Fixing Kendall Square’s mobility challenges

New report offers great ideas; here’s some more

TRANSPORT KENDALL, a partnership of the Kendall Square Association, the city of Cambridge, and the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, recently issued a report that appropriately underscores that transit, bicycling, and walking are central to Kendall Square’s economic success. Its core argument is spot-on correct: “Kendall Square now needs to aggressively pursue transportation solutions to anticipate and meet the needs of this rapidly growing economic area.”

As a commuter to Kendall Square for the past decade who has watched as gravel lots became office towers and apartments, as well as a transit app developer and board member of TransitMatters, I applaud this report, but it is missing several key points. Let’s take a look at what the report gets right, and how it can be improved.

First, the report rightly envisions a completed “Grand Junction multi-use path alongside new public transit service connecting West Station in Allston, Kendall Square, and North Station.” That path would provide the first genuinely safe bicycle crossing of the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge, and would be an important piece of building a gap-free network of protected bicycle facilities. In the future, it would link with the Somerville Community Path being built as part of the Green Line Extension, as well as the proposed Mystic to Charles Connector, extending the path network to Sullivan Square, across the proposed Casino Bridge, and connecting to the Bike to the Sea trail linking Malden, Saugus, and Lynn.

Running rail transit on the Grand Junction line is an essential component of a sustainable and regionally equitable approach to regional mobility, providing access to jobs for people living in communities from Worcester to Allston. The report rightly notes that passenger rail transit on the Grand Junction has regional rather than merely local impacts, allowing people in Allston and the tens of thousands of riders on the clearly booming Framingham/Worcester line direct access to Kendall. For the Grand Junction to work, it will need to be run with reliable, fast subway-like electric multiple unit, or EMU, trains. These run fast enough to provide good service and avoid burdening the area with diesel exhaust. Building this rail service will require the state to commit to completing West Station sooner than 2040, when it is reasonable to expect that the Kendall area will have several million more square feet of commercial development.

The report correctly identifies the Red Line as the backbone of transit access to Kendall Square. It notes that the theoretical capacity of the current system running a train every 4.5 minutes (about 13 trains per hour) is around 20,000 riders an hour, which was already exceeded by over 20 percent in 2016. (The recent Red Line derailment and signals damage has led to substantially reduced frequencies.) And the report correctly says the MBTA must deliver not just on new train cars but on the promised capacity increase to trains running every 3 minutes. That may require fixing various bottlenecks, and not accepting degraded performance. The difference between a train every 3 minutes and every 4.5 minutes is not 90 seconds; it’s 10,000 riders an hour. That’s the difference between good service and chaos.

Buses also get significant consideration, which is appropriate given how many people they move despite the drawbacks of current service. There are four bus routes that serve Kendall Square: the 64, 68, 85, and CT2. During the PM peak in 2004, these buses came every 20, 30, 40 and 20 minutes, respectively. Today, they come every 30, 40, 50 and 30 minutes: a 10 minute longer wait for each bus, mostly because the buses are stuck in traffic outside of Kendall Square. That means in 2004, despite 50 percent fewer commuters to Kendall, the T was providing 50 percent more bus service! (The EZRide Shuttle, which serves different markets, has increased service since then.)

Bus priority lanes would make a big difference, as the report says. A recent MBTA data analysis showed that bus priority on Mt. Auburn St. saved several minutes on a typical day, but on the days when traffic was particularly bad it saved almost 10 minutes, which is enough to avoid making people late for work or school. The report also calls for some buses to be extended to Kendall, rather than stopping at Lechmere, namely the 64 from Brighton (which does so at rush hour already) and Waltham (the 70 and 70A, with their woefully irregular schedule), and suggests a new “CT4” bus connecting Sullivan, Lechmere, Kendall, and Kenmore; this would cleverly share the Lechmere-Kendall bus priority route proposed for the EZRide shuttles. Assuming it would take the Mass. Ave. bridge, the CT4 would be all the more reason to demand bus priority to overcome the frequently horrific bridge traffic, which can be slower than walking.

Unfortunately, the report loses some impact by failing to address several substantial mobility challenges which, if resolved, can make substantial improvements in mobility in and around Kendall Square – challenges that we already know how to overcome, quickly and affordably.

Most prominently, the report makes no mention of building the Red-Blue subway connector. Without this, Blue Line subway riders from East Boston and the North Shore have to ride three different trains to get to Kendall. A recent state study concluded this short extension under Cambridge Street in Boston would be feasible and cost an estimated $200 to 250 million. This connection would enhance the inner core subway system by reducing crowding on the Red, Orange, and Green lines.

With a Red-Blue Connector, everyone working in Kendall seeking access to Logan Airport will be able to ditch Uber and Lyft and take an easy, efficient transit ride directly to the airport. The MBTA recently added the connector to the new Capital Investment Plan, but as Banker and Tradesman editorialized recently, it needs more funding to be sure it can be built before 2026, when Massachusetts General Hospital’s massive construction projects there will be completed. Given the impact to Cambridge Street—which is sorely in need of a surface rebuild itself—combining the projects would be an efficient use of funding.

The report also fails to reckon with the necessity of bus priority outside the Lechmere-Kendall corridor, even though it notes that “people travelling between North Station and Kendall face severe congestion on shuttle buses.” The report recommends running 15 EZRide buses an hour at rush hour—one every four minutes—up from the current 7 or 8 an hour. In theory, those buses would be able to move about 800 people an hour. However, as is the case now, during many evenings those buses will be severely delayed due to car traffic between Lechmere and North Station. That greatly reduces the number of people who can be moved in an hour by each EZRide bus. Green Line Extension work will require replacement buses for over a year along the same route from Science Park to Lechmere, and those buses will be caught in the same congestion as the EZRide buses.

Peak demand for the Green Line from Lechmere and Science Park approaches 1,000 passengers per hour, enough to fill another dozen buses, or more. And the boom in development nearby at the large Cambridge Crossing development will push demand for transit to Lechmere still higher. Those riding Green Line bus shuttles must have bus lanes from North Station.

Bicycling is given short shrift. The report fails to articulate a vision for a comprehensive network of protected bicycling routes, which could induce a massive increase in the number of people bicycling to the Kendall area. The Grand Junction path is a good component of such a network, but having a network is transformative. The city of Calgary, Alberta, found that out when they built a network of cycle tracks downtown and doubled the percentage of commuters who go by bicycle in just a few years.

Lastly, it is disappointing that the report avoids making any recommendations about ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. The report’s mode share data is from 2014, as supplied by the city of Cambridge, and does not even include a category for ride-hailing (more formally referred to as Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs). It is clear near Kendall—as it is in every dense part of the Boston area—that ride-hailing pickups and drop-offs are constant.

Without better management, including designated loading zones, the customers of such vehicles will continue to cause hazards for those using more sustainable modes of transportation, most obviously people walking and on bicycles. Haphazard pick-ups and drop-offs, and “deadhead” travel by empty vehicles, continues to cause traffic and congestion. Better management, designated TNC zones, and possibly even a peak-hour congestion fee, may help alleviate some local congestion. The Red-Blue Connector will provide a viable transit alternative to many TNC trips that originate in Kendall heading for Logan Airport.

Meet the Author

Andy Monat

Board member, TransitMatters
The Transport Kendall report is a useful and important call to action.  Our economy and our quality of life depend upon a transit and rail system that provides access to people in a reliable, efficient, and frequent manner. Such a system fulfills the core message of the Governor’s Commission on our Transportation Future – the need to move more people and fewer vehicles. I hope that Transport Kendall will consider embracing the additional measures I have identified here, offered not as criticism but in the spirit of building upon their excellent work. We at TransitMatters look forward to supporting their work in a collaborative way.

Andy Monat is a TransitMatters board member and the creator of mbtainfo.com.