Rail Transit

The Fishing Pier Problem in Public Transit Equity

Photo: Heditor6, Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever heard people say: “They got that transit improvement in their neighborhood!  We deserve to have one in our neighborhood!”

But does this demand always makes sense?

Imagine a city on a lake or ocean, where neighborhoods near the water tend to be wealthier than those inland.  Suppose the city has a plan to build several fishing piers, but all the proposed piers are in the wealthy neighborhoods on the waterfront.  Isn’t that unfair?

No, I think you’d say, because fishing piers only work if they’re on the water.  If you were concerned with equity, maybe you’d propose a program that helps inland people get to the waterfront fishing piers quickly.  But you wouldn’t support an inland city councilor’s battle to get a fishing pier on dry land in their neighborhood, because it wouldn’t be useful for fishing.

In short, the point isn’t to equitably distribute fishing piers.  It’s to equitably distribute the ability to fish.

In the transit business, when a cool new thing is created somewhere, you always hear the rest of the city say: when do we get that cool thing?  You’ll hear this about everything, from subway lines to light rail to little vans that come to your door.   Enormous amounts of money get spent trying to act on this principle.

The typical pattern goes like this:

  • Cool new transit thing x is introduced, and deployed in one or two places in the city where it makes sense.  (Let’s build a fishing pier on the waterfront!)
  • Other neighborhoods demand the same thing, often claiming it’s unjust or inequitable that they don’t have it.  (Why don’t our inland neighborhoods have fishing piers?)
  • Often the cool new thing is actually built in those other neighborhoods that demand it, but it doesn’t work well there, because the geography is wrong for it.  (A fishing pier is actually built inland, extending across a patch of grass, but nobody uses it.)

The marketing of cool new transit things can make this problem worse.  The more you put out the message that light rail or BRT or microtransit or “Metro Rapid” is cool and different and better than “ordinary” buses, the more mad people will be if their neighborhood just gets ordinary buses.  That leads to political pressure to bring the cool new thing to a place where it just doesn’t work very well, which in turn leads to the cool new thing failing, just as an inland fishing pier will fail.

You’ll get the best transit mobility if we use the tool that works with your geography, even if it’s different from what works in other places.

So perhaps it makes no sense to equitably distribute any cool transit thing.  It makes sense to equitably distribute the ability to go lots of places quickly on transit.

How would our transit debates be different if we did this?

 

 

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.

Visualizing Transit Reliability

Reliability is one of those essential features of transit that you can’t take a picture of.  It’s an overwhelming issue in the lives of transit customers but can seem abstract to others who make transit policy.  And it’s a major issue in many transit systems.

Poor reliability of buses has many causes, mostly having to do with the traffic congestion and other causes of random delay to which they’re exposed.  But when a rail line runs in an exclusive right of way, never interacting with traffic, there aren’t a lot of excuses.

The Miami organization Transit Alliance has done a nice visualization of transit reliability on that city’s rail transit system.  It looks at the system right now and shows how many trains are running late.  It’s important to note here that late does not mean behind schedule.  It means that the maximum wait time is longer than scheduled, by a given number of minutes.  (That’s the only rational way to talk about reliability in high-frequency services.)

Some insitute really needs to create a database of reliability info across many agencies, searchable many ways — and always based on this headway reliability rather than on-time performance.  Most transit agencies now have real time vehicle location feeds, and they are already released in standard formats for use by apps.  Yet we see remarkably few of these kinds of analytics that could help people understand the severity of the reliability problem — even on services like grade-separated heavy rail that have few external causes of delay.

 

 

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!  

😉