» A recommendation from the Urban Land Institute suggests pulling a proposed rail line out of a highway and onto a neighborhood street.
Take one trip on the Dan Ryan branch of Chicago’s Red Line and you’ll be convinced of the perils of locating transit stations in the medians of fast-moving expressways. Getting to stops is hard enough: It usually requires crossing first a huge intersection featuring cars hopping on and off the freeway; then, on too small of a sidewalk you’re required to bridge over several lanes of rushing traffic below. Once you’re finally on the platform, though, the situation may be worse: Cars are whizzing by at high speeds — producing tremendous noise and emitting nauseating pollutants — on both sides of the track. It’s certainly not a welcoming experience.
Fundamentally, standing there at a station waiting for a train makes you feel like you are a second-class citizen — at least in comparison to those speeding past in their private vehicles. And any pedestrian-oriented development generation transit investments sometimes attract is quickly turned away by these highway-adjacent locations, as illustrated by the prominent siting of a gas dispensary nearest to the station in the photograph above. Thus for cities hoping to attract increasing patronage and denser land uses, repeating station design examples such as those found in some parts of the Windy City should be a no-go.
From this perspective, the recommendations provided by the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Daniel Rose Center this week to the City of Charlotte were enlightening. Selected by the national organization for special study this year, Charlotte’s civic community was offered a number of suggestions for the renovation and widening of Independence Boulevard, which stretches southeast from the city’s downtown. Rather than extend a light rail line or a busway down the road’s median, as current local transit plans promote, the study group argued that an investment in streetcar lines paralleling the route on two much smaller streets would be more effective in encouraging transit-oriented development and refurbishing the city’s southeast side — its least affluent. The streetcar routes would extend into downtown and use the 1.5-mile starter corridor on Trade Street that received funding from the federal government and which is expected to open in 2015.
Public transportation offerings on the highway would be reserved for long-distance service in the form of express buses, not the sort of inner-city mobility provided by light rail or bus rapid transit.
The transit line that would, and could still, run down Independence Boulevard — the 13.5-mile Silver Line — has been identified as a bus rapid transit corridor, though community residents have argued that they deserve light rail service similar to that currently provided on the Blue Line, which opened in 2007. Decisions on mode have been delayed repeatedly because of a lack of funding for the project and a focus on extending that rail line to the northeast, though even that project is being cut short thanks to budget shortfalls.
The basic assertions of the ULI group are sound from the viewpoint of urban design. By building new streetcar lines north of the freeway on Central Avenue (already being planned by the city, albeit without funding) and south of the freeway on Monroe Road, the fixed transit service would reach into the core of the neighborhoods they are meant to serve, rather than their peripheries, as would be the case if the bus or rail were concentrated on Independence Boulevard. This would, in turn, encourage automobile-oriented uses to stay in their place — near the highway — and encourage pedestrian uses on the much smaller roads where the trains would run. If the highway is a permanent feature on the cityscape, it is not necessarily one that should be attracting walkers, the primary users of any transit system.
As journalist Mary Newsom has written, Independence Boulevard’s urban form does not jive with the smart growth principles that are implicit in the theory behind the construction of new transit lines. When it was built, she writes, the highway “Celebrated auto-oriented suburbia, the “progressive” thinking of its time. Today, as cities spend millions to retrofit auto-only areas for transit and pedestrians, Independence survives as a fading tribute to a theory of city building that didn’t work. It’s lined with deteriorating strip development, its traffic still a reviled snarl.” This is no place around which to articulate a new vision for the metropolis.
Stations along the Blue Line light rail corridor, which is located in a railroad right-of-way running directly through several of the city’s denser neighborhoods south of downtown, have been surrounded with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new residential and commercial construction since the rail line opened. The Silver Line, running in the middle of the freeway, would not repeat that story — but more civilized and appropriately placed streetcar routes could.
It would be inappropriate to discuss this issue without noting that an added advantage of the streetcar investment is that it would be less expensive than a full-scale bus rapid transit line in the center of the freeway (which, in turn, would be cheaper than a light rail line down the highway). The relatively inexpensive nature of the streetcar, though, is also its downfall: This transportation mode rarely includes dedicated lanes and thus vehicles crawl down the street. Streetcars are not rapid transit.
Yet this may be a compromise worth accepting in Charlotte. Is a fast bus rapid transit line acceptable if it forces its passengers to adapt to dehumanizing conditions? Or is a slow streetcar that can be designed in harmony with a pedestrian streetfront a better deal for the city’s future?
Image above: Chicago Red Line 63rd Street Station, from Flickr user Zol87 (cc)