Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 FACT SHEET No 132

March 2002 

BOSTON'S ARBORWAY DILEMMA - TRAMS OR BUSES

INTRODUCTION

Years of unrelenting disagreement in Boston (Mass) between those strongly advocating the return of light rail to Arborway and the concerns about the effects on the rest of the system and the loss of parking along the route has reached a climax. The "trigger" for resolving this stand-off came in the form of an instruction to the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) to re-open the outer end of the GREEN line route "E" to Arborway. This ruling by the DEP (The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection) was made after the MBTA had failed to prove that a tram service was "unfeasible".

PCC TRAMS CLAIMED AS UNRELIABLE

This long standing and bitter confrontation actually started during December 1985 when the Arborway tram service was rather abruptly cut-back by about 3-kms to the Heath Street Loop. At the time it was reported as only a temporary measure until some street construction work had been completed. A further delay in restoring the service was put down to a lack of reliability by the trams on this corridor (1). A promise to restart the service when new LRV's had been delivered was not kept (2) and for 16 years the MBTA has resisted all moves to switch back from bus operation. The proposed idea of 60 foot (18.2m) long articulated buses burning compressed natural gas and running at 4 minute intervals during rush hours on what has now become the busiest route in Boston did not appeal to residents. Also, the well known passenger preference for trams compared with buses has only added to the seemingly impossible task that confronted MBTA, that of producing an "unfeasible" case for trams. This was eventually summed up by a transport consultant, QUOTE "A tram service tends to control traffic whereas a bus service is controlled by traffic". For the record, the MBTA was instructed to file its time plan for tramway reinstatement by the 31st of December 2001 at the latest and it is understood that reinstatement work will start in 2003.

PARKING PROVISION - A MAJOR STUMBLING BLOCK

For the past 16 years there appears to have been a psychological struggle, firstly with the concern of the traders about loss of parking, secondly environmentalists firmly believe that buses in narrow streets are a major contribution to health and safety problems and lastly by the passengers themselves who seem to prefer trams to buses anyway (3). Although there is a mountain of evidence that light rail would be good for trade and many traders support the reinstatement, there is concern by some about the upheaval of the restoration process.

ENGINEERING PROBLEMS - DECIDING FACTORS

From an engineering standpoint, tram reinstatement would not be an easy option because of the width of the street, only 40 feet (12m) in places. One very important difficulty though, applicable to both trams and buses, is the necessity to comply with the ADA (American with Disabilities Act) standards. Working examples from Europe could probably play a major part in helping to establish safety procedures when boarding transit vehicles in narrow streets. Being mindful of this could be of benefit when reviewing the two options considered for the extension on from Huntington Avenue to Forest Hills. (4)

  1. IMPROVED BUS SERVICE : Using 60-ft long articulated buses would require a lengthening of existing bus stops sufficiently to allow the buses to pull in to give accessible boarding with the loss of some parking spaces. Although the bus would be able to get round obstructions such as double parking it does itself contribute towards traffic grid-lock by having to weave in and out near bus stops.
  2. LIGHT RAIL TRANSIT : A centre tram track shared by motorcars could load passengers safely with the footpath extended out to the tramline at loading points. The bays between these passenger loading points would remain as parking spaces for delivery vans, cars and the remaining bus services.
Although both options reduce parking the effect of light rail is greater as the MBTA proposal would not eliminate the existing bus stops. Despite this and the concern over delays in the narrow streets affecting the remainder of the system the case for retaining the bus replacement was lost.

BOSTON - BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The 37.6-km, 4 route Green Line network operated by MBTA, is one of the most heavy used parts of Boston's transit system and claimed to be handling an average of 225 000 passengers/day. (The suggestion that the Green Line trunk section would be unable to handle the extra passenger traffic if Arborway was reinstated will no doubt have entered the equation during discussions). Of the four routes that make up the Green Line, the branch that now goes to Riverside is the longest. This was a former commuter railway line which in 1959 was converted to light rail and then connected to the Green Line network (5). Less well known is an isolated tram line extending for 2.55 miles (4.1-km) from the Red heavy rapid transit line at Ashmont to Mattapan and operated by PCC type trams (6).

HESITATION AT OFFICIAL LEVEL

Reports circulating within the US Transportation Research Board give some indication of the complexity of the Bus/LRT debate and throws some light onto the "stand-off" in Boston. For instance, the GAO (General Accounting Office) report, "Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise" does little to clarify attitudes, especially the Federal Transit Administration's reported policy : "Think Rail, Use Buses" (7).

CONCLUSION

Boston, like many other places, has been caught up in a TRAM/BUS debate involving narrow thoroughfares. A vast amount practical experience in Europe though has-demonstrated that "narrow street operation" with trams is far more passenger friendly and less demanding on road space because with orderly parking bays between tram stops it will be motorist friendly also.

REFERENCES

  1. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - page 27 - January 2002.
  2. RAIL TRANSIT ONLINE - page 2 - November 15th 2001.
  3. Tramways solve traffic problems and movement of people. A well planned tramway enhances ambience and image, reduces pollution and improves air quality and contributes to the regeneration and wealth of the adjacent areas. : "The very presence of rails and overhead is a political statement ; a commitment made of steel in the road". - An extract from AFFORDABLE AND SUSTAINABLE LIGHT RAIL OR TRAMWAYS FOR SMALLER CITIES AND TOWNS (C) - page 9 - by James Harkins MCILT MILT - Managing Director, Transport and Training Limited - Warrington.
  4. Analysis of Restoration of Light Rail to the Arborway - Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority - May 2001
  5. William D Middleton - DEVELOPING METROS 1997 - page 30 - A Railway Gazette Yearbook.
  6. Thomas C Palmer Jr. - BOSTON GLOBE - 31st July 1993.
  7. United States General Accounting Office - Report to Congressional Requesters - MASS TRANSIT - Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise - September 2001

UPDATE

In 2002 The MBTA created the Arborway Rail Restoration Project Advisory Committee (ARRPAC), an official body composed of members of the community, technical personnel, representatives of city and state agencies, and other interested parties to make recommendations on restoration of the Green Line. For further information see the arborway committee website.

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