Building Urbanism and Transit in Small Cities

I’ve been following updates from the APTA conference in the Twin Cities this past week via Twitter and a friend who works in the area. A couple of the tweets I saw really caught my eye and helped to crystallize some thoughts I’ve been having for a while, since thinking about the role of transit in smaller cities during my time in Albany.

The state of transit in the US is, generally, pretty damn poor, and this is especially true of smaller cities and towns. I’ve written a lot about cities in the size class of Albany, New Haven, or Providence, say in the 100,000-500,000 range, but I’m talking here about somewhat smaller cities, places like–to use near-Albany examples–Utica or Kingston. Generally, transit in those places is, shall we say, not particularly useful; generally it’s conceived of as a last resort, welfare transit, the kind of thing that only people with no other options use. That’s a product of mentality, but also of lack of resources.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned from exploring Upstate New York, much of New England, and a few choice parts of the Midwest: a lot of the older cities, even (in some cases especially) the smaller ones, really do have “good bones.” They are potentially salvageable as places of good, safe, walkable mixed-use urbanism. But there’s a catch–often, in my experience and observation, this is true only in one or two choice corridors. A city like Albany or New Haven might have several or numerous corridors appropriate for high-frequency transit and dense urbanism, but smaller towns may only have one. In both cases, the most urban corridor is likely underserved, because of the general terribleness of American transit; but in the smaller cities, this likely means that the city has lost any chance at transit-based urbanism at all.

In transit-planning terms, small-city transit leans quite heavily toward the coverage side of the coverage vs. ridership debate. That’s not a criticism, per se; it’s how the incentives–including funding incentives–are biased, as well as how local leadership generally directs transit agencies to operate. This is, of course, in direct conflict with the first point that Erik Landfried made in the tweets presented above–that the best practice in the transit world is to get your best corridors right first. So this post is, in part, a thought exercise about how small-city transit might look if more funding–or different funding–were available, enough to let agencies focus on intensive service on the best corridors.

It’s also a musing on the future of smaller cities. It’s not news that many of these places are struggling, facing economic marginalization and brain drain. In part–though only in part–those struggles derive from a lack of good urbanism; with terrible transit and general unwalkability, those who want or need an urban lifestyle often literally cannot find it in smaller cities. As Cap’n Transit has pointed out, these “small city exiles”–people who would have been able to stay if the good bones of smaller cities had better flesh built upon them–make up one of the gentrifying flows to larger cities. Note that this isn’t just a Creative Class follow-the-talent kind of a thing; it seems clear that smaller, fully car-dependent cities are simply inaccessible to many.

Whether Small City Exiles follow the jobs, or the jobs follow them, is of course a little bit of a chicken/egg problem, but it seems unlikely that many will return without the option of urbanism. The implication is that to have a shot at revival struggling smaller cities would do well to try to build at least one corridor where life can be conducted in a car-free (or, more realistically, car-lite) manner. Typically, discussions of urbanism, revival and/or gentrification occur at the neighborhood level, but one of the things that I think this typology of city can teach us is that the relevant unit may in fact be corridors. Not all efforts at revival have to be focused in one area; but there should be an emphasis on creating the ability to live urban daily life–with all of the uses that entails–along at least one given corridor in any city. That means frequent transit service; it means reviving or allowing mixed-use development; it means locating hospitals and schools and shops along that corridor to the extent possible. It’s the preservation, revival, or creation of these corridors that will make a small-city revival through urbanism possible. And it means that the identification and intentional development of these one or two possible transit/urbanist corridors is extremely important to the future of these cities.

What I’m aiming for here, then, is somewhere between descriptive and prescriptive; I don’t have specific infrastructural, financial, or operational ideas in mind, but I have, to illustrate, picked out a number of cities and corridors that I think fit this paradigm.

Utica’s a big enough city to have multiple viable transit corridors at some minimal frequency, but it has one that’s absolutely perfect for frequent transit and good urbanism. Genesee Street is Utica’s main commercial drag, is lined by fairly dense housing already, and is anchored on one end by Union Station–offering transfers to Amtrak and intercity buses–and on the other by a major mall. Current service is decent by small-city standards but the schedule is–typically of Centro, the operator–nearly incomprehensible.

Like Utica, the Binghamton area is big enough to support more than one transit corridor, but there’s one that really ties everything together. Stretching from Binghamton through the downtowns of the area’s several other decaying industrial cities, this corridor could, potentially, link a wide variety of different uses–although a strong system would need a link to Binghamton University too.

Kingston’s a relatively small place, but it still offers a strong corridor for building out an urban revival. Broadway links the Rondout–the somewhat touristy old port area–with the Stockade District, one of Upstate’s best remaining examples of the colonial era (and its urbanism), running in between through the good-bones Midtown area. It’s a short corridor, under 3 miles, but hey, that just means it only takes a few buses to operate frequent transit service on it!

I’ve highlighted two potential corridors in the Glens Falls area: one running north-south from the village of South Glens Falls up through the city proper to a suburban commercial strip, and the other running east-west from Glens Falls through even-more-depressed Hudson Falls to the Amtrak station and Champlain Canal trail in Fort Edward. Neither is a slam-dunk corridor for decent urbanism, but the east-west corridor especially takes advantage of the historic clustering of good-bones development along the Hudson.

Montpelier is notorious for being the smallest state capital in the country, but the area has a proud tradition of Sewer Socialism and is located in a river valley, which has the natural effect of concentrating development. There is, in fact, a little-used rail line linking the towns of the Winooski River valley, and while it’s potentially usable for transit service, it doesn’t hit some of the newer, road-based commercial development. The choice of a hilltop outside the river corridor for the area’s hospital and a major commercial development also illustrates the danger of poor planning that removes key functions from an area’s one viable transit corridor.

Cheating a tad maybe by looping in two towns and a major university, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pioneer Valley and have a lot of…feelings about its transit potential. The Route 9 corridor connecting Amherst and Northampton is the key transportation corridor in the area; both towns have strong downtowns, there’s a lot of travel between them, and there’s been significant commercial development along Route 9 in Hadley. As it is, though, the area remains quite expensive to live in due to limited housing supply in the historic cores of Northampton and Amherst, and Route 9 between them remains a horrid stroad. A previous study called for development of a BRT service on the corridor; while PVTA has (understandably, in my opinion) prioritized development of BRT on State Street in Springfield instead, this corridor seems ripe for some kind of consistently high-end transit, and while we’re making the investment, why not try to fill in the empty/stroadish parts with dense development and relieve the housing crunch in the process?

Michigan City has one major corridor, stretching from the waterfront through the thoroughly urbanly renewed downtown to a big suburban commercial strip on the outskirts. What sets this corridor apart from the others highlighted here is that it would actually offer connections to not one but two somewhat frequent rail services, the South Shore running literally in 11th Street and Amtrak’s Michigan corridor on the waterfront.

Many Great Plains cities and towns grew up around railroads and still cluster around their historic rights-of-way; such is the case in DeKalb and Sycamore, IL, west of Chicago. What’s added to the mix here is the presence of a midsize public university (Northern Illinois) and the fact that the commercial strip in the area has grown up along one road connecting the two downtowns. What it adds up to is quite a reasonable transit corridor, in an area that’s otherwise very auto-oriented.

There are lessons here, then, on both the transit level and the “regional priorities” level. Regions centered on a small city should seek to ensure that living an urban lifestyle is at least an option somewhere, ideally centered on a functional transit-centric corridor. And small-city operational and funding patterns should adapt to facilitate this. Perhaps it’s time to split rural and small-city transit funding into two pots: one with a coverage/welfare goal, where routes are expected to reach all those who need, but not to return huge ridership or hit specific financial goals; and another with a goal of maximizing ridership, connections to jobs, and economic benefit to the region. That would require a paradigm shift at multiple levels of government–never easy–but it’s worth thinking about. Rural and small-city transit agencies rely heavily on federal funding, but I imagine states have a role here too; would not, say, New York State have an interest in developing corridors like this in its decaying Upstate cities? With a need for both up-front capital and ongoing operational investment, there are numerous options on the table. As numerous, one might say, as the cities that could benefit from building out their transit corridors.


The Bible and Neighborhood Memory

Earlier today Lisa Schweitzer posted a short piece pointing out what she labels as the anti-NIMBY politics of a particular Biblical verse, Isaiah 5:8. You can go over to her place for a range of translations, but for my purposes I like the Hebrew text and translation offered by the essential Sefaria:

ה֗וֹי מַגִּיעֵ֥י בַ֙יִת֙ בְּבַ֔יִת שָׂדֶ֥ה בְשָׂדֶ֖ה יַקְרִ֑יבוּ עַ֚ד אֶ֣פֶס מָק֔וֹם וְהֽוּשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם לְבַדְּכֶ֖ם בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Ah, Those who add house to house And join field to field, Till there is room for

none but you to dwell in the land

The verse is part of an extended analogy involving a vineyard and the iniquity of the people Israel (both, of course, common themes in Biblical literature, and unsurprisingly often found in close juxtaposition), but its point comes quite close to some contemporary concerns. Isaiah’s critique might easily be read as a criticism of the ancient equivalent of large-lot exclusionary zoning. His concern is essentially that the rich will enlarge their own estates–both urban and rural–at the expense of the poor. Or at least that is the understanding of Rashi:

מגיעי בית בבית. מקרבים בתיהם זה אצל זה ומתוך כך גוזלים קרקע העניים החלשים שבין ב’ הבתים וכן שדה בשדה:

Those who add house to house: They bring their houses one next to the other and in the process steal the land of the weak poor who are between the two houses; and thus also field by field. (translation mine)

The prophet’s concern is not idle; see for example the process of enclosure by which  British elites consolidated their control over the countryside. But one senses in the Isaiah passage, even as it is probably most accurately read to reflect pro-housing policies, also the roots of some of today’s most tenacious anti-housing themes: concerns of “overdevelopment” and even, absurd as it might be to retroject this idea 2,600 years into history, gentrification. So, I think, it’s worth looking a little further afield for some other Biblical texts on the topic.

Before we proceed, it is worth a caution that the Biblical corpus (and I refer to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, which is my area of familiarity; I claim no expertise in the New Testament) is of course composed of a huge variety of different voices, all with their own perspectives. One of my longer-term projects is a more comprehensive look at planning and development in Genesis in particular, and maybe someday the Bible generally. But, as it happens, in the Jewish calendar we just this past Shabbat read one of the many passages that has something to say  about housing policy and politics, Deuteronomy 6:8-11:

וְהָיָ֞ה כִּ֥י יְבִיאֲךָ֣ ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֜רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֛ם לְיִצְחָ֥ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֖ב לָ֣תֶת לָ֑ךְ עָרִ֛ים גְּדֹלֹ֥ת וְטֹבֹ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־בָנִֽיתָ׃ וּבָ֨תִּ֜ים מְלֵאִ֣ים כָּל־טוּב֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־מִלֵּאתָ֒ וּבֹרֹ֤ת חֲצוּבִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־חָצַ֔בְתָּ כְּרָמִ֥ים וְזֵיתִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־נָטָ֑עְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃ הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you—great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the LORD who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

On the one hand, this is the admonishment of a conquering people, about to take possession of the cities and infrastructure built by their vanquished enemies. On the other hand, this passage offers, like President Obama, a reminder that you didn’t build that, that structural forces of time, history, and economics exist. And it’s a reminder that the housing policy debate sorely needs.

To a certain extent, Moses’ admonishment to “remember where you and your neighborhood came from!” is a warning against the development of what Daniel Hertz has called the “immaculate conception theory of neighborhood origins,” the idea that homes and neighborhoods just magically appear and it’s only new development that’s greedy and not community-oriented. I’ve labeled a related, but somewhat different phenomenon by which neighborhood activists claim all credit for a neighborhood’s success, therefore ignoring structural factors and spatial economics, the “Bootstrap theory of urban development”; fundamentally the two concepts share roots in a deep denial of history.  

As Daniel says:

The problem with the immaculate conception theory is that, like parents swearing that they would never have behaved the way their kids do, it is conveniently forgetful about what actually happened in the past. Taking, just as an example, the kind of housing that Berger romanticizes—the early 20th century bungalow boom—a closer look reveals that it was defined not by mass affordability, efficiency, and respect for traditional communities, but something very nearly the opposite.

This, then, is Deuteronomy’s critique (although, admittedly, it is glorifying as much as remembering with regret a violent, colonialist history): to forget the history, the predominant factors, that got your built environment to where it is today is to become deeply corrupted. Indeed, a couple of chapters later Deuteronomy sharpens this point to include an explicit critique of the idea that כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה׃,  “My power and the strength of my hand have made this glory for me” (Deut. 8:17, my translation). It would not, I think, be out of line to suggest that somewhere in the ancient tangle of texts and morals interacting with each other Isaiah’s admonishment of the wealthy who use housing and fields to squeeze out the vulnerable is explicitly directed at those who had, indeed, forgotten this exact point.  An ancient lesson, perhaps, but what is the Bible if not a timeless text? Neighborhoods: remember where they came from, always.

Illustration source: Picked because it’s an example of a cistern in a famous Israelite site that, most likely, the Israelites did not build.

The Model Bus Cities Program


Last week the Federal Transit Administration announced a new funding opportunity, $226.5 million in competitive grant funding to “to improve the condition of bus infrastructure nationwide by funding the replacement and rehabilitation of buses and related facilities.” This is essentially a capital grant program: “Eligible projects include those that replace, rehabilitate, lease and purchase buses and related equipment as well as projects to purchase, rehabilitate, construct or lease bus-related facilities, such as buildings for bus storage and maintenance.”

The press release got me thinking. Granted (pun intended), $226.5 million is nothing to sneeze at in the context of bus funding; but it’s also kinda nothing in the context of the country’s transit needs. Indeed, the press release itself helpfully notes that “According to U.S. DOT’s latest Conditions & Performance Report, transit providers nationwide face a maintenance backlog of nearly $90 billion, including 10,000 buses estimated to be in poor or marginal condition.” It’s at least good to see some self-awareness from a release touting funding amounting to one quarter of one percent of the nation’s estimated transit maintenance backlog.

While the grant money from this opportunity will likely be spread around the country–10% is set aside for rural services–the news left me wondering whether such money would be better spend demonstrating the potential of bus service in a more concentrated way. The total amount of funding on offer here is a drop in the bucket nationally. But it could make a distinct difference if spent in a concentrated way in one area.

Recently, a number of American cities–notable examples include Houston, Columbus, and Indianapolis–have launched complete redesigns of their bus systems around the principles of frequency, 7-day-a-week schedules, and gridded service patterns. Generally speaking, these redesigns redistribute service from wandering routes designed to cover a maximum geographic area to relatively linear routes intended to maximize ridership (these ideas, obviously, owe a lot to Jarrett Walker, who has been involved in many of the redesigns).

houston bus redesign

The Houston bus network redesign. Source:

What’s most interesting about the redesign process, though, is not the particulars so much as that it represents a willingness for oft-hidebound American transit agencies to think freshly and creatively and to re-orient their mission from delivering what some may paternalistically label “welfare” service to providing the broadest possible benefit to the entire public. It is, in short, a grand experiment in how transit should work.

So I wonder–instead of patching over holes all over the country, why should FTA not try for a grand experiment of its own? What would applying $226.5 million in funding to one city look like? It could certainly create some nice exclusive bus lanes, a lovely bus hub, and the like. But as Jake Anbinder wrote a couple of years ago, the federal emphasis on capital subsidy over operational subsidy–based on a Reagan-era belief that local systems were ripping off the feds and substituting federal money for adequate local funding–certainly appears misguided in terms of growing ridership decisively. Certainly, there’s a need; but there’s also a need to make buses run more frequently, which is after all what most benefits passengers.

These broad rethinkings of transit service have generally been concentrated in big, not-so-dense Midwestern, Sunbelt, or Western cities, the type that have been dominated by car for a long time. But there are other opportunities to grow transit ridership. I’ve long been a believer that small-to-midsize cities in the Northeast–the kind of places that grew up around transit and still have the density necessary to sustain it–are likely candidates for better service, and indeed, many have seen ridership grow in recent years. But many lack the technical knowhow, resources, or political capital to innovate. New Haven–where I’ve advocated for a comprehensive re-thinking of the unmentionably overcomplicated bus system along Houston lines–is forced to beg the ever-broke state of Connecticut for improvements, resulting in a system that satisfies few needs and is incredibly slow to deliver even on basic promises like GPS tracking for buses. At times it seems as if few local notables believe in the potential of transit in such cities.

And that’s where there’s an opportunity for a grand experiment along the lines of a comprehensive system redesign. The magic of those redesigns has been that they are essentially budget-neutral; imagine what the availability of significant funding could do to revitalize a system suffering from long decades of disinvestment and disinterest. The amount of money programmed in this new competitive grant program large in the context of the operating budgets of midsize agencies:  5.5 times that of New Haven’s bus system, twice that of RIPTA (which serves all of Rhode Island), and 3.2 times that of CDTA.

new haven dysfunction

A snapshot of the New Haven bus network map gives some indication of how overly complex and spread-out the system has gotten.

So that’s Sandy’s idea for a grand transit funding experiment. Concentrate the funding, don’t spread it around. Focus on midsize cities where transit has significant potential, but local disinterest has held down service levels and innovation (and where revenue may otherwise be less easily gained than in big cities). Pick one or two per year and meet their wildest (reasonable) operational dreams, with a commitment for funding for say 5 years to follow. Build on the appetite for comprehensive thinking and bold planning currently percolating in the American transit world. I would suggest calling it the Model Bus Cities program–an apology of sorts, inadequate reparations if you will, for the Model Cities Program and federally funded urban renewal that so damaged many of these same cities decades ago.

What would such a program look like? I imagine each city and the FTA would have their own ideas about it, but here are some of mine:

    • Comprehensive planning. Re-think the current network, which is often the result of decades of accretion without much overall planning; set frequency at levels demanded by density and travel patterns, not just what the operator can afford; generally experiment to see how many passengers an agency can draw in through good service.
    • Technological upgrade. Modernize the bus fleet; work with municipalities to install TSP along key corridors. Modernize fare collection systems and speed buses through installing capacity for Proof-of-Payment fare collection.
    • Build political bandwidth for things like dedicated bus lanes, queue jumps, and Complete Streets upgrades. After all, we know people hate turning down free federal money. Building local political capacity with federal funding can bring lasting benefit even if the immediately higher funding levels eventually depart.
    • TOD. High-frequency bus service demands high-density development. Several cities have recently taken to reducing or eliminating parking requirements near high-frequency transit of any sort; this is a good start. A five-year funding term under this program should provide enough lead time to get some TOD developments built.

What won’t you find here? Major capital investments like streetcars, light rail, or BRT. Those can be major improvements (well, maybe not streetcars) in their own right, but I’d like to see American transit policy re-orient around the humble frequent bus. It’s certainly where the biggest bang for the buck is, at least in small and midsize cities.

Do I expect any of this to happen? Not really, especially in the current political environment. But it strikes me that it would at the very least be an interesting experiment, and quite likely a resounding success. Maybe someday the federal government will be bold enough to give it a go.


The Brightline Model

Brightline is coming! With two trainsets on the property and limited service starting in July, the most interesting passenger rail initiative currently going in the country is set to launch. Although I admit to lingering skepticism of the long-term viability of the high-end, private model of intercity passenger rail, Brightline appears to be on track to get service up and running, and it is at the very least an interesting experiment, a return to the days when railroads made a significant percentage of their revenues from land development (a grand tradition on Brightline’s home railroad).

It’s interesting, then, that Brightline is projecting an image of confidence not just about its initial Miami-West Palm Beach service and the eventual expansion to Orlando, but about prospects for future expansion elsewhere as well. In an interview with Trains Magazine, Brightline execs stressed expansion within Florida–Tampa and Jacksonville being natural targets–but, in the words of interviewer Bob Johnston (no relation), “didn’t rule out” the possibility of taking their model elsewhere in the country as well. What Mike Reininger–formerly president of Brightline, and now moving over to sister company FEC Industries–did tell the magazine, though, is potentially interesting:

“We don’t have any specific targets or notions about markets that Amtrak is serving,” he explains. “Our thesis is that there are major population centers 250 to 350 miles apart that are underserved or don’t have the capacity within their infrastructure systems to respond to (mobility) needs that could benefit from the type of service we are talking about, on a profitable basis as opposed to necessarily a subsidized basis.”

In a separate interview with Railway Gazette, Reininger touched on much the same topic:

‘Florida is not the only area where there are overcrowded roads and interstates’, he pointed out. ‘We are fulfilling our vision here in Florida, but we are not exclusively bound by the state borders. We have a belief that major cities that are 500 to 600 km apart set themselves up as prime candidates for express passenger rail, and can be made to work. We want to apply that throughout the USA.’

While we still don’t know whether Brightline can be successful in its near-perfect situation in Florida–sharing track with a supportive parent freight company that is well-known for its fast, scheduled freights and high-quality infrastructure, a rarity in American railroading–it’s clear that the company is thinking big. Inasmuch as one can speak of a “Brightline model” that could theoretically give American intercity passenger rail a jolt, it would seem to consist of two overarching elements, one of customer service and one infrastructural. On the customer service end, Brightline clearly sees itself as a high-class service; it intends to make money and has invested in high-quality equipment to that end, offering assigned seating and two classes. The more interesting question, to me at least, is infrastructural. Given how near-perfect the FEC situation is for Brightline, are there, indeed, other corridors around the country which their model might fit? From the two interviews above, we can begin to glean a sense of the criteria that Brightline or a similarly minded company might apply in developing a new corridor.

Market:  A service like Brightline can’t just be plopped down anywhere. It has to reach “major population centers” that are currently “underserved” by intercity options, and that are wealthy enough to afford a premium service. Obviously there is some fungibility here, but there are also clearly minimum requirements that need to be met.

Distance: Reininger gave different numbers in the two interviews, but Brightline is clearly looking at mid-length corridors somewhere between 250 and 400 miles in length.

Minimal capex: I could be totally misreading Brightline’s intentions on this one–after all, they do intend to pursue a remarkable investment in a greenfield line to Orlando–but it seems fairly reasonable to say that they could not launch such a risky endeavor without the comfort of having FEC’s minimal-investment-needed to fall back on for the first stage (to be fair, they have sunk significant money into double-tracking and stations). For future expansions, though, it’s probably good to assume that someone operating on the Brightline Model would want to roll out service on a right-of-way that is already well maintained or that can be rehabbed without too much effort, and that allows rollout capital expenditure to be kept to a minimum.

Willing freight partner: This might well be the hardest criterion to meet. Brightline will save money by splitting track maintenance costs with FEC’s freight business, but American Class 1 railroads (the largest of the freight railroads) are notoriously unfriendly to passenger service. Surely, the Class 1s would be willing to negotiate in some circumstance (and might even find themselves relieved to be working with an organization that’s not as dysfunctional as Amtrak), but I suspect that Brightline expansion would come easier in partnership with a regional freight carrier like FEC or a government-owned line. Consider this one a flexible criterion.

Amtrak noncompete: Reininger’s wording in the Trains interview isn’t totally clear, but it doesn’t sound to me like Brightline is interested in immediately kicking off expansion with in-corridor competition with Amtrak. I’d bet that if Brightline expands outside Florida it will be on a corridor not already served by one of Amtrak’s corridor services, or where a state benefactor can kick Amtrak off relatively easily.

Ability to compete with driving: Reininger referred to metro areas that don’t have “capacity within their infrastructure systems to respond to (mobility) needs” in one interview and “overcrowded roads and interstates” in the other, so it’s fair to say that Brightline sees an opportunity to use America’s congestion problem to compete. And competing with driving is certainly easier than competing with flying, especially given Brightline’s choice of diesel-powered equipment on conventional right-of-way.

Given these criteria, then, where can we imagine, in this thought experiment, that Brightline might attempt to expand in the future? I don’t intend this to be in any way a comprehensive list of possible corridors, but it’s a start. The operative assumptions, in addition to the criteria above, are that a) Brightline would continue to operate similar diesel-powered equipment on conventional track and b) the company might eventually be open to partnering with government on some corridors.

The Front Range 

There have been various plans to introduce high-speed rail along Colorado’s Front Range, where much of the state’s population is clustered in a reasonably linear corridor encompassing Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo.

The total length of the corridor is a little below what Brightline seems to be targeting, and much of the necessary existing trackage is controlled by Class 1s that may or may not be amenable to sharing. North of Denver, RTD is already obligated (and coming under fire for delaying) to improve the BNSF line through Boulder and Longmont to Fort Collins and might be open to private investment. South of Denver, the Joint Line offers extra capacity in places, especially with coal traffic on the downturn, but it still has a single-track bottleneck and is controlled by Class 1s. And of course there’s the matter of the foolish decision to turn the through-running Denver Union Station into a stub-end terminal. Still, the region remains wealthy, is growing, has a congestion problem, has shown a willingness to invest in rail, and is positively obsessed with PPP solutions. There’s also significant TOD opportunity–one major way for Brightline to make money–around the downtowns of each city along the Front Range.


Though currently operated by Amtrak, the state of North Carolina plays a significant role in the Piedmont corridor service linking many of the state’s major cities. Indeed, through a quirk of history the state actually owns the tracks. It’s a busy freight corridor, but a growing passenger market that’s also becoming wealthier, and it’s not impossible to envision the state wanting to upgrade passenger service in the future. North Carolina has been sinking money into double-tracking and other infrastructure improvements in recent years, so it’s possible capacity to expand passenger service will exist in the near future.

Hoosier State

This is perhaps the most obvious candidate; despite the collapse of Iowa Pacific’s attempt at running the train five days per week, returns were good during their tenure, and Indiana remains obsessed with privatization. The biggest challenge is certainly infrastructural; the trip from Chicago to Indy is just so sloooowww and CSX, which owns much of the track used, is rarely a cooperative partner. That being said many of the rights-of-way used are very straight and suitable for high-speed running if a private investor thinks they’re worth sinking money into.

Chicago, Fort Wayne, and Eastern

The arrow-straight former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline from Chicago into Indiana and Ohio is often mentioned as a strong candidate for passenger conversion; it is only tenuously necessary for freight service and is in fact leased from CSX to regional railroad CF&E at the moment. That being said CF&E’s rights end in the relative middle of nowhere in Ohio and Fort Wayne itself is a borderline candidate to be the sole terminus of a service operating under Brightline’s model. Access to larger cities in Ohio, such as Columbus or Cleveland, would almost certainly require working with a Class 1. And the line itself needs significant work. There are a lot of ifs here, but the line is in many ways the perfect 125 mph diesel corridor if they can be worked out.

Twin Cities-Duluth

As with the Front Range, there’s an active effort in place to bring passenger trains to this corridor. As with the Front Range, though, the needed ROW is controlled by a Class 1. And the Duluth-Superior area may not be wealthy enough to justify a for-profit premium service. A strong local belief that demand exists persists, though, and if enough money can be scraped together there’s also a parallel, mostly abandoned ROW that could be reactivated.

Memphis-Jackson-New Orleans

This corridor sprang to mind primarily because a large chunk of the northern section is outside of Class 1 control, albeit in horribly decrepit shape. South of Jackson, service in this corridor would need agreement from CN, and the whole region is relatively poor and might not be suited for a high-cost premium service.

Dark Horse: the Moffat Line (Denver-Salt Lake City)

I label this a dark horse mostly because the operating paradigm would be a little different from the other proposed here; the corridor is almost 600 miles long, as opposed to Brightline’s stated ideal of 250-400 miles. But I previously wrote about the Moffat Route’s potential as a passenger-primary corridor, and the decline of coal traffic that prompted that train of thought has only continued apace. This was, after all, the route of the last full-scale privately operated passenger train in the country; the two endpoints enjoy strong demand and cultural ties; and the restored Snow Train has been doing well. At 12-13 hours vs. 8 to drive, the current California Zephyr is not time-competitive, but with some work an improved version dedicated to just this segment might be able to close the gap some, especially in winter. Perhaps a couple of trains per day over the Rockies would complement a Front Range service well. But who knows! The daydreaming is the fun part of this.


The major conclusion I’ve come to in this brief attempt at analysis is that finding a good situation for expansion along the lines of what Brightline envisions in Florida is really, really hard. Many of the “good” corridors are already occupied by Amtrak; while it’s not really that hard to envision a good private-sector operator doing better with some corridor services than Amtrak has, there is significant political inertia behind the national operator. And Amtrak’s fares are, and will be, cheaper, which is a significant concern in areas where trains represent the more downmarket option.

The bigger concern for passenger service expansion, though, is domination of the needed infrastructure by freight railroads. In terms of national policy, it should be noted, this is not necessarily a bad thing; it should be a goal to keep freight on trains and off highways. But it does make rolling out new passenger services exceptionally difficult in many different phases. Brightline has a near-perfect situation going in Florida with the ability to share FEC infrastructure on a friendly basis; ultimately, I suspect, it will remain a Florida-only operation. But who knows! Five years ago, would anyone have expected a privately-funded passenger train operation to make it off the ground at all? If Brightline succeeds, and Texas Central gets off the ground, there might be two running in the US within the next several years. Now that would be something.



Ironies of Highest and Best Use

I went to the Roslindale Square/Village RMV to convert my NY license to a MA one yesterday. While I successfully converted the license, the trip was a pain because a) I was available to do it because I was home sick from work and b) the RMV has clearly not learned the lesson I keep tweeting at transit agencies, that inaccurate real-time estimates are worse than none at all (I was given an estimate of zero wait and ended up being there for 45 minutes, standing the whole time in a room that was incredibly hot and smelled strongly of pot and people). It did, however, give me a chance to check out the area some, and in particular (the exterior of) a building I had wanted to see, the former Boston Elevated Railway Company substation at the corner of Washington Street and Cummins Highway.

A substation, you might think, would be a boring and utilitarian building. Not so! Remnants of traction systems past–and there are many, since the power systems (as opposed to the tracks) tended to be heavily built–were in fact often elaborate in design and construction.


The Roslindale Substation, from Adams Park across the street.

The Roslindale substation features beautiful brick construction and high, arching windows; while it’s clearly a building with an industrial history, it’s the furthest thing from today’s functional but ugly boxes. Most interestingly, perhaps, the substation occupies a place of honor and importance in Roslindale, at the intersection of two busy streets (and transit corridors) and in the absolute center of the neighborhood.


On the one hand, this makes sense, since several trolley routes historically converged at this corner, as seen in a 1936 map:

ros square substation 36

On the other hand, it seems like placing a substation–as opposed to, say, storefronts–on such an important corner would have been a terrible violation of the zoning/real estate principle of highest and best use, although it should be said that the substation was built in 1911, before zoning swept America. To a certain extent, surely, the substation’s location was the product of a disconnect between transportation and land use; from their own perspective, it made perfect sense for BERy to place it there in 1911. And for much of the building’s history, demand for land in Roslindale Square was relatively low; it was, after all, vacant for 45 years, until just this year. But–and here’s the irony the title of this piece refers to–the area is now somewhat up-and-coming, and the substation is now in the process of being converted to commercial use (an already-open craft beer store and a restaurant to be called the Third Rail), with the remainder of the lot taken up by new apartments. As the planner’s proverb that I just made up goes, every lot finds its highest and best use, sometimes it just takes 106 years.

Interestingly, much the same story unfolds just a few miles down Washington Street toward downtown Boston, with BERy’s former Egleston Square substation.

Egleston substation walgreens

Like Roslindale Square, Egleston Square historically represented the convergence of several transit lines, and was thus a logical place to put a substation. Unlike the Roslindale substation, this one served both streetcars and the Elevated, and thus remained in service until the closure of the latter in 1987. Like its more southerly counterpart, though, it fell into abandonment and ruin thereafter, until being resuscitated in 2008 to serve as the studios of Boston Neighborhood Network Television. As you can see from the Streetview capture above, the building is a remarkable contrast to the low-slung, suburban-style Walgreens next door–the high-quality architecture of a century ago continuing to pay dividends. While Egleston Square as a whole is not the world’s most urban-feeling built environment, the substation should–after nearly a century of life as an industrial building–be able to help anchor its rebirth in its new role.

If there’s a point to this post, other than that people do interesting things with old trolley substations, it’s that good architecture endures and tends to lend itself to a positive use in the long run. Like life, land-use dynamics are unpredictable and changeable, which is (part of) why locking uses and styles forever, as American zoning slanted toward single-family uses typically does, is a bad idea. Did the architects who designed the Egleston and Roslindale substations in 1909 and 1911 ever imagine the buildings being adaptively reused for another purposes? Unlikely, although they were clearly built to last. This is not to say that every abandoned building can or should be reused, but it’s a useful reminder of the way demand for land can change over the course of a century. And who knows? The Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, released just today, calls for rapid bus lines to pass both substations. Though they’ll most likely never power trolleys again, both substations could again serve an important transit-oriented use (as they do relative to local bus service today), as attractions drawing people to their neighborhoods along the transit corridors of the 21st century.


Notes on Central Florida

I spent last week on vacation in the exurbs of Orlando (well, really Kissimmee) with my partner’s extended family. Since theme parks are, well, really not my thing, I spent a decent amount of time thinking about the planning and urbanist implications of an area that I found frankly fairly miserable from a built environment perspective. I don’t so much have an overarching argument here as a series of notes on a few things I found interesting.

Pod-based building

We were based at a resort called the Vacation Village at Parkway, off the arterial Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (US 192) west of downtown Kissimmee. In many ways, the sprawling urban form along that road is typical of suburban land use across the country, though perhaps in an exaggerated form. Developments occur in pods, completely disconnected from one another along property lines. Take, for example, this pathetic excuse for a pedestrian crossing from “our” resort to the strip mall and resort next door:


Mind you, one has to traverse this after crossing four lanes and a median of road without a crosswalk of any sort.

The area in which our resort was located is also cut off from its surroundings in a more profound way. It shares a triangle of land with several other developments; the sides of the triangle are defined by I-4 on the west, Bonnet Creek on the east, and 192 on the south. But grid connections–and ways to exit–exist ONLY on the southern side, to 192.


That turns what could be an easy stroll over to the as-the-crow-flies-neighboring Gaylord Palms into a 1.8-mile odyssey along high-speed arterials:


such that Google Maps literally cannot calculate walking directions between the two. This area of Kissimmee is to the south of most of the major Orlando-area attractions, so this kind of thing also lengthens the (many) car trips taken between resorts and said attractions, resulting in even more congestion in an already congested region. It’s just thoughtless–and the result of a zoning regime that emphasizes massive parking lots and setback at the expense of all else, including common sense.

Latent demand for car-free vacations

Despite a built environment that seems to invite, or even mandate, car use at every opportunity, it’s clear to me that there is a latent demand for car-free travel from tourists that could be better met. Transit service in this part of Kissimmee is not completely hopeless, but it’s far from perfect. You can catch a bus to Lynx’s Kissimmee hub four times an hour from the corner of Irlo Bronson and Celebration Boulevard, and they’re even nicely spaced much of the time.  The bus stops are nice too:


But service on one of the lines stops by 10 PM.

There’s also a whole network of resort-contracted shuttles that ferry people to and from theme parks, shopping, and entertainment. The vaguely vintage-styled coaches of Disney’s Magical Express, connecting their resorts to the airport, were ubiquitous on the highways, for example. Vacation Village provides shuttles to theme parks, as well as more local destinations.


At the same time, the entire built environment–from single-use zoning to massive setbacks to street and grid geometry–basically mandates car use for the vast majority of trips. I’ve spent more of my life in sprawly suburbia than I really would like, but I got a sense for a latent demand for less autocentricity here more than anywhere else.

Celebration is…Weird

Vacation Village is basically across the street from Disney’s much-debated attempt at New Urbanism. Celebration occupies a bizarre place on all kinds of spectra: more small town than suburb, more private than public, kind of an independent governmental entity but not entirely. I didn’t spend much time there (really just one lunch that was mostly spoiled by rain), but it’s…weird. The built environment blows most of the rest of Central Florida out of the water just by dint of having been thought through even a little bit, but the materials used in the construction of the buildings doesn’t really seem much better than your typical suburb; I saw a lot of sagging gutters and cheap-looking vinyl siding. The main street, such as it is, is touristy but reasonably nice; parking is tucked behind the buildings per standard New Urbanist practice, but it’s still abundant and free. Though not a grid, the street geometry makes more sense than most suburbs. A couple of things jumped out at me, though. This is the main drag carrying cars into Celebration, creatively named Celebration Avenue:


The speed limit drops to 25 mph as soon as you enter the residential part of Celebration–which is nice–but it struck me that despite a nice, wide ROW Celebration Avenue still has very wide travel lanes (much wider than one would expect for a 25 mph speed limit), and no provision for bike lanes.

The other thing that struck me about Celebration? It has zero transit.

Oh, sure, Lynx’s #56 circles through the much more suburb-y single-use commercial section ever half an hour:

But that’s, like, really far from the commercial and residential parts of Celebration:


Celebration is better than other suburbs, sure, but it’s hard for me to accept the word “urbanist” anywhere in proximity to an area that entirely lacks transit service. I suspect the omission is intentional; simply because of the quality of design, Celebration is extremely expensive, and places like that tend not to welcome transit. Do better.

Toll Roads

I don’t want to comment on this too much without reading up more on the background of transportation planning in Central Florida, but the prevalence of toll roads was a common topic of discussion among the extended family. Certainly, it’s annoying that Florida’s extensive toll road network doesn’t accept the EZPass technology common in other parts of the country; outsiders get fleeced by paying higher tolls, in cash. The tolls didn’t seem especially high but the frequency of booths seems potentially counterproductive. I do wonder if a willingness to toll the roads has led to overbuilding of the network, since they may be less of a drag on gas tax revenues and the general fund.

The Great Sucking Sound

We had an enjoyable side trip to Lake Wales, FL, where my grandfather grew up and my great-grandparents and a great-aunt are buried. It’s a very pretty area made famous by the Bok Tower Gardens, but it’s also a struggling agricultural region whose citrus industry–Florida’s Natural is headquartered in Lake Wales–is not exactly at its peak of glory. Consequentially, downtown Lake Wales is struggling to a certain extent. As elsewhere in the country, that struggle is exacerbated by sprawl, particularly the sucking of retail out to low-rent districts on suburban arterials. 6-lane US 27 is the main north-south artery along the Lake Wales Ridge, and it’s characterized by on-and-off clusters of commercial development that become more consistent as one drives north, approaching the Orlando metro. Just outside of Lake Wales, however, the Eagle Ridge Mall stands virtually alone, isolated among cow pastures and citrus groves.


It’s precisely this kind of thing that kills the functional downtowns smaller towns like Lake Wales need to survive in 2016. And the mall’s 20-year history is full of sinkholes and bankruptcies, so it’s not like the competition is going anyone any favors. The mall’s struggles are likely due to its odd, middle-of-nowhere location (I suspect it was placed so as to draw from both Lake Wales and nearby Winter Haven, but it seems to be doing neither). It’s the kind of sloppy economic development and land use policy that has landed so many places like Lake Wales in trouble.

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

More than anything else, this is the overwhelming experience of Central Florida:


Just out the back door of our building at the resort. 

That’s a high-rise looming out of a wetlands, which is cynically preserved to be pretty at right. Just beyond the fence, there’s a short drop to very muddy and wet land; the entire building must be built on a slab of concrete or else it would sink into the muck. It’s hard to go anywhere in the area without thinking of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”  Florida’s selling point is, to a large extent, its spectacular natural environment; but its growth as a tourist and retirement destination has been largely premised on the destruction of that environment. I’m hardly the first to point out that paradox, and as someone with training in archaeology, I recognize that destruction is sometimes inevitable. But my overwhelming takeaway from this trip is that there’s a lot of opportunity to just correct things that are sloppy, should political and public will exist. Or, you know, maybe the whole state will just slide into the ocean. That’s always a possibility.

An Announcement

I’m aware this blog has been too damn quiet lately, and while I know there’s no excuse for my failure to provide quality content, I’m here now to offer, at least, an explanation: I’ve been spending a lot of time applying and interviewing for jobs, most of which have required travel somewhere, well, other than Albany. It’s been a wild ride and while I’ve had both fizzles and opportunities along the way, it’s taken a while to find the right fit.

Anyhow, now that phase is over.

The Itinerant Urbanist (I keep telling you, the name of the blog isn’t for nothing!) is back on the road—and, what a shock, once again to someplace new to me. Effective January 15th, home base for this blog will be Boston, where I’ve accepted a position as a Transportation Planner and Unified Planning Work Program manager with the Central Transportation Planning Staff, the staff to the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. I’m excited about both the professional challenge ahead of me and the opportunity to move back to a somewhat larger city—while I do wax poetic about the virtues of midsize city living, there are real advantages to being someplace larger.

I’ve had the luck to count on professional and social contacts among Boston’s large and talkative transit/urbanism Internet community, and I look forward to getting to know more of you in real life. You probably won’t see me commenting on Boston-region stuff too much here or on Twitter—because, you know, professionalism—but know I value the perspective on the region you’ve given me and will continue to help me develop immensely. And I will, presumably, get back to writing on other topics in this space more regularly when my life calms down.

A few weeks ago someone asked a series of questions about where people would like to live, among other things, on Twitter and Urbanist Twitter had a lot of fun with it. My answer to the question of my favorite American cities, ironically, did not include Boston:

but rest assured that I am super excited to have found a decently priced apartment a two-minute walk from the Orange Line (Green Street in JP, to be exact), which will be the closest I’ve ever lived to rail transit, or any transit that frequent. My partner’s from Boston and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the area, so in that way it’s a return home of sorts, but there’s enough mystery left that I’m looking forward to discovering yet another place afresh.

That being said, since it became clear that I’m moving to Boston it has felt, in some ways, fated. While home cleaning out my bedroom in Chicago over Thanksgiving, I found a memento that I had not remembered owning—a laminated poster with a 1915 map of the Boston Elevated Railway transit network on one side and a 1912 map of all the street railways in Massachusetts on the other. Bringing it back to Albany reunited it with my copy of this book on a similar topic. The poster will, I think, be going on my cubicle wall. A sign? Perhaps.


The Boston side of said poster.

There’s also this:

While I have not (yet) traveled all 3,365 miles of U.S. 20, it does feel to a large extent like that road is the axis along which my life unfolds. My grandmother until recently lived only miles from its Pacific Coast terminus in Newport, which is a beautiful little town that I recommend visiting if you ever get the chance. I spent my high school years in Chicago, and the last 3 ½ in Albany; Route 20 runs through both cities. Our Albany apartment, in fact, is a block and a half from Madison Avenue, which hosts 20. So is it such a surprise that I would end up near the East Coast origin of U.S. 20? Perhaps not.

Because this is a serious blog, I’ll wind up here with some serious analysis. There’s been a long-term on-and-off discussion in the econ/planning/urbanist Internet community—starting even before the 2016 election made it a much-talked-about national issue—about what policymakers can do to help rural and disinvested communities and the people in them. It’s not uncommon to hear (and I’ve been guilty of thinking it myself sometimes) “well, why don’t they just move?” And sure, relocation is one potentially workable strategy. But more than anything else, preparations to make this move have brought home to me just how high the barriers can be to relocation in a high-cost area. We’re lucky that in moving from Albany—certainly not the worst off of Upstate’s major cities—to Boston our rent is ONLY approximately doubling, not tripling. And the amount of cash necessary to put down to secure an apartment is incredibly intimidating, even though Gabriella and I are both white-collar professionals with limited student loan debt and decent savings socked away. I don’t have a magical solution (and I might suggest that we shouldn’t necessarily be looking for such silver bullets) but we should have a policy of easy mobility, and we should think about how to make that happen.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, if you care enough about my ramblings to have read this far—my loyal, brilliant, and thoroughly professional partner Gabriella, who I followed to Albany and who is now following me to Boston—is looking for a job. Gabriella’s spent the last several years developing and managing a multimillion-dollar climate resiliency program for farmers in New York State and is open to any kind of environmental work. You know where to find me with suggestions, contacts, etc.

I’ve enjoyed meeting people through this blog for the last several years, and I hope to continue to do so going forward. Thanks for the company, and onwards.