Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The success of Hong Kong Transit as "the exception" that proves the rule

There is a spirited discussion on my neighborhood listserv about streetcars because of the recent spate of planning meetings concerning the "North-South" corridor and bringing streetcars to the corridor.  Most of the residents writing on the listserv seem to be against it, which isn't a surprise but is short-sighted, because Ward 4 is dominated by motor vehicle users.

One person brought up Hong Kong Transit as a counter-example--why is it that that system is so successful and by comparison WMATA is not? 

Ironically, I have been intending to write an entry about the Mass Transit Railway system there in response to a recent article in the Evening Standard, "HK2: why Transport for London is looking to the Hong Kong Metro for inspiration."  From the article:
... a funding mechanism that leaves the Hong Kong system needing no operational subsidy (in fact, MTR generates a surplus of HK$5.1 billion a year for the Hong Kong government). This is despite low fares: most central journeys cost only around HK$10 — about 80p.

The key is MTR’s Rail + Property scheme. This exploits the fact that the freehold to much land in Hong Kong is government-owned: MTR has to buy leaseholds at market rates but is then gifted development rights. It thereby effectively captures the increase in the land’s value resulting from a new metro station via the deals it extracts from developers of new housing, offices and malls over and around the line.

These deals give MTR a share of profits, assets in kind, or a combination. They are immensely complicated engineering and commercial operations that bring together the planning of multi-level stations and lines — sometimes on land reclaimed from the sea — together with the construction of malls and skyscrapers overhead.  ...  Such deals have also left MTR owning 13 shopping malls.

Almost half the company’s revenue now comes from property rental and development.

Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway as a real estate developer and transit system manager.  Most of the writing in the transit world about MTR focuses on its use of real estate development as a revenue source ("The Unique Genius of Hong Kong's Public Transportation System") and its management of other transit systems as another revenue source ("Hong Kong's Subway System Wants to Run the World," Wall Street Journal; "In socialist Stockholm, an outsourced transit service," Toronto Star).

The mistake that most people are making when they look at Hong Kong's transit success is that they are focusing on the "transit oriented development" element, which granted is somewhat unique, although railways in Japan do the same thing ("Rail integrated communities in Tokyo," Journal of Transport and Land Use) without acknowledging that TOD success is not an independent variable but a dependent variable resulting from foundational characteristics that make transit successful in Hong Kong, which in turn makes transit oriented development successful. 

If real estate isn't the reason, why is transit in Hong Kong so successful?  The most important point is to figure out why transit is successful in Hong Kong and conversely why it isn't successful in other places.

Transit's success in Hong Kong is the result of having (1) a densely populated place; (2) constrained by geography, making automobility and sprawl difficult; (3) "mixed land uses" rather than separation; (4) tight links between transportation planning and land use planning; and (5) a commitment to building and extending a multi-modal transit system to simplify mobility.

It's not practical for people to use motor vehicles to get around in Hong Kong, given the density and geographical constraints.

Land use in Hong Kong a perfect example of monocentricity, as opposed to the polycentric or "sprawling" nature of land use in the Washington region.  Rather than concentrate land use, the Washington transit system is designed to support sprawl, by making it easier for suburban residents to get to their federal agency jobs in Washington DC and close-in suburban locations. 

The physics of people movement.  Hong Kong is like like Manhattan in that it isn't possible in terms of physics--the amount of road and parking space required--to move that many people in and out of the city's various districts day-in and day-out by car.  High-capacity high-speed transit is the only way to do it.

So it isn't that we aren't capable of developing this way in the US, it's that instead of investing in the conditions that support transit, we invest in spatial and other conditions that support automobility, deconcentration, and sprawl. 

Transit failure isn't hard to figure out.  Deconcentration of land use, population, and employment centers with a focus on separating uses are all of the conditions that militate against successful transit.  That's why Hong Kong is a good example for us.

Of course, New York City is an exception to the post-WWII general trend of US transit failure, which proves the rule about concentration, mixed use, and transit. 

WRT NYC, the book Green Metropolis provides a good overview of the environmental advantages that are derived from these characteristics.  New York City is the "greenest" city in the US in terms of lowest per capita energy use, lowest car ownership, lowest use of gasoline, lowest GHG per capita, lowest waste production per capita, etc.

DC's transit success is based on job concentration at the core.  That transit does reasonably well in DC in a land use paradigm that still preferences automobility comes down to three things (1) concentration of jobs at the core, required by law (federal agencies); (2) the federal transit benefit which pays for a goodly portion of getting to work for many people; and (3) the proximity of DC residential districts comprised of attractive historic building stock to the employment centers in the core, which has allowed much of DC to revitalize despite sprawl.

As federal agencies sprawl out from the core, the transit system's efficiency declines.  Note that even if DC doesn't always benefit financially from federal agencies located here (something I've probably argued too much, such as in "More on Barry Farm (vs. Poplar Point) as a new location for the FBI") the reality is that having the agencies here concentrates transit service in Washington, DC and that is a benefit for residents disproportionately compared to residents in other jurisdictions in the region.

And as federal agencies move out of the city and/or move to locations that are served by fewer transit lines, it makes the subway system less efficient.

Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
A tram moved through a market on Saturday in Hong Kong. The trams draw 200,000 riders a day for a price of 2.30 Hong Kong dollars, or 30 cents, a ride, regardless of the distance traveled. 

Hong Kong and streetcars.
  Ironically given the neighborhood discussion, Hong Kong is also a stellar example for streetcars.  There, the streetcar and bus system is heavily used as well, and is run separately from the Mass Transit Railway system.  See "Modern Subways Zip Below, but a City’s Trams, Slow and Sweaty, Plod On" from the New York Times.

Because of the high ridership, streetcars in Hong Kong are double deckers.

Missing the point about streetcars:  streetcars aren't a substitute for high speed transit, they are a complement.  In any case, the transit system in Hong Kong is an example for Greater Washington and other cities on many different dimensions.

William Lind of the American Conservative Magazine Center for Public Transportation makes the point very succinctly, in "A Tale of Two Contemporary Cities: Hong Kong, China and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" that:
Like streetcars elsewhere, Hong Kong’s trams complement the subway system, serving the important collection and distribution functions. More important for the city as a whole, they act as pedestrian facilitators, encouraging people to provide the urban life-giving critical mass of customers on sidewalks. If your feet get tired or bags get heavy, you can just jump on a tram.
Streetcars or buses, the debate continues.  With regard to streetcars and buses and the "conversation" in DC, the major argument seems to be that instead of streetcars, more money should be invested in the bus system.  But in mixed income areas, where people of greater economic means have a greater array of choices, they don't ride buses.

I am not familiar with any research that demonstrates convincing evidence otherwise. 

Sure, with special upgraded services such as bus rapid transit or express commuter buses, more people of higher income will ride bus-based transit, but mostly these routes are exceptions to the general principle. 

We don't see a massive shift of higher income people in favor of buses and away from fixed rail-based transit.

This data is from 2005.  Washington Post graphic.  Were this data to include railroad commuting, it would show even higher income ridershp for that mode.

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At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

th eproblem of federal agencies leaving the city is getting worse- and it is made possible by a generational break- in other words- the people making the decisions to leave the city are in their 60's or older and are very car-centric and see leaving the city as "efficient" for operations- whereas most if not all of the younger emplyees now working are living in the city or as close in as possible. Only in my place of work do you still see younger people clinging to their parents model of living in Gettysburg or Dover Delaware & driving in to work every day. This is common here- but it is starting to change. We are actually seeing people locking up bicycles now whereas before I was the only bike commuter out of 2500 employees for a long time.

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Richard,

Thank you for the post, but I do not think it's accurate to predict streetcar ridership from metro ridership. A big part of the benefit of metro is the dedicated ROW, and so you see richer (and in our area, whiter) people, who value time more, using it. Streetcars will not have a dedicated ROW, so you will not draw those people.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ride streetcars in Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. Those lines aren't in dedicated lanes (I think the F line in SF has some dedicated lane along the Embarcadero, but definitely not on Market Street.)

Of course, Portland and Seattle are pretty damn white anyway.

But if you ride buses in Portland or Seattle or San Francisco you definitely see a difference in ridership compared to fixed rail transit in terms of income and class. It's one of those "I know it when I see it" situations. The race might be different but there are a lot of similarities in bus ridership in those cities compared to say DC or Baltimore.

But this could in part be a function of the respective footprints of the streetcar systems vs. the footprints of the bus system.

So you could argue from an equity standpoint that what DC is attempting to do with streetcars (and similarly, ArCo on Columbia Pike) is actually somewhat unprecedented, as they are attempting to improve transit service "for all".

At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grahams opposition to streetcars - that they break down- is a leftover opinion from what old streetcars used to be like- modern streetcars do not break down like they used to- which goes to show how ignorant and closed minded he really is. I sounds as though he has never been to a city in Europe where streetcars are normal. This is th euphill battle we face in dealing with old people who often make up the boards or are on decision making bodies

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Yes. I don't understand why people don't use data based on current practice in cities like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Memphis, Toronto, Philadelphia, etc., let alone cities elsewhere.

... all the stuff people say about DC and the what ifs, I wonder why I never hear about those problems in Portland?

and as I said in a local listserv today, I don't see how people can ride streetcars in cities like Portland or SF and then argue that those systems shed no light and aren't comparable to conditions in DC.

e.g., the streetcar routing in Nob Hill in Portland is comparable to any neighborhood condition in DC, like 8th St. SE.

At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh believe me- the hemming and hawing will really heat up once the city makes any plans for 8th street s.e.
all of the old people and Committee of 100 fossils will come out of the closet like we have never seen before
wait and see but mark my words- the old people are against streetcars and they prioritize parking over all else- I also think that Graham seldom uses metro and his statements about it are not only damaging they are highly innaccurate and false. He is a loud mouth and should be put out to pasture

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Most of the city councilmembers drive, but I don't hold it against them. They have to make a lot of stops, carry stuff to meetings, etc.

But depending on your district and your set up, bicycling between meetings at least during certain times of the year, is doable.

Waiting for transit can be significantly inefficient and I wouldn't expect councilmembers to put up with it, because it would delay their ability to do what they are supposed to do.

At 12:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tommy Wells bikes-and in general I do not like Graham very much- his policies and opinions run counter to much that is good and progressive in the city and he represents an old school car centric way of thinking.

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

JG was great on some WMATA issues. Extending access to bikes on Metrorail and extending hours on weekends. Plus lower fares. Pretty good on bus service issues.

I am surprised he isn't into streetcars because when he went to a conf. in Europe as a WMATA board member, I am told he was introduced to a streetcar system that really impressed him.


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