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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.

Categories
Bus Light Rail Nashville

Nashville plans for a big boost in local transit, and is hoping its voters will step on board

» The city’s mayor has announced a multi-billion-dollar plan that would bring new light rail and bus rapid transit routes to the city’s core, but critics are suggesting it won’t work. It depends on the design.

Nashville is booming. The region that encompasses it is growing by an average of 100 people a day, and the rhythm has held up for several years now. The combined city-county Nashville-Davidson has added more than 60,000 residents since 2010 alone.

Developers are catching up, constructing thousands of new residential units, office buildings, and other projects; much of the development is happening downtown.

Yet the city’s transportation system isn’t made for the growth. The highway system is bottleneck-after-bottleneck, and the transit system is underfunded and underused.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s hope is to offer an alternative through a massive new transit program that she announced in October. It would rely on voter-supported tax increases.

But the proposal could face the same problems previous Nashville transit efforts have—namely inadequate public support and vocal opposition. These opponents, as I describe below, are relying on inadequate and deceptive claims to critique investment in transit, but they’re right that the system won’t automatically be effective in attracting riders. Nashville needs better transit, but it’s got to design its system appropriately if it’s going to work.

Fixed-guideway transit for Nashville

Mayor Barry’s plan is to have the city’s voters approve a significant increase in four local taxes in a May 1 referendum. The proposal would increase the sales tax incrementally and add surcharges on existing hotel, rental car, and business taxes. Funds would raise enough to fund $5.4 billion in capital investments, plus a billion more in operations costs over the next 14 years, when construction will be completed. That’s not as large as Los Angeles’ or Seattle’s 2016 referenda, but it’s a big investment in a much smaller metropolitan area.

Indeed, Nashville’s plan would be enough to provide the city’s almost 700,000 inhabitants a large new transit network, encompassing 26 miles of light rail, 25 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT), and significant improvements to the existing bus service and Music City Star commuter rail line.

Lines would largely extend out from downtown, where a $936-million, 1.8-mile transit tunnel would separate trains and BRT services from street traffic. It would make Nashville the fifth U.S. city to invest in a modern light-rail downtown tunnel, after Buffalo, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Dallas* (like Seattle, it will include both trains and buses).

As the map below indicates, light rail lines would extend northeast along Gallatin Pike, west along Charlotte Avenue, northwest along a former rail line, and southeast along Murfreesboro and Nolensville Pikes, all major arterial routes. Four BRT corridors would fill in the gaps. The result would be an urban core generally well served by fixed-guideway transit services.

As currently described, the network would feature relatively high-performance light rail corridors, “traveling in their own lanes,” with transit signal priority and frequent weekday service. The trains would begin running 2026, with full completion by 2032.

The rapid bus corridors, which would be implemented more rapidly, would be electric, have limited stops, also feature transit signal priority, and, “where feasible and supported by the community,” include dedicated lanes and off-board payment.

In sum, the network is projected to attract significantly more riders than the existing regional network, which carries about 33,000 daily bus riders and 1,200 commuter rail users. The city estimates that the rapid bus corridors would see between 9,600 and 11,600 boardings a day and the rail corridors between 61,100 and 71,400. If these projections are realized, the city’s system will carry more riders per mile than those in Charlotte, Dallas, and Denver, and it would more than double existing use of the system.

Over the 2018 to 2032 construction period, about $900 million, or about 10 percent of the total, would go to operations and maintenance costs, with the rest paying for the massive expenditures related to the new rail and bus lines.

That’s a very capital-heavy allocation of resources, and it has its limitations. Light rail service on weekends, for example, would only be scheduled for every 30 minutes. And some local buses would continue to provide service only every 30 minutes, at best. But a new Frequent Transit Network would offer service every 15 minutes or faster on the 10 busiest bus routes, which would have significantly longer hours and an expanded fleet.

The opposition

Assuming these outcomes play out as planned, should the voters endorse Nashville’s proposal? Would the city be getting its money’s worth?

For critics of the project, massive investment in transit simply doesn’t make much sense. Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of Economic Malcolm Getz epitomizes the opposition, and he has produced a lengthy critique that’s been used by local media as evidence for the proposal’s failings. A few years ago, Getz was a key opponent of Nashville’s proposed Amp BRT line, which ultimately failed in the face of state legislative and local business opposition.

Getz’s arguments are similar to those used by most opponents of transit investment in cities across the U.S.: For one, he argues, transit does not reduce congestion and in fact may make matters worse if trains or buses take space away from cars on the street. Two, transit is slow because it requires transfers and thus will not increase ridership. Three, the benefits would go to just few people (since most people don’t use transit), and transit would accelerate gentrification. And four, the availability of new types of car services, combined with tolled express lanes, actually would be more beneficial.

These claims—like many of the popular criticisms of transit—mislead, simplify, and contradict.

It is true, as Getz notes, that the fundamental law of road congestion means roads will fill up to their capacity, so more transit is unlikely to reduce congestion in itself. But evidence does, in fact, show that transit plays an important role in reducing overall automobile traffic, even in places like Nashville where it accounts for a small share of commuters. As such, improving transit service can be an essential mechanism to move more people around a city without having to build more highways.

Getz suggests that eliminating automobile lanes for dedicated lanes for transit will exacerbate congestion by forcing the same number of drivers into fewer lanes. But such reductions in vehicle traffic have been shown either to have minimal impact on roadway capacity or actually reduce the number of people driving. Just as importantly, transit can carry a lot more people in a lot less space than automobiles on roadways.

Of course, transit can only be effective if it’s carrying people, and that’s a shortcoming that Getz relies upon throughout his criticism. He suggests, to summarize, that there’s virtually nothing that can be done to attract people onto the region’s trains and buses because they are slow and require transfers, and thus that those vehicles will be empty no matter what.

But there are ways to make transit effective—it’s just that Getz isn’t much interested in them. As noted above, he’s opposed to dedicated lanes, but those are essential for speeding up transit and actually making them competitive with cars. Nashville’s transit system is quite low-ridership today, but one reason for that is that the service it provides is slow and infrequent, exactly the deficiencies this transit plan is designed to address.

Getz’s claim that Nashville’s transit system simply won’t be well used, and thus does not deserve significant investment, is simply a reflection of existing conditions and an unwillingness to believe that cities have the capacity to change.

Moreover, he is willing to use an argument that contradicts his other claims—that transit will induce gentrification by increasing property values near transit stations. Why, though, would transit improvements increase values if no one is using the system? There is significant evidence that transit investments increase surrounding property values, and the reason for that is that transit improves accessibility. In other words, you can’t both argue that transit won’t be used and that it will increase gentrification.

Getz’s proposed solutions include increasingly relying on ride-hailing services and putting buses in tolled express lanes on Nashville’s highways. Yet encouraging people to take Uber or Lyft into downtown wouldn’t do much at all to solve congestion—in fact, it might make it worse if people are subsidized to take those vehicles instead of the bus. Moreover, given that such services are hardly self-supporting today, and far from inexpensive, it’s hard to see this approach as effective in the long term.

While tolling expressways might be effective in cutting down on traffic, putting the buses there instead of on arterial surface streets would essentially remove transit from the places where it can actually thrive: In walkable, relatively dense neighborhoods, and relegate it to an automobile-dominated corridor.

Plus, Nashville’s massive growth requires new transportation capacity. Simply tolling some highway lanes won’t actually increase the ability of the region to handle more people. That’s why it’s so important that transit investments be offered as an alternative.

What future for the city?

Despite the limitations of Getz’s arguments, they are getting play in the local press. One reason for that is that there are reasons to be skeptical of the potential for Nashville transit improvements.

The city is incredibly sprawling, with a population density of just about 1,300 people per square mile—far less than what is typically needed to make fixed-guideway transit effective, which is something in the range of 10,000 people per square mile. I’ve written critically of the previous transit proposals in Nashville precisely for this reason. Along the proposed lines, densities are higher—3,000 to 4,000 people per square mile, but still pretty low.

As such the city should be focusing intensely to construct larger projects along the routes and downtown to ensure that the transit investment is worth it. The existing land use code also has high parking requirements—at least one space per unit for residential uses, and one space per every 200 to 300 square feet for office uses—that should be eliminated to support a transit-focused city.

This plan is better than the previous one, focusing more on improving transit in the center, where it is likely to work best. Whereas the previous proposal would have extended light rail 30 miles from downtown, this one goes, at most, about seven miles from there. While the city extends roughly 15 miles from downtown, the underdeveloped, exurban parts are not to be served by this plan. That means that it’s designed to encourage development in the core by capitalizing redevelopment of existing built-up areas. That’s the right approach.

The inclusion of a transit tunnel downtown is a radical, expensive approach, but it’s ultimately a good idea from the perspective of making the system as effective as possible. By separating trains and BRT services from traffic, the system will avoid the pitfalls of places like Portland, where light rail vehicles crawl through downtown, and make it far more feasible for people to travel from one side of the city to another.

Moreover, the plan’s opponents are missing the larger issue: This transit plan isn’t really about responding to Nashville’s current travel patterns, for better or worse. It’s about creating a framework for the future development of the city around a reliable transit system.

If the proposal is successfully implemented, it will make it possible to have a transit-oriented life in a city where living without a car is now virtually impossible. It will create the groundwork for an alternative mode of development than the parking-heavy construction that currently dominates.

Despite the vocal opposition, Nashville’s citizenry may, in fact, be willing to go along with Mayor Barry’s transit proposal. It’s a big ask, and it will hit people in their pocketbooks, but the city’s residents are hardly arch-conservative; they voted 60 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite her winning only 35 percent of the statewide vote.

Even if they vote for the referendum, though, the way the transit projects that are funded by it are ultimately designed will play an essential role in determining their effectiveness. The fact that the city is proposing to include dedicated lanes only where “supported by the community” suggests that the city’s leaders are already anticipating opposition from neighbors in places such as along the West End corridor, which connects downtown to Vanderbilt University, and where the Amp project met its demise a few years back. But the transit services will only be useful for people in the city if they’re designed to be as rapid as possible.

Better transit for Nashville, then, means more than just passing new funding for the city’s system. It means making sure that the projects built are designed to work and to actually attract riders. That’s the really difficult part.

* Several cities, including Boston, Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, built light rail tunnels many decades ago and have kept them operating. Tunnels in Dallas and Los Angeles are planned or now under construction.

Image at top: Downtown Nashville, from Flickr user Jason Mrachina (cc). Map of proposed Nashville fixed-guideway transit routes, from City of Nashville. Updated Jan. 31, 2018 to clarify changes to local bus service.

Categories
Beijing China Guangzhou Hong Kong Infrastructure Metro Rail Shanghai

In response to growth, Chinese cities choose metros

» With rail rapid transit construction in virtually every major Chinese city, the country is betting on an urban future focused on transit.

Faced with limited political will for increased infrastructure funding, the debate over transportation planning in the United States has become increasingly dominated by an austerity-driven understanding of how to respond to growth. Unwilling or unable to develop ambitious plans for the future, many cities and their public officials have contented themselves with doing more with less.

Doing more with less is a strange maxim for an incredibly wealthy—and still growing—nation. Nevertheless, it is a pathology that has so altered many American planners’ sense of the acceptable that the mere idea of a master plan of significant investment attracts little more than dismissive scoffs. With blasé planners and uninterested politicians, “doing more” is readily transformed into actually doing very little.

Undoubtedly the overwhelming problems that infect that very core of the American planning apparatus—excessive reliance on consultants, acceptance of rapidly growing costs, failure to adapt to new technologies, compulsive regression to benefits for small groups over for the common interest—have encouraged this approach to understanding what is possible. And there are some cities (Los Angeles and Seattle come to mind most quickly) where these issues seem less acute.

But it is perhaps only in the act of comparison that the illness of American planning is made apparent. For in examining how one place acts in the context of another we can see whether the malignant cancer to which it has become resigned is, in fact, a factor of unavoidable shared inheritance, or if, rather, it is the consequence of its own poor choices that others have not made.

Evidence, indeed, suggests that there are choices when it comes to planning, that it is possible to have more, not less. I point to Chinese cities, which over the past ten years have acted to seize the reigns of transport planning through aggressive investment.

Having been reliant on bicycle transportation for much of the 20th century, Chinese cities were models of unmotorized mobility. But the country’s opening to capitalism in the 1990s brought massive motorization and the purchase of millions of automobiles. Millions of rural inhabitants streamed into urban cores. Many of the cities were woefully unprepared to respond to the sudden changes that ensued; until 1995, only one Chinese city—Beijing*—had any metro line, by which I mean fully grade-separated rapid transit.

What has occurred since then, however, has truly altered the way people use transportation in Chinese cities, and the changes will keep on coming.

Metro construction in these cities has exploded, rising exponentially especially since 2008. A country largely bereft of metros in the 1990s now has more than 5,000 kilometers of metro lines, more than four times the U.S. figure, which has increased very slowly since the 1960s. 25 Chinese cities now have systems, and the number is rising every year.

Of the 12 largest metro networks in the world by length, seven are now in China. As of December 2017, Guangzhou’s metro passed New York’s Subway in length, and Beijing and Shanghai have by far the longest systems.

Some estimates suggest that Chinese cities will have more than 10,000 kilometers of metro lines by 2020. That’s in addition to the almost 1,000 kilometers of bus rapid transit, hundreds of kilometers of tramways, and massive commuter rail systems that have been built in cities around the country—not to mention the enormous high-speed rail network that has been constructed since 2007.

This investment in metro capacity has been met by a popular shift in how people get around. Current Chinese metro lines collectively carry about twice as many riders as the entire American public transportation network, buses, trains, and all.

The “riding habit”—the frequency of transit use per capita—has risen quickly in city after city. Guangzhou and Beijing now have greater use of their systems than any American city except for New York, with the average resident there taking 189 and 167 rides per year, respectively, compared to 230 per year in Gotham. Beijing and Shanghai systems now each carry more than ten million daily riders, the two highest figures in the world. And they have both doubled their ridership since 2010. It seems likely that the other cities following their path in line construction will eventually follow their lead in ridership, too.

Metro construction in China is largely the product of a massive central government investment. Between 2010 and 2015, the nation spent the equivalent of $189 billion on such lines, and between 2016 and 2020, it is expected to spend between $262 and $308 billion more. The U.S. government dedicates about $2.3 billion per year in total for all transit projects, so less than one-fifteenth of the Chinese investment.

The story of Chinese investment in metro systems might be chalked up to processes of urbanization that were familiar, too, to U.S. cities in the early 1900s. It is easy to forget that American residents of major cities were the most reliant on transit in the world at the time, and that before the Great Depression, efforts to build subways and elevated rapid transit were widespread (if ineffective).

Yet actions in Chinese cities today are examples of contemporary planning, not simply responses to a particular historical moment that all cities eventually go through. The unabashed commitment to investment in rapid transit in city after city through support from the national government is an effort that never had its equal in the U.S. The growth in metro systems is being conducted in response to, not before, the increase in automobile dependence. Line construction is being undertaken in parallel with massive creation of dense new neighborhoods, a legacy whose hysteresis will produce generations of transit riders.

While Chinese cities have frequently been poor models of urbanism—massive highways, malls, and tower-in-the-park apartment blocks have taken root in too many places—they appear to be at least minimally cognizant of the reality that a future of unlimited automobile growth is unsustainable. Unlike any American city, for example, cities from Harbin to Shanghai to Shenzhen have implemented caps on vehicle registration and are examining congestion fees. Thus the growth in metro construction is being implemented in line with restrictions on overuse of cars.

The feats of Chinese infrastructure development are often dismissed by Western critics as the unrealizable actions of an authoritarian, illiberal country with no property rights, a poor citizenry, too-dense neighborhoods, and sheer government power. Its actions, then, are supposedly not meaningful for the deeply democratic American context.

Yet this is too much of a gross exaggeration of what is actually happening in China. While it is true that the country is authoritarian, land cannot simply “be taken” with no response from residents. Incomes have increased dramatically many of the larger cities, creating a middle class of individuals ready to contest projects they don’t like. Investment isn’t cheap; Chinese metros, while not as pricey as American ones, aren’t much cheaper to build than their European counterparts. And the residential areas that have been created around metro stations are intentionally dense, the product of a decision to be dense, not the product of poverty.

The difference between U.S. and Chinese approaches to planning for growth through transportation, then, really gets down to this question: are cities prepared to make the commitment to change, or not? American cities have largely abandoned the effort, hoping and praying that they may eventually wean people out of their cars through such under-supported devices as commuter incentives and tactical urbanism. Chinese cities, aided by massive central investment, are building a new society for themselves.

Data on Chinese metro expansion available here.

* Hong Kong has had extensive rail services throughout the twentieth century, and its metro, beginning in the 1970s, was quite popular, but it was a British protectorate until 1997.

Image at top: Guangzhou Metro, from Flickr user Enzo Jiang (cc).

Categories
Streetcar Toronto

In a simple move, Toronto transforms a streetcar line into something far more useful

» The city’s King Street Transit Pilot is preventing cars from using the street as a throughway. In doing so, it’s showing how other cities might prioritize transit on their busiest streets.

With almost 300,000 daily riders, Toronto’s streetcar system is the most-used light rail network in North America. Unfortunately, for many of its riders, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.

That’s because most of its streetcar lines operate in a right-of-way shared with automobiles, slowing the system to a crawl. It’s a misery unfortunately shared with most of the new streetcar lines now existing, under construction, and planned in the U.S.—and, perhaps more importantly, with virtually all bus routes.

This week, Toronto has begun piloting one solution.

It has substantially improved streetcar service on a portion of King Street, which runs roughly east-west through the densest portion of the city’s downtown. On the 1.6 miles between Bathurst and Jarvis Streets, King Street has been temporarily transformed through the city’s intervention.

This pilot has significantly reduced space for cars along the street, eliminating parking spaces, adding public art, installing planters, creating small new public plazas, and—perhaps most importantly—prevented people from driving on the street for more than one block or taking left turns.

It’s therefore not a full car ban; some vehicles will still travel in the streetcar right-of-way, a less-than-optimal situation. But it is an effort to ensure that drivers are only using the portion of the street they need. As a result, most of the street is reserved for trains, bikers, and pedestrians.

We’ve yet to see the long-term results of the project, but initial public reaction suggests that the changes have significantly sped up what was once a very slow streetcar line. Riders are saving five to 13 minutes per trip, a massive improvement for such a short trip. Streetcars are running more quickly and less likely to get stuck at lights. Cyclists are riding more safely. And traffic doesn’t seem to have been pushed onto surrounding streets.

It’s too early to know the full impact of the changes, but Toronto will be monitoring transit and street performance over the next year, at which point the pilot may be made permanent. What is clear, however, is that at a cost of $1.5 million, the pilot is a very cheap way to test how to dramatically improve transit service.

It’s also targeted to the right area. Streetcars on King Street carry about 65,000 daily riders, more than any other surface transit route in the city. At the same time, only about 20,000 cars travel on the street on a typical day. In other words, the large majority of people moving on the street are on transit, not in personal automobiles. The city has intervened to prioritize people, not cars.

King Street has not been transformed into a full-scale light rail corridor, and it could certainly use an aesthetic upgrade. It does not go nearly as far as the creation of dedicated streetcar rights-of-way, as was done on other major streets in Toronto, such as Spadina and St. Clair. Yet these improvements are likely to grow ridership, much as those routes experienced.

What’s most exciting about Toronto’s project is that it suggests how other cities with major street-running transit lines might engage to improve the quality of service their riders experience. It suggests a mechanism for cities like Atlanta or Kansas City—which recently opened new, slow streetcar routes that share lanes with cars—to transition to faster, more reliable operations. It shows what is possible to achieve in situations where there simply isn’t adequate support to fully ban cars from streets.

It also is a demonstration of what could be done to improve bus service in the immediate term, at a very low cost, in cities everywhere. Places that lack the funds or interest to roll out a full-scale bus rapid transit route with expensive street upgrades and special streetscapes might, in the meantime, experiment with streets that limit car circulation much as Toronto has done. Executed through a pilot, cities could test options with very limited financial commitment but, in the process, potentially dramatically improve the performance and speed of transit trips.

Implementing this streetcar pilot was no foregone conclusion; just a few years back, Toronto’s then-mayor Rob Ford suggested that he wanted to eliminate the entire streetcars system. Street investments that truly prioritize people over cars require political initiative and will.

Image at top: Traffic on Queen King Street, from City of Toronto.

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Infrastructure Metro Rail New York Stations

The case of the missing platform doors

» Platform screen doors could save lives, reduce trash on the tracks, and improve the customer experience. Yet they’ve been repeatedly pushed back as a solution in cities like New York. At fault: A bureaucracy that isn’t able to plan for technological change and is unresponsive even to its own board members.

Charles Moerdler wants to make the New York City Subway better for its passengers, but he keeps getting blown off. His story is parochial in that it is relevant directly to New York, but it is also generalizable—representative in its own way of how American transit agencies respond to the availability of new technologies, even when those new technologies can save lives and improve operations.

Moerdler may be one of the most prominent, if unrecognized (perhaps even by himself), advocates of what are known as platform screen doors. These glass doors, which line the edge of train platforms and prevent people from jumping, falling, or being pushed onto the tracks, are installed on rapid transit systems all over the world. They are aligned with a train’s own doors and are designed to open when a train pulls up. They can play an important role in improving transit safety, in many cases literally saving lives, and they can prevent people from throwing trash onto the tracks, a typical cause of system-disrupting track fires.

Yet they’re also virtually non-existent on rapid transit systems in the U.S. Why is that?

I’ll return to Moerdler in a second, but suffice it to say that his advocacy has been repeatedly and condescendingly rebuffed—I document the instances below—by leadership at the agency that runs the Subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), where he is a board member. Partly as a consequence, like many other systems, the New York City Subway remains dangerously susceptible to people getting hit by trains and service disruptions. No progress, at least in the public eye, has been made on addressing this problem. This public bureaucracy seems incapable of adjusting to technological change.

Platform screen doors: A worldwide phenomenon for rapid transit, except in the U.S.

Platform screen doors may be familiar to anyone who has used an automated people mover at airports from Chicago O’Hare to New York JFK, and they have a number of benefits. They allow platforms to act as insulated rooms, physically stopping people from jumping or falling onto the tracks—a particular plus for blind people. They prevent people from trashing the tracks—a major cause of subway delays. They allow trains to enter stations at higher speeds, and they make it far more feasible to air condition those stops.

Doors can be installed at full heights, completely isolating the platform from the tracks, or they can be installed more cheaply at a lower height. They can be installed at all stations along a line, or just some of them. They can be added on lines that are automated, and on others that are not.

The doors aren’t free. Costs may vary from about €2.6 million per station for a project now underway in Paris to about $10 million per station, according to an estimate for Montréal.

The MTA suggests that platform doors could require platform edge reinforcement, electrical upgrades, and a new interface between trains and signals. So determining the relative importance of lives saved and reduced trash fires resulting from platform doors, compared to other potential investments, is needed for any system considering their implementation.

Clearly, many cities have decided they’re worth the cost. The below map illustrates all of the rapid transit systems around the world—excluding airport people movers—noting in yellow and green those systems with platform screen doors at at least some of their stations (click to expand).

As the map shows, none of the major rapid transit systems in the U.S. include such doors—not New York, but also not Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Washington. Only Las Vegas’ monorail, a tourist attraction, and Honolulu’s line, now under construction, include them.

In Europe and Asia, however, platform screen doors are quite common. They’ve been installed on new systems in cities as disparate as Bangkok, Chengdu, Copenhagen, Dubai, Singapore, Toulouse, and Turin. They’ve been added to existing lines in places from Beijing to London and Paris. And many cities are installing them now.

In South Korea, there have been particularly significant efforts to incorporate platform doors at existing stations. In Japan, the government has recommended their installation at every station with at least 100,000 daily commuters and identified a significant reduction in accidents following their addition. The doors are common on every rail system in China.

In other words, the doors are ubiquitous for new rapid transit lines in the wealthier parts of the world. Except for in the U.S.

Return to New York

One explanation for the difference may be the manner in which American transit agencies approach technological change. Which brings us back to Charles Moerdler.

Don’t feel bad for Chuck. He’s a partner in a major law firm. Despite being yelled at by the current MTA chair, Moerdler feels empowered in his job as an MTA board member.

Yet my examination of MTA board minutes suggests that he’s been given misleading answers to his queries about the possibilities of such doors at least eight times, by a panoply of different officials, over the past five years.

To rehash:

  • In March 2012, then-MTA President Tom Prendergast told Moerdler that platform doors were being considered for installation, and he said they could improve safety, comfort, and timeliness of trains. Then- and now-MTA chairman Joe Lhota said “we will look at” the doors, though he suggested “it’s not something I think we’ll see, quite honestly, in your lifetime or my lifetime.”
  • In January 2013, an MTA Senior Vice President said the agency was considering the possible use of platform door barriers and other mechanisms to check for intrusions on the track.
  • In May 2014, Moerdler generated discussion among board members about the potential for platform doors to address safety and operational issues, to no real response from MTA officials.
  • In June 2014, then-New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco suggested that two initiatives, including intrusion detection and the feasibility of platform doors, “are ongoing.”
  • In November 2016, then-New York City Transit President Veronique Hakim “agreed to look into the feasibility of a pilot program for the installation of platform doors,” according to the minutes. Another board member noted that the agency needed a study to examine the issue.
  • In February 2017, Subways Senior Vice President Wynton Habersham said that the issue of platform doors “is currently under consideration, and agreed to get back to [board] Members with further information at a future date.” He agreed to produce a report on the cost and feasibility of platform doors in New York.
  • In March 2017, Habersham “agreed to consider the use of platform doors,” and the agency suggested a “comprehensive study” was being explored at that moment.
  • In September 2017, Moerdler was again promised by agency officials that platform doors were possible, and the idea had not been abandoned.

The MTA has never produced a comprehensive analysis of the potential for such doors, nor has it committed seriously to installing them. The way in which Moerdler has been treated is indicative of the agency’s unwillingness to invest in new technologies. For years, the agency has been responding to him as if the public is on the cusp of learning about the potential for platform doors, and yet responses over the years collectively indicate little progress.

Perhaps the MTA does, in fact, have something forthcoming. And the fact is that there has been repeated evidence that the MTA is at least minimally interested in investing in such technologies. In 2007, agency officials suggested that the Second Avenue Subway could include such doors. Board members designated $2.4 million in funds for platform doors in the 2010-to-2014 capital plan; this expenditure was delayed and supposed to be completed in December 2016 (it wasn’t). The agency complained about the difficulty of implementation in early 2013, noting that door installation would be costly, have to respond to varying train lengths, door placements, and differences in station designs. In February 2016, the MTA suggested it would put platform doors at the L train’s 6th Avenue station. By November last year, the agency noted that the S shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central might be a better option.*

All along, people kept getting hurt and, in some cases, dying. Just last year 102 people were accidentally hit by trains at stations, and another 51 allegedly or definitely attempted suicide by jumping in front of trains.

The agency’s response to Moerdler isn’t just evidence of an embarrassingly inappropriate relationship with board members. It’s also a disappointment for riders.

To be fair, I would be remiss to avoid mentioning the challenges the MTA would face if it were to attempt the installation of platform screen doors. The doors generally require several basic features to work: Trains that stop in the almost-exact same place every time; level and even platforms; and train doors that are always located in the same place.**

Stopping trains in the same place each time they arrive at stations typically requires advanced signaling, a feature that New York’s Subway is notoriously lacking. Level platforms require renovations. Train doors being located in the same place is difficult to achieve with a mixed fleet of trains featuring doors in different locations. Achieving any of these features would not be simple, and it would require MTA dedicate new funds to be accomplished.

Yet there are MTA services that are already practically ready for the installation of such doors. The L train has advanced, CBTC signaling that is similar to automation and can guarantee reliable stopping. It also has a train fleet whose doors are all located in the same place. Once the 7 train’s CBTC renovation is completed, it too will have those two features. So, interestingly, does the Q train’s just-opened portion under Second Avenue in Manhattan. The first two feature congested platforms where the dangers of falling in front of a train are real. And all three need to keep the tracks clear of trash to maintain appropriate operations.

But, at least as of now, the MTA has no plans to add platform doors to any of the lines. One explanation may be that the agency wants to hold off for a future in which it changes the location of train doors.

Promoting technological change

It’s hard to understand why, exactly, the management of American transit agencies act in the manner that they do. While they could use more funds in many cases, the biggest agencies work with billions of dollars of capital and operating funds, more than most agencies in Europe or Asia. While they’re public sector bureaucracies, so is virtually every other transit agency in the world. While agency leadership keeps changing, many staff members have remained there for years. While boards aren’t particularly responsive from a democratic perspective, neither are the heads of transit agencies in most other countries—and, even if they were, it’s hard to believe that issues like platform screen doors will ever rise to the top of issues relating to popular protest.

The best explanation I have is that management is simply uninterested in making the decisions necessary to bring their technologies up to speed. Given their (real or imagined) sense of being constantly under siege, transit agency leadership would prefer to just keep the existing system working as it does today: Better safe than sorry. And the repeated complaints of one board member, not backed by others and not likely to raise the concerns of the political official who appointed him (the governor), simply doesn’t matter enough.

It is also undoubtedly true that the fact that platform doors can, for now, only be installed at some stations, on some lines, poses a political challenge to doing it anywhere. Yet that hasn’t prevented the improvement of service in some places over others. And in the places where it is possible, the primary problem is a lack of foresight and coordination. If, when the MTA had begun renovations on the L or the 7, it had committed to platform doors, it could have simply incorporated their installation into the overall renovation plan, as have other cities. Including them now wouldn’t represent such a struggle. Comprehensive planning about multiple elements of a project clearly is not the agency’s high point.

There are reasons for hope, however. About two years ago, I wrote about the complete failure of American transit agencies to purchase open-gangway trains, which increase capacity by allowing people to walk between cars—a failure that could not be attributable to technology or cost and that was degrading customer service. Agencies offered surface-level, unreasonable excuses for their approach.

But in January 2016 (surely not just, if at all, as a consequence of my article), the MTA announced it would purchase an open-gangway train, and a portion of a prototype has been built.

It will take decades for the full fleet to be converted, but the decision signals that there is a willingness, somewhere deep in the heart of American transit bureaucracy, for change.

* Philadelphia, among other cities, has also considered platform doors.

** There are some inventive approaches to handling situations with doors in different locations using ropes, but these seem unlikely to be feasible in a rapid-transit context.