Categories
Bus Light Rail Metro Rail

Recent Trends in Bus and Rail Ridership

» Evidence suggests expanded rail operations produce higher ridership gains than more bus service.

In researching the article I wrote last week for the Atlantic Cities on bus rapid transit (BRT), I wanted to provide a basic piece of evidence that offered support for the idea that typical bus operations were not offering the sort of service that attracted riders effectively. My sense (hardly a unique perspective, of course) was that bus services in cities around the country are often simply too slow and too unreliable for many people to choose them over automobile alternatives. Rail, particularly in the form of frequent and relatively fast light and heavy rail, may be more effective in attracting riders, but so might, the article hypothesizes, BRT services, which provide many of the service improvements offered by rail.

To provide such evidence, I compared ridership growth between 2001 and 2012 on urban bus and rail services on the ten U.S. transit networks that had rail routes in 2001 and did not expand them significantly during that period, as shown in the following chart. I excluded cities with rapidly growing rail networks, such as Los Angeles or Portland, under the presumption that the installation of a new rail line may result in a considerable shift from bus to rail simply because of changes in service patterns resulting from the opening of that line (e.g., riders may be encouraged to take rail rather than bus because certain bus routes are eliminated or re-routed with the opening).

Ridership change, bus versus rail, 2001 to 2012

The chart’s data — based on a limited sample of information — show that nine of ten urban rail and bus systems saw higher ridership gains along their rail routes than their bus routes (or less loss). The only exception noted here is Buffalo, whose bus routes saw a higher jump than the city’s light rail line. The conclusion we can take from this compelling, if limited, data point is that rail services do seem to be providing a greater benefit to passengers than buses do.*

Similarly, as the following chart demonstrates, when evaluating growth of ridership by mode as a share of overall system growth, the evidence suggests that rail lines, new or not, are more effective in contributing to building overall transit ridership than bus services (a slightly different metric than the above chart, which simply compares ridership by mode in 2001 with same-mode ridership in 2012). Of the 27 systems shown here, the rail lines of 22 of them contributed a higher proportion of ridership growth than the bus lines.

Ridership change as a percentage of overall change, bus versus rail, 2001 to 2012

(To explain this graph, imagine a hypothetical transit system with 100 million riders in 2001 and 120 million in 2012. Of that 20% growth, 15 million additional riders can be attributed to rail and 5 million to buses; this would produce a 15% “contribution” from rail and 5% contribution from buses, which would be graphed here. In a real-world example, Boston’s MBTA increased its urban ridership from 314 million in 2001 to 360 million in 2012; of that growth, 41.4 million riders were added to rail and 3.7 million were added to bus lines. Therefore rail produced a 13% “contribution” (i.e., 41.4/314) and bus a 1% contribution.)

There is no question that this conclusion about the relative merits of rail in inducing ridership increase is a frequently promoted idea among advocates for rail expansion. A quick review of ridership changes in many major cities is enough to articulate this point. For example, as the following chart shows, in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, the rate of ridership increase on rail services (not including commuter rail) has been far higher than on bus services over the past decade.

Ridership change in three cities, 2001 to 2012

This comparison, however, is not adequately to say definitively (if a blog can ever do so) that rail produces more effective ridership growth than bus services. It doesn’t take much investigation to find that between 2001 and 2012, Los Angeles dramatically expanded its rail network, adding two new light rail lines. Meanwhile, though Chicago’s ‘L’ rail network saw no extensions, bus services were curtailed dramatically thanks to a difficult funding environment resulting from the recession.

What, then, is the interplay between a city’s investment in added transit services by bus or rail and the resulting ridership changes by mode?

To begin to evaluate this question, I compared the ridership data presented above (from the American Public Transportation Association) with vehicle revenue hour data (from the National Transit Database). Vehicle revenue hours can be used as a proxy for service provided.** In theory, if no other variables change, an increase in revenue hours should result in increasing ridership, simply because people are more likely to ride if frequencies are higher. Response to increased service, though, may vary depending on whether bus or rail services are being altered.

The following chart shines some light onto this question by considering the 27 transit systems mentioned above. The x axis indicates the change in bus or rail revenue hours as a share of total change between 2001 and 2012; the y axis indicates the change in bus or rail ridership as a share of total change.

The linear correlation between service increases (or declines) and ridership change is stronger for rail services (r-squared of 0.51) than buses (0.40) for this admittedly limited sample. But the overall conclusion, illustrated by the trendlines, seems to show that increasing revenue hours on rail produces higher ridership gains than on buses. The trendlines indicate that, on average, a 20% increase in revenue hours would produce a 10% increase in bus ridership and a 27% increase in rail ridership. In other words, rail appears to be more than twice as effective in generating ridership growth than traditional bus service.

Service change versus ridership change, bus and rail, 2001 to 2012

I reexamined these results with a different time period, from 1996 to 2007, comparing changes in bus and rail service hours with ridership. These comparisons (among a smaller sample of 22 systems, most of them the same) provided a similar result, though with stronger correlations and even stronger evidence of ridership response to rail service growth versus bus service growth. In both cases, rail service improvements produce higher-than-proportional increases in ridership on average whereas bus improvements produce lower-than-proportional increases in ridership.

Service change versus ridership change, bus and rail, 1996 to 2007

This review provides a preliminary and small-sample look at the relative attractiveness of bus and rail services. Clearly these data cannot be extrapolated to assert a “guarantee” that rail service improvements are more effective in generating ridership than bus service improvements. Moreover, other factors, such as changes in bus routes in response to rail openings or other changes, must be considered but are not here.

But these data do at least imply that there is a strong preference for rail services over bus, and that from a policy standpoint, ridership is more likely to grow with increases in rail service. Riders respond when they’re offered better service!

————

* I do not consider the impact of BRT lines in this analysis (which, you might note, should put at least an asterisk on the hypothesis I articulate in the Atlantic Cities piece) because of the limited BRT implementation thus far and the fact that most current “BRT” provides mediocre service improvements that do not parallel the advantages of rail.

** There are other metrics that can also be used to measure service provided, such as vehicle revenue miles or vehicles in service. In all cases, a “vehicle” is either a bus or a rail car. A train is made up of multiple vehicles.

Categories
Airport Light Rail Los Angeles

Light Rail to Los Angeles International: A Questionable Proposition?

» New proposals for light rail connections to LAX put in question whether an extension project will offer any major benefits.

Of the nation’s largest cities, Los Angeles is one of the remaining few with no direct rail connection to its airport.* Over the past two decades, L.A. County has expanded its Metro Rail network considerably, but the closest it has gotten to a station at its largest airport — LAX — is a stop about a mile away from terminals on the Green Line light rail service, which does not reach downtown and requires customers to make a connection to a surface bus to get to and from check-in areas.

According to current plans, that will change in the next few decades. Metro dedicated $200 million to a light rail connector in its Measure R spending packaged passed by voters in 2008. The agency began studying potential direct links from its Green Line and the future Crenshaw Corridor, which will offer light rail in a corridor relatively close to the airport. In March, Metro revealed the initial results of the study, demonstrating that a rail connection would carry between 4,000 and 6,000 riders a day and cost between $600 million and $1.5 billion. Metro continues to study how best to connect the airport: With a rail branch line; with a re-routing of the rail corridor in a tunnel under the terminals; or with a connection to a new automated people mover or bus rapid transit line circulating around the airport. A locally preferred alternative for the corridor is to be selected in 2013 or 2014.

But new documents from L.A.’s airport authority put in question how feasible any airport-rail link would be. The agency offers three general locations for a light rail stop, two of which would include a branch of the Green Line or Crenshaw Corridor and require most customers to switch to the airport’s people mover, and the third of which would provide no additional light rail service at all. None would offer direct service from downtown.** Is this rail connection worth the massive investment in transit funding that consensus suggests is necessary?

The fundamental difficulty is that the airport authority — Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) — seems awfully reluctant to allow trains into the main terminal area. While Metro’s spring proposals suggest a light rail loop, an elevated line, or an underground tunnel directly adjacent to the central areas of the nine-terminal complex, the closest LAWA is willing to come is an “on-airport” station at the far eastern edge of the terminals area (see image (1) below). A station there, built as an extension of the Crenshaw Corridor, would be more than a half-mile from the international terminal at the western edge of the complex. Yes, light rail would get customers closer to check in areas, but few would be within comfortable distance walking, particularly with heavy bags.

The same is true of LAWA’s second proposal (see (2) below), which would extend light rail from the Crenshaw Corridor as a branch to a new intermodal transportation facility. Customers arriving here would have no ability to walk to any terminals.

In both cases, LAWA proposes a new people mover that would allow for the final connection between the light rail stations and the terminals themselves. The people mover would operate in a loop around the eight terminals, then extend to the intermodal facility, pass by the Crenshaw Corridor station planned for the intersection of Century and Aviation Boulevards (about a mile from the airport entrance), and terminate at a consolidated rental car facility.

From the airport’s perspective, there are solid reasons to support the construction of such a people mover. It would improve the connectivity between terminals for non-“transit”-using airport passengers and it would decrease road congestion by eliminating rental car and public buses from the areas in front of the terminals.

Light rail branch to airport.
(1) Light rail branch to airport. Source: The Source.

Light rail branch to intermodal center.
(2) Light rail branch to intermodal center. Source: The Source.

But these proposals effectively duplicate light rail and people mover services, requiring passengers to use both no matter the circumstances. Certain of Metro’s proposals — albeit the more expensive ones — would have allowed customers direct service to terminals on light rail, which would have resulted in significant travel time savings due to the lack of transfers. Here, those direct links have been eliminated from the discussion. Why spend public funds on two similar rail services operating in the same corridor?

If we are to take it as a given that LAWA absolutely must have a people mover and that it is reluctant to allow light rail into the main terminals area, its third proposal (see (3) below) comes across as more appealing. The light rail station at Crenshaw and Aviation, on the main trunk of the Crenshaw Corridor, would provide a bridged transfer to the people mover system, which would then offer a link to all of the airport’s terminals.

Proposed connection between Crenshaw Light Rail and LAX people mover.
(3) Proposed connection between Crenshaw Light Rail and LAX people mover. Source: The Source.

Yet this proposal also has its downsides. LAWA’s visual description of the proposed connection suggests that light rail customers would have to ascend an escalator, cross a broad boulevard on an elevated bridge, then descend an escalator, to get to the people mover. It is certainly possible to envision a more convenient approach to making this connection. Every step that makes using transit easier attracts an additional customer.

Nonetheless, this approach, which would keep light rail services within the already-funded Crenshaw Corridor, has the added benefit of ensuring adequate frequency on the light rail line. The branch corridors proposed by the first and second options would, in effect, split rail service in two: Half the trains might extend to LAX, with the rest heading in the other direction. In the case of the Green Line, assuming that headways — currently 7.5 minutes at peak — remain the same (which would not be surprising considering the relatively small number of riders expected to actually use the airport connection), splitting the service in two would reduce peak headways to just every 15 minutes. Is that acceptable for rapid transit service? Or will such low headways make it impossible to attract “choice” riders?

Providing people mover service from the main line light rail corridor would guarantee that all users of the Crenshaw Corridor have one-transfer service to all of the airport’s terminals. And indeed, the whole concept of direct light rail service to an airport like LAX may not make much sense. Unlike smaller airports with only one or two terminals or very centralized airports (like Washington Dulles, with one main entrance facility), LAX has many terminals spread across a large area, making one or even two stops too dispersed; more stops, however, would be too expensive to construct for a light rail line. It shares these features with New York’s JFK and Phoenix, for example, both of which have chosen the rail-to-people mover approach that comes across as most reasonable in L.A.’s case.

Requiring passengers to transfer to a people mover from the trunk of the light rail line has the added benefit of putting the onus of financing the rail connection in the hands of the (relatively more wealthy) airport authority, rather than Metro. This is perhaps the most important point of all. Though Metro has allocated $200 million to this project, it would need far more than that to complete the branch extensions envisioned in the first or second proposal presented above. But the third proposal, which would build off the already funded Crenshaw Corridor using only the airport-desired people mover, could — and should — be funded by LAWA, perhaps with only a small contribution from Metro. This would allow the transit authority to avoid spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that would benefit few passengers and force the airport’s users, the people who would be using the rail-airport connection, to pay for it.

* Other than L.A., Detroit, Houston, and San Diego are the biggest metropolitan areas with no rail connections to their respective airports. Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Providence, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington all offer rail connections of some kind to at least one of their airports. Boston does not have a rail connection but has the BRT Silver Line to the airport. Dallas and Salt Lake City will be adding connections in 2014 and 2013, respectively.

** Downtown-to-airport rail service may be addressed sometime in the future if funds can be assembled for regional rail operations on the Harbor Subdivision, as some have proposed.

Categories
Airport Atlanta Dallas Light Rail Metro Rail Miami

Where There Were Once Many Lines Planned, Just One Opens in Miami

» The failure of a local sales tax to produce revenues as expected should dampen excitement around the latest extension of Miami’s Metrorail system.

Last week, Georgia voters overwhelmingly denied the passage of the T-SPLOST referendum, which, among other things, would have provided $7.2 billion for transportation over the next ten years to the Atlanta region thanks to income from a 1¢ sales tax. About half of that funding would have gone to public transit operations and expansion; in the city of Atlanta itself, the program would have paid for the beginning of work on the Beltline transit corridor, a light rail line to Emory University, several BRT lines, and a MARTA heavy rail extension. Voters were clearly unconvinced of the value of the transportation investments, were motivated by anti-tax sentiment, and felt that the projects would not benefit them directly. The result may be decades of increasing traffic in the metropolitan area with few new alternatives.

Yet some voters also expressed another concern: That the proposed projects, despite their inclusion in the official list of priorities, would not actually be built. Their sentiments were not necessarily unreasonable. The $7.2 billion supposed to be generated by the tax was an estimate, and if the economy continues to underperform, it’s quite possible that the actual revenues collected could have been much lower. Moreover, the list of transportation priorities was itself based on project cost estimates, which, if you know anything about U.S. construction projects, are liable to increase wildly.

If anyone was paying attention to Miami, they might be especially skeptical of the tax’s value. There, voters passed a 1/2¢ sales tax increase in 2002 by a huge margin. They were promised an enormous expansion of rail transit service, with dozens of miles of new lines shooting out of the existing Metrorail system in virtually every direction. What they got in reality, however, was one project: The 2.4-mile, one-stop Orange Line extension to the Airport, which opened last weekend at a cost of $506 million. No other rail service is expected to be funded before 2035.

Nonetheless, the Airport extension, which will bring downtown Miami within a 15-minute trip of the airport, is an impressive addition to the city’s transit network. The terminus at the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) is a beautiful feat of steel, concrete, and glass. By next year, the $2 billion MIC will allow for connections between Metrorail, Amtrak, Greyhound, rental cars, seven bus routes, and the region’s commuter Tri-Rail line. An automated people mover called MIA Mover already connects the complex to the terminals.

Miami’s Metrorail system, showing 2.4-mile extension to the airport and new Orange Line. Ridership in the southern part of the system is higher, so doubling service to the south is a reasonable decision. Source: Miami-Dade County. Read a critique of the new map from Cameron Booth.

The MIC station is expected to see 7,500 daily riders on Metrorail, a huge increase over the 66,000 daily riders currently recorded on the system’s 24.4 miles, according to APTA (up from about 45,000 a day in the late 1990s). Ridership on the system has been increasing relatively steadily since it opened in 1984, unsurprisingly considering the city’s growth during that period. Since 2000 population increase has been particularly quick, with the city now housing more than 408,000 people, a more than 10% increase over the past decade. Miami’s population density of more than 12,000 people per mile is now about the same as Chicago’s.

Thus the argument back in 2002 that something needed to be done to significantly improve the rail system. The People’s Transportation Plan, as it was known, was supposed to have raised $17 billion over 25 years, enough to guarantee the completion of a 10.6 east-west Metrorail corridor and 9.5-mile north corridor by 2016.

Several problems arose. The North Corridor, originally supposed to be the first project completed, repeatedly received poor ratings from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) thanks to low ridership estimates and poor management on the part of Miami-Dade transit. The FTA would have to contribute a significant portion of the project’s cost for it to be funded. At the same time, its projected price tag increased from $515 million to $1.63 billion. Similar problems plagued the East-West Corridor, of which the Airport Link was supposed to be the first phase. Indeed, the cost of this project doubled since initial estimates.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of the recession (which hurt Florida particularly badly) led to a decline in tax revenues. And the system, whose finances had been incorrectly tabulated in previous years, spent far more than expected on operating deficits and a new headquarters, leaving only the $400 million in local funding for the airport line.

By 2010, a partial expansion of bus service was basically entirely reversed, the other rail projects simply do not exist according to the Miami-Dade website, and the only improvements to the North Corridor have been in the form of an improved bus line.

Just as problematic, even when hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in new transit capital, the system has had trouble providing the services that an effective public transportation network is supposed to offer. While Metrorail service has been increased slightly to provide for a distribution of 10-minute peak services on the two branches (the Orange Line to the airport and the Green Line to Palmetto, the other, older terminus), at nights and weekends, trains will leave the airport only every 30 minutes. Nobody should be expected to wait half an hour for a train at the airport when arriving on Saturday at midday. And fewer people will ride as a result. How could the funding for this essential purpose not be available?

It will be convenient for a large number of people to get easier access between Miami’s airport and its downtown without having to deal with traffic, and indeed, the city is one of many American cities prioritising airport rail links. Dallas has its own Orange Line light rail project currently under construction and planned to open in 2014* (Chicago coincidently also has an Orange Line to its Midway Airport). But how much value do these airport connections bring, anyhow?

As I have previously written, airport transit connections are promoted (and prioritised) by urban elites because they are frequent air travellers — and trips to the airport are often the only travel for which they can conceive personally using the transit system. But other investments, such as in the densest areas of the city, usually provide more benefit to the average inhabitant of a metropolitan region. Given Miami’s downtown-oriented growth, there is reason to suspect that new lines operating in the center city, rather than toward the periphery (as the north and east-west corridors would have) would have been more attractive to riders. In this vein, Branden Helms argues that airport stations rarely attract the patronage expected for them. Is Miami’s prediction of a 12% increase in its rail system ridership reasonable?

Does this mean Miami’s new Metrorail extension is a waste of funds? Not necessarily — especially considering Miami’s distinctive position as the “capital of the Caribbean” — attracting millions of visitors and business people each year through the airport. If the city’s growth continues to be based on its status in Latin America, the airport connection may be invaluable.

Miami, however, is a parable: Voters will not always receive that which they believe to have endorsed.

* The first segment of Dallas’ Orange Line opened last week as well, with new service provided between the existing Bachman Station and Irving Convention Center. Additional stops further north at North Lake College and Belt Line are expected to open in early December.

Image at top: New MIA Metrorail Station, from Miami-Dade County

Categories
Fort Lauderdale France Light Rail Metz Streetcar

Commitment to Tramways Makes France a World Model for New Urban Rail

» Over the past twelve years, the total route mileage of tramways systems in France has multiplied by five — at a cost reasonable even for small cities.

Last weekend, the city of Brest, on the far western coast of France, opened its new tramway, a 14.3-km (8.9-mile) line that connects the center city to the west and northeast. 50,000 daily riders are expected in a city of about 140,000 inhabitants. This Friday, Orléans, an even smaller city in central France, will open its second, 11.3-km tramway line. The first already attracts about 40,000 daily users.

These two cities are far from alone in France. Across the country, cities large and small have adopted the construction of modern tramways* to bring their citizens a modern form of public transportation that has led to improved circulation, more convenient networks, and renovated downtowns. Like American streetcars, these tramways operate at the ground level, usually without grade separation from automobile traffic, making them relatively cheap to build; on the other hand, like American light rail, tramways operate within their own rights-of-way and they feature long trainsets that can carry the equivalent of four busloads or more — in other words, they actually improve transit capacity and performance.

The appeal of tramways is easy to understand. The electric vehicles are silent, modern-looking, and entirely flat-floor. Their tracks can be nestled in a lawn, creating a grass median through which trains run; if done right, they can be used as a tool to restore the beauty of an urban boulevard, rather than deface it, as do some light rail lines traveling on grade-separated track. In some cities, like Nice, Bordeaux, and Orléans, vehicles have been designed with batteries that allow them to travel some distance (such as across a historic square) without the need for overhead catenary wire. In virtually every case, tramways in France have been specifically located on major bus corridors, in order to replace overcrowded routes with higher capacity services.

France is not alone in using trams, of course; Germany, notably, has dozens of such systems across the country, as do Switzerland, the Netherlands, and others. But as of late, France’s cities have made an unparalleled investment in the mode. While France had virtually no historic tramways left by the 1980s outside of short routes in Marseille, Lille, and St. Etienne, by the end of this year, 25 cities will have such networks and 29 will by 2016, as the map above shows. And most of this construction has occurred since 2000, with an increase from 124.7 km nationwide to 624.1 km (388 miles) by the end of this year, a 400% increase. In 2010, 2011, and 2012 alone, 160.2 km will have been built.

As shown in the chart below, seven cities account for about half of all tramway route kilometers in the country. Lyon and Montpellier have expanded most quickly, each adding more than 56 km since 2000, with Bordeaux and the Paris region adding 40 km each in the same period. Paris and its suburbs will add another 54.3 km to the network by 2014.

In France as a whole, these tramways currently carry about 2.8 million riders a day, compared to about 1.6 million daily riders on all U.S. light rail and streetcar systems. These riders appear to be attracted to trams above and beyond what had previously been offered through bus service. In Lyon, four tram lines opened since 2000 have brought in a considerable numbers of users; the rail system attracted 58 million riders in 2010. But the city’s transit network as a whole grew by 86 million riders between 2000 and 2010 (an increase of 30%), meaning that the new trams were not simply moving people from buses into trains. In other words, the investment in rail appears to be paying off in terms of moving people into public transportation who used to be using some other mode of travel. That, again, is not a surprise: It is not only enjoyable to travel by tramway, but such service is also usually faster and more comfortable than equivalent bus service.

The focus in France has been on urban tramway networks, especially compared to the previously fashionable automated metro networks. Though those systems — built using VAL technology in Toulouse, Lille, and Rennes — were seen as the future of French rail systems in the 1980s, their high construction costs caused by the complete grade separations they require makes them less them adaptable to the needs of less populous urban areas that may be able to instead afford a tramway line. Indeed, this is the point: Through the widespread use of tramways, France is providing new urban rail systems to dozens of cities that in another context would not be able to afford the costs of trains. In the process, cities across the country are experiencing significantly improved transit that is attracting more and more riders.

Trams are not always cheap; the Brest line, for instance, cost about €40 million per mile to build, or $50 million per mile. Some cities, like Besançon in eastern France, have been able to limit costs to about $35 million per mile. Even that may be more than one might hope for steel implanted in concrete.

But in the American context, those costs come across as reasonable. The U.S. Department of Transportation revealed its latest TIGER discretionary grants last week. The one streetcar project that got the nod was the Wave in Fort Lauderdale, which will cost $83.2 million (of which the federal government will pay $18 million) for 1.4 miles of track — that’s $59 million per mile. In exchange, the Florida city will get a rail line that attracts an estimated 2,800 riders a day thanks mostly to the short, tourist-oriented route where virtually no bus ridership currently exists. The streetcar will have to share its right-of-way with cars and the vehicles themselves will be around 66 feet long, just a bit longer than an articulated bus. Stations are likely to be slightly improved bus shelters.

The other streetcar systems currently being built in the U.S. have all the same limitations — and many of them are very expensive, too: Cincinnati’s line will cost $50 million per mile to build, Seattle’s $53 million per mile, and Atlanta’s $72 million per mile. At these costs, American cities should be pushing for their streetcars to work a bit more like French tramways.

… Or even French buses. In Metz, in eastern France, the city is investing in a very innovative bus system called Mettis that is currently under construction and expected to open in September next year at a cost of €170 million for 17.8 kilometers of service — or about $19 million per mile. That would be expensive for a bus line if the system was bus rapid transit in the non-rapid form BRT too often takes. But Mettis will be a new breed, so much like a tramway that it will be hard to differentiate its vehicles and alignment from that of a rail service.

Metz Mettis Busway Rendering

Bus or tramway?

Mettis’ two lines will use 79-foot hybrid buses (that, I remind you, is quite a bit longer than an American streetcar) specially constructed by Van Hool. They will feature four large doors and provide complete low-floor service to the platforms being planned for the large stations, as rendered above. The system is being built to accomodate future electrification through energy transfer at stops, though that technology is not yet fully developed.

86% of the Mettis corridor will operate within its own right-of-way and vehicles will get transit signal priority. Certain journeys are expected to see reduced travel times of about 40%. No wonder 36,000 riders are eventually expected to use the service daily.

We could take these examples of successful French investments in modern transit systems to lament the high costs and limited utility of too many American rail and even BRT projects (if we need another reminder, Maryland has been discussing spending upwards of $60 million a mile on a BRT line). But there are more positive lessons to learn. If we are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on a new rail line, is it too much to ask that it be placed in its own right-of-way and be given high quality amenities? Is it reasonable to suggest that an investment in a 1.5-mile line is simply not long enough in itself to actually attract a significant number of commuters? Are there ways to make bus services as appealing as rail lines, at a lower price?

* Note that in this post, I have defined trams on tire as tramways. (These are located in Caen, Clermont, Nancy, and, by the end of this year, outside of Paris). This does not include significantly improved bus systems, such as Metz’s, but does include systems with electric catenary and a fixed guideway.

Categories
Light Rail Toronto

Toronto’s Transit City Back in Play

» Toronto’s regional transportation authority agrees to move forward with a plan for four new light rail routes. Despite opposition from the mayor.

Canada’s largest city may be experiencing the most intense public transportation-related psychodrama in North America. Five years after Mayor David Miller unveiled his Transit City proposal for a citywide network of light rail lines, two years after Ontario government agreed to fund half of them, and one year after a new mayor announced that “Transit City is Dead,” the project finally appears to be moving forward. A unanimous vote by Toronto regional transportation officials today clears the way for C$8.4 billion in new transit investments between now and 2020.

In the process, conservative Mayor Rob Ford, whose antipathy towards alternative transportation modes verged on the truly anti-urban, has lost his influence. It’s an exciting step for a city that has wavered wildly on transportation issues over the past decade, but which is in true need of better public transit.

Before describing the process by which the city endorsed, then rejected, then came back to approving the Transit City plan, the full extent of the 75-kilometer system proposed for the city should be described. At the heart of the network is the Eglinton Crosstown project, which will run east-west 25 kilometers through the center of the city, offering an alternative to the over-capacity Bloor-Danforth Subway; about half of the alignment will be underground, with the other half above surface. Two other routes — along Finch and Sheppard Avenues — will bring surface light rail lines to suburban arterials. And the Scarborough RT, an automated transit service not unlike the Vancouver SkyTrain (though not automated), will be replaced and extended by a new elevated light rail line. Together, the projects will provide relief for a series of neighborhoods with lower densities than the center of the city.

Construction on the Eglinton project is already underway; the other lines will begin in 2014 and 2015, in time for a systemwide completion by 2020.

What Transit City is not is a project designed to serve the needs of downtown commuters, who will remain served primarily by the same two subway lines first constructed opened in the 1950s and 60s and an aging network of streetcars. Nor will it connect to the airport or along a number of north-south routes proposed in the initial Transit City plan (on the Don Mills, Jane, and Malvern corridors).

Yet the investment plan remains a very significant improvement for Toronto, which now can boast of the continent’s second-largest funded rail transit expansion plan by route miles (after Los Angeles).

In 2007, Mayor Miller took a wild step in announcing that he wanted to bring to fruition a network of eight new light rail corridors along 120 kilometers to serve parts of the city that did not — and like would not, due to density — get new subway service. The Transit City apellation was apt, since what the mayor was proposing was a reorientation of virtually all of the city’s neighborhoods towards new high-capacity rail corridors. It was a dramatic bet, since Mr. Miller did not have the funds to build any of it. By early 2009, though, he had convinced Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to devote C$3 billion to the program, and by summer, all four of the lines that are in the current plans were funded. It was an arrangement only made possible because of considerable political entrepreneurship. Mr. Miller made transit expansion a serious matter by getting a big vision into the minds of the city’s population, and Mr. McGuinty, with the funds, was convinced to pay up. It’s a model other cities could learn from.

By early 2010, after Mr. Miller decided not to run for election, contenders for the mayor’s office began suggesting their opposition to Transit City, noting the fact that light rail would require surface construction* and the removal of car lanes (despite the ample space available on Toronto’s wide arterials). Rocco Rossi, once seen as a front-runner for the position, said he would put a moratorium on light rail project development were he to win. Rob Ford ran an aggressive campaign premised on attracting the support of city residents far from downtown (“suburbanites” in Toronto parlance) in which he proposed eliminating the city’s streetcars, relegating bikes to nature paths, and replacing the light rail plans with subways, which he claimed were more in sync with the city’s mentality. In other words, they were more in sync with the city’s drivers.

As we know, Mr. Ford won. He used his election as evidence that the city’s residents abhorred the idea of building more light rail and announced that he had canceled Transit City immediately. In March of last year, he signed an agreement with the Ontario government that eliminated the Finch light rail line (in favor of the mythical “better bus”), pushed the Eglinton Line fully underground, and promised to build an extension of the Sheppard Subway, rather than a surface light rail line as had been previously proposed. The problems were two-fold: The new transit lines would serve far fewer people than Mr. Miller’s proposal, at a higher cost; and there was no funding for the new Sheppard Subway because of the massive cost increase Mr. Ford subjected to the Eglinton Line because of his insistance that it be placed underground.

By summer 2011, it was clear that the “private partners” Mr. Ford wanted to pay for Sheppard Line were imaginary. The city was thus left with only the Eglinton Line and Scarborough Lines, 43 kilometers of new routes when it had once had 75 kilometers on the books. It was a waste of money and a disappointment for commuters.

These facts were impossible to ignore, and the city council rebelled. In January, Counselor Karen Stintz took charge, essentially dismissing Mr. Ford’s argument in favor of subways. In February and March, the council determined that Mr. Ford had acted without the council’s advice in dismissing Transit City and they returned their support to the previous plan, despite the Mayor’s vocal outrage. Metrolinx, the regional transportation body, released its study of the issue, agreeing with the council, and the body’s governing board action earlier today means that Transit City’s 75 kilometers, most of which will be surface-running light rail, will be built. The Sheppard Avenue line will open in 2018, four years after it was supposed to.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this sage is not over, thanks to the obstreperous Mr. Ford, who is so devoted to the subway concept and the need to keep trains out of the street that he plans to make subways an election issue once again in the 2014 election, even though construction will have begun on several lines by that point. For the sake of Toronto’s near-term future, one hopes he doesn’t get the opportunity.

Oddly enough, the success of proponents of the light rail scheme in pulling together support for their project has encouraged others to note that the project’s shortcomings — notably its failure to mitigate the congestion on transit lines downtown — will remain struggles for this region after 2020. The redevelopment of Union Station and the improvement of GO commuter rail service, in addition to the demand from the new light rail lines, will overload the subway system. Thus the long sought-after Downtown Relief Line, which would double the Bloor-Danforth line downtown, has been brought up again by official and non-official sources. The paradox of investing in investing in new transit capacity is that more capacity brings more ridership. Yet that is a problem for another generation of leaders to solve.

Examining Toronto’s history, it is difficult to ignore referencing parallels to New Jersey, or Wisconsin, or Florida, where the entry of new conservative governors hostile to the idea of spending public funds on major new rail programs resulted in the cancellation of projects that would have cost those states very little in terms of actual expenditures had they been built. One hopes that, as in Toronto, the need to make rational investments in transportation will become clearer over time.

* This was a significant concern for residents of the city at the time due to the construction mess between 2006 and 2010 caused by the reconstruction of the St. Clair Streetcar to provide it dedicated lanes in its right of way.