Everything old is new again. The T is, once again, shuttering significant parts of its network this summer, in order to accommodate maintenance and construction. The Red Line is seeing a string of late evening closures, while the Green Line is seeing much longer shutdowns — including over 40 days of closure on the Union Square branch.
Naturally, I have made some maps.
(I didn’t want to sink too much time into this project, so the maps below are not free from imperfection.)
During this period, the Union Sq shutdown will overlap with a bustitution of the B Line.
The T will apparently not be providing a shuttle for the Union Sq branch, instead directing riders to local bus routes with transfers at Lechmere and East Somerville. I’ve tried to illustrate those here. Alas, it is a bit cramped.
Phase 2: July 29 – August 9
Following the resumption of service on the B Line, a complete shutdown of service between North Station and Government Center will be instituted to accommodate demolition work on the Government Center Garage. It appears that no shuttle will be provided, and the T’s advice is simply to walk from one station to the other.
Phase 3: August 10 – August 28
During these two-and-a-half weeks, the core segment will be restored and the only ongoing long-term disruption will be the unshuttled closure of the Union Sq branch.
To be clear, this is a proof of concept; there are a number of small details that need correcting, and while I think the overall concept works, there are some clear areas for improvement in a subsequent revision. But, I think it does prove out the concept.
The current diagram draws clear lineage to the Cambridge Seven Associates’ original diagram (which captured my imagination as a child with its simplicity and elegance, particularly when it looked more like this). Today’s diagram is much more complicated than the original, due to the need to add additional information, including
Explicit markers for all stops on the Riverside Line
Explicit labels for all stops on the B, C, E, and Mattapan Lines
The Silver Line
Commuter rail stops (particularly along the Fairmount Line)
Key bus routes
Plus the editorial decision to include the geographic markers of the shoreline.
That last point reveals a fundamental difference between the original and current diagrams: the original made zero effort to appear geographically accurate, while the current makes some effort to hint at accurate geography… in some places.
The right half of the map – the South Shore, South Boston, the Shawmut Peninsula (a.k.a. Downtown), Charlestown, East Boston, and the communities along the Mystic River – is vaguely accurate, albeit somewhat compressed.
The left half, by contrast, is much more diagrammatic: straightening and simultaneously stretching & compressing the four branches of the Green Line, straightening and simplifying the Red Line and Key Bus Routes, while maintaining some suggestion of a geographically accurate Charles River.
Kenneth Dumas, the designer of the current diagram (and its previous iterations going back to 2000 when the shift was made away from a purely non-geographic diagram), has spoken about the process by which we arrived at today’s diagram; it’s a fascinating watch that I highly recommend if you enjoy transit maps. Suffice it to say, the current diagram represents an effort to harmonize the desires of a wide range of stakeholders.
I have long wanted to design a diagram for the T that includes the following:
Key bus routes, shown as cleanly as possible and designed into the map from the start
All stops on the Green Line branches
(I actually have not particularly wanted to list out all of the surface stops on the B/C/E Lines, but my understanding is that there is user research showing clear preference for their inclusion)
Walking transfers, including
State – Downtown Crossing,
Copley – Back Bay,
Symphony – Mass Ave,
Brookline Village – Riverway, and
Reservoir – Cleveland Circle
All stops on the Fairmount Line (future-proofed for its eventual conversion to near-rapid transit standards)
The design concept: geographically accurate inner zone & diagrammatic outer zone
Achieving my goals, while maintaining the information on the current diagram, posed several challenges. But as I thought about it further, I realized that several of the thornier issues could all be solved by a highly-geographically accurate diagram, including:
the Silver Line, and
to a lesser extent, baking the key bus routes harmoniously into the design of the map
The physical paths of the Green and Orange Lines themselves provided a design to show the walking transfers; this was a key revelation for me: use the physical paths as the starting point for the design, rather than abstract ideas such as “I want the Orange Line to be as straight as possible and form a perfect right angle with a Red Line that is also as straight as possible” (see for example Michael Kvrivishvili’s original design).
But, I wondered: was the use of the “To” box really that different from the current diagram’s treatment of the B/C/D/E Lines (and to a lesser extent the Blue Line and Braintree Line)?
There’s very little geographic information being conveyed on those outer lines; there are few or no transfers being shown; there are few or no eye-catching bends that might provide implicit visual cues. Especially on the Green Line branches, the current diagram really just uses a list of stations, along a colored line with white dots.
So, I wondered, what would happen if we had a diagram with a geographically accurate inner section and a maximally diagrammatic outer section?
Hence, the map above.
Notes on the map
A few things to draw attention to:
This design uses the original map’s labels and other elements at their original size relative to the page. If printed on a piece of paper the same size as the current map, all of the labels (along with the widths of the subway and bus lines) should be the same size. I know there are ADA guidelines around things like sizing and visual contrast; by reusing as much of the original map’s design language as possible, I’m hoping to generally satisfy those requirements, even if I’m unfamiliar with them.
Alignment for bus routes
Stations are aligned so that connecting bus routes (in this design, the highest frequency “all-day-15-min” routes from the Bus Network Redesign) are maximally straight. These include:
Non-geographic diagram in outer zone
Outside of the “inner zone”, the geographic fidelity of the diagram drops so severely that there’s no way it can be interpreted as being anything other than what it is: a list of stations. This is reinforced by the disappearance of the bus routes and the coastline, and the addition of the “transfer labels” at each station. An earlier version of the diagram featured an explicit “box” delineating the inner vs outer zone; this became unwieldy, however, especially when dealing with the Green Line branches, so I opted instead for an implicit transition.
Color-coded bus routes
Instead of using the current diagram’s “light brown” for the Key Bus Routes, or the official brand guidelines’ “Brand Bus Yellow”, the bus routes have been color-coded based on the hub they operate into. This is far from a perfect system, and in some cases I had to make arbitrary choices. (For example, the T7 and many of the routes running through Roxbury Crossing are colored based on running through State St and Roxbury Crossing respectively, e.g. major transfer points the route travels through rather than to.) Still, I think it is a useful way to differentiate the routes, and somewhat inadvertently highlights the new connectivity of the redesigned routes (e.g. the T28 being a Green route, or the T110 connecting Wonderland to the Orange Line).
With today’s timetables, the Fairmount Line should not appear on the map using equal visual language to the rapid transit lines. However, increasing frequencies to “turn-up-and-go” levels should be a major priority for the T and the City, and I wanted this diagram to be future-proofed to enable that.
Silver Line, simplified
The Bus Network Redesign has given us would-be transit map designers a godsend: the elimination of the SL4/SL5 reverse branching & loops. Now we have a simple dog-leg that slots nicely alongside the Orange and Red Lines. The only hiccup is (as I interpret the Remix map), Chinatown will receive northbound service only. I have opted to subtly mark this using a directional triangular for the stop, instead of a circle, and excluding a Silver-Orange transfer indicator at Chinatown (compare to Tufts Medical Center). On a “real” version of this map, the Chinatown label would probably get an asterisk with a note in the legend to the effect of, Silver Line stops at Chinatown going northbound only.
Park St, Winter, Summer, and Washington
This probably falls under the heading of “too clever by half”, but I’m still pleased with it. In general, this map does not mark transfers particularly explicitly. I experimented using black circles, or black dots within circles, but the black circles created contrast problems and the black dots were too subtle.
Instead, the indication of transfers is derived from the physical positions of the stops. For example, the Blue-Green transfer at Government Center is indicated by the Blue and Green Lines sharing a stop indicator. As it happens, only two transfers are marked in this manner: Park St and Government Center.
The rest are marked using transfer bars to connect visually distinct stops. In some cases, the visual distance is a design artifact: for example, the Green-Orange transfer at North Station or the SL1/2/3-Red transfer at South Station are in reality basically as proximate as, e.g., the Red-Green transfer at Park St.
But one benefit is that two of the more complicated transfers are visualized accurately: State, and Park/Downtown Crossing.
The transfer between the Blue Line and the southbound Orange Line (the platform formerly known as “Milk” after the cross-street above) is, I believe, the longest in-station transfer on the system. From the western end of the Blue Line platforms to the northern end of the Milk Street platform (I believe under the intersection with School St) is about 800 feet, as I estimate. By comparison, the Green-Orange transfer via the Winter Street Concourse is about 550 feet.
All things being equal, I don’t see a particular need to visually indicate this lengthy transfer distance. However, I chose to add it because I wanted to implicitly indicate that the T7 transfer (on Congress St) is more proximate to the Blue Line than to the Orange Line. So I wanted to separate out the Blue Line station from the Orange Line.
So, I wanted to indicate on the map that Downtown Crossing will provide a good Silver-Red transfer but subtly suggest that Silver-Orange transfers are better taken at Tufts Medical Center. By separating out the Red Line station (nee “Washington”) from the Orange Line stations (“Winter” and “Summer”), the diagram is able to show exactly that. Again, in this case the physical layout of the network in the real-world has provided the needed design specification.
There are two sets of problems with my diagram: some problems are execution-related and presumably could be remedied by the touch of a professional; others are conceptual and endemic to the idea of the map itself. Of the drawbacks listed below, I’m not sure which are execution-related and therefore “salvageable”, but I’ll make some guesses.
Busy margins and excess inner blank space
This one I think is execution-related and could be ameliorated by some mild tweaking. This diagram is very busy at the margins overall. To a certain extent, this is by design: I always knew that the outer regions of the diagram were going to be busy with station lists. However, I think the “inner map” section could be compressed by maybe 20%, and free up much needed space, especially at the bottom of the diagram. (For example, there really doesn’t need to be that much space between stops on the Southwest Corridor; the SL4/5 stops probably are the limiting factor here, but they too definitely could be closer together.)
Likewise, I think the “inner map” could also be further compressed along the “Red Line axis”, particularly in the northeast corner. Harvard and Central could both be moved in closer to the core, which would free up more space. For example, the T47 does a small bend at Central right now: in a future revision, I would move Central in closer to the core so that the T47 could run in a straight line between BU Bridge and Union Sq, which would “tug” the northern branches of the Green Line and Red Line further in toward the center. (Looking at it now, I think this would also actually place Central in a more geographically correct location, for what it’s worth.)
Ironically, even though I’m talking about freeing up more space in the top left quadrant of the diagram, in all likelihood I would instead use that space to simply relocate the rest of the map upward, in order to free up more space in the bottom half. The centerpoint of the diagram is currently roughly at the Hatch Shell on the edge of the Charles. In a future revision, I would probably shift things so that the centerpoint is at Back Bay Station.
The busyness of Longwood and Dorchester
These are the parts of the diagram where the shape of the bus network is most germane. The criss-crossing lattice of the Dorchester network does not lend itself to simple labels like “to Ashmont” placed just south of Nubian (which would mirror what I did at Harvard and Sullivan). As for Longwood, the Bus Network Redesign will radically increase bus service to LMA, which definitely merits inclusion on the map, but is challenged by:
Fitting in labels for four bus routes on one segment (between Roxbury Crossing and Brigham Circle)
Fitting in a parallel-but-nearby route for the T47
Showing appropriate proximity to the E Line
Showing appropriate proximity to the D Line (farther away from the E Line)
Illustrating connectivity to Kenmore and Ruggles
Fitting in labels for the E Line and D Line
Fitting everything within the obtuse triangle defined by Copley, Kenmore, and Brookline Village/Riverway
I think the busyness can be partially alleviated by adjusting the compression of the inner core and re-centering the inner core a bit higher up in the diagram to open up a bit more space.
That being said, I think this is a conceptual shortcoming of the map: Longwood and Dorchester both represent areas where higher geographic fidelity is needed, in part simply because the topologies are complicated enough that the geographic representation already is pretty close to the maximally simplified representation of the network.
Unfortunately, this diagram is less effective at fitting in geographic accuracy the further away from the core you get. That’s why re-centering the diagram on Back Bay (or even something further south) is necessary – we need to provide more space for Longwood to fit comfortably within the inner zone.
Dorchester, on the other hand, will likely still have to remain within the “diagrammatic outer zone”, although I think it would also benefit from a little more “breathing” room. That being said, this may be where my design concept for this diagram really breaks down: I dislike the current diagram’s treatment of the Dorchester bus network because I think it looks confusing and hard to read, but I’m not sure mine does that much better.
The “starfish” design centered on Franklin Park feels pleasantly clever, but I worry is still too noisy. Likewise, I’m not wild about the physical disconnect: the bus line ends with an arrow, followed by a “To Destination” label, followed by a relatively small amount of blank space, followed by the diagrammatic stop label with the transfer label (e.g. the T16 going toward Forest Hills). Why not just extend the bus lines all the way to their destination?
(The reason I didn’t do that is because I’m using the absence of the bus and regional rail lines as a visual cue to the shift from geographic fidelity to diagrammatic lists. Now, it is true that the visual distortion would still remain so extreme that the transition would probably still remain visible. But, that corner of the diagram is already so busy that I’d be hesitant to layer on additional visuals.)
I suppose it could be possible to redesign the diagram such that the geographically accurate “inner zone” extends as far south as Forest Hills and Ashmont. Looking at the diagram now, that actually might be more feasible than it sounds, particularly with some compression and reduced scale, so I may need to play around with that!
Branches on the Green Line
The Green Line branches pose a problem: there are way more stops on the B, C, and D branches than there are on any other leg of the network (though Ashmont + Mattapan come close). What’s more, they are the only legs of the network that fan out to the side of the map, rather than the top or bottom, which makes the “diagrammatic list of stations” less obviously different in appearance. And on top of that, I ultimately wanted to make sure all three branches terminated “lower” on the map than Kenmore – meaning I couldn’t, say, turn the B Line upwards to fit it in as a list of stations.
I’m not thrilled with how the Green Line branches turned out, but I do think the concept can be sound, particularly if I can free up a bit more space to let me put the B Line labels on the outside rather than the inside (where they mix confusingly with C Line labels).
(One note: this design is meant to be future-proofed for an addition of a Needham branch: flip the D Line labels past Newton Highlands over to the left side, and use an upside-down tuning fork approach to add the Needham labels on the right, similar to the Red Line branches.)
Does the design concept of a geographic inner zone and a diagrammatic outer zone “work”?
Ultimately, I think the answer is “yes”: I think the fundamentals of this concept are sound, and it’s a question of execution.
As the “15-minute Bus Network” is rolled out over the next few years, it’ll be more and more important for the T to update its map to integrate those routes properly into the design. I hope that an approach similar to what I’ve illustrated here can be helpful in such a redesign.
The following is purely a fun exercise for a highly hypothetical scenario. I’m posting it more as an illustration of thought process, and not really in advocacy of the proposal itself. (There are many things I would prioritize above an Urban Ring LRT station in the Seaport!)
Let’s assume a few things are true for this scenario:
The Piers Transitway (currently serving SL1, SL2, and SL3) is converted to light rail and connected to the larger light rail network via a subway running from Huntington Ave to Back Bay to South Station — we’ll call this the “Magenta Line”
“T-under-D” has been completed, meaning the subway now extends from World Trade Center station under the current grade crossing at D St to a portal near the current Silver Line Way station
Center-running bus lanes on Congress St in downtown and Summer Street in the Seaport have been built, and the T7 upgraded into a full bus rapid transit service, which we’ll call the “Navy Line”
SL1 service has been transferred to the Navy Line, to provide a one-seat ride connecting North Station, the Financial District, South Station, the Seaport, and the Airport
We’ll loosely assume that a lane in each direction of the Ted Williams Tunnel has been dedicated to mass transit use
An LRT iteration of the Urban Ring has been built on the southside of the network, connecting Longwood, Nubian, and the Seaport, approaching the Seaport via the Track 61/South Boston Haul Road ROW
In short, our starting point looks like this:
The satellite image doesn’t tell us the whole story, however. This is a highly three-dimensional space, where Summer St and World Trade Center Ave sit elevated above the rest of the street grid, and where a slew of highway tunnels sit under the surface.
Where to place an Urban Ring LRT station?
“The gravel pile”
As visible in the photo above looking west along Summer St, there is a triangular plot of land bounded by Track 61, the embankment of Summer St, and (effectively) the elevated WTC Ave. (There’s actually an access road that cuts off the corner of the plot slightly east of WTC Ave.) That plot currently is occupied by a massive pile of gravel. (Last I checked, the plot is owned by MassPort, though I assume they would sell it off to a developer if/when they could.)
This is probably the most obvious place to plop down an LRT platform. It’s accessible from the current ROW with minimal modification and landtaking required; it provides good access to BCEC and easy transfer to the Navy Line services (including services to the airport); the Magenta Line subway station at World Trade Center is about 400′ away, which isn’t ideal but is certainly manageable, especially if one of the sidewalks can be covered for protection from the elements.
There are some downsides. The plot is a little small; if we leave the access road untouched, it’s just about 230′ along the long edge, which would be barely long enough for a double-set of the 114′ Type 10 “supertrains” that are expected on the Green Line in the next several years. So it’s likely the modifications at the east end, west end, or both would be needed to fit a center platform, two side tracks and a crossover. (Depending on how the Track 61 ROW is converted to double track LRT, some space might already be reclaimed from Haul Road at the western end, which might simplify the design somewhat.)
The other downside is that this location serves the Seaport, but only somewhat so. A lot of the Seaport is located on the other side of the “highway canyon” that Track 61 and Haul Road sit within, so Urban Ring passengers would need to go “up-and-over” for the last segment of their journey. The current World Trade Center station is much more centrally located.
The gravel pile is potentially an adequate location for a station, and would likely be the least expensive option. On the other hand, if we are going to go to the expense of building an LRT Urban Ring, there’s an argument that it should be built for maximum efficacy, rather than just minimal cost.
The underground parking lots
As can be seen in the photos, there are a number of parking lots at the grade level of Track 61, including one parking lot that directly abuts the southern wall of the current World Trade Center station; open that wall up, and you have a strong transfer to the Magenta Line.
The problem here is that you need to cut across Haul Road and the Mass Pike ramps in order to access the lot. And while that’s doable, it’s far from ideal. There actually already is a traffic light directly underneath WTC Ave on Haul Road, so in theory the disruption to traffic flow would not be new. On the other hand, you could only run trains so often if they need to disrupt traffic, probably capping headways at 5 minutes. Again, that is doable, but seems to trigger the same question as above — if we’re gonna build this thing, why not do it properly?
World Trade Center Ave
One thing that bothered me when thinking about mini-project was how to provide good transfers to both Summer St BRT and Transitway LRT. The distance between a stop in front of BCEC and the entrance to WTC station is roughly 650′, which is long for a transfer but not unheard of. (If I recall correctly, it’s roughly the distance of the transfer between Southbound Orange and Blue at State. Of course, State has the benefit of being entirely indoors, while BCEC <> WTC would have significant exposure to the elements, even if the sidewalk were covered.)
Having two Urban Ring stations — one for the Transitway and one for Summer St — seemed excessive. So then I got to thinking more about what the objectives are for stations/connections at each location.
Boston Convention and Exhibition Center
Transfer to Summer St BRT toward downtown: South Station, Post Office Square, Haymarket, North Station
Transfer to Summer St BRT toward Logan
Transfer to Summer St BRT toward South Boston
Transitway (World Trade Center)
Seaport core, including Congress St and Seaport Boulevard
Transfer to Magenta Line westbound: western Seaport, South Station, Back Bay, Longwood
Transfer to Magenta Line eastbound: eastern Seaport
On paper, that looks like a lot of reasons for each, and maybe even more in favor of Summer St due to its connectivity, but when you look closer, some are less relevant:
Boston Convention and Exhibition Center
Transfer to Summer St BRT toward downtown: South Station, Post Office Square, Haymarket, North Station
By definition, the Urban Ring will have multiple connections to downtown, so this is not a vital benefit
Also, Urban Ring riders will all but certainly be coming from locations that already have direct service to downtown — it’ll be a very uncommon journey to transfer in the Seaport
Transfer to Summer St BRT toward Logan
As you’ll see below, this benefit is in fact not going to be unique to Summer St
Transfer to Summer St BRT toward South Boston
I won’t put strikethrough on this one, but I will point out that most of the previous connection points along the Urban Ring corridor (e.g. Broadway, Mass Ave/BU Medical Center, Nubian) will hopefully have — and will be better served anyway — by direct bus service from South Boston
Again, the Seaport itself wouldn’t be a common transfer point
Transitway (World Trade Center)
Seaport core, including Congress St and Seaport Boulevard
Transfer to Magenta Line westbound: western Seaport, South Station, Back Bay, Longwood
As mentioned above, pretty much all of the Urban Ring stops between Nubian and the Seaport will have better ways to connect to South Station, Back Bay, and Longwood than via the Seaport
Transfer to Magenta Line eastbound: eastern Seaport
So, to me, the goal of an Urban Ring LRT station would be twofold: connect to the Seaport, and connect to Logan. A stop anchored by the Transitway station better serves the Seaport and, as you will shortly see, also serves Logan. So, insofar as we need to choose which connection to prioritize, we should focus on a Magenta Line connection at World Trade Center station.
Getting to Logan
In some alternate timeline, the Ted Williams Tunnel was built with a third tunnel to carry rapid transit rail service to Logan. This would’ve been so much better than today’s system, but alas.
In the scenario I’ve outlined here (and, in my opinion, in any vaguely realistic scenario), service to Logan is provided by BRT. Now, to be clear, BRT can be a lot better than what we have today. For one, a lane in each tunnel could be dedicated to transit and perhaps very-high-occupancy vehicles, with semi-permanent lane protection to ensure speedy and unencumbered journeys.
But our BRT services still need to get in to the tunnel, and the solution to that problem also solves the problem of Summer St vs the Transitway.
Today’s SL1 and SL3 services make a semi-unadvertised stop at street level on Congress St just outside of World Trade Center station; they do this immediately after exiting the off-ramp, which has the benefit of getting travelers from Logan to a stop in the Seaport quickly, without needing to double back from Silver Line Way.
This stop is marked on my diagram from the top of the post (though I am supposing that the simple sidewalk stop has been expanded into something more like a proper BRT platform):
As far as I can tell, absent a major rework of the Mass Pike tunnels, Logan-originating buses will exit from that off-ramp for the foreseeable future. Now, it is true that Logan buses could instead turn left and use Congress St bus lanes to head toward downtown. However, that would duplicate the lanes on Summer St which would still be needed for South Boston service (i.e. the T7), and would be more awkward to connect to South Station. And while Logan -> South Station is mildly more direct via Congress, the journey in the opposite direction is significantly worse, requiring a lengthy diversion down Haul Road in order to reach the on-ramp.
Funneling Downtown <> Logan service through Summer St maximizes frequencies on the shared trunk, minimizes redundant infrastructure, and maintains good Logan -> World Trade Center service. It is somewhat more roundabout, but connects to more places. (And if we are really worried about an express South Station <> Logan connection, using dedicated lanes in the Mass Pike tunnel running direct into the South Station Bus Terminal is probably a stronger solution anyway.)
So we’ve identified a way for our Logan -> South Station service to transfer at WTC station, but what about the other direction? Well, that’s where those parking garages can come in handy.
Running directly parallel to the Transitway is a small side street/alley that runs into the lower level of the parking garage, and which, I think exits on to Haul Road just underneath World Trade Center Ave. Visible in the second Streetview photo are two large metal doors: I am pretty sure that those lead directly into the lobby of the World Trade Center station — meaning that with some modifications, you could put a BRT platform near there, and have buses immediately proceed to the on-ramp.
This would then provide a strong transfer point to Logan-bound services at World Trade Center proper — benefitting Magenta Line riders, but also providing a crucial transfer point enabling an Urban Ring station at World Trade Center.
Placing an Urban Ring LRT station at World Trade Center
So, where to put a new LRT station at World Trade Center?
We can’t put it at grade level without disrupting all the highway ramps, or otherwise settling for a station at Summer St instead.
We can’t put it below grade level because of the highway tunnels.
What about above grade along the World Trade Center viaduct?
Building a short rising viaduct on the gravel pile’s plot and claiming some of World Trade Center Ave (more details on that below) to add a above-grade LRT platform, combined with building an at-grade BRT platform for Downtown -> Logan services by reclaiming some space under the parking garage and adding a BRT platform on Congress St for Logan -> Downtown service, enables all three services to be centralized in a single station for easy transfers between all three.
So how do you reach the World Trade Center Ave viaduct?
Some of this will depend on how Haul Road is reconfigured for double-track LRT, particularly in terms of the horizontal alignment (do you steal a lane, or eat into the gravel pile?), but I think there’s enough open space to feel comfortable that something could fit, even if we don’t work out the details right now.
One area we have less flexibility on is the vertical alignment: there’s approximately 310 feet of horizontal running space between the Summer St underpass and the edge of the World Trade Center Ave viaduct, and we have to fit our rising viaduct in there.
The WTC Ave viaduct is approximately 25 feet high; 25 feet rise over 310 feet run yields a grade of 4.61°, which is well within the comfort zone for LRT grades. Even a rise of 33 feet over that distance would still come in at our 6° threshold. Likewise, rising 25 feet at <6° is doable in as little as 240 feet. Therefore, even with the known limits, it should be possible to rise from the Summer St underpass to the World Trade Center Ave viaduct at a reasonable grade.
Fitting a terminal on the World Trade Center Ave viaduct
The main question facing us here is whether to maintain some level of automobile access through WTC Ave. I believe I’ve come across proposals to fully pedestrianize that street, which, honestly, based on my experience, seems pretty reasonable. Mostly it seems like the street is used to deliver goods to the World Trade Center proper.
If I needed to maintain some level of automobile access, I would use a staggered pair of side platforms to maintain LRT capacity and keep a shared bidirectional lane open for vehicles to pass through on a limited as-needed basis, placing signals/traffic lights at each entry to coordinate passes through the right-of-way.
Obviously, this arrangement is complicated and would create some disruption to the system, depending on the road traffic volume. This option would need to be considered carefully to assess the cost vs benefit.
The key thing to note is that there is horizontal space to fit all the necessary elements:
First 230′ platform (enough to accommodate a doubleset of the 114′ Type 10 supertrains)
90′ to fit a crossover to provide passing access
Second 230′ platform
A 100′ radius curve from the rising viaduct on to WTC Ave
Reasonably short walking distance between platform and current headhouse to streamline transfers
Maintain pedestrian access to the elevated greenspace between Congress St and Seaport Blvd
The second option is more conventional and straightforward: pedestrianize the whole viaduct, and claim part of it for a GLX-style center-platform terminal station.
There are lots of potential variations on this design — adjusting the width, length, and placement of the platform, trying out different methods of pedestrian access — but they all more-or-less look like this.
Keen observers will note that none of these designs feature fare gates or paid-access vs unpaid-access areas. Numerous transit systems, both in the US and around the world, have demonstrated that it is possible to run ticketed transit systems that do not require metal barriers to enforce payment. Eliminating fare gates makes it possible to build transit access more directly into the fabric of a neighborhood. Both station designs, but particularly the staggered platforms alternative, see no clear demarcation of the “edge” of the station, but rather allow the space to be woven together into a seamless whole.
So how do you site an Urban Ring LRT station in the Seaport?
To me, it looks like this:
Add a BRT platform at World Trade Center station for Downtown -> Logan services (under the parking garage just south of the station)
Build a viaduct to connect Track 61 LRT to the WTC Ave viaduct
Add an LRT station at-grade on the elevated World Trade Center Ave viaduct
Should you put an Urban Ring LRT station in the Seaport?
One thing this exercise illustrates is that the Seaport is not very wide. This sounds obvious and trivial, but one result is that there isn’t really space nor need for a “crosstown” service. The Piers Transitway and Summer St already form strong “east-west” transit corridors (whose elevation difference reduces their overlapping walksheds slightly). But they’re still close enough that a perpendicular service between/across them wouldn’t make much sense (particularly since both originate at South Station and come very close to connecting again at World Trade Center).
So a Track 61 LRT service basically needs to choose a particular point along the “linear Seaport corridor” to terminate. That increases the pressure on that station to be located optimally to maximize access to jobs as well as to transfers. World Trade Center does reasonably well on that front, but both the eastern Seaport (e.g. Design Center) and western Seaport (e.g. Courthouse) would require transfers for short last-mile journeys. But this need to choose lies at the heart of why siting an Urban Ring LRT station in the Seaport is difficult in the first place.
A Track 61 LRT service will likely reach the Seaport in part by passing near Broadway station. Regardless of origin point beyond there, a service near Broadway likely could instead be aligned to pass through South Station instead — and then continue to Seaport along one of the east-west corridors. (For reasons I won’t get into here, a Piers Transitway LRT corridor would very likely have excess capacity to absorb Urban Ring LRT in addition to the Magenta Line LRT I’ve described here.)
Sending an “Urban Ring” LRT service down one of the east-west corridors would provide better access to the entire Seaport, and reduce/eliminate the need for transfers. Running LRT service via Track 61 may in fact be unnecessary.
This brings us to a key difference between an LRT Urban Ring and a BRT one: BRT can continue to Logan Airport and on to Chelsea much more easily than LRT. Rapid transit on the Track 61 ROW, with a transfer station roughly at World Trade Center, and continuing service to Logan is able to catch a much broader swath of journeys (in italics below), compared to service terminating in the Seaport:
Longwood <> Seaport
Nubian <> Seaport
Red Line transfer point TBD (e.g. Broadway) <> Seaport
Longwood <> Logan
Nubian <> Logan
Red Line transfer <> Logan
Longwood <> Chelsea
Nubian <> Chelsea
Red Line transfer <> Chelsea
Seaport <> Chelsea
Logan <> Chelsea
The concept of the Urban Ring was to provide circumferential service that bypasses downtown, for speedier journeys and reduced crowding in the core. A route that terminates at Seaport curtails possible destination pairs, and becomes less competitive against transferring downtown via the radial services (especially for long circumferential journeys).
Returning to the point about connecting at Broadway vs South Station: South Station is, to be clear, the bigger fish. Nubian <> South Station journeys surely outnumber Nubian <> Broadway journeys. Urban Ring concepts usually favor a transfer at Broadway or to the south — but can justify skipping South Station because they are providing speedier service to Logan and Chelsea. Track 61 LRT can’t do that.
So I think Urban Ring LRT service via Track 61 presents a weaker case than it first appears. Now, it bears mentioning that capital costs for a Track 61 LRT route would probably be less expensive than a journey via South Station. If given the choice between Track 61 LRT and nothing, I’ll be entirely in favor of the former.
Ultimately, this is a fun thought exercise. The scenario I’ve contrived here presupposes a lot of things, so its “real-world relevance” is somewhat limited. A few final thoughts:
The problems I’ve outlined here will impact any Track 61 proposal; Track 61 will always be on the wrong side of the Mass Pike between Summer and Congress Streets, so you’ll always need to figure out a way to bridge that gap
This conversation becomes radically different if an LRT connection between Seaport and Logan is built — although even then, Track 61 will still be on the wrong side relative to the Transitway
Urban Ring considerations aside, I’d suggest that a Navy Line service to Logan would significantly benefit from the “under-the-garage” platform I propose here, especially if the Transitway is converted to LRT and thus cut off from Logan
The Seaport is centered on two east-west corridors, and there’s an argument to make that almost all services, even circumferential ones, would do well to feed into or otherwise align with those
For all the reasons outlined here, and others, most of my crayon maps going forward will favor both LRT and BRT Urban Ring services that run via South Station, rather than Track 61/Haul Road. At most, I can see Haul Road being useful for express service to Logan that bypasses the Seaport — that, it could do quite well. But for serving the Seaport proper, I think it comes up short.
As a holiday treat for myself, I went on a purely recreational trip to see the new Green Line Extension in action. Truth be told, I had a ball. Sitting in the so-called “railfan” seat, peeking out the front window as we sped along the Medford Branch, all of the politics and the delays could be momentarily forgotten, and I could enjoy the moment and say to myself, “Wow, this is so cool!”
The Green Line Extension has been in the works for decades. Its 2022 opening means that the one-seat ride between downtown and Union Square and other Somerville neighborhoods has returned after almost exactly 100 years. It is truly a delight to see it open at last. And make no mistake: any operational or aesthetic shortcomings notwithstanding, the bones of this extension are solid and will last for another 100 years if not longer. This is what long-term public investment looks like.
I took lots of notes and photos. Presented below are some of my observations. It is undisputable that many aspects of GLX remain in progress – there is still lots and lots of ongoing construction, for example. So I’m going to present my observations largely without commentary. I pay a lot of attention to details, and will share some of the particular details I noticed – I defer to more knowledgeable voices to assess the significance (or lack thereof) of those details.
All photos are dated Dec 26 2022. I’m writing this about a week after the fact, so it is possible that some of things have changed since my trip, though given the holidays, that seems unlikely.
Many maps across the system do not currently show GLX. By my observation, all four of the core Green Line transfer stations – Park St, Government Center, Haymarket, and North Station – have maps that omit the Green Line extension and physical signage that points to Lechmere.
The map at North Station is a typical example:
On closer inspection, someone (or multiple people, given the different ink colors) had tried to add in GLX by hand:
A similar situation on Park Street’s Red Line platform:
Park Street’s Green Line northbound island platform had a map and diagram with a sticker that read “Open Spring/Summer 2022”:
By contrast, all of the GLX stations had updated diagrams:
The GLX stations also all have those lovely neighborhood maps:
Quincy Adams (undergoing renovations) also shows GLX on its map in the paid lobby:
Maps within Green Line cars themselves were a mix, with some showing the extension and others omitting it. (Probably there was a pattern based on the older Type 7 vs newer Type 8 cars, but I wasn’t paying close enough attention to tell.)
Signage and wayfinding
On my trip outbound on the Medford Branch, the operator came on the PA after departing Lechmere and said something to the effect of, “For stops on the Medford branch, please request your stop prior to arrival.” (She said something slightly clearer and more elaborate, but I don’t remember the exact phrasing.) The Stop Request sign lit up at every stop, and we made every stop.
On the inbound journey, there was no announcement. When we pulled in to Magoun Sq, no one had made the request, so the train came to a complete stop, but the doors did not open, and the train set off again.
In full candor, the Stop Request system seems reasonable on the B, C, and E branches, where stations are about 750-1000 feet apart; it does not seem reasonable to me on the D and Medford Branches, where stations are much farther apart, and where the often 10-min wait between trains means that a missed stop costs you an additional 15 minutes of travel time (whether you walk or double back on a train).
I should also note that there is no in-car signage on the Type 8’s to explain to riders how to request stops. (I didn’t specifically check while on a Type 7.) There also was no physical signage that I saw in any station about the presence of a Stop Request policy on the Medford Branch.
Next train indicators
I didn’t get a good photo, but the dot matrix indicators that display when the next train will come (e.g. “Heath St – 3 min”) often would just show something like “Trains every 8-13 minutes” on the inbound Medford Branch. As I understand it, this is because a specific countdown doesn’t begin until the incoming train departs Medford/Tufts. However, given that the travel time from Medford/Tufts is relatively short, that means that the countdown indicator will only ever give a few minutes’ worth of notice.
A similar problem happened on the northbound platform at Park Street: because the indicators only show the next two trains, there was a Union Square train only 3 minutes away, but it wasn’t visible on the board.
Next departure track indicators
At Union Square (and also at Medford/Tufts, though I spent less time there), hanging above the platforms are a pair of arrows which are intended to light up to tell passengers which train will depart first. I didn’t get a great photo of them, but you can somewhat make them out in this one (under the overhang, bracketing a white lit panel):
I departed Union Square multiple times during my trip, but only tried to use the indicators during one of those departures; as it happened, the indicator pointed to the wrong track that time.
A sign from the Aug-Sept 2022 Green Line shutdown sits tucked away next to the fare machines at Union Square:
The ramp appears to remain under construction at Union Square. As you can see, a small printed sign notes, “MBTA Ramp Closed, Please Use Elevator”.
But in fact, the ramp was unblocked and appeared open, and had a series of small placards with details about the neighborhood (including some evidence of a Somerville-Saugus rivalry over the origins of marshmallow fluff):
Returning to that first photo of the ramp, you’ll notice that there is also an open staircase on the left, which appears to offer an alternative to both the ramp and the elevator. When you get to the top of the staircase, however, it is sealed off with a chain link fence; I did not see any signage to note this.
Travel over the Lechmere Viaduct remains slow (at or under 10 mph). There was a small sign at the western end on the outbound track, saying “Resume speed.” Trains really fly on the Medford Branch, though – I would guess at least 35 mph.
The automated announcement at Union Square said, “Doors will open on the left hand side,” but the train had already switched over to the other track – meaning the doors would open on the right. (Trains arrive and depart from both tracks at Union, meaning sometimes the doors will open on the left, and other times on the right.)
On one train as we entered Lechmere, the automated announcement said something to the effect of, “This is Union Square. The destination of this train is Heath St/VA Medical Center.” (Beyond announcing the wrong stop, this announcement also doesn’t make sense in that Union Sq trains now go to Riverside, not Heath.)
The inbound Medford train I was on got stuck at a “red over red” signal at East Somerville station (i.e. just before entering the junction with the Union Square branch). The driver eventually had to reset it manually. I overheard chatter on the radio later that suggested there was still an issue at that signal.
One of the outbound Union Sq trains I took needed to have its destination swapped to Medford; we pulled in to Lechmere, and the operators directed people out on to the platform where we waited for the next train (itself originally for Medford) to pull in. I wasn’t able to figure out why the first train needed to change destinations.
On the Green Line Extension, the signals before switches say, “Stop, check for proper signal & switch”, and have little labels below – right arrow for Union, left arrow for Medford, that kind of thing; I’m sure that will make for a fun “Easter egg” for young railfans for many years to come.
On a very nerdy note: now that B and C trains both terminate at Government Center, the Park St Loop in theory does not see any regularly scheduled use (perhaps for the first time ever?). However, I saw at least one train getting short-turned on the so-called “fence track” at Park St, meaning that the loop continues to be used to short-turn trains to reduce bunching.
The labels for platform level in the elevators at Union Square and Medford/Tufts used different styles for writing “Green Line” – the label at Union Square omits the space between the words.
One of the two elevators at Medford/Tufts was out of service.
Both doors to the Pedal & Park at Medford/Tufts had placards reading “Tap Charlie Card Here,” pointing to an empty space along the fence, where unconnected hookups were visible on the other side; I couldn’t see any place to tap a Charlie Card.
You get some really cool views of the Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility (Boston Engine Terminal) and the new Green Line maintenance facility from the Lechmere-to-Union viaduct:
I didn’t get good photos, but you also get a really cool view looking west from the Medford-to-Lechmere viaduct, from which you can see the Fitchburg Line commuter rail tracks, the Green Line’s flying junction tracks to/from Union, and the under construction Community Path that flies over everything:
And from the Lechmere-to-Medford viaduct, you get a cool view of the curved viaduct ducking under to go to Union, with the Green Line Maintenance Facility in the background.
While GLX stations are not unique in this regard, it is always cool to see level low-floor boarding, which I tried to capture in this quick shot:
The elevator at Lechmere has a lovely botanical pattern on its glass:
And finally, just before I was about to head home, I managed to snag a ride on one of the new Type 9 trains – I had tried earlier in the day to catch one but had barely missed it, and so had given up; as I was heading down to the Red Line platform at Park, I happened to turn around and see a Type 9 rolling in; so I delayed my departure in favor of a quick excursion up to North Station:
Over the past week, I’ve been iterating on modified versions of the T’s official subway map to illustrate the closures and shuttle services that begin tonight and will continue for 30 days. This map will likely continue to evolve, and I will continue to post the latest revision here. As always, please note that this is not an official map — always refer to the MBTA’s website and to the City of Boston’s website for up-to-date information.
Notes for transit and design nerds
This exercise started relatively simple: show the Orange Line and northern Green Line in some alternate manner to indicate the bustituted segments. This was relatively straightforward: I borrowed design language from the Arborway bustitution in the late ’80s, with a colored outline, white fill, and colored circles for the stops.
On the further advice of someone with better aesthetic sense than I, I shifted the white fill to a lightly colored fill, to better differentiate the lines, and avoid the perception of a total absence of service. The light fill seemed to strike a good balance between maintaining the line’s identity, showing the continued existence of service, and also indicating a significant difference in service.
But, as happens with many projects, I kept on thinking of, “Oh, just one more thing I can add!”
Which brings us to the current design, which pushes the original map’s information design to the limits. I wanted to show:
The bustituted segments
The un-bustituted segments
Text notes on significantly relocated shuttle stops
The one-way service at Haymarket
The early-morning/late-night shuttle to Chinatown and Tufts Medical
The bus routes the T suggests as alternatives to the Orange Line (39, 43, 92, 93, CT2)
The suggested walking transfers between Orange Line and Green Line stations
That is a lot of information to cram onto a diagram that was originally designed to be rather sparse. The current official subway map is an evolution of a design from the early 2000s that primarily showed the rapid transit routes, with commuter rail and ferries being shown secondarily, and limited-access highways being shown tertiarily. In the late 2000s, the key bus routes were added, and a subsequent redesign shifted some parts of the map around while maintaining the same visual language overall.
Evaluating my attempts
Was I successful? Ehn.
I was pleasantly surprised when an earlier version of this map gained a small amount of traction of Twitter, so it’s nice to know that at least some people found it useful. But at a certain point, I fear the level of detail hinders rather than helps. Part of the brilliance of Cambridge Seven Associates’ original “spider map” design was in its simplicity; even if you didn’t memorize the whole thing, the visual concept was highly memorable: four lines, crossing each other in a square and radiating out. That basic schema was easy to recognize and recall, and created a foundation to understand the rest of the system, even if it wasn’t put into one single map.
The eventual addition of commuter rail lines, key bus routes, and now all of the additional information I’ve added here is all very reasonable, especially when done incrementally. But I find myself questioning the ultimate usefulness of the diagram I’ve created. Is it really useful enough for journey-planning? Or is it too confusing to parse?
Simple maps and specific signage
Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that clear and specific wayfinding signage in and around stations is much more important than a detailed system diagram, both under ordinary and extraordinary circumstances such as the Orange Line Closure. (This despite my own love for detailed system diagrams.) In that way, perhaps my earlier, simpler diagrams were more effective.
Shuttle routes only
In this simplest version, the shuttle routes are shown and nothing else:
The advantage of this design is how minimally it alters the original, and (hopefully) how starkly clear the changes are: the most important thing is that the Orange Line and northern Green Line are different and need to be planned around. The question all of this hinges on: can the diagram provide enough information to adequately re-plan the journey? And that’s the part I don’t know.
The second-simplest iteration added the walking transfers:
Including the walking transfers worked better than I expected. Quite frankly, I’d like to see these added to the official map (though hopefully a little more elegantly than I’ve done here). There are a lot of walking transfers that ought to be indicated on the system diagram, such as the ones I’ve included here, but also additionally:
State – Downtown Crossing
Government Center – Park
Riverway – Brookline Village
Reservoir – Cleveland Circle – Chestnut Hill Ave
Kenmore – Lansdowne
These transfers would not be suitable for everyone — and it should be noted that they are not free transfers under the current model — but if you are able-bodied and have a monthly pass that doesn’t charge per ride, these transfers are useful, speedy, and potentially can relieve congestion on key sections of the network.
Adding these transfers to the map is a good idea in general, but does it help in the case of the Orange Line & Green Line Closures? Again, I’m not quite sure. In most of these cases, I would guess that regular commuters are pretty familiar with the areas in question, and likely are well-aware that, for example, State and Gov’t Center are practically a stone’s throw apart. And if you aren’t a regular commuter… well, the pretty clear (and dire) direction from both the City and the T has been, “Please, stay away.”
Working on this diagram has been fun. It also has been nice to see positive response from numerous folks on Twitter. (Shout out to Jeremy Siegel at WGBH for sharing it with his followers!) And at least some of those positive responses have made comments to the effect of, “This is easier to understand than the materials the T has put out.” A few comments on Twitter aren’t necessarily a representative sample; however, the negative reaction to the T’s materials have been widespread and resounding — the Boston Globe going so far as to publish a parody of the official closure diagram.
That negative reaction suggests that there is room for improvement in how the T communicates these closures. I’d argue that the positive reaction to my diagram has been driven by its recognizable similarity to the “normal” map, combined with the clear-and-obvious differences that are blatant and draw attention to themselves.
With rumors swirling of partial shutdowns of the Green and Red Lines later this year, perhaps the T might consider adopting a similar strategy to what I’ve presented here.
In this diagram, the trunkline sees high-frequency headways of 4 minutes (which is better than many subway lines in North America). With such a high frequency, it’s easy to think that there’d be enough trains to serve a bunch of branches.
But as you can see, four-minute headways equals 15 trains per hour. If you have three branches, that means each branch gets 5 trains per hour – which yields 12 minute headways. If these branches are out in suburbia, 12 minute headways might be appropriate, but you’ve nearly reached the limit. If you were to add a fourth branch, each branch would see less than 4 trains per hour, at 16 minute headways, at which point you really no longer have a claim to “frequent service”.
In my last post, I recommended, as a rule of thumb, no more than two branches per line. However, I didn’t explain why. It comes down to a combination of typical throughput capacities, and mathematical inevitabilities.
Divvying up trains-per-hour among multiple branches
Consider this chart:
On the left side, we have a list of potential trunkline capacities, measured in trains per hour. These indicate how many trains in each direction you can squeeze through your trunkline in an hour. (Don’t worry about converting these numbers to headways – I’ll get to that below.)
For some perspective (most numbers pre-covid):
BART ran 16 tph through its core section from Daly City to West Oakland
CTA ran between 12 and 20 tph on its Red and Blue Lines during peak
WMATA ran 15 tph on its Red Line during peak
MBTA ran 15 tph on its Red Line during peak
London Underground’s throughputs vary widely from line to line, with some lines seeing over 30 trains per hour, following major infrastructure and modernization improvements
Beijing’s subway runs between 30 and 35 tph on several of its routes
Shanghai’s subway runs between 15 and 32 tph on most of its inner routes
All of which is to say, the top few rows represent trunkline capacities that require major investment in transportation infrastructure.
To the right of those trunkline capacities are the number of trains available to each branch, depending on how many branches you have. So, for example, in the first row, a 40 tph trunk will provide 20 tph to two branches, 13.3 tph to three branches, 10 tph to four branches, and so on.
As mentioned before: you’ll notice that, as you move from left to right across the chart, the numbers in each row drop dramatically. In fact, the decrease is literally exponential; you can describe the chart above using
y = n-x
where n is the capacity of your trunkline in tph, x is the number of branches, and y is the resulting tph per branch.
Decreasing frequencies due to decreasing tph
It’s helpful to start this discussion using tph as a measure, because it’s easier to recognize the patterns in the numbers’ decrease. However, once we convert those tph into headways, it’ll become that much clearer why branching quickly leads to decreased frequencies.
I’ve added some (opinionated) color-coding, meant to suggest the various “levels” of service these different frequencies provide.
The bright green (every 5 minutes or better) represent the highest tier of frequent service an agency might provide. “Turn up and go.”
The pale green (every 5-10 minutes) are still comfortably in the realm of rapid transit, but are probably better suited to off-peak periods and lower-ridership networks. “Turn up and wait a couple minutes and go.”
The yellow (every 10-15 minutes) are the lowest tier of what could be considered “turn-up-and-go,” describing services where riders don’t need to check a schedule when planning journeys. Call this tier “turn up and wait.”
This tier should be approached cautiously, with careful attention paid to the specific corridor where these frequencies would be deployed.
(Sadly, consideration should also be given to reliability; if a bus is scheduled to show up every 13 minutes, but one run gets dropped, suddenly you have folks waiting nearly a half-hour for their bus.)
The subsequent tiers are rarely going to be considered “frequent service”; some could be “salvaged” by adhering to a strict clockfacing schedule: a route that reliably comes exactly :13 minutes and :43 minutes past the hour can be a useful service that isn’t “turn-up-and-go”, but doesn’t require consulting a schedule either. These tiers break down something like this:
Orange = “plan when to leave, but journey whenever”
Light grey = “plan when to journey”
Dark grey = “schedule around the schedule”
As you can see, our frequencies drop through the tiers I’ve described above quite quickly. Once you hit the yellow tier, you’re teetering on the edge of frequent service, and once you hit the orange and beyond, you’re definitely over the edge.
Different regions will have different definitions of “high frequency”. For example, it’s pretty rare to wait more than 4 minutes for a tube train in central London; a six-minute headway would be considered sub-par. In Boston, we are sadly accustomed to six-minute peak headways on the Orange Line, while Baltimore’s subway sees peak service every 8 minutes.
It’s worth highlighting that reaching 90-second headways at 40 tph on heavy rail is exceptionally difficult. If you have multiple tracks in the same direction, it becomes more manageable, but a standard two-track subway is nearly impossible to operate at 40 tph per direction, outside of the world’s most advanced subway systems. And notice – even the top examples I listed above, such as Beijing or London, you’re still looking at that second row as your baseline, at around 30 tph. Even in those systems, having more than two branches knocks each branch down into a lower “tier”, meaning it’s not suitable to do within the urban core.
If your crayon map requires shoveling 40 trains per hour through a trunk line, then probably it’s worth trying to plan a second trunk line!
Gaming out examples, and dealing with the unideal real world
Many of the North American systems I mentioned above see 4 minute headways on their core. If we go to that row, we can see two branches gives us 8 min (good so far), three branches gives us 12 min (borderline), and four branches gives us 16 min (no good).
Some North American systems see base headways of 7 or 8 minutes. In that case, our drop-off happens even faster: 2 branches becomes borderline, and 3 branches sinks us with headways longer than 20 minutes.
On the London and Chinese systems mentioned above, trunklines see headways around 2 minutes or better. In theory, those trunklines could accommodate five or six branches; but if you drop the core headways by just one minute, suddenly you can only accommodate three or four branches at similar frequencies.
And that “in theory” caveat is what’s really going to get us. Even if you can squeeze 30 tph through your trunkline to get 2-min headways, if you are feeding that trunk from five branches, that’s five times as many opportunities for delays and disruptions. We just saw above that the difference between a 2-min headway and a 3-min headway is worth two whole branches of throughput. That’s a very thin margin for error – meaning that you need reliability to be extremely high, or else the whole system will unravel, with cascading delays across your network.
The exceptions that prove the rule: North American legacy subway-streetcar networks
There are only two networks that I’m aware of which see sub-10 minute headways on four or more branches, feeding into a trunkline handling 40 tph: the MBTA’s Green Line and SEPTA’s Subway-Surface Lines.
This level of throughput is achieved (see caveat below) mostly because they are light rail lines rather than heavy rail. This means shorter trains which can start and stop faster, and therefore can be run closer together (albeit at lower speeds). The MBTA allows multiple Green Line trainsets to enter certain stations simultaneously, and SEPTA actually treats a couple of its subway stations as “request stops”, with trolleys rolling through non-stop if no one signals to board or alight.
(I haven’t done the math on this, but it would be worth someone calculating the actual capacity of those two systems compared to heavy rail equivalents. It is true that the TPH levels are higher, but since the trains are shorter, I don’t know that you actually end up carrying more passengers.)
The reality, sadly, is that both of these networks are infamous for their reliability issues. (Full disclosure: I’m much more familiar with the MBTA than SEPTA, but I believe most of the T’s problems also exist in Philadelphia.) Delays are common, both on the branches and then resultantly in the core, potentially resulting in less than forty actual trains per hour through the core.
Having four or five branches is somewhat workable on these two systems due to their unusual characteristics. Replicating that success elsewhere would likely require replicating those characteristics as well.
The other exceptions that prove the rule: hybrid rapid transit/commuter rail systems
BART’s core trunkline from Daly City to West Oakland feeds out into four eastern branches (Richmond, Antioch, Dublin/Pleasanton, Berryessa/North San Jose). Likewise, the London Undergroud’s Metropolitan Line runs to four termini in the northwestern suburbs (Uxbridge, Amersham, Chesham, Watford).
Both networks accomplish this by running service to distant suburbs that is more like high-frequency commuter rail than traditional rapid transit service. Each branch on the BART runs every fifteen minutes, which isn’t super unreasonable given that most of those branches travel over thirty miles from downtown San Francisco. (BART is also a pluricentric network, which makes the ridership patterns a bit different than, for example, Chicago’s.)
The Met in London is a bit more complicated, but the concept is similar. Similar to New York, and unlike BART, the Metropolitan is quad-tracked for certain stretches, and therefore runs both local services and express services. During peak hours:
Uxbridge sees 10 tph (6 min) spread across local and express services, with 4 of those trains short-turning at Baker Street
Amersham sees 4 tph (15 min), half of which are express
Chesham sees 2 tph (30 min)
Watford sees 8 tph (7.5 min), again with some short-turns and some expresses
A couple of further notes for context:
Almost all of the Uxbridge branch is also served by Piccadilly trains – 12 tph at peak – providing a robust 22 tph, which creates headways under 3 minutes
The Amersham and Chesham services run together until Chalfont & Latimer, before splitting off and going one stop each to their terminus, meaning most of the branch in fact sees 6 tph; these services are also supplemented by at least 2 tph that run on Chiltern Railways to Amersham and beyond.
Chesham is also the most distant Underground station – 25 miles from Charing Cross in central London, and technically outside of Greater London – well into territory where 30-minute headways might be reasonable
The town of Watford is served by three other stations; the largest of these is Watford Junction, which is less than a mile from the Met station, and sees 4 Overground trains and about 5 London Northwestern Railways trains toward London per hour
So, the Met has a few mitigating factors:
Its branches are supplemented by additional services
Despite four possible termini, really it just has three branches, one of which splits at the very end
The only stations that see 15-minute-or-worse headways are distant suburbs, over 20 miles from the core of London
Like SEPTA and the MBTA, both BART and the Metropolitan also have unusual characteristics that enable them to get away with breaking my “two branches max” rule of thumb.
When I was a kid, I wanted to send branches everywhere. As a child, it was an easy concept to understand — I knew that branches came (like the Braintree or Riverside branches) and that branches went away (like Watertown), and if the Green Line used to have five branches, maybe it could have six or seven or eight! And if the Green Line could have eight branches, why couldn’t the Orange Line?
Obviously, with age has come a modicum of learned wisdom; I stopped drawing branches everywhere and tried to focus on only sending branches where train service actually was reasonable. But there is more to the picture than that.
It is tempting to think of subway branches like roads. If you build a new road, it means that more places are connected. Providence and Hartford don’t have an interstate highway between them — you have to drive north or south first and pick up Route 84 or Route 95, and then head west. It takes longer than it would if there were an interstate directly between them, which is why you will occasionally hear proposals for one. Two disconnected places ought to have a connection between them.
Rail systems don’t work like that most of the time (and actually road systems don’t either, but that’s a different topic).
There actually is a surprising amount to discuss on this topic! Here are some rules of thumb:
Two branches max
For most systems, do not give an HRT/subway line more than 2 branches. A light rail line, or a commuter/regional rail line, can probably take more, but keep in mind the other rules of thumb below.
One evening I decided to jump down this rabbit hole and did a cursory review of pretty much every heavy rail subway system in the world. Almost none had HRT lines with more than 2 branches. Most of the exceptions were themselves exceptional systems, such as BART or London’s Metropolitan Line, both “subway” lines that act more like commuter rail lines, especially along their branches.
Branches have low frequencies, trunks have high frequencies. Trunks should only branch once they are far enough from the urban core that lower frequencies will be feasible.
Most transit systems in North America have a “full-build reach” (even if hypothetical) of a 10 mile radius from the center. Your trunk shouldn’t branch too close to downtown; every city will be different, but in general you’ll want your trunk to branch no closer than 5 miles to the core. If you need to branch closer to the core, you should try to create a second trunk line.
Remember that branching frequencies are almost always a hard-and-fast math problem: If your trunk line can take x trains per hour max, then two branches can each feed no more than 50% of x. That is often going to be enough to knock a “high-frequency” trunk service into a “mid-frequency tier” on the branches. As such, it’s worth conceptualizing a branch as something less than a “full” rapid transit line.
In the diagram below, note how the trunk line has a high frequency of 4 minute headways via 15 trains per hour, but that splitting it up into three branches very quickly drops frequencies to 12 minutes on each branch.
It’s important to recognize that branches are (usually) a game of subtraction, not addition. Your trunk line provides the pool of trains that you can send out to multiple branches. Unless you know that the trunk line is under capacity, you should assume that they are shoveling through as many trains as they possibly can, and can’t add more. So you need to think about redirecting the existing pool of trains, which is why this is a game of subtraction and not addition.
Note that I said this is usually a subtraction game – some newer/younger rail systems will not be at capacity. When that is the case, a branch proposal can work in your favor: proposing the addition of a second mid-capacity branch can combine with the existing mid-capacity service to create high-capacity service in the core (where presumably demand will be higher). Especially in newer metro systems, there may not be sufficient existing demand to justify the capital expenses of expanding the fleet to increase service in the core; adding a branch can broaden your revenue base, and enable the purchase of enough vehicles to run high-frequencies in the core. (Sometimes – these calculations are always going to be complicated.)
Look for short-turn services (and over-capacity extremities)
Transit agencies are incentivized not to run extraneous services. The further out from the core, the lower the demand for service (very much theoretically, but I digress). One solution agencies use are short-turn services, in which some fraction of vehicles do not run the full-length of the route. Sometimes this is done to reduce the number of near-empty vehicles running on the outskirts of the line, and sometimes this is done in order to increase the reliability of service on the inner sections of the line (and sometimes both). Short-turns are very common on bus routes, but do have their role in rail transit as well.
If your trunkline has an existing short-turn service, that is a very strong jumping-off point for a new branch: it points to a confirmed high-frequency trunk/mid-frequency branch demand model, and it doesn’t require additional capacity to be freed up in your trunk, since you aren’t trying to funnel a greater number of trains per hour through. (You will still need to expand your fleet size to maintain existing frequencies, although you may be able to adjust frequencies elsewhere in the network to account for the longer trips your short-turn services will now be taking on the branch).
But be careful – this technique works well if the short-turn is intended to avoid excess capacity on the extremities of the existing service. If the short-turn is intended instead to increase reliability within the core, then extending those short-turns out onto a new branch may jeopardize that reliability. And make sure to take note of the pitfalls of junctions, below.
Be cautious with reverse branching
Be cautious with reverse-branching, which is when a transit service splits into multiple branches going in to the city, rather than going out. (SEPTA’s Broad-Ridge Spur is a good example of this on-paper. In practice, it’s actually a little more complicated, but that’s a post for another time.)
Recall what we went through above: branches are lower frequency than trunks. Reverse-branching into an urban core thus means you are reducing frequency precisely in the area you need it most.
Note that I say “be cautious,” not “avoid.” I think that one of the major values of crayon maps is that they sometimes value creativity over feasibility. Reverse-branching is usually more creative than it is feasible, but sometimes it sparks good follow-up ideas. So, I wouldn’t forbid it as a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s good to be aware of its drawbacks.
Junctions are complicated
Junctions where branches come together will always have one of two drawbacks, so be careful where you put them:
If a level junction is used, then you will have capacity limits and sometimes delays, as trains need to wait for each other to cross, and may need to leave a whole signal block free (i.e. the train may not be able to wait right at the junction like a car at an intersection, but may need to be hundreds or thousands of feet away).
A flying junction avoids those problems and should be the standard for any new rapid transit junction. However, flying junctions are much more expensive, and also take up more space — horizontally and vertically — than level junctions. So, as with all things, it’s a trade-off between cost and quality of service. If you want your proposal to be taken seriously, make sure your proposal is ambitious enough to merit building the flying junction.
In conclusion, branches are not your friend
Branches are not the friend of the crayon-mapper. They look great on paper but require a lot of careful planning to be done well; when done poorly, they can be actively detrimental to the individual branches and the system overall. If you really want to use them on a subway network:
No more than two branches
Aim to branch at least 5 miles from the core
Look for segments where there already is reduced service (short-turns) or reduced demand for service (lower density)
If both branches demand full-frequency service, then both branches warrant their own trunklines through the core: i.e. they shouldn’t be branches, but should be separate lines
Post-script on LRT, BRT and mainline rail
All of the dynamics I describe here hold true on other modes of service. However, the cost-benefit calculations work out a little differently because there are different standards for these modes.
For the most part, LRT is going to have the same struggles as an HRT subway would. The main differences are all knock-on effects of light rail’s shorter and more nimble rolling stock. Shorter trains makes it easier to “fudge” capacity in a trunk line, with multiple trains stopping in a single station at once, and shorter signal blocks allowing trains to run closer together. The shorter signal blocks also mean that flat junctions – while still disruptive – can be mildly less problematic.
LRT also – by virtue of its lower capacity – is sometimes a better fit for serving lower-density regions, which can sometimes mean that the frequency cost of more than two branches is more manageable, especially if combined with a higher frequency on the trunk than you could achieve with larger trains.
Boston and Philadelphia both run a scheduled 40 light rail trains per hour through their tunnels (Philly apparently swings even more than that), with four and five branches respectively. San Francisco runs at a lower frequency (I think) in the Muni Metro subway, also with five branches. All three of these systems are plagued with reliability and other issues. (Muni recently tried to redirect two of its branches out of the subway, but now has returned them to the tunnel). That isn’t to say that these systems can’t be improved, nor am I denying benefits to their approaches. But it’s probably best to think of these as the exceptions which prove the rules.
Mainline rail faces all of the same dynamics I outlined above. The major difference is that the costs of branching don’t always end up being “disqualifying.” If you take a 20tph rapid transit line and give it 10 branches, each branch will get 30 minute headways, which no longer is “rapid transit.” But if you give a 20tph commuter rail line 10 branches, the 30-minute headways on each branch may be perfectly reasonable. The same dynamic is at play — it’s just that the requirements are different and therefore the costs are more acceptable.
On the other hand, some dynamics remain equally if not more problematic. Junctions, for example, will still be disruptive if built flat and costly if built flying. And reverse branching’s impact may be felt even more acutely: many American commuter rail lines run once per hour; split those between two downtown terminals – we’ll call them “Northtown” and “Southtown” –, and commuters now have to wait two hours between trains, which reduces flexibility for riders and may have an overall chilling effect on ridership on both branches.
Consider this fictional system below:
At first glance, it looks like a relatively robust commuter rail network. Each suburb sees 30-minute headways, and that segment between Newtown and Riveredge sees rapid transit-frequencies of 7.5 minutes. And every community sees direct service to both Northtown and Southtown.
But most commuters don’t care about going to two different workplaces – their destination is the same everyday. Let’s look at what the network looks like for a Northtown commuter:
This paints a significantly different picture. Most suburbs are reduced to hourly service, and the turn-up-and-go frequencies at Newtown are gone.
(To be fair, in this example, most American cities would be thrilled to see commuter rail service at this level – hourly commuter rail is nothing to sneeze at. But I’m keeping the numbers simple to keep the math simple; if most cities start with hourly commuter rail, then reverse branching drops the effective frequency of each branch down to every two hours, which is pretty rough. You get the idea.)
Instead of a robust trunk-and-branch network, reverse-branching reduces this network into two significantly diluted networks operating in parallel.
I believe extending the Blue Line from Charles/MGH to Kenmore via a Riverbank subway along Storrow Memorial Drive is the stronger “first phase” extension.
The truth of the matter is that we don’t have enough data to say which is better. As I’ve outlined above, almost any extension of the Blue Line west will be treading new ground, bringing rail transit to corridors that have never seen it before. This is virtually unprecedented in the history of Boston transit, so we are in uncharted waters.
Any construction at Charles/MGH should be done to leave open as many possibilities for future extension, including both to Kendall and Kenmore if possible; if a choice must be made, my preference is for Kenmore.
I have are four overarching reasons:
Complementing the Green Line
As outlined previously, the Blue Line and the Green Line have a long historical relationship of interdependence and interweaving. The Kenmore alignment maintains that relationship, and provides relief for the Green Line, freeing it up to adapt to the flexibility offered by LRT without needing to bear the burden of being a pseudo-HRT subway line.
The Riverbank alignment sends the Blue Line straight down the middle of the gap between Red and Orange, landing it at Kenmore – the major bus transfer hub between Central and Ruggles. This is where the Green Line’s burden would be relieved: it would no longer need to serve as the radial link between the Kenmore hub and downtown.
I have a large and expansive vision for the future of the Green Line, and many more options are opened up through the Kenmore alignment than the Kendall alignment.
Filling a gap in the HRT network
We often think of the MBTA as having 4 subway lines, plus a handful of BRT lines. Strictly speaking, that is not quite true. The MBTA has 3 heavy rail lines, a handful of light rail lines, and a handful of BRT lines. The T uses layered LRT and BRT services as stand-ins for HRT services in the Boylston Street Subway, the Tremont Street Subway, and the Piers Transitway, because the ridership along those corridors demands it, but they still are different beasts.
The future of expanded rail service in Boston lies in LRT and in frequent regional rail. These services are easier to create because they are either easier to construct or are better able to leverage existing infrastructure. With a small number of exceptions (Lynn, Arlington, Mattapan, and West Roxbury), bringing rail service to new locations will be much easier to do with LRT and regional rail (Needham, Watertown, Jamaica Plain, Waltham, Lexington, Grand Junction, Everett, Chelsea, and Dorchester).
Heavy rail rapid transit provides best-in-class service, there is no denying it. But it also requires the most up-front expense, and is rapidly becoming a form of boutique construction – a Blue Line extension will be usable by Blue Line trains alone, while new stations and improved tracks along the Worcester Line will be usable by metro Indigo Line services, local Framingham services, and expresses to Worcester (and will benefit Amtrak service to Springfield and beyond). Heavy rail expansion therefore must meet a higher threshold of viability and benefit.
As such, I think we need to reconceptualize our idea of Boston’s rapid transit system into three tiers: light metro, heavy metro, and regional metro.
Light metro: LRT and BRT services, with smaller vehicles and smaller infrastructure footprints, particularly useful for suburban radial service and urban circumferential service
Heavy metro: your standard HRT, as well as rapid-transit-frequency mainline rail, and Los Angeles-style light rail (e.g. longer trains, high-level boarding, dedicated ROWs).
Regional metro: reimagined commuter rail – 15-minute headways, limited stops within 128, service to suburbs and satellite cities.
These tiers are obviously interconnected, but do form distinct networks. And I believe we need to view them as such. As can be seen here, any Blue Line West extension will serve to fill in the large gap between the Red Line and the Orange Line.
When we exclude light metro services from the map, the gap in the heavy metro network becomes clear. The streetcar services that run into Kenmore from Beacon and Commonwealth will always prevent that stretch of the Green Line from becoming proper heavy metro, which means an alternative is sorely needed to fill in the gap.
As mentioned above, the future of rail expansion is in LRT, not HRT. Wholesale greenfield rail construction in Boston will mostly be LRT going forward. HRT expansions should therefore be sparing, and strategic, benefiting the entire network as a whole as opposed to specific corridors. Extension to Kenmore balances the heavy metro network overall, and frees up capacity on the Green Line to expand the light metro network into new areas across Greater Boston.
Put heavy metro service to its unique purpose
Let’s hearken back to the days of the El. You live on West Dedham Street in the South End, halfway between Shawmut and Tremont, a block and a half from Washington Street – you can see the El from your front door. A generation goes by, and the Orange Line is relocated out of sight, a bit less than a half mile away in the Southwest Corridor. On the balance, you’re pretty happy – the El was loud, rumbly, an eyesore, a relic of an age past.
But isn’t the loss of transit access a downside? (You are asked by your railfan friend.) Not really, you reply. Even though the El was a three minute walk away, it was nearly 10 minutes to the nearest stations, at Dover or Northampton. The El rumbled by your block every day, speeding through without making a stop. The new station at Back Bay is just as long of a walk, but now Washington Street is sunny and quiet(er). On the balance, you’re pretty happy.
(At various points through the 20th century, you might not have walked to the El at all, but instead caught a streetcar or bus at surface level and rode that in.)
The same was true in Charlestown: for nearly three-quarters of a mile along Main Street, the El expressed through, while local residents took the 92. Sullivan, with its massive hub of transfers from Everett, Malden, Medford, and Somerville, was the objective, not the northern half of Charlestown itself. Main Street suffered the drawbacks of rail infrastructure, and for the most part got none of the benefits.
To be clear, I am not claiming that the Orange Line Relocation Projects were net improvements for transit access; the sad story of Equal or Better makes clear that there were drastic downsides that persist to this day. My point is that the Relocation Projects demonstrate that the purpose of the early rapid transit lines was not to serve the neighborhoods they passed through, but to offer a bypass to enable faster journeys to downtown.
The primary role of heavy rail in Boston has historically been to whisk riders in to downtown from the Inner Belt regions and beyond. This is why the Red Line has such lengthy distance between stops in Cambridge, and why the extension beyond South Station headed down along Dorchester Ave instead of heading into Southie: the whole point was to express in to downtown.
Prior to the Orange Line relocation, the “Inner Belt” transfer hubs – with the exception of Kenmore – were at most two stops away from downtown: Dudley-Northampton-Dover-Essex, Kendall-Charles-Park, Sullivan-Community College-North Station, Maverick-Aquarium-State, Columbia-Andrew-Broadway-South Station. All those intermediate stops were themselves major transfer points or at major destinations. The whole point was to speed the journey downtown from the outer parts of the city, whence a bus or streetcar journey would be painfully long.
A Blue Line extension to Kenmore fills that gap, and provides the western feeder services (the B, the C, the 57, the 60) with a proper heavy metro express link into downtown, providing a speedy and reliable transfer consistent with similar hubs across the system. This need exists at Kenmore, but does not exist on the other side of the river.
Follow existing ROWs and generally have easier construction
To my knowledge, with three exceptions, all expansion of Boston rail infrastructure in the last 100 years has occurred on alignments and ROWs which were carved out by railroads in the 19th century. (The three exceptions are Harvard-Davis, the stretch between Chinatown and the portal east of Back Bay, and the Huntington Ave Subway.) The Blue-Red Connector would mark the fourth such exception.
It is incredibly difficult to build rail where none existed before, and it is incredibly rare. The Huntington Subway was decades in planning, Harvard-Davis was built under exceptionally favorable political circumstances, and the Orange Line connection was the lynchpin in a massive service relocation that had been in the works since the 1900s. Virtually no current expansion proposals – official or amateur – call for laying rails where none have been laid before. (The North-South Rail Link is the exception that proves the rule in this case.)
Blue Line West proposals are the only ones where we consistently see greenfield ROWs being proposed. For the Phase 1 alignments I discussed before, this is a necessity – there simply is no way to continue west from Charles/MGH without building new ROWs. Several of the Phase 2 alignments, however, do leverage existing ROWs.
The “Phase 2” alignments I discussed earlier fall into three categories: Watertown, Mass Pike, and Longwood. Kenmore offers access via existing ROWs to all three, due to its location at the confluence of the Highland Branch and the B&A (Worcester Line) ROWs. (Watertown would be the trickiest of the three, but still could utilize the B&A ROW for at least half of the journey.)
The Kendall alignments are more of a mixed bag. Longwood technically could be accessed from the BU Bridge via a subway under Amory Street, but at significant expense and with some tricky track geometry (i.e. sharp turns). Watertown and the Mass Pike could be reached via Kendall, the Grand Junction, and the BU Bridge, largely utilizing extant ROWs, but at the cost of two river crossings and the lack of access to the Kenmore transfer hub. (Circumferential service from a Kenmore hub to Longwood, Ruggles, and Nubian would be pretty easy to plan with BRT. Relocating the transfer hub to a Blue Line station at BU Bridge would be more difficult.)
One hundred years ago, the mainline gateway to Boston’s western suburbs was located in the Fenway at Brookline Junction station. Despite all that has happened in the intervening century, the ROWs that were laid out feeding into that junction have persisted over all these years. Because of that, Kenmore has remained a transit nexus, and remains the strongest “launchpoint” for any future expansion to the west.
Basically this all boils down to “serving Kenmore” vs “serving Kendall”. Both alignments can land you in Beacon Yard, setting the stage for service to Auburndale, Watertown, or Waltham. Both alignments could (at moderate-to-significant expense) lead to service to Longwood.
Kendall is a massive employment center, growing every year. Kenmore is a massive transfer hub that will only become more important as the T improves circumferential service. Kendall’s Red Line service is at capacity; Kenmore’s Green Line service is at capacity.
To a certain extent, I’m sufficiently convinced in favor of the Kenmore alignment by the added cost and expense of the dual river crossings needed for any Kendall alignment. Greenfield HRT is going to be hard enough on its own – at the very least, let’s choose the easier option.
But beyond that, I think the Kenmore alignment is simply better for the whole network overall. The Kendall alignments would benefit their immediate corridors, while a Kenmore alignment’s effect would be felt system-wide.
Consolidating Kenmore as a transfer hub makes it easier to build a flexible Urban Ring, in stages if needed.
Complementing the Green Line frees up resources to be redirected into a semi-heavy metro corridor along Huntington, and creates more flexibility for short-turning LRT services at Kenmore.
Focusing construction efforts along the Grand Junction on LRT rather than HRT creates a potentially unbroken LRT corridor from Allston to Cambridge to Sullivan to Chelsea to the Airport.
And a Phase 1 extension to Kenmore leaves open the most possibilities for Phase 2 extensions without the need for massive tunneling projects.
All of this is many years, if not decades, in the future. For now, I reiterate my original point: Any construction at Charles/MGH should be done to leave open as many possibilities for future extension, including both to Kendall and Kenmore if possible; if a choice must be made, Kenmore is the stronger option.
One peculiarity of this whole situation is that most of the options for “Phase 2” are available from both the Riverbank alignment and the Kendall alignment. They aren’t fully interchangeable, but there is a surprising amount of overlap, and most of them can be discussed largely independently of which Phase 1 alignment is used to reach them.
The modern incarnation would see the Blue Line taking the most direct route from its Phase 1 terminus and then running out west parallel to the Worcester Line tracks.
Unfortunately, the 1945 proposal was made before the construction of the Mass Pike east of 128. For those who don’t know, this part of the Mass Pike was constructed by taking land previously occupied by railroad tracks; this stretch once had four or more tracks, like the Southwest Corridor did at the time. The vision would’ve been quite similar to today’s Southwest Corridor: take a couple of tracks and devote them to rapid transit, and leave the rest for mainline rail.
Now with only two tracks, it’ll be much harder to enact that vision. If you wanted to be bold, you could propose reclaiming land from the Mass Pike, but good luck with that; likewise to building a cut-and-cover subway, or an elevated.
In today’s climate, this stretch is much more favorable to an Indigo Line-style service, with perhaps 4 local trains per hour making all stops to Riverside supplemented by 2 trains an hour that run on to Framingham (with 2 additional trains expressing through on the journey to Worcester). This would provide modest frequencies while maintaining a single mode of service. (And, for what it’s worth, would still leave the door open to building a subway or reclaiming some of the Pike later — the capital improvements to support Indigo service would still benefit continued mainline use, even after the construction of HRT extension.)
Blue to Riverside (and Needham)
This is probably the most important one to discuss. Extending the Blue Line to Riverside (usually via Kenmore, though occasionally via Huntington) is frequently proposed by amateur transit planners, and is reflective of the D Line’s unusual nature as a Green Line branch: being a converted railroad line, it has rapid transit stop spacing, akin to the Blue or Orange Lines, unlike the other Green Line branches, which stop every few blocks. If you were going to replace one branch of the Green Line with the Blue Line, there are obvious reasons to pick the D, including the fact that it is (nearly) completely grade-separated.
There are lots of good reasons why it would make sense to extend the Blue Line to Riverside. Unfortunately, there is one very good reason against doing so, and to understand it, we need to take about two steps back and look at the bigger picture.
Northeast Corridor capacity along the Southwest Corridor
Railroad tracks into downtown are like pipes. They need to be able to feed all of the branches they go out to, and likewise they need to be able to accept all of the trains coming in from each branchline.
So we need to turn our attention to the mainline tracks on the Southwest Corridor, which ironically is also sometimes called the Northeast Corridor — southwest of downtown Boston, northeast of the rest of the country. There are three mainline tracks running from Forest Hills to Back Bay, which need to serve:
Commuter rail to Franklin and beyond
Commuter rail to Foxboro
Commuter rail to Providence and South County
Commuter rail to Stoughton, and eventually Fall River and New Bedford
Amtrak to New York and beyond
Commuter rail to Needham
As you can see, one of these things is not like the other. The Needham Line is the shortest commuter rail line after the Fairmount Line, it only serves two municipalities, and shares origins with the D Line, both being built from the remnants of some of the region’s oldest railroads. (If you’ve ever wondered why inbound Needham Line trains start their journey by going away from Boston, that’s why.)
You’ll notice that the list above includes some destinations that are future-state, including South Coast Rail, as well as expanded Amtrak service. The NEC is going to need more capacity, and there isn’t room to build more north of Forest Hills. That means diverting trains away. Franklin and Foxboro can be diverted to the Fairmount Line (and leverage existing grade separation to boot), but the longer distances to Providence, South County, Fall River and New Bedford necessitate access to the high-speed non-stop trackage along the NEC.
Needham should get rapid transit
Moreover, sitting just under 11 miles outside of downtown, Needham clearly sits within “Rapid Transit Land”, along with the likes of Riverside, Braintree, Lynn, and Waltham (despite technically sitting outside of 128). The NEC should be reserved for high(er)-speed regional rail, and the Needham Line should be served by rapid transit.
For those unfamiliar, converting the Needham Line to rapid transit is usually envisioned by splitting it in two: an extension from Forest Hills to West Roxbury, and an extension from Newton Highlands to Needham. (Once again, everything old is new: these alignments in fact were the paths of the original railroads, when built 150 years ago; Riverside-Newton Highlands and Needham Junction-West Roxbury were cut-offs added in later on.)
So, the Needham Line needs to be converted to rapid transit, and the Needham section ought to be served by trains coming from Newton Highlands. Extending the Green Line to Needham is a well-known and widely-accepted proposal (at least in terms of its feasibility), and is yet another proposal that dates from the 1945 map. Needham Heights to Needham Junction is a good candidate for LRT — the stop spacing is good, the existing station footprints are conducive to light rail stops, and the surrounding density is on-par for what we might expect, similar to the villages in Newton to the north.
Needham can’t provide the Blue Line what it needs: grade separation
Okay, so what happens if the Blue Line eats the D Line? In that case, we would need to have the Blue Line extend down to Needham too, and that’s where we hit the Big Problem: grade separation.
HRT like the Blue Line basically always needs what we call “full grade separation.” Basically that means “no railroad crossings” — bridges and tunnels only. “Light rail” is “light” in part because its vehicles are light enough that they can (sometimes) stop quickly enough to avoid hitting a pedestrian, and because they could collide with an automobile (potentially) non-lethally. “Heavy rail” fails both of those tests: trains that are longer, heavier, and faster which cannot safely coexist with pedestrians and autos without major safety measures.
If you want to extend the Blue Line, you need to find a way to grade-separate the tracks. Whether going over or going under, that will add enormous cost in terms of both finances and likely in terms of disrupting the built environment of the villages. Those costs will be extremely hard to justify.
So, barring major changes to the community, the following things are all true:
The Northeast Corridor will need capacity freed up for expanded service to Providence, the South Coast, and other distant locations
The Needham Commuter Rail Line is the odd one out on the NEC, and the only one that can be feasibly removed from the Commuter Rail system altogether
The Needham Commuter Rail Line therefore needs to be converted to rapid transit
The Needham segment of the Needham Line needs to be converted to LRT specifically
A Needham LRT branch would need to be fed from Newton Highlands
Therefore, Newton Highlands must be served by LRT
Therefore, converting the Riverside Line to Blue Line HRT is not feasible due to foreclosing the possibility of service to Needham, thus limiting vitally-needed capacity on the Northeast Corridor
Blue to Watertown and Waltham
Watertown and Waltham create an interesting quandary. There is a large gap between the Worcester Line and the Fitchburg Line, in which Watertown sits, right next to Waltham – both moderately dense communities and employment centers in their own right. And if you draw a line directly west from Bowdoin station, you almost directly hit Watertown Square and then Brandeis head-on; you only need to shift that line up 7 degrees in order to hit Waltham Central Square. Whether from Kenmore, Kendall, or Central, it seems perfectly reasonable to extend the Blue Line to Watertown Square and then on to Waltham.
The immediate challenge with this is that there has never been a railroad ROW between Watertown and Allston. Complete greenfield subway projects are extremely rare – almost the entire MBTA is built on land where rails were laid or tunnels dug over 100 years ago. To build straight across Allston from Cambridge to Watertown would require a major political and financial investment. If support for such an investment could be marshalled, it would be transformative for the area. But it’s worth considering the alternatives; in my opinion, there are more achievable transit solutions for both communities.
A combination of these services resurrected would be significantly easier to build than a brand-new HRT line, and would offer reasonable service with increased flexibility at much lower cost. The ROW of the Watertown Branch is largely intact, and would be an easy and natural extension of GLX’s Union Square branch; LRT would offer greater flexibility for grade separation and limited street-running, if needed. Newton Corner can be rebuilt and served by frequent electrified regional rail service and feeder bus service. And infrastructure investments along the 57’s corridor can increase reliability of service and lay the groundwork for eventual return of light rail service.
It’s also worth comparing ridership on the 70 (between Watertown and Central) and the 71 (between Watertown and Harvard): along the stretches between Watertown and the respective Red Line transfer station, the 71 saw over 1500 boardings compared to the 985 boardings on the 70 (not including boardings from Watertown Square on either, although the 71 performs stronger there as well). The 70 corridor is itself not crying out for rapid transit; its main appeal is its directness, and a frequent regional rail service from Newton Corner will likely be just as fast. It is true that, from Watertown Square itself, a Newton Corner transfer hub will be less convenient; but for any riders coming from outside of Watertown Square, it will just be a matter of riding a couple extra minutes on a feeder service.
Readers of the Wikipedia article on the Watertown Branch will note that it used to run all the way from Watertown Square to Waltham Central Square. Why not run the Blue Line to Watertown via the B&A ROW (with a short hop between Newton Corner and Watertown Square), and then follow the old ROW to Waltham? The problem is that the ROW really isn’t intact west of Watertown Square. Even for LRT, it’s very curvy and crosses streets at odd angles.
Again, for HRT, you would need to grade separate the route, which means subway, elevated, or lots of embankments with short bridges over streets. None of those would be popular in the suburbs, especially when rail has been gone for generations (unlike in East Watertown, where trains ran as recently as the 2010s).
Waltham is also much better served by the Fitchburg ROW – whether by frequent regional rail, an HRT extension of the Red Line from Alewife, an LRT extension of the Green Line from Union Square, or some combination of the above. And if you really wanted a rail connection between Waltham and Watertown, LRT would win out again, as you could look at lane-taking on Route 20 to do protected-street-running – again, not an option with HRT at all.
Blue to Brookline, Longwood, and points south
I’ve discussed above how an extension of the Blue Line to Riverside via Newton Highlands creates challenges. However, a partial extension could be more viable. Assuming a D-to-E connection is built, allowing D Line trains to run into Huntington Ave, an extended Blue Line could take over the ROW between Kenmore and Brookline Village.
This would require some clever tunneling underneath the Mass Pike to hook into the D branch – currently the D shares tracks with the C on the approach to Kenmore, so you would need to find an alternate route. But aside from that, this would probably be a relatively straightforward extension, as the ROW is already grade-separated. This would also have the significant benefit of providing HRT service to Longwood, a major employment center that is notoriously difficult to serve with transit.
One downside is that you would lose some operational flexibility on the Green Line. The trade-off would need to be studied to get a clear cost-benefit analysis, but I personally think the trade-off could be a reasonable one. An HRT link between LRT stations at Kenmore and Brookline Village could also provide benefit to a larger LRT network overall, depending on final design.
The other downside is that I think this alignment produces a dead-end. Once at Brookline Village, you can’t continue west, for reasons explained above. You could continue south toward Forest Hills, along South Huntington or the Jamaicaway, but at that point you begin to duplicate Orange Line service, at the expense of a lot of tunneling along an environmentally sensitive stretch of greenspace.
If you wanted to go for the moonshot, you could abandon the southern half of the ROW, and turn east at Longwood to tunnel directly underneath the LMA, potentially continuing further to Ruggles, Nubian, and points east and/or south – essentially building the southern half of the Urban Ring. This extension would require an enormous capital investment, though would likely also see enormous ridership.
In my next and final post on this topic, I will discuss why I believe the Kenmore alignment is the stronger choice, and what I think this choice represents for the system overall.
In this and the following post, I’ll go through the Blue Line West extension proposals that are commonly discussed these days.
Route 128 is well-accepted as the limit of what might be called “Metro Boston”, and typically is the outer limit of most transit proposals, and has been for decades, even before Route 128 was built. It sits 10 miles outside of downtown, which often is the limit of a rapid transit system’s reach, in cities around the world.
There is a much fuzzier “Inner Belt” that encircles what we might call “Greater Downtown”, encompassing not only the Financial District, but also the built-up areas of the Seaport, Back Bay, Longwood, and Kendall. This is definitely not a hard-and-fast delineation, but there is a subtle but noticeable shift in character for both the city and the transit network as you cross through the “inner belt”.
The name “Inner Belt” comes from a thankfully-cancelled proposed interstate highway (the remnants of which can be seen in the Inner Belt District and Inner Belt Road in Somerville). Its approximate path was also used in various plans for the Urban Ring. It sits approximately 3 miles outside of downtown, which is also a very typical location for circumferential rapid transit routes. The Inner Belt is roughly demarcated by a series of major transfer hubs: JFK/UMass, Nubian, Ruggles, Kenmore, Kendall or Central, Lechmere, Sullivan, and Maverick. Most of these are the first major transfer hubs outside of downtown on each route.
Any expansion of the Blue Line beyond Charles will come in phases, and the first phase will be about carving a path to the Inner Belt. The second phase will be about where to go after that. This post will go through the major “first phase” proposals in common circulation these days.
Blue to Kenmore
The Boylston Street Subway isn’t the only way to reach Kenmore. Once again, everything old is new again, and we find inspiration from an early 20th century proposal:
The proposed “Riverbank Subway” would have run from Park Street (upper level) under Chestnut Street to what is now Storrow Drive out to Kenmore. Note that at the time, the Boylston Street Subway did not exist — the Riverbank would’ve been the access point for trolleys from Watertown, Allston, and Brookline.
The modern incarnation of the Riverbank Subway proposal sees the Blue Line extended to Charles/MGH, down along the Esplanade and picking up Storrow out to Kenmore (with a quick jog over to Beacon after Mass Ave). In my opinion, you could see anywhere from 1 to 3 stations between Kenmore and Charles/MGH — definitely one at Mass Ave, and then perhaps one or two serving the far ends of Beacon Hill and/or Back Bay.
This is my preferred extension for the Blue Line. Kenmore is a major transfer hub and will become all the more so as the Urban Ring concept continues to be quietly implemented. An extension to Kenmore would then also provide relief to the Green Line.
While I believe this route also has the fewest problems of the alternatives, it does still present challenges. A subway under Storrow wouldn’t need to contend with too many utilities, and since it’s landfill there should be fewer 17th-century surprises underneath; however, that same landfill can be tricky to work with and would complicate construction.
Additionally, and I’ll discuss this further in my next post, there isn’t a clear “next step” beyond Kenmore for further extension. It’s not quite a dead-end, but it’s less clear than some of these other proposals would be.
Blue to Cambridge
Blue-to-Kenmore definitely does not enjoy unanimous support among enthusiasts like myself. The most common alternative is to send the Blue Line over to Cambridge — either directly under the Longfellow, or sometimes at an angle toward Binney Street. Once in Cambridge, there are a number of options. The most common I’ve seen is to turn west after Kendall to serve MIT and Cambridgeport. From there, you might cross back over to Kenmore, or head directly into Allston and beyond.
To be clear, I think these ideas have merit and should be seriously considered. Challenges to overcome include a subway under the Charles — and in fact in all likelihood, a second subway as well to cross back again –, the landfill around MIT (most of the Grand Junction would be hard to tunnel under, due to the landfill underneath), avoiding redundancy with the Red Line, and lack of a good clear “landing point” at the end (the equivalent of Kenmore, in the example above). Of these, the biggest to me is the need for two subway crossings under the Charles, which to be honest I really have no idea about the feasibility or cost of.
I also worry a bit about redundancy with the Red Line; Cambridgeport aside, Cambridge generally isn’t underserved by rapid transit, and I do believe there are equity and justice aspects to consider.
Blue-to-Cambridge alternatives can be distinguished by their subsequent destinations:
Crossing back over to Kenmore is tempting, given that Kenmore is and will become more of a “gravitational center” for transfers. But a pair of lengthy river crossings seems hard to justify. If Kenmore is your destination for the extension, I think the Riverbank option makes more sense.
Carrying on straight to the BU Bridge makes for a more direct route. However, missing Kenmore is a significant loss. Moreover, all future alignments from BU Bridge could be accessed via a Riverbank subway to Kenmore. What you get uniquely from this alignment is HRT service to Cambridgeport. Given that LRT service is much more achievable for Cambridgeport and would likely satisfy the need there effectively, this seems like a less efficient alternative.
Doubling up to Central Square and then heading west has, on paper, some real strengths. Unlike Kendall, Central is a legitimate feeder bus transfer hub of its own right. From Central, further extensions appear ripe (on paper) to Watertown, Allston, and/or Brighton, following existing higher-ridership bus routes, on near-straightaway alignments.
The strongest argument in favor of an extension to Central Square is the access to Watertown. Access to Watertown via the Mass Pike ROW is shared between the Central Square alignment, the BU Bridge alignment, and the Kenmore alignment, but access via Western Ave & Arsenal St (the route of the 70 bus) is unique to the Central Square alignment.
Doubling up all the way to Harvard yields a similar set of pros and cons as Central does, although Harvard makes it much more difficult to continue on to Allston and Brighton.
Doubling the Red Line
Doubling along the Red Line in general is tempting, as a way to increase capacity. But I think this is a situation where the details of the build have outsized importance. In New York City, 4-track subways are mostly constructed on a single level, with shared platforms between services going in the same direction; if you are heading uptown, you go to the uptown platform and have the benefit of choosing the express vs local service based on which train arrives first.
If you aren’t able to unify services on single platforms, you run into drawbacks very quickly that will severely undercut your hoped-for capacity boost. For example, I’ve seen proposals that place a Blue Line station at Kendall off-set to the north, near the Volpe building. This may be a useful footprint in which to build a station, but it means that the Blue and Red Line platforms will be some distance apart.
Distanced platforms means that riders will need to commit to a line decision very early in the boarding process. This means that agnostic riders — those destined for Charles/MGH, Park, Government Center, State, DTX — will still have to pick a line, even though either one will work for them. They won’t have that New York-style “stand on the platform and grab the first train to arrive” option. Given that Red will eventually have 3-min headways and Blue (as far as I know) will have 5-min, you also won’t see an even split among agnostic riders, as some will prefer the higher-frequency service – the Blue Line will probably get very few agnostic riders, and instead will be only picking up riders who were destined for the Blue Line anyway.
It’s true that doing so would still relieve crowding on the Red Line, but it still is targeting only a particular subset of riders. Additionally, depending on how far the Blue Line doubles (Kendall, Central, Harvard), you’ll still need to contend with riders transferring from the Red Line (e.g. from Davis) to the Blue Line – where will they make the jump from Red to Blue (and therefore where could we expect crowding relief to start)? Charles/MGH looks like it will be very well-designed for easy transfers, so if Charles provides a shorter walk than Kendall does, many riders will continue to stay on the crowded Red Line, even though in theory the Blue is available.
I should also note that doubling up the Red Line would entail significantly more complicated tunneling than other proposals would.
There are other ways to address capacity on the Red Line. Increasing headways will add about 50% additional capacity. Extending the Green Line to Porter will siphon off both downtown and Longwood/Back Bay commuters, looking for a faster and/or one-seat ride to their destination. Providing circumferential service – for example LRT on the Grand Junction, or a Green Line spur to Harvard – will also reduce the number of riders needing to go downtown. Doubling up with the Blue Line is not the only option.
As mentioned above, I believe a first phase extension to Kenmore is the stronger option. I will discuss my reasoning in further detail in the final post in this series. That being said, I firmly believe that both alternatives present benefits and drawbacks, and neither presents a perfect solution.
Both alignments require study. As I laid out in previous posts, we’re in uncharted waters here. No heavy rail service has ever existed along the trajectory we are discussing, making this corridor almost unique among transit expansion proposals in Boston. So I absolutely want to be clear that a firm verdict is both impossible and undesirable at this stage.
What I will state with greater confidence is what options are created and eliminated by each of these alternatives. And what I will go into further depth on is how these alternatives reflect larger systemic choices we need to make as we envision the T’s future in the third millennium. This isn’t just about job growth in Kendall, or passenger transfers at Kenmore: it’s much bigger than that.
In the next post, I’ll talk about where the Blue Line might go after a Phase 1 extension.