Rail Transit

defending new york’s subway from british sneers

Guardian journalist Bim Adewunmi recently traveled from London to New York and slammed the subway as compared to her beloved Underground.  The blowback has been delightful.  She seemed especially angry about the information system that isn't exactly what Transport for London would do.

The city’s subway map is dense and needlessly complex. Where in London the Central line (red) is distinct from the Piccadilly (dark blue), which is markedly different from the Hammersmith and City line (pink), New York’s map has designated the same forest green to the 4, the 5 and the 6 lines. The B, D, F and M all rejoice in exactly the same shade of violent orange. … Why would you do this? The whole thing resembles a child’s approximation of a city transit system: it makes no sense.

She's talking about branching lines.  If she were from Paris, whose elegant Métro is nearly branchless, she'd have a point.  But what a comment for someone from London!

In New York's map, the common color helps you navigate the core part of a line while the numbers or letters help you sort out the branches.  This is a very common way of making branching lines clear.  Meanwhile, in London, where transit is presumably designed by sober adults, we have this:

Northern Line map

No 4, 5, and 6 to confuse you!   No, just a beast called the Northern Line even though it's both northerly and southerly, consisting of two entirely different lines through the central city.  Is there a direct train from Waterloo to Mill Hill East?  How would I know? As Clive's Underground Guide helpfully explains:  "The pattern of service … tends to change with each new issue of the timetable."  

You see, Bim, Americans like maps and nomenclature systems that actually indicate where their train will go!   In London I'm sure you just somehow just know what the next Northern Line train might be up to.  But all that aristocratic just knowing that you Brits do is exactly why you lost your Empire!  

😉

Does transit infrastructure cause ridership?

Does building a new transit line trigger ridership?  Does it even make sense to talk about the ridership of a piece of transit infrastructure?  

If you say yes, you're expressing an infrastructurist world-view that is common in transit investment discussions.  The right answer to the above questions, of course, is "No, but:

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

To the infrastructurist, this little term — "service" — is a mere pebble in a great torrent of causation that flows from infrastructure to ridership.  By contrast, service planners, and most transit riders that I've ever met, insist that service is the whole point of the infrastructure.

If you read the literature of infrastructure analysis, you  encounter the infrastructurist world view all the time, mostly in ways that's unconscious on the authors' part but still a source of confusion.  This afternoon I was browsing TCRP 167, "Making Effective Fixed-Guideway Transit Investments: Indicators of Success", which includes some really useful explorations of land use factors affecting the success of transit lines.  But when they talked about infrastructure features as causes of ridership, the report routinely delivered weirdness like this:

The percentage of the project’s alignment that is at grade proved to be a negative indicator of project-level ridership. At-grade projects may be more prevalent in places that are lower in density, while transit is more likely to be grade-separated in places with higher density or land value. Thus, this indicator may be reflective of density. It may also be true that at-grade systems are slower than grade-separated systems. At-grade status may reflect a bundle of operational characteristics such as speed, frequency, and reliability, although the analysis did not find that these factors individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership.  [TCRP 167, 1-17]

This careful talk about how a correlation "may" reflect density or "operational features" sounds vague and speculative when it's actually very easy to establish.  There is no shortage of evidence that:

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

So this is a case where "A correlates with B" does not mean "A causes B" or "B causes A".  It means "A and B are both results of common cause C".  It's important to know that, because it means you won't get B simply by doing A, which is the way that claims of correlation are usually misunderstood by the media and general public.

Later in the paragraph, the authors again describe the obvious as a mystery:

At grade status may reflect a bundle of operational characteristics such as speed, frequency, and reliability …  

Yes, it certainly may, but rather than lumping all the at-grade rail projects together, they could have observed whether each one actually does.  

… although the analysis did not find that these factors [speed, frequency, and reliability] individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership

While this dataset of new infrastructure projects is too small and noisy to capture the relationship of speed, frequency, and reliability to ridership, the vastly larger dataset of the experience of  transit service knows these factors to be overwhelming.  What's more, we can describe the mechanism of the relationship, instead of just observing correlations:  Speed, frequency, and reliability are the main measures of whether you reach your destination on time.  Given this, the burden of proof should certainly be on those who suggest that ridership is possibly unrelated to whether a service is useful for that purpose.

Note the word choice:  To the infrastructurist, speed, frequency and reliability are dismissed as operational, whereas I would call them fundamental.   To the transit customer who wants to get where she's going, these "operational" variables are the ones that determine whether, or when, she'll get there.  It doesn't matter whether the line is at-grade or underground; it matters whether the service achieves a certain speed and reliability, and those design features are one small element in what determines that.  

I deliberately chose a TCRP example because the authors of specific passages are not identified, and I have no interest in picking on any particular author.  Rather, my point is that infrastructurism so pervasive; I hear it all the time in discussions of transit projects.  

I wonder, also, if infrastructurism is a motorist's error: In the world of roads, the infrastructure really is the cause of most of the outcomes; if you come from that world it's easy to miss how profoundly different transit is in this respect, and how different the mode of analysis must be to address transit fairly.

Whenever you hear someone talk about the ridership of a piece of infrastructure, remember: Transit infrastructure can't get people to their destinations.  Only transit service can.  So study the service, not just the infrastructure!

 

 

 

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

So you're on a crowded subway train on Santiago's Line 4, the dark blue line on this map.  You're northbound, approaching the end of the line at Tobalaba station.  

800-mapa-metro-santiago

Everyone on the crowded train will get off at once.  Most customers are changing to an intersecting line 1, which has  side platforms on the level above.  That, means you can't exit the platform at just any stairwell; each of the two stairwells goes to just one direction of the connecting line.

So customers tend to collide as they exit the train trying to get to the correct stairwell for their preferred direction, creating massive platform congestion that slows people's exit from the train.  this increases the dwell times of the train and thus reduces the possible frequency, which in turn only makes the trains even more crowded.

Massive infrastructure solutions were proposed.  My friend Juan Carlos Muñoz, a professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Chile, came up with a simpler solution (Spanish with English subtitles):


 

A gate blocking the platform halfway along it forces people to exit at the door nearest to them, which in turn teaches people to be in the correct part of the train for their preferred connection. People who try to exit the wrong exit are stopped at the staffed gate, and let through last only after the crowd has cleared. These people are irritated, and a few write to their elected officials, but most people just learn how it works, and work with it.  

UPDATED: Shouldn't people have figured out anyway what part of the train to be in to be close to their exit?  No, becuase in this case, there's an exit at the front end of the platform and another in the middle.  Juan-Carlos explains:

There is one set of stairs coinciding with the middle of the train. Let´s call them A.

Only 40% of the passengers in this train wants to take these stairs.

Thus if we were to assign every passenger a position inside the train we would put all these passengers at the back half of the train. Then the front half of the train would be full of passengers taking the stairs at the front end of the station (stairs B).

However, a great place inside the train to take stairs A is in the back of the front half of the train. Indeed every train used to have around 120 (out of a total of around 1500) such passengers taking such a strategic position. You can see them in the video! These are the passengers causing the problem, not only because they cause the counterflow but because they force some passengers wanting to take the B stairs to enter the back half of the train. The gate forces to act otherwise leaving some room for more B passengers into the front half. They can now exit the station much faster.

So this was a "tragedy of the commons" problem.  People optimizing for their own outcomes were in conflict with the most efficient way to get everyone out of the station before the next train arrived.  

Note how Juan-Carlos refers to the "greatest good." The implication is that we can't let a few people's anger get in the way of solving the problem in a cost-effective way.

yes, great bus service can stimulate development!

Are you sure that rail "stimulates development" and that buses don't?  In a major report released today, the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) attacks this assumption head-on.  

Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit
leverages more transit-oriented development investment than Light Rail Transit
or streetcars.

What really matters to transit-oriented development [TOD] outcomes?  According to the report, the #1 predictor is strong government support for redevelopment, while the #2 predictor is real estate market conditions.  The #3 predictor is the usefulness of the transit services — frequency, speed, and reliability as ensured by an exclusive right of way.  Using rail vs bus technologies does not appear to matter much at all.

While BRT is is having overwhelming success across the developing world, ITDP's argument is aimed at North America, so it rests on North American examples.  Cleveland's HealthLine, a practical urban BRT linking two of the city's strongest destinations, emerges as a great urban redevelopment success story as well as the overall highest-quality BRT service in the US.  Las Vegas, Ottawa,  Eugene, and Pittsburgh's eastern line all play key roles in the argument.  Las Vegas, whose busway is incomplete but is in exactly the right place to serve heavy demand, is one of the most interesting stories, where BRT is playing a key role in the remarkable pedestrianization of what used to be one of the most famous car-only landscapes in the world.  

There will be plenty of quarrel over the details.  But this report does represent a "coming out" for the very concept of bus-based transit oriented development.  For too long, the identification of "transit oriented development" (TOD) with rail has bordered on tautological: if there wasn't rail, it was less likely to be called a TOD, no matter how useful the bus service was.  In fact, almost everything that's been built in every North American inner city has been TOD in the sense that bus service — usually of high quantity if not high quality — has been intrinsic to the neighborhood's appeal and functioning.

This is not to say that I agree with ITDP's anti-rail view.  I support many exclusive-right-of-way light rail projects, and I am not anti-rail except to the extent that rail partisans insist on being anti-bus.  In most North American cities, if you're ideologically anti-bus, then you are hostile to most of your city's transit system, and to most of what transit can practically achieve in the near future at the scale of the whole city.  Great transit networks are those where all the modes work together to maximize everyone's liberty.  All claims for the hegemony of one mode over another are distractions from creating the most effective transit for a city as a whole.

But technology wars meet so many human needs that they will always be with us, and so given that it's best they be as balanced as possible.  Bravo to ITDP for having the courage to speak up about the redevelopment value of highly useful and liberating transit services, regardless of what's going on under the floor.

end of the loop for sydney’s transit toy

DSCF4158
This weekend, Sydney will complete a long and predictable narrative that cautions us yet again about the danger of relying on tourist experiences as a basis for transit planning.

The Sydney Monorail, built in imitation of Seattle's, has now been through the predictable phases of exuberance, delight, irritation, and boredom, and has finally arrived at the point of being more of an obstacle than a service.  The Sydney Morning Herald interviews longtime monorail fan Michael Sweeney who says what little can be said in the thing's defense.  He even uses the word groovy, reminding us (and the interviewer) that he's expressing a definition of coolness that prevailed in one historical moment. There was never any reason to assume the monorail would be cool forever.

Why?  The usual things.  It was conceived as part of a redevelopment, designed to be part of the excitement that would sell expensive real estate.  Like many new North American streetcars, the point was solely to achieve a development outcome and nobody much cared whether it would be useful as transit, especially decades into the future.
Map_sydney_monorail

It was a tiny one-way loop, only about 1 km in diameter, connecting some key tourist destinations into downtown.  Even for tourists it had limited use because — like most North American streetcars again — the route was so short that you might as well walk, as most people do in this area.

As urban design, the monorail wasn't that bothersome when it sailed over the open spaces of Darling Harbour, but when it snaked through the narrow streets of the CBD, it was a heavy weight in the air on narrow streets that were already oppressive to the pedestrian.

DSCF4174

 It's not surprising that it took a new redevelopment plan to sweep away the toys of the old.  Still, the calculus came down to this:  It's not very useful.  If you want to get somewhere on the loop, and back, you might as well walk.  And there are far fewer people riding it than walking under it, perceiving it as an oppressive weight.

So it's coming down.  Last ride is this Sunday. 

subway car configurations: a matter of taste?

Chicago Transit Authority is asking its customers how seating should be configured in its rail rapid transit cars.  Whet Moser has a good writeup in ChicagoMag.com.  Here are the choices:

Cta-seats

The one on the left is "Chicago-style" seating, with most seats in pairs facing along the length of the car.  The one in the middle is "New York-style" seating, with most seats facing sideways.  The third is a hybrid.

Transit agencies commonly do surveys that imply that these things are just a matter of taste, as though they'll go with whatever their riders prefer.  This question is not just a matter of taste.  The left hand image has the most seats but the least capacity.  The middle image as the fewest seats but the greatest capacity.  Seats with their backs to the wall take up much less space than seats in pairs facing forward or back.  And of course, any seat takes up more space than a standee in a crowded car.  This is why really crowded subway systems inevitably gravitate toward side-facing seats.

So the question should be not whether you like the the configuration on the left, but whether you like it so much that you don't mind being left behind at rush hour because the train is full.  

The survey asks you which configuration you prefer, and which you like better in terms of "personal space."  But it doesn't inform the reader that the more forward- and back-facing seats there are, the more people will be left behind on the platform during the peak and the less ridership the system will be able to handle.

Almost all choices are tradeoffs, so when you ask the public their opinion, you need to explain what the real consequences of the options are.  (At least that's my firm's approach to public outreach!)

new york: playing on fears of subway safety

The Atlantic Cities has a must-read about why people still fear being hit by New York subway trains, even though the subway is one of the safest ways to travel. The union representing New York subway workers is proposing a series of steps to reduce the risk of subway-person collisions, assisted by lurid graphics.  It just so happens that their main ideas require hiring more unionized staff!  This includes the proposal to slow down trains as they enter stations, which will slow down everyone's travel and increase the number of trains, and hence drivers, needed to maintain the current frequencies.

If subway-person collisions were common, these would be valid safety precautions.  Transit agencies do take these expensive steps when an objective safety issue arises.

But as the article states, the facts are these:

And yet, subway deaths remain exceedingly rare. The fatality rate has not changed significantly over the last decade. Of the 55 fatalities on the subway tracks in 2012, 19 were suicides. The remaining 36 accidental deaths on the New York City subway in 2012 occurred on 1.66 billion subway rides. That’s one death for every 46 million rides.*

For infrequent riders, death on the rails is less likely than being hit by lightning. If you’re a twice-a-day commuter, you’re likely to be killed once every 100,000 years. …

A significantly more dangerous feature of city life is car traffic. Even the most dedicated mass transit commuters are twice as likely to be hit and killed by a car than a train. One in 50,000 New Yorkers is killed by a car each year, and one in five hundred is injured.

If your desire to continue living is quite clear in your mind, it's very easy not to be hit by a subway train.  Stay behind the yellow line.  If that doesn't feel safe, stay back still further.  

The real question is: Why do we reward the media for giving us lurid details of every subway fatality but not for every road fatality?  The Atlantic article has some ideas about that, though I think it dwells too long on the late-20c period when New York was much more objectively dangerous than it is today.

Let's also note that some subway systems are installing platform walls with doors (like these in Singapore) opening only when and where a train door is present.  These further reduce risk and are useful in stations with very high crowding, but are very expensive (Over $1m per station) and technically difficult to fit into the already-compact New York platforms.  The MTA appears to be considering these, and other technological options.  The goal, however, would be to increase the feeling of safety, since actual safety is already extremely high.  How infinitesimal does the risk need to be before we focus our investments on other things, like more useful service?

portland: the grid is 30 years old … thank a planner!

Thirty years ago next week, on Labor Day Weekend 1982, the role of public transit in Portland was utterly transformed in ways that everyone today takes for granted.  It was an epic struggle, one worth remembering and honoring.

I’m not talking about the MAX light rail (LRT) system, whose first line opened in 1986. I’m talking about the grid of frequent bus lines, without which MAX would have been inaccessible, and without which you would still be going into downtown Portland to travel between two points on the eastside.  (Full map here.)

Portland grid\

What did it look like before 1982?  Here’s a bit of the 1970 network (full map here).

Portland 1970

The 1970 network consisted of bus routes radiating from downtown across the gridded eastside, which constitutes about 3/4 of Portland.  If you were anywhere on this network, you had a direct bus downtown — a slow, circuitous, and infrequent bus.  Very few routes ran better than every 30 minutes during the day.  Only two routes ran north-south across the east side, and both were too infrequent to transfer to, so you couldn’t really use them unless both ends of your trip were on them.

How did the 1982 network transform the possibilities of mobility in the city?

  • The old network was solely about going downtown.  The new network was about going anywhere you wanted to go.
  • The old network was infrequent.  The new network required easy connections, so it was designed to run at high frequency (most lines every 15 minutes or better all day).  Remember: Frequency is freedom!
  • The old network was wasteful, as many overlapping lines converged on downtown.  The new network was efficient, with little overlap between lines, and with lines spaced further apart to the extent that the street network allowed.  This is how the resources were found to increase frequency so much.
  • The old network was complicated, with routes often zigzagging from one street to another.  The new network was simpler, easy to keep in your head.  Many streets that were formerly served by a patchwork of overlapping routes, such as Division, now had a single route from end to end, so that you needed only remember “the Division bus.”  Transit became an intrinsic part of the street.

If you’re in a hurry, skip to “Thank a Planner!” below.  But if you have a couple of minutes, let’s explore more deeply how the grid transformed Portland, and why it was so controversial at the time.

In both maps above, that wavy line across the middle of eastside Portland is the Banfield Freeway, where the first and backbone line of the MAX light rail system runs today.  In the 1970 image, look for the line marked “1” extending north from the Banfield in the middle of the image.  This is NE 42nd Avenue (a bit of which is labeled 41st, but don’t let that distract you).

In the old network the bus line along 42nd came from the north edge of the city, once an hour.  Partway down it merged with another branch, to form 30-minute frequency.  When it approached the Banfield, it turned west and zigzagged into the city via the Lloyd district.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it was duplicating other routes the whole way.  If you wanted to go somewhere else on the eastside, the bus was not much use.   Frequencies were poor so it was very hard to make a trip involving multiple routes.

If you lived on NE 42nd in 1982, you were confronted with massive change, the sort of change that makes people scream.  Never again would you have a direct bus to downtown Portland.  Now you would be on the new 75, which would run continuously north-south all the way across the city.  And if you wanted to go downtown, you would have to transfer (as we called it in those days).

But on the bright side, the 75 would run every 15 minutes, so transfering wasn’t hard.  And in return, you got all the other benefits of a frequent routes that would let you connect quickly to reach destinations all over the east and north sides of the city, without going downtown.

This is always a tough sell, because many people value transit only for the commute downtown.  These people tend to complain when the network is optmized to serve many kinds of trip at once, which is exactly what the grid does.  A frequent grid is the ultimate in versatilityequity and freedom.  It does not pick favored destinations for favored markets. Instead, it delivers anywhere-to-anywhere mobility for wherever you might want to go.  Today, the non-downtown elements of the grid, especially 72 and 75, are among TriMet’s most productive lines.

The grid redefined the role of transit in serving Portland’s livability objectives.  When you think of everything that makes Portland both livable and culturally distinctive, you’re probably thinking about the historically dense and gridded part of the city.  This is where almost every cool urbanist outcome of the last 30 years — from food carts to bike lanes to office-over-retail — has sprouted and thrived most successfully. Rail gets all the press, but the MAX light rail line would not have worked without this grid to connect with it.  (The reverse is not true: the grid worked well for four years before the MAX line opened, though MAX was certainly an improvement that achieved further ridership payoffs.) As Gregory Thompson and Jeffrey Brown put it in a recent paper :

If the 1983 and 1986 restructurings had not happened, LRT would have been a competitor with the CBD-focused, poor quality parallel bus routes that already were there, and there would have been no high quality bus routes intersecting the LRT at right angles. Portland would have enjoyed much less patronage than it has since experienced on both its LRT and bus routes.

Where did all the money for the new high-frequency crosstown lines come from?  Removing duplication. Look again at the your ride on 1970’s route 1.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it duplicated other routes the entire way into downtown.  Now look closely at the routes approaching downtown from further south in the old map.  They ran on so many closely-spaced parallel streets that they were effectively duplicating one another as well, wasting service.  The grid plan found many resources by removing these duplications and moving to wider and more consistent spacing of lines across the whole city.  In the same process,the grid introduced the idea that it’s OK to walk further to a more frequent and useful service — the foundation for transit’s link with walking (and with all of walking’s public health outcomes) today.

The grid was also a radical simplification, making it easier for people to keep the network map in their heads.  Now, bus lines would often follow the same street from end-to-end, so you could remember easily that there’s a Division Street bus, say, and an 82nd Avenue bus.  In the old network, if you wanted to go from 20th & Division to 82nd & Division, you had to go downtown and back, because these two parts of Division were covered by different routes.  The beauty of the grid is that your transit directions are sometimes as simply as walking or driving directions:  “Take the Division bus out to 82nd, then take the 82nd bus south.”  The transit lines are just part of the street.

Imagine, in 1982, the struggle involved in implementing this.  Vast numbers of people lost their direct bus to downtown, at a time when going downtown seemed like the only purpose of transit to many existing riders.  Transit agencies tend to listen most to their existing riders, who have adapted their lives to the system as it is, so it takes real courage for them to seek new markets instead of just catering to the existing ones.   Imagine the disruption, the rage, the recriminations, not to mention the apathy from people for whom buses just don’t matter, no matter what they’re achieving.

Thank a planner!

If you can imagine how hard this was, consider thanking the planners who took all this abuse and persisted in pushing the plan through, because they believed in everywhere-to-everywhere networks and knew this would work if it were tried.  I’m especially thinking of:

  • Ken Zatarain, who was a TriMet service planner at the time and who is still at the agency.  Thank him at:  ken dot zatarain at wsp.org.
  • Thomas G. Matoff, the single most important mentor in my own transit career, and probably the critical player in pushing the grid through.  Tom, who was service planning manager and thus Ken’s boss, was an eloquent, passionate and persistent advocate for the grid both inside and outside the agency.  He was the first person I’ve met, and one of the few I’ve known, who could convey how essential network design is to the life, joy, and prosperity of a city.  Tom went on to be General Manager of Sacramento Regional Transit and is now working on the Sonoma-Marin rail project in California.  Thank him at:  tmatoff at ltk dot org .

I’m dead serious:  If you value being able to get around Portland in all directions, thank them.  In other words, do one of these things:

  • shoot emails of appreciation to the three emails above, copied to me (jarrett AT jarrettwalker DOT net), with “Thanks for the grid” in the subject line, or
  • leave a comment here, or
  • say something on Twitter with the hashtag #PDXGrid .

You might also ask the two mayoral candidates about how important the frequent grid is to their vision of the city, and whether they think it should be enhanced.

Why does this matter?  Because even today, there’s disagreement in Portland about important the frequent grid is, or even whether a complete everywhere-to-everywhere network (which requires high-frequency buses as well as rail) should be a priority at all.  Some view the grid as unimportant, for example, because they view bus service as unimportant.

Purists might argue that the grid never made it to its 30th birthday, but rather perished at 27 in 2009.  That was the year that TriMet cut all-day frequencies below the 15-minute threshhold that is widely accepted as the definition of “frequent enough that you can use it spontaneously, without building your life around the timetable.”  Since the grid relies on easy connections to achieve its goal of easy anywhere-to-anywhere access, the 2009 cuts began to undermine the whole idea of the grid. TriMet avoided doing this in its first round of cutting after the crash, but felt it had no alternative in the second 2009 round.

Will the grid ever be restored to its necessary frequency?  Will it ever be expanded and enriched (as regional land use planning generally assumes it must be) with even better frequencies?  Not everyone in Portland thinks this is a priority, so you might want to express your view.

More on the history and spectacular outcomes of the grid if you click below.  But even if you don’t click, thank a planner!

Continue Reading →

hong kong metro: five transfers??

We'll be in Hong Kong Sep 9-11; remarkably, it will be my first visit.

As you'd expect, I jumped onto Google looking for hotels that would be convenient to the rail line from the airport.  Yikes!

Hk zoom in

That's the airport on the far left, on the Airport Express Line (AEL).

Hong Kong boosters, help me out here.  Is it my imagination, or am I seeing that:

  • Only three stations in the city are on the Airport line.
  • Only five additional stations can be reached in one transfer.
  • Some parts of the system (e.g. the Ma On Shan (MOL) line in the northeast) are five transfers from the Airport.

Don't airport lines, where people are hauling luggage, need to be designed so that they plug into the network with relatively few, well-designed transfers.  As readers if this blog know, zero transfers is unrealistic and sometimes you even need two to get to remote corners of the network.  But five?

Of course the answer may be that the metro doesn't want to compete for airport trips.  Are there other options I should use if I want to stay in, say, central Kowloon (three transfers!)?

So back to my travel needs.  

  • If anyone knows a fantastic quietish hotel in the <US<300/night range that is easily reached by transit, with luggage, from the airport, please let me know.  If certain transfers on this system are easier than others, so that the access is easier than it looks, let me know that too.

Comment moderation is off.  Feel free to chat among yourselves about this.

portland’s southwest corridor: get involved at the beginning!

Portland Inner SW CorrPortland's regional government Metro has just launched a public feedback period on its Southwest Corridor Project.  This is the most important time to be involved. For details on upcoming engagement events, and online feedback opportunites, see here.  (Scroll to bottom for public meeting info.)

Most people won't pay attention to this project until a final transit project is proposed and the federal funding process is well underway.  At that point, when there's little option to revise the project, everyone will be stuck in a binary support-or-oppose debate that is often angry, boring, and frustrating to all sides.  At that point, too, some people will be saying that "the fix is in," that Metro was always going to build the project a certain way and that the whole public process was just window-dressing.

When we get to that point, people who were engaged in this process back in July 2012 will need to pipe up and say, no, actually there was quite an extensive public conversation before any hint of a transit line was drawn on map.  The public and advocacy groups had ample opportunity to shape the entire definition of the project and its priorities, before Metro had done much planning.

The study area [Download PDF] consists of all the suburbs lying generally southwest of downtown Portland, and a large swath of southwest Portland itself.  Portland's part of the corridor is shown at right.  Download the PDF to see the full extent.

Even if you're not in Portland, you might want to poke around the project website just to get a sense of how broadly Metro defines its corridor studies.  At this stage, the project is presented in such an inclusive way as to barely hint that it may lead to some kind of rapid transit line.  This is the right tone for this point in the process.  The Portland area's style with these things is to start from the question "What kind of community do you want?" — and gradually build a case from the answers to that question toward a transportation improvement, in the most transparent way possible.  The tone of these processes is always that the transit line isn't an end in itself, but a tool for a wide range of outcomes that citizens value.

This corridor has understandably been a relatively low priority in the past three decades of rapid transit development.  Its catchment is relatively small as corridors go, density is low, topography is relatively difficult, and all the options for bringing any rail or BRT project into downtown Portland look likely to be very expensive.  Look at the map above:  The only alignment that won't involve tunnelling will approach alongside the already-level Interstate 5 and Barbur Blvd, which are right next to each other.  This alignment briefly turns due east and then makes a 90-degree turn to the north — locally known as the "Terwilliger curves."  The east-west segment exploits a break in the continuous ridge of hills running north-south, and after you turn northward you're running laterally across the steep face of these hills all the way into downtown.  Barbur and I-5 are flat through here only because of continuous restraining walls and viaducts, all of which will be expensive to refit for rapid transit.  

Portland has already built one long tunnel to cross these hills — the dashed red line that you see heading west from downtown.  That tunnel, though, is part of the westside line, which has a much larger catchment including all of Beaverton, Hillsboro, and the so-called "Silicon Forest".  A tunnel for the smaller southwest corridor will probably be difficult to pencil.

All Portland rapid transit studies are land use studies, and are ultimately about what kind of community citizens want.  Still, this one will call for some spectacularly clever engineering options — more than enough drama to engage infrastructure geeks across the continent.  Stay tuned, and if you're local, get involved.