Friday, July 21, 2017

PVTA: 31 (Sunderland/South Amherst)

Finally! Our first PVTA review! As you may know, I'm doing a Summer Transportation Institute at UMass, so it makes sense that the first review out here would be of one of the system's UMass routes. The 31 is actually one of the busiest routes on the PVTA, and even in the summer, it had a good amount of people. Let's take a look!

The bus at Sugarloaf Estates.
We started at Sugarloaf Estates, a housing development in Sunderland. From there, we made our way down Old Amherst Road, passing houses with farmland just behind them. There were a few small businesses as the street curved south, then we merged onto normal Amherst Road, passing a few more apartment complexes.

Coming onto Amherst Road.
There were some businesses with parking lots continuing south, then we got some really beautiful scenery with farms, woods, and the occasional house. We eventually got to a point where there were a few industrial buildings, businesses, and houses, then it was farmland and woods again. It continued like that for quite a while until we finally turned onto Meadow Street, where there were some houses and yet another apartment complex.

A field.
This street took us to North Amherst Center, which consisted of a few historical buildings and businesses. Here, we turned onto North Pleasant Street, taking us past lots of houses and more apartment complexes. There was one last farm and a few more houses, then we came into the UMass campus, and the scenery changed dramatically.

One of the housing developments.
We went through a roundabout, then there were university buildings everywhere. Some were old, some were modern, and some were awful brutalist constructions. We made stops at the Graduate Research Center, Integrative Learning Center, and Fine Arts Center, the three main stops at UMass. Along the way, we got a nice view of the campus pond with the tall library in the background.

An earlier bus at UMass.
The street curved to the left and we more or less left the UMass campus, but there were still a few straggling university buildings. Next, we turned onto East Pleasant Street, going around a park, with a few businesses on the other side. Soon there was retail on both sides of the street, and we came into lovely Amherst Center.

Amherst Town Common.
South of the center, we went by Amherst Town Common and Amherst College, along with a few houses. We got an absolutely amazing view of rolling fields and hills for a brief moment, but after that it was mostly residential. Eventually, we turned onto East Hadley Road, which took us past more houses before we got to the route's terminus: Boulders Apartments. The bus slowly looped around the complex in order to turn around and head up back to Sunderland.

Man, I love this view!
PVTA Route: 31 (Sunderland/South Amherst)

Ridership: Like I said, this is one of the busiest routes on the PVTA - third, to be exact, with 5,114 riders per day! An even better figure is the passengers per trip, for which the 31 is number one, with a whopping 67 riders per trip. Since it was summer, ridership was a little lighter than that, but there were still about 30-40 passengers on my ride!

Pros: It may not seem like it based on a lot of the scenery I described (the route does pass through a lot of farmland), but this route serves a lot. Not only does it go by lots of apartment developments for off-campus students, who absolutely need this route, but it's also one of the many buses plying the busy route from UMass to Amherst Center. Also, the schedule for the 31 is great - it's every 15 minutes on weekdays, while on weekends and summer weekdays, it's every 45 minutes.

Cons: This is a really minor thing, but I wish the route was better coordinated with the 30, the other key player on the UMass to Amherst Center route. On weekends, both routes run at different frequencies, so it's harder to do, but on weekdays, they both run every 15 minutes with a 6 minute gap, then a 9 minute gap. It doesn't seem like it would be that hard to coordinate them a little better...

Nearby and Noteworthy: I'll have plenty of opportunities to talk about Amherst Center, but this is one of the main routes that serves it. Amherst Center is awesome - there are lots of interesting businesses and great restaurants everywhere, and for the most part, it's very walkable.

Final Verdict: 9/10
The 31 is just great. It's a well-used route, it's frequent, it serves a lot, and it's actually a really pretty ride at certain points! It may experience crowding during the school year, I imagine, but at least the all-door boarding can mitigate that to some degree (UMass routes are free). I still wish it could be better coordinated with the 30, though...it would be so easy to do!

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Westborough

Westborough, Westborough, Westborough...it's a modern Commuter Rail station with a ridiculously high footbridge. That's about its only notable feature...

Yup, that's a huge footbridge.
Westborough has a sizeable lot, with 448 spaces, but according to this page, the lot fills up pretty early on in the day. There are also some bike spaces - the T's website claims 4, and unfortunately I don't have any pictures to confirm, but there were definitely more than 4 bikes when I was here. Up by the station, there are some newspaper boxes and old honor boxes.

The station...from above.
Most of the platform is low-level, and it's what you would expect from any modern Commuter Rail station. There are shelters on each side, even though I can't imagine many people going outbound from here, and other than that, it's mostly just benches and signs. The big wall on the outbound side is interesting, to say the least.

The outbound mini-high platform.
The station's mini-highs are also standard. They're sheltered, and they have benches, maps, schedules, wastebaskets, and signage. One annoying aspect of Westborough is the siren that's supposed to go off whenever a train is coming in - when we were here, it went off all the time, regardless of whether there was a train or not.

Somewhere in the bowels of the footbridge.
I honestly have no idea why Westborough's footbridge is so high, but it is. It's definitely a notable part of the station - long ramps curve around and around to get up to the top, passing through little mezzanines with benches in them. Luckily, there are also stairs. Of course, we can't forget that the footbridge is showing its age, with a lot of rust. This place is only 15 years old!
UPDATE: Thanks to Skull for commenting - the bridge was built this tall to allow double-stack freight containers to pass through towards Beacon Park Yard, which is now closed.

A train coming in.
Station: Westborough

Ridership: This is only the sixth-best station on the Worcester Line in terms of ridership, but it's the Worcester Line, so Westborough still gets a bunch of people: 759 inbound riders each weekday. You can imagine that the 448-space lot may not be enough to hold them all...

Pros: Westborough has all those classic amenities of any modern Commuter Rail station. It's accessible, there's plenty of shelter, and the station has lots of seating. And the footbridge, for all its problems (which we'll get to), is at least very unique.

Cons: Yeah, but everything else about the footbridge is pretty bad. Why is it so high? How is it rusting so much, so quickly? It seems like it would be an absolute pain to have to use it every day. Also, the parking doesn't seem sufficient, and that's including the fact that they expanded the lot in 2006. Additionally, the tracks pass right through Westborough Center, but no, of course there can't be a station there. Finally, there's that incessant siren that never seems to shut up.

Nearby and Noteworthy: There are some shopping centers north of the station, but they're a mile away and it's not a pedestrian-friendly walk. Oh, also, there's this:
It seems to be part of some office park, but I have no idea what it could possibly be used for or what its significance could be. But it definitely stands out!
UPDATE: See Adam Gaffin's comment for a truly brilliant explanation of the former company that occupied this office park. It was an insane place!

Final Verdict: 5/10
Westborough basically gives you everything you would expect from a modern Commuter Rail station, but slightly worse. The parking seems to be insufficient, the siren is just never-ending, and the footbridge, although it's unique, is slowly falling apart and really high up. Sure, there are a lot of "fine" things about Westborough, but it has some substantial problems that drag it down.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Greenfield (Amtrak)

Welp...I'm officially jealous of Greenfield. Their bus system, the FRTA, only gets about 155,000 riders annually, yet they get this absolutely amazing terminal! Some of the T's antiquated hubs can get that much in a week! Oh well...as long as we're out here, we'll take a look at Greenfield Station and the John W. Olver Transportation Center.

The Amtrak platform.
We'll start with the Amtrak station, since it really isn't much. Serving the Vermonter once a day, the stop is little more than a wooden mini-high platform with benches on it...and yet, I really like it! It has this amazing woodsy smell and a surprising amount of character, especially for such a new construction.

I've got a publicity shot for you, FRTA!
My gosh...this building is just beautiful. The architecture is so modern, and yet it somehow captures the rural nature of Franklin County perfectly. Did I mention it's net-zero? There's a gigantic solar array set up to the south of the building to generate electricity.

The bus boarding area.
The bus boarding area is great, with benches underneath the shelter of the building, along with wastebaskets. There's also a bike shelter that had a surprising number of bikes in it, considering how middle-of-nowhere the FRTA usually is. This outdoor area even has a little picnic table alongside the tracks! Unfortunately, car parking is limited to only a few half-hour short-term spaces.

WOAH.
And now we get to...the inside. Ohhhhhh my gosh, the inside. Where do I even begin? There are lots of benches, both waiting-room style and in table formations. Along the wall, there are some lovely paintings, as well as a bunch of charging stations, including chargers for every type of phone.

This is AMAZING.
Further down the terminal, there are television screens showing live bus departures (they unfortunately weren't working when we were here). Beyond there, you've got a ticket machine and a ticket booth, as well as schedules for every FRTA route, and every route that the FRTA connects to. I mean, come on, how many amenities can a place have?? It's also worth noting that the paper for the FRTA schedules is WAY better than the paper for the PVTA or MART schedules. Take that!

Of course I always have to get this shot!
Oh man, this place has some nice bathrooms. They're modern, functional, and squeaky-clean! Heck, the doors to the bathrooms even have an accessible door-opening button! Outside the bathrooms, there's also a set of water fountains.

The atrium.
Moving towards the front of the building, we get to the atrium. This area has more benches, more artwork, and stairs and an elevator up to the second floor. The upper level has FRTA offices, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, and, apparently, a meeting room!

The front of the building on Olive Street.
Station: Greenfield (Amtrak)

Ridership: Assuming most FRTA ridership comes from this hub, I'd estimate that about 500 people use it every day for the bus, give or take. As for Amtrak, the station got 5,885 riders in 2016, meaning about 16 riders per day. Peter Pan and Greyhound buses also serve the hub, but I can't make any assumptions about their ridership. Still, I think one thing is clear: very few people use this place.

Pros: Uhhhh...everything? I mean, my gosh, it's all so perfect! The building's exterior is gorgeous, the Amtrak station has a ton of old-timey character, the bus boarding area works great (aside from a rather tight loop for full-sized buses), and the inside is just unspeakably amazing. From the multiple types of seating to the incredible chargers to the impeccably clean bathrooms, I have not a single complaint about the customer experience here.

Cons: One thing: there's no long-term parking! That's a big problem for Amtrak passengers who are going long distances, probably for a few days.

Nearby and Noteworthy: I didn't get the chance to explore downtown Greenfield, but I've heard good things about it, and Google Street View makes it look like a nice little town center.

Final Verdict: 9/10
Yes, the short-term parking is definitely a problem, but that's not the true reason this place is getting a 9. No, it gets a 9 because it just doesn't feel necessary. I mean, look at T stations like Sullivan with more bus routes than the entire FRTA system and more ridership in a week than the FRTA gets in a year, yet they're decrepit, disgusting, and falling apart. Why does Greenfield get the big, beautiful, expensive hub that's going to be used by so few people? Oh well...as a station, it's near-perfect and I absolutely love it. I just wish it was in a place where it was more necessary.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

WRTA: 11 (Union Station Hub - The Fair Plaza via Vernon Hill and Greenwood Street)

I'm not trying to stereotype, but...are all WRTA drivers really mean? I mean, Nathan and I tried to go to the end and back from Walmart on the 11 twice. The first time, the driver wouldn't even let us on, so we ended up on the 1 instead; we were able to do it the second time (with a lot of sass), but we got a lot of flak for it. Here is the fruits of our labor...

The bus at the end of the route.
At its terminus, although the route loops through The Fair Plaza to turn around, it doesn't actually let passengers off in there - they have to board at street stops. I'll, uh, save this for the "Cons" section. Anyway, we headed up Greenwood Street, which was mostly residential aside from a few offices here and there.

The stop where passengers have to get on; the mall is behind me.
Next, we turned onto Spofford Road, which was entirely residential. This led us to Upland Gardens Road, taking us through Autumn Woods, an apartment development. We turned onto Upland Street after that, which went up a steep hill past trees and houses.

A residential side street.
Upland Street eventually led us back to Greenwood Street, which was industrial for a little while. Soon, though, it became a dense, varied neighborhood. There were apartments, businesses, and other different kinds of buildings all along the road. After a school and some more retail, we turned onto the wide McKeon Road, then Tobias Boland Way.

Going over train tracks on McKeon Road.
This took us to Walmart, where we picked up some passengers. Next, we turned onto a road in the middle of its parking lot, serving the second stop in the complex. After that, we made our way around the back of Walmart, back up to McKeon Road, over Route 146, and up Providence Street.

Looking down a hill.
We went under some telephone wires and past a residential development, then it became mostly dense apartments, which continued as we turned onto Upsala Street. As we went over a hill, we also passed a school in between the residences, then we turned onto Vernon Street. This took us on a downward slope past dense houses and a few businesses.

Another hill!
We passed the Vernon Medical Center and a church soon after, but it was still mostly dense apartments. After going over I-290, the road became Green Street, and it was suddenly almost all retail. We went under the Commuter Rail tracks, then made our final turn onto Foster Street, which took us to the WRTA Central Hub.

The bus that wouldn't let us on, back at Walmart...
WRTA Route: 11 (Union Station Hub - The Fair Plaza via Vernon Hill and Greenwood Street)

Ridership: This is one of four contenders in WRTA's "1,000 Riders Club," boasting the fourth-highest ridership on the system, with 1,108 per weekday. On my ride, there was strong ridership from shoppers, as well as local residents in some of the neighborhoods.

Pros: The 11 serves a lot of southern Worcester, including some very dense residential areas and some desirable shopping areas. It also does so with surprising frequency for WRTA standards, running every half hour on weekdays and every hour on weekends. It's also great that the ridership turnover is so good, with people getting on and off along the whole route.

Cons: I'm not one to suggest a deviation, but directly serving The Fair Plaza would be way more convenient than the current street stop...not to mention the route goes in there to turn around! I mean, come on, really? Common sense! Put a stop in there! I'm also a little dubious about the every-hour schedule on Saturdays; I could see it getting pretty crowded with headways like that.

Nearby and Noteworthy: This route takes about the same amount of time to get to Walmart as the 4 (maybe a few minutes slower at most), but it's a lot more frequent.

Final Verdict: 8/10
Despite the mean drivers giving me an initial bad impression of the 11, it ended up being a great route! It's generally frequent, although it perhaps could stand to run more often on Saturdays, and it serves a lot of Worcester. Although come on, put a darn stop in The Fair Plaza already and stop inconveniencing people!

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bonus Review: FRTA: 23 (Sutherland/Greenfield)

I still have more WRTA routes to cover, but I figured I'd start interlining the PVTA stuff in between them to vary it up a bit. Except...what's this? Yes, my first PVTA review isn't even a PVTA review, but an FRTA review! This is a system I've been wanting to ride for ages, and it absolutely met my expectations.

Arghhh, not a minibus!
FRTA has always struck me as a transit system that thinks it's way better and more important than it is. They have these sprawling routes that never run, hardly get any passengers, and go into the middle of nowhere, yet they all have fixed stops, shelters at stops to serve literally a single store, and, on a few of the routes, full-sized buses. Not to mention the agency has a beautiful website, a gorgeous modern transit center (which we'll get to in another post), and an upcoming smart card system. Geez, all this for, like, six middle-of-nowhere routes?

The inside of the bus.
The point of the 23 is to connect to the PVTA's 31 (which, again, we'll get to in another post) and take UMass commuters to Greenfield. The route used to go all the way to Amherst proper, but now it's cut back to Sugarloaf Estates, a housing development in Sunderland. Sam and I got on the minibus from the 31, and with a few passengers on board, we were off.

The entrance to the development.
We headed up River Road, which quickly became South Main Street. It was lined with houses set far back from the road, as well as some businesses and farms. Pretty soon we arrived in Sunderland Center, which was basically just a bunch of mismatched businesses with parking lots. It wasn't much of a town center...

Sunderland Center.
Past the center, it was again a mix of houses and farms. After going by a particularly large specimen of the latter, we entered the woods, which really was just trees aside from a few houses hidden behind long driveways. Next, the street became Montague Road, and the houses started to appear a little more often...then it was pure woods again.

Wow, it's pretty out here!
It became farmland after that, with huge fields stretching out before fading back into woods. Soon, the houses came back, but they were still far apart and set far back from the road. As we entered Montague, the street became Sunderland Road, and there was lots of farmland for a while.

A tiny side road.
The name of the road changed again, this time to Main Street, although the farmland and woods didn't exactly suggest anything "main." However, eventually the houses became denser, and we arrived at Montague Center. What did it consist of? Uhhh...basically just a single tiny market, a common, and a library. It wasn't much.

Welcome to the Montague Village Store! I'm impressed by the shelter, though...
We turned onto Center Street, taking us out of the center past more farms, then we turned onto Federal Street. The scenery was mostly the same, aside from a random auto shop in the middle of the woods. Later on, there was another anomaly: a store selling tractor equipment. Wow, we were really out there...

Turning onto Federal Street at a cool-looking intersection.
The pattern of farms, houses, and woods continued on, with one particularly long stretch of forest featuring a railroad bridge over the road. We also entered Millers Falls along this section. After some more houses, we went over a different set of railroad tracks, then curved around past a restaurant and an industrial building.

Making a turn.
As the houses suddenly became dense, we entered downtown Millers Falls by turning onto Main Street. This was a proper town center, although by "town center" I mean something like the lonely main street of some wild west town. Next, we turned onto Franklin Street, going through a rather nice dense residential neighborhood.

Some houses.
We turned onto Newton Street at the end of Franklin, then we headed south down Bridge Street, looping around back to where we started. We turned back onto Main Street but continued on it this time, until it became Millers Falls Road. The houses thinned out and we once again entered the forest.

Goodbye, Millers Falls!
We reentered Montague and went through a brief industrial area surrounding the Turners Falls Municipal Airport. Next,we entered a residential neighborhood, but pretty soon after we arrived, we turned onto Cross Street in order to deviate to serve the...Turners Falls High School. Come on, FRTA, it's summer! Don't pull a GATRA on me!

No no no no NO! We don't need to serve this!
We returned to Millers Falls Road, continuing through the first generic suburban residential area on the entire route. Eventually, the street curved northward and became Unity Street. It took us past Scotty's Convenience Store, which is considered a major timepoint in the schedule, plus it gets its own FRTA shelter!

Making a turn.
Union Street curved down a hill, then we turned onto the residential Park Street. It merged into 7th Street, then we turned onto L Street, going by more houses and even some apartments - it was pretty dense! Next, we turned onto 3rd Street, then A Street, the main drag of downtown Turners Falls, and it was really interesting. A lot of the businesses were...hipstery! I never thought I would see anything like it out here! It seemed like a really nice downtown.

Looking down Avenue A.
There were more varied businesses as we continued down the street, as well as a park and a post office. After going by a little shopping plaza (another major timepoint), it became industrial, then we merged onto Montague City Road. It was residential again, but one side of the road was occupied by a huge golf course.

The golf course.
The course was eventually replaced by woods, but houses still occupied the other side of the street. It stayed residential for a while until we passed a sizeable hospital, another major timepoint. After some more houses, we went onto a really shaky, rickety bridge over the Connecticut River, taking us into Greenfield. It was a great view, but it was really hard to get a picture because the bus was shaking up and down!

Man, I love the Connecticut River.
The houses continued on the other side, although we also passed a recycling plant and some industrial buildings. The road briefly became Cheapside Street as it went under two separate railroad bridges and alongside the Deerfield River. Next, it turned into Deerfield Street, where we went by some industrial buildings, including the FRTA garage, where a New Flyer Midi appeared to be sitting!

The garage.
Eventually it became residential again and we were paralleling the Green River. The occasional business mixed in with the houses, and then it got a bit industrial as some train tracks occupied the right side of the road. Finally, we went under them and curved around into the Olver Transportation Center, which we'll be covering...next post! Or...two posts from now! Or something...

The bus in Greenfield.
FRTA Route: 23 (Sutherland/Greenfield)

Ridership: I can only find ridership data from when the route went to Amherst, and at that point it got 11 riders per day from two trips - so about five per trip. Since they cut it back to Sunderland, the route gained two extra trips per day, and mine had five other people going out and three coming back. Honestly, for a rush hour-only minibus route that runs through the middle of nowhere...that's not bad!

Pros: The 23 serves an important purpose in that it connects towns in Franklin County to UMass for students and workers. The transfer to the 31 is easy and free, and many of the route's riders use it. FRTA is changing the route to take a completely different road to Montague, skipping out on Millers Falls, which makes sense - it will speed up the run and get riders to where they're going faster. There are other routes that already serve Millers Falls.

Cons: Not much - sure, the ridership may be pretty low, and the route's subsidies are high, but it's still an important lifeline for UMass commuters.

Nearby and Noteworthy: I really liked Turners Falls, from what I saw of it! This definitely isn't the easiest way of getting there, though; buses on other routes run there every hour throughout the day.

Final Verdict: 8/10
Wow, it's actually a good route! Or, at the very least, an important one. I definitely can see why they only run this thing outside of rush hour, but when it does run, it gets well-used by people coming from and going to UMass. Plus, the ride is beautiful!

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Sunday, July 16, 2017

WRTA: 1 (Union Station Hub - Mount Saint Ann via Providence Street)

The 1 used to be the shortest, stubbiest little route, and I always wondered how the heck it could possibly get ridership. Ever since the demise of the 22, though, the 1 has been rerouted to cover some of the lost service, as well as extended to Walmart for...some reason. Sure, why not?

The bus at the busy Central Hub.
We headed down Grafton Street after going around a rotary. The street went under the Commuter Rail tracks and paralleled the elevated I-290. Soon, Grafton Street went under the highway and got pretty industrial, but a block later we made a sharp turn up the hilly Waverly Street.

A little parking lot.
We soon turned onto Providence Street, going further up the hill and passing dense triple-decker apartments. As we approached Dorchester Street, we went by Worcester Academy and some retail, then we turned onto Dorchester. This took us even further up the hill...and then back down, very steeply.

Woah!!!
Alongside Worcester East Middle School, with a park on the corner, we turned onto Grafton Street. There were a few businesses at a complicated intersection where we merged onto Massasoit Road, then turned onto Heywood Street. Now the residences were a little further apart, and there were more single-family houses in the mix.

A side street.
We passed a few housing developments, then outside of the Worcester Senior Center, we turned onto Providence Street again. After going by a field for a bit, we turned onto Holcombe Street, which was a steep road going back up the hill. Next, we turned onto Granite Street, continuing to ascend alongside more triple-decker apartments.

Along Granite Street.
Eventually, we arrived at the Holy Name High School, and it turned out that this was a deviation to serve it. Now the bus had to turn around, and it struggled to make it around the very sharp bus loop. We retraced our steps all the way back to Providence Street.

This is all the bus has to turn around??
We continued alongside that field from earlier, as well as more apartments - including some buildings. The road went by another school, then after some pylons, it grew a lot wider. We crossed Route 146, then turned onto one of its service roads, Tobias Boland Way. This took us to our final stop: Walmart.

The bus at Walmart.
WRTA Route: 1 (Union Station Hub - Mount Saint Ann via Providence Street)

Ridership: Back in its short state, the 1's ridership was pretty bad: 265 people per day. Admittedly, our trip only had about 7-10 people on board, so it hasn't increased too much since then.

Pros: The 1 definitely serves a purpose, and many of the residential neighborhoods it covers are dense. The schedule is generally sensible, with service about every hour, seven days per week.

Cons: It's not quite every hour - the times shift by five minutes every once in a while throughout the day. Also, the route is really indirect, and it's definitely not the fastest way of getting to Walmart. Speaking of Walmart, why doesn't the route do the same loop that the 4 and 11 do? It's really unclear that it doesn't serve the stop along the loop, as Nathan and I found out when a bus passed us by because we had no idea it wasn't coming our way.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Still, there isn't much of note along the rest of the route, so...I guess I'm gonna have to say Walmart here.

Final Verdict: 6/10
The 1 is a fine route, serving local residential areas once an hour. It does have a few problems that could be ironed out, like the weird five-minute shifts or the fact that it loops around at Walmart differently. Still, these are relatively easy fixes.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates
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