The American Way of Building Rapid Transit

I’ve sporadically discussed how some countries or regions have traditions of how to build rapid transit. For example, in a City Metric article last year I made an off-hand comment about how communist bloc metros, from Europe to North Korea, have widely-spaced stops just like Moscow, while French metros and French-influenced Montreal Metro have short stop spacing just like Paris. I intend to write some posts covering different traditions, starting from one I’ve barely discussed as such: the American one. There are commonalities to how different American cities that build subways choose to do so, usually with notable New York influences, and these in turn affect how American transit activists think about trains.

For the most part, the American tradition of rapid transit should be viewed as one more set of standards, with some aspects that are worth emulating and others that are not. Most of the problems I’ve harped on are a matter of implementation more than a matter of standards. That said, that something is the local tradition does not immediately mean it works, even if on the whole the tradition is not bad. Some of the traditions discussed below definitely increase construction costs or reduce system effectiveness.

The situation in New York

A large majority of American rapid transit ridership, about two thirds, is in New York. The city’s shadow is so long that the systems built in the postwar era, like the Washington Metro and BART, were designed with New York as a reference, whether consciously or not. Only the Boston subway and Chicago L are old enough to avoid its influence – but then their elevated system design still has strong parallels in New York, whether due to direct influence or a common zeitgeist at the end of the 19th century. Thus, the first stop on the train of thought of the American rapid transit tradition must be New York practice.

New York has nine subway main lines. Five are north-south through Manhattan and four-track, three are east-west and two-track, and one avoids Manhattan entirely. Nearly all construction was done cut-and-cover between 1900 and 1940, forcing lines to hew to the street network. As New York has wide, straight streets, a trait shared with practically all American cities, this was not a problem, unlike in London, where carving right-of-way for the Underground was so difficult that every line from the third onward was built deep-bore.

With four tracks on most of the Manhattan trunks, there is local and express service. This allows trains to go around obstacles more easily, increasing redundancy. It’s in this context that New York’s 24/7 service makes sense: there is no absolute need for nighttime maintenance windows in which no train runs. This approach works less well on the two-track lines, and the L, the only one that’s two-track the entire way, has occasional work orders with very low train frequency because of single-tracking.

Outside the core of the city as it was understood during construction, lines run elevated. The standard New York el is an all-steel structure, which reduces construction costs – the First Subway’s subway : el cost ratio was 4:1, whereas today the average is about 2.5:1 even though tunneling uses the more expensive boring technique – at the cost of creating a boombox so noisy that it’s impossible to have a conversation under the tracks while a train is passing. Moreover, splitting the difference between two and four tracks, the standard el has three tracks, which allows peak-direction express service (on the 2/5, 6, and 7) or more space for trains to get around obstacles (on the 1, 4, and N/W).

Because the els are so noisy, the city stopped building them in the 1920s. The lines built in the 1930s were all underground, with the exception of one viaduct over an industrial shipping channel.

Moreover, from the 1930s onward, stations got bigger, with full-length mezzanines (the older stations had no or short mezzanines). Track standards increased, leading to an impressive and expensive array of flying junctions, contrasting with the flat junctions that characterize some older construction like the Chicago L or some foreign examples like much of the London Underground.

Finally, while New York has nine separate subway colors, its number of named lines is far greater. The system comprises several tens of segments called lines, and each route combines different lines, with complex branching and recombination. The infrastructure was never built for discrete lines with transfers between them, but rather for everywhere-to-everywhere one-seat rides, and service choices today reinforce this, with several outer lines reverse-branching to an East Side and a West Side Manhattan trunk.

The desire for 24/7 service

I know of five urban rail networks with 24/7 service. One is the Copenhagen Metro, which is driverless and built with twin bores, making it easy for service to single-track at night for maintenance. The other four are American: the New York City Subway, PATH, PATCO, and the Chicago L. Moreover, the LIRR runs 24/7, which no other commuter rail system I know of does, even ones where an individual outlying station has comparable ridership to the entire LIRR.

The other systems have somewhat of a 24/7 envy. I’ve heard lay users and activists in Washington and the Bay Area complain that the Washington and BART shut down overnight; BART itself feels it has to justify itself to the users on this question. Right now, BART’s decision to temporarily add an hour to the nighttime shutdown window to speed up maintenance is controversial. People are complaining that service is being cut despite increases in funding. In Washington, the more professional activists understand why 24/7 service is unviable, but like BART feel like they have to explain themselves.

Local and express trains

New York is full of four-track mainlines, running both local and express trains. Chicago and Philadelphia have them as well on one line each. The other rapid transit networks in the US don’t, but like 24/7 service desire it. Washington has enough complaints about it that regular reader and Patreon supporter DW Rowlands had to write an article for Greater Greater Washington explaining why it would not be all that useful.

BART is the more interesting case. In any discussion of BART extensions, people bring up the fact that BART can’t skip stops – never mind that its stop spacing is extremely wide owing to its function as suburban rail. The average speed on BART is 57 km/h per the National Transit Database; the RER A, which is the express service here, averages around 50. At BART’s speed, the single longest express segment in New York not crossing water, the A/D between 125th and 59th Streets, would take 7 minutes; in fact it takes about 9. If anything, BART errs in having too few stations in Oakland and San Francisco.

On new-build systems, four tracks are understandable and desirable, provided the construction method is cut-and-cover, as it was in early-20th century America. The earliest subway lines built in New York had little cost premium over London and Paris even though the tunnels were twice as wide for twice as many tracks. However, cut-and-cover is no longer used in developed countries owing to its heavy impact on merchants and residents along the way; already during WW2, Chicago dug the tunnels for the Red and Blue Lines of the L using deep boring. A city that bores tunnels will find that four-track tunnels cost twice as much as two-track tunnels, so it might as well built two separate lines for better coverage.

The shadow of steel els

New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago all built all-steel els. While cheaper, these structures are so noisy that by the 1930s they became untenable even in far-out neighborhoods, like on the Queens Boulevard Line. New lines in New York were underground; existing els were removed, quickly in New York and more slowly in Boston.

The newer systems built in the US avoided els entirely. BART planned to build one in Berkeley, but community opposition led to a change to an underground alignment; unlike subsequent examples of NIMBYism, Berkeley was willing to pay the cost difference. When tunnels are infeasible due to cost, American rail networks prefer at-grade rights-of-way, especially freeway medians. Rail rights-of-way are popular where available, such as on the realigned Orange Line in Boston, but freeway medians are common where rail alignments don’t exist.

The next generation of American urban rail systems, unable to tunnel in city center, turned to light rail in order to keep things at-grade. Across the border, in Canada, Vancouver built els to cover gaps in the right-of-way that turned into the Expo Line, and then built concrete els on the Millennium Line and outer Canada Line to reinforce the system. These brutalist structures are imposing, but I’ve had conversations under the viaducts in Richmond, just as I have in Paris under the mixed concrete and steel structures or in Sunnyside next to New York’s one concrete el.


New York did not invent reverse-branching. London has had it since the 1860s, when most South London railways ran separate trains to the City (at Cannon Street, London Bridge, or Blackfriars) or the West End (at Victoria or Charing Cross), and multiple North London railways ran trains to their traditional terminals or to the North London Railway for service to Broad Street. Paris has had it since even earlier: the railways operating out of Gare Saint-Lazare and Gare Montparnasse merged in 1851 and treated the two stations as reverse-branches allowing cities farther west to access both the Right Bank and the Left Bank. In both cities, this situation makes it harder to run coherent regional rail – in London the railways are spending considerable resources on disentangling the lines to increase frequency to South London’s many branches, and in Paris the fact that Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare serve similar destinations frustrated plans to connect the two stations with an RER tunnel.

Where New York innovated is in copying this practice on rapid transit, starting with the Dual Contracts era. In Brooklyn, existing as well as new outlying lines could be routed to any number of new crossings to Manhattan; in the Bronx and Eastern Brooklyn, a desire to give branches service to both the West Side and East Side led to reverse-branching even on the numbered lines, which were built from scratch and did not involve older suburban railroads.

Reverse-branching spread across the United States. Boston had it until it removed the Atlantic Avenue El, and even today, railfans occasionally talk about reverse-branching the Red Line along Massachusetts Avenue to Back Bay and Roxbury. Chicago occasionally has it depending on the arrangement of trains on the North Side; today, the Purple and Brown Lines share tracks at rush hour but then go in opposite directions on the Loop. The Broad Street Line in Philadelphia reverse-branches to Chinatown. The Washington Metro has reverse-branches in Virginia, limiting train frequency due to asymmetry at the merge points. BART designed itself to force a three-way wye in Oakland pointing toward San Francisco, Berkeley and Downtown Oakland, and East Oakland on which every pair of destinations has a direct train, or else East Oakland residents would have to change trains to access their own city center – and current plans for a second trans-Bay tube add further reverse-branches instead of using the extra capacity as an opportunity to fix the Oakland junction.

Outside the United States, I know of four reverse-branches on rapid transit that is not historically regional rail: the Delhi Green Line, the Namboku and Mita Lines in Tokyo, the Yurakucho and Fukutoshin Lines also in Tokyo, and the Northern line’s two trunks in London. Of those, the last one is slowly being disentangled: its southern end will be two separate lines once the Battersea extension opens, and its northern end will, severing the line in two, once upgrades to pedestrian circulation are completed at the branch point. Historically Toronto had a three-way wye on the subway, like BART, but it caused so many problems it was discontinued in favor of running two separate lines.

Regional rail

The most prominent feature of American rail networks is not what they do, but what they lack. American (and Canadian, and Chinese) regional rail networks remain unmodernized, run for the exclusive benefit of upper middle-class suburban office workers at the primary CBD. Details differ between cities, but even when management is theoretically part of the same agency as the rapid transit network, as in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, in practice the commuter railroads are autonomous. There is no hint of fare integration or schedule integration.

This fact influences network design more than anything else, even the low quality of steel els. Service to any destination beyond the dense urban core, which is small outside a handful of relatively dense cities, requires building new rail from scratch. This favors low-cost, low-capacity light rail, often in freeway medians. Smaller cities, unable to afford enough light rail to convince entire counties to tax themselves to build transit, downgrade service one step further and build bus rapid transit, typically treated as a weird hybrid of Latin American busways and European bus lanes.

Does any of this work?

In one word, no. The American tradition of rapid transit clearly doesn’t work – just look at the weak ridership even in old cities like Boston and Philadelphia, whose mode shares compare with medium-size urban regions in the French sunbelt like the Riviera or Toulouse.

Or, more precisely, it doesn’t work in early-21st century America. In the rare occasion an American city manages to round up funding to build a new subway line, I would recommend looking abroad for models of both construction methods and network design. For example, as BART keeps working on designing the second tube, I would strongly advise against new branches on the East Bay – instead, one of the two tubes (old and new) should permanently serve East Oakland, with a new Downtown Oakland transfer station, and the other should serve Berkeley and Concord.

Moreover, the United States owes it to itself to aggressively modernize its mainline passenger rail network. It’s too important to let Amtrak, the LIRR, Metro-North, Metra, and other dinosaurs do what they’ve always done. Toronto’s modernization of GO Transit, named the Toronto RER after the Western world’s premier regional rail network, had wide support among transit planners, but the engineers at GO itself were against it, and Metrolinx had to drag them into the 21st century.

Where the American tradition does work is in contexts that the United States has long left behind. Booming third-world cities direly need rapid transit, and while American construction costs are not to be emulated, the concept of opening up major throughfares, laying four tracks, and covering the system is sound. The mix of underground construction in city center and elevated construction farther out (using concrete structure, not louder steel ones) is sound as well, and is already seeing use in China and India. This is especially useful in cities that have little to no legacy regional rail, in which category India and China do not qualify, but most of the rest of the third world does.

Globalization makes for grand shuffles like this one. Experts in the United States should go to Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, and the Philippines and advise people in these countries’ major cities about how to emulate rapid transit designs from early-20th century America. But in their home country these same experts should instead step aside and let people with experience in the traditions of Japan, South Korea, and the various distinct countries of Western and Central Europe make decisions.


  1. Matthew

    The American Way of building rapid transit is… not to build rapid transit, save for a little bit that could be a rounding error for zero.

    More seriously, the first part of the conclusion doesn’t make sense. If we could send out the experts who built America’s cut-n-cover subways to help others, that would be great, but those experts are all long dead. Their tradition was not continued. Possibly more useful would be American transit historians who can describe a pale echo of the knowledge left behind by engineers of the past. They might offer some handy tidbits that can be extracted from the lessons of the past, for engineers in cities now developing rapid transit for the first time.

    The final sentence, however, is all too true. Americans need to relearn how to properly build transit infrastructure, especially from non-English-speaking countries.

    • Alon Levy

      A lot of the railfans have very peculiar knowledge of how things were done (and how they’re maintained). The sort of things you learn on Subchat or can be astounding. Not to mention, existing specs are available and can probably be modded relatively painlessly.

      • Matthew

        I would venture to say that some railfans are essentially amateur (rail) transit historians.

        Might be a good consulting gig for those who like to travel and can offer convincing qualifications!

  2. Untangled

    Looking to forward to see how Honolulu’s new 32km rapid transit system turns out. It’s everything American rapid transit is not according to this article. It’s almost entirely elevated, no underground sections (even downtown), it’s entirely automated, all stations have platform screen doors, all trains have open gangways and the distances means it almost like regional rail, although it really does go out to the fields. It’s pricey at $8.3billion, especially for a metro with >1million people, but given how linear Honolulu is, how bad traffic is (or at least according to reports) and how dense it is, it’s probably the best option even if expensive. Part of the high cost is blamed on Honolulu’s isolation since they’re a small island city far from continental US with no local rail industry. Still it will be interesting to see how this small American city handles it going forward, including when it fully opens in 2025. Probably the most ambitious rapid transit program in the US once you account for population.

    • Alon Levy

      Honestly, I completely forgot about Honolulu when I wrote this post, whereas LA, Portland, and Seattle I referenced obliquely by noting that US cities build light rail where much of the rest of the first world would build rapid transit.

      Honolulu generally has high transit ridership for how small it is. It’s very dense by US standards. It’s one of the top American cities in bus trips per capita. I can see why, with no mainline rail to speak of, it would build a SkyTrain-style system; that it’s so isolated from the rest of the US, not to mention not demographically or politically dominated by white people, may also explain why it may be looking at foreign models. I don’t know why the costs there are so high, though; I only follow that project to the extent that I see headlines on Twitter announcing new cost overruns.

          • Tonami

            Tren Urbano uses concrete for the elevated sections. I’ve used it while living there . The trains arrive every 5 minutes and are on schedule.

            However in true American fashion, all stations have lots of parking spaces also the line is too short to serve most of San Juan limiting its usefulness( hence the very low ridership). It’s just more convenient to drive everywhere especially with lots of free validated parking in all the office towers downtown.

          • Nathanael

            Tren Urbano makes sort of the ultimate design failure — it doesn’t get all the way downtown. While some rail systems have survived this, it’s crippling.

      • Michael James

        noting that US cities build light rail where much of the rest of the first world would build rapid transit.

        As Sydney is doing with the CBD and South East Light Rail (CSELR) project. In the CBD it uses the main artery, George Street, to go all the way down to circular quay (the ferry terminal, between Opera House & bridge). This is to replace the utter chaos of thousands of buses, and cars, clogging this route. The problem(s) is that it is not clear it will be a real solution, to either coping with the pax numbers or declogging the street. It may be fair enough to be on the street once it leaves the CBD (though about 800 centenarian giant fig trees were sacrificed in Moore Park and Centennial Park at the edge of the CBD) but I reckon the politicians got carried away with the world popularity for LRT without thinking it through. It probably should have gone underground within the CBD or at least George Street.
        Of course that would have been more expensive but as it turns out this project, run as a PPP (again, quelle surprise) is turning into a financial farce, and like so many other PPPs the reasons for the cost blowout are opaque (they speak of unanticipated costs of relocating below-street services …. but … this is a surface tramway?? seriously, in Paris which is not short of amazing sub-surface infrastructure, I understood in building T3 they were able to, in a single night, dig up and install the tram-bed across all the major cross-roads–the “portes”–without ever stopping daytime traffic; George St has been at a standstill for 2 years!). One has a suspicion that this kind of thing is always a contingency to boost their profits by the private contractors (who essentially totally control the project given the deliberate emaciation of the public service), and of course were fully aware that the state premier wanted this showcase transit project finished before the election early next year. Naturally the talk is of completion sometime in 2020. And yet no one can explain why.

        • Oreg

          Though shalt not PPP. They are mostly a scheme to hide public debt using more expensive private debt, all the while shifting risk from private contractors to the public. A bad deal for the public.

        • Untangled

          Umm, Sydney Metro is being built in the CBD as part of Stage 2, Sydney is doing both light rail and rapid transit in the CBD. Putting the George St part underground was never discussed, the whole point was to put a tram in CBD and pedestrianise it, not build a Stadtbahn, putting it underground would have defeated the whole point of the tram.

          Also, about the utilities, if you look at the pictures of the construction, the concrete slab is very deep, much deeper than a normal tram line so it touched utilities. It’s really over engineering, it’s almost like they’re designing the line for street running heavy rail. Although another part of the depth might have to do with APS. It’s really quite deep, I didn’t realise how deep it was until I saw the Newcastle one under construction. Not going to complain about the PPP part but I don’t think this would have been avoided if it was all run by the government instead, especially if they insisted on such a deep concrete slab.

          • Michael James

            Untangled, 2018/11/20 – 04:40

            My point was that I reckon it is arguable whether the tram will adequately handle the pax load down George Street. Buses didn’t and tramway may do better but does not have the capacity of Metro on its exclusive ROW. It is not the appropriate use of LRT and I suspect Sydneysiders will find out pretty quickly once it eventually opens.
            Any Metro being built is irrelevant to this and I don’t know why you bring it up.

            Re the utilities and that concrete slab, well exactly. I mean, WTF? Why? It is total overkill for LRT and assuredly George St will never carry heavy rail (or even Metro) on it. Where is the evidence the government
            insisted on such a thing? More likely they had a swifty done on them by the commercial interests as per:

            Making heavy work of the light rail task
            Jacob Saulwick, 30 June 2018.

            One theory about what went wrong relates to the way in which the project was contracted. Faruqi, who has a doctorate in engineering, has argued extensively there has been a hollowing out of technical know-how in the public service. The end result is more time and money trying to fix design changes. “I am hugely concerned about the deliberate de-engineering and politicisation of the public sector and the immense over-reliance on outsourcing,” says Faruqi. “This has led to a diminished capability to establish accurate scope and cost in the first place, followed by a lack of capacity to properly scrutinise design, procurement and delivery from private contractors and consultants.”

            And in the same article, here is the neo-lib theoretical wet-dream of how the private sector works best and “takes responsibility”.

            Martin Locke, adjunct professor at the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney, says there’s logic to the procurement model chosen by Transport for NSW. “If you have an integrated project you can outsource interface risk to the private sector and the private sector takes the responsibility for working out how to build the project, maintain the project, and operate it,” says Locke.

            Naturally it turns out it us (the government but our money) that took all the risk and will end up paying several billion more for the project.

          • Untangled

            I guess it will be able to handle the load, most people coming in will be underground on metro and suburban rail anyway. It’ll be able to handle more than the buses used to on George St, theoretically at least and it won’t be as noisy. I don’t think it’s a private company or corruption problem, it was a lack of competence problem. I have a feeling the agencies didn’t have expertise in building light rail so when the government insisted on doing and forced the agencies to do it, they turned towards the road and heavy rail (especially heavy rail) teams and consultants and they came up with this train on the street monster instead of getting outside light rail people, like the Gold Coast did.

          • Untangled

            Which is funny because the whole point of a PPP is to get outside people but it seems like those outside people weren’t critical enough of the government’s plan. This is probably how they also managed to sell APS (aka Amazingly Pricey System) to the agency.

          • Michael James

            Untangled, 2018/11/20 – 06:53
            I guess it will be able to handle the load, most people coming in will be underground on metro and suburban rail anyway. It’ll be able to handle more than the buses used to on George St, theoretically at least and it won’t be as noisy. I don’t think it’s a private company or corruption problem, it was a lack of competence problem.

            Obviously it will handle more pax than buses, or at least with less congestion. A lot of the people will be using the ferries at Circular Quay.
            I hope it really works and with a significant fraction of George St pedestrianised it will have to be better, but my point was along the lines of Alon’s various arguments that (the Anglosphere) is choosing to build LRT when Metro is required. No accident that all of LRT tramways in Paris are not radial but circumferential including T3 just inside Paris’s Peripherique. Or like Boston where the LRT goes underground in the centre.
            I’ve seen LRT mix with pedestrians in Bordeaux, Nice, Seville, Toulouse but these are all much smaller cities than Sydney.
            I don’t know why it should be competence when the companies involved have tons of experience (Acciona, Alstom). To the contrary the government, ie. public service, only plays a light role in the PPP with everything important done by the so-called professionals. That means it is indeed more likely to be corruption by those private operators, ie. deliberately misleading contracts with the only incompetence being the inability of government to detect it. I really think you have it backwards with “it seems like those outside people weren’t critical enough of the government’s plan.” It’s not the public service guys who specify a concrete bed that looks like it could handle an fully-loaded A380. But it is 20-40 years of neo-liberalism that has removed any expertise and authority from (Anglosphere) government so it has become totally reliant/subservient to the commercial “partners” in a PPP, in fact to be nothing more than compliant paymasters. You can be damned sure the French government people involved in similar projects don’t allow such crap to get past them, and that Alstom and Bouygues etc don’t even attempt such stunts. Of course any such project can run into problems but this one is unfathomable.

          • Untangled

            A metro is required on the line and they’re planning to build one to the south-east (UNSW and Randwick) by the mid-2030s.

          • Michael James

            Untangled, 2018/11/20 – 22:09
            A metro is required on the line and they’re planning to build one to the south-east (UNSW and Randwick) by the mid-2030s.

            Wonderful! Even in the teensiest possibility that happens, and even teensier likelihood of it being “on schedule”, then it totally reinforces my preference that it (and the whole line, it seems) should have been proper buried Metro. Especially as it would not have required slaughtering 800 fabulous trees or taking a slice of the park (to avoid taking any road!). There is a stronger argument for a tramway going directly west/NW from Randwick,skirting the city and linking into the existing westwards tramway already there.

            Any other great debating points, Untangled?

            [Hmm. I have no idea, but if that is true then is it at all feasible that the ridiculous over-engineered concrete bed for the tram down George Street (which, btw, they haven’d one elsewhere on the route) is provision for this magical future of a Metro under it one day? I think we can dismiss it on the grounds that our governments never think, or plan for, anything that far ahead.]

          • Michael James

            Re building the Randwick to Circular Quay LRT in Sydney, here (extract below) is Bob Carr in today’s national paper. Of course a big part of this is pure partisan politics with the NSW state election in 3 weeks, and Carr protecting his record as the longest serving premier in the state (he also went on to serve as federal Foreign Minister).

            Voters to have their say on mess of a transport system
            Bob Carr, 4 Mar 2019.

            Sydney’s light rail snakes from George Street through the inner city to Randwick in Sydney’s east. Double the original budget. Advised against by former Liberal premier Nick Greiner. Damned by the Auditor-General. Unfinished. In the courts.
            …. Residents of my former electorate will now have to leave buses mid-journey to battle their way on to a tram system with no bigger passenger capacity. This light rail was designed by the Premier when she was transport minister. Gladys Berejiklian’s whimsical project now squats on a transport corridor that might have hosted an extension of Sydney’s metro. That’s why the government’s own infrastructure council advised against it.
            Lousy process explains it. Clean out seasoned middle-managers from the public sector and you lose corporate memory. Someone forgets to tell bidders what pipes and wires lie under the road surface. As a result you end up facing $600 million in compensation to the complaining contractor. You rush planning approvals so halfway through construction you realise the line obstructs road access to a hospital emergency.
            An earlier Coalition government, such as Greiner’s or John Fahey’s, would have thrown out on first sight any project that required hacking down Moreton Bay figs that had shaded Moore Park when the Anzacs drilled there.

            And never mind the cost blowout, or even the needless destruction of 600 hundred-year-old shade trees in one of the world’s great urban parks. The worst thing is that the wrong project was built and it will actually block, for decades or forever, what would solve the problem. No one can explain any of it.

      • Nathanael

        If Honolulu can manage to actually finish the line, against the opposition of a bunch of lunatic car fanatics, it’s going to be a massive success. The amount of garbage thrown in the path of the line in order to impede it is *spectacular* — not anything we haven’t seen before, of course.

        The main problem they’ve been having is car-crazy anti-rail nuts. The second problem is that everything costs more in Hawaii because it all has to be imported; the third problem is that nobody has any experience with elevated tracks, meaning that several contractors screwed up and had to be forced to rebuild things; the fourth problem is that the economy boomed at the wrong time.

        • Nathanael

          When you add this all together, it’s pretty clear that Honolulu’s *second* line would be a lot cheaper than the first one. Once the first line is actually operating to downtown, the NIMBY/car-nutter attacks are going to die down and the popular support will increase. There will be some people with experience in building elevated tracks, allowing for both better contractors and better oversight. The economy isn’t going to be any more booming than it is now. The problem of having to import all the concrete remains, but I do think the primary cost driver is the fact that it’s the first rail line in Hawaii in generations.

        • Michael James

          I think Musk is proposing, maybe even building as we speak, a reaaaly long hypertube from Hawthorn-LA … Open before Xmas …

  3. Eric

    “The mix of underground construction in city center and elevated construction farther out”

    Why exactly is this a good thing?

    Sometimes the city center is beautiful or historically significant to the extent that nobody wants to spoil it with an elevated line. Of course, plenty of NIMBYs are against “spoiling” humdrum suburbs too.

    The idea I had is that more people are present in the city center (residents and workers/visitors), so more people are affected by the noise and shadows per unit of transportation benefit.

    • Alon Levy

      City center is usually more constrained – narrower streets, taller buildings, higher land values making elevated wide turns cost-prohibitive. The turn radii on the Loop are comically low. Evidently, with a state that routinely overrules NIMBYs in very brutal ways, China converged on the same mix of subways and els, just with concrete rather than steel viaducts, with an underground : elevated cost ratio of about 2.

      • Al

        There are several other concrete rail viaducts in NYC. The Rockaway viaduct on Far Rockaway for A train, the SIRR viaducts in northern Staten Island, Park Ave Viaduct for MNCR, the over land viaducts of the Hells Gate Line, and the now High Line Park.

        • adirondacker12800

          The High Line is steel. The exposed rivets give it away. There’s concrete viaduct on other parts of the suburban networks too. And big ones on the former DL&W on the way to Buffalo.

  4. Michael James

    Very good comparative analysis, and why I come to this blog. As a scientist, when I became interested in urban transit as a important part of urban planning, I was frustrated by not finding any truly systematic study; I looked for but didn’t find a comparison, of the relevant issues, of the world’s different systems, say the way Mark Ovendon does for transit maps of the world. It’s not as if this is an obscure or niche subject–it has been built at a cost of trillions, carries countless billions of pax and shapes our cities and lives …
    It is curious how the American system stays stuck in the past on such rather straightforward, essentially engineering, issues. It can’t be solely blamed on politics and voters’ inertia on these things. In this context I was a bit disappointed by the book I mentioned in a recent comment on this site, The Transit Metropolis by Robert Cervero. It’s something of a landmark in transit (a.s.a.i.k.) and perhaps it was in 1998 when some of its topics (TOD, serving sparse sprawl vs dense core) were less familiar, but here is what Cervero didn’t examine in the book (from his introductory chapter): (my emphases)

    There are cities–New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Moscow and Toronto, for example–that certainly qualify as great transit metropolises but that are not included in this book, either because their principal transit investments date from a much earlier period (eg. London), or their experiences are viewed as either extreme (eg. unusually dense Hong Kong) or well chronicled (Toronto).

    In one fell swoop he’s dismissed the major transit systems, developed and modified and extended over a century, in the major cities of the world with a mystifying rationale. Instead, focussing on much smaller cities (Stockholm, Copenhagen, Singapore, Melbourne, Munich, Ottawa, Curitiba, Zurich) with Tokyo the sole really serious city (ie. a very big city in all terms, ie. absolute population and geographical spread, and with very high transit use and almost all built post-war).
    As you know, I have been particularly frustrated by Australian cities and transit planners being hung up on the way the Brits do things. And this insularity really does seem an Anglosphere thing, with obviously Canada escaping the curse by its French heritage. Also, having a decade living in Paris and a decade (not contiguous) in the UK, I always found it weird the way most Brits and Londoners were under the delusion they did these transit things better than across the channel, when the lived experience was to the contrary (an opinion of one born and bred in the Anglosphere!). BTW, I’ve been assured that today’s London is vastly better than my pre-millenium experiences. Maybe, but it remains at least twice as expensive to use which is a major thing.

    Anyway, a few observations: Re the Paris Metro, a big difference with NYC and even London, was scale. “Paris” as the entity for which their Metro was created (construction began in 1900) was small (87km2 without the two bois) and extremely dense which explains the closely spaced stops–which they probably wouldn’t do today. Paris’ size is broadly the same as just Manhattan (almost identical, however when removing water and Central Park from Manhattan it is only 59km2, apparently). All the big world cities have dense cores and less dense peripheries but only Paris had this extreme focus of the Metro serving only the centre.
    The newest line M14 has much wider station spacing. Though I just checked on its predecessor, ie. the driverless system, in Lille and it has inter-station spacing like Paris, so this is a French characteristic and is most likely a consequence of the historic high density of core cities, even provincial ones.
    My own position on the spacing issue is that I love the close spacing in (intramuros) Paris and always whinge about this when using the London Underground, or most other systems in the world. But I understand that it has consequences for both the city (intramuros Paris) and limits extension into the suburbs. So as a selfish user I want Parisian spacing but as a transit planner I’d have wider spacing.
    Also, a minor point, while Haussmann’s new boulevards might have allowed 4 tracks, a line traversing Paris would not have been able to sustain it. Thus, exclusively two-track irrespective of other transit design issues. Obviously the long narrow geography of Manhattan played a decisive role too.

    Re Els versus underground, one can understand a preference against the former but there is something a little irrational. Even in Paris one imagines one wouldn’t want els all over the place ruining such a wondrous cityscape, but actually one doesn’t think that of the parts of (admittedly outer) Paris with the elevated M2 & M6. Indeed there is something rather iconic about the M6 as it traverses the 15th and across the Bir-Hakeim bridge with the Eiffel Tower behind. Perhaps we’ve all been over-reacting a bit. I never understood the seemingly universal dislike of the Sydney monorail (elevated between CBD and Darling Harbour entertainment precinct to its west) as it carried many millions, including tourists, but they rejoiced in pulling it down a couple of years ago, and so far haven’t replaced it with anything.
    It also raises the issue of noise. Rubber-tired metros were only introduced post-WW2 so I assume it was pretty noisy under M2 & M6, and for the apartments next to it, prior to the conversion. Though the decision to convert a lot of lines to rubber-tired was more to do with increasing acceleration and deceleration, which was more important for Paris because of the short inter-station spacing. In any case it was all too late to influence the American debate on Els versus underground (I assume).

    • Alon Levy

      M2 was not converted to rubber tires, presumably because its elevated segment is shorter than M6’s and passes through a poorer area, and still the trains are less noisy than the cars on the road beneath them. In general, the assessment of rubber tires must be “it seemed like a good idea at the time”; in 2018, even mainline regional trains accelerate at the limit of passenger comfort.

      • Michael James

        Alon Levy, 2018/11/19 – 12:24
        M2 was not converted to rubber tires, presumably because its elevated segment is shorter than M6’s and passes through a poorer area, and still the trains are less noisy than the cars on the road beneath them.

        Arrggh. My crap memory. There you go, but it kind of proves the point: I can’t really remember if it is particularly noisome at ground level. But then, I hardly ever used it, even if going to Pigalle or nearby, one generally uses one of the radial lines. OTOH I often walked under it, at Stalingrad, where the Canal St Martin merges into the Basin de la Villette, one of my fave long walks in Paris of a Sunday. One is always aware when a train passes but perhaps it is not especially irksome…
        Perhaps your point about modern systems having equivalent acceleration is correct but I also recall that being challenged by someone (especially for steeper grades). At any rate, it was developed more than 70 years ago … however still kept for the driverless system used in Lille and then Paris-M14 and recently M1. I’m not entirely convinced that the French engineers did this without reason.

      • Nathanael

        The rubber-tired train fetish is documented to have been the actions of Michelin and French government support for Michelin. They exist so that Michelin can sell tires for them. This was imported into Montreal through the French-speaking connection. It was always obviously stupid, but Michelin was large and powerful at the time.

        I guess France should feel lucky that Michelin didn’t do what Goodyear did in the US, i.e. buy up streetcar systems and destroy them.

        • Michael James

          Nathanael, 2018/11/23 – 02:39
          The rubber-tired train fetish is documented to have been the actions of Michelin

          In that case you’ll have no troubling providing that documentation?
          Seriously that is the most ridiculous conspiracy theory I could have imagined. I am not sure you didn’t invent it a second before you wrote it!
          And the system was exported to more than just French Quebec, including the Japanese (even if in their usual habit, they re-engineered the precise system so they could manufacture it themselves). Do you think the Japanese were obviously stupid too? By the way, their maglev, the Chuo Shinkansen, runs on rubber tyres until it reaches 150km/h. It’s true the Japanese do have some curious fetishes; do you think it might be part of some version of shibari?

          The only thing I have always wondered about, is why they didn’t go to solid rubber but I suppose pneumatic provides a softer ride and marginally more noise suppression.

          One thing that is true about Michelin is that the world tyre industry hated them for introducing steel radial ply tyres because it resulted in much longer lives for tyres. It caused a major restructuring of the industry.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, French cities removed their streetcars and replaced them with buses without anything like the GM conspiracy. They just figured buses were more modern. The light rail here is all new, like in the US but with higher ridership.

          • Jhonny

            Depending on how you count the one city that shut it down for two or three years to convert to light rail, France actually has two or three tram systems that never shut down

  5. James Sinclair

    “The newer systems built in the US avoided els entirely.”

    Its interesting that the 3 tropical systems – Miami, Honolulu, and San Juan, are all 100% elevated.

    Miami is because the water table is essentially at ground level, making it extremely expensive to go underground for any purpose. I am unsure if this is true in PR and Hawaii.

    One uniquely American form of transit you dont touch on is the downtown people-mover systems found in Miami, Jacksonville, and Detroit. Ive only been on the Miami one, but it is a great system, and I wish the concept had been more successful and replicated elsewhere. It makes sense in the “modern” CBDs in southern and western US cities, where there are still plenty of jobs downtown, but it is spread out on an automobile scale, making walking a pain.

    • Eric

      It’s a failure in Jacksonville and Detroit. Detroit has no connecting transit, and Jacksonville is really too small and low-density to need any transit (beside equity reasons), so nobody takes the people movers; if you’re driving you might as well drive all the way to your destination.

      • James Sinclair

        Right, thats why Im saying I wish it was more successful. The problem is these cities allow/require unlimited parking downtown. What they need is the system to tie into parking garages outside the CBD, with the people-mover bringing you around a pedestrianized downtown.

      • Alon Levy

        My vague understanding is that the downtown people movers descend not from urban rapid transit systems but from the Disney Monorail, which is how they so frequently use monorail tech and (at least in Detroit) run in a one-way loop like at a theme park. They’re not really worth discussing – they’re too small in scope, and are more a gimmick than a serious transportation idea. It’s not like, say, American BRT, which is done poorly but is clearly intended as a serious transportation improvement in a setting with high costs and political unwillingness to build rail.

    • Comradefrana

      “Its interesting that the 3 tropical systems – Miami, Honolulu, and San Juan, are all 100% elevated.”

      The San Juan Tren Urbano is not 100% elevated. Two (out of sixteen) stations are underground: Universidad and Río Piedras.

    • Nathanael

      Yes, like Miami, Hawaii also has the problem that going underground would all be below the water table and next tot he coast (i.e. very difficult to make watertight); the the volcanic soil / rock in the areas near the coast are not good materials to tunnel through either.

  6. Jack Harman

    I would note that Thameslink, a ‘commuter rail’ system, is now 24-hours since the upgrade programme finished.
    Also, I’m not sure you’re correct about 4-track deep bore. Looking at the cost of Crossrail, the actual tunnelling was fairly cheap, while the stations were very expensive. Surely station costs will increase by less than double with four-track, while you need twice as many stations for two lines?

    • Alon Levy

      The station digs are bigger if there are more tracks. The express stations are twice as wide, and the local stations are almost twice as wide.

  7. Paludicola

    This is an excellent post and treats some subjects that I’ve been curious about, especially stop spacing. I do have, however, an unimportant clarification:

    The Broad Street Subway’s reverse branch, the Broad-Ridge Spur, actually terminates at 8th and Market, meeting the MFSE and PATCO without a free transfer to either. (Chinatown Station has a reported average of 240 passengers daily) It runs along the express tracks on the trunk line, with the eccentricity of stopping at a station (North Philadelphia, which is at Lehigh Avenue) skipped by the expresses. It also skips a closed station at Ridge Avenue and Spring Garden Street. Had the system been completed as authorized, the branch would have gone west under Locust Street, across the Schuylkill and Southwest to Darby via an elevated line along Woodland Avenue. (An earlier plan would have turned up 16th Street, then northwest, mostly along elevated lines, ultimately to Roxborough and the whole thing has its origins in a proposed Center City delivery loop)

    The Broad Street Subway and Market-Frankford Subway-Elevated are probably pretty similar in stop spacing to other contemporary lines, the six stops in the 1.9 km from 15th Street to 2nd Street perhaps excluded. (13th Street and 11th Street are only 275 m apart! The dwell time at either station is longer than the travel time between.) When SEPTA last made anything like a serious effort to build the Roosevelt Boulevard Line, the planned stop spacing was considerably wider than the old lines, mostly varying between 1.2 and 2.4 km. It would’ve been about 20 km long and had 12 stops.

    I’ve struggled with station spacing; I want some kind of principle or guideline, but outside of favoring major streets, I’m ever at a loss. I habitually err toward approximately half of a mile (800 M), more or less tending toward more than possible as a ‘rule of thumb’, but that’s just following the precedents of what I’m familiar with. Regional Rail stop spacing can be even more vexing. Some segments (E.g. The Chestnut Hill Lines or the Media/Elwyn line from Fernwood-Yeadon to Secane) have stations as close as the rapid transit lines, but further apart elsewhere. Curiously, distances between stations are often wider within the city limits than without. (A considerable number of urban stations have been closed over time) In that case I usually shrug and guess, “about a mile.”

  8. xmal

    Thank you for the article. Could the low transit ridership in the US be blamed not on deficient American transit practices, but other causes (e.g., wider city streets, urban freeways, suburbanization/white flight)? The graphs about half-way down the page below show decreases across the board 1960-2014 while the transit practices presumably stayed the same (you reference the early 20th century):

  9. cd

    The Orange Line in Chicago (1993) is concrete viaduct and noticeably quieter than the steel el’s. Most of it follows a RR ROW of though.

  10. david vartanoff

    Interesting, but some corrections/amplifications seem in order.
    while much of the outer lines are partially at grade, much also is elevated. As to why Berkeley got a subway, BART originally offered each city subways at nearly double the cost for elevateds; Berkeley’s mayor found a contractor who did the subway much cheaper than what BART had quoted; thus he was able to get the citizens to tax themselves for the extra cost. IMHO, using the freeway medians caused BART to misalign routes–north of downtown Oakland, the tunnel should have continued under Broadway with a stop at the Kaiser Hospital complex which was already large and thus a major potential transit destination. North of there the Ashby stop should have been at Telegraph, again directly adjacent a medial center, In East Oakland, BART basically bought excess ROW from a low volume RR which put the tracks at a distance from residential or commercial centers.
    BART does run skip stop trains–both rush and reverse rush on the “Yellow” line toward Pittsburg, and clearly could do so on the Lake Merritt to Bayfair segment.
    About a second transbay tube…
    The second tube should allow connections on both sides of the bay to the existing routes–first because then there will be NO EXCUSE for Cinderella shutdown, and second, to allow more route options. They experimented years ago w/ a Concord to Hayward service but it was too infrequent and not tried long enough to grow usage.
    The myth that 24/7 service can’t be run on 2 track routes has been disproved by CRT and successor CTA for over a century.. (FWIW, much of NYC’s subways are 2 tracks in various segments outside the CBD of Manhattan ) .uk/

    In general, US cities with both legacy RR commuter services and ‘local’ transit agencies need to fare integrate. All of these services are publicly funded, citizens don’t care what color the vehicles or the uniforms are; they just want to get somewhere easily. Both Chicago and DC should be looking at more route options which do notaccessthe CBD but foster greater ease of working outside downtowns.

    • Alon Levy

      West of the Bay, there really isn’t any need for two more tracks parallel to Market. BART’s capacity problem is from Oakland to the San Francisco Financial District and not from within San Francisco. So if there are two more tracks’ worth of trans-Bay capacity, they should be used to expand service in the city, i.e. Geary. The value of a subway under Geary is not even on the same scale as that of 24/7 service on the existing system.

      More route options is exactly the kind of reverse-branching that wrecks capacity on so many American systems. Don’t be creative with route choice – just turn it into two separate lines, running parallel across the Bay, with no track-sharing whatsoever. Passengers can transfer. In London, they’re projecting that eliminating reverse-branching on the Northern line will increase peak throughput from 26 to 36 tph.

      New York runs 24/7 service on two-track lines, but then there are routine weekend disruptions; general orders reducing weekend frequency to worse than a train every 12 minutes during the daytime are not unheard of. For the L shutdown, the alternative was to shut down one tube at a time, but then frequency would have been so severely limited, IIRC to a train every 18 minutes, that they would’ve needed the same alternative routes they’re going to use during the shutdown for spare capacity. Generally, long two-track segments are rare on the subway, with three-track els on a lot of the outer branches; the L is the only route that’s two-track the entire way, and it shows.

  11. Eric

    San Francisco (Muni/BART) is another 4 track subway (though built at separate times). IIRC it was modeled on Philadelphia.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, but unlike in Philadelphia, where the MFL runs express alongside the more local Subway-Surface Lines, in San Francisco BART and Muni make the same stops on Market Street.

  12. Si Hollett

    “the Northern line’s two trunks in London … is slowly being disentangled: its southern end will be two separate lines once the Battersea extension opens”

    Nope. The Battersea extension just extends existing Kennington loop terminators, rather than splits the line. There’s still a need to get the current peak of ~30tph (and preferably more) to/from Morden, and not enough capacity to do that on the City trunk – hence a need to supplement with trains to/from the West End trunk.

    The Bank station upgrade opening a year after the Battersea extension relieves the City trunk’s bottleneck: the inability to deal with more passengers at Bank’s existing platforms. As the peak-direction trains to/from Morden will arrive at Camden Town counter-peak, the passenger flow problems there don’t limit the number of trains that can head through (as the split of the northern branches in the counter-peak direction can, and currently does, happen). That’s when a southern split is first able to occur.

  13. newtonmarunner

    Thanks for this, Alon.

    One thing — and maybe my reading comprehension is bad — I feel the article didn’t touch enough on is American emphasis on coverage over ridership/service compared to elsewhere in the world. Most subway extensions are out further into the suburban sticks and/or exacerbate the reverse branching rather than pruning a branch or adding rail service to an overcrowded bus or rapid transit route. Just my $0.02.

    • Alon Levy

      I really don’t think the US is unusual there (exhibit A: M18 here). The bus systems are definitely very coverage-oriented, but that relates to the fact that they’re treated as a last resort for the poor; for all of their faults, WMATA and such are designed for use by people of all socioeconomic classes and their network design reflects that.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s very common on regional rail. Tokyo is full of it, Berlin has a lot of it, Paris has some examples including one on the RER A (the line to Cergy reverse-branches to the RER A and Transilien L at rush hour), Zurich has so much of it I gave up on mentally mapping its S-Bahn.

  14. Sarapen

    Metrolinx giveth but it also taketh away. Its painful integration with the Toronto transit system is still ongoing but its latest demand is that the TTC be uploaded to Metrolinx – which is to say, that Ontario’s regional rail agency take over running the buses, streetcars, and subway of the province’s largest city. Most city watchers hate the idea and point to New York, where the state government has repeatedly screwed the city’s transit over and even misused funds that were earmarked for NYC transit and used them to subsidize ski hills in upstate New York. Should things continue, I expect another subway to the suburbs instead of the new downtown line which should have been built 20 years ago already.

  15. Jhonny

    There are actually plenty of urban rail systems that have 24/7 service.

    However, virtually all of them are mostly above ground.

    For example the Dresden or Berlin Tramway

  16. Jhonny

    What is your take on masonry els as you find them in Berlin (and I think Hamburg) on the pre WW2 lines? They seem to be integrated into the urban fabric quite well with businesses in the arches.

    And what about the pretty uniquely German (and perhaps Belgian) concept of “Stadtbahn” or “pre-metro” to bury the existing teams in a few downtown tunnels with a lot of surface branching in the boondocks.

    Is that a system anybody should ever build from scratch?

    • Alon Levy

      I’ve seen them in London, on some regional lines. They’re nice.

      Stockholm has the same history as German pre-metros, but the T-bana eliminated all light rail branches with grade crossings, cutting them to the T-bana termini (like Ropsten) with forced transfers. All lines heavily branch. It works well given Stockholm’s urban geography, which is very dense in Central Stockholm but then drops to suburban single-family housing density outside the center.

      • adirondacker12800

        Why do you find it so surprising that Stockholm looks more like Queens than Manhattan? All of Sweden could move to New York City and Nassau County. All of metro Stockholm would be in Queens, there aren’t enough of them to fill up Brooklyn. Things are gonna look different depending on the geography and the size of the population.

  17. wanderer

    Very interesting article. Caltrain between San Francisco and San Jose is a regional rail line that does more than just funnel commuters into the metro core. Caltrain goes into Silicon Valley and ridership has steadily rising, even as other American transit lines fall. Service outside the peak hours is lousy though.

    I want to second your idea about BART having too few stations, especially in Oakland. One could put an extra BART station between every Oakland station outside the Downtown and still have reasonable stop spacing. I know that’s heresy in the transit planning world but so be it. It doesn’t seem as critical in San Francisco, though there’s long been agitation for a station at 30th & Mission (between 24th St. and Glen Park).

    Just to mention it–American rapid transit often fails because of lack of density. If you think Los Angeles isn’t dense enough, look at Phoenix or San Diego or even a lot of Portland.

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  22. orulz

    Something that I think you kind of glossed over is how most postwar metro construction in the US (Mostly: WMATA, BART, and MARTA) are trying (but not succeeding in full) to be a regional rail system plus a metro system wrapped up into one.

    Presumably the private nature of freight railroads was viewed as a roadblock towards actually using them for true regional rail (sounds a bit like India.)

    The regional aspects are the long suburban tails and the wide spacing towards the ends; the metro aspects are the downtown subways, the rolling stock, and the closer spacing in the center. Comparing the maps at scale it’s pretty obvious they are doing things at least a bit differently than most places things that came before. If anything, China (Also a country lacking in regional rail lines) seems to be emulating this pattern to some extent, although with greater success due to the patterns of development enforced along outlying stations.

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