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.

Boston Finance Infrastructure Light Rail

Frequent service, not escalator access, is what attracts transit users

Boston's Green Line

» Boston’s Green Line extension, bloated after years of planning, gets slimmed down. A lesson for other cities. 

Given how reliant the people of New York City are on their Subway, an outsider just looking at ridership data might conclude that the system must be paved with gold, or at least its stations must be decent to look at. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the comfort of a transit system plays an essential role in encouraging people to abandon their cars and get on the train or bus. That’s why, some would argue, it’s so important to put amenities like USB charging and wifi into transit vehicles.

Yet anyone who has ever ridden the Subway knows first hand that its success has nothing to do with aesthetics or access to luxury amenities. Stations are hardly in good shape, trains are packed, and cell service is spotty at best. People ride the Subway in spite of these things; they ride it because it’s fast, it’s frequent, and it’s (relatively) reliable.

Too often, this simple fact is ignored by public agencies actually making decisions about how to invest. New York’s own $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub—perhaps the world’s single-most expensive station—is evidence of that; rather than improve service frequency or speed, officials chose to direct public funds to a white monument that does nothing to actually ease the lives of daily commuters.

Initial plans for the MBTA’s Green Line extension, which would extend light rail service from Cambridge into Somerville and Medford—all three are close-in suburbs of Boston—featured none of the extravagances of downtown Manhattan’s new transit terminal. Yet it too was designed with unnecessary features that, while nice, did little to actually solve the travel needs of its future users.  Its projected construction costs exploded such that officials announced last year the proposal could be cancelled. Now, after several months of review, the MBTA and the state government have voted to proceed with design changes meant to significantly bring down costs—but without compromising the quality of transit service to be offered to riders.

Agencies with pricey projects around the country should look for similar opportunities to minimize costs.

A rail line for one of the nation’s most transit-friendly communities

The seven-station extension of the Green Line proposed for Boston would be the region’s first rapid transit expansion since the completion of the Red Line extension in 1985. Running along two branches northwest from today’s terminus at Lechmere—one branch to Union Square in Somerville, the other to College Avenue, near Tufts University—the 4.7 miles of new track would run along existing commuter rail lines and connect to some of the country’s densest, most transit-friendly neighborhoods. See the Transit Explorer map for details.

The project would vastly improve connections of Somerville and Medford residents to jobs hubs in Cambridge and Boston and is expected to attract 45,000 daily riders by 2030. That would make it one of the most effective projects in the nation from the perspective of riders per mile operated.

The project has been in planning for decades. A 1990 lawsuit required that the line be completed by 2011 as a sort of trade-off in exchange for the completion of the Big Dig. But faced with limited funding, mounting MBTA debt, and a lack of adequate state political support, the project failed to gain traction and the state kept pushing it off. Finally, initial construction activity began in 2013 and the federal government agreed to provide a significant New Starts grant to the project in 2015.

Yet even as the project advanced, its estimated construction costs mounted ominously. Federal reports show total costs rising from $1.1 billion in 2013 to $1.7 billion in 2014 to $2.3 billion in early 2015. By late last year, the project’s budget had reached $3 billion, and the state announced that it was not only cancelling certain contracts related to its completion but also that, in the context of a transit agency stretched beyond anything it could handle, it was considering cancelling it altogether.*

Redesign by necessity

But the MBTA submitted the Green Line extension to a review by a project management team, and that group released its report on how to save the project yesterday. The document details how the project’s price tag could be substantially reduced, returning it to a (still-expensive but) doable $2.3 billion cost.

The changes are reasonable because, rather than cutting the quality of service provided to riders in terms of transit service, they focus on aesthetic elements that, even if they improve the general atmosphere of the system, likely do little to actually get people onto trains. The essentials, like the frequency of trains, their speed, and their capacity, are maintained.

What the team does recommend is vastly simplifying proposed station designs. As the below chart from the report indicates, the stations would be slimmed down. 15 elevators would be replaced by six (while maintaining wheelchair accessibility throughout); escalators and fare gates would be eliminated entirely; and full-length station canopies would be cut down to shelters. In total, these changes would slash almost $300 million from the project budget, with virtually no impact on ridership experience.

Changes in Green Line stations

The changes will make the MBTA’s built footprint less visible; there will be no Calatrava extravagances here. As the below images show, Ball Square station in Medford was initially designed to feature a plaza, a headhouse (a multi-story building featuring elevators and escalators), a concourse, and a fully covered platform. What would be built in its place is an open-air and very simple train stop, with more room for future transit-oriented development.

Customers may suffer through the cold for a few more minutes, but trains will come frequently enough that shouldn’t be a major concern. Meanwhile, MBTA will save itself millions of dollars of future maintenance costs not upkeeping expensive and unreliable machinery and not keeping thousands of square feet of interior space clean. These savings aren’t even accounted for in the capital costs of the project but they’ll pay off in a lower operating budget for years to come.

Initial proposal Revised proposal
ball-sq-before ball-sq-after

The management team also proposes a reduction in the size of the proposed vehicle maintenance facility and affiliated transportation building, which together will save more than $100 million and not affect the MBTA’s ability to keep trains moving. An expensive parking deck will be replaced with a parking lot. Bridges that the initial plan suggested needed to be completely replaced will be simply renovated.

If the choices about what to eliminate seem obvious, consider the alternative: The Purple Line in suburban Washington, D.C. also underwent a considerable cost-cutting process earlier this year. Yet the changes there will reduce passenger quality of service by increasing headways between trains, reducing train capacity, and lengthening the walking distance between the line and a Metro station in Silver Spring. While these efficiencies aren’t dramatic enough to imperil the overall value of the line, they will hurt the passenger experience in the long term, while those on the Green Line will not.

The changes in Boston must be approved by the Federal Transit Administration, which has final say over whether the redesigned project meets the initial project goals. And local governments need to scrounge up an additional $73 million to meet the gap in project costs that remains—without this funding, the project could still be on the chopping block. Yet these are surmountable obstacles and the project now seems likely to move forward.

Nuance by design

Boston’s example is no panacea; the quality of the transit environment does matter. While nice materials, enclosed stations, escalators, and overhead canopies may do little to expand ridership, they improve peoples’ daily experience, and that’s important. The nicer we can make the public sphere, the better our cities will be to live in.

But it’s refreshing to see a transit agency propose a cost-cutting approach that does nothing to negatively impact the level of service being proposed. Rather than take out a constricted budgetary environment on riders by reducing service, the MBTA is proposing to stick to the essentials, and that’s the right move.

Were construction costs in Boston lower, the MBTA could afford to give riders both good service and a comfortable environment. But like transit agencies around the country, the MBTA has been unable to lower costs to international standards. In this environment, it serves as a model for other agencies looking to invest in transit on a limited budget.

* There is some question as to whether the state actually can ever cancel the project, given that it was mandated through the legal process.

Image at top from Flickr user Bill Damon (cc). Other images from Green Line project management team report.

Finance Infrastructure Light Rail Seattle

You’ve got $50 billion for transit. Now how should you spend it?

New light rail station in Seattle

» Metropolitan Seattle plans to offer its voters the chance to fund a large new transit expansion program. But are the projects chosen for initial funding the right ones?

Building a regional fixed-guideway transit network is no quick or easy feat, at least in the United States in our era of high costs and relatively slow construction timelines. Seattle’s first light rail line was funded by voters in 1996 but didn’t open its first section for thirteen years; the full extent of the initial line just opened last month, a full twenty years later.

ST3 may be the most ambitious transit expansion package in the entire country, but is it more important to provide access to far suburbs or to focus on corridors where transit can do best?

Despite the slow pace, residents of big cities across the country are hungry for more, hoping to spread the benefits of rapid transit to other parts of their respective metropolitan areas. That impulse motivated Seattle residents to approve the $18 billion Sound Transit 2 package (named after the regional transit agency) in 2008, which will extend “Link” light rail north, south, and east, creating a 50-mile light rail network by 2023.

It has also encouraged Sound Transit to propose a third package of projects, expected to be submitted for voter approval this November. Sound Transit 3 (ST3) would support $50 billion in investments, to be completed by 2041.

Excitement about adding light rail—and the region does apparently want it, given the massive ridership produced by the opening of new stations last month—has nevertheless been countered by skepticism about the value of the draft ST3 plan put forward by the transit agency’s planners and leaders.

Their questions are relevant to any region that’s considering major new transit expansion projects: If the projects the plan includes aren’t ideal, are they worth paying for? If the projects are built in the wrong order, are the links scheduled for the back of the line worth waiting for?

Sound Transit 3 and the goal of regional transit

Like many of the regions that have funded major transit expansion packages over the past few decades, one of the basic principles underpinning the projects proposed for funding is that neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area—from central Seattle to suburban Issaquah—should benefit from improved transit. To a large degree, this makes logical sense, since people living everywhere in the region are contributing to the revenues needed to fund the lines, and they deserve better public transportation, too.

Light rail here, there, and everywhere in new plans for Seattle. Source: Sound Transit.
Light rail here, there, and everywhere in new plans for Seattle. Source: Sound Transit.

ST3 adheres to the concept of providing transit access to communities everywhere. The network revealed in late March proposes dozens of light rail lines running south to Tacoma, north to Everett, and east to Redmond and Issaquah, as well as a south suburban commuter rail extension and new bus rapid transit routes on the east and north sides of the region (these BRT routes would be completed first). It would also include two new light rail lines within the city of Seattle itself, including a new downtown tunnel, and several infill stations along existing routes.

In total, the light rail route network would extend 108 miles by 2041, making it longer than today’s Chicago L system. The new lines and stations could carry about 300,000 new riders a day. Funding would be derived from a half-cent increase in the local sales tax, an increase in the motor vehicle excise tax, and a property tax. Bonding would be used to fund several of the lines, with back payments continuing for 25 to 30 years after the construction completion.

At an expected cost of roughly $390 per metropolitan area household per year, ST3 may be the most ambitious transit expansion package in the entire country, at least from a fiscal perspective.

The plan is currently under public review; the Sound Transit board is expected to approve a final plan (which could be quite different than the one I’m describing here!) in June. Given Sound Transit’s ability to complete projects on time and under budget, and given the instant success of the light rail connection to the University of Washington that, in a matter of days, increased overall light rail ridership by 63 percent, there are positive feelings in the Seattle region about the local transit authority. It is reasonable to expect that a funding proposal put forward to voters this fall will generate significant support.

Is excellent transit possible in a regional funding scheme?

One of the primary goals of the ST3 package, which was developed after months of consultation and review by agency planners, is explicitly to create a “regional transit spine” that, in Seattle parlance, means light rail basically here, there, and everywhere in the region.

More specifically, the regional transit spine would be a light rail line linking Seattle north to Everett and south to Tacoma. It’s a nice idea informed by the importance of providing transit service everywhere, but it is questionable whether the spine should be a priority over other investments.

The spine would be really, really long. The distance between downtown Seattle and Everett is 29 miles; the other direction from downtown to Tacoma is 33 miles. Light rail along those corridors would likely be the longest downtown-to suburb rapid transit in the country: Los Angeles’ Blue Line runs 25 miles to Long Beach; Dallas’ Red Line to Plano is about 20 miles; Chicago’s Purple Line to Wilmette is just 16 miles. The longest one-seat ride on the New York City Subway (on the A) is just 32 miles from end to end, including sections on both ends of the Manhattan business districts.

The problem with such a long light rail corridor is that, unlike commuter rail service, rapid transit is just not that fast. Because it is serving areas without major jobs centers or walkable neighborhoods, the long light rail corridor is inherently oriented toward suburb-to-downtown commuters. But at an average speed of just 30 mph, for example, ST3’s proposed connection between Lynnwood and Everett is just not fast enough to compete effectively with car trips on freeways. Projects that focus on urban corridors in dense neighborhoods, on the other hand, are competing with car trips on much slower city streets and providing new options to replace already-used bus corridors.

The lengthy protrusions of ST3’s light rail network are essentially privileging running as far out into the suburbs as possible over better serving the urban core. This is the fundamental question for Sound Transit: Is it more important to provide access to far suburbs or to focus on corridors where transit can do best?

The phasing plan offered by Sound Transit for ST3 suggests that the agency has essentially chosen suburban transit over better urban transit, specifically when it comes to the projects that would be completed first. The light rail projects programmed for completion in the 2020s are extensions in the south and eastern suburbs.

The individual project local transit advocates have been pushing hardest for—a light rail tunnel from downtown to Ballard, a dense Seattle neighborhood northwest of downtown—would have to wait until 2038 for completion. If you weren’t counting, that’s 23 years from now. Perhaps it wouldn’t surprise readers to learn that this news has left many upset.

Indeed, the news has put in question whether Sound Transit’s choices of projects to prioritize make sense. Fortunately, the agency has provided excellent, in-depth information about each of the proposed projects and allowed the public to weigh in based on details.

That Ballard-to-downtown light rail line would be quite expensive, costing about $4.6 billion in 2014 dollars, more than any of the other major capital projects the agency plans. But it would also attract many more riders—about 130,000 per day—assuming estimates are correct. That’s many more than any of the other projects on the ST3 list, as the following table shows.

ProjectLocationLength (mi)Daily riders30-yr operating cost (2014$m)Construction cost (2014$m)Completion
Ballard to Downtown LRTSeattle7.1129,5001,1404,6062038
Tacoma Link to College StreetcarSuburbs4.415,0003904632041
West Seattle to Downtown LRTSeattle4.733,5006601,9522033
Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way LRTSuburbs5.318,5004201,1172028
145th and SR 522 BRTSuburbs88,5004503872024
Federal Way to Tacoma Dome LRTSuburbs9.733,5009302,5102033
I-405 BRTSuburbs3712,0008107112024
Lynnwood to Everett LRTSuburbs15.439,0001,5904,1832036/2041
Redmond Extension LRTSuburbs3.78,0003301,0752028
Bellevue to Issaquah LRTSuburbs913,0009001,6502041
Sounder to Dupont CRSuburbs7.81,250903042036
Graham St StationSeattle2,0003073.52036
Boeing Access Rd StationSuburbs1,75030128.52036

Data above from Sound Transit. Costs are average of low and high cost estimates; ridership is average of low and high estimates.

When analyzed from a comparative perspective, as shown in the following chart, the benefits of a Ballard-to-downtown line shine through. The project’s construction costs per daily rider and per population and jobs served in the surrounding areas are the second-lowest in the entire system, and much less costly than most of the suburban extensions the agency is prioritizing.

That’s even more relevant when incorporating the operating costs of and the revenues generated by the lines. The total subsidized cost over 30 years per rider—in other words, how many public funds must be expended for each rider after fare revenues to cover the cost of construction and operations—is a good indicator of project performance.

There, the Ballard-to-Downtown line excels, costing the public just $2.77 per rider, the least of all projects being considered. That’s compared to $5.93 for the Kent/Des Moines extension and $15.88 for the Redmond extension, the two lines ST3 prioritizes in the short term.

Incomprehensibly, the two other projects that also perform well on this metric also wouldn’t open anytime soon: A Tacoma streetcar extension would have to wait until 2041 and a West Seattle light rail line would wait until 2033.

ProjectTotal 30-yr costs (2014$m)Construction cost (2014$)/daily riderConstruction cost (2014$)/population and jobs served30-yr revenues (2014$m)Subsidized cost (2014$)/30 years of daily riders
Ballard to Downtown5,74635,56815,6192,4092.77
Tacoma Link to Community College85330,83316,6372794.11
West Seattle to Downtown2,61258,26943,4746236.38
Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way1,53760,351102,4315165.93
145th and SR 52283745,52912,2862377.59
Federal Way to Tacoma Dome3,44074,925188,7229358.04
Lynnwood to Everett5,773107,24492,1261,08812.92
Redmond Extension1,405134,31361,75322315.88
Bellevue to Issaquah2,550126,92382,50036318.09
Sounder to Dupont394242,800131,9573530.85
Graham St10436,7507,350373.56
Boeing Access Road15973,42938,939496.74

Data above based on data from Sound Transit. Revenues calculated based on the average rider paying $2 per ride (for Seattle and Tacoma projects) and $3 per ride (for other projects) and 310 weekday-equivalents of revenue annually. (Longer trips cost more on Link light rail.)

Given these attributes, it is hard to understand why Seattleites must wait 23 years for their Ballard line. On the pure metric of the ridership-to-cost ratio, the phasing plan of ST3 should be revised.

Politically, this question of which transit projects to fund first may answer itself. Since the mid-1990s, Seattle transit advocates have reluctantly accepted a concept referred to as “subarea equity,” which essentially states that transit spending be distributed around the region in a manner commensurate with tax revenues from five sub-areas. Though the concept is open to interpretation—some suggest that the idea of geographical equity isn’t a mandate, but instead a guidance tool—the agency has clearly chosen to respect it, at least to a large degree.

It is also true that pushing forward a project like the downtown-to-Ballard light rail line would have negative consequences: It would likely mean more bonding to handle that project’s high costs, and it would by definition mean other projects on the system would have to wait for completion. A new downtown tunnel for this light rail line, which agency representatives say is required for its operation, will be difficult to engineer and complicated to build.

But Seattleites have the grounds to challenge the way Sound Transit is prioritizing projects. Assuming the project list is relatively final, at minimum the Seattle light rail lines and the Tacoma streetcar extension, which perform better than all the others, should be advanced. They’re the best deal for the taxpayer.

More broadly, residents of Seattle—and people living in any central city in a region contemplating a regional transit investment plan—should make the argument that transportation equity not only means serving many parts of the region, but also maximizing return on investment for taxpayers and picking projects that will attract the most number of transit riders.

As the following chart shows, Seattle accounts for less than 20 percent of the region’s population and just over 30 percent of its jobs. While of the ST3 major capital projects, 35 percent of total construction costs would be expended in Seattle, seemingly more than its share, just 27 percent of subsidized costs, when adjusted for revenues and operating expenses, would be spent in Seattle.* And most importantly, the Seattle projects would account for more than 52 percent of total new riders—far exceeding those projects’ share of the costs. In other words, they’re better value.

Seattle share of project costs

Data from U.S. Census ACS (2014), On The Map (LEHD), and Sound Transit. The Sound Transit region is made up of King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties.

Reform is possible

I’m of course hardly the first person to point out the flaws of ST3. Indeed, local transit advocates have identified several potential changes to the plans, including expediting the construction of light rail in Seattle itself, eliminating unnecessarily complicated routes on the north side of the region, and encouraging more grade separation for the most-used sections of the network.

It’s worth noting that Seattle, unlike many American cities, is playing with a favorable transit environment. As the following chart shows, the share of commuters in the city using transit to get to work reached 19.6 percent in 2014, the latest Census estimates. That’s the latest in a quarter-century of upward trends and higher than even the rates recorded in 1980.

Seattle transit use over time

Both the city of Seattle and the region that surrounds it are growing very quickly, buoyed by a strong tech sector and a local regulatory environment that has allowed significant new construction. Much of the growth is occurring in transit-friendly, walkable neighborhoods.

With trends like these, the Seattle region really has an opportunity to continue encouraging a less car-oriented culture. Making the right choices about which projects are built, and when, will make a big contribution to this positive trajectory.

* To be clear, the city of Seattle is not a sub-area according to Sound Transit’s rules. But I identified its needs separately as illustrative for this comparison.

Photo at top from Flickr user Atomic Taco (cc).

Calgary Light Rail

Calgary’s soaring transit use suggests high ridership is possible even in sprawling cities

» Calgary’s popular transit system proves public transportation can work even in a sprawling boom town. But a downtown where auto use is discouraged is a must.

Calgary is a boomtown — the center of Canada’s resource economy, whose explosion in recent years has led to big gains in Calgary’s population and commercial activity. It’s the sort of place that might seem completely hostile to public transit; 87 percent of locals live in suburban environments where single-family homes and strip malls predominate; surrounding land is mostly flat and easily developable farmland; the city is almost 10 times bigger than it was in 1950, meaning it was mostly built in a post-automobile age; and big highways with massive interchanges are found throughout the region. Even the transit system it has serves many places that are hostile to pedestrians and hardly aesthetically pleasing.

It’s an environment that looks a lot more like Dallas or Phoenix than Copenhagen.

And yet Calgary is attracting big crowds to its transit system, and those crowds continue to increase in size. Like several of its Canadian counterparts, Calgary is demonstrating that even when residential land use is oriented strongly towards auto dependency, it is possible to encourage massive use of the transit system. As I’ll explain below, however, strong transit use in Calgary has not been a fluke; it is the consequence of a strong public policy to reduce car use downtown. It provides an important lesson for other largely suburban North American cities that are examining how to reduce their automobile use.

Much of the trend of increasing transit use has come recently, in part because of the expansion of the city’s light rail network, C-Train. That system, which opened in 1981 and has been expanded several times (it now provides service on 36 miles of lines), has become the backbone of the municipal transit agency and now serves more rides than the bus network. C-Train is now the second-most-heavily used light rail system in North America.

But, as the following chart demonstrates, that growth has not come to the detriment of the bus network. Indeed, Calgary buses now are providing about 20 million more annual rides than they were in 1996. Overall, the transit system is carrying about 80 million more riders annually than it was 17 years ago.

As the following chart shows, that growth has significantly exceeded even the dramatic population growth that has occurred in the city of Calgary during that period (the city accounts for the large majority of the Calgary metropolitan region). While population increased by about 50 percent over that time, transit ridership soared by more than 90 percent. In other words, the increase in transit use is far more than simply a response to population gains.

If Calgary’s transit use had started at nothing, these trends could be less impressive, suggesting the city was simply doing better than it used to. In fact, per capita, Calgary’s population is using transit at lower rates than peers in Montreal and Toronto. Yet those cities were developed earlier than Calgary and a significantly higher proportion of their residents live in pedestrian-friendly, walkable neighborhoods that are supposed to be amenable to transit use.

But Calgary’s transit use is far more similar to that of those older Canadian cities than it is to American boomtowns. In 2013, Calgary’s transit services provided about 168 million annual trips, compared to about 70 million in each Dallas and Phoenix. Those metropolitan areas each have more than four times the population of Calgary. In other words, people in Calgary — an energy-driven, Western sprawl town — are using transit at about 10 times the rate of people in U.S. peers.

The difference between Calgary and a city like Dallas is not simply a reflection of differences in investment (after all, Calgary could be paying for sensational transit offerings that are simply not offered in the American sunbelt). While both Calgary and Dallas have spend hundreds of millions of dollars building out their light rail system, Calgary’s provides three times the daily rides on less than half the track miles. What gives?

At the heart of the matter seems to be a radically different view about how to manage automobiles downtown. Decades of progressive thinking about how to run downtown have produced a Calgary where there are no freeways entering the central city. Citizens there have been vocally opposed to building highways there since the 1950s, with the consequence that it is simply not that quick to get into downtown by car. This has a number of related effects, including the incentivization of non-automobile modes and the reduction in outward suburban sprawl (since it takes a longer amount of time to get to the center of downtown).

In Dallas, on the other hand, six grade-separated highways radiate from downtown, a loop tightly encircles it, and state highway planners have been pushing for a new tollway directly adjacent to it — in the middle of a park.*

Perhaps most impressive have been Calgary’s parking policies. For decades, the municipal government has managed parking supply downtown, in part by directly owning a huge proportion of the spaces. The city has also limited the number of spaces allowed to be built in the center. In 1981, the city had 25 million square feet of offices downtown and 33,000 parking spaces (1,320 parking spaces per million square feet), but today, it has more than 40 million square feet of offices (and more under construction) and 47,000 spaces (1,175 spaces per million square feet, an 11 percent reduction). The limitations on the number of parking spaces has resulted in an expensive parking market; the city has the second-highest parking rates in the Americas, after New York City.

For car users wishing to get downtown, the city has compensated by investing in 17,433 park-and-ride spaces at almost every light rail station, of which 36 percent are reserved for people who have paid $80 a month, a considerable discount off the downtown rates. This emphasis on park-and-ride spaces departs from the typical urbanist emphasis on transit-oriented development as a strategy for station areas, but it seems to have worked in Calgary.

These policies have produced the overall city transit ridership noted above, and have been particularly relevant in affecting travel trends downtown. Between 1998 and 2014, the share of downtown workers using transit to get to work has increased from 37 percent to 50 percent; a rise has also been noted in the share of people walking and cycling, which has risen from 8 percent to 11 percent over that period. That transit share is just a bit lower than that seen in Chicago’s Inner Central Area (55 percent in 2000), a central business district that was developed far earlier and which has a far more developed transit system.

Pro-transit policies have not produced a dramatic move of businesses away from Calgary’s center city — the fear many politicians and business promoters point to when complaining about limitations on automobile access to downtown. In fact, Calgary’s office market is doing quite well, with five office buildings over 500 feet completed downtown since 2010, compared to just one in Dallasone in Houston, and none in Phoenix. Calgary’s downtown population has expanded rapidly to 16,000 people and now hosts 140,000 jobs and eight shopping centers. It should be noted that the Calgary municipal government has also played an important role in advocating for a compact city and directed local policies to support that goal.

In other words, restricting automobile use and encouraging transit ridership not only don’t hurt business — they may be encouraging it.

As I referenced at the beginning of this article, while Calgary may be an exception to the rule when compared to many major U.S. regions, its experience has been similar to several other Canadian regions that have prioritized transit use even as they have grown spectacularly. Canadian cities from Calgary to Winnipeg, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto each have significantly higher transit shares than you might imagine given their populations. Those cities each have also avoided the dominance of automobile use in their downtowns.

Calgary’s success — unlike that of Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto, for example — comes despite its relative lack of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and a transit system that has encouraged them. To a significant degree, it is clear that it is possible to boost transit use simply by making it more expensive and complicated to drive to work, and relatively easier to take transit. These results fall in line with the survey responses documented by Transit Center in its Who’s On Board report from earlier this year; that study showed that people offered transit “benefits” (tax subsidies`) by their employers were five times as likely to use transit as those who weren’t (page 20). Another recent study found that higher parking costs were associated directly with higher transit use.

Does Calgary’s example mean other issues frequently associated with transit, from a mix of uses to walkable blocks, are unimportant to building transit use? To some extent, probably; peoples’ travel decision making is heavily informed by the time and cost of their commutes, so it doesn’t necessarily matter so much how they experience the surrounding urban environment. But the goal of building dense, diverse cities has other important impacts, from higher walking and biking mode shares to higher non-automobile use for non-work trips.

A more useful reading of Calgary’s success is that even highly suburbanized regions can be reoriented towards transit successfully. But doing so will require not only raising the cost of commuting by automobile, but also ensuring that jobs are concentrated downtown, where they are most easily accessed by transit. If the former goal is tough to envision for many sprawling U.S. cities, the latter may be a fantasy in a country where jobs have increasingly suburbanized.

* Though there recent are signs that the Trinity Parkway, as the new Dallas downtown tollway would be called, will not be built.

Image at top: Calgary C-Train, from Flickr user Calgary Reviews (cc).

Light Rail Metro Rail Minneapolis Paris

The value of fast transit

» We have failed to come to terms with the fact that the transit we’re building is too slow.

Residents of the Twin Cities greeted the opening of the new Green Line light rail link last month with joy and excitement, finally able to take advantage of a train connection between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The 11-mile rail line runs through a relatively densely populated area, serves two business districts, and travels through the heart of a university.

It’s also alarmingly slow. Green Line trains are taking up to an hour to complete their journeys, and even optimistic schedules released by the local transit agency put running times at 48 minutes, or less than 14 mph on average.

Of course, the Twin Cities are hardly alone in their predicament. Recent transit lines elsewhere in the country feature similarly leisurely travel times. The new Houston North Line, for example, is averaging 17 mph. Los Angeles’ Expo Line is slightly quicker at 18 mph. Bus rapid transit and streetcar projects popping up virtually everywhere are often significantly slower. Only the Washington, D.C. Metro Silver Line, which will extend that region’s subway deep into the Virginia suburbs, will speed commuters along at an average of 32 mph. It will do so while only stopping at 5 stations, all of which will be located in the middle of expressways.

With speeds like those light rail lines or services like the Silver Line, it’s little wonder that it’s so difficult to convince people to get out of their cars in so many places. The fact of the matter is that services like this often do not provide much mobility improvement over the bus services they replace. That’s particularly true for large regions where too many destinations are simply too far away to be accessible by transit that averages such slow speeds.

With its Grand Paris Express program announced in 2009, the Paris region is proposing an alternative. With 127 miles of metro lines and 72 new stations planned, the program will completely alter the landscape of this large metropolitan area, offering new circumferential connections around the city center, making it possible to travel between suburbs without having to pass through the city center. The project entered the construction phase this summer and will eventually serve two million daily riders by the time it is completed in 2030 at a cost of more than $35 billion; it is the second-largest single transportation project in the western world, after the California high-speed rail project.

And it will provide trains running at what are, for transit systems, wildly fast speeds — particularly considering that the system’s stations are planned to be located reasonably close to one another and in the heart of existing developed areas. Current projections suggest that the average speeds of the project’s three new lines (15, 16, and 17) will be between 34 and 40 mph. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to blast open access to the region as a whole.

Consider these isochrone maps produced by Paris regional planning agency APUR:

Parts of the region accessible by transit in 45 minutes or less from Bry Villiers Champigny (left) or Pont de Sèvres (right) stations. For context, the maps are roughly 35 miles across.

In 2030, with Grand Paris Express and other funded transit projects

The Grand Paris project, in association with several other suburban transit investments, will massively expand the ability of people to get around the region by public transportation. It doesn’t take any specific knowledge of the Paris area to understand the size difference between the yellow areas indicated on the maps above (where you can currently get in 45 minutes by transit from two specific points) and the pink areas (where you will be able to go, in addition, thanks to the new transit investments).

As shown in the following chart, the project will double or, in some cases, quadruple, the area of land accessible in 45 minutes from stations along one of the project’s components, Line 15 (a map of whose alignment is shown at the top of this article). Places in the region that today may be simply too far to get to in a reasonable amount of time by transit and are therefore either required to be accessed by car or avoided all together will suddenly be made accessible.

Parts of the region accessible by transit in 45 minutes or less from stations along the future Line 15 (stations are positioned around the chart, such as Noisy-Champs, etc.).

In 2030, with Grand Paris Express and other funded transit projects

The replacement of bus services with light rail lines, the typical American approach to improving transit, would not provide nearly as significant a benefit for the inhabitants of this region in terms of their ability to access the opportunities available along the public transportation network. Slower transit effectively makes it impossible for regions to operate as a unified economic or even social entity; indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people from one side of a large city talk about the fact that they “might as well” live in another region to people who live on the other side of the city. Riverdale in the Bronx, for example, is all but unreachable for people 20 miles away in Jamaica, Queens who rely on transit and the slow, almost two-hour trip option it provides. Both places are in New York City, but the transit offered is too slow to make the two areas feel like they are in the same city.

Faster transit services begin to address this problem, but the lack of fast transit able to span entire metropolitan areas in short periods of time does not necessarily result in lower transit ridership. Indeed, it is usually the largest metropolitan areas that feature the most extensive use of public transportation systems. That’s primarily a consequence of poor access by automobiles, which are stuck in traffic and sometimes as slow or slower than even a pokey transit service, and of the diversity of uses present in the neighborhoods of large, dense cities. For people who live in Manhattan or central Paris, the relatively slow speed of the Subway (average speed is about 17 mph) or the Métro (average speed is about 15 mph) doesn’t matter so much because there’s so many things to see or do within a short distance.

But a failure to provide faster transit options is reducing the quality of life of residents in large metropolitan areas. Commuting times are longer, particularly for transit users, because most people do not work in the neighborhoods where they live and jobs may be anywhere in the region. Trips to local amenities such as museums, theaters, or large parks require more time. Solving these problems requires investments in faster transit options or abandoning the conceit that large regions can be understood as a single entity.

Of course, building fast transit — which typically requires burying trains underground or elevating them in the air — is quite expensive. Thanks to a significant increase in national government contributions to transport infrastructure, the Paris region has been able to advance its fast transit plans; with the U.S. Congress hostile to even keeping the gas tax indexed to inflation, we’re unlikely to see anything similar occur on this side of the pond anytime soon.

Image at top from Société du Grand Paris; isochrone chart and maps from APUR.