DMUs, the FRA, and Enviromental Law Reform

This month’s Planning magazine features an article (paywalled for non-APA members, sorry) by longtime California planner William Fulton about the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, the state’s demanding, and notorious, environmental review law. Somewhat surprisingly for people outside the field (I’m assuming), but well-known to people in the planning world, CEQA is actually basically a monster:

Reforming CEQA is high on the agenda in Sacramento at the beginning of every legislative session. Gov. Jerry Brown, perhaps the most outspoken environmentalist governor in the country, calls reforming CEQA “the Lord’s work.” Three of his predecessors — two Republicans and a Democrat — have called for it to be overhauled. Everybody, it seems, complains about CEQA all the time.

Yet except for some nibbling around the edges in the last couple of years, CEQA remains largely unreformed. In the absence of a more logical system, it is the tool that almost everybody uses to gain leverage over development projects, no matter what their goal. NIMBYs, not surprisingly, use it to slow down or kill projects they don’t like. (One recent analysis found that 60 percent of CEQA lawsuits target infill development.)

Follow anyone who cares about policy issues in California, from pretty much any ideological perspective, on Twitter, and you will hear endless complaints about CEQA. And yet, it survives. And while CEQA is (thankfully) limited to California, the federal equivalent, NEPA, suffers from some of the same problems.

Returning to California, though, we find SANBAG, the MPO and council of governments for San Bernardino County, planning an extension of rail service from San Bernardino to Redlands. The project isn’t in and of itself a particularly bad one; it’s pretty low-key, in an existing right-of-way with few obstacles, and serves an area that could generate OK ridership. Though the new line will connect to Metrolink service at San Bernardino, planners are currently leaning towards running it with Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trains, such as those used by NICTD’s Sprinter service between Oceanside and Escondido. That’s probably the right choice; planned frequencies (30 minutes at peak) don’t justify electrification, and a pure extension of Metrolink service couldn’t offer the desired level of service.

When you use DMUs, though, you have to make a choice. DMUs aren’t particularly common in the US, and most used outside of this country don’t live up to the Federal Railroad Administration’s notoriously obsolete crash-safety standards. “Noncompliant” European-style DMUs are faster, cheaper, quieter, and cleaner than conventional American locomotive-hauled equipment–or the few relatively crappy FRA-compliant DMUs in existence today–a point that is backed up strongly in SANBAG’s Environmental Impact Statement on the project. Because the line only hosts one freight train a week, it would be relatively trivial for SANBAG to obtain a time-separation waiver, allowing noncompliant DMUs to operate freely most of the time, as they do on the River Line in New Jersey, Capital Metro in Austin, Denton County’s A-Train, and the Sprinter. But as Americans, we cannot be content with allowing one body of law to regulate rail safety, so CEQA and NEPA must have their say:

In the case of an FRA-compliant diesel multiple unit (DMU) vehicle type (regulated under 49 CFR Part 238, Passenger Equipment Safety Standards), which has similar crashworthiness as heavy rail equipment, the operation would be no different than what is described above under a traditional “push-pull” locomotive and passenger carriage type operation. If a non-FRA compliant DMU is selected for use on the Project, it can operate only upon approval of a waiver to certain sections of the 49 CFR Part 211. Such an operation may then be subject to oversight by the CPUC under the State Safety Oversight Program (49 CFR Part 659). The potential safety issue introduced by a non-compliant DMU vehicle type would result in an adverse effect under NEPA. Under CEQA, this impact would be considered significant. To minimize this adverse effect, as part of Mitigation Measure SS-1, SANBAG would develop a plan for a safe shared use operation and obtain the appropriate regulatory approval from FRA and CPUC (as applicable). (emphasis mine)

In other words, the attempt to use cleaner, quieter, and faster rail equipment–undoubtedly an environmental win–falls afoul not just of rail safety regulations, but of environmental law as well. In the real world, mitigation to satisfy CEQA and NEPA here is relatively easy and wouldn’t consist of anything more than SANBAG would have to do anyhow to obtain an FRA waiver; but the involvement of environmental law in this case–and taking an absurd position!–is at the very least a minor irritant that showcases the need for reform, and at the worst a major time waster and cost accelerant.

It’s worth noting (though I’m hardly the first to do so, as the links above demonstrate) that the case for FRA’s regulations is incredibly weak to begin with. Caltrain, the commuter service on the San Francisco Penninsula, received the most far-reaching waiver that FRA is known to have yet awarded for its future electrification project. Their assessment showed that European-style trains are uniformly safer in the case of a grade-crossing collision, and that for trains leading with a cab car, FRA’s crash-worthiness requirements showed clear benefits only in the band between 15 and 25 mph of closing speed in the run-up to a crash:

And right there in Southern California, Metrolink has lost confidence in the safety of its new “Guardian Fleet” of tank-caliber, FRA-compliant cab cars (because of, mind you, a grade-crossing collision; perhaps they should have bought European equipment?) that it’s now running trains with a freight locomotive leading them. Caltrain’s simulations do seem to show that a locomotive-lead train would fare better in a crash scenario, which makes intuitive sense given how heavy a locomotive is. Of course, very few high-frequency rail operations operate with locomotives leading; for the most part it’s just not efficient.

The complexity–and obsolescence–of FRA regulation is one thing. But having environmental law considerations with an agenda other than what’s cleanest layered on top of it demonstrates the absurdity of the situation that transit planners and railroaders face today. Let’s reform the FRA, sure. But let’s not stay within our silos and stop there. As long as it goes unreformed, held captive to NIMBYs and special interests, environmental law will seep into every corner of planning…and not in a helpful way. Let’s fix this.


Is Job Sprawl “The Defining Issue of Our Time”?

A few weeks ago, this tweet of mine got a decent amount of attention and inspired a good conversation:

It’s an issue of interest for me for several reasons. First, I spent my summer working on a to-be-released report for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign about people who reverse-commute from New York City to the suburbs. Secondly, as someone who’s lived in several smaller cities, I’m quite conscious of the ways smaller cities struggle to employ their own residents–in other words, job sprawl tends to be worse (and therefore a bigger policy challenge) in smaller cities than larger ones. Finally, my partner is a reverse commuter, from downtown Albany out to near the airport, despite the availability of plenty of open office space and land in between.

Oh, and also, it seems that certain influential political figures believe job sprawl is an important issue to tackle:

The genesis for this post was a clever study by Gregory Kloka, E. Eric Boschmann, and Andrew Goetz in Transportation Research Part A, titled “The impact of transit station areas on the travel behaviors of workers in Denver, Colorado” and summarized nicely by Eric Jaffe in Citylab. While the correlation between transit ridership and proximity of work and home to transit stations is well-established, the team sought to answer a slightly different question, focusing on Denver’s rapidly expanding transit system: “How worker proximity to light rail transit stations impacts non-work related personal trips.”  It’s an intriguing question because non-work-related trips are extremely understudied because they’re hard to quantify–and an important one because such trips are generally assumed to make up up to 80% of overall trips people make.

Here’s the money quote from their conclusions (p. 286):

The primary motivation of this study was upon how different transit station area relationships affect travel behaviors of workers. In most cases, statistically significant differences in personal travel behaviors between non-car commuters and car commuters occur in groups where workers’ workplaces are near transit station areas. An implication of this might be that locating workplaces nearer to transit or providing transit services to employment centers could be a more effective way of encouraging greater use of non-car modes beyond the work commute. Since significant differences were not identified between most of the commute groups with households near transit station areas, this suggests that workplaces located nearer to transit may be more effective at promoting the use of more non-car modes than locating households nearer to transit.

In plain English: working near transit increases the likelihood that people will use transit for all kinds of trips, but that effect is not seen when only their home is near transit. Though the authors are careful to affirm that this does not mean residential transit-oriented development (TOD) is unimportant–it still has an effect on work trips, according to most research–these conclusions might help us to understand the importance of commercial TOD. In other words, controlling job sprawl and locating jobs near transit might be more important than residential TOD in creating overall progressive, choice-rich travel systems.

These conclusions, though probably requiring additional confirmation from other urban areas, might have important policy implications. In my hometown of New Haven, Mark Abraham of DataHaven has done important work documenting the spatial mismatch between disadvantaged populations in New Haven and lower-skill service jobs in the suburbs.

Graphic from the New Haven Jobs Access Report, showing how a much higher percentage of workers from New Haven's poorer neighborhoods have to commute outside the city for work.

Graphic from the New Haven Jobs Access Report, showing how a much higher percentage of workers from New Haven’s poorer neighborhoods have to commute outside the city for work.

Abraham’s work–and the rhetoric adopted by New Haven mayor Toni Harp–frames the issue of transit access to suburban jobs as a civil rights issue. And, of course, it is. New Haven’s spatial mismatch is particularly bad because of its urban renewal fetish, which wiped out much of downtown in favor of parking, such that now most high-skilled jobs are held by people who drive in from the suburbs. Those same people fight fiercely any attempt to utilize the city’s massive number of parking lots for more productive residential or commercial development that might create some much-needed transit-accessible service jobs.

But Abraham and the Harp administration have tended to frame the issue as a need to extend transit for the reverse commute. While that may be a solution in the interim, in the longer term the results from Denver suggest that this is a land use issue, not a transit issue per se. The solution isn’t to extend transit out into the suburban hinterlands–it’s to control job sprawl. That means making downtown New Haven–the region’s most transit-accessible area–attractive for development. It means trying to channel suburban commercial development into the few, but existent, suburban transit corridors, such as Route 1, Dixwell and Whitney Avenues in Hamden, and Route 5.  It means helping private-sector employers understand that concentration rather than dispersion of jobs is economically optimal (h/t @devin_mb for that paper).

So yeah, Mr. Vice President, job sprawl is a big f’in deal. And the answer isn’t to go extending transit willy-nilly into the nether regions of the suburbs so that everyone has a minimal connection; route’s like CDTA’s #155 (which I’m picking on only because it goes right past my partner’s work, and is invariably empty) are the inevitable result of attempts to do that.

CDTA 155

CDTA 155

Bit where does one start with land use policies to begin repairing job sprawl? Many suburban office jobs are concentrated in secluded office or industrial parks that are fundamentally impossible to efficiently serve with transit:

Why my partner doesn't take transit to work.

Why my partner doesn’t take transit to work.

And my partner works for state government, an organization that should be particularly thoughtful about making its jobs transit-accessible! (hah. Cuomo. hah.) Central Avenue may not be the world’s most attractive or safest (for pedestrians) urban environment, but at least it has frequent transit from CDTA’s quasi-BRT service as well as local buses–and there’s plenty of land along it to develop for office space.

Corner of Central Avenue and New Karner Road, Colonie, NY.

Corner of Central Avenue and New Karner Road, Colonie, NY. 

There’s quite literally no reason to be tucking away office buildings in secluded subdivisions when we could be concentrating them–and maybe building just a little higher–along arterials that, if not exactly urban, at least have decent transit. And doesn’t segregating commercial development along arterials fulfill a key desire of suburban living–to have separate work and home spheres?

Jarrett Walker has long emphasized that, in terms of speed and geometry, North American suburban arterials are actually potentially quite useful for transit. Concentrating commercial development along those arterials, even if in a manner done only slightly more urban than today, could create a virtuous cycle whereby the sometimes tenuous operating economies of the transit lines serving them improves, allowing improved service, which in turn allows more density of all kinds. And since suburban arterials really aren’t that hard to serve with decent transit, concentrating jobs within walking distance of them could begin to solve the monumental challenge of job sprawl.

I’m sure I don’t have all the answers here, but I hope that this is at least a start to a conversation about the importance of controlling job sprawl and ways to start making that happen. Let’s get a move on.