Monthly Archives: October 2013

Who Should Pay for an LA River Park?

Mayor Garcetti is in Washington DC this week, pushing local infrastructure initiatives like the Regional Connector and Westside Subway. I’m a huge fan of both of those projects, but his biggest priority seems to be lobbying for the most expensive option for LA River rehab. Putting this project at the top of the list is a mistake on both the local and the national level.

At the local level, Regional Connector and Westside Subway will offer a much bigger return on investment. The former will eliminate operating inefficiencies and greatly improve the connectivity of the LRT network. The latter will cut the peak period travel time between UCLA and downtown LA in half. Given that the 10, the 405, and the 110 are among the nation’s most congested freeways, these projects are critical to economic growth in LA County, which is still suffering from very high unemployment. On the other hand, LA River improvements offer tangible recreation benefits, and maybe some tourist benefits, but the economic benefits are largely speculative. From Malibu to Mount Baldy, it’s not like LA County is short on places of natural beauty.

At the national level, the federal agency charged with responsibility for the LA River is the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), which for historical reasons is responsible for flood control. ACOE has a huge backlog of projects that are much more important than a trophy park for Los Angeles. For example, port channels need to be dredged, river levees need to be reinforced, and ill-conceived projects that are ruining valuable ecosystems like the Everglades need to be rectified. It is irresponsible for ACOE to spend billions on a park for LA with these needs outstanding.

For an example close to home, consider the Isabella Dam, which impounds the Kern River in the Sierra Nevada above Bakersfield. The dam has seepage issues and was unknowingly constructed on a dormant seismic fault. This has reduced the volume of water that can safely be stored by the dam, which means that a smaller flood could overwhelm the dam. If the dam fails, parts of Bakersfield will be devastated by flooding. To me, it is practically immoral to spend ACOE money on a park in LA while that sword of Damocles is hanging up above Kern Canyon.

Really, there is no federal concern in an LA River park. If we want to build it, we ought to raise the money locally, and have an honest debate about the trade-offs between the park and other potential public investments.

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When Do Pedestrian Grade Separations Make Sense?

Metro just approved a budget increase for the proposed pedestrian bridge across Lankershim and Universal Hollywood Drive at the Universal City Red Line station, bringing the total to $27.3 million (including $1.4 million diverted from Rail Preventative Maintenance – nice touch). Now to be fair, a lot of the cost of the pedestrian bridge is going to be in the three elevators. This is machinery that has to (a) cycle reliably hundreds of times every day, (b) hold up under exposure to the weather and the, um, indiscretions of the public, and (c) incorporate transparent materials so that it doesn’t attract crime.

But that’s not really the point. The bridge, or an equivalent tunnel, is a questionable expenditure because many people aren’t going to want to use it anyway. I’ll outsource that argument to Damien Newton over at Streetsblog, and move on to the general question of when pedestrian grade separations make sense.

It’s All About Destinations

Fundamentally, a pedestrian grade separation makes sense if it connects to strong destinations on both sides at the same elevation as the grade separation.

When I lived in Boston, I explained this using a simple comparison of three pedestrian grade separations in the city. The first is the bridge between the Prudential Center and Copley Place, crossing Huntington Av:

Everybody in Boston knows this bridge. On the left is the Prudential Center mall, office towers, and residences. On the right is the Copley Place mall and hotels. The main levels of these malls are at the same elevation as the pedestrian bridge, so if you’re crossing, the bridge is actually more convenient than going down to street level and back up. Note, though, that this doesn’t alleviate the need for crosswalks at street level, because it’s still unreasonable to expect people on the street to go up, over, and down to cross, so there are still crosswalks on Huntington.

The second is the underpass from Back Bay Station on the Orange Line to Copley Place, going under Dartmouth St. Most people know this underpass and have used it. It’s at the same elevation as the Back Bay Station subway platform, so it’s useful to connect to that. On the Copley Place side, there’s nothing that low; everything is at least one floor up. If you’re just crossing Dartmouth St, or going from Copley Place to the commuter rail, you’re not going to use this underpass.

The last location is the underpass at Mass Av Station on the Orange Line. Many people, even those who live or work in the area, don’t even know this underpass exists. On the south side, it connects to the subway mezzanine. On the north side, it connects to nothing; you have to go up to the street. The result is that no one uses this grade separation. As a result, at both Dartmouth St and Mass Av, the city ended up going back 20 years later and putting in crosswalks at the street level anyway.

Mass Av:

Dartmouth St:

Crosswalks Make Sense, Even at High Traffic Locations

If you want a comparison to Lankershim, Universal Hollywood Drive, and Campo de Cahuenga, you could take the case of the Leverett Circle pedestrian bridge in Boston. This bridge connected the sidewalks on opposite sides of O’Brien Highway and Storrow Drive, and the mezzanine of the elevated Science Park Green Line Station. These are high volume roadways (Storrow is almost a freeway), and there are ramps to the 93 freeway at this intersection – not unlike the heavy traffic on Lankershim and Campo de Cahuenga, and the ramps to the 101.

During construction for the Big Dig, parts of the bridge had to be demolished and replaced with temporary structures, and some pedestrian movements were provided with crosswalks. The plan was that when construction was complete, the pedestrian bridge would be rebuilt and the crosswalks eliminated. However, walking advocates in the city gained strength, and the Big Dig went ruinously and comically over budget. The reconstruction of the bridge was therefore cut from the project – it was a pedestrian facility that walking advocates didn’t want, and the project couldn’t afford to build.

Today, all legs of the intersection have crosswalks, and it’s a much more pleasant environment without the overhead bridges. This area gets a ton of pedestrian traffic, since it’s part of the recreation paths along the Charles River.

Back to Universal

With these lessons in mind, it’s pretty easy to see that Damien Newton is spot-on about the Universal City pedestrian bridge. No one is going to want to go up, over, and down. A tunnel would be a little better, because at least it would attract people going to or from the subway station, but it wouldn’t obviate the need for crosswalks on all legs of the intersection. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic about the rationality of the players involved, but hopefully the city can sit down with NBC Universal, explain these things, and figure out a better way to spend money on improvements here.

Downtown LA Skyways

We can also see the same factors in play in downtown LA, with the pedestrian bridges built along with all the “new downtown” skyscrapers like the Bonaventure. Since many of the buildings have active uses on the same levels as the bridges, they do see a reasonable amount of use, but they obviously don’t eliminate the need for crosswalks at street level. They’re also pretty cool for filming Batman scenes, so they have that going for them.

Downtown LA Pedestrian Tunnels?

One place I do think we have some potential for pedestrian grade separations is for pedestrian tunnels in downtown LA. For example, the owners of Macy’s Plaza recently announced their intent to connect the underground mall in their building directly to the 7th/Flower subway station. This is a new concept for LA, but it’s common in places like Seoul, where developers seem to really understand the value in having a direct connection from a busy subway station to their retail areas.

At 7th/Flower, I can think of two additional potential connections that might make sense.

The first is a no brainer. There’s a big hole in the ground right now at 7th and Figueroa, literally right across the street from the Figueroa entrance to 7th/Flower station. I’m not sure exactly what Korean Air has in mind for their subterranean levels, but if you’re building a 70-story building, the cost to build a hallway underneath Figueroa to connect to the subway station isn’t that bad. If they’re considering street level or underground retail, this would add value to their project.

The second is a little tougher, and might require cooperation among public agencies and several different private owners. Thomas Properties, which owns the block bounded by 5th, Flower, 6th, and Figueroa, is currently sitting on some vacant space in their underground mall. This retail center might benefit from a direct connection to 7th/Flower too. (Earlier concepts for the Regional Connector had a station right at the mall at 5th and Flower, but that’s just way too close to 7th/Flower and 2nd/Hope.)

Getting to that property would be considerably more difficult. The existing Blue Line tunnel, to be extended by the Regional Connector, ends just south of 6th. Building a separate walkway would probably be cheaper than rebuilding and widening the Blue Line tunnel here. Going under the sidewalk would mean interfering with a lot of utilities and foundation tiebacks.

7th-Flower-area

Maybe – and it’s a big maybe – you could do something by redeveloping the two-story building on the NW corner of 7th and Flower, and providing an integral headhouse that would connect to the existing Flower St mezzanine level. From there north to 5th, you’d go through the basements of the existing buildings, which could be redeveloped. A concept like this would depend enormously on the types of foundations, relative elevations of basement levels, location of underground parking ramps and building machinery, and so on, not to mention the willingness of different private property owners to cooperate with each other. But it’s an intriguing concept to have in the back of your head, anyway.

Back to Universal Part II

Idle speculation about downtown aside, I just don’t see the point of a bridge at Lankershim. Prohibiting people from crossing the street at-grade, as was suggested at the Metro board meeting, is even worse. In general, people are going to walk where they need to walk – they’re not going to make huge detours like going over ped bridges or taking three crosswalks because you avoided putting one in so that you could gap out a signal phase a few seconds earlier. Design that doesn’t address the city the way people actually use it is bound to result in unpleasant streets and dangerous conditions.

Random Thoughts on La Cienega

So the other day, I found myself walking on La Cienega between La Cienega/Jefferson Station and the corner of La Cienega and Washington.

LaCienegaJefferson-general

This area is surprisingly industrial, which makes walking on the west side of La Cienega a little bland – there’s just not a lot there. We’re not talking about the huge factories or distribution warehouses you find in the IE; this is all small scale industry – small businesses and workshops. I have no problem with urban industrial districts, quite the opposite; for example, in my post on the Union Station area, I noted that progressives have a weird proclivity for waxing nostalgic about well-paying industrial jobs in theory, and regulating them out of existence in practice. From a selfish point of view, the world would be a little less magical if I didn’t get to smell See’s Candies making chocolates from the Expo Line when the wind blows the right way.

Industrial uses, by their very nature, have a high ratio of square footage to employees. If the west side of La Cienega is industrial, it’s kind of a border vacuum, so the east side really needs to pick up the slack. The blob of SFR zoning between La Cienega and Clyde (in yellow) really doesn’t help in that regard. The areas that look like they’re zoned for multi-family (in orange) are mostly zone RD1.5 and RD2, which require 1,500 SF and 2,000 SF of lot area per unit, making them relatively low density. Really, there shouldn’t be any zoning this light on the Westside.

LAzoning

For its part, Culver City has both sides of La Cienega zoned industrial, and the residential neighborhood to the west is zoned Two-Family Residential, which only allows SFRs and duplexes. Again, this is ridiculously low for the Westside.

CCzoning

But really, I wanted to write about two specific locations on La Cienega, not general land-use (hey, I said this was a random post).

La Cienega and Fairfax

This first one should be uncontroversial. If you’re walking on the east side of La Cienega (the more interesting side to walk on), there’s no crosswalk for you at Fairfax.

LaCienegaJefferson-zoom-base

This means that in practice, if you wanted to be safe, you’d have to detour all the way to Adams.

LaCienegaJefferson-detour

I’m aware that legally, there’s an “unmarked crosswalk” at Fairfax (as well as crossing Fairfax at Smiley and Perry). But let’s be real here. None of those locations have curb cuts. Crossing Fairfax at an unmarked crosswalk is dangerous, and probably nearly impossible at rush hour. It was Saturday morning, so my friend and I dashed across during a gap in traffic, but I wouldn’t want that to part of my day on a regular basis.

What’s really weird here is that at the signalized part of the intersection, they give you a crosswalk and pedestrian lights to cross to the traffic island – a place that, once you’re there, you have nowhere to go but back where you came. The problem for pedestrians on La Cienega could be fixed relatively easily: just add a repeater off the signal heads for La Cienega northbound on the ramp to Fairfax northbound. When La Cienega northbound is red, turn that light red too, and let people cross. There’s no need to add a new phase to the signal. Just a couple hundred feet of trench, a mast arm, two ped signal heads, and maybe three traffic signal heads. With luck, there’s spare room in the lamp drivers. I’d even accept a beg button here to placate traffic concerns (ped volumes are pretty low, but check out the Google Street view if you think no one walks here).

LaCienegaJefferson-zoom-1a

Now the other issue is less obvious: if you’re walking south on the east side of Fairfax, and you want to cross to the west side of La Cienega, this is a very roundabout path. Same goes for walking north on the west side of La Cienega and wanting to get to the east side of Fairfax.

LaCienegaJefferson-zoom-1issue

You could still solve this without changing the signal timing. Drop another crosswalk on Fairfax, with the signals showing the same thing as the ones at the first crosswalk. Add a crosswalk on La Cienega on the south side of Fairfax, which would run concurrently with the signal phase for Blackwelder. This one would require a beg button; I think the phase for Blackwelder is actuated (i.e. only comes up when a car is on the detector). This one might require some new hardware in the case.

LaCienegaJefferson-zoom-2

A longer term option would be to eliminate the high-speed geometry for the turn onto Fairfax, and tighten that move up into the main intersection. That would free up some space for a pocket park.

La Cienega/Jefferson Bus Loop

This idea will probably be a little less popular, and I’m not sure about it, but I’ll throw it out there anyway.

When the Expo Line was built, the La Cienega/Jefferson station got a 5-story parking garage on the southeast side and a bus loop off of Jefferson on the east side. The connecting bus services are routes 38, 105, 217, 705, and Culver City 4. The 105, 705, and Culver City 4 are just passing by on La Cienega, so in the interest of not delaying through passengers, we don’t want them to turn into the bus loop – they should just stop on La Cienega. The 38 runs from the Washington/Fairfax transit hub to downtown via Jefferson – a route not much different from Expo Line itself, and I wouldn’t expect many transfers. Turning into the loop would be trivial but unnecessary for the 38 eastbound, but would cause delays for the 38 westbound.

The only service for which using the loop really makes sense is the 217, because many trips originate or terminate at La Cienega/Jefferson, and it’s a time point for the route. The 217 never runs headways less than 12 minutes, so the traffic light for the bus loop is really only going to be used by 5 vehicles per hour.

On the other hand, the driveways for the parking garage are unsignalized, so your only option is to turn right onto La Cienega northbound or Jefferson eastbound. The former is fine, but pretty much no one wants to go east on Jefferson – they just came from downtown and probably want to go west on Jefferson or south on La Cienega. Want proof? Go hang out there in the afternoon, and watch how many cars come out and flip a u-turn in the middle of Jefferson. With minimal onsite work, the garage driveway could be reconfigured to use the bus loop traffic light so that traffic can turn left (there’s no current aerials, you’ll have to take my word for it).

A lot of people are probably not happy that the garage was built in the first place. The 476 parking spaces provided probably added something in the vicinity of $10-12 million to the cost of Expo Phase 1. To recover that cost, even with generous assumptions (5% interest rate, 50-year return period, each spot used 330 days a year), you’d have to charge over $4 per day for parking. Currently, the garage is pretty full, so it is being used, but Metro is giving the parking away for free. It’s unfair to subsidize parking for people who can afford a car, considering that the median income of LACMTA rail riders is about $26k and 55% don’t have a car.

I’d have no problem charging for parking, though note that since the garage doesn’t fill up, the marginal value of parking is currently $0. As ridership increases, charging for parking should become more viable. I’d also be pretty excited to see what someone could do in terms of adaptive reuse, and that might be a faster way to recoup the cost of building the garage. But until one of those things happens, why not make the best of things as they are today, and make it easy for drivers to turn left on Jefferson? I’d rather see people drive to a transit station than drive the whole way.

Make Your Light Rail Look Like LA’s

Regular readers know that this blog doesn’t have a devotion to any particular transportation technology. I’m all about efficiency. The best options are the ones that move the most people and goods as fast as possible. Now you can drift off into daydreams about “slow transit” but fact is, people usually want to get where they’re going quickly and reliably. People vote with their feet and if you want their feet on your transit vehicle instead of on the gas pedal, your transit better be competitive. People don’t want slow transit any more than they want slow freeways.

So, if you’re investing money in a light rail network, you ought to make it look like ours in Los Angeles. Chances are your city doesn’t have the density of Manhattan or narrow streets of downtown Boston that make subways the only practical option. If you look at LA’s light rail network, you’ll see a combination of pragmatic decisions that gets a lot out of the money put into the system, and generates good ridership. At the other end of the spectrum are cities where decisions seem to be made based on an infatuation with trains as they worked 100 years ago, and everything else flows from there.

Let me say at the outset that I don’t want to come off as trying to beat up on Portland. I’ve never even been there, and I’m sure that planners there have good reasons behind their choices. Those choices are often driven by regional land use planning rather than just transportation considerations. However, the “Portland model” is inescapable these days. You read about it everywhere, and many cities in the US cite Portland as an example when promoting their own streetcar or light rail plans. So as far as I’m concerned, Portland’s network design in general is fair game. If you want your city’s plans to be successful, I think you’re better off trying to emulate LA than Portland.

There are several ways in which LA’s network design is superior; in order from broad planning down to engineering details, they are: service area, overall route configuration, station spacing, grade separation, and route geometry.

Service Area

The first, biggest planning question is what part of your region you’re going to serve with your light rail system. Odds are you don’t have enough money to crisscross your city with rail lines in any time frame other than the region’s long-range (30-year) transportation plan. For the uninitiated, this plan is where politicians and planners stow the projects that you want but the region has no plausible way to finance. Any project that’s currently on the books to be done by 2040? Yeah, we’re about five years away from it being pushed back to 2050.

That means that you have to make hard choices about where you’re going to build your first line or two. Don’t screw it up, because a failing line will be fodder for a Randal O’Toole blog post and might turn the electorate against you. Well, at least if you’re not VTA, it might.

Many people, from developers to planners to politicians, often see LRT lines as corridors for potential development. This can backfire if the development doesn’t actually occur, or if it does occur but fails to generate appreciable ridership. Instead, it’s better to focus on places where there’s already a lot of travel demand and additional development potential. Since most American cities have relatively low density, there’s plenty of these places around. The takeaway here is that it’s better for transit to be reactionary – that is, serving travel demand that already exists – than it is for it to be anticipatory – that is, serving travel demand that may theoretically exist in the future.

Now take a look at the Los Angeles LRT network.

LAmetro

The first line, the Blue Line, connected downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach, the second largest city in the region. It’s in an area where there’s already a crapload of travel demand, as indicated by the congestion on the 110 and the 710. And there’s virtually unlimited upzoning potential all over the place, even if it hasn’t really been capitalized on just yet. Is it any surprise that the Blue Line is closing in on 100,000 riders per day, while the entire MAX network generates just 130,000? LA’s system generates about 2,800 boardings per mile (with the Blue Line at about 4,000 per mile), about 1.5 times MAX, and that’s without a critical piece of the network even being built yet (Regional Connector).

LA’s other light rail lines follow the same pattern. They serve parts of the city that are already built up, have a lot of destinations, and have plenty of growth potential. The Gold Line north connects downtown LA to Pasadena parallels the 110. The Gold Line east serves East LA and isn’t far from the 60; this line suffers from poor connectivity to other lines but that will be rectified by Regional Connector. The Expo Line serves downtown LA, USC, Culver City, and Santa Monica, more or less near the 10 on the Westside. You could even throw the Orange Line BRT in here, since it serves built up areas in the Valley and is in the same corridor as the 101. All of these freeways are among the most congested in the country, and there’s a ton of demand for more development in these areas.
The Green Line, which runs from El Segundo to Norwalk in the median of the 105, is perhaps the most enigmatic of LA’s LRT lines; it doesn’t follow the same development pattern as the others. Nevertheless, it did better than expected for ridership, and I’m pretty confident it will become more useful as the network is built out. The upcoming Crenshaw/LAX LRT project is underrated as relief for travel in the La Cienega and La Brea corridors, and at any rate, the obvious intent there is to eventually extend the line north and south, making it very useful.

Now on the other hand, PDX built their system with some intent that development would follow the rail lines. They’ve managed to encourage some pretty impressive growth in the Pearl District and South Waterfront, but O’Toole’s been keeping the bills paid for years writing about vacant TOD lots. But here, ain’t no way he could ride the Blue Line and say that no one wants to use it, and Reason has already made a laughingstock of itself in about a year and a half of Expo Line operations.

Despite that, on the whole, I don’t really have a problem with Portland’s service area. They serve the central city and connect it to surrounding nodes of density – such as they are, since Portland on the whole is pretty low density. If there’s a failure of the service area, it seems to me that it’s a failure of overplanning, of trying to force development into certain parcels while protecting most of the city from redevelopment. Others have speculated on this as well.

Overall Route Configuration

Once you’ve figured out what areas of your city you’re going to serve, you need to lay out your routes. In general, you should follow Jarrett Walker’s route design guidelines for bus service: make ‘em straight, make ‘em long enough to aggregate demand, don’t deviate to serve specific points, and try to put something worth going to at the ends. A good yardstick for this is actually to pretend that the LRT network is a freeway network, and ask yourself if the highway department would propose it with a straight face.

LA’s Blue Line has a dream alignment once it turns south off of Washington. In addition to stations in the middle that generate a lot more demand than TOD-types would expect, it’s anchored by downtown LA and Long Beach. Expo Line has a few medium speed curves, but it’s pretty straight, and anchored by downtown LA and Santa Monica. Gold Line has downtown LA and Pasadena. The big knock on the Gold Line in this regard is the really slow curves on both sides of Union Station, which could have been avoided by a straight alignment on Alameda. Now the benefit to this nasty routing is considerable: much shorter transfers to Red/Purple Lines, buses, Amtrak, and Metrolink at Union Station. I leave it to you to decide if the penalty is worth it.

GoldLine-UnionStn

The Green Line, again, is the lone man out. It’s a high-speed alignment the whole way, and has solid demand at El Segundo, but it doesn’t get close enough to LAX to be a real option, and on the east end it just sort of fades away in Norwalk. A short extension east to Metrolink might be useful in that regard, and long-term an extension along Imperial should shore things up. (More on that soon.) Crenshaw’s route is decent, and eventual extension to the north will make it a practical line between LAX and Hollywood.

Again, for the most part, I don’t have a problem with Portland at this level of design. The routes appear to be reasonably straight and have logical destinations. My real issues with their network are going to manifest themselves further down the chain regarding station spacing, grade separation, and local route geometry. However, I do have some questions about some of the outlying route terminals, which look like they’ve been built in a very anticipatory manner.
For example, here’s the southern end of the Milwaukie line, now under construction.

PDX-Milwaukie

With the exception of Milwaukie’s tiny downtown, the area is surrounded by low-density SFR development. There’s a few apartment complexes off to the east and southwest, but it’s hard to see how this area is going to generate that much ridership.

Here’s the north end of the Red Line, ending at Portland International Airport.

PDX-RedLine

We have a station in no-man’s-land in the median of the 205, bordered by low-density residential, an apartment complex or two, and vacant land. The next two stations serve, plausibly, a mall and big box retail, some airport-related industry, and airport hotels, along with vacant land and parking lots far greater than the developed area. The mall might generate some ridership, but you have to think that the hotels offer shuttles, since most people don’t want to carry their luggage from a station to the hotel. Hotel and retail employees would be potential riders.

Here’s the south end of the Green Line, at Clackamas Town Center.

PDX-GreenLine

I have to say, this one is really puzzling. The line ends at a big parking garage at the forlorn edge of an enormous mall. The next station north, Fuller Rd, serves a big parking lot, a few SFRs, some industrial land, and some big box retail. Obviously, the hope is that someday the mall and its sea of parking will become an urban neighborhood. But in the meantime, in between, there’s a slew of apartment complexes – most of which are just far enough way to encourage people to drive, especially since parking is provided. It looks like there might be enough space to put a station near Causey Av. What gives?

The Yellow Line is even worse.

PDX-YellowLine

Its northernmost two stations are literally surrounded by nothing, the southern one being saved only by what appears to be decent park-and-ride usage from people getting off the 5, which is rough with 15 minute headways. The only plausible explanation is that eventually you want to go to Vancouver, but Washington adamantly doesn’t want light rail.

Station Spacing

Now we’re getting into a level of detail where I have real beef with the Portland model. Stations should be spaced about a mile apart, assuming you’ve got enough density along the line to justify them – which you will if you plan your service area and route configuration properly. Closer spacing is acceptable in areas that are very dense with residents and/or employment, or at the very end of the line where slower speeds will affect fewer passengers, but even then, close stop spacing should be used sparingly.

Again, LA’s Blue Line has it right. The stops in downtown LA on the Regional Connector are about half a mile apart, which is appropriate for an area that dense. Things open up to about three-quarter mile spacing from 7th/Flower to San Pedro, and then it’s stations about a mile apart on a beautiful alignment all the way to Long Beach. The only problem is between Imperial and Compton, which is over two miles, and should probably have an infill stop at El Segundo Blvd. The two-mile spacing from Artesia to Del Amo is acceptable because it’s just industrial land in between them. Same goes for Del Amo to Wardlow, where a stop in between would be in the middle of the LA River and only serve a golf course and the Blue Line yard. In downtown Long Beach, we go back to half-mile spacing from Willow to 5th, and the stops are very close on the loop. I could live without 1st and Pacific. However, since it’s at the end of the line, it’s not slowing down all that many riders, so it’s not a huge issue.

Expo Line is pretty much done right too. Stops are about three-quarter mile spaced from Pico to Jefferson/USC, and then more or less mile-spaced all the way to Santa Monica. The exceptions are Expo Park/USC (pointless, only 0.33 miles from Expo/Vermont, shouldn’t have been built) and Farmdale (which splits up the 1.16 miles between Expo/Crenshaw and Expo/La Brea, and wouldn’t have been built except for Damien Goodmon’s shenanigans). Other than that, maybe the Expo/Westwood stop should have been at Expo/Overland to better split up the distance between National/Palms and Expo/Sepulveda.

The Crenshaw/LAX Line is also well planned in this regard. With the addition of Florence/Hindry and Leimert Park, the entire 8.5 mile line will have 9 stations, all on spacing of between 0.7 and 1.3 miles.

The Gold Line to Pasadena goes through older parts of the region and hilly terrain, which doesn’t have the typical LA style half-mile arterial grid of roadways. This resulted in irregular station spacing between about half a mile and two miles, but the locations are logical (you could question the utility of Del Mar and suggest an infill station near Altadena Dr or San Gabriel Blvd). The Foothill Extension to Azusa is mostly two-mile spacing; you could argue for infill stations if the area gets denser. The station spacing for the Gold Line to East LA doesn’t make sense to me; I could do without Pico Aliso (only 0.3 miles from Mariachi Plaza), and Maravilla should have been at Eastern.

The western end of the Green Line, between Aviation and Redondo Beach has spacing a little under a mile, with Mariposa and El Segundo only half a mile apart. This section is reasonable due to the density of development in El Segundo and the development potential in the area. On the section in the median of the 105, there are several locations where the spacing is too large. There should be stations at Western and Bellflower, and a couple stations in the four miles between Lakewood and Long Beach. (Again, more on the Green Line soon.)

In contrast, the station spacing on TriMet is just terrible. For the most part, we can ignore the Red Line and Green Line, which are almost just spurs. Suffice to say that Cascades and Mt Hood Av on the Red Line are too close for the development in the area, and I’ve got to question the spacing of Division, Powell, and Holgate on the Green Line. The real offenders are the Blue Line and Yellow Line.

At the north end, the Yellow Line has two stations 0.70 miles apart, in an area where there is no development to speak of. The stops are then spaced every half mile through North Portland, despite the area being mostly SFR development. But the really crazy section is in downtown Portland, where there are seven stops, all at most a quarter of a mile apart. Stops that close together will inevitably cannibalize each other’s ridership, and the frequent stopping ensures low average operating speeds, which make transit less competitive.

The Blue Line is even worse. Nominally, the average spacing on the Blue Line is about 0.75 mile, but this is deceptive. Take out the four station spacings greater than 1.5 miles, and the average drops to 0.60 mile. Take out an additional four station spacings greater than 1.3 miles, and the average drops to 0.50 miles. That’s 40 stations in 20 miles of track, about the same length as LA’s Blue Line. In other words, Portland’s Blue Line has twice as many stations, for a city that’s not even half as dense.

The station spacing on the Blue Line drops to about a third of a mile in Hillsboro (4 stations), about half a mile in Beaverton (6 stations), about half a mile on the east side (4 stations), and less than half a mile in Gresham (3 stations). Hillsboro and Gresham aren’t terrible, since they are the end of the line, but the short spacing in the middle of the line is bad, because it drives up travel time. None of these places are dense enough to deserve stations so close together, and many of the stations were obviously built in an anticipatory plan.

But even those station spacings aren’t that bad compared to downtown Portland, where the Blue Line has 10 stations in less than 2 miles. Some stations aren’t even 600 feet apart, so close that an NYC subway train would straddle them. They’re equivalent to taking a train from one end of a subway platform to the other. Across the Steel Bridge, it’s the same thing in the Lloyd District, where there are four stations in 0.54 miles. This spacing is awful even by the lowly standards of US bus stop spacing. In effect, it makes transit almost useless for trips going through downtown and the Lloyd District because the time penalty is so high (see, for example, the previously linked Keep Houston Houston piece where the author describes using a bike to bypass the downtown light rail).

TriMet’s schedules suggest that the Blue Line averages about 6 or 7 mph in this area. That was acceptable in 1890, when traveling at 10 mph through an urban environment was revolutionary (and someone said, the dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland). But good god, in 2013, you need to be competitive with driving.

Grade Separation

Another one of the ways you stay competitive on travel time is grade separation, so that traffic doesn’t interfere. In other words, you have to have an aesthetic appreciation for concrete. This means going underground in very dense areas, and judicious use of overpasses and viaducts elsewhere so that your service stays fast and reliable. Where you’re at grade, you want your own ROW or at least an in-street reservation. Mixed-traffic running should be avoided.

LA’s LRT network does an excellent job of this. You get tunnels in downtown LA (including the upcoming Regional Connector), East LA, and a short one in Pasadena. You get grade separations of the major streets, so the Blue Line goes over Slauson, Firestone, and Del Amo, and the Expo Line has a bunch of grade separations so that it doesn’t get stuck in that famous Westside traffic. Crenshaw is going to be grade separated at the major streets. In fact, when people in LA complain, they don’t complain about the visual impacts of overpasses – they complain because you’re not grade separating enough.

At the same time, LA isn’t afraid to go at-grade to save money where conditions don’t warrant grade separation. So the Blue Line crosses many streets at-grade, and the Expo Line crosses Vermont, Normandie, Western, and Crenshaw – all major arterials – at-grade as well. But even when LA is running the line at-grade, it usually has its own ROW. In the few places where lines run in the street, there’s always a physical demarcation, like a curb, to keep cars out of the train’s space.

Portland does have some places where the lines are completely grade separated, where following freeways. The Blue Line, Red Line, and Green Line all have long sections that follow freeways and are grade separated. But in the town centers and downtown Portland, it’s all at grade. In many places, nothing separates the rail ROW from traffic other than striping or pavement textures, which allows cars to enter the train’s space and cause delays. This, combined with the close station spacing, increases travel time and decreases reliability.

PDX-downtown

In downtown Portland, there are also many places where the rail lines cross each other at grade. The Yellow/Green Lines cross the Blue/Red Lines at Pioneer Square, and all four lines merge to cross the Steel Bridge. The streetcar crosses both the Blue/Red Lines and the Yellow/Green Lines at other locations downtown, and crosses itself at-grade in several locations. In addition to affecting travel time and reliability, these decisions will constrain the ability to increase service in the future. Then again, with 15 minute headways on MAX and the streetcar, it’s not like demand is that high now.

Route Geometry

At the finest level of detail, you can hurt your transit line by making individual curves too sharp. These may only cost you seconds at any specific location, but over the whole line they can add up to minutes. (Amtrak, substandard rolling stock aside, spends millions to eliminate speed restrictions on the Northeast Corridor that only cost seconds.)

Yet again, LA does this right. On the Expo Line, you get a 35 mph underpass at Flower and Exposition that would otherwise be a very low-speed curve requiring a three-phase traffic light. The Blue Line has sharp curves at Washington and Grand, but other than that, it’s straight. The Green Line is a dream alignment. Crenshaw/LAX will have an underpass where it turns from the Harbor Subdivision onto Crenshaw Blvd, avoiding a very low-speed curve. The worst line is the Gold Line, and even most of it is pretty good. It has the aforementioned sharp curves near Union Station (again, up to you to decide if it’s worth it), and it’s got a nasty curve at Little Tokyo, but that will be less of an issue when Regional Connector is done. The curves at Indiana are bad, but they’re right at a station, which reduces their impact.

The decision to go at-grade in downtown Portland, along with the at-grade rail-rail crossings, has resulted in many sharp curves and special track work. In fact, Portland is probably a track engineer’s dream – where else would you get to work on so many special turnouts and skewed diamonds? But these alignments result in the need for trains to “hang a left” (or right) at intersections that were designed for cars, or at best, streetcars. This results in low-speed operations that cost your passengers time.

Further out from downtown Portland, there’s some other questionable geometry. For example, here’s the Red Line diverging from the Blue Line.

PDX-RedLineDiverge

That curve has to be close to the absolute minimum the vehicle can negotiate. It’s 5-10 mph track the whole way, and it’s single track at that. Here’s the Blue/Red Lines at the junction of the 26 and the 217.

PDX-SunsetTC

In my humble opinion, that type of geometry is just a giant eff you to riders. It basically says that we don’t care about your time enough to spend a little more money and give you a much better service. In the former case, it’s a stark contrast to the freeway, which gets high-speed semi-direct ramps in all directions. (At least at the 26 and the 217, drivers are getting crappy geometry too.)

You’re Doing It Wrong

If you keep all of these considerations in mind, it’s not hard to see why a system like VTA is struggling. The Blue Line is three-quarters of an ellipse, which means that for many of the trips that it could theoretically serve, you’d be much better off taking a more direct bus route. The tortured route of the Green Line to Mountain View, both overall and in local geometry, is never going to be competitive with driving or even with a direct transit service.

The station spacing, averaging about two-thirds of a mile over the network, is too close for the type of development found in Santa Clara County. The Green Line to Mountain View has closely spaced stops, which combined with sharp curves, ensures that this route is always going to offer low average speeds. In downtown San Jose, the stops spacing is like downtown Portland, and the Green Line has another section of terrible geometry between St James and Diridon. Honestly, I would love to know what possessed light rail planners nationwide and made them think that downtowns needed surface running LRT with streetcar-tight geometry and stop spacing only marginally bigger than local bus service. In an ironic twist, we probably have LADOT’s concern for auto traffic to thank for the fact that downtown LA escaped the same fate.

You could say that VTA would have been a much better comparison to LA-style LRT than Portland, but I wanted to use a system that’s widely known and respected. Pretty much everybody concedes that things have not gone as planned on VTA, so no one is going to show up and model their system after VTA. But Portland is a reasonably successful system that demonstrates the network that results from making different decisions on system characteristics.

Apologies to Portland

Again, I apologize if it seems like I’m trying to beat up on Portland. They’re coming at things from a different place than LA. Portland is building the rail network they want, and trying to coerce land use patterns to follow the rail. In North America, only Vancouver is probably doing a better job with that approach. LA is building a rail network in an existing dense city, with existing land use patterns that have proven to be more apt for rail transit than many expected.

In this regard, perhaps the real point here is that you can have a successful system without following the Portland model. Obviously, given this blog’s relentless promotion of LA-style density, I’m going to prefer the LA model. I’ll leave it to others with better knowledge of Portland to say how well their model is working for their goals. But if you’re looking to build or expand an LRT system, you should consider the LA model as well, and decide if it’s a better match for your goals.

What Do You Mean By Suburb?

Sometimes I think that a lot of misunderstandings in the discussion on cities relate to inconsistent terminology. It seems to me that we have four different concepts of what a suburb is, so if we’re going to talk about suburbs, we need to be talking about the same kind of suburb. In my personal descending order of preference, they are:

  • Los Angeles: typified by surprisingly dense uniform development filled in on a grid of arterial roadways, usually at half-mile or mile spacing. Development spreads uninterrupted until it runs into an insurmountable barrier, e.g. the Pacific Ocean, 10,000-foot tall mountains, or kangaroo rats. This pattern is a legacy partly of the rancho grants, partly of the US public land system. This is what people think of when they think of sprawl, but it’s actually the least sprawly.
  • Northeast: typified by somewhat dense historic town centers, surrounded by low density exurban development. Subdivisions have larger lots, and there are often large relatively undeveloped areas. This is a legacy of development following the pattern of small farms. Virtually all of the characteristics that urbanists like predate the auto age.
  • South: as I noted in my post on Boston and Atlanta, this is basically the same pattern as Northeast Corridor suburban growth but without the underlying pattern of historic cities and town centers. The South is what the Northeast would look like if no one had been living there to start with in 1945.
  • Midwest: like the Northeast, but even more spread out. Subdivisions are built around small, historic agricultural crossroads, and there can be miles of farmland between exurban towns. Midwest sprawl is typified by an urban footprint that keeps growing quickly, despite relatively stagnant populations, as people decamp the old cities.

In the following sections, I’m going to describe each type in more detail, including why I like or dislike the pattern.

Los Angeles

For LA, let’s revisit the patch of development in Lancaster that I used as a counterexample to Boston and Atlanta.

Lancaster

As I said, this is what most people think of when they think of sprawl. Aerial shots of suburban tracts like this are stock images in any urbanist post about how suburbia is a monotonous, soul-crushing, doomed landscape.

But on many of the things that urbanists claim to care about, Lancaster does pretty well. It has a solid grid of arterials on half-mile spacing, and many of the arterials already have bike lanes. You could throw down bus lanes with POP fare collection and stops every half mile that would basically be Jarrett Walker’s dream grid (well, without anchoring). Add some mid-block crossings for pedestrians and boom, you’re good.

Now, depending on the whims of developers and local planners, there can be a lot of cul-de-sacs and indirect streets. You might have a circuitous path to get to one of those arterials – at least if you’re in a car. I’m always a little amused at the hand-wringing over street grids. Y’all were never kids with bikes? I grew up in a place with lots of cul-de-sacs and disconnected streets. We knew where we could cut through. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to make new developments better by bringing back the jog, but this is a much easier problem to solve than those faced by other types of suburban development.

Then there’s that sneaky LA density. Let’s take the block in the image above bounded by J, J-8, 15th East, and 20th East. By my count, there are 483 SFRs and somewhere in the vicinity of 190 apartments (making some conservative assumptions), along with, very roughly, 125k SF of retail. If we assume 3 people per house (in line with Lancaster demographics) and conservatively say 1.3 people per apartment, we’ve got about 1,700 people living in a quarter of a square mile (sq mi), for a density of 6,800/sq mi.

In other words, this patch of the Antelope Valley – mostly SFRs, with a big-ass parking lot in front of the retail, the kind of place that people like James Howard Kunstler would call crudscape – already has a density higher than the weighted density of the Washington DC area, and it’s not far behind places like Philadelphia and Boston. Even if we base the calculation on the least dense sixteenth-square-mile, which has 154 SFRs, the density is 5,500/sq mi. Weighted density of Portland, for reference, is 4,373/sq mi. Oh, and it’s not even built out yet.

That last point is another secret strength of the LA suburban pattern: no one is under any delusions about what we’re doing here. Everyone expects and hopes that those vacant lots will get developed. The home builders want it. Retail and business owners want it. R Rex Parris wants it. And the folks in the apartments on the other side of J-8 aren’t going to mourn the loss of those dusty lots. If you were to liberalize the zoning, eventually you’d end up with dingbats like Palms or skinny-but-deep redeveloped Cudahy lots like you see in their namesake city and places like El Monte. This year, Lancaster changed its zoning to allow accessory dwelling units. In LA, the expectation is that more people are going to show up, and that’s a good thing – the opposite of the premise under which suburbs in New England operate.

Northeast

Now, in total contrast to LA suburbs, where people basically expect and want growth, the assumption in New England is that you have a town perfected by the descendants of Myles Standish and John Winthrop when they settled it in 16-whenever, and all this growth is irredeemably ruining the historic character of the town. Let’s have a look at The Pinehills, a recent major subdivision in Plymouth, MA.

Plymouth

The Pinehills is what passes for smart growth in a lot of the Northeast; the Boston Globe says the state uses it as model, in an article that proves my point by citing a resident as a 10th-generation descendant of William Bradford. The permits allow for a little less than 3,000 houses on 3,174 acres – or in other words, a final density of about 1,800/sq mi, well down into exurban territory and on par with places like Bismarck and Pocatello. New England is the land of two-acre zoning. The expectation is that the intervening area will never be developed. Every suburban resident in Massachusetts subconsciously fancies himself an English baron, entitled to undeveloped wood lots for fox hunting or whatever.

This is a development 45 miles out from Boston. The low density means that it is always going to be impractical to serve the area with transit. The insistence on rural character means that the arterials are unpleasant and unsafe for biking and walking. As I said in my Boston/Atlanta post, every dense neighborhood that exists in New England existed 60 years ago. Tom Menino and Joey C can conjure a few new urban districts out of semi-vacant industrial land, but that’s about it.

It’s important to note that this a fundamentally different mindset, and it affects all aspects of policy. For example, recent MBTA commuter rail extensions like Newburyport serve towns with comically low populations and population densities (Rowley, population 5,856, density 290/sq mi) that have no realistic prospects for appreciable growth. Deval Patrick gets accolades from Streetsblog for proposing “smart growth” density of 4 SFRs or 8 apartments per acre near transit stations, which will produce population densities on par with. . . Lancaster. Of course, that’s only if they actually develop an entire square mile around the station. Which they won’t, because it’s New England.

Despite all of this, the Northeast still benefits from legacy town and city centers. I’m not sure what you can do with the low-density exurbs, but the presence of these nodes at least means that people see what density looks like.

South

With the South and Midwest, we’re into territory I don’t have personal familiarity with, so I welcome any thoughts or corrections. In general, it’s harder to find “typical” suburban development outside of California, because there’s more variability. For the South, I’m going to revisit the Atlanta area: Redan, which is just outside the 285 beltway on the east side of the city. I tried to find an area of development that had some apartments, since they seem to be more common in the South than in the Northeast or Midwest. I’m looking at the area between the 278, Wellborn, Marbut, and Panola.

Redan

This part of Redan has a density of about 4,900 sq/mi, which would make it very dense by Atlanta standards, where weighted density is only 2,173 sq/mi. Part of the problem is that it’s just very hard to pick a representative plot here. The area sprawls so far that the edges are mostly undeveloped, which makes them unsuitable for measuring the pattern in the region. Here’s another shot, west of the 285, in Powder Springs. Looking at the area between Powder Springs, New MacLand, Macedonia, and Hopkins.

PowderSprings

This area has a density of about 2,600 sq/mile, which is in line with what we expect for the region.

Looking around the South in general, using old images available in Google Earth, it does seem to me that more recent development has been build a little more densely – perhaps as developers have realized they’re running out of land? It also seems that the planning and development culture of the South is such that the region wants to keep growing in population, which is not really the case for the Northeast and Midwest. However, I’m not sure if the political and social structure of the South is ready for upzoning and density on the level of Houston or Los Angeles. The low density of the South makes it difficult to provide effective transit and more costly per capita to maintain infrastructure.

The other thing that will challenge the ability to provide effective suburban transit in the South is, like the Northeast, the mishmash incoherent network of arterials. Unlike Los Angeles and the Midwest, the South and the Northeast inherited a winding network of colonial roads that make it very hard to design transit routes that don’t have a lot of turns. Whereas Western runs over 25 miles due south from Los Feliz to San Pedro, in the South and Northeast, you’re lucky to find an arterial road that doesn’t change direction at random and dead end after a few miles. In addition, the insistence on maintaining “rural character” means that there’s often public resistance to widening arterials (even to provide transit) and building things like bike lanes and sidewalks.

Midwest

From a 10,000-foot view, the Midwest seems to have more freeways than the rest of the country, along with bigger suburban lots. That, combined with low population growth, seems to me to make this the purest form of sprawl, and the least sustainable. For our example of Midwest suburbs, I offer up Michele Bachmann’s district: Stillwater, MN. Take the area between 75th St, Neal, McKusick, and Manning.

Stillwater

This area checks in at a density of about 1,200/sq mi, with 300 SFRs and 150 apartments. The weighted density of the Minneapolis MSA is 3,383 sq/mi, so this area is low and it may yet get denser. However, it’s hard to see it reaching Lancaster densities anytime soon. On the plus side, the Midwest does have a good arterial grid.

Notice that many of the subdivisions in the Midwest have large lots – what Californian planning would call “estate residential”, and relegate to a few affluent communities like Acton and mountainsides that are too steep for denser development. You won’t find any development like that in the LA Basin, the Valley, or the vast majority of Orange County. Where it still exists in the IE – for example, Fontana – the lots are being further subdivided into typical LA suburbia.

In the Midwest, though, like the Northeast, there’s no expectation that these areas will ever get any denser. With low population density, a mindset that opposes further development, and far-flung subdivisions, it’s hard to see how these areas could be served well by transit, or become very walkable. When I listen to Charles Marohn, I sometimes have to remind myself that he’s talking about places like Baxter, which, other than being called a “suburb”, has remarkably little in common with a place like Corona.

Summary

I promise you, all of the images in this post are at the same scale. It is interesting to look at them next to each other and compare. The differences that I’ve outlined in this post explain why I think the LA development pattern is the best and why I’m essentially bullish on the future sustainability of LA.

For reference, here’s a quick tabular summary of the differences between these four types of suburbs. Suitability for walking and biking pretty much correlates with density, because if the place isn’t dense enough, you won’t be able to walk or bike to anything worthwhile, even if the infrastructure for it exists.

suburb-table