Category: Development

More on Vancouver’s Obsession With Filling Buses (Hoisted from Comments)

Via Human Transit, I learn that Translink has a bus service performance summary with an infographic on PDF-page 16 contrasting high- and low-performing routes. As usual, Translink claims that the high-performing routes have strong anchors at their ends as one of the reasons for their success. Unfortunately, the claim is not completely correct, and on top of that the definition of “high-performing” is stretched to make anchored routes look better. In particular, this implicates Vancouver’s strategy of upzoning the most intensely at its southern rim while ignoring its center.

To paraphrase my second comment on Human Transit, the summary rates routes on three metrics: boardings per hour, capacity utilization, and cost per boarding; a high-performing route is one that is in the metro area’s top 25 on all three, and a low-performing one is one that is in the bottom 25 on all three. However, only the first and the third are actually useful for the passenger. The second is a measure of pain – it’s the product of turnover with crowding, and although it can be raised by raising turnover, it can also be raised by making the bus more crowded.

An updated list of Vancouver buses and their productivity measures is available here. Measured by cost per rider and boardings per hour, the unanchored 8 is more productive than the 49, which has anchors but nothing in between. But the 8 ranks 29th in capacity utilization, so it’s penalized. The 5 and the 6, which are very short routes serving the West End, are also penalized solely because of their low crowding levels and their short length, which makes turnover more difficult. The 8 has high turnover (like the 3 and 20, which did make the infographic), so it achieves more passenger boardings per hour but fewer passenger-km despite its weak outer-end anchor, and the 5 and 6 are so short that even passengers riding all the way through provide many boardings per hour relative to capacity utilization.

Translink unfortunately does not break down capacity utilization into its two components, and only cites the crowding level at the most crowded point of the average trip. But we can still construct a table of some routes with their performance on the three metrics as well as their crowding level:

Route Boardings/hr Capacity use Peak Crowding Cost/boarding
3 113 110% 49% $0.89
5 105 67% 53% $0.95
6 98 68% 48% $1.02
8 102 98% 41% $0.98
9 103 160% 64% $0.97
20 113 124% 50% $0.89
25 81 187% 74% $1.23
41 105 180% 78% $0.95
49 96 169% 82% $1.04
99 176 167% 86% $0.57

The 3, 9, 20, 41, 49, and 99 are in the infographic on the list of most productive routes; the 25 narrowly misses on cost per passenger and boardings per hour but is second systemwide in capacity utilization, and the 5, 6, and 8 miss only on capacity utilization. The 25 and 49 have strong anchors at their outer ends, a single strong central anchor at the Canada Line, and nothing else; On the metrics relevant to the passenger who’s expected to ride the bus and fund it by paying a fare, they are somewhat lower-performing than the short 5 and 6 and the short-trip-encouraging 3, 8, and 20, but have far more crowding. The 9 and 41, both in the infographic, are about on a par with the 3, 5, 6, 8, and 20, and have more turnover due to additional destinations on Broadway and 9th that don’t exist on King Edward and 49th, but are still much more crowded than the unanchored routes. The 99 beats all others in performance, but the cost in terms of crowding is even higher.

The purpose of anchoring is explicitly to keep buses full all the way; the 25 and 49 are great at that, since people ride them longer distances, not having much to go to between their major destinations. However, it’s not a measure of passenger satisfaction or of transit agency finances, but of passenger-km. The surreptitious focus on passenger-km is dubious as a performance metric for urban transit, since transit-using city dwellers usually prefer shorter commutes and do most non-work trips on foot.

And if it’s dubious as a transit proposition, then as an urbanist proposition it’s destructive. As discussed in my previous post on the subject, Vancouver is upzoning Marine Drive (slightly) more intensely than the area south of Broadway and near the stations on the Canada Line between Broadway and Marine Drive – see PDF-pp. 26-27 of the draft plan. Despite the hysteria about urban planners using social engineering to make people live close to city center and take transit instead of driving, here we have a city with an otherwise well-deserved reputation for greenness using social engineering to make people live farther out.

This focus on anchors is making Vancouver build itself to be on a regional scale like how the 25 and 49 look on the local scale. The famous high-rise Vancouverism is really about looking like the 5 and 6 – i.e. upzoning near Downtown so that people will walk or take short trips – but future development is not intended to occur near Downtown but rather in strategically chosen secondary CBDs farther away. And what is really needed is continuous corridor development, as is practiced on the corridors hosting the 3, the 8, and the 20.

The Problem with Anchoring

A major idea due to Jarrett Walker, adopted with gusto by Vancouver’s Translink, is that transit should be anchored at both ends. That is, transit lines should have busy destinations at both ends, and should strive to reorient development such that the maximum intensity is near the ends. I was skeptical about this from the start, but now that I live in Vancouver and see the practice every time I go to UBC, I realize it’s much worse.

The Translink document justifying the layout has a figure, Figure 10 on PDF-page 15, showing that if development intensity peaks in the middle, then the bus will be overcrowded in the middle and empty at the ends. In contrast, if development intensity peaks at the ends, then the bus will be crowded but not overcrowded the entire way. Or, as Jarrett says, “If a transit line is operating through an area of uniform density, about 50% of its capacity goes to waste.”

Both in theory and in practice, this argument fails to note that a bus with development at the ends will be overcrowded the entire way, because people will travel longer. If UBC were located around Central Broadway instead of at the very west end of the metro area, people would just have shorter travel time; at no point would there be more westbound a.m. crowding because at no point would there be more westbound passengers traveling at the peak. There would be more eastbound a.m. crowding, but that’s not the Broadway buses’ limiting factor. Of the top four routes for passups, which have far more than the fifth route, three are east-west with strong anchors at both end (UBC at the west, the Expo Line at the east) and one, the third worst, is a C-shaped amalgamation of two north-south routes, with peak development downtown, in the middle of the C.

On a theoretical level, development intensity is a result of high land prices justifying high density, and in an urban area high land prices come from proximity to other urban land. In cities without topographic or political constraints on development, the CBD is always near the center of the metro area, and in coastal cities the CBD is usually near the shore but near the center along the axis parallel to the shore. Major secondary nodes usually arise in areas close to many suburbs, often the richer ones, and there’s travel demand to them from all directions: see for examples La Defense near Paris and Shinjuku and the other secondary CBDs in Tokyo. Some of those nodes happen to be near the shore (UBC, Santa Monica and Long Beach, Coney Island) but most aren’t. Any newly-built anchor will sprout further development around it unless there’s very strong local resistance. To connect all those neighborhoods that lie beyond the secondary CBD, unanchored transit lines are then unavoidable.

We’re left then with anchors that are at geographic edges, such as on shores. Those raise travel distances, because people can only live at one direction from them, so for a given residential density they will have to travel longer on average. They look attractive to transit managers because they also make the buses more uniformly full, but they’re worse for passengers who have to travel longer, often standing the entire way because of overcrowding. They’re not even good for transit agency finance, because urban transit invariably has either flat fare (as is the case within Vancouver proper) or fare that depends on distance fairly weakly. Short trips generate as much or almost as much money for the agency while requiring less effort to run because of lower crowding levels. Trips in which most passengers ride end to end are the least efficient, unless they can overcome this with very high crowding levels all day.

Now, what does help finances as well as the passenger experience is bidirectional demand. Anchors are good at that. However, what’s just as useful in cases of asymmetric peak demand is destinations that are short of the most crowded points. For example, in Manhattan the north-south subways fill as they go southward in the a.m. peak. This means that commercial buildings north of Midtown, generating passenger traffic that either is northbound (hence, reverse-peak) or gets off the train before it gets the most crowded within Midtown, add ridership without requiring running more trains. The MTA’s guidelines explicitly call for matching frequency to demand at the most crowded point of each line based on uniform sets of peak and off-peak crowding guidelines. This favors not outlying anchors, but development sprinkled uniformly along transit lines outside the CBD. The same development in the North Bronx would have low transit mode share (UBC has high transit mode share, but it’s at a geographic edge, and on top of that it has a huge body of students), while on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side it would have high transit mode share. The only outer ends where heavy upzoning is appropriate are those that aren’t really ends, such as Flushing and Jamaica, preexisting secondary centers in their own right to which people take the subway from the west and drive from the east.

De facto, Translink makes cost figures available for each bus route, and we can compare costs per boarded passenger on the east-west routes and on the north-south ones. The east-west routes have an initial advantage because they have bidirectional peak demand, whereas the north-south and C-shaped ones do not, and have few destinations short of the CBD, mainly just on Central Broadway or Commercial Drive. Despite this inherent east-west advantage, cost per rider is not lower on the east-west lines. Of the top ten route numbers, there are five balanced east-west routes: 99, 9, 41, 49, 25; and four north-south or C-shaped ones serving downtown: 20, 16, 8, 3. (The 135 is east-west connecting downtown with SFU, and could be included in either category.) Going in the same order as above, the east-west routes cost $0.61, $1.21, $1.10, $1.31, $1.47 per passenger, while the north-south ones cost $1.02, $1.29, $1.09, $1.06. (The 135 costs $1.32.) The three routes that interline to UBC on 4th Avenue – the 4, 84, and 44 – cost $1.62, $1.30, and $0.78 respectively, averaging to $1.30; the 84 is anchored at the Millennium Line, the 44 is anchored downtown, and the 4 is anchored downtown but also continues farther east.

The 99 is much cheaper to run than the other routes despite its high proportion of end-to-end ridership, but it is also critically crowded and benefits from multiple peaks as it serves both a secondary CBD and a university; it is also express, which among the other routes under discussion is only true of the 44, the 84, and the 135. Among the local routes, the north-south routes are actually a bit cheaper to run than the east-west routes even if we exclude the 4 as a not fully anchored exception. The 20, the 8, and the 3 all have their maximum development intensity at the downtown end with some extra development in their inner areas, near SkyTrain and Broadway, and a lot of medium-intensity development at the tail. This provides suitable short-of-CBD destinations adding passengers at low cost.

For one measure of productivity, we can divide the number of boardings per hour by the average load. The result is the reciprocal of the average number of hours spent by each passenger on the bus; a higher number means each passenger spends less time on the bus, indicating higher turnover, or equivalently more revenue relative to crowding. The 99, 9, 41, 49, and 25 have ratios of 2.79, 3.13, 2.65, 1.93, 2.13; the 20, 16, 8, and 3 have ratios of 3.26, 2.73, 3.57, 3.24. The 20, 8, and 3 again look very good here, helping explain their low operating costs and also their low crowding (they rank 12th, 27th, and 20th respectively in passups but 2nd, 6th, and 7th in weekday ridership). The 49 and 25, both highly anchored routes, do not look as good, and indeed have many passups relative to ridership (they rank 1st and 4th in passups but 8th and 10th in weekday ridership); they have the redeeming feature that they protrude slightly into Burnaby, where zonal fares are higher, but judging by a map of the passups, the 25 seems to get a large majority of its ridership strictly within Vancouver, with Nanaimo Station as the eastern anchor rather than Brentwood.

We can extend this analysis further by looking at New York’s bus operating costs. Cap’n Transit laboriously compiled a spreadsheet of operating cost per New York City Transit bus route. Within Manhattan, the pattern is that east-west routes have much lower operating costs per passenger than north-south routes. The M15, the busiest route in Manhattan with ridership comparable to that of the 99 in Vancouver and with the best finances among the north-south routes, almost breaks even on direct operating costs; most of the major east-east routes are outright profitable counting only direct operating costs. The key difference is that the east-west routes are much shorter, so passengers are paying the same amount of money for less distance. In his own analysis, the Cap’n notes that the express bus with the best finances is also one of the shortest, and that in general the profitable-after-direct-operating-costs buses have many transfer points to the subway, which suggests short trips as well.

Having seen more evidence for the theory that good bus finances require short trips rather than endpoint anchors, we can go back to Vancouver and compare more routes. The busiest north-south route not on the above list, the 2/22, works more like the 16 than like the 20, 8, and 3: not only is the 22 C-shaped rather than terminating downtown, but also it serves corridors that are less busy than Commercial and inner Main, reducing the availability of short trips. The shorter 2, overlying the longer 22, has 3.42 boardings per hour per load, but still costs $1.43 per rider; the 22 has only 2.15 boardings per hour per load and costs $1.61 per rider, and also ranks 3rd citywide in passups versus 11th in weekday ridership. On both the 16 and the 22, the north-south legs (Arbutus and Renfrew for the 16, Macdonald and Clark/Knight for the 22) are streets that aren’t very busy by themselves, but instead act as important cross-streets for Broadway and other east-west streets. Here are Knight, Renfrew, Arbutus, and Macdonald, and here are, by contrast, Commercial, Fraser, and Main, all around the same cross avenue (near but not at 16th).

The same is true of the east-west buses. The 99, 9, and 41 have better finances than the 49 and the 25. They also do better on passups, ranking 2nd, 11th, and 10th versus 1st, 3rd, and 4th in ridership. The 99 has much better finances than all other buses, which can be chalked to its overcrowding, but ultimately comes from continuous intense development all over Broadway making it a prime corridor. 41st has some of this development as well: here is how a strip of it looks close to the cross street I live on. Compare this with 49th and King Edward around the same cross street. This is not cherry-picked: 49th and King Edward just aren’t commercial streets, and even where they act as important cross streets such as at Cambie there’s not much development there. Of course 4th does have this commercial development and is almost as expensive as 49th and King Edward, but its commercial development is discontinuous, and the relatively intense section between Granville and Balsam is short enough that people can walk it.

So what this means for transit-friendly development is that it should not worry about anchoring, but instead try to encourage short trips on local transit. In his original post about Vancouver’s anchoring, Jarrett says of Marine Drive, at the southern edge of Vancouver proper, “From a transit efficiency standpoint, it would be a good place for some towers.” This is not good transit: from the perspective of both costs and ridership any residential development south of Broadway in which people take the bus downtown is equivalent, so might as well put it immediately south of Broadway or at King Edward, 41st, or 49th to connect with the east-west bus routes and let people live closer to work. Commercial development, too, is best placed short of downtown, because if it’s on Marine Drive people will drive to it whereas if it’s along the blocks immediately south of Broadway many won’t.

Better would be to do what Vancouver hasn’t done, and encourage medium-intensity development all over the major corridors, of the kind that exists on Commercial, Fraser, Main, and 41st and allows their respective bus routes to serve productive short trips, generating low costs without excessive crowding. Towers on Marine Drive, to the extent that their inhabitants would even use transit instead of driving, would clog all the north-south buses. Mixed-use medium-rise development running continuously along Arbutus (which already has an abandoned rail corridor that could make a relief light rail line if the Canada Line gets too crowded) and the major east-west corridors would have the opposite effect, encouraging local trips that wouldn’t even show up at the most crowded point of the line. I’ve argued before that this urban layout is good for walkability, but it appears to also be good for surface transit productivity.

This is also relevant to upzoning around SkyTrain stations. There has not been so far any upzoning around Cambie, even though the Canada Line has been in operation for 3.5 years and was approved for construction over 8 years ago, but there will be some very soon. Vancouver’s draft plan, as shown on PDF-pages 26-27, permits 4 floors of residential development on the cross streets with the stations, 6 on Cambie itself, and between 6 and 12 with mixed use near the stations themselves. Continuous commercial development will be permitted only on Cambie between 41st and 49th. This will be of some use to the east-west buses because there will be more destinations at Cambie, but it will not create the same variety of small destinations available on Main, Fraser, 41st, Commercial, and Broadway, not without further upzoning near intersections that are nowhere near SkyTrain. It’s better than the towers of the Burnaby stations, but it’s still not very good. There is commercial upzoning near Marine Drive, but that can’t be very transit-oriented given the location, and it can’t do much for north-south bus productivity since in the nearby neighborhoods car ownership is high.

It’s too late to change the rezoning plan to permit more linear commercial development on the cross streets, but it’s possible to do better when Vancouver gets around to building Broadway SkyTrain. On Broadway itself, general intensification, allowing more residential density and replacing residential-only zoning with mixed-use zoning, should suffice. There is continuous commercial development from east of Cambie to west of Arbutus, with a two-block gap to Macdonald, and a one-block gap between Macdonald and Alma; both gaps are within a few hundred meters of the cross streets and can be closed easily. The Alma-Sasamat gap on 10th is probably too hard, though. The Arbutus-Macdonald gap on 4th can also be closed, though those blocks are nearly a kilometer from where the stations would be. But it’s as important to allow commercial zoning extending as far south as possible on the major north-south streets, especially Arbutus. Continuous mixed-use zoning should extend at least as far as 16th, and maximum residential density should be at a minimum 4 floors and ideally 6, as Arbutus, Macdonald, and 16th are very wide and the intersections feel out of scale to the current 1-story development.

Of course, this principle of design is true only of urban transit, both surface and rapid. Once the stop spacing increases to regional rail levels, it is no longer feasible to have continuous commercial development, and usually the street networks of the different suburbs are separate anyway without continuous arterials. In all cases it’s important to allow commercial zoning around stations, but the spiky development characteristic of the Expo and Millennium Lines becomes a better idea the longer the stop spacing is. Endpoint anchoring also becomes more justifiable at near-intercity scales, such as New York-New Haven or Boston-Providence: the fares are closer to proportional to distance, and also neither New Haven nor Providence is sprouting suburbs at such scale and distance that it’s justifiable to extend Metro-North or the MBTA with their usual stop spacing past those cities. But at the scale of urban transit, or even inner regional rail, the natural endpoint of a line is not a secondary anchor, and transit agencies should control peak-to-base ratios by commercial upzoning along corridors and near many stations outside the CBD rather than by making people ride transit kilometers longer than would be necessary if the zoning were different.

Transit and Place

There is a large class of transit supporters who think that every right-of-way that can be used for transit should be preserved for this purpose, even if it is not very useful. A few overzealous railfans on the message boards opposed the opening of the High Line park and wanted the viaducts to be used for an extension of the 7 train. This is extreme and nowadays the transit activists I know support the High Line while opposing schemes to recreate it in an inferior context. But even serious bloggers like Cap’n Transit, Ben Kabak, and John Morris are opposing plans to create a Low Line out of the abandoned trolley terminal at the Essex/Delancey subway stop, on the grounds that it could be useful for transit one day.

Now, it’s possible that the Low Line idea is bad because people would not want to go to an underground park. But it’s not a problem for transit; the Williamsburg Bridge doesn’t need trolleys since it has a subway running on (and because the bridge is high there is no way a bus could cross it without passing within two blocks of Marcy, the subway stop at the Brooklyn end of the bridge). The lines running on it are in fact underused: as can be seen on PDF-pages 65-73 of the latest Hub Bound Travel Data report, peak-hour traffic on the J/M/Z entering the Manhattan core was one of the lower in the system as of 2010 – higher than the bottom two track pairs (8th Avenue local and Montague) but in a near-tie for third lowest with several others. So there’s not much use for the trolley terminal as a modern Williamsburg Bridge bus (or trolley) terminal.

But what is more important than just the Low Line is place. To succeed, transit needs not only to exist, which it already does in the area in question, but also to have places to connect to. If for some reason the trolley terminal would need to be demolished to build room for foundations for several skyscrapers, it would be an unambiguous win for transit, since it would create more destinations for people to take the existing J/M/Z and F trains to. The surrounding neighborhood might disagree regarding the implications for urbanism, though I’d argue that Midtown-like skyscrapers would be better-integrated into the streetscape than the projects east and south of the station. If the Low Line succeeds as a park, it will be similar: not in the sense of providing jobs for tens of thousands of people, but in the sense of creating a place for people to go to. (In fact, a park has less peaky demand than offices, so it could be better for subway finances even at relatively low levels of usage.)

Last year, I brought up the question of the infrastructure’s highest value mainly as a way of deciding which kind of service (regional, intercity, etc.) should get first priority on any given rail line, but the same is true about transit versus place. In an area with enough transit and not enough place, it’s more important to create more development, for both good urbanism and more successful transit.

This does not mean every proposal to turn a rail right-of-way into a park is good. Despite my skepticism that the Rockaway Cutoff can be a successful rail line, I’m even more skeptical about its value as a park; it’s not in an area that can ever draw many people, since the density (of both residences and jobs) is not high by New York standards and it is far from other destinations that could draw people from outside the nearby neighborhoods. However, in areas that are lacking in good parks, or could use new development, it is better to concentrate on creating place.

For examples of this elsewhere, consider the railyards in Long Island City, Hoboken, and Sunnyside. Two of my earliest posts proposed to build a regional rail station in Sunnyside and then develop the area around it with air rights over the railyard; this is what should be done in an area that needs both transit and place. But in Hoboken and Long Island City, there’s ample transit, and the only use of the railyards is to park trains that can’t do to Manhattan because of lack of electrification or lack of capacity in the approach tunnels. Since parking trains is an inefficient use of space, and both areas have good connections to Manhattan by subway or PATH, there should be plans to remove the railyards and redevelop them to create more place, leaving just enough rail infrastructure to run through-trains, to be parked in lower-value areas. This development can be either parkland or buildings, depending on what is in demand in the area. Based purely on Google Earth tourism, I believe Hoboken does not need additional parks and so development there should be just a new secondary CBD on top of the PATH station, while Sunnyside and Long Island do, and so development there should include parks as well as high-density office and residential construction.

Instead of worrying about turning unused and for the most part unusable transit infrastructure into place, good transit activists should focus on preserving infrastructure that could potentially be used. In the New York area, probably the most useful piece of infrastructure that isn’t currently used is the Bergen Arches, allowing the Erie lines to enter Jersey City at Pavonia/Newport, a more central location than Hoboken; this is one of four options for a location for a new regional rail tunnel from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan, and is arguably the best option for an integrated regional rail network.

In the 1990s there were plans to reuse the Bergen Arches for a roadway, since modified to include both a road option and a rail option, and in 2011 the Christie administration allocated some money to further studies; an analysis from 2004 scored various road and transit options, not including a regional rail network, and gave the highest score to a roadway with a single high-occupancy vehicle and bus lane per direction. (A trail got the second lowest score, after no-build.) Since Jersey City (and the entire region) needs more transit from the north and west, while further formation of place will and should cluster around the waterfront, it’s important to fight any plan to give the Bergen Arches to a non-railroad use unless and until a regional rail plan is formulated that places the New Jersy-Lower Manhattan tunnel at another location.

In contrast, the Low Line should not be a priority. On the contrary, if the park plan is even partially sound, or the place could be reused as another place if the park idea fails, then good transit advocates should support the idea, since it’d be good urbanism. With a few exceptions, good transit requires good urbanism and vice versa.

Pedestrian Observations from New Haven

I don’t normally pedestrian-observe cities that I’ve been to so many times, and New Haven is the US city I’ve spent the most time in other than the two I’ve lived in. But my last visit, in which I looked at the closing time of each store and found it compares more favorably with Providence than I’d thought, led me to think why I have such a visceral response to New Haven’s urbanism.

The parking. It hurts. Providence’s Downcity has parking garages and surface lots, but it has nothing on New Haven there. New Haven’s Route 34 stubway is only an actual road for two and a half blocks west of State Street – 800 meters of actual freeway. Beyond that the full width of the block is occupied by a multistory parking deck for 250 meters, passing over York Street and making walking between downtown or most of Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital unpleasant. Farther out there are two full blocks, or 600 linear meters, of surface lots. On both sides, the parts of Route 34 used for moving cars are also flanked by surface lots.

Although Union Station is located outside city center, and the area immediately to its east is either empty or low-value, the station’s overflow parking lots are located between the station and downtown, on the downtown side of Route 34. There are special shuttles between the train station and the parking lots, and other shuttles between the train station and Yale. It makes Providence Station and Providence Place look like models of megaproject-city integration. To solve that particular problem, New Haven is proposing a circulator streetcar with practically no use other than a parking lot shuttle on rails.

Even inhabited buildings are often surrounded by immense amounts of surface parking. Immediately north of the elevated parking garage over York, there are several towers in parking lots. Even lower-rise housing is frequently surrounded by continuous parking; this is true of most blocks flanking State Street within walking distance of the State Street train station. What’s jarring is not just the percentage of space devoted to parking, but also the size of continuous parking lots; the more intact residential neighborhoods of both New Haven and Providence have small lots behind or between houses, rather than multiple continuous hectares of parking. It’s this preponderance of unlit parking that gives the city a post-apocalyptic feel.

Discounting the parking, the city is surprisingly monocentric. Most of the university and the secondary urban destinations cluster near downtown. Generally they’re west of the office towers – just far enough to avoid creating a true mixed-use neighborhood anywhere – but they’re theoretically within walking distance of everything. It’s not like the multiple cores of Providence and Cambridge. The upside is that Chapel Street doesn’t depopulate at 7 pm the way Downcity does; the downside is that it’s still nowhere as nice as Thayer or Wickenden Street and completely lacks their small cosiness.

It’s too bad, because there is a lot of usable space in New Haven that would make for great development, and also make the rest of the city more livable if built up. The individual buildings that aren’t recent urban renewal projects are fine; there just need to be more of them. Some, though by no means all or even most, of the pedestrian-hostility will go if Route 34 is removed as planned. But the current plans call for the first block removed to be 50% replaced with a parking garage. Moreover, there do not seem to be plans to tear the elevated parking garage over York, even though it’s York and not the streets intersecting the freeway proper that connects to the hospital.

The problem, I believe, comes from viewing freeway removal as yet another urban renewal program, on a par with one-way streetcar loops, sterile cultural centers, and other universal failures. It’s a preference for the iconic over the mundane that leads New Haven to spurn the idea of removing the freeway and the garage, not mandating any parking, and selling the land in small lots to allow for independent businesses.

Big things almost invariably present a blank street wall. It’s not impossible for big entities to coexist with reasonable urbanism – Brown’s own buildings aren’t the best, but they don’t prevent Thayer Street from more or less working – but big buildings in low-traffic areas do not. A skyscraper in a downtown area with enough demand for it will work – it can have retail in its first floor facing the street, as the Empire State Building does, and the adjacent blocks will also be able to supply urban amenities. A skyscraper surrounded by nothing will not. Neither, for that matter, will a four-story facility occupying half a block; those need to be somewhere, but New Haven has enough space for them already and has no reason to prefer them to blocks with multiple separate buildings owned by different entities.

The end result is that New Haven is likely to stay bad. The suburbanites think it has a shortage of parking; thus, the city builds more for them, instead of realizing that a city will always have a shortage of parking and if it is accused of something it might as well do it and cater to people who it can satisfy. It’s great for cars – even more of the region will be open to them to the exclusion of anyone who uses other modes of transportation. It’s just bad for people.

Destination Centralization

It’s by now a commonplace that jobs are more centralized than residences, in terms of CBD concentration. But what I think is worse-known is that destinations in general are incredibly centralized, both across and within metro areas. In other words, people from out of town, especially out of country, are more likely to visit the more central metro regions, and within those regions are more likely to visit city center.

For good examples, take tourist travel to Britain and France, both conveniently capital-centric for this discussion. London has 15.6 million annual international visitors, slightly more than its metro area population; Paris has 9.7 million, slightly less than its metro area population. Most secondary cities in both Britain and France don’t even come close: the same ratio in Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham ranges from one quarter to one half, and in secondary French cities is even lower, down to one ninth for Marseille. (Nice and Monaco, a specialized tourist region, punch above their weight; so does Edinburgh.) You can peruse the numbers and see that the same observation is true in a number of countries with one well-known global city, excepting those with a different region specializing in tourism.

For business travel specifically, one look at the distribution of four- and five-star hotels in a country and a metro region will show similar centralization. For example, consider the New York hotels shown on Five Star Alliance. Counting separately listed hotels in Connecticut, there are 56 five-star hotels, of which 50 are in Manhattan (mostly in Midtown), four in Fairfield County, and one each in Hoboken and Huntington. On hotels.com, there are 40 four-and-a-half- and five-star hotels; of those I can find information about 37, and of those 36 are in Manhattan and one is in White Plains. In Boston, Five Star Alliance shows 18 hotels, one in Cambridge and the rest in Back Bay and Downtown Boston; hotels.com shows 11, all downtown or in Back Bay. In Philadelphia, Five Star Alliance shows 8 and hotels.com 4 of which I can find information about 3, and in both cases all hotels are in Center City.

Let’s untangle what this means. Of course there’s a concentration of activity in Manhattan, Downtown Boston, and Center City. Just not that much. Manhattan has 22% of the jobs in Greater New York; it doesn’t have 50 in 56 jobs, or even 50 in 56 jobs that require commuting (it has 36% of jobs that involve out-of-county commuting).

I believe this boils down to a specialization of usages that attract visitors from far away. There is tourism in the Hamptons and the Jersey Shore, in the Poconos and the Hudson Highlands, in Vermont and Cape Cod. However, a huge fraction of it is local. I doubt anyone from California has ever visited the Northeast for the primary purpose of skiing in Vermont, unless it involved a corporate retreat with a lot of locals. The things that are special enough to attract people from far away are by definition uncommon. Moreover, unless those are obscure niches, they will be famous enough to have the resources to pay for prime location. They’ll cluster in the CBDs of the largest cities because everything else relevant to them is in the CBDs of the largest cities; the main factor that can break agglomeration economics, high cost, is less relevant to them.

It’s the same reason why CBDs so often host corporate headquarters, major law firms, and similar outfits. Once the cluster has been established, everyone wants to be in it, and as a result of competition, only the richest users, typically the ones with the most global networks (thus, most likely to bring in outside travelers), can afford it.

What this means for an intercity transportation network is that being located downtown has great value, even in very suburbanized metro areas. A station in the San Francisco CBD is more valuable than one in San Jose or Gilroy, and a station in Downtown Los Angeles is more valuable than one in the San Fernando Valley or Palmdale. The same is of course true of the intermediate cities, and this is why there’s a good reason to serve their downtowns rather than skirt them as the LGVs do. (Of course, there are other reasons – cost and noise – to not serve their downtowns. However, ignoring costs, the benefits are on the side of downtown stations, making a value engineering decision to avoid urban areas less obvious.)

This is one primary advantage of high-speed rail over flying: it gets you closer to your destination. To leverage that, operators make sure to locate their stations as close as practically possible to the CBD. In no place that I am aware of did HSR serve a city at a peripheral location, except when necessary for line geometry. Japan National Railways built Shin-Osaka because it was impossible for a through-line to get to Osaka Station above ground, and SNCF builds peripheral stations for small towns to avoid expensive urban construction; in neither case do trains pass by a CBD but stop elsewhere, and in both countries HSR builders make major effort when reasonably practical to serve city centers.

Transportation-Development Symbiosis

The RPA’s Regional Assembly has included the following idea submission: expand reverse-commuter rail service. The proposal calls for surveying city residents to look for the main available reverse-commuter markets, and for expanding reverse-peak service on the model of Metro-North. It unfortunately does not talk about doing anything at the work end – it talks about looking at where city residents could go to the suburbs on commuter rail, but not about which suburban job markets could be served from any direction.

I don’t want to repeat myself about what transit agencies have to do to be able to serve suburban jobs adequately (if “suburban” is the correct way to think of Providence and New Haven), and so I’m going to sound much harsher toward the idea than I should be. Suffice is to say that talking about development requires a lot of reforms to operating practices. With that in mind, let’s look at some suburban job centers in the Northeast: Providence, Stamford, Hicksville, New Haven. As can be seen, those stations all look very suburban, and even Providence is surrounded by sterile condos, with the mall located a short, unpleasant walk away. Compare this with the urbanity that one finds around major suburban train stations in Tokyo, such as Kokubunji and Tachikawa.

But really, the kind of development that’s missing around suburban train stations in the US is twofold. First, the local development near the stations is not transit-oriented, in the sense that big job and retail centers may be inconvenient to walk to for the pedestrian. And second, the regional development does not follow the train lines, but rather arterial roads, or, in cities with rapid transit, rapid transit lines – for example, one of Long Island’s two biggest edge cities, East Garden City, is diffuse and far from existing LIRR stations (the other, Mineola, is relatively okay).

In both cases, what’s missing is transportation-development symbiosis. Whoever runs the trains has the most to gain from locating major office and retail development, without excessive parking, near the train stations. And whoever owns the buildings has the most to gain from running trains to them, to prop up property values. This leads to the private railroad conglomerates in Tokyo, and to the Hong Kong MTR.

The same symbiosis can be done with government actors, but isn’t, not in the US, and the RPA’s attempts to change this and promote integrated planning have so far not succeeded. Hickville recently spent $36.4 million on a parking garage adjacent to the station plus some extra sum on expanding road access, but none of the relevant actors has made any effort to upzone the station area for commercial, to allow easier commuting. Providence is renovating the station, with pretty drawings, but doing far short of a redesign that would add development to the area.

The importance of this symbiosis, coming back to the original idea, is that the correct question to ask is not, “Where can city residents go to the suburbs to work?” but rather “Which suburban and secondary-urban destinations can be adequately served by rail?” In all four Northeastern cities under discussion, there is more than one direction from which commuters could come. From the commuter railroad’s perspective, a rider who takes the train in the traditional peak direction but gets off in a suburb short of the CBD is a free fare, just like an off-peak rider or a reverse-peak rider.

The task for regional planners (as opposed to service planners and railroad managers) is then a combination of the following priorities:

1. As noted above, ensuring edge city and secondary CBD development is both close to train stations and easily accessible by pedestrians.

2. Aggressively upzoning near potential station sites, with an eye for junctions, such as Sunnyside, Secaucus, and New Rochelle.

3. Examining where people working in secondary centers are living, and which rail lines could be leveraged to serve them and where new construction would be needed. For example, Providence could use rail to Woonsocket and the East Bay and more local service to Cranston and Warwick, but reviving the tunnel to the East Bay could be expensive and needs to be studied carefully. Note that north of South Attleboro, there are very few people living near the Providence Line working in Providence, and so reverse-peak service is useful mainly in the original sense of people reverse-commuting from Boston, in contrast with service to Massachusetts suburbs of Providence such as Seekonk.

The problem with doing all three is political: current regional rail traffic is dominated by suburbanites using it as an extension of driving into the city. This influences local thinking because the economics of residential development are not the same as those of commercial development. Agglomeration and density are less important. Transfers and long access distances are more acceptable. People traveling within the suburb go toward the station in the AM peak rather than away from it, and so parking availability is more important. Take all of these together and you get a powerful constituency supporting continuing to choke suburban train stations with parking and sterile development for city-bound commuters, no matter how many tens of thousands of jobs are nearby.

This is why some symbiosis is necessary. One way to do it is via market mechanisms: if a well-capitalized company gets ownership of the transit infrastructure and is free to develop with few zoning constraints, it could decide to build office towers in Hicksville on top of the train station, or develop the empty lots near New Haven and Providence. This is possible, but may well be too hard politically, even more so than direct zoning reform, because every trope used by the community to oppose the changes (namely, fear of outsiders) would apply and also there would be explicit loss of control.

The other way is the public way, which is where integrated planning comes in. Even on the level of intransigent railroads, it may work if all done together. In other words, there would be simultaneous effort to add reverse-peak service on the LIRR and the MBTA, upzone surrounding station areas and make them more walkable at the expense of some parking spaces, direct major developments such as malls and office complexes to the resulting TOD, and integrate local transit with the changed commuter service in all directions.

But whatever is done, it’s critical to integrate the two functions, of transportation and development. There’s no need for an overarching bureaucracy to take care of it all, even – just cooperation between regional planners, local planners, and transit managers. Transit needs thick markets, and if all development outside the primary CBD is diffuse and auto-oriented, there will not be any thick markets for it to serve. A transit revival necessarily requires new markets, and this means going after what are now hopelessly auto-oriented suburbs. And what needs to be done is not just figuring out where new service is required or where car-free urbanites commute to, but also what kind of TOD can be done at each secondary job center.

Providence: The Quiet Revival

Rustwire’s recent article about Providence, and a less recent article on the Urbanophile, have made me think about Providence’s growth. The Urbanophile comes strongly on the side of the power of its coziness; Rustwire takes the opposite track, talking about redevelopment and about the problems of the current recession, which has hit Rhode Island particularly hard.

With the caveat that I’m familiar mainly with the East Side, let me say that the redevelopment is unimpressive. Providence doesn’t look like it’s booming (in reality, its metro area income growth is high), and the city itself is very poor. That said, it doesn’t look very poor – not just on the East Side, which is solidly upper middle-class, but also near downtown. Downcity has a lot of urban renewal hell, but it doesn’t look especially bad.

To me the contrast is with New Haven, a city I’ve visited many times over the last few years, and there’s simply no competition. Although New Haven’s Chapel Street is busier and livelier during than anything I’ve seen in Providence, away from it the city looks post-apocalyptic (and even then, Thayer Street generally stays open later than Chapel). Yale student housing is in glorified project towers surrounded by too much parking, and a never-completed freeway stub and elevated parking structures cut off the main campus from the medical center. Providence has its share of freeways slicing neighborhoods apart, but the East Side managed to avoid them, and its housing stock is normal buildings, developed by different individuals over hundreds of years. Perhaps this better urban integration is why despite being poorer than New Haven, Providence maintains lower crime rates, echoing Jane Jacobs’ points about safety.

In other words, Providence is starting from a much better base than peer cities, though, going purely by income, nearly all secondary Northeastern cities are growing fast. The issue is not that Providence is rebranding itself as the Renaissance City, or Creative Capital. It’s that it was messed up less than other cities. Worcester has almost nothing next to the train station. New Haven has housing projects that I know people who are afraid to walk through. Providence has sterile condos and a mall, but next to them are some nice secondary shopping streets, and beyond them, in the right directions, lies intact urbanism, on the East Side and in Federal Hill.

If anything, most relevant government policy even in recent decades has hurt city walkability. In the 1980s, the city moved the railroad tracks north of the river, severing them from the East Side Railroad Tunnel. Simultaneously, it built Providence Place Mall and today’s train station, covering what used to be elevated track. The project was meant to remove an eyesore from downtown, but instead just moved the station to a more inconvenient location, and the mall sucked retail out of Downcity streets. Even what Rustwire calls highway removal was really a realignment: the I-195 river crossing was moved to a more southerly location since the old route was not up to the latest design standards, and this also happened to move the freeway farther away from Downcity and reunite it with the previously-isolated Jewelry District. There’s nothing wrong with that realignment, but it’s the kind of project Robert Moses would’ve supported.

On top of this, the attitude toward economic development is just embarrassing. Last year, I went to a meeting featuring smartphone app writers who claimed that “Providence is like a startup,” without a shred of irony about using this word to refer to a 17th-century city. A representative from the city government talked about the subsidies the city is paying to young entrepreneurs to just come live here.

And still the revival continues. Rhode Island may have one of the highest unemployment rates in the US today, but income growth is high; things are slowly getting better. The most visible growth in the US is in population rather than income, and so the usual markers are new housing starts, new infrastructure, and a lot of “coming soon” signs. Providence of course doesn’t have much of this. Instead, people are getting richer, slowly. RISD students occasionally go down the hill to Downcity (though Brown students don’t, since Brown’s campus is much higher uphill).

Economic growth in the richest countries is slow enough that people don’t perceive it. Instead, they think it’s the domain of countries that are catching up, such as China, where it’s so fast it includes new construction and the other markers that signify population growth in the first world. In the long run, it matters that a city’s income grows 1.8% a year rather than 1.1%, but it’s not visible enough to be captured by trend articles until long after the spurt of growth has started.

Macrodestinations and Microdestinations

In her book Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs complains that freeways as built are good at getting people to macrodestinations (downtown) but not microdestinations (particular addresses within city center). In her example from Toronto, this is correct, but in general, each mode of transportation will be good at serving microdestinations in an urban form that’s suited for it. Cars are not good at serving an intact city center; but equally, transit is not good at serving suburban sprawl, and regional rail that’s not integrated with urban transit is not good at serving urban destinations away from immediate train stations.

The idealized job center in an auto-oriented city is the edgeless city. Even the edge city, as explained in Lang and LeFurgy’s now-paywalled article Edgeless Cities, is too dense, and becomes congested too quickly; indeed, Tysons Corner is infamous for its lunchtime rush hour conditions. Ideally, cars drive from low-density residences to low-density office parks, primarily on freeways but with fast arterial connections at both ends; the freeway network in the auto-oriented city serves an everywhere-to-everywhere set of origins and destinations.

In such an environment, transit can’t do well. The distance between suburban attractors is too great for an easy walk, and the roads are too wide and fast for a pleasant walk. Buses and trains can serve a general macrodestination (“Warwick Mall/CCRI”), but not individual microdestinations, not without splitting and cutting frequency to each destination or detouring and raising travel time. The buses serving Warwick Mall and CCRI have hourly frequency, and are a long, uncomfortable walk from the hotel in Warwick I needed to go to. Judging by the frequency, I’m not the only person who chose not to use them, and take a taxi instead; everyone who has a car or who isn’t extremely price-sensitive does. The only way transit can serve such a destination is by concentrating development near the station – in other words, making a mini-transit city in the sea of sprawl, which generally conflicts with the goal of easy station parking.

In a city, the opposite situation exists. It’s easy to just pronounce transit more suited to dense city centers than driving, but the situation is more complicated. Transit, too, thrives on good connections to microdestinations. It can’t serve employment that’s dense but evenly dispersed in a large area – people would need too many transfers, and the result would be service that’s on paper rapid and in reality too slow. Instead, it works best when all destinations are clustered together, in an area not many subway stations in radius.

In this view, one failure of urban renewal is its failure to recognize that most people who visit city centers are going to do a lot of walking, and amenities should make it easier rather than harder. Traditional urban renewal would build cultural centers and other projects at the fringe of the CBD, to help its growth: Lincoln Center just north of Midtown, Civic Center just southwest of the San Francisco CBD, Providence Place and Providence Station just north of Downcity. In New York and San Francisco, there’s at least rapid transit serving those destinations, mitigating the effects. In Providence, no such thing exists. It’s an inconvenient walk from Kennedy Plaza to the mall and the train station – it’s not too long, but it crosses Memorial Boulevard right when it turns into a freeway on-ramp. Walking to the Westin, immediately adjacent to the mall, is practically impossible without rushing across roads without crosswalks. Even the walk between the station and the mall, which were built together and are close to each other, is much worse on the street than on a map, again involving crossing auto-centric roads.

Organic city amenities do not look like this. If they cluster at the same location (for example, 125th Street in New York, or Thayer Street in Providence), they tend to be along roads that facilitate rather than hindering pedestrian movement. And if they don’t, they are all located along a rapid transit network in its shared service area, where it is still a tight mesh rather than a network of radial lines.

In view of the recent emphasis on parking policy, due to Donald Shoup but now mirrored by other urban planning and transportation experts, the observation is that in any city center, on-site parking is difficult to find. Even in cities that make downtown parking relatively easy to get to, people can’t hope to park at every single microdestination, so instead they trip-chain, driving into the city and parking but going to multiple points within the city, all within a short and easy walking distance from one another. This is roughly the urban geography of the French Riviera, which combines easy parking with a dense, lively center in Nice and a fair amount of urbanity on some streets even in auto-oriented secondary cities such as Monaco and Menton.

The connection to regional rail is that, historically, it descends from intercity trains, and therefore the conception of connecting the suburbs to the city is very macrodestination-driven. To name two egregious American examples, the Boston’s north side lines and Caltrain both connect many suburbs to the city while also connecting people to the suburban tech job corridor, but in reality miss the biggest job centers at both ends. North Station is two subway stations north of the CBD, and as a result ridership underperforms the south side lines; 4th and King is far enough outside the Market Street CBD that it’s not close to the CBD jobs – the proposed Transbay Center site, which is, is located near more jobs than all existing Caltrain stations combined. And if microdestination-level service to an already transit-oriented CBD is bad, then service to other urban destinations is worse: urban station spacing is wide, there’s no attempt to develop near stations, and the poor integration with local urban transit ensures that even people who could be willing to make the last-mile transfer don’t.

Trip Chaining

Gendered Innovations’ charts of trip chaining and gender breakdown of public transit riders got me thinking about how different systems of transportation handle a mixture of short and long trips. Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities reports this and suggests that transit agencies orient physical features such as accessibility to the needs of women who trip-chain care and work trips.

But to me, the first observation is that although women trip-chain more, it doesn’t seem to be true that women are more likely to ride transit in the US than men just because of trip-chaining features. Instead, women traditionally have been less likely to have jobs requiring commuting, and the commute gap has been shrinking more slowly than the gap in employment.

This comes from the fact that trip chaining on transit is cumbersome in most cases. Both cars and transit have to deal with the time it takes to stop for an errand, but transit tends to handle this worse, unless it’s very frequent and has practically zero access and egress times. Transit cities instead get people to take their short errand trips on foot – since their neighborhoods are denser and have more mixtures of uses, they make retail and care trips attractive on foot. In light of the fact that walking is not useful for long commute trips and transit is not useful for short errands, we can construct the following typology of cities:

Long \ Short mode Foot, bicycle Car
Transit Transit-oriented Traditional suburban
Car New urbanist, small-town, auto-oriented dense Auto-oriented

Auto-oriented cities are the easiest: in those places, people drive for all purposes. Trip chaining can be done on a commercial arterial road, dropping off laundry or kids or buying something on the way to work, and because of ample parking availability, the time each additional link in the chain consumes is very small, since the longest access and egress time comes from navigating from the residential cul-de-sac to the arterial and from the arterial to the office park.

Traditional suburbs, common around New York and Chicago and sometimes in other old North American cities, are similar for trip-chaining purposes. In those areas, the urban form is suburban and auto-oriented, but work trips to the city are done by commuter rail or occasionally commuter bus, since the city is not as auto-friendly as the suburbs.

Transit cities too have their long-range commuter rail, but it is built as an extension of walking rather than of driving. Neighborhoods tend to have mixed uses, and there’s a concentration of retail development near the outlying stations, sometimes forming large secondary clusters but sometimes just acting as neighborhood centers. It could take considerable time to add more trips to one chain, especially if not everything is located at the train station. But conversely, the amount of time a single short trip takes is small, unlike the case for auto-oriented cities – the supermarket is right around the corner, and within five minutes’ walk are plenty of stores. When people walk, the concept of a single trip begins to lose meaning then. Potentially, every single purchase can be considered a separate trip, in which case the chaining becomes quite long.

In many places the transit is absent and people drive outside the neighborhood, while still doing errand trips on foot. This is the typology that characterizes different environments including new urbanism, traditional cities like Providence and Tel Aviv that have been made car-oriented, and auto-oriented modernist projects such as Co-op City. Those environments all differ in how trip chaining is done. In principle, it can be done on foot, but usually people who can drive do.

If my own experience is any indication, one feature of cities in this typology is that children and teenagers walk more. In Tel Aviv, my father drove me to elementary school on the way to work while (in later grades) I walked back, and I took the bus to and from middle school. Most trips my parents did in a car, but there was a reasonable number that were short enough to walk. I’d walk to farther destinations such as the cinema and the urban mall. The view of the North Tel Aviv middle and upper-middle class of the 1990s as I remember it is that the bus is fine for trips to school, but adults drive. I doubt I’d have had the same view if I’d grown up in New York, or for that matter in the Houston suburbs, where everyone drives or is driven.

Although most of the discussion about transit cities contrasts them with car-oriented cities, the other two typologies need to be examined, too. When adults and children trip-chain differently, children can get a distorted view of who transit is for (poor people, people who can’t drive yet), and the next generation will make the city auto-oriented; this is indeed what is happening in Tel Aviv, which despite population growth in the core is adding cars and spawning low-density suburbanization well outside the built-up urban areas.

Likewise, Cap’n Transit’s attacks on park-and-rides don’t quite capture what is wrong with the car/transit typology. A transit agency that wants to make it easier to trip-chain will want to concentrate development near the train stations, because that’s where it’s easiest to add minor trips without having to walk ten minutes out of one’s way. Of course in the middle of the dense city there’s development everywhere, which may well be orthogonal to where the subway is, but then trip-chaining becomes easier because each foot trip is so short.

The principle is that cars are a big one-time purchase but have a much lower marginal cost of usage. If one major class of trips can’t be done on transit – and chained trips generally can’t when they require the rider to wait for the next bus and the next bus will come in 15 minutes – then people will buy a car and then drive it even for trips they’d happily take transit to if they didn’t already own a car. The class of trips that can only be done conveniently by car needs to be kept small enough that people will use car share, take a taxi, or beg a friend who does own a car.

Thus what transit agencies and pro-transit politicians should devote more time to is appropriate development more than physical features of the transit system. Accessibility is important for so many reasons other than strollers. In contrast, the primary importance of using transit to extend the range of the pedestrian rather than provide a capacity boost for the car is precisely that transit needs minor trips to be doable on foot. A transit system that one needs to take to the supermarket may be technically successful, but it’s in a failed urban area.

Why Moynihan Station Has Negative Transportation Value

Amtrak has been making noises again about the need for Moynihan Station as a replacement concourse for Penn Station for Amtrak travelers, but makes it clear it does not want to pay almost anything for it. While former Amtrak President David Gunn withdrew from the project on the grounds that it would not increase track capacity, and another former president criticized the project for the same reason, today’s Amtrak is interested in the prospects of not sharing concourse space with commuter trains.

The irony is that what Amtrak perceives as the value of Moynihan Station is actually negative value. Penn Station already has a problem with concourse integration – different concourses have different train arrival boards, and different ticket-vending machines. The need to change concourses lengthens access time, in my experience by a minute or two. Right now, Amtrak has just gotten $450 million to increase top speed in New Jersey from 135 mph to 160 mph for a 24-mile stretch (150 under current regulations), for a time saving of 100 seconds (64 if only 150 mph is possible) minus acceleration and deceleration time. From my perspective as a passenger, the minute or two I lose every time I need to change concourses at Penn Station is worse than a minute or two spent on a train.

Separating the concourses completely is even worse when it comes to access and egress times. In comments on Second Avenue Sagas, Jim (who comments here as well) says that the move one block to the west is not too bad for intercity travelers, because to get to Midtown hotels, people would take the E anyway. However, people who live in New York and wish to travel elsewhere, or people who visit but do not stay at Midtown hotels, are likelier to take the 1/2/3, and Amtrak as well as local Moynihan Station boosters want them (us) to need to travel an extra crosstown block to travel. That’s 3 extra minutes of access time; at current costs, how many extra billions would have to spent to save them on the train?

Even the stated purpose of Moynihan Station, bringing people to the city in grandeur, fails. The building is a former post office rather than a train station; its former main entrance (still leading to the post office – thanks to Jim for the clarification) requires people to climb stairs. There are planned to be step-free entrances, but those remove much of the neo-classical grandeur.

From the perspective of intercity rail passengers, the biggest problem with Penn Station is the tracks and track access. The platforms are narrow, and visibility is obscured by columns, staircases, escalators, and elevators. But even what exists is not used to its fullest extent. Although Amtrak checks all passengers’ tickets on board, it also conducts a prior check at the station, funneling all passengers through just one access point and lengthening the boarding process. It’s possible to go around the check by boarding from the lower concourse, but Amtrak trains are not posted there, requiring passengers to loiter on the upper concourse, see what track the train arrives on (information which is typically posted only 15 minutes before departure), and scramble. As a result of the convoluted boarding process, Regional trains dwell 15 minutes at Penn Station, and Acela trains dwell 10 minutes. Many of those minutes could be saved by just better station throughput.

If more infrastructure is needed, it is not a separate passenger concourse, but better platforms and platform access. Some of the platforms – namely, the southern ones, hosting New Jersey Transit trains but not Amtrak trains – have too few access points, and require additional staircases and escalators.

More radically, platforms may need to be widened, at the expense of the number of tracks. This is one of the advantages of regional rail through-running, though in reality, even today clearing a full rush-hour commuter train is fast enough (about 1.5-2 minutes on the LIRR) that at least the LIRR could stand to have tracks paved over and still have enough terminal capacity for its current needs; New Jersey Transit, which has fewer tracks and trains with worse door placement and smaller vestibules, may have problems, but Amtrak doesn’t use its regular tracks because they do not connect eastward.

Amtrak’s history with Moynihan Station is especially telling about the company’s priorities. Clearly, Moynihan is not a priority – that’s why Amtrak says it has no money for it, and that’s why Gunn removed it from the company’s list of projects. The biggest supporters of Moynihan are local boosters and developers, who want the extra retail space. The planned expenditure on the project is $14 billion: $2 billion in public money for the train station, the rest in private money for development around it. The family of Daniel Moynihan is a strong backer of a monument named after the late Senator. It is not surprising that a project whose benefit goes entirely to power brokers and not to transportation users is backed by the locals the most: Amtrak and federal agencies may be dysfunctional, but they are models of efficiency compared to the local governments in the US.

However, Amtrak is incapable of saying no to monuments and megaprojects that it thinks will benefit it. More crucially, it will argue for their construction. Its symbiotic relationship with local governments seems to be, we’ll support your boondoggles if you support ours. Today’s Amtrak is not Gunn’s Amtrak, but the Amtrak that fired Gunn for refusing to defer maintenance in order to boost on-paper profitability.

Moynihan Station represents a failing of not only transportation planning, but also urban planning. More than any other project in New York, it brings back my original analogy between today’s urban boosterism and the modernist suburbanism of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. The project’s backers tell us a story: Penn Station was a magnificent edifice destroyed by thoughtless planners, and now we must repair the damage and restore style to passenger railroad travel. Since they base their conception of infrastructure on moral and aesthetic claims, which always seem to coincide with what gives them more money and kudos, they do not care whether the project is beneficial to users, and find the preexisting situation self-evidently bad.

Because the argument for Moynihan is entirely about the need for a grand, morally good projects, the backers spurn incremental improvement of what already exists, finding it so repulsive that it must be replaced no matter what. This is quite similar to how some proponents of suburbanization opposed improving tenements on the grounds that it would detract from the purpose of razing them and sending their residents out to single-family houses.

For example, both Moynihan backers and New Jersey Transit have complained about lack of space for passenger circulation at Penn Station; in reality, IRUM‘s George Haikalis has computed that about half of the lower concourse’s space is used for Amtrak back offices and concessions rather than for passenger circulation. In reality, Penn Station’s low ceilings make the station appear cramped, but the concourses are still fairly functional, and even at rush hour the crowding level is normal by the standards of what I’ve seen at Paris’s Gare de Lyon and at Nice’s main station.

This interplay between bad local governance and federal agencies that coddle it is part of what caused Amtrak’s Vision plan to be so bloated. The single worst component, the new tunnels through Philadelphia, appear to come from Amtrak’s belief that the local officials want strict separation of high-speed and commuter train infrastructure, coming from the fact that the locally-designed Penn plan included such tunnels. And in New York, Amtrak’s proposed its own marked-up version of ARC, one that is not too much better than the cavern plan that was under construction. On a smaller scale, the Harold Interlocking separation, primarily a New York State project benefiting commuter rail riders, made it to Amtrak’s list of desired incremental improvements, and is now receiving funding earmarked to high-speed rail.

The only special trait distinguishing Moynihan from those other unnecessary or bloated projects is that it’s harmful to riders, rather than neutral or insufficiently beneficial. The main backers of the project do not care much for transportation users, but Amtrak should. It seems to believe that its passengers want to spend time sitting at its train stations as if they were airline lounges; nowadays, not even air travelers like spending time at airports, which is why such time-saving features as printing boarding passes at home are so popular. The only positive thing to say about the project is that the cost is so high relative to the effect on passengers that the return on investment is very close to zero, rather than the -4% figures seen for long-distance Amtrak projects. And I don’t think that “This project only has an ROI of -0.2%” is a valid argument for construction.