A Solution to Transit Disorganization: Merger

Ontario’s GO Transit and Metrolinx to be combined into one agency

In the Toronto region, the Toronto Transit Commission provides transit service within the city and GO Transit, a separate agency, runs buses and commuter rail throughout the rest of the region, from Hamilton in the west to Oshawa in the east. Today, an agency called Metrolinx serves as a master planner, deciding which transit lines will be built and how much to subsidize each service, though the two other agencies contribute to the discussion with their own projects and plans. Yesterday, however, Ontario Transport Minister Jim Bradley announced that the province would attempt to legislate a merger between GO Transit and Metrolinx into a broader agency that would have the power both to plan transport services and to provide them. The TTC, under the direct control of the city of Toronto, will remain separate.

The province makes a good point in arguing that consolidating transit planning and service provision will provide better, more efficient transit and quicker implementation of major projects. I’ve pointed out in the past that major discombobulation between transit agencies and a regional planner produces difficulties for average riders attempting to use the systems and ultimately slows down project completion timetables.

The merger, for all its good aspects, is problematic in its proposed execution. Regional chairs who currently sit on the board of Metrolinx would be replaced by transportation “experts” who supposedly would make better decisions about how to invest limited funds. The change in policy is an open challenge to local politicians who want to have a say in how transit is used in their areas. The city of Toronto, which is the biggest contributor of funds towards regional planning, would lose out in the process as it would lose political authority over the agency, though the new vice-chair of the agency promises that “the new body will consult with all the stakeholders.” How believable is that?

While they are advantages of having “experts” control the decision-making process, ultimately, politicians should be determining how to use public funds; otherwise, these public bodies cease to be democratic organisms. We have a collective responsibility to keep public decisions as democratic as possible, so let’s hope to see these merger plans altered over the next few.

Bay Area Israel

Jerusalem Likely to Abandon Plans for More Light Rail Lines

Mayor Nir Barkat sees their cost as the primary problem and envisions BRT

The Jerusalem Post reports that new Mayor Nir Barkat will cancel the light rail program envisioned for Israel’s capital after the completion of the two initial lines currently under construction. Building the line has caused major headaches in the city core, and Mr. Barkat’s election win last year was in part due to his opposition to the continuation of the project, which would include five more lines. The two lines being built today, however, have been sped up since Mr. Barkat took office and will be completed by 2010 as I reported previously.

The mayor’s solution is bus rapid transit, because the buses would be “a fifth of the price and much easier to deploy” than light rail. “I cannot sign on it yet, but most likely those routes will be BRTs and not trains. [They are] much faster to deploy and they provide practically very similar, if not the same [results]. We are now working on those plans and I believe that with new, fresh thinking we could probably converge on a network that will serve the city faster, easier and cheaper,” said Mr. Barkat to the Post.

What’s unfortunate about the mayor’s opinion is that it is far from a reflection of reality. It’s true that bus rapid transit can be cheaper, but only when it provides significantly lower levels of service. In other words, you can label a bus “BRT” and it won’t cost any more than a traditional bus, but it won’t be rapid. A true “BRT,” with similar levels of service that light rail can provide – in terms of capacity, speed, and comfort – would cost just as much to implement because it would need dedicated lanes completely separated from automobiles, and special, expensive vehicles.

What Mr. Barkat is really saying is that he simply doesn’t want to invest as much of his city’s funds in transit.

But consider this: Jerusalem, with a population of 750,000 spread out over an area of 48 square miles, is virtually identical in form to San Francisco, with a population of 800,000 on a peninsula 47 square miles large. And while the former city has two light rail lines under construction, the latter has a heavy rail line serving its suburbs (BART), and a large network of light rail serving much of the city (Muni Metro). Like Jerusalem, San Francisco has been resorting recently to “cheaper” BRT on the important Geary and Van Ness corridors, using the argument that BRT allows it to serve more people for less money. But the heavy use of BART and Muni suggest that rail can attract higher ridership and provide better service; San Francisco’s high rate of non-automobile commuting attests to the city’s success in providing good transit through rail. Jerusalem should consider that comparison before jumping for underperforming BRT.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles Plans for New Downtown Connector

L.A. Downtown LinkNew track would connect Blue and Expo light rail lines to Gold line in Little Tokyo

Today, customers traveling on the Blue light rail line must transfer to the Red or Purple heavy rail lines to get to Union Station and the Gold line, which heads northeast to Pasadena. This connection at the 7th Street/Metro Center station is a large inconvenience to passengers and probably serves as an impediment to transit usage for thousands of potential customers. With the completion of the new Gold line Eastside Extension later this year and the Expo line in 2010, this problem will affect more passengers. As a result, Los Angeles Metro is studying a connection – the Regional Connector Transit Corridor – that will bring light rail directly from Metro Center to the Gold Line.

Potential corridors for the route (shown in the map above) would take trains 2 miles up Flower Street and then east on 2nd Street to the future Little Tokyo/Arts District station on the Gold Line. Depending on the route chosen, the line could cost between $700 million and $1.3 billion. In a previous round of community discussions about the project, community members overwhelmingly preferred a more expensive underground option, though a cheaper ground-running route is still under consideration. Three new stations would be built in downtown Los Angeles as part of the plan. The project is expected to open in 2017 as long as federal New Starts funding is secured.

The proposed routing of the line seems reasonable, as it leaves open the southeast portion of downtown to another future transit extension, something that is possible if Blue and Expo line ridership increases enough to merit separating the two lines into their own corridors. Choosing not to connect the lines at Union Station makes a lot of sense – it won’t duplicate the existing connection at Metro Center, and it will distribute transfers between three stations – Metro Center, Union Station, and Little Tokyo – rather than just two, which was the proposal in the original plan.

What hasn’t been decided is whether the connection would include the possibility for through-running trains between the Regional Connector and the Gold line – this would allow greater interoperability and the potential for trains running from, for instance, East L.A. to Long Beach, an option that would further improve commuting in the region. Such a connection, however, would likely cost far more than a simple transfer, so it seems unlikely.

Image above: Regional Connector Transit Corridor, from Metro


Should Transit Systems Be Designed for the Handicapped?

ny-handicappedSure, we want equal accessibility for all… but at what cost?

Yesterday, New Jersey Transit held a groundbreaking ceremony at the Somerville Train Station for improvements that will make the stop along the Raritan Valley Commuter Rail Line accessible to the disabled. The station renovations will be complete by 2010, but the project is part of a long-term effort that will eventually make all 130 of the system’s stations easier to use for those with limited mobility.

NJ Transit isn’t alone; networks all over the country are investing in similar improvements to older lines, adding elevators, level platforms, and ramps to making getting to and from trains possible for those in wheelchairs. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act made it required for new and renovated facilities to make a “good faith” effort to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against in the public sphere. The results have been slow but steady expenditures for that purpose. Lines that people in wheelchairs once could not use at all are now speckled with handicap-friendly stations. See the map above (from smogr) for the wheelchair-friendly stations of the New York Subway.

The problem is that investing in equipment like elevators and ramps is incredibly expensive – part of the reason that renovating a New York City subway station, for instance, is so much more expensive than making improvements in stations of the London Underground or Paris Métro, where the transit agencies are not required to provide access to the mobility-impaired. The cost of maintenance, too, is out of control: New York has spent about $1 billion over the past fifteen years installing elevators, but they fall out of service so regularly that it is difficult for the handicapped to rely on their being in service. In 2007, one of every six elevators in the system was out of commission for more than a month!

When the Washington Metro’s first lines were being designed in the early 1970s, the question of whether to include elevators became a major point of contention between Metro chief Jack Graham and members of the Congress, who had passed the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, requiring federally-funded buildings to be handicap-accessible, according to Zachary Schrag’s The Great Subway Society. The system had been designed with five categories of the handicapped in mind: the semi-ambulatory, the uncoordinated, the aging, and those with sight and hearing problems. That’s part of the reason platforms on the Metro flash when trains arrive and there are no stairs that aren’t duplicated by escalators.

But the initial design didn’t do much for those in wheelchairs. Design and construction costs for elevators were expensive, so in a demonstration at Dulles Airport, Graham attempted to convince Metro’s board that those in wheelchairs would be able to ascend and descend escalators in their chairs. Graham made a fool of himself, and the result was a court-imposed requirement that all Metro stations incorporate full handicap access. All new transit projects since have done the same.

Graham’s insistence that the handicapped would be better served by a paratransit program, which would cost far less to maintain, since it would merely require the purchase of wheelchair-capable buses, was prescient considering the constant elevator outages that continue to plague the Metro system. Indeed, the elevator problems as well as the lack of fully accessible buses forced Washington to implement the Metro Access transit program, which provides shared-ride, door-to-door service to the disabled throughout the region. Not only was Metro designed for the handicapped, but they also benefit from service close to taxi runs at transit prices.

I think it would be hard to argue that new subway systems shouldn’t be designed from the start with handicap access to all levels. We shouldn’t be designing our transit systems to be discriminatory from the start. In addition, people without wheelchairs – transporting goods, on crutches, simply tired – take advantage of elevators.

But should we be spending millions of dollars on upgrading ancient stations to handicap accessibility when those improvements fail so often in actual use and when the handicapped have other options? And the speed of renovation is so slow that, as the map above demonstrates, even after years of work, very little of the New York subway system can actually be used by people in wheelchairs. On the other hand, if we share a societal goal to incorporate the handicapped as much as possible, is there any excuse not to fund improvements for them, and shouldn’t we speed up those repairs?

The middle-ground upon which most transit agencies appear to be making policy – in which a few stations are upgraded with oft-malfunctioning elevators – is expensive and problematic.

Image above: Accessible stations of the New York City Subway, Central New York City, from smogr

High-Speed Rail London United Kingdom

U.K.'s High Speed Two Fleshed Out

With support from Tories and Labour, project construction is virtually guaranteed

U.K. High Speed 2

The United Kingdom, despite its intense population concentration and relatively straight-shot connection between its biggest cities, has yet to invest in a major high-speed program, unlike its peers in France, Spain, and Germany. Beginning late last year, however, the Conservative Party, under leader David Cameron and shadow Transportation Minister Teresa Villiers, began pressuring the Labour-controlled government to begin planning a high-speed rail link between London and Manchester, via Birmingham, as a replacement for the planned third runway at Heathrow airport. Plans to route the line through the airport to allow easy connections to flights were incorporated into the proposal almost immediately.

Though in January Labour did approve the runway at Heathrow as a way to relieve the significant congestion there, the U.K.’s ruling party has come to see a high-speed rail program as politically advantageous – especially as Mr. Cameron’s party has risen in popularity in recent years. It’s not surprising, then, to see Lord Andrew Adonis, the nation’s Minister of State for Transport, endorsing the line’s approval by early next year, before the next general election. With support from both major parties, the line is unlikely to face major opposition – and will likely get government funding as soon as its route has been finalized.

The map above illustrates the general consensus on the routing of the full route (in red). Running northwest from London, the line would hit Birmingham and then Manchester, before heading north to Leeds, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. A spur line from Manchester to Liverpool is likely, and, if conservatives and engineering company Arup get their way, the line would be routed through Heathrow Airport before extending north. Planning on the service has begun by a company called High Speed 2; the name is a reference to High Speed 1, the company that completed the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in 2007 (in black on the map above). High Speed 1 carries Eurostar trains from London to Paris and Brussels in 2h15 and 1h50, respectively, down 40 minutes from pre-construction travel times.

Though the S-shaped route illustrated above would make connections to Scotland slower than a direct shot north from London, the route’s principal advantage is that it hits all of the United Kingdom’s major cities in one shot. Considering Mr. Adonis’ thinking – which indicates that he prefers building a brand new line over improving existing facilities – the planned commercial speeds of up to 225 mph using double-decker trains such as those running in France and Japan seem realistic with existing technologies already developed by the major train manufacturers.

Operations, based on current thinking, could begin by 2020. The line would be fast and carry a large number of passengers – the result would be a dramatic reduction in of the number of flights between British cities and make travel from Paris to Birmingham or Manchester, for instance, a feasible reality. There is, of course, a large amount of planning yet to be done: Would trains stop in city centers or in outlying areas? Would there be a direct connection with Eurostar at London’s St. Pancras, or would the trains terminate at Euston Station, a few blocks away? Is the connection to Heathrow necessary, or would speeding up services between city centers be the priority?

Even with all these unknowns, though, Britain’s project is one of the most exciting high-speed rail projects in the world, because it will offer a whole country efficient, fast, and reliable train service in one big investment. The line’s effect on the travel patterns of the U.K.’s inhabitants would be profound.

Mr. Adonis’ comments about the line couldn’t be more encouraging for those of us who believe that fast trains would greatly improve travel among British cities: “It is no longer a defensible position to oppose high-speed rail on the grounds of English exceptionalism. High-speed rail is a key driver of modernisation – economic, environmental and social.”

When will politicians on this side of the Atlantic make similar conclusions about American exceptionalism?