Late to the Party: Transit and the Fourth Estate

I’ve been plowing my way through Robert Caro’s The Power Broker since, embarrassingly, last July*, and as I hit the home stretch, finally the press of New York seems to have awakened to the disasters wrought by a wholly unaccountable Robert Moses on the city. Throughout much of Moses’s tenure, only the New York Post (astonishingly, once a bastion of populism and hard-hitting investigative journalism) seems to have been interested in the misdoings of Moses, and was the only outlet to even try and report the story of East Tremont’s destruction for the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

It isn’t until later, when the patronage and corruption associated with Moses’s “Slum Clearance Committee” and his oversight of Title I Housing redevelopment starts to emerge that the rest of the press picks up this whiff of something unsavory. Moses, you see, had cultivated the press – feting publishers and senior editors, enlisting officials and loyal “Moses men” to do battle on his behalf – and was able to, for decades, portray himself as an incorruptible savior of the public interest. For a time, the publishers are reluctant to confront their own mistaken judgment of Moses’s character. But as Gene Gleason and Fred Cook of the World-Telegram began to cover the story, eventually trading scoops and leads with erstwhile competitor William Haddad at the Post, soon the third afternoon paper, the Journal-American, joined in, and was followed by the Herald Tribune and even the Times, sending the coverage to new heights of “respectability.”

Obviously, this has little to do with transit directly. But it speaks to the importance of digging, to questioning the narrative, to actually refusing to accept the pat answers from the authority or or the man in charge, to expressing just the slightest bit of doubt at the rote replies from flacks and PR men. For the health of a city, an inquisitive press is a requirement. And often that will mean an adversarial press, regardless of the”access” it might cost (and when current access consists predominantly of regurgitating agency-issued press releases, there isn’t much to lose).

Now, contrast that spirit with the lugubrious malaise of Robert Thompson, the Washington Post‘s so-called “Dr. Gridlock.” Virtually his every column or live Q&A session that touches on issues of transit and WMATA is written with an air of resignation, of a man who sees no possibilities other than current reality and is uninterested in even hinting at the possibility of something else. In response to a question/complaint about long wait times on the ludicrously poorly-timetabled Blue Line (12 minute peak headways), here is his “answer”:

DrGAnswer

We can boil that down to: “delays are bad. It’s cold outside, too.” Some real ace reporting, there.

And of course, were there other options, it would be a different story. Even an otherwise odious outlet, like the Washington Examiner, can feature top-notch reporting from gems like Kytja Weir. But when that paper axes its local coverage entirely, there are few places to turn to. The Washington Times‘s big feature story of the past few years was a three-part exposé on the inner workings of WMATA’s “culture of complacence,” but its relentless focus on race above all present the whole story in a weird, quasi-racist tone. There are important facts they’ve discovered, but things like managerial incompetence seems outweighed by the fact that said manager is black.

In other words, press, elected officials, and aloof authority personnel have conspired – presumably unwittingly – to render the status quo the only possible state of affairs. Long-term planning for the future on anything resembling the Second System or the first 105 miles of planned WMATA Metrorail – all of which were built – is absent. The current situation is accepted as the only one. Relatively loud voices that could be a clarion call for improvement are absence. Dr. Gridlock tells us, essentially, to “get used to it.” And it’s here where Caro’s writing on the dismal state of transit (specifically, the Long Island Rail Road) at the time bears an unwelcome resemblance to today:

“Get used to it!” Accept as part of your daily existence two or three – or more – hours sitting amid dirt, crammed against strangers, breathing foul air, sweating in summer, shivering in winter … “Get used to it!” One has to think about what those words, so casually uttered, really mean. One has to realize that a man uttering those words has accepted discomfort and exhaustion as a part – a substantial part – of the fabric of his life. Accepted them so completely that he no longer really thinks about them – or about the amount of his life of which they are, day by day, robbing him. We learn to tolerate intolerable conditions. The numbness that is the defense against intolerable pain has set in – so firmly that many of the victims no longer realize that the pain is pain.

“Get used to it,” indeed. Dr. Gridlock and the rest of the Washington-area media aren’t responsible for the decline of WMATA, but they’ve done little to arrest its fall. Of course, part of the problem plaguing local coverage of transit issues is the fact that so many journalists drive, just as with the politicians who have allowed mass transit to atrophy. And that windshield perspective has led to a great collective ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In any event, without a press willing to antagonize and question the dominant narratives put forth by WMATA (an unaccountable public authority, as Caro might emphasize), their word will remain gospel truth, even when hundreds of thousands of daily riders experience otherwise. Who will step up to the challenge?

*Here’s my defense: it’s relentlessly depressing. Not that this makes it anything less than utterly worthwhile, but coupled with the deluge of bad news that seems to comprise the world, it hasn’t made for the best escapist pursuit before bed. It’s telling that I read approximately 4 times as many novels in 2014 as I did non-fiction books.

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First As Tragedy, Again As Tragedy, Always As Tragedy

I have a letter lying around that I wrote several years ago. It’s a letter to the Washington Post, or more broadly, any outlet that will publish it. The sad part is that for the past few years, all that’s been required is to append the latest incident to the bottom of it and resubmit it, and the thrust remains just as relevant as it had before. After yesterday’s horrible incident in which one woman died and 80 passengers hospitalized due to smoke inhalation near L’Enfant Plaza, it’s worth a slight update. Suffice it to say that little has changed, or shows serious signs of changing anytime soon.

[WMATA General Manager] Richard Sarles again continues to obfuscate and ignore the larger, systemic problems of WMATA. He claims that WMATA has “implemented recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board,” when one of their core recommendations – the retirement of the 1000-series cars susceptible to catastrophic “accordioning” in a collision – has still not yet been achieved, more than three and a half years after the fatal Red Line crash. Sarles asserts that WMATA is “adding services, including more peak-period trains [two] summer[s ago].” In fact, no new trains have been added – formerly Blue trains are now diverted over the Fenwick Bridge as Yellow Line trains, which does increase the number of trains for certain portions of the systems, but vastly decreases it in others.

Perhaps Mr. Sarles’ most egregious claim is that “Metro has met or exceeded nine of 11 performance metrics.” I would only ask Mr. Sarles: what metrics on earth are you using? As a daily commuter who lives in DC, owns no car, and relies on Metro for all of my transit needs, system performance has reached critical, unacceptable levels. Headways of 20 minutes or more; overcrowded trains, few of which run full eight-car lengths; endemic “hot cars,” frequent train breakdowns and offloads; delays owing to “track” and “switch” issues (despite the highly-touted MetroForward program) – these have gotten noticeably worse over the past year. And this doesn’t even take into account cramped stations, rude station managers and employees, and all the mundane issues that go into making Metro what it has unfortunately become.

Despite all his talk of a more responsive WMATA that puts customers first, Sarles has yet to make public appearances himself. WMATA holds nothing even close to the open town halls or question-and-answer sessions that many other agencies, such as New Jersey Transit, PATH, the New York MTA, and Boston’s MBTA do to address rider concerns and complaints. To the public, WMATA is a silent monolith, a being that simply exists and therefore is. For the average rider, there is literally nothing to be done but grin and bear it.

The worst part of all this is that, as Douglas Duncan (“What if Metro Put Riders First?”) hinted at, WMATA is answerable to no one. The relationship between the GM and the Board is accommodating at best, and as all the Board and GM positions are appointed, the public has little say in the governance of the agency. The Rider’s Advisory Council, rather than serving as a conduit for issues raised by riders, has instead become captive to the board’s interests, with members of the RAC arriving at and departing from meetings by car and taxi. And as a purely advisory concession to public opinion, it has no actual power of its own. Until this leadership trio has been replaced or repaired – the RAC’s powerlessness, Sarles, and the WMATA Board as is currently composed – there will be little means of improving WMATA from the ground up.

Yes, Metro has been neglected and underfunded for years, and it’s high time we had a true massive capital investment. Even bolder thinking is required – power systems need upgrading to handle eight-car trains on every line, massive investments in rolling stock are required to not just retire the 1000-series but to provide headways of ten minutes or less on every line at every time, and the separated Blue Line – headlined by an additional crossing of the Potomac – needs to be planned for and programmed starting immediately. But Richard Sarles is absolutely not the man to oversee it as long as he continues to ignore serious problems throughout the system and the complaints of the very riders who use the system. WMATA does not exist as an agency that moves trains; it is an agency that moves people – and until its leadership gets back to this fundamental mission, service will not improve.

To this, I sadly have to add: Without new leadership, safety will continue to take second fiddle to something else. But what is that something? One of WMATA’s problems is its lack of institutional priorities. If one could call anything a priority, it would be the rebuilding program that’s rendered the rail system unusable on weekends while doing little to improve the experience during the week. But it most certainly is not safety. I had hoped that we could muddle through the rest of Sarles’ tenure, but instead a woman is now dead due to WMATA’s incompetence, and Richard Sarles will leave just as he came in – overshadowed by the grim specter of death.

People may remember the Green Line train trapped under the Anacostia two years ago, from which passengers “self-evacuated” due to a total lack of clarity or instruction from WMATA personnel. Naturally, rather than actually reform the emergency communications process as promised, WMATA instead moved to criminalize the idea that maybe it’s safer to leave an unsafe train than to remain aboard, leading to yesterday’s death when riders stayed – at the driver’s urging – aboard a smoke-filled train for 40 minutes while waiting for rescue personnel to arrive. Again, a woman is dead because of this utter failure to change.

With the shortlist for Sarles’s successor down to two – a former DC city administrator and the current head of WMATA’s rail operations(!) – it’s worth asking if this is a culture truly worth promoting from within, or indeed, whether the appointment of a new general manager will do much of anything to sort out an enterprise that seems thoroughly incapable of reform from top to bottom. People thought Sarles could be a savior when he replaced John Catoe after the fatal 2009 crash – instead, as he departs this Friday (for his timely but unrelated retirement), the New Guy will be faced with identical challenges plaguing this transit agency.

Whereas when I first wrote that letter I thought that the blame certainly went all the way to the top, it’s now clear that yesterday’s tragedy was virtually inevitable, regardless of whether it happened on Sarles’s watch or someone else’s (not that this excuses him from accountability, but with his departure imminent, it matters less for the moment). The rot lies throughout all of WMATA, which refuses to treat small issues with any seriousness, and which has no rational approach to failure mode analysis. It is a “rogue empire,” “dysfunctional from the inside out.” And while it should not be said that I’m not a strong proponent of increasing transit funding in basically every way, it’s clear that there is much more going on at WMATA than simple budgetary shortfalls.

Put bluntly, the system is unsafe. And yet I’ll keep riding it. For me, it’s my only option. A safe, efficient, rapid transit service should not be too much to ask for in a modern American capital in the 21st century. And yet…

High-Speed Rail in France

TGV as our train departs the Gare de Paris-l'Est, 1 September 2014

TGV as our train departs the Gare de Paris-l’Est, 1 September 2014

Coming from the land of Amtrak – even in the Northeast Corridor, where at least intercity rail more or less exists – to ride the TGV in France was an absolute delight and an experience utterly unlike any I’ve ever had before in the United States. Rail is affordable, efficient, fast, and omnipresent. One leg of our journey required a bit of a detour; even then we rode four trains in six hours without a single hitch.

Continue reading

Observations: Paris

Place Saint-André-des-Arts, Paris

Place Saint-André-des-Arts, Paris

Paris is, of course, a magical city. We stayed in a lovely but somewhat out-of-the-way hotel in the XVIIe Arrondissment, near the Place du Maréchal Juin and Line 3 of the Metro. Connected to the Pereire stop was an RER station, Pereire-Levallois on the RER C. More on the RER later. The food was also spectacular, naturally.

We ended up buying a three-day “Paris Visite” card, with unlimited rides on buses, trams, and trains in zones 1-3 for three days. The cost of this? €26.50 each, or roughly $34. The card itself is quite tiny, and I’m surprised more Parisians don’t lose theirs. But on y va.

The Metro was everything one could want: fast, frequent, relatively uncrowded, well-lit and clean. Seriously, though, frequencies made this system so much more usable than many others. Headways across most lines were generally around six minutes – even on a Sunday – and I think the longest wait I saw was 8 minutes. The longest wait we ever had was 7 minutes, and that was after transferring and just missing the connecting train. Overall, waiting for a train was an unusual and brief activity. Continue reading

Streetcars: “Good” Enough?

Lots and lots and lots and lots of discussion sparked today by David Alpert’s CityLab article, “Hey, Streetcar Critics: Stop Making ‘Perfect’ the Enemy of ‘Good’.” I’d Storify it all if I had the time but the conversations went down so many branches there isn’t really a linear thread. At any rate, I suggested that maybe we should all just sort of summarize our arguments. So here’s why I disagree with David, in long-winded rambling form.

Put simply, as configured, streetcars – here using the definition of mixed-traffic single or articulated railcars operating on the surface – provide such a miniscule upgrade to the actual quality of transit that their construction must absolutely be questioned by even the most diehard of transit advocates (and I would hope not to be mistaken for anything but). And to my mind that is for basically one reason alone: a lack of dedicated lanes.

Without those dedicated lanes, you can’t have consistency of service. Streetcars in mixed traffic are constrained not just by the flow of traffic, fast or slow as it may be, but by obstructions: predominantly cars in the tracks, but also cyclists, people in the street, et cetera. Any delays then have knock-on effects – you can’t easily run an extra streetcar or two to try and make up the schedule, as it will just get caught in the same traffic or end up in the same delay.

Now, the argument is often made that just because a streetcar is built as mixed-traffic doesn’t mean it cannot be converted to a dedicated right-of-way later in the future, after some nebulous combination of political willpower and rider outrage and ___??? come together to justify it. That in itself is an all too-rare occasion, and even worse is that the way many modern streetcars are constructed means that many of them can never be given dedicated lanes. The H Street streetcar in DC is a prime example of that. By putting in two curb-running lanes, the District Department of Transportation has ensured for all time that this streetcar line will be held up by traffic jams, turning vehicles, and parked cars themselves, because there’s no way to isolate the streetcars without completely blocking off the parking lanes (not a bad thing in my eyes, but extremely unlikely).

The curb-running H Street Streetcar, beholden to the mercy of traffic for all time

The curb-running H Street Streetcar, beholden to the mercy of traffic for all time

And those are just the physical limitations. Streetcars are the entry point to transit for many smaller cities, and their respective agencies seem to treat the lowly streetcar as some kind of high-capacity commuter rail, with scheduled headways of 15 minutes or more. This is often justified by the increase in capacity over a bus, meaning that fewer streetcars can move the same number of people as more buses. But this defeats the whole purpose of good transit. Regardless of mode, less frequent transit is less useful transit. And while you might find people willing to wait an extra minute or two for rail over bus, usually the cuts made to frequency result in 5-10 minute longer waits.

Furthermore, because of the aforementioned delays and holdups, streetcars are hands-down, full-stop, slow. Like, slower-than-walking-speed slow. With a long wait for a slow train, you’d be better off walking. And if walking is a better option than transit, what is even the point?

Now, what of the benefits? Streetcars are “better than nothing,” especially on a corridor without existing transit. But other improvements are mode-agnostic. The DC Streetcar will have 3 doors and feature all-door boarding and unloading. But that’s not because it’s a streetcar; it’s because we’ve decided that proof-of-payment is acceptable. Why can’t we do the same for buses? (Short answer: there is no reason we can’t do the same for buses.) In general, if buses are already at capacity, including headways of 1-2 minutes (e.g., 16th Street in DC), the initial solution should be dedicated lanes, which allow for a much more consistent throughput. Once you max out buses in a dedicated lane, then the extra capacity calls for a switch to rail. But at that point you’ve already got a dedicated right-of-way so you’re basically building a light rail anyways.

Essentially, streetcars are a needless step.

But also do not think me part of the faction that David is trying to argue against. He references Jarrett Walker’s opposition to further mixed-traffic streetcars in Toronto and later says that if you are against streetcars, flawed as they might be, you fall into the hands of the anti-transit crazies. But as Walker himself says – and continues to say, despite the Toronto Star‘s misinterpretation of his opposition, that those streetcars are overrated. But opposition to a bad project doesn’t mean opposition to all projects. It in fact means we have to push for more. The car-centric attitude of “no way will we remove a traffic lane for transit” needs to end up in the dustbin of history. We can and we will repurpose lanes for transit because with the state of vehicle traffic and sprawl in this country, dedicated lanes are the only means of making transit actually work (and that’s leaving aside questions of equity).

“So what are the alternatives?” many might ask. I would say it’s the above. Firstly increase the roadway capacity, then increase the vehicle capacity. The Germans have an oft-quoted expression: ” Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton” (organization before electronics before concrete). Organization to mean sorting out interagency turf wars and that sort of thing. Electronics refers to signalling and other equipment that can increase the capacity of existing infrastructure. Building new infrastructure is last. I’d argue that dedicating lanes is a form of “electronics,” in this sense.

And as Dan finally convinced me, there is, once in a while, sufficient justification for a streetcar. I would suggest that this is true assuming that all of the following conditions are met:

  • Vehicle traffic on the planned route isn’t so intense as to ensure speeds of less than 10mph
  • The streetcar is center-running, to permit eventual dedication of the right-of-way
  • Whatever transit agency is running the streetcar will not use a streetcar’s slightly higher capacity as an excuse to increase headways
  • If the streetcar is on an existing transit route, that existing transit will not suffer service cuts (unless the streetcar runs the entire length of the route)
  • The line constructed connects two actual activity centers/destinations
  • Or, TL;DR: if the route is sufficient to support full light rail/trams (in the Swiss sense of the word), then a streetcar could be built as the light rail version of a premetro.

I will also add that this ignores the “economic development” purpose of streetcars (e.g., the justification for the Columbia Pike streetcar). But that’s intentional. Supposedly what differentiates bus and rail is the development they generate because of the “permanence” of rail. But for just a few thousand dollars’ worth of concrete and some political capital, it’s possible to build an equally “permanent” set of dedicated lanes, which will do much more to help people get around the region. And since “development” seems to inexorably lead towards “gentrification” these days, if dedicated lanes didn’t drive an increase in development, you’ll have achieved a significant service upgrade for an affordable area.

But perhaps the best thing we can do to ensure transit’s continued relevance and utility is to ensure that it connects a) where people are and b) where they’d like to go. This means focusing on underserved but sufficiently dense areas, in order to provide the greatest amount of transit improvement to the greatest number of people. This will in turn drive a harmonious cycle of development regardless of mode.

(Thanks to Dan Malouff, Tim Krepp, Navid Roshan, Michael Hamilton, David Edmonson, David Alpert, and anyone else I’m forgetting for engaging in said discussion).

The European Experience

Last week, I had the great fortune of being able to spend about 10 days in Europe; France and Switzerland, in particular. As a transit nerd, this was obviously a fantastic experience. (And as a food nerd, equally if not more so.)

Gare de Lyon, Paris

Gare de Lyon, Paris

I will have more detailed notes on the different cities I was in, but a few general observations first.

  •  When it comes to intercity rail, the United States is absolutely pathetic. And not just in terms of speed (though the TGV between Paris, Reims, and Lyon was the single best train experience of my life); the Swiss InterCity and RegioExpress services are fast, relatively frequent (at least hourly point-to-point, much more so for trunk lines). Electrification, frequency, electronic ticketing and payment,
  • Punctuality was incredible. To get from Lyon to the tiny Lötschental Valley in Switzerland, it required four trains and three connections. One connection, from a French TGV to a Swiss IC in Basel, had only 5 minutes between the two. Despite it not being a cross-platform transfer, we made it with minutes to spare.
  • There was not a single surface rail system I saw that did not have dedicated tracks of its own. There was barely a single street we found that had more than three traffic lanes. The primacy of transit was clear.
  • The mixing of cars, pedestrians, and transit was very pronounced, particularly in Paris, but drivers were not crazy the way they seem to be in the DC area. This is reflected less in a sense of caution on the part of French drivers and more a general awareness and expectation that yes, there will be people on foot and moped and bicycle so it’s best to stay alert. There was a good amount of hard braking and stopping short, but no actual collisions anywhere that I saw.
  • The TL;DR version: walking is normal, driving is not; TGV is really, really fast.

In general, too, the public transportation facilities across France and Switzerland are actually emblematic of a respect for their citizens. I know Ben Kabak and others have written of the folly of a new Penn Station when there are so many other higher priorities – and I agree – but at the same time, there is a whole lot to be said for magnificence in the public sphere. After experiencing the multimodal wonder that is Zürich, I found this quote that sums up the “Zürich Model”:

There are communities … whose public realms exude respect in their principles and architecture, and whose citizens are therefore under less compulsion to retreat to a private domain. Indeed, we may find that some of our ambitions for personal glory fade when the public spaces and facilities to which we enjoy access are themselves glorious to behold: in such context, ordinary citizenship may come to seem an adequate goal. In Switzerland’s largest city, for instance, the need to own a car in order to avoid sharing a bus or train with strangers loses some of the urgency it has in Los Angeles or London, thanks to Zurich’s superlative tram network, which is clean, safe, warm and edifying in its punctuality and technical prowess. There is little reason to travel in an automotive cocoon when, for a fare of only a few francs, an efficient, stately tramway will provide transportation from point A to point B at a level of comfort an emperor might have envied.

More to come. But the Zürich Model and its respect for the citizenry should be standard operating practice for every transit system in North America.

NIMBYism in a Nutshell

In the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago, a developer wants to build a 12 apartment complex on an empty lot. What did one resident have to say about that?

Tina Marie Campbell, who has lived near Montrose and Cicero avenues for more than 25 years, said the area is dense enough, and does not need more rental apartments.

“We’ve got a great neighborhood here,” Campbell said. “I’d like to see it grow and get better.”

“The area is too dense for more apartments…I’d like to see the neighborhood grow.”

WTF; THESE ARE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE SENTIMENTS

On Responsibility and Governance

Senator Chuck Schumer released a proposal on Monday to revamp the system governing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey:

First, the Port Authority should come back with a process for the nomination and confirmation of an Executive Director by the Board of Commissioners, not by the Governor of one state or the other. Second, the Port Authority should propose administrative changes vesting full managerial authority and responsibility of the entire Port Authority organization with the Executive Director. Third, the Port Authority should establish a permanent process to nominate individuals as Commissioners to the Port Authority who possess a comprehensive financial, engineering and planning background, and no conflicts of interest related to the Port Authority’s core mission. It should be clear that these commissioners have a fiduciary duty to the Port Authority.

While this is laudable in the sense of (to some extent), removing politics from the governance of the Port Authority, at the same time it removes any sense of accountability and dilutes what remains to the point where it’s hard to say where the affected citizenry might turn.

This is an inherent problem in any multi-state compact, with WMATA being – as usual – a prime example of the dysfunctionality that can ensue. The Pennsylvania-New Jersey Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) has problems of its own. With WMATA, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, the governors of Virginia and Maryland, and the federal government all appoint members to the board, which in turn appoints a general manager.

This has the perverse effect of establishing zero-responsibility positions with full authority. If dissatisfied with the GM, one can’t petition a single elected official to remove and replace him, nor is the GM himself elected. One could try to approach, say, DC councilmember and WMATA board member Muriel Bowser, but even if she were inclined to do anything, she’s just one voice on the board. And if one went to the Mayor of DC, what can he do? He only appoints two members of the board.

It’s clear that WMATA and DRPA and the Port Authority are all in need of major reform, but it’s less clear to me how we establish some accountability within the leadership of these agencies. Political patronage is not the answer, but neither is shelter from consequences. Managing interstate compacts is an incredibly difficult – but necessary – proposition, and somehow they must also be held accountable.

(via Second Avenue Sagas

What Rails Beneath/What Rails Above

Yonah Freemark, writing for Atlantic Cities, concludes that light rail systems have not been especially great for local transit or cities as a whole:

“In four of the five cities with new light rail lines, the share of regional workers choosing to ride transit to work declined, and the center city’s share of the urbanized area population declined, too…while light rail may appear to make the public transportation system more appealing to the average rider, the construction of such a system will not automatically result in increased transit use.”

There is one bright lining, however:

“There is one metric by which the metro areas with 1980s light rail investments ‘thrived’ more than others: core population….The median 1980s light rail metro saw its center city’s share of the urbanized area population decline by just 6 percent by 2012, compared to more than 10 percent for the 45 other regions with populations of more than 500,000 in 1980.”

Freemark also points out that there hasn’t been a new heavy rail (e.g., subway) system constructed in the country since 1993. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been new heavy rail lines: the DC Metro’s Silver Line, New York’s Second Avenue Subway,  However, I fear he also draws the wrong lessons:

“Does this mean we should cease investment in new light rail lines? Certainly not; in many cases, rail has provided the essential boost to reinvigorate communities, and in some cases it has also resulted in higher ridership than before: just look at Rosslyn-Ballston in the D.C. region or Kendall Square in the Boston region.”

Of course, unmentioned there is that Kendall Square is served by the Red Line – a heavy rail line. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, Virginia is served by the Orange (and soon, also Silver) Line – heavy rail. Not all rail is created equal, and while the benefits of “transit” writ large are readily apparent, so too is the fact that nothing has driven development, demand, and ridership like heavy rail.

This is a key question if North American cities are to consider modes like mixed-traffic streetcars as mobility solutions or as development tools. They might work better in the latter category, but they do nothing to solve mobility issues. Proper light rail, such as Freemark is writing about, is a better mobility solution but still only a halfway measure.

Maybe the better judge of success for a rail line, though, isn’t even the dedicated right-of-way argument, but the grade separation. The three most-ridden light rail systems in the country all include significant portions of underground tunnels, as do four of the top six (and even the other two, the San Diego Trolley and Portland MAX, operate underground for stretches). The article Freemark links to about Rosslyn-Ballston and Arlington’s renaissance reinforces this:

“Arlington planners and politicians were bold, optimistic and foresighted. They insisted that the [Metro line] run underground through Arlington, following Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive, rather than running along the Interstate 66 right of way, which would have been the path of least resistance and at the lowest cost.”

The Silver Line in Tysons Corner will help to distinguish between mere grade separation and underground vs. other modes as more beneficial than surface-running transportation. It probably should have been tunneled, but that moment is past. The key is to learn from light rail, elevated rail, and the undeniable and dramatic appeal of proper subways in forming future transit plans.

The importance and utility of underground heavy rail should be unquestioned (its high costs remain another matter). The same can’t be said for light rail, much less a streetcar. And to maximize dwindling transit dollar, the most bang for the buck might actually be found in more grandiose plans of heavy rail, or at the very least, down in the tunnels.

A Fantasy Map for the T

I learned the term “crayonista” recently, and while I do agree that it can get pie-in-the-sky counterproductive, it can also be a useful tool to spark the imagination and win popular support and funding (Burnham’s “make no little plans” comes to mind here).

That said, the Boston Globe just ran a piece on a crayonista MBTA map put together by a Redditor. (The mind shudders and recoils at those particular words strung together. But it’s not as bad as it sounds.) A friend asked for my thoughts, which I offered, and I’ve decided to reproduce them here.

In no particular order:

  • While the new Green Line branches do open up currently underserved areas, from what I understand the Central Subway is pretty much at capacity. And that still allows for an astonishing 42 trains per hour! There’s room to run more of the trains through the other end into Somerville (only E trains run to Lechmere; D trains terminate at North Station and B and C trains turn at Government Center), but not to expand to the south/east without cannibalizing existing service on the B/C/D/E branches. But the new F line to Dudley here would service some pretty important locations, which brings me to:
  • A proposal I’ve seen and agreed with is that either the C or B branches of the Green Line should be converted to heavy rail. Unlike the Blue Line (a converted streetcar tunnel), the Green Line is standard heavy gauge, so theoretically this wouldn’t require much more than rolling stock. How this would affect existing capability through the Central Subway, though – and/or require additional tunneling through downtown – I don’t know. This has historically been ruled out due to the interaction of heavy rail with at-grade crossings, but the additional capacity might justify it. Though so too would be just upgrading the power subsystems to enable 100% 3-car Green Line trains (or even 4-car). More Green Line through-service between Kenmore, Copley, and Somerville could probably help ease the load and provide a better service. But the ridership levels on the B and C branches justify the additional capacity of heavy rail.
  • Extending the Blue Line to Charles/MGH is a given (although what form that takes remains to be seen), and I’d agree that it should extend from there. On the other hand, the Esplanade probably doesn’t get enough steady traffic to justify a heavy rail stop (ironically, something more like Green Line-esque light rail would be more appropriate). Routing and station locations for the Blue Line extension are up for debate, but it’s definitely a good idea in the abstract. Also missing is the northern Blue Line extension to Lynn.
  • The Urban Ring, as is mentioned in the article, is definitely something being planned for. On the other hand, the planned version is pretty shitty – it’s watered-down BRT (is there any other kind of BRT?). But instead of this perfect circle, it should probably have a tail leading off somewhere (there is a whole host of operational challenges with running an unbroken circle). I think those stops are, on the whole, reasonably well-sited, though I’d wonder how the Logan stop on the Ring and the Airport Blue Line stop would interact. Connecting Allston and the seaport to the rest of the T is a must and long overdue, though this doesn’t take the newly-planned “Indigo Line” into account.
  • The “5” train to Readville, unless actually a separate service from MBTA Commuter Rail, should clearly indicate that it’s using heavy rail (or DMUs) and operating on a dedicated right-of-way. If it has to share tracks with commuter rail, freight trains, and other traffic, I don’t know how it could achieve the frequency necessary to be a rapid transit line and thus be worth of inclusion on this map.
  • On a more minor note, splitting the Orange Line at Fairmont would allow the MBTA to double the coverage area – but only at the cost of frequency. E.g., if trains normally are running every six minutes, only every other train will be able to service Readville and Roxbury, respectively, leading to potential 12-minute headways (ideally, we’re talking about 3-minute or less combined headways, or 6 minutes per branch. But if good frequency isn’t planned for, branches are a very bad idea). As a WMATA rider, I’m all too familiar with how terrible these bad headways can be. I think in an ideal world I’d pick one of the two; probably West Roxbury, and just run the whole line to there.

I would love to see the vast majority of this come to fruition. As we’ve recently seen with Chicago, presenting a grand vision for the future can spur discussion and investment and get people on board with a project that might otherwise be mired in minutiae of transformer voltage and bogie gauge and other small details.

The important thing for Boston is to think big.