I did a complex Patreon poll about series to write about. People voted for general transit network design, and more posts about national traditions of transit in the mold of the one about the US. Then I polled options for transit network design. There were six options, and people could vote up or down on any. Difficult urban geography was by far the most wanted, and three more alternatives hover at the 50% mark. To give the winning option its due course, I’m making it a mini-series of its own.
There are cities that, due to their street layout, make it easy to run transit on them. Maybe they are flat and have rivers that are easy to bridge or tunnel under. Maybe they have a wealth of wide arterials serving the center, with major cross streets at exactly the right places for stations and an underlying bus grid. Maybe they spread out evenly from the center so that it’s easy to run symmetric lines. Maybe their legacy mainline rail network is such that it’s easy to run interpolating buses and urban rail lines.
And then there are cities that are the exact opposite. In this post I’m going to focus on narrow or winding streets and what they mean for both surface and rapid transit. The good fortune for transit planners is that the city that invented urban rapid transit, London, is a prime example of difficult urban geography, so railway engineers have had to deal with this question for about 150 years, inventing some of the necessary technology in the process.
Rapid transit with narrow streets
The easiest ways to build rapid transit are to put it on a viaduct and to bury it using cut-and-cover tunneling. Both have a minimum street width for the right-of-way – an el requires about 10 meters, but will permanently darken the street if it is not much wider, and a tunnel requires about 10 meters for the tracks but closer to 18 for the stations.
Nonetheless, even cities with narrow streets tend to have enough streets of the required width. What they don’t always have is streets of the required width that are straight and form coherent spines. The labyrinth that is Central London does have wide enough streets for cut-and-cover, but they are not continuous and often miss key destinations such as major train stations. The Metropolitan line could tunnel under Euston Road, but the road’s natural continuation into the City is not so wide, forcing the line to carve a trench into Farringdon. Likewise, the District line could tunnel under Brompton Road or King’s Road, but serving Victoria and then Westminster would have required some sharp curves, so the District Railway carved a right-of-way, demolishing expensive Kensington buildings at great expense.
While London is the ur-example, as the city that invented the subway, this situation is common in other cities with large premodern cores, such as Rome, Milan, and Istanbul. Paris only avoided this problem because of Haussmann’s destruction of much of the historic city, carving new boulevards for aesthetics and sewer installation, which bequeathed the Third Republic a capital rich in wide streets for Metro construction.
Dealing with this problem requires one of several solutions, none great:
London’s solution was to invent the tunnel boring machine to dig deep Tube lines, avoiding surface street disruption. With electric-powered trains and reliable enough TBMs to bore holes without cave-ins, London opened the Northern line in 1890, crossing the Thames to provide rapid transit service to South London. Subsequently, London has built nearly all Underground lines bored, even in suburban areas where it could have used cut-and-cover.
The main advantage to TBMs is that they avoid surface disruption entirely. Most first-world cities use them to bore tunnels between stations, only building stations cut-and-cover. The problem is that TBMs are more expensive to use than cut-and-cover today. While turn-of-the-century London built Tube lines for about the same cost per km as the Metropolitan line and as the cut-and-cover Paris Metro and New York City Subway, in the last half century or so the cost of boring has risen faster than that of shallow construction.
The worst is when the stations have to be mined as well. Mining stations has led to cost blowouts in New York (where it was gone gratuitously) and on London Crossrail (where it is unavoidable as the tunnel passes under the older Underground network). A city that cannot use cut-and-cover tunnels needs to figure out station locations that are easily accessible for vertical digging.
The alternative is the large-diameter TBM. Barcelona is using this technique for Line 9/10, which passes under the older lines; the city has a grid of wide boulevards, but the line would still have to pass under the older metro network, forcing the most difficult parts to be deep underground. The large-diameter TBM reduces the extent of construction outside the TBM to just an elevator bank, which can be dug in a separate vertical TBM; if higher capacity is desired, it’s harder but still possible to dig slant bores for escalators. The problem is that this raises construction costs, making it a least bad solution rather than a good one; Barcelona L9, cheap by most global standards, is still expensive by Spanish ones.
Carving new streets
Before the 1880s, London could not bore the Underground, because the steam-powered trains would need to be close to surface for ventilation. Both the Metropolitan and District lines required carving new right-of-way when streets did not exist; arguably, the entire District line was built this way, as its inner segment was built simultaneously with the Victoria Embankment, under which it runs. The same issue happened in New York in the 1910s and again in the 1920s: while most of the city is replete with straight, wide throughfares, Greenwich Village is not, which forced the 1/2/3 to carve what is now Seventh Avenue South and later the A/C/E to carve the southern portions of Sixth Avenue.
This solution is useful mostly when there are wide streets with absolutely nothing between them that a subway could use. The reason is that demolishing buildings is expensive, except in very poor or peripheral areas, and usually rapid transit has to run to a CBD to be viable. If the entire route is hard to dig, a TBM is a better solution, but if there are brief narrows, carving new streets New York did could be useful, especially if paired with improvements in surface transit.
Looking for station sites
Milan built its first metro lines cut-and-cover. However, lacking wide streets, it had to modify the method for use in a constrained environment. Instead of digging the entire street at a sloped angle and only then adding retaining walls, Milan had to dig the retaining walls first, allowing it to dig up streets not much wider than two tracks side by side. This method proved inexpensive: if I understand this article right, the cost was 30 billion lire in 1957-1964 prices, which is €423 million in 2018 prices, or €35 million per km. Milan’s subsequent construction costs have remained low, even with the use of a TBM for Metro Line 5.
The problem with this method is that, while it permits digging tunnels under narrow medieval streets, it does not permit digging stations under the same streets. Milan is fortunate that its historical center is rich in piazzas, which offer space for bigger digs. One can check on a satellite map that every station on Lines 1 and 2 in city center is at a piazza or under a wide street segment; lacking the same access to easy station sites, Line 3 had to be built deeper, with tracks stacked one under the other to save space.
I have argued in comments that Paris could have used this trick of looking for less constrained sites for stations when it built Metro Line 1, permitting four tracks as in New York as long as the express stations under Rue de Rivoli stuck to major squares like Chatelet. However, Paris, too, is rich in squares, it just happens to be equally rich in wide streets so that it did not need to use the Milan method. London is not so fortunate – its only equivalent of Milan’s piazzas is small gardens away from major streets. It could never have built the Central line using the Milan method, and even the Piccadilly line, which partly passes under wide streets, would have been doubtful.
Rapid transit benefits from being able to modify the shape of the street network to suit its needs. Surface transit in theory could do the same, running in short tunnels or widening streets as necessary, but the value of surface modes is not enough to justify the capital expense and disruption. Thus, planners must take the street network as it is given. The ideal surface transit route runs in the street median on two dedicated lanes, with boarding islands at stops; creating a parking lane, a moving lane, and a transit lane in each direction on a street plus some allowance for sidewalks requires about 30 meters of street width or not much less. Below 25, compromises are unavoidable.
Cutting car lanes
A lane is about 3 meters wide, so removing the parking lanes reduces the minimum required street width by about 6 meters. Contraflow lanes instead allow the street to have the same four lanes, but with a moving lane and a parking lane in one direction only. In extreme cases it’s possible to get rid of the cars entirely; a transit mall is viable down to maybe 12-15 meters of street width. The problem is that deliveries get complicated if the city doesn’t have alleyways or good side street access, and this may force compromises on hours of service (perhaps transit doesn’t get dedicated lanes all day) or at least one parking lane in one direction.
Some city cores with very narrow streets don’t have double-track streetcars. A few have one-way pairs, but more common is single-track segments, or segments with two overlapping tracks so that no switching is needed but trams still can’t pass each other. Needless to say, single-tracking is only viable over short narrows between wider streets, and only when the network is punctual enough that trams can be scheduled not to conflict.
On longer stretches without enough room for two tracks or two lanes, one-way pairs are unavoidable; these complicate the network, and unless the streets the two directions of the bus or tram run on are very close to each other they also complicate interchanges between routes. New York has many one-way pairs on its bus network, even on wide and medium-width streets in order to improve the flow of car traffic, and as a result, some crosstown routes, such as the B35 on Church, are forced to stop every 250 meters even when running limited-stop. While New York’s network complexity is the result of bad priorities and can be reversed, cities with premodern street networks may not even have consistent one-way pairs with two parallel streets on a grid; New York itself has such a network in Lower Manhattan.
Bus network redesign
The best way to avoid the pain associated with running buses on streets that are not designed for fast all-mode travel is not to run buses on such streets. Boston has very little surface transit in city center, making passengers transfer to the subway. In Barcelona, part of the impetus for Nova Xarxa was removing buses from the historic core with its narrow streets and traffic congestion and instead running them on the grid of the Eixample, where they would not only provide a frequent system with easy transfers but also run faster than the old radial network.
However, this runs into two snags. First, there must be some radial rapid transit network to make people connect to. Boston and Barcelona both have such networks, but not all cities do; Jerusalem doesn’t (it has light rail but it runs on the surface). And second, while most cities with a mixture of wide and narrow streets confine their narrow streets to premodern historic cores, some cities have streets too narrow for comfortable bus lanes even far out, for example Los Angeles, whose north-south arterials through the Westside are on the narrow side.
What not to do: shared lanes
It’s tempting for a transit agency to compromise on dedicated lanes whenever the street is too narrow to feature them while maintaining sufficient auto access. This is never a good idea, except in outlying areas with little traffic. The reason is that narrow streets fed by wide streets are precisely where there is the most congestion, and thus where the value of dedicated transit lanes is the highest.
In New York, the dedicated bus lanes installed for select bus service have sped up bus traffic by around 30 seconds per kilometer on all routes Eric Goldwyn and I have checked for our Brooklyn bus redesign project, but all of these figures are averaged over long streets. Within a given corridor, the short narrows that the transit agency decides to compromise on may well feature greater time savings from dedicated lanes than the long arterial stretch where it does set up dedicated lanes. This is almost certainly the case for the Silver Line in Boston, which has unenforced dedicated lanes most of the way on Washington Streets but then uses shared lanes through Downtown Boston, where streets are too narrow for dedicated lanes without reducing auto access.