Lately I’ve seen some very aggressive people on social media assert that high American transit construction and operating costs are the fault of unions, and thus, the solution is to break the unions using the usual techniques of subterfuge and breaking implicit promises. A while back, maybe a year ago, I even saw someone argue that gadgetbahn (monorails, PRT, Hyperloop, etc.) is specifically a solution to union agreements covering traditional transit but not things that are marketed as new things. This is an incorrect analysis of the problem, and like many other incorrect analyses, the solutions that would follow were this analysis correct are in fact counterproductive.
American costs are high even without unions
The majority of American transit construction occurs in parts of the country with relatively strong unions. This is for historical reasons: American cities with large prewar cores are both more unionized and more densely populated than newer Sunbelt cities. Thus, a table with cities and their subway construction costs, such as what one might get cobbling together my posts, will show very high costs mostly in cities with American unions.
However, American cities with weak unions build transit too, it’s just unlikely to come with subway tunnels. We can look at above-ground urban rail construction costs in a variety of American states with right-to-work laws. There is one recent above-ground metro line in a right-to-work state, the Washington Silver Line in Virginia, and another proposal, an extension of MARTA. Let’s compare their costs with those of other mostly at-grade urban rail lines in unionized West Coast states:
- The second phase of the Silver Line cost $2.8 billion, or about $150 million per km.
- The proposed MARTA extension is projected to cost about $110 million per km.
- Portland’s Milwaukie MAX extension, which Wikipedia says cost $1.5 billion for 11.7 km, or $130 million per km.
- San Diego’s mixed elevated and rail right-of-way Blue Line extension is currently budgeted at $2.1 billion, or $120 million per km.
- The canceled BART extension to Livermore in a freeway median would have cost $1.6 billion, or $180 million per km.
We can go lower than this range by looking at street-running light rail lines, which are popular in such Sunbelt cities as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte, but then we can compare them with light rail lines in Minneapolis, which has no right-to-work laws.
- Dallas’s Orange Line cost either $1.3 billion or $1.8 billion, or $2.8 billion, so either $58 or 80 million per km.
- Houston’s Green and Purple Lines together cost $1.3 billion, about $80 million per km.
- Phoenix’s light rail extension to Gilbert Road is $186 million, about $60 million per km. A canceled extension to Glendale was projected to cost $900 million to $1 billion, around $90 million per km.
- Charlotte’s light rail extension cost $1.1 billion, about $75 million per km.
- Minneapolis’s light rail extensions, the Blue Line extension and the Southwest LRT, are $1.5 and $2 billion respectively, or about $75 and $80 million per km.
Let’s also look at commuter rail. Dallas’s Cotton Belt Line, a diesel line in a disused freight right-of-way, is projected to cost $1.1 billion for 42 km. The cost, $26 million per km, is within the normal European range for greenfield high-speed rail without tunnels, and more than an order of magnitude higher than some German examples from Hans-Joachim Zierke’s site. In Massachusetts, the plans for South Coast Rail cost around $3 billion for 77.6 km before some recent modifications cutting both cost and length, about $40 million per km; this would have included electrification and right-of-way construction through an environmentally sensitive area, since bypassed to cut costs.
Finally, what of operating costs? There, the Sunbelt is unambiguously cheaper than the Northeast, Chicago, and California – but only by virtue of lower market wages. The cost ranges for both sets of states are wide. In Chicago and San Francisco, the operating costs of rapid transit are not much higher than $5/car-km per the NTD, which is normal or if anything below average by first-world standards. Light rail looks more expensive to operate in old unionized cities, but only because Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco’s light rail lines are subway-surface lines with low average speeds, which are more expensive to run than the faster greenfield light rail lines built elsewhere in North America. The lowest operating costs on recently-built light rail lines in the US are in Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Denver, and among those only the first is in a right-to-work state.
Non-labor problems in American transit
I urge everyone to look at the above lists of American transit lines and their costs again, because it showcases something important: high American costs are not a uniform problem, but rather afflict some areas more than others. Commuter rail construction costs are the worst, casually going over European levels by a full order of magnitude or even more. Subway operating costs are the best, ranging from no premium at all in some cities (Chicago) to a factor-of-2 premium in others (New York). Light rail construction costs are in the middle. The variety of cost premiums suggests that there are other problems in play than just labor, which should hit everything to about the same extent.
When I’m asked to explain high American construction costs, I usually cite the following explanations:
- Poor contracting practices, which include selection of bidders based exclusively on cost, micromanagement making companies reluctant to do business with New York public works, and design-build contracts removing public oversight and encouraging private-sector micromanagement.
- Poor project management: Boston’s Green Line Extension is now budgeted at about $1 billion for 7.6 km, but this is on the heels of an aborted attempt from earlier this decade, driving up total money spent beyond $2 billion.
- Indifference to foreign practices: Americans at all levels, including transit agencies, shadow agencies like the Regional Plan Association, and government bodies do not know or care how things work in other countries, with the partial exception of Canada and the UK, which have very high costs as well. The area where there has been the greatest postwar innovation in non-English-speaking countries, namely commuter rail, is the one where the US is the farthest behind when it comes to cost control. Explanation #1 can be folded into this as well, since the insistences on cost + technical score bid selection and on separation of design and construction are Spanish innovations, uncommon and obscure in the English-speaking world.
- Overbuilding: extra infrastructure required by agency turf battles, extra construction impact required by same, and mined stations. Other than the mined stations, the general theme is poor coordination between different agencies, which once again is especially bad when commuter rail is involved for historical reasons, and which in addition to raising costs also leads to lower project benefits.
Labor is a factor, but evidently, the intransigent BART unions coexist with low operating costs, as do the Chicago L unions. American unions are indifferent to productivity more than actively hostile to it, and in some cases, i.e. bus reforms in New York, they’re even in favor of treatments that would encourage more people to ride public transit.
But union rules force transit agencies to overstaff, right?
In the Northeast, there are unambiguous examples of overstaffing. Brian Rosenthal’s article for the New York Times found horror stories, and upon followup, frequent commenter and Manhattan Institute fellow Connor Harris has found more systematic cases, comparing the ~25 people it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine in New York with the 12 required in Germany. The unions themselves have pushed back against this narrative, but it appears to be a known problem in the infrastructure construction industry.
So what gives? In Texas, the unions are too weak to insist on any overstaffing. Texas is not New York or even California. Without knowing the details of what goes on in Texas, my suspicion is that there is an informal national standard emerging out of mid-20th century practices in the cities that were big then. I see this when it comes to decisions about construction techniques: features that came out of the machinations of interwar New York, like the full-length subway mezzanine, spread nationwide, raising the cost of digging station caverns. I would not be surprised to discover something similar when it comes to staffing. Obvious economies like running driver-only train are already widespread nearly everywhere in the US, New York being the exception. Less obvious economies concerning maintenance regimes are harder to implement without very detailed knowledge, which small upstart Sunbelt transit agencies are unlikely to have, and if they invite consultants or other experts, they will learn to work in the same manner as the big American transit agencies.
The reality that the entirety of the American transit industry is used to doing things a certain way means that there needs to be a public discussion about staffing levels. There are jobs that look superfluous but are in fact crucial, and jobs that are the opposite. The cloak-and-dagger mentality of anti-union consultants does not work in this context at all. Experimentation is impossible on a safety-critical system, and nothing should be changed without double- and triple-checking that it works smoothly.
Anti-union explanations are harmful, not neutral
While union overstaffing does drive up tunneling costs in the United States, there are many other factors in play, which must be solved by other means than union-busting. By itself, this would make union-busting either neutral or somewhat positive. However, in reality, the politics of union-busting wreck government effectiveness in ways that make the overall cost problem worse.
The people who try to tell me the problem is all about the unions are not, as one might expect, Manhattan Institute hacks. Connor himself knows better, and Nicole Gelinas has been making narrow arguments about pension cuts rather than calling for sweeping changes to leave unions in the dust. Rather, the loudest anti-union voices are people who either are in tech or would like to be, and like using the word “disruption” in every sentence. The Manhattan Institute is pretty open about its goals of union-busting and race-baiting; in contrast, the people who tell me gadgetbahn is necessary to avoid union agreements insist on never being public about anything.
The rub is that it’s not possible to solve the coordination problem of public transit agencies without some sort of public process. Adding gadgetbahn to the mix creates the same result as the XKCD strip about 14 competing standards. The more the people building it insist that they’re disruptive synergistic innovators inventing the future with skin in the game, the less likely they are to build something that’s likely to be backward-compatible with anything or cohere to form a usable network.
Nor is it possible to assimilate good industry practices by cloak and dagger politics. The universe of industry practices is vast and the universe of good practices isn’t much smaller. The only way forward is via an open academic or quasi-academic process of publication, open data, peer review, and replication. A single consultancy is unlikely to have all the answers, although with enough study it could disseminate considerable knowledge.
There needs to be widespread public understanding that the United States is behind and needs to import reforms to improve its transportation network. This can happen in parallel with a process that weakens unions or for that matter with a process that strengthens them, but in practice the subterfuge of managers looking for union-busting opportunities makes it difficult to attack all cost drivers at once. Whatever happens with conventional left-right politics, there is no room for people who reduce the entirety or even the majority of America’s transit cost problem to labor.
One of my go-to datasets for analyzing American intercity traffic is the Consumer Airfare Report. It reports on average airfares paid for domestic airline traffic, and on the way gives exact counts for O&D traffic between any pair of cities in the contiguous United States. Six and a half years ago I used this dataset to look at potential demand for high-speed rail, back when high-speed rail was still a topic of conversation in American politics, and a few days ago I got curious and looked again.
Unfortunately, the Consumer Airfare Report is no longer available as an easily downloadable table, due to web design horror. The relevant table, Table 6, used to be downloadable per quarter; today the only version lumps all data going back to 1996 and is 100 MB. Here are two cleaned up versions in .ods format, one a 40 MB table going back to 1996 and one an 800 KB table of just the most recent quarter available, the second quarter of 2018. The files lump all airports in a metro area together, such as JFK and Newark, and reports data in ridership per day; be aware that in the smaller file I repeat every city pair, one for each direction, making it easy to sort by city to figure out each city’s total air traffic, which means that just summing up ridership for all city pairs together yields double the actual traffic. In this post I’m going to compare data from 2018 to data from 2011, the year used in my previous post.
Air traffic is increasing
In 2011 Q3, the total volume of domestic air traffic in the US was 1,020,673 per day. By 2018 Q2, it had risen to 1,303,397. A small proportion of this increase is seasonality – Q2 is the busiest – but most of it is real. Here is a table of air traffic and average distance flown (in miles) by quarter:
Long-distance air traffic is especially increasing
The proposition of high-speed rail is that it can replace short-haul flights. A plane averages about 1,000 km/h but incurs considerable taxi, takeoff, and landing time, and passengers also have considerable airport access and egress times, including security and other queues. High-speed trains average about 200-250 km/h, but need no security – a well-run system allows passengers to show up at the station less than five minutes before the train departs – and have much shorter access and egress times as stations are located near city centers.
The above table shows a small increase in average distance flown, about 2% since 2011. However, this masks patterns in the largest cities. New York-Los Angeles traffic grew 30%, compared with 23% in national traffic growth; it is now barely behind New York-Miami (with West Palm Beach separated out) for third busiest American air city pair, the first being far and away Los Angeles-San Francisco.
We can look at the change in the proportion of traffic that can be served by HSR in the largest six American air markets since 2011; consult my post from 2012 for the exact definitions of which corridors count within which buckets – there are some revisions and fixed to be made, but I’ve not done them in order to keep the list of city pairs constant. Las Vegas is no longer ahead of Boston, and Dallas is a fraction of a percent below Boston as of 2018.
|City||Traffic (2011 Q3)||Traffic (2018 Q2)||< 3:00 (2011)||< 3:00 (2018)||< 5:00 (2011)||< 5:00 (2018)|
In the East, short-distance markets have shrunk, in relative terms. Observe that in Chicago the entire difference is within the 3-hour radius, including the spokes of any Midwest HSR network, where air travel has srhunk 12.6% in absolute terms, whereas the 3-to-5-hour annulus, including farther away cities like Atlanta and New York, has not only grown but kept up with Chicago’s overall domestic air travel volumes. But in New York, Washington, and Boston, both the 3-hour radius and the 3-to-5-hour annulus have shrunk, reflecting flights to intermediate Midwestern cities east of Chicago as well as to the South; Boston’s 3-to-5-hour annulus has shrunk 6% in absolute terms.
California holds steady
Since 2011 there has been an increase in air travel to California, especially San Francisco. Los Angeles-San Francisco, once the second largest air market in the US behind New York-Miami, is now far ahead of it, and on its strength, the share of air travel out of Los Angeles and San Francisco that’s within HSR radius has held up.
California’s HSR problems are not about whether there’s demand for such infrastructure. There clearly is. The problems are exclusively about construction costs. But as the state’s economy grows, demand for internal travel is increasing, making HSR a better proposition.
What does this mean for HSR?
The cynical answer is nothing, because in an America where even high-spending Green New Deal proposals neglect HSR and focus on electric cars, it’s unlikely there will be a political effort to build anything. Even Amtrak seems content with justifying capital expense on grounds of climate adaptation rather than reducing trip times.
That said, in the event of a concerted national effort to build HSR, the changes in travel patterns this decade suggest some changes on the margins. California and Texas grow in value while the Midwest falls in value.
In the Midwest, the core lines remain strong, but more peripheral Midwestern lines, say a bypass around Chicago for cross-regional traffic or improved rail service due west toward Iowa, are probably no longer worth it. The Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor may not be worth it to build as full HSR – instead it may be downgraded to an electrified passenger-primary corridor (as I understand it it already has very little freight).
There is asymmetry in this situation in that there aren’t a lot of peripheral lines in California and Texas that are becoming interesting now that these states’ economies are bigger than they were when rail advocates first came up with maps in the late 2000s. There is still far too little traffic to justify stringing HSR from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City or from Sacramento to Portland under the mountains. In Texas, there has been a shift from the T-bone alignment to a more triangle-shaped network, since a direct Dallas-Houston line is already under construction, but beyond the Texas triangle, tails like Dallas-Oklahoma City and Houston-New Orleans aren’t getting stronger – Houston-New Orleans air travel volumes are actually down from 2011, though Dallas-New Orleans volumes are up.
The core lines, of course, don’t change. The Northeast Corridor is still the most important corridor, the next most important are still tie-ins extending it to the south and west, and the following is still California HSR. But the dreams of a nationally connected network, or at least a connected network in the eastern two-thirds of the US, should be cast aside – the in-between links, always peripheral, have weakened in this decade.
A few years ago, Sandy Johnston remarked that Jerusalem had the least gridded street network he ever saw, and this complicates any surface transit planning there. At the time he was familiar with New England already, but Jerusalem seemed different.
Here are street maps of West Jerusalem and Boston, at the same scale:
Boston has some gridded sub-areas, like Back Bay, but Downtown Boston is as messy as Jerusalem, and on the level of arterial streets, even the rest of the city isn’t too different. The real issue affecting Jerusalem is the hilly topography. Once one gets out of the core of West Jerusalem, the city turns into a mess of hills with internal street networks and poor connectivity between them. Boston maintains a coherent structure of arterial streets that host buses and tramways, with a cobweb structure that feeds the subway efficiently; in Jerusalem, there is little chance of that.
Surface vs. rapid transit
Rapid transit is mostly insensitive to hills. A subway can be built across hills, partly underground, partly elevated. This is the case in Upper Manhattan, where the 1 train runs in a mix of cut-and-cover subway, elevated structures, and mined deep-level tunnel.
Even if the hills slope down into the natural arterial, this is not such a problem. Train stations can incorporate escalator access and have exits at different elevations. New York manages this in the same neighborhood where the 1 runs, in Washington Heights, on the A train. Monaco, on a sloping hill, manages the same at its train station, which is located underground, using elevator access from multiple neighborhoods at different altitudes.
The deep mining required for such construction doesn’t even raise costs that much. If it’s possible to secure horizontal access to the station site, construction becomes easier. Moreover, running elevated through the valleys, as the 1 does in Manhattan Valley and Inwood, cuts costs rather than increasing them.
Evidently, the hilliness of Rome has not prevented the city from building a subway. Line C’s construction costs were very high, but not because of topography but because of millennia-old archeology, which is not really a question of the street network.
Since rapid transit is not affected as much by hills as surface transit, a city with hilly topography should be biased toward rapid transit and against surface transit. This does not mean every flat city should be content with surface transit and every steep city should build subways and els, but it does mean that the population and density thresholds for rapid transit are smaller in hillier cities.
Some cities are very hilly, but this does not affect their street networks. San Francisco is famous for this: north of Market, in neighborhoods like Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill, the street grid continues mostly uninterrupted, and the result is famously steep streets. In these cities, transit network planning need not pay much attention to the topography: the only concession that need be made is that agencies should preferentially electrify and run trolleybuses, which have better hill-climbing performance than diesel buses – as San Francisco Muni in fact has, retaining trolleybuses rather than replacing them with diesels as nearly all other American cities have.
The more interesting and difficult case is when the street network respects the hills. It can naturally turn the city’s street layout into that of multiple distinct pods, each surrounding a different hill. This is popular in Jerusalem, especially the settlements within East Jerusalem, but also in some of the newer parts of West Jerusalem. There is not much connectivity between these different pods: there may be a single arterial road with the rest of the city, as is the case for the settlements of Pisgat Ze’ev, Ramot, and Ramat Shlomo.
This kind of pod development is popular in a lot of auto-oriented suburbia. The cul-de-sac is a defining feature of many an American suburb. However, in Jerusalem we see it happen even in the context of a dense city: Jerusalem proper has a density of 7,200 people per square kilometer, and all the settlements in question are within the jurisdiction of the city. It comes out of a combination of modernist central planning (Israeli neighborhoods and cities are designed top-down, rather than expanding piecemeal as in North America or France) and the hilly terrain.
Transit planning for such a city is a chore. In theory, choke points are good for transit, because they have high intensity of travel, where dedicated lanes can make buses very efficient. In practice, choke points work for transit only when there are coherent corridors on both sides for the buses to feed. For example, on a wide river spanned by few bridges, buses can run on the bridges, and then continue on the arterials feeding them on either side. Pod development, in contrast, has no coherent arterials within each pod, just collector roads feeding the main drag. Buses can still run on these streets, but there is no structure to the density that encourages them to serve particular locations and not others.
One solution is a type of transit that is overused in flatter cities: the direct express bus, or open BRT. This bus runs local within each pod and then continues on the arterial, making few stops; it could run as open BRT if the arterial has enough development to justify such service, or as a nonstop express service if it is a full freeway. This form of transit developed for both low-density American suburbia and Israeli pod development towns (where this is buttressed by the tendency of the ultra-Orthodox to travel in large families, in which case transfer penalties are much higher, encouraging low-frequency direct service).
Another solution is to go in the air. Gondola lifts are seeing increasing use in extremely hilly cities, where surface transit must wend its way through switchbacks. Medellin’s Metrocable has a vertical rise of 400 meters. Even in cities that are less steep, gondolas could be a solution if arterial roads are simply not available. In the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, arterials are rarely available, and gondolas bridging ravines could be of use. Gondolas could also be useful for neighborhoods that are only connected by arterial in a radial rather than circumferential direction – they could again bridge ravines to connect peripheral neighborhoods to one another rather than just to the center.
In major transit cities, rich areas have better access to public transportation than poor areas – in fact, what makes them valuable is precisely the easy access to high-paying jobs. Even in cities with bad transit, this is often the case: the transit systems of cities with mode shares in the 10-15% area, like Boston and Chicago, tend to be good at serving city center and little else, and city center workers tend to be richer because professional work tends to cluster whereas low-skill work tends to disperse.
However, there are exceptions to this rule. One, the French Riviera, occurs in a city region with a transit mode share of 13%, comparable to that of American city regions where transit commuters outearn solo drivers. Two more cities are would-be exceptions, for opposite reasons: Providence has no public transit to speak of, but if it invested in creating a transit network, the natural corridors would serve the poor better than the rich; and Vancouver currently has better SkyTrain service in working-class areas than in richer ones, but its current investment is in middle-class areas, and moreover its extensive transit-oriented development has been middle-class as well.
Moreover, all three cities have patterns that generalize. The situation in the Riviera arises because of the classed nature of work there, and generalizes to other places with extensive tourism. That in Providence arises because of the city’s industrial history, and may generalize to other deindustrialized small cities with underutilized legacy rail networks. In Vancouver, part of this situation is because easy rail corridors were more readily available in poorer areas for an essentially random reason, but another part is extensive transit-oriented development concentrating working-class jobs near train stations.
The Riviera: the casinos are walkable, the tech jobs aren’t
Before I go any further, I’d like to stress something important: my observation of the Riviera is largely based on qualitative observations. I don’t know of INSEE data comparable to the Census Bureau’s Means of Transportation to Work by Selected Characteristics table, which could allow me to test the theory that transit ridership in the Riviera skews poor. All I am going by is what I have seen riding trains and occasionally buses as well as what I know of the distribution of jobs.
What I’ve seen is that transit use in the Riviera skews working class. Middle-class Parisians sometimes drive and sometimes take the trains. In contrast, the rich people who I’ve met in the Riviera have as far as I can tell never set foot on the TER. This is despite the fact that the TER is competitive with driving on the area’s main arterial road, the Moyenne Corniche, and is even competitive with the A8 freeway over short distances because the A8 has difficult access time to the relevant exits. Not for nothing, train stations in rich areas have very little ridership: per SNCF’s ridership data, stations in rich areas like Cap d’Ail and Cap Martin-Roquebrune have around 60,000 boardings plus alightings per year, so around 100 weekday boardings, whereas in working- and lower-middle-class Menton the annual total is 1.4 million, or around 2,300 weekday boardings.
The train stations, too, signal poverty. They’re not neglected, but what I’ve seen of them reminded me of working-class suburbs of Paris like Boissy much more than middle-class ones like Bures-sur-Yvette. I was even warned off of spending too much time near Nice’s train station by people echoing local middle-class prejudices. The buses look even poorer: the main east-west bus on the Moyenne Corniche is full of migrant workers.
A key clue for what is happening can be found when selecting a destination station at the fare machines in Menton. As far as I remember, the first option given is not Nice, but Monaco. SNCF’s data table doesn’t include ridership for Monaco, but Wikipedia claims 5.5 million a year without citation, and SNCF’s own blurb claims more than 6 million. Either figure is narrowly behind Nice’s 6.9 million for second in the Riviera and well ahead of third-place Cannes’s 3.2 million – and Nice also has some intercity traffic.
While Monaco’s residents are rich, its commuters are not. There are no corporate jobs in Monaco, because its tax haven status does not extend to corporations with substantial sales outside the city-state, only to local businesses like restaurants and stores. The commuters work low-pay service jobs at hotels and casinos, which they access by train, or perhaps on foot if they live in Beausoleil, as many a domestic service worker in Monaco does.
In contrast, the mass of middle-class jobs cluster in a purpose-built edge city in Antibes, called Sophia-Antipolis. While Antibes itself has a decent transit mode share for residents (10.5%, cf. Menton’s 14.8% and Nice’s 25.4%), and its train station gets 1.6 million annual boardings and alightings, the edge city is unwalkable and far from the train. There’s some traffic in the Riviera, but not enough that middle-class people, who can afford cars, clamor for transit alternatives to their suburban jobs.
The main lesson here is that while the jobs most likely to cluster are usually middle-class city center jobs, working-class tourism jobs cluster as well in regions that have plenty of them. Tourism in the Riviera is the most intense in Monaco specifically and in other coastal cities generally, which encourages travel along the linear corridor, where rail shines. It’s usually hard to see, because for the most part the top tourist destinations are enormous like London, Paris, and New York, but in specialized tourist regions the separation is clearer.
Already we see some evidence of this in Las Vegas, where working-class jobs cluster along the Strip. The city has a monorail, serving the hotels and casinos rather than city center. Were it interested in improving public transportation, it could build an elevated railroad on the Strip itself for better service.
Orlando is another potential example. I named it as a specific example of a region that would be difficult to retrofit for public transit earlier this year, but Disney World remains a major clustering of working-class jobs as well as some middle-class leisure travel. The problem there is that Disney World is far from the train and, unlike the Riviera, does not lie on any line with other potential ridership draws; nonetheless, a train connecting the Orlando CBD, the airport, and Disney World could get some traffic.
Finally, picturesque mountain resorts that happen to lie near rail could see working-class travel on the train to their tourism jobs. Many of these resorts are where they are specifically because a legacy rail trunk happened to be there and the railroad developed the area to generate demand for its services; this is the case for Jasper, Lake Louise, and Banff, all on the Alberta side of the Continental Divide. Aspen is not on a railroad, but is on a road where buses carry working-class commuters displaced by the town’s high housing costs.
Providence: once upon a time, there were factories near the railroad
When I lived in Providence seven years ago, I discussed transit improvements with local urbanists who I met through Greater City: Providence. We talked about improvements to both bus and rail; we had little appetite for the proposed city center streetcar, which has since been downgraded to a proposed frequent bus, and instead talked about improvements to the busiest buses as well as rail service along the main spine of the Northeast Corridor.
The improvements to the busiest buses were already under discussion by the state, including signal priority on key routes and investment in queue jump lanes and shelter amenities. The two routes that were by far the state’s busiest, the 99 on North Main and 11 on Broad, were permanently combined to a single through-running service branded as the R bus, for rapid, with limited-stop service. These routes serve very poor parts of the built-up area, including Pawtucket on the 99 and South Providence on the 11. This is a consequence of the fact that transit in Rhode Island is so bad that only the poor use it, and thus the preexisting busy routes serve poor areas; the best physical bus infrastructure is a bus tunnel to College Hill, the richest neighborhood in the city, but ridership there is weak and therefore the routes were never high priorities for further investment.
The improvements to rail never went beyond blogging; we didn’t have the pull of Boston’s TransitMatters, which itself is better at proposing small improvements than big ones that go up against political obstruction. What we called for was frequent local rail within the urban area: Peter Brassard wrote up the initial proposal, and I added some refinements. The Northeast Corridor, where the service would run, is primarily an intercity rail corridor, but there is room for four tracks in the right-of-way, and while there is freight traffic, it runs at the same approximate speed of a local passenger train.
As we discussed this proposal, Greater City’s Jef Nickerson noted something: what the train would do if implemented is produce better transit service in working-class areas than in more comfortable ones. Unlike the situation with the buses, this was not an intentional process. We would like Rhode Island to improve rail service using an existing right-of-way, which happens to serve Central Falls, Pawtucket, Olneyville, Hartford, Cranston, and Warwick, and miss the East Side and the middle-class suburbs. We realized that the city and inner-suburbs like Pawtucket are poorer than the proper suburbs, but that the train would serve Olneyville but not the East Side seemed like a coincidence.
But is it really a coincidence? Providence developed from east to west. The city was initially founded on the western side of what is now the East Side, sloping down to the river. What is now Downcity was only the second part of the city to develop. It became the center of the city because, as the Northeast Corridor was constructed, it was not possible to provide through-service via the hilly historic core of the city, only via the flatter areas that are now Downcity. A tunnel across College Hill opened in 1908, but by then the city’s basic urban geography was set: the university and port jobs on the East Side, industrial jobs to the west near the rail mainline.
The industrial jobs are long gone now. New England was the first part of America to industrialize and the first to deindustrialize, the mills moving to lower-wage Southern states already in the middle of the 20th century. In very large cities, declining industrial jobs can be replaced with urban renewal serving the middle class: the West India Docks became Canary Wharf, the freight railyards of Gare de Lyon became Bercy, the industrial Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts became sites for condos with nice views. In Providence-size cities, no such urban renewal is possible: there is no large mass of middle-class people clamoring to live or work in Olneyville, so the neighborhood became impoverished.
While factories may seem like attractive targets for transit commuting, they’re so clustered, in reality they have not been walkable ever since electrification made open-plan single-story factories viable. Factories are land-intensive and have been since around the 1910s. Moreover, whereas hotels and retail have a reason to locate in walkable areas for their consumption amenities – tourists like walking around the city – factories do not, and if anything depress an area’s desirability through noise and pollution. Working industrial districts are not attractive for transit, but post-industrial ones are, even if they are not gentrified the way so much of London, Paris, and New York have.
A large number of cities share Providence’s history as a medium-size post-industrial city. Nearly every English city except London qualifies, as do the cities of the American Northeast and Midwest below the size class of Boston and Philadelphia. Moreover, all of these cities have undergone extensive middle-class flight, with the racial dimension of white flight in the US but even without it in Britain; thus, the relatively dense neighborhoods, where transit service is more viable, are disproportionately poor. However, the feasibility of mainline rail service to post-industrial neighborhoods is uneven, and depends on local idiosyncrasies.
One positive example I’m more familiar with that’s a lot like Providence is in New Haven. Its best potential local rail route, the Farmington Canal Trail, serves lower middle-class areas like Hamden, and fortunately parallels the busiest bus route, the D-Dixwell. While Hamden is not poor, such service would still lead to the inversion we discussed for Providence, since the rich live in thoroughly auto-oriented suburbs or within walking distance of Yale. The main drawbacks are that it would require replacing an active trail with rail service, and that either street running or brief tunneling would be needed in the final few hundred meters in Downtown New Haven.
Vancouver: easy corridors and TOD for the working class
With a modal share of 21%, Vancouver is in a somewhat higher class of transit quality than the Riviera, Boston, or Chicago. However, it remains a far cry from the numbers beginning with a 3, 4, and 5 seen in New York and in European and Asian transit cities. As with the Riviera, I am somewhat speculating from my own observations, lacking a table that clearly states transit usage by socioeconomic class. However, two factors make me believe that transit in Vancouver serves the working class better than it does the middle class.
The first factor is the corridors served by SkyTrain. The first to be built, the Expo Line, runs in a preexisting interurban right-of-way, with minor greenfield elevated and underground construction; even the downtown tunnel is repurposed from a disused mainline rail branch. It passes through a mixture of working-class and lower middle-class neighborhoods on its way to Surrey, which is working-class and very negatively stereotyped. The second, the Millennium Line, branches east, to lower middle-class suburbs, running on a greenfield el. The third, the Canada Line, is a partially tunneled, partially elevated route through the middle-class West Side to working-class Richmond. Only the fourth line to be built, the Evergreen extension of the Millennium Line, finally serves a comfortable area, as will the next line, the Broadway extension of the Millennium Line deeper into the West Side.
The second factor is the job distribution within Metro Vancouver. Usually, we see concentration of professional jobs in city centers and dispersal of working-class jobs among many stores. In the Riviera this relationship between job concentration and income is only inverted because the working-class jobs are disproportionately in tourism while the professional ones are in an edge city. In Vancouver I don’t believe there is any such inversion, but there is leveling: jobs of either type are concentrated in transit-rich areas. This leveling is the result of extensive commercial transit-oriented development, most notably Metrotown, which has many office jobs on top of Canada’s third largest shopping mall.
The first factor is idiosyncratic. The easy corridors happened to serve poorer areas, on a line from East Vancouver to Surrey. The rich live in North Vancouver, which has a ferry and doesn’t have enough population density for a SkyTrain tunnel; on the West Side, which is separated from downtown by False Creek and was thus late to get a rail connection; and in Port Moody and Coquitlam, which were only connected to SkyTrain recently via the Evergreen extension.
The second factor is more systemic. While American and European cities rarely have big urban shopping malls, Canadian cities are full of them. The Metropolis at Metrotown has 27 million annual visitors, not far behind the 37 million of the Forum des Halles, at the center of a metro area five times the size of Metro Vancouver – and the Metropolis has more than twice the total commercial floor area. In this, Canada is similar to Israel and Singapore, which like Canada have harsh climates, only hot instead of cold. Moreover, Vancouver has encouraged this centralization through TOD: Burnaby built Metrotown from scratch in the 1980s, simultaneously with the Expo Line.
It is difficult to engage in concerted residential TOD for the working class, since it requires extensive housing subsidies. Vancouver’s residential TOD near SkyTrain stations is thoroughly middle-class. However, concerted commercial TOD is easier: hospitals, universities, and shopping centers all employ armies of unskilled workers (the first two also employing many professional ones), the first two while satisfying general social goals for health care and education provision and the last while making the owners a profit on the open market.
Moreover, Vancouver’s TOD within downtown, too, has made it easier to provide transit service for the working and lower middle classes. Where constraints on office towers lead to high office rents, only the most critical jobs are in city centers, and those are typically high-end ones; in the US, it’s common for big corporations to site their top jobs in the center of New York or Chicago or another large city but outsource lower-end office jobs to cheaper cities. In Vancouver, as elsewhere in Canada, extensive downtown commercialization means that even semi-skilled office jobs like tech support can stay in the center rather than at suburban office parks.
Based on my own observations, I believe the Riviera provides better public transportation for the working class than for the middle class, and to some extent so does Vancouver. Providence provides uniformly poor transit service, but its lowest-hanging fruit are in working-class urban neighborhoods.
The reasons vary, but the unifying theme is that, in the Riviera and Vancouver, there is none of the typical big-city pattern in which the rich work in walkable city centers more than the poor (e.g. in New York). In Vancouver it’s the result of commercial TOD as well as a Canadian culture of urban shopping centers; in the Riviera it’s the result of unique dependence on tourism. In Providence the situation is not about job concentration but about residential concentration: lower-income neighborhoods are likelier to arise near rail because historically that’s where industry arose, and all that remains is for Providence to actually run local passenger trains on the mainline.
It is not possible to replicate culture. If your city does not have the tourism dependence of Monaco, or the shopping mall culture of Vancouver, or the post-industrial history of Providence, there’s little it can do to encourage better urban geography for working-class transit use. At best, can build up more office space in the center, as Vancouver did, and hope that this encourages firms to locate their entire operations there rather than splitting them between a high-end head office and lower-end outlying ones. Fortunately, there exist many cities that do have the special factors of the Riviera, Vancouver, or Providence. In such cities, transit planners should make note of how they can use existing urban geography to help improve transit service for the population that most depends on it.
The Boston rapid transit network has the shape of the hex symbol, #. In Downtown Boston, the two north-south legs are the Green Line on the west and the Orange Line on the east, and the two east-west legs are the Red Line on the south and the Blue Line on the north. The Orange and Green Lines meet farther north, but the Red and Blue Lines do not. The main impact of this gap in systemwide connectivity is that it’s really hard to get between areas only served by the Blue Line, i.e. East Boston, and ones only served by the Red Line, i.e. Cambridge, Dorchester, and Quincy. However, there is a second impact: people who do transfer between the Red and Blue Lines overload one central transfer point at Park Street, where the Red and Green Lines meet. This way, the weak connectivity of the Boston rapid transit network creates crowding at the center even though none of the individual lines is particularly crowded in the center. The topic of this post is then how crowding at transfer points can result from poor systemwide connectivity.
The current situation in Boston
Connecting between the Blue and Red Lines requires a three-seat ride, with a single-stop leg on either the Orange or Green Line. In practice, passengers mostly use the Green Line, because the Orange Line has longer transfer corridors.
Travel volumes between East Boston and Cambridge are small. Only 1,800 people commute from East Boston, Winthrop, and the parts of Revere near the Blue Line to Cambridge, and only 500 commute in the other direction. I don’t have data on non-work travel, but anecdotally, none of the scores of Cantabrigians I know travels to the Blue Line’s service area except the airport, and to the airport they drive or take the Silver Line, and moreover, only two people moved from Cambridge or Somerville to the area, a couple that subsequently left the region for Bellingham. Travel volumes between East Boston and the southern legs of the Red Line are barely larger: 1,200 from East Boston to Dorchester, Mattapan, and Quincy, 1,600 in the other direction, most likely not taking public transit since cars are a good option using the Big Dig.
Nonetheless, this small travel volume, together with connections between East Boston and South Station or Dorchester, is funneled through Park Street. According to the 2014 Blue Book, which relies in 2012 data, transfer volumes at Park Street are 29,000 in each direction (PDF-p. 16), ahead of the Red/Orange connection at Downtown Crossing, where 25,000 people transfer in each direction every weekday. Riders connecting between the Blue and Red Lines are a noticeable proportion of this volume – the East Boston-Cambridge connection, where I believe the transit mode share is high, is around 8% of the total, and then the East Boston-Dorchester connection would add a few more percentage points.
Why Soviet triangles exist
In a number of metro networks, especially ones built in the communist bloc, there are three lines meeting in a triangle, without a central transfer point. This is almost true of the first three subway lines in Boston, omitting the Red Line: they meet in a triangle, but the Green and Orange Lines do not cross, whereas in true Soviet triangles lines meet and cross.
The reason for this typology rather than for the less common one in which all three lines meet at one station, as in Stockholm, is that it spreads transfer loads. Stockholm’s transfer point, T-Centralen, has 184,000 daily boardings (source, PDF-p. 13), almost as many as Times Square, which is served by 14 inbound tracks to T-Centralen’s 5 and is in a city with 5.6 million weekday trips to Stockholm’s 1.1 million. Urban transit networks should avoid such situations, which lead to central crowding that is very difficult to alleviate. Adding pedestrian circulation is always possible, but is more expensive at a multilevel central station than at a simple two-line crossing.
The triangle is just a convenient way of building three lines. As the number of lines grows beyond three, more connectivity is needed. Moscow’s fourth line, Line 5, is a circle, constructed explicitly to decongest the central transfer station between the first three lines. More commonly, additional lines are radials, especially in cities with water constraints that make circles difficult, like Boston and New York; but those should meet all the older radii, ideally away from existing transfer stations in order to reduce congestion. When they miss connections, either by crossing without interchange or by not crossing at all, they instead funnel more cross-city traffic through the existing transfer points, increasing ridership without increasing the capacity required to absorb it.
The way out
The situation is usually hard to fix. It’s much harder to fix missed connections, or parallel lines that diverge in both directions, than to connect two parallel lines when one of these lines terminates in city center, which Boston’s Blue Line does. The one saving grace is that cities with many missed connections, led by New York and Tokyo, also have very expansive networks with so many transfer points that individual interchanges do not become overloaded.
In large cities that do have problems with overcrowded transfer points, including London and Paris, the solution is to keep building out the network with many connections. London tries to weaken the network by reducing transfer opportunities: thus, Crossrail has no connection to Oxford Circus, the single busiest non-mainline Underground station, in order to prevent it from becoming any more crowded, and the Battersea extension of the Northern line deliberately misses a connection to the Victoria line. Paris has a better solution – it invests in circumferential transit, in the form of Metro Line 15 ringing the city at close distance, as well as extensions to Tramway Line 3, just inside city limits.
While the solution always involves investing more in the transit network, its precise nature depends on the city’s peculiar geography. In Paris, a compact city on a narrow river, adding more circles is an option, as is adding more RER lines so that people would be able to avoid difficult Metro-to-RER transfers. In London, the population density is too low and the construction costs are too high for a greenfield circle; the existing circle, the Overground, is cobbled together from freight bypasses and is replete with missed radial Underground connections. Thus, the solution in London has to come from radials that offer alternatives to the congestion of the Victoria line.
In Boston, a much smaller city, the Red-Blue Connector is easier since the Red and Blue Lines almost touch. It only takes about 600 meters of cut-and-cover tunnel under a wide road to continue the Blue Line beyond its current terminus in Downtown Boston and meet the Red Line at Charles-MGH; to first order, it should cost not much more than $100 million. The transfer would not be easy, since the Red Line is elevated there and the Blue Line would be underground, but it would still be better than the three-seat ride involving the Green Line. A competent state government with interest in improving transportation connectivity for its residents – that is, a government that is nothing like the one Massachusetts has – would fix this problem within a few years. Boston is fortunate in not needing painful deep tunneling under a medieval city center like London or hundreds of kilometers of inner suburban tunneling like Paris – it only needs to kick out the political bums, unfortunately a much harder task.
When the Gateway tunnel project began at the start of this decade, it was justified on the same grounds as the older ARC project: more capacity for trains across the Hudson. This justification continued even after the existing tunnels suffered damage in Hurricane Sandy. As costs mounted and it became clear there was no political will to round up $25 billion of federal and state money for capacity, the arguments changed. An engineering report softly recommended long-term tunnel closure for maintenance, without comparing the cost of new tunnels to that of continuing to close the tunnels one tube at a time on weekends, and subsequently both the funding requests and the press releases shifted in tone to “we must close the tunnels or else they’ll collapse.” Unfortunately, this racket is now spreading to other parts of the American mainline rail network – namely, Amtrak and its high-speed rail program.
Case in point: in an internal report, leaked to the press via a belated public records request, Amtrak fearmongers about the impact of rising sea levels on its infrastructure. Bloomberg helpfully includes maps of rising sea levels inundating part of the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure in low-lying parts of Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland.
What Bloomberg does not say is that the Northeast Corridor is slightly elevated over the parts shown as inundated, due to river crossings. There’s even an attached photo of the station in Wilmington, clearly showing the train running above ground on a viaduct, at what looks like about five meters above sea level. There are no photos from other areas along the corridor, but regular riders as well as people looking closely at satellite photos will know that through the flood-prone parts of Secaucus, the Northeast Corridor is already on a berm, crossing over intersecting roads, and the same is true in most of Connecticut. On Google Earth, the lowest-lying parts of the route, passing through southeastern Connecticut and parts of Maryland, are 3-4 meters above sea level.
The rub is that a sea level rise of 3-4 meters is globally catastrophic to an extent that doesn’t make Amtrak any of the top thousand priorities. Cities would be flooded, as helpfully shown by photos and images depicting the railroad running above street level. Entire countries would be wiped off the map, like the Maldives. Low-lying coastal floodplains, so crucial for high-intensity agriculture, would disappear. In Bangladesh alone, a sea level rise of a single meter would flood 17.5% of the country, which with today’s demographics would displace about 25 million people; the sea level rise required to threaten the Northeast Corridor is likely to produce a nine-figure global refugee crisis.
To Amtrak’s credit, it’s somewhat pushing back against the apocalyptic language – for now. The Bloomberg article tries to demagogue about how unconcerned Amtrak is with climate change-related flooding, but at least the quotes given in the piece suggest Amtrak views this as a concern, just not one it’s going to talk about while the president openly says climate change is a Chinese conspiracy. Once the political winds will shift, Amtrak as portrayed by a close reading of the article will presumably shift its rhetoric.
However, the credit Amtrak gets for not pushing this line right now is limited. Sarah Feinberg, a former FRA administrator who was also on the panel for Governor Cuomo’s MTA genius grant competition, is described as saying talking about climate change won’t fly in Congress. In other words, in Feinberg and Amtrak’s view, “we need money to flood-proof the Northeast Corridor” is not a preposterous proposition, but a demand to be reserved until the Democrats are in charge of the federal government.
In the 2000s, Amtrak fired David Gunn from his position as CEO, since he wouldn’t succumb to political pressure to skimp on maintenance in order to achieve on-paper profitability so that Amtrak could be privatized. In his stead, the Amtrak board installed the more pliable Joe Boardman. Then Obama replaced Bush and economic stimulus replaced domestic spending cuts, and suddenly Amtrak discovered a backlog of maintenance, demanding billions of dollars that could have built 350 km/h high-speed rail between Boston and Washington already for state of good repair instead. The backlog has increased ever since, as it became clear Amtrak could just ask for more money without having to show any work for it as long as it was couched in language about maintenance.
The same mentality is still in place today. The required response of the American transportation complex to climate change: an immediate end to any public spending on roads and airports and massive spending on public transportation, intercity rail, and electric car charging stations, in that order. Amtrak has a role to play in advocating for more rail use as mitigation of transportation emissions, which are currently the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
However, responding this way would require Amtrak to run better service. It would require it to stop playing agency turf games with other railroad agencies – after all, the planet does not care who owns which piece of track on the Northeast Corridor. It would require it to show visible improvements in speed, capacity, coverage, and reliability. It is not capable of producing these improvements and neither do other federal organs dealing with passenger rail, such as the FRA-led NEC Future effort. Thus, it is preparing the way to argue for a massive increase in spending that is explicitly not designed to produce any tangible benefit.
There is a way forward, but not with any of the people in charge today. They are incapable of managing large projects or even smoothly running a railroad in regular service, and should be replaced by people who have the required experience. Feinberg is a political operative who before her appointment as FRA head in 2015 had no background in transportation; evidently, together with the other judges of the genius grant she greenlit manifestly impossible projects.
Evidently, when New York City Transit hired a chair with a strong transportation background, namely Andy Byford, suddenly plans became more than just the state of good repair black hole plus court-mandated accessibility retrofits. Byford insists on specific positive improvements, which lay riders can judge in the coming decade as they see more elevator access and higher train frequency, provided his plan’s very high cost is funded.
With Amtrak, in contrast, there is only a black hole. There is an extremely expensive high-speed rail plan out there, but the first segment Amtrak wants to build, Gateway, wouldn’t provide any tangible benefit in speed or even capacity (the current state of Gateway is a $11 billion tunnel without additional surface tracks, so the two-track bottleneck would remain). A project that was once a critical capacity increase has since been downgraded into the state of good repair black hole, in which many tens of billions of dollars can disappear without showing anything. As the NEC Future process evolves, any calls for high-speed rail in the Northeast are likely to evolve in the same direction: no improvement, just endless money poured on the same service quality as today, justified in terms of adaptation or resilience.
One of the tech industry’s buzzwords for transportation is “on demand” – that is, available to the passenger immediately, without fixed schedules. When I said something about schedules at my Hyperloop One interview, the interviewers gently told me that actually, they intend their system to be on-demand; I forget what I said afterward, but I do remember I didn’t press the point. More commonly, people who insist on using ride-hailing apps rather than public transit talk about how great it is that they don’t have to follow fixed schedules.
But what does this really mean? Calling a cab, or hailing one via a TNC app, does not mean it comes immediately. There’s a wait time of several minutes. How many minutes depends on time of day and which city one is in. A Dallas air travel blog describes wait times of around 10 minutes. In and around Boston, Patreon supporter Alexander Rapp says “2-7 minutes is the typical range” with New York waits slightly longer. In Los Angeles, a dissertation studying racial bias finds that the average predicted wait times are 6-7 minutes for black people and 5-6 minutes for others (PDF-p. 147); both the absolute numbers and the difference are much higher for street-hailed cabs. In 2014, the median wait time in New York was 3 minutes.
On an urban transit line, an average wait of 10 minutes is equivalent to a 20-minute frequency, and an average wait of 5 minutes is equivalent to a 10-minute frequency. At the lower end, the fixed schedule is actually better – a well-run transit system with 20-minute frequencies publicly posts clockface schedules and sticks to them, so people know in advance how to time themselves to the bus or train’s arrival time.
Even the wait times of 2014’s New York, not since achieved in the city or elsewhere, are only equivalent to a subway train that comes every 6 minutes, which is decidedly mediocre. The outer subway branches in New York get a train every 8-10 minutes off-peak, but they are not what TNCs compete with. Bruce Schaller’s report alleging that TNCs are responsible for the decline in subway ridership uses data from mid-2016, when 56% of TNC trips in New York were in Manhattan south of West 110th and East 96th Streets and another 22% were in inner-ring neighborhoods, mostly before the subway branch points. And subway frequency in New York is not good for how busy the system is; during the daytime, longer headways than 5 minutes are rare on the Paris Metro and on the trunks in London and Stockholm. Milan, hardly a transit city, runs its driverless metro line every 4 minutes off-peak.
All of the comparable waits get longer outside the city. Stockholm’s highly-branched metro system runs every 10 minutes on some branches off-peak, and Tube waits go up to 10 minutes on some branches as well. Commuter rail waits start from 10 minutes on the busiest branches, like those of the RER A, and go up from there, sometimes even to a train every half hour off-peak in suburbs of respectable European transit cities. But the branches are not where people ride TNCs. Just as in New York the vast majority of TNC trips are downstream of the branch points, in London as of 2013, 74% of taxi trips were within Inner London; if New York’s subsequent evolution is any indication, TNC traffic is somewhat less dominated by the center, but has only differed from street-hailed cab traffic patterns in degree rather than kind.
This calculation does not mean that transit is better than TNCs on out-of-vehicle times. It is not. Walk times to stations are considerable. Trips that require transfers have extra wait time. In New York, there appear to be about 1.6 unlinked trips per linked trip, but most likely multiple-seat rides have shorter waits on average, because they include local-express transfers, which passengers make preferentially if the waits are short. In London, judging by the origin-destination matrix, 61% of trips do not require any interchange, and another 34% require just one. So even with transfers, frequent subways are still a little bit ahead, but then the walk time to the station makes a big difference in favor of TNCs.
But here’s the thing: tech workers who talk about the greatness of on-demand transportation do not talk about station access time. Evidently, Hyperloop One, which has to use stations, talks about on-demand service. The company did try to think about how to branch in the cities in order to reduce station access time, but reduce does not mean eliminate. Moreover, the same kind of branching is already available to trains and even more so to intercity buses, and yet they rarely make use of it: intercity buses do not make milk runs within cities, leading to awkward situations in which a person in Upper Manhattan traveling to Boston has to take the subway to Midtown and then get on a bus that slogs through Manhattan streets going toward Upper Manhattan on its way to the freeways to Boston.
So what’s going on here? There’s a legitimate advantage to cars over transit in that they don’t require you to travel to a subway station or transfer, but that’s not the argument that opponents of transit who talk about TNCs and app-hailed services and on-demand travel make. They talk about wait times, never mind that well-run urban transit offers shorter wait times than app-hailed TNCs.
My suspicion is that this involves business culture. Urban transit is extremely Fordist: it has interchangeable vehicles and workers, relentlessly regular schedules, and central allocation of resources based on network effects. The tech industry has corners that work like this as well, like Amazon’s monitoring its warehouse workers’ bathroom breaks, but for the most part the industry comes from a post-Fordist world. The idea that there should be people writing down precise schedules for service is alien, as is any coordinated planning; order should be emergent, and if it doesn’t work at the scale of a startup, then it’s not worth pursuing.
There have been positive examples of using better software technology to improve public transportation. The Internet itself has been amazing at improving access to information; the single most important technology for transit reform in lagging regions like North America is Google search, followed by Wikipedia, and even in places with healthy transit these tools are valuable. Within schedule planning, new software tools make it easier to track delays. Tech is a tool, and as such it has been very useful for transit, as for many other industries.
However, all of this occurs within the usual culture of transportation planning. In contrast with this culture, most companies that produce software use a culture of startups, which have to work at a small scale to get anywhere. Where network effects are required, as with social media, it’s necessary to find a small, high-prestige network of early adopters, e.g. Harvard students for Facebook. Anything that requires more initial capital than a VC is willing to risk on a single firm is out; thus Hyperloop One views itself as a consultancy developing a technology rather than as a railroad actually building its own Hyperloop infrastructure.
A corollary of this is that people within the tech industry dismiss schedules out of hand. Thus they insist that transportation be on-demand, even when in practice the wait is longer than on a competing mode of travel that is scheduled. The idea of on-demand travel is reassuring, and because Swiss scheduling precision is alien to the American tech entrepreneur, it’s not a big deal if on-demand means a promised 5-minute wait and an actual 10-minute wait.
But what reassures the tech entrepreneur does not reassure the average rider. By overwhelming numbers, people who have a choice between even mediocre public transportation and TNCs slog through 9-minute bus and train frequencies; people who have access to good public transportation keep taking it where available. In New York, where transit isn’t even that great by the standard of large European cities, there is an ongoing panic about a 2% decline in annual subway ridership, which Schaller wrongly attributes to TNCs rather than to internal decline in subway service quality. Ultimately, the experience of waiting a few minutes for a train is annoying and passengers try to avoid it, but over time they don’t find it any more annoying than the experience of waiting for the app-hailed car driver to show up. Rhetoric about on-demand service aside, passengers do notice how long they’re actually waiting.
I did a complex Patreon poll about series to write about. People voted for general transit network design, and more posts about national traditions of transit in the mold of the one about the US. Then I polled options for transit network design. There were six options, and people could vote up or down on any. Difficult urban geography was by far the most wanted, and three more alternatives hover at the 50% mark. To give the winning option its due course, I’m making it a mini-series of its own.
There are cities that, due to their street layout, make it easy to run transit on them. Maybe they are flat and have rivers that are easy to bridge or tunnel under. Maybe they have a wealth of wide arterials serving the center, with major cross streets at exactly the right places for stations and an underlying bus grid. Maybe they spread out evenly from the center so that it’s easy to run symmetric lines. Maybe their legacy mainline rail network is such that it’s easy to run interpolating buses and urban rail lines.
And then there are cities that are the exact opposite. In this post I’m going to focus on narrow or winding streets and what they mean for both surface and rapid transit. The good fortune for transit planners is that the city that invented urban rapid transit, London, is a prime example of difficult urban geography, so railway engineers have had to deal with this question for about 150 years, inventing some of the necessary technology in the process.
Rapid transit with narrow streets
The easiest ways to build rapid transit are to put it on a viaduct and to bury it using cut-and-cover tunneling. Both have a minimum street width for the right-of-way – an el requires about 10 meters, but will permanently darken the street if it is not much wider, and a tunnel requires about 10 meters for the tracks but closer to 18 for the stations.
Nonetheless, even cities with narrow streets tend to have enough streets of the required width. What they don’t always have is streets of the required width that are straight and form coherent spines. The labyrinth that is Central London does have wide enough streets for cut-and-cover, but they are not continuous and often miss key destinations such as major train stations. The Metropolitan line could tunnel under Euston Road, but the road’s natural continuation into the City is not so wide, forcing the line to carve a trench into Farringdon. Likewise, the District line could tunnel under Brompton Road or King’s Road, but serving Victoria and then Westminster would have required some sharp curves, so the District Railway carved a right-of-way, demolishing expensive Kensington buildings at great expense.
While London is the ur-example, as the city that invented the subway, this situation is common in other cities with large premodern cores, such as Rome, Milan, and Istanbul. Paris only avoided this problem because of Haussmann’s destruction of much of the historic city, carving new boulevards for aesthetics and sewer installation, which bequeathed the Third Republic a capital rich in wide streets for Metro construction.
Dealing with this problem requires one of several solutions, none great:
London’s solution was to invent the tunnel boring machine to dig deep Tube lines, avoiding surface street disruption. With electric-powered trains and reliable enough TBMs to bore holes without cave-ins, London opened the Northern line in 1890, crossing the Thames to provide rapid transit service to South London. Subsequently, London has built nearly all Underground lines bored, even in suburban areas where it could have used cut-and-cover.
The main advantage to TBMs is that they avoid surface disruption entirely. Most first-world cities use them to bore tunnels between stations, only building stations cut-and-cover. The problem is that TBMs are more expensive to use than cut-and-cover today. While turn-of-the-century London built Tube lines for about the same cost per km as the Metropolitan line and as the cut-and-cover Paris Metro and New York City Subway, in the last half century or so the cost of boring has risen faster than that of shallow construction.
The worst is when the stations have to be mined as well. Mining stations has led to cost blowouts in New York (where it was gone gratuitously) and on London Crossrail (where it is unavoidable as the tunnel passes under the older Underground network). A city that cannot use cut-and-cover tunnels needs to figure out station locations that are easily accessible for vertical digging.
The alternative is the large-diameter TBM. Barcelona is using this technique for Line 9/10, which passes under the older lines; the city has a grid of wide boulevards, but the line would still have to pass under the older metro network, forcing the most difficult parts to be deep underground. The large-diameter TBM reduces the extent of construction outside the TBM to just an elevator bank, which can be dug in a separate vertical TBM; if higher capacity is desired, it’s harder but still possible to dig slant bores for escalators. The problem is that this raises construction costs, making it a least bad solution rather than a good one; Barcelona L9, cheap by most global standards, is still expensive by Spanish ones.
Carving new streets
Before the 1880s, London could not bore the Underground, because the steam-powered trains would need to be close to surface for ventilation. Both the Metropolitan and District lines required carving new right-of-way when streets did not exist; arguably, the entire District line was built this way, as its inner segment was built simultaneously with the Victoria Embankment, under which it runs. The same issue happened in New York in the 1910s and again in the 1920s: while most of the city is replete with straight, wide throughfares, Greenwich Village is not, which forced the 1/2/3 to carve what is now Seventh Avenue South and later the A/C/E to carve the southern portions of Sixth Avenue.
This solution is useful mostly when there are wide streets with absolutely nothing between them that a subway could use. The reason is that demolishing buildings is expensive, except in very poor or peripheral areas, and usually rapid transit has to run to a CBD to be viable. If the entire route is hard to dig, a TBM is a better solution, but if there are brief narrows, carving new streets New York did could be useful, especially if paired with improvements in surface transit.
Looking for station sites
Milan built its first metro lines cut-and-cover. However, lacking wide streets, it had to modify the method for use in a constrained environment. Instead of digging the entire street at a sloped angle and only then adding retaining walls, Milan had to dig the retaining walls first, allowing it to dig up streets not much wider than two tracks side by side. This method proved inexpensive: if I understand this article right, the cost was 30 billion lire in 1957-1964 prices, which is €423 million in 2018 prices, or €35 million per km. Milan’s subsequent construction costs have remained low, even with the use of a TBM for Metro Line 5.
The problem with this method is that, while it permits digging tunnels under narrow medieval streets, it does not permit digging stations under the same streets. Milan is fortunate that its historical center is rich in piazzas, which offer space for bigger digs. One can check on a satellite map that every station on Lines 1 and 2 in city center is at a piazza or under a wide street segment; lacking the same access to easy station sites, Line 3 had to be built deeper, with tracks stacked one under the other to save space.
I have argued in comments that Paris could have used this trick of looking for less constrained sites for stations when it built Metro Line 1, permitting four tracks as in New York as long as the express stations under Rue de Rivoli stuck to major squares like Chatelet. However, Paris, too, is rich in squares, it just happens to be equally rich in wide streets so that it did not need to use the Milan method. London is not so fortunate – its only equivalent of Milan’s piazzas is small gardens away from major streets. It could never have built the Central line using the Milan method, and even the Piccadilly line, which partly passes under wide streets, would have been doubtful.
Rapid transit benefits from being able to modify the shape of the street network to suit its needs. Surface transit in theory could do the same, running in short tunnels or widening streets as necessary, but the value of surface modes is not enough to justify the capital expense and disruption. Thus, planners must take the street network as it is given. The ideal surface transit route runs in the street median on two dedicated lanes, with boarding islands at stops; creating a parking lane, a moving lane, and a transit lane in each direction on a street plus some allowance for sidewalks requires about 30 meters of street width or not much less. Below 25, compromises are unavoidable.
Cutting car lanes
A lane is about 3 meters wide, so removing the parking lanes reduces the minimum required street width by about 6 meters. Contraflow lanes instead allow the street to have the same four lanes, but with a moving lane and a parking lane in one direction only. In extreme cases it’s possible to get rid of the cars entirely; a transit mall is viable down to maybe 12-15 meters of street width. The problem is that deliveries get complicated if the city doesn’t have alleyways or good side street access, and this may force compromises on hours of service (perhaps transit doesn’t get dedicated lanes all day) or at least one parking lane in one direction.
Some city cores with very narrow streets don’t have double-track streetcars. A few have one-way pairs, but more common is single-track segments, or segments with two overlapping tracks so that no switching is needed but trams still can’t pass each other. Needless to say, single-tracking is only viable over short narrows between wider streets, and only when the network is punctual enough that trams can be scheduled not to conflict.
On longer stretches without enough room for two tracks or two lanes, one-way pairs are unavoidable; these complicate the network, and unless the streets the two directions of the bus or tram run on are very close to each other they also complicate interchanges between routes. New York has many one-way pairs on its bus network, even on wide and medium-width streets in order to improve the flow of car traffic, and as a result, some crosstown routes, such as the B35 on Church, are forced to stop every 250 meters even when running limited-stop. While New York’s network complexity is the result of bad priorities and can be reversed, cities with premodern street networks may not even have consistent one-way pairs with two parallel streets on a grid; New York itself has such a network in Lower Manhattan.
Bus network redesign
The best way to avoid the pain associated with running buses on streets that are not designed for fast all-mode travel is not to run buses on such streets. Boston has very little surface transit in city center, making passengers transfer to the subway. In Barcelona, part of the impetus for Nova Xarxa was removing buses from the historic core with its narrow streets and traffic congestion and instead running them on the grid of the Eixample, where they would not only provide a frequent system with easy transfers but also run faster than the old radial network.
However, this runs into two snags. First, there must be some radial rapid transit network to make people connect to. Boston and Barcelona both have such networks, but not all cities do; Jerusalem doesn’t (it has light rail but it runs on the surface). And second, while most cities with a mixture of wide and narrow streets confine their narrow streets to premodern historic cores, some cities have streets too narrow for comfortable bus lanes even far out, for example Los Angeles, whose north-south arterials through the Westside are on the narrow side.
What not to do: shared lanes
It’s tempting for a transit agency to compromise on dedicated lanes whenever the street is too narrow to feature them while maintaining sufficient auto access. This is never a good idea, except in outlying areas with little traffic. The reason is that narrow streets fed by wide streets are precisely where there is the most congestion, and thus where the value of dedicated transit lanes is the highest.
In New York, the dedicated bus lanes installed for select bus service have sped up bus traffic by around 30 seconds per kilometer on all routes Eric Goldwyn and I have checked for our Brooklyn bus redesign project, but all of these figures are averaged over long streets. Within a given corridor, the short narrows that the transit agency decides to compromise on may well feature greater time savings from dedicated lanes than the long arterial stretch where it does set up dedicated lanes. This is almost certainly the case for the Silver Line in Boston, which has unenforced dedicated lanes most of the way on Washington Streets but then uses shared lanes through Downtown Boston, where streets are too narrow for dedicated lanes without reducing auto access.
The Geary corridor in San Francisco is a neat model for transit ridership. The Golden Gate Park separates the Richmond District from the Sunset District, so the four east-west buses serving the Richmond – the 38 on Geary itself and the closely parallel 1 California, 31 Balboa, and 5 Fulton – are easy to analyze, without confounding factors coming from polycentric traffic. Altogether, the four routes in all their variations have 114,000 riders per weekday. The 38 and 1 both run frequently – the 1 runs every 5-6 minutes in the weekday off-peak, and the 38 runs every 5 minutes on the rapid and every 8 on the inner local.
I was curious about the connection between development and travel demand, so I went to OnTheMap to check commute volumes. I drew a greater SF CBD outline east of Van Ness and north of the freeway onramp and creek; it has 420,000 jobs (in contrast, a smaller definition of the CBD has only 220,000). Then I looked at how many people commute to that area from due west, defined as the box bounded by Van Ness, Pacific, the parks, and Fell. The answer is 28,000. Another 3,000 commute in the opposite direction.
Put another way: the urban transit system of San Francisco carries about twice as many passengers on the lines connecting the Richmond and Japantown with city center as actually make that commute: 114,000/2*(28,000 + 3,000) is 1.84. This represents an implausible 184% mode share, in a part of the city where a good number of people own and drive cars, and where some in the innermost areas could walk to work. What’s happening is that when the transit system is usable, people take it for more than just their commute trips.
The obvious contrast is with peak-only commuter rail. In trying to estimate the potential ridership of future Boston regional rail, I’ve heavily relied on commute volumes. They’re easier to estimate than overall trip volumes, and I couldn’t fully get out of the mindset of using commuter rail to serve commuters, just in a wider variety of times of day and to a wider variety of destinations.
In Boston, I drew a greater CBD that goes as far south as Ruggles and as far west as Kendall; it has a total of 370,000 jobs. Of those, about 190,000 come from areas served by commuter rail and not the subway or bus trunks, including the southernmost city neighborhoods like Mattapan and Hyde Park, the commuter rail-adjacent parts of Newton, and outer suburbs far from the urban transit system. But MBTA commuter rail ridership is only about 120,000 per weekday. This corresponds to a mode share of 32%.
I tried to calculate mode shares for the MBTA seven years ago, but that post only looked at the town level and excluded commuter rail-served city neighborhoods and the commuter rail-adjacent parts of Newton, which contribute a significant fraction of the total commute volume. Moreover, the post included suburban transit serving the same zones, such as ferries and some express buses; combined, the mode share of these as well as commuter rail ranged from 36% to 50% depending on which suburban wedge we are talking about (36% is the Lowell Line’s shed, 50% is the Providence Line’s shed). Overall, I believe 32% is consistent with that post.
Part of the difference between 32% and 184% is about the tightness of economic integration within a city versus a wider region. The VA Hospital in San Francisco is located in the Outer Richmond; people traveling there for their health care needs use the bus for this non-commuter trip. On a regional level, this never happens – people drive to suburban hospitals or maybe take a suburban bus if they are really poor.
That said, hospital trips alone cannot make such a large difference. There are errand trips that could occur on a wider scale if suburban transit were better. Cities are full of specialty stores that people may travel to over long distances.
For example, take gaming. In Vancouver I happened to live within walking distance of the area gaming store, but during game nights people would come over from Richmond; moreover, the gaming bar was in East Vancouver, and I’d go there for some social events. In Providence I’d go to Pawtucket to the regional gaming store. In the Bay Area, the store I know about is in Berkeley, right on top of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, and I imagine some people take BART there from the rest of the region.
None of this can happen if the region is set up in a way that transit is only useful for commute trips. If the trains only come every hour off-peak, they’re unlikely to get this ridership except in extreme cases. If the station placement is designed around car travel, as is the case for all American commuter lines and some suburban rapid transit (including the tails of BART), then people will just drive all the way unless there’s peak congestion. Only very good urban transit can get this non-work ridership.
While electric cars remain a niche technology, electric buses are surging. Some are battery-electric (this is popular in China, and some North American agencies are also buying into this technology), but in Europe what’s growing is in-motion charging, or IMC. This is a hybrid of a trolleybus and a battery-electric bus (BEB): the bus runs under wire, but has enough battery to operate off-wire for a little while, and in addition has some mechanism to let the bus recharge during the portion of its trip that is electrified.
One vendor, Kiepe, lists recent orders. Esslingen is listed as having 10 km of off-wire capability and Geneva (from 2012) as having 7. Luzern recently bought double-articulated Kiepe buses with 5 km of off-wire range, and Linz bought buses with no range specified but of the same size and battery capacity as Luzern’s. Iveco does not specify what its range is, but says its buses can run on a route that’s 25-40% unwired.
Transit planning should be sensitive to new technology in order to best integrate equipment, infrastructure, and schedule. Usually this triangle is used for rail planning, but there’s every reason to also apply it to buses as appropriate. This has a particular implication to cities that already have large trolleybus networks, like Vancouver, but also to cities that do not. IMC works better in some geographies than others; where it works, it is beneficial for cities to add wire as appropriate for the deployment of IMC buses.
Vancouver: what to do when you’re already wired
Alert reader and blog supporter Alexander Rapp made a map of all trolleybus routes in North America. They run in eight cities: Boston, Philadelphia, Dayton, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Mexico City, Guadalajara.
Vancouver’s case is the most instructive, because, like other cities in North America, it runs both local and rapid buses on its trunk routes. The locals stop every about 200 meters, the rapids every kilometer. Because conventional trolleybuses cannot overtake other trolleybuses, the rapids run on diesel even on wired routes, including Broadway (99), 4th Avenue (44, 84), and Hastings (95, 160), which are in order the three strongest bus corridors in the area. Broadway has so much ridership that TransLink is beginning to dig a subway under its eastern half; however, the opening of the Broadway subway will not obviate the need for rapid buses, as it will create extreme demand for nonstop buses from the western end of the subway at Arbutus to the western end of the corridor at UBC.
IMC is a promising technology for Vancouver, then, because TransLink can buy such buses and then use their off-wire capability to overtake locals. Moreover, on 4th Avenue the locals and rapids take slightly different routes from the western margin of the city proper to campus center, so IMC can be used to let the 44 and 84 reach UBC on their current route off-wire. UBC has two separate bus loops, one for trolleys and one for diesel buses, and depending on capacity IMC buses could use either.
On Hastings the situation is more delicate. The 95 is not 25-40% unwired, but about 60% unwired – and, moreover, the unwired segment includes a steep mountain climb toward SFU campus. The climb is an attractive target for electrification because of the heavy energy consumption involved in going uphill: at 4 km, not electrifying it would brush up against the limit of Kiepe’s off-wire range, and may well exceed it given the terrain. In contrast, the 5 km in between the existing wire and the hill are mostly flat, affording the bus a good opportunity to use its battery.
Where to add wire
In a city without wires, IMC is the most useful when relatively small electrification projects can impact a large swath of bus routes. This, in turn, is most useful when one trunk splits into many branches. Iveco’s requirement that 60-75% of the route run under wire throws a snag, since it’s much more common to find trunks consisting of a short proportion of each bus route than ones consisting of a majority of route-length. Nonetheless, several instructive examples exist.
In Boston, the buses serving Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury have the opportunity to converge to a single trunk on Washington Street, currently hosting the Silver Line. Some of these buses furthermore run on Warren Street farther south, including the 14, 19, 23, and 28, the latter two ranking among the MBTA’s top bus routes. The area has poor air quality and high rates of asthma, making electrification especially attractive.
Setting up wire on Washington and Warren Streets and running the Silver Live as open BRT, branching to the south, would create a perfect opportunity for IMC. On the 28 the off-wire length would be about 4.5 km each way, at the limit of Kiepe’s capability, and on the 19 and 23 it would be shorter; the 14 would be too long, but is a weaker, less frequent route. If the present-day service pattern is desired, the MBTA could still electrify to the northern terminus of these routes at Ruggles, but it would miss an opportunity to run smoother bus service.
In New York, there are examples of trunk-and-branch bus routes in Brooklyn and Queens. The present-day Brooklyn bus network has a long interlined segment on lower Fulton, carrying not just the B25 on Fulton but also the B26 on Halsey and B52 on Gates, and while Eric Goldwyn’s and my plan eliminates the B25, it keeps the other two. The snag is that the proportion of the system under wire is too short, and the B26 has too long of a tail (but the B52 and B25 don’t). The B26 could get wire near its outer terminal, purposely extended to the bus depot; as bus depots tend to be polluted, wire there is especially useful.
More New York examples are in Queens. Main Street and the Kissena-Parsons corridor, both connecting Flushing with Jamaica, are extremely strong, interlining multiple buses. Electrifying these two routes and letting buses run off-wire on tails to the north, reaching College Point and perhaps the Bronx on the Q44 with additional wiring, would improve service connecting two of Queens’ job centers. Moreover, beyond Jamaica, we see another strong trunk on Brewer Boulevard, and perhaps another on Merrick (interlining with Long Island’s NICE bus).
Finally, Providence has an example of extensive interlining to the north, on North Main and Charles, including various 5x routes (the map is hard to read, but there are several routes just west of the Rapid to the north).
IMC and grids
The examples in New York, Providence, and Boston are, not coincidentally, ungridded. This is because IMC interacts poorly with grids, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that the part of the world where it’s being adopted the most has ungridded street networks. A bus grid involves little to no interlining: there are north-south and east-west arterials, each carrying a bus. The bus networks of Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles have too little interlining for IMC to be as cost-effective as in New York or Boston.
In gridded cities, IMC is a solution mainly if there are problematic segments, in either direction. If there’s a historic core where wires would have adverse visual impact, it can be left unwired. If there’s a steep segment with high electricity consumption, it should be wired preferentially, since the cost of electrification does not depend on the street’s gradient.
Overall, this technology can be incorporated into cities’ bus design. Grids are still solid when appropriate, but in ungridded cities, trunks with branches are especially attractive, since a small amount of wire can convert an entire swath of the city into pollution-free bus operation.