It turns out there’s a great video of my recent talk at the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Dallas, including a great discussion with Mariia Zimmerman and Marcy McInelly. Continue Reading →
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
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
What really matters to transit-oriented development [TOD] outcomes? According to the report, the #1 predictor is strong government support for redevelopment, while the #2 predictor is real estate market conditions. The #3 predictor is the usefulness of the transit services — frequency, speed, and reliability as ensured by an exclusive right of way. Using rail vs bus technologies does not appear to matter much at all.
While BRT is is having overwhelming success across the developing world, ITDP's argument is aimed at North America, so it rests on North American examples. Cleveland's HealthLine, a practical urban BRT linking two of the city's strongest destinations, emerges as a great urban redevelopment success story as well as the overall highest-quality BRT service in the US. Las Vegas, Ottawa, Eugene, and Pittsburgh's eastern line all play key roles in the argument. Las Vegas, whose busway is incomplete but is in exactly the right place to serve heavy demand, is one of the most interesting stories, where BRT is playing a key role in the remarkable pedestrianization of what used to be one of the most famous car-only landscapes in the world.
There will be plenty of quarrel over the details. But this report does represent a "coming out" for the very concept of bus-based transit oriented development. For too long, the identification of "transit oriented development" (TOD) with rail has bordered on tautological: if there wasn't rail, it was less likely to be called a TOD, no matter how useful the bus service was. In fact, almost everything that's been built in every North American inner city has been TOD in the sense that bus service — usually of high quantity if not high quality — has been intrinsic to the neighborhood's appeal and functioning.
This is not to say that I agree with ITDP's anti-rail view. I support many exclusive-right-of-way light rail projects, and I am not anti-rail except to the extent that rail partisans insist on being anti-bus. In most North American cities, if you're ideologically anti-bus, then you are hostile to most of your city's transit system, and to most of what transit can practically achieve in the near future at the scale of the whole city. Great transit networks are those where all the modes work together to maximize everyone's liberty. All claims for the hegemony of one mode over another are distractions from creating the most effective transit for a city as a whole.
But technology wars meet so many human needs that they will always be with us, and so given that it's best they be as balanced as possible. Bravo to ITDP for having the courage to speak up about the redevelopment value of highly useful and liberating transit services, regardless of what's going on under the floor.
The Urban Land Institute has an interview with me today, where I chat through some of my friendly and supportive to developers when thinking about transit.
(Short version: Read my book! Take my course!)
Just got home from the Congress for the New Urbanism Transportation Summit, which is trying to formulate transportation policy and advice from a New Urbanist point of view.
Over the last decade, the CNU has made great efforts to form a coherent view on transportation. The organization's core has always been an architecture and urban design perspective that is very much about placemaking, and only secondarily about movement. Much New Urbanism is about slowing everything down in urban environments, and while the goal of increased urban density means that ultimately travel distances are shorter, slower movement can also mean reducing people's ability to get where they're going. For example, much of the idea that transit should be slower (e.g. Patrick Condon, Darrin Nordahl) has roots in early CNU thinking. This in turn can feed the perception (unfair but not totally unfounded) that the pastel people in a New Urbanist rendering are more a hermetic cult of utopians than free actors in a complex society who need to get to meetings on time.
Initially, transportation — specifically highway engineering — was CNU's number one enemy, and this conflict still generates some of the best drama. The summit this year featured a conversation between an AASHTO representative — representing the view of State Departments of Transportation — and a New Urbanist transport consultant, in which common ground was sought but lines in the sand were clearly drawn on both sides.
So the CNU's efforts at leadership in transportation policy are a very important move. Groups at the conference worked on issues such as cycling, functional street classification (sexier than it sounds), and the conversation of highways to boulevards. I was in the group dealing with transit networks.
We spent much of our time thinking about the mutual incomprehension that plagues the relationship between urban designers and transit planners. This issue is at the climax of my book Human Transit, where I look at famous examples of cases where supposedly transit-oriented developments were located in places where efficient and attractive public transit was geometrically impossible.
Phil Erickson, of Community Design + Architecture, made two of the best points:
- Both sides of this incomprehension engage the other too late in the process. As a transit consultant, I can certainly attest that I'm always hired too late to fix a development's transit problems, which were usually locked in at the stage of site selection or conceptual design. I suppose you could say that transit agencies engage development too late, though ultimately it's the responsibility of a planning process to decide when to invite input from whom.
- Both sides assume that the other is more flexible than it is. As a transit planner, I often suggest some adjustment to a development that would make transit vastly more effective, and am told that's not possible. On the other hand, it's routine for a developer to assume that this bus line can just make a deviation to serve a development, without considering either operating cost or the effect on other customers trying to ride through that point. Placemakers' demands that transit be slowed down on a certain segment raise the same issues: operating cost and reduction of a transit line's usefulness for through travel.
In the same "Mars/Venus" spirit, here are a couple of other reasons that this relationship is so hard:
- We are literally working in different dimensions: Urban design is mostly about places. Transit planning is about corridors and networks. Transit planning can do little at a single site; transit functions only when you think of a whole long corridor — made up of many places and situations — as a unit, and even better when you think of networks comprised of corridors and interchanges. One place where urban design and placemaking can work together with transit planning is at the level of the whole-city network, which is why integrated regional planning of land use and major transit corridors is such a crucial task, one that few North American urban areas even try to do.
- We live in different timescales. Urban design is about something that will be built and completed. Transit planning is about eternal operations. Transit planners may seem distracted by the love of building something too, but ultimately, it's all about service, which means operations. So the two sides tend to talk past each other about costs in particular. The urban designer and developer are watching one-time capital cost, but the transit planner cares about eternal operating cost. Developers often throw a little one-time money at a transit service, e.g offering to subsidize the first five years of operation, but the wise transit agency knows that sooner or later, the developer will be gone and this service will become their financial problem, especially if it's a service that they can see is unlikely to perform well.
It was fascinating to watch this discussion, and to be a part of it. Many more useful things were said, and I may pick up on a few of them in future posts. Meanwhile, the first step toward overcoming a divide is to really understand why it is so pervasive, and that requires both sides to think about their deep assumptions, and why different assumptions follow from the nature of the other party's work.
A followup, based on comments on this post, is here.
Almost a year ago, I told the story of Los Angeles line 305, a diagonal line that ran every 40 minutes zigzagging across the city's high frequency grid, between Watts and Beverly Hills. The line was so infrequent, and the surrounding grid service so frequent, that if you just missed the 305 it was faster to take the frequent grid routes and transfer than to wait for the next 305.
The 305 comes up often in my presentations because it's such a useful example of symbolic transit. The purpose of the line was not to be useful to very many people, but rather to announce, as a matter of symbolism, that "we run from Watts to Beverly Hills"! That's certainly how Jennifer Medina of the New York times described it, when it was first proposed to be cut in 2011. The Times's graphic:
The NYT headline of the time even claimed that cutting this line would "make a long bus commute longer," which was factually untrue if you count waiting time as part of travel time.
Well, a year later, LA Metro is finally cutting the 305. Very few people will experience any loss of travel time as a result, but the system will be simpler, more frequent, and ultimately, more liberating for anyone who wants to get where they're going. Of course, like such worthily deleted lines as San Francisco's 26-Valencia, the 305 will still be useful as a parable!
- Sydney's state government has made it official. The one-way loop of the Sydney Monorail, designed to decorate the tourism-convention playground of Darling Harbour without being very useful to anyone, is to be torn down. While the decision is being described as a move toward light rail — plans for which are definitely moving forward — it's really just a decision to invest in transit lines that do useful things — such as running in both directions, running efficiently enough to justify reasonable fares, and connecting with many other services so that people can go where they want to go, not just where you want to take them.
- Toronto City Council has definitely scrapped Mayor Rob Ford's plans to spend all of the city's transit resources on a few expensive outer-suburban subway segments designed to serve small parts of the region. The move opens the way to move forward on more cost-effective light rail projects that will enrich mobility across the entire city.
Toronto transit commentator Steve Munro makes an important point, which could also be said of Sydney:
This is an important day for Toronto. We are on track for a [light rail]-based plan and for a more detailed evaluation of our transit future than we have seen for decades. Talking about one line at once, about fundraising for one project at once, is no longer an accepted way of building the city.
That's the key. The Sydney Monorail failed because it was "one line at once" — a project conceived in isolation with no interest in being part of a complete network. And in Toronto, a city with numerous desperate rapid-transit needs, planning will no longer pit neighborhoods against each other to the degree that Mayor Ford wanted to do. Instead, Toronto can move forward on projects that fit together into a more complete rapid-transit grid — serving "anywhere to anywhere" trips.
Finally, a warning to technophiles!! Technophile commenters will doubtless chalk this up the Sydney decision as a defeat for monorails in general. I disagree. It's a defeat for one-way loops, poor connectivity, and symbolic as opposed to actual mobility. The monorail didn't fail just because it was a monorail, but because it was a poorly designed line. Likewise, the Toronto outcome isn't a victory for light rail or a defeat for subways, but merely a commitment to better network design.
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!