In the home of the Big Dig, you’d be forgiven for thinking that upgrading the transportation system always includes dump trucks full of money. But digging tunnels and laying tracks aren’t the only ways to move people and goods more safely and efficiently. Information, for instance, is a powerful tool. In 2009, the MBTA made its real-time arrival data available to outside software developers. New smartphone apps popped up almost instantly, making the system more predictable for riders — at no cost to the T.
In other corners of everyday life, a squeeze on public and private budgets alike has fueled a burst of innovation about how to use existing assets better. Add cheap outdoor furniture to a windswept plaza, and you’ve got a makeshift park. Similar tweaks in the transportation world won’t take the place of, say, more Red Line capacity. But little improvements in safety or usability — 1 percent here, half a percent there — add up over time to significant benefits to people trying to get around.
There are other low-cost ways to improve mobility in Boston. Here are some possibilities:
Number the subway exits
Most MBTA stations are easy to navigate. But at a labyrinthine one such as Downtown Crossing, even repeat customers struggle to figure out which exit is which, and wandering up the wrong staircase can mean a five-minute detour. In Tokyo’s frenetic subway system (pictured), the exits are numbered — exit 1 may be across a busy street from exit 2, and exit 4 is two blocks away — and businesses and tour books give directions accordingly. If the T followed suit at key stations, the likes of Google Maps could include them in directions, and send users out the right exit.
Put up wayfinding signs
When people don’t know how far away someplace is, they’re not going to walk there; they’ll drive there, or not go at all. That’s why, in Dorchester’s Codman Square, a new pilot initiative recently put up 92 detailed signs pointing out travel times, by foot and bicycle, to nearby landmarks and to public transit. “People often think it’s a 20-minute walk to the subway, and it’s 10 minutes,” says Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston, one of the groups working on the program. The signs cost a mere $25 each, and they’re a reminder that not all game-changing information comes in app form.
Parking will never be easy in a city as dense as Boston, but the least we can do is make the rules comprehensible. Brooklyn-based graphic designer Nikki Sylianteng took it upon herself to reimagine
Los Angeles’s parking signs by replacing words — for example, “no parking, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays” — with a calendar-like grid (pictured). Boston has its share of inscrutable signs too. Putting multicolor graphics on signs is easier than it used to be. Why not take advantage?
Stigmatize backpacks (and other misbehaviors)
In interviews, a few local transportation buffs stress how some users unwittingly reduce the efficiency of the T. People wearing big backpacks limit the capacity of subway trains at rush hour, but a modest public-awareness campaign — “take your backpack off” — would help. Directing bus users to exit from the rear door, so others can board faster at the front, could shave a few seconds per stop off of bus routes. Posting “walk on the left, stand on the right” signs on escalators would get people out of stations more quickly.
Murals? Improving mobility has psychological dimensions. People are willing to walk longer distances, WalkBoston’s Landman says, through areas that feel comfortable and look as if they’ve been claimed for pedestrians. Paintings on streets and walls, like this mural near Dudley Square in Roxbury, serve that purpose. Drivers respond to such signals by proceeding more carefully. This should mean fewer accidents, without the visual clutter (and brusque message) of signs that say, “hey, you, look out for pedestrians.”
Remember: Cheap is relative
The cost-benefit ratio of releasing MBTA data — zero cost, widespread benefits — is impossible to beat. But Jim Aloisi, the state’s transportation secretary at the time, argues that fairly modest expenditures can prevent vastly larger ones. Setting up a new branch of the Silver Line from Dudley Square to South Station cost $1.7 million in federal stimulus money — but reduced the need for a proposed $2.1 billion tunnel. Similarly, Aloisi says, letting Logan Airport-bound Silver Line buses trigger green lights at key intersections, such as at D Street, would require some specialized equipment. But tunnels and bridges cost more. More modest steps “may not be the most perfect solution,” he says, “but offering people some solution these days is a good thing.”