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.

 

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.

Piedmont

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.

Conclusions

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.

wp-1488927803337.jpg

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.

rozzie

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.

 

Trolleys and Rail in the Capital District: Interview with Capital Green Scene on WVCR, 7/2/2016

At the beginning of July I was invited to do my first radio spot, appearing on the local radio show Capital Green Scene (WVCR 88.3 FM, Siena College’s station) to talk about transit and transportation in the Capital Region. We recorded the show on July 1st and it aired July 2nd, but I’ve only just now gotten the audio files, so here they are. The interview is in two segments, embedded here separately. I had a blast doing this; hosts Bill Helmer and Brian Nearing, who found me after a few of my articles on All Over Albany intrigued them,  are great guys who ask really interesting questions.

Watch for a new segment with me on Capital Green Scene appearing on Labor Day Weekend as well…

Part 1

 

Part 2

Rhode Island and an Incipient Critique of Commuter Rail

My post from last year about the woes of Rhode Island’s Wickford Junction park’n’ride investment enjoyed a brief renaissance last week when Streetsblog linked back to it. How convenient, then, that Wickford Junction was in the news again this week when Rhode Island state legislators used it as a reason not to provide state funding for the (probably much more useful) long-awaited infill station in Pawtucket/Central Falls.

Let’s get one thing straight: Wickford Junction and Pawtucket/Central Falls are completely different scenarios. Pawtucket has regular service throughout the day (albeit at crappy frequency), while Wickford Junction…doesn’t. And then there’s this:

Wickford Junction

The physical setting of Wickford Junction station

pawtucket setting.PNG

The physical setting of future Pawtucket/Central Falls station

Wickford Junction is completely cut off from development of any kind, while Pawtucket station would be located in one of the densest areas in all of New England. Comparing them, in other words, is pointless at best. No wonder Providence blogger Jef Nickerson, in his own words, “went ballistic” when the legislature approved funding for a garage in downtown Providence after ignoring the train station.

I want to dig a little deeper into this, though. Let’s consider quotes such as this, from Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article linked above:

The free-market Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has put the station plan in its cross-hairs, adding the funding bill to its “five worst” list for the year and saying it aligns with a “submissive philosophy” that Rhode Island should be considered a suburb of Boston.

Although the Center for Freedom and Prosperity critique of the station is unnecessarily couched in parochial provincialism (and, likely, in deep denial of the benefits that closer links to the booming Boston economy can bring to Rhode Island), it almost unintentionally touches on a serious critique of the “commuter rail” mode: it serves one kind of trip, and one kind of trip only. The libertarians substitute a critique of the station for what should be a critique of the mode of transit, perhaps because the answer to the question “how does commuter rail become useful to all users?” is “more service, not less.”

When framed this way, the critique not only becomes more sympathetic, but reminds me of another anecdote I turned up in the process of researching my master’s paper. When the Providence Foundation studied intrastate commuter rail from Woonsocket to Providence in 2009, the project team met with planners along the route to gauge interest in the potential new service. All showed interest, except for the town planner in Lincoln, where a station was proposed in the hamlet of Manville. The reasons given were fascinating, and a little bit sad:

The proposed Manville site is located near a low-income neighborhood, where residents could typically be expected to benefit from additional transit services. However, commuter rail – with its peak-oriented services – may not be a good fit for these residents who tend to work at jobs with nontraditional schedules. Moreover, the town planner in Lincoln indicated the most town residents were not interested in a new commuter rail station. (p. 71)

Justifiably or not, Lincoln’s town planner believed that commuter rail, as a mode, is not for “us” (us being anyone working in a job that is not white collar or 9-to-5). That’s not too far off from the idea that investing state money in a commuter rail station would only increase Rhode Island’s dependency on Boston, if we assume that “Boston” here stands in for white-collar jobs with little access for middle- or working-class Rhode Islanders. It may not be entirely apparent to the people I’m quoting here, but I believe the pattern indicates the very tiny glimmer of a kernel of a coherent, trenchant critique of the commuter rail paradigm.

Rhode Island has ambitious plans for commuter rail, both expansion of Boston-oriented MBTA service and intrastate, not to mention random private ideas for Providence-Worcester service. That’s admirable for a state of Rhode Island’s size, and the Providence Foundation study projected very positive results for Providence-Woonsocket service.

projected results providence cr

Projected costs and operational figures from the Providence Foundation study

That being said, I think the difficulty of gaining political traction for commuter rail in places like Pawtucket (which has been waiting for a station for decades, since its legacy one closed in 1981) and Lincoln reflect both the normal anti-transit animus of certain groups AND something deeper and more profound.

I devoted much of my master’s paper to developing the idea that American commuter rail has been socially and politically constructed as a luxury mode of travel for the middle and upper classes, one that serves only a niche subset of trips. In many other countries, mainline rail systems–often branded “regional”–operate frequently all day and on weekends, allowing use for numerous kinds of trips to numerous destinations. Perhaps, to build political momentum and promote a system that can be truly useful to a broad swath of Rhode Islanders, state leaders should consider something not less, but more ambitious–a regional rail system along the lines proposed by Peter Brassard over at Pedestrian Observations several years ago. Maybe  even that wouldn’t quite redeem Wickford Junction–but it might be the only plan that has a chance to.