It's one of the better videos I've done, and if you have heard my talks in the past, you'll find this one pretty new.
It's one of the better videos I've done, and if you have heard my talks in the past, you'll find this one pretty new.
Any large transportation infrastructure project involves the temporary inconvenience of construction. While a new rail line or viaduct might be a lasting asset for a city, and one that continues to be useful for decades to come, short term impacts can prove disastrous for people involved in commercial activity around the construction zone, and disruptive to neighborhood residents. In some cases, business owners have even been driven to legal action by this issue. Part of the problem is that for the duration of construction, inconvience, noise, and rubble can come to define perception of the corridor where work is being done.
However, disruption can also be an opportunity. In St. Paul, a local nonprofit called Springboard for the Arts led an initiative ("Irrigate") to try to respond to the construction of the Central Corridor Green Line and support local businesses and neighborhoods through a placemaking approach. Irrigate provided hundreds of artists with training and funding to do small projects in neighborhoods along the corridor in collaboration with business owners and neighborhood groups. This grant-funded program was specifically oriented towards improving business and neighborhood viability.
Here's their video:
A program like this can help to mitigate construction impacts through direct financial stimulus to artists, indirect support for businesses through those artists' projects, and a high level of media visibility that can change the conversation or perception about a place. Irrigate's goal was for the story of the Central Corridor to be about arts, thriving businesses, and healthy neighborhoods, not the inconvenience of being in a construction zone.
As a City of St. Paul policy director puts it in an independent audit of the program:
While the City of Saint Paul tried feverishly to garner positive coverage for the benefits of transit that the Central Corridor would bring to the community, their positive message was consistently diluted in the media by negative stories about the impact of construction. As Irrigate projects began popping up along the Corridor in unexpected ways, the disruption of the many small projects quickly had a surprising impact. The magic of art started a different conversation, something that couldn’t have been predicted but was such a blessing. Irrigate’s public process engaging artists from the community to support local businesses provided a nimble and creative way to influence the narrative and change community perceptions of the value of community development. Irrigate’s approach taught the public sector that sometimes it’s alright to let go of the bureaucratic process to allow for a more organic process of community engagement.
Here, "placemaking" doesn't mean a bench or a mural; those are tactics. With Irrigate, placemaking was sustained investment in this corridor over a period of years, supporting hundreds of projects.
Apparently, Irrigate has been successful enough for Springboard to create a toolkit to duplicate the progam elsewhere; according to one piece, it's already in use in Cleveland and Mesa, Arizona. Transit agencies could learn a lot from this example when laying the groundwork for their projects. While the work that Springboard did here is probably outside of the capabilities of most if not all agencies, building connections to foster this type of action prior to a big project could prove to be a prudent investment.
Image: Springboard for the Arts
Trains would be just one layer of a comprehensive, multi-modal network that greatly enhances both neighborhood and regional accessibility for people all across the [Los Angeles] region. ...
A singular focus on rail would divide the region into two: neighborhoods with rail and neighborhoods without. Such a future would perpetuate income inequality as housing costs rise near stations and station areas would be choked with traffic congestion. ...
Getting our existing buses out of traffic is the quickest, most cost-effective means to bring high-quality transit to the greatest number of Angelenos.
This is from a collection of commentary about the the role of rail in the larger context of transit investment strategies. Read the whole thing!
That's David Alpert's frame in a piece in the Atlantic Citylab today (links added):
Jaffe, Walker, Yglesias, and Capps have no duty to support Team Transit [sic!] no matter what. They should speak their minds. And anyone who supports mass transit expansion should want it to be as close to perfect as possible.
I worry about streetcar criticism that states that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing.
But streetcars also have another set of opponents: Those who simply don’t want to fund any transit at all, regardless of its specifics. They seize on any flaw to stop projects that might change their street or interfere with their driving.
So I worry about the effects of this latest trend in streetcar criticism. While streetcar projects can and should be better, many of these articles go further and either imply or outright state that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing.
That’s not right. Perfect transit is absolutely a goal, but the perfect must not be the enemy of the good. There are plenty of reasons why a streetcar might be worth supporting, even if it isn't as long, frequent, or speedy as we might like.
I have spent my whole career helping people value what's really good-but-not-perfect in transit choices. Our difference is that in Alpert's framing of the question, the fundamental good to be defended at all costs is the streetcar technology, while to me the fundamental good is the liberty of large numbers of human beings, and their access to both happiness and economic opportunity.
Let us take Alpert's perfect-vs-good frame and deploy it differently. Many earnest American leaders visit places like Bordeaux and Strasbourg and agree their cities should look just like that. This looks perfect to them, but they realize they'll have to start with something that's good-but-not-perfect, an imperfect good.
Well, which "good" element should we start with? In Bordeaux and Strasbourg, the streetcar (never mixed with traffic) is a result rather than a cause of a whole bunch of other things: policies that limit car access, for example, so that transit of any mode can run reliably and so that it delivers people into a rich pedestrian space. The Bordeaux and Strasbourg streetcars also began with the "imperfect good" of bus services, which were used to build robust lines with actual existing markets that would support the future rail service.
Why should the "imperfect good that we start with" be the streetcar instead of a really liberating transit system run, for now, by buses? Why must we start with a hunk of decontextualized technology rather than our liberty and opportunity to go where we want to go?
Alpert goes on to make other points about why "imperfect but good" streetcars are worth supporting:
Imperfect transit can still be good for cities.
There are plenty of places on the edges of cities that could become more walkable, more urban, and have more of a sense of place. To do that, they need better transit, more amenities, and more residents—which generally means more density. When such a place achieves greater walkability and urbanization, the factors making it so strengthen over time. ... It’s a momentum game, and even an expensive, sub-optimal transit solution—such as a less-frequent streetcar with no dedicated lane —can push the cycle in the right direction.
The sheer abundance of places that need to be made more walkable is actually the strongest argument against the streetcars-in-traffic campaign. In transit, if it doesn't scale, it doesn't matter. Streetcars-in-traffic have helped enrich a few superdense districts, but they are far too slow, unreliable, and expensive to scale to the size of our urban mobility problem -- at least not as long as they remain stuck in traffic. (Once they get out of traffic, they are essentially light rail.) Nor are streetcars remotely necessary for the development of walkable, urban places.
If you want to see how a city massively expands the usefulness of transit, and thus the potential for transit-oriented lives, look to what is happening in Houston. Massive, scalable, high-frequency bus grids that are useful for getting all over the city, and that can be created now.
An imperfect streetcar might be all your city can afford—for now. ... Your city can make it better later, and may even plan to.
The frame here is: "The streetcar technology is the essential good, and people's ability to access their entire city is a nice-to-have that we hope to add in the future."
But even if you accept that frame, what's the track record of claims that modern streetcars-in-traffic, first built in compromized ways, have led to later efforts to improve them? Perhaps you should study Portland, which has been living with this product for longer than any other US city.
The streetcar has been extended up to the limits of usefulness for such a slow-by-design service (about 3.5 miles). But there are no serious proposals for taking cars out of its lanes for enough distance to matter, nor is there much energy behind extensions. Why?
In Portland, support for streetcar spending has collapsed. A recent Bureau of Transportation poll found that only 38% of Portland residents would assign a more-than-neutral priority to further expansions of the streetcar. The same number for more frequent bus service is 67%. (Light rail, in exclusive lanes by definition, is at 59%)
The Portland Streetcar has taught Portland residents a lot about what's really matters as you define an "imperfect good." Listen to what they've learned: Frequent, useful, reliable transit -- using tools that scale to the scale of the whole city -- is the "imperfect good" that matters.
Guardian journalist Bim Adewunmi recently traveled from London to New York and slammed the subway as compared to her beloved Underground. The blowback has been delightful. She seemed especially angry about the information system that isn't exactly what Transport for London would do.
The city’s subway map is dense and needlessly complex. Where in London the Central line (red) is distinct from the Piccadilly (dark blue), which is markedly different from the Hammersmith and City line (pink), New York’s map has designated the same forest green to the 4, the 5 and the 6 lines. The B, D, F and M all rejoice in exactly the same shade of violent orange. ... Why would you do this? The whole thing resembles a child’s approximation of a city transit system: it makes no sense.
She's talking about branching lines. If she were from Paris, whose elegant Métro is nearly branchless, she'd have a point. But what a comment for someone from London!
In New York's map, the common color helps you navigate the core part of a line while the numbers or letters help you sort out the branches. This is a very common way of making branching lines clear. Meanwhile, in London, where transit is presumably designed by sober adults, we have this:
No 4, 5, and 6 to confuse you! No, just a beast called the Northern Line even though it's both northerly and southerly, consisting of two entirely different lines through the central city. Is there a direct train from Waterloo to Mill Hill East? How would I know? As Clive's Underground Guide helpfully explains: "The pattern of service ... tends to change with each new issue of the timetable."
You see, Bim, Americans like maps and nomenclature systems that actually indicate where their train will go! In London I'm sure you just somehow just know what the next Northern Line train might be up to. But all that aristocratic just knowing that you Brits do is exactly why you lost your Empire!
Does building a new transit line trigger ridership? Does it even make sense to talk about the ridership of a piece of transit infrastructure?
If you say yes, you're expressing an infrastructurist world-view that is common in transit investment discussions. The right answer to the above questions, of course, is "No, but:
To the infrastructurist, this little term -- "service" -- is a mere pebble in a great torrent of causation that flows from infrastructure to ridership. By contrast, service planners, and most transit riders that I've ever met, insist that service is the whole point of the infrastructure.
If you read the literature of infrastructure analysis, you encounter the infrastructurist world view all the time, mostly in ways that's unconscious on the authors' part but still a source of confusion. This afternoon I was browsing TCRP 167, "Making Effective Fixed-Guideway Transit Investments: Indicators of Success", which includes some really useful explorations of land use factors affecting the success of transit lines. But when they talked about infrastructure features as causes of ridership, the report routinely delivered weirdness like this:
The percentage of the project’s alignment that is at grade proved to be a negative indicator of project-level ridership. At-grade projects may be more prevalent in places that are lower in density, while transit is more likely to be grade-separated in places with higher density or land value. Thus, this indicator may be reflective of density. It may also be true that at-grade systems are slower than grade-separated systems. At-grade status may reflect a bundle of operational characteristics such as speed, frequency, and reliability, although the analysis did not find that these factors individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership. [TCRP 167, 1-17]
This careful talk about how a correlation "may" reflect density or "operational features" sounds vague and speculative when it's actually very easy to establish. There is no shortage of evidence that:
So this is a case where "A correlates with B" does not mean "A causes B" or "B causes A". It means "A and B are both results of common cause C". It's important to know that, because it means you won't get B simply by doing A, which is the way that claims of correlation are usually misunderstood by the media and general public.
Later in the paragraph, the authors again describe the obvious as a mystery:
At grade status may reflect a bundle of operational characteristics such as speed, frequency, and reliability ...
Yes, it certainly may, but rather than lumping all the at-grade rail projects together, they could have observed whether each one actually does.
... although the analysis did not find that these factors [speed, frequency, and reliability] individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership
While this dataset of new infrastructure projects is too small and noisy to capture the relationship of speed, frequency, and reliability to ridership, the vastly larger dataset of the experience of transit service knows these factors to be overwhelming. What's more, we can describe the mechanism of the relationship, instead of just observing correlations: Speed, frequency, and reliability are the main measures of whether you reach your destination on time. Given this, the burden of proof should certainly be on those who suggest that ridership is possibly unrelated to whether a service is useful for that purpose.
Note the word choice: To the infrastructurist, speed, frequency and reliability are dismissed as operational, whereas I would call them fundamental. To the transit customer who wants to get where she's going, these "operational" variables are the ones that determine whether, or when, she'll get there. It doesn't matter whether the line is at-grade or underground; it matters whether the service achieves a certain speed and reliability, and those design features are one small element in what determines that.
I deliberately chose a TCRP example because the authors of specific passages are not identified, and I have no interest in picking on any particular author. Rather, my point is that infrastructurism so pervasive; I hear it all the time in discussions of transit projects.
I wonder, also, if infrastructurism is a motorist's error: In the world of roads, the infrastructure really is the cause of most of the outcomes; if you come from that world it's easy to miss how profoundly different transit is in this respect, and how different the mode of analysis must be to address transit fairly.
Whenever you hear someone talk about the ridership of a piece of infrastructure, remember: Transit infrastructure can't get people to their destinations. Only transit service can. So study the service, not just the infrastructure!
So you're on a crowded subway train on Santiago's Line 4, the dark blue line on this map. You're northbound, approaching the end of the line at Tobalaba station.
Everyone on the crowded train will get off at once. Most customers are changing to an intersecting line 1, which has side platforms on the level above. That, means you can't exit the platform at just any stairwell; each of the two stairwells goes to just one direction of the connecting line.
So customers tend to collide as they exit the train trying to get to the correct stairwell for their preferred direction, creating massive platform congestion that slows people's exit from the train. this increases the dwell times of the train and thus reduces the possible frequency, which in turn only makes the trains even more crowded.
Massive infrastructure solutions were proposed. My friend Juan Carlos Muñoz, a professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Chile, came up with a simpler solution (Spanish with English subtitles):
A gate blocking the platform halfway along it forces people to exit at the door nearest to them, which in turn teaches people to be in the correct part of the train for their preferred connection. People who try to exit the wrong exit are stopped at the staffed gate, and let through last only after the crowd has cleared. These people are irritated, and a few write to their elected officials, but most people just learn how it works, and work with it.
UPDATED: Shouldn't people have figured out anyway what part of the train to be in to be close to their exit? No, becuase in this case, there's an exit at the front end of the platform and another in the middle. Juan-Carlos explains:
There is one set of stairs coinciding with the middle of the train. Let´s call them A.
Only 40% of the passengers in this train wants to take these stairs.
Thus if we were to assign every passenger a position inside the train we would put all these passengers at the back half of the train. Then the front half of the train would be full of passengers taking the stairs at the front end of the station (stairs B).
However, a great place inside the train to take stairs A is in the back of the front half of the train. Indeed every train used to have around 120 (out of a total of around 1500) such passengers taking such a strategic position. You can see them in the video! These are the passengers causing the problem, not only because they cause the counterflow but because they force some passengers wanting to take the B stairs to enter the back half of the train. The gate forces to act otherwise leaving some room for more B passengers into the front half. They can now exit the station much faster.
So this was a "tragedy of the commons" problem. People optimizing for their own outcomes were in conflict with the most efficient way to get everyone out of the station before the next train arrived.
Note how Juan-Carlos refers to the "greatest good." The implication is that we can't let a few people's anger get in the way of solving the problem in a cost-effective way.
Are you sure that rail "stimulates development" and that buses don't? In a major report released today, the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) attacks this assumption head-on.
Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit leverages more transit-oriented development investment than Light Rail Transit or streetcars.
What really matters to transit-oriented development [TOD] outcomes? According to the report, the #1 predictor is strong government support for redevelopment, while the #2 predictor is real estate market conditions. The #3 predictor is the usefulness of the transit services -- frequency, speed, and reliability as ensured by an exclusive right of way. Using rail vs bus technologies does not appear to matter much at all.
While BRT is is having overwhelming success across the developing world, ITDP's argument is aimed at North America, so it rests on North American examples. Cleveland's HealthLine, a practical urban BRT linking two of the city's strongest destinations, emerges as a great urban redevelopment success story as well as the overall highest-quality BRT service in the US. Las Vegas, Ottawa, Eugene, and Pittsburgh's eastern line all play key roles in the argument. Las Vegas, whose busway is incomplete but is in exactly the right place to serve heavy demand, is one of the most interesting stories, where BRT is playing a key role in the remarkable pedestrianization of what used to be one of the most famous car-only landscapes in the world.
There will be plenty of quarrel over the details. But this report does represent a "coming out" for the very concept of bus-based transit oriented development. For too long, the identification of "transit oriented development" (TOD) with rail has bordered on tautological: if there wasn't rail, it was less likely to be called a TOD, no matter how useful the bus service was. In fact, almost everything that's been built in every North American inner city has been TOD in the sense that bus service -- usually of high quantity if not high quality -- has been intrinsic to the neighborhood's appeal and functioning.
This is not to say that I agree with ITDP's anti-rail view. I support many exclusive-right-of-way light rail projects, and I am not anti-rail except to the extent that rail partisans insist on being anti-bus. In most North American cities, if you're ideologically anti-bus, then you are hostile to most of your city's transit system, and to most of what transit can practically achieve in the near future at the scale of the whole city. Great transit networks are those where all the modes work together to maximize everyone's liberty. All claims for the hegemony of one mode over another are distractions from creating the most effective transit for a city as a whole.
But technology wars meet so many human needs that they will always be with us, and so given that it's best they be as balanced as possible. Bravo to ITDP for having the courage to speak up about the redevelopment value of highly useful and liberating transit services, regardless of what's going on under the floor.
The Sydney Monorail, built in imitation of Seattle's, has now been through the predictable phases of exuberance, delight, irritation, and boredom, and has finally arrived at the point of being more of an obstacle than a service. The Sydney Morning Herald interviews longtime monorail fan Michael Sweeney who says what little can be said in the thing's defense. He even uses the word groovy, reminding us (and the interviewer) that he's expressing a definition of coolness that prevailed in one historical moment. There was never any reason to assume the monorail would be cool forever.
Why? The usual things. It was conceived as part of a redevelopment, designed to be part of the excitement that would sell expensive real estate. Like many new North American streetcars, the point was solely to achieve a development outcome and nobody much cared whether it would be useful as transit, especially decades into the future.
It was a tiny one-way loop, only about 1 km in diameter, connecting some key tourist destinations into downtown. Even for tourists it had limited use because -- like most North American streetcars again -- the route was so short that you might as well walk, as most people do in this area.
As urban design, the monorail wasn't that bothersome when it sailed over the open spaces of Darling Harbour, but when it snaked through the narrow streets of the CBD, it was a heavy weight in the air on narrow streets that were already oppressive to the pedestrian.
It's not surprising that it took a new redevelopment plan to sweep away the toys of the old. Still, the calculus came down to this: It's not very useful. If you want to get somewhere on the loop, and back, you might as well walk. And there are far fewer people riding it than walking under it, perceiving it as an oppressive weight.
So it's coming down. Last ride is this Sunday.
The one on the left is "Chicago-style" seating, with most seats in pairs facing along the length of the car. The one in the middle is "New York-style" seating, with most seats facing sideways. The third is a hybrid.
Transit agencies commonly do surveys that imply that these things are just a matter of taste, as though they'll go with whatever their riders prefer. This question is not just a matter of taste. The left hand image has the most seats but the least capacity. The middle image as the fewest seats but the greatest capacity. Seats with their backs to the wall take up much less space than seats in pairs facing forward or back. And of course, any seat takes up more space than a standee in a crowded car. This is why really crowded subway systems inevitably gravitate toward side-facing seats.
So the question should be not whether you like the the configuration on the left, but whether you like it so much that you don't mind being left behind at rush hour because the train is full.
The survey asks you which configuration you prefer, and which you like better in terms of "personal space." But it doesn't inform the reader that the more forward- and back-facing seats there are, the more people will be left behind on the platform during the peak and the less ridership the system will be able to handle.
Almost all choices are tradeoffs, so when you ask the public their opinion, you need to explain what the real consequences of the options are. (At least that's my firm's approach to public outreach!)
The Atlantic Cities has a must-read about why people still fear being hit by New York subway trains, even though the subway is one of the safest ways to travel. The union representing New York subway workers is proposing a series of steps to reduce the risk of subway-person collisions, assisted by lurid graphics. It just so happens that their main ideas require hiring more unionized staff! This includes the proposal to slow down trains as they enter stations, which will slow down everyone's travel and increase the number of trains, and hence drivers, needed to maintain the current frequencies.
If subway-person collisions were common, these would be valid safety precautions. Transit agencies do take these expensive steps when an objective safety issue arises.
But as the article states, the facts are these:
And yet, subway deaths remain exceedingly rare. The fatality rate has not changed significantly over the last decade. Of the 55 fatalities on the subway tracks in 2012, 19 were suicides. The remaining 36 accidental deaths on the New York City subway in 2012 occurred on 1.66 billion subway rides. That’s one death for every 46 million rides.*
For infrequent riders, death on the rails is less likely than being hit by lightning. If you’re a twice-a-day commuter, you’re likely to be killed once every 100,000 years. ...
A significantly more dangerous feature of city life is car traffic. Even the most dedicated mass transit commuters are twice as likely to be hit and killed by a car than a train. One in 50,000 New Yorkers is killed by a car each year, and one in five hundred is injured.
If your desire to continue living is quite clear in your mind, it's very easy not to be hit by a subway train. Stay behind the yellow line. If that doesn't feel safe, stay back still further.
The real question is: Why do we reward the media for giving us lurid details of every subway fatality but not for every road fatality? The Atlantic article has some ideas about that, though I think it dwells too long on the late-20c period when New York was much more objectively dangerous than it is today.
Let's also note that some subway systems are installing platform walls with doors (like these in Singapore) opening only when and where a train door is present. These further reduce risk and are useful in stations with very high crowding, but are very expensive (Over $1m per station) and technically difficult to fit into the already-compact New York platforms. The MTA appears to be considering these, and other technological options. The goal, however, would be to increase the feeling of safety, since actual safety is already extremely high. How infinitesimal does the risk need to be before we focus our investments on other things, like more useful service?
Thirty years ago next week, on Labor Day Weekend 1982, the role of public transit in Portland was utterly transformed in ways that everyone today takes for granted. It was an epic struggle, one worth remembering and honoring.
I'm not talking about the MAX light rail (LRT) system, whose first line opened in 1986. I'm talking about the grid of frequent bus lines, without which MAX would have been inaccessible, and without which you would still be going into downtown Portland to travel between two points on the eastside. (Full map here.)
What did it look like before 1982? Here's a bit of the 1970 network (full map here).
The 1970 network consisted of bus routes radiating from downtown across the gridded eastside, which constitutes about 3/4 of Portland. If you were anywhere on this network, you had a direct bus downtown -- a slow, circuitous, and infrequent bus. Very few routes ran better than every 30 minutes during the day. Only two routes ran north-south across the east side, and both were too infrequent to transfer to, so you couldn't really use them unless both ends of your trip were on them.
How did the 1982 network transform the possibilities of mobility in the city?
If you're in a hurry, skip to "Thank a Planner!" below. But if you have a couple of minutes, let's explore more deeply how the grid transformed Portland, and why it was so controversial at the time.
In both maps above, that wavy line across the middle of eastside Portland is the Banfield Freeway, where the first and backbone line of the MAX light rail system runs today. In the 1970 image, look for the line marked "1" extending north from the Banfield in the middle of the image. This is NE 42nd Avenue (a bit of which is labeled 41st, but don't let that distract you).
In the old network the bus line along 42nd came from the north edge of the city, once an hour. Partway down it merged with another branch, to form 30-minute frequency. When it approached the Banfield, it turned west and zigzagged into the city via the Lloyd district. Once it turned west off of 42nd, it was duplicating other routes the whole way. If you wanted to go somewhere else on the eastside, the bus was not much use. Frequencies were poor so it was very hard to make a trip involving multiple routes.
If you lived on NE 42nd in 1982, you were confronted with massive change, the sort of change that makes people scream. Never again would you have a direct bus to downtown Portland. Now you would be on the new 75, which would run continuously north-south all the way across the city. And if you wanted to go downtown, you would have to transfer (as we called it in those days).
But on the bright side, the 75 would run every 15 minutes, so transfering wasn't hard. And in return, you got all the other benefits of a frequent routes that would let you connect quickly to reach destinations all over the east and north sides of the city, without going downtown.
This is always a tough sell, because many people value transit only for the commute downtown. These people tend to complain when the network is optmized to serve many kinds of trip at once, which is exactly what the grid does. A frequent grid is the ultimate in versatility, equity and freedom. It does not pick favored destinations for favored markets. Instead, it delivers anywhere-to-anywhere mobility for wherever you might want to go. Today, the non-downtown elements of the grid, especially 72 and 75, are among TriMet's most productive lines.
The grid redefined the role of transit in serving Portland's livability objectives. When you think of everything that makes Portland both livable and culturally distinctive, you're probably thinking about the historically dense and gridded part of the city. This is where almost every cool urbanist outcome of the last 30 years -- from food carts to bike lanes to office-over-retail -- has sprouted and thrived most successfully. Rail gets all the press, but the MAX light rail line would not have worked without this grid to connect with it. (The reverse is not true: the grid worked well for four years before the MAX line opened, though MAX was certainly an improvement that achieved further ridership payoffs.) As Gregory Thompson and Jeffrey Brown put it in a recent paper :
If the 1983 and 1986 restructurings had not happened, LRT would have been a competitor with the CBD-focused, poor quality parallel bus routes that already were there, and there would have been no high quality bus routes intersecting the LRT at right angles. Portland would have enjoyed much less patronage than it has since experienced on both its LRT and bus routes.
Where did all the money for the new high-frequency crosstown lines come from? Removing duplication. Look again at the your ride on 1970's route 1. Once it turned west off of 42nd, it duplicated other routes the entire way into downtown. Now look closely at the routes approaching downtown from further south in the old map. They ran on so many closely-spaced parallel streets that they were effectively duplicating one another as well, wasting service. The grid plan found many resources by removing these duplications and moving to wider and more consistent spacing of lines across the whole city. In the same process,the grid introduced the idea that it's OK to walk further to a more frequent and useful service -- the foundation for transit's link with walking (and with all of walking's public health outcomes) today.
The grid was also a radical simplification, making it easier for people to keep the network map in their heads. Now, bus lines would often follow the same street from end-to-end, so you could remember easily that there's a Division Street bus, say, and an 82nd Avenue bus. In the old network, if you wanted to go from 20th & Division to 82nd & Division, you had to go downtown and back, because these two parts of Division were covered by different routes. The beauty of the grid is that your transit directions are sometimes as simply as walking or driving directions: "Take the Division bus out to 82nd, then take the 82nd bus south." The transit lines are just part of the street.
Imagine, in 1982, the struggle involved in implementing this. Vast numbers of people lost their direct bus to downtown, at a time when going downtown seemed like the only purpose of transit to many existing riders. Transit agencies tend to listen most to their existing riders, who have adapted their lives to the system as it is, so it takes real courage for them to seek new markets instead of just catering to the existing ones. Imagine the disruption, the rage, the recriminations, not to mention the apathy from people for whom buses just don't matter, no matter what they're achieving.
Thank a planner!
If you can imagine how hard this was, consider thanking the planners who took all this abuse and persisted in pushing the plan through, because they believed in everywhere-to-everywhere networks and knew this would work if it were tried. I'm especially thinking of:
I'm dead serious: If you value being able to get around Portland in all directions, thank them. In other words, do one of these things:
Why does this matter? Because even today, there's disagreement in Portland about important the frequent grid is, or even whether a complete everywhere-to-everywhere network (which requires high-frequency buses as well as rail) should be a priority at all. Some view the grid as unimportant, for example, because they view bus service as unimportant.
Purists might argue that the grid never made it to its 30th birthday, but rather perished at 27 in 2009. That was the year that TriMet cut all-day frequencies below the 15-minute threshhold that is widely accepted as the definition of "frequent enough that you can use it spontaneously, without building your life around the timetable." Since the grid relies on easy connections to achieve its goal of easy anywhere-to-anywhere access, the 2009 cuts began to undermine the whole idea of the grid. TriMet avoided doing this in its first round of cutting after the crash, but felt it had no alternative in the second 2009 round.
Will the grid ever be restored to its necessary frequency? Will it ever be expanded and enriched (as regional land use planning generally assumes it must be) with even better frequencies? Not everyone in Portland thinks this is a priority, so you might want to express your view.
More on the history and spectacular outcomes of the grid if you click below. But even if you don't click, thank a planner!
We'll be in Hong Kong Sep 9-11; remarkably, it will be my first visit.
As you'd expect, I jumped onto Google looking for hotels that would be convenient to the rail line from the airport. Yikes!
Hong Kong boosters, help me out here. Is it my imagination, or am I seeing that:
Don't airport lines, where people are hauling luggage, need to be designed so that they plug into the network with relatively few, well-designed transfers. As readers if this blog know, zero transfers is unrealistic and sometimes you even need two to get to remote corners of the network. But five?
Of course the answer may be that the metro doesn't want to compete for airport trips. Are there other options I should use if I want to stay in, say, central Kowloon (three transfers!)?
So back to my travel needs.
Portland's regional government Metro has just launched a public feedback period on its Southwest Corridor Project. This is the most important time to be involved. For details on upcoming engagement events, and online feedback opportunites, see here. (Scroll to bottom for public meeting info.)
Most people won't pay attention to this project until a final transit project is proposed and the federal funding process is well underway. At that point, when there's little option to revise the project, everyone will be stuck in a binary support-or-oppose debate that is often angry, boring, and frustrating to all sides. At that point, too, some people will be saying that "the fix is in," that Metro was always going to build the project a certain way and that the whole public process was just window-dressing.
When we get to that point, people who were engaged in this process back in July 2012 will need to pipe up and say, no, actually there was quite an extensive public conversation before any hint of a transit line was drawn on map. The public and advocacy groups had ample opportunity to shape the entire definition of the project and its priorities, before Metro had done much planning.
The study area [Download PDF] consists of all the suburbs lying generally southwest of downtown Portland, and a large swath of southwest Portland itself. Portland's part of the corridor is shown at right. Download the PDF to see the full extent.
Even if you're not in Portland, you might want to poke around the project website just to get a sense of how broadly Metro defines its corridor studies. At this stage, the project is presented in such an inclusive way as to barely hint that it may lead to some kind of rapid transit line. This is the right tone for this point in the process. The Portland area's style with these things is to start from the question "What kind of community do you want?" -- and gradually build a case from the answers to that question toward a transportation improvement, in the most transparent way possible. The tone of these processes is always that the transit line isn't an end in itself, but a tool for a wide range of outcomes that citizens value.
This corridor has understandably been a relatively low priority in the past three decades of rapid transit development. Its catchment is relatively small as corridors go, density is low, topography is relatively difficult, and all the options for bringing any rail or BRT project into downtown Portland look likely to be very expensive. Look at the map above: The only alignment that won't involve tunnelling will approach alongside the already-level Interstate 5 and Barbur Blvd, which are right next to each other. This alignment briefly turns due east and then makes a 90-degree turn to the north -- locally known as the "Terwilliger curves." The east-west segment exploits a break in the continuous ridge of hills running north-south, and after you turn northward you're running laterally across the steep face of these hills all the way into downtown. Barbur and I-5 are flat through here only because of continuous restraining walls and viaducts, all of which will be expensive to refit for rapid transit.
Portland has already built one long tunnel to cross these hills -- the dashed red line that you see heading west from downtown. That tunnel, though, is part of the westside line, which has a much larger catchment including all of Beaverton, Hillsboro, and the so-called "Silicon Forest". A tunnel for the smaller southwest corridor will probably be difficult to pencil.
All Portland rapid transit studies are land use studies, and are ultimately about what kind of community citizens want. Still, this one will call for some spectacularly clever engineering options -- more than enough drama to engage infrastructure geeks across the continent. Stay tuned, and if you're local, get involved.
Now and then Twitter pops up something like this, from someone called @wmataplusside.
In a local ecosystem dominated by colorful critical voices (including @FixWMATA, @dcmetrosucks, @unsuckdcmetro, and my personal favorite moniker, @MedievalMetro), @wmataplusside's niche is to offer all good news:
WMATA, the regional transit agency of the Washington DC region, has a problem that afflicts almost all transit agencies: Negative feedback is constant, positive feedback is rare. Transit is an incredibly visible service; when something goes wrong -- whether in management or operations -- there's no concealing it. Media feed on negativity, so that's what spreads, and what returns amplified to the agency staff.
Experienced transit staff learn to "control" for the negativity. I often tell client agencies that if the feedback on a service proposal is only 75% negative, as opposed to, say, 95%, then that's actually pretty positive. Negatively-impacted customers respond in much greater numbers, and usually much more belligerently, than positively-impacted customers, so it's unfair to count comments as though they were votes. The same is generally true of operations; commendations of good work from customers are rare, because few bother to comment in that situation. while lacerating feedback from angry customers is routine.
This is why folks like @wmataplusside are doing someting important. When not offering his/her own positive feedback, @wmataplusside is harvesting good news from all over the local Twitterverse, and retweeting it, amplified. If you want one feed of all the good news about WMATA (and I'm sure the agency does), this is it:
@jamdizzle So pressed with @wmata! Didn't really believe they'd put the money the bus ate on my SmarTrip and certainly not within a few hours!
@jeditrainee: Love the new bus bays at Seven Corners. Going through there used to be a nightmare. #wmata
@HS1979: On a shuttle. Watched WMATA employee explain to driver how 2 help one confused young passenger. "Take care of her, ok?" IMMD
@mindymoretti: $13 cab ride vs. $1.50 bus ride. Snarly cab driver vs. uber friendly bus driver. Well played @wmata well played.
@csimpson82: My orange line train driver would have an AMAZING career in radio! Excellent job today with the stations!
@zebrafinch: Cheers, kudos to DC Metro staff Ms. Taylor (Woodley/Zoo) & Gregory (White Flint) for ALWAYS BEING HELPFUL & on task! TY! @wmata #WMATA
@zebrafinch: New and cheery lighting at formerly dark Metro station. Good! #WMATA http://twitpic.com/9e1yv5
@chrispulaski: With all my negative #wmata tweets, I have to say that more often than not, the metro workers I encounter are wonderful people.
They don't have to be specific complimnents. Expressions of sheer passion are also passed on:
@Wmataplusside also supports by being useful, extending the agency's eyes:
The user @wmataplusside took a while to track down, but here's his or her self-description.
Unrelated with WMATA, just a Marylander who grew up with the Green Line. Not really much about me. A suburbanite, born in Virginia, raised in Maryland. Ride Monday through Friday and weekends when I need to go into the city. Been riding all my life, and it's really not as sorry a state of affairs as others make it out to be.
It moves people back and forth without serious incidents being commonplace. Sure, incidents may occur from time to time, but it's not nearly as bad as the Beltway. If riding Metro sounded like listening to a bad traffic report, I could understand relentlessly hating on it.
Started the feed because I couldn't understand why so many were dedicated to being negative about it, and none positive. Goal was an outlet for compliments and comments as a means of hopefully encouraging more positive behavior by wmata employees. Answer rider questions and tweet about my experiences on rails and bus, pass along information about delays when I'm in them. Just want to provide a contrast to all of the pessimism, and another side to the #wmata conversation.
Or as he put it in a tweet:
@wmataplusside: I may look like the eternal optimist, but I'm more normal than it seems. And after reading twitter daily, more lucky than most.
If nobody is aggregating positive feedback for your city's transit system, maybe you should start! Positive feedback can guide an agency at least as well as the negative can. Probably better.
Major San Francisco transit lines take longer than they did a century ago, as they have been obstructed by traffic and slowed by heavy passenger loads using (until recently) inefficient pay-as-you-board methods. A New York Times piece by Zusha Elinson lays out the statistics.
(It's important to clarify, right away, that this has nothing to do with streetcars as a technology. You could easily be misled by this subtle bit of anti-bus bias:
In 1920, the F-Stockton streetcar carried passengers from the Financial District at Market and Stockton Streets all the way to the Marina at Chestnut and Scott Streets in a zippy 17 minutes. Today a very similar trip on the 30-Stockton, the successor to the F-Stockton, takes a half-hour if the stars are properly aligned.
In general, streetcars replaced by buses have slowed down more, over the last century, than those that remained streetcars, but that's an expression of how much more was invested in streetcars than in buses. The main lines that use the Market Street Subway -- J through N -- have picked up or shed just a couple of minutes from their 1920 times, even though back then they ran on the surface along Market St (about 3 miles) while now they're in a subway, effectively functioning as rapid transit. No such improvements were made for streetcars that became bus lines, so of course their performance deteriorated more. In fact, the 30-Stockton relies heavily on maneuverability in unpredictable Chinatown traffic; a streetcar in exactly the same traffic, unable to move around obstacles, would be even slower and less reliable.)
The real message of this story, though, is the need to have a conscious intention about the speed and reliability of transit. Highway planners ruled the late 20th century with their clearly defined notion of "Level of Service" or cars, which mowed down opposition through its simplistic A-F letter-grades. Just after 2000, the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual sought, at first, to claim this same authority-through-simplification for transit. But while the TCQOS is a spectacular reference guide, few in the business believe that a single A-F score can capture the many important ways that transit succeeds and fails.
My own work in this area has always advocated a stronger, more transit-specific approach that begins not with the single delayed line, but rather with the functioning of an entire network. Don't just ask "how fast should this line be?" which tends to degenerate into "What can we do to make those forlorn buses move a little faster without upsetting anyone?" Instead, ask "What travel time outcomes do we need across this network?" Or turn it around: How much of the city needs to be within 30 minutes of most people? -- a question that leads to those compelling Walkscore travel time maps, which are literally maps of individual freedom.
A network speed standard would identify necessary speed standards for each service type, but especially for the Frequent Network, because high frequency means greater impact of delay -- both on passenger freedom and the agency's bottom line. We* used this approach in a Seattle Transit Plan study about 7 years ago:
1. Define the Frequent Network (every 15 min or better, all day, every day), including any segments that are "Rapid" (faster with fewer stops)
2. Define the policy operating speed standard for each product (frequent local vs rapid)
3. Map the existing scheduled speeds on each segment against this standard, creating a map with screaming red segments meaning "deficient."
4. Prioritize interventions to improve transit speed based on those deficiencies.
This is quite different from a classic cost-benefit approach in which we count the riders currently on a segment and assign value based on their total travel time saved, because it acknowledges that (a) a dysfunctional segment is probably driving away customers regardless of how many are on it now and (b) the outcome is the network, not just a single line.
We had a lot of success with this in Seattle at the time. Once the deficiency map was drawn, engineers noticed segments that they hadn't identified as problems before, and went to work on fixing them. Note too that the method cleanly separates problem from solution. Don't start with what you think is possible. Start with what you need. Define the absence of what you need as a citywide problem that affects the whole network. Then fix those deficiencies. If you're going to go to war with three businesses over "their" strip of on-street parking, you're more likely to break through the "big agency attacks struggling small business" frame if you're defending the entire city's transit system.
Remember: a line is only as reliable as its least reliable point, and a journey through a network is only as reliable as the least reliable of its lines involved. So one localized problem affecting speed and reliability (such as stops too close together) actually affects a vast area, and drags down public expectations for an entire network product. If it costs the agency money (as slower service always does) then it's also a direct detriment to the overall abundance of transit service. That's the frame in which you win battles over three on-street parking spaces, a signal phase, or even an entire tranist lane.
San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is, to a great extent, the culimination of exactly this thought process. I remember in the 1980s or early 90s a time when Muni proposed to eliminate just one consequential bus stop; 17th & Mission. The story became: "Big, bad transit agency launches personal attack on the people and businesses at 17th & Mission." The TEP has worked to change that conversation, emphasizing that on high-frequency services, the speed of every segment is part of the whole city's transit outcomes. The same process has made it easier to do a range of other locally-hated citywide goods such as removing parallel routes that were too close together.
Does your city's transit system have a similar project underway, one that moves beyond route-by-route analysis and looks at how every speed/reliabilit deficiency harms the whole city's transit system?
*I was with Nelson\Nygaard at the time. The project was the City of Seattle "Urban Village Transit Network" study of 2004, which became a foundation of the Seattle Transit Plan.
Toronto transit commentator Steve Munro makes an important point, which could also be said of Sydney:
This is an important day for Toronto. We are on track for a [light rail]-based plan and for a more detailed evaluation of our transit future than we have seen for decades. Talking about one line at once, about fundraising for one project at once, is no longer an accepted way of building the city.
That's the key. The Sydney Monorail failed because it was "one line at once" -- a project conceived in isolation with no interest in being part of a complete network. And in Toronto, a city with numerous desperate rapid-transit needs, planning will no longer pit neighborhoods against each other to the degree that Mayor Ford wanted to do. Instead, Toronto can move forward on projects that fit together into a more complete rapid-transit grid -- serving "anywhere to anywhere" trips.
Finally, a warning to technophiles!! Technophile commenters will doubtless chalk this up the Sydney decision as a defeat for monorails in general. I disagree. It's a defeat for one-way loops, poor connectivity, and symbolic as opposed to actual mobility. The monorail didn't fail just because it was a monorail, but because it was a poorly designed line. Likewise, the Toronto outcome isn't a victory for light rail or a defeat for subways, but merely a commitment to better network design.
Here's a fun weekend read, by British transit-marathon champion Adham Fisher, shown at right in the process of conquering Madrid. You know you love your transit system when your community can honor exploits such as his.
I admire rail fans. Though I am sure that other nations have people who yearn after trains, I almost consider it a typically British pastime. Individuals take a day out to descend on a station where they know lots of weird and wonderful trains will pass. Notebooks in hand, they write down the numbers; cameras on tripods, they take photographs of the carriages, and a different train in an unusual location is always a bonus. At these platform picnics can be a good social atmosphere. And the amount of knowledge rail fans have is astonishing. But I don’t like public transport to that extent. I wouldn’t want to stay in one place all day documenting things. I like to move.
Rail magazines here might deal a lot with main line intercity and heritage trains. But I like city trains, specifically urban rapid transit. I try to go around underground rail networks as quickly as possible in one day, visiting every station. There is actually an official Guinness World Record for doing so on the London Underground – currently 16 hours, 29 minutes, 13 seconds – which I have attempted 11 times, often completing the system but not touching the record. I have also undertaken similar challenges on buses and trams.
This is not easy. Notebooks are required for this exercise to write the route down station by station, the arrival and departure times at/from each and the operating numbers of the trains. Cameras are required to take photographs of every station. Every so often, a challenger must ask a generous member of the public to sign a witness statement, saying they were where they say they were. Basic fitness is useful; if one wants to travel as quickly as possible, they must run when they transfer. Just one train missed could mess up the schedule entirely. Running is not restricted to stations, and neither are the participants. Guinness rules allow running or the use of other scheduled public transport to travel out of the system between adjacent stations, which can save time; the train need only arrive at or depart from the station for it to count. It is physically and mentally demanding, being up extremely early, probably not going to bed until very late, with no guarantee of success due to service delays, line suspensions and signal failures which can occur any time of any day, as regular commuters know. One of these can mean the end of an attempt if it slows you down enough and prevents you going further. And the average commuter who hates the Tube and tries to spend not one single second longer on it than absolutely necessary, will surely ask: why? Why would you want to waste a whole day underground doing something that pointless?
Admittedly, I’m not quite sure. After all, public transport is merely a mundane and functional thing, no? Designed to ferry people from home to work, A to B, and nothing else. But the beauty of something like this is that I can make the ordinary extraordinary. I can buy a travelcard and the amount of single journeys I make per attempt add up to many times that cost. An unorthodox exploitation of the system. I have been greeted with incredulity and called eccentric by some for doing what I do. Of course, it is not a normal activity; I admit that straight away. But neither is climbing a mountain. Mountains are in far away places with treacherous terrain and tangible danger. People climb mountains because they are there, and the same reasoning applies to those who choose to make much more out of something ordinary on their doorstep. Mountain climbs are many times more demanding, and I don’t think I could do one; I would rather spend several hours underground on trains than eight miles up Everest in temperatures well below freezing and extremely thin air.
No other official world record is considered for traversing a transit system apart from in New York, so the fact I have performed the feat in other cities will no doubt seem even more pointless. Having attempted the London record several times without success, I began to look at other maps, realising it could be even better to plan a route around a system where perhaps few people might have done the same. With a wealth of European metros just across the Channel, I have visited every station in cities including Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Lille. The challenges are worthwhile when completed, but being recognised for it is also a major bonus. I have been interviewed on radio, been the subject of a museum story, but the best reaction was to my first attempt out of Europe, on the Chicago L. I told one or two people I was doing it and was asked to contribute to the main CTA blog. It became perhaps the most debated story of 2011 in the comments section. A while later, three students read about what I had done and tried to do the same thing, but were slightly slower. Articles were written about them and my name started to be dropped as the “record holder”.
Next thing I know, I am contacted by the CTA to be informed its President, Forrest Claypool, wants to write to me personally. Which he does, also sending me a special Chicago-styled station sign with my name on. Such recognition is, in many ways, better than a world record. Has any other transport authority honoured an individual for riding its system to extremes? No Guinness certificate but I can joke about having a station named after me.
Paris yielded another special run, and led to my other public transport project. At the same time as planning the excursion, I happened to be writing a song with my friend Annanem called Métro, which listed every station in alphabetical order. I was being discussed and thought that if we finished the song in time, it could be another promotional tool. So we put it on YouTube the week before I went out. A short clip was played on French radio to accompany an interview I gave them.
Afterwards, I thought of returning to Paris to play the song live, having been told it was very off the wall. Only having the one tune and hoping to secure a gig, I asked several people if they would like to write songs, poetry, anything, about a rapid transit system of their choice. Enough material was submitted for an album, which I compiled and called the Metro EP (cover at left). All artists were given the collective name 1000 Stations.
I and two other contributors launched the album in Paris, playing it in an arts venue and also giving out CDs to a few people on the Metro, explaining what it was about. We have just played the first UK gig with the project and hope to release it very soon.
That is an example of public transport creativity. An album was born out of my tendency to use public transport in an unorthodox fashion, which I think itself is a bit creative – devising the potentially quickest way to go around a rail network, poring over maps, plans and timetables, making transfers that would seem silly to a local. And it’s incredibly exciting to do, especially when you don’t even know the city. I had never been to Madrid before, and with the route drawn up at home, had just one or two days to research properly and become accustomed to the Metro before I attempted to visit all 235 stations.
Doing this is an interesting way to see a city. I talk to people who wonder why I have just jumped onto a train at full speed, taking photographs and writing furiously. I do make time to experience some culture and sights, but that has never particularly bothered me. Landmarks may be seen from metros as several run above ground. And just as interesting to me are the local areas; from the built up blocks of inner Chicago ...
to the vast plains beyond Madrid’s city boundary ...
The Tube Challenge has gained popularity in recent years; there are a few websites dedicated to it and an entire online forum bustles with record holders and hopefuls. The New York Subway’s Ultimate Ride has had followers for decades; the Amateur New York Subway Riding Committee was founded in 1966. Moscow has had English teams flying out to tackle its architecturally magnificent Metro. Others have tried Paris, and I am sure several people have been all the way round on small networks like that of Glasgow.
You might consider having a go at this. Not necessarily at a fast pace, but how you like. I know of someone who visited every Paris Metro station in six months. Break out of the box, make as many journeys as you can, ride on every single piece of track, tell the system what you want to do. You will have a different perspective of a city. Regarding my Chicago journey, a spokesman for the CTA said “We have a lot of people in Chicago who ride the L every day and would never even think of doing anything like this.” So you’ll be one up on the locals and join an elite club. And even if you are thought of as eccentric, someone might say to you “I couldn’t do that”. Like me with mountaineers. And rail fans.
That was the slogan of this 1912 advertisement for the first segment of subway rapid transit to open in the Boston area, the Cambridge segment of the Red Line. Thanks to the TRB History Committee.
Toronto readers, today's Globe & Mail everything you need to know about Mayor Rob Ford's dream of building expensive subways under low-density suburbia, thereby spending billions that could be spent expanding actual mobility (and access) where it's most needed and demand is highest. The article is about the crucial Eglinton corridor, an obvious grid-element that could help thousands of travellers get where they're going without having to go through downtown, thus adding to capacity problems there. But the same logic applies to an underground extension of the Sheppard East line toward Scarborough, which the mayor has also mooted. Reporter Adrian Morrow has done his homework (not just by talking to me) and he carefully sets aside all the main talking points of the suburban-subway advocates.
Bottom line: Going underground is expensive, so we do it only when we really need to! Responsible planning fights hard for space on the surface -- especially in space-rich low-density suburbs -- before sacrificing millions just to get transit "out of the way" of cars.