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, August 26, 2014

Transit: access and support of urban lifestyle vs. speed

Streetcar service is coming to DC. Really. Seeing three streetcars in testing phase yesterday on H Street NE finally convinced me that sometime within the next few months, the streetcar will go into revenue service in DC, only 11-12 years since the beginning of planning in 2003.

But it is happening on H Street/DC "this soon" only because former ANC6A Chairman Joe Fengler organized a campaign to get DDOT to agree to include rail installation as part of the previously approved streetscape upgrade.

Without the rails on H Street as a goad, there would be no streetcar service...

Complaints that streetcars in mixed traffic are a waste.  But it reminded me of the recent discussion about how streetcars in mixed traffic "are a waste."  See "Meet the worst transit project in America" from Vox and how the conversation is misguided, because it's asking the service to answer a different question from its purpose.

Access versus speed.  And in thinking about the photo, I realized that my writing on the same topic, "Making the case for intra-city (vs. inter-city) transit planning" should have referenced the University of Minnesota "Access to Destinations" research project from a few years back.
What is accessibility?
Accessibility is the central organizing concept of the Access to Destinations Study. In the context of transportation studies, accessibility refers to the ability of people to reach the destinations they must visit in order to meet their needs, and desire to visit to satisfy their wants.

Working, shopping, education, and recreation are just some of the human activities that motivate people to travel to a variety of destinations. The ability to reach these destinations is affected by many factors, including the transportation infrastructure, travel behavior preferences, patterns of land use and development, availability of mass transportation services, and traffic management policies. Understanding how these factors interact to affect the lives of urban and suburban residents is a major goal of the Access to Destinations Study.
The point is that access to places can be just as important or even more important than how long it takes to get there.

Don't get me wrong, I like speed too.

But the point of streetcar service is to support urban living--living close to work, shopping, parks and other amenities, and having a number of non-automobile methods to get there--walking, biking, various forms of transit, car sharing, etc.

It's not to move you long distances, where speed matters.

Image from the WCBS-TV story "State Lawmakers Give OK To 25 MPH Speed Limit For New York City."

Sustainable mobility policy and practice requires a wide range of changes to existing practices.  I have been thinking about this too in terms of how the city talks the talk about sustainable mobility, but so many of our policies and practices don't support it fully, ranging from
  • the failure to take bike theft seriously
  • the fact that traffic accident analysis favors the motor vehicle over pedestrians and bicyclists
  • that the city raised speed limits on many arterials--albeit out of the core--rather than lowered them, as NYC just did on Broadway, which required the passage of a new law by the State Legislature authorizing New York City to have posted speed limits under 30mph on arterials (Broadway Is Reined In by a Lower Speed Limit"," New York Times)
  • how NYC has introduced "Neighborhood Slow Zones" of 20mph in neighborhoods
  • etc.
Dedicated transitways for buses especially are perhaps the next major step for urban transit systems.  Arlington and Alexandria have just launched the first phase of the Metroway transitway.  Service started Sunday ("Metroway, the region’s first bus rapid transit, to debut in Northern Virginia," Post).  I'll have to get out there to check it out.

-- Metroway webpage

Vicki Hallett wrote in the Express about how the city needs to up its committment to transit through dedicated transitways ("Lane excuses: Buses deserve dedicated space"). I definitely agree.

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At 8:01 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

well, if VOX is against the streetcars I am for it.

Good point on destinations. Extending it to Mt Vernon should be more critical. I'm not discounting frequency, either. But as I said before if you want people to ride transit it has to take them to where they want to go.

In terms of speed, huge difference between rush hour and not. If you're trying to capture commuters it might not be a good idea.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

from H Street to downtown is faster by streetcar when you factor in the time to walk to the station, get down to the platform, and waiting for the training, + the same on the other end.

When I lived there, before I started biking, I rode the bus. People were always surprised, but it was definitely faster.

But yep, it needs to go to more places to be useful.

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous xmal said...

You don't have to be a speed freak to find fault with slow transit:

1. If it's slower than a car, then it won't get people out of their cars, thereby failing to reduce congestion and emissions.

2. If it's slower than walking/biking, then it fails on cost effectiveness. (And for some infrequent transit, it is slower than walking once you factor in waiting times:

I think this (in addition to the delays) is why council pulled the money for expansion.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

xmal -- I don't agree, well, I agree with your points, but think that transit is faster, mostly (at least in the core).

However, in the core, when you figure everything in, including parking and getting to your final destination, driving isn't that fast.

(That's why I bike. And you mention biking. I don't think walking is faster than transit, except when the rider doesn't plan around the schedule--or when there is catastrophic delay.)

NBut as I argue, the point of the streetcar is to promote intra-district-intra-city mobility in a manner that supports car light living.

So speed isn't the absolute factor in this. E.g., Portland is another example. It's a quick bike ride from the Pearl District or Nob Hill to Downtown or PSU, faster than taking the streetcar. But people choose to live in this area in part because of the access to the streetcar, and walking access, plus access to other transit services, etc.

In DC this comes down to the innter and the outer city, and as I've written before, there are very different perceptions of what is possible, sustainable transportation wise, in the outer city. Plus the Council is organized in favor of the outer city and against the inner city.

But that being said, I would argue that outer city partisans believe in every instance a car is better, when in many instances they aren't. (Although it can be faster, definitely, e.g., riding from where I live to go to AU is a pain.)

WRT streetcars, now, I am less supportive. For "access to destinations", ride improvement, ridership increases from choice riders, I think they are worth supporting.

OTOH, speaking of "speed" and conversion of more people to transit from autos, and in terms of allowing intensification, and in terms of interdicting more car trips, I would actually prefer to spend the money we have on certain Metrorail extensions within the city or to the city in ways that have car trip reduction as a priority AND put more money into making a great bus service as I have outlined here:

In any case, the Council didn't make their decision about streetcar funding based on the points outlined here.

At 11:11 AM, Anonymous xmal said...

Thank you for the response Richard and good point that council has other motivations/prejudices.

My situation is that I live within the core, 2 miles from work, and here are the typical times it takes me to get there:
- Bike: 15 mins
- Metro: 25 mins
- Bus: 30 mins (after checking Nextbus)
- Walk: 40 mins

So bus (and by extension mixed-traffic streetcar) is faster than walking, but not by much.

At 5:02 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

.... metrorail is great from Capitol Hill to Dupont Circle, or Columbia Heights to Downtown.

Bus is only good from Gallery Place to H Street NE.

Otherwise I prefer to bike.

Car2Go can be good for two person trips.

But yes, biking rules!

So probably bike share is a good thing too.


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