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.

 

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

The Sixth Borough Subway

When I was in college I used to walk over to Riverside Park, or down to the built-but-as-far-as-I-know-never-used ferry docks at 125th Street and enjoy the view across the Hudson River to New Jersey.  Until the new store on 72nd Street opened, Google Maps would taunt me by telling me about how the Trader Joe’s (yeah, yeah) in Edgewater was the closest geographically to my dorm on 120th between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive. And yet, I didn’t make it over there a single time during college. Why? Because the Hudson River is a pretty damn formidable barrier to decent transit that could integrate northern New Jersey more fully into New York City.

And that’s a shame, because northern New Jersey, and especially Hudson and Bergen counties, is getting increasing attention as one of NYC’s numerous proposed Sixth Boroughs. There’s a reason for that; it’s close (at least as the crow flies), more affordable than most of the city (with certain exceptions), and, like NYC, an extreme outlier from the national norm in terms of density. According to Wikipedia, Hudson County’s overall population density (including uninhabited areas) checks in at 13,495/sq mile, and Union City and tiny little Guttenberg have claims to be among the densest places in the entire country.

wikipedia hudson county table

Wikipedia’s table of densities in individual Hudson County municipalities. 

Bergen County is considerably less dense, but still has significant high-rise development, and other high-density built environments, clustered along the river.

Existing transportation options into New York City are limited. Southern Hudson County has decent access to PATH trains, and buses run into the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the George Washington Bridge bus terminal. PABT-bound buses enjoy use of the Exclusive Bus Lane in the morning but not for the return, a rather intolerable situation. Within New Jersey, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail provides north-south travel, but its routing is kind of loopy. More north-south riders use the very frequent combination of jitneys and NJT buses along Bergenline Avenue. As such, Alon Levy has proposed that Bergenline should eventually get a subway, perhaps in combination with a new regional rail station on the Gateway project or the existing Hudson tunnels.

All that is well and good. But–and to be clear, this is purely me indulging my crayonista side on a lazy Sunday–if New Jersey is going to be the 6th Borough, it needs a subway system, right? After all, even Staten Island–less dense than Hudson County–has a semi-subway (well, it runs subway cars). That ties in with a question that Tod Newcombe asked in Governing magazine just about exactly three years ago, and that Daniel Hertz tweeted out semi-recently: when will the US build its next subway? The article is a little out of date–construction on Los Angeles’ Subway to the Sea, probably the single strongest subway project remaining in the entire country, is now underway–but it’s still an interesting and provocative question. So my answer is: why not the “Sixth Borough”?

So here’s my suggestion.

sixth borough subways_final draft

I also recommend looking at the PDF version: sixth borough subways final .

I drew the new lines in Google My Maps before importing them to GIS, and you can view them here:

The system is built around the Bergenline Subway, which connects along its length with several extensions of the existing NYC subway system, as well as HBLR and PATH. We’ll run through each line in some kind of order.

Bergenline Subway

I’ve broken the full-length Bergenline subway into three sections.

bergenline subway

Phase I is from Journal Square in Jersey City–a key transfer to PATH–north to Fairview, where the line would connect with an extension of the city system coming across from 125th Street. I’ve placed the line under JFK Boulevard and Summit Avenue south of the Union City transfer to the Midtown line, but it could just as easily be under Bergenline proper (for part of the distance at least) or Central Avenue.

Phase 2 is from Fairview north to Fort Lee at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, and a connection with the decades-overdue (due to no one really caring) extension of the C train across the bridge.

Phase 3 extends the line south from Journal Square through some dense areas of Jersey City to a transfer with the HBLR near Liberty State Park (once upon a time, a railroad terminal). Phase 3 could take a slightly different routing; there seems to be one available just to the east along railroad ROW that would presumably be much cheaper, but isn’t as close to some residential neighborhoods.

C to Fort Lee

It’s semi-common knowledge in railfan and transit circles that the George Washington Bridge was originally supposed to carry trains on the lower deck, and that provision exists within the subway system for the C train to be extended across it.

168th-174th

From nycsubway.org’s track maps. The C currently terminates at 168th St. and turns in 174th St. Yard; as is clear from the map, the two easternmost yard tracks have potential to turn into through tracks onto the GWB.

Given that two subway tracks can carry far more volume than two road lanes, it’s well past time to retrofit the bridge, but there are no plans on the horizon (God Forbid planning focus on moving people rather than cars!). My plan assumes that the line will be a short stub terminating in Fort Lee, where it would meet the northern end of the Bergenline line:

C to Fort Lee.JPG

It could, however, (and eventually should) go further west, as Alon points out.

The obvious target for a rapid transit extension from Fort Lee would be Paterson, which can be reached via I-80 and is dense and poor.

125th to Edgewater

This is the one that would have been useful to college-student Sandy. Yonah Freemark and others have made the case that when (if?) Phase II of the Second Avenue Subway is completed to 125th Street, the logical next step is to turn it west along 125th rather than continuing north to the Bronx, since funding for the huge network originally intended to sprout from the new trunk is unlikely to be forthcoming. As such, I’ve colored this line teal to correspond to future SAS services. But why stop there? 125th Street lines up relatively nicely with the abandoned NYS&W tunnel under the Palisades to Edgewater. The tunnel would need to be fundamentally rebuilt for subway service (it doesn’t seem large enough for double track, for example) but it’s better than having no starting point at all. In my scenario, there would be the further incentive of a north-south Bergenline subway to interchange with. And once you’re under the Palisades, it would be easy to extend to a massive Park’n’Ride (yes, I’m for them under some circumstances) at the Vince Lombardi rest stop.

125th to vince lombardi

Theoretically, the line could also be extended east across the Hell Gate to LaGuardia.

59th Street-Weehawken Line

The BMT line under 59th Street in Manhattan lines up almost perfectly with the Weehawken Tunnel, a former steam railroad facility now used by HBLR. In this vision, the tunnel would be converted to subway use, with HBLR ending at a transfer point at Port Imperial. A branch off of the BMT could make a quick stop at a new lowest level of Columbus Circle before heading under the Hudson to an interchange with the Bergenline line and then a terminus at Tonnelle Avenue. Really, this branch could come off of any of the numerous subway lines in the area just south of Central Park, but the  59th Street line should have extra capacity with the Q shifting over to SAS in a few years.

59th street weehawken.JPG

7 to Hoboken

Sending the 7 train to Secaucus to meet commuter rail passengers has been a hot topic of discussion for a few years. It’s not really that great an idea, but here’s a different (which, full disclosure, I’m not sure is any better): send the 7 down to Hoboken. The tail tracks already extend to 26th Street, so there’s a little less tunneling to do. The new branch could make a stop or two in the lower part of Hoboken before terminating at Hoboken Terminal, or–since the IRT and PATH loading gauges are thisclose–someone could figure out a way to continue service onto existing PATH tracks and create a Flushing-Newark service. (I’d pay money to read a profile of someone who would ride that whole line)

7 to Hoboken

A 7 extension would be somewhat redundant with PATH’s existing 33rd Street branch, but they do serve different areas of Midtown, and the 7 is probably better for most people, since it would open up part of the East Side.

L to Secaucus

Alon offered a tepid evaluation of this route in his post on the 7, but, while low-priority (like, honestly, most of what’s proposed here), it seems to make more sense than the 7. I also think the presence of a Bergenline subway makes either extension more attractive in this scenario. The extension would traverse some fairly dense areas of Hoboken and offer a transfer to the Bergenline subway (and possibly also to the 7 near the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology) before ending at Secaucus Transfer; it could, theoretically, be extended across the Meadowlands on an existing ROW through Kearny into northern Newark. Alon suggested on Twitter combining the 7 and L alignments through Hoboken. That’s potentially doable but would require either four tracks or some fancy work with platform edges, since the loading gauges don’t match.

L to secaucus.JPG

Conclusion

This is all, of course, extremely speculative, and while obviously I’d love to see it happen in a fantasy world–and I think it would be excellent for both New York and New Jersey to have the Palisades towns better incorporated into NYC’s transit sphere–I don’t expect much if any of this to come about. The Bergenline subway from Journal Square to Fort Lee, and the C extension across the GWB, is almost certainly the strongest part of this vision. The areas along the Palisades are already dense enough to support high-order, expensive transit, and the C extension would offer a capacity upgrade over the existing all-road format on the GWB.

The other trans-Hudson crossings would likely be beneficial, but the need for them could be ameliorated somewhat by better incorporation of PATH into the NYC network. I’m particularly fond of the 59th Street and 125th Street plans and more lukewarm on the 7 and L personally, but hey, this is about vision and dreaming. And that’s something that I think many of us feel is sorely lacking in the NYC-area planning world at this moment.

Productivity and Route Structure in a Chicago Neighborhood

WBEZ’s terrific Curious City series is out with a piece  and accompanying visualization about cost recovery  on the CTA bus system. CTA’s buses are a hot topic (so to speak) in the transit/urbanist online community; Daniel Hertz has covered the system’s woes extensively, and Yonah Freemark lent his voice to the Curious City piece. Though perhaps less than sexy, the question of how to build a better bus system for Chicago is an important one. Despite ridership declines and a trend of convergence, CTA buses still carry an overall majority of CTA ridership, and they provide crucial transit coverage to huge swaths of the city that lack rapid transit service.

For the graphic accompanying the story, Curious City pulled out CTA’s five “most productive” and five “least productive” (by average number of riders on an individual bus in an hour, with the ideal ranging from 35 to 55 riders) routes and mapped them. Much to my surprise (really), two of the top five most productive routes are the lines I consider my “home routes” in Chicago, the 155 Devon and the 49B North Western.

devon and western

Devon and Western–epicenter of bus productivity in Chicago?

I spent my high school years living two blocks (well, three, but one of them is really short) from the corner of Devon and Western, where the 49B and 155 meet. West Rogers Park (alternatively, West Ridge) is one of Chicago’s well-kept secrets, a wonderfully diverse (economically and ethnically), reasonably walkable and dense, green, and mostly quiet neighborhood. Though the density and vibrancy of the South Asian community along Devon fades into pretty boring single-family blocks the further north and west one progresses, Devon itself, especially the section between Western and California, is a riot of color, smell, and taste the likes of which almost sound cliched. (I’m going to stop before I get more homesick, I promise) All that being said, one of the reasons the area isn’t better known is what it lacks–namely, direct access to a rapid transit line.

Thus, while the neighborhood itself is moderately transit-supportive (much more so along Devon than along Western, which here as in most of its 24-mile existence is a wide asphalt auto sewer with terrible land use), the 49B and 155 play a role that wouldn’t seem to lend itself exceptionally well to high productivity, collecting riders and shuttling them to the L. The 155 drops riders off at Loyola and Morse on the Red Line, and the 49B connects to the Brown Line at its Western stop. Both loop on the opposite end on the very edge of the city, the 155 at Devon and Kedzie–it’s actually a very short route, geographically–and the 49B at Western and Birchwood (half a block short of an easy transfer to several lines running on Howard…but more on that later). Lacking significant anchors on the outer end, both lines are relatively sparsely used for the first section of their route–seemingly not a recipe for “productive” status.

That being said, I can attest from personal experience that both lines do get very crowded at times. The 155 in particular can be a very uncomfortable experience, to the point where I regularly receive texts from my father complaining about it when he winds up on the Red Line rather than the Brown Line on his way home. Neither runs especially frequently by major city standards, with both running usually around every 8-12 minutes during the day and 15-20 minutes at night. Ridership is moderate by Chicago standards, with the 49B fluctuating between 5,000 and 6,000 daily riders since 2001 (as far back as CTA data goes), and the 155 more consistently around 7,000. Still, that’s enough ridership to consistently fill–or overfill–the buses on at least the half of the routes closer to their L transfers. And while I joked about it in the caption above, the corner of Devon and Western is the key point for ridership demand on both routes.

49b southbound boardings

Southbound boardings on the 49B by stop, October 2012 (from CTA open data)

The 49B, in particular, experiences a huge ridership spike at Devon; the stop pulls in three times as many riders as the second most popular stop, the Birchwood terminus. Ridership on the 155 is more spread out, though reliable data isn’t available–Devon was under construction and closed to buses between Western and Ridge when the 2012 CTA counts happened, as a result of which a huge chunk of the route is missing–so I won’t present a chart here. Still, Devon/Western is a key stop; in my experience it’s typically the single largest on/off point, and on rush hour eastbound trips the buses typically run standing room only from Devon or a couple of stops east of there.

So: despite the unbalanced route structure, we have a pair of routes running through a somewhat transit-deprived neighborhood that pair moderately high demand with relatively limited frequency. Additionally, both routes use standard 40-foot buses almost exclusively, although the 155 would clearly benefit from having articulateds on rush-hour runs. That combination leads to extremely high productivity results–an indication of the imperfection of the metric, since a simple increase in frequency would presumably result in a sharp decrease in “productivity.” Productivity, remember, is to some extent just a nicer word for “crowding.”

But let’s look beyond a simple increase in frequency–clearly, there is significant demand for transit in the West Rogers Park area, both expressed and latent. How can CTA build on the perhaps unlikely success of these routes and strengthen West Rogers Park’s connection to the transit system while maintaining a highly productive route structure?

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

It’s worth noting that the gap in ridership between the two routes, which is generally in the vicinity of 1,000-2,000 riders per day, is almost certainly attributable to the differences in land use along their respective arterials. Compare Devon, here looking west at Rockwell:

to Western, here looking south midblock between Rosemont and Granville, just a block and a half south of Devon:

Encouraging dense, transit-oriented development along the Western car sewer is a no-brainer, particularly north of Peterson, where both sides of the street are lined with dead and dying (literally) car-related businesses–dealerships, body shops, etc. Unfortunately, what new development has occurred has often been very much suburban-style:

In the shorter term, though, there are ways to make the existing bus network function better. The returning X49 Western Express (well, for peak hours) should be extended at least to Devon, if not all the way to Howard; its current terminal at Western and Berwyn is nowhere of significance, and an extension would turn numerous trips that are currently three-seat rides into much more tolerable two-seat rides. Even just at peak, an X49 stop at Devon would take significant pressure off the crowded 49B.

The 49B itself would benefit from a stronger anchor on the northern end. And there are useful things to do with it! Currently trips from Western to downtown Evanston, a significant employment and cultural draw, are three-seaters, requiring a transfer to an east-west bus on Howard, then to the Purple Line or an Evanston bus at Howard terminal. Turning the 49b right on Howard and running to Howard Terminal might provide unnecessary extra capacity on that particular stretch of Howard, but would provide a one-transfer ride to Evanston. Alternatively, continuing the route north to downtown Evanston–the route taken by its much less frequent (doesn’t run on Sundays!) counterpart on California, the 93, would make that a one-seat ride and provide regular service to a relatively dense part of southern Evanston that currently has only infrequent “circulator” service. I suspect that whatever losses in efficiency were to happen because of these extensions would be easily made up or even exceeded by increased, better balanced ridership.

Taking advantage of the demand for transit on Devon and taking pressure off the 155 is, if anything, even easier. There are two long North Side local routes, the 36 Broadway and 151 Sheridan, that use Devon for part of the 155 route, between Sheridan and Clark. Both, however, loop at Clark and Devon for reasons that, as best I can tell, are simply historical; that loop was long ago the location of the Chicago Surface Lines’ enormous Devon Carbarn, and it made sense to loop the routes outside where the equipment was maintained. The carbarn, however, has been gone since 1957, and the area west of it has become much denser as South Asian immigrants moved in. Neither route is especially frequent, but if looped at Kedzie–just two miles west–instead of Clark, their combined 6 or 7 extra trips per hour could significantly reduce crowding on the 155 and strengthen Devon’s character as a transit-oriented arterial. Both the 151 and 36 are long, slow routes–both run to the Loop, though not every 151 makes the whole trip–so while Devon can be painfully congested, neither should feel the pain too much. Neither offers as direct a transfer to the Red Line as does the 155, but both encounter it multiple times along their routes, and the 36 runs just a block away from the L from Devon to Wilson, offering numerous opportunities for a relatively east transfer.

In some ways, West Rogers Park is an ordinary Chicago neighborhood. What has become clear in this analysis, however, is that it–like so many Chicago neighborhoods–has excellent fundamentals for transit, and a very strong basis to build on. When thinking about transit in Chicago, the public eye focuses largely on the L, but this is an excellent example of a bus-reliant transit-oriented area. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the public mentality of L prioritization has taken hold in the CTA planning process as well, with the area’s routes largely reduced to glorified–but productive!–shuttles to the nearest L stops.  But here’s the thing: taking the area’s transit from “OK” to “excellent” may not need the kind of glorious capital investment an L or rapid transit extension at all (though, assuming some TOD, BRT on Western would be great). Re-thinking the local buses within a framework of making them useful as more than shuttles, a few strategic extensions and route modifications, and incremental improvements that prioritize buses within the traffic flow could provide high impact for little investment. It’s clear that the fundamentals are there. Let’s build.

 

Note 1: Notice haven’t talked about Metra at all here. Metra’s UP-North line runs on the Rogers Park-West Rogers Park boundary, with a “Rogers Park” station at Lunt; there used to be a stop at Kenmore, just south of Devon. The line really should be turned into a rapid transit operation, and should that happen, a stop at Devon is essential.

Note 2: One of the other top 5 most productive routes is the 54 Cicero, which gives me some hope that the proposed Lime Line could be successful.

 

 

A Second Light Rail Line for Jerusalem

A little personal note before we get started: I know Israel-Palestine stuff is touchy, and while I’m not going to shy away from discussing a few of the political aspects of the Jerusalem light rail (because planning is ALWAYS political, dammit, but especially in the Holy City), I’m going to try to keep this mainly about technical aspects. Other disclosures: I spent two years living in Jerusalem (in 7th grade, and a gap year after high school), but I haven’t been there in nearly six years, so I haven’t actually seen the existing LRT system in operation. That being said, this blog is the “Itinerant Urbanist” for a reason, and my time in Jerusalem represents part of that itinerance (Chrome thinks that’s not a word, but I do). The city has been a major influence on my own planning ethos of walkability and density done well, which is not to minimize its massive social problems and inequities, which are undeniable regardless of your politics. 

Yesterday the Jerusalem municipality announced the opening of the process of building a second line of the city’s light-rail system. The line will run from the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University through the developing area around the city’s main intercity bus station and future high-speed rail station, then traverse Hebrew U’s secondary Givat Ram campus and several residential neighborhoods before terminating in the Gilo neighborhood. Here’s a route map, in Hebrew:

As you can see from the map, the line will, rather hilariously, be known as the Green Line. For those who may not be familiar with the intricacies of the Middle East, the term Green Line in Israel-Palestine discussions usually refers to the pre-1967 (and still legally important) border between Israel proper and the West Bank. The Green Line runs through modern Jerusalem, more or less dividing its Arab and Jewish neighborhoods from each other, though several Jewish neighborhoods developed since 1967 lie on the West Bank side of the line–including the Gilo terminus of the proposed Green Line and the Pisgat Ze’ev/Neve Yaakov northern terminus of the existing Red Line (which runs right along the dividing line in other areas). Israeli policymakers have rarely been accused of subtlety or political correctness. But I digress.

It sounds from the original Hebrew like the route hasn’t fully been decided upon, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise this far out. A quick’n’dirty translation of the press release’s route summary:

The route will extend from the southern extremity of the Gilo neighborhood to the French Hill neighborhood and the northern edge of the Mt. Scopus campus. On the way it will pass through Dov Yosef street, the Pat intersection, Herzog Street, the Bayt interchange, bisecting the campus of the Hebrew University in Givat Ram, the area of the entrance to the city, Shazar Boulevard, Nordau Boulevard, Sarei Yisrael [the princes of Israel] Street, Bar-Ilan street, Harel Brigade street, Zalman Shragai street, Levi Eshkol Boulevard, until the campus of Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus. Additionally, the line includes a branch to the business district in Talpiot which passes through the area of Ha’Parsah Street, Pierre Koenig street, Ha-tnufah street, and Rivkah street, at a length of 3.1 km.

If this seems like a route of rather extreme complexity just from the sheer variety of streets it runs on, well, yes and no. Jerusalem has got to be among the world’s least-gridded streets, and the route definitely reflects the curviness of the roads. But it also passes along a particular hilarity of street naming in the city (and elsewhere in Israel): many of the roads change names every 2-3 blocks despite full physical continuity. Just in the above paragraph, Nordau Boulevard and Sarei Yisrael Street are actually the same road, which also becomes Shamgar Street for one block before the line would turn onto Bar-Ilan (which then magically turns into Levi Eshkol Boulevard). My theory has always been that post-independence Israel authorities named streets this way to honor as many ancient and contemporary luminaries as possible (you could get a pretty good course in Zionist history just from looking up names of these streets), but it’s confusing as hell in real life.

But anyhow…the Green Line. The line will intersect with the Red Line at two points, near the central bus and future HSR station, and near French Hill. It is expected to carry 140,00-145,000 passengers per day, fairly close to opening expectations for the original line, which now carries about 150,000. By the time the Green Line opens, the Red Line will also be extended to Hadassah-Ein Kerem Hospital, or close to it.

But that map above is totally insufficient and abstract, and so you’re probably waiting for something clearer. Here’s something I put together quickly:

I highly suggest viewing that map with a background other than Google’s default. This is just a best guess of the route; there are a couple of areas where things don’t quite make sense to me, and I’m sure more will become clear over the coming years (the line is rumored to be theoretically scheduled for completion in 2021, but the first line was well behind schedule, so we’ll see).

The first thing that struck me about the line was also what first struck Alon:

Toward the southern end, the line splits off a branch line to the Talpiot business/industry district, which then (according to the map) itself splits into two dead-end branches, on the right (east) here:

talpiot branch

On the left (west), another possible future branch splits off and leads to the Malcha area, home of Jerusalem’s largest mall, a major stadium, and the station that serves the current, Ottoman-era, slow-as-hell intercity rail service. I have no insider information on what exactly is going on here, but I think that this is probably the beginning of an east-west shuttle route between Talpiot and Malcha that could then be extended in both directions; I sure hope it’s run that way and not as a branch off the main trunk. It’s possible (probable?) that these branches will use the right-of-way of the old Ottoman railroad, which is currently either a path or a junkyard, but who knows.

Frankly, this isn’t the route that I thought would have been next on the city’s or government’s list of priorities. Connecting the two Hebrew U campuses makes sense, and the areas between them are mostly extremely dense. Gilo is big, but it’s remote and there are long stretches without much density between it and the rest of the city–a legacy of Gilo’s siting across the Green Line and the presence of the once-split Palestinian village of Beit Safafa in between. Between Givat Ram and Gilo, the line is curvy and avoids the densest neighborhoods, with the exception of a brief stretch across Yaakov Pat street.

As a former resident of Talpiot, I suppose I’m biased, but for me the natural next line in the network would have run either down Derech Chevron (Hebron Road), the major arterial through southern Jerusalem, or down the old railroad ROW to Malcha. Before going forward, I should recommend that anyone who doesn’t know the city look at the Jerusalem Bus Map on Oren’s Transit Page–believe it or not, there is no “official” bus map even in this heavily bus-reliant city. Derech Chevron is bustling bus route with dedicated lanes in part that host local buses, express buses to West Bank settlements, and shared-cab and jitney services that largely serve a Palestinian market.

Derech Chevron at Rivka/Ein Gedi (the famous “Tzomet ha’Bankim,” or “intersection of the Banks,” because it used to have one on each corner or some such)

Derech Chevron doesn’t extend all the way to downtown Jerusalem or to a link with the original line, so there are complications in hooking up a potential LRT line down it, but it does seem to be the most natural alignment for a second line. The rail ROW, too, runs parallel to a busy bus route (Emek Refaim) and while it’s not particularly well-integrated into the city west of the intersection with Pierre Koenig, it offers the promise of much faster trip times on a grade-separated ROW and is anchored on a major traffic generator in Malcha.

So what does the Green Line being on the agenda mean for the future of the Jerusalem transit network? I fully expect to see a Derech Chevron LRT at some point in the future, and the weird branching on the Green Line seems to indicate a desire among planners for some kind of quick east-west connection across the southern part of the city. In the interests of exploring that, I added a third layer to the map I made above with a few suggestions for ways the network might develop in the future, which you can enable from the settings box at the upper left corner, or just peruse this JPEG:

sandy jerusalem map

This is already a really long post, so I’ll leave that here for now and perhaps discuss it more another time.

One more note:

As I said before, it’s impossible to discuss planning issues in Jerusalem without getting into politics. I will confess to using terms for Jerusalem (“the city,” etc) that might elide the area’s political and social complexity. Despite the rhetoric about an “eternal and undivided Jerusalem” that consistently emanates from both the Israeli and American Right, what exists today is undeniably a divided and inequitable city. Among other basic services, the transit systems in Jewish and Arab neighborhoods are almost wholly separate, so I’ve been considering here only the transit network in Jewish Jerusalem, often referred to as “West Jerusalem.” Even that doesn’t fully capture the complexity of the situation, as the Red Line runs through the Palestinian refugee camp of Shu’afat, and the Green Line will pass through Beit Safafa, but it’s a start.

People pushing streetcar projects in the US like to talk about the psychological important of the “permanence” of rails in the ground as opposed to bus stops that can be “easily moved.” There is, I think, a weird kind of parallelism to the “facts on the ground” approach long espoused by the Israeli settlement movement; in any case, a few years ago Alon translated on his blog a piece by Shalom Boguslavsky that captures some of the application of that approach to the initial siting of the Red Line in Jerusalem. I think Boguslavsky might be a little too politically deterministic, but let’s not forget that–conscious or not–there are always political statements behind the siting of infrastructure improvements in Jerusalem.  Whatever improvements the Green Line or any future LRT network might mean for residents of Jerusalem, we shouldn’t forget the crying need and increasing inequity that infects the rest of the Holy City.