Difficult Transit

Many people have heard that certain regions are well-suited for these projects, for example the Northeast Corridor is unusually good for HSR because it links four major cities and several medium-size ones on a single line. By implication, there has to be a flip side, i.e. regions that are poorly-suited for HSR and cities that are poorly-suited for new rapid transit. If there weren’t – if every region were like the Northeast Corridor – then the ridership models would just have higher first-order estimates. Several proposals I’ve seen in comments and on my blogroll in the last few days are in areas where the urban geography makes it harder to justify such projects. These and a few others are the examples I will use in this post.

As usual, there’s a caveat that difficult does not equal bad. Some of these ideas are worth pursuing, but have more challenges that their easier counterparts do not, and if those challenges are solved, then they can perform well. One of the biggest success stories of modern rail investment, the TGV, is in an urban geography that’s not particularly conducive to rail: France’s secondary cities surround Paris in all directions (although Lyon and Marseille are collinear with Paris), the stub-end layout of stations in Paris and many other cities forces awkward branching, Lyon needed a business district to be built from scratch around Part-Dieu. France made this work, and it’s possible some of the projects on this list can be made to work in similar vein.

High-Speed Rail in Sweden

Project: greenfield HSR lines connecting Stockholm with Sweden’s major secondary cities, Gothenburg and Malmö.

The problem: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö do not lie on a straight line. The three cities are quite small by the standards of more populated countries: Stockholm has a bit more than 2 million people, Gothenburg has a bit less than a million, Malmö has 700,000. A line connecting just two of them, or even a Y-shaped line, is unlikely to get enough ridership to justify the construction costs of full HSR. There are no large intermediate cities: the largest, Linköping, has about 100,000 people. As noted above, French urban geography is not great for HSR, either, but at least the LGV Sud-Est could serve both Lyon and Marseille, and France’s greater population ensures that its secondary cities are large enough to generate enough traffic to fill an HSR line.

As a silver lining, Malmö is adjacent to Copenhagen, and the difficult part, bridging the Øresund, has already been done. While international lines tend to underperform, the tight cultural and economic connections between the Scandinavian countries make it likely that international projects within Scandinavia would be exceptions to the rule. Copenhagen would add another 2 million people at the end of the line. However, even that is unlikely to generate enough ridership to pay for 500-odd kilometers of greenfield HSR (plus a connection to Gothenburg).

Because of its poor urban geography for conventional HSR, Sweden has investigated cheaper solutions, allowing higher speeds on legacy track or on greenfield tracks built to lower standards. As a result, there is research into the possibility of high-speed tilting trains, running faster than the 250 km/h Pendolino. This research is likely to be useful in the UK and US, where the urban geography is better-suited for HSR but fully greenfield construction is obstructed by suburban development near the rights-of-way and by high construction costs, but the original context was faster speeds within Sweden.

High-Speed Rail in the Pacific Northwest

Project: greenfield HSR connecting Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. This is not officially proposed anywhere that I know; current plans focus on incremental improvements to the Amtrak Cascades. However, every American HSR fantasy map I’ve seen (including the ones I’ve drawn) includes this link, since at least superficially based on city populations it would succeed.

The problem: getting out of the major cities involves a slog on curvy legacy track in areas where it’s hard to straighten the right-of-way. Heading north of Seattle, the route goes along the water, in terrain that is too hilly for an easy inland cutoff all the way to Everett, 50 km north. Getting out of Vancouver is also hard, because of suburban development in Surrey, and becomes even harder if one wants the Vancouver station to be Waterfront rather than Amtrak’s current stop, the less centrally located Pacific Central. The Northeast Corridor is said to have slowdowns near the major stations, leading to proposals to bypass them with new tunnels, but at no point are there 50 nearly-continuous km of low curve radii; the New Haven Line does not look as curvy, while the Shore Line farther east is easy to bypass on I-95.

The Seattle-Portland segment is much easier: the route heading south of Seattle is not constrained, and north of Portland it is possible to run alongside I-5. However, the most important intermediate cities, Tacoma and Olympia, can only be served with exurban stations, since getting into their centers would require the mainline to detour on curvy alignments.

Through-Run Commuter Rail in Chicago

Project: there are many proposals by transit activists to construct new infrastructure to enable through-running on Metra, analogous to Crossrail, SEPTA Regional Rail, the Paris RER, and multiple S-Bahns. Details differ, but other than the lines through Union Station, through-running generally means connecting Metra Electric to some of the lines feeding into Union Station from the north or the Union Pacific lines; UP-North is especially notable for serving dense neighborhoods and not having any freight traffic.

The problem: the layout of the lines entering the Chicago central business district makes it hard to build a coherent network. What I mean by coherent is that commuter lines can make multiple CBD stops to serve different CBDs, or different parts of the same CBD: in New York, a Penn Station-Grand Central connection would let trains serve both the West Side and the East Side. Look at the map proposed by Sandy Johnston, in the second link above: there is no station on the Near North Side, there is no connection from the West Loop stations to the Loop, and effectively lines are still going to be split between lines bound for the West Loop and lines bound for the Loop in the through-run system.

None of this is the fault of any of the people drawing these maps. To serve both the West Loop and the Loop, a line would have to go east-west in the vicinity of Union Station, where there is no legacy line pointing in the right direction. The options boil down to a long greenfield east-west subway, and an awkward transition to the preexisting east-west lines, BNSF (which is too far south) and UP-West (which is too far north), which to add another complication carry heavy freight traffic.

A system prioritizing north-south connections runs into different dilemmas, concerning the tradeoff between service to the Near North Side and easier connections to the rest of the North Side Metra lines. A north-south line connecting UP-North to Metra Electric through the Near North Side would be beautiful, and miss all other Metra lines and most L lines. Sandy’s proposal has Metra Electric swerving west to meet UP-North just north of its terminus at Ogilvie Transportation Center, meeting all L lines and potentially the North Side Metra lines but missing the job centers in the West Loop and Near North Side.

Rail to LaGuardia

Project: construct some rail extension to LaGuardia Airport. Which rail extension varies based on the proposal. The most mainstream proposal, in the sense that it was supported by Giuliani until it was torpedoed by neighborhood opposition, would have extended the Astoria Line east to airport grounds. More recent proposals from various activists have included not just the Astoria Line extension, but also a Northeast Corridor spur, an AirTrain from the Astoria Line, an AirTrain from Jamaica with JFK connections, a subway shuttle under Junction, and a subway running from the airport to 125th Street along the route of the M60 bus.

The problem: all of the above ideas face the same pair of problems. At the airport end, the airport competes with other urban destinations, rather than complementing them by lying on the same straight line with them. An extension from the west, such as the Astoria Line extension, needs to choose between serving the airport and serving the Astoria Boulevard corridor, which has high residential density and no nearby subway service; Astoria Boulevard itself is so wide that as with Queens Boulevard, an elevated line in its middle would be an improvement. Farther east, there is nothing that a LaGuardia extension could be continued to, because of Flushing Bay. An extension across the bay going to Flushing or College Point could be useful, but an extension of the 7 to College Point would be even more useful and avoid underwater tunneling. The bay, and more generally the Long Island Sound, dooms any proposal for a loop returning to the mainline, in the manner of Zurich Airport, while a spur would again compete for capacity with more important lines. Compare this with LAX, which, going along the Harbor Subdivision, is collinear with Inglewood, the Slauson corridor, and Union Station, and would have an easy connection to El Segundo.

At the other end, the question with every airport extension is, what does it connect the airport to? The answer for LaGuardia has to be the Upper East Side, where as I remember most riders originate; but there is no good way of connecting to the Upper East Side, which has no east-west subway line, and shouldn’t, as there are perhaps a hundred kilometers of higher-priority tunnels in the region. A connection to 125th Street is ruled out by the fact that Second Avenue Subway has an even better connection to 125th. The Astoria Line serves the Midtown hotel cluster well, and has a connection to the Lexington trains to the Upper East Side, but I doubt that it can beat a taxi across the bridge in non-rush-hour traffic.

Providence East Side Tunnel

Project: restore rail service through the East Side Rail Tunnel, with a new connection to Downcity at the western end and connections to new or restored rail lines in and beyond East Providence. In Jef Nickerson’s version, the trains are light rail and drop to the surface at the Downcity end. In mine, they continue elevated through Downcity, with a new station replacing Providence Station for both commuter and intercity rail. All versions include a stop at Thayer Street for Brown University service, should one be constructable at reasonable cost.

The problem: there’s no real need for local or regional service from the east along the tunnel (intercity service could be sped up by about half a minute to a minute by avoiding curves in Pawtucket). Light rail service would run into the problem of incredibly spread-out suburbanization east of Providence. Commuter rail would run into separate problems: the legacy lines go along the water in East Providence and don’t serve the town itself well; beyond East Providence, the line going north serves the same suburbs as the existing Providence Line minus Pawtucket, while the line going south would need extensive and costly restoration work to get to Fall River, and only passes through small and low-density intermediate points.

Cutting off Providence Station to move the city’s main station to the south is useful, but the only rail from Providence to Pawtucket and Woonsocket goes due north of Downcity and would be left out of this system. Shoehorning it to the same station that leads to the East Side Tunnel would produce every adverse impact of viaducts on cities: heavy visual impact coming from elevated-over-elevated grade separation, squeal coming from low curve radii, takings of condo buildings near the existing Providence Station.

Posted in High-Speed Rail, New York, Providence, Regional Rail, Sweden, Transportation, Urban Transit, Vancouver | 63 Comments

California HSR Should Not Have Been Funded This Way

Last month, California made a budget deal for the formula that would be used to distribute its cap-and-trade revenues. The state’s cap-and-trade bill does not deed the money to the general budget but to a separate account, to be distributed based on a variety of goals including subsidies to programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The recent deal is to give most of the money to transportation (including transit-oriented development): this year the budget gives $600 out of $850 million to transportation (see PDF-p. 6 here), of which $250 million will go to high-speed rail, and according to an informational hearing the long-term deal gives 80% of revenues to transportation, including 15% to high-speed rail. Transit bloggers who are not in the process of moving across oceans covered the issue last month as the deal was made: Streetsblog wrote about the plan, Robert Cruickshank wrote multiple times in support of the decision, and Bruce McFarling explained how HSR’s projected emissions reductions should entitle it to a share of the cap-and-trade proceeds.

In reality, although it’s a good thing that California HSR is getting funded, it’s a bad way of funding it, betraying both environmental incompetence and political mistrust. The basic problem is that the HSR project is not going to reduce emissions enough to justify 15% of the pot, nor is transportation such a big share of California’s emissions inventory to deserve 80%: it accounts for only 37% of statewide emissions. Electricity, and related sources of emissions such as building heating and industrial emissions, get far less than their share of emissions.

Bruce’s post runs the numbers on HSR, notes that the projections are currently $250-400 in construction costs per ton of CO2 reduction, and proposes that if cap-and-trade results in a carbon cost of $75 per ton then this justifies using the revenues for 20-35% of the cost of HSR. The projected revenue from cap-and-trade is a range whose top end is $5 billion statewide, corresponding to about $11 per metric ton; at this level, assuming HSR saves $250/t-CO2 means it should get 4.4% of its funding from emissions reduction, or (at the current cost of $53 billion in constant dollars) about $2.3 billion over the lifetime of the program. If the revenue is indeed $5 billion a year, this spending level is projected to be reached in 3 years.

For some evidence of what the state is really doing, consider how the deal comments on each share of the funding. The informational hearing details the investment strategy as follows:

25% for a permanent source of funding for transit operations, distributed based on greenhouse gas criteria.
20% for affordable housing and miscellaneous urban planning goals (including TOD), of which at least half must be for affordable housing (including TOD, again); the money is to be distributed based on “competitive GHG performance.”
15% low-carbon transportation, based on both long-term clean air and GHG goals.
13% energy, including electricity and building efficiency.
7% natural resources, waste diversion, and water projects.
15% HSR.
5% “new or existing” intercity rail, based on GHG criteria.

Note that internally to four categories, comprising 65% of the total funds, the hearing mentions greenhouse gas criteria. In three out of the four, comprising half of the funds, the hearing implies that the decision of how to distribute the funds will be based on competitive grants according to which project reduces emissions the most.

The key point here is that the state has effectively said what the best way is to ensure the spending side of cap-and-trade will reduce emissions optimally: projects will compete for scarce funding based on greenhouse gas criteria. Once it has made the political decision to distribute funds by a formula that disproportionately goes to transportation, it has no objection to using greenhouse gas criteria internally to each category. The problem is that the transportation projects in general and HSR in particular would never make it out of a grant process based on such criteria if they were not shielded from competition with non-transportation priorities.

There are two legitimate ways to distribute funds coming out of an externality tax, which is what cap-and-trade really is. One is to let the tax side do the work of reducing impact, and put the money into the general budget. This is common practice for most developed countries’ fuel taxes (though not the US’s). In this approach, HSR would compete with all of the state’s other budget priorities. If the state wanted to reduce other taxes against the cap-and-trade funds rather than raise spending, it could. If it wanted to spend the money on unrelated things, such as education, it could as well. There already is a more or less open and democratic budget process for this.

The other way is to reduce all political discretion, and distribute the funds based entirely on greenhouse gas criteria, without breaking the money into categories. The state seems to prefer this way, judging by its use of this process within each category. With other externality taxes there is another option, of giving the money directly to victims of the externality, e.g. spending cigarette taxes on lung cancer treatment; however, the bulk of damage caused by climate change is to developing countries, and spending cap-and-trade revenues on targeted aid to vulnerable developing countries is politically unacceptable.

The state’s hybrid approach is effectively a slush fund. High-level politicians, including Governor Jerry Brown, want to build a visible legacy, and HSR is far more visible than making household appliances consume less electricity. Emissions reductions are secondary to this concern. They’ll be happy to make their legacy a project that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but they have no quantitative preference for projects that reduce emissions more than others. On the contrary, when they pull strings, they might even make decisions that make these projects less environmentally beneficial: the decision to connect Los Angeles to Bakersfield via Palmdale rather than directly has no technical merit, and judging by LA County’s support appears to be motivated by concerns for development in the Palmdale area. As the incremental cost of going through Palmdale is about $5 billion, nearly 10% of the HSR cost, the result is that the state is going to spend a substantial amount of cap-and-trade money on spurring more development in the High Desert exurbs.

Needless to say, when the cap-and-trade bill was passed, it did not state or even imply that the state could use the money to spur more development in the exurbs. The bill did not adopt a GHG-only approach, but listed several additional goals, none of which included transportation. Chapter 1, Part 2, paragraph h states,

It is the intent of the Legislature that the State Air Resources Board design emissions reduction measures to meet the state wide emissions limits for greenhouse gases established pursuant to this division in a manner that minimizes costs and maximizes benefits for California’s economy, improves and modernizes California’s energy infrastructure and maintains electric system reliability, maximizes additional environmental and economic co-benefits for California, and complements the state’s efforts to improve air quality.

There is an explicit mention of air quality, and explicit mentions of energy and electricity, which are only getting 13% of the funding despite accounting for 54% of emissions. Elsewhere the list of legislative intents includes vague terms such as technological leadership, but the only explicit mention of transportation in the bill is in paragraph c, which says that historically California provided leadership on several environmental issues, including emissions limits on cars as well as energy efficiency and renewable energy.

However, the cap-and-trade bill is older than the current administration, and the political priorities have changed. Since a regular budget process giving HSR the money it needs would run into opposition from competing priorities, it’s best to raid a new source of revenue, one without legislative inertia or established supporters directing the money to more useful purposes.

Hence, a slush fund.

Posted in Environmental Issues, High-Speed Rail, Incompetence, Politics and Society, Transportation | 35 Comments

Brief Personal Update

I no longer live in Vancouver. I am leaving the city tonight, heading to New York and New Haven until July 8th (email me if you want to meet). I will then travel to Europe: I got a two-year position at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). As Stockholm has tight rent control, expect a post on that subject once I’m settled in there and have gotten the chance to talk to people.

Stockholm also has a subway system that’s the opposite of the paradigm used in Vancouver or Copenhagen: it runs full-length trains, and branches heavily, with low frequencies on the branches. KTH is unfortunately on a branch, served every 10 minutes off-peak. (However, unlike in New York, in Stockholm branches are consistent, in that two branches of separate trunk lines do not combine to form another trunk line farther out the way the E and F branches combine to form the Queens Boulevard Line.)

Posted in Personal/Admin | 21 Comments

What Elites Do Instead of Providing Services

I realized last year that even when they face a problem that is evidently about city services, city governments prefer to go for monuments that glorify their leadership. The most blatant example then was Cornell NYC Tech, the city-backed university whose campus construction alone is several times as expensive as the CUNY system per student. Since then I’ve tried to collect examples of power brokers proposing similar schemes, of which the worst is Larry Summers’ proposal to solve US inequality by spending public money on airport improvements. These are, to be frank, analogs of what American transit activists have to deal with routinely, with agencies preferring expensive iconic stations to ordinary capital and operating improvements in service.

The argument for Cornell NYC Tech is that New York needs tech entrepreneurs of the kind that Silicon Valley has, and that for that it needs its own Stanford. Instead of investing in STEM education across the CUNY system, or in its dedicated technological campus at the New York City College of Technology, it decided to start a private university from scratch, inviting other universities to bid on it. The city wanted Stanford to win the bid, but instead the winning bid was a joint effort by Cornell and the Technion, Israel’s technological university. The Technion was never run this way; it was started as a German-style technical university and is now a public university, funded and run on the same terms as the other Israeli public universities.

For Cornell NYC Tech, the city has lined up $2 billion in public and private funds for campus construction, expecting 2,000 students in 2037, which at 4% interest is $40,000 per student-year; annual capital and operating spending together, from all sources including tuition, is $16,000 per full-time equivalent student at the CUNY senior colleges and $11,000 at the CUNY community colleges (see PDF-page 65 of the budget request). This is the educational equivalent of airport connectors, which cities routinely spend several times per rider on as they would on ordinary subway extensions.

Summers’ proposal for airport improvements is in a way more frustrating, and more telling. He did not propose it as part of an independent infrastructure plan, but as a way to build public works to reduce US inequality, on the grounds that JFK is “an embarrassment as an entry point” and “the wealthiest, by flying privately, largely escape its depredations.” The proportion of people who fly privately is tiny; an income level at the bottom of the US top 1%, $400,000 per year, will buy you a lot of intercontinental business-class travel or some first-class travel, while affording a late-model Learjet requires an annual income of many tens of millions of dollars. Since poor people don’t fly as much as rich people, the users of JFK skew richer than the general city public.

My frustration comes from the fact that Summers is not trying to derail the conversation: he previously wrote about inequality as a problem and proposed standard center-left solutions, including raising taxes on capital gains and inheritances, supporting unionization, and (by implication) investment in public education. He clearly cares about the problem. He just seems to think that airport investment benefits the poor more than the rich. Most likely, this comes out of years of insider schmoozing with people so rich that they do own private jets, and generalizing to the considerably broader class of rich people.

In both cases, even on its stated merits, the proposal misses key facts about the situation. Silicon Valley began around Stanford, but once the initial tech cluster formed, it became independent of the university, so that even companies formed by people with no affiliation with Stanford or the Bay Area, such as Facebook, relocated to the area. New York is not going to grow its tech industry to the proportion of Silicon Valley’s by building an enterprise university any more than the Bay Area can become a world financial center by building affiliate universities for Columbia and NYU, from which many finance workers are recruited. As for JFK, like many of its users, when I arrive my first experience is the immigration line, a humiliating experience that involves fingerprinting and standing in line possibly for hours, depending on what terminal I use and what time I arrive. Public works will not solve that.

The problem with making even the merit-based argument is that public monuments are never truly merit-based projects. The decision-making process goes in the other direction: first the city elites (or, in case Summers’ proposal makes it into a national jobs bill, national elites) decide on something they want to see built, usually with the adjective world-class thrown in: a world-class university, a world-class airport, a world-class train station, a world-class office tower. The image of a world-class monument is more important than whether it works at its stated goal, such as improving education or transportation or fulfilling a need for class A office space.

Witness all the problems involving World Trade Center, which is being built entirely for prestige value, at enormous cost. The associated PATH station is $4 billion, almost as much as Second Avenue Subway, and about the same as 20 kilometers of subway in an average first-world city. One World Trade Center cost about $12,000 per square meter. I am not aware of any office tower in the world that is this expensive outside the WTC area and Hudson Yards; the tallest recent tower built in New York excluding 1 WTC, Bank of America Tower, cost about $5,500 per square meter in 2012 dollars, while the range I have seen for office towers in the 200+ meter range is about $2,500-6,000. Meanwhile, the WTC site struggles to find tenants: 1 WTC is almost half empty.

The sentiments after 9/11 ensured WTC would be rebuilt taller, regardless of actual demand in Lower Manhattan. Viewed through this lens, 1 WTC is not really about office space, but about proving a point about the power of US and New York to come back and not surrender to terrorism. This is why the transit spending went mainly to the PATH station and not to bringing the LIRR to Lower Manhattan, as proposed by the Regional Plan Association and studied officially in subsequent years: the LIRR project would’ve been about Lower Manhattan in general, without enhancing the specific prestige of WTC, while the billions poured into the WTC site and its PATH stations are all about the prestige.

Those other projects – various overrated transit schemes such as airport connectors, but also Cornell NYC Tech and Summers’ JFK proposals – are the same. They are not about what people living in, working in, or visiting the city need. They are not even about what they want. Whereas there was a citywide impulse to rebuild WTC taller after 9/11, there is no equivalent impulse to build an exclusive technical university, except among the power brokers. They are entirely about being able to say, “we have our own ___” and “I got that build.” It looks like development, but at best provides a fraction of the advertised value, and at worst provides nothing.

Whenever an urban project is proposed, the most important question to be asked is “what problem is this solving?”. Often, the problem is real, but there are much cheaper and less glamorous solutions. At other times, the project is a solution in search of a problem, and this is often detectable when proponents tout many unrelated benefits, almost as if the project can solve every major problem.

Compare this with solid public transit projects. Consider the lines I think North American cities should be focusing on, and the lines proposed in comments, especially as the Vermont subway in Los Angeles. In every single case, there are strong arguments for why the ridership of those lines would be high relative to the cost, and why existing subway lines (if any) and surface transit options are inadequate. The problem being solved is underserved neighborhoods with high transit demand, or in the case of the crosstown lines underserved origin-destination pairs in high demand. For other lines, not listed, there might be a separate argument regarding transit-oriented development: American cities tend to oversell TOD, as the problems with Hudson Yards show, but there do exist cases in which extending a subway line can allow dense development, or the construction of a new business district. But this involves figuring out where the development comes from – for example, the housing market may be very expensive, signaling high demand, or there may be projections of high future metropolitan population growth.

Usually, support for prestige projects to the exclusion of providing public services is the hallmark of moderates, along a broad arc from the center-left to the center-right. In the last few years, Republicans too far right to be called center-right have prioritized cutting taxes and spending and weakening the unions; signature projects conflict with their opposition to government spending. Conversely, urban leftist activists tend to oppose these prestige projects, on such grounds as gentrification, displacement, and private-sector involvement in public services.

The people in between those two ends are the ones most guilty of this kind of thinking. They are usually neo-liberal enough that they believe the government should champion market solutions and oppose industrial policy, and yet what they do is in many cases exactly industrial policy: Cornell NYC Tech is an attempt to curry favor with the technology industry. They are not so conservative as to believe government is always the problem, but the role they envision for government is to partner with the private sector to build public projects, which they tend to choose on grounds of what looks good rather than what provides the best public service. They know the buzzwords of urban politics well: for example, they’ll happily argue climate change to push a desired agenda that is usually only partly related to the problem, but lack the urgency of actual environmentalist activists and often also build roads and other dirty projects.

As with most bad things in politics, it’s a result of weak democratic institutions on the local level. American mayors tend to be elected dictators, and the opposition to them tends to be based on personality rather than ideology. In this non-ideological framework, the role of government is not to balance market and state solutions based on the voters’ preferences, but to aggrandize the leaders. Signature initiatives must appeal to the broad spectrum of non-ideological voters, so they can’t involve merely increasing spending on a chosen priority like education or transportation. Doing nothing is not an option – something has to be passed to remind people that the government still exists and has a purpose. The political incentives are against any incremental improvements that lead to tangible results, and for white elephants.

Posted in Incompetence, New York, Politics and Society, Transportation | 35 Comments

Airport Connectors

The most interesting transit planner in the world:


This principle is true primarily for large international airports. As I will explain, this is less true of smaller airports. But before going on, I would like to clarify a distinction between bad and overrated. Airport connectors, as I have argued many times, are overrated: city elites tend to like them disproportionately to their transit usage, as do many urban boosters, who think a comfortable airport connector is a necessary feature of a great global city. The result of this thinking (and also the main evidence we have that this thinking exists) is that airport connectors are built at much higher costs per rider than other transit projects: the JFK and Newark AirTrains cost more than $100,000 per weekday rider, much more than other recent rail projects in New York; even the far over-budget East Side Access, at current estimates, is about $60,000.

However, overrated does not mean bad. There exist airport connector projects with reasonable cost per rider. They’re still overrated, which means they’ll be built concurrently with even more cost-effective non-airport projects, but they’re good enough by themselves. As an example, take the Canada Line. The total cost was about $2 billion, and the latest ridership figure I have, from 2011, is 136,000 per weekday, ahead of projections. At $15,000 per rider, this is reasonable by European standards and very good by North American ones. Let us now look at the two branches of the line, to Richmond and the airport. Lacking separate cost data for them, I am going to estimate them at about $300 million each, as they are entirely above-ground; the airport branch is 4 km and the Richmond branch is 3 km, but the Richmond branch has an urban el and the airport branch doesn’t. For ridership data, we have this set of figures per station (which results in a Canada Line total of only 113,000). Boardings and alightings sum to 19,000 on the airport branch and 34,000 on the Richmond branch; we’re double counting intra-branch trips, but there presumably are very few of these. As we see, the Richmond branch is more cost-effective, but the airport branch holds its own – since the per-station data has a lower overall Canada Line ridership, the airport branch’s presumed cost per extra rider generated is less than that of the entire line! (This sometimes happens, even with branches that generate less ridership than the trunk.) Clearly, despite the fact that airport connectors are overrated, this is an example of a good project.

The importance of the overrated vs. bad distinction is then that good transit advocates need to be wary, since airport connectors that don’t work well might get funded anyway, ahead of more deserving projects. But there remain good airport connectors, and therefore we should discuss what features they might have. The answer given by city elites is typically “nonstop connection to the CBD,” often with a premium fare. But the good transit answer is more complicated, and the graphic at the top of the post is only a partial answer.

There is a difference between short- and long-distance air travel. In many cities it doesn’t matter much because there’s a single dominant airport – Beijing, Frankfurt, Zurich, Atlanta, Toronto – but in others there are multiple airports, with different roles. Often there will be a smaller, closer-in, older airport, serving mostly domestic flights, and a larger, farther away, newer international airport. Paris has Orly and Charles-de-Gaulle, Chicago has Midway and O’Hare, New York has LaGuardia and JFK (Newark is intermediate in its role, even if it’s the oldest), Los Angeles has Burbank and LAX (the other airports are somewhat outside this division), Dallas has Love Field and DFW, Tokyo has Haneda and Narita, Seoul has Gimpo and Incheon. Because those airports have different functions, they require different kinds of transportation links.

First, let us consider departing passengers. If they travel to another continent, their options are quite restricted: for example, if they live within driving distance of Atlanta, they’re flying out of Atlanta. Even if there are closer secondary airports (such as Greenville-Spartanburg and Chattanooga), they don’t offer such service – at most, they offer a connecting puddle jumper flight to the primary airport. In contrast, if they travel shorter distances, and live far from the primary airport, they could fly out of a secondary airport, or might just drive instead of flying: a 2-hour drive to the airport is comparatively more tolerable for an 8-hour intercontinental flight than for a 1.5-hour short-hop flight. For example, when I lived in Providence, my air trips were all to the West Coast or Europe, so I flew out of Boston or even New York; but when my sister visited, she chained trips and also visited her boyfriend, who at the time lived in North Carolina, and for the domestic leg of the trip she flew out of T. F. Green.

The result is that primary international airports draw their departing passengers from a much wider shed than mainly domestic airports. In metro areas with such separation of airports, the international airports – Charles de Gaulle, JFK, DFW, Incheon, etc. – draw riders from faraway suburbs and even from adjacent small metro areas, whereas the domestic airports draw riders primarily from the city and its nearby suburbs.

Now, let us consider arriving passengers. Destinations are more centralized than origins, but this is especially true for international trips than for domestic ones. Tourism trips are heavily centralized around a few attractions, which in most cities are in the CBD, or in specific locations: if you’re flying to the Paris region for tourism, your destination is either Paris proper or Eurodisney, rather than an average suburb. Business trips are also heavily centralized around the CBD and a few edge cities. Personal visits have no such concentration, and these are much more common for short-distance domestic flights than for long-distance international flights. I am unusual in that I live on a different continent from my parents; usually, people live within ground transportation or short-distance flying distance from family and friends, depending on the country they live in (short-distance flying distance is more common in the US). The result here is that arriving passengers at domestic airports are typically interested in visiting the CBD but often also the rest of the metro area, whereas arriving passengers at international airports are much more CBD- or tourist attraction-centric.

Some evidence for this difference can be found in looking at the Consumer Airfare Report, which has domestic O&D traffic counts between airport pairs. The primary international airport usually has a smaller percentage of its domestic O&D traffic going to shorter-distance cities. For example, at LAX, 13% of traffic is within California, and another 6% is to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, within a 3-hour high-speed rail range. At Burbank, the corresponding figures are 42% and 21% respectively. The same pattern can be observed for O’Hare (8.6% of traffic is internal to the Midwest) and Midway (14.6%), and DFW (3% of traffic is internal to the Texas Triangle) and Love Field (27%).

The mode of transportation that best suits the needs of international airports is then mainline rail. On the one hand, it tends to be better than urban transit at serving trips that are dedicated to CBD service, since commuter rail is more radial than urban transit, and the stop spacing is typically also longer (although dedicated premium connectors are still often wastes of money). On the other hand, it can extend deep into the suburbs and to adjacent metro areas, and expand the airport’s draw. People can ride intercity (often high-speed) trains direct to the terminal at Frankfurt, Zurich, and Charles-de-Gaulle, and this allows those airports to be the primary international airports for metro areas in a wide radius: SNCF code-shares with airlines to connect people from Charles-de-Gaulle to Lyon, 400 km and 2 hours away by TGV.

This is not true of small domestic airports. A TGV connection to Orly would’ve been much less beneficial than the current connection to Charles-de-Gaulle: most of Orly’s traffic is short-distance, often competing with the TGV rather than complementing it.

With this distinction in mind, we should look at the situation at the major American airports. In California, the current plan is to have California High-Speed Rail serve both SFO (at Millbrae) and Burbank Airport; the original plan served Downtown Burbank instead of the airport, but the HSR Authority seems to have shifted its focus, and wants Burbank to be the southern terminus of the line, pending construction to LA Union Station. This is bad planning. Nearly two-thirds of Burbank’s traffic competes either with California HSR or with future tie-ins. People from Bakersfield and Fresno are unlikely to take a train to the airport to connect to a flight, since they can take a train the whole way, or drive directly to Las Vegas or Phoenix. People in Bakersfield and Fresno would be more interested in a connection to LAX, whose traffic complements rather than competes with intercity rail.

Los Angeles could build a connection to LAX, running both frequent electric commuter trains and high-speed trains on it. The Harbor Subdivision has existing tracks from Union Station almost the entire way to the airport, although the route is at-grade, with a large portion of it running next to Slauson Avenue, and most likely a major project like this would require viaducts. Only a short greenfield segment, elevated over Century, is required to reach the proposed Terminal 0 location, and that is only necessary if, as in Zurich and Frankfurt, LAX wishes to avoid a landside people mover. It is both bad transit and bad politics to build this only for nonstop trains: the route passes through reasonably dense urban neighborhoods, and should have 10-12 stops along the way, with some trains running local and others making only 1-3 stops, at major nodes such as Inglewood or the intersection with the Blue Line. There is room for passing sidings at the line’s midpoint, but the low top speed and the short length of the line is such that overtakes are only necessary if there are nonstop and local trains every 10 minutes. Such an airport connector would serve many different trips at once: HSR trips from Central Valley cities to LAX, arriving trips from LAX to Downtown LA (and, via transfers at intermediate stops, to the Westside), and local trips on the Slauson corridor. It’s a flexibility that modernized regional rail has, and that other modes of transportation, which can’t mix local and intercity traffic as well, lack.

Leaving California, let us look at New York. There are perennial proposals for a new connection to LaGuardia (via an extension of the N) and an additional connection to JFK (usually using the Rockaway Cutoff). There is also a new proposal for a Newark connection via PATH. With the distinction between short-distance domestic and long-distance international airports (Newark is intermediate between the two), we can analyze these proposals. Newark is the easiest to dispose of: the cost is extreme, $1.5 billion for 4 km above ground. It also has several design flaws: unlike the LAX connector I outlined above, this proposal is nonstop from Newark Penn, skipping the former South Street railroad station; the lack of intercity service improvement and the poor service to the Midtown hotel clusters doom it as a CBD connector.

The JFK proposals are problematic as well. The AirTrain connection to Jamaica is quite useful, since it lets people from all over Long Island connect to the airport. Improving JFK access hinges on improving service to Jamaica, then: through-service from New Jersey, higher off-peak LIRR frequencies, reelectrification with catenary to permit Amtrak send Northeast Corridor trains that aren’t needed for Boston service to Jamaica. East Side Access improves JFK access as well, since it allows LIRR trains to serve Grand Central, which is closer to the Midtown hotel clusters than Penn Station. Ideally there wouldn’t be an AirTrain connection, but it’s the best that can be done given existing infrastructure and given Jamaica’s importance. A Rockaway Cutoff connection, which branches from the LIRR Main Line west of Jamaica, would not help Long Islanders go to JFK; it would also not be able to carry intercity trains, since Amtrak trains to Jamaica can serve both airport riders and Long Island riders, each of which groups alone is too small to justify intercity trains on its own.

In contrast, LaGuardia proposals are better, since for a close-in, domestic airport, service to the entire city is more important. I remain somewhat skeptical – airport connectors are still overrated – but less dismissive than of Newark and JFK proposals. LaGuardia travelers from the Upper East Side, which as far as I remember supplies a majority of its departing traffic, would have to transfer at 59th Street; but they have to detour through 59th or 125th via taxi already, and the subway would not get stuck in Manhattan traffic. Conversely, there is much less need to connect the airport with the suburbs and with neighboring metro areas than there is with JFK, which means that there is no point in construction people movers to the LIRR.

Finally, let us look at Chicago. O’Hare has the airport connection of a domestic airport rather than that of an international airport. There are plans for an express link to the Loop, but these do nothing for departing passengers from neighboring areas. While airport connectors tend to be overrated, express premium-fare links are especially overrated, since they give business travelers dedicated trains, on which they always find seats, without needing to commingle with lower-income riders.

However, some of the Midwestern high-speed rail proposals include a connection to O’Hare from the outlying metro areas, and this is good planning, assuming the cost is not excessive. SNCF’s proposal includes a bypass of Chicago that serves O’Hare, similar to the Interconnexion Est. A second step, if such a connection is built, is to attempt to connect regional lines to it, if they are electrified. This includes both inward connections, i.e. a frequent commuter rail connection to the Loop or West Loop with good connections (ideally, through-service) to other commuter lines, and outward connections, i.e. low-speed short-distance intercity lines, such as to Rockford.

In all of these cases, the common thread is that the connection to the airport does not need to be a premium service, marketed only to the business traveler. These services are never the majority of airport transit ridership: see Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London numbers on PDF-p. 28 here. However, it does need to provide service to both departing and arriving passengers, and for a major international airport, this requires good service to the suburbs and to adjoining metro areas. The optimal technologies are often bundled together with premium fares – high-speed rail is in many countries, mainline rail is in North America – but the benefits come from features of the technology and service pattern, rather than of the branding. Good transit projects connecting to airports will make sure to have the correct service reach, while at the same time not excluding local riders.

Posted in Good Transit, Regional Rail, Transportation, Urban Transit | 146 Comments

Suburban Geography and Transit Modes

A post on Let’s Go LA from last year, about different suburban development patterns in different regions of the US, praises Los Angeles’s suburbs for having an arterial grid that allows some density and permits frequent bus service. The Northeast, in contrast, has a hierarchical system, of town centers surrounded by fractured streets and cul-de-sacs, at much lower density. This is how Los Angeles’s urban area has the highest standard density in the US, and one of the highest weighted densities, nearly tying San Francisco for second place after New York. It sounds like a point in favor of Los Angeles, but missing from the post is an analysis of how Rust Belt suburban development patterns reinforce prewar transit. Briefly, Western US grids are ideal for arterial buses, Northeastern town centers are ideal for commuter rail, which used to serve every town.

For a Northeastern example, the post brings up Attleboro as a historic town center. Look at the image and notice the walkable grid and development near the train station, although one quadrant of the station radius is taken up by parking. Attleboro is in fact the town with the oldest development on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and the Providence conurbation, and the only one that, when taking the train between Boston and Providence, I’d be able to see development in from the train. Sharon and Mansfield, both developed decades later, do not have as strong town centers. But conversely, many town centers similar to Attleboro’s exist in the Northeast: Framingham, Norwalk, Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow, Huntington, Morristown, Paoli.

Now, a careful look at the specific examples of Norwalk and Huntington will show that the most walkable development is not necessarily at the train station. In both suburbs, the old town center is where the original road goes – Northern Boulevard and its eastern extensions in Long Island, the Boston Post Road in Connecticut. Huntington has a second center around the LIRR station; Norwalk has a much smaller second center around the South Norwalk Metro-North station. For the most part, the railroads went close enough to the older roads that the town center is the same, as is the case especially in Attleboro, Tarrytown, and Paoli, and in those cases, commuter rail can at least in principle serve jobs at the suburban town center.

This boils down to the difference between optimal bus and rail networks. Buses love grids: they typically serve the scale of a single city and its inner suburbs, and there it’s feasible to provide everywhere-to-everywhere service, which grids are optimal for. For the suburbs, this breaks down. Buses on uncongested arterial roads are still surface transit; an average speed of 30 km/h is aspirational, and that is for suburbs, not dense urban neighborhoods. On a road where the bus can average 30, cars can average 50, and cars can also use expressways without splitting frequency between different suburban destinations, speeding their journeys up greatly. Meanwhile, commuter rail can, depending on stop spacing, average 50-60 km/h easily, and an aggressive timetable can cross 80 if the stop spacing is relatively express.

There is no such thing as a rapid transit grid. Subway networks almost invariably look like a central mesh, often containing a circumferential line, with spokes radiating out of it in all directions. Mexico City has a larger mesh, approximating a subway grid, but its outer ends again look hub-and-spoke. Counting commuter rail, the hub-and-spoke system is as far as I can tell universal, with the exception of highly polycentric metro areas like the Ruhr. The spokes are rarely clean: they often cross each other (see for example the London Underground to scale). But looking at a city’s rail transit map, you’ll almost always be able to tell where the CBD is, where the inner-urban neighborhoods are, and where the outer-urban and suburban areas are.

At this distance, then, having a bus-friendly grid doesn’t matter much. What matters is having a good network of historical rights-of-way that can be used for regional rail, and a preexisting pattern of development following these lines and their junctions. In the US, the older cities have this, whereas the newer ones do not. In a suburb like Attleboro, good transit means good regional rail, with high all-day frequency, and a network of feeder buses timed to meet the trains. Grids aren’t especially useful for that.

And this is why, despite being so dense, Los Angeles has so little transit usage. Its street network is set up for bare-bones public transit, usable by people who can commute two hours in each direction and will never get cars. Because it was a medium-size city when its car ownership exploded, it doesn’t have as many town centers; its density is uniform. It has a higher weighted density than the Rust Belt outside New York, but its weighted-to-standard density ratio is much lower than those of Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. (It barely trails Washington, which has fewer town-center suburbs than the Rust Belt, but made an effort to actually build them around Metro; its Tarrytowns have Metro service rather than infrequent commuter rail.)

The optimal urban geography for urban transit is not the same as that for suburban transit, and the optimal street network for surface transit is not the same as that for rapid transit. Los Angeles could potentially excel at surface urban transit, but there’s only so much surface transit can provide the backbone of public transportation in a city. It has a handful of strong lines for rapid transit, and that’s a serious problem, which a grid won’t really solve.

Posted in Development, Regional Rail, Transportation, Urban Transit, Urbanism | 98 Comments

State Boundaries and the Northeast (Hoisted from Comments)

Aaron Renn’s repost on US states mattering more than some people imagine made me think about the difference in attitudes toward state lines in different US regions. Aaron’s examples of state lines mattering come from the Midwest, specifically Indianapolis and Columbus. My usual examples of state lines not mattering come from the Northeast. And those two regions treat states very differently.

Imagine a thought experiment in which Congress allows states to redraw their own boundaries – to split, merge, or change borders on their own accord. Let’s ignore the Senate – perhaps it still uses the old boundaries. Let’s also assume that this is not a completely de novo redrawing, akin to the creation of the French departments, in which states are drawn to be of specific size or population.

In such a case, in most of the US, there would be small changes only. Indiana would lose the suburbs of Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville, but otherwise remain intact. Virginia would lose the DC suburbs and gain the North Carolina suburbs of Hampton Roads. Tennessee would gain the Memphis suburbs, and maybe possibly lose Chattanooga. Oregon and Washington would merge. California, Texas, and Florida could either survive more or less intact or split based on metro area spheres of influence. I do not know Florida well enough, but my understanding is that Texas and California have strong enough state identity that in a referendum, their major regions would vote against a split. Ohio might have cleaved if it had had only Cleveland and Cincinnati, but I believe the presence of Columbus would make it survive more or less intact. The only Midwestern state that would be completely dismembered is Missouri, which has no equivalent of Columbus between St. Louis and Kansas City.

The opposite is true of the Northeast. From talking to people from both Upstate and Downstate New York, I believe a referendum would result in both sides voting for a split. New Jersey exists as a coherent entity only in jokes about the state made by people from other states. Pennsylvania has at least three regions that do not identify with one another. But at the same time, a coherent Northeast region exists: there are strong migration ties, not only among the four main coastal metro areas but also to and from Pittsburgh and the Upstate metro areas, which have stronger migration ties to New York and Philadelphia than to Cleveland and Chicago. Along the coast, there is also suburb-sharing, which has led to the formation of just four combined statistical areas; there’s even a chain of suburb sharing connecting New York, Allentown (now in the New York CSA), and Philadelphia, and there may soon be direct sharing between New York and Philadelphia.

Unlike in the Midwest or Texas or California, the Northeast does not have the same university-enforced state boundaries, which are probably a major reason why Columbus specifically has migration ties with the entire state but not much with areas just outside the state. In much of the Northeast, a huge number of students go to private universities. In Massachusetts as far as I can tell there are more students at private universities than at public four-year colleges. New York has a very large public university system, but the SUNY/CUNY distinction reinforces the state’s internal divisions rather than erasing them the way Ohio State does.

In terms of a national rail plan, the Northeast practically is a single state (as is the Pacific Northwest, but that’s just two states), from Portland to Quantico. In California, Texas, and Florida, and even Ohio and South Carolina, there are potentially strong in-state intercity rail routes. New York and Pennsylvania have those as well, but both have even stronger routes that cross many states. The Midwest is full of routes that cross states, but usually those connect one or two states to Chicago; the main exception, Chicago-Detroit via Toledo, is indeed not pursued, in favor of the inferior I-94 route that mainly serves Michigan.

Regional rail is similar. It is possible to come up with a plan that’s at least theoretically coherent for regional rail in most parts of the US, to be run by a state agency (or in borderline cases a bi-state agency), or by a local agency with powers delegated by the state. In the Northeast, it’s completely impossible. It’s not even possible to cleanly cleave the region into separate states for the four primary coastal metro areas, because commuter rail services on the Northeast Corridor need to share track with intercity trains at least part of the way, and building infrastructure to avoid such track-sharing is needlessly expensive.

I do not know of a transport association that crosses so many boundaries of subnational entities in Europe. French services are run by the regions; they sometimes cross boundaries, but only in the Midwestern sense of a region bordering Ile-de-France running some of its regional trains to Paris. In Germany, Berlin and Brandenburg have the same transport association, and for all intents and purposes are a single state when it comes to rail network planning. Swiss services cross cantonal borders, but at least the Zurich regional rail network is again French or Midwestern, in that there’s a core of services funded by the ZVV, and services in bordering cantons that run through. In the Northeast, there are good reasons to have commuter services run through from Philadelphia to New York along the Northeast Corridor and maybe also the West Trenton Line; even metro area boundaries are not hard, let alone state boundaries.

Stepping back from the thought experiment, let’s think of how to organize transportation planning in the US. In the Midwest and the South, states are coherent entities. In the West, the areas where states really do not mean much are deep in the Interior West, where there’s no point in building additional ground transportation infrastructure in the first place. But in the Northeast, there may have to be a special exemption treating all of it, including Northern Virginia, as a single state for planning purposes. It can’t be run as tightly as a single state because of its size and its natural division into several metro areas, but some joint service between its various divisions is unavoidable.

More in general, the Ohio example showcases how coherent state identities can be manufactured by the presence of state institutions. On maps that center Cleveland and Cincinnati, such as maps of which baseball and football teams people support, Ohio looks completely dismembered. And yet, the presence of Columbus and Ohio State changes everything when it comes to economic ties such as migration: suddenly, the otherwise-artificial state border means something in terms of social services.

This is not something Northeastern states can really do, nor should they. Pennsylvania has Penn State at State College, but it’s in a small, faraway town, and people who can instead go to Penn or Carnegie Mellon will. New York can expand CUNY and SUNY, but there are too many campuses to provide the same social function of Ohio State. Of course states should expand public higher education, in terms of both opening new campuses where needed and subsidizing tuition, but there’s no room to create a new Columbus; such expansion would provide a necessary service to state residents, but not change economic geography the way it did in Ohio.

Posted in New York, Politics and Society, Regional Rail, Transportation, Urbanism | 59 Comments