Rail Transit

The Pleasure of Track Maps

If you’ve never seen a subway track map, I suggest you look at this one, for New York, by “radical cartographer” Andrew Lynch. Most track diagrams are not to scale, and look like they’re meant to make to make sense only to insiders.  But this one is beautiful.
nyc track map b



What’s more, it’s accurate in geographic scale, though of course the separation of tracks can’t be on the same scale as the network.  Still, New York’s subway is both huge and full of details, so this is no mean feat.  Only 22 insets were required, to zoom in on tricky segments.

Gazing at a good track map can give you an appreciation for the heroics involved in moving trains around in this limited infrastructure. Switches and extra tracks are very expensive underground, which is why they are never where you need them to handle a particular incident.  This, for example, is why a track closure at one station may continue through several stations nearby.

Gaze at this piece of the Bronx, and marvel at what a train would have to do to get from Jerome Yard to a station on the Orange (B+D) line.  I presume they don’t have to do this very often, but in a pinch, they can.

nyc track map a

I spent a delighted hour with it.

Portland: Frequent Bus Performance Approaching Light Rail’s

Here's an interesting chart:

Tri Met Ops Cost per Ride

This is a year's trend comparing bus and light rail (MAX) service in Portland's transit agency, TriMet, from the performance dashboard at the TriMet Transparency and Accountability Center webpage.  

The metric here is operating cost per boarding ride.  This is a good overall measure of how effectively a transit agency is liberating and moving people, where down means good.  (I prefer this ratio upside down: ridership per unit cost or "bang for buck," so that up means good. but this is obviously a chart by finance people who always want cost on top.)  This is a "macro" metric.  Practically everything a transit agency does affects it, so it's lousy diagnosis but not bad if you only have bandwidth to convey one measure.

Most American transit data just compares bus and rail, and inevitably shows bus performing worse.  You'll see that here too if you just look at the wide solid lines.  From this we get endless ignorant journalism lamenting the poor performance of the city bus, as though all city buses are basically alike.

What if we separated out highly useful and liberating bus service as a separate category?  That isn't exactly the distinction made here but it's close.  TriMet's Frequent Service network (still being restored, but mostly now back in existence) is the network of all services that are almost always coming soon.  

This chart says two remarkable things:

  • Frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance.   
  • The spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.

The lesson is pretty clear:  The "city bus" is a misleading category, and the much-fetishized difference between bus and rail may matter less than whether the services are designed to be useful.  And when it comes to usefulness, no one variable capture that more than frequency.  

mitigating construction impacts through placemaking in St Paul (video)

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. 

5VDEYtLHowever, 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

quote of the week: “rail is only part of the equation”


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.

Juan Matute, UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies
from a discussion called "Trains are Not the Silver Bullet"
 at ZocaloPublicSquare

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!






Are streetcars-in-traffic skeptics sacrificing goodness for perfection?

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.

Millennialsempty nesters, and others want walkable, livable urban places. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of those in the United States, which is why they’re increasingly expensive.

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.

defending new york’s subway from british sneers

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:

Northern Line map

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 transit infrastructure cause ridership?

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:

  • Infrastructure permits the operation of some kind of useful transit service, which consists of vehicles running with a certain speed, frequency, reliabilty, civility and a few other variables.
  • That service triggers ridership."

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:

  • High density reliably triggers ridership.
  • Areas of high density are less likely to have available surface rights of way.
  • Therefore, highest ridership segments tend to be grade-separated.

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!




santiago: a low-tech approach to fast exits from a subway station

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.

yes, great bus service can stimulate development!

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.