The Historically Referential Parking Garage?

On Friday G and I took a brief (Shabbat-shortened) trip into Boston. Not wanting to be constrained by the infrequent commuter rail schedules, we drove from Sharon in to Quincy/Adams station on the Braintree branch of the Red Line, conveniently (for us) located just off of I-93. The cavernous parking garage was most empty when we got there around 10:30 (though, curiously, it was much fuller when we got back around 2:30). In many ways, Quincy Adams represents the worst of modernist, auto-oriented park and rides–it has 2,538 spaces, of which almost a quarter sit empty on a given day, and is completely inaccessible by foot for some of the dumbest reasons I’ve ever heard, as Andy from pointed out to me on Twitter. Nevertheless, Quincy Adams worked well for our purposes, and going there gave me a the opportunity to note something remarkable (if perhaps not intentional) about the architecture of the aforementioned 2,500-space garage.

First, an illustration of the car-orientedness of the area around the station, from DHK Architects, which has done some work on the garage:

Here’s a picture I took from the internal walkway a story up from the ground connecting the two halves of the garage.

Phone picture, 12/26/14

Phone picture, 12/26/14

Seem familiar? Here’s another view, from ground level:

To me, the towering dual garages, with an open atrium in the center covered by a high ceiling or window, immediately call to mind the famous, Cass Gilbert-designed Building B at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Check it out:

The Brooklyn Army Terminal’s rail stop is perhaps most famous for having once hosted Elvis Presley as he departed for his stint in the Army; two former LIRR coaches once used in an Elvis movie sit inside the atrium. Today, the glass covering the soaring atrium is sadly gone (though the atrium being open to the air has allowed a sukkah to be built inside!), and the tracks inside the building are, I believe, no longer connected to the national network, even as cross-harbor freight traffic has again picked up. But plenty of grandeur remains inside Building B, which is now occupied by various private commercial concerns. I highly recommend this photo essay from Scouting NY, one of my favorite sites.

I’ve been unable to find any proof that Boston architect Valdis Smits, who seems to have designed the Quincy Adams complex, intended the comparison to Building B. But it seems too much to be coincidental. The soaring atrium of Building B is a famous, epic motif, one instantly recognizable to a certain community of architects, planners, and transportation geeks. Both Building B and Quincy Adams fulfill(ed) a multimodal role, aggregating people from a wide geographic range and concentrating them into a more efficient mode of transportation. It’s possible that Smits’ inspiration was another building; commenters on the Scouting NY piece note that Gilbert’s design for Building B is very similar to the Ford plant in Highland Park, Michigan, and that Gilbert designed other buildings along similar lines. But for me, the inspiration and reference was clear the moment I walked into the atrium of the parking garage. Perhaps even the worst of Modernism still has the power to express something of meaning.

Think I’m crazy? Know something about this? Comment!

Ridership and Parking Utilization on the Providence/Stoughton Line

Inspired by a vocal discussion on Twitter last night

Park-and-Rides are one of the most controversial topics in planning and transit circles. Some contend that such facilities encourage unnecessary car use, while others believe that in the right circumstances they can reduce car usage. One example of a notoriously unsuccessful Park-and-Ride facility that came up on Twitter last night is the massive garage at the extreme southern end of MBTA’s Providence/Stoughton line, Wickford Junction, Rhode Island. Opened in 2012 at a cost of $44 million, the station includes a massive, 1100-space garage that is supposedly aesthetically modeled (on the outside, presumably) on the historic Lafayette Mills building nearby. Suburban American kitsch is the best kitsch.

Via RIDOT on Flickr, here’s the garage as completed….

03 19 12-Wickford Station 042

And under construction in 2011.

Wickford Junction Station 4

The payoff for all of that investment? A massive, staggering number of riders–a full 159 inbound boardings per day in 2013, as you can see in the handy-dandy ridership map provided by the MBTA in their 2014 Blue Book.

There are few words for the amount of fail that the Wickford Junction project represents. To (perhaps) justify the investment, the station would need to attract nearly seven times the number of boardings it currently sees every day. And that’s to say nothing of the in track, trains, and crew costs that were necessary to extend commuter rail operations that far south in the first place. The overly rosy projections for Wickford Junction ridership date back as far as the 2003 Environmental Impact Study RIDOT conducted for the commuter rail extension, which contains the following helpful predictions:

2003 EIS

2003 EIS

Given the dire situation in Wickford Junction, then, I was intrigued by the situation along the rest of the Providence/Stoughton Line (and by the system as a whole, but hey, let’s start with one line, that’s easier to get a handle on). Here’s a spreadsheet with ridership numbers and parking capacities at all of the stations between Wickford Junction and Hyde Park (I decided it would be silly to look at Forest Hills and Ruggles, where things are complicated by the presence of the Orange Line). Ridership data is from the map above, parking data is from the MBTA website.

Since the sheet doesn’t display well on WordPress, full link is here. In graphic format, the patterns look like this:

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

A few things jump out.

1. The Rhode Island stations south of Providence are obviously a hot mess. If money had to be spent on extending MBTA service down there, the way to do it wasn’t to build fancy stations and then only run a few trains per day. Frequency matters. That should have been obvious from the beginning, but it’s exceptionally clear now.

2. Providence is a nice example of an urban station that doesn’t feel the need to provide huge amounts of parking to attract riders. New Haven could learn a lesson.

3. At the highest-ridership suburban stations on the line (South Attleboro, Attleboro, Mansfield, and Sharon) parking capacity is only about half of boardings, suggesting that many people do indeed walk or get dropped off (these station don’t have much in the way of feeder bus service–Sharon I know for sure has zero).

4. Stoughton and the Canton stations are an interesting case. Parking capacity doesn’t come close to matching the number of boardings–but according to the MBTA’s data, each station has 40% or more of its spaces available on a given day. Stoughton and Canton are relatively walkable despite a dearth of feeder bus service; presumably, many people walk or are dropped off at these stations, and others park for free on town streets to avoid MBTA parking charges.

5. Despite its entirely car-dependent location, Route 128’s parking remains underutilized by several hundred spaces, even taking combined MBTA and Amtrak ridership into account.


A few lessons seem apparent. First, MBTA and the agencies it works with have a problem with overestimation of parking demand–and in that, they’re certainly not alone among American commuter rail operators. Not every lot along the Providence/Stoughton line is underused, but the more monumental ones (Wickford Junction, T.F. Green, Route 128) certainly are. Operators and planners should let the demand for parking come to them, rather than trying to anticipate how it will develop. By all means, reserve space for a garage if necessary, but don’t built it until demand makes itself known. And for god’s sake, tell the locals to charge for parking too, or they’ll take away all of your paying parkers! And remember, even at the best-utilized park-and-ride stations on this line, it certainly appears that around half of riders don’t park to ride the train.

Second (and this may seem obvious, but MBTA and friends don’t seem to have grasped it) the quality of the built environment around the station matters. One of the CityLab articles I linked to at the top argued that distance from the city center should be the determining factor in the decision to build a Park and Ride facility; I’d substitute characteristics of the local built environment. Providence/Stoughton stations that are embedded in relatively walkable areas–Providence, Stoughton, Canton Center, Canton Junction, Hyde Park–exhibit very weak parking demand. Old New England towns don’t exhibit a linear progression from urban to suburban, and planners should pay attention to that. I don’t have much of a problem with Park and Rides in very suburbanized areas, but we shouldn’t be expecting people to drive half a mile from home to the station if they can walk it.

Small Cities, Big Roads: the Story of American Infrastructure

I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging recently (though I did post my final papers), but the semester’s over now (thank God), so here’s a fun little celebration post.

Chuck Marohn and the crew over at Strong Towns, among others, have been doing a good job documenting the absurd overbuilding of American infrastructure. I spend too much of my time daydreaming by zooming around the country on Google Maps, and in doing so I’ve noticed a trend that I think typifies the kind of obscene overbuilding that has so thoroughly screwed up the American transportation system.  As it turns out, many, many small American cities have ridiculous bypass roads that must have been built at great expense to taxpayers. I’m not talking about freeways, mind you; I approve of not destroying towns with those things. I’m talking about much smaller highways, the kind where driving through a small city isn’t going to cost you too much time or make you slow down from 70 mph. And the impact of diverting those highways to save a couple of minutes can be devastating to smaller towns or cities; the highways are often the economic lifeblood of a smaller town, and pulling cars away from Main Street and to a bypass can kill a town for good. (That being said, I should acknowledge that sometimes communities do ask for bypasses, to get traffic off their roads or because they think it will preserve a small-town way of life.)

Without further ado…multiple examples of the genre of “Small American Cities with Big Bypass Roads!”

Westerly, RI (Population 22,787): RI-78

Burlington, WI (pop. 10, 464): WI-36 (bypass opened in 2010 at the cost of $118 million. Remember, this is Paul “fiscal conservative” Ryan’s congressional district)

Bennington, VT (pop. 15,764): VT (actually extends a little into New York too) 279. This one’s special because it bypasses a good bit of countryside too:

Upper Sandusky, OH (pop. 6,596): US-30

Xenia, OH (pop. 25,719): US-35

Those are just a few examples; I’m sure there are dozens more. I’m also sure that some of the citizens of these towns prize these bypass roads, thinking they divert fast cars and loud, heavy trucks from local streets. And maybe they do. But as the Burlington example demonstrates–and I remember seeing the road under construction on a family roadtrip to Wisconsin when I was in high school, and marveling at the vastness of the earth-moving in a totally rural area–the costs, both fiscal and ecological, are enormous. Aren’t there better ways to calm traffic, keep people moving, and keep the economy pumping than these enormously wasteful exercises?



Paying Lip Service and No More to Multimodal Transportation in Maryland

Earlier tonight, Alon Levy, Daniel Kay Hertz, Dennis Griffith, and I got into a Twitter discussion about the worst placements of commuter rail and rapid-transit stations in pedestrian-hostile environments:

During that discussion, I brought up the example of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport Rail Station. The placement of the station itself is whatever; it’s not intended to serve local development, there are relatively frequent shuttles to the airport itself, and as Alon has argued, mainline rail connections are the most important kind of airport connector (of course, BWI is also served by the Baltimore light rail system). What’s more remarkable about BWI Station is that, if one zooms in far enough on Google imagery, one can see a little walkway, the kind that parks put in over wetlands, leading away from the station to the west. The walkway connects the station to two office complexes just about a half-mile away.

Walking directions from BWI Station to the Maryland Department of Transportation

Walking directions from BWI Station to the Maryland Department of Transportation

I don’t know what entity occupies the northern building, but here’s the truly ridiculous, depressing thing: the southern building is the headquarters of none other than the Maryland Department of Transportation. I suppose that, just barely, the MDOT headquarters is within a half-mile of a station with active transit service…but come on. This isn’t TOD. Does anyone think that passes for a transit-accessible, or even walkable, location? Does someone maintain that walkway in winter? MARC service isn’t exactly frequent, and that location can’t be well-served by other modes. Is there a better illustration of a state “transportation” department paying lip service to a commitment to multimodal transportation, while really serving its roots as a highway department?

PS: We’re looking for a good hashtag to describe the situation where a transit agency places a station in a location entirely hostile to pedestrians, or where the surrounding developments cut themselves off from an adjacent station. Suggestions welcome.

UPDATE: See the comment from noted transit activist Ben Ross below–the MDOT building was there first, and the walkway was added later in an attempt to compensate for the location.