Remembering why we build transit underground: because the surface is congested
Person-capacity ranges for various transit modes.
Adapted from TCRP 100 Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual – 2nd Edition, 2003, page 1-21. As discussed in the Ontario Ministry of Transportation Transit-Supportive Guidelines, Section 3.1.1 Transit Service Types. Transit ridership capacity varies according to mode, the signalization and control systems under which it operates, and whether it operates in mixed traffic or on dedicated transitways.
In a project I am working on, the project manager spent a few years on assignment in Shanghai. We were talking about streetcars in DC, and he countered with his experience in Shanghai, which as a hyper-populated, hyper-dense city, movement on the surface is particularly slow, because there are so many people and vehicles.
Chicago Elevated train. Photograph: Rex Arbogast, Associated Press.
So like in the days of old, to have unfettered movement, you create subways (underground) or elevated (el) lines ("The Last El Train" from the New York Daily News; in the core of Downtown Chicago, the heavy rail train, the "L" or "El" for elevated, still runs above ground) so that you don't have to worry about conflicts at the surface.
I countered that in DC, we aren't hyper-dense, so streetcars won't have exactly the same issues here, although they do need to have traffic signal priority and in the core of the city, dedicated transitways, in order to make movement of these vehicles more efficient.
But still, there is no question that in cities, to enable more intense development, more, especially high capacity, transit is necessary.
Semi-rapid vs. rapid transit
In denser places, the best bet, expensive as it is, is underground transit--preferably, but is very expensive because of tunneling. Overground transit--in the air--creates visual blight and can be hard to do also, if the air space for train routing doesn't exist.
That's captured in this diagram from a presentation for the Clark County High Capacity Transit System Study (Vancouver, Washington). I like how they group the various modes into two groups: rapid and semi-rapid. (It would be useful to have one master diagram that includes automobile lane capacity as well, if only to have the same basis of comparison and to drive home the point that transit moves a lot more people for the same amount of space than does a focus on automobility.)
Rapid transit is both faster and has more ridership capacity. Typically rapid transit is for longer trips. Semi-rapid transit can be and is used for longer trips, but is also more focused on what I call intra-city transit (see "Making the case for intra-city (vs. inter-city) transit planning").
(Toronto's problems with transit expansion concern the reality that suburbanites want "better" transit, that is, heavy rail, but they lack the population and employment density to financially justify it. And because the suburban portion of Toronto dominates the urban core, not unlike the situation in Washington, see "DC as a suburban agenda dominated city," improvements in the core are held hostage to the suburbs.)
This is an ongoing issue in Midtown Manhattan, where the Real Estate Board of New York has been egging on the Bloomberg Administration to upzone the area, which is already at maximum capacity utilization for transit. I wrote about in February, "More on Manhattan."
It comes up in the New York Times from Thursday, "The plan to swallow Manhattan," and a blog entry, "A transit opportunity, slipping away, arises with Midtown rezoning plan,"in Second Avenue Sagas.
The basic point they make is the one I made in my entry a few months ago, that without more transit, adding more density--irrespective of the issues about demand and competition within Manhattan and Brooklyn with other, difficult and complex, massive developments--is crazy.
From the Times article:
New York can surely never win a skyscraper race with Shanghai or Singapore. Its future, including the future of Midtown real estate values, depends on strengthening and expanding what already makes the city a global magnet and model. This means mass transit, pedestrian-friendly streets, social diversity, neighborhoods that don’t shut down after 5 p.m., parks and landmarks like Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building.
If New York wants to learn from London, Tokyo and Shanghai, the lessons aren’t about erecting new skyscrapers. Big cities making gains on New York are investing in rail stations, airports and high-speed trains, while New York rests on the laurels of Grand Central and suffers the 4, 5 and 6 trains, which serve East Midtown. They carry more passengers daily than the entire Washington Metro system.
Improving the lives of the 1.3 million people riding those trains would instantly make the city more competitive. Adding thousands of commuters who work in giant new office buildings without upgrading the surrounding streets and subways — the Second Avenue subway won’t do it — will only set the city back.
Downtown DC, financing transit capacity expansion, and the building height limit
While DC is nothing like Shanghai or NYC, even so in Downtown, the transit system is forecasted to reach capacity in the next decade.
Because of various compromises that have to be made between the jurisdictions to justify their involvement and payment for expansion, there is no support for intra-jurisdictional payments to address the problem. Instead, the problem is seen as DC's. (By 2050 the Metro Momentum Plan forecasts significant capacity expansion in DC, which will be about 60 years after I wrote a long letter about this issue to the first Washington Post Dr. Gridlock columnist.)
-- Metro Momentum plan
That's why DC shifted its transit expansion focus to streetcars, which are more a technology for intra-city mobility improvement, because officials figured they could finance streetcars, but they wouldn't be able to pull building a new subway line, especially because the likelihood of special funding coming from the Federal Government is extremely unlikely. (Special funding from the Federal Government did pay for a large portion of the original subway system.)
The link between real property value and the capacity to issue municipal debt
Commercial property generates the bulk of a municipality's tax revenues. To pay for heavy rail transit expansion in the city generally, and especially in the core, probably the Building Height Limit will have to be increased. See "Study: Raising D.C.`s height limit would help city, not cause world to end" from the Washington Post.
-- Height Master Plan, Economic Feasibility Analysis
Higher property values will allow the city to increase the amount of debt issued--and it would cost billions of dollars to build the separated blue line, let alone other heavy rail transit expansion--without violating current covenants on bonds limiting debt to 12% of the city's budget.
Similarly, Portland funded the creation of the Yellow Line (Interstate MAX) light rail by creating an Urban Renewal District, and selling bonds--based on the likelihood of increased property tax revenues over time--to build the line.
Surface transit schemes in dense places: Select Bus Service in NYC
Getting back to the point about surface transit improvement schemes like "bus rapid transit," the reality is that especially in dense places, without dedicated transitways such as the creation of transit malls in a city like New York, improvements in surface transit might not have all that much return in terms of time efficiency. But they can make getting around more convenient.
-- "Subway on the Street," New York Magazine
-- "How Manhattan Sped Up its Buses Without Rapid Transit," Atlantic Cities
By giving up traffic lanes to buses or streetcars, especially in Manhattan or in Downtown DC, throughput can be significantly increased, as pictured in the NYCDOT photo below, where bus lanes are being painted in special colors.
But we have to recognize that intra-city transit issues are different from inter-city transit issues.
Like DC, NYC has other issues because they don't control most of their transit, except for ferries.
The bulk of the transit serving NYC is delivered by a state agency, the Metropolitan Transit Agency (it used to be controlled by the city, but after NYC's bankruptcy in the 1970s, control shifted). So local officials end up focusing on ferry and buses, because they have more opportunity to shape those services.
Second Avenue Sagas has another entry, "Brad Lander’s ‘Bus Mayor’ and the Triboro RX SBS plan," about the proposed Triboro rapid train, which could mostly be created by using existing routing, and Mayoral candidate Christine Quinn's proposal to do this service as bus rapid transit. Also see "Quinn Proposes Triboro BRT Line With Separated Bus Lanes" from Streetsblog.
Breaking through the logjam of lack of funding to build more rail--ironically, New York City merged the five boroughs in order to increase their capacity to sell bonds, so they could fund the creation of the subway system--is almost impossible in the current political climate nationally, and at the local-state level, because most state legislatures seem to be dominated by exurban and rural interests.
So cities, even very dense cities like NYC, end up seizing on transit that they can pull off, like "rapid bus" and streetcars, and continue to kick the can down the road about heavy rail expansion.
If big city officials were smart, they'd justify (and tie) upzoning proposals to creating the funding mechanisms for heavy rail transit expansion
If Mayor Bloomberg would begin to tie upzoning proposals in places like Midtown Manhattan as the way to pay for heavy rail transit expansion, it would be very difficult for historic preservationists and transit advocates to oppose it.
I think that's what's going to end up happening in DC, if DC officials can get it together and accept that transit is essential to the city's economic competitiveness and positioning. NYC already understands this--although their ability to create policies and programs is hampered by their need to get approval from the State Legislature, which is dominated by rural interests and general animus towards "The City."
Tie approval of a building height increase in downtown to a plan and program for heavy rail transit expansion in the city, and it will be hard for most residents, stakeholders, and advocacy groups to oppose the change.