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.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Transit notes from elsewhere #1: system degradation and improvement

System rebuilding. At the streetcar launch in DC a few weeks back, I was talking to a former DC transportation official now working for the federal government, and he commented that it seems like every 30 years or so, rail transit systems need to be reconstructed, and he wondered if that were factored into the cost of transit, whether or not it would be worth it.

Without redundancy, lines have to be closed in their entirety, so that they can be rebuilt, taking transit lines out of service for months or years.  Alternatively, the system can be closed in fits and starts, wrecking service for years and pushing customers away.

I think that this reality ought to reshape--although it's too late--how we think about building transit systems in terms of station density, the number of tracks, the number of lines, and redundancy.

1.  Substantive improvements on the Metro-North Commuter Railroad/Connecticut Division.  Apparently the New Haven division of the Metro-North commuter railroad is back on track after a few years of systematic failure.

This part of the commuter railroad is owned by the State of Connecticut but contracted out to New York State's MTA as the operator.  Things were so bad people had been calling for a different operator ("DOT: Kicking Out Metro-North Isn't Practical," Hartford Courant).   From the article:
Despite continuing frustration by some commuters and many Fairfield County lawmakers, the state can't simply replace Metro-North as its commuter train operator, state Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said Wednesday.

"The New Haven Line is the busiest rail line in the country," Redeker told the General Assembly's transportation committee. "It's probably the most complex [commuter rail] service in the whole country. We have to be very cautious and careful."

Numerous legislators from southwestern Connecticut communities say their constituents are unhappy with slow, unreliable service from Metro-North, and are eager to see the state look for a different contractor to run the New Haven Line and its three branches.
Photo: Michael Sisak/AP.

The renewed success--about 180,000 people ride the New Haven Line daily and the lines set a record last year of more than 40 million passengers transportated--is attributed to the railroad's new president, Joseph Giulietti, and his success at refocusing the organization ("Connecticut lawmakers applaud Metro-North turnaround," "Metro-North Climbing Back Uphill Under Joseph Giulietti," and "Metro-North's 40.3 Million Ridership Sets New Record," Courant).  From the last article:
Still, the railroad suffered by far its worst years in 2012 and 2013 when it was dogged by a seemingly endless run of embarrassing errors and operational blunders that shut down service, in one case for days. Near-crashes became more common and devastating wrecks in Bridgeport and the Bronx further tarnished the railroad's previously excellent reputation.

That ridership rose so soon after all of that is impressive, commuter advocates say. It comes at a time when fuel prices have plummeted, which usually works against mass transit since driving becomes cheaper, noted Jim Cameron, who was a longtime leader of a Metro-North commuter watchdog organization. ...

"The so-called 'inner portion' of the New Haven Line — between Stamford and Grand Central Terminal — had ridership growth of 3.6 percent," Malloy's administration reported. "Commuter trips were up 3.2 percent and discretionary travel was up 4.3 percent."
The system is now focused on reliability and safety over speed ("Metro-North President: Expect Trains To Be More Reliable, Not Faster," Courant).
MacArthur BART station, Oakland.  Photos: Michael Short for the San Francisco Chronicle.

2. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)/SF Bay--Usage increases and the system is degrading. BART is the first of the new generation of subway systems built in the US starting in the 1960s, along with the Metrorail system in DC, MARTA in Atlanta, and Metrorail in Miami.

Like the WMATA system, it charges fares based on distance and it functions more like a commuter railroad than an intra-city subway system, although San Francisco has 8 stations and Oakland 4--3 in its core.  Unlike WMATA, BART charges a surcharge for travel to and from the San Francisco Airport. The system is also being extended south to San Jose, both from the west and east sides of the Bay.

San Francisco's intra-city transit system, MUNI, offers an interesting contrast to BART in that it provides a tight set of city-focused services comprised of light rail, streetcars, and buses, while BART serves the long distance inter-city trips. Belmont in Cities in Full contrasts the systems as polycentric (BART) and monocentric (SF).

Ridership nearing capacity.  The BART system is experiencing ridership increases, now around 430,000 riders/day. They experienced some of their highest ridership days during the Super Bowl in February ("BART set ridership record in February amid Super Bowl," San Francisco Chronicle) . BART has 669 railcars, while the DC system has more than 1,100.

BART doesn't charge higher fares during peak hours, unlike WMATA, and in the face of ridership gains they are looking to get riders to move some of their trips to off-peak times, by providing "perks" ("BART offers ‘perks’ in bid to spread out jammed commute crowds"), although it's basic economics-- the quickest way to reshape this would be to put in peak fare pricing. From the article:
As BART trains and station platforms keep getting more and more crowded, the transit system is going to try to use fun and games — and money — to persuade some riders to take trains that are a little less packed.

Beginning this spring, commuters will be encouraged to enlist in BART Perks, a program that rewards passengers who agree to shift their trips from the busiest time of day with points.

Those points, which can also be earned by referring friends, may be redeemed for small cash rewards — or allow participants to play games like spin-the-wheel or Snakes and Ladders for a chance at cash prizes of up to $100.
While the DC system has many more riders, more than 700,000/day, at least two BART stations have significantly more daily users than the highest used Metrorail stations ("These are the most - and least - crowded BART stops," Chronicle).  While Union Station in DC has about 30,000 riders using the station daily, the Montgomery Street and Embarcadero stations in SF have more than 40,000 daily riders--that on a system with about 60% of the ridership of the Metrorail system.

Electrical problems put trains, stations out of service.  In the past few days an electrical problem put trains out of service and service to some stations was suspended ("Down at least 50 cars, BART chaos expected to spill into Friday," SF Chronicle).  The problems are expected to last for months ("BART chaos expected to go on indefinitely") and are the same problem that put cars out of service last month in a different section of the system. From the article:
BART mechanics said Thursday that they were closer to pinning down the problem. They said 50 train cars that failed Wednesday were hit with a power spike as they moved through a track crossover north of the North Concord station. On that stretch of track the power is reaching up to 2,000 volts — twice what BART expects for normal operations.

On each of the broken-down cars, the surge caused a semiconductor device called a thyristor to fail. BART said the parts — which are critical to each car’s propulsion system — cost $1,000 to replace and must be specially manufactured. That will take months, and riders should expect delays and shorter, more crowded trains in the meantime. BART has 669 total train cars and is supposed to be running 570 at any given time. But it is now down 58 cars.
PR Directness by BART atypical for a transit agency.  Interestingly, in response to negative tweets about the problem, BART tweeted back that the system is in decline. Later tweets discussed plans to purchase 500 more cars and other system improvements ("BART admits much of system is at 'end of its useful life' in shockingly honest Tweet," Chronicle).
Various publications have picked up on the story including Wired ("BART’s Righteous Tweetstorm Reminds Us Its Problems Are Our Fault"), commenting on the directness of the thread, which is atypical of government and transit agency communications more generally.  The kinds of issues they have with BART--capacity, system design, redundancy--are similar to those marking WMATA. From the article:
BART’s change in attitude wasn’t based on a policy change, or the recommendation of a public relations consultant. It was the work of 27-year-old Taylor Huckaby, one of the agency’s communications officers, who was helming the agency’s Twitter account on Wednesday night. Huckaby has experience in crisis communications. He was a public affairs liaison for the British consulate in Los Angeles, and the new media director for Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial re-election campaign in Louisiana (before switching political parties, he notes).

In the year he’s worked for BART, Huckaby has sat in countless meetings discussing criticisms leveled at the system for its inefficiencies. “We would go, ‘Oh my God, look at all these people that are saying XYZ, these horrible things about BART. If only they knew, if only they knew,'” he says. “My attitude every time I came to work here was, ‘Why shouldn’t they know? Why don’t we tell them?'”
Sounds familiar.  Note that many of the comments on the Washington Post editorial, "It’s official: Metro is a national embarrassment," are equally informative and direct, albeit not offered by people affiliated with WMATA, making the kinds of points I make about system design, redundancy, etc.

Today's Chronicle  has another story about BART's structural problems, "BART Shutdown Underscores Aging System's Overwhelming Problems":
But the core of the system, the part that's been operating since 1972 or 1973, is well into middle age and in need of major repairs or replacement. BART officials are planning to place on the November ballot a $3.5 billion bond measure to pay for fixing tracks, power systems, stations and other structures and mechanical systems.

BART's 10-year capital improvement program, which covers maintenance and construction, identifies $9.6 billion in needs but only $4.8 billion in anticipated revenues. In the budget year that starts July 1, BART is tentatively expected to spend $120 million from its $1 billion operating budget on capital projects.

"It's clear that for BART, as a system, many elements have reached the end of their useful life or way beyond and it's become a patchwork approach just to keep it running," said Jim Wunderman, head of the Bay Area Council, a business-oriented group. "This underscores the absolute need for a bond measure this November to bring the system back into a state of good repair so BART, the lifeblood of the region's mobility, can become reliable again."
3.  New York City subways reaching maximum capacity.  Obviously, the NYC Subway system is old, with portions dating to 1904.  Because the system is so vast, the cost for rebuilding portions that need to be upgraded is so vast that it is almost impossible to do so.

Because the system is redundant in its heaviest use sections--much of Manhattan, and parts of Queens and Brooklyn--service failures can be countered quickly, usually, through rerouting of trains because part of the system has four tracks to accommodate express service, and because of interconnections created between lines.

But as the system ages and ridership increases, the ability to keep the system running is becoming inceasingly diminished.  There is a great article in New York Magazine, "One Day, 625 Delays," about the operational challenges faced by the system and its riders each day.

The system has reached the point where its capacity enabled by redundancy is outspanned by the age of the system and the increased ridership demands made on it.

4.  MBTA/Boston not proceeding with late night service.  In 2015, the MBTA system in Greater Boston ground to a halt in the face of record snowfall.  The system, long underfunded with a big backlog of maintenance needs, was finally stressed to the point of no return and was forced to shut down for long periods.

Since then there have been many reports, studies, and new administrative relationships created, although not much in the way of new monies seems to be part of the new agenda.  In response to financial needs, the MBTA Board decided not to continue a special late night subway service program, saying that financial needs elsewhere are more important ("Late-night MBTA service looks like a goner," "MBTA to end late-night service by mid-March," and "Late-night MBTA service ends on Friday," Boston Globe).

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At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Alex B said...

You DO NOT have to close transit lines to rebuild them over time. But you must plan that replacement of components as needed over time, and budget that work from the start. The seeds of the massive backlog of deferred maintenance started decades ago.

At 10:09 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Your comment reminds me of something you hear from building construction project managers, that the peak efficiency of the building starts dropping the moment after it's delivered.

I hadn't thought of the point of thinking of refurbishment and rehabilitation from the outset of delivery of a transit line, but why not start thinking that way?

At 10:18 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Alex B is usually very good at saying "It isn't simple". Although the politics is.

This is a basic accounting.

You can push capital expenses over onto debt, people are willing to fund that.

So there isn't a need to do continued work with your operating budgets.

In fact the incentives make it even worse -- if you let things fall apart enough you can do a really big capital campaign (instead of say $5 a year).

Take into union overtime rules and it really makes a mess.

At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

(Grr, some weird firefox thing keeps destroying my comment.)

The problem with the way things are is that ongoing rehabilitation degrades system performance for years, and the degradation is so severe that people stop riding. E.g., the growth in ridership before "the troubles" was in off peak ridership. Now we almost never ride the Metro except to go to National Airport/car rental at National Airport. Even then, we'll car2go to say Mount Vernon, rather than walk 20 minutes with luggage to Takoma.

Can the brand withstand the rampant destruction of value?

That's why I think that the economic calculations that redundancy is too expensive and not justified are flawed--at least for systems shooting for one million or more daily riders. Even a third track would make a huge difference. Especially because as the system ages the likelihood of problems with tracks or rolling stock increases significantly, and the current system has no good way of dealing with it other than single tracking which is the worst but only alternative.

2. wrt to offloading capital investment from operations, yes, but is that the issue with Metrorail? I keep going back to the point that politics doesn't reward long term thinking. Now that the system is failing and it's very evident, even then there aren't really repercussions for the elected officials that let it happen.

The suburbs, other than Arlington, care somewhat but I think that they believe that anything that screws Metrorail has disproportionate impact on DC, and since they compete with DC, they think that the overall benefit to their jurisdiction is higher, despite what inconveniences might occur to their residents who have to use transit.

The only "good thing" is that as DC's population has increased, it in turn draws more business location and more retail and proximity to these activities reduces the need for _DC residents_ to travel more, reducing their need to use Metrorail, so some of the negatives of Metrorail quality are quashed -- the point about regional "splintering" being counteracted by center city improvement.

At 11:38 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

ON your "Good thing" anecdotally I see that happening. Government employees w/o kids much more willing to live in DC vs Arlington or MoCo to save time on the metro.

Once you have kids, the education costs are not worth it.

I think both Fairfax and Arlington are very aware of this. The orange line crush has been very bad for Arlington in particular.

I'd agree in the 90s a combination of refusal to raise rates and then do capital spending fell into regional politics model. Since 2004 almost everyone has been on board a capital investment program and the problem isn't money but mismanagement.

I argued with Michael Perkins for two years on this, but the short term/long term split on transit price elasticity is stark. Not elastic in short term but very high in long term as people re-route themselves.

I gave up regular use of Metro around 2003. Was stuck in Foggy Bottom in an unreported smoking brake incident. Should have filed suit. The very high probability of a terrorist attack on WMATA (I'd say 100% chance in the next 20 years) weighs on me as well.

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

wrt price elasticity, I've argued that Metrorail fare pricing is pretty high, near its maximum.

This might change now that the federal transit benefit has gone up.

I guess they can raise the basic price of shorter distance fares to about $2.50 to $2.75 which is the prevailing rate in single fare zone systems.

2. But geez, the price for a monthly pass on WMATA is more than 2X the typical cost on other systems including MBTA and NYC Transit.

The whole pass but hold the revenue constant thing completely misses the point about "transit as a utility", "transit as enabling an urban lifestyle".

With the Sound transit extension to UW, activists at UW took the opportunity to protest the UW's raising of transit prices for both students and staff. The staff price is something like $150 for a quarter--3 months! That price is 2/3 the cost of one month of Metrorail pass!!!!!!

3. i did forget that one of my past arguments for redundancy especially the separated silver line in DC is resiliency in the face of terrorism.

After today in Brussels, it reminds me to think about it more.

I don't know much about anti-terorism stuff (I guess you can ask your friend John Nagl), but I think that NYC is justified in running their own counterintelligence operation.

I wonder how good comparable efforts are here?

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

one critical thing that ISIS wants to do is to discourage public transit since ISIS and other fringe or nasty countries get much of their money from oil and gas sales. They wish to encourage more car and auto dependency- no question of this. There would nothing better than for the USA to let transit and rail waste away while building yet more highways and putting us even more under the pressure & threats of ISIS and other maniacs. Sadly- many people in the USA push the panic button and do not think this logic all the way through to its obvious conclusion.

At 1:59 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: comprable efforts, if there are any, way above my pay grade.

All I'l say in WMATA is soft, highly visible, and they love underground metro attacks.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

charlie, one more question. You say that as people get kids, DC ceases to be an option.

Amongst your contemporaries, do you see charter schools having much impact on their calculus concerning this?

In my neighborhood, most of the new families are white, mixed race, or Hispanic, and they seem to be mostly sending their kids to charter schools.

At 4:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Posted this below several days ago:

Anonymous said...
Just in case you didn't see this egregiously silly screed from a few days ago, courtesy of the WaPo editorial board, the link is below. Lots of interesting points in the comment section.
Since our CM Evans is now board chair at WMATA and seems adamant about throwing lots of money at Metro's "problems" to "solve" them, I was most struck by a few fairly intelligent comments contradicting that as a blanket solution.
As a regular, sporadic user (but not a commuter), it has been evident (to me at least) that Metro has been noticeably physically declining, especially in the original core stations, over the last decade which is only natural. Nothing lasts forever.
FYI: Rode the other day on what seemed to be a new car--squarish, boxy and ribbed silver metal outside and bright, sterile, molded seating inside--very unlike any other Metro car I've ever seen. Kind of reminded me of what a new NYC subway car might look like.

9:20 PM

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I commented but late. thanks.

I do intend to do a bigger piece on this issue, hopefully I can pull it off by Saturday, the anniversary.

I found this magazine in a used book store in Portland not quite 11 years ago.


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