The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark
yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com
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With infill stations, older transit agencies extend their reach

» A new station on Boston’s Orange Line prepares for opening, but infill stations of its type are all too rare.

Want to know a secret? One of the best ways to increase transit ridership at a reasonable price requires little additional service. It requires no new line extensions. And it can be done to maximize the value of existing urban neighborhoods.

This magic solution comes in the form of the infill station–a new stop constructed along an existing line, between two existing stations. Next week, Boston’s MBTA transit agency plans to open a new stop, Assembly Station, along the Orange Line in Somerville, a dense inner-ring suburb just to the northwest of downtown Boston.

Assembly is the latest in a series of recent infill stations in the U.S. located along older heavy rail lines whose other stations were generally constructed decades ago. Washington, D.C.’s NoMa Metro Station opened in 2004; the San Francisco region’s West Dublin/Pleasanton BART Station followed in 2011. In Boston, new stations have been constructed along the upgraded commuter rail-becoming-regional rail Fairmount Corridor. And Chicago has had success with the opening of two infill stations in 2012, the Morgan Station in the city’s West Loop and the Oakton-Skokie Station in the northern suburbs.

Yet those expansions are exceptions to the rule. Two infill stations are currently planned in Northern Virginia, at Potomac Yard along the Metro in Alexandria and at Potomac Shores along the VRE commuter line, and one new station is under construction along the Green Line in Chicago.

But few other cities or transit systems are even considering the possibility of investing in infill stops, even as line extensions are proliferating around the country. That’s a big disappointment.

The advantages of infill stations result from the fact that people are simply more likely to use transit when they’re closer to it — and from the fact that the older transit systems in many cities have widely spaced stations that are underserving potentially significant markets. Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero, affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley, have demonstrated that people living or working within a quarter mile of a transit station produce about twice as many transit rides as people living or working more than half a mile away. In other words, with fewer stations on a line, the number of people willing to use public transportation as a whole is likely reduced.

Assembly Station, which has been in the works for several years, promises significant benefits — 5,000 future daily riders taking advantage of a 10-minute ride to the region’s central business district, at a construction cost of about $30 million. The station fits in the 1.3-mile gap between two existing stations and is the first new stop built along Boston’s T rapid transit network in 26 years. When combined with the $1.7 billion Green Line light rail extension planned for opening later this decade, 85 percent of Somerville’s residents will live within walking distance of rapid transit, up from just 15 percent today.

The cost-per-rider comparison between the two Somerville projects is indicative of the value offered by infill stations: While Assembly Station cost about $6,000 per rider served, the Green Line Extension will cost $38,000 per rider served — six times more. Both projects will provide benefits, but the cost-effectiveness of infill stations in terms of attracting riders is clear. While infill stations will reduce transit speeds to some extent, within reason the number of new riders they attract will more than make up for the change.

Assembly Station was made possible in part thanks to a $15 million contribution from Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is building a $1.5 billion mixed-use community adjacent to the station. This Assembly Row project will eventually include 2,100 housing units, 500,000 square feet of retail, and 1.75 million square feet of office space, in effect creating a transit-oriented mini-city in an area that was once home to an automobile plant and, after that, a strip mall.

The ingenious decision to combine the creation of a dense new development with a new transit station encourages the production of a virtuous cycle of more people living near transit who thus are more likely to use transit.

There are many other places throughout the country where there are similar opportunities for new infill stations. San Francisco’s BART studied a new subway station at 30th Street and the Mission years ago but has done little to act on the idea. Other cities have the physical conditions that are right for infill stations but little momentum to implement them. Portland’s light rail system, for example, has several long inter-station gaps: The distance between Lloyd Center and Hollywood/NE 42nd (east of downtown) is 1.7 miles, certainly long enough to justify a new station in between. In Atlanta, similarly, the gap between Arts Center and Lindbergh Center on the Red and Gold Marta lines is 2.7 miles, passing through a zone of potential redevelopment.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg; there are dozens of similar situations around the country.

Transit agencies looking for ways to maximize the use of their existing lines should look to literally fill the gaps between their existing stations. In doing so, they offer the opportunity to build additional ridership and spur redevelopment.

Image at top from MBTA.

A Call for Minimum Service Standards

» All across the country, transit agencies are opening new rail lines with inadequate service.

At $37 million for two miles of track, Salt Lake City’s new S-Line, sometimes referred to as the Sugar House Streetcar, was one of the cheapest rail transit projects recently completed in the United States, with per-mile costs equivalent to the typical bus rapid transit project. From a capital cost perspective, it’s a great success.

Too bad the S-Line is such a dud when it comes to ridership. According to recent data from the local transit system, the project is serving fewer than 1,000 riders a day, far fewer than the 3,000 expected for the project. One explanation is that the short route doesn’t attract many people. Another is that the line’s frequency is simply too low to convince people to orient their lives around it.

The thing is, providing new rail lines isn’t enough — service standards really matter when it

Continue reading A Call for Minimum Service Standards »

When transit service is substandard, can we plan for capital expansion?

» New Orleans fantasizes about new streetcar routes as its buses barely make the grade.

Public transportation expenditures are typically divided into two buckets: One for operations expenditures — the money that goes primarily to pay the costs of gas, electricity, and driver labor — and the other for capital investments, which sometimes means maintenance but often means new vehicles and system expansions. Because of the way in which these two buckets are funded, a transit agency that may be in dire straights in terms of paying for system expansions may be providing excellent, well-funded daily services. Or the opposite could be true. This is a consequence of the fact that federal transportation grant support, and also often local system revenues, are required to be spent in one of the two areas, with little ability to transfer funds between them. The division between capital and operations funding produces some strange dynamics

Continue reading When transit service is substandard, can we plan for capital expansion? »

What kind of TOD can occur around Dulles Metro?

» Washington’s Silver Line opened to acclaim. It is already being hailed as the pedestrian-oriented transformer for the suburban Tysons business district, but the project may not create walkable, urban neighborhoods.

After years of talk, the Washington Metro was expanded by more than 11 miles last month, finally connecting it to Tysons, a suburban, auto-oriented business district in the heart of Fairfax County, Virginia. The new Silver Line that will make the connection via the existing Orange and Blue Line trunk through downtown Washington is expected to serve 25,000 daily boardings at five new stations, providing service every six minutes at rush hours and 12 to 15 minutes off peak. A second phase of the more than $5 billion project will add another 11.5 miles and extend into Loudoun County, via Dulles Airport, in 2018.

This first phase is very significant from the perspective of expanded rapid transit service; it is the second-lengthiest single line opening in the history

Continue reading What kind of TOD can occur around Dulles Metro? »

For London, one Crossrail isn’t enough

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» There are another four years to go before Crossrail 1 opens, but consultation is advancing quickly on Crossrail 2. London is ready for more fast cross-town links.

As Paris begins construction on a massive new program of circumferential metro lines designed to serve inter-suburban travel, London has doubled down on its efforts to improve links within the center of the metropolitan area. The two approaches speak to the two regions’ perceived deficiencies: Paris with its inadequate transit system in the suburbs, London with a core that is difficult to traverse.

There’s one thing both cities deem essential, though: Much faster transit links to reduce travel times around each respective region. In London, that means growing support for additional new tunneled rail links designed to bring suburban commuters through the center city while speeding urban travelers.

Since the conclusion of the second World War, London’s Underground network has grown very slowly: The Victoria Line was added in 1968

Continue reading For London, one Crossrail isn’t enough »