Bay Area Detroit

Transit Overload

When are there too many public transportation systems in one place?

Last week, Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr. announced that he was interested in merging the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT), which runs the city’s buses, and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which operates buses in the city’s suburbs. Merger has been under discussion since SMART was founded in 1967. The two services mostly don’t overlap – the former is entirely designed to serve in-city commuting, while the latter simply takes people living in the city to work in the suburbs, or vice-verse. But the fact that the two systems are divided is a reflection of the great disparity between inner-city Detroit and its suburbs, a difference that is larger than that of perhaps any other American city.

After all, the city of Detroit is 82% black, while the metropolitan area is almost entirely white. While the suburbs are among the most affluent in the United States, 22% of the city’s population is below the poverty line. In 1950, the city had 1.8 million people, but it has now shrunk to 900,000; meanwhile, the metro area as a whole has increased in size from 3.2 million to 4.5 million in the same period. Meanwhile, while DDOT serves 39 million passengers annually on a budget of $184 million, SMART serves only 12 million annually on a relatively much greater budget of $124 million. Should bus services be divided between a city so poor and its suburbs, doing so well?

The conflict over Detroit’s bus services raises a broader question relevant to every urban area: should public transportation services cover the entirety of a metropolitan area, or should they be divided up by jurisdiction, as in Detroit? In New Jersey and Maryland, the state government runs bus services, light rail lines, and commuter trains in cities and suburbs throughout. In California’s Bay Area, on the other hand, the transit situation is completely balkanized. As shown in the map below, not only are bus services in the metropolitan area divided up by county – and even sometimes city – but to make matters worse, rail services that extend past municipal and county borders are each run autonomously.

The Bay Area Transit Mess

The problem is complex. For instance, while Muni and VTA light rail services are run by the bus service providers in San Francisco and San Jose, respectively, BART heavy rail and Caltrain commuter rail, which pass through numerous jurisdictions, are run by independent operating boards. Even more complicated, perhaps, is the fact that two planned extensions of BART, south to San Jose and a DMU line east into East Contra Costa County (eBART), are being planned and paid for by the counties, not BART.

The whole region is under the jurisdiction of the 9-county Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which distributes federal formula funds. Its role is theoretically to coordinate planning between all of the region’s transit agencies, but in reality, it is weak and incapable of forcing agencies to coordinate services efficiently. For example, the MTC introduced the TransLink fare card in 2002, and subsequently encouraged all of the Bay Area’s transit agencies to allow users to accept the card as payment. In 2006, however, BART – seemingly oblivious to the roll-out of TransLink – introduced its own fare card, called EZ-Rider. As a result, it has repeatedly delayed the introduction of TransLink at its stations, and the card’s use, which was supposed to allow people to switch easily between different services, makes correspondingly less sense.

While the full implementation of TransLink would indeed make the region easier to navigation, the separation of transit operations by locality and agency ultimately makes using public transportation more difficult than it ought to be. A single operator would provide customers ease of use throughout the region, because once they’ve gotten use to the manner in which signs, fare cards, and stations work in one area, they would understand transit throughout the region; today’s system forces riders to re-learn getting around public transportation every time they switch operators. Meanwhile, the operators themselves ultimately spend more on operations than they would have to if they were merged: if San Francisco’s Muni and San Jose’s VTA bought light rail vehicles together, they could get a better deal; if the region’s bus operators worked together, getting from one service area to another wouldn’t require as many changes of vehicle as is common today.

The existence of so many different operators is usually the result of the nationalization of operators that occurred in the early and mid-20th century: different transit operations, formerly under the control of competitive private entities, were brought into government control. For the most part in the Bay Area, bus operations were taken over at the county level. When regional services such as BART and Caltrain were implemented, rather than considering how to bring transit operations throughout the area together, the governments simply decided to create another, independent authority. Local entities could maintain political control over their bus networks, only being willing to allow a regional board control over the regional network. A bus service problem in Union City, for instance, would be resolved by leaders only in Union City, not some far-off cost-cutter in San Francisco. Ultimately, that made planning and funding less politically controversial from the beginning, but the long-term result is confusion among customers and problematic connections between services.

San Francisco’s example may be the worst in the United States, but all over the country, there are examples of problems resulting from the existence of multiple transit operators in the same areas. In New York City, customers can’t ride a train directly from New Jersey to Long Island because one operator (New Jersey Transit) covers the route from New Jersey to Manhattan and another from Long Island to Manhattan (Long Island Railroad). Meanwhile, people traveling in Manhattan from 34th Street and 6th Avenue to 14th Street and 6th Avenue have two separate underground travel choices: a $1.75 ride on PATH (run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) or a $2 ride on the 6th Avenue line of the New York Subway (run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority).

Thus, the existence of so many separate transit operators ultimately is an encumbrance to mass transit users and an inefficient way to manage and pay for operations. To merge operations – such as is being proposed in Detroit – would be convenient to riders and easier on the pocketbook of taxpayers. In these tight times, when transit agencies are cutting service and increasing fares, considering transit service consolidation makes a lot of sense, even if it means losing some local political control.

All that said, it could be worse. In Paris, the southern section of the RER B commuter rail line is run by the city’s transit system (RATP), while the northern portion is operated by the national rail company (SNCF). At the Gare du Nord station, in the middle of the journey, the train driver of one of the operators must get out and be replaced by another representing the other operator. Trains must sit in the station for a long period of time, every time while the change occurs before getting moving again. That’s what you call a mess.

Bay Area Detroit Honolulu

Detroit Mass Transit; San Francisco Congestion Pricing; Honolulu Impeachment?

The Detroit Free Press reports today on Detroit’s rapidly advancing plans for a light rail system in that city’s core. The first segment, as we’ve reported before, will be a 3.4-mile line running from Downtown to New Center along Woodward Avenue (which is now being called The Regional Area Initial Link, TRAIL). There continues to be some confusion about whether this project will replace, compete with, or merge with the Detroit Department of Transportation’s proposed Woodward Light Rail line. We’re betting on a merger.

Other phases of the project, which has been approved by the state legislature and the local council of governments, will extend the system for another 5 miles along Woodward, as well as add a commuter rail line to Ann Arbor and install a network of rapid buses throughout the 900,000-person city.

The project plans to apply for funding from the coming stimulus bill, making it the 1,000th transit agency to announce its intention to do so. (Pardon our sarcasm.)

San Francisco, wishing to repeat the failed fight New York had in 2007 over congestion pricing, is developing its own plan. The city, looking at the success of London in reducing congestion (whose own anti-pricing new Mayor, Boris Johnson, recently reduced the size of the zone), wants to charge motorists when they enter the city center. The federal government, whose current Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters, is close to obsessed with pricing zones, has provided $1 million to sponsor the study.

In the abstract, this makes sense. San Francisco is a dense and walkable city whose streets would benefit from fewer cars. There are also quite a few strong public transportation options, including Muni Metro, and BART. But BART’s Oakland-San Francisco Transbay Tube is reaching capacity, meaning that a sudden increase in commuters would overwhelm the system. If the city wants to be serious about reducing congestion, a second BART under Bay line would be a valuable investment. So how about more BART and congestion pricing?

In Honolulu, people disappointed by the November election, which not only served to reelect of Mayor Mufi Hannemann, but also endorsed his 20-mile rail system, have decided to call for his impeachment as a last resort. These individuals, whose project will almost certainly fail considering Mr. Hannemann’s enormous margin of victory and his continued popular support, claim that the mayor lied about the rail system and should therefore be pushed out of office. Their website,, is a bit lacking in specifics about how exactly he lied and the specific reasons for impeachment.

This cynical movement, whose actual basis has nothing to do with Mr. Hannemann himself and a lot more to do with their opposition to the rail line, which is marching towards construction as we speak. Sorry guys.

Bus Detroit Seattle Streetcar Washington DC

Streetcars in Seattle & Detroit; Rapid Busses in Maryland

After a prolonged debate, Seattle’s City Council approved yesterday a $600 million streetcar network that will redefine the inner city’s approach to getting around. This will make Seattle the second city in the United States, after Portland, to develop a modern downtown streetcar system from scratch. This news comes after last year’s opening of the South Lake Union Streetcar (aka the SLUT), and its successful meeting of ridership estimates.

Seattle’s system has been funded by the recent passage of the Sound Transit ballot passage, which will provide $120 million for a line between downtown and the Capitol Hill neighborhood, but funding for other lines isn’t as obvious, though some of it may come from state money for the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The replacement of the former Waterfront Trolley, which was shut down for a sculpture garden, is a priority.

The streetcar system will be an efficient way of connecting the light rail line currently under construction with destinations throughout the inner city. Here at the transport politic, however, we’re big proponents of streetcars not so much for the frankly limited improvements in mobility they provide but rather the fact that they stimulate dense development near stops, as the case of Portland’s Pearl District demonstrates. Streetcars allow for the development of transit-oriented districts far more cheaply than either light rail or heavy rail lines, and they provide downtown dwellers an easy manner to avoid driving – not so much true for busses, which often follow confusing routes and offer substandard service.

We’ll be following the development of Seattle’s system with excitement (along with that of its light rail system). The real question is whether Portland (which has its own large system (PDF) under development) or Seattle will have a bigger network in the years to come!

In Detroit, after days of speculation, the City Council has finally approved a regional mass transit plan. The network considered by the City will provide a number of lines: 1. a streetcar line along Woodward Avenue, the city’s main street; 2. a commuter rail system connecting Detroit with Ann Arbor; and 3. an improved system of suburban bus lines. As we’ve discussed several times before on this blog, Detroit faces unusual circumstances in the development of a transit system. Unlike Seattle, for instance, Detroit has a quickly declining population, with fewer jobs every year as the auto industry contracts. Recent Census estimates show that the city’s population has declines from 950,000 in 2000 to 917,000 today – and that’s down from 1.85 million back in 1950.

When you visit the city, it’s obvious that it’s just a shell of its former self; the huge downtown, dense as hell, is empty and marked with a lot of vacant buildings (not to mention random vacant lots). How can a city like this, which looks like it is closer to abandonment than anything else, sponsor an effective transit network, whose primary goal in other cities is to stimulate economic development?

But to argue that the City Council shouldn’t invest because the city is loosing population is self-defeating. Doing so would mean giving up on the city, which its own elected officials just aren’t going to do. But for a new transit system to work, the city’s going to need to attract a few more jobs and start finding ways to rebuild its population.

Finally, Maryland’s Montgomery County, which forms the northwestern border with the District of Columbia, is finally recognizing that it is developing into an increasingly urban place, and its council members are considering how to ramp up transit service to meet that densifying profile. Council member Marc Elrich has recently discussed constructing a rapid bus system that would serve east-west trips in the county, which is currently served by two branches of the north-south only Metrorail Red Line. To get from Bethesda to Silver Spring, for instance, residents must either take a slow local bus or ride the Red Line all the way through downtown D.C. and back out.

Elrich’s proposal makes sense; any improvement of bus service in the provision of bus-only lanes, better stop shelters, and increasing frequency, would be good for the county’s population. But the real solution would be the full funding of the Purple Line as light rail. That system, which would connect Montgomery and Prince Georges’ County, would transport 66,000 riders a day and ensure easy cross-county transport that would avoid transferring in downtown Washington. Acting together with a newly efficient bus system, the Purple Line would provide greatly enhanced mobility for the county.

Charlotte Detroit High-Speed Rail United Kingdom

Passenger Rail in Ohio and UK; Light Rail in Charlotte and Detroit

Ohio‘s interested in getting into the passenger rail game. The state is planning new service between Cincinnati and Cleveland based on the assumption that it will be able to apply for – and get – $100 million in infrastructure spending money. This plan would be incorporated into the Midwest High Speed Rail plan, but for the meantime, it wouldn’t mean fast or even frequent trains. Rather, the system would be limited to 79-mph and only have two trains, running one round trip a day. This is a nice idea, though quite modest, considering that Ohio will eventually play an important role as the link between the East Coast and Chicago once high-speed rail nationwide becomes a reality.

Geoff Hoon, the Transport Secretary of the United Kingdom (Labour Party), has now come out in favor of a high-speed rail link between London and Scotland via the east coast of the country. This is in contrast to the Tory Party’s plan for a west coast high-speed rail line, which they contend would make a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport unnecessary. Hoon argues that the west coast line – which serves Birmingham and Manchester – was recently upgraded, but there isn’t any doubt that it is the west coast line that would attract more users. Perhaps in the long term, both are good ideas?

Charlotte, North Carolina, is facing rising questions about whether its current 1/2-cent sales tax will be enough to provide the kind of transit expansions its politicians have been promising since the tax was passed in 1998. Agency leaders are now suggesting that another form of funding will be necessary if the system is to expand to all parts of Mecklenberg County, as was originally envisioned. The Lynx light rail system’s first line has been a smashing success, however, so support may be more forthcoming than it would have been in the past.

Finally, in Detroit, the plan for a light rail line down the city’s main strip, Woodward Avenue, is taking shape. The State Legislature has approved a plan that would allow the development of such a line, which is currently being proposed by both a private group and the Detroit Department of Transportation. The issue of transit is increasingly important in the Motor City – it is even playing a role in the upcoming Mayoral election. Whether such a network will save the city from what increasingly looks like eternal damnation is unclear at this time, though.

Detroit New York Toronto

Transit Expansions, Cuts, and Art

Detroit, which is suffering more than any other city from the economic crisis, is moving to develop an alternative to car-based commuting. Though the nation’s three automakers are all headquartered in the region, the area’s political and financial leaders buy the transit gospel, and recognize that an improved transit system would do a lot to improve the city’s struggling downtown.

Currently served by the Detroit Department of Transportation’s network of buses and the SMART suburban network, planners are currently considering building a streetcar or light rail line through the city’s core, on Woodward Avenue. This strip goes from the city’s center along the waterfront, past the two major league stadiums, in the midst of midtown (where the Amtrak station now is), and then further north. It is the center city’s definitive artery and it makes perfect sense to align a rail system along its path. This is especially true because the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail system would stop at the existing Amtrak station rather than downtown; a connection is necessary.

But two different groups, the public Department of Transportation and a private consortium consisting of some of the city’s largest non-auto companies, are proposing different plans. The public group envisions a 9.3 mile-long light rail line for $371 million, which would theoretically attract 22,000 daily riders. This would be paid for using a transit-area tax and federal dollars. Meanwhile, the private consortium (called Detroit Regional Mass Transit) envisions a 3.5 mile-long route that would only serve the downtown core of the city.

It’s been suggested that the two systems be merged, since they propose the same service for 3.5 miles of the route. Obviously you wouldn’t have two separate light rail systems on the same street. We’re a little skeptical of the city’s 22,000 daily rider estimate, simply because the city is so auto-based and the downtown, though once quite vibrant, has fallen onto harder times. Nonetheless, the construction of this route would go part of the way towards recuperating the loss the city faced when it told the federal government “No!” to $600 million worth of funds for mass transit Washington offered back in the 1970s.

In New York City, which is facing a huge real estate downturn, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is proposing massive service reductions in order to shore up its budget. The consequences of changes to be proposed to the Board on Thursday would be disastrous for the city, whose train network is already chronically overcrowded.

There is no good reason for the MTA to have to make these cuts in the middle of a recession. People need transit alternatives, and by increasing waiting times, limiting the number of available trains, reducing the number of routes, and delaying the renovation of stations, we’re going to simply see the transit system in a bigger hole than it’s in today. The federal government must work to bailout New York and other cities that are facing these huge cuts. It would be embarrassing to see New York’s Subway fall into the same disrepair it faced in the 1970s today, when we’re increasingly concerned about the climate crisis and when millions of people are facing decreasing revenues. As we said on this blog a few weeks ago, the first priority for transit proponents should be the shoring up of federal funds for older transit networks like New York’s. 

Meanwhile, in Toronto, which is on route to extending its Spadina subway line into York County (as well as simultaneously building a new network of streetcars and light rail lines), has hired two world famous architects to design its next stations. Will Alsop and Norman Foster will take on the design of some of the new stations along the extension. This is exciting news, because it means that the Toronto Transit Commission takes seriously the idea that subway stations should be interesting, rather than simply utilitarian, spaces. In a city where many stops “look like bathrooms,” this is a huge advancement in thinking.

But it also raises a question for transit agencies around the world: is transit meant to be an enhancement of the public space, or just a matter of increased mobility? If we consider mass transit to be an integral part of the urban public sphere, we should lean towards the former. We need transit that appeals to the eye as well as to the timetable. Toronto’s taking the right step in pushing for architecturally interesting stations.