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

Transit Observations from Philadelphia

I was in Philadelphia last summer for about five days. I have few observations as a pedestrian: I stayed in West Philadelphia, in the gentrifying zone radiating out of University City, and traveled to Center City, and both neighborhoods seemed intimately familiar to me as a (former) New Yorker. The street widths and setbacks looked very much like those of New York; West Philadelphia could easily be an area of Brooklyn. The difference to me was in the public transit rather than the pedestrian experience.

In New York, the subway is for everyone. The same is true of Singapore and Vancouver. In Philadelphia, it is not the case. The city is about 40% white and 40% black. On the trains I took, the Market Street subway and the Subway-Surface Trolleys, nearly everyone was black. A friend who lived in Philadelphia for ten years has observed the same on the buses, and adds that white people on buses tend to be college students.

But there’s more to the story. I think it’s a commonplace that in American cities other than New York, blacks ride public transit more than whites. What I think is more important is that whites tend to ride transit at rush hour. When I rode the trains in Philadelphia at rush hour, there was still a clear black majority on the streetcar or the subway car, but there were a fair number of whites. In the off-peak, I was at times the only white person on a streetcar that was filled to its seated capacity. The aforementioned friend says she thinks she saw the same, but as she rarely rode at rush hour, she is not sure.

It is not hard to come up with explanations for the difference. In Philadelphia, as in the typical Rust Belt city, the white population is quite suburbanized, much more so than the black population. It is also substantially richer. Both contribute to car ownership, and to driving in whenever traffic allows; since traffic is worst at rush hour, that’s when we see the most white people on public transit. The people who ride the trains and the buses outside rush hour tend to be urban residents who do not own a car, and in a city with the income distribution and racial dynamics of Philadelphia, they are predominantly black.

This injects a racial element into a lot of transit planning, especially for commuter rail. North American commuter rail is designed exclusively for suburban residents, who in Philadelphia and similar cities are usually white and at least middle-class. This is why it gets away with such poor off-peak service: hourly on most SEPTA Regional Rail lines, hourly or even every two hours on the MBTA, hourly on most branches of the New York commuter rail network. Although New York itself doesn’t have the typical Rust Belt city demographics, its suburbs have typical Rust Belt suburb demographics, so the situation is the same. The same is true of Boston, when one remembers that a huge fraction of its urban white population is in Cambridge and Somerville. Philadelphia is only where this racial division is the most obvious even on the subway.

Everything about North American commuter rail screams “you’re better than the hoi polloi who ride the subway”: the seating arrangement maximizing seating rather than standing space, the park-and-rides, the fares, the lack of fare integration with local transit, the schedules. Since peak-only suburban transit serves precisely the niche that the traditional white suburban middle class is comfortable riding transit in, it is necessarily segregated. Its riders even fight to keep it that way: witness for example the opposition in Stamford to developing the Metro-North station and moving the parking 400 meters away. This article complaining about parking lot waits is typical of the species; these complaints persist despite very high spending on commuter rail parking lots, for example in Hicksville.

The same transit agencies that fudge or make up numbers to avoid serving minority neighborhoods also ignore the possibility of improving off-peak service. Although off-peak service is cheaper to provide than peak service – it requires no new vehicles or infrastructure and fewer split-shift crews – the plans for service expansion typically focus on more peak capacity, despite often high crowding levels on off-peak trains. This is worst on commuter rail, but also affects subway and bus systems. In New York, the MTA’s crowding guidelines call for setting off-peak frequency such that the average train on each line will have 25% more riders than seats at the most crowded point of its journey. As anyone who’s ridden trains in Manhattan in the evening knows, trains are quite often much more crowded than this average. The MTA needs to keep its losses to a reasonable minimum, and on the core lines the off-peak frequency is not bad; but why keep claiming that trains only have 25% more riders than cars? The MTA is by comparison more honest about its capacity problems on the Lexington express trains, for example in the Second Avenue Subway environmental impact statement.

Many of the problems of American transit systems are directly traceable to the fact that the managers don’t often ride the trains, and their peer group is not the same as the average transit user. This is why we see little concern for off-peak service, and practically none with off-peak service on the whitest and more suburban form of transit, commuter rail. None of these managers of course intends to be racist or classist, but they unwittingly are.

Posted in Pedestrian Observations, Politics and Society, Regional Rail, Transportation, Urban Transit, Urbanism | 64 Comments

Empire High-Speed Rail

At the beginning of the month, New York State released its draft environmental impact statement for high-speed rail from New York to the Upstate cities. The costs of HSR as proposed by the state are excessive, and as a result the state has eliminated the high-speed option. It is only considering medium-speed options – the fastest is 125 mph, for the cost of full-fat high-speed rail; it sandbagged the full-speed options. Consider the following passage, from the main document, section 3.2.2:

The dedicated right-of-way of the very high speed (VHS) alternatives would result in significant travel time savings (5:17 and 4:23 respectively for 160 mph MAS and 220 mph MAS), and commensurately higher estimated ridership (4.06 and 5.12 million respectively for 160 mph MAS and 220 mph MAS).

The length of New York-Buffalo is about 690 km. At 4:23, it is an average speed of 157 km/h. To put things in perspective, the Hikari express trains in the 1960s achieved an average of 162 km/h (515 km in 3:10) in 1965, with a maximum speed of 210 km/h.

In section 3.3.5, the 125 mph alternative, which involves greenfield dedicated track from Albany to Buffalo, is said to have an average speed of 77 mph, or 124 km/h. Considering that British express trains on the legacy East Coast and West Coast Main Lines restricted to the same top speed average about 130-140 km/h, this is unimpressive.

Likewise, the cost estimates seem too high. The cost proposed for 125 mph is $14.71 billion. That’s on existing track south of Albany with minor improvements; as per exhibits 3-19 and 3-21, 83% of the cost is said to be Albany-Buffalo, a distance of 380 km on new track plus 76 on existing track. This makes sense for a full-speed, 350 km/h line. But the cost of the full-speed 220 mph option is $39 billion, around $55 million per km from New York to Buffalo in an area with a topography that justifies at most half that.

The study also sandbags the higher-speed options, from 125 mph up, by overplaying the importance of skipped small cities. A greenfield line cannot reasonably serve Schenectady, Amsterdam, and Rome. It could serve Utica, but with some takings because the sharp curve from the tracks at the downtown station to the I-90 right-of-way to the west. Lack of service to Utica would be a drawback, but the study for some reason thinks that those four stations would need their own dedicated intercity line to New York, using a connection to Metro-North, which is said on PDF-p. 37 to have capacity problems on the Hudson Line (the Hudson Line runs 12 trains per hour at the peak today, and is four-tracked). I am told that people drive all the way from Watertown to Syracuse to take Amtrak; none of the skipped four stations is that far from Albany or Syracuse. If a regional train is needed, it can connect at Albany.

The problem is that the alignments studied are uninspiring. I don’t just mean it as a synonym for bad. I mean they avoid locations that look difficult at first glance but are actually reasonably easy. CSX bypasses Albany already; it is not a problem to run high-speed trains at low speed on the existing line between Rensselaer and a spot west of Albany where the line could transition to the Thruway, and yet exhibit 3-20 shows a passenger rail bypass of Albany.

For the full-speed option, I do not know how much tunneling and bridging the state thinks is necessary for its west-of-Hudson I-87 alignment from New York to Albany, but there’s an alignment east of the Hudson with only about 7 km of tunnel, all through the Hudson Highlands. Briefly, such a line would go east of the built-up area in Dutchess County and points north, with a possible station at the eastern edge of the Poughkeepsie urban area and another near Rhinebeck, closer to the city and to the bridge to Kingston than the present Rhinecliff station. In Putnam and northern Westchester Counties, it would utilize the fact that the ridge lines go northeast to southwest to swing to the southwest, to hook up to the Hudson Line slightly north of Croton-Harmon. With a curve radius of 4 km, and a maximum grade of 3.5%, only two tunnels are needed, one under Peekskill of about 2 km and one under the crest in Putnam County of about 5 km. Some additional viaducts are needed through the valleys in the Hudson Highlands, but from Dutchess County north the line would be almost entirely at-grade.

There is generally a tunnel vision in American high-speed rail documents like this, consisting of any of the following features:

- Excessive avoidance of greenfield alignments, even in relatively flat areas. The flip side is excessive usage of freeway rights-of-way. The Syracuse-Rochester segment is actually greenfield in the study, which is good, but there is no thought given to greenfield New York-Albany alignments, which are frankly much easier east of the Hudson than west of the Hudson.

- Questionable assumptions about the abilities of existing track in urban areas to have higher capacity, which often leads to excessive multi-tracking (as in California); there is never any effort to construct an integrated timetable to limit the construction of new tracks.

- No rail-on-rail grade separations. The study talks about Spuyten Duyvil capacity problems, which are very real if traffic grows, but says nothing about the possibility of grade-separating the junction from the Empire Connection to the Metro-North mainline to Grand Central.

- With the exception of California, which erred in the other direction, uninspiring speeds. It’s actually hard to construct a 350 km/h line that only averages 157; actual high-speed lines around the world in the 270+ range average about 180 or higher.

It’s not surprising New York is sandbagging HSR. A year and a half ago, the Cuomo administration killed an HSR study on the grounds that in a recession, the state can’t afford to build such an expensive project. Given how long it takes from the initial study to the beginning of construction, the argument is so transparently wrong that it raises the question of what the real motivation was. But whatever the real reason was, the state is not interested in HSR, and wrote a lengthy environmental impact study to justify its disinterest.

Posted in Construction Costs, High-Speed Rail, Incompetence, New York, Shoddy Studies, Studies, Transportation | 90 Comments

Metro-North-Everything Compatibility

The Regional Plan Association has a new study warning that Metro-North’s infrastructure is falling apart, and demands $3.6 billion in immediate spending on state of good repair. In general, my line on deferred maintenance is “you mean the agency deferred maintenance all those years and didn’t tell us?”. But in this case, despite the language, most of the proposed spending is improvements, namely rehabilitation or replacement of old movable bridges with low speed limits, rather than ongoing maintenance folded into long-term capital spending.

$2.8 billion of the proposed program is for replacing five bridges: Pelham Bay, Cos Cob (over the Mianus), Walk (over the Norwalk River), Saga (over the Saugatuck), and Devon (over the Housatonic). I believe all five should be replaced in the medium term, but the cost proposed is much higher than it should be. $560 million per bridge is quite high, and out of line with Amtrak found on PDF-pp. 29 and 56 of the Northeast Corridor Master Plan. Amtrak cites the cost of replacing the Pelham Bay Bridge alone at $100 million, and the cost of both replacing it and modifying curves on the Hell Gate Line at $500 million. It cites the cost of replacing both the Saga and Walk Bridges at $600 million.

Now, the RPA lists Saga as the easiest bridge to replace since it’s two two-track bridges, so work can be done one bridge at a time with less disruption to ongoing service, but conversely Pelham Bay is also quite cheap according to Amtrak.

But there’s a more serious problem, which is the avoidance of talking about service plans for commuter and intercity rail. If there is serious effort at adding Metro-North service to Penn Station or at raising intercity rail speeds, then the worst speed and capacity restrictions should get priority, and the infrastructure construction should be based on what promotes the desired service plans. It is very expensive and probably cost-ineffective to six-track everything from New Rochelle to Stamford, to allow three speed regimes: local, express, and intercity. I have argued before that it’s better to leave it at four tracks and bypass bad curves, around Port Chester, and make this the six-track segment. This is of course independent of maintenance issues, but suggests which bridge replacements are necessary to support these bypasses (Cos Cob) and which aren’t (the rest are less critical, especially Walk, which intercity trains should bypass on a straighter I-95 segment).

Likewise, there’s a capacity crunch west of Stamford but not one east of Stamford, and this again suggests Cos Cob as the most important priority. Finally, the slowest segment of the NEC away from immediate station areas is the western corner of Connecticut, from the state line to Stamford; Stamford’s curves are mild, while those heading out of Port Chester all the way across the Mianus are quite bad, and straightening the segment would also require straightening the bridge, which can be done easily if it’s replaced. Despite all this, the RPA and Amtrak are saying Cos Cob needs rehabilitation and not replacement, which misses opportunities to both improve reliability and speed up a slow segment.

Moreover, there is no mention of grade-separating Shell Interlocking, just south of New Rochelle. While not a state of good repair issue even in theory, the interlocking’s tight curves impose a limit of either 30 or 45 mph (so, 50-70 km/h), depending on source, in an area that could otherwise support 200 km/h or more. It is very difficult to straighten New Rochelle to sufficient curve radius for that, but 150 requires only minor takings. This may be necessary, independent of speed issues, to raise capacity enough to allow Metro-North service to both Grand Central and Penn Station. It’s possible to schedule trains through the flat junction, but this imposes an additional constraint on the schedule, on top of track-sharing with Amtrak and, in the East River Tunnels, the LIRR.

Posted in Construction Costs, Good/Interesting Studies, High-Speed Rail, Incompetence, New York, Regional Rail, Shoddy Studies, Studies, Transportation | 40 Comments