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 | 44 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 constructing 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 | 148 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

Underrated Transit Projects

In between the airport connectors and mixed-traffic streetcars are some public transit proposals that would be potentially high-performing. This is a list of potential lines in the US that don’t get nearly the exposure that they deserve.

The basic rule of this post is that if it’s being built, or is on an official urban wishlist pending finding the budget for it, then it’s not underrated. Some of the most important transit projects in North America are in this category: Second Avenue Subway’s current and future phases, the Regional Connector, the UBC SkyTrain extension. What I’m interested in is lines that are only vaguely on any official wishlist, if at all, but could still get very high ridership compared to their length. It is possible that these underrated lines would turn out to be worse-performing if a study were undertaken and the costs turned out to be very high, but in no case was there an honest study. Sometimes there has been no recent study; other times there is one but it sandbags the project.

Finally, I am not including commuter rail projects on this list. Under current regulations and operating practices, nearly all North American commuter rail projects are wastes of money. Conversely, nearly all projects that assume modernization of practices are underrated. This swing, based almost entirely on organizational question, is why I’m excluding these projects from this list. The subway and light rail projects below are less sensitive to organizational questions.

Utica Avenue Subway

Location: New York

Concept: an extension of the 4 from Crown Heights along Utica Avenue to Kings Plaza, about 7 km. If Second Avenue Subway’s Phases 3 and 4 are built, then a branch can be built from Second Avenue to Williamsburg and thence under Bushwick, Malcolm X, and Utica, taking over the entirety of the line, with the 4 cut back to its current terminus; this is an additional 9 km to Second and Houston.

Why it’s underrated: the second busiest bus route in New York, the B46, follows Utica: see here for New York bus route rankings. The busiest follows First and Second, which are getting a subway. Two additional routes in the top ten, the B44 and the B41, follow Nostrand and Flatbush respectively, fairly close to Utica. The B46 has 48,000 weekday riders and the B41 and B44 have another 70,000 between them. Since subways are much faster than city buses, the expected ridership is much higher than 120,000, measured in multiples rather than in a percentage increase. In addition, the 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all busier coming to the Manhattan core from Uptown than from Brooklyn, so adding to their ridership from the Brooklyn end balances the loads better, and avoids the required increase in operating costs for the new riders.

What is being done right now: nothing.

Geary Subway

Location: San Francisco

Concept: a full subway from Market Street to the Outer Richmond District, about 9 km. This can connect to the BART subway, the Muni Metro tunnel, or a second Transbay Tube if one is built.

Why it’s underrated: the 38-Geary is the busiest bus route in San Francisco, with 57,000 weekday riders between the local, the limited, and the express buses: see here for San Francisco bus ridership. Parallel corridors are also busy: the 1-California has 29,000, the 31-Balboa has 10,000, and the 5-Fulton has 17,000. Some of the census tracts along the middle of the route, in Little Osaka Japantown, rank together with Los Angeles’s Koreatown as the densest in the US outside New York. BART’s current limiting factor is not the Transbay Tube, but the grades farther south in San Francisco, which lengthen the braking distance and make it impossible to run a full 30 trains per hour through the core segments; a Geary branch leaving south of Montgomery Street would reduce service to points farther south, but improve capacity for riders heading from Oakland to the San Francisco CBD.

What is being done right now: there were never subway plans, but there were light rail plans, which due to local merchants’ opposition to loss of space for cars were downgraded to a rapid bus. The city’s FAQ on the subject even has the cheek to portray the Boston Silver Line and the Los Angeles Orange Line as successes.

Downtown Relief Line

Location: Toronto

Concept: there are several different alignments, but all feature an east-west line somewhere between Queen Street and Union Station, with one or two bends to the north to intersect the Bloor-Danforth Line. The latter two alignments (using option 4B for the second one) feature about 12 km of tunnel; I do not know how much the first one has.

Why it’s underrated: only one subway line serves Downtown Toronto, the Yonge-University-Spadina Line. Bloor-Danforth is too far from the CBD, and requires a transfer. The transfer points are very crowded: as far as I can tell from this list, the central one, Bloor-Yonge, has 200,000 weekday boardings, apparently including transfers. Without figures that include transfers in other cities I can’t make comparisons, but I doubt any two-line, four-track station in New York has this many riders. Union Station is quite crowded as well, and DRL proposals include transfers to outlying commuter rail stations. Ridership on parallel streetcars is very high: there are 53,000 on King Street, 44,000 on Queen, and, if a more northern alignment for the DRL is chosen, 32,000 on Dundas.

What is being done right now: more studies; construction will almost certainly begin any decade now. Neither David Miller’s Transit City light rail proposal nor Rob Ford’s replacement of Transit City with subways included the DRL.

125th Street Subway

Location: New York

Concept: either Phase 5 or Phase 2.5 of Second Avenue Subway, going west along 125th to Broadway, with a station at each intersection with an existing north-south subway.

Why it’s underrated: east-west transportation in Manhattan is slow, even by the standards of Manhattan buses. The 125th Street buses in my experience are slower than walking; despite this, the various routes have about 90,000 weekday boardings between them, of which about 30,000 come from 125th Street itself. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 is going to substantially improve east-west transportation, by serving Times Square and offering a two-seat ride from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side and Central and West Harlem; however, passengers from East Harlem will still have to take a major detour to avoid the crosstown buses. While SAS offers a relief to the 4/5 and 6 lines, the 2/3 and A/D express lines are overcrowded as well, and a connection at 125th Street would divert some East Side-bound commuters.

What is being done right now: nothing, although (some) railfans who work at the MTA privately want to see such a line built.

Silver Line Light Rail

Location: Boston

Concept: replacement of the Silver Line buses along Washington Street with light rail, feeding into an existing Green Line portal, about 4 km of light rail.

Why it’s underrated: the Silver Line buses are the busiest in Boston, with 15,000 weekday riders on the buses to Dudley Square: see PDF-pp. 47-48 of the MBTA Blue Book. The ridership doesn’t justify a subway, but does justify dedicated lanes and rail. The Green Line tunnel has some spare capacity, has a portal pointing in the correct direction, and could take an additional train every 6 or 7 minutes, which would give riders in Roxbury faster trips through Downtown Boston.

What is being done right now: nothing – a study sandbagged the rail bias factor and assumed only 130 new transit riders on a Silver Line light rail service, making the project appear cost-ineffective.

Triboro RX

Location: New York

Concept: a circumferential subway line, with about 1 km of new tunnel and 35 km of route on preexisting rights-of-way, abandoned or lightly used by freight trains today.

Why it’s underrated: the biggest cost driver, right-of-way formation, is already present. The right-of-way in question has a few daily freight trains, but the most critical link, the Hell Gate Bridge, is four-tracked, and freight trains can be kicked out from their segment of the bridge and moved to the Amtrak tracks. The work done by Michael Frumin and Jeff Zupan in the late 1990s estimated about 150,000 commute trips per weekday (76,000 commuters each making a roundtrip per day), which is low for a greenfield line of this length but reasonable for a line on existing rights-of-way.

What is being done right now: nothing, although ever since Lee Sander mentioned the line in 2008, politicians have paid lip service to the concept, without committing funding.

Boston Circumferential Line

Location: Boston

Concept: a circumferential subway, from Harvard Square to Dudley Square or the JFK-UMass subway stop, roughly following the 66 bus route where it runs and intersecting the busiest stops of the Green Line branches and some commuter rail stops. This is about 12 km.

Why it’s underrated: although the busiest Boston bus is the Silver Line to Dudley Square, the next few are circumferential, particularly the 1 and 66, and secondarily the 23 and 28; together this is about 50,000 riders. Boston’s street network is hostile to surface transit except on a few major streets such as Washington, which is why there is no hope of making such a line light rail, which would fit the projected ridership better. A route that parallels the 66, at least until it hits the E branch of the Green Line, would intersect the B, C, and D branches at their busiest respective surface stops, and improve connectivity to Cambridge, which is increasingly a major business district of the Boston region in its own right.

What is being done right now: BRT, on convoluted alignments that don’t exactly follow either the 66 or the 1 where they are parallel but instead make detours.

Nostrand Avenue Subway

Location: New York

Concept: an extension of the 2/5 from Flatbush to the southern end of Nostrand Avenue, about 5 km.

Why it’s underrated: all the reasons that make Utica so strong apply to Nostrand secondarily; the present bus ridership may be high enough to support two subway lines rather than one. The present terminus was built as a temporary one, which is why it has side platforms rather than an island platform.

What is being done right now: nothing.

Posted in Good Transit, Incompetence, Transportation, Urban Transit | 160 Comments

New York Finds Massive Savings in Transit Construction

MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast announced that an internal review of MTA Capital Construction reveals that there are large wastes in the capital budget that could be eliminated with relatively simple step. City comptroller Scott Stringer noted that Second Avenue Subway’s first phase, a two-mile stub, costs nearly $5 billion, whereas comparable lines in Paris, London, Tokyo, and other rich, global cities are a fraction of that amount. “Few lines cost more than half a billion dollars per mile,” his office added.

Prendergast’s office directed questions to MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu. Horodniceanu outlined a list of items raising New York’s subway construction costs, including labor rules, legal issues, lack of training in new technologies, and insufficient public oversight of contractors. He added that there is little hope of seeing large reductions in the costs of ongoing projects, which are too far advanced, with most of the money already spent, but future subway construction could be done for much cheaper. He did not give a concrete estimate, but a senior official at MTA Capital Construction believed that with the requisite reforms, future subway lines would cost about half a billion dollars per mile in Manhattan and a quarter billion dollars in the Outer Borough.

When asked about the possibility of building Amtrak’s Gateway Project at lower cost, the source qualified those estimates, explaining that Gateway can probably be done for $3 billion, closer to a billion dollars per mile, as much of the project involves underwater tunneling. Officials from Amtrak did not comment on the record by the time this story went to press; however, a senior Amtrak manager speaking on condition of anonymity said, “we don’t really believe this is possible – there are lots of low estimates, and those always lead to budget overruns,” and said that the cost figures from the rest of the world are “irrelevant to America and American labor costs.”

Labor reactions to the announcement were mixed. James Ryan, the president of the Sandhogs Local 147 union, expressed skepticism that costs could be brought down without cutting wages or unionized jobs, and warned of a “race to the bottom” and a “low-wage Wal-Mart economy.” However, he added that he would accept changes as long as there was a guarantee of no job losses, wage cuts, or work rule reforms that would reduce union autonomy. TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen, whose union represents subway workers rather than construction workers, proposed that the city and the state use the reduced costs to expand subway construction, specifically mentioning future phases of Second Avenue Subway. Currently only Phase 1 is funded, serving the Upper East Side.

Reactions within the state legislature were more positive. The greatest supporter is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), whose Lower East Side district is slated to be served by the fourth and last phase of Second Avenue Subway. Silver noted that he was in support of the project even when it was just Phase 1, and said that he would work with the State Senate to pass all the legal reforms requested by Prendergast and Horodniceanu. In the State Senate, co-temporary presidents Dean Skelos (R-Long Island) and Jeffrey Klein (Ind. D-Bronx) had a cooler response. They both praised the revelations and said that they would consider passing the reforms requested, but did not mention any timeline for doing so. Several state legislators, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed sentiments that the MTA is keeping two sets of books, and if the MTA just admitted to being able to save more money, then its budget requests for operations are also likely suspect. Skelos himself was cool to the proposals for a legislative audit of the MTA, but added, “I understand why people are upset and want to take a closer look.”

In contrast, within City Hall, reactions were overwhelmingly positive. The office of Mayor Bill de Blasio praised Horodniceanu and sent a press release calling MTA Capital Construction’s announcement “a courageous admitting of past mistakes, and an ambitious look forward.” De Blasio himself added that “Now is the time to see where we can build new lines that we thought were unaffordable,” and expressed confidence that all necessary changes can be achieved without running afoul of labor demands.

It is unclear whether the city or the MTA will propose any subway extensions, other than the completion of Second Avenue Subway. In 2008, the MTA’s then-chairman, Elliot Sander, proposed a 22-mile circumferential line running on lightly-used freight rights-of-way, connecting the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn without going through Manhattan. Regional Plan Association President Robert Yaro noted that his organization initially proposed this line in 1996 and proposed that the MTA build this line as well as express links to all three airports. He added that this line, which he calls Triboro, requires only about a mile of tunnel and is therefore much cheaper than fully underground lines. “The MTA has found a way to make everything cheaper, both subways and construction on existing infrastructure, so Triboro will be especially cheap now,” he said.

The community groups who could be reached by the article’s deadline were split. Transit activists within Harlem proposed that Second Avenue Subway be modified to add a fifth phase, going crosstown under 125th Street. The members of Harlem’s three community boards agreed that it would be useful, but most of them expressed concerns that it would lead to gentrification and displacement of existing residents, and said they would support the line if the city made an effort to build or preserve affordable housing. MTA planners who spoke on condition of anonymity proposed to extend the 2 and 5 down Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and the 4 down Utica Avenue, as per proposals from the 1970s. The response of the community boards in southeastern Brooklyn was more negative, saying that it would change the character of the neighborhoods relatively. One community board member warned that this would lead to “Manhattanization of our neighborhood.”

No member of the New Jersey state government responded to repeated requests for quotes by the article’s deadline.

Posted in Construction Costs, New York, Transportation, Urban Transit | 15 Comments