I grew up in Tel Aviv and Singapore; subsequently lived in New York, Providence, Vancouver, and Stockholm; and currently live in Paris. I started out as a pure mathematician, with a side interest in urbanism and mass transit that is entirely unrelated to my work; I am now writing about public transit full-time, sometimes here, sometimes at the publications listed in a sidebar on the right. I’ve lived in enough countries that I tend to prefer cross-national comparisons to find the best way to run transportation and deal with other political issues. American political culture tends to be exceptionalist and shy away from such comparisons, and New York political culture even more so; to the extent I’ve said things others have not, it’s often because I was willing to look at what other cities around the first world do.
My email address is alon @ the URL of this blog.
I work for the national nonprofit Reconnecting America. We follow news and events relating to transit-oriented development with our Tracks email newsletter and our Half-Mile Circles blog.
Your post “High Costs Should not be an Excuse to Downgrade Projects” was included in the most recent Tracks newsletter.
We are putting together a list of people who would like to receive news about our efforts. Can we add your name and address?
More about Reconnecting America:
At Reconnecting America, we help transform promising ideas into thriving communities – where transportation choices make it easy to get from place to place, where businesses flourish, and where people from all walks of life can afford to live, work and visit.
Reconnecting America provides both the public and private sectors with an impartial, fact-based perspective on development-oriented transit and transit-oriented development, and seeks to reinvent the planning and delivery system for building regions and communities around transit and walking rather than solely around the automobile.
Our website is http://www.reconnectingamerica.org or http://www.ctod.org
I would like to sign up for the newsletter.:)
Goodness, if only I had known the existence of this blog, whose back catalog will give me many hours of delightful [and somewhat less political reading]. You seem to have an incredible understanding of the problems facing urban and transit development, however, like the math you study, I’m too undereducated to understand how little I’ve
understood about the topic.
It doesn’t hurt that you’ve been blessed to live in Manhattan, and I can only admire the outside perspective from Florida, where infrastructure is an afterthought because the land is cheap, the lawns are big, and everyone is too lazy but too drive.
Brilliant piece; I want to use it in our newsletter Destination:Freeedom.
We are the National Corridors Initiative, founded in 1989 to negotiate the release of the funds needed to complete the electrification the Northeast Corridor; our bi-partisan group was invited to the White House in 1990 and over three visits to the Bush I Office of Management and Budget 1990-1991 secured the release of $125 million authorized by Congress under President Jimmy Carter but blocked by the Reagan and Bush White Houses.
We succeeded, and the funds were released; the second year we got $155 million; the third $168 million, and so on until the project was completed in 1999, allowing 3 and 1/2 hour rail service Boston-New York, down from the previous 5-6. If you live in Providence then you know that Rhode Island’s Governor is Lincoln Chafee; he was my first executive director 23 years ago and is a strong rail advocate.
Reconnecting America was founded as The Great American Station Foundation by my Board member and later Chairman, and friend, John Robert Smith, who now heads it up as President (since 2010, I believe).
There are resources out there to win this war, but they must be coordinated and VOCAL. Welcome to the battle.
By the way, American Exceptionalism is real. It is an attitude not of smug superiority. Rather, it is a reservoir of inner strength, which allows us as a nation to re-invent ourselves, such as doing things like electing an African-American President who has the middle name Hussein, just seven years after people with very similar names blew up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and vowed to kill us all.
Chairman and CEO
The National Corridors Initiative
I live in New York, but am about to move to Providence. I’m kind of iffy about the investments made in the 1990s – the electrification and upgrades of the tracks north of New Haven were precious, but the Acela equipment is substandard, thanks to Congressional pressure to make money fast and FRA meddling with the standards.
The American exceptionalism I’m talking about is not an inner strength; it’s a not invented here attitude, preventing American transit agencies from learning about best practices abroad. Every country has this, but because Japan and Europe are already far ahead of the US in transit, their NIH issues aren’t as pressing. In my previous blog life, I did talk about Europe’s NIH issue with racism, but when it comes to transportation, there’s practically no local expertise in the US. The US is not reinventing itself; it’s doing infrastructure as poorly as ever.
I went to college in Providence, so i would be interested to hear what you have to say about their transportation system, such as it is. It is not as flat as other cities, like New York or Philadelphia, so it is not as easily bike-able, but still not unfriendly terrain to bikes.
Question for Alon: you’re a pure mathematician–does that mean that all this transit analysis is done on the side? This isn’t your job? If not, WOW, you’ve always had great analysis on transit topics; analysis that is pretty grounded in fact and very deep (certainly not something you could do quickly). Well done.
Agreed on your American “not invented here” attitude. As a countryman who has traveled to many foreign countries, it is easy to be objective about my own country, as I can see it clearly through the eyes of people from elsewhere. I’m preparing to embark on a multi-city photo shoot of TOD’s around USA and Europe with emphasis on best-practices high-quality transit design. Most of that is in Europe and I’m looking to de-emphasize location and instead point out through before-and-after photoshop manipulations how various American cities can be enhanced. I want to stop resistance to sensible planning before it starts by presenting ideas by way of captivating imagery and compelling narrative.
Hi Christopher, have you already started or completed this photo project? As a person who is interested in sustainable urban geography myself, this is a great idea and I’d love to see it or even help if you need.
You can maybe save yourself a lot of traveling with Google Street View.
Alon, please contact me. I would like to meet with you.
You are a heavily biased cynic, and it shows in your writing. All of your work is negative and berating without offering much else. Sorry.
It is impossible for anyone to be unbiased. If you find the truth to be negative then live in a lie. I do not agree with everything Alon says but I find his point of view causes me to think more critically about. I always had problems with the idea that “end point anchors” at both ends of a line were good but I could not figure out why. Reading Alon’s article on this and on other topics has given me a different perspective that causes me to re-think my own biases and that is good. Keep up the good work.
hey, i found out about your blog by googling “average urban transit construction cost” and I found your blog very interesting and informative. One thing I really like most is that your blog reviews projects from all over the world.
For I myself, I am an engineer with deep interest in urban transit and currently involved in Thomson line in Singapore. As an Indonesian, I find that Indonesia, esp. Jakarta should learn a lot from Singapore on urban transit system. Any chance you are reviewing the latest Jakarta MRT? Keep updating !:)
I recently discovered your public transportation blog and like your way of thinking.
Edmonton (as you know, since I saw reference in one post) is currently planning expansion of its LRT. A number of groups are very opposed to the river crossing of the proposed SE LRT route since it destroys a designated natural area of the river valley and the most heavily used pedestrian/cycle corridor in the downtown-area river valley, as well as involves huge negative impact on a number of neighborhoods (primarily Chinatown, but also two river valley neighborhoods) and businesses (the 100 year-old Edmonton Ski Club, on the riverbank facing downtown will be at risk of folding).
I helped set up a citizen’s group voicing these concerns last summer; you can find us on Facebook as “Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge.” One thing that seems to have been lost in this whole project is that public transportation cannot be simply an engineering concern, because “function” is not the same thing as “livability.” I will paste below an email I sent to Edmonton city council a few months ago on this issue. I thought you might be interested in knowing about the problems we’re having figuring out LRT expansion in Edmonton, and I would be appreciative of any advice you might have for our group, and our city. Since writing the email below our group has come up with an alternative route that involves no tunnel, does involve some elevated track, reduces impact on Chinatown and the river valley, and makes use of an existing vehicle corridor.
Dear Mayor Iveson and Councillors,
Earlier this week, I was invited to attend a conference on “Building Healthy Cities” at the University of Alberta. Councillor Esslinger was also there for part of the day, as was Dorian Wandzura of the Transportation department.
The point that most resonated with me from the conference was that cities need to focus not on “transit-oriented development,” but rather on “people-oriented development.”
“Transportation” is not the same thing as “sustainability” or “livability”; it is only part of the equation, the engineering/function part. And the problem that arises from confusing smaller-picture transportation with larger-picture livability and sustainability is this: unanticipated, multiple, long-term costs. These costs exist not only in terms of land use and infrastructure, but also physical and mental health. These are all enormous costs that increase exponentially, and wise governments at all levels recognize the bigger picture to avoid them.
While the City perceives the proposed new Valley Line LRT bridge as a sufficient replacement for the Cloverdale footbridge because it will have a pedestrian platform, this is not true. It will only replace the footbridge functionally; it represents a huge loss in terms of social use and the environment – things not considered by transportation engineers because it is not their job to consider them, but certainly part of the bridge’s true value because they greatly impact livability and sustainability.
The footbridge is the only non-vehicle crossing in the central river valley, and it offers a unique experience: it is quiet, it is open to the sky, and it connects gardens and natural places at both ends. It is for these aesthetic reasons – tranquility, beauty, closeness to nature – that it attracts so many pedestrian commuters, runners, cyclists, dog-walkers, downtown office workers on their lunch break, families from across the city, tourists, photographers, bird-watchers and musicians. The footbridge encourages people to be active, and makes them happy through both social interactions and connection with nature. Its popularity means it is safe, and this further increases use. Urban planners call this “a special place” because of its complex layers of use.
People do not use or care about the University LRT/pedestrian bridge in the same way.
It is folly to ignore true costs. In order for the SE LRT to be sustainable, it must replace cars, not city’s “special places” and green space. (And trying to rebuild this loss with a $100 million-plus urban beach will only exacerbate the problem because 1. the area floods 2. people feel Louise McKinney Park was best natural, and the more the City builds in the Park, the more artificial it feels and the less it actually attracts people.)
So many people across the city – 1,063 city-wide supporters of Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge, plus the communities of Chinatown, Riverdale, Cloverdale and Strathearn, request that City Council show wisdom in considering more than just engineering priorities in planning Edmonton. We request that City Council recognize the true costs of this project, and reconsider utilizing an existing vehicle corridor (such as the Low Level corridor) for the Valley Line LRT.
so everybody else should go sit in traffic so you can take a walk in the park?
The natural beauty of a city is just as important as having decent public transit
I stumbled into your blog, and I really liked some of the ideas you had regarding MBTA in Boston. In particular, I liked the following two:
“Relocation of stations to walkable urban areas, away from park-and-rides that only serve to extend the suburbs into Boston rather than extending Boston into the suburbs
– An end to outbound extensions, such as the ongoing project to extend the Providence Line to Wickford Junction, and instead a shift toward infill stations, especially in underserved Cambridge and Somerville.”
If you haven’t been in the area since your post a few years ago, here are some somewhat hopeful updates.
As someone who grew up just outside of the city (in Everett) and briefly worked as a planner in state government, I’ve seen way too much inertia and other forces against some of these things, unfortunately. As far as I have seen, the commuter rail has had a disproportionate level of focus (no matter how underused some of these are), the edges of the city neglected, and the buses a ridiculously awful, orphaned service that simply does not care about its riders (The unwashed poor take buses, the middle and professional classes take the commuter rail, and everyone takes the subway.) Also, people don’t want anything built anywhere. Every new development is assumed car-dependent, and people scream “but what about the traffic? It’s awful as it is!”
If you remember much about the northern edge of Boston, you’ve seen how dysfunctional transit is at the confluence of the Mystic and the Malden Rivers (where Boston, Somerville, Everett, and Medford meet)- in between Sullivan Station and Wellington Station. There is much redevelopment and potential redevelopment, and that is hopeful, but some of it is wrongheaded, in my mind. Firstly, there is a proposed Wynn casino on the Everett shore. Also, there is a revedeveloped Assembly Row set of shops. Unfortunately, the casino will be car-centric, and the Assembly Row area is partially so as well (clothes shops, department stores, mixed in with a movie /cinema, and ice cream/ coffee shops. Lastly, on the Medford parcels at Wellington station, there is a slight nod towards TOD, with the construction of an apartment complex and a big gym.
The good news is that they are about to complete a dedicated MBTA stop just next to the Assembly row development. The trick, as far as I can see, is to get a lot of the student population in Somerville to start frequenting that area. Frankly, only downtown, Cambridge, Somerville, and the BC/BU/Harvard parts of the city are known/frequented by the students/new entrants of the city.
Also, outside of an MBTA yard and a gas station on one side of Rt 99, that whole side has a ton of underdeveloped warehouses that are slowly being reused or razed for apartments.
It will be a long slog before that edge of the city is de-industrialized and made less horrifically ugly and car-dependent, but these are small steps.
Thanks again for your interesting blog.
I’ve read about Assembly Square, but I’m less familiar with that part of the area, to be honest. My conception of Boston was very much informed by where the geek community lives, which is predominantly in Cambridge around the Red Line and in other areas with easy Cambridge access, like Watertown and Arlington.
And yeah, there’s a huge problem with car-centric thinking. It goes all the way up to the state level: a Winchester TOD proposal went nowhere because of state rules (link). Cambridge is better than the rest on matters like parking minimums, and has had more residential growth than the suburbs recently, but even so, there should be a lot more development around Kendall, Central, and Harvard Squares than there currently is. The people I mentioned who live in Watertown and Arlington live there because they’ve been priced out of Cambridge.
This also affects the commuter rail. The car-oriented parts of it get a lot of attention, e.g. the South Coast boondoggle. The urban parts either don’t get any attention (Cambridge, Somerville, NSRL, electrification) or get the wrong kind of it (40-minute headways on Fairmount). This is what I try to talk about in my Improving the MBTA posts. The MBTA is only partially useful as an intercity service and not really useful as urban service, and functions as a longer-range shuttle from parking lots to Downtown Boston – or not-so-downtown Boston, in the case of the North Station lines.
You lived in Providence ? Heaven help us, a once great city which threw away a wonderful historical heritage of buildings in favor of parking lots, allowed one of the oldest train stations in America to burn to the ground (1840’s) as well as a flagship 100 year old landmark block sized Dept. store (The Outlet).
Your ideas are interesting but staid. The problems of the 21st century will NOT be solved by ideas from the previous century. THAT is why I like Elon Musk’s vision. THAT is what it takes to break through the preconceptions and misconceptions of the past which are sabotaging our future.
Elon Musk’s vision would be a lot nicer if it weren’t completely unhinged from physics and civil engineering. Sometimes, staid is right. Wheels are round and have been round since they were invented; it’s better than to reinvent the wheel, as these entrepreneurs are wont to.
Alon, I love your blog and your analysis, but there’s really never anything from my home state on here. I’m from Gainesville, a town in Florida with the forth-largest university in the U.S., which is top 10 in cycling commuting, and which regularly makes stupid transit (and other) decisions. Though I wouldn’t expect to see posts about my town in here, there’s nothing on SunRail, All Aboard Florida, The worse-than-100-years-ago state of intercity passenger rail (Amtrak) in Florida, and maybe two mentions of FHSR. Considering South Florida is America’s 4th largest urbanized Area, and Florida is the U.S.’ 3rd most populous state, why the total lack of mention?
I talked about All Aboard Florida when it was first announced! Since then, some construction news, but nothing really pivotal.
SunRail is a hagfish. Sorry. Yet another American commuter line with the daily ridership of a single lightly used subway station.
Miami is an interesting case of a city with close to zero usable legacy commuter rail infrastructure (it has two mainlines, vs. many more in Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston), but I’m really not familiar with it enough to actually write about what this means.
that’s the kind of ridership you can expect in a metro area the size of Orlando that grew from being a small town to a metro area after 1950.
Yeah, Sun-Rail does have low daily ridership compared to established subway systems with a century of history and developmental impact. It But from everything I’ve read it did really well at cost control, and its ridership per mile is is pretty impressive (within the general crapshow of North American commuter rail ridership) considering it’s in a metro where there’s been auto-oriented development exclusively.
Is your focus pretty much only in high-demand systems which fill holes in existing world-class systems (e.g. 2nd ave subway)?
One of the developments (honestly, for South Floridians, the one with the most buzz) related to AAF is Tri-Rail doing “coastal link”, expanding the system to AAF track and near where people actually live and work. So that’s kind of interesting.
I also wonder what your thoughts are on the South Miami-Dade Busway, whether it is a solution which fits the situation or whether it would have made more sense as tri-rail expansion?
I’m trying to send you an email but it does not go thru.
Why is it that trains usually pass under water (tunnels) but roads usually travel over bridges?
I’d say that trains pass under water mainly in urban centers, where they are usually underground in the first place. Trains that run above ground in the city to my knowledge always cross water above ground – for example, the Brooklyn els crossed into Manhattan on bridges. The opposite is actually more common: the Manhattan Bridge connects to underground lines at both ends, the Moscow Metro crosses the Moscow River on bridges, the Boston Red Line crosses the Charles above ground, and the Stockholm Metro’s Red and Green Lines cross from Slussen to T-Centralen above ground but are underground at both ends.
The two Thames crossings on the DLR are both tunnels while the rest of the system is above ground. Mainline examples of rail tunnels (for predominantly above-ground railways) parallel to road bridges include the Severn Tunnel, Marmaray, Rotterdam Centraal-Rotterdam Zuid, and the Detroit-Windsor freight rail tunnel. I think Max Wyss below has the right answer for these.
I wouldn’t class Marmaray that way – it’s a longer tunnel, with trains running under all of Fatih.
»Mainline examples of rail tunnels (for predominantly above-ground railways) parallel to road bridges include the Severn Tunnel, […] and the Detroit-Windsor freight rail tunnel.«
The Severn Tunnel was built between 1873 and 1886, the nearby (old) Severn Bridge opened in 1966.
The Detroit-Windsor rail tunnel was constructed 1906–1910, and the Ambassador Bridge opened in 1929.
Maybe in these cases, technical progress between the construction periods has something to do with it.
Road tunnels are much more expensive to build and to operate than (not so long) rail tunnels.
The bores of road tunnels have to be bigger, and even for quite short tunnels, lighting and ventilation is a must. Whereas a rail tunnel does not need ventilation (with electric operation), and lighting can be much less, as it is used for emergencies only. Not so long tunnels (up to maybe 4 to 5 km) can be single bore for a double track.
steel-on-steel trains generally need more gradual grades than rubber-on-concrete vehicles. You might not need to go as deep to get clearance under a waterway that sees heavy marine traffic as you would have to go above it. Enormous container ships might have a draft of 60 feet whereas they might require an overhead clearance of over 200 feet.
The strength and stiffness required for a railroad bridge, especially freight rail bridges, make them more expensive than road bridges of a similar length and width. The cost of tunnels does not depend on the weight of the vehicles using them.
A few years ago you wrote about the Tel Aviv light rail plan. Since then there have been many changes, including the decision to shelve half the lines and replace them with an actual fully grade separated, heavy rail metro. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tel_Aviv_Metro and image in http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4769075,00.html )
It would be interesting to hear your views on this new plan.
So, the actual lines they’re proposing aren’t terrible… though the north-south line really needs to be folded into the Green Line. It just looks like an “oops, let’s start again” moment that falls between the chairs of completely scrapping the old plans and just adding new lines on top of the plan. The little factsheet about metros vs. light rail is also kind of lolzy: no, there is no way of measurement in which subways go 90 km/h and light rail lines 60 underground and 20 on the surface. 20 is the average speed on the surface and not the top speed (which is 50, same as the speed limit), and modern light rail vehicles are capable of the same maximum speed as a subway in the grade-separated portions, 80-100 km/h. The Finance Ministry is right that driverless metro is better than light rail, but it can sell this without using wrong numbers.
In other words, if Israel Katz listened to me (lol), I’d tell him to come up with plans to later convert the Red Line to full driverless metro (with tunnels under Yefet and not under Jerusalem, for fuck’s sake), and build the Green Line as a 100% grade-separated driverless system, with the northern and southern tails taking over the new plans for the north-south line. I might make other recommendations about the Green Line, such as routing it a bit differently in South Tel Aviv in order to hit Central Bus Station and HaBima, but I’m not 100% sure this is easy – the part of the Green Line going under the Red Line near HaMasger is being build simultaneously with the Red Line because it’s cheaper to build the interchange station in one go.
I will try looking at this more carefully and coming up with a more concrete plan.
Hello Mr. Levy,
I recently discovered your blog and will be following it.
I’d like to ask you to consider doing something about your hard-to-read combination of small text, sans-serif font, and low-contrast grey color?
San Francisco Muni Metro rider
Where do you see gray color? At least on my machine it renders as black on white.
I’m seeing it on the main body text. Seems to be the same on both Safari & Chrome. I’ll email a screenshot snippet to the email address listed above.
I am writing a research paper on Hyperloop. Would it be possible to speak to you sometime this week on this topic?
Hello Mr. Levy,
I recently discovered your blog and I found your articles really interesting.
I am doing a study on the future of the freight.
Would it be possible to speak to you on this topic?
I’m an urban designer in NYC and have begin following your twitter account with our office one (@one_arch_urb).
We have been working on the design initiative for the Fourth Regional Plan (RPA), specifically on their proposal for the Triboro commuter line. I thought you might find our project interesting https://4c.rpa.org/corridors/city
I enjoy your work and posts. Someone else on this page has mentioned your hard-to-read font but it didn’t seem to draw much of a reaction. I wanted to echo that poster’s comments, your blog is uniquely hard to read amongst practically every other blog. The issue is a combination of a very thin font weight (Helvetica Neue 300), a relatively small size (15px), and a generally poor font for body copy (Helvetica Neue) in that order of importance, with the font-weight being dramatically more problematic than the other 2.
This isn’t a subjective thing, it’s objectively a challenge to read your posts because of the font and I imagine it’s artificially limiting your audience somewhat.
You may want to explore system fonts to maintain the somewhat neutral, utilitarian appearance, while increasing your legibility dramatically. https://css-tricks.com/snippets/css/system-font-stack/
Cheers, and apologies for bringing a different wonk to a wonky site.
My last comment got “Sorry, this comment could not be posted” error, It has no links, so I’m not sure what to do to get it posted. It doesn’t have any links and nothing inflammatory, so can you help me troubleshoot this? My many other comments sent through just fine with same email.
Weird… if you still have the text, can you try again, and if it fails, email it to me? I have no idea what’s happening, I checked the spam filter and there was nothing of yours there.
I enjoy reading your blog – very insightful and educational! I’d love to hear your thoughts related to WMATA’s Blue/Orange/Silver Capacity & Reliability Study (BOS Study) in a future blog post (https://www.wmata.com/initiatives/plans/BOS-Study.cfm#main-content). I’ve taken WMATA’s survey and pointed out your blog post dated 12/29/2017 to them. I have no doubt that you’d have some interesting things to share. Thank you in advance and keep up the great writing!
Just trying to get notification of new articles. I am a layperson, avid cyclist and armchair transportation policy critic. I was really glad to see your analysis of the new York subway covid19 claims
Check this development in San Francisco Bay Area. Is is price tag high for what is a diesel burner train running on tracks shared with freight trains?
[Rescued from spamfilter]
It costs more per km than greenfield HSR does and the projected cos per rider is too high as well.
I am a transit enthusiast and was lucky enough to have a dissertation I wrote on how phase 2 of the Second Avenue Subway in NYC published last year on Vanschnookenraggen.com.
If I send that to you, along with another paper I wrote about an improved hypothetical passenger link between Manhattan and LaGuardia Airport, would you be interested in reading them?
Great! I will send them to you in the next few days.
Hi Alon. Did you receive my essays? What did you think of them?