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.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Reason Foundation: roads are a better investment to reduce congestion

The Highwayman columnist at the Houston Chronicle alerts us in "Study finds roads, not transit, help reduce congestion," to a new study by the Reason Foundation (a libertarian group) that concludes:
in 74 metro areas in the U.S., examined over 26 years, transit had has no statistical bearing on reducing vehicle congestion.
The problem with studies like this is that they aren't nuanced. 

Of course, in a mobility environment where transportation and land use planning are disconnected, when uses are separated, and most land uses are relatively un-dense, transit lacks the preconditions necessary for effectiveness. 

That describes most every place in the US.  So the conclusions of the Reason Foundation are hardly surprising.

-- Transit Utilization and Traffic Congestion: Is There a Connection?

Basically it gets to the point that Fred Kent of Project for Public Spaces makes:
If you design a place for streets and cars and traffic that's what you get..

OTOH, try driving everywhere in places that are dense and the ability to drive is pretty fettered, and the cost of parking is high.  So in cities like Washington DC and New York City, especially Manhattan and certain parts of Queens and Brooklyn especially, but also San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, plus Montreal and Toronto in Canada, transit is totally awesome, and combined with biking, walking, and car share, enables not only congestion reduction, but the ability to live quite comfortably without necessarily owning a car.

But most places in the US lack, any more, the conditions that support transit.  Hence the conclusions of entities like the Reason Foundation, which aren't looking to educate us on better mobility and land use planning practices and decision making and policy, but are more focused on promoting their agenda, which favors automobility ("individual choice") over mass transit ("collectivism").

Read the book Green Metropolis for a great discussion about these issues and how NYC is in fact the greenest place in the US in terms of resource use. 

However, I finished the book very depressed, because even in places like DC, where transit works, there is incredible opposition by residents to strengthening the conditions that support sustainability, somewhat denser living, and more transit.

S-Line Streetcar at the Fairmount Stop, Sugar House District, Salt Lake City.  Flickr photo by Paul Kimo McGregor.

Tram Wars.  NotionsCapital calls our attention to a Salon piece, "Tram wars! Why streetcars are back — whether you like it or no: Across the country, battles are raging over this retro form of transportation," which discusses the rabid opposition to streetcar expansion across the nation.

I don't think the article is particularly scintillating, but it does call attention to the irrational opposition to streetcar system creation and expansion in many places across the city.  It mentions that Salt Lake City's streetcar line just opened ("Public likes first taste of Sugar House Streetcar," "New streetcar hailed for delivering development," "New streetcar offers different transit experience," and "New streetcar attracts a fraction of expected ridership," Salt Lake Tribune) and that Cincinnati's streetcar just fought off another attempt to kill the program ("A Tale of Two Streetcars," Cincinnati Enquirer).

It mostly comes down to people favoring personally owned automobiles (or at least with BRT vs. streetcars, roads) and not wanting alternatives to get any play at all.  Riding streetcars in places like Portland or San Francisco, I don't see how rational objective people can seriously argue against them.

DC's streetcar will begin operations this spring and Atlanta's program is under construction ("Tim Borchers: The streetcar director," Creative Loafing).  Seattle's streetcar expansion program is underway also.  Portland has been expanding its system also, and even adding an aerial "tramway" to the system to connect "Downtown" to the OHSU campus.

This graphic shows the difference between transit modes in terms of hourly peak capacity, based on figures from Toronto.  (I need to produce a definitive graphic that includes railroad passenger service, including DMUs, and streetcars, and bus differentiated between shuttle, regular, limited stop, and BRT.)

Note that the Europeans use the word "tram" to refer to either streetcar or light rail.  The Salon article doesn't differentiate, but there is a difference.  In the US streetcars are set up to run more like buses, while light rail systems have bigger vehicles, usually running longer distances, at faster speeds.  Some streetcar systems run "heritage" vehicles like in San Francisco, Little Rock, and Memphis, and of course, New Orleans.  Most of the others and the ones under new construction run or will run new vehicles. 

Also see the Human Transit piece, "streetcars vs light rail ... is there a difference?" where he makes the distinction between the types more in terms of stop spacing rather than in terms of vehicle size and speed.

The Salon article states that the jury is out about the link between transit infrastructure and economic development, that few studies have been done that show the link.

Like with the Reason Foundation report, it's hard to answer this question definitively, because the time frame on which development takes to happen is so long (for example, I wrote about a building that "delivered" in June 2013 on H Street was the culmination of a process that started before 2000). 

In the DC area, it took 25 years to begin to see in substantive terms the economic impact of the Metrorail in DC outside of the Downtown and in Arlington County's Wilson Boulevard (the system's first leg opened in 1976).

And yes, you can't attribute all of the success in Portland's Pearl District to the streetcar, just like it's not reasonable to attribute much of the development in Cleveland's University District to BRT.  The link is definite with subway systems though, provided that the right pre-conditions are in place or that those "conditions" are deliberately created in order to facilitate land use intensification in association with transit creation and expansion.

But Salt Lake City, looking to create a transit master plan ("Salt Lake City wants a transit system that works for everyone," Salt Lake Tribune) is  at least one place moving in the right direction.

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At 2:00 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I wouldn't say the opposition to streetcars is irrational. In fact, I would argue that supporters of streetcars have the facts and framing wrong.

As you've said, trying steetcars to development is a pretty weak case, and even more so with a 25 year time frame.

And unless you've got dedicated lanes for the tracks, they are going to be a lot slower than a bus.

Sure, they are nicer and you've got a better chance to get higher income people to use them. But is that marginal improvement worth it? Also, as a driver they are NOT fun to share the street with and as someone who bikes I don't like tracks.

They aren't irrational points -- although I see the other side as well (the bulk of your post).

And far too often streetcar supporters try to make the argument about "Car-free". I'd say that is a cultural goal, not an economic one. and as Kaid Benefield has recognized, not a winning argument:

I'd say streetcars are good if they improve moving people quicker and easier than the existing solutions. All the other stuff is noise. And that isn't a argument streetcar supporters often make.

At 5:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think that streetcars are more reliable and quieter than buses. So therefore they are superior. But not over really long distances probably.

So for shorter trips (more along the lines of what I call tertiary or intra-district transit) they are likely superior.

And they will have that long term effect on economic development and encouraging inward investment and residential choices--hey, c'mon, it's not like you're not familiar with the Van Swearingens.

Although it's different from when they did things as we are in an environment where cars are ubiquitous.

E.g., in Arlington it's about redefining the Columbia Pike as a desirable place.

2. wrt your last paragraph, that's a point you've made very well before, describing such as "transit's killer app." Of course, you're right.

But there is a lot to be said for reliability. In Portland, the streetcar runs when it is supposed to. That's the model I use when opining about streetcar service elsewhere.

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous charlie said...


Also information -- I know this sounds stupid but it much easier to envision a streetcar line than a bus line.

Good point about the shorter vs longer distance as well. DC/WMATA has this thing with long bus lines rather than doing shorter shuttles.

Also in terms of Columbia pike, the white people living there LIKED the fact that it was cheaper. That is why they lived there. If you don't have a job where you metro to work it makes far more sense to save the money and live on the Pike.

The point I was making in terms of the killer app wasn't just time but distance. I suspect the streetcar would be far more popular in ARL if it ran up Glebe from the Pike to Ballston. Basically run it form CC to the pentagon, then up the pike to Glebe, and then cut over to ballston and/or clarendon.

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

your point about cost savings... that's why I ended up in the H Street neighborhood in 1987.

2. Good point too about better routing of streetcars. My thing with "new" programs and technologies is to lead from your best position, where you will be wildly successful.

I guess I don't know that area well enough, but your suggestion seems to make more sense. Then everyone would be into it, or at least it would be harder to oppose.

Similarly, in DC, while I understand the social equity sentiments that led DC to want to launch streetcar in Anacostia, their intra-neighborhood "capacity" is so wacked that it was preordained it would be opposed, get f*ed up, etc. So why take on the hardest place first, rather than the place where you will succeed and therefore build momentum for the rest of the program.

H Street would be good except for the lack of continuation to Downtown.

I always that the Crosstown route from Woodley to Brookland would have been best to start with as there is no restriction on overhead wires there. Once it would have been running, it would have been easier to deal with that issue, instead of taking 2-3 years in the program of getting the exemption, etc.

3. um, with non-dedicated surface transit, for choice riders, I think it becomes hard for trips over five miles to be time competitive with driving+parking+cost+opportunity cost. Unless parking is really expensive.

And even for trips 5 miles or less, biking is faster (depending on topography).

In any case, biking's "killer app" is being able to go directly from your origin point to your final destination, avoiding the time necessary to get to transit and wait for the transit vehicle, and on the other end, from the transit stop or station to your final destination.

All that time spent waiting is instead spent moving.

At 9:05 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh, about H Street, unlike Columbia Pike it had Metro service (although it takes 15 minutes or more to get to the station), and it was 1.5 miles from the center of Downtown.

BUT, you can imagine what a difference it made once the NoMA station became approved and then operational.

It's why I say that the most important public investment in "H Street" was the NoMA Metro station, because it changed the willingness of people with choices-money to live north of H Street.

That was huge. When I would say that, people would ask me if I understood geography. I would turn around and ask them if they understood geography and the barrier that H Street had previously represented.

At 7:22 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

We've argued about the biking distance -- my experience is it more like 2 miles than 5. Of course I stop at red lights.

My larger point is that streetcar proponents use "development" as a reason for streetcars, and that is pretty weak at best and misleading at worse. It is about better transport.

Likewise, I don't think streetcar oponents are "irrational" -- if they are driving they aren't going to get much out of streetcars except more taxes and worse car traffic.You may disagree with that, or think they need to look further out, but in the short term they are acting pretty rationally.

going off on a tangent, the NoMA station (which I got to visit when it was being built and thought was a waste!) is a great example of a shorter ROI. Once you've built the system the ROI can be quicker.

In terms of Arlington, part of the goal of the streetcar is to develop the Pike from Glebe to the county boarder with Fairfax. Again, development.
I don't see that as a success becuase it doesn't go anywhere.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

From the standpoint of revitalization planning, and competition within a metropolitan commercial and residential landscape, there is nothing to criticize for using transit, in this case streetcars, for rebranding and repositioning a neighborhood and commercial district within that landscape.

However, it does need to be an effective addition to the transit network and it helps for the transit network to already be robust. (e.g. this is the point we are both making about NoMA, but the underlying point is that DC has a subway/heavy rail _network_--5 lines soon to be 6--as opposed to a line or two, which is why transit in a place like Baltimore doesn't yield much in the way of repositioning and new development opportunities).

If you look at how light rail (trams) are used in Europe, there they are pretty rigorous about using trams to extend from/connect to heavy rail, like in Paris or even Bilbao and Greater Bilbao.

So it doesn't make sense to me for streetcars to not be an element of the transit network, which means that you have to make rigorous and the right decisions about connections and linkages and type of equipment (size of vehicle, speed, capacity, etc.) depending on trip length.

It's why I've been a critic of DC's approach to streetcar planning, because it could be used to reduce commute trips into and out of the city on certain routes, but has never been planned that way (and if it were, some lines ought to be light rail not streetcars).

2. As far as bikes go, once you get people hyper committed to biking within that 2-3 mile radius, if you continue to develop the support facilities and network, their willingness to bike can be extended. That's been the experience in Copenhagen, e.g., with the "cycle superhighways" that they are developing now--it helps to be relatively flat of course.

Again, we are talking about creating a "new" system and that takes decades...

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

My presentation on mass transit planning lists three subnetworks at the city level, primary, secondary and tertiary, based on the Metropolitan subway line+ railroad I guess as being the ur foundation.

I said in DC, the primary network is the 29 stations, now I've since added Navy Yard and Waterfront station to the list so it's 31 stations now, at the core of the city, which function as a monocentric network for residents irrespective of the fact that some of these stations serve regional destinations like Downtown.

The secondary network consists of the trunkline bus service and I said the streetcars.

I still feel like that makes sense as a framework.

But it means then that you plan for the lines that way and make routing decisions accordingly.

Similarly, if you decide that one of the roles of surface rail transit is to interdict commuter traffic, then you make different decisions and maybe change the framework (from 3 city subnetworks to 4). Or at the least, the commuter traffic interdicting light rail-streetcar lines become part of the city's primary transit network.

(Note that the tertiary network is comprised of intra-district transit like circulators and shuttles, at least at the neighborhood level. Downtown shuttles and circulators are in the secondary network.)

This is one of my criticisms of the DC master transportation planning process. Each of the elements (street network, transit network, etc.) doesn't seem to be built upon a robust conceptual planning framework like this one. So you end up not asking some real key questions.

As we can see from streetcar planning in DC...

At 8:14 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

One more thing... I have never been to Tacoma, WA. They built a streetcar line there around the same time as Portland. But it hasn't had the same kind of "economic" and other impact that the streetcar has in Portland, intertwined with the redevelopment of the now-named Pearl District, connections to Downtown and PSU, etc.

But it's truncated (1.6 miles, hasn't been expanded) and is promoted more as a "starter" for a future light rail service.

And this paper address your point, streetcars for transportation, as opposed to the supposed ec. dev. role.

It's worth comparing the two as a case study.

2. another ex. of development vs. usage would be from Missoula (although rg says Missoula is really cool and I expect to visit within the next couple of years) but it has a population of 69,000, can it really support a streetcar

Here's another interesting document with case studies, for Brooklyn

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