Metro Rail Paris

A Grander Paris Through a Rapid Circumferential Metro

» French national government and Paris region officials agree to more than €30 billion in transit improvements by 2025.

From an international perspective, there are two really significant things about the newly approved plans for a radial rapid transit system around the French capital: First, its primary service area will be in the suburbs rather than in the center city; second, it will prioritize very fast transit times over local area connectivity.

These characteristics make last week’s agreement by regional and national officials to construct the Grand Paris Express network of rapid transit lines a truly significant pattern break in thinking about how to engage in the creation of better public transportation systems. Will this €22.7 billion ($31 billion) transit line, in connection with €12 billion in upgrades to the existing system, make Paris a model for local mobility? Or does it represent poor decision-making on the part of French authorities?

The agreement will require €9 billion in contributions from the state, €9 billion from the region and other local governments, €7 billion from new taxes mostly derived from tax-increment financing around station areas, and €7 billion from debt. It comes after years of political debate over how to better serve Paris’ near suburbs — and at the end of a series of public meetings on the question which will come to an end on Monday. Two proposals have been put forward: Regional authorities have been pushing what they call the Arc Express, a 37-mile route that would run a tight circle around the city and serve 50 stations or so; the national government, on the other hand, argued for its Métro Grand Paris, a 96-mile extension of the Metro Line 14 serving airports and far-off suburbs with only about 40 stations. To make matters even more complicated, a group of architects even submitted a counter-proposal.

The two government projects were fundamentally opposed in their basic conception of the role of transit — the first suggested that fine-grained station stops were essential, whereas the second argued for fewer stations and faster service — but each was concentrated on addressing the travel needs of people in the suburbs, who currently are required to enter into Paris to complete most trips by rail transit. The near-in suburbs, collectively referred to as the Petite Couronne and encompassing three départements (counties), have a population of about 4.4 million, compared to the 2.2 million who reside in Paris proper.

Whereas the final agreement, called the Grand Paris Express, has essentially combined the two routes into one system, the national government’s effort to decrease travel times rather than serve more neighborhoods has mostly won out. The project, which will be the first new metro line announced for Paris since 1989 and the first new system conceived since the 1960s, will significantly speed travel between destinations along its corridor.

Automated trains running 24 hours a day will be up and running along some segments of the line by 2020 and the whole project should be completed by 2025. Operations will be comprised of an extended Metro Line 14 south to Orly Airport and north to St. Denis as the backbone of the system; a spur to Charles de Gaulle Airport; two parallel circumferential routes to the east of the city; and one or two circumferential routes to the west. The southwestern line, proposed to serve the university town of Saclay, has been criticized for running through a rural area that is unlikely to attract much ridership, or that will sprawl out of control. Though President Sarkozy has emphasized his support for the line, the regional government — partly controlled by the Green Party — has thus far refused to agree to this part of the project, saying they will only fund improved buses for the area.

Combined with about €12 billion in other funds also now dedicated for upgrades for the radial RER regional rail system, several new tramway and tram-train lines, and a number of metro extensions, the Grand Paris Express represents a massive investment in suburban mobility. The funding mechanism, premised on the idea that development will expand around stations, suggests that both the national and regional governments are committed to building up the already dense suburbs into truly urban areas of their own right. If the Paris region is known for very high transit mode shares within and to the center city, the automobile still dominates 80% of trips between suburbs. This infrastructure investment seems likely to change that equation significantly.

Signing an agreement to fund €30 billion worth of infrastructure would be a big deal in any country, but Paris’ announcement is particularly significant because it required negotiation and accords between a left-wing regional government and right-wing national government. Since both will be contributing to the project’s costs, each had to agree to all of the proposed routes. At least for now, this eliminated the least reasonable part of the plan — the southwestern segment — and guaranteed a second alignment for the areas to the northwest of the city, which are some of the country’s densest and most impoverished.

That said, the Grand Paris Express project is certainly taking a major risk by emphasizing fast speeds over neighborhood access. By limiting stops to every kilometer at the minimum (with several sections featuring inter-station intervals of 5 km or more), most people along the alignment will not be within an easy walking distance of a station. Once they get onto a train, however, they will be within about an hour’s access of almost everywhere in the built-up metropolitan region; similar conditions currently cannot be found anywhere in the world’s megacities because of the radial arrangement of transit lines almost everywhere that slow suburb-to-suburb travel.

One way to handle this problem would have been to implement an express-local arrangement such as is present in New York City, but this evidently was not under consideration by French planners. The construction of dense urban villages around stations with the goal of concentrating most of the metropolitan area’s growth within them, though, could reduce that problem significantly, especially since tramway lines already under construction throughout the suburbs will aid in picking up local passengers and depositing them onto the express system.

* Map above has Metro, RER, and Tram lines dotted that are in planning and solid if existing or under construction. Grand Paris Express Lines that are dotted are being considered for alternate alignments.

Elections Urbanism

Understanding the Republican Party’s Reluctance to Invest in Transit Infrastructure

» Conservatives in Congress threaten to shut down funding for transit construction projects and investments in intercity rail. One doesn’t have to look far to see why these programs aren’t priorities for them.

Late last week, a group of more than 165 of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives, the Republican Study Committee, released a report that detailed an agenda to reduce federal spending by $2.5 trillion over ten years. Spurred on by increasing public concern about the mounting national debt, the group argues that the only choice is to make huge, painful cuts in government programs. With the House now in the hands of the Republican Party, these suggestions are likely to be seriously considered.

Transportation policy is prominent on the group’s list, no matter President Obama’s call for investments in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, expected to be put forward in tonight’s state of the union address. Not only would all funding for Amtrak be cut, representing about $1.5 billion a year, but the Obama Administration’s nascent high-speed rail program would be stopped in its tracks. A $150 million commitment to Washington’s Metro system would evaporate. Even more dramatically, the New Starts program, which funds new rail and bus capital projects at a cost of $2 billion a year, would simply disappear. In other words, the Republican group suggests that all national government aid for the construction of new rail or bus lines, intercity and intra-city, be eliminated.

These cuts are extreme, and they’re not likely to make it to the President’s desk, not only because of the Democratic Party’s continued control over the Senate but also because some powerful Republicans in the House remain committed to supporting public transportation and rail programs. But how can we explain the open hostility of so many members of the GOP to any federal spending at all for non-automobile transportation? Why does a transfer of power from the Democratic Party to the Republicans engender such political problems for urban transit?

We can find clues in considering the districts from which members of the House of Representatives of each party are elected.

As shown in the chart above (in Log scale), there was a relatively strong positive correlation between density of congressional districts and the vote share of the Democratic candidate in the 2010 elections. Of densest quartile of districts with a race between a Democrat and a Republican — 105 of them, with a density of 1,935 people per square miles or more — the Democratic candidate won 89. Of the quartile of districts with the lowest densities — 98 people per square mile and below — Democratic candidates only won 23 races. As the chart below demonstrates (in regular scale), this pattern is most obvious in the nation’s big cities, where Democratic Party vote shares are huge when densities are very high.

This pattern is not a coincidence. The Democratic Party holds most of its power in the nation’s cities, whereas the GOP retains greater strength in the exurbs and rural areas. The two parties generally fight it out over the suburbs. In essence, the base of the two parties is becoming increasingly split in spatial terms: The Democrats’ most vocal constituents live in cities, whereas the Republicans’ power brokers would never agree to what some frame as a nightmare of tenements and light rail.

What does this mean? When there is a change in political power in Washington, the differences on transportation policy and other urban issues between the parties reveal themselves as very stark. Republicans in the House of Representatives know that very few of their constituents would benefit directly from increased spending on transit, for instance, so they propose gutting the nation’s commitment to new public transportation lines when they enter office. Starting two years ago, Democrats pushed the opposite agenda, devoting billions to urban-level projects that would have been impossible under the Bush Administration.

Highway funding, on the other hand, has remained relatively stable throughout, and that’s no surprise, either: The middle 50% of congressional districts, representing about half of the American population, features populations that live in neighborhoods of low to moderate densities, fully reliant on cars to get around. It is only in the densest sections of the country that transit (or affordable housing, for instance) is even an issue — which is why it appears to be mostly of concern to the Democratic Party. Republicans in the House for the most part do not have to answer to voters who are interested in improved public transportation.

This situation, of course, should be of significant concern to those who would advocate for better transit. To put matters simply, few House Republicans have any electoral reason to promote such projects, and thus, for the most part they don’t. But that produces a self-reinforcing loop; noting the lack of GOP support for urban needs, city voters push further towards the Democrats. And sensing that the Democratic Party is a collection of urbanites, those from elsewhere push away. It’s hard to know how to reverse this problem.

Many Republicans, of course, represent urban areas at various levels of government. No Democrat, for instance, has won the race for New York’s mayoralty since 1989. And the Senate is a wholly different ballgame, since most states have a variety of habitation types. As Bruce McFarling wrote this week, there are plenty of reasons for Republicans even in places of moderate density to support such investments as intercity rail.

But the peculiar dynamics of U.S. House members’ relatively small constituent groups, in combination with the predilection of state legislatures to produce gerrymandered districts designed specifically to ensure the reelection of incumbents, has resulted in a situation in which there is only one Republican-controlled congressional district with a population density of over 7,000 people per square mile. And that’s in Staten Island, hardly a bastion of urbanism. With such little representation for urban issues in today’s House leadership, real advances on transport issues seem likely to have to wait.

Bus Charlotte Chicago Light Rail Streetcar

In Charlotte, a Busy Highway May be No Place for Rapid Transit

» 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)

Light Rail New Jersey New York

A Light Rail Extension for Staten Island?

» As the Port Authority plans for improved ship access, Staten Islanders hope a renovated Bayonne Bridge could mean new rail links.

When it opened in 1931, the Bayonne Bridge was the longest steel arch span in the world. Today it remains an impressive work of infrastructure, its magnificent girders visible from throughout the New York metropolitan region. The Port Authority-controlled link, which allows commuters to get to and from Staten Island and New Jersey, is an important connection in the regional road network.

With cargo ships getting bigger and bigger, however, the bridge has become an impediment: Its roadway hangs too low to allow for the easy passage of new Panamax-class ships readied for an expanded Panama Canal now under construction. Without clearing the way through the Kill Van Kull — the waterway over which the bridge runs — the Port of Newark will have trouble accommodating more commerce. For the region’s continued economic strength, that could be a major problem.

Thus the Port Authority has begun studying options for its replacement; right on cue, transit advocates have stepped in, arguing that the new structure could allow for better transit between the Island and the mainland. The major possibilities include lanes for bus rapid transit or an expansion of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line, which will be extending a few blocks south to 8th Street in Bayonne on January 31st. Trains could cross the new bridge, then potentially run south towards the West Shore Expressway, in whose median a 14-mile light rail line has previously been proposed. This would ensure rail transit operations on both sides of the island (the eastern half is already served by the Staten Island Railway). Running the line along the North Shore, where a 5-mile abandoned rail right-of-way is ready to be reused, is also a possibility.

The Hudson-Bergen light rail line currently runs north to Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen, via the “Gold Coast” business centers in Jersey City and Hoboken where thousands of jobs have been created over the past decade. Plans to extend the route northwest to the Meadowlands, southwest to the Hackensack River, and north to Tenafly are also afoot.

The light rail line is destined to serve an increasingly important role as a north-south connector on the west side of the Hudson River. But just how useful would an expansion into Staten Island be?

Consider the commutes made by inhabitants of this New York City borough today.

As demonstrated by the map above — created using Census data from 2008, the most recent year available — most Staten Islanders work in their own borough. Those that don’t generally work in downtown and midtown Manhattan and on the western edge of Brooklyn. A few work in Bayonne, Hoboken, and Queens’ Long Island City.

Ridership on existing bus services confirms this bent towards New York, rather than New Jersey, jobs. A significant number of riders — about 20,000 per weekday — use the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s express buses into Manhattan business districts. The two most popular “regular” buses on the Island, including the S53 and S79, which total almost 20,000 riders alone, head to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where a connection to the R Subway is possible. The third, fourth, and fifth most popular — the S48/98, S46/96, and S44/94, totaling about 23,500 daily riders — link up with the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at St. George, at the tip of the Island. The Ferry attracts about 75,000 users daily with service to the Battery at the tip of Manhattan.

For comparison’s sake, the only public bus that runs across the Bayonne Bridge today, the MTA’s S89 to the Hudson-Bergen light rail line’s 34th Street stop, only moves about 900 daily riders. Is there really a case for the rail line’s extension onto the Island? Or would improved direct services into Manhattan and Brooklyn be more useful?

When considering potential routes for a extension of the light rail line, the argument for it appears relatively shaky.

As shown above (click to expand), people living within a half-mile of the proposed North Shore and West Shore rail lines — the two likely routes for any light rail extension — are not particularly likely to be attracted to working in neighborhoods along the existing Hudson-Bergen line. Inhabitants of both areas are most likely to work in downtown Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, and Midtown Manhattan — not New Jersey. This is largely similar to the working patterns of people who live within half a mile of the existing Staten Island Railway. And yet none of them have a fast route towards those employment centers, fault of the lack of a New York Subway link and express buses forced to use crowded highway lanes shared with private automobiles.

Should light rail be extended across the Kill Van Kull?

If the project were to decrease travel times significantly into Manhattan, it might be useful. Beginning at the end of the month, the Hudson-Bergen line will travel from 8th Street to Exchange Place in 20 minutes and from 8th Street to Newport in 27 minutes. From Exchange Place, a trip to Lower Manhattan’s World Trade Center on PATH takes 4 minutes; from Newport, a trip to Midtown’s 33rd Street takes 15 minutes on PATH. For people along the North and West Shore lines hoping to get downtown, a trip in 45 minutes minimum seems possible with a light rail extension, taking into account transfer times. But a trip to Midtown would be at least ten minutes longer; a commute to Brooklyn would be much more lengthy via New Jersey.

More direct routes on express buses could be equally or more effective for residents of Staten Island, if funds were allocated to dedicate lanes for transit on the highways that carry them. If Staten Islanders currently suffer from the longest commutes in the country — 42.5 minutes per direction on average — one can envision the advantage of investing in improved express buses that could speed past traffic on such choked arteries as the Gowanus Expressway. A light rail extension would not be as fast into Manhattan and Brooklyn — and it wouldn’t be direct, either.

Taken from a regional perspective, though, a light rail extension might make more sense. Were New York and New Jersey to work together on increasing employment and residential construction in areas along the corridor — in both states — the route could be a useful economic development generator, helping to build up a counterpoint to the dominance of Manhattan in today’s regional employment market. Perhaps the lack of Staten Islanders working in New Jersey now is not a consequence of people “not wanting” to do so, but rather the result of poor transit connections to and from jobs there.

Elections Finance High-Speed Rail

What Value for Empirical Claims in the Development of a National Rail Network?

» America 2050 releases a report comparing potential rail investments across the country. But political leadership, not scientific analysis, will be what advances the construction of new infrastructure in the United States.

There is something very appealing about the idea that governmental authorities could go about establishing strict, empirically defined guidelines based on “objectives” or “targets” and thereafter identify and fund the right investments in transportation. The argument made by many reformers is that such a system could allow federal, state, and local governments in the United States to use “objective” measures to compare and contrast potential investments and then fund only those that meet the highest standards.

This, in some ways, is what America 2050 is attempting to do in its most recent publication, High-Speed Rail in America. By analyzing several thousand corridors crisscrossing the nation in respect to such factors as population, employment, connectivity, congestion, and job types, the organization strives to show which corridors would be best for rail investment. The results — which rank highly such connections as Washington-New York, Los Angeles-San Diego, and Chicago-Milwaukee — are reassuring to those who have already identified those corridors as priorities. The report’s conclusion implies that the next step is simply to move forward, funding the links that would be most effective.*

If only it were so simple.

Why are California, Florida, and Illinois investing billions of dollars in rail upgrades today while other states, like New York and Pennsylvania, doing almost nothing? Not because the projects in the former states were more rational investments according to federal government grant-givers; indeed, the America 2050 report gives much higher marks to lines between Philadelphia and Harrisburg and New York and Albany than those between Chicago and St. Louis or Tampa and Orlando, for instance.

Rather, leadership in some states has been lacking; state officials in places like New York have been unwilling to commit the local funds or rights-of-way to their respective rail projects, so they have not received real backing from Washington. Perhaps this would be a problem in a perfect world, but we live in a society in which politics matter. If Florida eventually commits to a high-speed rail line, it will be because previous leadership in the form of Governor Charlie Crist made the deals to make it possible and current Governor Rick Scott agreed.

These are ultimately decisions founded on local support for a project: No matter what a scientific approach may suggest, the only way high-speed rail can advance in this country is by having charismatic leaders promote good projects that appeal to the citizenry. If that sometimes means building projects that are less cost-effective than others, then so be it.

In the American federal system, Washington cannot easily come down from high-up and inform rural states and non-urban jurisdictions that they simply do not qualify for intercity rail funds. Such an approach, like it or not, would not fly in a Congress that is dominated by politicians from rural states and suburban districts. Nor can the government simply announce that it wants to fund one or two lines, like a link between Washington and Boston, because doing so would fly in the face of the idea of a national network, essential for any federal investment. So releasing a report like America 2050’s is inconceivable for the national Department of Transportation unless it wants to have its funding eliminated by the legislature.

There are several conceivable ways to avoid this problem: One, assuming the federal government continues its commitment to the high-speed rail mode, it could simply draw a map of thousands of miles of lines connecting the country and agree to fund every one. This, more or less, was how the Interstate Highway System was conceived and built — and it had nothing to do with the “objective” guidelines that underlie the America 2050 report but everything to do with ensuring that every state in the union got its share.

Two, Washington could fund nothing at all, giving up in face of the insurmountable difficulty of trying to convince legislators from Oklahoma to fund rail projects in Oregon. This could encourage states or groups of states to go about funding projects themselves, a perfectly reasonable possibility, but one that may be difficult in an era in which the idea of state-level government entrepreneurship is absent from the discussion.

Or, finally, the federal government could continue awarding grants to the states that are most enthusiastic about their respective rail projects and hope that members of Congress don’t get too upset about the fact that their states aren’t getting anything. This seems to be the most likely path forward, but it will not likely result in major funding increases for a high-speed rail network since the national consensus in favor of it has yet to be cultivated.

No matter what, the road forward on establishing high-speed rail strategy in the United States is likely to be a bumpy one. While reports like America 2050’s may add to the momentum, helping to demonstrate some of the mode’s advantages, they do not provide the basis for a nationwide system by which to judge and then fund new lines. That will only come from leadership, both in Washington and in the state capitals.

* The High-Speed Rail in America report has its flaws. The report’s authors note the following:

“Instead of evaluating and comparing precise ridership estimates from the states (e.g. X riders in California versus Y riders in Texas) based on inadequate data and varying assumptions, we propose an alternative assessment framework that considers the various factors or parameters that influence ridership without attempting to pinpoint ridership explicitly.”

The fundamental problem with the report is that it has no context: The study lays down a number of parameters for comparison, such as regional population, transit connectivity, and the like, but it does not have any empirical data to show the relatively importance of these criteria in real-world high-speed rail networks. In other words, the authors have set about comparing corridors in a manner that may — or, just as likely, may not — have anything to do with actual ridership. (This is a mistake I’ve made in the past, I admit.)

In the future, such a study should be backed by evidence about the importance of each of these criteria based on ridership on other countries’ systems. It would also be beneficial to include cost evaluations — for instance, if a New York-Boston line would attract twice as many riders per mile as one between Tampa and Orlando, the America 2050 report implies that the former is a better deal than the latter. But what if the Florida line cost less than half as much per mile as the Northeastern one?

Image above: Spanish countryside along AVE route, from Flickr user Laura Padgett (cc)