, home to Harvard’s pair of hockey teams. While it lacks the flashiness of BC’s Conte Forum or BU’s Agannis Arena or the 100+ years of history of Northeastern’s Matthews Arena, it has its own charms including very 70’s light fixtures and curved bench-style seats. If you sit up close, you can actually hear the puck go around the dasher boards.

Proposal: 350 Limited

So, the last month on my end has been tumultuous. I moved from Saugus to Winchester concurrent with starting a new job in Burlington. Without going into detail, let’s just say that only getting an occasional ride on the 350 is the least of my worries lately but it means not much content to write about. Until today.

Getting off work, I walk the short distance to an inbound 350 stop to see a bunch of people waiting which is expected as it is a somewhat key stop (it has a shelter!). A bus comes by with a fully seated load and some standees and of the 45 or so passengers who were on when I boarded, all but a couple were still on when I got off about 15 minutes later. During my ride, I realized that a Limited version of the 350 would do wonders.

Having ridden the 350 many times, I’ve noticed that most people who board at Alewife ride until the corridor between the Crossroads and Burlington Mall with the reverse heading inbound with some in-between points getting some riders namely Arlington Center, Horn Pond Plaza, and Four Corners. Though this is a symptom of the gaping transit holes the Northwest suburbs have, there has to be something done to handle growing ridership. I think the solution may be to run a limited version of the 350 alternating with it as an overall service boost. Imagine a 350 which stopped only at the following

  • Alewife Station
  • Alewife Brook Parkway (Cambridge-Arlington Line)
  • Lake Street
  • Arlington Center
  • Winchester Country Club (Arlington-Winchester Line)
  • Church/High Streets
  • Horn Pond Plaza (Winchester-Woburn Line)
  • Woburn Four Corners
  • Lincoln Knoll Lane (Crossroads)
  • Wayside Road
  • Lahey Clinic
  • Northeast Executive Park
  • Burlington Mall
  • Northwest Park (not on the current 350 but with its redevelopment a future traffic generator)

I know that this often is what reality is for the 350 but it’d be a good thing to try especially with the 350 a route bursting at the seams. Let me know any feedback either in the comments or tweet me on Twitter. Be on the lookout for more proposals soon!

77 (Arlington Heights-Harvard)

So, your webmaster has been trying to find a place of their own and the top place on my short list is Arlington. The balance of suburban feel, frequent transit, access to highways, and being close to my wife’s job is a win-win on paper. The backbone of bus transit in Arlington is the 77, one of the MBTA’s most frequent routes to the point of making the “Key Bus Routes” map. A friend once called the 77 “the route from Hades”, however were they right?

The 77 provides base service on Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard Square to Arlington Heights near the Arlington/Lexington line. Though there are other routes that run in this stretch including the 79 (Cambridge-Arlington line to Arlington Heights), 96 (Harvard to Porter), and 350 (Cambridge-Arlington line to Arlington Center), the 77 runs far more frequently. With no rail competition north of Porter Square and a high density along most of the route, it is a route which is prone to getting packed and like any route with frequent service also can be prone to bunching. Recently, I waited 10 minutes for a 77 only to have two other buses less than three minutes behind. This seems no different than, say, either of the Silver Lines or the 1 or the 66. There is a wrinkle, though.

The 77’s ridership is largely made up of those who are loyal to the 77 even with some alternatives for the reasons explained earlier. Though some 77 riders sometimes take the walk around Harvard Square for more fun with the 1 or 66, their route view might be a little skewed. I don’t mean any offense to any 77 riders on this blog – in fact, I’d love to be in your shoes – but there may be a skewed view. My friend with the “route from Hades” line had never experienced, say, the 28 or the 111 which often leave their terminals with people left over. That said, the route must be doing something right as it is one of the MBTA’s most-ridden routes as well.

During rush hours, the southern third of the 77 gets a bonus: Most trackless trolley runs heading to/from North Cambridge Carhous, run as revenue runs on the 77 and once were known as the 77A.

Route: 77 (Arlington Heights-Harvard)
Rating (1-10): 8

Ridership: Always somewhat heavy with some standees even leaving Harvard. This could be a consequence of the Key Bus Routes map warping service on this route. It also doesn’t help that the other routes along Mass Ave have nowhere near the level of service of the 77 and there often is a mindset that the 77 is the only service. North of Arlington Center, things start to thin out a little as Mass Ave gains a bit more of a residential nature.

Pros: It’s a core route with frequent service which serves a underrated gem of Greater Boston (even if people 30+ years ago fought against rail and have fought converting the route to trackless trolley). Imagine if the 70(A) to Watertown and Waltham or the 30’s cluster to West Roxbury or the 130’s to Melrose had the 77’s range of service. There are also a ton of rental opportunities but with the Boston market’s propensity to have brokers and their fees it’s sometimes is like water along a desert island.

Cons: Crowding and the inevitable bunching problems aside, the biggest problem is the alighting procedure at Harvard. The 77’s discharge on the lower level of the tunnel which requires having to cross the roadway before entering the station. While this isn’t unique – the trackless trolley routes on Saturday nights and Sundays have to board this way – I propose a solution.

Solution: For the MBTA’s next bus order, order a fleet of articulated buses with doors on both sides and base at least some of them out of the 77’s home of Charlestown Garage. It’d increase capacity (even with the seat hit for doors on both sides) and would end this problem plus would help trackless routes when running diesel. Heck, make them dual modes even which’d allow for through-running possibly down to Dudley. New Flyer, the MBTA’s current maker of choice, makes artics with doors on both sides. This needs to happen.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Right south of Porter is Ward Maps, the official supplier of MBTA gifts and of archival MBTA historical materials ranging from station signs to rollisgns to more. If you love transit or even just old maps, this is your candy store!

Of future importance of notewortiness is Menotony Bar & Grill which is due to open by the end of 2012 and will be the first full bar in Arlington since Prohibition.

350 (Alewife-North Burlington)

If you follow me on Twitter (and if you don’t, you really should), a couple of weeks ago I live-tweeted a ride on the 350 on a day I had businesss in Burlington. In hindsight, I found it to be one of my more interesting routes and it’s a route that could use some improvements.

Public transit in the northwestern suburbs has always been a touchy issue dating back to the era of the Middlesex & Boston and the Eastern Massachusetts and frankly decades of finger pointing between towns and the MBTA has gotten nowhere. The 350 follows the US 3 corridor from Alewife to Route 128 going through the heart of Arlington (turning off of Mass Ave at Arlington Center where it meets the Minuteman Bikepath) and the western portions of Winchester and Woburn before crossing into Burlington. In Burlington, it serves the vincinity of Burlington Mall including Lahey Clinic before working its way to a terminus in the northern part of Burlington. Along most of its route, it is the only public transportation option and as a result gins a lot of traffic.

Getting to Alewife 20 minutes before departure, there already was a ten-person pack waiting for the next 350 and including myself the bus was 2/3 full departing and had a full seated load with standees before leaving Arlington. There was a healthy amount of ridership getting off and on in Winchester and Woburn especially with a huge shopping center on the town line and there were people waiting in advance in the opposite direction. By the time I got off near Lahey Clinic, the bus still had a good number of riders and from past experience passing buses the 350 doesn’t become a ghost town past Burlington Mall. A person or two may have been waiting for connecting service as Burlington Mall is a multi-agency hub which also serves:

  • LRTA Route 14 to Billerica, Chelmsford, and Lowell (plus inbound to Lahey Clinic)
  • Lexpress route 5 to Lexington
  • Burlington B-Line routes 10, 11, and 12

 

This sort of inter-agency transfer is rare in MBTA territory; the only others I can think of are Ashmont (BAT 12), Woodland (MWRTA 2), and Northshore and Liberty Tree Malls (CATA Green on Saturdays). Honestly, there should be some more as the Red Line/350/14 combo can be a value option to the Lowell Line and the transfers aren’t that painful.

Though it was on the chopping block earlier this year, the 350 has its own spinoff, the 351, which is a reverse peak route running via Routes 2 and 128 connecting Alewife to the many office parks of Burlington and Bedford ending at drug giant EMD Serono’s offices on the Billerica line.

Route: 350 (Alewife-North Burlington)
Rating (1-10): 7

Ridership: As described earlier, the main traffic generator is Burlington Mall and shopping also provides two others (the Marshalls/Roche Bros. plaza at 3 & 128 and the aforementioned center on the Winchester/Woburn line two others). Office complexes in Burlington, Lahey, and Arlington Center also generate traffic.

Pros: It’s a vital transit service serving a vital corridor being both the lifeline of several suburban communities to the MBTA system and linking a regional hub of business and commerce to those not wanting to drive. Also, the 350’s number is a bit of a pun for those who know MBTA history (if you get it, leave a comment!).

Cons: Hour headways are a little too less for this route and I think even expanding midday/Saturday headways to 45 minutes would be a very good idea. Heck, even 30 minute headways would still get a ton of ridership.

I’ll share my thoughts on how to make northwestern suburbs bus service better in a post some other time.

Nearby and Noteworthy: The food court at Burlington Mall has two notable tenants: The closet Chick-fil-A to Boston which as of this writing is a bit controversial and ShotCakes which puts two great sweet treats – cupcakes and soft-serve ice cream – into one yummy package. The plaza on the Winchester/Woburn line has a large Whole Foods and the aforementioned Roche Bros. is one of few near transit.

For the 351, I’ll have to stretch to the future to nominate the currently-under-construction Wegmans about a 15 minute walk from Burlington Mall inside the redeveloping Northwest Park development. If the MBTA (and LRTA) know what’s good, finding some way to route the 350 via there would be a VERY smart move.

Alewife

To start this review, here’s a little logic problem to kick things off:

  • You have tickets to a weeknight Red Sox game
  • Your significant works northwest of Boston
  • You don’t want to deal with rush hour traffic or near-usurious Fenway parking rates
  • What do you do?

If the answer to this isn’t Alewife, I and tons of people in the Northwest suburbs would love to hear it.

I had been up to Alewife once before as a part of a ultimate ride and hadn’t gotten beyond the bus bay which on a rainy Sunday was deserted as only one route (the 350 to Burlington Mall) runs. This time on a nice day during rush hour, it was a lot busier to the part of being welcoming. Between commuters heading home and fellow Red Sox fans heading out, it was busy and the throngs of riders made the massive size of the station seem warranted. And Alewife is massive as under one roof it also includes direct access to all four levels of its huge parking garage, retail including the requisite Dunkin’ Donuts and newsstand, and the aforementioned busway. Away from the tracks, the atrium of the station has a huge skylight that bathes the otherwise underground station in natural light. The existence of Alewife also helped turn an area that was previously an industrial district of North Cambridge into one of the first successful transit-oriented mixed-use developments. It even has the largest bicycle facility in the MBTA system with a cage holding 500 bikes. Sprinkle in a good amount of public art and it’s a great combination, however…

At the same time, while there I wonder what could’ve been. Had the Arlington of the 1970s had not fought extending the Red Line past Alewife – putting a terminal in Lexington, Bedford, or Burlington – would Alewife be this massive or be more like its Northwest Extension sisters? What if the Route 2 expressway had been built straight to Boston and ending it at Alewife wasn’t an option? What if the former Lexington Branch of the Boston & Maine hadn’t been neglected and never stopped running? And more recently, what if Alewife had less office buildings and more residences? Would Alewife exist as it is – or at all – if even one little thing happened differently?

MBTA Butterfly Effect aside, Alewife does its job as a hub for the northwest suburbs well. With direct highway access, bus access including express bus service to New York and more, it does its job well. It even has cows!

Station: Alewife. Rating (1-10): 7

Ridership: A good assortment of people driving in from the Route 2 corridor, local bus commuters, and tons of bikers utilizing the nearby trail network. There are also some reverse peak commuters – the MBTA 351 to the office parks of Burlington and Bedford and the 128 Business Council’s shuttles to Waltham – serve the station during rush hour.

Pros: Tons of space, natural light, a functional design, lots of public art, plus one of the earliest TOD successes. Toss in some mult-imodal connections and you have a great combination, however there’s one big problem…

Cons: The problem of weekend bus service, as mentioned only one route on Sundays with the joined 62/76 to Lexington and Bedford running on Saturdays; had the proposed Doomsday cuts had gone through Alewife would’ve had no bus service at all. Also, the dated early 80’s brutalism in some regards hasn’t aged well though it’s in far better shape than many of its peers in systems such as the Washington Metro.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Alewife is a hub of trails with the Fitchburg Cutoff Path to Belmont, the Alewife Linear Park that runs on top of the Red Line to Davis Square and the Minuteman Bikeway which replaced the aforementioned Lexington Branch. There are also nearby two parks in Russell Field and the Alewife Brook Reservation. The weather’s nice, get out there and ride or hike!

If food and burning some money are more your style, the flagship location of Summer Shack is right outside the station on Alewife Brook Parkway.