Archive for the ‘High Speed Rail’ Category

Moving Time

July 30, 2009
Moving boxes by carlaarena on Flickr

Moving boxes by carlaarena on Flickr

Posting’s been light the last couple of days because I’ve been moving from one house to another.  No matter how many times I do it, I still forget what a pain it can be.  Now that I’m finally settling into the new digs, there’s been a whole lot of things worth commenting on posted in the past few days.

First, Richard Layman gave me a link on his blog, noting that we tend to disagree on a couple of things.  Though Richard and I do diverge on a number of issues, I think it’s worth noting that we’d agree on far more topics than not – including the general overall direction for the District and cities in general.   I’d also point out that a trend I notice in blog commenting in general (and many of my comments in particular) is that the truncated nature of the medium tends to focus my comments on one or two ideas from a post, and too often those ideas are critical rather than positive.  That’s the nature of the beast, I guess.

Thanks to Richard for having so much great info on his blog, I appreciate the link.

Poplar Point is a popular discussion item again.  GGW summarizes the development options presented, and Richard Layman chimes in.  Both note that all the options leave a little something to be desired.  One thing none of them have, however, is a soccer stadium – yet.  DC United officials have been chatting with Akridge about property they own, and is apparently still talking to DC officials about Poplar Point – though no one wants to admit anything.

All this stadium talk triggered a response from Noah Kazis at The City Fix.

While it’s good to see the Journal’s real estate blog thinking about neighborhoods rather than just individual sites, this is a common misunderstanding of how stadiums work. They aren’t vibrant providers of economic development; rather, they sit empty most of the time. The D.C. United schedule calls for 30 games a year, only 15 of which will be at the United’s stadium (not including playoffs, exhibition games and the like). That’s not enough to really spark development. While a built-in market of absolutely packed crowds at your sports bar is great for those 15 nights, the rest of the time you’ve got an enormous empty structure that will inevitably be surrounded by at least some large parking lots. That’s not a draw for street life.

First, I want to address a factual item.  DC United’s league schedule only has 15 home games, but DC United plays in several competitions beyond just MLS each year.  Just this past Tuesday I was in attendance at RFK for a game in the CONCACAF Champions League.  DCU also plays in the US Open Cup every year, plus there is also the SuperLiga, international friendlies, and plenty of games between National teams.  RFK will host the US Men’s National Team three times this calendar year, and has already played host to international matches between two non-US nations – drawing good crowds, too.

This issue of the number of games each year often is mis-stated, as most American sports fans don’t have experience with the idea of multiple, concurrent competitions as is commonplace in soccer leagues across the world (including MLS).  Most North American pro sports have their league’s regular season and then the playoffs – and that’s it.  Soccer has a whole lot more on the schedule, and it’s important to note that.

Still, I don’t think this changes the end result of Noah’s analysis.  Stadiums aren’t great for developing streetlife per se, but they can be an anchor to draw in crowds that would otherwise never venture into that part of the city.

I’d also argue that justifications for sports stadiums on pure economic grounds are misplaced from the start.  Sports are an important part of the civic identity of a city, and it’s important for cities to foster that connection.  Going so far as to hand over an expensive stadium on a silver platter (Nationals Park) probably crosses the line, but there’s something to be said for being a “major league” city.  DC United shouldn’t be an exception.

K Street’s transitway plans are moving forward, and not a moment too soon.  The two options at this point:

One option would create a two-lane busway in the center of K Street, leaving three general-purpose lanes on each side. The other option, on the other hand, makes the transitway three lanes, where the third lane lets eastbound buses pass each other in some spots and westbound buses pass each other in other spots. That option also contains a bicycle lane along the length of K Street. While at first glance the plans seem to provide a clear choice between more accommodation for cars versus more for buses and bikes, the difference isn’t that simple. Making a true “complete street” that works for all modes is not easy.

A nice debate emerged in the comments about bike lanes vs. trees vs. transit.  Leaving that discussion of priorities for another day, I’d offer one comment – I’d like to see a plan that can accommodate rail transit and buses on the same transitway in the space at the same time.  Seattle recently started doing this as they converted their downtown bus tunnel to handle both light rail and bus operations:

For any plan, I’d like to know how it could translate to rail in the future.  I would think that having some passing sections might facilitate streetcar, light rail, and bus operations.

Speaking of streetcars, Jarret Walker has a couple of great posts following up on the ‘debate’ between mobility and accessibility.  Also, along the same vein as trying to define the terms we use when discussing these issues, he has a great post about transportation planning in Australia and determining what values people want from transit.

One of the main reasons that skilled and talented people leave the transit industry is the impossibility of meeting conflicting political demands.   For example, I’ve actually seen cases where elected leaders told a transit agency to cut service on high-ridership route A in order to add new service to low-ridership rural area B, and then complained to staff when that change caused total ridership to go down. Obviously, if you move a service from a high-density area to a rural area, you should expect exactly that result. These hard-but-important questions are designed to elicit direction about the real choices that transit requires us to make, so that talented staff feel supported and encouraged as they follow that direction in building and operating the transit system.

This is the core of so many issues with transit, as well as the different emphasis on mobility vs. accessibility – our opinions of transit systems are expressions of value judgments.  Thus, it’s important to try and determine what those values are through the political process so that they can easily be implemented.

It’s similar to the idea of a community expressing their desires and values in a plan, then setting zoning rules to allow most development by-right, rather than the current mish-mash of PUDs, rezonings, variances, and the like.  Determine the values beforehand, rather than in an ad-hoc fashion while each individual case and decision festers.

Infrastructurist has a great interview with IBM’s HSR folks.

Matt Johnson has an intersting analysis of Metro’s ridership patterns.  More on this later, but the post is worth checking out now.


Links – Mono…D’OH!

July 7, 2009

With apologies to Lyle Lanley, it’s worth reporting that Disney’s genuine, bonafide, electrified, six car monorail! crashed.  Is there a chance the track could bend?

The Transport Politic notes the damage this kind of fantasy has on useful transit advocacy.   The Simpsons really does the same thing, when you think about it.

But the fact that more Americans have probably ridden the Walt Disney monorail systems than have chosen to take advantage of their local transit offerings is problematic. That’s because Disney presents a space-age vision for what public transportation should be, and it’s that fantasy that many Americans want in their trains and buses, not the mundane services like light rail and buses that most communities can actually implement. Meanwhile, Disney can offer the convenience of rapid transit in a safe, well-monitored environment, something difficult to do day-in, day-out in a real city.

The most damaging effect of the Disney monorail is the pervasive idea among virtually everyone other than transportation people that it represents the ultimate in transit technology. That’s why cries for “monorails!” come up at every turn when communities consider new transportation systems, even though monorails are consistently more expensive and less reliable than their two-track counterparts. It’s a mystery why people find the idea of the single, elevated track so exciting, but Disney’s example may be one explanation.

That Simpsons episode looks more and more prescient.  “…but Main Street’s still all cracked and broken!”

Avent vs. Glaeser. Ryan Avent takes Ed Glaeser’s recent Op-Ed on high speed rail to task over at Streetsblog.

Glaeser is correct that a good place to begin addressing our transportation failures is by pricing congested highway and air routes more effectively.

But we have every indication that doing so would significantly increase demand for rail services, while also raising tens of billions of dollars every year that could be used to construct a rail system that would be cleaner and faster than driving or flying. Contra Glaeser, pricing our existing infrastructure would make it painfully clear just how badly we need an effective intercity rail system.

In environmental and economic terms, the case for major investment in high-speed rail is quite strong. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to take wing whenever economists start writing about public spending.

Indeed.  Others take the social aspects of Glaeser’s proposition.  Any way you slice it, it’s pretty clear that Glaeser’s pop economics doesn’t do much in persuading the transportation blogosphere.

NIMBY’s Aren’t Environmentalists. The East Bay Express has a great piece on the role of cities and density in the environmentalism.  It’s a lengthy piece, but well worth the read.   The article makes several key points about how conventional thinking about managing urban growth, even with explicit intentions to be environmentally friendly, or to be affordable, often hurts the overall outcome.   Most importantly, the fight against density in developed, transit accessible areas is a major impediment to sustainable urbanism.

When put into a DC context, the article raises several key points about building heights.

Much of the heated debate over the plan has been about tall buildings. After eighteen months of meetings, a city-sponsored committee recommended that the council allow four 100-foot-tall buildings, and four that are 120 feet tall in the downtown area. However, the city’s planning commission, which is more development friendly, came up with its own plan that would allow six 120-foot-tall buildings, and four that are 180 feet tall — as tall as the existing Wells Fargo building, the city’s tallest. Both plans would also allow most new buildings to be built at a maximum height of 85 feet. The council appears to be leaning toward approving the denser plan, which some critics decry as “the Manhattanization of Berkeley.”

Hmmmm.  Where have I heard those arguments before?

In truth, the fight over building heights is misdirected. Tall buildings are unlikely to be built in Berkeley anytime soon because they’re too expensive to construct. The real difference between the two plans is that the less dense one will probably result in no tall buildings, while the other will probably produce four. The reason is that developers prefer buildings that are less than 75 feet tall or greater than 180 feet, but not in between. So any plan that calls for 100-foot- or 120-foot-tall buildings is unrealistic.

Why? In buildings that are less than 75 feet tall, developers can use wood framing, which tends to be relatively inexpensive. But above that height, fire-safety codes require them to build with reinforced concrete or steel, which costs a lot more. As a result, developers can’t make a tall building profitable unless it’s at least 180 feet in height (seventeen stories). Anything shorter than that means that the developer won’t generate enough money from selling condos or renting apartments to pay for the high costs of erecting the building in the first place.

Of course, with land values as high as those in Downtown DC, you can easily justify going as high as possible – even though those heights fall within that ‘unrealistic’ zone of 100-120 foot tall structures.

Oakland could achieve plenty of density with 75-foot-tall housing developments, Pyatok argued. Assuming that such buildings can house about 150 people per square acre of buildable space, that works out to about 96,000 residents per square mile. As a reference, Manhattan is home to about 65,000 people per square mile. “It’s just a misunderstanding to think that you have to have high-rises to get high density,” said Pyatok, who also has been studying the potential growth of Upper Broadway with a group of graduate students. “I really think that a 75-foot height limit throughout a great deal of downtown could create a lot of density.”

This is more or less the situation we see in a lot of DC, at least with regard to the height limit (and therefore upper cap on density).  What’s missing, of course, is that most of DC’s areas built to max height are office districts, not residential ones.  Fear not, however – there are solutions to this, as well:

Oakland, he believes, should limit skyscrapers to Broadway, near the 12th Street and 19th Street BART stations. Or, he said, the city should take a hard look at what San Francisco and other cities have done. San Francisco limits both building density and height, but allows property owners to buy and sell development rights to construct skyscrapers. So if you’re a property owner and you do not intend to build a high-rise, then you can sell the space above your building to another developer, who then can add it to his or her property and build taller. As a result, San Francisco has been able to protect historic buildings while controlling land values and spurring growth.

For DC, a transfer of development rights program to encourage the sale of density rights from areas worth protecting (whether they be existing rowhouse neighborhoods or the height-capped and very high value downtown) and transferring them to a designated receiving zone could be a framework to grow the city around in the future.  Designating a few receiving areas, such as Poplar Point, would allow some taller buildings (perhaps eclipsing that dead zone where building up doesn’t make economic sense) to give DC a high rise district similar to what we see in Rosslyn, Silver Spring, and Bethesda.  Doing so with a TDR program would continue to encourage infill development and densification within the city while still allowing an outlet for development pressures in areas of the city we wish to protect.

With any such plan, of couse, the devil’s in the details – but it’s certainly worth considering, in my mind.