Categories
France General United States

Is transit ridership loss inevitable? A U.S.–France comparison

» The number of riders using transit in the U.S. continues to decline. But a comparison with French cities shows that the American experience is not a universal one.

Transit ridership declined again in the United States in 2018. As a whole, the nation’s transit systems lost 2 percent of their riders over the previous year—about 200 million fewer trips, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The number of people boarding buses and trains has declined tremendously since the last peak in 2014.

To what can we attribute this change?

American transit ridership is cyclical, but since the 1950s, Americans have been car-dependent. That car dependency is the product of a vicious circle: Reliance on automobiles encourages the development of automobile-focused urban environments, which, in turn, encourage more car use. Roughly three quarters of workers commute by car alone nationwide, and that’s remained true since 1990.

Recent changes, including the rise of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, unquestionably have limited transit’s performance. Numerous studies demonstrate that ride-hailing has increased congestion, slowing buses, and siphoned people out of transit in cities like New York and San Francisco. Moreover, in cities like Los Angeles, cheaper vehicle-acquisition options and the widening of who is allowed to get a license has reduced transit’s appeal. Finally, poor service provision among transit operators is a major problem; since 2004, the number of vehicle miles provided by bus systems has declined by 3% in the New York metro area, 10% in Miami, 12% in Chicago, and 15% in Los Angeles.

Just how universal is the U.S. experience?

To evaluate this question, I collected data on total transit ridership in the 30 largest urban areas in both the U.S. and France* between 2002 and 2018 (including bus, urban rail, ferry, and paratransit services). For the U.S., I used information provided by the National Transit Database; these 30 urban areas accounted for about 89 percent of national ridership in 2018. For France, I contacted transit agencies and examined online reports (I did not include TER regional rail services, since these operate beyond urban areas). Unfortunately, the French data are incomplete, but they still tell a compelling story about the deficiencies of transit performance in the U.S. It is worth noting, of course, that the French regions are quite a bit smaller than the American ones, with median populations of about 500,000 versus 3.1 million.

Let’s first consider how ridership changed before and after 2010.

In the following graph, I chart the ridership performance of all 30 U.S. and French urban areas between 2002 and 2018. The heavy lines show the change from 2010 for the average U.S. region (in black) and the average French region (in blue). (This is not the total ridership, which would be dominated by New York and Paris.)

Between 2002 and 2010, both countries saw increases in transit use in their major cities. The average U.S. city’s ridership increased by 6 percent over that time (though the peak was in 2008). In some cases, the increase was even more dramatic; the New York region’s ridership boomed by 20 percent during this time. French cities increased their ridership by 30 percent on average.

This trend has diverged dramatically since the Great Recession, however. While the average French urban region saw its ridership increase by 32 percent between 2010 and 2018, U.S. regions saw ridership decline by 6 percent on average.

Ridership in the typical large U.S. region is lower now than it was in 2002.

Change in transit ridership compared to 2010, major U.S. and French urban areas

Average ridership by city has declined every year in the U.S. since 2014. It has increased every year in France since 2000.

It’s worth considering in more detail what has occurred in the largest urban areas in both countries.

Below, on the left, I chart how total transit ridership changed in each of the ten largest U.S. and French regions between 2010 and 2018 (2017 for some French cities because of insufficient data availability; see the bottom of the post with the same graphs, but the Bay Area and Seattle added). The ten largest U.S. urban areas accounted for 71 percent of nationwide transit ridership in 2018.

In three U.S. urban areas—Boston, Houston, and New York—ridership increased (though Houston’s ridership is considerably lower now than it was in 2006). In the other seven regions, ridership declined, with Los Angeles leading the way numerically (annual ridership fell by more than 100 million), and Atlanta and Miami leading the way on a percentage basis (losing 26 and 22 percent of riders, respectively).

In all of the ten largest French urban areas over that period, on the other hand, ridership increased on transit services.

Perhaps more interesting is per-capita transit ridership, which adjusts boardings on bus and rail services to the number of people living in each of the regions. This figure is a better reflection of just how well local transit systems are actually serving the population of a metropolitan area.

From this perspective, shown on the right below, the U.S. performance over the past eight years has been miserable. All of the ten-largest U.S. regions saw a lower per-capita transit ridership in 2018 than 2010; this figure declined by 15 percent on average. The decline in Atlanta—30 percent fewer riders per capita—was the worst.

At the same time, all of the ten-largest French regions saw a higher rate of per-capita transit ridership; this figure increased by 18 percent on average for these areas.

Since 2010, then, U.S. transit systems have failed to expand their market share—in fact, they’ve almost universally lost ground compared to the population of the urban regions they’re supposed to be serving. The French cities have moved in the opposite direction.

The result is that a French urban region like Rennes—with a population of about 750,000—now serves more overall annual transit riders than the Dallas region, in which 5.8 million people live. There are now at least 12 French urban regions where local residents take an average of at least 100 transit trips a year (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille, Nantes, Strasbourg, Rennes, Grenoble, Dijon, and Reims).

There are only two U.S. metropolitan areas—New York and San Francisco—where this is the case.

There are, of course, some exceptions to these national trends. Of the 22 French regions for which I have data on ridership from 2010 to 2017 or 2018, all saw an increase in per-capita ridership. However, it is true that I may be missing data on urban areas that saw declines; for example, Valenciennes, a city in northern France, saw a reduction in ridership between 2010 and 2015, but I do not have more recent information.

Moreover, among the 30-largest U.S. urban areas, two saw an increase in per-capita ridership from 2010 to 2018: Las Vegas (+3%) and Seattle (+5%). So there are some American success stories.

For region-by-region trends, the following interactive charts—first for the U.S., then France—allow a visualization of change over time. (These may be difficult to view on mobile devices.)

What explains the generalized success of French regions in building transit ridership—and the failure of U.S. regions to do the same?

Unquestionably, there are national trends at play; there may be broad cultural or economic differences that have recently made U.S. transit (even) less attractive than buses and trains in France.

At the same time, there are reasons to be skeptical of that claim. Seattle’s increased transit use—the region’s services carried 50 percent more riders in 2018 than in 2003—suggest that it is possible to increase ridership, even in the U.S.

The rise of ride-hailing and lower gas prices in the U.S. are often highlighted as causes of transit’s decline. But Uber is available in most French cities and fuel costs are actually lower in France than they were in 2014.

There are, however, certain changes in France that have made transit more effective. Most medium and large French cities have invested in tramway services; length of those lines increased from about 115 miles nationwide in 2000 to 515 miles today. Many cities, such as Metz, have developed effective bus rapid transit services. In both cases, and throughout the country, these services have been designed to serve the densest neighborhoods, rather than auto-dominated suburban communities, as is common along U.S. light-rail lines. They’ve been allocated independent street right-of-way, rather than forced to sit behind traffic, as is common for U.S. BRT lines. French cities have invested heavily in pedestrian-dominated city centers even as U.S. cities have hesitated to take lanes away from cars. And they’ve limited development in exurban communities where transit is unlikely to work.

At the same time, perhaps most importantly, U.S. transit providers simply haven’t increased service to account for a growing population. Between 2010 and 2018, vehicle-miles provided by New York region transit services actually declined by 1.6 percent even as population increased by 4.6 percent.

In the Paris region, transit service provided increased by 6.9 percent over the same period, as population increased by 3.8 percent.

Is it surprising that per-capita transit ridership declined in New York even as it soared in Paris?

Shifting people out of cars and into transit is an essential strategy for cities hoping to reduce pollution, combat climate change, and improve the vitality of their neighborhoods. The U.S. strategy, as this comparison shows, hasn’t worked.

Full data on ridership change can be found here. * I compare the U.S. and France for two principal reasons: First, both are wealthy, modern Western countries with a large number of urban regions; second, I know French and am able to acquire data from there more easily than elsewhere.

Ridership changes in major urban regions, including the Bay Area (combining San Francisco and San Jose urban areas) and Seattle.

Categories
Commuter Rail Intercity Rail Leipzig Philadelphia

For rail services, downtown sometimes isn’t the right place for a terminus

leipzig-markt

» For commuter rail, through-running is becoming increasingly popular in city after city looking to take advantage of faster travel times, direct suburb-to-suburb services, and more downtown stops. Leipzig, Germany, whose City Tunnel opened in 2013, is a case in point.

There’s a romantic notion of the downtown rail terminal in the American popular culture, often expressed in movies and books. It’s a scene that is easy to conjure up in one’s mind: The steaming locomotive comes slowly to a halt at the end of a track, passengers stream out into a giant waiting room, and from there they exit into the bustling metropolis. The railroad terminal is the physical manifestation of the end of a journey and the exciting moment of arrival.

For railroad companies and government agencies, the need to create this welcoming travel environment has inspired multi-billion-dollar station redevelopment schemes. The argument made has been that in order to achieve the appropriate travel experience, people should arrive for train travel—whether intercity or commuter—in one, massive facility where trains begin and end their trips.

But what if this orientation towards rail terminals is actually reducing the effectiveness of our rail system? What if we eliminated terminals downtown altogether and just replaced them with regular old stops on the line, leaving terminals for outer suburban places?

European cities from Basel to Brussels have done just that, replacing commuter rail services ending at central depots with through-running operations where trains stop at several places in the city rather than one thanks to new rail tunnels. They’re expensive investments, but they may make commuting a faster and more enjoyable experience.

The Leipzig experience

Until 2013, commuter rail service in Leipzig, a half-million-person city in eastern Germany, departed from two major train stations—the Hauptbahnhof just north of the center and the Bayerishcher Bahnhof south of it. This produced a peculiar situation in which people traveling from one suburb to another had no easy connection between trains and also required travelers to make a transfer to a local bus or tram—or take a walk—to get to the center of the city.

As early as 1915, city planners plotted a connection between the stations (and some preliminary work was actually completed), but not until the 1990s was a plan finalized, and construction on the City Tunnel didn’t get underway until 2003. The roughly one-mile subway link added two intermediary stations right in the center of downtown (including one at Markt, pictured above). Though the project was years late and its budget exploded to €960 million—of which the Saxony region covered about half the costs—the project was completed.

The following map illustrates the connection the tunnel has provided: A direct link through the center of the city offering a route for six S-Bahn (regional rail) services.

Leipzig S-Bahn

The tunnel saved people using the system lots of time—and now about 55,000 riders are using the link on a typical weekday. It’s well used.

During my time in Leipzig in May as part of the International Transport Forum’s Media Travel Programme, I spoke with Mayor Burkhard Jung about the value this project brought to his city.

Jung, who was a primary advocate for the project, emphasized that the new stations in the center of the city dramatically improved the local economic environment. “Everything changed,” he told me; “it helped the whole business district” by bringing many more visitors. Suburbanites, who once would have avoided the center, or at least only been to the areas directly near the stations, suddenly had very frequent rail access to subway stations directly in the downtown.

Jung also pointed out that the project was contributing to the overall goal of getting more people on transit. “We can’t solve the emissions, noise problems if we don’t solve the mode split problem,” he said. According to him, the city is already heading in the right direction, with a clear shift away from private passenger cars over the last five years.

That’s no surprise when you think about it. Passengers heading in to Leipzig on the S-Bahn who used to have just one available destination downtown—the train line’s terminus—now have four to choose from. That opens up four times as many possibilities in terms of places to go for a night out or a weekend shopping trip.

Meanwhile, the train itself has become more useful, now that instead of just ending downtown, it heads off to another suburban location. And instead of passengers having to run to another potentially far-away platform at the main station to switch to a destination not on one’s train line, they can just get off at any of the City Tunnel’s stations and wait for the next train, since they all operate on the same tracks.

The construction of the City Tunnel did not mean the end of terminus-based rail services entirely in Leipzig. The Hauptbahnhof—which happens to be the largest railway station in the world and also a major shopping center—is still being used, though its focus has shifted to intercity trains. Some intercity trains, however, will be shifted to the City Tunnel in the coming year, though there are capacity limitations.

Many other cities have invested similarly

Leipzig’s investment in its new urban rail tunnel has brought new vitality to its center city but it is in some ways late to the game. In fact, many of its European peers have built similar center-city rail lines over the past few decades in order to provide through-running rail service stopping at many downtown destinations.

Berlin opened its Stadtbahn in the 1880s, providing intercity and commuter service on an elevated line running east-west through the center of the city. Even today, long-distance German high-speed trains hail at several of its stops as they travel from or through Berlin. In the 1930s, Berlin complemented this service with an S-Bahn subway running north-south through the center.

Other cities followed this trend of providing tunneled service for commuter and intercity rail through their centers. Brussels connected its north and south stations in 1952; in 1967, Madrid linked its major stations with the “Tunnel of Laughter;” in 1969, Paris inaugurated its RER regional rail network with a tunnel straight through the center of the city; Munich provided an S-Bahn connection in 1972; Zurich linked up its S-Bahn trains in 1990; Basel built its network in 1997; Bilbao followed in 1999; and Milan began providing inter-suburban train service through downtown in 2004.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list, and many other cities are planning even more: Brussels is building another tunnel to create its own RER network by 2025; Berlin, Geneva, Munich, Stuttgart, and Zurich are all planning or building additional cross-city regional rail links; and London has a new regional rail line under construction and another planned.

Even South American cities are getting into the mix. In Buenos Aires, the new RER network, which includes a cross-city tunneled link (shown in the following video, in Spanish, but worth the watch even if you don’t understand the language) is expected to double suburban rail ridership.

Each of these cities has identified the benefits of combining frequent and fast regional rail networks with through-running train services under their centers. The benefits are clear: More destinations for riders; more accessibility to locations downtown; and the ability to get from one side of a region to another without transferring between trains. They’ve also saved their rail operators considerable expense by allowing them to turn their trains around somewhere other than downtown, which is the most difficult place to do so.

This is a particular benefit because peak times, which require many services heading in or out of downtown, require train operators to stack trains at the terminus, which takes up lots of storage space (in expensive areas of the city) and necessitates many platforms at the terminus, since there aren’t any other downtown station stops. A through-running service allows trains to be stored elsewhere and passengers to be distributed among several stops.

For example, Paris’ RER line A, a through-running regional rail service, carries about as many people daily (more than one million riders) on just two tracks as all services operated by commuter rail services in New York City, including Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit, which require dozens of platforms at the two Manhattan terminals, Grand Central and Penn Station, and which require acres of train storage areas near downtown, either under Grand Central or at the huge yards on Manhattan’s West Side or Sunnyside. In Paris, trains stop at six central-city subway stops, distributing ridership, and train storage is on the suburban fringe.

Cities with through-running regional rail services have moved away from the terminus-as-destination model of providing suburban and intercity rail service. That’s a transition that benefits riders and the cities they live in.

What potential do we have for through-running in the U.S.?

In the 1980s, Philadelphia opened its Center City Commuter Connection, a new subway for regional rail trains running directly through downtown, with three stops along the way. The project did, in fact, provide riders using that city’s commuter system significantly more alternatives for destinations downtown. Ridership has increased by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years, increasing from 80,000 typical daily trips in 1996 to 135,000 last year.

But because of limited funding, a circuitous regional network (many trains heading east through the tunnel actually end up heading west, and vice-verse), and a lack of commitment to maintaining high train service frequencies or through-running services in general, Philadelphia’s system has not reached its potential. Nonetheless, the infrastructure is there.

New York also has the infrastructure for through-running between Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey thanks to tunnels under Penn Station, but trains are segregated between three operators, each of which only has one terminal station in the Manhattan core. Through-running would require cooperation between these operators and, to optimize ridership distribution (to prevent long station stops for boarding and unloading), additional new subway stations in the core, which may be technically difficult and would certainly be pricey.

Other American cities, including Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, have commuter rail termini located relatively close to one another but which would require new, expensive downtown tunnels to connect them. Are these top infrastructure priorities for cities that have many transportation needs? That’s an open question. But what is undoubtedly true is that if we want more effective commuter rail services that serve more people, we should at least be considering them—a step few U.S. cities have taken thus far.

Image at top: Leipzig City Tunnel Markt station, photograph by Yonah Freemark. Map from City Tunnel Leipzig.

Categories
Paris Social Justice

Broadening the city through a universal fare card

» The Paris region plans a single monthly fare for transit access, eliminating zones for pass holders, with the dual goals of encouraging more transit use and social integration.

What if it were possible to travel as much as you’d like by train or bus within Connecticut, from Stamford to New Haven, Hartford, New London, Waterbury, Danbury, Putnam, and hundreds of other towns, and then to travel within them, all on one transit fare card at the monthly price of just $76?

That’s what, in essence, will occur beginning in September in Île-de-France, the region that surrounds and includes Paris and which is practically the physical size of Connecticut—albeit far more populous and benefiting from a far more extensive transit system.

The plan is to eliminate the current five-zone transit fare system for people holding weekly or monthly passes and replace them with a universal, unlimited fare. The universal card will apply to virtually all transit services within Île-de-France, which is the most populous region in France, with 12 million inhabitants spread over 4,638 square miles (for comparison, the city of Paris proper has 2.3 million residents in 41 square miles, and New York City, which has a universal fare card for Subways and buses, is 305 square miles). The map below compares the shape and scale of Île-de-France with the New York region. Imagine a single monthly fare card for all transit service in that area.

The new monthly fare option will cost €70 ($76) for regular users,* up slightly from €67.10 for unlimited rides today in Paris and small areas just adjacent to the city and way down from €113.20 today for unlimited rides across the full region. The policy was adopted last December by the regional government and fulfilled a 2010 electoral promise by the governing socialist (PS)/green (EELV) coalition.

Everyone in the region with this fare card will now benefit from unlimited travel on the region’s metro, bus, regional rail (RER), and commuter trains. The fare policy change was a political decision. It responds to the sense that the Paris region, as frequently reported, has become increasing geographically unequal, as manifested by poverty in the suburbs and wealth in the inner city. By universalizing access to transit everywhere, people who live in the suburbs and commute to the city no longer have to pay more than their counterparts living within the city. It promotes the idea that access to transportation throughout the region is more of a right than something that you only use when you can afford it or really need it. Moreover, it reflects the fact that as population and jobs have decentralized, commutes are no longer primarily suburb-to-center city; a zonal system radiating from the center is a relic of that antiquated economic geography.

Equally important, it is an aggressively pro-transit policy that further reduces the cost of riding the train or bus compared to commuting by car; this effort corresponds directly to the national and regional government’s massive investment in suburban tramway and BRT lines, plus a vast new network of automated metro lines. Perhaps its greatest benefit is that it encourages people to take the fastest services available on any trip, while current fare policies give people discounts for taking slower local services. For example, while rides on local buses or the metro are currently priced at a single fare per trip, no matter the distance, rides on much faster regional rail or commuter rail services (even when they’re in the same alignment and cover the same stops as the bus or metro lines) are charged by zone, which can significantly increase the cost and likely dissuades many riders from traveling as quickly as they could.

The regional, single-cost fare card is a policy designed to spread freedom of movement.

Over the course of the year, the new fares will save regular commuters in the furthest suburbs more than €500 a year. The policy will add €400 to 550 million in annual costs to the region and is to be paid for by an increase in an employer-paid income tax (the increase was supported by the chamber of commerce).**

The policy comes after two years of weekend, vacation, and August de-zonings for pass holders, which were estimated to have increased travel on the transit network during those periods by 6.5 percent thanks to people choosing to travel outside of the zones they had paid for using their monthly cards.

It seems likely that the universalization of the no-zone policy, and its applicability to every day of the week, will increase use of the system even more significantly and encourage many long-distance auto commuters, who are now put off by higher long-distance zonal fees, to switch to transit.

Unlimited fares have their negative consequences

Of course, this fare policy has its tradeoffs. By eliminating the current zonal policy, the region is reducing the financial disincentive that currently inhibits people from using the system more. While that may mean fewer cars on the road—a benefit—it may also mean more discretionary trips on an already-crowded network, and it may mean eliminating the financial reason many have not to take longer trips, which violates the user pays principle. With several of Paris’ main transit arteries already at or above capacity, will more riders be a good thing for the region? Will the region be able to handle the congestion?

Some might argue that the introduction of this fare policy would make more sense only when the suburban transit improvements and the new regional rail tunnel through the center city are completed, so as to ensure that at least all the new crowds will be riding on a bigger system. Yet those new lines won’t come into service until 2020 and later; should the region do nothing to address transport fare inequities until that time?

Most importantly, the decision to spend hundreds of millions of euros on reduced fares could mean hundreds of millions of euros not being spent on better transit service every year—and some would argue that the best way to improve transportation is to expand service, not to lower fares. Indeed, given a constrained budget, choosing to devote new revenues to reduced fares probably means something else is losing out. (Or, looking at the economy as a whole, raising taxes to spend this money on fare policy means less money for companies to either spend on salaries or profits.)

The cost tradeoff is certainly not one to scoff at. Last week, New York’s independent Citizens Budget Commission recommended capping the number of rides that can be taken with the (far more geographically constrained) unlimited fare card on New York City’s MTA Subway and bus system, in effect putting a limit on unlimited. Though the cap would affect relatively few people, it would be designed to raise revenues in a fiscally tight environment for an agency that is struggling with quickly growing ridership.

On the other hand, were New York to change its fare policies to allow current monthly pass holders to ride the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad to far-off destinations deep in Upstate New York, Connecticut, or Long Island—in other words, do what Paris is going to allow this fall—the MTA would be left with fewer revenues.

But customers would benefit. They’d get faster service on commuter rail lines that many now avoid because of the higher price of travel (a trip from Jamaica in Queens to Penn Station in Manhattan, for example, costs $10 on the Long Island Rail Road for a 19-minute trip versus just $2.75 on the Subway for a 35-minute trip). People in neighborhoods currently only served by commuter rail, both in the city and in the suburbs, would suddenly have a reasonable-cost travel option equivalent to their peers with Subway access. People living in the city would suddenly have a much cheaper way to visit Long Island beaches on weekends, and people living on those beaches would suddenly have a much easier way of working downtown. These are not imaginary benefits.

Moreover, the cost tradeoff is not so simple as a conflict between lower universal fares and better service. Rather, the funding used to pay for the universal fare comes from a revenue source that may not have been politically feasible to raise unless it addressed the issue of equalizing transport access among different areas of the city. In other words, the hundreds of millions of euros being spent on this change may have only generated political support for the improvement of the transit system in the context of standardizing fares.

A regionwide single fare has as much to do with equity as boosting transit ridership

In some ways, Paris’ incentives to support cheaper long-distance commutes reflect the undeniable fact that poverty in the French capital region is concentrated in the suburbs (though there are many middle-class and wealthy Paris suburbs as well). Compared with most North American regions, where the very poor live predominantly in inner-city neighborhoods, the impoverishment of many Parisian suburbs (and the wealth of the inner city) may speak to the need for the unique fare policies described above.

The traditional model of urban economics—based on a central core with jobs and radiating rings of residential areas—suggests that as people move out from downtown, they choose to trade off higher transportation costs (in terms of more time and money spent commuting) in favor of lower housing costs (in terms of less cost per square foot, since housing on the periphery of the city is often much larger per person than housing in the center). The theory is that poor people would live in the city in smaller apartments with lower transportation costs. Yet the spread of poverty to the suburbs (in many cases a result of government action), as exemplified by the Paris region, has resulted in many poor people living in the suburbs who cannot afford the cost of the transportation that’s available to them, or at least who are negatively affected by the high costs of transportation use.

Many readers will note that the geographic and demographic environment in North American regions is changing too; indeed, for years the spread of poverty to the suburbs has become an increasingly relevant issue for public transit agencies (as well as governments in general—see Ferguson, Missouri). If there are now more Americans living in poverty in the suburbs than in cities, shouldn’t fare policies reflect that fact? Shouldn’t we reduce the cost of using transit for those who are most in need?

On the other hand—and this is an important caveat—American suburbs remain very different than many French ones in that they are overwhelmingly sprawling and automobile-dependent. Moreover, no U.S. region is investing in suburban transit at even close to the scale of Paris—meaning that even with reduced transit fares, most people would probably still need to use their cars to get to their jobs. Would reducing transit fares at the regional level do much more than support wealthy suburbanites using commuter trains to get to work in the city?

Clearly, the issues faced by U.S. regions (as well as French ones!) extend far beyond the matter of fare policy; addressing poverty requires more than just cheaper transportation options—in many communities even basic transit isn’t available, and finding the funding for decent bus and rail service probably must come before funding reducing fares on that service. But effective, affordable transit is an important element of a just society. Paris is challenging us to think radically about what affordable transit means.

* For people who are unemployed or of moderate means, the universal card will cost €17 a month. The most impoverished families in the region already benefit from free transit use.

** In this article, I’ve skirted around the more esoteric question of who pays for the subsidy provided to encourage people to rely on transit (and I’m not going to address why subsidies are needed—read this on that subject). After all, the reduction in monthly fares for such a large percentage of the population will almost certainly result in reduced revenues per ride taken—meaning more subsidies are needed. The issue of who pays for these incentives is one that raises heckles among people of all stripes and deserves a discussion of its own. In this case, though, it suffices to say that in Paris, transit operations are provided mostly by the historic but independent national rail company SNCF and Paris transport company RATP, but these companies are not “paying” for the subsidy; the regional transportation governance body (STIF) is through taxes it raises. STIF will continue to pay SNCF and RATP the cost of operational supports for the services they provide, irrespective of the fare policy.

This distribution of responsibility in terms of who is paying for the subsidy is only possible because STIF is independent of SNCF and RATP. In the case of the MTA in New York City, for example, this distribution of power has not played out because the governmental body that controls the MTA—the State of New York—has not taken full responsibility for public transportation in the New York region. If MTA decided to equalize fares across the Subway, bus, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad system, it would have to “pay” for the costs of doing so out of its own operations budget. If New York were more like Paris, the Governor of New York could decide that he wanted to achieve that outcome and would use state resources to pay the MTA to substitute for the lost revenue incurred by making such a policy change. But political actors at the state level in New York have avoided taking true responsibility for the transportation agency.

Of course, the New York region would also need a fare card that can be used across systems to make this possible; currently you can’t use the same fare card for any combination of the Subway, Metro-North Railroad, Long-Island Rail Road, or New Jersey Transit.

Photo at top: Houilles train station, from Flickr user harrobaz (cc). Île-de-France/New York region comparison map made by me using MAPfrappe.

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
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.