Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Blue Bus Grows Up

A striking characteristic of the Cambridge biotech scene is how it is concentrated in an urban setting. While there are a lot of biotechs elsewhere in Massachusetts, the Hub's hub is clearly a 2+ mile long zone. One challenge this offers is getting to work via Boston's transportation system.

Boston doesn't have an awful transportation network, but it isn't golden either. The transit system is decent, but the routes still largely follow a radial design, with routes that have changed little in the last half century (I kid not; I've seen a map that old & it takes a careful eye to find the differences). An extensive network of commuter rail feeds the downtown, but is split between two termini separated by a mile. The highway network has a number of gaping gaps, due to a mass cancellation of uncompleted highways in the early 1970's. However, this wasn't necessarily bad for biotech; I've spent half my career in offices that would literally be in the middle of the road should those highways have been built (for example, this very different vision for 640 Memorial Drive than a genomics-based pharmaceutical company).

The commuter rail option presents a particular challenge. One station, South Station, is connected to the Red Line subway which has two stops (Kendall & Central) proximal to many biotechs. The other station, North Station, has terrible connections to Cambridge, other than the perhaps future expansion of the zone into the Cambridge-Charlestown-Somerville interzone. But, if you live north of town it's either deal with getting from North Station to Cambridge or brave I-93. So, by multiple subway connections or a tortuous pedestrian path through Mass General's campus to the Red Line, a not tiny cohort of biotechies has made their commute this way.

Then about five years ago a new option appeared. Little blue buses promising a single seat ride from North Station to Cambridge, with a twisting route designed to be near nearly every major employer in the zone. Called EZRide, for $1 anyone can ride, but better yet the larger employers offer ride-all-year stickers.

The service was a bit slow starting up & went through a few hiccups, but over time it has been impressive. If memory serves, the initial frequency was every 30 minutes; this has been steadily dropped so that now a bus shows up every 8 minutes during commute time. However, demand has grown even faster; during core commuting times the bus is at its legal limit, with only ~30 seats and less than a dozen legal standees.

But a couple of weeks ago the announcement came out: a new vendor would be running full size buses on the route. And last week they showed up. On the one hand, there are more seats -- but not as many as one might think due to the layout. On another, more legal standees and less of the EZRide shuffle -- having to exit the bus at the early stops to let people off, as if you were standing you were a cork in aisle of the old buses. The longer buses don't handle the tight turns as well but do away with the most unpleasant aspect of the old buses: their short wheelbase combined with Cambridge's potholes yielded an amusement-park quality bumpy ride (particularly unpleasant if you made the mistake of leaning against the wheelchair lift).

EZRide isn't run by the transit system, but rather by a quasi-public entity called CRTMA which is charged with improving transit into Cambridge. The director, Jim Gascoigne, is energetic and personable and often on the scene, particularly when weather or accidents snarl require emergency re-routing.

In some ways the EZRide highlights issues in Boston. The T does an okay job, but it apparently never occurred to them in several decades that a market existed for a route from North Station to Cambridge. I've also seen the truly surreal quality of Boston from the blue bus: due to some construction, one Boston police officer directed the bus to stop in a new location, where the driver was promptly berated & ticketed by a second Boston officer. This is the town where the mayor had major apoplexy when a nearby airport added Boston to their name; transportation issues are about turf battles as much as moving people around. The planners also have a fondness for expensive megaprojects (the current shopping list can be found here). Several of these would have important benefits for the biotech zone -- for example, the proposed Urban Ring would run right through it & connect the zone to the Longwood Medical Area.

However, perhaps what is more realistic are more EZRide-like services, perhaps connecting to the south (Brookline, Brighton/Allston) that have surprisingly poor connections, or to the large transit hubs to the north (Wellington, Anderson). A direct connection to Charlestown wouldn't be a bad concept either.

In the meantime, I'll keep riding EZRide. And anxiously awaiting my train line(s) getting the free WiFi service a few lucky commuters have gotten to pilot. One more good reason to stay off the road and out of my car!

1 comment:

Randy said...

Thanks for posting, I check your blog regularly and always enjoy your posts!

I visited Boston briefly for "Bio 2000" and saw the Big Dig in progress.

Boston seems like a bike and pedestrian friendly city, much like Seattle in that respect.

I enjoyed strolling through the Commons, we don't have anything like that in Seattle, although the new sculpture park is kind of cool and a step in the right direction.

As a side note, I recently purchased an older HP server and plan to download a copy of the human genome to it. I'm trying to educate myself in Bioinformatics by reading and with hands on work. I plan to use Linux and an open source database program, then see what I can do in terms of devising my own homology search tools.