Categories
DOT Elections Infrastructure United States

The path to a better transport system runs through progressive states and cities

We’re two weeks out from the 2020 United States presidential election, and the winner will undoubtedly play an important role in directing American urban policy. Given the importance of the presidency and the high stakes of the position on every policy area, it is hard not to focalize on this electoral race as key in establishing what sort of future the United States will have.

Hoping to respond to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 and the prospect of Democratic control over both houses of Congress and the White House, Senate Democrats have begun preparations for a $1 trillion infrastructure package. If the legislation pulls from this year’s House-passed H.R. 2 and from Joe Biden’s presidential platform, the legislation could include new funding for electrification; increased support for transit and intercity railways; and requirements that states “fix it first” before expanding highways. These are good concepts, and indeed, there is a lot of room for federal intervention, especially when it comes to filling the gaps left by declining tax revenues over the past several months, particularly when Americans support a potential big federal stimulus by an enormous margin.

Yet the key questions regarding transportation in the United States—whether the country is able to truly adapt its mobility system to mitigate the devastation wrought by climate change; whether we integrate transportation and land-use planning so as to reduce exurban expansion and automobile dependency; whether we harness access as a tool to reduce inequality, rather than as a mechanism to further empower and enrich a lucky few—are in fact more often than not in the hands not of the federal government, but rather in those of elected officials at the state and municipal levels.

This reality of the U.S. federal system will continue to be the case no matter which presidential candidate wins the election, and no matter how exciting their proposed policies may be.

States and cities make most choices on transportation infrastructure—and their choices have been regressive

The federal transportation legislation authorizing expenditures on transportation—reauthorized every five years or so, and known by such acronyms as FAST, MAP-21, and SAFETEA-LU—is typically the big story when it comes to transportation (though it may not be next year, depending on the scale and inclusiveness of a new infrastructure-focused stimulus). It’s essential for members of Congress, who can advertise it as meaningfully contributing to their respective district’s surface transportation infrastructure needs, to the tune of an average of more than $60 billion annually nationwide. It’s important in defining the overall patterns of spending, such as the share of funds to be distributed to road projects versus transit investments.

Despite this avalanche of funding from Washington, the administrators at the U.S. Department of Transportation are not the primary decisionmakers when it comes to what actual planning choices are made about new transportation projects.

The failure of the Obama Administration to make good on its proposed intercity rail plan is a case in point. After convincing Congress to devote billions of dollars to a national network, high-speed rail became a policy against which to rally among conservatives. Several states run by Republican governors simply sent back grants (free money!) the administration had allocated to them.

The result, then, was that a theoretically national plan for investment became a series of planning choices made state-by-state, each picking whether or not they wanted to engage in the overall program. One can imagine a similar outcome if a future administration makes a similar push for new rail investment.

Moreover, the U.S. government distributes transportation funds primarily by pre-determined formula to states, cities, and transportation agencies. For example, in 2020, of federal highway funds more than 90 percent is distributed directly to state governments to do, largely, what they wish.

It is true that certain programs, like the New Starts transit capital program, are more discretionary in that they give the U.S. Secretary of Transportation more oversight over what projects to advance. But, for the most part, even programs like that are largely formulaic; if you follow the rules for developing a transit project, and it scores well enough based on standardized criteria, you can get it in line on the federal list.

Those lower levels of the public sector, in fact, are those that make most of the choices related to what roads should be built or expanded, and what transit lines to promote.

Indeed, consider how different levels of government have distributed funds to transportation. Between 1956 and 2017, the federal government allocated a total of about $3.1 trillion in 2017 dollars to highways, transit, and rail investments around the country (most of which was simply sent down to lower levels of government to spend). During the same period, states and localities spent way more of their own funds: $8.9 trillion.

Since 2000 alone, the story is similar: The federal government has devoted roughly $1.2 trillion to surface transportation, while states and localities have spent $3.4 trillion raised by their own sales taxes, gas taxes, and the like.

In other words, not only does the federal government largely allocate decision making about what transportation projects to build to states and localities, while handing them control of most of the money that it raises, but also states and localities raise way more money that they use to spend on their own objectives.

U.S. governments at all levels have contributed to an infrastructure system that prioritizes road-based travel above all else. Transport Databook.

Unfortunately, neither the federal government nor lower levels of government have been particularly effective custodians of their massive expenditures on transportation—at least when it comes to achieving more sustainable and equitable outcomes. Since 1956, the federal government has devoted just 21 percent of its surface-transportation expenditures on transit or rail investments; states and localities, just 22 percent.

In other words, both have participated in the creation of an American society dependent on the private automobile for most of its function.

An infrastructure stimulus won’t be equitable or sustainable without buy-in from states and cities

If Democrats take the presidency, retain control of the House, and inherit the Senate, they are likely to push a new federal stimulus bill. It may well offer billions of dollars for improved transportation infrastructure, and if you take what Democrats have said over the past year seriously, it will include a vast expansion in support for transit, new climate-focused policies, and a renewed national rail program.

Yet the role of states, municipalities, and other public-sector entities will only be heightened if a stimulus is passed. States will be the entities deciding whether to participate in bringing improved inter-city rail to their communities. Cities will have to determine whether they want to use federal funds to renovate streetscapes to prioritize pedestrians and bicyclists. Transit agencies will have to identify new bus and rail projects that serve the most passengers.

In other words, even with new federal funds, lower levels of government are ultimately those entities making choices about what kinds of projects they want to build. And there’s little stopping states and cities from spending their own money on new highway expansions that encourage pollution, sprawl, and further exacerbate inequality. Because of the focus on what happens in Washington, however, the actions those entities take is typically less visible. Road projects continue at a reckless pace throughout much of the country despite what we know about climate change.

Fortunately, some states have made progress. California, for example, has altered its system of measuring street performance away from prioritizing moving cars. Yet localities in that state continue to push destructive road investments.

Along with a federal stimulus, then, we need action for change within lower levels of government.

Categories
General Infrastructure

Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2020

20 new transit lines will open in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico in 2020.

These new transit lines won’t be adequate alone to counter the large-scale investment in highway construction that dominates most metropolitan regions. But they will significantly improve public transportation for thousands of riders in many large cities.

There’s also a lot more on the way. About 60 more major transit projects will be under construction in 2020 and are expected to open by 2026. Some cities, like Montréal and Seattle, will essentially double the size of their urban rail systems during that time.

Transit Explorer
Use Transit Explorer 2 to examine current, under construction, and proposed transit projects throughout North America.

This compilation of new transit projects is based on The Transport Politic’s transit database, Transit Explorer 2. This database is frequently updated and provides information about existing, under construction, proposed, and cancelled fixed-route transit throughout North America.

Thanks to support from Chicago Cityscape, Transit Explorer 2 is much faster and more usable for people accessing the site than previous versions.

In addition, the data it includes has been improved and expanded dramatically compared to the past. It includes almost 7000 transit stations (including for commuter rail, not previously included), and almost 1000 transit lines. Now additional information, such as the year that stations were opened and their grade—e.g. subway or elevated—is also available.

Data can be viewed freely on Transit Explorer 2 or purchased for $25 in Shapefile or GeoJSON formats for those who would like to use the data for research or other uses, such as using ArcGIS or QGIS.

This is the 12th year of my compilation of new transit projects on The Transport Politic. Find previous years here: 20092010 | 2011  | 2012  | 2013  | 2014  | 2015  | 2016  | 20172018 | 2019


New transit investments completed in 2019

In 2019, roughly 200 miles of new fixed-guideway transit service was opened throughout North America; these projects cost a total of roughly $7 billion to complete.

In Canada, the most exciting intervention was the opening of the Confederation Line in Ottawa, which includes a new downtown tunnel and a light rail network that replaces an oversubscribed busway; it is designed to eventually carry about 240,000 daily riders. The Confederation Line’s benefits will be magnified by several extensions planned for the next few years.

In the U.S., the opening of a new busway on 14th Street in Manhattan attracted considerable attention, as the project immediately increased transit ridership but did not ramp-up surrounding traffic. It may be a model for other American cities looking to improve their bus options—demonstrating that giving bus services dedicated lanes and freeing them from being stuck behind cars is an effective way to get people to ride.

Throughout this article click on to explore the line on Transit Explorer 2.

Regional rail (Relatively frequent service on mainline rail tracks) opened in 2019

  • Denver Gold Line—11.2 miles, part of an overall $2.1 billion project including other lines
  • SMART Train Phase 2—2.1 miles, $43 million
Denver Gold Line station at 41st and Fox. Credit: RTD.

Commuter rail opened in 2019

  • Fort Worth TexRail—27.2 miles, $1 billion

Metro rail opened in 2019

  • Panama Linea 2—13.1 miles

Light rail opened in 2019

  • Denver Southeast Rail Extension—2.3 miles, $233 million
  • Ottawa Confederation Line—7.7 miles, C$2.1 billion
  • Phoenix Gilbert Road Extension—1.9 miles, $184 million
  • Waterloo Ion Light Rail—11.8 miles, C$770 million

Bus rapid transit (Improved bus service with dedicated lanes) opened in 2019

Indianapolis Red Line. Credit: IndyGo.
  • Albuquerque ABQ Rapid Transit—14 miles, $133 million
  • Calgary Southwest Transitway—13.7 miles, C$304 million
  • Indianapolis Red Line—13.1 miles, $96 million
  • New York City M14 SBS
  • San Diego South Bay Rapid—26 miles, $126 million
  • Seattle Swift 2 Green Line—12.4 miles, $67 million

Arterial rapid transit (Improved bus service, but no dedicated lanes) opened in 2019

  • Chicago Pace Pulse Milwaukee—7.6 miles, $14 million
  • El Paso Brio Alameda—12.2 miles, $36 million
  • El Paso Brio Dyer—10.2 miles, $36 million
  • Kansas City Prospect MAX—10 miles, $56 million
  • Minneapolis C Line—$30 million
  • Tulsa Aero—18 miles

Planned openings in 2020

In 2020, several long-awaited projects will open across the continent, including three heavy-rail routes, two new light rail lines, two commuter or regional rail extensions, and 13 improved bus projects.

In Vancouver, the metropolitan region has already opened four RapidBus bus rapid transit routes, which include dedicated bus lanes, queue jumps, all-door boarding, and relatively high levels of frequencies. A fifth new line is planned for opening in April.

Miami’s new downtown station, to serve Tri-Rail trains. Credit: Tri-Rail.

In Miami, a new downtown rail link will leverage the infrastructure built by Virgin Trains to extend the region’s Tri-Rail commuter rail system into the center of the city for the first time.

But the largest investments by far are being completed in the Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington regions. In Hawaii, the first phase of that state’s first rail line—an elevated route—will open. In Los Angeles, the Crenshaw Line, a $2.1 billion light-rail route that includes a subway portion and a new station near LAX Airport, will be completed. In the Bay Area, the BART rapid transit system will continue its slow path toward downtown San Jose with a $2.4 billion extension to Berryessa station. And outside of Washington, the Silver Line will finally reach Dulles Airport, thanks to a $2.8 billion extension

L.A.’s Crenshaw Line tunnel at Martin Luther King Jr. station. Credit: L.A. Metro.

Each of these projects is considerably delayed compared to original projections. Honolulu’s rail transit first phase was supposed to open in 2012; the Crenshaw corridor was supposed to open in 2016. BART’s extension all the way into central San Jose—now put off for many years into the future, was supposed to open in 2018. And Metro service to Dulles was originally planned for 2016.

Regional Rail opening in 2020

Commuter rail opening in 2020

Metro rail opening in 2020

  • Honolulu: Rail Transit Phase 1—10 miles (East Kopolei to Aloha Stadium; remainder of project should open by 2025)
  • San Francisco Bay Area: BART to Berryessa—10 miles, $2.4 billion (first phase of project that will eventually extend to downtown San Jose and Santa Clara)
  • Washington: Silver Line Phase 2—11.4 miles, $2.8 billion (to Dulles and Loudoun County)

Light rail opening in 2020

Winnipeg’s Southwest Transitway, under construction. Credit: Winnipeg Transit.

Bus rapid transit opening in 2020

Arterial rapid transit opening in 2020


A busy decade to come

Despite the relatively limited investments made in transit improvements in the 2010s, cities throughout North America will expand their fixed-guideway transit networks substantially beyond 2020.

In this final section, I document all of the transit projects in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that are already under construction or will enter construction in 2020 (at least preliminary work will be underway), and thus that are highly likely to be completed. The same cannot be said for the dozens of other proposed projects on Transit Explorer 2, many of which will fall to the wayside thanks to funding crises, political backlash, and other problems.

Four metropolitan regions will see extensive improvements to their transit systems in the coming years if projects under construction this year are completed.

Montréal will open the new REM automated heavy rail system in phases, roughly doubling the scale of its current metro network and creating new transit links throughout the metropolitan area.

A rendering of a future Montréal REM station. Credit: REM.

Thanks to referenda passed in 2016, both Los Angeles and Seattle will open large new extensions to their rail networks. In L.A., a new subway line will open to the west side, making travel to UCLA far less burdensome, and a light-rail subway downtown will allow commuters to travel from the west to the east side of the region without having to change trains. In Seattle, meanwhile, new light-rail extensions will open south, east, and north of the existing route, creating a regional transit network out of what is now a relatively limited service.

And in New York, the opening of the East Side Access project—which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central Terminal—and the Penn Station Access project—which will bring Metro-North trains to Penn Station—will radically improve the accessibility of the region’s central business district. The two projects will make it possible for people commuting from Connecticut and Long Island to have direct access to both the east and west sides of Manhattan’s central business district, saving hundreds of thousands of people each up to an hour a day in travel time.

The new terminal station under Grand Central for the East-Side Access Project. Credit: MTA.

In addition, Vancouver is expected to complete the first phase of its subway underneath Broadway—now the heaviest-used bus corridor in North America. Honolulu will complete its rail project. Boston will expand its urban rail transit system for the first time since the 1980s. San Francisco will get a new subway downtown for light-rail trains. And Washington will get the U.S.’ first true circumferential transit line with the Purple Line light-rail project.

Transit projects expected to open in 2021

Transit projects expected to open in 2022

Trans it projects expected to open in 2023

Transit projects expected to open in 2024

Transit projects expected to open in 2025

Transit projects expected to open in 2026


Despite the massive investments planned throughout North America in the coming years, cities throughout the U.S. and Canada should be investing considerably more in improved transit—especially through better buses. These countries continue to under-allocate street space for buses compared to much of the rest of the developed world, and the result is that most cities are failing to take advantage of the lowest-cost mechanism to improve public transportation options and reduce automobile dependency.

We can only hope that, as we move into the 2020s, more cities will learn from New York’s success on 14th Street and find the political means and financial capacity to dedicate more space on their streets to people, rather than to cars.


Image at top: Based on “Public Roads of the contiguous United States,” by WClarke (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Categories
General Infrastructure United States

Too little, too late? A decade of transit investment in the U.S.

» Cities across the U.S. added more than 1,200 miles of expanded transit service between 2010 and 2019. But all that construction isn’t keeping up with the need.

It’s been a busy decade for many cities throughout the U.S. From coast to coast, they’ve been building up their transit networks, offering riders something more than run-of-the-mill bus routes.

Overall, American cities added more than 1,200 miles of new and expanded transit lines between 2010 and 2019, spending more than $47 billion in 2019 dollars to do so. They’ll continue making such investments into the 2020s, as I document on the interactive Transit Explorer website, and in The Transport Politic’s annual update article (coming later this month for 2020).

In this post, I’ll document those investments—but also show that they have been inadequate, at least so far, in stemming declining transit ridership in many U.S. cities.


First things first: What do I mean by improved transit service?

What I don’t measure here is perhaps the most important element of transit effectiveness: The frequency and speed of service. Trains and buses that show up more often and that travel more quickly are more useful, and thus more likely to be attractive to potential riders. Some, such as David Levinson, have developed effective measures of accessibility that measure how such services change over time. The costs of providing more frequent journeys are typical reflected in transit operating expenditures.

But what I do consider are the capital investments, in the form of new and extended transit lines, that can play an important role in dramatically improving peoples’ day-to-day transit experience. If done right, these investments can also actually improve the efficiency of transit operations by, for example, giving buses dedicated lanes so they can travel more quickly, or replacing a bus with a train that can fit more passengers.

Using data from Transit Explorer and available in this spreadsheet, I’ve documented all of the new and extended ‘quality’ transit lines in the U.S. completed from 2010 to 2019. By ‘quality’ I mean something more than a basic bus route.

I’ve categorized the investments made by U.S. cities according to their modes—arterial rapid transit, bus rapid transit, commuter rail, regional rail, metro, light rail, and streetcar.

To clarify, bus rapid transit projects include at least some dedicated lanes (such as Indianapolis’ Red Line), whereas arterial rapid transit projects (often marketed as BRT, such as Tulsa’s Aero BRT) often involve improved station amenities and better buses, but no dedicated lanes. Regional rail projects typically involve the creation of all-day, relatively frequent, two-way service (such as Denver’s A Line)—whereas commuter rail concentrates on peak-hour, inbound services.

As noted, U.S. cities added about 1,200 miles of quality transit services between 2010 and 2019.

Just over half of new miles added were through bus lines, with the rest added in the form of extended rail lines.

Of those rail projects, just 26 miles were in the form of metro investments—heavy-rail lines like new subways or elevated trains that often carry the most passengers through the densest parts of the country. And just 37 miles were in the form of streetcars, perhaps a surprising fact given the frequent discussion of that transportation mode’s deficiencies.

Rather, the majority of new rail projects in terms of mileage came in the form of either light rail or regional rail, two dependable, effective transit options.

Mileage added to quality public transit networks, U.S., 2010-2019

The growth in mileage of quality bus lines has not been matched by the spending local, state, and national governments have dedicated to transit. Indeed, over the past decade, only about 8 percent of transit-expansion funds have been allocated to arterial rapid transit or bus rapid transit projects. The rest has gone to rail lines.

Whether this distribution of expenditures is a good or bad thing is a question that can be interpreted subjectively—rail projects may attract more riders, they typically provide a higher quality of service, and they’re typically faster and more reliable—but what is unquestionably true is that American cities have underinvested in expanded quality bus lines.

A total of about $3.6 billion was spent on new bus expansion projects over this period. That means the average American contributed just $1.10 in tax dollars annually to the construction of facilities for new or expanded quality bus lines, out of a total of about $14.50 every year on transit expansion overall.*

The average American consumer spent $8,427 on automobile transportation in 2016.

Expenditures on quality public transit networks, U.S., 2010-2019

These costs, of course, do not include expenditures on transit operations, such as the salaries of drivers and the costs of fuel. Those costs often significantly outweigh those of capital investments. Nevertheless, it is unquestionable that Americans are spending very little to expand their bus systems. They’re spending a bit more on expanding their rail networks.

Whatever the distribution of new transit mileage and expenditures, how can we explain the fact that ridership on public transportation throughout much of the U.S. has declined substantially over the past decade? Shouldn’t all those new, higher-quality bus and rail routes have produced some positive outcomes in terms of ridership? And why are other countries seemingly capable of building transit ridership?

One explanation is that many new American transit routes are poorly designed, typically remain inadequately integrated into urban development projects, and focus more on low-density suburban areas than urban neighborhoods likely to attract more riders.

Yet another key cause is undoubtedly the continued investment of American cities and states in new roadways.

Even as the country was adding 1,200 miles of expanded transit service, it added an estimated 28,500 new lane-miles of arterials—roadways like Interstates, highways, and the four-plus-lane “stroads” that constitute many of our cities and suburban areas. This is infrastructure hostile to pedestrians and transit users—and likely to reinforce patterns of automobile dependency and sprawl.

That’s roughly 24 times as many new roadway miles as improved transit miles. Who can blame Americans for continuing to drive? Transit offerings simply have not kept up.

2010 to 2019: A nation overwhelmed by new roads

Ceasing the continuing expansion of the public roadway network is an essential element of any effort to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation, which is now the single-largest contributor to American greenhouse gas emissions.

From this perspective, it should be concerning to U.S. policymakers that, not only do Americans contribute about 3.6 times as many carbon emissions per capita as their peers in countries like France, but also that per-capita emissions in the U.S. fell by only 21 percent between 1980 and 2014, versus by 50% in France.

If the American addiction to the automobile has been aided and abetted by the growth in roadways, it has also been encouraged by inadequate construction of new and expanded transit lines, at least from a relative perspective.

Below, consider the mileage added to quality public transit networks in the U.S., Canada, and France between 2010 and 2019, which I’ve divided up between bus investments on the left and urban rail investments on the right (I have not included regional or commuter rail in this calculation because of inadequate data from France).

In both cases, U.S. cities added roughly similar mileage compared to their peers in France, and significantly more than cities in Canada. So far, so good.

Mileage added to quality public transit networks, Canada, France, U.S., 2010-2019

But it won’t escape readers’ understanding, of course, to recognize that the U.S. is in fact far more populous than either Canada (1/9th as large) or France (1/5th as large).

Indeed, when adjusting those investments in new transit mileage to each country’s population, all those new projects in the U.S. seem depressingly modest.

Over the past decade, U.S. cities added an average of fewer than 2 miles of urban bus improvements per million inhabitants—and fewer than 1 mile of rail improvements. France, meanwhile, gained more than 10 and 3, respectively.

Let’s now consider just those projects with dedicated lanes—in other words, excluding streetcar and arterial rapid transit lines. Dedicated-lane transit expansions are most likely to actually improve peoples’ commuting habits because they’re less likely to get stuck behind traffic.

On this count, shown on the red, rightmost section of the following chart, the U.S. has fallen truly behind these two peers. Over the past decade, it produced less than one-fifth the dedicated-lane transit mileage as France on a per-capita basis, and about 50% less than Canada.

Mileage added to quality public transit networks per million inhabitants, Canada, France, U.S., 2010-2019

We’re left with a dismal portrait of transit expansion in the U.S.—especially since, compared to most other developed countries, it already had poor transit offerings in 2010.

Despite 1,200 miles of new transit lines, states and cities in the U.S. have added far more mileage to their roadways. Despite tens of billions of dollars in expenditures, U.S. cities have increased their transit systems less substantially than cities in Canada and significantly less than those in France. The U.S. has a lot of work to do if it wants to encourage more transit ridership and identify mechanisms to reduce transportation-related greenhouse-gas emissions.

The good news that that American residents are, from a comparative perspective, spending very little on investing in transit-system expansion through new lines and the extension of existing lines.

It’s true that American transit projects are significantly more expensive to build than those outside the U.S., especially in cities like New York and San Francisco. Indeed, if costs were lower, we could build more. But we’re still dedicating very little of the public purse to new and expanded lines.

Every reasonably sized city in the country should be identifying corridors for bus rapid transit, reallocating street space for that purpose, and ceasing roadway expansion. The speed of implementing such improvements has been far too slow given the poor quality of most bus service throughout the country and the relatively low cost of making such changes.

But that requires cities to take seriously their responsibility to find the means to get people out of their cars. It requires activists to make the case that the era of automobile dominance must come to an end.

The federal government, meanwhile, should expand its support for new busways and rail lines, dramatically increasing the share of Americans with easy access to high-quality transit lines.

In today’s climate, such a proactive agenda has no real political legs in Washington—it would be very unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, let alone be proposed by President Trump. But there’s an election in 2020.

For further information about the projects in the U.S. and Canada examined in the writing of this article, the database of projects is available here.

* It is worth noting that these figures are in estimated 2019 dollars, based on the midpoint of the construction period of each line. Also, I do not include projects that were under construction between 2010 and 2019, but which will not open until 2020 or later. This means that the figures quoted in this article represent spending only on projects that were completed between 2010 and 2019; thus spending occurred in a period roughly ranging from around 2005 to 2019.

Categories
General Infrastructure

Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2019

Despite recent declines in transit ridership in the U.S., the construction of major transit networks continues across the country—as well as Canada, Mexico, and the rest of North America.

Use Transit Explorer

to explore transit

projects across

North America.

In 2019, there will be 89 major heavy rail, light rail, streetcar, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail projects under construction across the continent. These projects will add more than 830 miles of new fixed-guideway transit—generally high-quality service that will improve the lines of residents. In total, they’ll cost more than $91 billion to complete—most of which is funded by local governments.

In the U.S., the Trump Administration has repeatedly been reluctant to invest in new transit lines, even as the U.S. Department of Transportation has continually poured money into highways across the country. Nevertheless, following the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House after the November 2018 elections, the government has begun releasing funding commitments for major new projects. Those grants are likely to continue as long as Democrats continue to hold control of the House.

But, as in years past, high construction costs plague infrastructure projects in the U.S.—and those high costs make the completion of effective transit networks more difficult. Among heavy rail projects under construction in 2019, the average line in the U.S. will cost $650 million per mile—compared to just $362 million per mile in Canada (when adjusted to U.S. dollars). Among light rail projects, the average U.S. line will cost $339 million per mile to build, compared to just $146 million per mile in Canada.*

In this article, I first compare the networks that are being completed in cities in the U.S. and Canada, showing how different regions are promoting different priorities in their investments. I then document all of the projects planned for opening this year and that are under construction. These are all also mapped out, with additional data, on Transit Explorer, which I update throughout the year. Finally, I provide a table with data on all the projects under construction in North America.

This is the 11th year of my compilation of new transit projects on The Transport Politic. Find previous years here: 2009  | 2010  | 2011  | 2012  | 2013  | 2014  | 2015  | 2016  | 2017 | 2018


Network effects and scales of construction

The investments in new rail and bus corridors documented here will certainly alter the manner in which people move around cities across North America. Yet the effectiveness of these investments in making it possible for people to conduct their lives using transit will depend on more than just whether new lines are constructed. It also depends on where those lines are located and how they relate to one another.

It is possible to induce high levels of commuting into downtown office jobs by creating a radial network of lines from throughout a region into the central business district. This type of transit system works best for 9-to-5 commuters and is frequently the model used by commuter rail agencies in the U.S. Yet a radial system is less likely to allow people to conduct other elements of their lives—getting to school, to shopping, or to entertainment—because it fails in serving other parts of the city. Moreover, other than in the downtown core, where it promotes hyper-concentration, it encourages dispersal elsewhere. The alternative is a grid of routes that creates a multi-nodal, multi-destination system of transportation. This allows people to not only get downtown, but to other parts of the city, and it makes denser development possible in other neighborhoods.

The other important question in orienting the design of a transit network is whether to prioritize dense, central communities, or whether to extend the system as far as possible into the hinterlands of the region. The first approach has the advantage of serving neighborhoods that are already walkable and that have the greatest chance of encouraging people to use transit for many trips. The second approach serves people who take the longest trips, though it does so in a way that will likely work most effectively only for those aforementioned 9-to-5 commuters.

Metropolitan regions in different parts of the U.S. and Canada are using varying methods in designing their networks, as illustrated in the following maps, taken from Transit Explorer, all of which are at the same scale. I’ve included a comparison with New York City for context.

Denver, Minneapolis, and Portland are developing primarily radial networks, focusing on expanding access into their downtowns. Their lines—not only those that already exist, but also those under construction and proposed—are widely spaced across the region.

On the other hand, Atlanta, Montréal, and Toronto are largely pursuing a grid of new lines that focus on their respective regions’ densest areas. This approach is likely to increase overall transit use more effectively, though it may not provide as useful an alternative to regional traffic. Los Angeles and Seattle are pursuing transit investment programs that tow the line somewhat between the two.


Atlanta

Denver

Los Angeles

Minneapolis

Montréal

New York City

Portland

Seattle

Toronto

Projects planned for 2019 opening

In 2019, two heavy rail lines, seven light rail lines, ten bus rapid transit lines, and six commuter rail lines are expected to open. Of these, the most expensive to build was the 10-mile extension of San Francisco’s BART network to San Jose. This project, which has been under construction since 2013 and was supposed to open in 2018, is expected to serve about 46,000 daily riders; it will eventually be complemented by a further extension of BART to Santa Clara.

Yet the most expensive does not mean the most transformative. Ottawa’s Confederation Line, a new light rail project that replaces a preexisting busway and complements it with a downtown subway, will serve far more users—an expected 240,000 daily riders. In Guadalajara, the city’s third light rail line will serve even more: almost 350,000 trips a day.

Among others, San Francisco’s new Central Subway, which will extend its T-Third Muni Line through downtown, is also remarkable in that it’s been being actively discussed since the 1990s and is the first subway completed in central San Francisco since the BART Market Street tunnel in 1973.

BART Silicon Valley
Ottawa Confederation Line
San Francisco Central Subway

These projects will feature frequent, all-day service. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for each of the new lines opening this year. Fort Worth’s TEX Rail project, which commences operations on January 10, is only scheduled for hourly service between downtown Fort Worth and the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. That will limit the route’s usefulness for people who rely on transit and can’t wait an hour for the next train to show up. The system is planned for half-hourly service once additional trains arrive, yet the project is indicative of a problem among many major transit projects in the U.S.: we’re willing to spend billions of dollars on construction, but we have less interest in paying the long-term costs of making sure trains and buses on these lines are frequent and reliable.

Find a full listing of these projects below; to access their route maps on Transit Explorer, click the icon.


Other projects under construction in 2019—but opening in 2020 or later

Dozens of additional projects will be under construction in 2019 but aren’t planned for opening this year. Of these, by far the most expensive to build will be New York’s East Side Access project, which will extend Long Island Rail Road service to Grand Central Terminal by 2022 ($10.3 billion), and Honolulu’s rail transit investment, which will cross Oahu using automated, elevated trains in 2025 ($8.2 billion).

Yet other regions feature more new projects under construction. In Los Angeles, the new downtown subway for light rail trains—the Regional Connector—is expected to open in 2021, and in doing so improve service for two other light rail lines, the Crenshaw Line (2020) and the Gold Line Foothill Extension (2026). LA also has construction underway on all three phases of its Purple Line subway extension to the city’s west side (2026).

In the Seattle region, the massive expansion of the Link light rail system funded by voters in 2008 is underway, with three expansions from central Seattle east and north. In Montréal, the REM automated metro network is under construction, with scheduled completion in 2023. And in Toronto, four new light rail lines, a subway extension, and several bus rapid transit projects will be under construction this year.

Find a full listing of these projects below; to access their route maps on Transit Explorer, click the icon.


Comparing projects across the continent

The following sortable table provides detailed information about each of the 89 major transit projects under construction in North America in 2019.

The projects that are expected to serve the most number of riders on a per-mile basis—a typical measure of project effectiveness—are Monterrey’s Linea 3, New York’s East Side Access project, and Los Angeles’ Regional Connector. Each will serve more than 45,000 riders per mile on a typical weekday.

Expensive projects that nonetheless are expected to serve very few riders per mile include Fort Worth’s TEX Rail, Denver’s Gold Line, and Los Angeles’ Crenshaw Line, all of which will serve fewer than 2,000 riders per mile.

Of the eight most expensive projects in terms of their per-mile construction cost, seven are subways, including New York’s East Side Access project, San Francisco’s Central Subway, Toronto’s Scarborough Subway Extension, and Los Angeles’ Purple Line extensions and Regional Connector. Boston’s mostly at-grade Green Line extension will be almost as expensive to build.

ModeRegionProjectMilesCost ($)Cost/ MileConstructDaily ridersRiders/ MileGradeROW
Heavy RailBay Area CABART Silicon Valley Berryessa Extension1024002402013-2019460004600At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitBay Area CAEast Bay BRT9.5176192015-2019360003789At gradeIndependent (mostly)
Light RailBay Area CACentral Subway1.715789282013-20193510020647SubwayIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitBay Area CAVan Ness Avenue BRT23091552016-20212500012500At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitBay Area CAGeary BRT6.63552018-20219400014242At gradeSemi-Independent
Commuter Rail DMUBay Area CASMART Train Phase 22.143212017-2019800381At gradeIndependent
Light RailBoston MAGreen Line Extension4.723004892013-2021450009574At grade (mostly)Independent
Bus Rapid TransitCalgary ABSouthwest Transitway13.7304222016-2019460003358At gradeSemi-Independent
StreetcarCharlotte NCCityLYNX Gold Line Phase 22.5150602017-202057002280At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitChicago ILPace Pulse Milwaukee Line7.61422017-20194100539At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitChicago ILPace Pulse Dempster151012019-2020At gradeShared
Commuter Rail DMUDallas TXTEX Rail27.2996372016-201913700504At gradeIndependent
Commuter RailDallas TXCotton Belt261100422019-2022At gradeIndependent
Commuter Rail EMUDenver CONorth Metro Phase 1 (N)13343262014-2020At grade (mostly)Independent
Light RailDenver COSoutheast Rail Extension2.32331012016-201966002870At gradeIndependent
Commuter Rail EMUDenver COGold Line (G)11.221001882012-2019180001607At gradeIndependent
Light RailEdmonton ABValley Line Stage 1 Southeast8.118002222016-2020420005185Subway/At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitEl Paso TXBrio Alameda Corridor12.23632016-2019At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitEl Paso TXBrio Dyer Corridor10.23642017-2019At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitGrand Rapids MILaker Line13.37152019-20204400331At gradeShared
Light RailGuadalajara MXLinea 313.3994752014-201934800026165Elevated/SubwayIndependent
Heavy Rail AutomatedHonolulu HIHonolulu Rail Transit2081654082011-20201196005980ElevatedIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitHouston TXUptown (Post Oak) BRT4.5193432016-2019190004222At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitIndianapolis INIndyGo Red Line13.19672017-201911000840At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitIndianapolis INIndyGO Purple Line14.813992019-20219600649At gradeIndependent (mostly)
Bus Rapid TransitKansas City MOProspect Avenue MAX542018-2020At gradeShared
Light RailLos Angeles CACrenshaw Line8.520582422014-2020160001882Elevated/Subway/At gradeIndependent
Heavy RailLos Angeles CAPurple Line Extension Phase 13.928407282014-2023168004308SubwayIndependent
Light RailLos Angeles CARegional Connector1.917569242014-20219000047368SubwayIndependent
Heavy RailLos Angeles CAPurple Line Extension Phase 22.624779532018-20253610013885SubwayIndependent
Heavy RailLos Angeles CAPurple Line Extension Phase 32.520008002018-2026SubwayIndependent
Light RailLos Angeles CAFoothill Gold Line Extension to Montclair12.315001222017-2027At gradeIndependent
StreetcarLos Angeles CAOC Streetcar Santa Ana/Garden Grove4.14081002018-202173001780At gradeShared
Heavy RailLos Angeles CALAX Airport Connector2.3270011742019-20239500041304ElevatedIndependent
Heavy RailMexico MXLinea 12 Extension2.5153612016-20212600010400SubwayIndependent
Commuter RailMexico MXTren Interurbano de Pasajeros Toluca-Valle de Mexico35.91978552014-20182300006407Subway/At gradeIndependent
StreetcarMilwaukee WILakefront Line0.429732017-2020At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitMilwaukee WIEast-West BRT75482019-202095001357At gradeSemi-Independent
Light RailMinneapolis MNSouthwest Corridor/Green Line Extension14.518581282017-2023340002345At grade (mostly)Independent
Bus Rapid TransitMinneapolis MNC Line302018-20199000At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitMinneapolis MNOrange Line1715192017-2021At gradeShared
Commuter RailMonterey CAMonterey County Rail Extension3813742018-2022At gradeIndependent
Light RailMonterrey MXLinea 34.7439932013-202028000059574Elevated/SubwayIndependent
Automated Heavy RailMontreal QCReseau Express Metropolitain (REM)41.644801082018-20231670004014Elevated/Subway/At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitMontreal QCSRB Pie-IX6.8264392018-20227000010294At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitMontreal QCSauve/Cote-Vertu2.92019-20204000013793At gradeIndependent (mostly)
Commuter RailNew York NJLackawanna Cutoff Phase 17.32014-2020At gradeIndependent
Commuter Rail EMUNew York NYEast Side Access31033334442006-202216200054000SubwayIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitOmaha NEOmaha BRT83142019-2020At gradeShared
Light RailOttawa ONConfederation Line7.721002732013-201924000031169Subway/At gradeIndependent
Light RailOttawa ONTrillium Line South9.92019-2021At gradeIndependent
Light RailOttawa ONConfederation Line West9.32019-2023At gradeIndependent
Light RailOttawa ONConfederation Line East7.52019-2022At gradeIndependent
Heavy RailPanama PALinea 213.12014-2019ElevatedIndependent
Commuter RailPhiladelphia PAMedia/Elwyn Extension to Wawa3151502017-2020At gradeIndependent
Light RailPhoenix AZGilbert Road Extension1.9184972015-201940002105At gradeIndependent
StreetcarPhoenix AZTempe Streetcar3202672017-2021At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitPortland ORDivision Transit15175122019-202210000667At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitReno NVVirginia Street BRT1.880442018-2020At gradeShared
StreetcarSacramento CADowntown Riverfront Streetcar1.22091742019-2022At gradeShared
Commuter Rail DMUSan BernardinoArrow Redlands Passenger Rail Project9285322019-20211200133At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitSan Diego CASouth Bay Rapid2612852016-2019At gradeShared
Light RailSan Diego CAMid-Coast Corridor Transit10.921121942015-2021338003101At gradeIndependent
Light RailSeattle WANorthgate Link4.321004882012-20216000013953Elevated/SubwayIndependent
Light RailSeattle WAEast Link1428002002016-2023500003571Elevated/Subway/At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitSeattle WASwift 2 Green Line12.46752017-20194700379At gradeSemi-Independent
StreetcarSeattle WACenter City Connector1.31971522017-20202010015462At gradeIndependent
Light RailSeattle WALynnwood Link8.530703612018-2024700008235At gradeIndependent
StreetcarSeattle WATacoma Link2.4166692018-2022At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitSpokane WACentral City Line672122019-20213000500At gradeShared
Bus Rapid TransitSt. Petersburg FLCentral Avenue BRT114142019-20215400491At gradeSemi-Independent
Light RailToronto ONEglinton Crosstown11.849904232011-202117000014407Subway/At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitToronto ONViva Next Rapidways Yonge (Phase 1)52015-2020At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitToronto ONViva Next Rapidways Yonge (Phase 2)1.32015-2020At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitToronto ONViva Rapidway Highway 7 West Phase 22016-2020At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitToronto ONViva Highway 7 Rapidway Phase 22016-2020At gradeIndependent
Light RailToronto ONFinch West LRT6.812001762018-2023400005882At gradeIndependent
Commuter RailToronto ONRichmond Hill Line Extension to Bloomington822017-2019At gradeIndependent
Commuter RailToronto ONGO Extension to Niagara Falls42.612032017-2019At gradeIndependent
Commuter RailToronto ONLakeshore East Bowmanville Extension12.42019-2024At gradeIndependent
Light RailToronto ONHamilton LRT B-Line6.77601132019-2024310004627At gradeIndependent
Light RailToronto ONHurontario LRT11.61000862018-20221100009483At gradeIndependent
Heavy RailToronto ONScarborough Subway Extension3.933508592019-2026SubwayIndependent
Heavy RailWashington DCSilver Line Phase 211.427782442014-2020Elevated/At gradeIndependent
Light RailWashington DCPurple Line16.221001302017-2022690004259At grade (mostly)Independent
StreetcarWashington DCAnacostia Initial Line1.15449?-?At gradeSemi-Independent
Bus Rapid TransitWashington DCUS 29 Flash BRT13.53132018-2020At gradeShared
Light RailWaterloo ONION Light Rail Transit Phase 111.8770652014-2019270002288At gradeIndependent
Bus Rapid TransitWinnipeg MBSouthwest Rapid Transitway (Stage 2)4.75081092016-2020At gradeIndependent

Note: Canadian projects are listed in Canadian dollars, which as of January 8, 2019 are each worth 0.75 USD.

* Costs are not uniformly presented (some are year of expenditure, others are in year of planning).


Categories
Automobile Chicago Illinois Infrastructure

The politics of wishful thinking: American cities and their commitment to the expressway

» If cities want to reduce automobile use and address climate change, the status quo simply isn’t good enough. In Chicago, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lakeshore could turn into a step backwards.

For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.

After a massive slash-and-burn campaign that forced the demolition of hundreds of already inhabited, central-city neighborhoods from the 1950s through 1970s, few U.S. cities continue to build new expressways within built-up areas (though there are some depressing exceptions to that rule). Less funding from the federal government, combined with active opposition, seems to have done these projects in.

But the difficulties related to drug use don’t stop after the user has begun. Indeed, once started, drugs are difficult to stop abusing—even when everyone is aware of their negative effects.

Herein lies the tension at the core of transportation politics in many American cities. Though elected officials and planners claim an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing transit use, and producing more livable, walkable communities, when push comes to shove, it’s nearly impossible for them to make the hard choice: Reducing or eliminating space for automobiles. Indeed, in many cases, that choice isn’t even available for discussion.

The planning for the renovation of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive—now underway—offers a useful example of this phenomenon. Here, in a city along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan and with high transit use, the possibility of tearing down a roadway that prioritizes car use and blocks access to the waterfront has never really been up for discussion. In fact, as I’ll describe below, the city and state departments of transportation are pushing rapidly toward the road’s reconstruction in a manner that will increase the ease by which drivers get around.

A change that would actually meet climate and transportation goals set forth by the city and region is off the table. In the process, the city will miss a unique opportunity to reorient half of its lakefront to the needs of people, not cars. Too many cities have made, and continue to make, the same mistake.

The lakefront expressway

Chicago denizens are practically obsessed with quoting Daniel Burnham, who pushed to “make no little plans” and who co-wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago with Edward Bennett. That plan recommended the creation of parks and a parkway along the lakefront. Many of the parks have indeed been built, producing—in some places—one of the nation’s most beautiful waterfronts.

Residents also point to Montgomery Ward’s push to ensure that the lakefront remain “forever open, clear and free.” While this stance was motivated at least in part to maintain views from his department store, it has inspired generations of Chicagoans to preserve and improve lakefront parks.

But Chicago has a disjointed relationship with its lakefront.

Though the 1909 plan is frequently discussed as if it has structured the city’s development, in fact, most of its waterfront interventions—such as a series of park-islands—have not been completed. And Ward’s efforts to keep the lakefront “free” didn’t do much to prevent the construction of a massive convention center along the water.

But the most dramatic violation of the parks-and-freedom message put forward by Burnham and Ward was the creation of Lake Shore Drive, a multi-lane roadway that now extends from 67th Street* in the South Side to Hollywood Avenue on the North Side, roughly 16 miles via downtown.

As envisioned in the 1909 plan, the road would be a “combination of park and driveway” without truck traffic. And as initially built, it came close to that purpose, looking and acting something like a tree-lined city street along which vehicles moved at slow speed.

But it was rebuilt over time, in the 1930s acquiring most of the function of an urban expressway and being transferred from the Park District to the city in 1959 and then to the state department of transportation in the 1970s.

Responding to concerns about the lakefront’s future, in 1973, the city passed the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which was designed to prevent further intrusions onto the lakefront parks. It legislated that “no roadway of expressway standards… shall be permitted in the lakefront parks.” The city code defines expressway as a road designed for speeds in excess of 45 mph.

Lake Shore Drive, however, is an expressway in all but name. It features grade-separated intersections outside of downtown and, despite the speed limit, anyone who has ever used the road knows its drivers treat it as if it were an Interstate. It features four lanes in both directions. Because of its position along the lakefront, the highway acts as a barrier between the city and the lake, in several cases cutting through the heart of parks. It is a great source of noise and pollution. It would be delusional to claim it meets Burnham’s vision for the lakefront.

It has also, along with the construction of other (official) expressways, encouraged the transformation of Chicago from a transit-focused city to an automobile-dominated region. The city’s transit mode share—the portion of people who use public transportation to get to work—has declined from 44 percent in 1960 to just 28 percent in 2016.

Automobiles dominate on the route; on the busiest section north of downtown, it serves up to 170,000 cars daily. Nevertheless, others have taken to using the Drive for other purposes. 69,000 daily riders use bus routes that travel along it; 31,000 daily walkers and bikers navigate the adjacent trails.

The southern portion of the facility was renovated in the early 2000s renovation, but the northern portion, which is more used by all types of users, is falling apart. The road is degraded; congestion is common; bus services are frequently delayed; and the path is crowded with bikers and pedestrians.

A planning process is now underway, to be completed by 2020, but construction funding remains uncommitted.

Given the size of the road and its position along the city’s famed waterfront, choices about what to do with it will define part of the city’s future. Will the city take advantage of the opportunity to reconnect its urban blocks to the waterfront and prioritize transit, walking, and biking? Or will it simply reinforce the status quo?

Planning for a sustainable, transit-filled future

Given what planners and elected officials in the Chicago region say they want to do, you’d think that the possibility of transforming the Drive into something else would be a major priority.

After all, the region’s new comprehensive plan, developed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (the MPO), endorses the goal of doubling transit ridership, a goal the agency has been committed to since 2010. Moreover, the plan recommends “mak[ing] transit more competitive” and increasing the share of regional commuters traveling by modes other than driving alone from 30 percent to 37 percent in 2050.

The City of Chicago and Cook County—the large county that includes and surrounds the city—have both signed on to a popular declaration holding that they will support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement through local policies. This implies that they will identify mechanisms to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Now that transportation accounts for the largest share of American emissions, you’d think that would be a focus.

Similar goals are endorsed by cities and regional agencies throughout the U.S. New York City, for example, hopes to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent; Seattle expects to become carbon neutral and reduce the share of commuters driving alone to work from 43 percent today to 35 percent in 2035. Each suggests that future investments should prioritize reducing car use and encouraging transit ridership.

A reworked drive that doesn’t add up

From the start of planning for the future of the North Side portion of the Drive, it’s been clear that neither the state nor city departments of transportation—which are leading its $2-3 billion redevelopment—are particularly interested in rethinking the way the highway works. The route of the areas being studied is below (with north to the right and south to the left).

The planning process identified its goals early on, back in 2014, which included “improving vehicular mobility” as a primary purpose for the project. In making the choice to “improve mobility for all users,” the planning process was effectively dismissing alternatives, such as eliminating the roadway altogether. From the beginning, the choice of “improving mobility” put in stone the rejection of turning Chicago’s lakefront into the people-oriented space other cities have executed so successfully.

The focus on “mobility” rather than “access,” also suggested a prioritization of speed rather than other goals, such as creating more livable neighborhoods along the lakefront with better access to jobs and commercial needs. For, while the project is a “transportation” one, its impacts will be on land use.

Having to stick to the 1973 ordinance, the project cannot increase minimum speeds to levels higher than 45 mph. Planning documents thus far have suggested no effort to expand the number of lanes for cars. Yet the purpose of improving vehicular mobility has essentially disallowed any alternative that would lower automobile capacity.

It is worth thinking through what an alternative to today’s lakefront might be, because that act of conceptualization—imagining a different world—has been remarkably absent from the discussion.

Consider, for example, not a Chicago cut off from its lakefront by a highway that forces pedestrians to pass under or over it, but rather a city whose neighborhood streets turn into pathways down to the beaches. A rapid transit line with welcoming stations every half mile offering an alternative to the packed Red Line ‘L’ down the street. New opportunities for development, featuring water-fronting retail and cafes, without the ever-present noise and dust of the freeway—allowing people living and working in the towers lining the lake to finally open their windows. Larger parks, no longer divided in two by concrete.

None of these concepts were seriously considered. The city’s residents had little chance to explore what they might think of these ideas.

What officials do seem to have agreed to, after several years of planning, are the complete reconstruction of the highway, with eight lanes throughout the corridor and new dedicated bus lanes, for a total of 10 lanes, and increasing capacity over extant. These changes will not add any transit stations along the corridor; buses will simply use the route as an mechanism for moving between neighborhoods and downtown and a way to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Current projections suggest the bus lanes could increase transit use by 60 percent.

Despite the improvements for transit service, it’s hard not to conclude that the project will have as its primary effect the reinforcement of the highly automobile-oriented environment that now dominates the lakefront.

The extraction of buses into their own lanes will leave eight purely for automobile use; that simply means more space for personal cars. And the new corridor will be up to 19 lanes wide in some locations, such as south of the intersection with North Avenue, as shown here.

Enmeshed in brand-new concrete, that’s a barrier to the waterfront that won’t be altered for another half century.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the proposed renovations will make driving easier. After all, the project is being partly led by the state department of transportation, which a few years ago attempted to force a new highway down the throat of the Chicago region, ignoring the evidence suggesting its downsides. It was only stopped by litigation over its environmental impacts.

Moreover, the Drive is, of course, very well-used by motorists. Their collective anguish at the possibility that their express route to downtown might be eliminated would surely capture much of the discussion in future mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.

Even the planning profession’s tools would have a role to play in reinforcing the status quo. Transportation models premised on resistance to mode change undoubtedly would demonstrate a city paralyzed were the highway to be eliminated.

But the story is more complex than that. Along the waterfront itself north of central Chicago, no Census tract has more than 50 percent of its resident commuters driving alone to work. Indeed, in most of those tracts, about 50 percent of commuters travel by transit and only about 30 percent drive alone to work (35 to 40 percent of households in this area own no cars). Thus the people who would be most impacted by the replacement of the expressway with something else—the people who live nearby—are already limited car users, as shown below.

There is, just as importantly, significant evidence that cities that have replaced waterfront highways with surface boulevards or simply pedestrian space don’t suffer from massive congestion on nearby streets or a crushed economy, as some transportation models would suggest. Expressways eliminated from use in cities like Madrid, Paris, San Francisco, and Seoul have seen their traffic “evaporate” as trips formerly taken by car have moved to transit, walking, and biking.

These cities’ economies certainly haven’t suffered—in many cases, they’ve actually seen more development and higher property values as the fumes and noise of cars have diminished. These transformations suggest that people are able to adapt, even in the face of massive alterations in urban infrastructure.

But these arguments are largely irrelevant to decision makers, because the possibility of eliminating the expressway along Chicago’s lakefront wasn’t struck from discussion because of some comparison of the merits of alternative solutions. This possibility has been largely ignored because planners and elected officials in US cities are mired in the wishful thinking of a drug abuser. They’re aware that projects that benefit automobile use will diminish transit ridership and increase greenhouse gas emissions. They just want one more dose, one more chance to address the needs of car users.

The problem, of course, isn’t just a matter of this project alone. Perhaps Chicago could achieve its climate and transit mode-share goals even with Lake Shore Drive remade as it is. The issue is that the Drive’s reconstruction is just the latest in a decades-long stream of decisions to reinforce the automobile-focused status quo rather than fight it. Every time a city makes the choice to do something like rebuilding an expressway to carry more cars than it does today, it is pulling away from the broader efforts it should be pursuing.

Opportunities like the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive come along rarely. They present the ideal circumstances to pilot new ways for people to get around—to promote change that might otherwise be impossible to move forward. Yet city after city continues to miss the chance. New York and Seattle, noted above as other cities also looking to reduce their climate impacts and increase transit ridership, are also the sites of major highway redevelopment and construction projects.

Ultimately, it is naive to believe that a city can both achieve its progressive goals and continue to invest in projects that reaffirm the way the transportation system currently works. Regional plans to double transit ridership won’t happen at the same time as space for automobile circulation is expanded. These two are irreconcilable; cities are going to have to choose what is more important to them. You can’t take another hit while you’re trying to go cold turkey.

* An extension of the highway, from 79th through 92nd Street on the South Side, was completed in 2013, but it is unconnected to the rest of the route.

Photos from (a) Flickr user Roman Boed (cc); (b) Flickr user Yonah Freemark (cc). Maps above from Redefine the Drive and Social Explorer.