Alon Levy, guest-writing at The Transport Politic, recently did a great piece proposing that the New York region’s commuter rail lines, which currently all terminate in Manhattan, should be connected to each other so that trains would flow through, for example, from Long Island to New Jersey and back. The inspiration, of course, is the Paris RER, a system in which commuter rail lines on opposite sides of Paris flow across the city into each other. Because all these commuter trains, merged into a common city segment, add up to reasonably high frequency, the RER also serves as an “extra-rapid metro” connecting major centres across the city with trips making just a few stops. Alon’s plan (part one, part two) is a great read, as is Cap’n Transit’s response to it.
Such a system would be wonderful if it existed today. Commutes from Long Island to New Jersey would certainly be much easier, and it would also be great to get the space-consuming and time-consuming end-of-line functions out of the core.
But when you start looking at the cost/benefit of all the tunnelling to get the various commuter lines connected to each other, you stumble on an important difference between Paris and New York. For all the suburbanization of the last 70-some years, New York still has an world-class concentration of jobs and activities in a very compact core (roughly the southern half of Manhattan plus inner Brooklyn). For trips from the outer suburbs to this core, it’s not hard to get where you’re going with the existing commuter rail line and one connection to the subway.
Paris commutes are widely distributed to major employment centers located mostly on the edges of the city. This pattern particularly cries out for RER-style through-running of commuter rail because so many people are commuting to a center on the far side of the city from their origin — for example, from suburbs east of Paris to La Défense in the west. Greater New York would benefit from such an arrangement, but not nearly as much as Paris does. For New York it’s a nice feature, but for Paris it’s foundational to the growth pattern of the city.
Paris is more like Los Angeles than it is like New York.
The Paris that tourists know is compact city built mostly at a rather consistent 4-6 stories, with few high-rises; instead, as noted, the high-rise employment is in transit-oriented clusters on the edge of this area. Large expanses of Los Angeles are approaching similar density, and as in Paris, major high-rise employment+retail is grouped in several large clusters, not just “downtown LA” but also Glendale, Century City, Westwood/UCLA, etc. Paris is still denser than Los Angeles, and its high-rise centers are more transit-oriented, but the difference is not nearly as great as these cities’ reputations would suggest. What’s more, Los Angeles is still growing more internal density, while most of inner Paris is considered built-out. Los Angeles thus has many options to become even more like Paris if it chooses.
Fantastic. I’d also like to add, as a corollary, that greater Washington is in this same sense a lot more like Los Angeles (and, more obviously, Paris) than New York. Which makes the need for integrated, frequent, transit-level commuter rail throughout that region all the more important.
The nature of these cities is immediately apparent when one looks at the transit lines: New York (and Chicago, Minneapolis, and other centralized cities) have a radial pattern to their subway/light rail lines. Paris (as well as DC, London, and I’d assume many other similar cities) have a network of lines. That network lends itself readily to transfers and mobility throughout the entire city. In a city like Chicago (which might be the quintessential example of a centralized city with radial transit lines), it is nearly impossible to move anywhere in the city without passing through the Loop. Unless, of course, you take the bus.
“If you want a really balanced and efficient public transit system, nothing is better than multiple high-rise centers all around the edge, with density in the middle, because that pattern yields an intense but entirely two-way pattern of demand.”
I completely agree – there is no reason for the center to have hegemony over the rest of the region. But along those lines, wouldn’t running through-trains in Manhattan help create the sort of polycentric metropolis we prefer? It can only be more sustainable to have more dense suburbs around New York.
Toronto took the course of designating a few major centres in the suburbs (e.g. North York Centre, Scarborough Centre) plus several office parks, and this has continued in the outer suburbs (Mississauga, Vaughan, Markham).
This does have the effect of increasing transit usage in the off-peak direction to some extent (but only on local transit including the subway, not on the commuter trains). However, it has had mixed success from a modal split perspective. Whereas downtown has a very high non-auto modal split (local transit, commuter rail, walking), the percentage of employees commuting to jobs in the suburbs via transit is low for the most part. Transit does a great job on the “many to one” model (lots of people commuting to a major downtown), but does a poor job on the “many to many” model (lots of people from all over, including downtown, commuting to lots of office centres).
As one example — North York Centre is a suburban node on the Yonge subway with lots of high-density office and residential buildings. There is a very good modal split for residents — they chose to live there in large part because they are right on the subway, making downtown commuting easy. There is a poorer modal split for employees — they chose their employer for any number of reasons, of which transit access may or may not have been one; and while the subway may encourage workers living downtown to commute via transit, the employees are dispersed throughout Toronto and the suburbs and have varying levels of transit accessibility. And this is for an office node right on a subway line. The transit modal split for employment areas in the outer suburbs is usually minor to negligible.
So I would argue it depends on what your goal is. If you want to try and fill up transportation capacity (both transit and road) in the off-peak direction, then the multiple centres model is the way to go. However, if your goal is to maximize transit usage and reduce car use, I would argue that the multiple centres model is much less effective than the New York model.
One thing that makes Los Angeles a bit different from Paris is that in addition to having multiple peripheral employment centers, there’s also at least one very long linear employment center along Wilshire Blvd, which will make for an exceptionally effective line along that corridor. Indeed, I suspect that just by adding the Wilshire line, LA’s heavy rail ridership will surpass that of BART, with a system about 3 times smaller.
Paris is less centralized than New York and Chicago, but is still far more centralized than Los Angeles, with a greater share of metro area jobs in the central city (31% versus 23%, I believe). It’s also much denser – its average density is higher than this of all but a handful of LA’s census tracts.
Jarrett & Alon,
As an amateur LA transit enthusiast, my question is:
How does the pending Expo line from Downtown LA to Downtown Santa Monica play into this LA-as-Paris model? It seems like it would indeed support it, especially if communities along the way (West Adams, Palms, Culver City, etc.) grow more densely as a result.
I haven't reviewed the zoning on the Expo Line, but I'd expect that it has the potential to generate significant highrise density in Culver City, which is a logical place for a major node, and maybe at other points.
Jarrett, what happened to Part 2? It popped up in my RSS reader, but it’s not here – and when I click for a direct link, the page is blank…
“If you want a really balanced and efficient public transit system, nothing is better than multiple high-rise centers all around the edge, with lower-rise density in the middle, because that pattern yields an intense but entirely two-way pattern of demand.”
The problem with your analysis is that it assumes people ‘have’ to travel from one part of the county to the other. If commercial and residential uses were encouraged in closer proximity pressure for people to live so far from their employment would be reduced and thus transportation infrastructure demand also reduced. This can be done by encouraging residential developments along side corporate office towers and changing zoning laws that restrict development to a single type of use such as residential for large swaths of land which in effect forces people to commute.
Secondly, Transit Oriented Development, or denser mixed use developments constructed along transit lines is an even better model as ridership is refreshed at multiple nodes along the line not just the end points.
LAMTA and the cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles have made huge strides along these lines within the last ten years with numerous mixed use projects built on top of Red and Gold Line stations. This is not possible for most of he Green Line which is built in a freeway median and non-existant along the Blue Line which travels through some of the counties poorer communities. The stigma of these communities simply stifles demand for such development.
You are correct that there will be some densification of Culver City and plans are currently under foot for the Venice and Robertson station but do not expect anything high or even mid-rise. The zoning implicitly bars dense developments and the council and the citizens are of the same mindset. Culver City wants to be 1950’s America with a touch of Europe’s yesteryear. They will never be a Century City.
Lastly, it is not exactly an apt description to say that Los Angeles envies New York. Overlooking the fact that ‘envy’ is a pejorative, Los Angeles doesn’t want to be New York. The city has had a dense urban core roughly where it is now since the 1920s. As the population increased there was a natural progression toward taller buildings at the urban core just like there was in other cities such as Seattle, San Franciso, and Chicago.
I appreciate all of these comments, including the critical ones. My most fundamental point is that a constellation of multiple highrise centers is actually a very good geography for efficient transit.
Obviously increase mixture of uses at all scale will reduce some of the current need for mobility, but well-integrated European cities still display substantial travel demand, and I would expect the same in a future Los Angeles even if every part of it were mixed use and walkable.
Like any broad analogy between obviously dissimilar things, the comparison of Paris and LA is intended only to open a new angle of thought: that the single massive downtown isn’t the only model of a sustainable city or even the best one, as Paris demonstrates. Don’t expect me to defend the analogy in every detail; if it made you stop and think, even just to think about how to disagree, then it’s done it’s work, and we can move on.
There is a big difference between the Green and Expo Lines. The initial Green Line was cut short at both ends by NIMBYs. It doesn’t connect to Metrolink commuter rail on the east or LAX on the west. The Green Line was constructed at the same time as a new freeway. The vagaries of the Green Line are caused by how it was constructed, due to how it was funded. (Future plans will connect the Green Line to LAX).
The Expo Line will connect Downtown to Culver City to Santa Monica. There will be lots of two-way traffic.
This will even more be true of the Purple Line extension (subway-to-the-sea) and the “Pink Line”, connecting Hollywood to Century City.
This is a really interesting discussion.
The two-way travel you are discussing is particularly true of the proposed extension of the Purple Line from Downtown to Santa Monica.
Part of the reason opponents (like the anti-rail demagogues of the so called Bus Riders “Union”) failed in their arguments against extending the Purple Line west to the beach via the busy Wilshire Blvd. business corridor, Century City, Westwood and Santa Monica was they argued that this line was simply about allowing white yuppies living on the Westside to take rail downtown at the expense of poor downtrodden nonwhite bus riders elsewhere.
The arguments against the subway extension were underpinned by the erroneous argument that there would be primarily one-way commutes from Westside to Downtown and that it was unfair to make the county as a whole pay for a project that would only benefit “affluent” westsiders.
In reality, there is already two-way traffic on this corridor. Century City, Beverly Hills, Westwood and Santa Monica are increasing job centers in their own right. Both directions of the I-10 Freeway are busy. Both directions of the Wilshire Buses are crowded. Transit riders commuting west will benefit tremendously from this project too.
Also, residents in affluent areas like Beverly Hills went from giving NIMBY arguments about “those people” coming to their neighborhoods to having fear that congestion would prevent their employees and customers from accessing their businesses. When the City of Beverly Hills has meetings to discuss where they’d like their subway stops, you know the world has changed.
Race and class are huge issues in Los Angeles and unfortunately our transportation planning gets bogged down in arguments about race and class and and inexhaustible supply of NIMBYs and demagogues. Race and class sabotaged the Purple Line extension in the 80s.
However, in the middle of a recession, over 2/3 of Los Angeles County voters gave themselves a half-cent sales tax hike to pay for transportation improvements, including most of the proposed Purple Line extension.
A true sea change has occurred and for once, at least for the Purple Line extension, it seems that quality transportation planning has prevailed and for once the NIMBYs and demagogues did not. As it will take years to finish this project, those of us who care about this will need to remain vigilant.
Portland is starting to see more leftist critism of Tri-Met, the local transit agency, on similar grounds. A recently-formed organization, the Portland Transit Riders’ Union, has been critical of the agency for proposed service cutbacks. While the PTRU isn’t officially anti-rail (the “rail is for rich folk, busses are for poor folk” dynamic isn’t at play in Portland, as the MAX LRT service goes to several blighted areas in town, including the Green Line opening this September), the organization does seem to have an undercurrent of opposition to transit-oriented development.
And, in that regard they do have a bit of a point. Which is a better use of transit dollars–expanding or improving service to existing areas, or building new transit infrastructure in anticipation of future demand, especially to development which is believed to occur as a result of the transit expansion? Transit-oriented developments are almost always rail (developers don’t care about bus lines) and thus more expensive; and such projects are frequently denigrated as the result of collusion between land speculators and transit planners. OTOH, the same thing can be said about any significant public infrastructure; someone’s gonna benefit.
While Tri-Met generally doesn’t reduce bus service to pay the operating expenses for rail (MAX pretty much pays for itself), when cuts occur, they are applied across the board. And Tri-Met has been cutting a bit lately, due to a combination of factors affecting their operating budget (reduction in payroll taxes–and paid fares–due to the recession; a hedge against fuel price increases that went wrong, and the expensive-to-operate WES commuter rail line). The combination of new lines (WES, which has numerous issues, and the new Green Line) with budget cuts has produced a net loss of bus service, and the appearance among some that Tri-Met is actively favoring rail projects at the expense of bus riders.
A big part of this, I think, is confusion as to the the underlying mission of a transit agency: Is it social service–providing minimum mobility to persons who otherwise could not get around–or serving the most in the most efficient manner possible? The two needs are often met in very different ways, and its difficult for funding-strapped transit managers to no neglect the former for the latter, especially given that the latter frequently has a larger constituency, and one that has the option to drive if their needs are not met by transit.
Great comment. It is indeed interesting to watch the emergence of the PRTU in Portland. Tri-Met and other civic leaders in Portland should be studying the history of the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles, which ended up producing a lawsuit that may have played a key role in forcing LACMTA to be more respectful of their own bus service and its (often very high) ridership.
The rail vs bus issue should not be reduced to a environmental vs social service issue. Plenty of Portland bus lines (especially in the inner eastside grid) yield very high ridership and good environmental outcomes. Considerable densification has also occurred on those lines in the last few decades, even though no streetcars have rolled by. For some reason, though, we’re not supposed to call this Transit Oriented Development.
For more on the issue of social service vs ridership, see this post on the recent Strategic PT Plan I did for Australia’s national capital:
I think we’re pretty much in agreement that bus-vs-rail is not much of a class issue in Portland. Most of the highest-income neighborhoods in Portland are served only by bus (Dunthorpe, for instance; Laurelhurst has MAX skirting its northern edge but you have to cross the I-84 freeway); and blighted places like Rockwood and outer Southeast (commonly known locally as “felony flats”) are well-served by MAX, or are about to be. (Many right-wing transit critics have called for MAX service to be reduced to these areas, on the grounds that hoodlums are using the trains–which run on proof-of-payment, and thus easy for fare-evaders to ride–to get around town and cause mayhem in nicer neighborhoods).
The Streetcar is an interesting case; right now it serves mainly upscale neighborhoods (NW 23rd, the Pearl, and South Waterfront). Supposedly, any increase in operational cost (as well as the capital cost to build the thing) is borne by taxpayers in the affected neighborhoods through local improvement districts; that doesn’t seem to immunize the Streetcar from criticism (both from the right and left) that the line is an undeserved perk for wealthy yuppies and politically-connected developers. The proposed eastside loop extension will serve less well-to-do areas; as will the more expansive plan you called attention to.
The interesting question is how much development along streetcar lines, or bus lines, or MAX for that matter, is due to transit. Many recently gentrified neighborhoods in Portland, including 23rd and the Pearl (served by rail) as well as more recent gentrifications (currently less upscale, and served by bus) such as Hawthorne, Burnside west of Laurelhurst, and Albina/Mississippi, have followed the same pattern of poor artisans moving in to take advantage of cheap rents, followed by nice restaurants attracting the well-to-do, followed by residential gentrification. The Pearl is an especially interesting case in that it transformed from a heavy-industrial area to upscale mixed-use in less than a decade; the Streetcar no doubt helped, but much of that transformation had started before any track was laid.
I think the bottom line of rail-vs-bus (for local service, in particular), simply depends the quality of ride an area wants to pay for. Tri-Met’s overall policy is reasonable–the 40′ bus is the standard service; if a neighborhood wants streetcars they need to cough up the bucks, at which point Tri-Met will happily run the trains.
Jarrett, transit agencies are studying the BRU vs. LACMTA consent decree.
They want to prevent another Los Angeles situation where the courts are running the system.
The consent decree is a legal remedy that allows the defendant to remedy a plaintiff as an alternative to a settlement or worse, a judgment — one that could have been precedent-setting.
That’s not to say that any alternatives would have been desirable.
The lawsuit may have forced Metro to be more respectful, but during the consent decree something crazy happened. The big, bad bureaucracy turned out to be willing to work with riders. The Bus Riders Union just saw its victory as a license to grow progressively more extreme to the point of being, as we say in the States, batsh-t crazy. That’s not to Metro’s credit, though. The BRU did it to itself. :>
A couple differences spring to mind between the LA BRU and the PTRU in Portland.
1) As mentioned above, BRU had legitimate grounds to file a lawsuit; whether intentional or not, the combination of increased rail service to wealthy parts of town, AND service cuts to less wealthy parts of town, resulted in a disparate impace to minorities. Nobody has alleged a similar situation exists in Portland–if anything, Tri-Met is very careful to avoid such impacts in its service decisions. At this point, I doubt PTRU would have any (reasonable) grounds to sue Tri-Met, where they inclined to do so.
2) BRU had (and still appears to have) strong allies with the LA transit unions–indeed, many critics of BRU frequently allege (among other things) that the organization is fronted by the union, and really exists to keep bus drivers employed, not to address the concerns of bus riders. (Such concerns frequently coincide; service cuts are bad for both groups). PTRU, on the other hand, has already managed to annoy the local transit union, by coming out with public complaints concerning alleged rudneess by Tri-Met operators to passengers. (Adding fuel to the fire, the labor contract is apparently up for renewal, and there have been lots of complaints about surly bus drivers in the local paper and other media; leading some bus drivers to smell a rat. PTRU, for its part, insists that they are in solidarity with transit workers).
3) While Tri-Met has made its share of mistakes; the agency appears to enjoy a better reputation (among customers) than LACMTA does. PTRU doesn’t appear to have attracted a large following, yet–Tri-Met’s fiercest critics remain those on the right would would prefer to de-fund transit and build more freeways and such; not those calling for greater service, lower fares, and higher taxes to pay for it all.
The BRU got a consent decree because Metro was held by L.A. in such low regard. It could not have argued the facts and won in court. A trial would have led to a settlement, a judgment or a consent decree. All were unpleasant choices in each of their own way, but the consent decree ended up being snatching an ever-small victory from crushing defeat.
Can we finally put to rest the “rail serves wealthy areas” nonsense? If rail runs through a wealthy area, that’s because those areas have the highest existing bus ridership and the largest share of jobs where transit riders work. What should Metro have done? End the lines in bad neighborhoods and make people walk the rest of the way?
Second, to serve these wealthy areas, you have to run through a lot of poorer ones. The Blue Line between L.A. to Long Beach runs via the most dangerous, economically depressed communities in the whole U.S. The subway runs through a slew of low-income communities. The Green Line was also the product of another consent decree and started just to get the freeway built.
There is also the matter of Propositions A and C, the local sales taxes that stipulated a clear percentage of funds to be spent on rail constructions. Though in each, 35% and 40% of the funds were marked for operating funds, so they also sustained the bus system.
So MTA had a clear voter mandate to build these projects. The state and matching funds for rail construction could only be used for rail and nothing else.
The BRU would have to argue Propositions A and C are racist in themselves and overturned them on equal protection or civil rights grounds. The results of the vote showed the highest support for those taxes among minorities, and the highest opposition among whites.
In court, a judge cannot rewrite the propositions to say rail was inappropriately allocated. The courts cannot redirect spending. They would have to void the sales taxes and force a new vote.
Also, the BRU is only allied with the transit unions ideologically. The transit unions did not give any institutional support to the BRU. The transit unions in fact hate the BRU. It has a lot to do with Eric Mann’s vanguardist style. He’s burned many bridges on the left because of the same demeanor.
Wad… to be clear, I’m not endorsing the BRU’s positions on the sociological affect of LRT development in LA–or anything the BRU has to say, for that matter.
Such analyses are usually simplistic and ridiculous; I think we agree there. There is much whining in Portland from certain Tri-Met critics that Tri-Met is looking to shut down the bus system, only wants to run choo-choo-trains to yuppie-filled neighborhoods like the Pearl, and other assorted nonsense that doesn’t withstand any real scrutiny, but gets repeated nonetheless, both from critics on the left and right.
OTOH, there is an underlying meme (especially in leftist circles) out there that some transit agencies do in fact provide rail (held to be a “nicer” service) to wealthier and/or whiter neighborhoods, and busses (often overcrowded) to the ghetto. And some transit agencies probably have been caught doing exactly that–Robert Moses, for instance, was well-known for using urban and transit design stratagems to keep New York’s minority population it its place. Indeed, the phenomenon of “white flight” to the suburbs and certain types of infrastructure development (most often freeway construction, not transit) frequently go hand-in-hand, at least until urban residents started to figure out in the 60s and 70s that many of the new highways tearing up their neighborhoods, were not for their benefit.
There is also a persistent meme, again from the left, that transit agencies primary business ought to be social service and social justice–provision of transit services to those who otherwise lack mobility; and that this mission ought to have priority over provision of transit service to commuters-by-choice and the general population. I won’t attempt to defend this position, but it’s out there. And the most effective way to provide comprehensive service to the transit-dependent happens to be with a big fleet of local serivces busses; I’m constantly amazed by the number of MAX critics in Portland who argue that mass-transit is unncessary, because you can ride the bus into town.
Yes, I’m not specifically opining about Alon Levy’s idea to structure NYC commuter rail like the RER, and you’re right, doing so would help NYC grow stronger secondary centers.
Brent. Interesting distinction. Yes, you can “maximize transit usage” by running transit in a way that’s really expensive, which is what the NYC urban structure implies. But in the real world, transit agencies only have so much money, so the question is always “how do you maximize transit usage for a given budget?” If you have the luxury of designing a city from scratch, design it like Los Angeles: multiple centers, each dense enough to discourage driving, but generating two-way demand patterns that produce twice the ridership for the budget, because they’re used equally in both directions.
I’m not so sure the problem is one vs multiple “centers”; the problem is more distinct residential and commercial districts which generate one-way traffic patterns. Multiple commercial centers may mitigate this somewhat as inter-center routes see traffic in both directions, but if you have suburbs out there, the suburb-to-downtown connections are gonna be one-way.
Even in Manhattan, which enjoys a high level of density and an excellent mix of commercial and residential, one sees a mad rush downtown in the morning, and a mad rush uptown in the evening.
Scotty, believe me, I’ve witnessed the far-left tactics of these organizations in L.A. And the BRU is the worst of the worst.
When you hear “union,” you think of a group of people gathered together to advance a collective interest. In the case of the L.A. Bus Riders Union, the union agreed to Eric Mann’s script. He crafted the narrative and was the general in search of a few soldiers. So much for People Power.
Mann in particular manipulated the “social justice” angle because it played right into his hands. Since he had so much appeal among proles, he consciously smothered any quality of service issues because they were bourgeois.
Transit agencies have to be accountable to the community at large. There is nothing that says that transit works best — or is only allowed to exist — if it is as impoverished as its ridership.
I am also amused by this statement:
I’m constantly amazed by the number of MAX critics in Portland who argue that mass-transit is unncessary, because you can ride the bus into town.
Buses are mass transit.
That’s like saying I’m constantly amazed by the number of MAX critics in Portland who argue that mass-transit is unncessary, because you can ride mass-transit into town.
To clarify, by “bus” I meant “local service bus”, which has different mobility parameters, I think you’ll agree, than a light-rail line. Thus, the sentence bcomes:
“I am constantly amazed by the number of MAX critics in Portland who argue that (high-speed) mass-transit is unnecessary, because you can ride the (local) bus into town”.
Which makes sense–for a commuter from Gresham or Hillsboro; there is a big difference in the quality of service, specifically the mobility, between MAX and the bus. The locals take far longer, and the express lines, which run on freeways, are frequently stuck in traffic.
From the point of view of a transit-dependent individual who lives in town, is used to living around a bus schedule, and values comprehensive service among all else; mass transit to the suburbs might indeed seem superfluous. Many of the people who make such arguments are essentially saying “Tri-Met is wasting money serving the needs of users who are not like me; said users (especially suburban commuters) needs are irrelevant”. The attitude of “Tri-Met should only serve city residents, screw the suburbs” isn’t uncommon in the Portland-area transit user community.
And keep in mind; I don’t agree with this attitude one whit; I am only noting that it exists.
It might be useful if the moderator fixes the broken HTML above; in the meantime I just added closing tags, which the moderator might also remove.
Theres a problem of scale here. Los Angeles is way bigger than Paris. You can build a system that looks similar on a map, but how long does it take to get to these different places, and how much does it cost?
Paris is actually a very highly centralized city, and much more so than North American cities.
The Paris CBD houses about 1 million jobs on its own. This does not include the other neighbourhoods within the Paris city limits.
In addition, the Paris CBD, along with the corridor to the La Defense area, creates a large centre of commerce, with another 200,000 or so jobs in La Denfense, and who knows how many more in the corridor between the CBD and La Defense.
I was just a symposium where a planner from Paris came to talk about this project. I have large concerns about this project, as they are planning to decentralize things by moving activities out to the suburbs, like college campus’s, etc.
This I feel is really going to limit transit use, as you need that critical mass going into the core city. So I would watch this project, as it may not work as well as they think, if they are going to purposely try to spread everything out.