Out with LRT, in with AV

Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been some push-back from my last post on the Smart Cities grant which went to Columbus. I called it the Columbus, Ohio Grant Program and -Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won.

Not to incite “technology wars” between different transportation modes, but in a world of trade-offs, this is what is getting DOT grants in Columbus, Ohio; a stark contrast to most of Columbus’ peer cities, which get grants for light rail (LRT) or streetcar.

bus-on-street_2For the record, the grant is an incredible win. Columbus bested 6 other finalists including Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver, Portland, San Fran, and Austin. Not a bad city there. Furthermore, the grant will do good things like augment technologies on the Cleveland Avenue C-MAX. I admittedly didn’t realize Smart Cities had a component to that, but I also didn’t realize the original Small Starts grant didn’t actually include costs for signal prioritization, which is normally standard for even BRT-lite.

However, there is no denying that the autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot project is the calling card of Columbus’ winning application. It’s the meat and the potatoes, and everything else (the universal transit card) is the garnish.

And none of these are bad things. For one, I would never turn down $40 million in federal grants – then again, I would never want to do anything to jeopardize $200 million in Hardest Hit Funds, or turn down $400 million in FTA funding for 3C Rail. Leaving these kinds of opportunities on the table is painful for a state that desperately needs resources for everything – housing, transit, workforce development, you name it.

starter-routeSometimes, however, the decision has been made and you just have to walk away. Such is the case with rail in Columbus. It’s done, it’s over, and it will never happen. I myself am the eternal optimist to a fault, especially when it comes to cities, and I know how the well springs eternal for a strong vision around which to build a city. Columbus will continue to grow, but it probably won’t be growing around fixed-guideway transit, such as the previously proposed $100 million streetcar that city council defeated. Moving forward, I’m not actually sure what place-based opportunities there will be in Columbus, especially if this becomes ground zero for testing AV in an urbanized built environment.

Columbus Underground, another eternally optimistic news/commentary outlet, has also come to this realization. The site itself is home to many authors and bloggers who have kept alive the hope for rail transit. And then there is this choice quote in today’s CU article, from the CEO of the Columbus Partnership:

“I don’t think it’s about one mode versus another, it’s about what the options are going to look like in the future,” says Alex Fischer, Columbus Partnership President and CEO. “Some decades ago, the community at any number of levels made its decision as it relates to rail,” he added.

So there we have it.

I’m also not alone in asserting that autonomous vehicle pilots do not make transit. Shortly after my post last Friday, CU also editorialized that “Driverless Cars Could Usher in a New Era of Suburban Sprawl.” Ya think?

As did Slate.

As did Fast Company.

As did Nature.org.

As did the Wall Street Journal.

And also Bloomberg.

The suburbs are going nowhere anytime soon, driverless cars to the rescue. And it will be okay, as we will find a way to adapt. This post is just to serve as realistic notice of the impact that autonomous vehicles will soon have on our cities, which will be an urban form not unlike this:

As for the glimmer of hope that remains for light rail enthusiasts and advocated in Central Ohio, the odds just grow all the more with this AV pilot. They need to find a way to make the community want rail, which they simply do not at this point in time.

Columbus is an ideal city to try something new with transit: It’s growing, it’s already walkable, it’s very linear, and it has legitimate transportation needs. There is also a culture that is enthusiastically excited about the local culture, or as the excellent former mayor Michael Coleman would say “our swagger,” which is one reason for the exuberant fanfare given to the Smart Cities victory.

William Murdock, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) Executive Director, may be among those keeping the glimmer of hope alive for rail. At least it appears that way in the Columbus Underground article on new technology’s impact for LRT:

“Rail is a time-tested transportation mode for moving lots of people and goods in an efficient way,” says William Murdock, MORPC Executive Director. “It’s possible that the new autonomous technology when combined with shared models (i.e. Uber, Lyft, Car2Go) might replace some of the service traditional light or commuter rail might have provided…but it might also open up new opportunities to focus on a few high-capacity corridors with bus rapid transit, light rail, or something new.”

Perhaps that “something new” could be an elevated transit vehicle that glides over traffic, either on tires or rails (gasp!) as depicted below:

While expensive, the above solves many of the issues that Columbus has with transit, specifically that the transit vehicles aren’t in the way of drivers and that it is undeniably cool.

I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of “cool.” Here in the first world, where we still have challenges, we can make available miraculous amounts of resources for solutions that we think are cool. We tend to ignore the problems and solutions that aren’t sexy (like infrastructure). Here in Columbus, I am friends with a great many of developers, just from hanging around planning and development functions – knowing these guys, I know they just aren’t interested in transit. They know that the young professionals occupying their cool Short North condos and lofts are just going to uber everywhere, like Madeintyo. AV is even better because it’s an uber that won’t try to make small talk.

duvallgraphTo the point about the infrastructure problems that we tend to ignore, that makes AV all the more easy to do now, and foolish to invest in for the long term. Given our infrastructure backlog, it’s hard to see the sense or the cents in investing in an AV model that will further deplete revenue in the Highway Trust Fund. The graph to the left assumes normal trends including: A) refusal to raise any taxes; B) vehicles that become more and more fuel-efficient; and C) driving habits of Americans continuing to wane. It does not take into account “AV subscriptions and/or memberships” becoming the next foreseeable transportation wave.

I used to think that autonomous vehicle technology was crazy. I still think it is (I am someone who loves observing my surroundings, which this will divorce people further from), but that is not keeping it from coming to fruition, whether we like it or not. So perhaps something like the above video isn’t crazy either, I don’t know – it probably requires a pilot city that cares about transit as much as Columbus cares about driving. Perhaps that city at that time will also be lauded as “Smart.”

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An Ode to the Blank Slate

The Federal DoT created a program for cities without real transit to further-develop vehicle-based mobility alternatives with which they will then call themselves “smart” for doing so. In other words, DoT created the Columbus, Ohio grant program, and – Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won it.

smartcitychallengefinalistsmap

I’ve written about the Smart City Challenge before, including when I came across a CityLab article that discussed this proposal along with possible mobility-oriented interventions in the Linden neighborhood (one of those interventions was my “Bus Box” proposal). I was pleasantly surprised to see Linden, a neighborhood for which I’ve done a lot of work, getting CityLab recognition. Now that the surprise is over, I am sorry to say, I am a little underwhelmed.

Columbus’ Winning Proposal

It’s complicated. To be fair, this application is about getting people moving, and not necessarily providing old-school “transit.” This grant is deliberately intended to pilot future technologies that should rightfully deviate from how transit is usually provided. That said, it’s also an awful lot of hoopla for a proposal that scrapes the bare minimum. This Wired article offers an excellent and unbiased (well, glowing) account of the full application, which will execute the following projects:

  • Autonomous vehicle pilot project to link currently non-accessible (via transit) employment centers
  • Mobility kiosks in the low-income Linden neighborhood, specifically geared toward pregnant women
  • Development of a universal transit pass that syncs with COTA (the bus authority), rideshare apps, taxis, and bikeshare

The real strength of the application was the local partnerships brought forth by Columbus’ determination to win this grant. A classmate of mine with an excellent blog detailed the following “total packages” among the 7 finalist cities, in order of leverage:

  • San Francisco: $150 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Columbus: $90 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Austin: $50 million of in-kind services pledged (which could be worthwhile coming from a tech hotbed)
  • Denver: “Total value of $84 million” (so an additional $34 million of leverage?)
  • Kansas City: $15 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Pittsburgh: Additional $11 million pledged by Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Portland: None

Edge, San Francisco.

However, Columbus’ real advantage may have been the blank slate of transit offerings it currently boasts. We have a bus authority. San Francisco has BART which is underfunded but still excellent. Austin has commuter rail. Denver has one of the top LRT networks in the world. Kansas City just opened their new streetcar. Pittsburgh has the T, augmented by really cool “busways.” Portland has it all. DoT may have been attracted by the fact that a Columbus pilot offers the opportunity to implement “smart” technologies in an isolated environment, without cross-over influence of actual transit. As Gizmodo puts it: “Columbus will be able to demonstrate how a city which doesn’t have the time or capital to build out a massive rail network can use the next wave of transportation tech—autonomous vehicles, smartphones, sensors—to get residents moving in an efficient way that will get more cars off roads and lower emissions.”

Smart Challenges For Wicked Problems

Who’s to say Columbus doesn’t “have the time or capital” to build out a rail network? We won’t make time. It’s been a non-starter my entire time in Columbus.

For those that live, work, and get around in Columbus – what does the “Smart City Challenge” victory actually mean? If you’re not pregnant in Linden, what does this victory actually mean? Is everybody in Linden pregnant? What does an autonomous vehicle pilot project really do for a struggling built environment that needs placed-based, not dis-placed, solutions? Having a cool car that can pick you up for your OB/GYN appointment does little for job access, education access, creating recreational opportunities, and fostering passive walkability.

Having written a study on infant mortality in South Linden, I can tell you that lack of car ownership is not an environmental cause. Lack of mobility options, yes, car ownership – not exactly. The full gamut of factors contributing to this neighborhood’s unacceptably high infant mortality rates are:

  • Poor access to affordable and fresh food
  • High obesity rates vis a vis unwalkable environment
  • High stress resulting from crime, speeding traffic noise, and economic insecurity
  • The neighborhood’s only OB/GYN is across the tracks, on a site that was available on the cheap, for lack of resources to build a true neighborhood health center
  • Housing that is often riddled with environmental contaminants
  • Poor maternal care education (prevention of tragic accidents)
  • Other

Linden even has an underfunded BRT-lite project, in need of additional funding and wraparounds to qualify as true BRT, that this grant ignores.

For myself, I deliberately forced myself to use Columbus’ transit for the entire two years that I was in grad school. My thesis was on TOD, and to develop a sense of empathy and deeper understanding, I wanted to experience what it is like to actually rely on transit – too few planners have done this, in my opinion. I can tell you that being reliant on transit in Columbus is not fun. It means waiting for buses that are irregular (my outer backpack pouch has schedules for the #7, #18, #2, #8, and #21 – which I’m pretty sure are just suggestions), unpleasant and stressful, occasionally unsafe (frequent reports of LGBT discrimination and abuse), frequently broken down (I have had three COTA buses break down on me), and so on. For half of the year, add the bitter cold. During the warm months, the buses are often re-routed or indefinitely delayed due to frequent marathons, festivals, or parades on High Street. So while I don’t mean to be a fly in the ointment, I am very passionate about Columbus developing the first-rate transit it so badly needs, and this is not that.

This reminds me of the time I asked the otherwise-excellent outgoing mayor, Michael Coleman (a true role model of civic leadership, I must say) if Columbus was interested in pursuing transit to capture more development demand in the form of sustainable TOD, and his response was “Columbus is so TOD, we now have Car2Go!”

The Case for Real Transit in Columbus

The background context is that Columbus is a community that harbors deeply anti-transit sentiments. It’s a car culture. As Columbus has re-urbanized and more or less “gentrified-in-place” (raising density while developing true mixed-income), it has found auto workarounds. The city routinely grants TIF deals to cover the costs of parking garages to facilitate neighborhood redevelopment. The frustrating thing, as a planner, is that Columbus is a really great city that has what it takes to be “the next Great American City” (sound trumpets) a la Austin or Portland. Transit is the one disconnect – the stubborn pitfall that Columbus can’t get out of.

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The essence of Columbus is neighborhoods, which is ironic for a city best-known for its iconic commercial spine. Above is the most important photo you will ever see (to-date) of Columbus. Of course I am biased, because it is my own, but this photo illustrates better than I could describe the relationship between downtown, the “neighborhoods,” Ohio State, and the High Street corridor. Despite being such a linear city (not to be fooled by the radiating hub-and-spoke of sprawl, density levels and economic activity literally follow High Street) many voting citizens in Columbus pretend to be pro-transit, but just unsure of where it could go or who would use it. This oft-repeated refrain requires the above aerial study. If any city were ripe for a transit corridor, it is Columbus. You don’t need a Nelson Nygaard study (though we have that, too) to tell you where a rail corridor should go, just go up high and say “Eureka, I have found it!”

cbus.JPG What gives Columbus so much potential is that it is a vastly underrated historic city. Overshadowed by the former fourth-largest (Cincinnati in the 1800s) and fifth-largest (Cleveland in the 30s, 40s, and 50s) cities – Columbus falls for the notion that it too is not historic. On the contrary, Columbus is one of the most historic state capital cities, and features some of the most impressive Victorian-era neighborhood fabric anywhere in the United States. These historic neighborhoods are also dense, walkable neighborhoods. However, it is also best summarized as a collection of independent fiefdoms (unique neighborhoods or “villages”) that have spurned planning and transit to stave off the threat of connectivity to their surroundings. A great example of this is Clintonville, a truly wonderful neighborhood whose infamously NIMBY residents are either known as Clintonvillains or the Independent Republic of Clintonville. I truly empathize for any developer feebly attempting to build very high-end apartments for “those people” (you know, renters, like myself).

These fiefdoms are wonderful places. They’re walkable, charming, and valuable. They could be very transit-supportive. Columbus has an almost-endless list of them, from German Village, to Beechwold, from Franklinton (an emerging fiefdom), to Olde Towne East (shout-out to those OTENA gentrifiers, Flag Wars!) and the rest of the “Villages,” be they Victorian, Italian, Merion, and so on. Their calling card is that they all occupy inner-city locations without inner-city connectivity. While I adore cobblestone and brick-paved streets for aesthetic and sense-of-place arguments, I suspect they have been preserved so well to inhibit drive-through traffic.

The divisions of Columbus bring us to realities about inequeality and the geography of opportunity. The Kirwan Institute, based at Ohio State, is an excellent think tank dedicated to the study of poverty and urban inequality, and best-known for “opportunity mapping.” Their Columbus Opportunity Map, essentially a blended metric of quality of life and economic opportunity across Columbus census tracts, is viewable on Arc online. You have to open the filter control and turn off the neighborhood layer, which is just meaningless color-blocking, and turn on the neighborhood opportunity index. You will then see the following map for all of Franklin County:

cbus.JPG

While economic opportunity follows High Street, those who enjoy that economic opportunity do not cross High Street. To the east lies a sea of neighborhoods cut off from the city’s spine, by railroads, freeways, etc. These neighborhoods’ problems are largely due to issues with access, whether it be to jobs, education, healthcare, etc. We need a transit network that connects these neighborhoods to the economic spine of Columbus. On top of that, truly linking the diverse and multifaceted (and almost entirely densely-populated) communities that line both sides of High Street would catalyze additional economic potential by bridging the gaps wherever they exist.

Toward the Right Solution

m-1_20map-0Columbus just won $150 million of funding through an incredible public-private partnership. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City are all building their modern streetcars (trams) for less than that. However, Columbus needs much more than a downtown circulator streetcar. Columbus needs something like the M-1 Rail, which I’ve covered extensively, which serves a true need by filling the gap and forging strategic connectivity. The 3.3-mile corridor, envisioned as the first phase, connects two currently-disconnected rail systems and makes the broader Detroit Transit Authority bus grid more efficient. Ran by the suburban RTA (SMART), the M-1 Rail will also link the two disparate transit authorities serving Southeast Michigan, and it will do so through a corridor that links all of the city’s major economic, cultural, and institutional assets.

The M-1 Rail is a slam dunk because it is the perfect place-based transit project. It was also made possible by significant private- and philanthropic-sector contributions, which covered most of the cost, in addition to about $45 million in FTA grants.

Sound familiar?

Columbus needs an M-1 Rail, whether that is “smart” or not – something that provides real, meaningful transit. Columbus does not need a ride here and there for expecting mothers – it needs a transit pipeline for everyone.

Nuanced Thoughts on RTA’s Fare Hikes + Service Cuts

Nobody ever stops the press when government works. Everyday, government works to get people to work, to ship goods to markets, to power our economy, and protect our national defense. Occasionally, we do stop the press for major stories when government does not work as we expect. When a bridge crumbles, it’s a headline. When a train derails, it’s a headline. When bus drivers strike, it’s a headline. In all of these cases, lives are disrupted. Also, in all of these cases, rarely is the fundamental issue ever addressed: We do not pay, and seemingly will not pay, for the infrastructure and services upon which we rely; we insist on something for nothing.

The problem with infrastructure and transit is that the entire nation, or even the entire State of Ohio, does not collectively rely on the same bridge or the same transit route. However, as we complain about the cost of individual projects and transit services, our own community’s infrastructure is crumbling because we refuse to also pay for that of our neighbors.

In Ohio, here is how we got into this situation:

screen-shot-2016-04-05-at-11-09-42-am

Nation-wide, here is how got into an even bigger situation, regardless of mode:

change-in-us-transportation-spending

Among modes, the decline has been particularly steep among federal transit and passenger rail spending, which was basically slashed in half during the 80s and never recovered.

change-in-types-of-us-transportation-spending

This all collectively means we find ourselves in a situation in which local government picks up more and more of the tab for transit.

ff_transportationfactsheet_v521

Lastly, for a most interesting chart, particularly for “equity planners” whom decry spending on anything other than bus routes to poor neighborhoods – there appears to be a correlation between overall transit services and poverty concentration. As transit funding declines along with the varieties of constituencies that it serves, the differential between urban and suburban poverty rises. To advocates for “transit equity” meaning transit as a social service: What are you really trying to do?

city-suburb-difference-in-poverty-rate-vs-transit-funding-rate

We now find ourselves with the transit service that we deserve, pretty much. The fragmentation is pretty much complete. Where a unified front could possible exist as an effective force to solve these issues collectively, we find drivers succeeding in shifting money for transit to roads, we find transit-dependent constituencies advocating to shut down transit that serves middle and upper income people, and we find developers and transit growing farther and farther apart. It is 2016 and things are getting worse.

_______________________

What gives? Flats Forward (and/or Backward)

The big debate in Cleveland right now is whether to continue service on the Waterfront Line. The Waterfront Line, completed in 1996, is a 2.2-mile light rail that bends around downtown, following the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie waterfronts, hence the name. Cleveland’s RTA spent $70 million to build it, and then not longer after opening it, decided to eliminate weekday service on it in 2010. Service levels were then revived in 2013, upon the accumulation of $500 million + in development spurred by the route, adding jobs at Ernst & Young, hundreds of dwelling units (soon to be thousands), and dozens of new entertainment venues.

flats_east_bank_master_plan3

It so happens, that the Flats East Bank project was built with an over-supply of parking. So while ridership has risen on the Waterfront Line, the trains aren’t exactly packed. Transit “advocates” (can you call those who advocate against transit, “transit advocates”) have dubiously branded the Waterfront Line as the Ghost Train. Mark Naymik of the Plain Dealer, generally considered that newspaper’s foremost loudmouth, wants this route to “be the first service trimmed to help close budget shortfall” (sic). (Personally, and this is the only personal opinion I am writing in this piece, but I’m still not over Naymik’s nasty fight in favor of the Ohio City McDonald’s by labeling opponents including myself as the “$6 Beer Crowd.” Seriously, who advocates FOR a McDonald’s in a historic district??) Flats Forward, a non-profit development arm aimed at revitalizing the Flats as a beloved community gathering place, has led the charge to retain service.

What’s at stake, besides hopes of continued ridership growth on the Waterfront Line? Well, developers did make a $500 million investment along it. One of the historic advantages of rail over bus service is that tracks can’t be moved like a bus route often is – and that goes out the window in this political climate. By burning the developers who invest in sites along transit, we get further and further from an ultimate solution to this wicked problem. Let’s not lose sight of a potential solution, in that Americans overwhelmingly want TOD – 73% support changes in land use zoning to encourage TOD. 73% of Americans rarely support anything.

Where the Waterfront Line was just one example of the solution, combining forces between transit and development, that is now at-risk. The reality is that the Waterfront Line is a choice rider service. By spurning those choice riders, as is often the goal of supposed “transit equity,” it becomes harder to pass needed local tax increases to support transit for everyone.

Don’t forget that the only reason Cleveland RTA is able to provide Ohio’s only decent transit system isn’t fare revenue, but rather the 1% county-wide sales tax that supports RTA. While other Ohio cities would kill for that (COTA in Columbus for instance must operate on half that), will County voters renew Cleveland’s RTA tax next time it is up the renewal? Keep burning choice riders, and County voters are less likely to see how they could benefit.

bus11

What we have here is ultimate dysfunction and fragmentation in which transit segments have turned against each other to throw each other under the bus. While we are all implicit, it is hard to blame anyone specifically; while each side seems to have missed the big picture, can you blame them considering what an ugly picture it has become?

Bus Rapid Promises

BRT advocacy, not unlike other aspects of equity planning, has developed this incredibly confrontational policy and advocacy brand. It is near impossible to find any good BRT articles out there that aren’t steeped with attacks on rail transit.

This of course is partly because, not unlike anything else in planning, the BRT names are all the same. Articles often come from the “Institute for Transportation and Development Policy” which is really a BRT-only think tank (all of their research includes cleverly-crafted attacks on rail projects). That said, it’s not fair for me to construe that as an attack on BRT, because that’s the way it is – if you have a concept, you need at least one really good think tank behind it. It’s a similar line of attack as the Boston Globe’s famous editorial that most convention centers have a Populous study behind it, which has never recommended against building a convention center.

This is called inherent or institutional bias, which is everywhere, including whatever side of any debate YOU find yourself. But just to be clear, don’t go looking to the ITDP for unbiased research on all modes of transportation. You won’t find it there, just like you won’t find it in many places. Jarrett Walker, a fore-front transit activist, calls this slippery slope the “technology wars.” So many of us agree on the importance and benefits of transit. The problem is that “transit” means vastly different things not just to people but communities as well.

However here are some choice bits…

NJ TOD Institute: Pittsburgh “A City of Buses”

(For the record, I have only ridden on the “T” light rail in Pittsburgh)

“The ITDP report documents $903 million in total investment along the line since construction, or roughly $3.59 million in development per dollar of transit investment as of 2012. “

one-million-dollars-639omkSo they built the busway for $251 dollars and 53 cents? First of all, this is fuzzy math. Second of all, it kind of undercuts whatever you’re advocating for when you resort to such fuzzy math. Third of all, if you work through this… $903 million in TOD, and they’ve created a proxy coefficient where they divide the TOD by the infrastructure cost.. They either forgot to carry a zero, or they just arbitrarily add the word million after every numerical figure.

The East Busway – which connects the East Liberty neighborhood to the downtown – cuts an hour drive down to a trip of 7 to 15 minutes by bus (see map).

Wow, a transit project cuts AN HOUR DRIVE down to a 7 min trip by bus? That’s a map that I’ve gotta see. See map:

eba

I’m curious which part of this is the 1 hour drive vs. 7 min bus ride. So I pulled up the schedule on the Port Authority website. I don’t see a 7 min interval, but Downtown to East Liberty is scheduled to take 10 minutes typically, which is close enough. I then used Google Directions to map the trip via car, which it says would take 14 minutes.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 2.22.50 PM

ITDP must not have realized they can just take Baum Blvd to Bigelow Blvd. They probably stopped at a convenience store on the wrong side of the tracks and got some crazy directions or something. Surely they wouldn’t resort to intellectual dishonesty…

Ok one more…

ITDP quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Facing funding shortages that rule out more expensive rail development, cities are clamoring to build BRT systems, which are up to 20 times less expensive,” Mr. Hook said.

Hook, line, and sinker. You heard it there first, but I’m morbidly curious to see what kind of BRT is being built for 1 / 20th the cost of a light rail corridor. Citylab did a great expose of America’s worst bus stops, perhaps ITDP is advocating for this one:

e569926d9I love this awesome picture of an IndyGO bus stop for so many reasons. For one, it’s their standard design (makes me wanna sign an angry petition whenever communities build special, artsy bus stops) so that’s good apparently.

That said, there is so much under realized technology utilized at this stop…

  1. Way finding (sign mounted to electric pole)
  2. Comfortable seating
  3. Vending (if you’re ok sharing w/ litter bugs)
  4. Landscaping (if you can call fencing that)
  5. Protective barrier from traffic (aka “curb”)

 

 

So let’s dig into this 1 / 20th claim a little more…

Early estimate of the cost of a Downtown-to-Oakland BRT is $200 million, or about one-tenth of what a Light Rail Transit extension to Oakland would cost, said Wendy Stern, Port Authority assistant general manager for planning and development.

So that implies that a light rail extension to Oakland would cost $4 billion.

Post-Gazette article explaining the cost differences:

Light rail would cost five to 10 times as much as the proposed $200 million BRT line, depending on how much tunneling or bridge construction would be needed to connect to the existing line. 

So now it’s 5-to-10 times as much, and mentions bridges and tunnels, which is interesting for connecting two districts that are on the same side of Pittsburgh’s rivers. This almost implies that they’d want to go down Carson and connect the booming Southside along the way, which actually could be a really good idea.

Bear in mind that the North Shore Connector cost nearly $550 million and extended the system just over a mile. The line to Oakland would need to be at least three times as long through a heavily built up and populated area.

And the argument shifts to bringing past projects into focus, which actually, is probably the best harbinger for projecting costs in any given city. I fully endorse this because it cuts through X-factors that separate different cities. For instance, Cleveland’s RTA refuses to allow single-track systems, because they don’t trust their rail operators to obey signals, which effectively doubles the cost of anything. Portland has used a lot of single track on extensions, where their goal is to make streetcar work as effectively as possible.

Here’s the obvious problem with using the North Shore Connector as a harbinger for what should be a land corridor:

north_shore_tunnelmap720

In learning about this, I also learned that there are two primary methods of tunneling: 1, “cut and cover,” which is not cheap but pales in comparison to “bored tunnels.” Bored tunnels are far from boring, but instead refers to the process of tunnel-boring which is not unlike digging your way out of Alcatraz.

Given the assets on the North Shore and the invaluable tunnel infrastructure Pittsburgh got out of the deal, $550 million isn’t bad. This should NOT be construed in any way as “$550 million just to go 1 mile.” They actually appear to be using $550 million per mile as a rail-transit cost figure. In this instance, transit activists (particularly those engaging in technology wars) should walk a mile through another transit technology’s route before rushing to judgment…or something like that. Here are some more appropriate cost proxies:

Charlotte LYNX light rail: $48.125 million / mile

OKC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

DC Streetcar: $90 million / mile

Portland Streetcar Phase 1 & 2: $12 million / mile

Portland RiverPlace Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Gibbs Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Lowell Extension: $12 million / mile

Portland OMSI Extension: $22.1 million / mile

Tucson Streetcar: $28.2 million / mile

KC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

Cincinnati Streetcar: $36 million / mile

Cleveland Healthline BRT: $27.7 million / mile

LA Orange Line BRT: $21 million / mile

Boston Silver Line BRT: $12.5 million / mile

KC Star article: Source for Cincy, KC, Tucson costs

Portland MAX: Source for Portland costs

National BRT Institute: Source for BRT costs

* PS, the NBRTI report also included several factual issues, including the claim that the Cleveland Healthline operates 5 minute frequencies, which is insulting to everyone who has waited 30 minutes in the middle of the day for a bus that’s stuck at red lights.

Some cities have this mentality of striving to make their rail investments as efficient as possible, and others have this mentality of striving to make their rail investments as inefficient as possible. Cincinnati’s RTA (SORTA) has even threatened to not operate their new streetcar. Most cities purposely operate abysmal transit frequencies as an effort to sabotage their own success. Time after time, when people outside the system force the city to build and operate rail transit infrastructure, you’re lucky to get them to grudgingly oblige. The two biggest X-factors I have come across is that some people lie, and others actually don’t want to succeed.

In the end, there are lies, damned lies, and then transit lies.

Meet the coolest transit project in America: M-1 Rail

Detroit, the city that refuses to die, and the city that got America moving, has gotten a little well-deserved help with their new streetcar. Detroit is long-known as one of those cities where transit projects go to die, with countless different iterations of this same project reappearing every few years. To this point, it’s worth mentioning that the People Mover system (photographed extensively in my 2016 trip) was always envisioned as a “last mile” circulator once people get downtown on a larger transit network that hasn’t materialized until now.

I don’t really know if this project is the coolest transit project in America. I’ll say it’s pretty unlikely. M-1 Rail is a mere $125-180 million endeavor, which puts it firmly in the New Starts realm, while more established transit cities like Seattle are doing crazy things like capping an entire urban freeway, LA is doing subway extensions, Atlanta is developing a copy + paste model for air rights construction over MARTA stations, Minneapolis wants 75,000 downtown residents, and Dallas fully intends to protect its claim to the most light rail of any city. These cities don’t blink at spending billions – yet Detroit’s little $125 million project has been such a topic of controversy. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called it “The worst transit project in America.” It’s hard not to wonder if this is a cogent anti-streetcar argument or just thinly veiled annoyance that this city refuses to conform to the negative outside press. (I feel guilty even offering this up as click bait, but I still feel compelled to offer totally contrasting viewpoints.) If he can make such an unfounded claim, then surely I can counter that by calling it the coolest transit project in America. M-1 Rail brings out the best in transit projects and has a tremendous array of benefits to offer Detroit. In many ways, this small transit project is the little engine that could.

dettransit_mapBoiling M-1 Rail down to its lowest common denominator, this project is a very small but vitally important link that ties together a regional rail network that is finally coming together. M-1 Rail, spanning the Cass Corridor between downtown (served by the very cool and very retro People Mover) and New Center (where Amtrak’s Wolverine and SEMCOG’s commuter system cut through Detroit City), is a 3.3-mile link (red) between these two existing (blue) transit systems that don’t currently intersect.

Now, given that there are some interesting corridors in the rift left by these two systems, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to connect the closest points of these two disparate transit networks? Even without knowing much about Detroit and specifically the neighborhoods that lie between the two transit systems, it would seem to make sense within the regional context: By making that connection, rather than having three disparate transit systems, you now have a single whole network that serves the Detroit region.

b99329484z-1_20151130190435_000_gvcmn04b-1-0It so happens that besides the obvious slam dunk within the regional context, that the localized context further propels the case for M-1 Rail. Woodward Avenue, Michigan Highway #1, is America’s only urban national scenic byway. There are only 30 national scenic byways. Step aside Euclid Avenue (CLE), High Street (Cbus), Wash Ave (STL), Fifth and Forbes (Pitt), Vine Street (Cincy). Woodward Avenue is the granddaddy of all of the great urban main streets.

I have a lot of “crazy theories” one might say, and one of them is that you can usually go up to a tall vantage point and look out over a major city and either point out specific transit corridors, or what should be specific transit corridors. Go to the CN Tower and you can literally see the veins of high-rises that fan out across the city, most notably along Yonge Street, where towers rise up for a dozen or so miles from the low-rise scale of Toronto’s surrounding neighborhoods. In a city without rail, the same experiment is basically a quick-and-dirty method of studying prospective corridors. In Columbus, go to the Rhodes Tower observation floor, and even if you know nothing about Columbus you still can’t help but notice how the entire city literally rises up at High Street. Similarly with Detroit, go up to a tall building on Wayne State’s campus and then look out over the city. You will see the above view. If you were struggling with where to do transit three years ago, the above view would be somewhat illuminating.

The financing of M-1 Rail is the most interesting urban experiment I have ever seen. Detroit City is in fact kind of an outsider to this entire project. This project has been planned, approved, and implemented by a complex partnership between Detroit’s non-profit sector and the federal government, which literally “required an Act of Congress” to allow public-private partnerships to count as the local match required by FTA. It also leverages New Markets Tax Credits, which is the first time NMTC’s have ever invested in public transit, thanks to LISC, Great Lakes Capital, and others. Four foundations, including the Ford and Kresge foundations, also contributed millions. Detroit’s corporate community stepped up to the plate to buy naming rights at each station, contributing far more than a name is really worth.

The financial pieces (totaling $180 million) of this project are as follows, mostly in little $3 million chunks here and there:

  • Kresge Foundation – $49.6 million
  • FTA TIGER I grant – $25 million
  • FTA TIGER VI grant – $12.2 million
  • Quicken Loans – $10 million
  • State of Michigan – $10 million
  • Detroit Downtown Development Authority – $9 million
  • NMTC (LISC, Great Lakes Capital, etc) – $8 million
  • Penske Corp. – $7 million
  • MEDC – $7 million
  • Illitch Holdings (Little Caesar’s Pizza) – $6 million
  • Ford Foundation – $4 million
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan – $3 million
  • Chrysler Foundation – $3 million
  • Detroit Medical Center – $3 million
  • General Motors Co. – $3 million
  • Henry Ford Health System – $3 million
  • Wayne State University – $3 million
  • Wayne County – $3 million
  • Ford Motor Co. – $3 million
  • DTE Energy – $2.9 million in-kind
  • Compuware Corp. – $1.5 million
  • J.P. Morgan Chase – $1.5 million
  • Hudson-Webber Foundation $1 million
  • Bank of America Foundation – $300,000
  • Ford Motor Co. Fund – $100,000

Notice you won’t see “City of Detroit” anywhere on said list. Nor will you see “taxpayers of Detroit” on the list, in any way (through some taxing district, etc). I just think that this is amazing. At a minimum, it’s a testament that the Rust Belt community ethos is alive and well in Michigan, even after a community has broken down and weathered such a storm. 

At this point I must confess that I started out intending to just whip up another quick photo tour and press “publish.” While that is still forthcoming, I just can’t stress enough that with this transit project the devil is in the details. If you bother to look at these details, it really is the coolest transit project in America.

And it is becoming reality.

Progress as of January 2015:

Progress as of February 2016:

Which eventually will resemble these renderings:

So, if you like what you see, mark your calendars for sometime in 2017 when M-1 Rail leaves the station, revolutionizing how visitors (tourists and suburbanites alike) will experience Detroit City. It will be an experience that keeps people coming back and hopefully creates enough concentrated activity to rub off on the less-revitalized remainder of the city.

Rather than insist that every project solve every problem (zero-sum), M-1 Rail is worthy of our support and admiration as a singular solution in a city that collectively needs a lot of singular solutions. M-1 Rail doesn’t fix everything overnight; however, it does fill in the missing link, build on Detroit’s existing assets, connect the city to the broader region where most jobs have moved, and give the city something captivating to build on for the future.

Detroit: 2016

Now a year removed from bankruptcy, Detroit is moving on and building the strongest momentum that the city has had since its precipitous decline began, more promising than any other flash of hope that came and went in the past. You can’t come to Detroit today and not see that this is the Comeback City; It’s happening.

Click here for the photo tour from my 2015 trip.

m-1-rail-route-mapSomehow, I seem to be making a personal tradition of making an annual Detroit trip during the winter. I also somehow always luck out and get a weekend that is “relatively” warm, so I’ve really lucked out (2015’s trip was in the 30s, but wedged between two Polar Vortex weeks; 2016’s trip had temps in the 50s). All of this said, and even in the “Comeback City,” there really isn’t all THAT much change in 1 year. A few new scaffolds covering some buildings, such as the Griswold Bldg on Michigan Ave that’s now pretty far along. The booming M1 Corridor isn’t all that unchanged – it’s mostly the same building projects still underway, and the light rail is still under construction, although the street is a little bit more passable.

The one area where there has been a lot of change is the new Redwings Arena. One of the grandiose old hotels are gone, yet the other (two twin hotel towers) still stands, and the arena totally dwarfs everything in the southern end of Midtown. Across Woodward, the western-most block of Brush Park is seeing a lot of new development. Huge projects going up between Woodward and John R.

As always, you gotta start at the Market, especially if it’s a Saturday and the weather is sublime. This area was previously artfully gang-tagged all over, which is now giving way to an actual public art initiative called Murals in the Market. There is a map of murals on their website, but several are new in just the last year, such as the really awesome googly eyes. There are more pics inside the market in my 2015 pics, as this time I mostly explored the surrounding market district, where several distilleries and breweries have given way to cold storage and meat market businesses. The Eastern Market is as old school as it gets.

Murals in the Market

The Eastern Market is just east, across I-75, from Brush Park and Midtown Detroit. The two areas, arguably Detroit’s most active on a nice weekend day, are still pretty disconnected. Of course, Brush Park still has a ways to go toward regaining its lost luster. The M1 Rail project is chugging along, making Woodward Avenue a little more passable than before, and it all looks great. The new Red Wings Arena is also topped out.

Midtown & M1 Rail

 

Confession time: I LOVE the Detroit People Mover. I wanted to hate it so badly. It’s everyone’s favorite kind of rail project to pick on. It’s a monorail, it doesn’t connect to the street level, you need quarters to ride it, and it only does a 3-mile loop around downtown. I always tried using it as an example of a bad rail project. But it isn’t. The Detroit People Mover somehow works. Every single time I’ve seen it, it’s packed full of people. You have to literally squeeze onto it. It could be sped up – it doesn’t need to stop at every station for a full minute or two – but the best thing about it is the headways. With 5 trains simultaneously making the 3-mile clockwise loop around downtown, a train comes every 3-4 minutes. It’s really awesome.

Downtown Detroit is also really awesome. Similarly, I really wanted to hate the Renaissance Center. It’s the most typical fortress city urban renewal project you’ve ever seen. Did I mention that it’s massing is ugly and intimidating? But it’s also really cool, and I finally made it to the Coach Insignia bar up on the 73rd Floor, which makes the Renaissance Center alright with me. Next time you’re in town, you’ve got to go. Go get a drink (not badly priced at all) and watch the sunset. If you hate fortress corporate towers like me, it will still make you fall in love with the Ren Cen.

People Mover & A View From the Top

Corktown is probably my favorite little pocket of Detroit. The main reason for this is probably Slow’s BarBQ. Easily the best BBQ joint I’ve ever been to outside of KC, and I would know bc I’m kind of a foodie tourist.

West is (was) Best

And lastly, I finally made it to the Heidelberg Project, which is truly the weirdest thing I have ever seen. In fact, that is all I have to say about it. Enjoy.

Departure From Reality

Until next time, Motor City!

Cleveland: RTA “Rapid” Photo Tour

Cleveland, once the fifth largest city in the United States before its suburbs took over, is one of those cities that inherited an old-school transit system. In a way, it’s Rapid Transit system is manifesting new-school trends as well, diversifying its modal split in recent years. The old school still prevails though. While best-known for its award-winning Healthline BRT (which was supposed to be light rail, but switched to BRT in order to get FTA funding), the older rail network still carries the bulk of ridership.

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Overview of TOD across the entire city

Its 19-mile, heavy rail (think MARTA or WMATA) Red Line dates back to the 1950s, and carries 19,500 daily riders in retro “silver bullet” trains, which is higher ridership than the Blue and Green lines combined. Utilizing a historic railroad trench, most stations are grade-separated – TOD designs are just now emerging that facilitate a seamless integration with that grade separation. Every single Red Line station has recently been rebuilt. Red Line station redevelopment has been a decades-long initiative, primarily moving from west to east. The Red Line connects the Airport to Tower City through westside neighborhoods such as Westpark, Lakewood, West Blvd, Detroit-Shoreway, and Ohio City. After Tower City, the eastbound Red Line connects to University Circle and East Cleveland through some of the east side’s hardest-hit communities, such as North Broadway, Fairfax, and Kinsman.

For the photo tour, I will start with the westside Red Line – but it is worth noting that all of these photos are from 2013-2014. Where possible I will contrast these outdated photos with renderings and newer photos from myself or the media. I need to take newer pics one of these days, but I’ve just gotten out of the habit of doing this in my adopted hometown:

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Large TOD planned for a current strip mall site that separates the Red Line from the iconic West Side Market

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The half-completed Eco Village surrounding the W. 65th Red Line Station

Tower City offers connections to the Blue and Green lines to Shaker Heights, the Waterfront Line to the Flats and lakefront, as well as the Euclid Avenue Healthline BRT. Tower City is one of the nation’s largest and oldest TOD’s, originally built by railroad moguls O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen. The Van Swearingen brothers actually founded the Cleveland Interurban Railway to connect their master planned suburban development, Shaker Heights, to Downtown Cleveland. Tower City, then the Union Terminal Complex, was the western terminus for that transit network, which anchored downtown’s Public Square.

Public Square is a large, 4-block commons area in the dead center of the city, typical of communities founded in the Connecticut Western Reserve. Just as Cleveland’s open space legacy harkens back to its New England roots, so do its liberal politics and extensive transit legacy. Before Tower City was finished, there was Shaker Square – the entrance to Shaker Heights, and where Van Aken Blvd (Blue Line) and Shaker Blvd (Green Line) split. To this day Shaker Square is one of the city’s hottest and most-integrated neighborhoods, a testament to the enduring value of transit-oriented real estate. On the other end of the line, transit is being totally revolutionized in Downtown Cleveland – particularly with the new Public Square. Below are some photos inside the Terminal Tower complex and the adjacent Public Square. Renderings of the new Public Square follow.

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$32 million makeover of Public Square, designed by James Corner Field Operations (designer of NY’s High Line)

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It doesn’t get more real than this

Fare thee well old Public Square, hello new Public Square.

The new Public Square and corresponding improvements to Tower City, including the $400 million Horseshoe Casino, aren’t the only transit-oriented development change in downtown. In fact, it is downtown’s western periphery – the Flats East Bank, Warehouse District, and the lakefront – that show the most promise for TOD. While much has recently been finished, more is underway currently – the largest impact will be plans that the city will get to after the RNC Convention. The Waterfront Line is the $70 million extension of the Blue/Green lines past Tower City, to wrap around downtown. While it was “finished” in 1996, it has always been considered incomplete – original plans included a complete loop back into the Rapid system, around Cleveland State University.

Ridership was so low when the Browns left town until a new stadium was built that service was discontinued shortly after its completion. Service was resumed in 2013, but ridership remained low until the Flats East Bank development opened. This line will be further rejuvenated by a Cumberland Development and Trammel Crow project at North Coast Harbor, in between the Browns stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This area will also be bridged to Voinovich Park by a $25 million modern drawbridge, that may also connect to a new intermodal transit hub that will replace an embarrassing Amtrak station.

I find it incredible that this bridge costs almost as much as the entire Public Square redesign, which underscores two things: in the public works realm, $32 million for a high-quality project like Public Square is an incredible bargain; and secondly, the city is all in on this pedestrian bridge to the lakefront. I hope there is a good way to match its design up with the intermodal rail hub, but it may be too late. The drawbridge is already funded, but has been delayed by a promised “downtown construction freeze” for the RNC Convention. After that date, the city will also start discussing (ie., look for funding, hire designers, start planning, etc) the lakefront rail station. As a final note, redevelopment in this area will be complicated by a 70-foot grade separation (downtown sits on top of a bluff, above the lakefront), as well as parking lots that are known as Browns tailgating ground-zero (this is a big deal).

As I mentioned above, this line is heavily in flux with several projects currently in various stages. The Flats East Bank project is nearly finished, the new drawbridge is funded and about to break ground, the North Coast Harbor is similarly financed but still on the boards, and then the new Amtrak/intermodal hub is still in discussions.

Of course, this blog article would not be complete without mention of the Healthline. Not unlike other transit authorities that volunteer themselves to FTA to be BRT guinea pigs, the transit authority’s own focus has shifted to the surprising success of the Healthline project. It helps that Euclid Avenue is the historic “Millionaire’s Row,” built-out all the way to Wickliffe (suburban Lake County) by the Rockefellers and their ilk.

The Healthline has been described by proponents as light rail with tired, and by detractors as a “federally-funded streetscape,” yet from my point of view those are both good things. I have covered the Healthline TOD phenomena ad nauseum, including a lengthy expose at CEOs for Cities that showed both sides of the coin. Given that the Healthline’s center-lane alignment and platform stations were designed to allow for easy future conversion to light rail, I’m a fan.

The project also branded the Euclid Corridor, the city’s iconic main street, and got the east side of Cleveland moving. The distinctive corridor project has been an undeniable magnet for TOD, nearly $6 billion according to this heavily BRT-slanted ITDP study. While most of it has been market-rate development with minimal affordable development to date, making it feel perhaps more like Dallas than Minneapolis. Despite that, this is all the more incredible given the weak market conditions along the corridor, and the fact that most all development has just been infill with no displacement potential. As crazy as it sounds, this bus project really was the impetus for Downtown Cleveland’s remarkable resurgence.

It’s worth mentioning that a lot of the $5.6 billion in TOD was mostly institutional expansion that may have been negligibly spurred by the Healthline. While these institutional actors (such as Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, etc) may have still needed a green light from the public sector before reinvesting in their physical presence along Euclid Avenue, you can’t seriously attribute the expansion of the Cleveland Clinic to a BRT system. There are Saudi sheikhs who maintain private wards at the Clinic just for when their family needs check-ups. The magnitude of the Clinic is not even in the same ether as Euclid Avenue and its bus rapid transit, and for better or mostly worse, the planning of the Clinic (and its cornucopia of parking garages going up every year) reflects this. In my opinion, TOD should have to be underparked in order to qualify.

The Healthline is also not perfect. Signal prioritization absolutely does not seem to be working. I say that because I was a frequent Healthline rider who sat at many a traffic light in my day, which is the whole point of signal prioritization, especially when the BRT has its own lane. In fact I’m pretty sure the only purpose of the traffic signals along Euclid is to first infuriate everyone, then put cars second, and transit last. The route is also longer than BRT can be expected to remain on schedule. Also, due to congestion in University Circle, the ideal center-lane alignment gives way to curbside-alignment and mixed traffic operation.

It is that eastern end of the Healthline corridor that is perhaps the strongest. That is also where the Healthline is least Healthline-like (just described above), which also casts aspersions onto the catalytic extent of the BRT itself.

While the long-term civic vision of Downtown, Midtown, and University Circle being continuously bridged is slowly coming to fruition, the pace of infill is rampant in the last two miles of that 5-mile trek. University Circle is the hottest square mile of real estate in Ohio, and to get there, you have to first traverse the mile-long Cleveland Clinic campus. You don’t necessarily have to go through Midtown, though. Motorists often prefer the scenic route on MLK Blvd and Rockefeller Park’s cultural gardens, while transit riders may prefer the tried-and-true Red Line which has 1/4th the number of stops along the way. The eastern Red Line is just now getting its new stations, except for some that may realistically just be closed. Below are two year-old photos, with photos of the new stations at Cedar and Mayfield roads. Major TOD is transpiring at these gateways.

And now for the transformative new stations, and resultant TOD:

Lastly, the oldest transit asset in all of Cleveland – the Shaker Heights Blue and Green Lines. These two combine for around 15,000-17,000 daily riders, not bad – but certainly brought down by lower density in affluent Shaker Heights. This is another case where what is old is being made new again. The Shaker area, beginning at the St. Luke’s redevelopment area at MLK, connecting into historic Shaker Square, and then splitting up through Shaker Heights – is seeing renewed development interest along the Rapid. Some of this is legacy real estate, including Shaker Square and Van Aken Blvd’s linear mid-rises. Some of this is recently completed, particularly at Lee Road, between Van Aken and Chagrin.

As with many things in Cleveland, the best is yet to come, with the Van Aken District now under development. Van Aken is the redevelopment of a huge strip mall that used to sit on a complicated 6-way interchange. Roads are being reconfigured, the Blue Line is being extended across the interchange (where it used to terminate), and new urbanist infill is taking over on all corners.

First, the Cleveland-proper parts of the Shaker area (St. Luke’s Hospital area and Shaker Square):

Lastly, the Shaker Heights-proper part of the Shaker area, where higher-end TOD is beginning to transpire.

All of the above (for the Shaker part of this post) is about to soon by overshadowed by Northeast Ohio’s largest TOD in nearly a century: The Van Aken District.

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Rendering looking NW to SE through proposed Van Aken District

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Site plan diagram

That, from these ashes:

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Existing conditions at Warrensville Center Road / Van Aken Blvd / Chagrin Blvd intersection

While all of these rails may have lost some of their luster, they still work well. They are traversed by around 40,000 passengers daily. They are the formative first experience of many newcomers, when they first land at the airport. They may not always comprise the scenic route, but there is a good chance they can get you where you need to go. They are Cleveland’s most underutilized practical development asset, which it is just now beginning to realize.

The future of transit in Cleveland is in flux. The city is currently debating a contentious fare hike that will undoubtedly hit the poor the hardest. Transit in Cleveland, and the breadth of access it provides compared to other Tier 2 metros, is still a bargain. Even the Healthline’s naysayers will admit that the Cleveland RTA is very well-ran, which goes a long ways. RTA has identified 10 “transit-propensity” corridors, which is a way of saying that they have a priority list of Cleveland’s primary corridors.

The agency just completed a $20 million BRT-lite project on Clifton Avenue, which serves high-density pockets like West Blvd, Edgewater, and all of Lakewood. The agency is currently beginning a project to extend either the Red Line or Healthline eastward, all the way to Euclid (population 55,000). It will hopefully be Red Line extension that is chosen in the end, but that will be dictated by the planning process that is currently underway. Lorain Avenue and West 25th are likely next-up, and activists are already duking it out in the media. Me thinks West 25th would be a phenomenal streetcar corridor, and so do many others, including Ohio City Inc. RTA may go path of least resistance with just another BRT-lite.

P.S. For some extra reading, here is the text of the CEOs for Cities article. While they cleared their website, it made it up onto some blog or forum. The article is one of my better pieces, offering a fair and balanced look at the Rail v. BRT debate in Cleveland.

P.P.S. Please ask for permission before reusing pics. Almost all are mine, but some are from Cleveland.com. Renderings are obviously the intellectual property of the architect and/or developer.

Twin Cities Lesson: Transit can be “Nice!”

Edit: Since 20 additional photos were uncovered from the cloud, they were posted subsequently, at this link. I will also integrate the recovered photos into this post, while leaving as much of the original text.

So, a very bad thing happened, amidst how long it has already taken me to get these pics up. On Thursday I clumsily obliterated my iPhone, which was really a long time in the making. Four days removed from the tragedy, I have finally stopped trying to retrieve my 5,000+ planning/design/travel photos, and have a replacement phone in the mail.

Just minutes before the incident, I luckily posted all of my Denton pics, which are arguably more valuable as a rarely-documented rail fail. I also instagrammed four pics of Minneapolis’ light rail system, plus one aerial from flying in (Captions visible if you click on the photo):

Moving Everyone Forward

These trains are just incredibly nice. I occasionally butt heads with the most well-intended fellow planners, over whether or not transit has to be nice. Many of them deliberately believe it should be not nice. If there’s one unique thing I ever say, it’s the importance of providing dignity to disenfranchised citizens. The assumption that transit users are disenfranchised citizens almost seems like a baseline acceptance just in order to open the door and have a discussion with self-titled equity planners.

The problem with this whole assumption is that it disregards two very important things that successful cities do: 1, attract choice riders; and 2, offer a desirable experience that drives ridership. A frequent objection to urban rail projects is that light rail is “too nice” and that the money would be better spent providing more basic service to low-income communities exclusively. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias is one of these screeds who oppose nice transit in the name of equity, and it’s actually a POV that’s becoming typical of urbanist writers who make inroads into the national punditry. Locally, whenever I talk to COTA, this is the refrain. I think it’s awesome that an agency has gradually adopted a holistic activist mentality toward its customer base, at the exclusion of anyone else.

Another thing I often bring up, but have also heard others use as well, is that social service and transit service are two different things. Columbus provides transit as a social service. Minneapolis isn’t shirking its social duties, but is providing transit in the form of a real transit system. This is shockingly revolutionary. The Twin Cities’ most-utilized assets can not be picked up and moved by anyone, and while they were planned to respond to density and transit dependency where it exists, that density is also being proactively generated by the transit agency itself. It wasn’t “If you build it, they will come.” They built it, and then they committed to a long-term program to drive transit-oriented development along the LRT lines.

Central Corridor

250px-metrotransitmncurrentmetromapMinneapolis is just a nice city. In fact, Minnesotans are nice people, and they say “Nice!” a lot. I saw a few hoodies with a cute little outline of the state alongside such a caption, so it must be official. It befits this nice city that their transit is also very nice. It should be very nice because their most recent expansion, the 11-mile Green Line (which traverses University Avenue, through the UMN campus, between modern Downtown Mpls and historic Downtown St. Paul) cost $957 million, or roughly $87 million per mile. This project cost includes everything from rolling stock (47 new train vehicles), new sidewalk treatments, bike lanes, and even new car travel lanes. The Metro Council, the Twin Cities-area MPO, has found a 50% cost savings by doing all of this at once. Adding all of this work to the LRT project inflates the cost by which LRT is evaluated, but reduces costs across the board in the long-term. It’s a smart thing to do if you can get away with it, which requires public leaders who aren’t scared by a billion-dollar price tag.

The following are photos I took of the Green Line through Downtown Minneapolis (where it shares a transit mall with the Green Line) and the UMN campus (gateway to the Central Corridor):

 

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Wikipedia photo on the Metro Green Line article (Green Line shown traveling past UMN)

The Green Line is projected to have 40,000 riders by 2030. In its first year of operation it averaged 34,500 daily riders, 25% above projections. It will grow employment concentrated in the area by 90,000 jobs by this time, bringing the total (Downtown Mpls + UMN + Downtown St. Paul) to 375,000. It is also responsible for $2.5 billion in private development, which according to this Metro Council fact sheet accounts for 100 projects. According to this 2010 report from the Funders Collaborative, a non-profit group tasked with funding the Central Corridor Vision, the entire build-out potential of what is possible along the new Green Line totals $6 billion, just focusing on private investment potential. This more recent NPR article, calling it the Money Train, actually cites $3 billion in TOD, including 12,000 housing units.

To supplement my abridged photo tour, here is a 2014 run-down of projects along the Central Corridor from The Line. (Tip: You have to wait for the photo slideshow to start at the top of the page) CNN has a remarkably sophisticated photo tour, titled How the Twin Cities Got Transit Right. The annoying drop-down at the top actually tracks your progress along the route, as you progress through the photo tour. The article shows a surprising depth of subject understanding, for a national media piece. A few highlights:

Map overview of Central Corridor TOD, with Downtown Mpls on the left, and Downtown St. Paul on the right:

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Stantec’s master plan of Central Corridor TOD

To achieve this, the Metro Council and its non-profit partners, including the Funders Collaborative and affordable housing consortiums, hired the transit engineering firm Stantec to identify every possible investment opportunity. They identified 500 potential investment opportunities in total, shown above.

As these sites are heavily concentrated in the area between UMN’s campus and the State Capitol, encompassing the entire Central Corridor through the west side of St. Paul, here are the photos that I took through this area:

 

Blue Line

Minneapolis is not new to light rail. Its Blue Eine, formerly known as the Hiawatha Line, has ran from downtown Mpls to the Mall of America since 2004. The line was expanded from the Mall of America southward through suburban Bloomington, MN – where the market has driven a lot of TOD. The original line opened amidst construction, offering a non-stop connection from the Warehouse District around Target Field and Fort Snelling, which is just before you get the airport. The total price tag of this project was $715 million. The line has already far-exceeded its 2020 goal of 24,000 avg daily riders, which is now around 28,000. According to this METRO fact sheet, 50% of its daily riders were new to transit before trying the light rail.

Here are the photos I took of TOD along the Blue Line:

The Twin Cities have been so successful with transit by amenitizing stations, which I found to be in excess of what their own factsheet claims). The following is a list of bells and whistles you encounter as a METRO transit user, regardless of your socioeconomic background:

  • Sheltered platforms
  • Public art (integrated as you’d expect)
  • Push-button heaters (absolutely brilliant)
  • Ticketing kiosks (modern forms of payment)
  • Free on-board WiFi
  • Onboard restrooms
  • Work tables at stations and onboard
  • Prominent connection schedules
  • LED ticker for next train departure
  • LED screens with ads and community info
  • Electrical outlets (impossible to find on other systems)
  • Bike storage onboard and at stations
  • Great skyline views all around

These amenities go a long ways toward driving transit choice in the Twin Cities, which isn’t exactly Chicago. In fact, Minneapolis-St. Paul’s urban fabric is really more comparable to Cleveland or Columbus. A lot of old neighborhoods around a revitalized downtown or two, with a heavy emphasis on the “eds and meds.” It’s really not all that different from the Ohio cities. The difference is bold public investment and bolder progressive policies. The trains in and around Minneapolis are packed, and the faces truly represent the fabric of their community. It’s not all transit dependent users. You see diversity, including its upper bounds. You see a lot of choice riders. Most importantly, you see a lot of people whose lives have been bettered by the light rail: they are living visibly healthy, active lifestyles, which have been made attainable to anyone in the Twin Cities.

This is why the Twin Cities have been perhaps the nation’s strongest light rail success story. They could have cut corners, saved some pennies here and there, and saved themselves the political blowback that you’d expect with a $715 million and another $950 million light rail project. They didn’t do that because they were unfazed by the cost. Other states are unfazed by the cost of new freeways and prisons, so why should they be fazed by the cost of modern rail that they need? To the contrary, the Twin Cities looked for any additional connection they could create between communities and these rail corridors. No stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of developing quality mixed-income housing, adding active lifestyle amenities like adjacent bike trails, and optimizing the user experience regardless of why they’re catching a train on that particular day.

In my case, I caught the train at the airport’s Lindbergh Terminal, which is essentially a shiny-new subway station. It was $1.75 for a day pass. The route was truly optimized for my experience as a short-term tourist: Got to see Midtown, a quirky Riverside neighborhood, an iconic bridge and bike trail, the revitalized downtown area, had a latte near campus, saw the stadiums and associated redevelopment there, saw St. Paul’s Little Mekong neighborhood, and met lots of friendly Minnesotans. By the time I had to get back to MSP to catch my return flight to Columbus, I had more than enough resident recommendations to last a week in the Twin Cities, made some friends who held the door open while I jumped out at each station to take photos I would later lose, and had been told twice that seeing these “light rail tourists” had become a daily occurrence on the Central Corridor.

I am in awe of how Minneapolis exemplifies how a rail project can truly build community. I believe that is what we are all working toward, it’s just that sometimes we disagree about how to get there. I think Minneapolis (and St. Paul too!) have exemplified how investing in transit is one way to get there.

Denton A-Train is just that: A train

Finally getting around to posting my photos from the Denton County Transit Authority’s “A-Train” system, from which I came away with some surprising impressions. For the sake of brevity and organization, they are numbered below:

  1. Very low ridership. Only 1900 daily riders. Yep, you read that right.
  2. The 21-mile corridor, finished in 2011, hasn’t had enough time to generate much TOD.
  3. Good TOD is happening in Denton, Hebron, and Carrollton. Give it time maybe?
  4. Bad service frequencies. And schedule. Had to wait 40 minutes when I parked in Downtown Denton.
  5. Also expensive. A day pass was $10 (!!). That said, it was also valid on DART. DART alone is nation’s largest and most-comprehensive LRT network, and the 21-mile A-Train trip could save I-35 commuters a lot of time and gas.
  6. Bad information. Upon return, actually missed the last train because I was going off of an old schedule. There are three differing schedules online and they don’t have an effective date printed at the bottom like you’d expect. Let’s just say that was an expensive Uber ride, but it was a good exercise in understanding the unreliability of the Denton rail system.
  7. Beautiful trains and stations. Absolutely immaculate system. Very clean. Brand-new Stadler diesel multiple-unit coaches. When the more heavily-ridden DART trains are parked side-by-side, you would never guess which system nobody uses, comparatively.
  8. Follows existing railroad corridor that even awkwardly cuts through some new subdivisions and apartment complexes.

The photo tour starts in Downtown Denton, which has a really nice historic square. Denton itself is well-known as a liberal college town that, as the seat of Denton County, has exploded with growth. Denton is centrally-located in the huge county, which in 1990 had a population of 273,000 – up to 753,000 in 2014. In that time, Denton itself has gone from 66,000 to 128,000. While most of the growth is actually in between Denton city and the Dallas County line (Carrollton), Denton has in-fact captured a lot of that growth, which has fueled mostly subdivisions and a few denser complexes in-town (mostly around the University of North Texas). The A-Train then follows what is essentially the I-35 E Stemmons Freeway corridor through the wasteland that was formerly the blackland prairie of North Texas.

DART Light Rail Review

While I was in the area over the Winter Break, it made sense that I should take a day trip to Dallas to see how the nation’s largest light rail network has fared in attracting development. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, with 90 miles of track and 238,000 daily riders, has its own TOD implementation office. For anyone interested, their website has a pdf download for each of its stations, showing all of the TOD at each of its 62 light rail stations.

Coming from OKC, I parked my car in Denton, and purchased a $10 (!!) day trip card that was good for both Denton County RTA and DART. It was the only day trip option available in Denton, where the A-Train has been one of the least-successful passenger rail projects. Upon returning from Dallas at 8 p.m. on a weekday, I had to uber my way through Denton County just to get back to my car, because the DCTA’s last train had already passed. More to come on the Denton A-Train, but for now here some photos of its larger, more successful neighbor to the south.

 

And then my iPhone died with 30% battery life remaining. Nonetheless, I was convinced that Dallas is worth a look if studying TOD. I came to this conclusion after spending a day riding mostly lesser-developed lines, the A-Train and Green Line. Even these lesser-developed lines have been successful in moving the needle on investment and density, just as their more successful counterparts (TRE, McKinney streetcar, Oak Cliff streetcar, north red, orange, and blue lines, and east green line) have been in more established parts of Dallas (Central Corridor, Irving/DFW, Deep Ellum, Fair Park, etc). For a tour of neighborhoods along the north red/orange line, see my 2009 post on “Dallas: Shopping and riding the rails.”

Some of the better pics (keep in mind, 2009):

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Red/Orange Line North Park Mall – Park Lane Station

North Park Mall / Park Lane R

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Historic retail node at Mockingbird Lane and Preston Road

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Historic retail node at Mockingbird Lane and Preston Roa

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Historic retail node at Mockingbird Lane and Preston Road

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

 

(Notice the same trains. Looking just as outdated in 2009.)

 

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