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:

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.

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.

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.).

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.

Light Rail Minneapolis

A Step Ahead for Light Rail in the Twin Cities

» The Central Corridor will connect two downtowns, a rare feat for a rail system in the U.S. Peaking should be less of a problem here.

The Twin Cities pioneered a model for regional decision-making with the formation of the Metropolitan Council in 1967, creating one of the country’s only truly empowered elected regional bodies. Though the group invested in transportation improvements throughout the area, focusing specifically on connecting a network of express buses into downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, it was only in 2004 that the area opened its first light rail corridor, the Hiawatha Line.

Connecting central Minneapolis with the airport and the Mall of America in a suburb to the south, that project proved to be far more popular with riders than originally expected, with more people using it on a daily basis just two years after opening than had been predicted for 2020.

Yet the real challenge for the Twin Cities was connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul into a unified unit. With downtowns just a dozen miles apart, the two towns merge together, but transit riders have never been able to take full advantage of this proximity, nor the presence of the University of Minnesota campus just between the two. With federal approval yesterday of a Full Funding Grant Agreement to pay 50% of its costs, however, the Central Corridor light rail line‘s completion is guaranteed, and that will mean frequent, relatively fast, and reliable connections between the cities in just three years.

With a central business district at both ends of the line and a huge university at the center (more than 50,000 students), the Central Corridor route offers a number of advantages that most new rail lines constructed in the United States do not: Peak service demand in both directions. A typical suburb-to-central city line acquires most of its ridership from work trips — from the suburbs to the downtown in the mornings, and from the downtown to the suburbs in the afternoons. If there is enough demand to run 10 trains per hour in one direction, however, the transit agency generally has to run (and pay for) 10 trains per hour in the other direction just to keep up — even if there’s only enough demand for 5. This means too many vehicles running mostly empty in the opposite direction from peak.

In Minneapolis, for example, there are relatively few people riding the Hiawatha line from the southern suburbs towards downtown during the afternoon peak, yet services in both directions see seven trains per hour during the 4-to-5 PM peak hour. Though this is less of a problem at other points in the day when the loads are more evenly distributed, this situation during the peak hours costs the transit agency millions of dollars a year in operating too many trains for the number of passengers who want to ride.

Here, on the other hand, though downtown Minneapolis (146,5000 jobs) will be the most significant destination, it will not overwhelm the other terminus at St. Paul, which has a significant business district of its own (47,500 jobs) and of course the state capitol. This design decision — to plan the Central Corridor with a major destination at each of its termini — will reduce the problem of peak-period inefficiencies and ensure that the operator is able to attract a sufficient number of riders on all of its trains, increasing the average passenger count per vehicle in use.

The 11-mile project will cost a total of $957 million and result in a radical restructuring of the areas through which it runs, including the two downtowns, the University, St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, and the state capitol complex. The installation of a reserved right-of-way for the light rail, the elimination of several hundred street parking spaces, the construction of 18 stations, and the guarantee of on-time transit services between the two cities every 7.5 minutes will be enough to attract more than 40,000 riders (of which 6,000 will be new to transit) by 2030, according to current estimates.

At first glance, the line’s importance may seem overstated: Compared to the existing Route 94 bus that provides express service every five to ten minutes at rush hour between the two downtowns, the light rail line will be significantly slower, taking 40 minutes to complete the journey compared to 26-30 for the bus line. Yet that bus does not provide local service since it is confined to the I-94 freeway for most of its length. The Route 16 bus, which follows the same route as the Central Corridor along University and Washington Avenues, can in typical traffic take an hour or more to complete its trip. In essence, the light rail line will replace both routes (though not the 94 at rush hours) and split the difference in terms of travel times.

For the average user in the corridor (even those who currently take express buses), that is likely to mean a reduction in trip times overall, since more people will be within walking distance of the stations positioned half a mile apart and better connections will be offered to perpendicular north-south bus services. And Metro Transit, which has planned and will run the line, has made an effort to prevent the trains from being slowed down by the hurdles of being placed in an active street right-of-way.

Unlike in Austin, whose new plan for rail service involves running trains in shared automobile lanes throughout the downtown, the Twin Cities will get a dedicated transitway down the street median, guaranteeing running times and preventing problems that could result from being stuck in car congestion.

The construction of the project was by no means certain; though it has been the Twin Cities’ top transit priority for decades, the cost of building the line was significant and the potential opposition from neighbors strong. Former Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty (now likely running for president) attempted to veto state funding for the project in 2008, an effort that was overruled by the Democrats in the State Assembly. The University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio both expressed concerns that the line would disrupt their work and tried to move the corridor away from the job centers in which they are located, moves that were fortunately rebuked by Metro Transit.

More significantly, neighborhood groups complained that the planned reduction of parallel parking spaces from 1,150 along University Avenue to 175 was simply too much to bear. Planners responded by pointing out that 15,300 off-street parking spaces were available within one block of the line and then offered a million dollars to shore up support for affected small businesses.

In addition, three new stops were added along University Avenue — a decision that will cost trains a few minutes along the route between the two downtowns but one that will likely raise ridership by ensuring that everyone along the corridor is within roughly a 1/4 mile walk of a station. The lack of easily accessible parking will be relieved by the constant presence of a close light rail stop, a deal that should be recognized as a fair compromise to emulate in other cities considering light rail service in the street.

The most exciting aspect of this project, though, remains the connection between two downtowns that it will provide: If the Twin Cities can ensure that passenger counts heading in both directions are sufficient to guarantee high average vehicle occupancy and less of a peaking problem, Metro Transit will be able to operate an efficient line with fewer operating expenditures per passenger overall.

Image above: A light rail train at Minneapolis’ Target Field Station, from Flickr user Jerry Huddleston (cc)

Minneapolis Streetcar

Minneapolis Advances Streetcar System Plan

» With approval on Friday, council will endorse 30-year proposal for street-running rail after neglecting the project for a year. The city is expected to move forward with one route in the fall.

When Minneapolis released its seven-line network plan for urban streetcars back in 2007, the city appeared to be at the head of its game, likely to follow Portland as one of the first U.S. cities to develop a modern trolley system.

Unfortunately, when the economic crisis hit and the lack of interest from the Bush Administration made clear to the city’s leaders that the only way their project would be built would be to sponsor it entirely with local funds, the program was “filed” away, to be revived at some more prosperous time. In the meantime, after Ray LaHood took reigns of the federal Department of Transportation, Detroit, Dallas, Tucson, Portland, and New Orleans received millions of dollars for their respective streetcar lines and other cities have applied for $130 million in inner city circulator grants the DOT expects to reward later this year.

All of which leaves Minneapolis a little behind in the game.

Nevertheless, tomorrow the City Council is expected to approve the 30-year vision for local rail transit corridors first laid out in 2007 and passed by the Public Works and Transportation Committee last week. In addition, it will take the first step in readying one “starter” corridor for further planning later this year, with plans to eventually ask Washington to fund 50% of construction costs.

The Minneapolis streetcar route network would extend the reach of the region’s existing and planned rapid transit lines by connecting stations in the city’s dense urban core.

Three routes would run along Hennepin Avenue through downtown, allowing a transfer to the Hiawatha Light Rail line at 5th Street and extending south to Lake Street along Hennepin Avenue, north to 44th Avenue along Central Avenue, and east to the University of Minnesota along University Avenue, connecting to the planned Central Corridor light rail line.

Three other routes would also connect to the light rail line at 5th Street and transform the existing Nicollet Transit Mall into a streetcar route. Lines would extend south along Nicollet Avenue to 46th Street, southeast along Chicago Avenue to 38th Street, and northwest along Washington Avenue towards Crystal Lake, linking to the planned Bottineau Transitway.

A final corridor would renovate the Midtown Greenway by adding east-west streetcar service from the Lake Street Hiawatha Line Station to the planned Southwest Transitway just west of Lake Calhoun.

These routes are well-designed because they don’t duplicate existing or planned light rail lines and they limit themselves to the city’s densest areas — exactly where streetcar lines should go if they’re going to attract adequate ridership and spur increased development. Six of the seven lines would directly replace popular bus routes. If constructed correctly, the lines could make up for some of the region’s bad decision-making in route alignments for light rail lines.

The seven-corridor network described by the city’s planners, however, is a long way off, primarily because its several-hundred-million cost is out of reach. As a result, the city has developed a series of starter lines that could be implemented more quickly, short segments with respective construction costs of $100 million or less that could be built in a few years and extended later on. Each would provide access just to the city’s downtown and not be long enough to replace any existing bus service.

The council will narrow the potential lines to two or three this summer after conducting further research on the project and then select one line for investment this fall. None of the corridors could be built today unless the federal government steps in with significant monetary support. If the city commits adequate financial aid for the project and if it is capable of submitting an application by September, it seems likely to win a grant from the National Infrastructure Investment Program (formerly TIGER) for construction beginning in early 2012.

A funding study released last week indicates that one line could be funded if the city increases revenues through a 12.5% increase in parking fees downtown as well as either through a dedicated TIF tax-reallocation district in affected areas or a special streetcar benefit zone assessment. The latter two options would encourage the construction of streetcar lines through the wealthiest areas of the city since it would rely on moving any increases in area property tax receipts from the city’s general fund to streetcar construction. The parking surcharge, which would increase the cost of downtown spaces by about $50 a year, would require state legislation to be implemented.

Minneapolis could advance its status among a large field of competitors for limited federal streetcar funds by proving that it has a reliable local revenue source. (A majority of urban areas demanding grants have made no such commitment.) Once it has settled on a preliminary route, the council should approve such a financial device quickly. Of course, long-term financing for the entire network is not assured.

Initial planning documents show that the city is likely to pursue a combination of the Hennepin Avenue and Central/University Lines, a 2.3-mile alignment that would cost about $100 million to construct and which would link the Walker Art Center southwest of downtown with the East Bank of the Mississippi River, via downtown. Other routes are either too short to provide adequate benefits and provide a model for future expansion, or, in the case of the Midtown Greenway, too expensive to implement without an additional revenue source (because of the lack of adequate property tax revenues).

The Hennepin Avenue line is an appropriate selection for a starting segment, running roughly perpendicular to the existing light rail corridor downtown and reaching some of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. A Nicollet Line, the other serious contender for initial construction, would likely disrupt bus service along the downtown mall, not necessarily a good idea. But, if selected, the Hennepin project should be prioritized to reach the vibrant Uptown Midtown district south of existing route plans as soon as possible; it may even make sense to build that southern link before connecting the line north over the Mississippi, in opposition to current proposals.

Commuter Rail Intercity Rail Minneapolis

As Minnesota’s Proposed Northern Lights Express Rises in Cost, Chances for Its Construction Fall

Northern Lights Express Route Map» 155-mile line between Duluth and Minneapolis would cost nearly $1 billion.

The Northern Lights Express is too expensive to justify construction.

For inhabitants of northern Minnesota hoping to be provided a quicker route into the Twin Cities, that fact is heart-breaking. Indeed, the initial promise of this 155-mile line, which would run between Minneapolis and Duluth, via Cambridge, Hinckley, Sandstone, and Superior, was exciting for its proponents: it would provide two-hour service along a corridor whose Amtrak operations were discontinued in 1985 and provide for increased economic competitiveness in parts of the state that have suffered as Minneapolis has grown.

The Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, which has been pushing the train link since 2007, completed a preliminary study of the corridor last year, and claimed that the project could offer eight daily round trips by 2012 at the cost of just over $300 million — or up to $615 million using a more conservative estimate. New trains would run on a mostly double-tracked corridor at speeds up to 110 mph. With an estimated 3,000 daily passengers, the cost hardly met standards of efficiency even then. Yet the group has already managed to convince the federal government and a series of local bodies to hand over several million dollars in planning funds so far; the hope was that a quick start-up of this NLX project would mean a steady flow of funds and rapid completion. The line would, according to backers, generate $2 billion worth of investments in the affected areas.

But the news this week that state rail officials now estimate that the project will cost up to $1 billion to construct strikes a death blow onto the fantasies of its proponents. While there are certainly reasons to support improved passenger rail, Duluth’s relatively small metropolitan population — at less than 300,000 — means that the corridor will never be able to attract the ridership numbers to make this line more worthy of investment than the hundreds of other rail links in the United States that require significant upgrades. The fact that none of the cities between the Twin Cities and Lake Superior have populations of more than 10,000 people solidifies this argument and throws out the oft-mentioned idea that this project could evolve into a commuter line for Minneapolis’ northern suburbs.

With the Twin Cities’ Central and Southwest Corridor light rail lines in planning, and with the latter line still in need of additional funds — especially if it is to follow a more advantageous route — it would be outrageous to invest so much money in the NLX project. Minneapolis already has a test case for commuter rail with the Northstar line, which opened two weeks ago. It should should spend several years analyzing whether that project can be made into a valuable investment before it spends big on another underperforming corridor.

If NLX proponents suggest that their project would produce significant development in Minneapolis once rail operations commence, the stimulating nature of their proposal seems limited, especially compared to light rail. After all, while a passenger rail line covering a 155 mile distance replaces some air and some long-distance car travel, it can’t do much to transform the daily travel habits of most of its users. On the other hand, a local light rail line allows users to abandon their car use entirely, clearing the ground for transit-oriented development in a much more serious way.

Minnesota, like most states, lacks resources during this recessionary period. Handing over funds to the NLX would be squandering.

Image above: Northern Lights Express route map, from Northern Lights Express

Commuter Rail Minneapolis

Northstar Commuter Rail Opens for Service in Minneapolis

Northstar Route Map» 40-mile line between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake brings commuter rail to Minnesota

As far as new transit openings go, Minneapolis’ new Northstar commuter line is no huge deal. With expected boardings of fewer than 4,000 riders on only six daily round-trip trains, it will reach few passengers and produce approximately zero transit-oriented development. Why, then, should this $320 million train system have been built? Does the State of Minnesota stand to gain from its implementation?

The Northstar line, run by Metro Transit, will offer quick 45-minute trips between Big Lake and a new station at the Ballpark in Minneapolis. Along the route, double-decker trains will stop at four intermediate stations, built brand new, each offering hundreds of park-and-ride spaces. For customers north of Big Lake, a coordinated bus will shuttle passengers from locations as far as St. Cloud (an extension of the rail line is planned to replace that route). Trains will terminate a few blocks northwest of the downtown core where customers will be able to switch to the immensely popular Hiawatha light rail line, which eventually heads to the Airport and the Mall of America.

Unlike most inner-city light rail or heavy rail transit systems, Northstar is designed almost entirely for morning and evening commuters heading in one direction. Five trains will leave Big Lake every morning, arriving at Minneapolis; they will then return in the evening. Just one train will make the reverse commute in the other direction. On Saturdays and Sundays, there will be a total of three round-trips a day.

Metro Transit isn’t alone in building such a one-sided commuter rail system with so few daily departures. The Nashville Music City Star, which runs 32 miles between Nashville and Lebanon, offers six round trips a day (though they admittedly go in both directions). That line was one of the cheapest in the country to build, costing only about $1.3 million a mile, compared to almost ten times that for the Northstar. It has managed to attract an average of about 900 passengers a day. Though Minneapolis’ downtown is more developed than Nashville’s, and though Metro Transit will offer a good connecting service with Hiawatha trains, experience with the Music City line suggests that Minneapolis’ ridership estimates are too high.

The best evidence for this fact comes from the State of Utah’s FrontRunner. This commuter train opened in 2008 along 38 miles between Salt Lake City and Pleasant View, and it was expected to attract between 5,800 and 9,100 daily riders. Like Minneapolis, Salt Lake City offers a direct connection with light rail at its commuter rail system’s downtown terminus. Yet FrontRunner has quickly lost ridership since its peak of 8,700 daily riders in August 2008; as of March 2009, it was carrying only about 4,000 daily trips, a huge decline. This despite the fact that FrontRunner runs 35 round-trips a day, compared to Minneapolis’ six. The latter city’s estimate of 4,000 daily riders seems quite unrealistic considering experience elsewhere.

Even if Northstar does meet its planners’ expectations, it will be no game-changer for the Twin Cities, unlike the Hiawatha line or the planned Central Corridor. The exurban, parking-oriented stations along the line’s route will never support the kind of density necessary to make transit truly successful; on the other hand, neither will such few daily trips, which make it impossible to travel during the midday or at night. 4,000 daily rides will be enough to generate a small amount of activity around the downtown station, but not much else.

The $320 million would have been better spent on promoting transit that can be used round-the-clock by people who have a choice not to use cars — something that’s made virtually impossible by the design of Northstar’s schedule and stations. With several other peak-period-only commuter lines under consideration, however, Metro Transit will likely spend more on projects such as this before it decides to pull back.

Image above: Northstar Commuter Rail route map, from Metro Transit