Monday, October 17, 2011

Getting to and from in Jamaica Plain

(Originally posted here at Walking Boston)

Jamaica Plain is a practical problem. Packed into just 3.07 miles are 38,000 people, including 32,000 adults. Fully half of them work away from home, and just 1600 of them can walk or bicycle to work. This leaves 16,500 people who must leave the area in a relatively short time via a limited number of road and rail corridors.1 In practice, almost all who head into the downtown area leave by just 3 routes: Huntington Avenue in northwest side of the district, the Southwest Corridor on the east side, and Centre Street between them.

But Jamaica Plain is also a conceptual problem. What is the best way to get these 16,500 people to work? Is there a single best way? Should the goal be the quickest commute? The most environmentally friendly? Are some modes inherently better than others?

These questions have been inherent in Jamaica Plain since its inception. I believe a bit of history is in order. Starting with the coming of the West Roxbury Railroad in 1857, Jamaica Plain was designed as a "streetcar suburb" where the majority of residents would ride horse-drawn streetcars into the city.2 The first of many such lines was the West Roxbury Railroad in 1857.3 Workers could house their families 4 miles from the hustle-bustle of the Common, yet only have a forty-five-minute ride to their job. In an age without cars or even bicycles and where a horse was a major expense, this was an excellent deal for the middle class. The streetcars were electrified at the end of the century. In 1903, the last segment of the continuous line from Park Street to Arborway was completed.3

By the early 1900s, Jamaica Plain was well-connected. This 1925 Boston Electric Railway (BERy) map, drawn at the peak of the streetcar's dominance, shows numerous lines running through the area. North-south arterials to center Boston along Huntington Avenue-Centre Street-South Street (the #39 line) and Tremont Street-Columbus Avenue (#43) connected with east-west side routes like the #41 (Jamaica Plain to Dudley) which connected with the Washington Street Elevated on BERy's Main Line. From Forest Hills one could ride into Roxbury, Dorcester, or even out to Dedham, and the Huntington Avenue lines also sent cars across the Muddy River to Brookline.

(Click to go to the file page on Wikimedia Commons for a larger version)

But even though that 1925 map shows a glorious network of streetcars, it also hints at its own destruction. Already, then, downtown surface routes and outer suburban routes had begun the conversion to bus routes. Buses have certain advantages over streetcars, namely the flexibility in routes and the lack of a need to maintain track in the middle of busy streets. They also have disadvantages: they are less popular because it makes it much easier for an area to suddenly lose its service, and because they carry fewer people and get stuck in traffic where streetcars could enter the Tremont Street Subway downtown.

Gradually, Jamaica Plain lost its streetcar lines. This was not an isolated incident, but a wide nationwide trend. In places such as Los Angeles, automobile manufacturers secretly bought lines and promptly abandoned them, forcing commuters to chose between riding their buses or buying their cars. In Boston, the M.T.A. was formed in 1947 to protect the city's public transit. Some lines were saved, but not even the M.T.A. could stand against the might of the automobile. The #41 was bustituted in 1949; the #43 lasted until 1956 before being cut back.4 By 1953, the network had become this:


Even after the creation of the MBTA in 1964, the #39 survived because of high ridership. 2 After the "A" Branch of the Green Line (the Watertown Line) was "bustituted" in 1969, it looked like the cuts were at an end. Jamaica Plain still had the #39 running though its heart on Huntington Avenue, Centre Street, and South Street to Arborway (Forest Hills). Designated the "E" Branch, it joined the "B" and "C" branches and the Ashmont-Mattapan Line as the last remaining streetcar lines in Boston. (The "D" Branch runs along the Highland branch, once a commuter rail line. It did not become light rail until 1959, at which time it caused a trolley shortage that led to the end of the "A" Branch.)

But the "E" Branch was a ticking time bomb. When the Orange Line moved from the old Washington Street Elevated to the Southwest Corridor (nearer to the center of Jamaica Plain) in 1987, MBTA leaders decided that the end of the "E" Branch was redundant.2 It also happened to be the only remaining part of the system where streetcars ran in mixed traffic, rather than in a dedicated center median or private right-of-way.

A streetcar along the short remaining section of street running, here at Mission Park.

So in 1985, the "E" Branch was cut to Heath Street, leaving two miles of empty tracks through the heart of the neighborhood. That section was replaced by the #39 bus, the second-busiest bus route in the system.5 6 Jamaica Plain was devastated, and furious. The MBTA called it a "temporary suspension", but the "A" Branch had taught locals that euphemism meant "permanent".

As part of Big Dig mitigation, the MBTA was required to restore streetcar service along the Arborway Line. But public opinion was mixed; many of the area's residents are young professionals who do not miss the streetcars because they never saw them running down South Huntington Avenue. What were once poor, mostly black blocks now sport newish sedans lining the sidewalks. Studies were done and plans made; on a recent visit to the State Transportation Library I found several linear feet of materials regarding restoration.

After the MBTA failed to restore service, lawsuits were filed and quietly dismissed. The T is strongly against the return of trolley service; street running track is expensive to maintain and the T's debts are already high. The last lawsuit was dismissed in January 2011, but the local papers did not even find out until August.7

The MBTA maintained the platforms (which now serve the #39 bus) in case service did return. This sign at Forest Hills is brand new, even though no Green Line trolleys have stopped in 26 years.

So where does that 154 years of history now leave the esteemed JP? It is an area in transition, a shifting mix of black and white, rich and poor, young and old. The stub of the "E" Branch serves the northern third of the area, though only the last few stops are in residential area rather than the Longwood Medical Area. The 39 bus chugs down the middle. The Orange Line rumbles through the east side of town under grade. Rusting trolley poles still populate the two miles of the former Arboway Line. And at Forest Hills, the streetcar tracks lie silent facing the shiny new signs, the last vestige of hope for those who believe that Jamaica Plain depends on the streetcars.

South Huntington Avenue, with light poles and trolley poles

Streetcar loops at Forest Hills at night

As of the 2000 census, of the 16,500 commuting JPers, 9000 rode in cars - and 7500 (83%) drive their own car, with just 1600 carpooling.1 (Numbers are rounded.) Of the 7300 who commuted by public transportation, 2400 rode the #39 bus. 4200 walked to take the Orange Line, and 600 to the stub of the "E" Branch (almost all at Heath Street6). (Just 40 rode the commuter rail to outer areas or as an express option to South Station).1

At 38,000 people in 3.07 square miles (2000 acres)1, Jamaica Plain hosts 19 people per square acre, a figure higher than any full-sized North American city and twice that of Boston as a whole.8 Such a number is much in line with European cities, which typically cluster 20 to 30 people per acre (an acre is 200 feet on a side). However, in European cities, few people drive. Trams are more common and public transportation is generally better, and those who drive typically chose extremely small cars or mopeds.

Thus, Jamaica Plain has the worst of both words: a dense concentration of people and a large number of drivers, with one car for every 5 residents. These cars add pollution to the air - and the last thing Jamaica Plain needs is worse health. The general agreement, then, is that more commutes should be converted to public transit. But the #39 bus is at capacity, and the Orange can only add a certain capacity, especially considering that it is inconvenient for most residents in Jamaica Plain. (From Pond Street, for example, it is 1.3 miles to Green Street which is inconceivable in any bad weather, and just half that to the #39 corridor.)

Jamaica Plain, then, faces several options for its transportation future, none of which are entirely palatable. The simplest is to merely leave the transportation system as is. As the #39 gets even more crowded, some riders will choose the Orange Line instead. Although it is limited in capacity, an extra thousand riders a day from Jamaica plain would be manageable. But this plan does nothing to prepare Jamaica Plain for a sustainable, healthy, clean future.

One idea considered in some of the Arborway studies was to convert the #39 bus to electric trolleybuses. On the surface, it is an attractive option. Trolleybuses can climb hills easier, produce no pollution, and consume no costly diesel fuel. However, two problems arise. First, because of the limitations of the wires, they aren't any more flexible than a trolley car. Second, this would introduce a fleet of vehicles that don't share parts with many other buses on the MBTA system. The other two electric fleets are the four routes out of Harvard Square and the Silver Line buses. To reach either yard would require diesel running down city streets.


Trolleybus near Harvard Square

The option preferred by many but not all residents is the return of streetcar service. A two-car train (three-car trains are generally prohibited from street-running) can hold 200 people (400 at crush capacity), versus 55-70 on a regular bus or 70-90 on the longer buses used for the #39.6 (Streetcars and buses run at the same frequency)9. Streetcars have an air of (ironically) permanence that is perceived as being beneficial to neighborhood growth. Were the trolleys to return, they would be there to stay.

The nuclear option is to eliminate street-running entirely and dig a new tunnel under South Huntington Avenue. Such a tunnel would be an immense undertaking: 3 miles from Brigham Circle to Forest Hills to eliminate all street-running tracks. It would be monstrously expensive and would require either a tunnel-boring machine, or else ripping up 3 miles of Jamaica Plain's central artery. The benefit, though, would be permanent grade-separated light rail service to Jamaica Plain. If Jamaica Plain continues to grow, such a tunnel may be necessary in 50 or 70 years (unless cars are phased out and streetcar service returns to dominate the corridor), but for now it is highly unlikely.

The ultimate question, though, is not just about what type of transit is best for Jamaica Plain. It also is about what type of transit those 38,000 people want. Do they want trolleys to return even if they have to mix with traffic? Would they prefer such service to gradually return in sections, or in one fell swoop? Or would they prefer more modest upgrades to the current system? It will not be an easy decision to make.

The conceptual problem extends beyond modes to fares as well. No matter what type of transportation works for Jamaica Plain, it's costly for residents to ride. 5718 households, about 2500 of them families, live on less than $30,000 per year.1 For many of them, a $40 per month local bus pass or $59 subway/bus pass ($480 and $708 annually, respectively)10 represent a hefty barrier to transit use. These costs are only expected to rise when the MBTA implements a fare increase sometime in 2012.

The two-hundred-dollar per year difference also pushes lower-income workers to the #39 versus the Orange Line. Not only is this transit inequity unfair to the workers - as they require 26 minutes (plus traffic delays)) to reach Back Bay from Forest Hills versus 12 minutes on the Orange Line9, but it hurts the MBTA by overcrowding the bus while the Orange Line runs under capacity on most trains.

It is suggested that a leveling of the cost of the Subway and Local Bus passes would help this inequity, as would the return of the trolleys (which have more precedence over traffic than do buses). However, the root of the issue is the relatively high cost of the fares. My 1949 Boston Electric Railway fare map shows the streetcar (now local bus) fare at 5 cents and the subway fare as 10 cents. Adjusted for inflation, these equal 47 and 94 cents in 2011 dollars. At $235 and $470 per year in 2011 dollars 11 (assuming 2 trips per day, 5 days per week, 50 weeks per year), the former fares were significantly cheaper: a worker could ride the Washington Street Elevated, or a #39 streetcar into the subway, for the equivalent cost of a modern bus pass - and this on a streetcar network far superior to today's.

Especially if the fare jumps significantly (and I've seen estimates of up to 80 dollars for a monthly subway pass), transit will be moving out of the range of those Jamaica Plain residents who need it most: those who cannot afford a car. But the MBTA is significantly in debt, and the money must come from somewhere. That somewhere is a conceptual question all on its own: should those riding heavily-subsidized outer belt commuter rail pay more (and have more of them drive and pollute)? What about disabled persons who cost the system $40 per ride on The Ride's specialized vehicles? Or what about those who drive only to park in MBTA lots? Should the state pay more to benefit only the eastern third? There is no easy answer.

Works Cited


1. "JAMAICA PLAIN 2000 Census of Population and Housing". Boston Redevelopment Authority. 15 December 2003. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
2. "Jamaica Plain". City of Boston. 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
3. Greer, Michael (2002). "Streetcars in Jamaica Plain: A History". Jamaica Plain Historical Society. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
4. Wikipedia contributors. "Boston-area streetcar lines". Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 31 July 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
5. (Three bus routes are almost identical with about 14,500 riders per day: The #39, the #66, and the SL5).
6. "Ridership and Service Statistics". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 2010. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
7. Ruch, John (26 August 2011). "Trolley comeback killed by court". Jamaica Plain Gazette. Retrieved 14 October 2011
8. Newman, Peter W. G. and Kenworthy, Jeffrey R. (1989). "Gasoline Consumption and Cities". Journal of the American Planning Association, 55:1, 24-3. Retrieved 13 October 2011.
9. "Route 39 Schedule". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
10. "Bus Fares & Passes". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
11. "CPI Inflation Calculator". United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved 14 October 2011.

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