I did a Patreon poll last month with three options, all about development and transit: CBDs and job concentration in middle-income cities (e.g. auto-oriented Bangkok and Istanbul don’t have transit-oriented Shanghai’s CBD formation), dense auto-oriented city neighborhoods (e.g. North Tel Aviv), and transit-oriented low-density suburbia. This is the winning option.
In every (or almost every) city region, there’s a clear pattern to land use and transportation: the neighborhoods closer to the center have higher population density and lower car use than the ones farther away. Moreover, across city regions, there is such a strong negative correlation between weighted density and auto use that exceptions like Los Angeles are notable. That said, the extent of the dropoff in transit use as one moves outward into suburbia is not the same everywhere, and in particular there are suburbs with high transit use. This post will discuss which urban and transportation policies are likely to lead such suburbs to form, in lieu of the more typical auto-oriented suburbs.
What is a suburb?
Definitions of suburbia differ across regions. Here in Paris, anything outside the city’s 1860 limits is the suburbs. The stereotypical banlieue is in history, urban form, and distance from the center a regular city neighborhood that just happens to be outside the city proper for political reasons. It is hardly more appropriate to call any part of Seine-Saint-Denis a suburb than it is to call Cambridge, Massachusetts a suburb of Boston.
So if Seine-Saint-Denis is not a suburb, what is? When I think of suburbia, my prototype is postwar American white flight suburbs, but stripped of their socioeconomic context. The relevant characteristics are,
- Suburbs developed at a time when mass motorization was widespread. In the US, this means from around 1920 onward in the middle class and slightly later in the working class; in the rest of the developed world, the boundary ranges from the 1920s to the 1960s depending on how late they developed. Note that many stereotypical suburbs were founded earlier, going back even to the 19th century, but grew in the period in question. Brookline is famous for refusing annexation to Boston in 1873, but its fastest development happened between 1910 and 1930, straddling the 1920 limit – and indeed in other respects it’s borderline between a rich suburb and rich urban neighborhood as well.
- Suburbs have low population density, typical of single-family housing. Aulnay-sous-Bois, at 5,100 people per km^2, is too dense, but not by a large margin. Beverly Hills, which has mansions, has 2,300, and Levittown, New York, probably the single best-known prototype of a suburb, has 2,900. The urban typology can mix in apartments, but the headline density can’t be dominated by apartments, even missing middle.
- Suburbs are predominantly residential. They can have distinguished town centers, but as broad regions, they have to have a significant number of commuters working in the city. This rules out low-density central cities like Houston and Dallas (although their individual neighborhoods would qualify as suburbs!). It also rules out Silicon Valley as a region, which represents job sprawl more than residential sprawl.
The three criteria above make no mention of whether the area is included in the central city. Most of Staten Island qualifies as suburban despite being part of New York, but Newark fails all three criteria, and Seine-Saint-Denis and most of Hudson County fail the first two.
Where are suburbs transit-oriented?
I do not know of any place where suburban transit usage is higher than city center transit usage. In theory, this suggests that the best place to look for transit-oriented suburbia is the cities with the highest transit mode shares, such as Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong (or, in Europe, Paris). But in reality, Singapore and Hong Kong don’t have areas meeting the density definition of suburb, and Tokyo has few, mostly located away from its vast commuter rail network. Paris has more true suburbs, but like Tokyo’s, they are not what drives the region’s high rail ridership. All four cities are excellent examples of high-density suburban land use – that is, places that meet my first and third definitions of suburbia but fail the second.
Instead, it’s better to look at smaller, lower-density cities. Stockholm and Zurich are both good models here. Even the central cities are not very dense, at 5,100 and 4,700 people per km^2. Moreover, both are surrounded by large expanses of low-density, mostly postwar suburbia.
Winterthur, Zurich’s largest suburb, is a mix of early 20th century and postwar urban typology, but the other major cities in the canton mostly developed after WW2. At the time, Switzerland was already a very rich country, and car ownership was affordable to the middle class. The story of the Zurich S-Bahn is not one of maintaining mode share through a habit of riding transit, but of running frequent commuter rail to suburbs that did not develop around it from the 1950s to the 70s.
In Stockholm, there is a prominent density gradient as one leaves Central Stockholm. I lived in Roslagstull, at the northern end of Central Stockholm, where the density is 30,000 people per km^2 and the built-up form is the euroblock. Most of the rest of Central Stockholm is similar in urban form and not much less dense. But once one steps outside the city’s old prewar core, density nosedives. City districts to the west and south, like Bromma and Älvsjö, go down to 3,000 people per km^2 or even a little less. A coworker who used to live in Kista described the area as American-style suburban. Beyond these city districts lie the other municipalities, which together form a sizable majority of the county’s population. Of those, a few (Solna, Sundbyberg) are somewhat above the density cutoff, but most are far below it.
In both Zurich and Stockholm, the city is much more transit-oriented than the suburbs. Stockholm’s congestion pricing was a city initiative; the suburbs banded together to oppose it, and eventually forced a compromise in which congestion pricing remained in effect but the revenue would be deeded to urban freeways rather than to public transportation.
And yet, neither city has a big transit use gradient – at least, not so big as Paris, let alone London or New York. Stockholm is expecting 170,000 daily metro trips from its expansion program, which barely touches Central Stockholm. Existing T-bana ridership on the suburban tails is pretty high as well (source, PDF-p. 13), as is ridership on commuter rail, which, too, barely touches Central Stockholm.
The structure of density
In my previous post, I complained that Los Angeles’s density has no structure, and thus public transit ridership is very low and consists predominantly of people too poor to buy a car. The situation in Stockholm and Zurich is the reverse. Density has a clear structure: within each suburb, there is a town center near the commuter rail station.
The histories of Zurich and Stockholm are profoundly different. Each arrived in its structure from a different route. In Zurich, the suburbs come from historic town centers that existed long before cars, often long before industrialization. 20th-century urban sprawl arrived in the form of making these historic villages bigger and bigger until they became proper suburbs. The geography helps rail-oriented suburbanization as well: the ridge-and-valley topography is such that urban sprawl forms ribbons served by commuter rail lines, especially in the southerly direction.
Stockholm’s topography is nothing like Zurich’s. There are water boundaries limiting suburb-to-suburb travel, but the same is true of New York, and yet Long Island, New Jersey, and Westchester are thoroughly auto-oriented. Instead, the structure of density came about because of government planning. Sweden built public housing simultaneously with the Stockholm Metro, so the housing projects were sited near the train stations.
This does not mean that the suburbs of Zurich and Stockholm are actually high-density. Far from it: the housing projects in the Stockholm suburbs are surrounded by a lot of parking and greenery, and the suburbs have extensive single-family housing tracts. However, the density is arranged to grade down from the train station, and there are small clusters of walkable apartment buildings in a small radius around each station. In Zurich the same structure came about with private construction and topography.
To the extent this structure exists elsewhere, it leads to higher low-density transit ridership too, for example in London and the Northeastern United States. Various West Coast American transit bloggers, like Jarrett Walker and Let’s Go LA, keep plugging the West Coast grid over the Northeastern hierarchy of density. But this hierarchy of suburbs that formed around commuter rail to the CBD produces transit ridership that, while awful by Continental European standards, is very good by American ones. Many of the suburbs in question, such as in Westchester, have 15-20% of their commuters choose transit to get to work.
Getting to higher numbers means reinforcing the structure of density and the transit that works in the suburbs, that is, regional rail (or a metro network that goes far out, like the T-bana, if that’s an option). Stations must be surrounded by development rather than parking, and this development should facilitate a somewhat transit-oriented lifestyle, including retail and not just housing. Jobs should be accessible from as many directions as possible, forming CBDs rather than haphazard town centers accessible only by road. Only this way can suburbia be transit-oriented.
If you’re the kind of total nerd that looks up tables on Wikipedia for fun, you may notice a peculiarity: the American built-up area with the highest population density is Los Angeles, followed by the Bay Area and New York. This is not what anyone experiences from even a slight familiarity with the two cities. Some people leave it at that and begin to make “well, actually Los Angeles is dense” arguments; this is especially common among supporters of cars and suburbs, like Randall O’Toole, perhaps because they advocate for positions the urbanist mainstream opposes and enjoy the ability to bring up an unintuitive fact. Others instead try to be more analytic about it and understand how Los Angeles’ higher headline density than New York coexists with its actual auto-centric form.
The answer that the urbanist Internet (blogs, then the Census Bureau, then Twitter) standardized on is that the built-up area of New York has some really low-density outer margins, where auto use is high, but the dense core is larger than that of Los Angeles. Here’s a log graph made by longtime Twitter follower Neil Patel:
New York’s 70th percentile of density (shown as 30 on the graph’s y-axis) is far denser than that of the comparison cities. The term the urbanist blogosphere defaulted to is “weighted density,” which is the average density of census tracts weighted by their population rather than area; see original post by the Austin Contrarian, in 2008.
But one problem remains: Los Angeles is by any metric still dense. Neil’s chart above shows its density curve Lorenz-dominating those of Chicago and Washington, both of which have far higher transit usage. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen too much analysis of why. Jarrett Walker talks about Los Angeles’s polycentrism, comparing it with Paris, and boosting it as a positive for public transit. The reality is the opposite, and it’s worth delving more into it to understand why whatever density Los Angeles has fails to make it have even rudimentary public transit.
Yes, Los Angeles is auto-oriented
The “well, actually Los Angeles is not autopia” line faces a sobering fact: Los Angeles has practically no transit ridership. In this section, I’m going to make some comparisons among American metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs); these exclude many suburbs, including the Inland Empire for Los Angeles and Silicon Valley for San Francisco, but Neil’s graph above excludes them as well, because of how the US defines urbanized areas. In the following table, income refers to median income among people driving alone or taking public transit, and all data is from the 2017 American Community Survey (ACS).
|Place||Workers||Drive share||Drive income||Transit share||Transit income|
The income numbers are not typos. In San Francisco, Washington, and Chicago, transit users outearn drivers. In New York the incomes are close, and US-wide they are almost even. But in Los Angeles, drivers outearn the few transit users almost 2:1. It’s not because Los Angeles has better transit in poor neighborhoods than in rich ones: this may have been true for a long while, but with the Expo Line open to Santa Monica, the Westside has bare bones coverage just like the rest of the city. Even with the coverage that exists, public transit in Los Angeles is so bad that people only use it if they are desperately poor.
When public transportation is a backstop service for the indigent, ridership doesn’t follow the same trends seen elsewhere. Transit ridership in Los Angeles rises and falls based on fares; new rail extensions, which have led to big gains in ridership in Seattle and Vancouver, are swamped by the impact of fare changes in Los Angeles. Gentrification, which in New York has steadily raised subway usage in hotspots like Williamsburg and which does the same in San Francisco, has instead (slightly) contributed to falling transit usage in Los Angeles (p. 53).
Job density and CBD job share
Los Angeles has high residential density by American standards – lower than in New York counted properly, but comparable to San Francisco, and higher than Chicago and Washington. However, job density tells a completely different story. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington all have prominent central business districts. Without a consistent definition of the CBD, I am drawing what look like the peak employment density sites from OnTheMap, all as of 2015:
|Place||CBD boundaries||Area||Jobs||MSA share||Density|
|New York||33rd, 3rd, 60th, 9th||3.85||825,476||8.4%||214,336|
|San Francisco||Washington, Powell, 5th, Howard, Embarcadero||1.81||224,010||9.4%||123,558|
|Washington||Rock Creek, P, Mass., 7th, Cons., 14th, H||3.26||240,505||7.2%||73,775|
|Chicago||River, Congress, Michigan, Randolph, Columbus||1.61||368,910||7.9%||228,998|
|Los Angeles||US 110, US 101, Alameda, 1st, Main, 7th||2.11||189,767||2.9%||89,937|
The two main indicators to look for are the rightmost two columns: the percentage of jobs that are in the CBD, and the job density within the CBD. These indicators are highly not robust to changing the CBD’s definition, but expanding the definition moves them in opposite direction. Washington and San Francisco can be boosted to about 400,000 jobs each if the CBD is expanded to include near-CBD job centers such as Gallery Place, L’Enfant Plaza, SoMa, and Civic Center. Manhattan south of 60th has 1.9 million jobs in 22.2 km^2. Even in Chicago, where job density craters outside the Loop, the 9 km^2 bounded by Chicago, Halsted, and Roosevelt have 567,000 jobs. In making the tradeoff between job density and MSA share, I tried to use smaller CBD definitions, maximizing density at the expense of MSA share.
But even with this choice, the unusually low CBD share in Los Angeles is visible. This is what Jarrett and others mean when they say Los Angeles is polycentric: it is less dominated by its central business district than New York, Chicago, Washington, and San Francisco.
However, the comparisons between Los Angeles and Paris are wildly off-base. I am not including Paris in my above table, because INSEE only reports job numbers at the arrondissement level, and the city’s CBD straddles portions of the 1st, 2nd, 8th, and 9th arrondissements. Those four arrondissements total 405,189 jobs in 8.88 km^2, but in practice few of these jobs are in the outer quartiers, so a large majority of these jobs are in the central 4.64 km^2. The overall job density is then comparable to that of the Los Angeles CBD, but the similarity stops there: CBD employment is 7.1% of the total for Ile-de-France. If there is a US city that’s similar to Paris on the two CBD metrics of density and employment share, it’s Washington, not coincidentally the only big American city with a height-limited city center.
In all of the American cities I’m comparing in this post except New York, the share of the population using public transit to get to work is not much higher than the share working in the CBD, especially if we add in near-CBD job centers served by public transit like Civic Center and L’Enfant Plaza (and all of the Manhattan core outside Midtown). This is not a coincidence. Outside a few distinguished locations with high job density, it’s easy enough to drive, and hard to take the train (if it even exists) except from one or two directions.
American cities are distinguished from European ones in that their non-CBD employment is likely to be in sprawling office parks and not in dense secondary centers. Paris is polycentric in the sense of having multiple actual centers: La Defense is the most conspicuous outside the CBD, but the city is full of smaller, lower-rise clusters: the Latin Quarter, Bercy, the Asian Quarter, Gare du Nord, the Marais. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th, and 12th all have around 20,000-25,000 jobs per square kilometer, not much less than the Upper East Side (which has about 120,000 jobs between 60th and 96th Streets).
A polycentric city needs to have multiple actual centers. Does Los Angeles have such centers? Not really. Century City has 33,000 jobs in about 1.1 km^2. Here is the city’s second downtown, with a job density that only matches that of central Parisian neighborhoods that nobody would mistake with the CBD. The UCLA campus has around 15,000 jobs. Downtown Santa Monica has 24,000 in 2 km^2. El Segundo, which Let’s Go LA plugs as a good site for CBD formation, has 52,000 jobs in 5.2 km^2. Downtown Burbank has about 13,000 in 0.6 km^2. The dropoff in commercial development intensity from the primary CBD is steep in Los Angeles.
What Los Angeles has is not polycentric development. Paris is polycentric. New York is fairly polycentric, with the growth of near-CBD clusters like Long Island City, in addition to older ones like Downtown Brooklyn and Downtown Newark. Los Angeles is just weak-centered.
The structure of density
In his original posts about weighted density from 2008, Chris noted not just the overall weighted density of an American urban area but also the ratio of the weighted to standard density. This ratio is highest in New York, but after New York the highest ratios are in other old industrial cities like Boston and Chicago. This ratio is in stronger correlation with the public transit modal share than weighted density. Much of this fact is driven by the fact that Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia have high-for-America transit usage and Los Angeles doesn’t, but it still suggests that there is something there regarding the structure of density.
In Chicago and Washington, the population density is low, but it follows a certain structure, with higher density in central areas and in distinguished zones near train stations. These structures are not identical. Chicago has fairly uniform density within each city neighborhood, and only sees this structure in the suburbs, which are oriented around commuter rail stations, where people take Metra to the city at rush hour (and drive for all other purposes). In contrast, in Washington commuter rail is barely a footnote, whereas Metro drives transit-oriented development in clusters like Arlington, Alexandria, Silver Spring, and Bethesda. In these islands of density, the transit-oriented lifestyle is at least semi-plausible.
Paris has fairly uniform density within the city, but it has strong TOD structure in the suburbs: high density within walking distance of RER stations, lower density elsewhere. Some RER stations are also surrounded by job clusters oriented toward the train station: La Defense is by far the biggest and best-known, but Cergy, Val d’Europe and Marne la Vallee, Issy, Noisy, and Saint-Denis are all walkable to job centers and not just housing. Within the city there is no obvious structure, but the density is so high and the Metro so ubiquitous that transit serves the secondary nodes well.
In Los Angeles, there is no structure to density. There are some missing middle and mid-rise neighborhoods, but few form contiguous blobs of high density that can be served by a rapid transit line. Koreatown is in a near-tie with Little Osaka for highest population density in the United States outside New York, but immediately to its west, on the Purple Line Extension, lie kilometers of single-family sprawl, and only farther west on Wilshire can one see any density (in contrast, behind Little Osaka on Geary lies continuous density all the way to the Richmond). With the exception of Century City, UCLA, and Santa Monica, the secondary centers don’t lie on any obvious existing or current transit line.
With no coherent structure, Los Angeles is stuck. Its dense areas are too far away from one another and from job centers to be a plausible urban zone where driving is not necessary for a respectable middle-class lifestyle. Buses are far too slow, and trains don’t exist except in a handful of neighborhoods. Worse, because the density is so haphazard, the rail extensions can’t get any ridership. The ridership projection for the Purple Line Extension is an embarrassing 78,000 per weekday for nearly 15 km and $8.2 billion. The construction cost is bad, but in a large, dense city should be offset by high ridership (as it is in London); but it isn’t, so the projected ridership per kilometer is on a par with some New York City Transit buses and the projected cost per rider is so high that it is usually reserved for airport connectors.
The way out
In a smaller, cheaper auto-centric city, like Nashville or Orlando, I would be entirely pessimistic. In Los Angeles there is exactly one way out: fix the urban design, and reinforce it with a strong rail network.
The fact that this solution exists does not mean it is politically easy. In particular, the region needs to get over two hangups, each of which is separately nearly insurmountable. The first is NIMBYism. Los Angeles is so expensive that if it abolishes its zoning code, or passes a TOD ordinance that comes close to it, it could see explosive growth in population, which would be concentrated on the Westside, creating a large zone of high density in which people could ride the trains. However, the Westside is rich and very NIMBY. Metro isn’t even trying to upzone there: the Purple Line Extension has a 3.2-km nonstop segment from Western to La Brea, since the single-family houses in between are too hard to replace with density. Redeveloping the golf courses that hem Century City so that it could grow to a real second downtown is attractive as well, but even the YIMBYs think it’s unrealistic.
The second obstacle is the hesitation about spending large amounts of money all at once. American politicians are risk-averse and treat all spending as risk, and this is true even of politicians who boldly proclaim themselves forward-thinking and progressive. Even when large amounts of money are at stake, their instincts are to spread them across so many competing goals that nothing gets funded properly. The amount of money Los Angeles voters have approved to spend on transportation would build many rapid transit lines, even without big decreases in construction costs, but instead the money is wasted on showcasing bus lanes (this is Metro’s official blog’s excuse for putting bus lanes on Vermont and not rapid transit) or fixing roads or the black hole of Metro operating costs.
But the fact that Los Angeles could be a transit city with drastic changes to its outlook on development and transportation investment priorities does not mean that it is a transit city now. Nor does it mean that the ongoing program of wasting money on low-ridership subway lines is likely to increase transit usage by the required amount. Los Angeles does not have public transportation today in the sense that the term is understood here or in New York or even in Chicago. It should consider itself lucky that it can have transit in the future if it implements politically painful changes, but until it does, it will remain the autopia everyone outside urbanism thinks it is.
Seven years ago, I wrote a pair of posts about Sunnyside Yards. The first recommends the construction of a transfer station through Sunnyside Yards, in order to facilitate transfers between Penn Station- and Grand Central-bound trains. The second recommends redeveloping the yards via a deck, creating high-density residential and commercial space on a deck on top of the yard. Recent news, both about an official plan to deck the yards and about leaks that Amazon is likely to move half of its second headquarters (HQ2) to Long Island City, make a Sunnyside Junction so much more urgent.
Here is how service would look:
The color scheme is inherited from my regional rail maps (see e.g. here) but for the purposes of this post, all it means is that green and blue correspond to the inner and outer tracks of the Park Avenue, purple is East Side Access, orange corresponds to LIRR trains going to the northern pair of East River Tunnels, and red corresponds to LIRR, Metro-North Penn Station Access, and Amtrak trains going to the southern pair of East River Tunnels. No track infrastructure is assumed except what’s already in service or funded (i.e. ESA and Penn Station Access), and only two infill stations are mapped: Astoria, which would be a strong location for a stop were fares integrated with the subway and frequency high, and Sunnyside Junction.
The infill stations that are not planned
An Astoria station was studied for PSA, but was dropped from consideration for two reasons. First, the location is legitimately constrained due to grades, though a station is still feasible. And second, under the operating assumptions of high fares and low off-peak frequency, few people would use it. It would be like Wakefield and Far Rockaway, two edge-of-city neighborhoods where commuter rail ridership is a footnote compared with slower but cheaper and more frequency subway service.
A Sunnyside Junction station was in contrast never considered. There are unfunded plan for an infill station to the west of the junction, served only by Penn Station-bound trains. Such a station would hit Long Island City’s job center well, but the walk from the platform to the office towers would still be on pedestrian-hostile roads, and if there’s political will to make that area more walkable, the city might as well just redevelop Sunnyside Yards (as already planned).
The reason there was never any plan for a station can be seen by zooming in on the area I drew as a station. It’s a railyard, without streets (yet). At today’s development pattern, nobody would use it as an O&D station, even if fares and schedules were integrated with the subway. The importance of the station is as a transfer point between Grand Central- and Penn Station-bound trains. The planned developments (both HQ2 and independent city plans) makes it more urgent, since the area is relatively far from the subway, but the main purpose of the station is a better transit network, rather than encouraging development.
The main benefit of the station is transfers between the LIRR and Metro-North. While nominally parts of the MTA, the two agencies are run as separate fiefs, both of which resisted an attempt at a merger. The LIRR opposed PSA on the grounds that it had a right to any empty slots in the East River Tunnels (of which there are around 8 per hour at the peak). Governor Cuomo intervened to protect PSA from Long Island’s opposition, but in such an environment, coordinated planning across the two railroads is unlikely, and the governor would not intervene to improve the details of the ESA and PSA projects.
East Side Access means that in a few years, LIRR trains will split between two Manhattan destinations. Conceptually, this is a reverse-branch: trains that run on the same route in the suburbs, such as the LIRR Main Line, would split into separate routes in the city core. In contrast, conventional branching has trains running together in the core and splitting farther out, e.g. to Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson, and Ronkonkoma. Reverse-branching is extremely common in New York on the subway, but is rare elsewhere, and leads to operational problems. London’s Northern line, one of the few examples of reverse-branching on an urban subway outside New York, is limited to 26 trains per hour through its busiest trunk at the peak, and long-term plans to segregate its two city trunks and eliminate reverse-branching would raise this to 36.
To ensure LIRR trains run with maximum efficiency, it’s necessary to prevent reverse-branching. This means that each trunk, such as the Main Line and the Hempstead Branch, should only ever go to one Manhattan terminal. Passengers who wish to go to the other Manhattan terminal should transfer cross-platform. Jamaica is very well-equipped for cross-platform transfers, but it’s at a branch point going to either Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn, without a good Penn Station/Grand Central transfer. Without a good transfer, passengers would be stuck going to a terminal they may not work near, or else be forced into a long interchange. In London the reason the Northern line is not already segregated is that the branch point in the north, Camden Town, has constrained passageways, so eliminating reverse-branching requires spending money on improving circulation.
Unlike Camden Town, Sunnyside Junction is roomy enough for cross-platform transfers. The tracks should be set up in a way that LIRR trains going to East Side Access should interchange cross-platform with PSA and Port Washington Branch trains (which should go to Penn Station, not ESA), as they do not stop at Jamaica. Penn Station-bound LIRR trains not using the Port Washington Branch, colored orange on the map, should stop at Sunnyside too, but it’s less important to give them a cross-platform transfer.
This assignment would be good not just for LIRR passengers but also for PSA passengers. Unlike on the LIRR, on the New Haven Line, reverse-branching is unavoidable. However, passengers would still benefit from being able to get on a Penn Station-bound train and connecting to Grand Central at Sunnyside. Not least, passengers on the PSA infill stations in the city would have faster access to Grand Central than they have today via long walks or bus connections to the 6 train. But even in the suburbs, the interchange would provide higher effective frequency.
The connection with development
I don’t know to what extent decking Sunnyside Yards could attract Amazon. I wrote an article last year, which died in editing back-and-forth, lamenting that New York was unlikely to be the HQ2 site because there was no regional rail access to any of the plausible sites thanks to low frequency and no through-running. Long Island City’s sole regional rail access today consists of LIRR stations on a reverse-branch that does not even go into Manhattan (or Downtown Brooklyn) and only sees a few trains per day. It has better subway access and excellent airport access, though.
However, since Sunnyside Junction is so useful without any reference to new development, the plans for decking make it so much more urgent. Sunnyside Yards are in the open air today, and there is space for moving tracks and constructing the necessary platforms. The cost is likely to be in the nine figures because New York’s construction costs are high and American mainline rail construction costs are even higher, but it’s still a fraction of what it would take to do all of this under a deck.
Moreover, the yards are not easy to deck. Let’s Go LA discussed the problem of decking in 2014: columns for high-rise construction are optimally placed at intervals that don’t jive well with railyard clearances, and as a result, construction costs are a multiple of what they are on firma. Hudson Yards towers cost around $12,000/square meter to build, whereas non-WTC commercial skyscrapers in the city are $3,000-6,000 on firma. The connection with Sunnyside Junction is that preparing the site for the deck requires extensive reconfiguration of tracks and periodic shutdowns, so it’s most efficient to kill two birds with one stone and bundle the reconfiguration required for the station with that required for the deck.
In the other direction, the station would make the deck more economically feasible. The high construction costs of buildings on top of railyards makes decking unprofitable except in the most desirable areas. Even Hudson Yards, adjacent to Midtown Manhattan on top of a new subway station, is only treading water: the city had to give developers tax breaks to get them to build there. In Downtown Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards lost the developer money. Sunnyside Yards today are surrounded by auto shops, big box retail, and missing middle residential density, none of which screams “market rents are high enough to justify high construction costs.” A train station would at least offer very fast rail access to Midtown.
If the decking goes through despite unfavorable economics, making sure it’s bundled with a train station becomes urgent, then. Such a bundling would reduce the incremental cost of the station, which has substantial benefits for riders even independently of any development it might stimulate in Sunnyside.
The theme of winners and losers has been on my mind for the last few months, due to the politics of the Brooklyn bus redesign. In a rich country, practically every social or political decisions is win-lose, even if the winners greatly outnumber the losers. It’s possible to guarantee a soft landing to some of the losers, but sometime even the soft landing is disruptive, and it’s crucial that backers of social change be honest with themselves and with the public about this. Overall, a shift from an auto-oriented society to a transit-oriented one and from dirty energy to clean energy is positive and must be pursued everywhere, but it does have downsides. In short, it changes economic geography in ways that make certain regions (like Detroit or the Gulf Cooperation Council states) redundant; it reorients economies toward more local consumption, so oil, gas, and heavy industry jobs would not be replaced with similar manufacturing or mining clusters but with slightly more work everywhere else in the world.
Dirty production is exportable
The United States has the dirtiest economy among the large developed countries, so it’s convenient to look at average American behavior to see where the money that is spent on polluting products goes.
Nationally, about 15.9% of consumer spending is on transportation. The vast majority of that is on cars, 93.1% (that is, 14.7% of total consumer spending). The actual purchase of the car is 42% of transportation spending, or 6.7% of household spending. This goes to an industry that, while including local dealerships (for both new and used cars), mostly consists of auto plants, making cars in suburban Detroit or in low-wage Southern states and exporting them nationwide.
In addition to this 6% of consumer spending on cars, there’s fuel. Around 3% of American household spending is on fuel for cars. Overall US oil consumption in 2017 was 7.28 billion barrels, which at $52/barrel is 5% of household spending; the difference between 5 and 3 consists of oil consumed not by households. This is a total of about 2% of American GDP, which includes, in addition to household spending, capital goods and government purchases. This tranche of the American economy, too, is not local, but rather goes to the oil industry domestically (such as to Texas or Alaska) or internationally (such as to Alberta or Saudi Arabia).
Historically, when coal was more economically significant, it was exportable too. Money flowed from consumers, such as in New York and London, to producers in the Lackawanna Valley or Northeast England; today, it still flows to remaining mines, such as in Wyoming.
The same is true of much of the supply chain for carbon-intensive products. Heavy industry in general has very high carbon content for its economic value, which explains how the Soviet Union had high greenhouse gas emissions even with low car usage (15.7 metric tons per capita in the late 1980s) – it had heavy industry just as the capital bloc did, but lagged in relatively low-carbon consumer goods and services. The economic geography of steel, cement, and other dirty products is again concentrated in industrial areas. In the US, Pittsburgh is famous for its historical steel production, and in general heavy manufacturing clusters in the Midwestern parts of the Rust Belt and in transplants in specific Southern sites.
All of these production zones support local economies. The top executives may well live elsewhere – for example, David Koch lives in New York and Charles Koch in Wichita (whose economy is based on airplane manufacturing and agriculture, neither of which the Kochs are involved in). But the working managers live in city regions dedicated to servicing the industry, the way office workers in the oil industry tend to live in Houston or Calgary, and of course the line workers live near the plants and mines.
Clean alternatives are more local
The direct alternatives to oil, gas, and cars are renewable energy and public transportation. These, too, have some components that can be made centrally and exported, such as solar panel and rolling stock manufacturing. However, these components are a small fraction of total spending.
How small? Let’s look at New York City Transit. Its operating costs are about $9.1 billion a year as of 2016, counting both the subway and buses. Nearly all of this is wages, salaries, and benefits: $7.3 billion, compared with only $500 million for materials and supplies. This specifically excludes vehicle purchases, which in American transit accounting are lumped as capital costs. The total NYCT fleet is about 6,400 subway cars, which cost around $2.3 million each and last 40+ years, and 5,700 buses, which cost around $500,000 each and last 12 years, for a total depreciation charge of around $600 million a year combined.
Compare this with cars: New York has about 2 million registered cars, but at the same average car ownership rate as the rest of the US, 845 per 1,000 people, it would have 7.3 million cars. These 5.3 million extra cars would cost $36,500 each today, and last around 20 years, for a total annual depreciation charge of $9.7 billion.
Put another way, total spending on vehicles at NYCT is one sixteenth what it would take to raise the city’s car ownership rate to match the national average. Even lumping in materials and supplies that are not equipment, such as spare parts and fuel for buses, the total, $1.1 billion, is one ninth as high as buying New Yorkers cars so that they can behave like Americans outside the city, and that’s without counting the cost of fuel. In particular, there is no hope of maintaining auto plant employment by retraining auto workers to make trains, as Michael Moore proposed in 2009.
The vast majority of transit spending is then local: bus and train operations, maintenance, and local management. The same is true of capital spending, which goes to local workers, contractors, and consultants, and even when it is outsourced to international firms, the bulk of the value of the contract does not accrue to Dragados or Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Clean energy is similarly local. Solar panels can be manufactured centrally, but installing them on rooftops is done locally. Moreover, the elimination of carbon emissions coming from buildings has to come not just from cleaner electricity but also from reducing electricity consumption through passive solar construction. Retrofitting houses to be more energy-efficient is a labor-intensive task comprising local builders sealing gaps in the walls, windows, and ceilings.
Low-carbon economic production can be exported, but not necessarily from Detroit
A global shift away from greenhouse gas emissions does not mean just replacing cars and oil with transit and solar power. Transit is cheaper to operate than cars: in metro New York, 80.5% of personal transportation expenditure is still on cars, and the rest is (as in the rest of the country) partly on air travel and not transit fare, whereas work trip mode shares in the metropolitan statistical area are 56% car, 31% transit. With its relatively high (for North America) transit usage, metro New York has the lowest share of household spending going to transportation, just 11.4%. This missing consumption goes elsewhere. Where does it go?
The answer is low-carbon industries. Consuming less oil, steel, and concrete means not just consuming more local labor for making buildings more efficient and running public transit, but also shifting consumption to less carbon-intensive industries. This low-carbon consumption includes local purchases, for example going out to eat, or hiring a babysitter to look after the kids, neither of which involves any carbon emissions. But it also includes some goods that can be made centrally. What are they, and can they be made in the same areas that make cars and steel or drill for oil and gas?
The answer is no. First, in supply regions like the Athabascan Basin, Dammam, and the North Slope of Alaksa, there’s no real infrastructure for any economic production other than oil production. The infrastructure (in the case of North America) and the institutions (in the case of the Persian Gulf) are not suited for any kind of manufacturing. Second, in real cities geared around a single industry, like Detroit or Houston, there are still lingering problems with workforce quality, business culture, infrastructure, and other necessities for economic diversification.
Take the tech industry as an example. The industry itself is very low-carbon, in the sense that software is practically zero-carbon and even hardware has low carbon content relative to its market value. Some individual tech products are dirty, such as Uber, but the industry overall is clean. A high carbon tax is likely to lead to a consumption shift toward tech. And tech as an industry has little to look for in Detroit and Houston. Austin has booming tech employment, but Houston does not, despite having an extensive engineering sector courtesy of the oil industry as well as NASA. The business culture in the space industry (which is wedded to military contracting) is alien to that of tech and vice versa; the way workers are interviewed, hired, and promoted is completely different. I doubt the engineers oil and auto industries are any more amenable to career change to software.
On the level of line workers rather than engineers, the situation is even worse. A manufacturing worker in heavy industry can retrain to work in light industry, or in a non-exportable industry like construction, but light industry has little need for the massive factories that churn out cars and steel. And non-manufacturing exports like tech don’t employ armies of manufacturing workers.
In Germany the situation is better, in that Munich and Stuttgart may have little software, but they do have less dirty manufacturing in addition to their auto industries. It’s likely that if global demand for cars shifts to a global demand for trains then Munich will likely keep thriving – it’s the home of not just BMW and Man but also Siemens. However, the institutions and worker training that have turned southern Germany into an economically diverse powerhouse have not really replicated outside Germany. Ultimately, in a decarbonizing world, southern Germany will be the winner among many heavy industrial regions, most of which won’t do so well.
There’s no alternative to shrinkage in some cities
A shift away from fossil fuel and cars toward green energy and public transit does not have to be harsh. It can aim to give individual workers in those industries a relatively soft landing. However, two snags remain, and are unavoidable.
The first is that some line workers have deliberately chosen poor working conditions in exchange for high wages; the linked example is about oil rig workers in Alaska, but the same issue occurs in some unionized manufacturing and services, for example electricians get high wages but all suffer hearing loss by their 50s. It’s possible to retrain workers and find them work that’s at the same place on the average person’s indifference curve between pay and work conditions, but since those workers evidently chose higher-pay, more dangerous jobs, their personal preference is likely to weight money more than work conditions and thus they’re likely to be unhappy with any alternative.
The second and more important snag is the effect of retraining on entire regions. Areas that specialize to oil, gas, cars, and to some extent other heavy industry today are going to suffer economic decline, as the rest of the world shifts its consumption to either local goods (such as transit operations) or different economic sectors that have no reason to locate in these areas (such as software).
Nobody will be sad to see Saudi Arabia crash except people who are directly paid by its government. But the leaders of Texas and Michigan are not Mohammad bin Salman; nonetheless, it is necessary to proceed with decarbonization. It’s not really possible to guarantee the communities a soft landing. Governments all over the world have wasted vast amounts of money trying and failing to diversify from one sector (e.g. oil in the GCC states) or attract an industry in vogue (e.g. tech anywhere in the world). If engineering in Detroit and Houston can’t diversify on its own, there’s nothing the government can do to improve it, and thus these city regions are destined to become much smaller than they are today.
This is bound to have knock-on regional effects. Entire regions don’t die quietly. Firms specializing in professional services to the relevant industries (such as Halliburton) will have to retool. Small business owners who’ve dedicated their lives to selling food or insurance or hardware to Houstonians and suburban Detroit white flighters will need to leave, just as their counterparts in now-dead mining towns or in Detroit proper did. Some will succeed elsewhere, just as many people in New Orleans who were displaced by Katrina found success in Houston. But not all will. And it’s not possible to guarantee all of them a soft landing, because it’s not possible to guarantee that every new small business will succeed.
All policy, even very good policy, has human costs. There are ways to reduce these costs, through worker retraining and expansion of alternative employment (such as retrofitting older houses to be more energy-efficient). But there is no way to eliminate these costs. Some people who are comfortable today will be made precarious by any serious decarbonization program; put another way, these people’s entire livelihood depends on continuing to destroy the planet, and most of them are not executives at oil and gas companies. It does not mean that decarbonization should be abandoned or even that it should be pursued more hesitantly; but it does mean climate activists, including transit activists, have to be honest about how it affects people in and around polluting industries.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced a proposal to improve rapid transit in Queens and the Bronx by raising frequency and reducing fares on the in-city commuter rail stations. This has gotten some pushback from Transit Twitter, on the grounds that low fares without low staffing, i.e. getting rid of the conductors, would require excessive subsidies. I feel slightly bad about this, since the comptroller’s office reached out to me and I gave some advice; I did mention staffing reduction but not vociferously enough, whereas I did harp on fare integration and frequent local stops.
Whereas the comptroller’s report goes into why this would be useful (without mentioning staffing, which is a mistake), here I’d like to give more detail of what this means. Of note, I am not assuming any large-scale construction project, such as new tunnels across the Hudson, East Side Access, or even Penn Station Access. The only investment into civil infrastructure that I’m calling for is one flying junction, and the program can be implemented without it, just not with the reliability that I’m aiming at.
Black dots denote existing stations, gray dots denote infill.
The map includes only the lines that should be part of a Manhattan-bound rapid transit system initially. This excludes the South Shore LIRR lines, not because they’re unimportant (to the contrary), but because connecting them to Manhattan involves new flying junctions at Jamaica Station, built as part of East Side Access without any real concern for coherent service. Shoehorning these lines into the system is still possible (indeed, it is required until ESA opens and probably also until some Brooklyn-Lower Manhattan LIRR tunnel might open), but the scheduling gets more complex. These lines should be a further phase of this system, whereas I am depicting an initial operation.
The Port Washington Branch
On the Port Washington Branch, present-day frequency is 6 trains per hour at the peak, with a complex arrangement of express trains such that most stations have half-hour gaps, and a train every half hour off-peak making all stops. This should be changed to a pattern with a train every 10 minutes all day. If the single-track segment between Great Neck and Port Washington makes this not possible, then every other train should turn at Great Neck. On the schedule today the one-way trip time between Port Washington and Great Neck is 9 minutes, and this is with extensive padding and a throttled acceleration rate (the LIRR’s M7s can accelerate at 0.9 m/s^2 but are derated to 0.45 m/s^2). The technical travel time, not including station dwell time at Great Neck, which is double-track and has double-track approaches, is around 6 minutes without derating, and 6:50 with.
The current travel time from Port Washington to Penn Station is 47 minutes on an all-stop train, which permits six trainsets to comfortably provide 20-minute service; from Great Neck it’s 38 minutes, which permits five sets to provide 10-minute overlay service. Trains must be scheduled, not run on headway management, to have slots through the tunnels to Penn Station (shared with Amtrak under even my high-end proposals for regional rail tunnels), so the short-turns do not complicate scheduling.
With less padding and no derating, the travel time would be reduced to around 41 minutes end-to-end (so five trainsets provide end-to-end service) and 35 to Great Neck (allowing four trainsets to provide this service with some scheduling constraints or five very easily), even with the infill stops. Labor efficiency would be high, because even all-day headways would simplify crew scheduling greatly.
The Hempstead Branch
I proposed a sample schedule for the Hempstead Branch in 2015. Trains would take 41 minutes end to end; with my proposed infill stops, they would instead take 43. Few trains make the trip today, as off-peak Hempstead trains divert to Brooklyn, but of those that do, the trip time today is about 55 minutes.
Today’s frequency is 4 trains per hour at the peak and a train every hour off-peak. Two peak trains run express and do the trip in 48 minutes, worse than an all-stop train would with normal schedule contingency and no derating. As on the Port Washington Branch, I propose a train every 10 minutes all day, allowing ten trainsets to provide service. There is a single track segment between Garden City and Hempstead, but it is shorter than the Great Neck-Port Washington segment, making 10-minute service to the end feasible.
The reason I am proposing an increase in peak frequency on the Hempstead Branch but not the Port Washington Branch has to do with income demographics. The North Shore of Long Island is rich, and even the city neighborhoods on the Port Washington Branch beyond the 7 are upper middle class. There is still demand suppression there coming from high fares and low frequency, but evidently Bayside manages to be one of the busier LIRR stations; the equipment should be able to handle the increased peak ridership from better service.
In contrast, Hempstead is a working-class suburb, with a per capita income of $22,000 as of 2016 (in New York the same figure is $34,000, and in Great Neck it is $39,000). On the way it passes through very rich Garden City ($67,000/person), but Hempstead is a larger and denser town, and most city neighborhoods on the way are lower middle class. Fare integration, even with somewhat higher fares outside the city (which under this regime would also apply to Long Island buses), is likely to lead to ridership explosion even at rush hour, requiring more service.
My more speculative maps, for after East Side Access frees some capacity, even involve going to a train every five minutes, with half the trains going to Hempstead and half to East Garden City along a deactivated but intact branch. With such frequency, people from Forest Hills and points east would switch to the LIRR from the subway, helping relieve the overcrowded E trains. However, to avoid spending money on concrete (or scheduling around the flat junction between these two branches), starting with just Hempstead is fine.
To make this work, one investment into concrete is useful: grade-separating Queens Interlocking, between the Hempstead Branch and the Main Line. The Main Line should be able to run express (with a stop at the branch point at Floral Park) without conflicting with local trains on the Hempstead Branch. As peak traffic on the Main Line is close to saturating a double-track main, this would also facilitate a schedule in which Main Line trains get to use the express tracks through Queens while other lines, including the Hempstead Branch and the South Side Lines, use the local tracks.
What it would take
Providing the service I’m proposing would involve nine or ten trainsets on the Port Washington Branch and ten on the Hempstead Branch, if the trains are sped up. Some of the speedup involves running them at their design acceleration and some involves reducing schedule contingency by improving reliability. The reliability improvements in turn come from reducing conflicts; Amtrak conflicts are unavoidable, but hourly, involving trains that for all their faults are scheduled precisely and can be slotted to avoid delaying the LIRR. The one big-ticket item required is grade-separating Queens Interlocking, which, judging by the more complex Harold Interlocking flyover, is at actual New York costs a low nine-figure project.
Estimating operating costs is hard. On paper, LIRR service costs $10/car-km, but this includes conductors (whose wages and benefits are around $20/train-km, so maybe $2-$2.50/car-km), very low utilization of drivers (who add another $11/train-km), and high fixed costs. A driver-only operation with drivers doing four roundtrips per work day (totaling 6 hours and 40 minutes of driving and turnaround time) would spend $120 per end-to-end on the driver’s wages and benefits, $200 on electricity, essentially nothing on rolling stock procurement since nearly all the extra trips would be off-peak, and only a modicum on extra maintenance. Inducing around 150 riders per trip who would otherwise not have traveled would pay for the extra operating costs.
What it would and wouldn’t do
The most important thing to note is that this system is not going to be a second subway. This isn’t because of the inherent limitations of commuter rail, but because the alignment is not great in the inner part of the city. Penn Station is on the outskirts of Midtown Manhattan, which is why the LIRR is bothering building East Side Access in the first place. Stringer’s report talks about job centers outside Manhattan, but unfortunately, Queens’ single largest, Long Island City, has no through-LIRR station, and no chance of getting one since the Main Line is in a tunnel there. The best that can be done is Sunnyside Junction, which I do denote as an infill location.
Fortunately, Queens does have other job centers. Flushing has about 30,000 workers, Jamaica 16,000, Forest Hills 20,000 (for comparison, Long Island City has 50,000 and JFK 33,000). Sunnyside Yards are an attractive TOD target, and there may be some commercial development there, especially if there is a commuter rail station underneath (which station should be built anyway for operational reasons – it’s not purely development-oriented transit).
And, of course, most jobs remain in Manhattan. A kilometer’s walk from Penn Station gets you to about 400,000 Manhattan jobs. Hempstead and Port Washington are already less than an hour away by train – the difference is that today the train is expensive and doesn’t come frequently except for about two hours a day in each direction. The comptroller’s report errs in neglecting to talk about staffing reductions, but it’s right that running trains more often, making more stops, would make this service a very attractive proposition to a large number of commuters at all hours of day.
Usually, integrated transit planning means designing bus networks to feed rail trunks better. Buses are mobile: their routes can move based on long-term changes in the city’s physical and economic layout. Railroads in contrast have high installation costs. Between the relative ease of moving buses and the fact that there’s a hierarchy in which trains are more central than buses, buses normally should be feeding the trains. However, there are some cases in which the opposite happens: that is, cases in which it’s valuable to design rail infrastructure based on expected bus corridors. Moreover, in developed and middle-income countries these situations are getting more rather than less frequent, due to the increasing use of deep tunneling and large station complexes.
In nearly every circumstance, the hierarchy of bus and rail remains as it is; the exceptions (like Ottawa, at least until the light rail subway opens) are so rare as to be notable. What I posit is that in some situations, rail infrastructure should be designed better to allow buses to feed the trains more efficiently. This mostly affects station infrastructure, but there are also reasons to choose routes based on bus feeding.
Major bus corridors
Surface transit likes following major streets. Years ago, I blogged about this here and here. Major streets have two relevant features: they are wide, permitting buses (or streetcars) to run in generous dedicated lanes without having to deal with too much traffic; and they have continuous linear development, suitable for frequent bus stops (about every half kilometer).
These two features are likely to remain important for surface transit for the foreseeable future. The guidelines for good surface transit service depend on empirical parameters like the transfer penalty (in particular, grids are not the universal optimum for bus networks), but major corridors are relatively insensitive to them. The walk penalty can change the optimal bus stop spacing, but not in a way that changes the basic picture of corridor-based planning. Which streets have the most development is subject to change as city economic and social geography evolves, but which streets are the widest doesn’t. What’s more, a train station at a street intersection is likely to cement the cross-street’s value, making adverse future change less likely.
Note that we don’t have to be certain which major streets will host the most important buses in the future. We just need to know that major buses will follow major streets.
The conclusion is that good locations for rail infrastructure are major intersecting streets. On a commuter line, this means stations should ideally be placed at intersections with roads that can carry connecting buses. On a subway line, this means the same at a more local scale.
Stations and accessibility
When possible, train stations should locate at intersections with through-streets, to permit efficient transfers. This also carries over to station exits, an important consideration given the complexity of many recently-built stations in major rich and middle-income cities.
It goes without saying that a Manhattan subway line should have stations with exits at 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, etc. streets. Here, Second Avenue Subway does better than the Lexington Avenue Line, whose stations are chosen based on a 9-block stop spacing and miss the intersecting buses.
However, it’s equally important to make sure that the accessible exits are located at major streets as well. One bad example in New York is the Prospect Park B/Q station: it has two exits, one inaccessible on Flatbush Avenue and one accessible on Empire Boulevard. In theory both are major corridors, but Flatbush is far and away the more important ones, one of the busiest surface transit corridors in the city, while Empire competes for east-west buses with Kings County Hospital, the borough’s biggest job center outside Downtown Brooklyn. Eric Goldwyn’s and my Brooklyn bus redesign breaks the B41 bus on Flatbush and loops it and the Washington Avenue routes around the station complex to reach the accessible exit.
The Prospect Park case is one example of an almost-right decision. The full-time, accessible exit is close to Flatbush, but not quite there. Another example is Fields Corner: the eastern end of the platform is 80 meters from Dorchester Avenue, a major throughfare, and 180 meters from Adams Avenue, another major street, which unlike Dot Ave diverges from the direction the Red Line takes on its way south and is a useful feeder bus route.
Commuter rail and feeder buses
The station placement problem appears especially acute on mainline rail. This is not just an American problem: suburban RER stations are built without regard for major crossing roads (see, for example, the RER B airport branch and the RER A Marne-la-Vallee branch, both built in the 1970s). Railroads historically didn’t think much in terms of systemwide integration, but even when they were turned into modern rapid transit, questionable stop locations persisted; the Ashmont branch of the Red Line in Boston was taken over from mainline rail in the 1920s, but Fields Corner was not realigned to have exits at Dot and Adams.
Today, the importance of feeder buses is better-understood, at least by competent metropolitan transportation planners. This means that some stations need to be realigned, and in some places infill stops at major roads are desirable.
This is good for integration not just with buses but also with cars, the preferred station access mode for American commuter rail. The LIRR’s stations are poorly located within the Long Island road network; Patrick O’Hara argues that Hicksville is the second busiest suburban station (after Ronkonkoma) not because it preferentially gets express service on the Main Line, but because it has by far the best north-south access by road, as it has one arterial heading north and two heading south, while most stations miss the north-south arterials entirely.
Instead of through-access by bus (or by car), some stations have bus bays for terminating buses. This is acceptable, provided the headways are such that the entire local bus network can be configured to pulse at the train station. If trains arrive every half hour (or even every 20 minutes), then timed transfers are extremely valuable. In that case, allowing buses to stop at a bay with fast access to the platforms greatly extends the train station’s effective radius. However, this is of far less value on a dense network with multiple parallel lines, or on a railroad so busy that trains arrive every 10 minutes or less, such as the RER A branches or the trunks of the other RER lines.
Within New York, we see this mistake of ignoring local transit in commuter rail planning with Penn Station Access. The project is supposed to add four stations in the Bronx, but there will not be a station at Pelham Parkway, the eastern extension of Fordham Road carrying the city’s busiest bus, the Bx12. This is bad planning: the MTA should be encouraging people to connect between the bus and the future commuter train and site stations accordingly.
Street networks and route choice
On a grid, this principle is on the surface easy: rapid transit routes should follow the most important routes, with stops at cross streets. This is well understood in New York (where proposals for subway extensions generally follow busy bus routes, like Second Avenue, Nostrand, and Utica) and in Vancouver (where the next SkyTrain extension will follow Broadway).
However, there remains one subtlety: sometimes, the grid makes travel in one direction easier than in another. In Manhattan, north-south travel is easier than east-west travel, so in isolation, east-west subways connecting to north-south buses would work better. (In reality, Manhattan’s north-south orientation means north-south subways are indispensable, and once the subways exist, crossing subways should aim to connect to them first and to surface transit second.) In West Los Angeles, there is a multitude of east-west arterials and a paucity of north-south ones, which means that a north-south subway is of great value, connecting not just to the Expo Line and upcoming Wilshire subway but also other east-west arterials carrying major bus routes like Olympic.
Moreover, some cities don’t have intact grids at all. They have haphazard street networks, with some routes suitable for arterial buses and some not. This is less of an issue in mature cities, which may have such street networks but also have older subway lines for newer route to connect to, and more in newer cities, typically in the third world.
The tension is that very wide arterials are easier to build on, using elevated construction or cut-and-cover. If such a technique is feasible, then constructibility should trump connections to buses (especially since such cities are fast-changing, so there is less certainty over what the major future bus routes are). However, if deep boring is required, for examples because the arterials aren’t that wide, or the subway must cross underwater, or merchant opposition to cut-and-cover is too entrenched, then it’s useful to select routes that hit the arterials orthogonally, for the best surface transit connections.
In a working transit city, rail should be the primary mode of travel and buses should be designed to optimally feed the trains. However, this does not mean rail should be planned without regard to the buses. Train stations should be sited based not just on walk sheds and major destinations but also planned bus connections; on an urban rapid transit system, including S-Bahn trunks, this means crossing arterial streets, where buses typically run. Moreover, these stations’ exits should facilitate easy transfers between buses and trains, including for people with disabilities, who face more constrained mobility choices if they require elevator access. In some edge cases, it may even be prudent to select entire route construction priorities based on bus connections.
While choosing rail routes based on bus connections seems to only be a real issue in rare circumstances (such as the West LA street network), bus-dependent station siting is common. Commuter train services in general are bad at placing stations for optimal suburban bus connections, and may require extensive realignment and infill. On urban subways, station placement is important for both accessibility retrofits and new projects. Outside city centers, where dense subway networks can entirely replace surface transit, it’s critical to select station sites based on maximum connectivity to orthogonal surface lines.
Two days ago, Port Authority put out a study about a rail link to LaGuardia, which became Governor Cuomo’s top transit priority a few years ago. The PDF file is bundled with the RFP, but starting on PDF-p. 25 it’s an alternatives analysis and not an RFP. While transit activists including myself have attacked Cuomo’s proposed rail link for its poor alignment choice, the Port Authority study considers many alternatives, including some interesting ones. It also describes the current situation in more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’d like to talk about the alternatives for a rail link, but also summarize some of the important facts buried in the study. Unfortunately, the study also eliminates all the useful options and prefers to advance only Cuomo’s uselessly circuitous alignment.
The current situation
LaGuardia had about 25 million O&D passengers in 2017. They disproportionately go to or from Midtown, but it’s not as overwhelming as I thought based on this density map. Here is a precise breakdown, lumping together both locals (33%) and visitors (67%):
In Manhattan and western Queens “Walking access” means half a mile from a commuter rail stop or from the 7 train; there is no attempt to track walk access to the N or W trains. In Eastern Queens it means half a mile from any subway stop.
About half of the passengers get to or from the airport by taxi, and another 20% are dropped off or picked up in a car. Only 6.2% use public transportation, and another 5.6% use a shared ride such as a hotel shuttle.
Among employees, the situation is different. I expected employees to cluster in western and central Queens, but in fact, based on the same categories used for passengers, the largest group is Queens East beyond subway range:
There are 13,000 employees at LaGuardia per Port Authority (compared with about 10,000 per OnTheMap), of whom 40% take transit to work and 57% drive. It goes without saying that the transit options are exceedingly harsh. The connections from Brooklyn require taking a subway through Manhattan (and I don’t think LGA is necessarily important enough to justify a direct bus route from Brooklyn, presumably a merger of the B38 with a Q18/Q47 compromise route to the airport). From Queens beyond subway range they require taking a bus to the subway and then another bus. The implication is that people take transit to the airport out of necessity – that is, poverty – and not because the options are good.
Unfortunately, the implication is also that it’s hard to serve the current employee base by any rail link, even if it’s fare-integrated with the subway (unlike the JFK AirTrain). The origins are too dispersed. The best that can be done is serving one tranche of origins, and letting passengers sort themselves based on commute possibilities.
In some strategic places, a decent two-seat ride can be made available. The M60 bus is not good for passengers, but it is fine for employees since more of them come from Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, and moreover low incomes imply that it’s fine to have a transit : car trip time ratio well in excess of 1 provided it’s not too onerous. Some future rail extensions, not covered in the study, would help with passenger distribution: Triboro RX would help get passengers from the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and parts of Queens to major transfer points at Astoria and Jackson Heights, and Penn Station Access with an Astoria stop would help get eastern Bronx passengers into Astoria with a quick transfer.
The alternatives analyzed
The study mentions a horde of different options for connecting people to the airport, but most only get a few paragraphs followed by an indication that they don’t meet the objectives and therefore should not be considered further. These excluded alignments exist only for i-dotting and t-crossing, such as ferries or whatever Elon Musk is calling his tunnels this year; Port Authority is right to reject them.
The alternatives proposed for further consideration consist of no build, subway extensions, and various air train alignments. Unfortunately, on second pass, the subway extensions are all eliminated, on the same grounds of community impact. This includes the least impactful subway extension, going north on 31st Street and then east on 19th Avenue, avoiding Ditmars (which could host an el).
Instead of a subway extension, the study is recommending an air train. There are many alternatives analyzed: one from Astoria along the Grand Central Parkway, one from Woodside with a connecting to the local M/R trains on the Queens Boulevard Line at Northern Boulevard, one from Jackson Heights, one from Jamaica with a missed connection to the 7, and one from Willets Point as recommended by Cuomo. All but the last are excluded on the same grounds of impact. Any land acquisition appears to be prohibited, no matter how minor.
What went wrong?
The obvious answer to why the study recommends the Willets Point detour is political support. This can be seen in e.g. PDF-p. 150, a table analyzing each of the air train possibilities. One of the criteria is operational concerns. The Jamaica option fails that test because it is so circuitous it would not get passengers between the airport and either Penn Station or Grand Central in thirty minutes. The Willets Point option passes, despite being circuitous as well (albeit less so); it would still not get passengers to Midtown Manhattan in thirty minutes since the 7 is slow, but the study seems to be assuming passengers would take the LIRR, on the half-hourly Port Washington Branch.
This alone suggests political sandbagging. But by itself it doesn’t explain how the study’s assumptions sandbag the options the governor doesn’t favor; after all, there could be many little omissions and judgment calls.
Rather, I propose that the study specifically looked only at nonstop service to the airport. The subway extensions are all proposed as nonstop services from Astoria (either Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars) to the airport, without intermediate stops. Without intermediate stops, the political will to build els above neighborhood streets is diminished, because few people in Astoria have any need to travel to LaGuardia. In contrast, with intermediate stops, the subway extensions would improve coverage within Astoria, serving Steinway and Hazen Streets.
If intermediate stops are desired, then 19th Avenue may not be the best corridor. Ditmars itself is feasible (with some takings), as are 21st and 20th Avenues. Ditmars has the most impact but serves the highest-value location, and can descend to Grand Central Parkway to get to the airport without any tunneling, limiting costs.
Moreover, the impact of els can be reduced by building them on concrete columns rather than all-steel structures. Paris Metro Line 2 opened in 1903, before the First Subway in New York; it has a steel structure on top of concrete columns, and the noise level is low enough that people can have conversations underneath while a train is passing. New Yorkers should be familiar with the reduced noise of concrete structures since the 7 el on top of Queens Boulevard is quiet, but that is an all-concrete structure on a very wide street; Line 2 here follows wide boulevards as well but not so wide as Queens Boulevard, and is moreover a mixture of concrete and steel, and yet manages not to have the screeching noise New Yorkers are familiar with from Astoria, Woodside, and other neighborhoods with els.
Is this study valuable?
Yes and no. Its conclusions should be tossed for their limited scope (nonstop airport access only), questionable assumptions (overreliance on infrequent commuter rail), and political aims (justifying Cuomo’s decision). But some of the underlying analysis, especially of current travel patterns, is useful for the purposes of thinking about systemwide transit expansion. Despite the consideration of an N/W extension, the study does not try to figure out the percentage of travelers whose ultimate origin or destination is near an N/W stop, only near a 7 stop; however, we can make some educated guesses from the map and realize that an N/W extension is of considerable value to passengers.
For employees, the situation is more delicate. The study mentions them but doesn’t try to optimize for them – the aim is to give Cuomo political cover, not to design the best possible public transit for New York. But the dispersal of worker origins means that a single rail link to the airport is unlikely to have much of an effect. Better everywhere-to-everywhere transit is needed. With decent bus connections at Astoria and Jackson Heights, it’s more important to build circumferential transit there (that is, Triboro) than to connect directly to the airport.
A general program of transit expansion would serve both groups. An N/W extension through Astoria with intermediate stops would give the neighborhood better coverage while also connecting the airport with Manhattan destinations, with good transfers to origins on the Upper East and West Sides. Better circumferential transit would then let workers from different parts of the city use the same extension without having to detour through Midtown even if their origins are in the Bronx or Queens.
Can any of this happen? The answer is unambiguously yes. Even in New York, els and at-grade rail is not so expensive. The only real question is whether good transit can happen while the state is governed by a do-nothing administration, headed by a governor who is more interested in a signature project than in improving transportation for his hapless subjects.
I ran a Patreon poll with three options for posts about design compromises: overbuilding for future capacity needs, building around compromises with unfixably bad operations, and where to build when it’s impossible to get transit-oriented development right. Overbuilding won with 16 votes to bad operations’ 10 and development’s 13.
It’s generally best to build infrastructure based exactly on expected use. Too little and it gets clogged, too much and the cost of construction is wasted. This means that when it comes to rail construction, especially mainline rail, infrastructure should be sized for the schedule the railroad intends to run in the coming years. The Swiss principle that the schedule comes first was just adopted in Germany; based on this principle, infrastructure construction is geared around making timed transfers and overtakes and shortening schedules to be an integer (or half-integer) multiple of the headway minus turnaround time for maximum equipment utilization.
And yet, things aren’t always this neat. This post’s topic is the issue of diachronic optimization. If I design the perfect rail network for services that come every 30 minutes, I will probably end up with a massive upgrade bill if ridership increases to the point of requiring a train every 20 minutes instead. (I chose these two illustrative numbers specifically because 30 is not a multiple of 20.) In some cases, it’s defensible to just build for higher capacity – full double-tracking even if current ridership only warrants a single track with passing sidings, train stations with more tracks in case more lines are built to connect to them, and so on. It’s a common enough situation that it’s worth discussing when what is technically overbuilding is desirable.
Expected growth rates
A fast-growing area can expect future rail traffic to rise, which implies that building for future capacity today is good. However, there are two important caveats. The first is that higher growth usually also means higher uncertainty: maybe our two-track commuter line designed around a peak of 8 trains per hour in each direction will need 32 trains per hour, or maybe it will stay at 8 for generations on end – we usually can’t guarantee it will rise steadily to 16.
The second caveat, applicable to fast-growing developing countries, is that high growth raises the cost of capital. Early British railroads were built to higher standard than American ones, and the explanation I’ve seen in the rail history literature is that the US had a much higher cost of capital (since growth rates were high and land was free). Thus mainlines in cities (like the Harlem) ran in the middle of the street in the US but on elevated structures in Britain.
But with that in mind, construction costs have a secular increase. Moreover, in constrained urban areas, the dominant cost of above-ground infrastructure cost is finding land for multiple tracks of railroad (or lanes of highway), and those are definitely trending up. The English working class spent 4-5% of its income on rent around 1800 (source, PDF-p. 12); today, spending one third of income on rent is more typical, implying housing costs have grown faster than incomes, let alone the general price index.
The upshot is that cities that can realistically expect large increases in population should overbuild more, and optimize the network around a specific level of traffic less. Switzerland and Germany, both of which are mature, low-population growth economies, can realistically predict traffic many decades hence. India, not so much.
The expected growth rate helps determine the future benefits of overbuilding now, including reduced overall costs from fronting construction when costs are expected to grow. Against these benefits, we must evaluate the costs of building more than necessary. These are highly idiosyncratic, and depend on precise locations of needed meets and overtakes, potential connection points, and the range of likely train frequencies.
On the Providence Line, the infrastructure today is good for an intercity train at current Amtrak speed every 15 minutes and a regional train making every stop every 15 minutes. There is one overtake segment at Attleboro, around three quarters of the way from Boston to Providence, and the line is otherwise double-track with only one flat junction, with the Stoughton branch. If intercity trains are sped up to the maximum speed permitted by right-of-way geometry, an additional overtake segment is required about a quarter of the way through, around Readville and Route 128. If the trains come every 10 minutes, in theory a mid-line overtake in Sharon is required, but in practice three overtakes would be so fragile that instead most of the line would need to be four-tracked (probably the entire segment from Sharon to Attleboro at least). This raises the incremental costs of providing infrastructure for 10-minute service – and conversely, all of this is in lightly developed areas, so it can be deferred without excessive future increase in costs.
An even starker example of high incremental costs is in London. Crossrail 2 consists of three pieces: the central tunnel between Clapham Junction and Euston-St. Pancras, the northern tunnel meandering east to the Lea Valley Lines and then back west to connect to the East Coast Main Line, and the southern tunnel providing two extra tracks alongside the four-track South West Main Line. The SWML is held to be at capacity, but it’s not actually at the capacity of an RER or S-Bahn system (as I understand it, it runs 32 trains per hour at the peak); the two extra tracks come from an expectation of future growth. However, the extreme cost of an urban tunnel with multiple new stations, even in relatively suburban South London, is such that the tunnel has to be deferred in favor of above-ground treatments until it becomes absolutely necessary.
In contrast, an example of low incremental costs is putting four tracks in a cut-and-cover subway tunnel. In absolute terms it’s more expensive than adding passing tracks in suburban Massachusetts, but the effect on capacity is much bigger (it’s an entire track pair, supporting a train every 2 minutes), and moreover, rebuilding a two-track tunnel to have four tracks in the future is expensive. Philadelphia most likely made the right choice to build the Broad Street Line four-track even though its ridership is far below the capacity of two – in the 1920s it seemed like ridership would keep growing. In developing countries building elevated or cut-and-cover metros, the same logic applies.
The two main aspects of every infrastructure decision are costs and benefits. But we can discern some patterns in when overbuilding is useful:
- Closing a pinch point in a network, such as a single- or double-track pinch point or a flat junction, is usually worth it.
- Cut-and-cover or elevated metro lines in cities that are as large as prewar New York (which had 7 million people plus maybe 2 million in the suburbs) or can expect to grow to that size class should have four tracks.
- On a piece of infrastructure that is likely to be profitable, like high-speed rail, deferring capacity increases until after operations start can be prudent, since the need to start up the profitable system quickly increase the cost of capital.
- Realistic future projections are imperative. Your mature first-world city is not going to triple its travel demand in the foreseeable future.
- Higher uncertainty raises the effective cost of capital, but it also makes precise planning to a specific schedule more difficult, which means that overbuilding to allow for more service options becomes reasonable.
- The electronics before concrete principle extends to overbuilding: it’s better to complete a system (such as ETCS signaling or electrification) even if some branches don’t merit it yet just because of the benefits of having a single streamlined class of service, and because of the relatively low cost of electronics.
Usually cities and countries should not try to build infrastructure ahead of demand – there are other public and private priorities competing for the same pool of money. But there are some exceptions, and I believe these principles can help agencies decide. As a matter of practice, I don’t think there are a lot of places in the developed world where I’d prescribe overbuilding, but in the developing world it’s more common due to higher future growth rates.
I do not know how to code. The most complex actually working code that I have written is 48 lines of Python that implement a train performance calculator that, before coding it, I would just run using a couple of Wolfram Alpha formulas. Here is a zipped version of the program. You can download Python 2.7 and run it there; there may also be online applets, but the one I tried doesn’t work well.
You’ll get a command line interface into which you can type various commands – for example, if you put in 2 + 5 the machine will natively output 7. What my program does is define functions relevant to train performance: accpen(k,a,b,c,m,x1,x2,n) is the acceleration penalty from speed x1 m/s to speed x2 m/s where x1 < x2 (if you try the other way around you’ll get funny results) for a train with a power-to-weight ratio of k kilowatts per ton, an initial acceleration rate of m m/s^2, and constant, linear, and quadratic running resistance terms a, b, and c. To find the deceleration penalty, put in decpen, and to find the total, either put in the two functions and add, or put in slowpen to get the sum. The text of the program gives the values of a, b, and c for the X2000 in Sweden, taken from PDF-p. 64 of a tilting trains thesis I’ve cited many times. A few high-speed trainsets give their own values of these terms; I also give an experimentally measured lower air resistance factor (the quadratic term c) for Shinkansen. Power-to-weight ratios are generally available for trainsets, usually on Wikipedia. Initial acceleration rates are sometimes publicly available but not always. Finally, n is a numerical integration quantity that should be set high, in the high hundreds or thousands at least. You need to either define all the quantities when you run the program, or plug in explicit numbers, e.g. slowpen(20, 0.0059, 0.000118, 0.000022, 1.2, 0, 44.44, 2000).
I’ve used this program to find slow zone penalties for recent high-speed rail calculations, such as the one in this post. I thought it would not be useful for regional trains, since I don’t have any idea what their running resistance values are, but upon further inspection I realized that at speeds below 160 km/h resistance is far too low to be of any consequence. Doubling c from its X2000 value to 0.000044 only changes the acceleration penalty by a fraction of a second up to 160 km/h.
With this in mind, I ran the program with the parameters of the FLIRT, assuming the same running resistance as the X2000. The FLIRT’s power-to-weight ratio is 21.1 in Romandy, and I saw a factsheet in German-speaking Switzerland that’s no longer on Stadler’s website citing slightly lower mass, corresponding to a power-to-weight ratio of 21.7; however, these numbers do not include passengers, and adding a busy but not full complement of passengers adds mass to the train until its power-to-weight ratio shrinks to about 20 or a little less. With an initial acceleration of about 1.2 m/s^2, the program spits out an acceleration penalty of 23 seconds from 0 to 160 km/h (i.e. 44.44 m/s) and a deceleration penalty of 22 seconds. In videos the acceleration penalty appears to be 24 seconds, which difference comes from a slight ramping up of acceleration at 0 km/h rather than instant application of the full rate.
In other words: the program manages to predict regional train performance to a very good approximation. So what about some other trains?
I ran the same calculation on Metro-North’s M-8. Its power-to-weight ratio is 12.2 kW/t (each car is powered at 800 kW and weighs 65.5 t empty), shrinking to 11.3 when adding 75 passengers per car weighing a total of 5 tons. A student paper by Daniel Delgado cites the M-8’s initial acceleration as 2 mph/s, or 0.9 m/s^2. With these parameters, the acceleration penalty is 37.1 seconds and the deceleration penalty is 34.1 seconds; moreover, the paper show how long it takes to ramp up to full acceleration rate, and this adds a few seconds, for a total stop penalty (excluding dwell time) of about 75 seconds, compared with 45 for the FLIRT.
In other words: FRA-compliant EMUs add 30 seconds to each stop penalty compared with top-line European EMUs.
Now, what about other rolling stock? There, it gets more speculative, because I don’t know the initial acceleration rates. I can make some educated guesses based on adhesion factors and semi-reliable measured acceleration data (thanks to Ari Ofsevit). Amtrak’s new Northeast Regional locomotives, the Sprinters, seem to have k = 12.2 with 400 passengers and m = 0.44 or a little less, for a penalty of 52 seconds plus a long acceleration ramp up adding a brutal 18 seconds of acceleration time, or 70 in total (more likely it’s inaccuracies in data measurements – Ari’s source is based on imperfect GPS samples). Were these locomotives to lug heavier coaches than those used on the Regional, such as the bilevels used by the MBTA, the values of both k and m would fall and the penalty would be 61 seconds even before adding in the acceleration ramp. Deceleration is slow as well – in fact Wikipedia says that the Sprinters decelerate at 5 MW and not at their maximum acceleration rate of 6.4 MW, so in the decpen calculation we must reduce k accordingly. The total is somewhere in the 120-150 second range, depending on how one treats the measured acceleration ramp.
In other words: even powerful electric locomotives have very weak acceleration, thanks to poor adhesion. The stop penalty to 160 km/h is about 60 seconds higher than for the M-8 (which is FRA-compliant and much heavier than Amfleet coaches) and 90 seconds higher than for the FLIRT.
Locomotive-hauled trains’ initial acceleration is weak that reducing the power-to-weight ratio to that of an MBTA diesel locomotive (about 5 kW/t) doesn’t even matter all that much. According to my model, the MBTA diesels’ total stop penalty to 160 km/h is 185 seconds excluding any acceleration ramp and assuming initial acceleration is 0.3 m/s^2, so with the ramp it might be 190 seconds. Of note, this model fails to reproduce the lower acceleration rates cited by a study from last decade about DMUs on the Fairmount Line, which claims a 70-second penalty to 100 km/h; such a penalty is far too high, consistent with about 0.2 m/s^2 initial acceleration, which is far too weak based on local/express time differences on the schedule. The actual MBTA trains only run at 130 km/h, but are capable of 160, given long enough interstations – they just don’t do it because there’s little benefit, they accelerate so slowly.
Unsurprisingly, modern rail operations almost never buy locomotives for train services that are expected to stop frequently, and some, including the Japanese and British rail systems, no longer buy electric locomotives at all, using EMUs exclusively due to their superior performance. Clem Tillier made this point last year in the context of Caltrain: in February the Trump administration froze Caltrain’s federal electrification funding as a ploy to attack California HSR, and before it finally relented and released the money a few months later, some activists discussed Plan B, one of which was buying locomotives. Clem was adamant that no, based on his simulations electric locomotives would barely save any time due to their weak acceleration, and EMUs were obligatory. My program confirms his calculations: even starting with very weak and unreliable diesel locomotives, the savings from replacing diesel with electric locomotives are smaller than those from replacing electric locomotives with EMUs, and depending on assumptions on initial acceleration rates might be half as high as the benefits of transitioning from electric locomotives to EMUs (thus, a third as high as those of transitioning straight from diesels to EMUs).
Thus there is no excuse for any regional passenger railroad to procure locomotives of any kind. Service must run with multiple units, ideally electric ones, to maximize initial acceleration as well as the power-to-weight ratio. If the top speed is 160 km/h, then a good EMU has a stop penalty of about 45 seconds, a powerful electric locomotive about 135 seconds, and a diesel locomotive around 190 seconds. With short dwell times coming from level boarding and wide doors, EMUs completely change the equation for local service and infill stops, making more stops justifiable in places where the brutal stop penalty of a locomotive would make them problematic.
Successful transit cities are not alike. There are large differences in how the most expansive transit networks are laid out. It takes multiple series of posts across several blogs (not just mine but also Human Transit and others) covering just one of them, for example stop spacing or how construction contracts are let. With so much variation, it’s easy to get caught up in details that differentiate the best systems. After all, the deepest communities of railfans tend to sprout in the cities with the largest rail networks; arguing with railfans with experience with London, Tokyo, or Paris is difficult because they know intricate details of how their systems work that I am catching up on but only know in the same depth for New York. Add in the fact that London and Paris view each other as peer cities and from there the route to arguing minutiae about two cities that by most standards have good public transit is short.
But what if this is wrong? What if, instead of or in addition to figuring out differences among the top transit cities, it’s useful to also figure out what these transit cities have in common that differentiates them from auto-oriented cities? After all, in other aspects of development or best practices this is well-understood: for example, a developing country can choose to aim to be hyper-capitalist like Singapore or the US or social democratic like Sweden or France, but it had better develop the institutions that those four countries have in common that differentiate them from the third world.
Unfortunately, before discussing what the common institutions to transit cities are, it’s necessary to discuss things that may be common but don’t really matter.
The US as a confounding factor
The biggest problem with figuring out things all good transit cities have in common is that in the developed world, the US (and to some extent Canada and Australia) is unique in having bad transit. Frequent commenter Threestationsquare has a list of cities by annual rapid transit ridership (counting BRT but not infrequent commuter rail, which lowballs parts of the US); New York is near the top, but the second highest in the US, a near-tie between Boston, Chicago, and Washington, would rank #22 in Europe. As a result, some social, political, and technical features that appear to differentiate good and bad transit are not really about transit but about the US and must be discarded as confounding factors. Fortunately, most of these confounding factors are easy to dispose of since they also occur in New York.
The more difficult question concerns factors that are distantly related to the weakness of US transit but are not direct explanations. I wrote about racism as such a factor a few months ago, arguing that high US construction costs come from weak civil service, which in turn comes from the way American segregation works. The US is not uniquely racist or even uniquely segregated; the unique aspect is that it a) has a long-settled oppressed minority and not just immigrants who arrived after the characteristic of the state was established, and b) has segregation within metro areas (unlike Singapore, which has social but not spatial segregation) but not between them (unlike Israel, where the built-up area of Tel Aviv has very few Arabs). But while this can explain why institutions developed in a way that’s hostile to transit, it’s not a direct explanation for poor US transit except in Atlanta, where the white state underinvests in the black city. White people in Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities with little to no public transit do not avoid the bus or the train out of stereotypes that match typical American racial stereotypes, such as crime; they avoid the train because it doesn’t go where they’re going and the bus because it is slow and unreliable.
There are two ways to avoid confounding factors. The first is the sanity check, where available: if some feature of transit exists across major transit cities but is absent in auto-oriented cities not just in the US but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and Italy, then it’s likely to be relevant. Unfortunately, clean examples are rare. The second and more difficult method is to have theoretical understanding of what matters.
London and Paris are transit cities. So are Prague and Stockholm. I’ve stressed the importance of scale-variance before: features that work in larger cities may fail in smaller ones and vice versa. Thus, it’s best to look at common features of successful transit cities within each size class separately.
In fact, one way cities can fail is by adopting transit features from cities of the wrong size class. China is making the mistake in one direction: Beijing and Shanghai have no express subway trains or frequent regional rail services acting as express urban rail, and as a result, all urban travel has to slow down to an average speed of about 35 km/h, whereas Tokyo has express regional lines averaging 60 km/h. China’s subway design standards worked well for how big its cities were when those standards were developed from the 1970s to the 1990s, but are too small for the country’s megacities today.
In contrast, in the developed world, the megacities with good public transit all have frequent express trains: Tokyo and Osaka have four-track (or even eight-track!) regional lines, Paris has the RER, New York has express subways (and the premium-price LIRR trains from Jamaica to Penn Station), London has fast regional rail lines and Thameslink and will soon have Crossrail, Seoul has a regional rail network with express trains on Subway Line 1, and Moscow stands alone with a strictly two-track system but has such wide stop spacing that the average speed on the Metro is 41 km/h. Smaller transit cities sometimes have frequent express trains (e.g. Zurich and Stockholm) and sometimes don’t (e.g. Prague), but it’s less important for them because their urban extent is such that a two-track subway line can connect the center with the edge of the built-up area in a reasonable amount of time.
And if China failed by adopting design standards fitting smaller cities than it has today, the US fails in the other direction, by adopting design standards fitting huge megacities, i.e. New York. Small cities cannot hope to have lines with the crowding levels of the Lexington Avenue Line. This has several implications. First, they need to scale their operating costs down, by using proof of payment ticketing and unstaffed stations, which features are common to most European transit cities below London and Paris’s size class. Second, they need to worry about train frequency, since it’s easy to get to the point where the frequency that matches some crowding guideline is so low that it discourages riders. And third, they need to maximize network effects, since there isn’t room for several competing operations, which means ensuring buses and trains work together and do not split the market between them.
The best example of an American city that fails in all three aspects above is Washington. While railfans in Washington lament the lack of express tracks like those of New York, the city’s problems are the exact opposite: it copied aspects of New York that only succeed in a dense megacity. With interlining and reverse-branching, Washington has low frequency on each service, down to 12 minutes off-peak. The stations are staffed and faregated, raising operating costs. And there is no fare integration between Metro and the buses, splitting the market in areas with price-sensitive riders (i.e. poor people) like Anacostia.
The political situation
While I’ve written before about what I think good metro design standards are, these standards themselves cannot separate the major transit cities from cities like Los Angeles (which has about two and a half rail trunks in a metro area larger than that of London or Paris) or Tel Aviv (which has no metro at all). Instead, it’s worth asking why these cities have no large subway systems to begin with.
In the case of Tel Aviv, Israel has had an official policy of population dispersal since independence. After independence the North and South of the country had Arab majorities, and the government wished to encourage Jews to settle there to weaken any Palestinian claims to these areas. As a result, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion rejected a plan to develop an urban rail network centered on Tel Aviv and instead encouraged low-income Jewish immigrants to move far away, either to depopulated Arab towns or to new towns (“development towns”) built at strategic points for national geopolitics. Decentralization was national policy, and with it came auto-oriented urbanism. A less harsh but equally politicized environment led to Malaysia’s auto-centric layout: Paul Barter’s thesis outlines how Malaysia choked informal transit and encouraged auto-oriented suburbanization in order to create an internal market for state-owned automakers.
In the case of the US, the situation is more complex, since there were several distinct political trends in different eras favoring cars. In postwar suburbia (and in Los Angeles going back to the 1920s) it was the association of cars with middle-class normality, and in California also with freedom from hated railroads; it’s related to the fact that American suburbanization was led by the middle class rather than by the working class as with more recent exurbanization. In Israel suburbanization was led by the working class, but the deliberate government policy of decentralization meant that the urban middle class’s demands for better transportation were ignored until the 1990s.
Without enough of an urban middle class to advocate for more transit, US transit withered. New cities in the Sunbelt had little demand for public transit, and in the older cities the middle class cared little for any transit that wasn’t a peak-only commuter train from the suburbs to the CBD. Moreover, in existing transit cities the middle class demanded that the urban layout change to fit its suburban living situation, leading to extensive job sprawl into office parks that are difficult to serve on transit. This paralleled trends in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; Sydney in particular saw middle-class suburbanization early, like Los Angeles.
The political situation changed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but by then high construction costs, NIMBYism constraining the extent of TOD (unlike in Canada), and indifference to leveraging regional rail for urban transit (as in Canada and until recently Israel but unlike in Australia) made it difficult to build more public transit lines.
Regional rail and TOD
The largest transit cities in the rich and middle-income world all make extensive use of regional rail, with the aforementioned exception of Chinese cities, where the lack of regional rail is creating serious travel pain, and New York, where the city itself is transit-oriented but its suburbs are not. Smaller transit cities usually make use of regional rail as well, but this isn’t universal, and to my understanding is uncommon in Eastern Europe (e.g. Kyiv has one semi-frequent ring line) even in cities with very high metro and tramway usage.
However, smaller transit cities that do not have much regional rail have full metro systems and not just tramways, let alone BRT. Curitiba and Bogota are famous for their BRT-only transit networks, but both instituted their systems in a context with low labor costs and both are building metro systems right now.
The other common element to transit cities is TOD. Here, we must distinguish old cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, whose urban layout is TOD because it was laid out decades before mass motorization, and newer cities like Stockholm, Tokyo, and every city in Eastern Europe or the East Asian tiger states. The latter set of cities built housing on top of train stations, often public housing (as in the communist world or in Stockholm) but not always (as in Tokyo and to some extent Hong Kong), in an era when the global symbol of prosperity was still the American car-owning middle class.
The importance of TOD grows if we compare countries with relatively similar histories, namely, the US and Canada. Neither country does much regional rail, both have had extensive middle-class suburbanization (though Canada’s major cities have maintained bigger inner-urban middle classes than the US’s), and English Canada’s cities came into the 1970s with low urban density. The difference is that Canada has engaged in far more TOD. Calgary built up a large CBD for how small the city is, without much parking; Vancouver built up Downtown as well as transit-oriented centers such as Metrotown, New Westminster, Lougheed, and Whalley, all on top of the Expo Line. Nowhere in the US did such TOD happen. Moreover, American examples of partial TOD, including Arlington on top of the Washington Metro and this decade’s fast growth in Seattle, have led to somewhat less awful transit usage than in the rest of the country.
Most cities in the developed world are replete with legacy rail networks that can be leveraged for high-quality public transit. We see cities that aim at transit revival start with regional rail modernization, including Auckland and to some extent Tel Aviv (which is electrifying its rail network and building new commuter lines, but they run in freeway medians due to poor planning). Moreover, we see cities that are interested in transit build up high-rise CBDs in their centers and high- and mid-rise residential development near outlying train stations.
“Regional rail and TOD” is not a perfect formula; it elides a lot of details and a lot of historical factors that are hard to replicate. But both regional rail and TOD have been major elements in the construction of transit cities over the last 60 years, and while they both have exceptions, they don’t have many exceptions. In the other direction, I don’t know of examples of failed TOD – that is, of auto-oriented cities that aggressively built TOD on top of new or existing rail lines but didn’t manage to grow their transit ridership. I do know some examples of failed regional rail, but usually they make glaring mistakes in design standards, especially frequency but also station siting and fare integration.
At a closer in level of zoom, it’s worthwhile to talk about the unique features of each transit city. But when looking at the big picture, it’s better to talk about what all transit cities of a particular size class have in common that auto-oriented cities don’t. Only this way can an auto-oriented city figure out what it absolutely must do if it wants to have better public transit and what are just tools in its kit for achieving that goal.