Quick Note: the Importance of Long-Term Planning

Last week, Strong Towns ran a piece complaining about what it calls “go big or go home” transit. Per Strong Towns’ Daniel Herriges, rail expansion takes 20 years and reflects an obsession with megaprojects, so it’s better to look at small things. Strong Towns’ take is as follows:

“After 20 years of planning, the North Carolina Research Triangle’s signature transit project is fighting for its life.”

Boy. If this sentence doesn’t perfectly capture the folly of our megaproject-obsessed transit paradigm, we don’t know what does.

Here’s a better idea: Ask transit riders in Durham and Chapel Hill what’s the next, small step you could take that would improve their commutes *this* year. Then do it. Then next year, ask the same question. There are so many pressing needs going unmet while our cities focus on shaky silver-bullet efforts like this one; what do we have to lose?

It’s a perfect encapsulation of what is wrong with more traditionalist attitudes toward urbanism and green transport, and I want to explain why.

Short-term thinking – “what could improve this year” – does not scale. The Strong Towns article talks about scalability as a reason to improve bus service and add sidewalks rather than adding urban rail, but the reality is the exact opposite. Incrementalism works in cities that have 35% transit mode share and want to go up to 50% – and since, in the first world, all of these cities have rapid transit systems, getting to 50% means building more lines, as is happening in Paris and Berlin and London and Stockholm and Vienna and Copenhagen, and the last three don’t even have that many more people than the Research Triangle, where the rail link in question is to be built.

The Research Triangle does not have 35% transit mode share. For work trips the share in the Durham-Raleigh combined statistical area is 1.4%. All the things that year-by-year incremental progress does do not work, because improving the bus network increases ridership in relative numbers to current traffic.

Strong Towns understands this, in a way. It uses the “what do we have to lose?” language. And yet, it recommends not doing anything of importance, because building big things means megaprojects. Megaprojects involve doing something that visibly involves the government, requires central planning, and is new to the region. They empower planners whose expertise comes from elsewhere, because the local knowledge in a 1.4% transit share region is 100% useless for offering transportation alternatives.

It’s a mentality that seems endemic to groups that romanticize midcentury small towns. Strong Towns literally names itself after the idea of the old small-town main street, in which cars exist but do not dominate, back before hypermarkets and motorway bypasses and office parks changed it all. It’s an idea that evokes nostalgia among people who grew up in cities like that or in suburbs that imitated them and dread among people who didn’t. And it’s completely dead, because it’s too small-scale for transit to work and too spread out for a developer to have any interest in reproducing it today.

Transit revival doesn’t look like the 1950s, and planning for it doesn’t involve the same social groups that dominated then. That era between World War Two and the counterculture was dominated by an elite consensus that built megaprojects, but the middle-class elements of said consensus were precisely the one that bolted to the anti-state New Right, with its ethos of mocking the idea of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

In a metro area that wants to get from 1.4% transit share to a transit share that’s not a rounding error, a few things need to happen, and none of them will make nostalgists happy. First, planning has to be for the long term. “What can be done this year?” means nothing. Second, extensive redevelopment is required, and it can’t be incremental. If you want transit-oriented development, look at what Calgary did in city center and what Vancouver did around suburban stations like Metrotown and Edmonds and do it in your Sunbelt American city. Third, wider sidewalks are cool and so is more bus service, but in a spread-out region, interurban rail is a must, and this means big projects with an obtrusive government and a public planning process. And fourth, people will complain because not everything is a win-win, and the government will need to either ignore those people (if they’re committee meeting whiners) or break them (if they’re Duke, which is opposing the light rail line on NIMBY grounds).

American transit reformers tend not to know much about good practices, but many are interested in learning. But then there are the ones who cling to traditional railroading, mixed-traffic heritage streetcars, village main streets, or really anything that lets them portray the car as an outside enemy of Real America rather than its apex with which it annihilated groups it deemed too deviant. It’s an attractive mythology, playing to a lot of powerful notions of community. It’s also how American cities got to be the car-choked horrors that they are today, rather than how they will turn into something better.


  1. Herbert

    Speaking of long term plans, have you had a chance to peruse the “200 km plan” yet? It was an ambitious plan to expand the Berlin U-Bahn to said length written in a way that injured partition while partition was very much still a reality… Of course it was never fully implemented even after partition ended

  2. Herbert

    Oh and before I forget, there are/were also a lot of measures to prepare for routes ultimately never built like already prepared tunnel subs or oversized stations. The German term is “Bauvorleistung” what’s to be thought of that?

    • Alon Levy

      I feel really weird about this. But I do like that they are safeguarding routes for the future, in case demand in Berlin picks up, which it well might given how the city’s economically grown in the last decade. Now if only they’d also built housing here…

      The one thing here I find just weird is S21. It looks like such a weird priority. The worst S-Bahn capacity problems look like they’re east-west and not north-south to me – a bunch of Stadtbahn lines don’t even go through and terminate at Ostbahnhof, and then there are the routes on the Görlitzerbahn that divert to the Ringbahn because there’s no room to get to Mitte. If there’s money for a third S-Bahn radial, don’t build S21, build a northwest-southeast line taking over the Görlitzerbahn routes and connecting them to Spandau or a new branch to Tegel.

      • Herbert

        Well they built the new main station in kind of a weird place (even back when it was a station with mostly local service newspapers complained about it being next to a jail) and now they’ve figured a need to connect it to subway (technically done since 2009 in reality still some ways off) S-Bahn (done on the east west axis, S21 is well, weird…) And tram…

  3. Daniel Calandri

    When places have such low transit share should they stick to cars of improve public transit, especially for expanding cities that will never see it, like Boise, Nashville, and Pittsburgh, due to geography. The areas are not politically that open to transit and need cars to from point A to point B

      • Jonathan Salmans

        I live in Pittsburgh, and I am not sure that paving over the rail tracks to build BRT was a mistake. The East Busway offers equivalent travel times to the old commuter rail operated by the Pennsylvania railroad prior to 1964 with much higher service frequencies. The buses also continue further into downtown so riders don’t have to make a transfer at the train station.

        According to the Pittsburgh Port Authority annual service report, the cost per ride for the P1/P2, which is the main bus that operates on the east busway, is only $2.41 per ride. This is much lower than the $8.11 per ride cost on the light rail system it operates. (These costs are what the port authority pays to operate, the fares are equivalent). Passenger volumes are similar (the East busway serves 23,605 passengers each weekday, compared with 25,334 for the light rail system).

        My understanding is that light rail is better if ridership is sufficiently high, but I haven’t seen a good analysis that shows what ridership level is sufficient to justify light rail. I would be curious what your thoughts are Alon, or if you are aware of one.

        This post comes from someone who is a rail fan.

        • Alon Levy

          “Buses today are as fast as trains were in the 1950s” isn’t that much of a selling point. Regional trains have steadily improved in performance, and for 20 years already have had comparable power-to-weight ratios as high-speed trains. They’re nothing like the RDCs or steam trains or whatever the PRR ran 60 years ago.

          Pittsburgh’s subway-surface line is really weird. It looks like a smaller version of what Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have. Does it even have dedicated lanes on the surface? The Boston Green Line has really high operating costs too, and has more economy of scale than Pittsburgh does.

          • Jonathan Salmans

            The east busway buses travel at an average speed of 27.3 mph (43.8 kph) including stops on the portion that used to be rail line, while making 10 stops over 9.1 miles. My understanding is that is faster than many (although not all) light rail lines. It is much faster than Pittsburgh’s light rail. Our light rail system has an average speed of only 13.7 mph. While as you point out, south of the city it operates partly on old street car lines in mixed traffic, it actually goes even slower (averaging 10.3 mph) in the part downtown where it is grade separated and is mostly subway. The most recently built mile of subway line has a speed of only 6 mph. I have no idea why it is so slow.

            The busway’s peak frequency is about every 3 minutes. I doubt they could financial justify that frequency with light rail vehicles with the level of ridership. Our light rail system has a peak frequency of every 8 minutes.

            If Pittsburgh were able to:
            1) implement other transit friendly policies that increased ridership along the east busway, and
            2) manage a light rail system much more effectively than it does today

            Then it might make sense to turn the east busway back into a rail line.

            As it is today though I think it is better as a busway, and it achieves better results than many light rail systems.

          • Alon Levy

            I genuinely don’t know why subway-surface lines are so slow, but they are in the American cities I’ve seen them in (i.e. Boston, Philly, SF). Even underground, they’re slower than full subways. It could just be poor signaling, I’m not sure. No idea if they’re as slow in Cologne and Frankfurt, I didn’t actually take the trams when I visited Cologne. Recently-built rapid transit lines with the stop spacing of the east busway average well into the 40s, like the MRT in Singapore or SkyTrain in Vancouver.

          • adirondacker12800

            …..Level boarding? The few pictures of subwaystations, on nycsubway.org, of Philadelphia’s subway-surface line, look like you clamber up down to the car. The subway-surface line makes more stops than the Market-Frankfort trains. Muni makes more stops than BART. You clamber up and down in Boston too? And it stops every block and half.

  4. Aaron M. Renn

    That sounds good in theory but in the US the incompetence of transit implementation militates against those kinds of plans. The Durham-Orange light rail line is a perfect example. It’s up to what, $2.5 billion – for one light rail line in Durham? That’s nuts. California high speed rail, the Hawaii rail system, and most US light rail lines are huge underperformers. If Los Angeles couldn’t make rail expansion work in terms of moving the needle (the right direction, that is), then it’s very unlikely most other places will. Maybe there’s good reason to be skeptical of these projects.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, that’s a legit argument against it. The problem is, the US is incompetent at the other stuff, too, like when the DOT in Tampa requires the transit agency to cough up money for repaving the street with concrete as a condition for allowing dedicated bus lanes, or when RIPTA won’t build bus shelter at stops with fewer than 50 daily passengers (I think it’s boardings and not even boardings + alightings).

      Los Angeles has NIMBY problems that other parts of the US shouldn’t have. Dallas is a much better example of TOD failure, and I genuinely don’t know what happened there.

      • adirondacker12800

        Alighting bus passengers don’t have much need for a shelter. Almost all of them get off the bus and leave. Or turn into a boarding passenger for the bus they are transferring to.

      • Nilo

        Dallas has no real density near its stations still even with TOD. the projects that were built just clearly don’t have that many people living in them according to Christof Spieler’s maps. Also I think its downtown is pretty weak compared to most American ones. According to his stats it has the 19th highest number of jobs which seems weak for the country’s sixth? Largest urbanized area.

        For reference the Dallas map can be seen here: https://www.trainsbusespeople.org/maps

          • Nilo

            Encourage downtown commercial development? Mass sprawl repair in the entire Dallas metroplex? Honestly Dallas and Phoenix seem particularly unsalvagable when it comes to making American metros less sprawling, polluting and anti-urban.

      • Henry

        This might have something to do with why Dallas TOD never took off:

        > NCTCOG’s proposed $135 billion plan for the future looks decidedly old school: More than 58.1 percent of the $89.4 billion earmarked for capital projects is for road work, which includes everything from highways and tolled lanes to city streets.
        About 15 percent of the $38.2 billion for major highway construction is budgeted for building freeways and corridor extensions that don’t yet exist, including $2.8 billion for a new regional loop north of Denton and McKinney. Less than 3 percent of the $42.9 billion in traditional federal and state transportation revenues in the plan goes toward projects built for pedestrians and bicyclists; less than 1 percent goes toward public transit. Almost two-thirds of the $33.3 billion earmarked for transit construction and service improvements is funded from revenue streams that do not exist yet.

    • Kenny Easwaran

      I was also interested in whether Alon had thoughts about the project itself. I visited Duke a few months ago and looked at the plans afterwards, and they didn’t seem great. A lot of freeway alignments, with a few divergences to serve an office park or outlying hopeful TOD, and the Chapel Hill end didn’t obviously seem convenient enough to the central parts of the UNC campus to serve most of the passengers that would currently use shuttle buses to get between the centers of the two campuses

    • Nilo

      Hawaii has been a boondoggle construction wise, but it’s difficult to see it not getting massive ridership once the full line opens. Hawaii has transit ridership per capita more than any other major metro besides New York, and that’s operating buses only in mixed traffic.

      • Alon Levy

        With TOD this line could be amazing even at current costs – Honolulu is extremely expensive. But I don’t know if it pans out at current development. At the end of the day Honolulu is not a large city. Oahu has about a million people.

        • adirondacker12800

          It’s already densely populated. http://files.hawaii.gov/dbedt/op/gis/maps/2010_pop_density.pdf
          Or to quote the quote in Wikipedia “They assert that the urban agglomeration in south Oahu is ideally suited to rail as it is constrained by mountains to a narrow strip along the coast, which will be well served by a single rail line and which has the fourth highest population density in the US”

  5. The Economist

    The Durham-Orange light rail failure is due to short-sightedness of its backers. While not all proposed projects show this, the backers and the planners missed the very important fact that there was no way a private university will let a new public transportation line go through its campus. While the university would have been the major beneficiary of the line, the risks that it brings are just too high in relationship to the hardship traffic outside of the university campus imposes. The university will be on the hook for any legal risks related to people using the line and coming on-campus to commit crime against the university, its professors or its students. Any traffic hardship is imposed on the university employees and students who need to commute to the university, but note that it is not directly imposed on the University itself. As long as the public entities backing the project were not willing to use imminent domain to get the land they needed for the line, there was no way this was going to fly. Something similar was observed at Princeton when the Dinky station was moved further away from the town center. It is pretty much the norm that as long as the university owns contiguous land, as least in the US it will not accept that land being bisected by public road or rail.

    Note that there are many universities which are well served by public transportation including rail, but the public owned the rights of way or the streets well before those universities were founded or substantially expanded, so those universities had much less leverage to oppose these type of projects. Do you think Harvard would let the Red Line through its campus if it was being proposed now and it owned the street above? I do not think so.

    • David

      The red line used to terminate at Harvard Square and was only extended beyond there in the late 70’s and early 80’s which involved major construction right around the most central historic sections of campus so I do think that Harvard actually wouldn’t oppose it, but I think this is a result of being located in one of the densest most transit oriented urban cores in the US in contrast to Duke which is in a much more suburban environment without any recent history of high transit usage.

    • Henry

      As a counterpoint, Seattle built its light rail to UW through the campus just a few years ago, and UW is also a medical institution with the same kind of medical facilities and instruments as Duke.

      • crazytrainmatt

        UW provoked a fight on a similar pretense that resulted in an arguably worse alignment (a station in the corner of campus surrounded by a stadium and water instead of more centrally located). Sound Transit didn’t have much bargaining power since the university is a state institution.

        • Mike

          The original alignment in the 1990s was on the west side of the university near the seismic lab. The UW protested but if I remember it didn’t succeed in changing it. The alignment changed later for other reasons. Sound Transit had a fiscal crisis in 2000 due to overoptimistic cost estimates, and then engineering studies found that Ship Canal crossing had a high risk of cost overruns. That frightened the agency and it deferred the entire half of the line north of downtown. Later around 2005, it found another Ship Canal crossing on the south side of campus that was less risky, and that’s what it built. The track runs under the middle of campus but the university wouldn’t allow a station there; the only station it would allow is on the far southeast corner next to the canal and stadium (and across the street from a research hospital). The university is considered an “essential state service” so the transit agency couldn’t override it.

          • crazytrainmatt

            I can’t find much detail on google about why the preferred alternative was changed, though this is consistent with my memory: http://www.washington.edu/news/2003/12/11/alternative-sound-transit-options-would-protect-sensitive-research/

            Relevant to the original point, UW later extracted $43M for relocation due to expected EM interference from the modified alignment: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/43-million-deal-to-move-uw-labs-for-light-rail-line/

            I think the lesson is that universities have a lot of leverage to extract concessions, even if the ultimate result is a huge benefit to them.

          • Mike

            The first article was from 2003, and the restart was around 2005 or 2006. The three left alternatives are all on the west side of campus, so they’re all what I was referring to. The third one with Pacific and 45th stations looks like the original proposal near the seismic lab, The second one with Southwest Campus and Brooklyn stations may have been a later one to address their concerns. The new alignment in 2006 was like the fourth one but with Stadium and Brooklyn stations (although Stadium was renamed, and Brooklyn was deferred to the following phase, which is under construction now).

    • jonahbliss

      Does Duke literally own the road, or do you mean that in a metaphorical sense? I’d love to see the documentation.

    • Michael Whelan

      “It is pretty much the norm that as long as the university owns contiguous land, as least in the US it will not accept that land being bisected by public road or rail.”

      This is a really odd claim. There are only so many transit projects being proposed in the United States at any given time. Of those, very few seek to bisect a university campus. The sample size is too small to draw any conclusions about what the “norm” is.

      But even if we allow for anecdotal arguments, the Purple Line in Maryland is being built right through the central core of the University of Maryland campus at College Park. So at the very least, there’s a strong counterexample.

  6. Tonami

    For cities in developing countries, is this still the case? Since most of the population use informal public transit or walk than drive for their commutes( Though they have less access and much longer commutes). Is it better to go with incremental works or long term planning.

    Nairobi is restarting their commuter rail service and recently purchased 11 CAF 61 series 2 car DMU to run on their existing meter gauge network. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serie_61_de_SFM
    News about the purchase https://www.mwakilishi.com/article/kenya-news/2019-01-10/nairobi-to-get-11-new-modern-commuter-trains

    The existing meter gauge tracks are of poor quality and cannot handle speeds above 45km/hr in most sections. In this situation would it be better to upgrade the quality of the existing meter gauge and design a more comprehensive plan or re-gauge the network to standard gauge to match the the new mainline linking Nairobi to Mombasa since the track beds have to be redone anyways to increase the speed handling capability.

    Rushing to spend $15million to purchase used trainsets with a 200 passenger capacity and high floors to run commuter rail on a network with low platforms and in a city with a rapidly increasing metro population now at 7 million seems rather short sighted to me.

    Lagos is currently in the process of reviewing design contracts for the Red line and a monorail linking the airport to the Red line.
    Would rushing to build the red line to alleviate some traffic congestion now be better or waiting to plan for a more integrated infrastructure especially going to a unified 25KV AC voltage for both the red line and the intercity mainline that will share the same corridor and eliminating any monorail option.

  7. Henry

    I don’t think the piece necessarily says all long-term planning is bad, just that Durham put all its eggs into the light rail basket in a rather shortsighted move. At the end of the day, all the long-term-planning they had done would not have put a majority of employment or housing within reach of usable transit. We see this in other metros that put an emphasis on “build baby build” (e.g. Dallas, which has meh ridership despite one of the largest light rail networks in the country).

    Compare this to, say, Seattle, where there was a light rail line, but also long term planning, not necessarily around transit corridors, but enough to focus jobs and housing into dense, transit-friendly areas. Seattle spent most of its energy in the ’90s and ’00s building up a impressive (relative to the rest of the country) transit network mostly consisting of frequent local buses and express buses between hubs, some of which are on a half-hourly schedule throughout the day and on weekends. As a result it has now reached the point where it wants to spend money on more bus service hours but cannot due to a drivers shortage, and is one of the few metro areas in the US with growing transit ridership, and probably growing transit modeshare, and more importantly there is immense amounts of public and institutional support for more transit.

    • Owen Evans

      The planning of the Durham line was much closer to that of Seattle than that of Dallas. Within the City of Durham, they intentionally put the line where it would be most useful (rather than where it would be easiest) and got pretty big commitments for development and sprawl repair. But in the end, in a way, that proved to be the project’s downfall. It caused cost escalations and turf battles (with Duke and the railroad.)

      The Chapel Hill end was rather more compromised on the other hand, or to say it better, incomplete since Orange County basically didn’t have enough money to get it to the center of town.

    • Mike

      There was a driver shortage but the current problem is a lack of space in the bus bases. They’re planning another base but it won’t be open for several years. Two good things in Seattle are that over the past decade the number of jobs and apartments downtown increased but the number of cars didn’t, and the car mode share for downtown commutes is down to 30%. That’s because the region has invested heavily in express buses, light rail, commuter rail, and frequent buses to downtown. Outside downtown though it’s still majority cars. There are transit expansions in other areas, and overall ridership is up, so it’s better than the US average but still nowhere near Canadian cities.

      • Henry

        I think Seattle is poised for a huge transit boom once ST2 projects open, because the region is so uniquely constrained (extremely hilly topography, only one major north-south interstate on either side of the lake, really only two lake crossings). As a result of this light rail will be time competitive with driving on opening, which is not something you could say about a lot of light rail projects across the country. And on top of that four minute frequency in the core, and eight-minute frequency on the branches during the peak hour, will probably be one of the more aggressively frequent transit expansions in the country.

        A consistent 25 minute travel time from Westlake to Bellevue all the time will be a game changer. https://seattletransitblog.com/2015/08/14/blue-line-travel-times-in-2023/

      • Mike

        To the north and east, yes. Not to the south. The southern suburbs are further away and there are surface segments and a detour in between, so it will take an hour to Federal Way and longer to Tacoma, which is slower than the existing express buses and commuter rail. Transit fans warned those areas about that repeatedly, but they said it’s OK because they mostly want it to bring jobs and people to their cities and for a connection to the airport (which they think is necessary to attract employers). We’ll see how it goes.

    • Ross Bleakney

      Seattle has a lot going for it from a transit standpoint. The city has a long boom and bus history, and right now it is at the tail end of a large boom. The interesting thing is that the boom is in the city itself, and not the typical sprawl to the suburbs. As many people have moved into the city proper as have moved into the surrounding suburbs, which is striking given that the surrounding suburbs have a lot more land. Second, employment growth has also been in the city, as opposed to suburban office parks (this is part of a national trend, thank goodness). Third, the light rail line (which I keep calling a subway, because of the cost and grade separation) has finally built its most important piece (University of Washington to downtown Seattle). This should have been the first thing they built, but better late than never. The next section takes the train further into the university district, which will improve things dramatically as well. Fourth, the bus system is taking advantage of the light rail line to increase frequency. Fifth, voters in the city added more money for the buses, which means even more frequency. Bus routes that used to run every half hour now run every ten minutes. All of these things add up to a better system.

      There is still a lot more work to be done. The bus network is not a grid, and suburban transit (as mentioned) is not very good. The former will improve over time (especially as the train covers more of the city) but the latter may always be a problem. It is tough to cover a very sprawling area, especially when voters in that area are not interested in paying more money. For the most part, they want the buses only for commuting, and even then, primarily for commuting downtown. Things may improve in some suburban areas (such as the north and east) but I would expect transit share in the south to be low for a very long time.

    • Ross Bleakney

      I would say that Seattle took an iterative approach, then pursued a “build-baby-build” approach towards a dubious goal. The first thing Seattle built — and by far the most important thing — was a bus tunnel. This was designed to solve the biggest problem first. It worked, as buses no longer got stuck downtown (or at least, a lot of them didn’t). This has now been converted to a rail tunnel. In that regard, this iterative approach worked great.

      The original Sound Transit rail plans were very ambitious. The idea was to build a very long distance rail line (similar to BART and DART) except to areas that are far less populous. Light rail was chosen as the mode, but the costs (and in many ways the typical usage) resembled heavy rail. Instead of relatively small train cars nimbly cutting through city streets (but unfortunately being delayed by traffic) there are big trains running largely unimpeded. Unfortunately, the cost estimates were way too low, and they soon realized they couldn’t build what they wanted to build.

      This is when they took a “build-baby-build” (or a “just build something”) approach. The most cost effective line at that point would have been a train from the University of Washington to downtown Seattle. It is a short line, but with lots of density (and thus lots of riders). But a short line is not necessarily as impressive as miles of track, so they went instead with quantity over quality. I suppose any rail could be seen as an iterative approach, but with the most vital, most cost effective section not built (for many years) it was more just getting your foot in the door. They simply wanted to prove that the could build something, so that the provincial people in Seattle could behold light rail, in all its glory. Boom times and increased urbanization made it easier to expand, and finally build the pieces that most agencies would start with. Eventually it will go further, into BART range, which means that it will resemble BART (although on a smaller scale). Parts are obviously essential (service between San Fransisco and Oakland/Berkeley), parts of it aren’t (long distance extensions to suburban cities) while other parts of it (more stations in San Fransisco and Oakland) won’t be built for a very long time. Like BART, ridership will be low compared to surface transit (even extremely slow surface transit) mainly because it was focused on serving long distance trips, not the urban ones that drive ridership.

      • Henry

        I think it’s a bit more optimistic than BART/the Bay, because at least some of the suburban stations are both in conjunction with sprawl repair and coordination with large employers. Where Google and Facebook are far from CalTrain, we have towers springing up around light rail in Bellevue and Lynwood, and Microsoft is anchoring its campus redevelopment around the future light rail station in Redmond, and light rail was rerouted to Paine Field to serve the jobs and new commercial airport there.

        As far as more urban light rail is concerned, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the grumbling about the region’s traffic resulted in some revamp of the city monorail tax authority to be used for light rail (something currently illegal under state law), or some other source of city funding for transport.

        • Ross Bleakney

          It is a mix, of course. I think in general ST2 is fine. That is the plan that will extend light rail to Bellevue, Lynnwood and Federal Way. There aren’t as many stops in the city as there should (which is similar to BART) but it isn’t quite as bad. They only missed one key stop (First Hill) and that was because they panicked after earlier construction problems. Bellevue is relatively close, and fairly urban, with its own (big office) downtown. Service there makes a lot of sense, and was a given. Lynnwood is a stretch, but not that bad of a stretch. There will be some development there (although I wouldn’t call them towers), so it won’t be too bad (and it wasn’t that expensive, since they followed the freeway). Extending further south is a waste of money, as folks would be much better off with express buses (along with a switch from HOV2 to HOV3 on the freeway). It is just too far away and there is too little along the way (other than an airport, but you won’t have that many people at that one stop).

          While ST2 isn’t that bad, most of ST3 is a poorly thought out extension. Everett is too low density and too far away from Seattle for that light rail line to be anything but a classic underused, infrequent suburban line (similar to Sacramento Green Line). Tacoma is also too far away, and the line won’t even reach downtown Tacoma. When the commuter rail train runs, it will be faster. Outside of rush hour, the bus will be faster. Even the rare times when the light rail will be faster (e. g. when you miss the commuter train during rush hour) it will take about an hour and 15 minutes to get from a suburban Tacoma Station (the only one they will add) and downtown Seattle (the only major destination along the way). Issaquah to Kirkland is also a ridiculous rail line that will connect two low density suburbs (and not that well, either). Even the urban lines aren’t great. Ballard to downtown is the best, clearly, as it adds a couple downtown stops. But as it stands now, it will miss Ballard, and only skirt the edge of it, making riders take a bus to the station, wondering if their direct bus to downtown would have been better. West Seattle light rail is worse, as it will serve primarily as a bus intercept — with buses that currently go on the freeway and access downtown very quickly.

          All in all, it is very bad set of projects, that were based more on building miles of track rather than serve areas that have lots of people and ride transit. It will pass DART and be the longest light rail system in North America, and trail only New York and Mexico City in terms of mileage. Ridership per mile will be terrible. In fact, ridership per mile will actually go down with the additions, which is pretty much unheard of.

          The greater Seattle area is spending an enormous sum on light rail that will not be used by that many people. Way more people will continue to ride the bus, and transit share will barely edge upward.

  8. michael b

    Just looking at the USA’s transition from streetcar & interurbans to automobile, the pivotal moment seemed to be around 1905 when fares were locked in at 5 cents & the streetcars lost their monopolies on the roads they operated on, allowing trucks, cars, buses etc to operate commercially on the same right of ways. From then, it took about 60 years for streetcar to die off. Inflation after WWI combined with sticky 5 cent fares, meant the streetcar systems reached their peak around 1919. With post-WW2 inflation, it was the final nail in their coffin.

    The colossal failure of private streetcar created the once in a Century conditions for highway proponents to take over Right of Ways continent-wide including directly into nearly every American city center. It was the perfect mix of opportunity, grand thinkers, & flush post-war wealth. It might be defeatist, but I don’t see any great way to unwind it on a national scale in the US now.

    Eventually, I think DOTs will eventually be so defunded that transit proponents won’t have a problem obtaining ROWs & building whatever they want down them if they toss in a fresh coat of asphalt for the passenger car lanes. The question becomes when does that happen & what’s the capital funding scheme.

  9. Reedman Bassoon

    There is a difference between long-term planning and megaprojects. The idea of “independent utility” comes from this. If you are going to launch California High Speed Rail, you have to be able to build usable segments, because otherwise the contractors and civil servants will “dig a hole so big that there is no alternative to filling it in”, and costs will spiral by 20x.

  10. Ross Bleakney

    >> as is happening in Paris and Berlin and London and Stockholm and Vienna and Copenhagen, and the last three don’t even have that many more people than the Research Triangle, where the rail link in question is to be built.

    Wait, what??? Are you saying that Vienna and Copenhagen are similar to Raleigh–Durham–Chapel Hill? Seriously? A quick look at a census map of the area shows that Research Triangle has a population without any high density areas (https://arcg.is/1COyvj). A look at the employment map shows bigger clusters, but it is still fairly spread out (it isn’t Calgary). Without a center (of employment or population) — without density of any sort — a major investment in a new rail system is a bad idea. It won’t pay off. You pretty much have to work with what you have, which means the roads and existing rail ways. Improve the commuter rail and improve the bus network.

    All that being said, I agree with your overall point. But I think you have it backwards. Folks who are pushing for the light rail system don’t have a vision, other than the project itself. In other words, after you have blown your wad on this rail line, then what? Does it enable me to get where I want to go in the area, or will it — like so many other similar lines built in the U. S. — only be used by a handful of people, and thus have frequency lower than most buses?

    You are right in general. The iterative approach only makes sense in a handful of cases. You need a long term vision if you are going to build rail, for example. Seattle will struggle as a result of this, although I suppose you could argue that they always had a vision, but it was a stupid one. The point is, if you are going to build rail, then you should have an idea of what you eventually want to build, even if you can’t built it right away. A SkyTrain extension to UBC has been the vision for a long time — it is taking forever to build it (and even then it won’t go all the way to UBC by the next round) but the system is ready for it. The system is also ready for less cost effective projects (such as extensions further into the suburbs). In contrast, Seattle really isn’t ready for anything. Areas of downtown will remain without rail, and areas that look like Manhattan compared to anywhere in North Carolina will have buses stuck in traffic for the foreseeable future.

    But I digress. The point is, the iterative approach has its place, as long as you can agree that an investment in a corridor will pay off, regardless of what is added in the future. You don’t need to necessarily decide on a complete transit network, or know what the eventual network will be, but if you invest in, say, bus lanes on a major street, you want to make sure that such an investment isn’t obsolete after the next restructure. To use Seattle as an example again, they are investing a fair amount of money on BRT up Madison Avenue (https://tinyurl.com/y5r7pagn). It is the first BRT in the state, so far as I know. It involves not only the usual off-board payment and signal priority, but also buses running in their one lanes (not BAT lanes). To do this, they had to expand the street, buy buses with doors on both sides, and put stops in the middle of the street (so the buses could run in the inside lane). But if you look at a transit map of the area, it isn’t clear whether this is really the best choice: https://seattletransitmap.com/app/. From a population/employment density standpoint, it is great. But the street does not connect well with the subway, and it isn’t part of an obvious grid. It is a diagonal street in an area that largely has east-west, or north-south bus service. It is also an area that is overdue for a major restructure (to build something that resembles more of a grid). Yet despite all those failings, and all that uncertainly, I believe it will be worth it. There is simply too much density, and too few alternatives in the area for that project to fail. The project is expensive (although nowhere near as expensive as most light rail projects), but the buses are likely to popular for a very long time (if not forever) even if the bus network looks substantially different in the future.

    I could see the same approach being taken in the Research Triangle, which is what the article is getting at. It isn’t that the author has no vision, it is that the vision is different. He imagines a world where transit is fairly competitive with driving. Add bus lanes where they are needed, bit by bit. Add frequency, so that riders don’t have to wait forever. After you have addressed the major corridors, work on developing a better grid. This is a vision more appropriate for such a sprawling, low density area.

    • Mike

      “I suppose you could argue that they always had a vision, but it was a stupid one”

      It was always going to be as long as it is, because the goal was to connect the three historically-largest cities which are each 30 miles apart, plus Redmond which is 15 miles out. The stupid thing was choosing the wrong mode. They should have built two levels of rail: an urban light-rail network in Seattle, and heavy rail for the long-haul runs. But they didn’t consider that because they thought it would be duplicative expensive, so they tried a compromise middle ground like BART did. They chose light rail because it can go street-running, elevated, and underground — all three — and they intended a lot more surface segments like the previous American light rails. But as the segments went one by one through design, the community kept asking for grade separation and said they were willing to pay for it. So only the first segment ended up being half surface; the rest will be almost completey grade-separated. But because of the original expectation for more surface, they chose a train spec and track curves that are limited to 55 mph. So those were the stupid parts. As for Ross’s assessment that light rail is not necessary beyond Lynnwood and Federal Way and not cost-effective beyond that, I agree, but that’s not what the powers that be and the majority of the region wanted: they wanted a BART-like train to Everett and Tacoma.

      Another factor is the commuter rail on legacy BNSF tracks, and this may interest Pedestrian Obersvations readers given the recent articles about regional and intercity rail networks. An ironic thing is that both light rail and commuter rail go to the same endpoints but through different intermediate cities. The north commuter rail to Everett is a lost cause because the track is along the coast with small intermediate cities, while the bulk of the population is inland. But the south commuter rail to Tacoma is central and goes through larger cities than light rail will. It would have been perfect for Caltrain-like 30-60 minute frequency that might have been enough for the Tacoma area. But BNSF charges through the nose for track leases, so it was cost-prohibitive. (Plus we didn’t want to lose the freight commerce that’s a significant part of the economy, but that could have been consolidated on the parallel UP track.) How much is track cost from private railroads a hinderance to commuter rail in other cities?

      • Codithco

        Track cost effectively cancelled the RTD line from Denver to Boulder and Longmont.

        • adirondacker12800

          The tax assessors along the line have to have a little chat with the railroad.

      • Henry

        There’s also the factor that the bus tunnel was built with light rail in mind. I don’t think retrofitting the bus tunnel to somehow work with heavy rail would be viable.

        I’m not a local, but I’ve heard the only current at-grade segment in the Rainier Valley was actually supposed to be elevated but was brought at grade due to community opposition. And parts of East Link will still be at-grade.

  11. Pingback: Incrementalism in Infrastructure | Pedestrian Observations

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