Categories
London Metro Rail

For London, one Crossrail isn’t enough

» 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 and the Jubilee Line extended in 1979, but that’s about it. In some ways, that made sense: London region’s population peaked in 1951 at 8.1 million and declined precipitously until the 1980s. It only recouped it losses in 2011. But the region is now growing quickly, adding an estimated 100,000 or more people a year, reaching a projected 9.7 million 20 years from now. The number of commuters entering the city is expected to grow by 36% by 2031.

That growth has put incredible strain on the city’s transit network, with ridership growing by 40% in fifteen years. Through direct government grants, the support of the pseudo-public Network Rail, and the commitment of Transport for London, the local transit organizing body, the city has two major relief valves under construction. The Thameslink Programme, which will open for service in 2018, will improve the existing north-south rail link through the city by allowing for trains every two to three minutes; the Crossrail 1 project, also opening in 2018, will create a new, 21-km northwest-to-southeast subway corridor that is expected to increase overall transit capacity by 10% while significantly reducing east-west travel across the city center.

Those projects, which cost more than £21 billion ($36 billion) between them, will allow the system to accommodate new growth, but they won’t resolve London’s most significant transit bottleneck, the Victoria Line, which carries far more riders per mile than any other Underground Line. That’s where Crossrail 2 comes in.

Crossrail 2, as the following map shows, would extend from the southwest to the northeast of the city, connecting Victoria with Euston, St. Pancras, and King’s Cross Stations, roughly paralleling the alignment of the Victoria Line. The project will allow certain trains on the West Anglia Main Line to the north and the South Western Main Line to run through the city. The project was submitted to a public consultation process that ended last week that examined several options for line routings; a preferred route is expected to be selected this year, with construction beginning at the earliest in 2020 at a cost of £12 to 20 billion ($21 to 34 billion). Last year, a separate consultation for the route selected a “regional” option (allowing through-running commuter trains) over a “metro” option, which would have been an automated subway.

Like Crossrail 1, Crossrail 2 is expected to increase the transit capacity of central London by 10%, possible thanks to 10-car trains running every two minutes, allowing 45,000 passengers per hour per direction. As the following map illustrates, that capacity increase will be needed by the early 2030s if the project is not implemented. Major sections of the Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern, and District Lines are all expected to be crowded at more than four passengers per square meter at rush hour, enough to make much of London Underground a truly inhospitable environment.

The opening of the the high-speed rail line HS2, which will link London to Birmingham by 2026, makes the capacity bump provided by Crossrail 2 even more important because of the influx of passengers expected at HS2’s terminal, Euston Station.

The result of the new connection will not only produce less crowding on other lines, but it will significantly reduce journey times. To Tottenham Court Road, where Crossrail 1 will will meet Crossrail 2, the latter project will reduce travel times from Kingston in the southwest from 49 to 27 minutes and from Tottenham Hale in the northeast from 27 to 16 minutes.

There is little about Crossrail 2 that has been easy thus far, and certainly there is plenty more work to be done, particularly in assembling the project’s financing. The project has been studied since the 1970s (as the “Chelsea-Hackney Line”) and was considered as a serious alternative to the initial Crossrail project in the late 2000s. In other words, its necessity isn’t exactly a new idea.

Extensive support from business groups, including London First, however, is new. The organization has proposed funding the project, in part, with £3 billion in fare increases on all transit services, £2.4 billion in revenue from allowing denser development along the corridor, and £1.8 billion from expanded business taxes. In addition, the line — like Crossrail 1 — is expected to be operationally profitable and therefore able to raise some its capital funding by bonding on the back of future fares to the tune of an additional £3 billion.

If these seem like huge sums, they are. But London transit proponents have successfully been able to make the case not only that the city’s residents rely on its transit system, but also that investing in a better transit system produces overwhelmingly positive benefits to the economy as a whole. Crossrail 2’s advocates note that, even with a £16 billion price, the project’s benefits to cost ratio is 4.1 to 1 when wider economic benefits, such as agglomeration, are considered. This is a message that American transit promoters, who are unable to effectively make the argument for new lines, should practice making, because while London’s a great town, there’s nothing particular about the benefits of fast transit there versus anywhere else.

Image at top: Crossrail station at Canary Wharf, almost complete, from Flickr user George Rex (cc); Crossrail 2 map from Transport for London; Crowding map from London First.

Categories
Commuter Rail Toronto

Make the effort, and commuter rail can be as effective as rapid transit

» Thanks to political initiative and the need to serve a growing region, Toronto’s GO Transit is increasingly making its commuter rail services not so commuter-oriented.

In North America, “commuter rail” has come to mean something very specific: Large, heavy trains operating almost entirely at peak, providing services to downtown in the morning and away from it at night along corridors that extend into the suburbs. It’s a definition that makes sense for a world where regions are structured with one central business district whose workers live in the suburbs and work nine-to-five jobs on weekdays.

Of course, that’s not the world we live in. Of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, only two have a majority of their jobs located within three miles of their downtown, and most suburban workers don’t work in city centers. A sizable share of the population doesn’t work a “normal” workweek.

Yet most commuter rail providers continue to operate as if nothing has changed since the 1950s, and for their clientèle, it hasn’t, because the people who ride commuter trains are mostly the people who work “traditional” jobs at “normal” hours downtown. In the process, commuter agencies have ignored the progress made elsewhere to convert these traditional services into frequent, two-direction, all-day services similar to rapid transit. And they’ve lost out: While ridership on American heavy and light rail systems — which feature the service characteristics of rapid transit — has expanded by more than 90% overall since 1995, ridership on commuter rail systems has increased by only 35%.

In Ontario, GO Transit is piloting a new approach that could serve as a model for commuter rail agencies that need to be brought into modernity. GO has seven commuter lines that feed into Toronto’s Union Station along 280 miles of service, carrying about 200,000 daily train riders, and until recently it’s been primarily focused on the core, peak-hour, peak-direction commute shared with most agencies.

But thanks to the electoral pledge and eventual budget plans of former Premier Dalton McGuinty and current Premier Kathleen Wynne, combined with progressive thinking from agency leadership, the agency has shifted its priorities.

In the 2007 strategic plan, GO chairman Peter Smith emphasized that the agency needed to “grow into an even more comprehensive system that links multiple activity centres and communities,” spreading its mission beyond just serving peak travelers into central Toronto. The plan specified the goal of expanding service to every 15 minutes during the peak hours and every 30 minutes off-peak. In the post recent five-year strategy of GO’s overseeing agency (Metrolinx), the agency lays out its plan to transition to an “all-day regional transit service.” You can be assured that the largest U.S. commuter agencies have no such plans on their radar.

One year ago, GO took the most significant step yet in that direction, bringing all-day, half-hourly, two-directional service to the Lakeshore commuter lines, up from one-hour headways. The change has already increased ridership by 30% on those lines.

The benefits of thinking more broadly about potential riders are very significant. Commuter rail improvements create an opportunity to provide a far faster transit option that traverses the region at commuter rail speeds (which average above 30 mph) at arrival frequencies similar to rapid transit lines (which average 15 to 20 mph). These improvements open suburban markets to transit, giving people who live near stations the kind of service that people who live in denser, urban areas expect as a standard element of city life. They reduce the need for a car for commutes that require traversing large sections of a large region.

Perhaps most importantly, upgrading commuter rail can be done at a reasonable price, since improvements are made on existing corridors.

This year, the governing Liberals (led by Ms. Wynne) promised to bring a service improvement to the Kitchener line by 2016, and more lines will be converted. They also raised the possibility that more frequent service, potentially on electrified lines, could be coming within 10 years thanks to investments in smaller, lighter vehicles. Regional officials committed to transforming GO into “Regional Express Rail“* by providing electric service every 15 minutes (though there is still a need for additional traditional subway service, costs for the GO conversion are not yet clear, and this idea was brought up as far back as the 1980s). The idea was not just supported by the Liberals; Conservatives at the provincial level also indicated their support for the idea. Now the leader in Toronto’s upcoming mayoral election, John Tory, has said he’d like to convert two GO lines to rapid transit standards.

The sudden interest among Torontonians in the improvement of service along the city’s commuter services is partly a reflection of the fact that the region is growing quickly, adding about half a million people every five years, and partly a reflection of the fact that politicians are willing to support big transit projects because people vote for politicians who support using government funds to pay for them. But it is also a reflection of the fact that GO has spent a decade and a half preparing for this transition, notably by increasing its ownership of track miles on which its trains run from 6% in 1998 to almost 70% today. It is no longer at the mercy of freight rail operators in making decisions about how to operate services.

Other American commuter rail operators should closely examine Toronto’s work in improving its commuter rail operations. These transitions will help make the system far more useful for more people, and help adapt commuter rail as a mode to changes in commute and population patterns.

Fortunately, several other cities look like they might be headed in the right direction already. Caltrain, connecting San Francisco and San Jose, is planning a major modernization project that will bring electrified trains and more frequent service along its tracks. Boston’s MBTA and New York’s Long Island Railroad have proposed, though not yet funded, using lighter diesel multiple units on several corridors to increase service.

Many other agencies will continue to resist the change, playing on the argument that their core mission is to serve the peak-hour, peak-direction rider. But if the transportation network as a whole is to make a difference in giving people who live along commuter rail lines faster, more frequent access to transit, thinking about “non-traditional” users is essential.

* The name is clearly a reference to Paris’ RER, which is a network of rapid transit lines running through the city at very fast speeds and onto formerly commuter rail tracks in the suburbs.

Image at top from Flickr user Perry Quan (cc).

Categories
Florida Intercity Rail Miami Urbanism

How broadly applicable is the All Aboard Florida development strategy?

» Coupling real estate investment with the construction of new transit lines is the future, but the conditions need to be right.

Public development and ownership of the transportation system in the United States provided some broad, important social benefits that would not have been possible had our governments left it in the hands of the private sector. The downfall of the public transit and rail industries between the 1930s and 1970s throughout the country (itself partly a consequence of government investment in roads) was due to the fact that those services were no longer profitable. Government intervention through takeover of bankrupt lines kept those services operating and ensured the continuing existence of what is truly an essential public service in our major metropolitan areas.

Yet with the governments takeover of transit services, our regions lost a powerful skill that private transportation providers a century ago used well: Connecting new development with transit investments. The history of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal is often told, but it bears repeating. The New York Central Railroad, which built the terminal, decided to submerge the tracks under Park Avenue north of the terminal in order to create a massive new business district surrounding the station. That neighborhood remains the nation’s most important commercial center.

The railroad understood that the land it used to build its line was valuable, and that allowing new investments in the area near its station would produce a virtuous cycle that built ridership, which, in turn, increased the value of the surrounding land. It’s an understanding we must absorb if we are to ensure that our transit investments are most effective.

After decades of simply ignoring the land use-related effects of transit investments, over the past two decades local governments have made halting efforts to take advantage of this fact, encouraging transit-oriented development by private investors in areas near new stations through the sale or lease of land or the altering of land use regulations to better accommodate denser growth. The most dramatic version of this is the Hudson Yards program on Manhattan’s West Side, where millions of square feet of new office and residential buildings are under construction or planned. Parts of this land was sold to a private bidder by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which will run a new subway station on the 7 Line, and parts were rezoned to allow big buildings by the city.

Altogether, this represents an intentional effort by New York City to repeat the lessons of Grand Central Terminal by merging transportation investment with a real estate program. But, unlike previous private sector development programs, the MTA and city have not been directly involved in the surrounding projects themselves, relying instead on third-party developers to make the choices and, eventually, reap the rewards.

All Aboard Florida’s $1.5 billion investment in new intercity rail services between Miami and Orlando suggests that the private sector is, in part, picking up the slack by taking advantage of the same forces that the private sector used to build its rail lines a century ago. The rail line will run 235 miles from downtown Miami to Orlando airport in around three hours (compared to five hours on Amtrak today). All Aboard Florida is investing in massive new station complexes in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. The Miami terminal, which will be located on company-owned land downtown, will include two million square feet of office or commercial space, and one million square feet of residential space, as shown below. The project is coming along more slowly than initially planned, but company officials insist they will not need government aid other than a large, low-interest loan from the federal government which it expects to pay back from ticket revenues.

Why has it taken so many decades for the private sector to get back into the development game? The growing demand by individuals to live in urban centers is attracting interest in monetizing the benefits of transit-oriented development, and that’s particularly true for large urban markets like Miami. All Aboard Florida will not need its real estate investments to subsidize its rail operations, which it expects to be operationally profitable, but those developments will certainly help justify the investment in the rail service. They’ll also build the rail line’s ridership, as they’ll create major destinations right at the stations.

Government transit agencies focus on the provision of good transit service, and if you ask management at most agencies, they’ll let you know that they need to focus on “what they’re good at,” i.e., running buses and trains. Yet that approach has repeatedly produced projects with mediocre ridership and little nearby development. Transit agencies are reliant on surrounding land uses to support their operations and whether or not they want to, they must make real estate development something they’re “good at.” It is in the public interest to make our transit system not only well-used, but also the foundation for a sound urban development strategy.

The idea of melding new transportation infrastructure with real estate investments does not have to be a strategy reserved to the private sector. For decades, Hong Kong has used its metro system (76% owned publicly) to invest in surrounding developments, which include properties as diverse as towers and shopping malls (this is known as the “rail plus property” model). Similarly, the Grand Paris Express program I profiled earlier this week will integrate its stations into large new developments directly planned by the government implementing agency (“Completed by private developers, the connected project takes into account the technical and functional prescriptions defined by” the agency, with a program “defined by municipal land use plans“). A special tax on property near stations on the line will help pay for the construction of the metro project.

Of course, the All Aboard Florida, Hong Kong metro, and Grand Paris Express projects are exceptional programs that cannot be repeated in most regions. All rely on strong local real estate markets where there is significant demand for major new development. All Aboard Florida takes advantage of that company’s prior ownership of the tracks used for the trains and of the land where its stations and surrounding real estate will be completed. Meanwhile, the transit investment programs in Hong Kong and Paris have been supported by major infusions of government grants that are not available in most American cities and by considerable political will to invest in the creation of denser, more transit-oriented regions.

Most U.S. regions are too sprawling, too auto-dominated, or too poor to expect this kind of transit-oriented development to occur simultaneously with new rail or bus links, particularly if that means that the transit agency has to take on some risk that a project will fail financially.

Nonetheless, major U.S. cities with significant demand for dense living and working environments like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and Washington should evaluate their transit investment programs to ensure that they’re taking the greatest advantage of surrounding land to develop large real estate projects. These developments will not only increase system ridership but also bring decades of future revenue from office, residential, and retail rent, all of which can be used to improve transit system finances. Recent system expansions in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington — none of which have included major development projects on land owned by the transit agencies — suggest that there is significant work left to be done.

Images above: Proposed Miami station, from All Aboard Florida.

Categories
Light Rail Metro Rail Minneapolis Paris

The value of fast transit

» We have failed to come to terms with the fact that the transit we’re building is too slow.

Residents of the Twin Cities greeted the opening of the new Green Line light rail link last month with joy and excitement, finally able to take advantage of a train connection between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The 11-mile rail line runs through a relatively densely populated area, serves two business districts, and travels through the heart of a university.

It’s also alarmingly slow. Green Line trains are taking up to an hour to complete their journeys, and even optimistic schedules released by the local transit agency put running times at 48 minutes, or less than 14 mph on average.

Of course, the Twin Cities are hardly alone in their predicament. Recent transit lines elsewhere in the country feature similarly leisurely travel times. The new Houston North Line, for example, is averaging 17 mph. Los Angeles’ Expo Line is slightly quicker at 18 mph. Bus rapid transit and streetcar projects popping up virtually everywhere are often significantly slower. Only the Washington, D.C. Metro Silver Line, which will extend that region’s subway deep into the Virginia suburbs, will speed commuters along at an average of 32 mph. It will do so while only stopping at 5 stations, all of which will be located in the middle of expressways.

With speeds like those light rail lines or services like the Silver Line, it’s little wonder that it’s so difficult to convince people to get out of their cars in so many places. The fact of the matter is that services like this often do not provide much mobility improvement over the bus services they replace. That’s particularly true for large regions where too many destinations are simply too far away to be accessible by transit that averages such slow speeds.

With its Grand Paris Express program announced in 2009, the Paris region is proposing an alternative. With 127 miles of metro lines and 72 new stations planned, the program will completely alter the landscape of this large metropolitan area, offering new circumferential connections around the city center, making it possible to travel between suburbs without having to pass through the city center. The project entered the construction phase this summer and will eventually serve two million daily riders by the time it is completed in 2030 at a cost of more than $35 billion; it is the second-largest single transportation project in the western world, after the California high-speed rail project.

And it will provide trains running at what are, for transit systems, wildly fast speeds — particularly considering that the system’s stations are planned to be located reasonably close to one another and in the heart of existing developed areas. Current projections suggest that the average speeds of the project’s three new lines (15, 16, and 17) will be between 34 and 40 mph. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to blast open access to the region as a whole.

Consider these isochrone maps produced by Paris regional planning agency APUR:

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Parts of the region accessible by transit in 45 minutes or less from Bry Villiers Champigny (left) or Pont de Sèvres (right) stations. For context, the maps are roughly 35 miles across.

Today
In 2030, with Grand Paris Express and other funded transit projects

The Grand Paris project, in association with several other suburban transit investments, will massively expand the ability of people to get around the region by public transportation. It doesn’t take any specific knowledge of the Paris area to understand the size difference between the yellow areas indicated on the maps above (where you can currently get in 45 minutes by transit from two specific points) and the pink areas (where you will be able to go, in addition, thanks to the new transit investments).

As shown in the following chart, the project will double or, in some cases, quadruple, the area of land accessible in 45 minutes from stations along one of the project’s components, Line 15 (a map of whose alignment is shown at the top of this article). Places in the region that today may be simply too far to get to in a reasonable amount of time by transit and are therefore either required to be accessed by car or avoided all together will suddenly be made accessible.

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Parts of the region accessible by transit in 45 minutes or less from stations along the future Line 15 (stations are positioned around the chart, such as Noisy-Champs, etc.).

Today
In 2030, with Grand Paris Express and other funded transit projects

The replacement of bus services with light rail lines, the typical American approach to improving transit, would not provide nearly as significant a benefit for the inhabitants of this region in terms of their ability to access the opportunities available along the public transportation network. Slower transit effectively makes it impossible for regions to operate as a unified economic or even social entity; indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people from one side of a large city talk about the fact that they “might as well” live in another region to people who live on the other side of the city. Riverdale in the Bronx, for example, is all but unreachable for people 20 miles away in Jamaica, Queens who rely on transit and the slow, almost two-hour trip option it provides. Both places are in New York City, but the transit offered is too slow to make the two areas feel like they are in the same city.

Faster transit services begin to address this problem, but the lack of fast transit able to span entire metropolitan areas in short periods of time does not necessarily result in lower transit ridership. Indeed, it is usually the largest metropolitan areas that feature the most extensive use of public transportation systems. That’s primarily a consequence of poor access by automobiles, which are stuck in traffic and sometimes as slow or slower than even a pokey transit service, and of the diversity of uses present in the neighborhoods of large, dense cities. For people who live in Manhattan or central Paris, the relatively slow speed of the Subway (average speed is about 17 mph) or the Métro (average speed is about 15 mph) doesn’t matter so much because there’s so many things to see or do within a short distance.

But a failure to provide faster transit options is reducing the quality of life of residents in large metropolitan areas. Commuting times are longer, particularly for transit users, because most people do not work in the neighborhoods where they live and jobs may be anywhere in the region. Trips to local amenities such as museums, theaters, or large parks require more time. Solving these problems requires investments in faster transit options or abandoning the conceit that large regions can be understood as a single entity.

Of course, building fast transit — which typically requires burying trains underground or elevating them in the air — is quite expensive. Thanks to a significant increase in national government contributions to transport infrastructure, the Paris region has been able to advance its fast transit plans; with the U.S. Congress hostile to even keeping the gas tax indexed to inflation, we’re unlikely to see anything similar occur on this side of the pond anytime soon.

Image at top from Société du Grand Paris; isochrone chart and maps from APUR.