Where Can Free Transit Work?

The question of whether public transit could be made free to ride has been gaining some considerable amount of media attention recently, driven in part by well-publicized (but uncertain) flirations in Paris and Germany. It is, of course, a sexy question, but one with very little track record and whose practicality is very much in question. There’s a reason that supporters of free transit point to the same few examples over and over again; there just aren’t that many cities that have experimented with fare-free transit. Even Communist countries have typically charged fares! But it’s a question that, quite reasonably in an age of increasing inequality, keeps coming up, whether from transportation writers in Chicago; lefty publications like Alternet (an article that, amusingly, comes to the standard bougie liberal conclusion that “people are just going to continue to drive, because they like it”); or extensively in the digital pages of Citylab.

Normally I’m kind of a killjoy on idealistic, speculative things like free transit. But I’m here to say that it’s something I’d actually like to see explored more–in very specific, limited circumstances. In an American context, someplace like Chicago–where tickets provide a significant chunk of the transit agency’s overall revenue picture–probably isn’t the place to start with free transit. By contrast, there are dozens if not hundreds of much smaller transit agencies in this country where farebox recovery (basically, and acknowledging that not every agency defines it the same way, the technical term for the percentage of overall operating expenses covered by ticket sales) is beyond low and in the “pathetic” (though understandably so) range. And I‘m interested in the topic of small-city transit. Luckily, Citylab has, in Eric Jaffe’s 2013 look at Chapel Hill Transit in North Carolina, already provided the beginnings of a blueprint for a situation where free transit might work:

The agency considered shifting to a fare-free system back in 2001 after recognizing that its farebox recovery rate was quite low — in the neighborhood of 10 percent. Most of its revenue was already coming from the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, in the form of pre-paid passes and fares for employees and students. To go fare-free, the agency just needed a commitment from a few partners to make up that farebox difference. The university agreed to contribute a bit more, as did the taxpayers of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and the idea became a reality…The original decision to go fare-free was part of a larger push by the community toward a transit-oriented lifestyle. In addition to eliminating bus fares, Chapel Hill Transit decided to expand service by about 20 percent. Meanwhile the university reduced parking on campus, Chapel Hill adjusted parking requirements in the downtown area, and the entire community made a push for denser development in the transit corridors. The ridership growth since 2002 can be seen as the result of all these efforts combined, says Litchfield.

To boil it down, the Chapel Hill experience seems to consist of the following factors:

  • A low farebox recovery rate
  • A strong institutional partner or partners to provide a built-in ridership base
  • Increasing service to build ridership
  • Political will to push transit-friendly land use and parking policies
  • Dedicated funding to cover deficits

I’d add a few items of my own:

  • Strong heritage land use patterns that are conducive to transit use, such as one or two strong transit corridors
  • Must be large or strung-out (think river towns) enough that transit, rather than biking and walking, is the appropriate sustainable mode
  • A high percentage of workers both live and work locally

Aside from the first item, that’s a fairly foreboding list in most of the US. But it’s not an impossible one! It’s just not likely to be one that’s found in major cities. Rather, we might more profitably (heh) seek the future of experimentation with free transit in the smaller towns whose problems sometimes mimic those of big cities.

Let’s take a crack at identifying a few candidates. Given the criteria I’ve laid out–and my own geographic biases–my candidates will cluster in the Northeast US. I invite others to contribute other candidates!

Brattleboro, VT

Population: 11,765

Operating Agency: Southeast Vermont Transit (formerly Connecticut River Transit and Deerfield Valley Transit)

2016 NTD-reported fixed-route farebox recovery (fare revenue/operating expenses): 7.7% (note: reported number includes entire former Connecticut River Transit service area)

Percentage of town workers employed within town (2015 LODES): 52.7%

brattleboro

Brattleboro, via Bing Maps

Brattleboro’s a cute little town that’s a significant tourist and out-of-towner draw thanks to its hippie reputation, antiquing, its quaint and intact downtown, and the Brattleboro Retreat. The same intact downtown offers relatively limited parking and can get congested at busy times.

brattleboro parking_lots_Rev_11.16.12

Brattleboro downtown parking lots, via the town’s website. Hey, that’s not actually so many!

Most of the town’s major employment centers are either downtown or centered on one of 3-4 major arterials, an ideal situation for serving them with transit–and, by small city standards, a quite high percentage of Brattleboro workers also work in town. Residential development is a little more spread out but mostly centered on linear corridors as well. Service radiates from the downtown transit center serving communities up and down the Connecticut River Valley and also across the mountains to Wilmington and (with a transfer) to Bennington, albeit not with any great frequency. Amtrak’s Vermonter stops very near downtown once a day in each direction. Given the current atrocious rate of farebox recovery and the town’s liberal politics, it’s at least mildly plausible to imagine a future in which Brattleboro decides to make a major push on bringing people downtown by transit and fills in its remaining downtown parking lots to help pay for it (and provide a push).

Sandusky, OH (h/t Bryan Rodda)

Population: 25,793

Operating Agency: City of Sandusky

Farebox recovery: unclear (not reported to NTD but it seems to lose a lot of money)

Percentage of town workers employed within town (2015 LODES): 26.1%

sandusky

Sandusky, via Bing Maps

Sandusky is a touristy town on Lake Erie, home to the Cedar Point amusement park and a variety of other attractions. The downtown is somewhat disinvested but hasn’t been totally wiped out by urban renewal. Commercial development clusters along major corridors, but the percentage of locals who have managed to find work in town is, according to LODES, fairly low (though not terrible by the standards of a city this size). There seems to be a lot of room to grow–and perhaps free transit would be the way to make that happen.

Rutland, VT (h/t @peatonx)

Population: 16,495

Operating Agency: Marble Valley Regional Transit District

Farebox Recovery (NTD 2016): 3.8%

Percentage of town workers employed within town (2015 LODES): 45.4%

rutland

Rutland, via Bing Maps

Hometown of Boston-area urbanist journalist Matt Robare (support his Patreon!), Rutland is a down-on-its luck former quarrying town with some proximity to ski resorts. It’s a reasonably dense town with a few obvious transit corridors and some decent job concentrations, and a fairly high proportion of local workers work in town, while others surely would happily ride transit to ski resorts such as Killington. There’s room for infill, too, such as the giant strip mall that sits on top of the former railroad yards; but residential growth is anemic and locals have rejected plans to bring refugees to the area. Rutland is struggling economically, though, and lacks the kind of major anchor institutions that could typically provide funding, so despite the local transit system’s terrible farebox recovery finding more funds to make transit free may be a no-go.

Michigan City, IN

Population: 31,479

Operating Agency: Michigan City Transit

Farebox Recovery (NTD 2016): 7.8%

Percentage of town workers employed within town (2015 LODES): 38.7%

michigan city

Michigan City, via Bing Maps

A sometime muse of mine, Michigan City is an interesting place because by the standards of small Midwestern cities it’s quite transit-rich, offering both Amtrak and South Shore Line rail service to Chicago, even if the two operators don’t cooperate quite as much as they should. It is, otherwise, a quasi-Rust Belt town that has struggled to reinvent itself; urban renewal and a casino have, predictably, not yielded much in the way of results. Aside from good rail service, it has the transit advantage of having one very strong, identifiable north-south transit corridor along Franklin Street around which much of the city’s employment clusters and that connects to both the South Shore and Amtrak. Land use in that corridor is far from ideal, and residential demand is mediocre, but this is a classical “good bones” case.

Conclusions

I’ve offered, I think, a few plausible real-life cases where free transit could work. But the case studies here also demonstrate the difficulty of making such a dream reality. Some of these towns would almost certainly lack the ability to raise sufficient funds locally to make transit free; it’s hard to imagine, say, Rutland or Michigan City finding the money. You can’t tax the wealthy or major corporations to make transit work when capital–not to mention major corporations–has already abandoned your city. And local funding streams, even when feasible, are notoriously fickle; even Chapel Hill Transit has had to consider charging fares at at least one point. To  make free fares work while also increasing service to the point where it could make a real difference in the life of the city would probably require a substantial, long-term commitment from a higher level of government, but I would be very interested in seeing a wealthy state or the federal government take this on as an experiment. The money pouring in, of course, would have to be matched by local measures on land use, parking, and planning, which makes the entire exercise fraught. But it’s not hard to envision something potentially working. It’s certainly worth more experimentation.

 

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Democratic Planning in the Age of Urban Freeways and Today

I finished reading two very different, but equally interesting and informative, recent urbanist-y books over Shabbat. The first is Akum Norder’s The History of Here, a fun and talented Albany writer’s look into the history of her family’s house, the people who have inhabited it, and the life of the neighborhood around it. The second is Karilyn Crockett’s People Before Highways, an ethnographic and historical look of the anti-freeway movement in the Boston area in the 1960s and ‘70s. Both books are worthy of a full-scale review that I may or may not be able to undertake at some point, but I wanted to pull out a common element that I think makes for an interesting, and very relevant, point of discussion: the question of how democratic planning should be, and how that should look.

Let’s start with People Before Highways. Crockett’s work is essentially an ode to the grassroots anti-highway backlash that transformed transportation policy in Massachusetts and led to the end of freeway building inside the Route 128 beltway and the ability to “flex” federal transportation spending from highways to transit. Boston’s anti-freeway coalition was a broad–and varying at different times–group of institutions, scholars, “radical” planners like future Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, and community members. The last element is perhaps the most interesting; participants ranged from tenant activists in public housing to Black Panthers to patricians in Brookline and Cambridge to people we would now identify as first-wave gentrifiers in the South End and my own neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. This coalition demanded not just an end to highway building, but also to the heavy-handed way in which the freeways had been planned, and significant amounts of land taken, with virtually no opportunity for public input. Crockett wastes no opportunity to remind the reader that the demands of the Boston anti-highway movement were not just specifically anti-highway, but processually radical and progressive in their insistence on the distribution of power.

Certainly, the righteousness of the Boston anti-highway, pro-public participation cause is not in dispute; it’s a difficult book to read for a professional planner. One thing that strikes me about Crockett’s work, though–and it’s a problem I’ve seen elsewhere in leftist planning thinking and writing–is that her narrative is shaped by a powerful nostalgia for the kind of grassroots planning and localist democracy that her subjects believed in, but doesn’t engage with some of the potential challenges of a highly democratic process. Indeed, some of the potential challenges with such a process show up even within her own research. In the sixth chapter of the book, Crockett profiles the planning process around the creation of the Southwest Corridor linear park, by all accounts pretty much a triumph of democratic planning that created a valuable community amenity and showpiece to this day. The cracks in the process of democratic planning, though, show through this account. Crockett shows how the South End community was able to demand that the Southwest Corridor trench through their area be roofed over to reduce noise, pollution, and vibration. This is, of course, not an unreasonable ask–but Crockett’s account makes it clear that the presence of educated, middle class people in the neighborhood, including some who we would clearly call gentrifiers today, was what got the deck built in that section, but not elsewhere in the Southwest Corridor. Why, one thinks today, is the trench not decked through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain? I lived a block from the trench for my first 10 months in Boston, and one can feel the vibrations and hear the roar from passing trains. A purely “democratic” planning process is already one that gives greater voice to those able to shout loudest–and Crockett’s account of the decking of the South End trench shows how this can lead to opportunities being available inequitably.

Crockett also narrates the process for planning the park that went on top of the South End trench, and if anything it reveals more of the cracks in the facade of democratic-planning-as-magical-cure. She writes:

By removing the railroad’s stone embankment and inserting decking along segments of each section of the Corridor, the Southwest Corridor planners knit together neighborhoods that had been physically separated for more than a century. Not every resident viewed this as social progress…The existing railroad right-of-way created a dividing line between the South End and St. Botolph neighborhoods. Though these two areas held only slightly different economic profiles, their racial and ethnic compositions could not have been more different. St. Botolph residents constituted a largely homogeneous block of white families and some professionals working in the city. Though they themselves were city dwellers, many St. Botolph residents looked askance at the idea that deck cover would allow other urban neighbors easy access to parts of their neighborhood previously blocked by the railroad. These residents used the Corridor’s public meetings to voice their opposition. (p. 187)

In other words, the residents of St. Botolph engaged in fairly standard-issue urban racism, classism, and (one would imagine, given the increasing gay population of the South End at the time) not a small amount of homophobia–and saw in the democratic Southwest Corridor planning process an opportunity to (very democratically!) write their oppressive agenda in concrete. Unfortunately, Crockett’s handling of this rather obvious challenge to the viability of democratic planning is less than inspiring. 

By listening and respecting the concerns of residents, [Southwest Corridor planners] were able to identify an architectural strategy that was responsive to the demands of St. Botolph’s residents but did not subvert the overall public planning agenda for the Corridor…[they developed] designs for a removable fence that could be unbolted at a later date should the neighborhood change its mind. Unfortunately, the design was compromised by another decision to lay granite at the base of the fencing, and when St. Botolph’s residents did, in fact, reverse their decision and requested direct access to the Corridor Park, it was no longer possible. (p. 188)

One must, I suppose, applaud the Corridor planners for their commitment to democracy, inasmuch as they were committed to listening to, to the point of acting to some extent on, an obviously bigoted agenda. To this day, many streets on the western side of the Southwest Corridor in this area dead-end at the Corridor Park with a wall or fence of some considerable height rising to prevent what should be an obvious pedestrian connection.

blackwood barrier

A democratically erected barrier preventing easy pedestrian access to the Southwest Corridor Park, Blackwood Street, Boston.

Crockett calls this “The seeming contradiction of a connective landscape needing to reconcile itself with existing race and class divisions and residents’ divergent opinions about what to do about them,” (p. 188) but–especially as one of the direct inheritors of the conflict around transportation planning in Boston–this feels like an unsatisfying resolution to me. Many of Crockett’s interviewees for the book talk about how they saw themselves as “advocacy planners,” adherents of a mid-’60s theory that planners should not be impartial experts, but advocates for the oppressed in society. It seems to me that there’s an obvious tension between this identification and engaging in a planning process that encodes racial and class injustice (literally building fences!) in the built environment in the name of “democracy.” While incredibly valuable for its documentation of the Boston anti-highway movement, and its repetition of the lesson that megalomaniacal centralized planning is generally abusive, People Before Highways would be more useful and convincing if it grappled honestly and openly with some of the shortcomings of the democratic, grassroots visions of planning that it advocates.

Akum Norder’s book, too, offers a lesson on this topic–and perhaps the juxtaposition of the two narratives can allow us to draw some conclusions about the intellectual and social milieu of participatory planning and its challenges. Norder’s book is an ode to her Pine Hills neighborhood, an absolutely lovely streetcar suburb-era area that reminds me strongly of the Westville section of New Haven where I grew up. Pine Hills originally and today is a strongly middle-class area with a strong communal identity; but it’s had its ups and downs, borders the “student ghetto,” and generally has some reasonable fear of tipping into neighborhood decline in the same way that most middle-class areas in cities that aren’t part of the overheated coastal housing markets do. As such (and seeing that many of the residents are educated, have money, or both), these neighborhoods are ripe for democratic, grassroots organizing around the issue of perceived problems–and using a democratic planning process to deal with them in a way that may work well for the neighborhood but not always for those pushed out as a result.

Norder profiles one such case (though without the slightly negative valence I’m attaching to it). She writes, on pages 204-205, of a property on the corner of North Allen and Lancaster that, at 5,921 square feet, held by the early 2000s twenty-six units. That is, of course, far more than current zoning would allow, but most of the neighborhood is nonconforming and grandfathered anyhow. Normally, such properties can continue unmolested unless the owner requests a change of use or makes major modifications; but city code allows for the property to be forced into conformance if it’s declared a nuisance property. And since the building in question does appear to have genuinely been a nuisance property, generating fights, noise, and an astonishing number of police calls, the local neighborhood association took the opportunity to force a zoning board hearing. They won, and the landlord had to empty the building to cut its units down to the allowed two.

So, on the one hand, this is a victory for a democratic planning process and for community concerns. The area residents took on a nuisance landlord, used the objective rule of law, and made their neighborhood a better place. Bully for them–we should encourage everyone to care about their neighborhoods like that. On the other hand, we’re talking about a process–a very democratic process–that led directly to the eviction of at least twenty-four people, with those who provoked it presumably taking no financial responsibility for their relocation. This being Albany, where rents are generally cheap, I think it’s reasonable to assume that few of those people were displaced from the area entirely; most were probably able to find housing relatively close, and quite possibly at not much increased rent. So the result isn’t necessarily the worst. But what if it weren’t Albany? What if this were a property in Boston, where rents are triple or quadruple what they are in Albany? Would we tolerate a neighborhood group getting together to democratically destroy what’s effectively an SRO, a vanishing resource for the very poor? How should a progressive advocacy planner react to this scenario?

I don’t have a coherent set of answers to these questions yet. But I think they’re crucially important to ask. And I think it’s important to recognize that the historical and socioeconomic context in which calls for grassroots, democratic planning came around has in many cases vanished. The type of democratic planning Kaitlyn Crockett profiles so well was a product of a city under siege, under threat of imminent literal physical destruction. Places like Albany may well still feel a lessened version of that threat. But in Boston, today, it’s gone. There is still a threat of displacement and destructive change, but it comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from a hyperactive real estate market and the desire of many more people than the city has been willing to build housing for wanting to live here. Already in the time period that Crockett narrates privileged voices were figuring out how to use the democratic planning process to subvert planning aims of social justice and integration. We can’t, and we won’t, throw out the baby of democratic planning and extensive public outreach with the bathwater of urban renewal and highway building.  But we can, and must, recognize that there are tensions between promising all comers a democratic process and achieving egalitarian, democratic outcomes. Just this past week the Globe wrote about how Boston’s input-based sidewalk-repair system is failing poorer neighborhoods that are less likely to call in for repairs. Is it possible, one must ask, that planners again need to start putting our thumbs on the scales of justice–this time, to tip them back toward the right?

Featured image source: https://www.jphs.org/transportation/people-before-highways.html

What We Know About Amtrak 501

Earlier today, we saw the latest in a series of crashes that have plagued Amtrak and other US passenger rail providers over the last few years. This is, first and foremost, a human tragedy; but it is also an urgent concern of public policy. While trains–and all public transit–are on a population level much safer than driving, there is no need to accept any casualties at all, ever. While others–primarily the NTSB–will provide a full analysis in the weeks and years ahead, this is my attempt to reckon with what we know about this incident as of the same evening. I had intended this to be a series of bullet points but WordPress doesn’t like the formatting, so I’ve bolded every topic heading. 

Let’s keep in mind that the victims of this tragedy should be in our minds; I haven’t seen a casualty count since the morning, but we know there are fatalities and serious injuries. That shouldn’t have happened, and in addition to wishing their families comfort, this post is inspired by a sense that we–myself as a transportation professional and those who read this blog–should do all we can to prevent such things from happening.

Amtrak 501 was operating over–was, in fact, and somewhat remarkably, the very first revenue train over– the Point Defiance Bypass, a state/federal-funded project that moves passenger trains from a mudslide-prone, curvy waterfront route around Tacoma to a more direct, faster route.

 

wsdot project map

Source: WSDOT

While the tracks for the bypass have been in service, they have not carried passenger trains along their whole length until now. Trains have been running to test the line for months, but this was the first one to carry passengers.

As befits its purpose, the Point Defiance Bypass is mostly straight, easy 79-mph running, but the area where the train derailed is much trickier. Toward the southern end of the bypass, not far from rejoining the freight main at Nisqually Junction, the tracks flow into an S-curve with a bridge over I-5 in the middle.

 

derailment 3d

Looking south, in the direction of train travel.

Going into the curve southbound, the speed limit drops from the standard track speed of 79 mph to 30 mph, as confirmed by an Amtrak employee timetable I’ve been sent. 

amtrak timetableAccording to one report, there should have been an indicator sign two miles before the speed restriction indicating the drop in speed; certainly, there was a sign indicating the 30 mph restriction immediately before the curve.

The train was probably going too fast. Amtrak’s train tracking system doesn’t report train speed or location completely continuously (at least not publicly) but in this case it appears to have pinged the train immediately before the crash, reporting a speed of 81.1 mph at a position just 1400 feet east of the crash site. The system isn’t 100% reliable, so don’t worry about the report that the train was going two mph above the speed limit (which wouldn’t have made a difference in any case). transitdocs detail The same Seattle Times report quoted a motorist who said he was driving in the 60 mph range and the train was going faster. And the positioning of the crashed train–the lead locomotive taking a nearly straight route out of the curve, as if it didn’t follow the tracks at all–indicates a speeding train whose inertia carried it (or rather, part of it) forward. Remember, the train should have been going 30 mph going into that curve. There is no way for a passenger train to shed 50 mph in the space of 1400 feet.

If the reporting system data and eyewitness reports are at all accurate, this is pretty clearly a case of a train exceeding the speed it should have been operating at. Overspeed (as it is technically known) is, however, more a descriptor than an explanation; beyond that I strongly discourage speculation. There are too many causes to count: operator error; signal failure; equipment problems (the lead locomotive was a brand-new Siemens Charger); track problems (remember, this is new, or at least recently refreshed, infrastructure); or any number of other possibilities.

Though I discourage speculation about root causes, it’s impossible not to note the scary parallels between this crash and two other recent overspeed crashes, Amtrak 188 at Frankford Junction, Philadelphia in 2015 and Metro-North at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx in 2013.

 

amtrak-188

Diagram of the Amtrak 188 crash at Frankford Junction. Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/here-everything-we-know-about-amtrak-188-train-wreck-in-philadelphia-2015-5

 

NTSBSpuytenDuyvilDerailment2013

Metro-North crash at Spuyten Duyvil. Source: https://twitter.com/NTSB/status/407329136735027200/photo/1

Amtrak 188 entered a 50 mph curve at 106 mph; in a situation eerily similar to today’s the Metro-North train entered a 30 mph curve at 82 mph. We still don’t really know the root cause of the Frankford Junction crash, though most theories have centered around the engineer (who is suffering from amnesia from the accident) losing attention somehow, without his recollections it’s impossible to know for sure. At Spuyten Duyvil the engineer suffered from sleep apnea and was apparently asleep as the train went around the curve (the same issue has come up in several other, more minor commuter rail incidents recently, including at Hoboken and Atlantic Terminal). Whatever the cause, overspeed incidents are all too common on American railroads.

Discussions about these kinds of things always come back to Positive Train Control. Originally mandated by Congress after the 2008 Chatsworth crashnot an overspeed incident, for what it’s worth–PTC implementation was an unfunded mandate, has suffered extreme resistance from the railroad industry, and has been painfully slow. As at Frankford Junction and Spuyten Duyvil, PTC was not in operation on the Point Defiance Bypass today; as far as I can tell, it is intended for operational status later this year (as indeed it was at Frankford Junction…ouch). Yes, barring some kind of drastic equipment failure, PTC likely would have stopped this crash. But it’s worth noting that it’s not the only technology available to stop a speeding train headed into a slow zone; various forms of Automatic Train Stop have been able to do so for almost 100 years. So while the increasing series of crashes is absolutely making a cumulative case for cracking down on the rail industry’s PTC slowness, we should keep in mind that failures like this implicate not only the PTC mandate, but the entire safety culture of American railroading.

Let’s talk about safety culture. Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer just published a piece yesterday (literally not kidding) building off of the NTSB’s scathing assessment of Amtrak’s “safety culture,” stemming from yet another fatal crash, this one at Chester, PA in 2016. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate that the two maintenance-of-way workers killed in the crash and the train engineer involved all tested positive for drugs, and yet that was not found to be a necessary contributing factor to the crash. Similar assessments of commuter railroads have been, while perhaps not as bad, not encouraging either. American railroading has a lot of pathologies–a reactionary culture; toxic labor-management relations; an inability to accept innovation or new ideas–but few have the potential to affect riders as directly as the dysfunctional attitude that it sometimes seems everyone from the top down takes toward safety. It’s a problem that pervades both management and labor, and no one should escape the recriminations, when they come, unscathed. Alex Forrest has a good thread about the cultural contrasts between American and Japanese attitudes toward rail safety; but let’s just say the challenge of 21st century American railroading will be to change a culture where the idea that a train will go on the ground every so often is acceptable rather than unimaginable.

The train’s equipment–a new Siemens Charger locomotive and articulated, lightweight Talgo coaches–is fairly unusual by US standards, but there’s no indication it played any role in the crash. Here, you can see the Charger sitting on the freeway south of the bridge, the 12 Talgo coaches in various geometric arrangements across the crash site, and the trailing P42 (presumably included as insurance for the new locomotive) still sitting on the tracks. 

Don’t freak out. Train crashes get a lot of attention because they’re unusual, visually spectacular, good media content, and a grand American tradition going back to the 19th century. That doesn’t mean they’re actually common. You’re still a lot safer on the train than in a car. I’m obviously mad at American railroad safety culture–and you should be too–but that shouldn’t get in the way of data-oriented reality, even in moments where it’s tempting. Because ultimately, this is all about getting our casualties from mobility down to precisely zero–and we have a lot more work to do on the car side than the transit side.  

Featured Image source: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/photos-from-amtrak-train-derailment-near-olympia/

Why Are Train Museums Not Transit-Oriented?

By popular demand…

(79 likes!)

Here is Sandy’s look at how a genre of institution one would expect to be transit-oriented–train museums–in fact often fails that test. This piece is in part inspired by Cap’n Transit’s look at how many American rail factories are located in sprawly areas, in part by Trains Magazine writer Malcolm Kenton’s attempt to get to a rural museum without a car, and in part by my own musings and travels.

For the most part, the difficulty of reaching railroad museums by transit is reasonably understandable. Most American museums date to the postwar period, when a) railfanning became a serious hobby b) people had extra time on their hands and c) the rapid transition from steam to diesel locomotion and from dominance of rail travel to autocentrism set off alarms about the need for historical preservation. Often, museums–established in a mad scramble to preserve right-of-way and rolling stock, happened wherever they could. As a result, many are very rural. There are some, though, that are located in or on the fringe of major urban areas, and these could generally be trying harder to be transit-accessible. And there are others that could offer a basic connection to intercity or commuter trains, but haven’t even tried that.

The truth is, though, that if you read railfan boards (as I admittedly do sometimes), there’s also a serious suburban bias that goes with the generational territory of the folks who established these museums. Most of the founders became accustomed to transit and trains as a hobby or a profession, not an ethical or planning calling. For the most part, they think of accessibility in terms of cars. And surely NIMBYism and Euclidean zoning–as my friend and planner colleague Matt says, trains are “pretty much the definition of a nuisance”–have played their role. But enough speculation, let’s look at some museums! I’ve divided some thoughts I have into a few somewhat arbitrary categories.

Museums of My Childhood

Say what you will about Connecticut, it’s actually fairly rich in train museums!

  • Despite living across town in Westville, I virtually grew up at the Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (one of the nation’s earliest and most influential museums), including having a birthday party there. Located along a short stretch of preserved interurban right-of-way, the museum is a few blocks from (very limited) bus service at the East Haven Green. It’s a doable trip if you’re willing to be patient with CTTransit’s extraordinarily crappy service.
  • The Naugatuck Railroad/Railroad Museum of New England operates out of Thomaston, 10 miles north of the end of a Metro-North branch in Waterbury. The bus that would cover the gap runs an extremely limited schedule and not at all on weekends, when museums do most of their business. There are some ownership and liability issues with making a connection, and service on the Waterbury branch is hit-or-miss, but the intervening line is operable and I’m frankly surprised no one has put forth the effort to make it work. It seems like a natural use of state economic development dollars in a downtrodden post-industrial area; it’s not too hard to imagine New Yorkers schlepping up to Waterbury to ride vintage trains.
  • The Danbury Railway Museum is located in the historic Danbury station, around the corner from the end of another Metro-North branch, and right next to downtown Danbury. Bravo!
  • The Essex Steam Train is the really infuriating one. Well-run as a partnership between a Friends group and a for-profit entity, it’s a high-profile regional tourist attraction with pretty deep pockets by train museum standards. And yet! The trains run from a station five miles north of the modern Old Saybrook station, served by Shore Line East and the occasional Amtrak train. Transit connections between them consist of “nope.” But there is still track connecting the stations–and it’s leased by the museum! Though not used in revenue service, it’s used for storing trains and moving occasional new acquisitions. There’s plenty of room around the wye at Old Saybrook for the museum to build a rudimentary station. Instead, the volunteer crews have been clearing brush to extend the museum’s operating segment north toward Middletown–a valiant effort, but perhaps making the museum transit-accessible would be a better one? How cool (and potentially lucrative) would the ability to market a cross-platform connection from a modern train to one hauled by (a Chinese-built imitation masquerading as) the last remaining New Haven Railroad steam locomotive?Old Saybrook (1)
  • I’ve never been to the Connecticut Trolley Museum at Warehouse Point, but they do have a bus collection, so here’s to hoping that when the planned Hartford Line station at Thompsonville in Enfield, a short drive away, opens, the museum will offer a shuttle service.  
  • I’ve only been to the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic once. Points for being near downtown and next to the Air Line trail I guess?

Now for some others…Many of these I’ve been to, some I haven’t, and I won’t claim it’s a representative selection. But this is my blog, so my selection and division of it can be arbitrary.

The Bad

  • The Illinois Railway Museum might be the best railroad museum in the country. Too bad it’s 90 minutes outside of Chicago with zero transit access.
  • National Capital Trolley Museum: more like National Spend All Your Capital to Get Here Trolley Museum.
  • The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum is an interesting, and potentially illustrative case. Currently located right on the waterfront in a touristy part of Portland, it’s in the process of moving almost 20 miles north to exurban Gray, where they’ll be able to expand operations–but at the expense of having to put the question “Will I be able to take the train all the way from Gray to Portland? No.” on their website.

Has Potential

  • Of personal interest, since my grandmother lives not far away, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris is currently essentially inaccessible by transit, but they’re in the middle of construction on the kind of cross-platform transfer to real transit that I’d love to see more of, with Metrolink’s Perris Valley Line in downtown Perris. They can’t do much about the terrible schedule, but hey, this is what I think more museums should be doing!

    Paul_at_the_track_pocket_sm

    The pocket track for OERM operations at Metrolink’s Perris station. Source: http://www.oerm.org/capital-campaigns/

  • The Niles Canyon Railway has some tenuous bus connections to BART’s Union City station, but a 2.5 mile extension along existing ROW would make a walking connection possible. Should ACE ever deign to run weekend service, there’s also the possibility of a connection at the other end of the line in Sunol.
  • The Trolley Museum of NY in Kingston gets points for being right next to the touristy Rondout area, but it would be helpful for transit-based tourists if they ran a shuttle over to the Amtrak station at Rhinecliff! Indeed, that trip is pretty roundabout by car, so perhaps the museum could strike a deal with one of the ferry companies that runs tourist trips out of the Rondout to make ferry runs.
  • The West Chester Railroad occupies the outer leg of what was once a commuter line whose inner sectors are still served by SEPTA. As I understand it, the entire line is still intact, although not necessarily authorized for passenger use. With SEPTA re-extending the Media/Elwyn line to Wawa (sidebar–are there any other train stations named after convenience stores?) perhaps the time is ripe to extend the museum trips and make the connection. SEPTA’s 104 bus–a former trolley line that, should the agency choose to use it, could still have a dedicated reservation in the middle of the West Chester Pike–runs to the end of the line in West Chester from 69th Street Terminal hourly on Sundays, which is not too terrible, but not great.

Pretty to Very Good

  • The Baltimore Streetcar Museum offers decent bus and LRT connections and is walkable from Penn Station.The walking path from the LRT connection could benefit from attention. Perhaps on weekends the dinky little LRT shuttle that serves the 1-stop Penn Station branch could turn around and run to North Ave. (which has a third track!) for a connection to the museum.
  • The California State Railroad Museum has to be one of the best, if not the best, train museums in the country for actual transit connections. Very close to the Sacramento LRT, buses, and even the Amtrak station.
  • The New York Transit Museum. Ok, too easy.

Connections to Intercity Rail

There are some museum operations–and in this case, I’m talking about more or less exclusively operating railroads–that have the potential to make connections not to urban transit but to intercity rail, but still don’t. You’d have to be making a special trip to make it out there, but at least it would be possible.

So what are the good examples?

Generally speaking, it seems like train museums–or “heritage railways,” as they’re often known–in other countries do a better job connecting to actual transit than in this country. Some examples:

And a few suggestions from the peanut gallery:

Oh, and there’s one more example to think about:

The Mattapan Line

Ashmont_Mattapan_streetcar_in_woods

By Derek Yu – DJY_2075, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25519303

Just kidding.

Conclusions

Most railroad museums operate on a pretty shoestring budget, and I’ve suggested a few capital investments that are most likely out of the range of realistic budgets. Is it the role of government to help out here? Maybe. There are certainly worse ways to spend economic development dollars. Train museums can play an important role in transit education, and making them transit-accessible is an important part of their future (there’s a crying need to bring in new, diverse blood while the postwar generation ages out), while keeping them inaccessible via transit sends the message that the history and technology featured there is just that, history, and nothing more. For transit agencies, working with museums could be both a way to connect to heritage and potentially a way to grow ridership on weekends. Is there a future here? It’s hard to tell, but many of the disconnects I’ve identified in my illustrative examples here are low-hanging fruit. Let’s think about how to pluck them.

Coordinating Passenger Rail in Northwest Indiana

Northwest Indiana famously hosts one of the most complex rail networks on the planet. As a book I once read (I can’t remember which) argued, the “logical” place for Chicago to have been from a railroad perspective would have been about 30 miles east of its current location, perhaps near Whiting, IN. Instead, with the nation’s rail network divided at the location of an ancient portage, the “Eastern” railroads had to converge in the extreme northwesterly corner of Indiana and make a near-90-degree turn to run into Chicago. The result was a tangled mess of conflicting rights-of-way, industrial tracks, and infrastructure that has only been somewhat simplified by the mergers and consolidations of recent decades.

Two passenger railroads try to pick their way through this mess, with varying degrees of success over the years since the destruction of American passenger service in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend, “America’s last interurban,” now under public ownership as the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) operates a relatively conventional commuter service into Chicago, blended with an intercity operation reaching South Bend. Amtrak operates two long-distance trains along Norfolk Southern’s ex-New York Central Chicago line between the East Coast and Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited to New York City and the Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C.; a number of daily roundtrips to points in Michigan that leave the Chicago Line at Porter, IN; and the Hoosier State/Cardinal to Indianapolis (and beyond, three days per week).

schematic 1

Northwest Indiana rail network. Legend applies to all maps in this post.  Apologies for any sloppiness–I’m still learning QGIS–and for the general crappy resolution of the maps (I can’t get WordPress to upload them at anything near full resolution). 

The Northwest Indiana rail network remains seriously congested (as does the entire extended Chicago area), but both the South Shore and Amtrak have begun infrastructure plans that would allow their operations through the area to become speedier and (especially) more reliable. Unfortunately, in typical American railroading fashion, these projects are being planned and executed in a terribly siloed and completely uncoordinated fashion, whereas a degree of sharing infrastructure and cooperative thinking could go a long ways toward speeding trips and cutting down on unnecessary spending. Since Ted asked me why they don’t work together (and I’d actually been thinking about it for a while), here’s my attempt at analysis.

Though it’s more or less been in stasis for 60 years, the South Shore is pursuing an ambitious slate of improvements. The West Lake Corridor would use an abandoned right-of-way to create a branch from Hammond to Dyer; the latter town is currently not directly served by passenger rail. Closing the gaps in double track between Gary and the South Shore’s hub in Michigan City would increase capacity and move the railroad further from its interurban roots. The Michigan City realignment project would move the tracks through that city out of the middle of 10th and 11th Streets–the last place in the country where full-size electric passenger railcars run in mixed traffic, true interurban style, with cars on a city street–and create a dedicated rail right-of-way. Shortening the currently convoluted route to the terminal at the South Bend airport might need some use of eminent domain but could shorten trips by up to 10 minutes. While local and state commitments have generally been forthcoming, federal funding for these projects remains somewhat uncertain.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Michigan Line–which is owned by the national carrier from Porter to Kalamazoo, and Michigan DOT from Kalamazoo to Dearborn–has been the target of a gradual improvement process, with running speeds now up to 110 mph along much of its length. Amtrak has also partnered with Indiana and Norfolk Southern on the Indiana Gateway project, a $71 million first crack at decongesting the Chicago Line to benefit both corridor and long-distance trains. All of these improvements exist in some relation to the long-standing multi-partner attempts to “fix” the Chicago rail network, most notably CREATE; Amtrak has contributed a report from its own blue ribbon panel on the Chicago gateway…which concluded that the Indiana Gateway project  “will not increase speeds, or provide capacity for planned additional passenger trains” (p. 20), although it will increase reliability.

Notably, the South Shore and Amtrak efforts, while each ambitious in their own right, have seemingly proceeded completely independently, without any effort to coordinate service or investment. This is perhaps most remarkable given that Amtrak’s Northwest Indiana efforts mainly center around mitigating the impact of–or avoiding entirely–the congested NS mainline and especially the infamous Porter Junction, where the Michigan Line branches off. South Shore’s right of way, meanwhile, intersects with Amtrak routes at several points and avoids Porter entirely. While the South Shore’s capacity is currently constrained by single track, it is actively seeking to undo that constraint, yet lacks money; Amtrak often manages to pull in multi-state political support for a decent amount of funding, but none of the alternatives studied in the South-of-the-Lake Route Analysis involve bringing that funding potential to bear to consolidate trains from both railroads on a double-track South Shore. Indeed, depending on where the connections are made, a joint Amtrak-South Shore route from Michigan City into Chicago could be shorter than the route that trains from Michigan currently take. To the maps!

Assumptions I make in this analysis are as follows:

  1. Both railroads are interested in avoiding as much freight congestion as possible.
  2. The most nefarious and hard to avoid congestion is in Indiana, roughly from Hammond to east of Porter; from the Illinois line to Chicago Union Station, extra room exists on the NS ROW for dedicated passenger tracks, waiting only for funding. (indeed, Amtrak’s Chicago Gateway report says NS has promised access to a dedicated ROW–at cost, of course–from CUS to Buffington Harbor, contingent on Amtrak coming up with the money)
  3. Amtrak values improvements to reliability as well as overall speed.

Long-Distance Trains

Let’s work our way from east to west, or from the perspective of a westbound train. Perhaps the most ambitious way for Amtrak and the South Shore to coordinate would be for the East Coast long-distance trains to transition from the Chicago Line to the South Shore in South Bend, avoiding almost all of the congestion on the Chicago Line. The transition could happen either in South Bend proper (perhaps in conjunction with bringing South Shore service to South Bend Union Station rather than its current terminus at the airport)

sb1

Or perhaps better near the hamlet of Hudson Lake, a few miles west; the lines are completely parallel between South Bend and Hudson Lake, but diverge after that.

hudson lake 1

Now, maybe the single track eastern end of the South Shore can handle two more round trips per day–and trips with less-than-reliable timekeeping, at that–or maybe it would need some capacity enhancements. There might be some clearance issues; while the Lake Shore Limited uses single-level equipment that can operate under catenary, the Capitol Limited runs with Superliners that might be too close to the wires for comfort–and can’t use the high platforms that the South Shore has at many stations. But the point is that in a potential scenario of maximum cooperation, the two LD trains could be diverted to a dedicated passenger track many miles from Chicago; whether the work necessary to make this possible is desirable is not really the focus of this post.

Fixing Michigan City

Let’s face it: there’s very little more fun for railfans or transit geeks than standing on the sidewalk of a small Midwestern city and watching trains rumble down the middle of a residential street (been there, done that; I’m pretty sure even my non-railfan parents enjoyed).

But it’s also antiquated, a massive constraint on capacity, and downright dangerous, which is why the South Shore and the city are in the process of relocating the tracks to a dedicated reservation. That being said, while it’s something of a judgment call, I’m less than fond of the alternative that was ultimately decided upon in Michigan City; I’d rather have seen something like Options 4, 5 or 6 as presented in the Alternatives study, moving the tracks off city streets entirely and onto an abandoned right-of-way that’s currently a trail, with a new central station near Michigan City’s Amtrak station, closer to the lake (it’s not really clear how the study team reached its conclusion, given that their evaluation matrix really shows Option 4 should have been chosen–it costs the same, has greater TOD potential, and eliminates more grade crossings than the chosen Option 1–but I digress). Notably, none of even these alternatives–which all proposed building a station adjacent to the Amtrak one–even considered running South Shore trains on the Amtrak tracks through Michigan City, even though not doing so required more property takings. Sigh.

Anyhow, perhaps the most important link in creating a joint South Shore-Amtrak line is the connection that’s possible just west of Amtrak’s current Michigan City station.

mcity 4

Whether or not the long-distance trains are re-routed onto the South Shore, the Michigan corridor trains can use an upgraded connection through the grounds of the NIPSCO power plant (the tracks are owned by the South Shore) to access the theoretically double-tracked South Shore main toward Gary and Chicago. This is one of the straightest, fastest sections of the South Shore; running largely through a state park, the intermediate stations see little traffic. Where the Michigan trains might switch to the NS alignment is covered below; but sharing the South Shore segment for the 10-15 miles west of Michigan City would eliminate the jog south and then north again that they currently make, as well as avoiding Porter Junction entirely, which is probably worth tens of millions in and of itself.

Western Connections

There are three possible locations for a western connection between the NS/Amtrak alignment and the South Shore main. The easternmost is where the two lines crisscross at Burns Harbor; a connecting track already exists and could be upgraded.

burns harbor 3

The middle is just east of Miller station on the South Shore, marking the point where the Chicago Line and South Shore diverge somewhat geographically. The two lines are parallel and right next to each other and a connecting track would be easy to install, though not already extant.

miller1

The South Shore alignment through Gary is interurban-y; while grade-separated, it’s somewhat twisty and slow, so transitioning back to the Chicago Line at Miller saves time and distance. But as I understand it NS has not guaranteed there’s ROW to be purchased for dedicated passenger tracks this far east; while I’m sure an alignment could be found, given the absolutely massive amount of legacy rail infrastructure in the industrial wastelands between Miller and Buffington Harbor, it might be easier in the short term to keep Michigan trains on the South Shore further west (which would also allow a stop at Gary Metro Center).

The westernmost potential connection point also involves the most infrastructure. The South-of-the-Lake analysis envisions an exclusive Amtrak line branching off the Chicago Line at Buffington Harbor, running south and east along abandoned and underutilized ROW to loop around Gary to its south. Such a loop would pass under the South Shore near Gary-Chicago “International” Airport; connecting there, rather than looping further south (what a truly silly idea the loop is) would be relatively trivial, although there is an elevation difference to be dealt with.

buff1

The Buffington Harbor-Gary Airport connector would subject Amtrak trains to a relatively slow slog through Gary on South Shore trackage, as well as somewhat congesting the busiest part of the South Shore system, and it would require the most new infrastructure (several miles of track). But there is definitely room for dedicated passenger tracks west of Buffington Harbor, meaning that placing the connector here would for sure allow reliable all-passenger running from CUS through to Michigan City and beyond (once funding is found, of course).

Recommended Course of Action

With separate planning, funding, and construction processes proceeding apace, it may be hard to really coordinate Amtrak and South Shore infrastructure improvements to the extent I’m recommending here. And of course I haven’t answered the question of why the two agencies haven’t tried working together; I rather suspect NICTD guards its infrastructure and capacity jealously and doesn’t want to give Amtrak (which wants to ramp up Michigan service to ten round trips per day) a toehold on their main line. But I’m not familiar enough with the local politics to know, exactly.

That being said, the South Shore double-track project is not particularly expensive, will give a solid ROI, and seemingly has a strong local funding commitment. Adding in a connection to the Michigan Line through the NIPSCO plant in Michigan City and a link to the NS Chicago Line at Miller would allow Amtrak corridor trains to bypass Porter and many miles of the congested Chicago Line (although an overlay of Amtrak’s ITCS PTC system might add some costs). Hell, NS might even pay for some of the costs, just to get the Amtrak trains out of its hair. Amtrak should angle to join the double-tracking project; help pay for it; and consider its options for the western end. Probably, Miller makes the most sense for the western connection; but if the various parties can’t find room for passenger tracks between Buffington Harbor and Miller, the westernmost connection option might be more reasonable.

With the core piece in place and protocols for cooperation in place, Amtrak and NICTD can consider whether diverting the LD trains to the South Shore makes sense. The variables are probably too numerous to prognosticate here: whether Superliners can be squeezed under catenary; whether the single-track eastern end of the South Shore has room for more trains without more double track; platform heights and clearance; whether the new Michigan City alignment can accommodate Amtrak trains; and the like.  But it’s at least worth thinking about; while both LD trains are highly unreliable and encounter delays along the entire route, the section between South Bend and Chicago tends to be especially bad.

Addenda

A few further notes:

  1. I’ve treated the Amtrak Michigan trains here as if they all use the Michigan Line, but there’s one that doesn’t: the Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette, which runs once per day in each direction, diverging from the Chicago Line onto CSX rather than Amtrak’s own trackage at Porter. The Pere Marquette route actually crosses the South Shore just east of the latter’s Carroll Street yard and headquarters in Michigan City, and an interchange track exists for freight. It then crosses the Michigan Line just north of New Buffalo, MI, and should money become available a connection should really be built there, in which case the Pere Marquette would become just another corridor train for the purposes of this analysis (other than the fact that it often runs with Superliners, which would mean platform issues at some South Shore stations…).
  2. Austin brought up the idea of using the planned NICTD Dyer branch to divert Amtrak’s Hoosier State/Cardinal to the South Shore from Dyer into Chicago. These two trains currently encounter a significant amount of their massive delay problems west of Dyer as they traverse dense, congested rail infrastructure like Dolton interlocking. It’s not a bad idea; while somewhat roundabout, running the Indianapolis trains north along the Dyer branch and then along the South Shore/Metra Electric mainline to Grand Crossing would improve reliability considerably, though it would require completion of the CREATE Grand Crossing connection first. Perhaps Austin or I will explore this more in the future.
  3. Running Amtrak’s Michigan trains along the South Shore west of Michigan City would make the Amtrak-owned tracks between Porter and Michigan City redundant; perhaps they’d be retained for emergency diversions, or perhaps the South Shore freight operator could find a use for the line.

 

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 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: http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2015/02/23/houston-metro-redesign

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.