Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

Transit Series

October 28, 2009

Image from wallyg on Flickr

No, it’s not a Subway Series.  But really, I didn’t need any motivation to root against the Yankees.  Now, the Phillies are just begging me to hop on the bandwagon:

I have no idea what it costs to charter an Amtrak train, but I love the idea.  As I excitedly noted yesterday the World Series is coming and it’s a pure Northeast thriller with the Philadelphia Phillies taking on the New York Yankees.  Apparently the Phillies chartered a train from Philadelphia to get to New York.

Evoking a bygone era when rail travel was the main mode of transportation in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies rolled into Penn Station on a chartered train about 6:03 p.m. Monday, but they were not looking to the past century for inspiration.

The Phillies previously took the train to the World Series in 1950, when they were swept by the Yankees. But that dreary omen did not deter the defending champion Phillies from using the same mode of transportation that Philadelphia’s Whiz Kids took 59 years ago.

The reason for the train was neither historical novelty nor an exercise in team building in advance of the World Series, which begins Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. It was pure convenience. The distance between Philadelphia and New York is too short for a flight, and a fleet of buses traveling up the New Jersey Turnpike could spend as much time on the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel as the entire train ride.

The only shame about this trip is that the Phillies got the pleasure of starting in the glory of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station but had to end their trip in the travesty that is New York’s New Penn Station

The NYT‘s baseball blog also looks into traveling between the two stadiums using nothing but local transit serivces:

But as seasoned frugal travelers between Philadelphia and New York know, you would not have to take Amtrak at all to get from stadium to stadium. A fan leaving Citizens Bank Park around 2 p.m. Monday could have gotten to Yankee Stadium for less than $25 in less than four hours.1. Take the Broad Street subway from Pattison Station to City Hall, and transfer to the Market Frankford Line and exit at 30th Street Station: $2, 28 minutes.

2. Take the 2:37 p.m. R7 Septa train from 30th Street Station to Trenton, arriving at 3:25: $8, 48 minutes.

3. Take the 3:40 New Jersey Transit train from Trenton to New York Penn Station, arriving at 5:08 p.m.: $12.50, 1 hour 28 minutes.

4. Exit Penn Station, walk to Sixth Avenue, take the D train to Yankee Stadium: $2.25, 37 minutes.

Total cost: $24.75.

Total travel time: 3 hours 42 minutes.


Visualizing DC’s commute

October 24, 2009

Matt Yglesias cites a great infographic from Wikipedia on national commuting mode splits.  The data, from the American Community Survey, again is only for work commutes for those residing within the central jurisdiction listed.  This is a nice visual representation to see how DC stacks up nation-wide.

Since DC’s geographic area is small, both the population and corresponding bubble for the number of workers will be smaller than other cities.  Hence, Boston (population: 609k) and San Francisco (pop: 808k) have similarly sized bubbles to DC.  I’d love to see this same graph for metropolitan areas rather than just core cities, since metropolitan areas are a far more realistic representation of the functional unit of cities.

Nevertheless, given the jurisdictional limitations of the data, it’s interesting to see all the cities represented.  Looking at the data in list form, it’s clear that DC is second to New York in a number of areas, but this graph shows how big that gap is – as well as three tiers of cities.  New York is in a class of their own, followed by a group of transit-oriented cities (DC, Boston, Philly, SF, Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle), and then everyone else.

Columbus Weekend Links

October 13, 2009

I really like these Federal holidays when I actually get them off…

On airport transit service:

GGW had a point/counterpoint on how best to serve Dulles International Airport.  Spencer Lepler argued for using commuter rail along the Washington and Old Dominion right of way, while Matt Johnson argued in favor of the current plan, noting the greatly improved benefits, including access to Tysons Corner and other development along the toll road.   Johnson also noted the technical hurdles to reusing the old railroad right of way.

The entire idea of offering faster service between the airport and downtown DC motivates these discussions, and this isn’t limited only to DC.  Yonah Freemark notes the perils of Chicago’s Block 37 and the express airport service that doesn’t really exist.

In the end, express service to and from Dulles shouldn’t be a top priority.  The existing infrastructure certainly doesn’t make it easy to do so.

So what about the W&OD?  Matt’s post on the challenges to re-use the right of way also raise some potential uses – perhaps using the corridor, in addition to the Silver Line, as a light rail/interurban corridor might be a good use.  This allows at-grade operations in congested areas, as well as simplifying the terminal connection in Alexandria, either as a loop into Crystal City or as a connection to the new Potomac Ave infill Metro station.

With or without the Silver Line, however, I’ll still be looking first and foremost at DCA for flights.

First, convince the Bankers…

The Salt Lake City Tribune has a great article noting the biggest hurdle to transit-oriented development – the banks.

Transit-oriented development isn’t stymied by outdated zoning, unwilling developers or a lack of space. It turns out, banks, wedded to old-fashioned lending standards that stress parking, may pose the biggest blockade by denying financing.

The reason: Lenders operate from a tried-and-true principle that maintains more parking means less risk and a higher return on their investment. But ditching cars is the whole point of urban developers looking to create 24-hour live, work and play environments that hug light-rail hubs.

Take the capital’s gateway district, which soon could be further revived by a North Temple TRAX train, a new viaduct and millions in streetscape upgrades. City leaders envision a walkable, vibrant mix of housing, retail, restaurants and offices that one day will bridge the FrontRunner hub and a new North Temple transit station along downtown’s western rim.

But commercial investors, including one with a $100 million blueprint, complain banks cannot grasp the concept and instead slam their doors.

The first paragraph might be a little over the top, as outdated zoning, unwilling developers, and a lack of space are still huge hurdles, though I might change their language a bit.

Last week, there was plenty of discussion (BDC, RPUS, GGW) of the Post‘s article on DC USA’s woefully underutilized parking garage.  Valerie Santos, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, noted the parking was necessary to convince any number of parties to build the thing – tenants, landlords, financiers:

The District has lost nearly $2 million — or $100,000 a month — since the garage opened in March 2008, numbers that make Valerie Santos groan when she considers the city’s decision to build the structure.

“I don’t want to say it’s a quote, unquote, mistake. At the time the District did what it had to do to attract a retailer it sorely wanted,” said Santos, deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “Am I happy about the operating deficit? Of course not.”

Obviously, there are lots of moving parts in any urban development equation, but overall education of all parties involved is a crucial element.

When speaking of performance parking, Dr. Shoup likes to advocate for removing parking restrictions from zoning ordinances and letting the market decide.  The challenge, however, is that this particular market is not acting with perfect information.  Rectifying that information gap is a huge challenge.  DC USA might have some use as an example of what not to do in the future, but that’s an awfully expensive lesson to learn.


Some of the ugliest buildings in the world?

So says this list.  (h/t Yglesias)

Amtrak ridership is down…

…but still up over the longer tiemframe (Housing Complex)

Exit, stage left

DC Metrocentric takes a look inside the new Arena Stage.

The data wants to be free

Rob Goodspeed looks at municipal data sharing programs, and wonders what differences they make.

ACS Data – How DC stacks up

October 11, 2009

Bike Pittsburgh, courtesy of Streetsblog, has some great, sortable data of how various cities stack up on the transportation aspects of the recently released American Community Survey data.   Bike PGH provides the context, ranking cities based on their percentages using transit, walking, biking, etc.  Looking at how DC stacks up against the other major cities in the United States gives a great deal of perspective as to how we’re doing as a city.

Again, remember that these are commute trips only, and for city residents only.  It’s important to understand the limitations of the data, but this is an even comparison for all the cities involved.  Obviously, this is still not an apples to apples comparison, as many ‘newer’ sunbelt cities are still aggressively expanding their city boundaries via annexation, while cities like DC remain both constrained by static political boundaries and surrounded by substantially urban jurisdictions (Arlington, Alexandria, etc).

Nevertheless, taking all of the statistics together gives a good sense of how DC stacks up.

Biking commute mode share:

  1. Portland, OR – 6.0%
  2. Minneapolis, MN – 4.3%
  3. Seattle, WA – 2.9%
  4. Sacramento, CA – 2.7%
  5. San Francisco, CA – 2.7%
  6. Washington, DC – 2.3%
  7. Oakland, CA – 2.1%
  8. Tucson, AZ – 2.0%
  9. Albuquerque, NM – 1.8%
  10. Boston, MA – 1.6%

Walking commute mode share:

  1. Boston, MA – 14.3%
  2. Washington, DC – 12.1%
  3. Pittsburgh, PA – 11.1%
  4. New York, NY – 10.3%
  5. San Francisco, CA – 9.4%
  6. Seattle, WA – 9.3%
  7. Philadelphia, PA – 8.6%
  8. Honolulu, HI – 7.9%
  9. Minneapolis, MN – 6.1%
  10. Baltimore, MD – 6.0%

Public transit commute mode share:

  1. New York, NY – 54.8%
  2. Washington, DC – 35.7%
  3. San Francisco, CA – 31.9%
  4. Boston, MA – 31.2%
  5. Philadelphia, PA – 26.8%
  6. Chicago, IL – 26.7%
  7. Pittsburgh, PA – 20.9%
  8. Baltimore, MD – 19.5%
  9. Seattle, WA – 17.7%
  10. Oakland, CA – 17.1%

Drive alone commute mode share (presented lowest to highest):

  1. New York, NY – 23.3%
  2. Washington, DC – 37.2%
  3. San Francisco, CA – 38.4%
  4. Boston, MA – 41.1%
  5. Chicago, IL – 50.5%
  6. Philadelphia, PA – 50.7%
  7. Pittsburgh, PA – 52.8%
  8. Seattle, WA – 52.9%
  9. Baltimore, MD – 57.9%
  10. Oakland, CA – 58.1%

All in all, that’s a strong set of rankings.  Bike PGH has the full sortable data if you want to take a deeper look.  For the sake of brevity, I’ve only listed the top ten in each category here.

DC stacks up well in these numbers.  The biking mode share is quite western (Albuquerque?), and transit mode share strongly correlates to cities with heavy rail rapid transit systems.

Transit Planning and the Big Picture

August 20, 2009
1955 Interstate Highway Plan - Wikipedia

1955 Interstate Highway Plan - Wikipedia

A few days ago, Cap’n Transit had a great post up on Paris’ RER commuter rail system, specifically how the system was designed and planned to not only address current transportation needs, but also accommodate future growth:

As I wrote in earlier posts, Paris’s Regional Express Network (RER) of commuter/rapid trains was not simply designed to make connections, but to accomplish specific development goals. The same 1965 SDAURP (Master Plan for the Urban Development of the Paris Region) that laid out the RER also planned the development of the five “new towns” around the region and the suburban campuses of the University of Paris. Anticipating a new wave of residents who would study and work in the area, regional planners under the direction of Paul Delouvrier, the General Delegate to the District of the Paris Region, designed these train lines to connect residential developments with universities and job centers. They also aimed to relieve congestion on certain metro lines that were overloaded, particularly the 1 and 4 lines, the main east-west and north-south lines in the system.

I’ve commented previously on the (potential) similarities between DC and Paris – (Polycentricity and Commuter Rail).  The opportunities for through-running service on  various commuter rail routes, as well as focusing these lines on various employment nodes across the region (Alexandria, Crystal City, Silver Spring, New Carrolton, and of course, downtown).  Now, whether this is the result of active planning is up for debate, as most of those centers have existed for years.  Even if it’s just a happy accident, those centers have grown and great deal and retain potential for future growth as well.

The key point with these ideas for commuter rail systems is that they involve commuter rail, not urban rapid transit.   Granted, DC’s Metro attempts to kill two birds with one stone.  To some extent, so does Paris’s RER, though in the other direction – commuter rail that trends towards transit, rather than transit that trends towards commuter rail.

For urban rapid tranist, however, polycentricity alone isn’t enough.  More investment in the core is required.

The challenge, however, is funding.  As I noted in Minneapolis’ plans, the option for the Southwest Light Rail corridor that would involve the most investment in the core will likely be eliminated due to the higher cost.  Mostly, this is due to the FTA’s emphasis on cost-effectiveness – and how they define both costs and effectiveness.

Yonah addresses the FTA’s issues.  Despite the fact that the CEI is dictating some major decisions in Minneapolis, Yonah shows that it doesn’t even matter in terms of receiving Federal funds:

The results are inexplicable. There is no clear correlation between federal government responsibility and total cost or ridership per mile, or even cost effectiveness. What appears to be happening is that representatives from states and cities go to Washington and hope to get the best deal, and then the FTA makes a financing decision that has nothing to do with relative merit. In terms of per person benefits, the construction of New York’s Second Avenue Subway may be more important than that of any other transit line in the country. Yet the corridor only has a 27% commitment from the FTA; on the other hand, the short extension of Atlanta’s MARTA finished earlier in this decade got a 2/3 sponsorship. Why? Similarly, based on the numbers above, the San Juan Tren Urbano and the Chicago Douglas Line Renovation would cost the same to build per rider-mile, yet the feds allocated 25% of the price to the first and 66% to the second.

The problem with this system is that it makes it very difficult for cities to accurately predict how much money they’ll have to raise from local sources, and long-term plans are as a result often inaccurate. A system such as India’s, simplistic as it might be, at least would make clear that if Houston wanted to build a $2 billion rail line, it would simply need to raise $1 billion — and then the federal government would fill in the rest.

That, after all, is roughly how the Interstate System was built. Congress authorized about 50,000 miles to be built, and when a state got around to building a section, the Federal Highway Administration would simply distribute 90% of the necessary funds — no matter how complicated or “wasteful” the project’s specifics turned out to be.

Of course, with the funding formula for the Interstate highways, there was a great incentive for states to plan the biggest and most expensive freeway projects they could (often in urban areas).  Apply that same mindset to Minneapolis’ Southwest corridor or a New Blue line in DC, and you’ve got a positively reinforcing mechanism – instead of putting the most expensive highways where they’re lease effective, you put the most expensive transit systems where they can be most effective.

Such a set and defined set of plans would also allow for effective long-range planning.  One of the amazing things about DC’s Metro has been envisioning a whole system, and then executing it – rather than trying to have a go at it piecemeal.  And that kind of certainty and planning would enable better regional planning – not to mention the raw ability of infrastructure to attract and shape the form and location of development.

Good News, Bad News

July 23, 2009

Some good news here in DC:

Ryan Avent notes that despite the recession, the District is still a popular destination for people moving in.  It will be very interesting to see where DC’s population number ends up with the 2010 Census.

Bad news:

Construction within the District is way down from a year ago.

But there’s more good news!

Union Station’s bike station has glass!

From around the nation, some other promising tidbits:

72% of Charlotte’s LRT riders hadn’t used transit before.  Like The Overhead Wire, I think that’s a huge number.  Some of it might be to good timing with the nationwide increase in transit ridership and gas price spikes coinciding with the opening of the line – after all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Still, that’s a fantastic number and shows the kind of bias for rail potential riders have.

Small scale solutions to water issues get some publicity in Roll Call.

Most of us think of water and wastewater infrastructure as consisting of big pipes, treatment plants and reservoirs. Few of us recognize the importance of our natural infrastructure — the forests, wetlands, flood plains and grassy, permeable landscapes, which filter and purify water for humans, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and mitigate hot summers in city and town. Our natural landscape provides us with the most cost-effective and efficient system for recycling, reusing and filtering water.

This way of thinking has to change. Our infrastructure is aging. We pay relatively low water rates, which fail to cover the full value or cost of clean and safe water. We are losing more undeveloped land each year along with its trees, shrubs and grasses and are replacing it with impervious surfaces — roofs, roads, parking lots — that allow pollution to be carried off into our waters. We find ourselves in a changing climate, whatever the cause, bringing with it chaotic weather patterns including droughts in some places and greater precipitation and polluted runoff in others.

This kind of small scale thinking is something the Feds should encourage cities to take on, as it fits into their purview far more than, say, massive and expensive deep tunnel projects.  (Hat tip – Infrastructurist)

And one bit of bad news from New York: The Feds don’t like the delays and budget projections for the Second Avenue Subway.

The story is simple: The MTA has been unable to meet any of its self-imposed deadlines, and it now faces the prospects of massive cost overruns and a six-year delay in delivering Phase I of the Second Ave. Subway. Original plans called for the entire line to be constructed by 2020. That is but a pipe dream right now.

The FTA numbers are alarming. The MTA is budgeting for an expected cost of $4.451 billion with a high end of $4.775 billion. The FTA believes a low budget estimate to be $4.978 billion with an August 2017 completion date. The federal government’s high end is $5.728 billion — over $1 billion more than the current MTA estimate — with a June 2018 opening date.

It’s too bad, since mismanagement like this (and Boston’s Big Dig also comes to mind) turns people away from thinking big and long term.

More investment, please.

July 22, 2009

It’s all a matter of time horizons.  If you have a long term investment horizon, you can think big.  If you’re thinking short term, you need something that makes an impact right away.  As this applies to transit and transportation planning, it’s much easier to implement a service, such as a bus route than it is to plan, design, and build a rail line.

Advocacy for change is important, but some are annoyed with the focus on the near term instead of keeping our eyes on the long term prize.  The Overhead Wire takes Streetsblog to task for perceived Bus Rapid Transit advocacy.  Buses are great, and we should certainly invest in them and upgrade them wherever possible.  But we also should acknowledge that they don’t have the long term impacts that rails do.

You want less people to ride transit? Then build inferior transit. In all actuality though, this country needs more Metro Subways. You know, the kinds of things they have in first world countries on the European continent. Washington DC is an example of a place that has developed more recently around the subway. Regions that build BRT will always be car cities. If you want to truely transform regions, we’re going to have to think bigger.

I think a lot of people talk about Arlington County because of the great success it has had in development. Yet no one talks about what Atlanta was like on Peachtree just north of downtown or in the Buckhead area just north of there before MARTA. Not a lot of people seem to realize that San Francisco is much more dense now because of BART and Caltrain connections as well as the Muni Metro than it ever would have been without. In fact, certain companies have pushed the MTA in San Francisco to make Muni better or they will leave. They wouldn’t be saying that if we had a system that actually worked.

The problem with places like San Francisco and Atlanta is that they didn’t go far enough. They built a couple of lines and then stopped. If we truely want to see our cities transform, we need to go further and without BRT as THE substitute idea for Heavy Rail or Semi Metro Light Rail. It’s an outrage to think that people actually think this is a real alternative to transform our cities and turn the population to transit. It’s just us being cheap. We’re already cheap with transit, and look where that gets us. To more people riding cars and more sprawl.

It’s important to note the Arlington County case.  The “Oranjington” corridor is always hailed as a paragon of transit oriented development.  And it is.  But any quick glance at aerial photos from that area shows plenty of surface parking lots yet to be redeveloped:

That section of the Orange line opened in 1979.  We’ve made a lot of progress in 30 years, but the long term land use changes and reinvestment in those areas takes time.

Ryan Avent takes it one step further:

It seems to me that the only thing more remarkable than the great success cities have had when they’ve focused on improving land use around fixed-guideway transit is the fact that cities seem so reluctant to repeat the experiment. Metro’s Green Line through the District has been a gold mine for the city, leading to billions in new investment, thousands of new residents, hundreds of new businesses, and so on. And there is absolutely no momentum in the District’s government to try and create more opportunities for this kind of growth.

I’d suspect the reason for this is precisely because of the long term time frame.  Add in cost factors, and thinking this big is simply not going to happen for most municipalities.  Perhaps regional entities could do better, but the Feds also have to be on board:

A big part of the problem, of course, is that the federal government doesn’t adequately take these kinds of land use changes into account in allocating funds. It’s nonetheless possible for cities to press ahead with these things, particularly since attitudes in Washington are changing. You’d think that someone down in the city government would be like, you know what? That worked really well. Maybe we should do it again.

Indeed.  However, going at it ‘alone’ is a tough road.  It’s somewhat heartening to see Senators considering transit within the climate bill, but transit’s biggest potential isn’t in energy savings but in land use changes.  These kinds of land use changes will make transportation cleaner all by themselves as well as slowly make carbon-friendly lifestyles more accessible to the population of America’s cities.  So many of the problems we face in terms of climate change stem from our land use patterns, yet we treat them as fixed when discussing solutions.  Again, some long-term perspective is in order.

Future ideas for DC’s commuter rail system

July 21, 2009
MARC Train. Image from J.H.Gray on Flickr

MARC Train. Image from J.H.Gray on Flickr

Washington, DC is blessed to have Metro – a great urban transit system.  It’s probably the single best thing to happen to the city in the past 50 years – and even more notable considering the era it came from.  When most cities were depopulating and building freeways instead of transitways, DC built a subway system.  Several cities built subway lines, but DC managed to build an entire system.  Given the dominance of the automobile both in public policy and in public perception during this era, this accomplishment is nothing short of remarkable.

However, the success of Metro can sometimes hamstring future transit discussion in the region.  If people want transit, they want it to be Metro.  Even if Metro (specifically – heavy rail rapid transit – fully grade separated) isn’t the best option for the job.  Rapid transit lines are tremendously expensive and must have high ridership to justify their expense.  Still, when people talk about expanding transit in the DC region (which is good!) they tend to focus on simply extending Metro lines places.  Plenty of folks point out the oddity of putting the most expensive mode of transit out on the fringe – especially when some of those places (Orange line to Manassas, Blue Line in NoVA) already have existing commuter rail connections.

Some of that stems from the hybrid nature of Metro.  Unlike her sister system in the Bay Area, Metro at least functions as a more traditional subway within the core of DC.  However, out on the fringe, the rail speeds, station spacing, parking supply, and distances covered function much more like a commuter rail system than a subway.  Thus, it’s somewhat natural for people in the region to associate a commuter rail trip with Metro’s brand – but that doesn’t make it the best choice of mode.

The solution seems blindingly obvious – many of the corridors mentioned for Metro extension, whether that’s the Orange line to Manassas, the Blue line to Ft. Belvoir, or the Green line to BWI – are already served by commuter rail.  The issue is that commuter rail service in the DC region is sub-par.   MARC and VRE simply don’t have the good brand name that Metro does, and for good reason – the service they offer is inferior.

Plenty of people have opined about future commuter rail service in DC, including both MARC and VRE themselves. I won’t bother to re-hash what are essentially obvious arguments – bring MARC and VRE under one brand, increase headways, increase hours of operation, essentially make these services more like transit rather than just commuter rail.   Similar services in other places, whether being German S-Bahn services or even New York City’s commuter railroads show how these modes can both serve as express transit services as well as reliable transit.

The genesis of this post was simply a couple of things that came up during the past week.  First, BeyondDC made a few predictions on the state of the DC region in 2040.  The one observation that struck me concerned a future second intercity rail station in the area:

Intercity Travel:
Union Station will be past capacity and we will need a second depot, possibly in Arlington. There will be multiple trains per day running several short-distance intercity rail trips to all other population centers in the mid-Atlantic region. Camden Station will become more important in Baltimore. Dulles and BWI airports will continue to expand. National Airport may be sold and the land redeveloped, or it may continue to operate, depending on how much intercity travel continues to be done by plane.

The potential for a second major rail station in Arlington is intriguing.  It also dovetails nicely with this guest post on the transport politic about the future of regional and commuter rail in New York City.  The post harps on one key principle for New York, also applicable to DC – through-routing of trains:

The New York metro area has many stub-end terminals—Flatbush Avenue, Grand Central, Hoboken, Long Island City, St. George—as well as one station, Penn Station, which is a through-station by layout but a terminal by use, except by Amtrak. Such a configuration works in getting people to take commuter rail from the suburbs to Manhattan, but is inherently limited for all other functions…

Manhattan acts as a barrier to transportation, both by auto and by rail. By train, one needs to transfer. By car, one needs to cross jammed roads and pay multiple tolls. Through-running is a way of breaking this barrier by enabling people to live in North Jersey and work in Queens and Brooklyn, Long Island, or Connecticut, and vice versa. Though some people live on one side of Manhattan and work on another today, the current stub-end use of Penn Station lengthens those commuters’ travel time and restricts their number.

Worse, the stub-end layout reduces track capacity. A rapid transit train can dwell at a through station for under a minute, even if it is crush-loaded with passengers trying to enter or exit. At a terminal, the minimum dwell is about five minutes, and mainline trains discharging all or most passengers at the terminal typically dwell more. This clogs the tracks, leading to the absurd situation that while the RER’s central transfer point, Châtelet-Les Halles, serves 500,000 daily passengers on 6 tracks, Penn Station strains to serve 300,000 riders on 21 tracks.

Both MARC and VRE want to route trains through Union Station to serve regional destinations.   For MARC, the obvious choice would be serving employment centers at L’Enfant Plaza, Crystal City, and Alexandria directly.  For VRE, the same principle applies to Silver Spring and even through to Fort Meade and Baltimore.

Combine those ideas with the notion of both expanding regional and intercity rail service, and such routing options could increase the effective capacity of Union Station’s lower level through-tracks, as well as probably create demand for expanded facilities in the DC region.  The potential for inter city from points south (Richmond, Charlotte, Atlanta) terminating at an Arlington station is an interesting idea, creating a situation akin to Boston’s North and South Station – but with the needed track connector between them.  Likewise, Philadelphia’s through-routing regional rail shows the potential advantages of such a system.

This new terminal could easily fit on the land between National Airport and Crystal City.  The potential for connections between rail and air service is also interesting.  The location would provide an adjacent ‘downtown’ with Crystal City, but also a very short trip into Downtown DC via the Yellow line.

Both of these concepts – through routing and provisions for a new major terminal in Arlington – should be included in any future plans.


July 16, 2009
High Voltage - by oskay on Flickr

High Voltage - by oskay on Flickr

The fact that most rail transit systems operate via electric power is usually listed as a net benefit in terms of energy efficiency.  Not only is transit hailed as an inherently more efficient mode (more persons per vehicle, steel wheels on steel rails – as opposed to rubber tires on asphalt, etc), the fact that it’s using electricity is another environmental benefit over gas guzzling cars.  Yonah Freemark says not so fast, however.

Eurostar’s example is a case in point: transportation systems relying on electricity can be dirty or clean, all depending on where the power is coming from. This point is unfortunately lost on most alternative transportation activists, who cite efficiency to support the claimed ecological advantages of using transit instead of automobiles. Yet efficiency means little when the electricity used is being produced by carbon-generating plants.

Now this is undoubtedly true – where the electricity comes from matters.  However, that’s the beauty of electricity and transit systems that use it.  Electricity can be produced in any number of ways, some more sustainable than others.  The key difference, however, is one of scope.  Electricity generation and greenhouse gas emissions are a whole different piece of the pie, dealing with every aspect of energy policy.

Light rail running on electricity may seem clean, because the local point emissions — in the city — are nonexistent, especially as compared to diesel-spewing buses. But if the necessary power is being generated at coal-based plants, the global effect is negative, making some transit systems less environmentally sensitive in terms of per passenger emissions than many automobiles.

Yonah’s referencing the fact that on a pure BTU per passenger basis, rail isn’t that much more efficient than a Prius.  What this measure misses, however, is the secondary effects of transit.  Congestion reduction alone saves tons of fuel from idling traffic, not to mention the savings of switching trips or eliminating them all together.  Additionally, the changes in land use that rail transit enables allows more efficient transportation – walking trips, shorter trips due to neighborhood retail (and improved accessibility), and so on.

Where electrically powered rail transit vehicles have an advantage is in their applicability.  The infrastructure (in most urban rail transit systems) is in place.  The technology is proven.  The same can’t be said of electric cars.  They’ll face the same kind of issues with the cleanliness of the electricity they use, whether they’re plug-in hybrids or pure electric vehicles – and they won’t solve congestion issues or address the new residential demand from cars plugging in while parked in the garage.

Still, these are nitpicking Yonah’s general argument and final conclusion:

The point, then, is that to suggest that transit is ecologically sensitive is more accurate when the source of that transportation’s electricity is carbon-free or at least carbon-reduced. Proponents of transportation alternatives must also be strong advocates of the remaking of our electricity production system.

Transit alone isn’t the silver bullet.  It can only be one part of the puzzle.   Though I think it’s a larger piece of the puzzle than this post would imply, we must remember how that piece fits into the whole energy system.