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.
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.
I'll be leery of Toronto Star interviews in the future, because I explained my view carefully and that's not how it came out:
Jarrett Walker and Rob Ford (see Rob Ford’s policard) don’t have much in common. One is an Oregon-based transit consultant, the other Toronto’s chief magistrate. One blogs avidly, the other disdains the media. Whereas Ford rails against the “war on the car,” Walker touts the virtues of buses.
But on one issue, at least, the policy wonk and the conservative politician agree: streetcars are overrated. Walker is decisively on one side of a new debate in the U.S., over whether the trendy form of rail transport springing up in American cities makes practical sense.
My actual view is too long for a soundbite but should not have been too long for an article. My view is that streetcars mixed with private car traffic are overrated. I was very clear with the reporter that all of my critiques of the US streetcar revival movement are about streetcars in mixed traffic. In the Toronto context, I specifically distinguished between the old downtown Toronto mixed traffic streetcars, which are nearly inoperable due to traffic impacts, and Toronto's exclusive-lane light rail segments such as Spadina and St. Clair. None of my concerns about streetcars apply to the latter.
Here's the bottom line. Streetcars are just a tool. They can be used in smart ways and in stupid ways. Asking a transit planner for an opinion about a transit techology is like asking a carpenter what his favorite tool is. A good carpenter sees his tools as tools and chooses the right one for the task at hand. He doesn't use his screwdriver to pound nails just because he is a "screwdriver advocate" or "hammer opponent". Yet the Toronto Star assumes that nobody involved in transit debates is as smart as your average competent carpenter.
To call me a streetcar advocate or opponent, you are imposing on me your own assumption that the bus-rail debate is the most important conversation about transit. This is the Toronto Star's assumption, but it's not mine. In fact, my work is about blowing up that assumption, and suggesting that instead of falling in love with vehicles, wires, and propulsion systems, we might consider falling in love with the freedom to get where you're going.
I don't have time to respond to everything that gets published on transit, but Robert Steuteville's must-read piece today on the Congress for the New Urbanism blog, which explains why we should invest in transit that's slower than walking*, certainly deserves a response.
Fortunately, sometimes an email does it for me. From Marc Szarkowski:
Perhaps you've already noticed this piece and are already penning a response (even though several already exist on your blog!). It seems to be another example of the "urban designers are from Mars, transportation planners are from Venus" phenomenon you described some time ago.
I admire and respect Robert, and I think his "place mobility" concept is quite sensible. Indeed, one can argue that the first and most powerful rung on the transportation "efficiency" ladder is to ensure that destinations are within walking/bicycling distance wherever possible, obviating the need for cars and transit in the first place, in turn freeing up the latter two for long-distance travel. But after the "place mobility" concept, I think the article begins to fall apart.
It seems to me that it's easy to romanticize slow transit if you don't have to rely on it all the time. With all due respect, I get the impression that many "streetcar tourists" use transit only occasionally when visiting a new city, or perhaps to go to a ball game, but for little else. And I get it: if much of your day-to-day travel is characterized by routinized, featureless car trips between work, shopping, meetings, and whatnot, I can see the allure in taking a break to relax and 'go slow,' as it were.
But the romantic impulse towards slow transit wears away quickly if you have no choice but to rely on it all the time! I don't have a car, so I rely on buses that travelexcruciatingly slowly, wasting much of my time. (I have, for example, learned to pad an hour between meetings and appointments in different parts of town, simply because the mixed-traffic transit takes so long to get from A to B to C.) So, rather than viewing slow transit as an opportunity to unwind and watch the street life pass by, I see it as a precious-free-time-gobbler.
I love to be immersed in street life when I'm walking, but when I inevitably need to travel beyond walking distance, I want to get there quickly. Does this make me a so-called "speed freak?" If so, wouldn't all the urban designers out there praising slow transit for others - while they hurriedly shuttle from charrette to public input meeting to office to daycare in their cars - be "speed freaks" too? The reality is that most of us - walkers, bicyclists, drivers, and transit riders alike - are "speed freaks" most of the time, simply because we prefer minimizing travel time and dedicating our precious free time to friends and family.
And this gets back to "place mobility:" it is great when many daily necessities - the grocery store, the bank, the library, the elementary school - are within walking distance. But - and this perhaps reveals a conceptual flaw in New Urbanism - not every place can or should be a self-contained "village." As Jane Jacobs argued, the whole point of cities is to offer rich opportunity - opportunity that requires travel beyond whatever a "village" can offer: "Planning theory is committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. [But] city people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (Death and Life, 115-116)."
For example, I may be fortunate enough to have a daycare center on my block, but perhaps I want to send my kids to a magnet or private school across town - a school better than my neighborhood school? So would my kids rather wake up at 5am to take a streetcar sitting in traffic to get to school, or wake up at 7am to take a faster subway or a bus on a bus lane? I may be fortunate enough to have a pharmacy on my block too, but what if the doctor I trust is across town? Would I rather take the whole day off from work to take a streetcar sitting in traffic and delayed by a poorly-parked car to get there, or could I take a half-day by taking the subway or the crosstown express bus? For better or worse, there will always be long-distance destinations, and I suspect transit riders will continue to prioritize speed for these trips.
As for the short, local trips made possible by "place mobility," I still wonder whether mixed-traffic streetcars are the best bang for the buck. Yes, they are a placemaking tool, but they're not the only (or the cheapest) one. If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don't particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we'll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead "game changing" fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and "place mobility," but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.
So far I've hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don't want to alienate any friends, but I'm increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple "technograndiosity." At the end of the day, I'd rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.
(Marc Szarkowski creates plans, models, diagrams, and illustrations of urban design, streetscape design, and planning proposals, and is a regular rider of Boston's, Philadelphia's, and Baltimore's transit systems.)
*Most new streetcars in the US have average scheduled speeds of 6-10 mph, a jogging or running speed for able-bodied adults. However, actual travel time (compared to a private vehicle alternative) includes the average wait time. Most US streetcars are not very frequent (usually in the 15-20 minute range) given the short trips that they serve, so it is the high wait time, combined with the very slow ride, that makes them slower than walking. Again, this calculation describes the experience of an ordinary working person who needs to get places on time, not the tourist or flaneur for whom delay is another form of delight.
From Henry Mulvey, of Massachusetts:
Hello, my name is Henry Mulvey, I am a tenth grader. I am a huge streetcar fan and I love the old Boston Elevated Railway. I hope to attend M.I.T. for urban planning then work the M.B.T.A. or the state on a big replica streetcar plan for the city of Boston. I just read your article saying streetcar aren't what they seem and I have some rebuttal points. I'm going try my hardest to be civil because I am a die-hard streetcar fan. The two things I see that you either underestimate or don't mention are the aesthetic appeal of streetcars and the environmental costs of buses. Streetcars look very different than buses and people like that. In the case of replica streetcars, they might not carry as many passengers as modern types but they make people think "ooh, that's cool! I want to ride!". Streetcars are more attractive than standard old buses, even an updated bus! Streetcars are also more environmental friendly than buses. Ideally streetcars do not omit any pollutants and are much more efficient than buses. I also think the connection between streetcars and economic development is well documented and you don't provide any evidence to the contrary, can you give me evidence? It's my belief that a streetcar line that uses replica streetcars does both provide great transit and showcases history. Boston is a city that loves history and has a need for streetcars so I think a streetcar would work incredibly there. Thank you for listening to me, Henry Mulvey
"I think frequency is an overrated thing. Let's say there's a 20-minute [wait]. You can look on your phone, wait inside and have a beer."
-- Portland Streetcar Citizens Committee member
Peter Finley Fry, justifying the 18-minute frequency
of the Portland Streetcar's new eastside loop,
quoted last August in Willamette Week.
Note that Mr Fry is referring to a very slow service (the original segment of the Portland Streetcar is now scheduled at around 6 miles/hr) which is useful only for relatively short trips around the greater downtown area.
If you're interested in Vancouver and missed my "debate"* with Bob Ransford about Broadway rapid transit at Gordon Price's blog Price Tags, well, it's not to late to pile on. It refers back to one of grand debates on this blog, the question of "Is speed obsolete?" raised by Patrick Condon. Gordon says our debate* the most commented piece in the history of his blog, and it's generated fierce Twitter traffic. Apparently, Bob and I will be on CKNW News Talk 980, "The Bill Good Show" on Monday (or maybe we're just taping it Monday).
The occasion appears to have been the Vancouver City Council's decision to endorse a complete subway under Broadway, which is not much of a surprise to those who've been following this for a while. Bob criticized the project on development potential grounds, and as usual, I tried to broaden the question a bit beyond that.
* an often self-glorifying term that readers should view with suspicion. In this case it refers to a published Vancouver Sun opinion piece periodically interrupted by my heckling. It all happened very fast when Gord forwarded me Bob's article, knowing exactly how it would provoke me ...
Finally, I am no longer the only international transit expert who hasn't been to Hong Kong.
Everyone who talks about transit in Hong Kong seems to talk about the MTR subway system. Yes, it's sleek, and clean, and massive in its capacity, and beautiful in many other respects. But as someone who looks to actual network outcomes, I remain struck by its lack of self-connectedness. The difficulty of plotting a logical path between logical pairs of stations, even some major ones, makes the MTR subway quite different from many of its world-class peers. Look again (click pic to enlarge and sharpen)
We stayed at Causeway Bay, on the east-west Island Line at the bottom of the diagram. What if we had wanted to get to Hung Hom, more or less directly north of there across the harbour? This is not a minor station; it's the main access point for the light-blue line that extends out of the city, up to the Mainland Chinese border. It appeared that the answer was the old one: "If that's where you're going, don't start from here." In many major subway systems of the world, you just wouldn't encounter this difficulty traveling between any pair of stations, certainly not in the dense urban core.
I did enjoy the double-decker trams that ply the main east-west trunk across the Island (mostly right on top of the MTR Island Line). They have an exclusive lane and in stopping every 500m or so they clearly complement both the faster subway and some of the buses alongside them -- the latter tending to branch off in more complex paths. The trams are certainly stately, almost surreal in their height and narrowness. I can't speak for their efficiency, but they're not stuck in traffic.
They stop at platforms in the middle of the street, some rather awkward in their access. This one is meant to be accessed only from an overhead walkway, but obviously many people jaywalk to follow the natural desire line.
Indeed, for a city so densely pedestrianized, I noticed a number of pedestrian challenges in the infrastructure.
Note that in discussing the trams in particular I am being careful to avoid the fallacy of technology-focused transit tourism. While I enjoyed the trams and folks seemed to be riding them, I don't immediately tell you that these things are so cool that your city should have one. I don't know enough about how these function in the context of the larger Hong Kong network to be able to tell you that, nor do I know enough about your city.
The real muscle of transit in Hong Kong was clearly the buses. Double-deckers, massive in both size and quantity. These, it seems, are what really moves the city beyond the limited range of the MTR subway.
I'm coming to view the double-decker as the logical end-state of bus development in dense urban environments. They use curb space so much more efficiently than their alternative, the articulated bus. The sheer volumes of people I saw being moved on these things was unimaginable on long single-deck buses. There simply wouldn't have been room at the stops.
By the way, I noted bus lanes wherever there was a lane to spare, as in Paris and a number of other world-cities where transit is essential to urban life.
On the downside, I could have wished -- as in many cities -- that the buses were more organized, and that there were a map showing how at least the frequent ones fit together as a network. Instead, I saw many signs that the buses weren't being presented as a cohesive system, but rather as a pile of overlapping products, as if from different vendors.
In fact, I nearly missed a desired bus because I couldn't find its sign among so many others.
Finally, and most important, I noted a key bit of infrastructure that identifies cities that really value buses as an essential part of the mobility system. Adequate bus facilities right where they're needed. This one is at Wan Chai ferry terminal.
There's a similar one across the harbor at Tsim Sha Tsui, right where ferries converge, and towers step down to the water, and tourists gather every evening to watch the skyline sparkle. In short, these bus terminal facilities are on unimaginably expensive real estate, but they are viewed as essential infrastructure for a network that's essential for the life of the city, just like streets themselves, so they're there. Many American and Australasian cities don't quite have this commitment; there, many still long to treat bus facilities as things that can be shoved out of the way.
Finally, before you attack me for having missed the richness and inner logic of public transit in Hong Kong, or for having noticed only things that connect with my own preoccupations, note that I was there for 48 hours -- enough time to be confronted and delighted but not enough to absorb and understand. I look forward to the chance to return to the city for a more thorough exploration.
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.
Now and then I see a professional study of a transit line -- often light rail or streetcar -- that suggests that the two directions of service should be a little bit apart from each other, say on different streets, so that they "cover more area."
This is the clearest and simplest example I've seen of the conflict between symbolic transit and actual transit. If you are creating transit for symbolic purposes -- say, to give the appearance of permanent mobility so as to stimulate development, then it's certainly true that separating the two directions, so that rails and stops appear on two streets instead of one, will spread that appearance over a larger area.
However, if you care about people getting where they're going, the one-way split reduces the area served by a transit line. That's because for a two-way line to be useful, you have to be able to walk to both directions of a service. The further apart the two directions are, the smaller the area (light blue) that will have a reasonable walk to both of them.
If you're wondering whether a project is about getting people where they're going or just appearing to do so, the handling of one-way splits is often a clue.
Obviously, one-way splits for transit are often required by a one-way street pattern, but even in these cases, when we're planning for both legibility and ease of use, planners sometimes suggest combining the two directions on one street. This can be done by giving transit a lane that allows it to travel against the main traffic direction (called a contraflow lane), so that although traffic is split between two streets all transit is on one. That maximizes the area actually covered by the line, but of course, it may reduce the area that has symbols of being covered!
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.
Here is an outtake from an early draft of my book, written at a time when I intended to confront technology choice issue more directly than I ended up doing. (There turned out to be a book's worth of stuff to explain that was even more important than that, so the next book will likely be about technology choice.)
Darrin Nordahl's My Kind of Transit argues the opposite of my view here. Since I am debating Darrin tomorrow in a webinar (for US Green Building Council members only, alas) I thought I'd post this in the spirit of cheerful provocation.
In Chapter 2 of Human Transit, I argue that useful transit can be understood as involving seven dimensions or elements.
1. “It takes me where I want to go.”
2. “It takes me when I want to go.”
3. “It’s a good use of my time.”
4. “It’s a good use of my money.”
5. “It respects me.”
6. “I can trust it.”
7. “It gives me freedom to change my plans.”
The dominant mode in a community is the one that best addresses the seven demands, compared to the available alternatives, in the perception of the majority of people. In a rural area, or a low density suburban one, the automobile meets all seven demands handsomely. You can drive to just about anywhere (demand 1). The car is in your garage when you need it (demand 2). It is the fastest way to get to most places (demand 3) and thanks to many government subsidies it is relatively cost-effective to own (demand 4). It is comparatively comfortable (demand 5). You maintain the car, so you have some control over its reliability (demand 6). Finally, it’s easy to change your travel plans mid-trip (demand 7).
In core areas of Paris, London, or New York, these same demands explain why the rapid transit system, not the automobile, is dominant. Rapid transit goes to every part of the city that many people want to go to (demand 1). It runs every 5-10 minutes for 18 hours a day or more, so there is always a train coming in a few minutes (demand 2). It can easily be faster than driving (demand 3), and is certainly cheaper given the high cost of big-city parking (demand 4). It is probably weakest in demand 5 -- the comfort and sense of respect -- but some systems do a good job at this, especially away from the crowded rush hour, and in any case the high speed means a fast trip where a period of discomfort is more tolerable. It’s reliable (demand 6) -– or at least, it’s big news when it fails, so you’re likely to be forgiven for being late. Finally, the rapid transit systems of these major cities offer a level of freedom (demand 7) that is hard to achieve in a car, which faces the constant problems of parking and congestion. You can spontaneously get off at any station, for example, knowing that when you’re ready, another train will be along soon to complete your journey.
The seven demands collectively define the dimensions of a transit service that most people in a society would rationally decide to use. If transit satisfies these seven demands, to the standards of the people that it is trying to serve, and compared to their alternatives, then the transit service is useful. useful service to denote service that is good enough in its seven dimensions that given the alternatives, many people would rationally choose to use it.
(Note that by useful (and later useless) I mean useful or useless as transportation, because that is transit's primary task, just as firefighting is the fire department's primary task.)
Now here’s a key point: “many people” may not mean “people like me.” An effective strategy for maximizing the use of transit can't serve everyone, because some people are just not cost-effective to serve, so success as a strategy may be different from usefulness to you or the people you know. If your friends will only ride streetcars rather than buses, but your town is too small to fill streetcars to the point that their capacity is needed, then your friends may just be too expensive, and too few, to be a good service investment for a transit agency focused on citywide demand. Likewise, if you live in a low-density area, and you wonder why transit isn’t useful to you, the answer may be that you form too sparse a market for transit to efficiently focus on. Chapter 10 is all about the challenge of hard-to-serve markets and how, or even whether, subsidized public transit should be trying to serve them.
Still, most public transit services aspire to attract a wide range of people, and breadth in the market is important for political support. Of course, most transit agencies cannot hope to capture a majority of the travel demand in their communities, or even to their downtowns, but they can provide services that many people will find useful -- enough to get many cars off the road and dramatically improve mobility for everyone. A great deal of research has been done, and much remains to be done, about the seven dimensions of the useful and how good transit really needs to be at each of them to achieve a city’s goals.
The key idea, though, is that useful transit will appeal to a diverse range people with different origins, destinations, and purposes. The more diverse the market that can be rationally attracted onto one transit vehicle, the greater the potential for the service to grow and prosper, and to help the city achieve higher levels of economic activity with lower numbers of cars. Again, though, some people will be too expensive to serve, and if you’re one of them, you’ll need to distinguish between your private interest and the public good.
A vast range of public comments fall into the seven values that form useful transit. Did we leave anything out? Well, what about comments such as:
“I like the logo.”
“I like what it says about my community.”
“It’s on rails, and I just like rail.”
“Streetcars make the community more attractive.”
“They gave me this really cool coffee mug.”
“It’s lots of fun to ride.”
These comments may seem to overlap some of the vaguer demands that fall under the fifth element of useful transit (“It respects me.”) but there is a crucial difference. The concept of “respect” in the definition of useful transit includes demands that are subjective and perhaps unmeasurable, but there is wide agreement about these demands in a given culture.
In most societies, at least in the developed world, most people will not choose to sit in a seat next to a pool of urine. Pools of urine in a seat indicate the failure of the service to respect the passenger, and thus a failure to be useful, because the revulsion that a pool of urine causes is nearly universal in the society.
Some cultures may react differently to a pool of urine, so clearly, the boundary of the useful is culturally relative, but it can still be defined for a given society. Useful service, in its subjective fifth dimension of “respect,” is determined by what the vast majority of people in the society, or at least the target market, consider acceptable.
But many subjective comments are not universal, such as the ones listed above. A beautiful free coffee mug may motivate some people to feel good about transit, or even to try riding it once, but most people do not make their routine mode choices based on such gifts. Even if a coffee mug lures you onto the bus or train, it is unlikely to make you more comfortable sitting next to a pool of urine. Clearly, the absence of a pool of urine is a fundamental requirement in a way that commemorative coffee mugs are not. The absence of urine, then, is part of the definition of service that “respects me,” and therefore part of the definition of useful service. The commemorative coffee mug is … something else.
For aspects of a service that do not fall within the culture’s requirements for useful transit, but are nevertheless perceived as fun, nice, good to have, attractive to tourists, etc., let me propose the term endearing transit. By this term, I mean any aspect of a service that engenders good feeling, but that do not seem to be essential for achieving ridership. The boundary between demand #5 of useful transit (“It respects me.”) and demands for endearing features such as a cute paint scheme is simply the boundary between values that are nearly universal in the culture and values that are not so universally shared, or that seem to be a lower priority in people’s actual decisions about how to travel.
Another way to think about the useful/endearing distinction is that useful features of transit encourage regular use, but endearing features encourage occasional use motivated by curiosity or pleasure, which is why endearing services are often justified by the economic rewards of tourism and recreation. Endearing transit is often about fun, or about the way that the service contributes to the community’s general “look and feel,” but it also includes obsessions with any transit technology that go beyond that technology’s usefulness.
“Endearing” may seem like a loaded word, but the other words commonly used for these values are simply too vague. We constantly hear about service needing to be more “convenient” or “attractive,” but if you press on these terms they usually come apart into some measurable element of usefulness, such as speed or frequency, plus some strong but obscure sentiment that isn’t really about the service at all. The endearing, then, includes all of the values people bring to transit that are not related to whether transit is useful, where useful is defined by the seven demands that we’ve summarized.
Endearing aspects of transit are important, because subjective perceptions unrelated to service do influence whether people choose to use transit. However, there remains a vast difference in importance between the endearing and the useful. The difference is this: Many people will use service that is useful, even if it is not especially endearing. Relatively few people will use service that is endearing but useless, with the major exception of tourists and others who are travelling for pleasure. Endearing transit may attract tourists and others for whom the ride itself is the purpose of traveling, but if the service is useless, it will not attract anyone who needs to get somewhere at a particular time, and it is these people – people who just need to get somewhere – who make up the vast majority of travel demand in all but the most tourist-centered communities.
Effective transit planning, then, must start with a diligent focus on the useful. It will make the service as endearing as possible, but it never sacrifices the useful for the sake of the endearing, unless a tourist or recreational market is its primary aim.
If tourism and recreation are the aim, the success of the service is not measured by whether it gets you where you’re going within acceptable bounds of time and cost, because there are enough people who will use the purpose solely for the purposes of fun. Endearing-but-useless services succeed or fail not on their value as transportation, but on their value as entertainment. If our goal is to add a new kind of attraction to our community, then they may meet that goal, but we must not mistake these services – essentially amusement-park rides with multiple access points -- for a useful service that many people will logically choose to ride day after day. We may all enjoy riding a Ferris wheel, but that doesn’t mean we’d enjoy commuting on one.
(Many endearing-but-useless services can be understood as amusement rides with multiple points of access.)
Perhaps the world’s most famous endearing-but-relatively-useless transit services are the cable cars of San Francisco, particularly the lines running to Fisherman’s Wharf and particularly during the daytime. Developed in the late 19th century as a strategy for serving hills that were too steep for horses, these charming vehicles have been preserved on three lines as part of the city’s identity and tourist appeal. Until recently they were presented as essential parts of the city’s transit network, but their contribution to actual transportation within the city is minuscule.  Now, because they are so specialized around tourism, recent budget cuts have raised their fares dramatically to capture their high operating cost, further separating them from the vast and integrated transit network that most riders use.
Cable cars run on tracks, but unlike other rail services they have no means of propulsion within themselves. Instead, they have handles that reach through a slot in the middle of the trackway and grab onto a cable that slides continuously underneath the street at a speed of nine miles per hour. Cable car “gripmen” learn the delicate art of grabbing this cable in a gradual way that provides some sense of acceleration, while a second crewman, the “conductor”, operates brakes located at the opposite end of the vehicle. When no braking seems to be needed, conductors also collect fares. Because the grip apparatus and the brakes are at opposite ends of the car, cable cars require two transit employees, so they cost much more to run than typical buses or rail vehicles, even before we take into account the expense of maintaining a technology that is now unique in the world.
In high season, tourists may stand in line for half an hour or more to board these cars at the foot of Powell Street. Once they reach the front of the line, they scramble to fill a car to bursting. A cable car has a small enclosed cabin, but most of its riders sit on side-facing seats that face directly onto the street without any protective railing. Around the edges of the car is a narrow platform with vertical bars. The last or most adventurous passengers stand on this platform and cling to these supports. On a fully loaded cable car, about 30% of the exterior surface consists of customers’ bodies.
Finally, off we go. In the first three blocks of Powell Street, the cable car mixes with traffic, often in severe congestion. Through this segment, the car is rarely faster than the pedestrians walking alongside it. Finally, we begin the steep climb on Nob Hill. On the ascent, the cable car has its own reserved lane, which finally allows it to reach its maximum cable-driven speed of nine miles per hour. Passengers on the side platforms lean inward as cars and trucks fly past at three or four times that speed.
When we reach the top of the hill, we go back to sharing a lane with cars, and from there to Fisherman’s Wharf we stop constantly – not just for passengers, but for the obstructions of left-turning or double-parked automobiles, delivery trucks, and so on. Perhaps we even stop for 15 minutes while a tow-truck is called to remove a poorly-parked car that is blocking the rails. In theory, the cable cars run every few minutes. In fact, they encounter so many obstacles that it would be unwise to count on them to be on time.
I lived for seven years just a few blocks from the Powell-Hyde and California cable car lines, but I used them only late at night, when traffic was low and the crowds were gone, and even then, the parallel buses were usually more useful. Most of the time, the cable cars were useless to me. Many people who live in the neighborhoods served by the cable cars reach the same conclusion, so the riders packing the cable cars tend to be mainly tourists, who are riding for recreation rather than to reach a destination quickly. After a 1993 cable car accident, the San Francisco Examiner listed all of the occupants of the car. Only two lived in San Francisco: the conductor and the gripman.
Describing the cable cars as endearing-but-mostly-useless doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them. They are a crucial piece of recreational infrastructure in a very scenic and tourist-oriented part of San Francisco. Their very high operating cost per passenger is borne by the city as an investment that pays off in attracting tourism – fundamentally the same kind of investment decision that causes cities to buy distinctive streetlight fixtures or encourage horse-drawn buggies for hire. It’s an amenity, one that makes San Francisco obviously special in ways that tourists in particular will value. Those may be good investments, but they’re quite separate from the core purpose of transit, which is to help people get where they’re going.
Again, by useful service I mean service that addresses all of the six basic demands of transit. Useful service takes you where you want to go, and when, in a way that is a good use of your time and money; it offers a decent level of comfort and courtesy, and gives you the freedom to change your plans. Nevertheless, the logo may not be to your liking, and the type of vehicle may not be what you prefer. The agency may even lack a commemorative coffee mug.
In many transit agencies, well-intentioned people are pouring their time into making useless services more endearing. Often, marketing specialists are charged with simply improving the “image” of the agency, regardless of whether the agency offers useful service. The effort isn’t totally futile, but it is often close. Although it’s harder to measure than the useful, the endearing is easier for many people to talk about. Endearment is about feelings after all, so on the surface, it’s a domain where any opinion is as valid as any other. In conversations about transit, many people focus on the endearing not because they accept transit’s uselessness, but because they aren’t sure how to talk about what makes transit useful.
To compound this problem, the features that constitute useful transit – features such as frequency, speed, and so on -- are often described as “technical.” This term misleads us in two critical ways. First, it wrongly suggests that only experts can understand these features. Second, it suggests that these features can’t possibly be as important as things we all know how to talk about, like logos, slogans, color schemes, or the indisputable “romance of the rails.”
In fact, the seven values that comprise useful transit are easy to understand if we stop to think about them. By contrast, if we ignore them in our passion for the endearing, we risk creating services that are endearing-but-useless. If this book focuses heavily on the useful, it’s not because the endearing is unimportant, but because the idea of useful transit is so taken for granted that it’s actually quite poorly understood. Explaining useful transit is the core challenge of this book.
 In a city where total daily transit ridership is around 700,000, the three cable car lines combined carried about 24,000 daily trips, as measured by the SFMTA Transit Effectiveness Project in the summers of 2007 and 2008. http://www.sfmta.com/cms/rtep/tepdataindx.htm
 This unreliability is shared by all transit vehicles that must run in mixed traffic, but especially rail vehicles, as they cannot maneuver around a small disruption – such as a poorly parked car intruding slightly into its lane – as buses routinely do.
If you've come from today's interview of me in Portland's free weekly Willamette Week, please note that while I certainly stand by my own words, my work on "rail vs bus" questions is easily misunderstood. In fact, my work is all about giving you better ways to frame the question, ones that focus on the outcomes that we want.
For a quick intro to my work on the issue, see especially these articles:
And there's a lot more in the "Streetcars (Trams)" category. A full list of categories is in the next column -->
Can transit projects be judged based on the "welfare" of various user groups?
If you know how to equate the "welfare" of a transit rider with the "welfare" of a motorist, and are not concerned with any other forms of welfare, you can do a calculation that appears to say whether a transit project was a good idea.
From a new paper in World Transit Research by Rémy Prud'homme.
In Paris, an old bus line on the Maréchaux Boulevards has been replaced by a modern tramway [the T3, opened in December 2006]. Simultaneously, the road-space has been narrowed by about a third. A survey of 1000 users of the tramway shows that the tramway hardly generated any shift from private cars towards public transit mode. However, it did generate important intra-mode [shifts]: from bus and subway towards tramway, and from Maréchaux boulevards towards the Périphérique (the Paris ring road) for cars.
... The welfare gains made by public transport users are more than compensated by the time losses of the motorists, and in particular, by the additional cost of road congestion on the Périphérique. The same conclusion applies with regard to CO2 emissions: the reductions caused by the replacement of buses and the elimination of a few cars trips are less important than the increased pollution caused by the lengthening of the automobile trips and increased congestion on the ring road. Even if one ignores the initial investment of 350 M€, the social impact of the project, as measured by its net present value is negative. This is especially true for suburbanites. The inhabitants (and electors) of Paris pocket the main part of the benefits while supporting a fraction of the costs.
So here is our plate of facts:
All that may be true. Does this mean the rail line was a mistake? Discuss.
A few days back I asked for examples of connection-activated civic squares, public squares that serve as both a symbolic and functional heart of the community, but where people connecting between transit lines form part of the square's activity. I was looking for a real-world example of something like this, which is a design for a (non-existent) square in Surrey, an outer suburb of Vancouver:
The idea arises from the desire to have bus-rail connections happen in an interesting urban setting, rather than a typical suburban bus interchange that features an area where only bus passengers would be.
First, I should answer this comment:
Isn't the idea to reduce transfer penalties, not to deliberately increase them for other ends? Getting off the train on a cold, stormy night, I think I would resent being made to animate an otherwise deserted public square - running 200m for my bus, with my umbrella blown inside out, dodging puddles. Even worse if it was on the way to work in the morning!
Indeed it is. I always want connection walking distances to be as short as possible. The square above is 100m wide, so maximum walks would be no more than that, and that's not out of line compared to what you'll do in tunnels in many of the great subway systems of the world. But I'm not sure that walking across a square is more onerous than walking along corridors or tunnels, so long as there's some reasonable alternative in bad weather. And of course the urban designers are always telling us that visual interest makes walks feel shorter. When walking along a typical subway tunnel lined with shops, I feel reduced to the status of consumer. I would much rather walk across a square on a nice day.
One reason that these arrangements are unusual, and that I should have noted, is that they require buses to be organized in an inverted couplet. In a country that drives on the right, you would expect that a westbound one-way street would be north of its eastbound partner. That's the way two-way streets normally divide. In this Surrey proposal, we set up the car traffic to do that but the buses to do the opposite in contraflow lanes. That's how we got the bus stops to be on the square rather than across the street from it. This is a great trick in situations where you already have one-way couplets of streets. It gets buses out of traffic and puts them with their doors facing each other so that they can stop at opposite sides of a square (or even just at opposite ends of a pedestrian street or lane).
(Portland's transit mall is a famous example of an inverted couplet -- the northbound street is west of the southbound street -- and if the Pioneer Courthouse Square were one block further east, it would be a spectacular example of a connection-activated square. The mall couplet does help create an effective square at PSU Urban Center Plaza, where the mall and the streetcar intersect.)
It was quickly clear from the reader suggestions that really large connection-activated squares have to be in pretty big cities. Even there, size can be a problem. Note how Lyon's Place Bellecour, below, is reduced in width by a bit of landscaping. The whole block is 250m x 170m, but the trees reduce the purely open space to about 100m wide. At that, it's still the largest clear square in Europe, says Wikipedia. There's room for two soccer fields in the remaining open space, three if that guy on the horse would get out of the way.
Place Bellecour does have a bus stop facing onto the square on the east side, but the main east-west bus movement is east on the south side, west on the north side, which in France puts the stops across the street from the square.
Many readers pointed to Berlin's Alexanderplatz, a vast and intense area that includes Berlin's iconic tower, the Fernsehturm. Alexanderplatz is technically the northeast part of this image, but it's all intimately connected.
The interaction here is between rapid transit ("U") at the center of the image and tram and bus lines. One of the tram lines extends northeast and northwest from just south of the rapid transit station. As I recall some of these trams turn to stop alongside the station (so are not activating the plaza) but others do not, so some people do walk across parts of the plaza. Also relevant are buses on both the far northeast corner of the image and on Spandauerstrasse, which is the street cutting across the southwest corner. Greater Alexanderplatz is a series of spaces where the interaction of transit and urban life is quite intricate.
A clearer big-city example is Syntagma Square, Athens. It's about 110m on a side, and seems to work well, though Google is a little fuzzy there:
Syntagma has an underground metro station on the east side of the image, including entrances right into the square. Buses are organized as a couplet, and in this case, it appears to be an inverted couplet so that the buses open into the square, but I can't quite be sure. The Athens Tram also terminates there. The position next to the Greek parliament building ensures that the square is a symbolic center of the city and nation.
Several readers suggested Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, UK. I had in mind hardscaped plazas, but this one is interesting as an example of how much transit work a grassy park with a fountain can do. It's about 120m x 90m at its widest points.
This is clearly a major tram+bus terminal, with lots of space taken up by end-of-line storage as opposed to just stops. That's part of why the transit operations seem to dominate the space to a degree that urbanists are likely to find objectionable. Note that the main pedestrian links between connecting services are paved paths across the gardens. The landscaping is a nice way of saying "this is a park, not just a transit interchange," even as the paths serve the interchange volume.
Last among big-city examples, I'm intrigued by Insurgentes station plaza in Mexico City, which is in a roundabout roughly 120m in diameter.
Note that the red buses appear to cycle the circle in a contraflow lane, i.e. clockwise where all other traffic is counter-clockwise, so that they open onto the central plaza. (UPDATE: I am now advised that they are operating with-flow, counter-clockwise, but in their own lanes, and have doors on the left that enable them to open onto the plaza. The two silver-roofed structures are their main stops). Obviously, this is a massive bus-rail connection point. The red buses are from the city's Bus Rapid Transit system. This is certainly enough pedestrian volume to activate a space, and indeed it looks as though some kind of merchant activity is going on. But of course a roundabout is inevitably more of an island than a heart, as you'll need to go underground, through the subway station, to cross safely to any part of the surrounding district.
But when we step down to smaller cities, or to outer locations that aren't major transit hubs, the successful squares are quite a bit smaller. Several readers praised Mont Royal station plaza in Montréal. The subway station is on the west side, with bus stops on the east and north sides. This looks like a case where terminating buses are actually looping around the square.
But it's only about 50m wide. Many readers suggested connection-activated squares on this scale, often in secondary nodes of big cities or in suburban areas, especially in Europe. Many such squares were mentioned, but Stockholm's Odenplen is typical. And even in North America, small open spaces, usually less than 50m on a side, are common at some subway stations; Vermont/Santa Monica station in Los Angeles and the two Mission BART stations in San Francisco come to mind. Another example, at a simiar edge-of-downtown scale, is the PSU Urban Center plaza in Portland, which handles interactions between an inverted couplet of north-south buses and an east-west streetcar. The open space there, too, is less than 50m on a side.
So to sum up:
Thanks to everyone for contributing to this adventure! I'm sure there are many other great examples I haven't mentioned.
This work is important to me because many designs for great highrise urban nodes at rail stations collide with the needs of connecting and terminating buses, and it's often tempting to push the buses away. These examples, at a range of scales, capture how transit connections and urban life can happen in the same place, and indeed support each other. Links to other great examples are welcome!
This is a guest post from EngineerScotty, who blogs at Portland Transport and the Dead Horse Times. It is a follow-up to the recent series of articles on the issue of expertise vs activism, and it further explores the theme of the second article: projects which are over-constrained--those with excessive and sometimes contradictory requirements imposed on them by stakeholders. This post originally appeared at Portland Transport here; the version which appears at Human Transit has been edited and revised for a more global audience. As always, views expressed in guest posts are interesting to me but not necessarily mine.
Jarrett has been investigating the proper role of the transit planner. Is (s)he a dispassionate expert, much like an engineer is expected to be? Or should planners and other professionals serve a more activist role--essentially serving as advocates of the transit-riding public, and defending their interests? Jarrett, who has made numerous remarks about the limits of mixed-traffic streetcar (and has been accused, unfairly in my opinion, of being a "bus fanatic"), noted that his job has elements of both: He does prefer to optimize for mobility outcomes, and streetcar frequently fares poorly as a mobility measure; but when he takes on a project he needs to live within the project's constraints: If a project which hires Jarrett as a consultant is chartered with building streetcars, then he will help the agency design the best streetcar network that they can afford.
But then, an obnoxious commentor (OK, yours truly) threw a wrench into the gears, asking the essential question. What if the project requirements are nonsensical to begin with? Jarrett's answer focused on the role of transit planners in addressing all of this; and I defer to his expertise on such matters. Instead, this article looks at the more fundamental problem: projects with fundamentally conflicting requirements.
Too many cooks
Many public works projects, especially those in a multi-layer democracy like the United States and other countries with federalist systems, have many, many stakeholders. And not all of those stakeholders have the interest of the general public at heart, let's be honest. Politicians love to show up at ribbon-cuttings, and may have ideological axes to grind. Agencies frequently seek to expand their scope, power, and influence. Developers, vendors, unions, and other parties often want to cash in, and frequently aren't shy at trying to influence decision-makers (often in ways which are perfectly legal). NIMBYs frequently show up who want it somewhere else.
Even among those stakeholders who actively support a project's goals, one can frequently find many demands on a project. Institutions can fall into the "golden hammer" trap, where their job involves swinging hammers and thus view every problem as a nail. Professional societies frequently have standards and practices which they view as sacrosanct, regardless of whether appropriate for a given context. Diverse communities of users may impose conflicting requirements. If grants are part of the funding package, the granting agency will often impose conditions of their own. And spools of bureaucratic red tape will surround the project, particularly if the United States government is involved.
All too often, public works projects collect so many differing requirements and constraints, both legitimate and not, that running the project is like squaring the circle. (For the non-mathematically inclined, constructing a square with the same area as a given circle using only straightedge and compass, was proven impossible in the 19th century). And this is without taking into account financial and schedule constraints. Yet projects which attempt to square the circle--which attempt to satisfy simultaneously many conflicting requirements, often dictated by stakeholders with de facto veto power over the project--still happen way too often, often times with disappointing results.
At least two prominent projects in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area -- one primarily highway, one exclusively transit -- exhibit signs of being over-constrained. One of them is the Columbia River Crossing (CRC), a project to replace the Interstate Bridge crossing the Columbia River, between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. The other is the Lake Oswego-Portland Transit Project, a project which seeks to build a "rapid streetcar" line connecting the city of Portland with its inner suburb of Lake Oswego, using an abandoned rail right-of-way.
The Swiss Army Bridge
The fundamental goal of the CRC ought to be conceptually simple. Modernize (structurally and functionally) the primary crossing of the Columbia, providing multi-modal crossing support, while eliminating the draw span. Straightening out the shipping channel on the river is a bonus. But what has actually happened has been a mess. The first problem is governance. Given that it's a bi-state effort, there isn't any single entity which is an obvious candidate to run the project. So management was given jointly to the Oregon and Washington State departments of transportation (ODOT, WSDOT), with the participation of the cities of Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington; the counties of Clark and Multnomah; Metro [the Portland regional planning authority]; the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council; and the two transit agencies, TriMet and C-Tran. ODOT and WSDOT drafted purpose-and-need statements that pretty much excluded any solution other than a new freeway bridge. Throw in a pile of rules from various highway manuals and "poof": rather than simply building a bridge, the project now involves rebuilding about five miles of Interstate 5. On Hayden Island, a small island south of the river's primary channel, a new proposed network of ramps and interchanges cuts a swath through the island, nearly as wide as a football pitch is long.
The city of Portland and Metro have their own requirements for the project. It must contain light rail (an extension of the MAX Yellow Line), and other "green" features. Many in Portland's civic leadership have insisted on an "iconic design" rather than a simple truss bridge. With all of these design elements, the total proposed cost reached US$4 billion.
Financing for such a price tag will require that the bridge be tolled. Residents on the Washington side would allegedly bear the brunt of tolls, because many of them commute to jobs in Oregon. The mayor of Vancouver was recently unseated when his challenger ran on the issue of bridge tolls. Many on the Oregon side have little sympathy for those in Vancouver, whom are accused of wanting the benefits of a large, dynamic city, but of not wanting to contribute to its upkeep. And so on.
The result, at this stage, seems to be a design that nobody really likes, that has a murky funding picture, that has cost eight figures to produce nothing but paper so far, and which has no end date in sight.
Did it have to be this way? That's a hard question. One fundamental issue is that the City of Portland objects to a key design goal of the highway departments on both sides of the river--"modernization" of the freeway (a catchall term which includes widening, ramp reconfiguration, and all sorts of other stuff designed to reduce congestion). While some of Portland's objections spring from ideological or environmental concerns that other stakeholders don't share to the same extent, the city does have a legitimate concern that redesigning the bridge simply will move the existing traffic bottleneck south into Portland's city center. The state departments of transportation, for their part, seem more than willing to hold Portland's transit expansion plans hostage (an ODOT staffer once reportedly suggested that the agency would block any attempt to extend MAX across the Columbia, unless as part of a larger project to widen I-5). And Vancouver doesn't want to be stuck with an ever-escalating bill. Part of the present dynamic seems to involve both sides wishing that someone (Governor Kitzhaber, the feds) would "see the light" and kick the other side to the curb.
The Lake Oswego Quit Calling It Streetcar (At Least For Now) Project
Compared to the CRC, the Lake Oswego transit project (LOTP) is a model of piece and harmony. The "what" of the project was largely fixed: a streetcar line, running from the current south end of the Portland Streetcar, along the old Jefferson Branch line to Lake Oswego. The project goals make sense: Use an existing asset (the rail right-of-way) to leverage federal funds, and build a transit service running in exclusive right-of-way which ought to be faster than local bus service on Highway 43, a frequently-congested 3-5 lane surface route. Demonstrate the potential of "rapid streetcar" as a budget alternative to light rail for shorter corridors. A no-brainer, right? Unlike the CRC, where leadership was distributed among a handful of agencies with contrary goals and a decided lack of trust, the involved government agencies (TriMet, Metro, and the cities of Portland and Lake Oswego) aren't fighting over the project requirements. But the devil, as is often the case, is in the details.
The most fundamental issue is that the project is promoted as rapid transit--as an upgrade over the existing bus service (TriMet's 35 and 36 lines, which the streetcar would replace between Portland and Lake Oswego). But this premise is undermined by the proposed implementation. The project is currently planned to be an extension of the existing Portland Streetcar system, which offers local-stop service along is present route, and which bypasses the main transit corridor downtown (the Portland Transit Mall). Portland Streetcar's current rolling stock (Skoda 10T streetcars and a clone produced by Oregon Iron Works), are optimized for mixed-traffic application, not for rapid transit use. In addition, many local merchants on Highway 43 in the Johns Landing neighborhood want streetcar service at their front door; whereas many condo owners along the existing right-of-way don't want trains past their front door. (Never mind that the rail line has been there far longer than the condos). Thus, the streetcar line is likely to make an expensive detour onto Highway 43--the same highway which is predicted to turn into a parking lot in the near future, justifying the mobility need for the project in the first place.
Unlike the new Milwaukie MAX line directly across the river, which is designed to function well as rapid transit until hitting downtown, the streetcar is not so designed. It's likely to be slower than the existing bus between Lake Oswego and downtown, and that's without considering the need for riders travelling from/to beyond Lake Oswego to transfer. Bus lines 35 and 36 from beyond Lake Oswego, which now flow through Lake Oswego into Portland, will have to be truncated, forcing a connection to the new streetcar. This is necessary both to avoid duplication and to provide operating funds for the streetcar line.
The streetcar does offer modest capacity improvements over the bus, and has the cachet of being rail. (That cachet is a source of debate in transit circles, but will likely have an impact given the demographics along the line). But the mobility improvements of the project are close to nil; and for longer-distance commuters on the 35 and 36, probably a net negative. Perhaps land-use improvements alleged to flow from the project will be worth the local investment, though much of the area along the line is already developed or not suitable for development. Perhaps the ability to get a big check from the US Government for a minimal local cash contribution--given that the federal government is willing to consider the value of the right-of-way in calculating their match--makes the project worth doing. This is a difficult case to make, however, to the transit-riding public, who tend to care more about headways and trip times than they do about property values.
Signs of an over-constrained project
Here at Human Transit, another commenter posed an interesting question: How do you know if a project has requirements or constraints that make it difficult to do a good job? The question was posed in the context of bad-faith requirements (such as developers engaging in rent-seeking), but the answers also apply to good faith attempts to square the circle. My response is here; the answers are also reproduced below, edited for brevity. (In particular, observations about the CRC and Lake Oswego streetcar projects which are redundant with the criticisms above are excised; if you want to see the original answers, click the link).
Of course, not all over-constrained projects are failures. Westside MAX had some annoying constraints placed on it, but is overall a successful project. Still, had ten extraneous stops been sprinkled along the line between Portland and Hillsboro, would the line be as successful?
Dealing with over-constrained projects
What to do about all of this? The hard fact about overconstrained projects is that often, we have to live with them. It's easy to fantasize about driving bad actors out of the process, and about having strong visionary leaders who have the foresight and the clout to sweep conflicting requirements out of the way, without losing support for the project. But such individuals are rare, and in many of these projects -- notably the CRC -- nobody in the process, not even the governors, are in the position to act unilaterally. Still, a few suggestions come to mind:
That said, not all gloom and doom is justified. Over-constrained projects do end up successful, despite warts. This is especially true when the bulk of the constraints come from actual community needs that happen to be in conflict (such as simultaneous demands for access and mobility). Portland's MAX system, overall, threads the access/mobility needle reasonably well, although not perfectly. Some critics of the system complain about too many highway-running segments without development potential; others complain that it's too slow downtown, and uncompetitive for crosstown trips. However, were MAX to offer streetcar-like performance over its entire length, it probably would not attract the ridership that it does (especially the large number of suburban commuters using the system); conversely, were it required to be built to "class A" levels of mobility throughout the system, it probably could not have been built at all. The flip-side of the overconstrained project is one which has too many degrees of freedom--and which may not be taking as many community needs into account as it should--or in the worst cases, such as the destruction wrought by urban freeway-building, result from the neglect of a particular community's concerns altogether.
When you think about transit technologies, how do you categorize them? And why?
Have a look at this first table, which sorts services according to the exclusivity of their right of way. The terms Class A, B, and C are from Vukan Vuchic, describing the basic categories of "what can get in the way" of a transit service.
Is this table two rows, each divided into three columns? Or three columns, each with two rows? Which distinction is more fundamental, and which is secondary?
Right-of-Way Class vs Rail-Bus Distinction
Exclusive right-of-way and separated from cross traffic
Exclusive right-of-way, NOT separated from cross traffic.
Mixed with traffic, including mixed with pedestrians.
Most rail rapid transit, using “third rail” power sources. Most classic “subway” and “metro” systems.
Most “light rail” in surface operations. Parts of some European and Australian tram networks.
Most North American streetcars. Many European and Australian trams.
Separated busways: (Brisbane, Ottawa, Bogotá, and segments in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh) Freeway bus/HOT lanes.
At-grade busways: Los Angeles Orange Line, Western Sydney busways, etc.
Buses in mixed traffic.
Well, if your objective is to get where you're going fast and reliably, the Right-of-Way Class tells you a lot about a services's potential to do that, while the rail-bus distinction, in isolation, tells you nothing. The fact is, both rail and bus technologies are capable of the complete spectrum of possibilities. Both can average 6 mph (10 km/h) in Class C situations, and both can run Class A at 60 mph (100 km/h) or more.
RIght-of-way isn't the only thing that matters for getting you where you're going. There's also stop spacing, with its inevitable tradeoff between speed and local access.
Stop Spacing vs Rail-Bus Distinction
(faster = fewer stops)
(slower = more stops)
(one long nonstop segment)
“Subway”, “Metro”, some commuter rail.
Tram / Streetcar
Some commuter rail.
Bus Rapid Transit,
Commuter express bus (often on freeway)
... and of course there are other essential distinctions like frequency, which are also entirely separable from rail and bus technologies.
UPDATE: Please note, yet again, that contrary to early comments I am NOT claiming that these are the only distinctions that matter. As I laid out in some detail here, there are several distinctions that matter. In fact, one of the reasons that people cling so hard to the rail-bus distinction is that the other crucial distinctions are a little more complicated and require some thought, and it's hard to think about this stuff in the political space where decisions get made.
Rail services do tend to be presented in ways that "package" the various crucial dimensions of usefulness. Typical metro systems, for example, are guaranteed to be frequent, with rapid stop spacing, and Class A right of way, because all three are intrinsic to the metro technology, so there's a psychological "packaging" effect when you see a metro map; you can be confident that this means a certain level of service.
I think these tables are interesting because now and then I meet someone who divides the world rigidly into rail and bus, often aligning these categories with a rigid class distinction (William Lind, say) or simply claiming that rail does beautiful things and buses don't. In that view, the different columns of these tables are secondary and interchangeable, while the rows express something absolute.
Patrick Condon, for example, proposes that instead of building one rapid transit line (Class A, rapid stops) we could just build lots of streetcars (mostly Class C, local stops). That can make sense if you judge technologies entirely on their influence on urban form, and prefer the kind of form that seems to arise from streetcars. But it will be just incoherent to a transit planner who's been trained to help people get places, and wonders if he's being told that nobody cares about that anymore. Because if you do care about personal mobility -- people getting where they're going, now, today -- you have to care about the columns.
I hope to leave this topic for a while, but I do think it's worth coming back to tables like this to ask yourself: Do I tend to divide the world according to the rows first, or the columns? If so, why? Is my way of slicing this table something I've discovered about the world, or something my mind is imposing on it?
The planning professions work in a grey zone between expertise and activism, and managing these competing impulses is one of our hardest tasks.
As a transit planning consultant, I don't worry much about being perceived as an advocate of transit in general. Experts in any field are expected to believe in its importance. But I do try to keep a little distance between my knowledge about transit and the impulse to say "You should do this." A good consultant must know how to marry his own knowledge to his client's values, which may lead him to make different recommendations than he would do as a citizen, expressing his own values.
Often, I use this blog and its comments to refine my own thinking about transit in the abstract. This is part of how I cultivate my own expertise, but it is easy to mistake what I say for activism. When I say, for example, that some of the widespread claims about the superiority of rail over buses are cultural feedback effects, I'm not thinking like an activist or advocate; I'm thinking theoretically, like a philosopher. To me, this is a crucial skill for a consultant who's going to have to marry his client's values with his own expertise.
Philosophical or scientific training attunes you to the difference between prescription (telling people what they should do) and description (describing reality as it appears to be). In their purest form, prescription is the job of ethics, while description the job of science and metaphysics. A great deal of human speech, especially political speech, is a mixture of description and prescription, often one pretending to be the other.
In the planning world, prescription is the job of citizens, leaders, and advocates, while description is the work of professional experts like me. Obviously, this has to be a conversation. The expert has to ask the community to clarify its values based on the actual tradeoffs presented by reality, and the community has to respond. And as that goes on, both sides need to be clear about their roles, and respect the role of the other.
Partly because of my science and philosophy training, I tend to police the prescription-description boundary in my own thinking, and dwell in the space of pure description more than many people do -- certainly more than most activists do. A lot of regular readers of HT share that training and that inclination, and some don't.
For a critique of the futility of living your whole life in this descriptive mode, watching and describing the world but never doing anything, see Shakespeare's Hamlet. But the opposite is also futile. An ethical system devoid of curiosity about objective reality devolves into pure egotism, such as that of the tyrants currently falling across the Middle East. Tyrants -- whether they lead a nation or an office clique -- are people who sift reality and see only what suits their ethical narrative (which, at that point, is really an egotistical narrative) and who forge echo chambers of people who help each other do that. At the core of the tyrant's stance is a childlike egotistical wail: "Why doesn't everyone do as I say? I see so clearly what needs to be done!"
And yes, everyone has an inner tyrant, including me. I try to describe that tendency in myself, so that while it will always be in the room of my mind it's not usually able to set the room on fire. In fact, that's exactly why I'm so careful about not letting my descriptive thinking turn too quickly into prescriptions.
Streetcars, for example. Nowhere in this blog have I said that cities shouldn't build streetcars if they are sure that they want streetcars. Some streetcar advocates hear me saying that because they are dividing the world into pro-streetcar and anti-streetcar camps, and I've said things about streetcars that don't sound like enthusiastic advocacy. I've made some descriptive observations about problems raised by the American streetcar revival movement, and I've also noticed situations in which streetcars are inferior to buses in their ability to actually get you where you're going, like this one:
I would like people to know about these issues so that they make better decisions about what to advocate and why. That doesn't mean I want them to decide not to build streetcars, but it may mean, for example, that in deciding whether to support a streetcar, you might need to care about whether it will be in mixed traffic. It may also mean being very clear, when you're advocating a streetcar, that you're not getting anything faster or more reliable than a bus can be. Again, I say this not because I think cities should or shouldn't be building streetcars, but because you shouldn't be deluded about what you're buying, and what purposes it will really serve.
I have vivid memories of San Francisco Transportation Authority meetings in the early 1990s when the Third Street light rail was under debate. Activists from the neighborhood had turned out in droves to support the line, but when you actually listened to their testimony, some were talking about "we need rapid transit," while others were saying "we need rail to stop in every block where it will strengthen our businesses." I knew, as an expert, that while this whole crowd appeared to be on the same side of the issue at hand, half of them were not going to get what they thought they were advocating. They were not going to get a project that served their values.
I may also point out that if you think purely about "extending your rail network" as though your bus network is irrelevant, you can do serious damage to your existing transit system. For example, in a high-frequency grid, if you break one line of the grid into three consecutive pieces because you want rail in the middle but buses on the extremeties, you may suddenly force many new connections to a degree that could quite possibly will reduce the overall level of mobility in the city. That thought is relevant, for example, to several cities' streetcar plans, and to the Crenshaw light rail line in Los Angeles, and to the Gold Coast light rail line (at least its first phase) in Australia.
And yet, sometimes I do sound like an advocate -- about transit in general, about protecting transit from traffic, and about congestion pricing. Am I just falling off the wagon when I say those things?
Well, all scientists (by which I mean broadly "people who try to describe without prescribing") have this problem. Sometimes the scientific work of description discovers that something needs to be done if we want to survive and prosper: Banning DDT, addressing carbon emissions, correcting perverse pricing signals, even building a transit line. If you've followed any of the conversation around climate change, you know how uncomfortable trained scientists can be when they're required to speak prescriptively. Their credibility (not just to their profession but also to themselves) has depended precisely on not doing that. It's like telling a recovering alcoholic that after all the disciplined work of recovery he's done, the future of humanity now requires that he start drinking again, just a little.
All I can say is that I feel that discomfort and try to manage it, by marking, as clearly as I can, when I'm prescribing and when I'm describing. And there are also issues (like climate change) where, quite frankly, practically all experts seem to know what needs to be done to achieve the outcomes that everyone seems to want. I feel that way about congestion pricing. It's just not that hard to explain, to a reasonable person who's familiar with the idea of supply and demand, that as a motorist you are going to pay for scarce road space in either time or money, and that it's not unreasonable for some people to choose to spend money to save time.
I do what I can to distinguish between description and prescription when I'm writing. But frankly, we all need to do the same work when listening. If your first contact with transit politics is in the context of a fight about whether or not to build a particular rail line, you're going to hear prescriptive voices on both sides, citing data that's been selected to match their point of view. You're also going to hear descriptive voices treated as prescriptive -- which is how some streetcar advocates perceive my comments about streetcars. One of the most basic disciplines that you can cultivate, as an advocate or leader, is to try to hear descriptive information as descriptive. This may require you to consciously suppress or bracket the emotional reaction you have, as an advocate, when you first hear it.
Really, none of what I've written about streetcars is about streetcars, except insofar as the American streetcar revival movement is a excellent example of a descriptive point that seems important to me. The point is that "it's possible to spend a lot of money on transit lines that don't improve anyone's mobility." I'm not saying you shouldn't do that. I am saying that before you that, you should understand this point, so that you're sure that the line you support does what you want it to do.
That's what responsible experts do: they help you implement your values.
My question relates to the relationship between frequency and capacity. In Boston on the MBTA ... for many of the trains, there are 2 employees running the train. On the Green line, trains are 2 cars long, with a driver in the first, and in the second an operator responsible for opening and closing doors and making sure no one gets on without paying. For the other lines, the 2nd operator only has to open and close doors because you need to pay to get into the stations.To me, it seems like a waste to have to pay a second individual to open and close the doors. Outside of the highest frequency travel times, and even possibly during those, wouldn't it be better for travelers to have service twice as often even at half the capacity? Outside of the truly busy travel times, trains rarely run anywhere near capacity. Especially on weekends and in the evening, trains are never full but the less frequent service does not encourage those spontaneous transit trips that are so vital to urban life.