American progressive media is talking about the possibility of a Green New Deal, which involves spending money in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So far details are scant, and most likely no real plan is likely to emerge for a number of years, since the proposal is pushed by the Democratic base, which is no more supportive of cooperation with President Trump than I am. Because the plan is so early, people are opining about what should go in it. My purpose in this post is to explain what I think the main priorities should be, and to leave to others the politics of how to package them.
The primacy of transportation
The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation, electricity generation, and industry. In the US this is in descending order, transportation having just overtaken power generation; the reduction in coal burning and the collapse in solar power production costs are such that in the long term, electricity generation should be viewed as a solved problem in the long term. Lingering issues with storage and base load are real, but the speed of progress is such that ordinary taxes on carbon should be enough to fix whatever is left of the problem.
Transportation is the exact opposite. American transportation emissions fell in the 2007-8 oil price spike and ensuing economic crisis but are now increasing again. Newer cars have higher fuel efficiency, but Americans are buying bigger cars and driving more. Electric cars, the favored solution of people who think spending $50,000 on a new car is reasonable, are still a niche luxury market and have trouble scaling up. Scratch an American futurist who looks exclusively at electric cars and denigrates mass transit and you’ll wound a solipsist who looks for excuses to avoid the humiliation of having to support something where other countries lead and the US lags.
The upshot is that the primary (but not the only) focus of any green push has to be expansion of public transportation. This includes ancillary policies for urban redevelopment and livable streets, which have the dual effects of buttressing public transit and reducing residential emissions through higher-density living. Overall, this turns any such program into a large public works project.
Spend money right
It’s paramount to make sure to avoid wasting money. A large infrastructure program would run into an appreciable fraction of federal spending; money is always a constraint, even when the goal is to spend funds on economic stimulus. The first lesson here is to keep construction costs under control. But an equally fundamental lesson is to make sure to spend money on transit expansion and not other things:
Don’t spend money on roads
A large majority of American public spending on transportation is on roads. Adding in subsidies for cars makes the proportion go even higher. It reflects current travel patterns, but if the goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of driving, the government can’t keep pumping money into road infrastructure. Accept that in developed countries the generally useful roads have already been built, and future construction just induces people to suburbanize further and drive longer distances.
Congress spends transportation money in multi-year chunks. The most recent bill passed in 2015 for five years, totaling $300 billion, of which $50 billion went to public transit and $200 billion went to highways. Raiding the road fund should be the primary source of additional transit funding: most of the line workers and engineers can build either, and even the physical act of building a freeway is not too different from that of building a high-speed railway. In contrast, outside of a deep recession, increasing total spending on transportation infrastructure requires hiring more workers, leading to large increases in costs as the program runs up against the limit of the available construction labor in the country.
$60 billion a year on public transit is a decent chunk of money for a long-term program, especially with expected state matches. Over the next decade it would be $600 billion, and around a trillion with state and local matches, if they are forthcoming (which they may not be because of how political incentives are lined up). That is, it’d a decent chunk of money if the federal government understands the following rule:
Fund expansion, not maintenance or operations
The sole legitimate source of regular budgeting for public transit is regular spending at the relevant level of government, which is state or local in the United States. Outside infusions of money like federal spending are bad government, because they incentivize deferring maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then crying poverty when it is generous. Amtrak did just that in the 2000s: faced with pressure from the Bush administration to look profitable for future privatization, Amtrak fired David Gunn, who wouldn’t defer maintenance, and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman; then in the economic crisis and the stimulus, it discovered a multi-billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, permitting it to ask for money without having to show any visible results.
If the federal government credibly commits to not funding state of good repair backlogs or normal replacement, and to penalizing agencies that defer maintenance and giving them less money for expansion, it can encourage better behavior. Unlike ongoing maintenance, capital expansion is not necessary for continued operations, and thus if funding dries up and a transit agency stops expanding, there will not be problems with service cancellation, slow zones, frequency-ridership spirals, and other issues familiar to New Yorkers in the 1970s or Washingtonians today.
One potential way to change things is to federally fund expansion without expecting much if any local match, provided the agency commits to spending the required operating funds on running the service in question. This separation of federal and local responsibility also reduces the political incentives to grandstand by rejecting federal money in order to make the president look bad.
Build the rail lines that are appropriate
Each region in the US should be getting transit expansion money in rough proportion to its population. However, the meaning of transit depends on the local and regional geography:
- In big cities it means rapid transit expansion: new lines for the New York City Subway, the Chicago L, etc. In somewhat smaller cities with light rail-based systems it means light rail expansion, which may also involve upgrading at-grade light rail to full rapid transit: Dallas is considering a downtown tunnel for its light rail network and Los Angeles is already building one, and those could lead to upgrading capacity elsewhere on the system to permit longer trains.
- In suburbs and some smaller cities with large mainline rail networks, it means commuter rail. It’s especially valuable in the Northeast and secondarily in the Midwest and the odd older Southern city: cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati don’t really have compelling corridors for greenfield urban rail, but do have interesting S-Bahn corridors.
- In periurban and rural areas, it means longer-range regional rail, transitioning to intercity rail in lower-density areas. In some smaller metro areas, it means actual intercity rail to bigger cities. Examples include Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, both of which can be connected with Denver, and Hans-Joachim Zierke’s proposed regional rail line for Medford, Oregon.
I focus on rail and not buses for two simple reasons: rail has higher capital and lower operating costs, so it’s more relevant for a capital program, and rail gets higher ridership for reasons including better right-of-way quality and better ride quality.
Transmit knowledge of best practices
The federal government has the ability to assimilate best practices for both limiting construction costs and designing good transit networks. Local governments can learn the same, but for the most part they don’t care. Instead they run their transit systems in manage-the-decline mode, only occasionally hearing about something done in London, hardly the best-run European transit city.
The best practices for network design are especially important given the magnitude of the program. The US is not spending $60 billion nationwide a year on transit expansion. The NTD says annual spending on capital among the top 50 American transit agencies was $14.6 billion as of 2016 (source, PDF-p. 11), and a lot of that (e.g. most of the MTA’s $3.5 billion capital expenditure) is the black holes that are state of good repair and normal replacement. $60 billion a year apportioned by population is on the order of $2 billion for New York City annually, which is $20 billion over 10 years, and the city doesn’t necessarily know how to spend that money even at today’s construction costs, let alone rational construction costs.
At least New York has an internal bank of enthusiasts at the MTA and at shadow agencies like the RPA who have ideas for how to spend this money. Smaller cities for the most part don’t. Does Cleveland have any idea what it would do with $5 billion over ten years for regionwide transit expansion? Does Tampa? The federal government has to play an educational role in giving regions sample zoning codes for TOD, network design guidelines, and procurement guidelines that help reduce costs.
Start planning now
A large infrastructure bill planned for 2021 has to be planned now. Its proponents do not intend for it to be a regular jobs program based on existing local wishlists: they intend for it to represent a shift in national priorities, which means that each item of spending has to be planned in advance, mostly from scratch. It means the political work of aligning various interest groups toward the same goal has to start early, which seems to be what the proponents are doing; even the name Green New Deal evokes progressive nostalgia for olden days before neoliberalism.
But alongside the political work, there must be good technical work. Regional planning agencies have to be aware this may be coming and have to have solid ideas for how they’d like to spend a few billion dollars over the decade. Simultaneously, organs including federal offices like the GAO, transit agencies, shadow agencies, and thinktanks have to learn and transmit a culture of good operating and capital practices. A government that plays a bigger role in the economy or in society has to become more competent; managerial competence is required for any program that allocates money with any precision, and very good cost control is a must to make sure the available budget goes to a green transition and isn’t wasted on red tape.
Six and a half years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was going to revise its passenger train regulations. The old regulations required trains to be unusually heavy, wrecking the performance of nearly every piece of passenger rolling stock running in the United States. Even Canada was affected, as Transport Canada’s regulations mirrored those south of the border. The revision process came about for two reasons: first, the attempt to apply the old rules to the Acela trains created trains widely acknowledged to be lemons and hangar queens (only 16 out of 20 can operate at any given time; on the TGV the maximum uptime is 98%), and second, Caltrain commissioned studies that got it an FRA waiver, which showed that FRA regulations had practically no justification in terms of safety.
The new rules were supposed to be out in 2015, then 2016, then 2017. Then they got stuck in presidential administration turnover, in which, according to multiple second-hand sources, the incoming Republican administration did not know what to do with a new set of regulations that was judged to have negative cost to the industry as it would allow more and lower-cost equipment to run on US tracks. After this limbo, the new rules have finally been published.
What’s in the new regulations?
The document spells out the main point on pp. 13-20. The new rules are similar to the relevant Euronorm. There are still small changes to the seats, glazing, and emergency lighting, but not to the structure of the equipment. This means that unmodified European products will remain illegal on American tracks, unlike the situation in Canada, where the O-Train runs unmodified German trains using strict time separation from freight. However, trains manufactured for the needs of the American market using the same construction techniques already employed at the factories in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden should not be a problem.
In contrast, the new rules are ignoring Japan. The FRA’s excuse is that high-speed trains in Japan run on completely dedicated tracks, without sharing them with slower trains. This is not completely true – the Mini-Shinkansen trains are built to the same standards as the Shinkansen, just slightly narrower to comply with the narrower clearances on the legacy lines, and then run through to legacy lines at lower speed. Moreover, the mainline legacy network in Japan is extremely safe, more so than the Western European mainline network.
On pp. 33-35, the document describes a commenter who most likely has read either my writings on FRA regulations or those of other people who made the same points in 2011-2, who asked for rules making it possible to import off-the-shelf equipment. The FRA response – that there is no true off-the-shelf equipment because trains are always made for a specific buyer – worries me. The response is strictly speaking true: with a handful of exceptions for piggybacks, including the O-Train, orders are always tailored to the buyer. However, in reality, this tailoring involves changes within certain parameters, such as train width, that differ greatly within Europe. Changes to parts that are uniform within Europe, such as the roofing, may lead to unforeseen complications. I don’t think the cost will be significant, but I can’t rule it out either, and I think the FRA should have been warier about this possibility.
The final worry is that the FRA states the cost of a high-speed train is $50 million, in the context of modification costs; these are stated to be $300,000 for a $50 million European high-speed trainset and $4.7 million for a Japanese one. The problem: European high-speed trainsets do not cost $50 million. They cost about $40 million. Japanese sets cost around $50 million, but that’s for a 16-car 400-meter trainsets, whereas European high-speed trainsets are almost always about 200 meters long, no matter how many cars they’re divided into. If the FRA is baking in cost premiums due to protectionism or bespoke orders, this is going to swamp the benefits of Euronorm-like regulations.
But cost concerns aside, the changes in the buff strength rules are an unmitigated good. The old rules require trainsets to resist 360-945 metric tons of force without deformation (360 for trains going up to 200 km/h, 945 beyond 200 km/h), which raises their mass by several tons per cars – and lightweight frames require even more extra mass. The new ones are based on crumple zones using a system called crash energy management (CEM), in which the train is allowed to deform as long as the deformation does not compromise the driver’s cab or the passenger-occupied interior, and this should not require extra train mass.
How does it affect procurement?
So far, the new rules, though telegraphed years in advance, have not affected procurement. With the exception of Caltrain, commuter railroads all over the country have kept ordering rolling stock compliant with the old rules. Even reformers have not paid much attention. In correspondence with Boston-area North-South Rail Link advocates I’ve had to keep insisting that schedules for an electrified MBTA must be done with modern single-level EMUs in mind rather than with Metro-North’s existing fleet, which weighs about 65 metric tons per car, more than 50% more than a FLIRT per unit of train length.
It’s too late for the LIRR to redo the M9, demanding it be as lightweight as it can be. However, New Jersey Transit’s MultiLevel III is still in the early stages, and the railroad should scrap everything and require alternate compliance in order to keep train mass (and procurement cost) under control.
Moreover, the MBTA needs new trains. If electrification happens, it will be because the existing fleet is so unreliable that it becomes attractive to buy a few EMUs to cover the Providence Line so that at least the worst-performing diesels can be retired. Under no circumstance should these trains be anything like Metro-North’s behemoths. The trains must be high-performance and as close as possible to unmodified 160 km/h single-level regional rail rolling stock, such as the DBAG Class 423, the Coradia Continental, the Talent II, or, yes, the FLIRT.
Metra is already finding itself in a bind. It enjoys its antediluvian gallery cars, splitting the difference between one and two decks in a way that combines the worst of both worlds; first-world manufacturers have moved on, and now Metra reportedly has difficulty finding anyone that will make new gallery cars. Instead, it too should aim at buying lightly modified European trains. These should be single-level and not bilevel, because bilevels take longer to unload, and Chicago’s CBD-dominant system is such that nearly all passengers would get off at one station, Millennium Station at the eastern edge of the Loop, where there are seven terminating tracks and (I believe) four approach tracks.
Ultimately, on electrified lines, the new rules permit trains that are around two thirds as heavy as the existing EMUs and have about the same power output. Substantial improvements in train speed are possible just from getting new equipment, even without taking into account procurement costs, maintenance costs, and electricity consumption. Despite its flaws, the new FRA regulation is positive for the industry and it’s imperative that passenger railroads adapt and buy better rolling stock.
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.
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.
I did a Patreon poll last month with three options, all about development and transit: CBDs and job concentration in middle-income cities (e.g. auto-oriented Bangkok and Istanbul don’t have transit-oriented Shanghai’s CBD formation), dense auto-oriented city neighborhoods (e.g. North Tel Aviv), and transit-oriented low-density suburbia. This is the winning option.
In every (or almost every) city region, there’s a clear pattern to land use and transportation: the neighborhoods closer to the center have higher population density and lower car use than the ones farther away. Moreover, across city regions, there is such a strong negative correlation between weighted density and auto use that exceptions like Los Angeles are notable. That said, the extent of the dropoff in transit use as one moves outward into suburbia is not the same everywhere, and in particular there are suburbs with high transit use. This post will discuss which urban and transportation policies are likely to lead such suburbs to form, in lieu of the more typical auto-oriented suburbs.
What is a suburb?
Definitions of suburbia differ across regions. Here in Paris, anything outside the city’s 1860 limits is the suburbs. The stereotypical banlieue is in history, urban form, and distance from the center a regular city neighborhood that just happens to be outside the city proper for political reasons. It is hardly more appropriate to call any part of Seine-Saint-Denis a suburb than it is to call Cambridge, Massachusetts a suburb of Boston.
So if Seine-Saint-Denis is not a suburb, what is? When I think of suburbia, my prototype is postwar American white flight suburbs, but stripped of their socioeconomic context. The relevant characteristics are,
- Suburbs developed at a time when mass motorization was widespread. In the US, this means from around 1920 onward in the middle class and slightly later in the working class; in the rest of the developed world, the boundary ranges from the 1920s to the 1960s depending on how late they developed. Note that many stereotypical suburbs were founded earlier, going back even to the 19th century, but grew in the period in question. Brookline is famous for refusing annexation to Boston in 1873, but its fastest development happened between 1910 and 1930, straddling the 1920 limit – and indeed in other respects it’s borderline between a rich suburb and rich urban neighborhood as well.
- Suburbs have low population density, typical of single-family housing. Aulnay-sous-Bois, at 5,100 people per km^2, is too dense, but not by a large margin. Beverly Hills, which has mansions, has 2,300, and Levittown, New York, probably the single best-known prototype of a suburb, has 2,900. The urban typology can mix in apartments, but the headline density can’t be dominated by apartments, even missing middle.
- Suburbs are predominantly residential. They can have distinguished town centers, but as broad regions, they have to have a significant number of commuters working in the city. This rules out low-density central cities like Houston and Dallas (although their individual neighborhoods would qualify as suburbs!). It also rules out Silicon Valley as a region, which represents job sprawl more than residential sprawl.
The three criteria above make no mention of whether the area is included in the central city. Most of Staten Island qualifies as suburban despite being part of New York, but Newark fails all three criteria, and Seine-Saint-Denis and most of Hudson County fail the first two.
Where are suburbs transit-oriented?
I do not know of any place where suburban transit usage is higher than city center transit usage. In theory, this suggests that the best place to look for transit-oriented suburbia is the cities with the highest transit mode shares, such as Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong (or, in Europe, Paris). But in reality, Singapore and Hong Kong don’t have areas meeting the density definition of suburb, and Tokyo has few, mostly located away from its vast commuter rail network. Paris has more true suburbs, but like Tokyo’s, they are not what drives the region’s high rail ridership. All four cities are excellent examples of high-density suburban land use – that is, places that meet my first and third definitions of suburbia but fail the second.
Instead, it’s better to look at smaller, lower-density cities. Stockholm and Zurich are both good models here. Even the central cities are not very dense, at 5,100 and 4,700 people per km^2. Moreover, both are surrounded by large expanses of low-density, mostly postwar suburbia.
Winterthur, Zurich’s largest suburb, is a mix of early 20th century and postwar urban typology, but the other major cities in the canton mostly developed after WW2. At the time, Switzerland was already a very rich country, and car ownership was affordable to the middle class. The story of the Zurich S-Bahn is not one of maintaining mode share through a habit of riding transit, but of running frequent commuter rail to suburbs that did not develop around it from the 1950s to the 70s.
In Stockholm, there is a prominent density gradient as one leaves Central Stockholm. I lived in Roslagstull, at the northern end of Central Stockholm, where the density is 30,000 people per km^2 and the built-up form is the euroblock. Most of the rest of Central Stockholm is similar in urban form and not much less dense. But once one steps outside the city’s old prewar core, density nosedives. City districts to the west and south, like Bromma and Älvsjö, go down to 3,000 people per km^2 or even a little less. A coworker who used to live in Kista described the area as American-style suburban. Beyond these city districts lie the other municipalities, which together form a sizable majority of the county’s population. Of those, a few (Solna, Sundbyberg) are somewhat above the density cutoff, but most are far below it.
In both Zurich and Stockholm, the city is much more transit-oriented than the suburbs. Stockholm’s congestion pricing was a city initiative; the suburbs banded together to oppose it, and eventually forced a compromise in which congestion pricing remained in effect but the revenue would be deeded to urban freeways rather than to public transportation.
And yet, neither city has a big transit use gradient – at least, not so big as Paris, let alone London or New York. Stockholm is expecting 170,000 daily metro trips from its expansion program, which barely touches Central Stockholm. Existing T-bana ridership on the suburban tails is pretty high as well (source, PDF-p. 13), as is ridership on commuter rail, which, too, barely touches Central Stockholm.
The structure of density
In my previous post, I complained that Los Angeles’s density has no structure, and thus public transit ridership is very low and consists predominantly of people too poor to buy a car. The situation in Stockholm and Zurich is the reverse. Density has a clear structure: within each suburb, there is a town center near the commuter rail station.
The histories of Zurich and Stockholm are profoundly different. Each arrived in its structure from a different route. In Zurich, the suburbs come from historic town centers that existed long before cars, often long before industrialization. 20th-century urban sprawl arrived in the form of making these historic villages bigger and bigger until they became proper suburbs. The geography helps rail-oriented suburbanization as well: the ridge-and-valley topography is such that urban sprawl forms ribbons served by commuter rail lines, especially in the southerly direction.
Stockholm’s topography is nothing like Zurich’s. There are water boundaries limiting suburb-to-suburb travel, but the same is true of New York, and yet Long Island, New Jersey, and Westchester are thoroughly auto-oriented. Instead, the structure of density came about because of government planning. Sweden built public housing simultaneously with the Stockholm Metro, so the housing projects were sited near the train stations.
This does not mean that the suburbs of Zurich and Stockholm are actually high-density. Far from it: the housing projects in the Stockholm suburbs are surrounded by a lot of parking and greenery, and the suburbs have extensive single-family housing tracts. However, the density is arranged to grade down from the train station, and there are small clusters of walkable apartment buildings in a small radius around each station. In Zurich the same structure came about with private construction and topography.
To the extent this structure exists elsewhere, it leads to higher low-density transit ridership too, for example in London and the Northeastern United States. Various West Coast American transit bloggers, like Jarrett Walker and Let’s Go LA, keep plugging the West Coast grid over the Northeastern hierarchy of density. But this hierarchy of suburbs that formed around commuter rail to the CBD produces transit ridership that, while awful by Continental European standards, is very good by American ones. Many of the suburbs in question, such as in Westchester, have 15-20% of their commuters choose transit to get to work.
Getting to higher numbers means reinforcing the structure of density and the transit that works in the suburbs, that is, regional rail (or a metro network that goes far out, like the T-bana, if that’s an option). Stations must be surrounded by development rather than parking, and this development should facilitate a somewhat transit-oriented lifestyle, including retail and not just housing. Jobs should be accessible from as many directions as possible, forming CBDs rather than haphazard town centers accessible only by road. Only this way can suburbia be transit-oriented.
Seven years ago, I wrote a pair of posts about Sunnyside Yards. The first recommends the construction of a transfer station through Sunnyside Yards, in order to facilitate transfers between Penn Station- and Grand Central-bound trains. The second recommends redeveloping the yards via a deck, creating high-density residential and commercial space on a deck on top of the yard. Recent news, both about an official plan to deck the yards and about leaks that Amazon is likely to move half of its second headquarters (HQ2) to Long Island City, make a Sunnyside Junction so much more urgent.
Here is how service would look:
The color scheme is inherited from my regional rail maps (see e.g. here) but for the purposes of this post, all it means is that green and blue correspond to the inner and outer tracks of the Park Avenue, purple is East Side Access, orange corresponds to LIRR trains going to the northern pair of East River Tunnels, and red corresponds to LIRR, Metro-North Penn Station Access, and Amtrak trains going to the southern pair of East River Tunnels. No track infrastructure is assumed except what’s already in service or funded (i.e. ESA and Penn Station Access), and only two infill stations are mapped: Astoria, which would be a strong location for a stop were fares integrated with the subway and frequency high, and Sunnyside Junction.
The infill stations that are not planned
An Astoria station was studied for PSA, but was dropped from consideration for two reasons. First, the location is legitimately constrained due to grades, though a station is still feasible. And second, under the operating assumptions of high fares and low off-peak frequency, few people would use it. It would be like Wakefield and Far Rockaway, two edge-of-city neighborhoods where commuter rail ridership is a footnote compared with slower but cheaper and more frequency subway service.
A Sunnyside Junction station was in contrast never considered. There are unfunded plan for an infill station to the west of the junction, served only by Penn Station-bound trains. Such a station would hit Long Island City’s job center well, but the walk from the platform to the office towers would still be on pedestrian-hostile roads, and if there’s political will to make that area more walkable, the city might as well just redevelop Sunnyside Yards (as already planned).
The reason there was never any plan for a station can be seen by zooming in on the area I drew as a station. It’s a railyard, without streets (yet). At today’s development pattern, nobody would use it as an O&D station, even if fares and schedules were integrated with the subway. The importance of the station is as a transfer point between Grand Central- and Penn Station-bound trains. The planned developments (both HQ2 and independent city plans) makes it more urgent, since the area is relatively far from the subway, but the main purpose of the station is a better transit network, rather than encouraging development.
The main benefit of the station is transfers between the LIRR and Metro-North. While nominally parts of the MTA, the two agencies are run as separate fiefs, both of which resisted an attempt at a merger. The LIRR opposed PSA on the grounds that it had a right to any empty slots in the East River Tunnels (of which there are around 8 per hour at the peak). Governor Cuomo intervened to protect PSA from Long Island’s opposition, but in such an environment, coordinated planning across the two railroads is unlikely, and the governor would not intervene to improve the details of the ESA and PSA projects.
East Side Access means that in a few years, LIRR trains will split between two Manhattan destinations. Conceptually, this is a reverse-branch: trains that run on the same route in the suburbs, such as the LIRR Main Line, would split into separate routes in the city core. In contrast, conventional branching has trains running together in the core and splitting farther out, e.g. to Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson, and Ronkonkoma. Reverse-branching is extremely common in New York on the subway, but is rare elsewhere, and leads to operational problems. London’s Northern line, one of the few examples of reverse-branching on an urban subway outside New York, is limited to 26 trains per hour through its busiest trunk at the peak, and long-term plans to segregate its two city trunks and eliminate reverse-branching would raise this to 36.
To ensure LIRR trains run with maximum efficiency, it’s necessary to prevent reverse-branching. This means that each trunk, such as the Main Line and the Hempstead Branch, should only ever go to one Manhattan terminal. Passengers who wish to go to the other Manhattan terminal should transfer cross-platform. Jamaica is very well-equipped for cross-platform transfers, but it’s at a branch point going to either Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn, without a good Penn Station/Grand Central transfer. Without a good transfer, passengers would be stuck going to a terminal they may not work near, or else be forced into a long interchange. In London the reason the Northern line is not already segregated is that the branch point in the north, Camden Town, has constrained passageways, so eliminating reverse-branching requires spending money on improving circulation.
Unlike Camden Town, Sunnyside Junction is roomy enough for cross-platform transfers. The tracks should be set up in a way that LIRR trains going to East Side Access should interchange cross-platform with PSA and Port Washington Branch trains (which should go to Penn Station, not ESA), as they do not stop at Jamaica. Penn Station-bound LIRR trains not using the Port Washington Branch, colored orange on the map, should stop at Sunnyside too, but it’s less important to give them a cross-platform transfer.
This assignment would be good not just for LIRR passengers but also for PSA passengers. Unlike on the LIRR, on the New Haven Line, reverse-branching is unavoidable. However, passengers would still benefit from being able to get on a Penn Station-bound train and connecting to Grand Central at Sunnyside. Not least, passengers on the PSA infill stations in the city would have faster access to Grand Central than they have today via long walks or bus connections to the 6 train. But even in the suburbs, the interchange would provide higher effective frequency.
The connection with development
I don’t know to what extent decking Sunnyside Yards could attract Amazon. I wrote an article last year, which died in editing back-and-forth, lamenting that New York was unlikely to be the HQ2 site because there was no regional rail access to any of the plausible sites thanks to low frequency and no through-running. Long Island City’s sole regional rail access today consists of LIRR stations on a reverse-branch that does not even go into Manhattan (or Downtown Brooklyn) and only sees a few trains per day. It has better subway access and excellent airport access, though.
However, since Sunnyside Junction is so useful without any reference to new development, the plans for decking make it so much more urgent. Sunnyside Yards are in the open air today, and there is space for moving tracks and constructing the necessary platforms. The cost is likely to be in the nine figures because New York’s construction costs are high and American mainline rail construction costs are even higher, but it’s still a fraction of what it would take to do all of this under a deck.
Moreover, the yards are not easy to deck. Let’s Go LA discussed the problem of decking in 2014: columns for high-rise construction are optimally placed at intervals that don’t jive well with railyard clearances, and as a result, construction costs are a multiple of what they are on firma. Hudson Yards towers cost around $12,000/square meter to build, whereas non-WTC commercial skyscrapers in the city are $3,000-6,000 on firma. The connection with Sunnyside Junction is that preparing the site for the deck requires extensive reconfiguration of tracks and periodic shutdowns, so it’s most efficient to kill two birds with one stone and bundle the reconfiguration required for the station with that required for the deck.
In the other direction, the station would make the deck more economically feasible. The high construction costs of buildings on top of railyards makes decking unprofitable except in the most desirable areas. Even Hudson Yards, adjacent to Midtown Manhattan on top of a new subway station, is only treading water: the city had to give developers tax breaks to get them to build there. In Downtown Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards lost the developer money. Sunnyside Yards today are surrounded by auto shops, big box retail, and missing middle residential density, none of which screams “market rents are high enough to justify high construction costs.” A train station would at least offer very fast rail access to Midtown.
If the decking goes through despite unfavorable economics, making sure it’s bundled with a train station becomes urgent, then. Such a bundling would reduce the incremental cost of the station, which has substantial benefits for riders even independently of any development it might stimulate in Sunnyside.
For the most part, the optimal average spacing between bus stops is 400-500 meters. North American transit agencies have standardized on a bus stop every 200-250 meters, so stop consolidation is usually a very good idea. But this is based on a model with specific inputs regarding travel behavior. In some circumstances, travel behavior is different, leading to different inputs, and then the model’s output will suggest a different optimum. In contrast with my and Eric’s proposal for harsh stop consolidation in Brooklyn, I would not recommend stop consolidation on the crosstown buses in Manhattan, and am skeptical of the utility of stop consolidation in Paris. In Vancouver I would recommend stop consolidation, but not on every route, not do we recommend equally sweeping changes on every single Brooklyn route.
The model for the optimal stop spacing
If demand along a line is isotropic, and the benefits of running buses more frequently due to higher in-vehicle speed are negligible, then the following formula holds:
The most important complicating assumption is that if demand is not isotropic, but instead every trip begins or ends at a distinguished location where there is certainly a stop, such as a subway connection, then the formula changes to,
The choice of which factor to use, 2 or 4, is not exogenous to the bus network. If the network encourages transferring, then connection points will become more prominent, making the higher factor more appropriate. Whether the network encourages interchanges depends on separate policies such as fare integration but also on the shape of the network, including bus frequency. Higher average bus speed permits higher frequency, which makes transferring easier. The model does not take the granularity of transfer ease into account, which would require a factor somewhere between 2 and 4 (and, really, additional factors for the impact of higher bus speed on frequency).
After the choice of factor, the most contentious variable is the walk speed and penalty. Models vary on both, and often they vary in directions that reinforce each other rather than canceling out (for example, certain disabilities reduce both walk speed and willingness to walk a minute longer to save a minute on a bus). In Carlos Daganzo’s textbook, the walk speed net of penalty is 1 m/s. For an able-bodied adult, the walk speed can exceed 1.5 m/s; penalties in models range from 1.75 (MTA) to 2 (a Dutch study) to 2.25 (MBTA). The lower end is probably more appropriate, since the penalty includes a wait penalty, and stop consolidation reduces waits even as it lengthens walk time.
Update 10/31: alert reader Colin Parker notes on social media that you can shoehorn the impact of walk time into the model relatively easily. The formula remains the same with one modification: the average trip distance is replaced with
The factor of 2 in the formula comes from computing average wait time; for worst-case wait time, remove the 2 (but then the wait penalty would need to be adjusted, since the wait penalty is partly an uncertainty penalty).
The average distance between buses is proportional to the number of service-hours, or fleet size: it obeys the formula
The factor of 2 in the formula comes from the fact that route-length is measured one-way whereas revenue hours are for a roundtrip.
If we incorporate wait time into the model this way, then the walk and wait penalties used should be higher, since we’re taking them into account; the Dutch study’s factor of 2 is more reasonable. The conclusions below are not really changed – the optima barely increase, and are unchanged even in the cases where stop consolidation is not recommended.
The situation in New York
The average unlinked New York City Transit bus trip is 3.35 km: compare passenger-miles and passenger trips as of 2016. In theory this number is endogenous to the transit network – longer interstations encourage passengers to take the bus more for long trips than for short trips – but in practice the SBS routes, denoted as bus rapid transit in the link, actually have slightly shorter average trip length than the rest. For all intents and purposes, this figure can be regarded as exogenous to stop spacing.
The stop penalty, judging by the difference between local and limited routes, is different for different routes. The range among the routes I have checked looks like 20-40 seconds. However, Eric tells me that in practice the B41, which on paper has a fairly large stop penalty, has little difference in trip times between the local and limited versions. The local-SBS schedule difference is consistent with a stop penalty of about 25 seconds, at least on the B44 and B46.
As a sanity check, in Vancouver the scheduled stop penalty on 4th Avenue is 22 seconds – the 84 makes 19 fewer stops than the 4 between Burrard and UBC and is 7 minutes faster – and the buses generally run on schedule. The actual penalty is a little higher, since the 4 has a lot of pro forma stops on the University Endowment Lands that almost never get any riders (and thus the bus doesn’t stop there). This is consistent with 25 seconds at a stop that the bus actually makes, or even a little more.
Plugging the numbers into the formula yields
if we assume everyone connects to the subway (or otherwise takes the bus to a distinguished stop), or
if we assume perfectly isotropic travel demand. In reality, a large share of bus riders are connecting to the subway, which can be seen in fare revenue, just $1.16 per unlinked bus trip compared with $1.91 per subway trip (linked or unlinked, only one swipe is needed). In Brooklyn, it appears that passengers not connecting to the subway disproportionately go to specific distinguished destinations, such as the hospitals, universities, and shopping centers, or Downtown Brooklyn, making the higher figure more justified. Thus, our proposed stop spacing, excluding the long nonstop segments across the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and between borough line and JFK, is 490 meters.
Update 10/31: if we incorporate wait time, then we need to figure out the average distance between buses. This, in turn, depends on network shape. Brooklyn today has 550 km of bus route in each direction, which we propose to cut to 350. With around 600 service hours per hour – more at the peak, less off-peak – we get an average distance between buses of 1,830 meters today or 1,180 under our proposal. Using our proposed network, and a wait and walk penalty of 2, we get
Short bus routes imply short stop spacing
Our analysis recommending 490 meter interstations in Brooklyn depends on the average features of New York’s bus network. The same analysis ports to most of the city. But in Manhattan, the situation is different in a key way: the crosstown buses are so short that the average trip length cannot possibly match city average.
Manhattan is not much wider than 3 km. Between First and West End Avenues the distance is 2.8 km. The likely average trip length is more than half the maximum, since the typical use case for the crosstown buses is travel between the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, but the dominant destinations are not at the ends of the line, but close to the middle. With Second Avenue Subway offering an attractive two-seat ride, there is less reason to take the crosstown buses to connect to the 1/2/3 (and indeed, the opening of the new line led to prominent drops in ridership on the M66, M72, M79, M86, and M96); the best subway connection point is now at Lexington Avenue, followed by Central Park West. On a long route, the location of the dominant stop is not too relevant, but on a short one, the average trip length is bounded by the distance between the dominant stop and the end of the line.
If we take the average trip length to be 1.6 km and plug it into the formula, we get
A crosstown bus stopping at First, Second, Third, Lex, Madison, Fifth, Central Park West, Columbus, Amsterdam, Broadway, and West End makes 10 stops in 2.8 km, for an average of 280 meters. There isn’t much room for stop consolidation. If the bus continues to Riverside, lengthening the trip to 3 km at the latitude of 96th Street, then it’s possible to drop West End. If the buses running up Third and down Lex are converted to two-way running, presumably on Lex for the subway connections, then Third could be dropped, but this would still leave the interstation at 330 meters, much tighter than anything we’re proposing in Brooklyn.
The only other places where avenues are too closely spaced are poor locations for stop removal. Amsterdam and Broadway are very close, but Amsterdam carries a northbound bus, and if the Columbus/Amsterdam one-way pair is turned into two two-way avenues, then Amsterdam is a better location for the bus than Columbus because it provides better service to the Far West Side. Fifth and Madison are very close as well, but the buses using them, the M1 through M4, are so busy (a total of 32 buses per hour at the peak) that if the two avenues are converted to two-way running then both should host frequent bus trunks. It’s not possible to skip either.
Within Brooklyn, there is one location in which the same issue of short bus routes applies: Coney Island. The B74 and B36 act as short-hop connectors from Coney Island the neighborhood to Coney Island the subway station. The routes we propose replacing them have 7 stops each from the subway connection west, over distances of 2.5 and 2.7 km respectively, for interstations of 360 and 390 meters.
Vancouver supplies two more examples of routes similar to the B74 and B36: the 5 and 6 buses, both connecting the West End with Downtown. The 6 is only 2 km between its western end and the Yaletown SkyTrain station, and the 5 is 2.3 km from the end to the Burrard station and 2.8 km to city center at Granville Street. The average trip length on these buses is necessarily short, which means that stop consolidation is not beneficial, unlike on the main grid routes outside Downtown.
Update 10/31: incorporating wait time into this calculation leads to the same general conclusion. The short routes in question – the Manhattan crosstowns, the B36 and B74, and the 5 and 6 in Vancouver – have high frequency, or in other words short distance between buses. For example, the M96 runs every 4 minutes peak, 6 off-peak, and takes 22-24 minutes one-way, for a total of 6 circulating buses per direction peak (which is 500 meters), or 4 off-peak (which is 750 meters). This yields
A network that discourages transferring should have more stops as well
In Paris the average interstation on buses in the city looks like 300 meters; this is not based on a citywide average but on looking at the few buses for which Wikipedia has data plus a few trunks on the map, which range from 250 to 370 meters between stations.
The short stop spacing in Paris is justified. First of all, the average bus trip in Paris is short: 2.33 km as of 2009 (source, PDF-p. 24). Parisian Metro coverage is so complete that the buses are not useful for long trips – Metro station access time is short enough that the trains overtake the buses on total trip time very quickly.
Second, there is little reason to transfer between buses here, or to transfer between buses and the Metro. The completeness of Metro coverage is such that buses are just not competitive unless they offer a one-seat ride where the Metro doesn’t. Another advantage of buses is that they are wheelchair-accessible, whereas the Metro is the single least accessible major urban rail network in the world, with nothing accessible to wheelchair users except Line 14 and the RER A and B. It goes without saying that people in wheelchairs are not transferring between the bus and the Metro (and even if they could, they’d have hefty transfer penalties). The New York City Subway has poor accessibility, but nearly all of the major stations are accessible, including the main bus transfer points, such as Brooklyn College and the Utica Avenue stop on the 3/4.
With little interchange and a mostly isotropic city density, the correct formula for the optimal bus stop spacing within Paris is
which is close to the midpoint of the range of interstations I have found looking at various routes.
The half-kilometer (or quarter-to-a-third-of-a-mile) rule for bus stop spacing is an empirical guideline. It is meant to describe average behavior in the average city. It is scale-invariant – the density of the city does not matter, only relative density does, and the size of the city only matters insofar as it may affect the average trip length. However, while scale itself does not lead to major changes from the guideline, special circumstances might.
If the geography of the city is such that bus trips are very short, then it’s correct to have closer stop spacing. This is the case for east-west travel in Manhattan. It is also common on buses that offer short-hop connections to the subway from a neighborhood just outside walking range, such as the B36 and B74 in Coney Island and the 5 and 6 in Vancouver’s West End.
Note that even in New York, with its 3.3 km average trip length, stop consolidation is still beneficial and necessary on most routes. North American transit agencies should not use this article as an excuse not to remove extraneous stops. But nor should they stick to a rigid stop spacing come what may; on some routes, encouraging very short trips (often 1.5 km or even less), closely spaced stations are correct, since passengers wouldn’t be riding for long enough for the gains from stop consolidation to accumulate.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced a proposal to improve rapid transit in Queens and the Bronx by raising frequency and reducing fares on the in-city commuter rail stations. This has gotten some pushback from Transit Twitter, on the grounds that low fares without low staffing, i.e. getting rid of the conductors, would require excessive subsidies. I feel slightly bad about this, since the comptroller’s office reached out to me and I gave some advice; I did mention staffing reduction but not vociferously enough, whereas I did harp on fare integration and frequent local stops.
Whereas the comptroller’s report goes into why this would be useful (without mentioning staffing, which is a mistake), here I’d like to give more detail of what this means. Of note, I am not assuming any large-scale construction project, such as new tunnels across the Hudson, East Side Access, or even Penn Station Access. The only investment into civil infrastructure that I’m calling for is one flying junction, and the program can be implemented without it, just not with the reliability that I’m aiming at.
Black dots denote existing stations, gray dots denote infill.
The map includes only the lines that should be part of a Manhattan-bound rapid transit system initially. This excludes the South Shore LIRR lines, not because they’re unimportant (to the contrary), but because connecting them to Manhattan involves new flying junctions at Jamaica Station, built as part of East Side Access without any real concern for coherent service. Shoehorning these lines into the system is still possible (indeed, it is required until ESA opens and probably also until some Brooklyn-Lower Manhattan LIRR tunnel might open), but the scheduling gets more complex. These lines should be a further phase of this system, whereas I am depicting an initial operation.
The Port Washington Branch
On the Port Washington Branch, present-day frequency is 6 trains per hour at the peak, with a complex arrangement of express trains such that most stations have half-hour gaps, and a train every half hour off-peak making all stops. This should be changed to a pattern with a train every 10 minutes all day. If the single-track segment between Great Neck and Port Washington makes this not possible, then every other train should turn at Great Neck. On the schedule today the one-way trip time between Port Washington and Great Neck is 9 minutes, and this is with extensive padding and a throttled acceleration rate (the LIRR’s M7s can accelerate at 0.9 m/s^2 but are derated to 0.45 m/s^2). The technical travel time, not including station dwell time at Great Neck, which is double-track and has double-track approaches, is around 6 minutes without derating, and 6:50 with.
The current travel time from Port Washington to Penn Station is 47 minutes on an all-stop train, which permits six trainsets to comfortably provide 20-minute service; from Great Neck it’s 38 minutes, which permits five sets to provide 10-minute overlay service. Trains must be scheduled, not run on headway management, to have slots through the tunnels to Penn Station (shared with Amtrak under even my high-end proposals for regional rail tunnels), so the short-turns do not complicate scheduling.
With less padding and no derating, the travel time would be reduced to around 41 minutes end-to-end (so five trainsets provide end-to-end service) and 35 to Great Neck (allowing four trainsets to provide this service with some scheduling constraints or five very easily), even with the infill stops. Labor efficiency would be high, because even all-day headways would simplify crew scheduling greatly.
The Hempstead Branch
I proposed a sample schedule for the Hempstead Branch in 2015. Trains would take 41 minutes end to end; with my proposed infill stops, they would instead take 43. Few trains make the trip today, as off-peak Hempstead trains divert to Brooklyn, but of those that do, the trip time today is about 55 minutes.
Today’s frequency is 4 trains per hour at the peak and a train every hour off-peak. Two peak trains run express and do the trip in 48 minutes, worse than an all-stop train would with normal schedule contingency and no derating. As on the Port Washington Branch, I propose a train every 10 minutes all day, allowing ten trainsets to provide service. There is a single track segment between Garden City and Hempstead, but it is shorter than the Great Neck-Port Washington segment, making 10-minute service to the end feasible.
The reason I am proposing an increase in peak frequency on the Hempstead Branch but not the Port Washington Branch has to do with income demographics. The North Shore of Long Island is rich, and even the city neighborhoods on the Port Washington Branch beyond the 7 are upper middle class. There is still demand suppression there coming from high fares and low frequency, but evidently Bayside manages to be one of the busier LIRR stations; the equipment should be able to handle the increased peak ridership from better service.
In contrast, Hempstead is a working-class suburb, with a per capita income of $22,000 as of 2016 (in New York the same figure is $34,000, and in Great Neck it is $39,000). On the way it passes through very rich Garden City ($67,000/person), but Hempstead is a larger and denser town, and most city neighborhoods on the way are lower middle class. Fare integration, even with somewhat higher fares outside the city (which under this regime would also apply to Long Island buses), is likely to lead to ridership explosion even at rush hour, requiring more service.
My more speculative maps, for after East Side Access frees some capacity, even involve going to a train every five minutes, with half the trains going to Hempstead and half to East Garden City along a deactivated but intact branch. With such frequency, people from Forest Hills and points east would switch to the LIRR from the subway, helping relieve the overcrowded E trains. However, to avoid spending money on concrete (or scheduling around the flat junction between these two branches), starting with just Hempstead is fine.
To make this work, one investment into concrete is useful: grade-separating Queens Interlocking, between the Hempstead Branch and the Main Line. The Main Line should be able to run express (with a stop at the branch point at Floral Park) without conflicting with local trains on the Hempstead Branch. As peak traffic on the Main Line is close to saturating a double-track main, this would also facilitate a schedule in which Main Line trains get to use the express tracks through Queens while other lines, including the Hempstead Branch and the South Side Lines, use the local tracks.
What it would take
Providing the service I’m proposing would involve nine or ten trainsets on the Port Washington Branch and ten on the Hempstead Branch, if the trains are sped up. Some of the speedup involves running them at their design acceleration and some involves reducing schedule contingency by improving reliability. The reliability improvements in turn come from reducing conflicts; Amtrak conflicts are unavoidable, but hourly, involving trains that for all their faults are scheduled precisely and can be slotted to avoid delaying the LIRR. The one big-ticket item required is grade-separating Queens Interlocking, which, judging by the more complex Harold Interlocking flyover, is at actual New York costs a low nine-figure project.
Estimating operating costs is hard. On paper, LIRR service costs $10/car-km, but this includes conductors (whose wages and benefits are around $20/train-km, so maybe $2-$2.50/car-km), very low utilization of drivers (who add another $11/train-km), and high fixed costs. A driver-only operation with drivers doing four roundtrips per work day (totaling 6 hours and 40 minutes of driving and turnaround time) would spend $120 per end-to-end on the driver’s wages and benefits, $200 on electricity, essentially nothing on rolling stock procurement since nearly all the extra trips would be off-peak, and only a modicum on extra maintenance. Inducing around 150 riders per trip who would otherwise not have traveled would pay for the extra operating costs.
What it would and wouldn’t do
The most important thing to note is that this system is not going to be a second subway. This isn’t because of the inherent limitations of commuter rail, but because the alignment is not great in the inner part of the city. Penn Station is on the outskirts of Midtown Manhattan, which is why the LIRR is bothering building East Side Access in the first place. Stringer’s report talks about job centers outside Manhattan, but unfortunately, Queens’ single largest, Long Island City, has no through-LIRR station, and no chance of getting one since the Main Line is in a tunnel there. The best that can be done is Sunnyside Junction, which I do denote as an infill location.
Fortunately, Queens does have other job centers. Flushing has about 30,000 workers, Jamaica 16,000, Forest Hills 20,000 (for comparison, Long Island City has 50,000 and JFK 33,000). Sunnyside Yards are an attractive TOD target, and there may be some commercial development there, especially if there is a commuter rail station underneath (which station should be built anyway for operational reasons – it’s not purely development-oriented transit).
And, of course, most jobs remain in Manhattan. A kilometer’s walk from Penn Station gets you to about 400,000 Manhattan jobs. Hempstead and Port Washington are already less than an hour away by train – the difference is that today the train is expensive and doesn’t come frequently except for about two hours a day in each direction. The comptroller’s report errs in neglecting to talk about staffing reductions, but it’s right that running trains more often, making more stops, would make this service a very attractive proposition to a large number of commuters at all hours of day.
Usually, integrated transit planning means designing bus networks to feed rail trunks better. Buses are mobile: their routes can move based on long-term changes in the city’s physical and economic layout. Railroads in contrast have high installation costs. Between the relative ease of moving buses and the fact that there’s a hierarchy in which trains are more central than buses, buses normally should be feeding the trains. However, there are some cases in which the opposite happens: that is, cases in which it’s valuable to design rail infrastructure based on expected bus corridors. Moreover, in developed and middle-income countries these situations are getting more rather than less frequent, due to the increasing use of deep tunneling and large station complexes.
In nearly every circumstance, the hierarchy of bus and rail remains as it is; the exceptions (like Ottawa, at least until the light rail subway opens) are so rare as to be notable. What I posit is that in some situations, rail infrastructure should be designed better to allow buses to feed the trains more efficiently. This mostly affects station infrastructure, but there are also reasons to choose routes based on bus feeding.
Major bus corridors
Surface transit likes following major streets. Years ago, I blogged about this here and here. Major streets have two relevant features: they are wide, permitting buses (or streetcars) to run in generous dedicated lanes without having to deal with too much traffic; and they have continuous linear development, suitable for frequent bus stops (about every half kilometer).
These two features are likely to remain important for surface transit for the foreseeable future. The guidelines for good surface transit service depend on empirical parameters like the transfer penalty (in particular, grids are not the universal optimum for bus networks), but major corridors are relatively insensitive to them. The walk penalty can change the optimal bus stop spacing, but not in a way that changes the basic picture of corridor-based planning. Which streets have the most development is subject to change as city economic and social geography evolves, but which streets are the widest doesn’t. What’s more, a train station at a street intersection is likely to cement the cross-street’s value, making adverse future change less likely.
Note that we don’t have to be certain which major streets will host the most important buses in the future. We just need to know that major buses will follow major streets.
The conclusion is that good locations for rail infrastructure are major intersecting streets. On a commuter line, this means stations should ideally be placed at intersections with roads that can carry connecting buses. On a subway line, this means the same at a more local scale.
Stations and accessibility
When possible, train stations should locate at intersections with through-streets, to permit efficient transfers. This also carries over to station exits, an important consideration given the complexity of many recently-built stations in major rich and middle-income cities.
It goes without saying that a Manhattan subway line should have stations with exits at 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, etc. streets. Here, Second Avenue Subway does better than the Lexington Avenue Line, whose stations are chosen based on a 9-block stop spacing and miss the intersecting buses.
However, it’s equally important to make sure that the accessible exits are located at major streets as well. One bad example in New York is the Prospect Park B/Q station: it has two exits, one inaccessible on Flatbush Avenue and one accessible on Empire Boulevard. In theory both are major corridors, but Flatbush is far and away the more important ones, one of the busiest surface transit corridors in the city, while Empire competes for east-west buses with Kings County Hospital, the borough’s biggest job center outside Downtown Brooklyn. Eric Goldwyn’s and my Brooklyn bus redesign breaks the B41 bus on Flatbush and loops it and the Washington Avenue routes around the station complex to reach the accessible exit.
The Prospect Park case is one example of an almost-right decision. The full-time, accessible exit is close to Flatbush, but not quite there. Another example is Fields Corner: the eastern end of the platform is 80 meters from Dorchester Avenue, a major throughfare, and 180 meters from Adams Avenue, another major street, which unlike Dot Ave diverges from the direction the Red Line takes on its way south and is a useful feeder bus route.
Commuter rail and feeder buses
The station placement problem appears especially acute on mainline rail. This is not just an American problem: suburban RER stations are built without regard for major crossing roads (see, for example, the RER B airport branch and the RER A Marne-la-Vallee branch, both built in the 1970s). Railroads historically didn’t think much in terms of systemwide integration, but even when they were turned into modern rapid transit, questionable stop locations persisted; the Ashmont branch of the Red Line in Boston was taken over from mainline rail in the 1920s, but Fields Corner was not realigned to have exits at Dot and Adams.
Today, the importance of feeder buses is better-understood, at least by competent metropolitan transportation planners. This means that some stations need to be realigned, and in some places infill stops at major roads are desirable.
This is good for integration not just with buses but also with cars, the preferred station access mode for American commuter rail. The LIRR’s stations are poorly located within the Long Island road network; Patrick O’Hara argues that Hicksville is the second busiest suburban station (after Ronkonkoma) not because it preferentially gets express service on the Main Line, but because it has by far the best north-south access by road, as it has one arterial heading north and two heading south, while most stations miss the north-south arterials entirely.
Instead of through-access by bus (or by car), some stations have bus bays for terminating buses. This is acceptable, provided the headways are such that the entire local bus network can be configured to pulse at the train station. If trains arrive every half hour (or even every 20 minutes), then timed transfers are extremely valuable. In that case, allowing buses to stop at a bay with fast access to the platforms greatly extends the train station’s effective radius. However, this is of far less value on a dense network with multiple parallel lines, or on a railroad so busy that trains arrive every 10 minutes or less, such as the RER A branches or the trunks of the other RER lines.
Within New York, we see this mistake of ignoring local transit in commuter rail planning with Penn Station Access. The project is supposed to add four stations in the Bronx, but there will not be a station at Pelham Parkway, the eastern extension of Fordham Road carrying the city’s busiest bus, the Bx12. This is bad planning: the MTA should be encouraging people to connect between the bus and the future commuter train and site stations accordingly.
Street networks and route choice
On a grid, this principle is on the surface easy: rapid transit routes should follow the most important routes, with stops at cross streets. This is well understood in New York (where proposals for subway extensions generally follow busy bus routes, like Second Avenue, Nostrand, and Utica) and in Vancouver (where the next SkyTrain extension will follow Broadway).
However, there remains one subtlety: sometimes, the grid makes travel in one direction easier than in another. In Manhattan, north-south travel is easier than east-west travel, so in isolation, east-west subways connecting to north-south buses would work better. (In reality, Manhattan’s north-south orientation means north-south subways are indispensable, and once the subways exist, crossing subways should aim to connect to them first and to surface transit second.) In West Los Angeles, there is a multitude of east-west arterials and a paucity of north-south ones, which means that a north-south subway is of great value, connecting not just to the Expo Line and upcoming Wilshire subway but also other east-west arterials carrying major bus routes like Olympic.
Moreover, some cities don’t have intact grids at all. They have haphazard street networks, with some routes suitable for arterial buses and some not. This is less of an issue in mature cities, which may have such street networks but also have older subway lines for newer route to connect to, and more in newer cities, typically in the third world.
The tension is that very wide arterials are easier to build on, using elevated construction or cut-and-cover. If such a technique is feasible, then constructibility should trump connections to buses (especially since such cities are fast-changing, so there is less certainty over what the major future bus routes are). However, if deep boring is required, for examples because the arterials aren’t that wide, or the subway must cross underwater, or merchant opposition to cut-and-cover is too entrenched, then it’s useful to select routes that hit the arterials orthogonally, for the best surface transit connections.
In a working transit city, rail should be the primary mode of travel and buses should be designed to optimally feed the trains. However, this does not mean rail should be planned without regard to the buses. Train stations should be sited based not just on walk sheds and major destinations but also planned bus connections; on an urban rapid transit system, including S-Bahn trunks, this means crossing arterial streets, where buses typically run. Moreover, these stations’ exits should facilitate easy transfers between buses and trains, including for people with disabilities, who face more constrained mobility choices if they require elevator access. In some edge cases, it may even be prudent to select entire route construction priorities based on bus connections.
While choosing rail routes based on bus connections seems to only be a real issue in rare circumstances (such as the West LA street network), bus-dependent station siting is common. Commuter train services in general are bad at placing stations for optimal suburban bus connections, and may require extensive realignment and infill. On urban subways, station placement is important for both accessibility retrofits and new projects. Outside city centers, where dense subway networks can entirely replace surface transit, it’s critical to select station sites based on maximum connectivity to orthogonal surface lines.
Two days ago, Port Authority put out a study about a rail link to LaGuardia, which became Governor Cuomo’s top transit priority a few years ago. The PDF file is bundled with the RFP, but starting on PDF-p. 25 it’s an alternatives analysis and not an RFP. While transit activists including myself have attacked Cuomo’s proposed rail link for its poor alignment choice, the Port Authority study considers many alternatives, including some interesting ones. It also describes the current situation in more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’d like to talk about the alternatives for a rail link, but also summarize some of the important facts buried in the study. Unfortunately, the study also eliminates all the useful options and prefers to advance only Cuomo’s uselessly circuitous alignment.
The current situation
LaGuardia had about 25 million O&D passengers in 2017. They disproportionately go to or from Midtown, but it’s not as overwhelming as I thought based on this density map. Here is a precise breakdown, lumping together both locals (33%) and visitors (67%):
In Manhattan and western Queens “Walking access” means half a mile from a commuter rail stop or from the 7 train; there is no attempt to track walk access to the N or W trains. In Eastern Queens it means half a mile from any subway stop.
About half of the passengers get to or from the airport by taxi, and another 20% are dropped off or picked up in a car. Only 6.2% use public transportation, and another 5.6% use a shared ride such as a hotel shuttle.
Among employees, the situation is different. I expected employees to cluster in western and central Queens, but in fact, based on the same categories used for passengers, the largest group is Queens East beyond subway range:
There are 13,000 employees at LaGuardia per Port Authority (compared with about 10,000 per OnTheMap), of whom 40% take transit to work and 57% drive. It goes without saying that the transit options are exceedingly harsh. The connections from Brooklyn require taking a subway through Manhattan (and I don’t think LGA is necessarily important enough to justify a direct bus route from Brooklyn, presumably a merger of the B38 with a Q18/Q47 compromise route to the airport). From Queens beyond subway range they require taking a bus to the subway and then another bus. The implication is that people take transit to the airport out of necessity – that is, poverty – and not because the options are good.
Unfortunately, the implication is also that it’s hard to serve the current employee base by any rail link, even if it’s fare-integrated with the subway (unlike the JFK AirTrain). The origins are too dispersed. The best that can be done is serving one tranche of origins, and letting passengers sort themselves based on commute possibilities.
In some strategic places, a decent two-seat ride can be made available. The M60 bus is not good for passengers, but it is fine for employees since more of them come from Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, and moreover low incomes imply that it’s fine to have a transit : car trip time ratio well in excess of 1 provided it’s not too onerous. Some future rail extensions, not covered in the study, would help with passenger distribution: Triboro RX would help get passengers from the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and parts of Queens to major transfer points at Astoria and Jackson Heights, and Penn Station Access with an Astoria stop would help get eastern Bronx passengers into Astoria with a quick transfer.
The alternatives analyzed
The study mentions a horde of different options for connecting people to the airport, but most only get a few paragraphs followed by an indication that they don’t meet the objectives and therefore should not be considered further. These excluded alignments exist only for i-dotting and t-crossing, such as ferries or whatever Elon Musk is calling his tunnels this year; Port Authority is right to reject them.
The alternatives proposed for further consideration consist of no build, subway extensions, and various air train alignments. Unfortunately, on second pass, the subway extensions are all eliminated, on the same grounds of community impact. This includes the least impactful subway extension, going north on 31st Street and then east on 19th Avenue, avoiding Ditmars (which could host an el).
Instead of a subway extension, the study is recommending an air train. There are many alternatives analyzed: one from Astoria along the Grand Central Parkway, one from Woodside with a connecting to the local M/R trains on the Queens Boulevard Line at Northern Boulevard, one from Jackson Heights, one from Jamaica with a missed connection to the 7, and one from Willets Point as recommended by Cuomo. All but the last are excluded on the same grounds of impact. Any land acquisition appears to be prohibited, no matter how minor.
What went wrong?
The obvious answer to why the study recommends the Willets Point detour is political support. This can be seen in e.g. PDF-p. 150, a table analyzing each of the air train possibilities. One of the criteria is operational concerns. The Jamaica option fails that test because it is so circuitous it would not get passengers between the airport and either Penn Station or Grand Central in thirty minutes. The Willets Point option passes, despite being circuitous as well (albeit less so); it would still not get passengers to Midtown Manhattan in thirty minutes since the 7 is slow, but the study seems to be assuming passengers would take the LIRR, on the half-hourly Port Washington Branch.
This alone suggests political sandbagging. But by itself it doesn’t explain how the study’s assumptions sandbag the options the governor doesn’t favor; after all, there could be many little omissions and judgment calls.
Rather, I propose that the study specifically looked only at nonstop service to the airport. The subway extensions are all proposed as nonstop services from Astoria (either Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars) to the airport, without intermediate stops. Without intermediate stops, the political will to build els above neighborhood streets is diminished, because few people in Astoria have any need to travel to LaGuardia. In contrast, with intermediate stops, the subway extensions would improve coverage within Astoria, serving Steinway and Hazen Streets.
If intermediate stops are desired, then 19th Avenue may not be the best corridor. Ditmars itself is feasible (with some takings), as are 21st and 20th Avenues. Ditmars has the most impact but serves the highest-value location, and can descend to Grand Central Parkway to get to the airport without any tunneling, limiting costs.
Moreover, the impact of els can be reduced by building them on concrete columns rather than all-steel structures. Paris Metro Line 2 opened in 1903, before the First Subway in New York; it has a steel structure on top of concrete columns, and the noise level is low enough that people can have conversations underneath while a train is passing. New Yorkers should be familiar with the reduced noise of concrete structures since the 7 el on top of Queens Boulevard is quiet, but that is an all-concrete structure on a very wide street; Line 2 here follows wide boulevards as well but not so wide as Queens Boulevard, and is moreover a mixture of concrete and steel, and yet manages not to have the screeching noise New Yorkers are familiar with from Astoria, Woodside, and other neighborhoods with els.
Is this study valuable?
Yes and no. Its conclusions should be tossed for their limited scope (nonstop airport access only), questionable assumptions (overreliance on infrequent commuter rail), and political aims (justifying Cuomo’s decision). But some of the underlying analysis, especially of current travel patterns, is useful for the purposes of thinking about systemwide transit expansion. Despite the consideration of an N/W extension, the study does not try to figure out the percentage of travelers whose ultimate origin or destination is near an N/W stop, only near a 7 stop; however, we can make some educated guesses from the map and realize that an N/W extension is of considerable value to passengers.
For employees, the situation is more delicate. The study mentions them but doesn’t try to optimize for them – the aim is to give Cuomo political cover, not to design the best possible public transit for New York. But the dispersal of worker origins means that a single rail link to the airport is unlikely to have much of an effect. Better everywhere-to-everywhere transit is needed. With decent bus connections at Astoria and Jackson Heights, it’s more important to build circumferential transit there (that is, Triboro) than to connect directly to the airport.
A general program of transit expansion would serve both groups. An N/W extension through Astoria with intermediate stops would give the neighborhood better coverage while also connecting the airport with Manhattan destinations, with good transfers to origins on the Upper East and West Sides. Better circumferential transit would then let workers from different parts of the city use the same extension without having to detour through Midtown even if their origins are in the Bronx or Queens.
Can any of this happen? The answer is unambiguously yes. Even in New York, els and at-grade rail is not so expensive. The only real question is whether good transit can happen while the state is governed by a do-nothing administration, headed by a governor who is more interested in a signature project than in improving transportation for his hapless subjects.
The public transit conversation is full of statements like “passengers don’t like to transfer,” or, in quantified terms, “passengers perceive a minute transferring to be equivalent to 1.75 minutes on a moving vehicle.” But what does this exactly mean? It’s not a statement that literally every passenger has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75. Different passengers behave differently. At best, it’s a statement that the average passenger on the current system has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75, or alternatively that the aggregate behavior of current passengers can be approximated by a model in which everyone has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75. Understanding that different people have different preferences is critical to both the technical and political aspects of transportation planning.
I talked about the heterogeneity of transfer penalties three years ago, and don’t want to rewrite that post. Instead, I want to talk more broadly about this issue, and how it affects various transit reforms. In many cases, bad American transit practices are the result not of agency incompetence (although that happens in droves) but of preferential treatment for specific groups that have markedly different preferences from the average.
The universal symbol of disability is the wheelchair. Based on this standard, every discussion of accessible to people with disabilities centers people in wheelchairs, or alternatively retirees in walkers (who tend to make sure of the same infrastructure for step-free access).
However, disabilities are far broader, and different conditions lead to dramatically different travel preferences. One paper by the CDC estimates that 20% of US adults have chronic pain, and 8% have high-impact chronic pain, limiting their life in some way. People with chronic pain are disproportionately poor, uneducated, and unemployed, which should not be a surprise as chronic pain makes it hard to work or go to school (in contrast, the one unambiguously inborn socioeconomic factor in the study, race, actually goes the other way – whites have somewhat higher chronic pain rates than blacks and Hispanics). Another paper published by BMJ is a meta-analysis, finding that depending on the study 35-51% of the UK population has chronic pain and 10-14% has moderately to severely disabling chronic pain.
I’ve only talked to a handful of people with chronic pain – all of working age – and the best generalization that I can make is that it is impossible to generalize. The conditions vary too much. Some find it more painful to drive than to take transit, some are the opposite. Some have conditions that make it hard for them to walk, some are fine with walking but can’t stand for very long. To the extent the people I’ve talked to have common features, they a) have a strong preference for rail over bus, and b) require a seat and can’t stand on a moving vehicle for very long.
The best use case for rapid transit is getting people to work in a congested city center at a busy time of day, ideally rush hour. Off-peak ridership is generally cheaper to serve than peak ridership, but this is true for all modes of transportation, and public transit tends to be relatively better at the peak than cars. Per table 2 of the Hub Bound report, as of 2016, 19% of public transit riders entering the Manhattan core do so between 8 and 9 am and 43% do so between 7 and 10 am, whereas the corresponding proportions for drivers are 6% and 18% respectively.
The upshot is that people are more likely to ride public transit if they work a salaried job. This is especially true in the middle class, which can afford to drive, and whose alternative is to work at some suburban office park where car ownership is mandatory. In the working class, the distribution of jobs is less CBD-centric, but the ability to afford a car is more constrained.
The social groups most likely to drive are then neither the working class (which doesn’t own cars anywhere with even semi-reasonable public transit) nor the professional working class, but other social classes. The petite bourgeoisie is the biggest one: small business owners tend to drive, since they earn enough for it, tend to have jobs that either virtually require driving (e.g. plumbers) or involve storefronts that are rarely located at optimal locations for transit, and need to go in and out at various times of day.
Another group that’s disproportionately likely to drive is retirees. They don’t work, so they don’t use transit for its most important role. They take trips to the hospital (which is bundled with issues of disability), which can be served by buses given that hospitals are major job centers and non-work travel destinations, but their other trips tend to be based on decades of socialization that have evolved haphazardly. The urban transit network isn’t likely to be set up for their particular social use cases.
Consensus for whomst?
I bring up small business owners and retirees because these two groups are especially empowered in local politics. When I lived in Sweden, I could vote in the local and regional elections, where I had no idea what the main issues were and who the candidates were; I voted Green based on the party’s national platform, but for all I know it’s not great on Stockholm-specific issues. Figuring out the national politics is not hard even for a newcomer who doesn’t speak the language – there are enough English-language news sources, there’s social media, there are friends and coworkers. But local politics is a mystery, full of insider information that’s never spelled out explicitly.
What this means is that the groups most empowered in local politics – that is, with the highest turnouts, the most ability to influence others in the same constituency, and the greatest ability to make consistent decisions – are ones that have local social networks and have lived in one place for a long time. This privileges older voters over younger voters, and if anything underprivileges people with disabilities, whose ability to form social and political connections is constrained by where they can go. This also privileges people with less mobile jobs – that is, shopkeepers rather than either the professional middle class or the working class.
With their greater local influence, the most empowered groups ensure the transportation that exists is what is good for them: cars. Public transit is an afterthought, so of course there is no systemwide reorganization – that would require politicians to care about it, which interferes with their ability to satisfy the politically strongest classes. But even individual decisions of how to run transit suffer from the same problem when there is no higher political force (such as a strong civil service or a national political force): bus stops are very close together, transfers are discouraged (“we oppose the principle of interchange” said one left-wing group opposed to Jarrett Walker’s bus redesign in Dublin), rail service is viewed more as a construction nuisance than a critical mobility service, etc.
Models for transportation usage take into account the behavior of the average user – at least the average current user, excluding ones discouraged by poor service. However, the political system takes into account the behavior of the average empowered voter. In the case of local politics, this average voter rarely rides public transit. When city political machines run themselves, the result is exactly what you’d think.