Tag Archives: Light Rail

Clean, affordable light rail also delivers economic lift

Greg Gormick brings us this story on the future of light rail in Toronto.  He says that the debate over Toronto’s Transit City light rail transit plan has been between critics who don’t know the benefits of light rail and supporters who have been unable to articulate those benefits.  He explains the differences between streetcars and light rail.  The later evolved from the former in European cities after WWII, when transit started losing ridership to cars.  Light rail became a mid-capacity system between high-capacity subways and low-capacity buses.  Light rail became larger, smoother, quieter, farther spaced, and faster, and had priority signaling and their own right-of-way.  At the same time, European cities embraced transit-oriented development, controlling sprawl and creating vibrant new neighborhoods.  They also embraced a concept known as lateral segregation, which gives transit users, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians their own part of the road adapted to their specific needs.

The effects have been economically and socially stimulating, and a number of cities that tore out streetcar systems have either replaced them with light rail or are in the process of doing so.  Edmonton was the first North American city to adopt light rail in 1978.  Since then, in places such as San Diego, Dallas and Portland, light rail has gotten people out of their cars, acted as an economic catalyst, and revived failing neighborhoods.  He argues that those who oppose the plan, who say that a new light rail line will have exactly the opposite effect, are fighting against historic precedent.  Light rail is also much cheaper than subways, an alternative supported by some, and can generally be built faster.  Building a new light rail system would make Toronto more competitive, more environmentally friendly, and more economically robust.

Why not rail?

Diana DeRubertis of Planetizen brings us this story on some of the triumphs and follies of light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT).  BRT is cheaper and easier to implement than light rail, but it lacks the “tech-sexiness” of light rail.  Also, many municipalities, whether implementing light rail or BRT, have a habit of putting in one or two lines instead of doing a comprehensive system.  Salt Lake is a perfect example, although TRAX is becoming much more comprehensive.  DeRubertis calls these minimal efforts “light rail lite,” and argues that experts in the field say that even BRT needs separated “quickways” to become as efficient as other systems throughout the world.  There is also the problem of dropping rail stops in unwalkable areas.  The vast majority of Salt Lake’s TRAX stations are in sprawling suburban areas, although many of those areas have developed TOD zones around the stations in an effort to make them more dense.  However, municipalities that are afraid of density, such as Sandy, UT, have fought exactly the type of development that makes TOD work.  It’s hard to convince suburban municipalities that they need to change their development pattern to take advantage of the tools of the 21st century.  BRT, because it can use existing infrastructure, costs less per vehicle, and can leave dedicated “quickways” to reach outlying areas, is generally better suited for sprawl or sprawl-conversion, but people have questions about it.  People often still see a bus, which they think of as noisy, dirty, and slow, whereas rail is fast, clean and tech-sexy.  The author cites the example of Toronto, which actually diverted funds from freeway projects to fund rail, and has had overwhelming success with it.  So even though BRT may be the easier route, it may be better for some municipalities to make the leap right to light rail.  Either way, transit systems need to be comprehensive.

Frightening Future for Island Traffic

Maura Yates brings us this story on the traffic on Staten Island, which is bad and getting worse.  Projections show a 35 percent growth in traffic in the next twenty years.  The story mentions an individual who moved to the island from Brooklyn and, at 29, took her driver’s test for the first time, because she will need a car for the first time in her life now that she lives on Staten Island.  There has been a ten percent increase in car registrations in the last decade.  To alleviate some of that congestion, Jonathan Peters of the College of Staten Island is encouraging transit-oriented development.  Unfortunately, Staten Island is the least transit-oriented of the boroughs.

Part of Staten Island’s problems are its streets.  Although it does have much greater connectivity than your average suburb, there are quite a few loops and lollipops in the system, and the large park in the center of the island, though an absolute asset to the community both of the island and the city at large, doesn’t help with road connectivity.  Staten Island also is very dependent on freeways to funnel traffic in and out.  This is partially due to a problem with external connectivity.  There are only four bridges and a ferry that connect the island to the rest of the city and to New Jersey, and only three of these options lead conveniently to Manhattan, where many of the residents work.

Another part of the problem is transit coverage.  The Staten Island Railway does a fine job of connecting the island together and routing commuters to the Staten Island Ferry, but it doesn’t connect to other rail transit systems throughout the area.  The bus system has pretty good coverage, but is too slow for many commuters.  The buses only drop people off at the ferry, which means that people would have to switch transportation systems to complete their journey, and every time you have to switch systems it makes people more likely to drive.  The subway in Brooklyn or the light rail in Bayonne is a similar story.  If someone has to ride the train to a bus stop to a subway station to get to downtown, they will probably drive instead.

There are a variety of solutions that Staten Island could pursue.  They could encourage TOD, as well as greater connectivity and infill development.  If the cities of New York and Bayonne and the states of New York and New Jersey are willing to spend some money to fix the problem, there are a number of ways they could improve the transit system.  One of the most effective would probably be to link the Staten Island Railway to the city subway.  The easiest way to do this would be to tie into the 95th Street-Bay Ridge Station in Brooklyn, either by adding a deck or taking a lane on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for trains, or by building another bridge near the Narrows Bridge.  This would require the least amount of track and would probably make for the fastest route, but it would be either very expensive or impossible to refit the Narrows Bridge, and very expensive to build a new bridge and to but up the properties needed on either side and tunnel down to the station.  Not to mention possibly ruining the view of the Narrows Bridge.

Another option would be to connect the Staten Island Railway to the light rail in Bayonne.  The shortest route with the least amount of track would be from the Ferry to the industrial area on the southeast of Bayonne, but this would mean the construction of a new bridge and conflict between passenger and freight rail.  Another route could take it on or near the Bayonne Bridge, but this would require a lot more rail being laid and a lot more properties being bought, and still may need a new bridge.

Fixing Staten Island’s traffic and transit problems won’t be an easy or a quick job, but it would help the island deal with intense growth over the next few decades and could make for a more sustainable lifestyle.

Next chapters in the Great Transit Debate

David Brewster brings us this article on the future of Seattle‘s Link light rail.  It cites a recent story from the Seattle Times complaining about the lack of parking at Link stations with the exception of Tukwila.  He says that, because planners wanted to make a livable, walkable community, they can expect fewer commuters on Link.  There is a possibility that commuters would park on the street of communities by train stations, and to prevent this many communities have set up parking pass systems.  “Areas around stations will be upzoned, driving up property taxes and increasing traffic. Feeder buses will flock to once sleepy commercial districts. Small shops will be driven out,” he says.

First of all, light rail isn’t built for commuters.  That’s what commuter rail is for.  Light rail should stop every half mile to mile, and should be surrounded by dense, mixed-use development, not parking lots.  Parking lots are fine for commuter rail, which stops every 2 miles or more, goes considerably faster, and is often grade separated, whereas light rail often isn’t.  Light rail is made for locals who may be traveling across town for work or entertainment, who may want to live car-lite or car-less.  So to say that commuters won’t ride it is missing the point.

As far as commuters parking on local streets, I don’t really see that as a big problem.  Most communities have adequate (if not excessive) off-street parking requirements, so locals should be able to park off-street okay.  On-street parking encourages people to walk past local stores where they may make purchases on their way home.  It also slows down traffic and buffers pedestrians from the road, making walking safer.  And if you’re worried about an inordinate influx of cars, you can always encourage fewer cars and get a significant revenue stream at the same time by making it pay parking.  So I don’t see the worry about on-street parking, as well as the permit programs (which are a big controversy in Provo right now).

Yes, areas will be “upzoned.”  They should be, to make the area around the stop more vibrant.  And yes, under a traditional system, this would drive up property taxes, but not under more reasonable tax systems such as Pittsburgh’s, which taxes based on the value of the land as opposed to the value of the building.  And as I’ve often quoted from John Norquist, there’s good and bad traffic, so to say that traffic would increase isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Feeder buses should center on rail stops so that the rail is available to more people.  And who wants “sleepy commercial districts”?  Sleepy commercial districts are failing commercial districts.  More traffic means more people passing and stopping in shops, which means higher sales.  Local businesses will thrive, not be driven out.

I’ve commented a lot on Seattle’s transit system, which I have never seen, so I will leave that as a caveat, that everything I’m saying is theoretical and I may be off-base with some of my claims.  But based on my experiences in Salt Lake with TRAX and on everything I’ve ever read about transit, I think that Mr. Brewster may be out of line with some of his comments.

Mass Transit and Smart Growth Save Time, $ and the Environment

The Daily Kos brings us another good article on transit.  They bring forth arguments from Texas and Portland about how light rail in particular saves time by getting more people off the road and speeding up commutes, money by costing less in infrastructure than roads, and the environment by reducing carbon emissions.  In addition to transit, they also look at the effect of urban growth boundaries, which are generally politically rough to set up but have done a great job of preserving rural land in Oregon and forcing cities to grow up rather than out.  They also analyze some of the effects of TOD, which when focused around transit makes it so that people don’t need to own a car or use the one they do own as much for daily errands.  Despite what you may hear from the CATO Institute (why anyone would ever listen to them, especially anyone who reads this, I don’t know, but just making sure), transit is effective in reaching all of these goals.