Core Connectors and In-Between Neighborhoods

In some American cities, new or proposed transit lines are either core connectors, i.e. city-center circulator streetcars built for development purposes, or far-flung commuter rail extensions with few urban stops. Both are present in Providence, with the South County extension of the MBTA and the Core Connector, but worse circulators than in Providence are proposed elsewhere (for example, in New Haven), and exurb-focused commuter rail with parking lot stations is the standard in most Sunbelt cities and also in Massachusetts. At first I thought my opposition to both was just a matter of wonky support of a specific stop distance and service pattern that falls in between those two extremes, but recently, after attending Providence urbanist blogger meetings and also rereading old threads about New Haven, I realized there’s a political and social dimension to all this.

Recall that old American cities have a donut-shaped income distribution: gentrified in the center, poor in most other urban neighborhoods and inner suburbs, and middle-class to rich in most suburbs. Those two forms of bad transit are specifically built to cater to the rich parts of the metro area, and ignore the poor parts. The problem, of course, is that the poor parts are precisely where transit ridership is concentrated. People in the gentrified cores of smaller cities can walk; people in the suburbs own cars, and those cities have too many roads and too much parking for buses to be an even semi-reasonable alternative.

In Providence, as I recently brought up, the busiest buses follow Broad and North Main, and serve working-class and poor populations. The same is true in New Haven: the busiest line by far runs on Dixwell, connecting the Yale student ghetto, the in-between poor neighborhoods, and the strip malls in middle-class Hamden. So what service addition does a study by the South Central Regional Council of Governments (SCORAG) propose? Naturally, a circulator connecting Union Station with the New Haven Green. You could chalk this up to a belief in systemwide upgrades over building a few high-performance lines, but many outlying bus stops have no shelter, and the study says nothing about that.

When Peter Brassard first pitched the idea of a local rail shuttle service in Providence and its inner suburbs to us privately, the observation one of us made (I think it was Jef Nickerson, but I’m not sure) is that it would invert the usual relationship between infrastructure investment and income. This is mostly accidental – the mainline serves Olneyville and Pawtucket but not the East Side. But something like this is more likely than not when the focus is on serving reasonably dense neighborhoods and perhaps inner-suburban malls outside walking range.

The same is true of what I believe to be the most promising rail shuttle service in New Haven – namely, a service using the Farmington Canal Trail, which runs about 200 meters east of Dixwell, and could be reused by light rail reaching downtown New Haven on city streets or rapid transit connecting to the mainline with a very short tunnel or trench. With a stop spacing of a little less than a kilometer, modern rolling stock could average 35-40 km/h in service, double the speed of the current bus.

I suspect part of the bias against such service comes from the belief that building ten kilometers of light rail is expensive. Because there’s an implicit hierarchy in planners’ mind between services, they think a downgrade is an automatic cost saver, even when it’s not – for instance, when a bus on an abandoned railroad costs far more than most rail reactivation projects do. One of these mantras is that commuter rail infill is less expensive (and then they build infill stations at $100 million apiece, strategically located away from the intersection with the main bus corridor). As a rule of thumb, each of these downgrades just raises unit costs because of various overbuilding schemes until total cost is the same as if they’d built regular urban rail, but the benefits are much lower.

But it’s more than a technical bias; it’s also political bias. The Core Connector is explicitly a development project. It may even be a successful one, if it convinces local power broker Colin Kane to drop plans for building 7,000 parking spaces in the Jewelry District, as described in a recent paywalled article in Next American City. Development projects like this never go to extant low-income neighborhoods, unless there’s an explicit effort at gentrification, and usually locals protest against the displacement; neglect is much easier and less controversial than redevelopment.

The technical and political biases merge in one of the less challenged cost-effectiveness metrics, the cost per new rider. Although it’s presented in neutral terms – the cost is compared to the predicted total transit ridership if the project is built minus the predicted total if it is not – the results privilege adding choice riders (that is, those who already own a car and drive to work) over retaining existing riders. Although transit revivals happen, most of the world’s transit cities built out their systems before most people got cars, and people simply kept using transit instead of buying cars even as they moved into the middle class. Portland may have about the same metro area transit mode share as before it built light rail, but other cities of similar age lost ground and have even lower transit use.

It’s tricks like ignoring retention that lead Boston to downrate replacing the southern half of the Silver Line with light rail on its list of possible projects even though it would be very cheap by US standards per rider, and rate new commuter rail branches well beyond the continuous built-up area as more cost-effective. The rail bias factor implied by the computation for new riders is less than 0.5%: 130 new riders against 34,000 existing ones. A Transportation Research Board analysis finds the rail bias is in the 34-43% range. I suspect that if the Silver Line served richer areas than Roxbury, Boston would use a more reasonable rail bias than 130/34,000, bringing down costs per new rider by two orders of magnitude. New York went ahead with Second Avenue Subway; it is undoubtedly the most important subway project in the region, but the next best corridors, e.g. Utica, serving less chic neighborhoods than the Upper East Side, are ignored.

The technical reason to build urban rail a certain way – own-right-of-way, stops roughly every kilometer within the city, etc. – is of course separate. Technical characteristics do not tell you which neighborhoods to serve, not without first looking into existing demand patterns. It is just fortunate that New Haven has a right-of-way closely paralleling Dixwell, and unfortunate that Providence has none paralleling Broad. But the income donuts, and more generally the connection between density and old industrial development that is usually working-class (since gentrification in such cities is within walking distance of the core rather than within transit distance), have certain social implications. The most annoying to the planner and the government official is that they must invest in poor neighborhoods as they are, and do not have a special reason to try to foist change upon them.

Or they can just build core connectors for the cities and park-and-ride extensions for the suburbs. The FTA will fund these no matter what; its cost-effectiveness metrics are biased that way to avoid having to send every penny it has available to a few expensive but high-ridership lines such as Second Avenue Subway. The developers will like them, because of real or imagined property value benefits. The state will like them – state governments are dominated by suburbanites and urban developers and view transit as pork rather than as useful spending based on ridership metrics; Rhode Island is much likelier to find support for development in the Jewelry District than for boring rail lines in already-developed Providence neighborhoods. It’s a win-win for everyone except the riders, and they don’t count.


  1. Eric

    What exactly is the purpose of transit investment? If it is to reduce global warming or promote TOD, then investing in richer neighborhoods may be the most effective way to accomplish it. A new commuter rail line in the suburbs does not look so bad when the alternative is a new freeway in the suburbs. A downtown circulator does not look so bad when the alternative is the construction of a new exurb.

    • Alon Levy

      The two goals you’re listing are very different. Reducing global warming is one-to-one a matter of ridership. It doesn’t matter where you get it. Building a downtown circulator looks nice, but if it fails to be useful to 6,000 people who’re using an outer-urban line, those are 6,000 people who in 15 years will buy a car and drive it. Because it comes out of a transit pot, the alternative isn’t a new exurb; it’s a more useful rail line, elsewhere.

      TOD is another matter, yeah. That’s why I’m hesitant to condemn the Providence Core Connector – it’s realistically an alternative to an expensive sea of parking. If the alternative to the Core Connector is 7,000 parking spaces as previously proposed, then the de facto cost of the project drops from $126 million to $-14 million. But in New Haven, where the Route 34 demolition is accompanied by building more parking, it’s different. For train station-city center connection, what they need to do is knock down the stubway, build regular city blocks on the land, and simultaneously expand service to State Street.

      • Eric

        I don’t know about the Northeast, but in other parts of the US that I have followed, the political debate is often over whether to build a rail line or freeway on a given corridor. The funding for the rail option, if chosen, comes from additional taxes or Federal funding, not at the expense of existing transit.

        If the 6000 slum residents become wealthier, they are likely to buy cars… and move to the suburbs!

        • Beta Magellan

          Where is it an either-or? It seems like most American metros expand roads even as they expand transit along the same route.

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  3. Matthew

    What made the Silver Line choice especially egregious was the existence of the Tremont Street tunnel and the flying junction with the Central Subway which is an incredible resource that is currently going unused. The light rail could have made use of this, but instead, they went with Silver Line buses that get stuck in traffic above-ground in Chinatown.

    Oddly enough, I was just having this discussion yesterday with someone about the “per new rider” metric biasing transit projects in favor of car owners. For example, the Green Line extension vs adding 1000 new parking spaces at outlying park-n-ride stations, or giving people electric vehicles. His argument was that, according to the FTA, the latter two are more effective at removing polluting cars from the road and therefore higher priority. I felt that this spends too much time looking at the transportation issue under a microscope: replacing a gas vehicle with an electric vehicle may solve one localized issue, but does not solve all the general problems coming from an increase in car infrastructure (parking, freeways, etc). And that it is completely perverse to “punish” Somerville residents because they try to make use of the rather mediocre bus service that is provided to them. If they are going to be judged by that “per new riders” metric, then they’d be better off not riding the bus for now until the GLX is approved, which is a backwards conclusion to reach.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, exactly. I mean, in principle you can construct a per-extra-rider metric that takes retention into account, but in practice the existing calculations for that are inadequate. Relief lines for at-capacity lines, i.e. Second Avenue Subway and ARC, both had laughably low new-rider figures (11,000 and 5,000 respectively, if I remember correctly); the Silver Line railstitution pretended there was no rail bias, so of course the extension looked bad.

      For the retention bit, there’s a good model here.

      • Matthew

        “however, in developing countries, since the policy goal is
        to retain the existing high mode share of public transport
        rather than modal shift from cars, significant impact of
        urban rail on car use rate is understandable”

        This is an interesting paper. I’m not sure how well it applies to US cities anymore. In terms of retaining ridership, is this quote implying that areas with pre-existing high usage of public transport are more likely to be correlated with a decrease of car use rates when additional urban rail is supplied?

        • Alon Levy

          My understanding of the quote is that it implies that areas with pre-existing high usage of public transportation will maintain their high transit share if expansive urban rail is supplied, but shift to cars if it is not. Raising public transport usage and decreasing car usage later is much harder, and requires a rapid expansion of rail, as in Taipei. (And Taipei was a motorcycle city more than a car city before the MRT opened.)

    • Nathanael

      Guh. Well, yeah. I will say that Boston’s a special case, in that the MBTA and the State Government have been criminally attempting to violate their legal obligations under the Clean Air Act (due to the Big Dig) for decades now. I think because of the state sovereignty doctrine they might possibly get away with this. It’s absolutely egregious behavior and I’ve never seen any other state behave this badly (when it comes to federal law) in my lifetime — though Arizona’s been trying.

      • Beta Magellan

        It’s especially bad since there seemed to be a strong transit modernization-and-expansion consensus from the freeway revolts until the end of Dukakis’s governorship—it’s almost as if the city went from being a model to a basket case (and since my childhood experiences on the T were what first got me into transit it’s hard not to take personally).

        • Nathanael

          I’m not sure where it’s coming from, either. The people of Massachusetts still seem to want public transportation modernized and expanded, but it’s not being reflected by their elected officials. What broke in the election system?

          • Beta Magellan

            I don’t live there now, but based on what I’ve read (which concentrates in Boston-centric politics, not the state role in saddling the mBTA with debt) much of it seems to come from the mayor’s office (especially in the case of the mysterious tripling cost of the Red-Blue connector)—Menino lives in quasi-suburban, commuter-rail-only Hyde Park, and I’m guessing his main allies and funders aren’t transit users either.

          • Alon Levy

            Strange that the cost of the North-South Rail Link is so high, though. It would be a substantial improvement in service in Hyde Park, especially because the project would involve electrifying the commuter rail system so that trains could climb 3% grades in the tunnels. Done right (and although the proposal did not involve general modernization, it did involve at least SEPTA-grade modernization and opened the door for much more) it would give Hyde Park the equivalent of express Orange Line service.

          • Beta Magellan

            My understanding is that there was a lot of local opposition for Red-Blue as well (by which I mean people who live or work along Cambridge Street)—that probably be an issue with N-S though, because of its depth.

            I’m only guessing about Menino and local Democrats’ priorities and role in this, but I’d hypothesize it’s some combination of local power brokers not using transit (and possibly seeing themselves as too good for it, even if it is convenient—Boston itself really isn’t that auto-unfriendly if you know it well), state-level figures not wanting to spend more money on the inner core (which doesn’t exhibit much political swing, so spending on infrastructure there doesn’t get you votes—of course, N-S would benefit people in swing areas, but seeing that requires not being short-sighted about transportation), and generally being spooked about megaprojects post-Big Dig.

  4. Ben

    > the next best corridors, e.g. Utica,

    What corridor were you referring to here? Surely not Utica the city, in upstate NY?

    • Alon Levy

      Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, which is in a near-tie with 1st/2nd for busiest bus corridor in the city. Used to be on subway expansion plans until the 1970s.

  5. Andrew Nosal

    If only we had a “new commuter rail line in the suburbs.” Instead, we have new commuter rail that induces exurban sprawl. A few long distance commuters will park and ride, but every new household will run a fleet of cars to and fro all day to school, shopping and play dates. No help there for global warming.

    • Eric

      If only a few people are taking it, then it probably isn’t inducing much sprawl!

      And sometimes rail funding comes at the expense of freeway funding, significantly reducing sprawl.

      • ant6n

        commuter rail lines can induce development whose residents don’t end up using the commuter rail much.

  6. Walter

    There was a point in the 1980s where CDOT (at least I think it was them) proposed putting hi-rail equipment on buses, so that they could run them on the street Downtown, drive over to the rail line, and use the then-extant track to run to the suburbs. That it’s now a trail is a shame; the line parallels Route 10, which is pretty much the only was to access parts of Hamden and Cheshire and is clogged with traffic (a freeway was planned from the 60s on but was killed by NIMBYs).

    Your idea for a tunnel or trench is not a stretch, as I think the line originally ran in a trench/tunnel to connect to the New Haven Line somewhere around the present state street station. Interestingly, Cass Gilbert’s 1910 city plan also had a streetcar subway downtown to remove them from city streets, so too bad that was never built.

    • Alon Levy

      The original ROW connection was removed and now hosts an FBI building. But the building is surrounded by so much parking it can be moved to one side of the block and then have the trench rebuilt.

  7. Bob Davis

    I notice that speeds and distances in the original article are given in SI (metric) units. Although most other countries use the “metric system”, the US still uses “traditional” units, and writers who use meters and kilometers are identifying themselves as “furriners” or at least out of the mainstream. Why the US has never “gone metric” is a good subject for discussion; our national sports are heavily loaded with traditional measurements. Ten yards for a first down in US football, a baseball pitcher throwing a 90 mph fastball, a 6 foot 10 inch basketball player, and a 300 pound lineman in an NFL team.

    • Alon Levy

      Not really on-topic, but soccer uses Imperial measurements as well: the 18-yard penalty box, 12-yard penalty kicks, etc. I’m not sure about other countries’ practice, but the Israeli practice is to pretend those are in metric units and round to the nearest meter; soccer fields are still constructed based on Imperial measurement standards, but the penalty box is called the 16-meter box, and the penalty kick spot is called the 11-meter spot.

      As for the use of metric units, nearly all of the worldwide standards are written in metric, and even many of the ones written in English use metric if they come from Scandinavia or more metric parts of the Anglosphere. Ideally, there’d be a WordPress plugin that lets you automatically search and replace one with the other, and so if you read the blog in metric mode you see things like “200 meters” and “35 to 40 km/h” whereas if you read it in Imperial mode you see “700 feet” and “22 to 25 mph.”

    • Nathanael

      Why the US didn’t go metric is the thrice-damned Ronald Reagan. I am from the generation which remembers the Carter-era metricization program, which was in all the schools… until Reagan simply cancelled it all.

      Reagan was quite possibly the worst thing that has ever happened to the US. I think having a President who could say any lie at all and sound like he really believed it and was a nice, genuine person was a *very bad thing*.

      • Beta Magellan

        Worse than Buchanan?

        I wonder how well metric expectations hung on in various states. When going to elementary school in Wisconsin in the nineties, we were taught metric alongside US Customary and were told that we’d be switching eventually, and all science in intermediate and high schools was (and, to my knowledge, still is) SI-only. There were also still some mi/km signs in the Madison area circa 1998 (I’m sure they’ve since been replaced for reasons of age).

        • Zmapper

          There are a few speed limits posted in Kilometers up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Unless they took them down within the last 48 hours, they are still standing. Interestingly enough, the KM signs use units ending in 5 in addition to units ending in 0, as opposed to the rest of the world where speed limit signs end in 0 only.

        • Nathanael

          Buchanan was kind of predictable; the Civil War was a long time coming, and he was just another half-assed pro-slavery President.

          Reagan was a bizarre move which was actually contrary to trend, and he got away with it because of his personality.

          Andrew Jackson might qualify similarly, getting away with massive disruptive changes partly because of his personality, and he certainly was one of the worst things that ever happened to the US. Prior to Jackson, government officials were appointed by merit, at least partly — he specifically and deliberately stopped that and replaced it with patronage. We’ve never really recovered from that change, despite the institution of civil service in *part* of the government following the assassination of Garfield.

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