Out for a Few Days

I will be out of contact for the next three days, so I won’t be able to respond to comments or questions. However, I’ll be back Saturday night and the transport politic will be back online then. I will have a auto-posted piece up tomorrow.

Thanks, of course, for reading.


Metro Transportation Planning Objectives

What kind of cities do we want to produce with new transit lines?

Portland’s metropolitan area planning tool, which allows anyone to make comparisons between potential transit extensions in the region, is a fantastic device because it provides the basic information on ridership, cost, and environmental impact that transit planners use to determine which routes are best suited to improved bus or rail service. Perhaps the most important lesson of the tool is that it demonstrates the implicit tradeoffs resulting from any decision about which routes to build. Decide to construct one line, and the region won’t be able to construct another for decades; decide to invest minimally in two lines, and the region suffers from inadequate public transportation.

Transport decision-making in cities such as Portland could be simplified, however, if the region established a definitive set of objectives about what kind of land development should be prioritized. After all, like any type of transportation, more than anything else, transit is about place-making. Choosing how mass transit is built is fundamental in determining how housing and office space is built.

As we all know, automobiles have been quite effective in producing sprawl by allowing people to cover long distances quite easily, discouraging walking, and requiring the production of parking-replete malls and strips. But transit has had a more varied effect.

The heavy rail subway and elevated systems built in the early 20th century in Boston and Chicago, for instance, lent themselves easily to urban expansion at high densities. Areas surrounding transit stations, which are often separated by a quarter to half mile, are implanted with apartment buildings, lofts, and office complexes of five stories or more with little space between edifices and most activity concentrated along the street, where the pedestrian dominates.

On the other hand, commuter rail systems operating with stations more than a mile apart and emanating from Philadelphia and New York, for example, usually result in a series of “transit villages” surrounding stations, where offices and apartments are concentrated. Commuters on these regional rail lines, however, are just as likely to live in single-family homes several miles from the station as in walkup apartments, as would those near a subway line. The transit villages, however, were effective in creating small walkable shopping districts in suburban areas.

The five major heavy rail systems begun under the Urban Mass Transit Administration (now Federal Transit Administration) in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in Atlanta, San Francisco, Washington, Baltimore, and Miami, tried to hold the line somewhere between traditional rapid transit and commuter rail. Like rapid transit, in their respective downtowns, each system has relatively closely spaced stations located in areas of dense employment and housing. These metro lines have increased concentration of employment and residences in these areas. But each of the city’s transit lines also extend far into the suburbs with stations often miles apart, where transit villages have rarely been produced – what’s more likely are transit stations in the guise of trips malls.

Most American metropolitan areas engaging in new transit expansion today – Denver, Dallas, and Phoenix come to mind – use light rail to play a similar game, with lots of stations downtown but also lines extending far out even into the practically rural exurbs. One could argue that this distinctively American form of rapid transit development is actually quite cost effective, because it allows people to live car-free in the urban core but also provides inhabitants of the distant suburbs the option to commute by transit rather than automobile to their downtown jobs.

Is this hybrid the best possible use of limited funds for transportation expansion and improvement? Are the regions we wish to encourage – because that’s what we’re doing as we continue building rail systems like we are today – those with somewhat dense downtowns, walkable only within a few blocks square, and then a collection of tiny transit villages located on the periphery, surrounded by auto-dependent single-family homes?

Or is it worth sacrificing the needs of those living in the suburbs (i.e., anywhere that’s car-based, “city” or not) for the sake of encouraging density and walkability within urban cores? By building well-connected, densely packed transit lines around downtowns and encouraging high density apartment and office development there, we can reinvent the American city into a walkable place where cars aren’t necessary for those who inhabit it. By attempting to hybridize solutions, the urban core usually remains too small to provide effective alternatives to car use for inhabitants and continues to encourage suburban car use to and from stations. It’s not, in other words, a game-changer.


President Signs High-Speed Rail Transit Bill

President Obama signed into law today a rapid transit bill designed to rejuvenate what he called “the same tired and inadequate mass transportation between our towns and cities that we had 30 years ago.”

At a ceremony in the White House East Room, the President, watched by a large crowd of Congressmen, labor officials, and Representatives of the railroad industry, noted that advances in rail transportation have been negligible that “an astronaut can orbit the earth faster than a man on the ground can get from New York to Washington.”

He said he hoped that the measure would bring ground transportation up to the level of efficiency achieved by air travel. “By 2025,” he noted, “we will have 75 million more Americans in this country, and those 75 million will be doing a great deal more traveling.”

The Bill authorizes the Commerce Department, in conjunction with private industry, to undertake immediate research, development, and demonstration projects involving highly advanced railway passenger systems – including conventional trains capable of speeds of up to 150 miles per hour and futuristic underground subways capable of up to 400 miles per hour.

The major demonstration project will be in the so-called Northeast Corridor between Washington, New York and Boston.

The main emphasis will be placed on improving the speed and attractiveness of conventional rail travel. However, other modes of surface transportation, such as vehicles traveling on a cushion of air, and vehicles propelled through tubes by turbine-driven air, will also be given serious study.

Obama also announced what industry sources had been indicating for the past few weeks: The railroads participating in the projects would complete final specifications for new, high-speed railway cars in the next fortnight.

The President also predicted that the first of the new cars would be delivered by the Fall of 2010. At that time, industry sources have estimated, Amtrak will inaugurate 125-mph service between Washington, New York and Boston. At the same time, the passenger rail service is expected to inaugurate service using high-speed trains powered by gas turbine engines along non-electrified routes.

April Fools! The more things change…

This is a very slightly altered version of an article entitled “President signs high-speed rail transit bill,” by Robert B. Semple, Jr, which appeared in The New York Times on Oct 1, 1965.


Should Transit Systems Be Designed for the Handicapped?

ny-handicappedSure, we want equal accessibility for all… but at what cost?

Yesterday, New Jersey Transit held a groundbreaking ceremony at the Somerville Train Station for improvements that will make the stop along the Raritan Valley Commuter Rail Line accessible to the disabled. The station renovations will be complete by 2010, but the project is part of a long-term effort that will eventually make all 130 of the system’s stations easier to use for those with limited mobility.

NJ Transit isn’t alone; networks all over the country are investing in similar improvements to older lines, adding elevators, level platforms, and ramps to making getting to and from trains possible for those in wheelchairs. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act made it required for new and renovated facilities to make a “good faith” effort to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against in the public sphere. The results have been slow but steady expenditures for that purpose. Lines that people in wheelchairs once could not use at all are now speckled with handicap-friendly stations. See the map above (from smogr) for the wheelchair-friendly stations of the New York Subway.

The problem is that investing in equipment like elevators and ramps is incredibly expensive – part of the reason that renovating a New York City subway station, for instance, is so much more expensive than making improvements in stations of the London Underground or Paris Métro, where the transit agencies are not required to provide access to the mobility-impaired. The cost of maintenance, too, is out of control: New York has spent about $1 billion over the past fifteen years installing elevators, but they fall out of service so regularly that it is difficult for the handicapped to rely on their being in service. In 2007, one of every six elevators in the system was out of commission for more than a month!

When the Washington Metro’s first lines were being designed in the early 1970s, the question of whether to include elevators became a major point of contention between Metro chief Jack Graham and members of the Congress, who had passed the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, requiring federally-funded buildings to be handicap-accessible, according to Zachary Schrag’s The Great Subway Society. The system had been designed with five categories of the handicapped in mind: the semi-ambulatory, the uncoordinated, the aging, and those with sight and hearing problems. That’s part of the reason platforms on the Metro flash when trains arrive and there are no stairs that aren’t duplicated by escalators.

But the initial design didn’t do much for those in wheelchairs. Design and construction costs for elevators were expensive, so in a demonstration at Dulles Airport, Graham attempted to convince Metro’s board that those in wheelchairs would be able to ascend and descend escalators in their chairs. Graham made a fool of himself, and the result was a court-imposed requirement that all Metro stations incorporate full handicap access. All new transit projects since have done the same.

Graham’s insistence that the handicapped would be better served by a paratransit program, which would cost far less to maintain, since it would merely require the purchase of wheelchair-capable buses, was prescient considering the constant elevator outages that continue to plague the Metro system. Indeed, the elevator problems as well as the lack of fully accessible buses forced Washington to implement the Metro Access transit program, which provides shared-ride, door-to-door service to the disabled throughout the region. Not only was Metro designed for the handicapped, but they also benefit from service close to taxi runs at transit prices.

I think it would be hard to argue that new subway systems shouldn’t be designed from the start with handicap access to all levels. We shouldn’t be designing our transit systems to be discriminatory from the start. In addition, people without wheelchairs – transporting goods, on crutches, simply tired – take advantage of elevators.

But should we be spending millions of dollars on upgrading ancient stations to handicap accessibility when those improvements fail so often in actual use and when the handicapped have other options? And the speed of renovation is so slow that, as the map above demonstrates, even after years of work, very little of the New York subway system can actually be used by people in wheelchairs. On the other hand, if we share a societal goal to incorporate the handicapped as much as possible, is there any excuse not to fund improvements for them, and shouldn’t we speed up those repairs?

The middle-ground upon which most transit agencies appear to be making policy – in which a few stations are upgraded with oft-malfunctioning elevators – is expensive and problematic.

Image above: Accessible stations of the New York City Subway, Central New York City, from smogr


Race in Transit

Cap’n Transit posted an interesting post on race in transit systems, and I’d like to explore the issue a bit more here. In discussing the effects of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which eventually allowed blacks to sit wherever they’d like on buses, thanks to the work of Rosa Parks and others, he suggests that the ultimate consequence may have been losing the war for better transportation options:

“Looking at the transit system as a whole – including all the ways that people get from home to work, play, school and shopping – what did these leaders accomplish?”

In the years since desegregation, the Montgomery bus system has shrunk to a tiny fraction of its original size, and, as an article in The Nation argues, it is poorly funded and provides limited service. Like many small and medium transit systems around the country, Montgomery’s has become the domain of poor minorities, with few whites and few in the middle class choosing to ride buses. The bus boycotts may have ensured equality, but in the meantime, the service the Civil Rights Movement fought so hard to integrate has almost disappeared.

Who’s fault is this? Why have our transit systems become transportation of last resort and the ultimate anathema to middle class whites? One might argue that the rise of the automobile simply made the disuse of transit inevitable, but there’s another explanation: a lack of public investment. Indeed, in cities such as Portland, New York, and Washington that have continued to invest in their transit networks, ridership on trains and buses is mixed in both race and income. That’s because of a consistent public sector effort to ensure quality service, something that cities like Montgomery have not pushed.

Why not? Why should Montgomery be fated to an underused, ill-performing transit service?

In a July 2005 article in the Journal of Urban History, “The Politics of Race and Public Space,” Kevin Kruse argues that the increasing lack of public investment since the 1960s in Atlanta was a result of desegregation – whites pulled out of participation in the civic sphere once they recognized that blacks would have to be incorporated:

“Accordingly, in Atlanta and other cities across America, as public spaces desegregated, whites abandoned them, effectively resegregating these spaces almost immediately. As this article demonstrates, the desegregation of urban public spaces brought about not actual racial integration but instead a new division in which the public world was abandoned to blacks and a new private one was created for whites…

“Thus, white flight from cities like Atlanta was not simply physical, as white residents abandoned the central city for lily-white suburbs. Their withdrawal first unfolded in a less literal sense, as they withdrew their support—political, social, and financial—from a city and a society that they believed had already abandoned them.”

These lessons from Atlanta probably apply equally to cities like Montgomery. The middle class sections of society – in other words, the whites – simply abandoned their involvement in the public sphere when blacks voiced their natural right to equal access. Their abandonment made the use of their tax dollars for the funding of municipal services seem “unfair,” since they never rode the bus or used the public swimming pools, for instance. The result? The rise of modern conservatism, routed in the South, which suggests that the government should simply cease to provide public services and rely instead on the private market. The consequence? Little interest in or funding for transit and other government-funded resources.

I don’t mean to suggest that all white people decided that the public sphere should simply be abandoned. Nor do I mean to suggest that no black people have been complicit in the systematic de-funding of municipal and governmental services. But the unintended consequence of desegregation, unfortunately, was resegregation – where whites in general simply choose not to participate and use their political and economic power to campaign against a government that invests in such services. What a shame.