Notes on Long Transit and Diagonal Streets

Between school, Passover, and life, I’ve been extremely short on time and (especially) focus to write recently (though I did do a Twitter series about Amtrak reform, Storified here), but I do want to get something up.

Jake Blumgart has a post in the Philly Voice about SEPTA’s fabled Route 23,  the former-trolley-now-bus that connects tony Chestnut Hill in the city’s Northwest with Center City and South Philadelphia. Route 23 has been acclaimed as the world’s longest trolley route, a claim I’m skeptical of, if only because Chicago’s Route 49 (Western Ave.) has run up to 20 miles at times. It’s also a flashpoint of the bus-trolley wars, with some romantics consistently calling for the return of the trolleys that were taken off the route in 1992 (much of the rail infrastructure remains in place). The problem is that, as Blumgart notes in his piece, “When trolleys rumbled along the 23, an end-to-end ride took more than three hours; the bus takes about half of that time.” (I believe that number is somewhat exaggerated–Blumgart got it from long-time riders of the route–but there’s little doubt that the trolleys were indeed slower than buses that can pull into and out of traffic)

Route 23 intrigues me because it combines two particular challenges of urban transportation planning: super-long mixed-traffic transit routes and diagonal streets that cut across the city grid.

Route 23 map from SEPTA's schedule packet--so long it needed to be split into two images!

Route 23 map from SEPTA’s schedule packet–so long it needed to be split into two images!

As you can see from the map, Route 23 runs largely in a two-way pairing on 11th and 12th Streets from its terminus in South Philadelphia through Center City, then switches onto the diagonal Germantown Avenue, running northwest to the tony Chestnut Hill neighborhood. The route is also very long for a local bus, almost 14 miles. As a result of the length and Philly’s notoriously narrow and congested streets, Route 23’s on-time performance in 2012 was only 64%, fairly atrocious by transit standards. As a result, SEPTA is considering splitting the historic route in two, with one branch running from Center City to Chestnut Hill and the other from Center City south. Since–as Blumgart documents–virtually no riders use the whole route, there seems to be little opposition to this change.

And that leads me to thinking about the viability of super-long local bus routes in other places. I used to commute on the Chicago Transit Authority’s #49 bus, the core service on Chicago’s uber-long (24ish miles) Western Avenue. Where Route 23 is scheduled to cover its 13.8 miles in about 1:15, for an average speed of roughly 11 mph, CTA’s 49 is even slower, scheduled to cover its 15.7 or so miles in 1:30, for an average speed just under 10.5 mph. Aside: this means that the CTA 49–which has, in the past, extended past its current terminal at Berwyn all the way to the Evanston Line, about 3 more miles–is both longer and slower than the much-maligned Route 23. Unsurprisingly, the 49 is a massively unreliable route, with bunching common. Since the cancellation of the former X49 limited a few years ago, it is the only transit option in the corridor, and one of the most popular routes in the city, carrying even more people than the 23.

The problem with the 49 is that, unlike the 23, there is no especially convenient place to split the route in the middle. I’m sure relatively few people ride the route from end to end, but there’s no point where the entire bus empties out and exits, as happens to the 23 in Center City. Additionally, I will personally testify that having more splits in the route would be a massive pain in the ass, since having to transfer from the 49A and 49B extensions to the core route in order to continue a linear journey is already a major problem. The 49’s reliability problems can’t be dealt with by cutting the route in half, so what options are left for the CTA and other operators faced with similar long-route challenges? (that’s a genuine question!)

The other thing that’s intriguing about Route 23, of course, is that its northern half runs along Germantown Avenue, a diagonal street that once connected that neighborhood to the Philly waterfront. Though Philly’s grid isn’t as regular as, say, Chicago’s, Germantown Ave. still stands out as an oddity on its generally northwest-southeast path.

Germantown Ave. highlighted, from Google Maps

Germantown Ave. highlighted, from Google Maps

Germantown Ave.’s odd alignment–and its Phillyish narrowness–makes it a challenge for fast, efficient transit–but an opportunity for other things, as James Kennedy of Transport Providence, a Philly native, pointed out:

This is a question that intrigues me, since Chicago’s notorious diagonal streets have proven to be a major challenge for traffic of all types in that city. Of course, Chicago’s diagonals are more regular, such that they often cross two other arterials in a nightmarish six-way intersection. Witness Lincoln, Damen, and Irving Park:

Or Lincoln, Ashland, and Belmont:

Among other terribleness, the new Google Maps is temperamental about embedding, so you get a JPEG for this one.

Among other terribleness, the new Google Maps is temperamental about embedding, so you get a JPEG for this one.

These intersections are horrible for pedestrians, create massive traffic jams, and just generally suck. And there’s not too much the city can do about them. The problems at the intersection of Damen, Fullerton, and Elston are so bad that the city is spending millions to realign the intersection, but low-value industrial land isn’t usually available to do that.

Chicago DOT's graphic explanation of the Damen-Elston-Fullerton realignment.

Chicago DOT’s graphic explanation of the Damen-Elston-Fullerton realignment.

Perhaps the boldest initiative Chicago has ever undertaken to tame one of its diagonals was the 1978 pedestrianization of a short stretch of Lincoln Avenue (no, not all of the horrible intersections involve Lincoln, but it does have many of them) southwest of the intersection with Lawrence and Western, creating the Lincoln Square (mostly) pedestrian mall, the core of one of the city’s hottest real estate markets:

western lawrence

Perhaps the Lincoln Square mall has been buoyed (and to tell the truth, it hasn’t exactly been a smashing success) by being next to the busy Western Brown Line station. But it might also represent the potential of a new approach to those problematic diagonal streets. The luxury of a grid is that it often works best without diagonal streets cutting through it at angles that are either random (Germantown) or too regular (most of Chicago’s diagonals). Surely, the idea of making these streets into a transit, bike, and pedestrian mall is radical. But it may be a really good idea.

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Frequency Works, Again

Last month I posted a quick note on the importance of frequency in transit, spurred by some research I’d done for my ongoing research project. Here’s another one, this time courtesy of the Philadelphia suburban rail system (today’s SEPTA Regional Rail). From this 1958 article in The Nation:

A similar experiment, is now being attempted on commuter lines serving Philadelphia–so far with a similar result. Philadelphia appropriated $160,000 on the promise of the Pennsylvania and the Reading to step up commuter and off-hour service to the northern residential suburbs. The Philadelphia, city fathers explained that they did not regard the $160,000 as an actual subsidy, but merely as an underwriting of increased operational costs, to see if improved rail service would take some of the clutter of cars off city highways. If this could be done, the pressure for ever larger highways, ever more bridges and tunnels, ever increasing parking facilities would be eased, and a subsidy to the railroads, even from the taxpayers’ standpoint, would justify itself.

The New York Herald Tribune reported last month on the Philadelphia experiment at the end of the first month of a six-month test period. The Pennsylvania had increased the number of trains on its Chestnut Hill run by 33 per cent to thirty-six daily; service was stepped up to every fifteen minutes in rush hours, every half-hour in off-hours. The Reading boosted the number of its trains from thirty-three to thirty six daily, Saturday service on both lines was almost doubled, and cheaper fares were tied in with bus-line  transfers. The result: In the fourth week of operation, the Pennsylvania carried 4,133 more passengers than it had in the test week of October 6, before the plan went into effect, a gain of 14.8 per cent; and the Reading picked up 2,422 passengers in the same week, an improvement of 7.6 per cent over its test week in May. For the entire four weeks, the Pennsylvania gained 11,128 additional riders; the Reading 7,099. The effect on city traffic already was observable; 600 fewer automobiles a day were coming into the city from the suburbs.

Philadelphia hopefully assessed the advantages of the plan this way: cheaper fares mean a saving, for the individual commuter, of 90 cents a day over automobile operation (including parking fees, insurance and fuel costs), or a total of $100 in the six months of the test period. This saving to the individual driver is projected into a much greater saving to the city. It means, Philadelphia estimates, that about $81 million annually can be saved on the cost of maintaining existing roads and providing police protection. And this is apart from the merry-go-round cost of building ever more and wider highways.

This was a truly different world for transit. SEPTA wouldn’t be formed until 1963, and it wouldn’t take over any responsibility for the commuter lines until 1966, or direct operation of them until 1983. And yet, the truth that frequency translates to ridership is apparent in this report. Indeed, the actions taken on the Pennsylvania’s Chestnut Hill West Line (the two Chestnut Hill lines run very close and parallel to each other, entirely within the boundaries of the city of Philadelphia), mirror closely the idealized set of recommendations that Jarrett Walker or any frequency-minded planner would make: clockface schedules, decent off-hours service, reduced fares, and schedule and fare coordination with buses.  There are, quite frankly, any number of transit agencies that can’t get their act together to make these things work in 2014. Perhaps we don’t give the people running our public transit systems during their decline phase in the 1950s enough credit?

Note: The numbers reported work out to a daily 1958 ridership of a little under 4,000 on Chestnut Hill West and about 4,400 on Chestnut Hill East before the experiment. Today, both lines carry about 5,500 riders daily, despite service that maxes out at half-hourly at peak and hourly off.

SEPTA Diesel Service, Commuter Rail and Sprawl

There’s a long-running dispute in the transit and planning world about the relationship of commuter rail to land use. Does commuter rail to suburban and exurban areas damage the environment by enabling sprawl, or help preserve it by taking long car trips off the road?

It can be hard to tease out correlation from causation in these circumstances. Over the last several decades, commuter rail systems in the nation’s major metropolitan areas have spread ever-deeper into the suburbs and exurbs, propelled by powerful suburban politicians who crave the glory of being seen as “relieving congestion” (one thing that almost anyone can agree American-style commuter rail can’t do). But does commuter rail being built to a sprawly area (like, say, Elburn, ILmake that area’s growth possible, or would the growth occur anyhow, with the potential rail riders simply driving to work?

The western terminus of Metra's UP-W line.

Commuter rail to sprawlsville: the western terminus of Metra’s UP-W line.

Commuter rail has, for better or for worse, been an increasingly popular mode over the last several decades, so figuring out which way the dependency goes has been hard; there are plenty of areas that are sprawly without the benefit of commuter rail, but few that have actually lost service since the modern era of commuter rail (defined roughly as the takeover of bankrupt private services by government corporations in the ’70s and ’80s) began. Identifying such an area would allow us to determine whether the loss of service arrested growth, forcing it into a more compact area, or whether growth continued unabated, with commuters switching to cars.

There is one rather infamous example of such a loss of service–SEPTA’s former diesel operations. When SEPTA took over responsibility for the Philadelphia-area regional rail system (first through subsidies paid to the operating freight railroads, then directly) it inherited not only the core electrified services of the former Pennsylvania and Reading networks but several diesel-operated semi-intercity services, extending to Newark, NJ, Bethlehem and Allentown, and Pottsville/Reading. The two all-Pennsylvania branches, in particular, essentially served as extended commuter services for riders to downtown Philadelphia. By 1981, amidst a funding crisis and apparent apathy from SEPTA, service had ended on all three extended routes (diesel service remained for two more years on the shorter Newtown-Fox Chase branch).

And while (among other things) the end of diesel service caused SEPTA Regional Rail ridership to crater (it had been around 118,000 in 1975 and fell to around 85,000 in the mid-’80s after the opening of the Center City Commuter Connection), it also gives us an opportunity to examine suburban growth in the sudden absence of commuter rail. In the interests of seeing what happened, I examined population growth data from each of the towns along the Bethlehem/Allentown line and graphed them against growth trends in Montgomery and Bucks Counties and the Philadelphia MSA as a whole. I included data from towns along the line in those two counties, but not from Centre Valley or Hellertown, the two Lehigh County towns on the line aside from Bethlehem and Allentown, on the logic that those towns were much more tied to the economies of the Lehigh Valley than that of Philadelphia. Town- and county- level population data is from Wikipedia (because why dig into census sheets when someone else already did it?); MSA data from here. You can access the full sheet here: (Allentown Branch), but this is what’s important:

allentown branch graph

If the elimination of SEPTA’s diesel service had impacted suburban growth along the line, we would expect growth in those towns to fall during the ’80s. Instead, the towns as a total grew by 14%–11% more than the Philadelphia MSA as a whole, and 5% more than their containing counties. Growth fell a little below regional trends in the ’90s, but almost indistinguishably. Over the 60 years I examined, growth in the station towns either matched regional trends or was actually slower. It’s hard to argue from this data that there’s any correlation between the presence/absence of commuter rail service in a particular town and its growth.

There is both good and bad news for transit advocates in this (admittedly unsurprising) conclusion. On the one hand, that suburban sprawl can continue without transit means that advocates and agencies should feel free to resist the loud calls for expensive (in terms of both capital and operations) outward extensions from exurban politicians and commuters. On the other, growth will probably continue regardless of transit, so why not try to get people out of their cars? I haven’t seen extensive data from SEPTA’s Regional Rail operations in the wake of the diesel service eliminations, but the overall fall in ridership suggests that commuters from the areas that lost service chose not to drive to closer-in termini, but to drive all the way to Center City.

Should we build commuter rail to sprawl? On the whole, I think there are (as always) much higher priorities for transportation funding (and government funds in general). Commuter rail as currently conceived in the US is really expensive to operate, and sending it out to the far reaches of a metropolitan area is essentially a favor to exurban commuters and a subsidy for bad regional planning. But if the funds are available (and can’t be spent on anything better) and if suburban towns are willing to shape their land-use decisions (at least in the immediate station area) around transit, I suppose some service is better than none. Either way, if the Allentown Branch case is even remotely representative, it’s pretty clear that while commuter rail might be a subsidy for sprawlers, it isn’t actually a cause of new sprawl.

A Note on the Importance of Frequency in Regional Transit

Apologies for the long periods between posts. I’ve been caught up with school, work, and the Jewish holidays, so time for blogging has been infrequent. That being said, here’s a short post on something that caught my eye as I was doing research for a paper.

Anyone interested in planning, economic, or transportation issues should be aware of a series of papers authored by Richard Voith, a former economic advisor to the Philadelphia Fed, Wharton School professor, and member of the SEPTA board. His writing covers topics like capitalization of transit access, urban-suburban real estate dynamics, and transit efficiencies. The last topic is the subject of a 1994 paper titled “Public transit: Realizing its potential,” published in the Philadelphia Fed Business Review. The paper is a general argument, but it also includes some interesting data on Philly transit systems circa 1994, which I thought it would be interesting to present here.

In a kind of appendix to the paper, Voith presents two charts (modified here for readability). SEPTA refers to the Regional Rail (commuter) division ONLY, not the urban rail subway or trolley lines or bus operations. Remember, this is 1994 data; I’m sure the numbers have changed since then:

SEPTA PATCO
Fare $3.25 $1.60
Trains per Line 7 33
Annual Ridership per Mile of Railroad 75,312 785,261

And:

SEPTA PATCO
Cost per Rider $7.32 $2.26
Subsidy per Rider $4.37 $0.89
Annual subsidy per mile of railroad $329, 698 $699,225

As Sunny Zheng pointed out on Twitter, these numbers don’t capture absolutely everything; SEPTA has (and presumably had) pass products that would have lowered the average fare charged to most riders. I don’t know whether the subsidy numbers account for those lowered fares; the SEPTA fares quoted are peak, Zone-2 (a distance that roughly corresponds to PATCO’s length).  Still, the numbers say a lot. As Voith wrote:

As shown in the figure, PATCO’s fare is less than half of SEPTA’s. PATCO runs almost five times as many rush-hour trains on its single 14-mile line as SEPTA runs on its average commuter line. PATCO also runs much more frequent off-peak service. The net effect of the lower-price, higher-quality service is that PATCO carries over 10 times more people per mile of railroad than SEPTA does.[b] Thus, for very similar suburban markets and the same destination, ridership levels are dramatically different. The level of current SEPTA ridership doesn’t necessarily reflect transit’s potential.

I see three possible contributing factors to the ridership differences. One, and likely the most powerful factor, is frequency. As Jarrett Walker has repeatedly stressed, frequency is the single best way to attract riders to a transit service. Another is the low fare, which was well below that of SEPTA. A third is that transit demand from South Jersey to Philly is relatively inelastic, because driving a car into the city requires paying a toll on one of only a few congested bridges.

It’s possible that the low fare helped to attract riders to PATCO, and the pricing of car access to Philadelphia closer to true cost certainly helped the situation. But, especially accounting for the passes, SEPTA fares in Zone 2 were’t really that much higher than those of PATCO. I think it’s pretty clear that this data validates everything Jarrett Walker has ever said about frequency. In fact, ridership on PATCO was so high that had the agency been willing to raise fares $.89–$1.43 today, arguably a raise that a relatively wealthy suburban clientele could have afforded–it could have eliminated subsidies altogether.

There were downsides to the frequency with which PATCO was blessed, of course. The subsidies per mile of railroad were more than double those of SEPTA’s regional rail. But one thing is very clear:

When you invest in frequent transit, you get what you pay for.

Ridership follows investment in operations. We can argue about the necessity of subsidies; I’m guessing that the value to Philadelphia of keeping all of the cars used by PATCO commuters in 1994 out of Center City was far greater than the $.89/passenger subsidy. This is yet another argument for the rapid-transitization of the SEPTA Regional Rail network (and others!), a case that has been made repeatedly by transit advocates and some professionals. Frequency is expensive in absolute and per-mile-of-rail terms, and probably unworkable without reworking of the labor agreements that American commuter rail systems currently operate under. But in terms of “buying” passengers, frequency is cheap–almost certainly cheaper than anything else transit agencies can do.

I don’t want to shortchange the place that the bridge tolls hold in PATCO’s success; pairing realistic car pricing with high-quality transit is the future of American urban transportation policy. But driving into and parking in Center City is expensive regardless of where you’re coming from, and the success of PATCO’s high-frequency service is apparent. There are many, many places in the US where more-frequent regional rail service would be feasible; looking back 20 years, we can see the economic justification for what has become a popular idea among transit advocates.