Portland: Facing the East-West Chokepoint

That red line (and the adjacent blue line that’s hard to see) is the east-west spine of Portland’s transit system. On the west, it is one of just two direct paths (street or transit) across the hills linking downtown and the the “Silicon Forest” suburbs to the west. But the slow operations across downtown makes this line much less useful than it looks. Credit: Travel Portland.

In 1986, Portland opened one of the first modern light rail lines in the US, the beginning of a light rail renaissance that built networks in mid-sized cities across the country. It was nice to be a leader — we’re used to that in Portland — but it also means that everyone has learned from our mistakes, while Portland still has to live with them.

Perhaps “mistake” is too strong a word, but the priorities of the early light rail designers certainly aren’t the priorities today.  Planners of the 1970s (when I was an enthusiastic teenage transit geek) confronted a city whose downtown consisted mostly of surface parking while prosperity fled to the suburbs.  Their top priority wasn’t even getting people to downtown.  It was making downtown a place worth going.

So they built a line that rushes into the city from the eastern suburbs, but then creeps across the inner city, making lots of stops for a net speed under 7 miles/hour.  For a while that was fine.  All those stations meant lots of development sites right next to the line, and downtown grew and prospered.

Today, the success at revitalizing downtown has created an opposite set of problems.  Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods are so successful that working people can’t afford to live there.  Low income people are being pushed out to places where they face longer commutes.  Most important, the line now continues west out of downtown to serve the “Silicon Forest” suburbs to the west, so that it runs across downtown, not just into it.  Meanwhile, the development that the slow downtown segment was supposed to stimulate is largely done.

So the downtown segment of the line is becoming more of a barrier than a resource.

Transit in Portland benefits enormously from chokepoint geography.  Between the inner city and the western suburbs, there is a wall of hills pierced by one gridlocked freeway, one parallel arterial, and a light rail line.  This rail segment has prospered because the driving alternatives are terrible.

As always, chokepoint geography means: It’s worth spending a lot of money improving transit here, because so many trips, between so many places, go through this point.  A regional inbalance of jobs and housing (more jobs in the west, more housing in the east) has create a huge east-west travel demand right through this ch0kepoint.  The hills are still a barrier for drivers, but for transit the barrier is the slow downtown streets, and the 1970s assumption that the train needs to stop near every building.

As if the slow operations weren’t bad enough, there’s also a problem of capacity.  Portland’s adorable little 200-foot blocks, rightly credited with giving downtown such a human scale, limit the train lengths to 2 cars as long as they run on the surface.  The city is too big now, and its transit needs too dire, for such tiny trains to do the job.

The problem is being attacked at several scales.  The transit agency is gingerly suggesting that a few stations should be closed. Stations on the downtown segment are as close as 350 feet — far too close for bus stops, let alone rail stations.  (The newer north-south light rail line, whose designers learned from the mistake, has station spacing closer to 1000 feet.  Unfortunately, it is the east-west line that extends furthest into the suburbs and therefore serves the most people.)

But the problem is so big, and obstructs so much access to opportunity across the region, that it won’t be solved just with half measures. A long overdue study is looking at the complex of capacity problems, and while it’s looked at some half-measures, the only thing that solves all the problems is a new segment of subway under the core.  The long frequent east-west lines serving suburbs (and the airport) would go into a tunnel, rushing under downtown in perhaps 1/3 the time, so that transit would finally be viable for travel across downtown and not just to it.  The existing surface line would still be used to provide a more local service across downtown.

An early concept for the downtown rail tunnel (black) with existing light rail segments in red. The tunnel has six stations counting the endpoints. Too many?

I have been skeptical of many rail projects in my time, but the most defensible of all are these “core capacity” projects.  Like the excellent Los Angeles Regional Connector, this is a project that is in downtown but not for downtown. Its purpose is to unlock the potential for all kinds of access across the region.  To bypass the inevitable edge-core debate, it will have to be presented in those terms.

That’s why I’m a little skeptical of the earliest concepts.  As sketched the tunnel has six stations downtown.  They should at least study a line that just has three: the two edges of downtown — Lloyd Center and Goose Hollow — where the fast line would connect with the slow surface line, and just one station at the very center of the city, Pioneer Courthouse Square, where almost all of they city’s radial transit services meet.  This would make the new line barely half as long and much less expensive.

Obviously there are great arguments for every proposed downtown station: the university, the stadium, the train station.  But it’s going to be important to have clear conversations about the balance between downtown and regional benefit, and between the benefits to an already prosperous downtown and the need for reasonable travel times for low income people, who are increasingly pushed further out where they have to travel further.

I don’t know that a three-station solution is right, but I know it should be looked at.  It’s really easy to get around downtown on transit, from anywhere to one of the three stations that this minimal version would offer.  It’s really hard to get across the region, and every station we add to this project moves us back toward not solving that problem — not just by making the line slower but also by making it more expensive.  It’s a tough balance, and I hope we’ll have the debate.

 

 

Chattanooga: Choices for the City’s Transit Future

Chattanooga Incline Railway

Chattanooga, Tennessee’s most well-known transit infrastructure may be the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, a former train station made famous by a 1941 swing tune by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, or perhaps the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, a tourist-oriented funicular currently owned and operated by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA).  Most days though, Chattanooga’s transit line with the highest ridership is the Route 4 bus from downtown to the eastern suburbs. Although Chattanooga was an early adopter of electric buses, starting their downtown electric shuttles in 1992, transit has not been at the forefront of its planning policies in the past few decades.  Like many other similarly sized cities without urban growth boundaries in the US, development has sprawled outwards, enabled by highways, resulting in land use patterns that are difficult to serve by transit.

That is changing.  In recent years, Chattanooga has focused efforts on rekindling the inner city, adding housing, retail, and office space downtown, and becoming the first midsize city in the US to designate an urban innovation district.  As a recognition of their efforts to build vibrant public spaces, Chattanooga will be hosting the Project for Public Spaces placemaking conference this Fall, the third city to do so after Amsterdam and Vancouver.  But in order for a city center integrated within a growing regional economy to scale up without being choked by traffic congestion, Chattanooga needs better transit.  Today, the city is starting to reconsider the role of the bus and may be ready to make major changes to its bus services and perhaps invest more in it.

 

The recently revamped Miller Park in Downtown Chattanooga. Photo: downtownchattanooga.org

We’ve been studying the transit system in Chattanooga for over a year and in June CARTA released our report outlining four possible concepts of what the future of transit could look like. These four concepts show a range of options between coverage and ridership goals with no new funding and two options with additional funding for transit. Happily, the local newspaper’s coverage is clear and accurate.

The release of this report begins the period of public discussions and surveys. The results of that discussion will inform the decision that the CARTA Board makes in August about what direction the final plan should take.

Our report discusses four possible futures but most likely, the final plan won’t look quite like any of these. The key idea — as in much of our work — is to open up a “decision space” in which people can figure out where they want to come down on the two difficult policy decisions:

  • Ridership vs coverage? What percentage of resources should to go pursuing a goal of maximum ridership — which will tend to generate frequent service in the densest urban markets — as opposed to the goal of coverage — spreading service out so that as many people as possible have some service nearby?
  • Level of investment in service? How much should the community invest in service? The more it invests the more it gets in value, but the value it gets depends in part on how you answer the ridership-coverage trade-off.

If you live in Chattanooga or know anyone there, now is the time to get involved.  Download the report, read at least the executive summary, form your own view, and share it with us here!  The more people respond, the more confident we’ll be in defining the final plan based on their guidance.

Why Write About Elon Musk?

Two crucial bits of news about Elon Musk:

Aaron Gordon at Jalopnik lays on the irony so I can stay above the fray:

Yes, for those keeping score, in a mere two years we’ve gone from a futuristic vision of electric skates zooming around a variety of vehicles in a network of underground tunnels to—and I cannot stress this enough—a very small, paved tunnel that can fit one (1) car.

The video’s marketing conceit is that the car in the tunnel beats a car trying to go the same distance on roads. You’ll never believe this, but the car that has a dedicated right of way wins. Congratulations to The Boring Company for proving dedicated rights of way are important for speedy transportation, something transportation planners figured out roughly two centuries ago. I’m afraid for how many tunnels they’ll have to dig before they likewise acknowledge the validity of induced demand.

In other words, as I wrote three years ago, Musk may be brilliant at physics but he often doesn’t seem to understand geometry, or at least not without doing expensive experiments to rediscover it.

Why even write about Elon Musk again?  When Elon Musk insulted me on Twitter over a year ago, I had a brief rush of media fame, including interviews on the BBC and Fox Business.  Maybe I’m just addicted to that.  Evidence against this theory:  I’ve written little about Musk for over a year since that brief moment of fame.  One of my worst nightmares is that I die before doing anything else that gets that much attention, so that Elon Musk’s insult dominates my obituaries.

No, the real utility of Elon Musk is that he presents himself as an extreme example of elite projection.  I defined that term, here, as “the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.”

When he was first promoting his mysteriously cheap tunnels, he talked about how much he hated traffic personally.  So he invented a tunnel that might get him and a few other billionaires out of traffic, but whose capacity was so low that it couldn’t possibly be relevant to the volume of travel in a big city.  As always inefficiency is inequality.  Only an efficient solution (in terms of both space and money) can be made available to everyone.

So don’t confuse elite projection with elitism. The problem with elite projection isn’t that it’s an elite point of view.  The problem is that it doesn’t work.

Why have I devoted my career to fixed public transit, rail and bus?  Because unlike Musk’s tunnels, or streetcars that are slower than walking, or “Ubering your transit system,” or fantasies of universal microtransit, fixed transit scales.  When it’s allowed to succeed, it’s a supremely efficient use of both money and space.  Bus service, especially, is cheap enough that you can have a lot of it, everywhere, if you decide you care about liberating lots of people to move around your city.  And if you want a city that’s equitable and sustainable remember: if it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter.

So no, I’m not interested in Elon Musk for his own sake.  But ideas are more exciting when we put faces and stories to them.  So if Elon Musk wants to be the face of elite projection, I’m grateful for his rhetorical help.  Should we call the phenomenon Muskism.  Muskismo?

One Less Barrier to Expanding US Urban Rail Transit

 

Caltrain between San Francisco and San Jose is one of many urban “commuter rail” lines that really need to be high frequency rapid transit lines. Now that’s a little more likely. Photo: Lucius Kwok.

Here’s some good news for people who want more rapid transit service in US cities, and soon.

In the US, all passenger rail services that could potentially mix with freight are governed by the regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). This applies not just to Amtrak but also, critically, to “commuter” rail lines, crucial rail transit services that run on freight railways.

If cities wanted to rapidly upgrade their rail transit systems, the cheapest way is often using upgraded commuter rail rather than building new lines.  Many major cities have large networks of radial commuter rail lines [typically originally freight lines] which, if upgraded to run every 15 minutes or better all day, would effectively become metro lines, on the cheap.  You’ll find this level of service in many major metro areas overseas. Toronto’s Smart Track plan is exactly this idea.

The problem, as always, is frequency, which in turn is a problem of operating cost.  Most US commuter rail systems are far too infrequent to be useful for anything but 9-5 commuting, even though many of them run through dense urban fabric where the demand is there for all-day frequent service.

The Obama FRA, responding to several freight rail disasters, had proposed a rule mandating two-person crews, and had quietly inserted language extending this to passenger rail, even though passenger and freight rail present very different safety issues.   Those requirements would have made commuter rail service too expensive to run frequently enough for it to be useful, and would have persisted regardless of whether technological developments improved the safety outcomes of one-person crews.

The Federal Railroad Administration has just announced that it will stop requiring two-person crews and preempt state requirements to do so.  If this were a genuine safety issues, I’d be alarmed, but it really isn’t. The new FRA position liberates transit agencies and other local governments to negotiate the right solution with their unions in the context of what’s technologically possible.

Yes, removing this requirement is a “conservative” idea that would be unlikely to come from a Democratic administration.  But it removes a significant barrier to providing more useful urban public transit, which leads to all kinds of benefits for equity, prosperity, and the environment.

Miami: Starting a Network Redesign

We’re excited to get started on a bus network redesign in Miami!

Miami-Dade Transit runs a large network of about 100 routes, running over 750 buses across a huge area over 40 miles long. Over the last five years, the Metrobus system has lost about 1/4 of its riders, which has caused Miami-Dade leadership to question the current bus network and how well it’s serving the county.

Like many other Sunbelt cities, Miami is growing and a lot of that growth is in a few places: around downtown, on the beaches, and in a few key centers such as Coral Gables. These densifying centers are reaching the point where cars simply don’t work anymore, and transit is essential to the continued growth and prosperity, not to mention equity. Thus, there are increasing demands for more useful service in these core areas.

As in many cities, the edges of the region are also seeing new development designed almost entirely for car dependence. And many people moving to the edges are doing so because they have limited incomes and the housing is cheap. But the land use design and distance means that the cost to serve them with transit is very high. These trends are stretching Miami-Dade Transit farther and farther geographically on a limited budget. This combination of forces is putting great demands on transit in opposite directions and is heightening the difficulty of the ridership-coverage tradeoff.

A key question in the process will be the different roles of different transit agencies. Many municipalities have begun running their own municipal bus routes. Some, like the Miami Beach network, are extensive. As Miami-Dade has lost riders municipal systems have seen big ridership increases, rising from 7.4 million riders per year in 2013 to 10.9 million in 2017. Where these municipal routes compete with county-wide Miami-Dade routes, many people are choosing the municipal routes, in part because they are free. These trends are causing greater segmentation of transit services across the county and adding to the complexity that an average rider must manage when trying to figure out how to make a trip or trying to understand the whole system.  They also represent a degree of duplication that could potentially be reallocated to create more frequent and useful service.

As always, public input (including but not limited to riders) will be essential to figuring out what direction Miami-Dade wants to go. For that effort, we are especially excited to partner with Transit Alliance Miami, a local non-profit organization advocating for walkable streets, bikeable neighborhoods and better public transit. Transit Alliance advocated this project for years, and now they are actually leading the process on behalf of Miami-Dade County, with a big emphasis on involving the community in decision-making throughout the process. We think this is the first US bus network redesign that is led by a community advocacy group.

We expect there will be some early outreach on key choices in the summer. In the fall, we expect to release two concepts for how the future network could look, and this will be a key point for public input. All of that input will guide us on a final plan, which we expect will be voted on this winter. Keep an eye on the Transit Alliance twitter feed and website for regular updates throughout the redesign process and opportunities to provide input and respond to concepts.

Cleveland: Tell us what you think about these alternative networks!

Our work on Greater Cleveland’s transit network is now available online, and we’re looking for people from the area to provide their input through this online survey.  The transit agency, GCRTA, hired us this year to help develop transit network alternatives that would illustrate what the transit network could look like if it shifted its focus more towards attracting higher ridership, and what it what the network would look like if it shifted towards extending coverage, as well as what the possibilities may be with different levels of funding.

The local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, has a great article about the networks and what they are intended to illustrate.

Cleveland is fortunate to have a relatively dense, and walkable pre-war era development pattern across much of the city, but as with most places in the United States, the trend over the past half-century has been the continual spread of residents and jobs to far-flung locations across the region. Since the region as a whole is growing very slowly, or not at all, this slow dispersal of the tax base poses a long-term challenge for the stability of transit resources and travel markets as more people and jobs flee to the margins of Cuyahoga County, or beyond.

When operating resources are limited, as in GCRTA’s case, the ridership/coverage tradeoff is put front and center in any discussion of what transit can do. Today’s network extends to most, but not all, of the developed area of the county, and provides little high-frequency service within the dense, walkable core of the region. Reaching more of Cuyahoga County would mean curtailing frequency in dense areas even more. But building a robust frequent network would require pulling back from many of these lower-density suburban areas, as there is little waste or duplication to reallocate in the current service design of RTA’s network.

In this context, RTA has brought us in to help explore what the transit network could look like today, if different policy priorities were emphasized more strongly in network design. Further on in the project, we’ll also be developing alternatives for different financial scenarios. Right now, RTA is conducting outreach on two alternatives: a High Frequency Alternative which brings frequent service to most of the dense, walkable central areas of Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs, and a Coverage Alternative, which spreads low-frequency service to more of county.

The purpose of these alternatives is to illustrate for the public, stakeholders, and the agency’s Board of Trustees the potential outcomes of a policy choice to focus more on ridership or on coverage. (You can click each map below to explore a larger annotated version).

The High Frequency Alternative concentrates service so that lines run more frequently, reducing waiting times and making travel by transit more convenient. The network would reach fewer places, but where it does reach, trips would be faster than with the Existing Network.

As a result, over 40% more jobs would be accessible by the average county resident in an hour with the High Frequency Alternative. But on the other hand, the reduction in overall network extent reduces the number of people within a ½-mile walk to transit by over 20% from current levels.

You can compare the structure of the network on Cleveland’s east side to see this principle in action:

GCRTA Existing Network (left) compared with the High Frequency Alternative (right)

On the other hand, the Coverage Alternative spreads out service across the county, but spreading it out means spreading it thin. Frequencies would be lower throughout the network. This means that the network reaches more places but some trips would take much longer. Because these are budget-neutral alternatives, expanding the reach of the network requires reducing service levels on other routes, some routes that run every 45 minutes today would run every 60 minutes, and RTA’s single existing 15-minute bus service would run every 20 minutes. About 25,000 more people would be within a ½-mile walk of a transit stop, about a 5% increase from the Existing Network.

We hope these alternatives clearly illustrate the ridership/coverage tradeoff as it applies to Cuyahoga County and Cleveland. If you live in the area, please tell us what you think! You can learn more about the project and alternatives here.  Then, if you live, work or study in Cuyahoga County, be sure  take this short online survey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mirra Meyer, 1942-2019

My mother, the artist Mirra (Louella) Meyer, passed away on Friday, April 16.  The story of her life, with images of her work, are here.

 

Do Uber and Lyft Want to Connect to Transit?

Uber and Lyft — especially Lyft — want you to think that they are partners of public transit, eager to help more people get to rapid transit stations.  Lyft and Uber have both created partnerships with transit agencies to provide “last mile” service.  When people talk about the “last mile” problem of access to transit (a problem that exists mostly in suburban areas or late at night) Lyft and Uber are eager to seem part of the solution.

I would like to believe this.  Here are two reasons I don’t.

  1.  Uber/Lyft Drivers Don’t Want Short Trips

First, no Uber or Lyft driver really wants to offer a “last mile” because a mile is too short a trip to make sense to them.  The hassles of each trip are constant regardless of the trip’s length, so long trips are always preferred.  In the old days of taxis, whenever I booked a taxi ride to a transit station, the driver always pitched me to give me a ride all the way to my destination.  And if I approached a long taxi queue at a suburban rail station and told the driver I wanted to go a mile, he’d be unhappy to say the least, because he spent a lot of time waiting for my fare.

That’s why the partnerships between Uber/Lyft and transit agencies for “last mile” service inevitably involve public subsidy, which means that they compete with other kinds of transit service for those funds.  (This can be OK if transit agencies have really decided that this is the best use of funds given all of their other needs.)

2.  Uber/Lyft Drivers Can’t Find Transit Station Entrances

Uber and Lyft drivers mostly use mapping software that can’t find many transit station entrances.  If connecting with transit were a critical part of their business, this would have been fixed by now.

The nearest rapid transit station to my home in Portland (Bybee Blvd) looks like this:

This is a typical suburban arrangement (although this is not really suburbia).  The station is alongside a highway (labeled McLoughlin Blvd.).  The pedestrian access to the station is from the overpass. The little roofs are the elevators and stairs.

But the mapping apps think that the station entrance is on the highway.

So it is impossible to call Uber or Lyft to this station, because the software tells the driver to go down the highway, where all they’ll find is a fence.  I can text them to correct it, but not all drivers pay attention to texts (nor should they, while driving.)  And even if I correct it, I’ll then wait an extra 10 minutes as they get themselves turned around and navigated to the right spot.

This is the example I deal with all the time, but I’ve found many suburban rail stations in many cities where drivers don’t have clear directions about station locations.  For example, call Lyft or Uber to Van Dorn Metro Station in Alexandria, Virginia, and you can expect the driver to wander all over the adjacent interchange.

Some people clearly need to go to work accurately coding the location of every entrance to every transit station, but it’s clearly not being done.  Why not?  It must not be that important to these companies.

So Do Uber and Lyft Want to Go to Transit?

It makes sense that Uber and Lyft would want to do long trips to rapid transit, more than a few miles.  For example, in San Francisco, Uber and Lyft do a good business to regional rapid transit stations (BART and Caltrain) but since each system has only one line in the city, these can be trips of several miles (often competing with the abundant local bus and light rail system).

And Uber and Lyft certainly want to be subsidized to do more “last mile” work, via partnerships with transit agencies.

But the drivers’ inability to find transit station entrances — and the fact that this problem has been tolerated for years — is what really decides it for me.  Companies that really want to connect with transit would have made sure that they can navigate a driver to any entrance of any rapid transit station.  But they don’t.