Evaluating the Highway-Transit Compromise

» The choice of highway right-of-ways is more likely an indication of political expediency than of sound planning practice.

There are both good and bad things about placing public transportation in highway right-of-ways: doing so saves on construction costs and it speeds up trains, but it also reduces the potential for transit-oriented development around stations, which are typically, by nature of the adjacent freeway, isolated from the surrounding city. But there’s something amiss in arguing that it is acceptable to build light rail in freeways, the solution picked by Portland for its new Green Line — doing so fails to acknowledge the underlying political rationale for picking highway right-of-ways.

Indeed, Portland’s choice of the I-205 corridor for its new rail service was practically inescapable. The right-of-way had been reserved for a transit corridor 30 years before as a compromise — the community would accept a new freeway as long as in return they got a transit line alongside it. This compromise was no aberration from the norm: transit agencies all over the States have chosen to get in bed with highway planners and advocate for projects that are mutually beneficial. Los Angeles’ Green Line was built in the median of the Century Freeway to dilute community opposition; Denver’s T-Rex, critiqued so persuasively by Jeff on the Overhead Wire, follows I-25 and I-225 because the local transit agency worked together with the state DOT, which wanted to expand and renovate the existing freeway.

Today, a similar project is being planned in Charlotte: there is nothing rare about highway and transit interests working together to fulfill their respective objectives. To make matters worse, transit and highway lobbies are dependent on one another because of the makeup of the U.S. Congress.

This not to suggest that there is never a case to be made for using a freeway’s path to route a transit system; in Portland’s case, it is likely that there was no other corridor available for a light rail line, so the question was whether to have transit at all rather than whether to put it along I-205. And yet it remains true that stations located along highway corridors have trouble producing the kind of dense, pedestrian-oriented development often seen around rail systems running in their own rights-of-way. More often than not, these stops are far more focused on serving the automobile driver; it isn’t surprising that all but one station on both the Los Angeles Green Line and the Denver T-Rex project have park-and-ride lots attached — all free for local drivers.

The willingness of transit agencies to play along with state DOTs and other highway interests in choosing to promote new lines along improved or new highways compounds the problems facing public transportation systems in the U.S. If a transit line’s construction is conditional on the completion of a highway project, it will be competing with a roadway that is made even easier for the typical commuter to use. While drivers are provided access to an expanded freeway connected directly to their neighborhood streets (and therefore their homes), transit users must walk to inconvenient, uncomfortable stations located either in highway medians or on one side of the road. Is there any surprise that American cities have trouble attracting transit users, even after we spend billions building new lines?

Without a doubt, there are some routes where a transit-needy population must be served, but where a new line can only be placed along a highway corridor. But new projects that are joined with highway construction or expansion are suspect because their potential to attract more users will always be limited by the improvements offered to drivers.

16 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Jeffrey Bridgman

    True.
    If someone has gone the trouble to drive to the local transit stop, they still have the last mile problem on the other end. Why would you park and ride a train, when you’re already at the interstate? Why not just get on and drive (unless traffic is horrible enough for train to be significantly beneficial)…

  • The kind of dedicated transport corridor that is most suited to being built in a pre-allocated right of way along a highway is interurban rail, precisely because the station spacings are sufficiently far apart that it can be designed to leave the highway for the station.

    The second most suitable would seem to be a Rapid Streetcar, moving express between fairly widely spaced stations along the highway and then leaving the highway to operate in Streetcar mode through a target destination zone.

    Traditional local all-stops light rail is most poorly served by the placement, with the best alignment likely along on side with a walkable half-circle and a park and ride connected to the pedestrian subway to the other side of the highway.

    And so the most common seems to be a median light rail system, close to the worst of all possible dedicated transport corridors along highways.

  • Andrew

    After using the light rails in Denver and Phoenix, I am really starting to envy older cities with true rapid transit lines separated from automobiles.

    They could elevate the highway and put rapid transit at grade. I know elevated highways are generally undesirable; however, rapid transit would create an interesting pedestrian realm.

  • Andrew, nothing under an elevated highway is an interesting pedestrian realm.

  • Alon –
    I disagree… East River esplanade is going to be pretty cool.

  • EngineerScotty

    What about the Chicago Skyway? Get the cars up high enough…

  • simple

    There are no interesting pedestrian realms under the Chicago Skyway, unless generally dingy underpasses qualify as interesting. The very high bridge part goes over industrial land and a ship channel (nary a pedestrian to be found), while the remainder is on earthen embankment immediately adjacent to a wide freight/Amtrak railway corridor also on earthen embankment. Most if not all of the underpasses do at least have sidewalks. That’s about the best that can be said for it!

  • Yonah, we’ll see about that. Right now the real-life examples in New York of development near highways includes sketchy parking lots on 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn, pure blight near the Cross-Bronx, and an inaccessible bike path on the wrong side of the West Side Highway.

  • Nathanael

    The only examples of “interesting” development under an elevated road *or* railroad have been when *buidlings* were built under them. Once you’re indoors, it barely matters what’s whirring over your head.

    The old brick-arch Victorian viaducts in England were particularly good for tucking businesses inside (perhaps their thickness insulated the businesses from overhead traffic vibration better than other designs).

  • Adirondacker

    inaccessible bike path on the wrong side of the West Side Highway.

    There’s a right side to the West Side Highway? I imagine it would be pretty inaccessible if it’s up on the elevated. 12th Ave generally leaves a lot to be desired. which is the wrong side or the right side of 12th to put the bike lanes would depend a lot on what you want to use the bike lane for.

  • Andrew

    In Phoenix an elevated highway would provide valuable shade for pedestrians.

  • There’s a right side to the West Side Highway?

    Yes, the side that contains almost all of Manhattan…

  • Cameron Slick

    The Orange Line subway stop at a freeway in Montreal (not downtown) is somewhat interesting. There are a few old buildings and well-shaded cafes that benefit from the noisy, relatively ugly viaduct.

    In St. Paul, the Central Corridor LRT was considered to be used in the Interstate-94 median. It would have been a terrible idea because it would have induced little development and would not have been planned with any freeway expansion. All the overpasses, which were built in the late 60’s and designed to last at least 60 years.

    University Avenue, while problematic, is quite wide and urbane.

  • As the author of the post to which you´re responding, I don´t really disagree with your assessment of current and recent history surrounding US transit development. But I´m just not very interested in that, and when you advocate using that history to constrain our current ideas about the possible, you risk sounding reactionary.

    You´re not alone; the North American transit blogosphere is full of people saying “x is a bad idea because cities that have done that weren´t really trying to make it work, or were really serving some other agenda.” I hear that all the time about BRT. Should we really not do X solely because our parents´ generation did X badly or disingenuously? I think that argument gives our parents too much power.

    Twenty or even ten years from now, nobody but transit wonks will care about the politics that led to how something got built. They´ll care whether it works for their own lives and for the city they´re building then, and their sense of possibility will almost certainly be broader than ours can be now.

    That´s why I illustrated my post with an example from Berlin, where high value and high density real estate does happen on freeway+transit corridors. Not because that´s how it will happen in an American city, but to show some sense of the range of what´s possible if we have the courage to look beyond our history, which to me is an essential part of any planner´s task.

  • Yonah !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I find Jared’s comment to be pretty interesting. It isn’t courage to advocate what he advocates. Frankly, it’s pretty old. And the lessons of failure are pretty clear. He misses the key point of difference, promoting monocentric or compact transit-supportive development vs. polycentric automobile-supportive and -dependent development.

    The planning for the Washington subway in the 1960s followed the exact philosophy espoused in the Human Transit blog entry. They planned to pair freeway construction with rapid rail construction. I have some great planning reports from the early 1960s that I have found in antique stores and bookstores over the years that sadly lack drawings, but discuss the planning. (Of course, it’s also discussed in _Great Society Subway_.)

    Now some of the freeways weren’t built (I-70 into DC to Union Station, paralleling the red line; I-95 into the city from Greenbelt to Fort Totten station) and some were (I-66 in Northern Virginia).

    The lessons are pretty clear though. And this is the flaw in Jared’s argument and understanding. Transit, to spur use and compact land use development, needs to be integrated into communities and neighborhoods, and link activity centers relatively efficiently. Freeways are designed to support polycentric land development, which by its very nature, is anti-transit.

    Building a transit line on a freeway doesn’t change the underlying conditions or land use and transportation-mobility paradigm of polycentrism. Hence a failure of transit on a freeway to have much positive use and impact–and use–which then others use to justify not investing further in transit.

    The aforementioned corridors in the Washington region…. well, I-66+transit vs. transit in Arlington County (the County said rather than put the subway in the freeway, put it under Wilson Blvd.) demonstrates the ability to integrate transit and land use planning in positive ways. Arlington is thriving while the Orange Line stations in Fairfax County have had extremely limited positive impact in the way that we expect.

    Similarly, the red line and green line stations planned to be in areas with freeways show the impact of having transit stations placed in compact development vs. suburban development settings. For the most part, closer in red line stations do much better, and for the most part, the green line stations from Fort Totten to Greenbelt are underutilized–even though the PG Plaza site is being massively intensified, but in a more suburban less urban “style” even if at urban densities, and with the College Park station, serving the UMD campus, albeit indirectly by long walk or bus.

  • For anyone who hasn’t read Steve Belmont’s _Cities in Full_ (including Jared), I highly recommend it.

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