Categories
Airport Metro Rail New York

For LaGuardia, an AirTrain that will save almost no one any time

» New York City’s LaGuardia Airport is its rail-inaccessible stepchild. A proposal to spend half a billion dollars on a new transit link there, however, may do little for most of the region.

LaGuardia Airport is the New York City airport closest to the nation’s largest business district in Midtown Manhattan. Getting there, however, is inconvenient and slow for people who rely on transit and expensive — and often also slow — for those who receive rides in cabs or shuttles. In other words, the experience of reaching the airport leaves something to be desired.

The New York region’s two other major airports — Newark and J.F.K. — each have dedicated AirTrain services that connect to adjacent commuter rail (and Subway services, in the case of J.F.K.). These lines were built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the 1990s and 2000s to improve transit access to these airports, leaving only LaGuardia without a rail link of its own.

This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in, claiming to have solved the problem. His “Opportunity Agenda” for 2015, which includes a number of worthwhile projects such as Penn Station Access for Metro-North commuter trains, includes an AirTrain line to LaGuardia. As proposed, the project would do next to nothing to improve access to the airport. In fact, compared to existing transit services, most riders using the AirTrain would spend more time traveling to LaGuardia than they do now.

There is no hope that this AirTrain will “solve” the access to LaGuardia problem.

Governor Cuomo’s AirTrain, at least according to his press releases, would be built by the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and cost $450 million. Though funding for the project has not yet been identified, it could come from “existing sources,” though it is unclear what exactly that means.

As the map at the top of this article shows, Governor Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain would extend from LaGuardia Airport south along the Grand Central Parkway and then turn off to the east (the line in red). A terminus would be constructed south of the 7 Subway station at Mets-Willets Point and about 600 feet north of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) station there. Though materials announcing the project suggested the route would be 1.5 miles long, my estimate suggests it would be about 2.3 miles.

The project’s “AirTrain” name suggests it would provide services using relatively short trains operating on an independent guideway. The bizarre rendering included in the governor’s presentation, pictured below, suggests that the project would feature an elevated guideway and train cars that appear to have been lifted from the LIRR. One can only assume that this image was photoshopped by someone who is not familiar with transportation technology.

The governor’s proposed route has not been studied in-depth; indeed, if the project’s sponsors expect to receive federal matching funds, it will have to undergo an alternative analysis that considers different routes and technologies. But the project’s relatively low cost (compared to the $10 billion LIRR East Side Access project, it’s peanuts) suggests that it could be funded purely with local or state dollars, which would not require that sort of review.

Yet the route clearly has been informed by past attempts to create rail links between the existing rail transit system and LaGuardia. Between 1998 and 2003, the City of New York and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority studied and attempted to fund an extension of the N Subway line from Astoria in western Queens to the airport. That roughly 2.9-mile expansion (shown in blue in the map above) was opposed vigorously by community groups that did not want to see an elevated train in their backyards. Most Queens politicians took up the opposition, and the tight budgetary environment post-9/11 provided an excuse to kill the project.

Governor Cuomo’s project would not have any of the negative community effects the proposal from fifteen years ago had. Its elevated tracks would be hidden behind a much more noisy and already-existing highway. Moreover, its terminus station at Mets-Willets Point would be surrounded by parking lots and sports facilities.

These attempts to shape a project that does nothing to disturb existing communities, however, has produced a proposal that would be worthless in terms of time savings for people traveling from the airport in almost all directions.

As the following chart demonstrates, transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City — from Grand Central in Midtown Manhattan to Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn to Jamaica in central Queens to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.* This finding suggests that for most people in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island, AirTrain services will not be beneficial from a time perspective.

Given the fact that the AirTrain services would likely be automated, therefore reducing labor costs, it may be reasonable to assume that existing transit services to the airport would be eliminated to save costs. In other words, people may be forced to switch into the new, slower rail option.

For people coming from Flushing or Port Washington, directly to the east of the Mets-Willets Point station, travel times would be lower with the AirTrain service. Similarly, people coming from Penn Station and using the LIRR to get to Mets-Willets Point would have a slightly shorter commute to the airport with the AirTrain. However, it is worth emphasizing that LIRR service to this station only occurs on game days; LIRR has not indicated it would provide additional service for the AirTrain, and even if it did, trains would likely only come every half-hour during off-peak periods, suggesting that for most travelers from Penn Station, existing transit services to LaGuardia are faster than the AirTrain would be.

It’s hard to imagine how the state can justify spending half a billion dollars on a transit project that will increase travel times for most people.

The truth is that the City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have significantly improved bus service to LaGuardia over the past few years, introducing an improved limited-stop service from Woodside and Jackson Heights in 2013 and an improved M60 bus from Manhattan in 2014. These services are still slower than they ought to be, but, when combined with the subways they link to, they’re faster than the AirTrain would be, primarily because Mets-Willets point is not only too far east from the center of the region’s population but also because it is not a major interchange point.

How effective would other potential routes to LaGuardia be for reducing travel times for passengers?

The following chart compares travel times from LaGuardia to the same destinations throughout the city, but this time between not only existing transit services and the governor’s AirTrain proposal, but also the proposal to extend the N train from Astoria from fifteen years back (in blue) and an alternative–a rail route connecting Jackson Heights and the Airport via the Grand Central Parkway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (in orange, and on map above as well).

The alternative rail route to Jackson Heights could terminate near the Subway station at Broadway and Roosevelt in central Queens, where the 7, E, F, R, and M trains stop, or it could continue, likely at a very high expense, 2,000 feet to the Woodside stop on the LIRR. This route would be about 2.9 miles (or 3.3 miles with the LIRR connection).

This comparison suggests that, in almost every case, existing transit services offer travel times that are either significantly faster or similar to travel times that would be provided even by the N train extension or a new route from Jackson Heights. From Penn Station or Jamaica, an AirTrain connection to the LIRR at Woodside would provide considerable time savings, but in most other cases, existing services are just as effective.

In other words, the governor’s proposal and reasonable alternatives would do little to improve transit to LaGuardia. Very expensive alternatives, such as an express subway from Grand Central, would save significant time, but those are far more expensive than anyone in office appears willing to commit to at the moment. This suggests that perhaps a rail link to the airport — while a popular idea — may not be particularly effective in actually saving people time. If the AirTrain were built as the governor is proposing, it would likely do little to cut down on congestion at the airport. It is worth nothing that both Newark and J.F.K., despite their rail services, remain overwhelmed with vehicles waiting to pick up or drop off passengers.

But even if the AirTrain to LaGuardia were magically very effective at reducing travel times, it should not be the New York region’s transit priority. The second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, which would extend from 96th Street to 125th Street the line that is currently under construction, is expected to attract 100,000 riders a day. Yet it lacks committed funding sources. Extended Subway lines in the outer boroughs, such as a Nostrand Avenue Subway or the Triboro-RX, are completely off the political radar, despite the fact that they would serve hundreds of thousands of people daily, reduce travel times significantly, and do plenty to improve quality of life in poor and working class neighborhoods. Instead we’re talking about building a train to the airport.

The fact is that the governor of New York State, like most people in elected office, doesn’t take transit much and certainly isn’t reliant on it; to put matters bluntly, in a transit-oriented city like New York, he’s a member of the economic and social elite. This elite is unprepared to take advantage (or, in many cases, even know about) bus services that exist, and can only envision taking a train in one circumstance: When traveling to and from the airport. For him, a train to the airport is a must, even if it doesn’t actually improve transportation objectives and even if it isn’t the top priority compared to other options in a constrained spending environment.

* The charts in this article assume the following:

  • Average AirTrain or Subway speeds of 20 mph.
  • Transfer times between existing services and AirTrain of 5 minutes, with the exception of travelers from Jackson Heights Subway services (10 minutes) and travelers from the Mets-Willets Points Long Island Rail Road station (10 minutes), because of longer walking times.
Categories
Boston Metro Rail

With infill stations, older transit agencies extend their reach

» A new station on Boston’s Orange Line prepares for opening, but infill stations of its type are all too rare.

Want to know a secret? One of the best ways to increase transit ridership at a reasonable price requires little additional service. It requires no new line extensions. And it can be done to maximize the value of existing urban neighborhoods.

This magic solution comes in the form of the infill station–a new stop constructed along an existing line, between two existing stations. Next week, Boston’s MBTA transit agency plans to open a new stop, Assembly Station, along the Orange Line in Somerville, a dense inner-ring suburb just to the northwest of downtown Boston.

Assembly is the latest in a series of recent infill stations in the U.S. located along older heavy rail lines whose other stations were generally constructed decades ago. Washington, D.C.’s NoMa Metro Station opened in 2004; the San Francisco region’s West Dublin/Pleasanton BART Station followed in 2011. In Boston, new stations have been constructed along the upgraded commuter rail-becoming-regional rail Fairmount Corridor. And Chicago has had success with the opening of two infill stations in 2012, the Morgan Station in the city’s West Loop and the Oakton-Skokie Station in the northern suburbs.

Yet those expansions are exceptions to the rule. Two infill stations are currently planned in Northern Virginia, at Potomac Yard along the Metro in Alexandria and at Potomac Shores along the VRE commuter line, and one new station is under construction along the Green Line in Chicago.

But few other cities or transit systems are even considering the possibility of investing in infill stops, even as line extensions are proliferating around the country. That’s a big disappointment.

The advantages of infill stations result from the fact that people are simply more likely to use transit when they’re closer to it — and from the fact that the older transit systems in many cities have widely spaced stations that are underserving potentially significant markets. Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero, affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley, have demonstrated that people living or working within a quarter mile of a transit station produce about twice as many transit rides as people living or working more than half a mile away. In other words, with fewer stations on a line, the number of people willing to use public transportation as a whole is likely reduced.

Assembly Station, which has been in the works for several years, promises significant benefits — 5,000 future daily riders taking advantage of a 10-minute ride to the region’s central business district, at a construction cost of about $30 million. The station fits in the 1.3-mile gap between two existing stations and is the first new stop built along Boston’s T rapid transit network in 26 years. When combined with the $1.7 billion Green Line light rail extension planned for opening later this decade, 85 percent of Somerville’s residents will live within walking distance of rapid transit, up from just 15 percent today.

The cost-per-rider comparison between the two Somerville projects is indicative of the value offered by infill stations: While Assembly Station cost about $6,000 per rider served, the Green Line Extension will cost $38,000 per rider served — six times more. Both projects will provide benefits, but the cost-effectiveness of infill stations in terms of attracting riders is clear. While infill stations will reduce transit speeds to some extent, within reason the number of new riders they attract will more than make up for the change.

Assembly Station was made possible in part thanks to a $15 million contribution from Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is building a $1.5 billion mixed-use community adjacent to the station. This Assembly Row project will eventually include 2,100 housing units, 500,000 square feet of retail, and 1.75 million square feet of office space, in effect creating a transit-oriented mini-city in an area that was once home to an automobile plant and, after that, a strip mall.

The ingenious decision to combine the creation of a dense new development with a new transit station encourages the production of a virtuous cycle of more people living near transit who thus are more likely to use transit.

There are many other places throughout the country where there are similar opportunities for new infill stations. San Francisco’s BART studied a new subway station at 30th Street and the Mission years ago but has done little to act on the idea. Other cities have the physical conditions that are right for infill stations but little momentum to implement them. Portland’s light rail system, for example, has several long inter-station gaps: The distance between Lloyd Center and Hollywood/NE 42nd (east of downtown) is 1.7 miles, certainly long enough to justify a new station in between. In Atlanta, similarly, the gap between Arts Center and Lindbergh Center on the Red and Gold Marta lines is 2.7 miles, passing through a zone of potential redevelopment.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg; there are dozens of similar situations around the country.

Transit agencies looking for ways to maximize the use of their existing lines should look to literally fill the gaps between their existing stations. In doing so, they offer the opportunity to build additional ridership and spur redevelopment.

Image at top from MBTA.

Categories
Metro Rail Washington DC

What kind of TOD can occur around Dulles Metro?

» Washington’s Silver Line opened to acclaim. It is already being hailed as the pedestrian-oriented transformer for the suburban Tysons business district, but the project may not create walkable, urban neighborhoods.

After years of talk, the Washington Metro was expanded by more than 11 miles last month, finally connecting it to Tysons, a suburban, auto-oriented business district in the heart of Fairfax County, Virginia. The new Silver Line that will make the connection via the existing Orange and Blue Line trunk through downtown Washington is expected to serve 25,000 daily boardings at five new stations, providing service every six minutes at rush hours and 12 to 15 minutes off peak. A second phase of the more than $5 billion project will add another 11.5 miles and extend into Loudoun County, via Dulles Airport, in 2018.

This first phase is very significant from the perspective of expanded rapid transit service; it is the second-lengthiest single line opening in the history of the Washington Metro, and it will dramatically speed the commute of people using transit to travel to and through the western suburbs.

It is also, in theory, going to produce a revolution in the physical environment of Tysons, turning it into a new, walkable “downtown.” As Robert Puentes has said, the line “is the catalyst for the transformation of Tysons from an exclusively auto-oriented ‘edge city’ to [a] modern and vibrant live/work community.” That’s certainly the vision to which the local business partnership and Fairfax County itself have committed. The goal is to quintuple the area’s population to 100,000.

What is true is that the project is producing major new real estate projects near the four stations planned for the business district. The availability of excellent transit service will undoubtedly increase the number of people taking the train to and from work. Yet the manner in which the rail line was constructed — elevated, in the median of large roads — and the existing built environment should put into question whether Tysons will ever become the sort of “livable” downtown for which new urbanists articulate the need.

The difficulty of making Tysons look like a traditional urban environment isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though! With careful thinking, the neighborhood could become a model for a different kind of urbanism, one that recognizes the monumental scale of the existing roadways and the new transit system, which has added an infrastructure of significant proportions to the neighborhood (just take in the scale of the station and associated track structure pictured at the top of this article). Combined with pedestrian-focused islands pulled away from the road and transit system, Tysons could adapt to its new transit accessibility not by becoming another downtown in style but by adapting its existing suburban environment into a unique new place. If successful, it could provide a model for suburban business districts across the country.

Current plans for the district’s renovation

Like many suburban, car-dominated business districts, Tysons is reliant on few, widely interspersed arterials that are overwhelmed by traffic at peak hours and incredibly hostile to pedestrians. These are roads that are simply inconducive to the livability principles that have become the standard lexicon of the planning profession because they make small-scale retail, mixes of uses, and walking nearly impossible. Unfortunately, these arterials are also the roadways chosen for the placement of the Silver Line and its stations; Metro trains enter Tysons from the east along the eight-lane Virginia Route 123, run southwest before turning northwest along the eight-lane Virginia Route 7.*

Fairfax County planners have prioritized the radical reconstruction of the district’s road network, moving it from a neighborhood of a few arterials (on the left in the image below) to a hierarchy of streets on a much more complex grid (on the right below). This hierarchy would incorporate the major arterials (now referred to as “boulevards”) but also bring in smaller streets identified as “avenues,” “local streets,” and “service streets.”

The smaller streets would provide the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere that is at the core of the idea of transforming Tysons into a “downtown.” By “downtown,” we’re clearly meant to envision a tight, walkable grid of mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor and either apartments or offices above.

Certain major projects underway in the district will include new, small streets, but it will take decades of transformations to make the neighborhood into a full grid. What we’re likely to get in the meantime, given the fact that Tysons is huge and development is hardly coordinated, are tiny areas of gridded streets, surrounded by auto-oriented parking lots and the same old arterials the area is known for.

Downtowns rely on a grid of streets that connects to the broader city’s grid of streets, creating walkable districts that allow people to live and work in places without a car. Where the gridded areas are created in Tysons, most people will continue to rely on their automobiles to get elsewhere in the area.

More problematically, the Metro entrances themselves will all be located on the “boulevards,” which sound nicer than they actually are. The state’s Department of Transportation, like many similar agencies around the country, tends to favor cars in its designs, and it will continue to run the boulevards. Certain of them have actually been widened in association with the construction of the Metro extension. It’s no wonder that the right side of the diagram above shows such as much space devoted to “boulevards” in the future (those big white voids) as the existing situation on the left.

Progressive planning suggests that the area that must be pedestrian-oriented, more than anywhere else, should be the areas right next to the rapid transit stations. These are the areas that need road diets, because they’re the areas where people do not need to be driving. But in Tysons, those areas are handicapped by wide roads that are unlikely to be shrunk anytime soon. The hostility of those roads is clear enough to Metro planners, who have built pedestrian overpasses on both sides of most stations to ensure that riders do not have to make the mistake of actually trying to cross the “boulevard,” as shown below.

There is little chance that this kind of environment can ever be at the heart of a future “downtown,” because it simply isn’t designed for street-level walkability. What kind of message does it send that the areas closest to the stations are the most hostile to pedestrians who want to be at ground level?

Fairfax County, however, addresses this problem not by recognizing the inherent deficiencies of retaining the automobile orientation of the “boulevards,” but rather by optimistically hoping that street-level retail and pedestrians will line up along the edge of these almost-highways, as shown in the following rendering.

Suffice it to say that given the current condition of the “boulevards,” pedestrians won’t exactly be swarming to enjoy the atmosphere along these streets — particularly when there continue to be gaps in the area’s sidewalk and crosswalk networks. The big buildings are likely, since the county has zoned for significantly larger structures, particularly for areas within a quarter mile of stations, and the demand for living in areas near the region’s Metro system are strong.

But a “walkable downtown,” in the traditional sense, this will not be. Even if the sidewalks are improved over time, the large “boulevards” throughout the district will continue to be enough of an obstacle to make the transformation of this area into a place like Ballston, Virginia difficult to imagine.

Potential for an interconnected series of “island” neighborhoods

The fact that Tysons is unlikely to become a “downtown” doesn’t mean that dense development won’t occur. It just means that the type of development around stations will be different. As Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott noted last week:

“The decision to elevate the stations — a far less expensive approach than burying them — may well presage this sleek new world of elevated plazas and public areas, disconnected from the ground. A new office building across from the Tysons Corner station is built atop a parking garage, so that at ground level one faces a seemingly impenetrable plinth. Already, a web of pedestrian bridges — some built by Metro, others by private developers — is emerging, keeping us safely above the world of machines and hydrocarbons and asphalt.”

What Kennicott is describing approximates the modernist urban idea, whose premise was that it was necessary to separate people from automobiles by either placing them on different levels or by dedicating areas for pedestrians only or automobiles only.

On the other hand, much of the premise of the more recent new urbanist and livable streets movements has been that the idea of separating people and automobiles has failed, resulting in urban environments that are unsafe, uninteresting, and generally designed without normal people in mind. Those movements have articulated the importance of mixed-use environments with tightly spaced streets designed for pedestrians but that still accommodate automobiles. This is the type of environment Fairfax County planners hope Tysons will become.

But, as Kennicott notes, the physical facts of the Silver Line’s stations through the area suggest the area’s future will be far more like the the modernist vision of a city than that of the new urbanists. Indeed, some of the major new developments planned for the area, such as Tysons Central 7, propose a series of structures connected to the Metro station pedestrian bridge but also turned inward, away from the “boulevards.” The result is something close to a pedestrian-focused “island” refuge that attempts to ignore the automobility of the surrounding area.

Note that in the following illustration of Tysons Cenral 7, pedestrian life is shown to be almost entirely concentrated around the Metro pedestrian bridge or in the interior of the scheme. On the outside of the project are curb cuts, automobile entrances, and parking.

For Tysons as a whole, this model could produce a new district made up of “island” neighborhoods disconnected from one another by the “boulevards” and the Metro stations but nonetheless quite walkable in their interiors. A more advanced version of this concept would make the interior of this type of development entirely pedestrian-only.

The general approach taught in contemporary planning suggests that the modernist movement “failed” and that replicating its elements — such as pedestrian-only spaces surrounded by car-only spaces — will not function. Yet the design of Tysons’ roadways and Metro stations mean that the primary streets of the district will continue to be principally oriented towards automobiles for decades to come; that’s half your modernist ideal there. The complement to those spaces should not be semi-automobile oriented, as the current Tysons plans envision. Rather, planners and developers should take advantage of this unique transformation to create viable, interesting and pedestrian-only areas in the interior of the “islands.” This approach would truly differentiate the district.

For suburban business districts examining the possibility of retrofitting themselves for transit or for more walkability, Tysons may well become a model. Certain areas may decide to eliminate their big roads entirely, a decision Tysons may have been wise to make many years ago. But others, like Tysons concerned about maintaining the ability of large numbers of drivers to get around, may choose that the alternative — islands of pedestrian orientation surrounded by highways — holds the most promise.

* The name Tysons is a shortening of the former name Tysons Corner, which is the intersection of Route 123 and Route 7.

Top image and site plan from Fairfax County (cc); walksheds from the Tysons Corner; pedestrian bridge from Flickr user Matt’ Johnson (cc).

Categories
London Metro Rail

For London, one Crossrail isn’t enough

» There are another four years to go before Crossrail 1 opens, but consultation is advancing quickly on Crossrail 2. London is ready for more fast cross-town links.

As Paris begins construction on a massive new program of circumferential metro lines designed to serve inter-suburban travel, London has doubled down on its efforts to improve links within the center of the metropolitan area. The two approaches speak to the two regions’ perceived deficiencies: Paris with its inadequate transit system in the suburbs, London with a core that is difficult to traverse.

There’s one thing both cities deem essential, though: Much faster transit links to reduce travel times around each respective region. In London, that means growing support for additional new tunneled rail links designed to bring suburban commuters through the center city while speeding urban travelers.

Since the conclusion of the second World War, London’s Underground network has grown very slowly: The Victoria Line was added in 1968 and the Jubilee Line extended in 1979, but that’s about it. In some ways, that made sense: London region’s population peaked in 1951 at 8.1 million and declined precipitously until the 1980s. It only recouped it losses in 2011. But the region is now growing quickly, adding an estimated 100,000 or more people a year, reaching a projected 9.7 million 20 years from now. The number of commuters entering the city is expected to grow by 36% by 2031.

That growth has put incredible strain on the city’s transit network, with ridership growing by 40% in fifteen years. Through direct government grants, the support of the pseudo-public Network Rail, and the commitment of Transport for London, the local transit organizing body, the city has two major relief valves under construction. The Thameslink Programme, which will open for service in 2018, will improve the existing north-south rail link through the city by allowing for trains every two to three minutes; the Crossrail 1 project, also opening in 2018, will create a new, 21-km northwest-to-southeast subway corridor that is expected to increase overall transit capacity by 10% while significantly reducing east-west travel across the city center.

Those projects, which cost more than £21 billion ($36 billion) between them, will allow the system to accommodate new growth, but they won’t resolve London’s most significant transit bottleneck, the Victoria Line, which carries far more riders per mile than any other Underground Line. That’s where Crossrail 2 comes in.

Crossrail 2, as the following map shows, would extend from the southwest to the northeast of the city, connecting Victoria with Euston, St. Pancras, and King’s Cross Stations, roughly paralleling the alignment of the Victoria Line. The project will allow certain trains on the West Anglia Main Line to the north and the South Western Main Line to run through the city. The project was submitted to a public consultation process that ended last week that examined several options for line routings; a preferred route is expected to be selected this year, with construction beginning at the earliest in 2020 at a cost of £12 to 20 billion ($21 to 34 billion). Last year, a separate consultation for the route selected a “regional” option (allowing through-running commuter trains) over a “metro” option, which would have been an automated subway.

Like Crossrail 1, Crossrail 2 is expected to increase the transit capacity of central London by 10%, possible thanks to 10-car trains running every two minutes, allowing 45,000 passengers per hour per direction. As the following map illustrates, that capacity increase will be needed by the early 2030s if the project is not implemented. Major sections of the Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern, and District Lines are all expected to be crowded at more than four passengers per square meter at rush hour, enough to make much of London Underground a truly inhospitable environment.

The opening of the the high-speed rail line HS2, which will link London to Birmingham by 2026, makes the capacity bump provided by Crossrail 2 even more important because of the influx of passengers expected at HS2’s terminal, Euston Station.

The result of the new connection will not only produce less crowding on other lines, but it will significantly reduce journey times. To Tottenham Court Road, where Crossrail 1 will will meet Crossrail 2, the latter project will reduce travel times from Kingston in the southwest from 49 to 27 minutes and from Tottenham Hale in the northeast from 27 to 16 minutes.

There is little about Crossrail 2 that has been easy thus far, and certainly there is plenty more work to be done, particularly in assembling the project’s financing. The project has been studied since the 1970s (as the “Chelsea-Hackney Line”) and was considered as a serious alternative to the initial Crossrail project in the late 2000s. In other words, its necessity isn’t exactly a new idea.

Extensive support from business groups, including London First, however, is new. The organization has proposed funding the project, in part, with £3 billion in fare increases on all transit services, £2.4 billion in revenue from allowing denser development along the corridor, and £1.8 billion from expanded business taxes. In addition, the line — like Crossrail 1 — is expected to be operationally profitable and therefore able to raise some its capital funding by bonding on the back of future fares to the tune of an additional £3 billion.

If these seem like huge sums, they are. But London transit proponents have successfully been able to make the case not only that the city’s residents rely on its transit system, but also that investing in a better transit system produces overwhelmingly positive benefits to the economy as a whole. Crossrail 2’s advocates note that, even with a £16 billion price, the project’s benefits to cost ratio is 4.1 to 1 when wider economic benefits, such as agglomeration, are considered. This is a message that American transit promoters, who are unable to effectively make the argument for new lines, should practice making, because while London’s a great town, there’s nothing particular about the benefits of fast transit there versus anywhere else.

Image at top: Crossrail station at Canary Wharf, almost complete, from Flickr user George Rex (cc); Crossrail 2 map from Transport for London; Crowding map from London First.

Categories
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:

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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.

Today
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.

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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.).

Today
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.