Monday, March 01, 2010

Will Lowe's Continue to Misrepresent Traffic on Market Street?

Lowe's is scheduled on Thursday night to present to the Brighton Allston Improvement Association their revised plans for construction of a home improvement store in Brighton Landing. Lowe's is currently locked in a struggle with New Balance over competing development plans for those parcels.

Mayor Thomas Menino rejected Lowe's first proposal for the store in 2007 because of the traffic problems it would create.

A year-and-a-half ago Lowe's presented the first revision in their plans in which they first promised to spend $1.2 million to improve traffic signals on Market Street and North Beacon Street. If those improvements were found to reduce vehicle travel times, Lowe's representatives proposed that they should be permitted to construct their store.

In Lowe's traffic study, however, they substantially misrepresented the existing traffic situation on Market Street, stating travel times that are approximately three times longer than actual measured times. Lowe's characterization of travel times on Market Street are, simply put, way off.

Will Lowe's on Thursday continue to misrepresent the existing traffic conditions on Market Street?

In 2008 Lowe's representatives told the BAIA:
Lowe's traffic engineering consultants claim that it currently takes 14.4 minutes to travel along Market Street from Washington Street to Lincoln Street during morning rush hour, and the reverse trip during evening rush hour takes 17.6 minutes. They also claim that travel on North Beacon Street from Market Street to Union Square takes 10.2 minutes eastbound during morning rush hour or 15.0 minutes westbound during evening rush hour.
Their consultants were stating the travel times estimated from computer modeling of Market Street traffic patterns, not those actually measured in a vehicle on the street.

So what does the experimental physicist in me want to do? Measure the actual travel times. During morning and evening rush hour the past couple of weeks I made a series of timings of the travel time from crossing Washington Street to the time crossing Lincoln Street (or vice-versa). Morning timings were taken in a car and evening timings were taken from MBTA bus #86, which should be even slower than normal traffic because of the added time of allowing passengers to get on and off. [See the bottom of the post for more details on the measurements.]

Actual travel times: between four and seven minutes.

Predicted travel times from Lowe's computer models: between 14.4 and 17.6 minutes.

The results show that Lowe's predictions of travel times are three-and-a-half times too large for northbound travel on Market Street during morning rush hour, and two-and-a-half times too large for southbound travel on Market Street during evening rush hour.

The conclusion: Lowe's and their traffic consultants in 2008 massively misrepresented how bad the traffic is on Market Street.

Why Would Lowe's Massively Over-Estimate the Market Street Travel Times?

Lowe's proposed in 2008 that, if they could reduce the travel time by spending money on improving the timing of the traffic lights, then they should be allowed to proceed on constructing their box store in Brighton Landing:
[Lowe's and their consultants] claim that construction of their proposed, big box store will reduce average trip times along Market Street by 13-28% and along North Beacon Street by 3-11%...

...If there is more traffic on nearby streets, shouldn't this mean that it would take longer to go anywhere by car?

Not if Lowe's paid $1.2 million up front, prior to any approvals for construction of the store, in order to improve traffic signals in the area by synchronizing them. Lowe's insists that they will put a condition on their construction that they must first demonstrate a reduction in trip time from the signal improvements to Market Street and North Beacon Street.
But the actual travel time is already much better than Lowe's represented it to be; the existing travel times are a 50-67% improvement over their flawed computer models, much more than their proposed 3-28% improvement.

The cynical explanation is that Lowe's might be over-estimating the travel times in order to guarantee that it will appear as though their traffic signal improvements will improve the travel times. It's hard to know whether or not this is the real reason, but I am willing to bet that the BAIA asks some pointed questions at Thursday's meeting.

It's hard to imagine why a traffic consultant -- presumably paid by Lowe's for many hours, days, or even weeks of engineering work -- wouldn't bother to spend an additional hour or two driving up and down the street measuring the actual travel times. Unless, of course, the engineers made the measurements, found them less favorable than the computer model's predicted times, and chose not to make mention of the discrepancy. But that is a purely speculative conspiracy theory.

Their computer model travel times don't make any sense, either. The distance between Lincoln and Washington streets is 0.75 miles, so Lowe's model predicts average vehicle speeds of 3.1 mph in the morning and 2.6 mph in the evening. Those speeds are so slow that many young children could walk faster.

Let's hope that their traffic engineers have driver's licenses and own cars so that they can drive up and down the street a few times before Thursday's meeting.

Other Traffic Issues

Other things to look for in Thursday's presentation by Lowe's traffic engineers: whether they are using the same traffic study or a new one; if they are using the magical stroke-of-the-pen to declare "that 50% rather than 25% of the traffic would already be driving in the area on other errands"; how much the relocation of Briggs from one of the parcels is improving the traffic in the study, rather than other changes (such as a reduction in size of the store or traffic signal improvements); and how Lowe's deals with New Balance's counter-proposals to create a flyover on/off ramp to the Mass Pike and have a commuter rail station near Everett Street.


Morning rush hour northbound [measured by car]:
Average 4.0 minutes (individual measurements: 4:27 and 3:27), compared to Lowe's predictions of 14.4 minutes. Neither measurement was within a factor of three of Lowe's predictions.

Morning rush hour southbound [measured by car]:
Average 4.2 minutes (individual measurements: 4:37 and 3:50); no Lowe's prediction given.

Evening rush hour southbound [measured on MBTA bust #86]: Average 6.9 minutes (individual measurements: 7:35, 5:30, 6:50, 7:30), compared to Lowe's predictions of 17.6 minutes. Not one measurement was within a factor of two of Lowe's predictions.

Evening rush hour northbound:
No measurements or predictions.

[above right] Image of a traffic jam in India:


TedlyG said...

A couple of points:

1. What week did you take your drive time measurements, Dec. 25-31? Perhaps the end of August? Maybe you took them more recently, over school vacation week this past February? Bottom line, anyone who lives or has lived in this area knows that Market Street is prone to painful backups, more often than not caused by poorly timed lights. The largest complaint this neighborhood has had about any potential development on Guest St. is the traffic impacts on Market St. & North Beacon. The basis of your argument, that traffic is actually ok in the area, is flawed at best, sinister at worst. Brighton Landing was supposed to fix the timing of these lights as a condition of their WGBH Expansion. They did not. The proper timing of the traffic lights lights, and the ability for BTD to alter the timing of the lights in real-time, would be a huge benefit to the community. Lowe's has expressed a willingness to tie their certificate of occupancy to the completion of these traffic improvements. Has anyone ever done that in this neighborhood before?

2. You may have missed the proposal of the New Balance "vision" the other night, but they have no legitimate plan for a flyover or ramp system. They put together some barely engineered plans that include the use of the now-residential Lincoln St. as one of the off ramps. New Balance has no plans for paying for the improvements. Ty Hanlan basically explained that If he builds it (his new office tower), they (the improvements) will come. That logic works much better in Kevin Costner movies about baseball ghosts than it will in today's economic reality.

Michael Pahre said...

Measurements were made in the past couple of weeks. Text added to post to reflect this.

I made other measurements periodically over the past year-and-a-half, but didn't write them down -- since I thought the Lowe's plan was dead. Now that they are resurrecting it, I made some newer measurements. Every timing fits the same pattern: far quicker travel times than anything Lowe's represented based on their computer models.

Yep, I agree that Market Street travel times are sometimes frustratingly slow and could well be improved by signal timing. But the actual travel times are nowhere near as slow as Lowe's has represented them to be. Measure it yourself. See if you get 14.4-17.6 minute travel times between Lincoln Street and Washington Street during rush hour. I bet you don't. (When you make your measurements, post a comment below with: date, time-of-day, direction, travel time.)

The flyover was presented by New Balance at neighborhood meetings in the past few months. It may not have been in their February 2010 presentation, but they have definitely floated the idea elsewhere, so it is out there -- in case Lowe's wants to take it up.

Michael Pahre said...

Northbound, morning rush hour, from MBTA #86: 6:05

JohnT said...

Does your study mean that traffic will not be that big a factor?

Michael Pahre said...

Southbound, evening rush hour, 6:55.

@JohnT: My travel time measurements make no representation as to whether or not traffic is an issue for their development.

The point is that Lowe's is wildly exaggerating how bad the traffic is.

Not a single travel time measurement I've made is anywhere close to the travel times Lowe's claims are the current conditions.

Harry Mattison said...

Briefly setting aside the traffic issue, what financially viable use of the land would you like? If Lowe's created no traffic would you therefore embrace a multi-acre big box home improvement store? Or housing, smaller-scale retail, offices? What if we had already agreed as a community and a City on planning principles instead of reacting in an ad-hoc way to each proposal that comes along?

bostnkid said...

i lived on murdock st for over thirty years. this is the street that will be most affected by anything on guest st that attracts a lot of traffic. i MOVED because of the increase in traffic on the cut thru street. you have 3 options, you can use market st, cut through union square or if you want the fastest way you can cut up murdock. have you though about the impact this will have on that neighborhood?

Michael Pahre said...

Harry: I've got no dog in this fight for one particular proposed plan over another.

That said, you're right, as usual: there should be a city plan for what would be the best use of that area in the interests of the city, its residents, and its businesses. But, as you know, no "city plan" exists (City Planner Kairos Shen has agreed on this point), even though every Article 80 project -- of which either Lowe's or New Balance's projects will be -- must be certified to be consistent with the city plan.

Imagine if Ed Logue had been elected mayor way back when... we would definitely have a city plan today, although you might not like what's in it.

Karl C said...

The irony is that the largest travel times on that stretch of Market St are on the weekends (everyone is going to Watertown/Cambridge to shop?). I *could* see travel times being 15 minutes from Washington to Lincoln on Saturdays around noon. It can be insane sometimes.

Of course, this would be the same time of the week that I expect the greatest amount of traffic to a Lowe' they'd only be adding to the worst traffic times on Market St...

Michael Pahre said...

Note that I don't remember Lowe's in 2008 presenting computer-predicted travel times for Saturday mid-day traffic, so I am not sure how their model performs on Saturdays. We'll see tonight if they give more numbers, particularly since, as you point out, Saturday gridlock is a significant concern.

Note that Home Depot in Watertown can get quite busy first thing in the morning on weekdays during the construction time (spring to fall), so weekday traffic issues are important when evaluating the impact of a home improvement store at Brighton Landing.

JohnT said...

Elsbree of the BRA believes that Lowe's and NB can exist in the same spot. That does not seem like a bad solution. Construction people, for the most part, use Lowe's in the morning.

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Katerina said...

We're trying to fight them up here in Salem too.
They gave a couple false facts at the last traffic hearing, and it went so bad, that the hearing has to be continued. Good luck on the fight! for everyone's sake