Monthly Archives: December 2013

Where Should We Have Skyscrapers in LA?

Perhaps as a compliment to my posts on how we don’t need to worry about the pace of skyscraper construction in downtown LA, here are some quick thoughts on where skyscrapers do make sense.

In most cities, high-rises are only economic near the core of the city. For example, I doubt there’s much demand for residential or commercial skyscrapers outside of Boston proper and parts of Cambridge – maybe a few beachfront condo towers, but that’s it. In Chicago, it’s the Loop. Philly, Center City. Las Vegas, the Strip. SF, mostly just SF city itself, but not in the suburbs (though the Bay Area’s natural beauty would encourage some high-rises simply for the sake of views). And so on. Your North American megalopolises, New York and Toronto, have managed to get big enough to support skyscrapers in the first ring suburbs – Brooklyn, NJ suburbs on the Hudson, Mississauga – and a few even further out, like New Rochelle.

So naturally, the focus in LA is downtown LA, with Councilmember Huizar’s proposal to encourage skyscrapers, and architects like Gensler fantasizing about adding 3m people inside the downtown freeway loop.

But LA, with its undense density and highly decentralized employment, isn’t like other cities. Efforts to remake LA in Manhattan’s image would take a tremendous amount of energy, and ignore all of the strengths of LA’s land-use patterns. These ideas are also probably dead on arrival – if you add another million people to downtown LA, how enthusiastic are they going to be about adding the second million?

LA’s polycentric nature means that downtown LA is relatively unimportant in the regional scheme of things. This is a strength, because growth and its impacts are distributed around the region. If you’re in the LA tech scene, you probably want to be in Santa Monica, Venice, or Playa Vista. If you want to make TV or movies, you probably want to be in Burbank. If you want to be in aerospace, it’s El Segundo or the Antelope Valley. The priciest finance and law firm addresses are in Century City. And all of those industries have major nodes in Orange County.

Notice that we covered some pretty major parts of the LA economy without even mentioning downtown. On the other hand, if you’re a major part of the New York economy, odds are you want to be in Manhattan, below something like 72nd St.

Logically, it follows that any of LA’s major nodes are logical places for high-rises. Century City could probably support residential high-rises, along with increased development along the Wilshire Corridor. Santa Monica and Westwood. Hollywood. El Segundo and Long Beach, probably. Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena could support residential high-rises if they want them. I bet you could make a few work in Universal City, Studio City, Sherman Oaks, and the Warner Center. Orange County, I’m not sure it works yet, and that’s not really their style.

And honestly, if your goal is letting more people live closer to where they work, you should support allowing construction of high-rises in all those places. Downtown LA is a small percentage of regional employment, and that number isn’t changing much anytime soon. Channeling all residential growth into downtown LA would have the perverse effect of greatly increasing the number of “reverse” commuters (reverse in scare quotes because the “reverse” direction already is the dominant direction on the Westside).

That’s not to say we shouldn’t allow residential high-rises in downtown LA – we should! If developers want to build them, I’m more than happy to see them built. But we should realize that we have several other parts of the region where high-rises also make sense. We should be happy for that, and allow construction of high-rises in those areas as well.

(Note: any beach city could support high-rises on the shore, but that’s one case where I’m sympathetic, instead of skeptical, to the argument about views – skyscrapers along the beach are like a row of giant middle fingers to the rest of the city.)

A Modest Zoning Proposal

There’s a rezoning effort underway in Los Angeles, branded as recode:LA, that’s going to rewrite the city’s entire zoning regulation. This is a huge opportunity to make it easier to build in LA, restoring affordability and capitalizing on infrastructure investments. I’m planning to get involved and start attending meetings, and I encourage everyone interested in seeing LA flourish to do the same.

Where Are We Today?

First, a quick summary of where we are. Typically in LA, the arterials on the grid are zoned for commercial uses, and the area between the arterials is zoned for residential. For example, here’s the general zoning for Palms and Cheviot Hills.

Palms-CH-RP legend

To simplify things, there are 10 major residential zoning groups in LA, designated A through R5. Note that the default zoning in many New England suburbs equates to the lowest density zones available in LA, which explains why LA isn’t sprawl and is denser than everyone thinks. Here’s a summary of the major residential zoning requirements:


There’s also RAS3 and RAS4, which are basically R3 and R4 with ground-level retail permitted, and slightly less restrictive setbacks.

Where Do We Want to Go?

Now, before we start rezoning, we have to ask ourselves what we’re trying to do here. What goals are we trying to achieve? What do we hope LA will become?

For me, as I have said before, my main goals are affordability and opportunity. I want LA to be a place where low-income people can afford a roof over their heads, and where all people have the opportunity to pursue their goals in education, starting a business, etc. In my mind, that should be LA’s raison d’etre. Better infrastructure, including transit, is not a goal unto itself, but a means of achieving those two cardinal goals. Achieving these two goals would help address many other social concerns. Other benefits that might flow out of that, such as reduced per capita energy use, would be nice, but they’re not my main concern.

Part of my project here is to try to convince you that affordability and opportunity are the two best goals for improving LA. But obviously, not everyone is going to share my goals, and that’s ok. I don’t expect people in Rolling Hills or Calabasas to give a rat’s ass about affordability in their cities, because that’s not the reason those cities exist. The important thing is to recognize and be honest about your goals. If you say you’re in favor of affordability but also want to protect SFRs, you’re lying about one of them.

Of course, there’s a huge social justice and equity component to affordability and opportunity that I haven’t addressed on this blog yet, mainly because I know planning/engineering much better, and planning/engineering challenges are much easier to solve.

Back to the zoning.

How Do We Get There?

If I had my way, we’d just let people build however many apartments they want wherever they want. The collective knowledge of the market is almost certain to be better than anything planners could devise, not because planners are no good but because of the inherent complexity of the system. It would be like trying to do an analysis to figure out how many trees there should be in the forest and where they should grow.

It’s easy to sit around, say “upzone everything”, and then hit the bar and start pounding beers, but that’s ultimately an academic exercise. Any proposal to just upzone everything is probably dead in the water. It’s much harder to come up with a plausible plan that has a chance of being implemented. So here’s my attempt at a plan that I hope could win some public support. As with everything here, consider this a starting point; comments and suggestions for improvement are encouraged.

So, here’s the basic idea. The following rules would apply to areas currently zoned R1 through R5:

Pace of Redevelopment

  • In any neighborhood, 4% of lots will be permitted for redevelopment each year.
  • If a developer consolidates lots, the project requires a number of permits equal to the original number of lots. Future redevelopment of the consolidated lot would need only one permit. This encourages small-scale development.
  • The neighborhood council can decide to permit more than 4% at its discretion.
  • Permits are auctioned off to the highest bidder. This will encourage the best projects to be built first. It also gives opponents of development the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are – if they don’t want new development, they can buy all the permits.
  • Revenue from permit auctions to be invested in neighborhood improvements by the neighborhood council.
  • Permits expire 18 months after sale if no construction initiated – i.e. no permit hording, and opponents can’t foreclose on redevelopment forever by buying up permits for a few years.

Permitted Development

  • Any structure of up to 3 stories and up to 6 units per 5,000 SF lot is automatically permitted.
  • Any structure of equal in height to the 85th percentile height, plus one story, is automatically permitted.
  • Where automatically permitted, 4-story structures may have 10 units, 5-story structures may have 16 units, and 6-story structures may have 25 units, per 5,000 SF lot.
  • Mixed use development up to 6 stories and 200 SF lot area per unit automatically permitted on arterials (e.g. Venice, Western, Pico). Mixed use includes light industry that does not produce noise or odors. Commercial uses not restricted to ground floor.
  • Setbacks per current R4 standards, except arterials, to be per RAS4.
  • Nothing in these rules shall be interpreted as making existing zoning more restrictive.
  • Rules become effective 15 years after initial subdivision is recorded. This would allow owners in new subdivisions some certainty that property won’t immediately be redeveloped in newly established neighborhoods. This provision would have little effect in LA, where most neighborhoods are long established.

When it comes to the large lot zones – A, RA, RE – I would propose allowing them to be subdivided per current R1 zoning standards. After 15 years, the subdivided lots could be developed according to the above standards. But really, A/RA/RE are a small component of the plan. The major benefit is the above rules applied to zones R1 through R5.

In neighborhoods where these rules would result in buildings up to 75’ – the maximum for Type 3 construction – being automatically permitted, the neighborhood council and city could begin to consider allowing high-rises. I’m mostly ignoring high-rises in this proposal, because we don’t need a single high-rise in LA to make the city more affordable and welcome many more future Angelenos to our city.

Parking would be handled like Donald Shoup says it should.

How Does This Work?

Perhaps the best way to explain this concept would be by example. Take an existing R1-zoned neighborhood. In the first year, up to 4% of properties could get permits to be redeveloped into 3-story 6-unit apartment buildings – assuming, of course, that 4% of owners want to redevelop their property, and they don’t get outbid for the permits by opponents. Replacing 1 out of every 25 SFRs with a 3-story duplex where every floor is an apartment isn’t going to change the character of the neighborhood much. Under this plan, it would take at least 25 years for all structures to be replaced – a low rate of change.

In the second, third, and fourth years, the same thing would happen. Assuming 4% of lots are redeveloped every year for the first four years, by year five, 16% of the lots in the neighborhood would have 3-story buildings. Therefore, the 85th percentile height would be 3 stories, and 4-story buildings would become automatically permitted. Again assuming 4% of lots are redeveloped every year after that, in year nine, 5-story buildings would become automatically permitted, and so on.

Starting Points

Again, this proposal is just a starting point. I’d expect a healthy debate about the percentage of lots that can be redeveloped every year, the number of units allowed, and the percentile trigger that permits another story. We could also define a few different zones with different rates and triggers, some more permissive and some less permissive.

I will also note again that this is not necessarily my preferred solution; I’d rather leave more up to market forces. But this is a proposal that can hopefully accommodate a significant amount of new development to improve affordability, spread out the development so that no one area is overwhelmed, and still provide property owners with the certainty they desire.

So, what do you think? Is this a viable proposal? And what would make it better?

Stadiums, Airports, and Transit

A few things in the news lately have me thinking about the relation of transit and special generators, by which I mean all the things in a city that have unusual demand patterns: sports stadiums, concert halls, airports, and so on. It’s all the stuff in a city that you rarely use, as opposed to the things you use daily: homes, schools, employment, retail, etc.

The stories I have in mind are the continued talk about a “direct” rail connection to LAX, and a story that Yonah Freemark tweeted a link to this morning, that only 17% of DC Metrorail trips are non-work trips.

Of course, every city has its own idiosyncrasies, but I doubt that figure varies much among cities. Overwhelmingly, people use transit to go about the normal business of their lives: going to work, school, home, or shopping. That means that more than anything, transit should be designed to serve work, school, home, and shopping trips.

Where does that leave things like airports and stadiums? They should be relatively minor concerns for a transit network. If an airport or stadium happens to be on the way, that’s great, but transit lines shouldn’t be built with an airport or stadium as the primary destination.

Stadiums, in particular, are terrible destinations for transit lines. The Staples Center – a major stadium in a major city serving three major league sports teams – hosts about 250 events a year, which is only a few more than the number of work trips someone with full-time employment makes in a year. Most stadiums serve one sports team and host far fewer events. On a day that there’s no event, there’s no return on the investment in transit infrastructure.

Worse, even when stadiums do host events, the stadium travel demand pattern is terrible for fixed-guideway transit. Home and work trips are distributed through space and time – especially in a polycentric city like LA where the peak direction on some freeways is away from downtown in the morning and towards downtown in the afternoon. But at a stadium, everyone wants to go to the stadium within a few hours before the game, and everyone wants to leave the stadium within an hour or so after the game. The demand is highly concentrated in time, and it’s 100% directionally biased – pretty much the opposite of what you want for rail transit. We have another method of public transit much better suited to this type of demand: buses.

As for airports, how many times a year do you fly? Compare that to how many times you go to work, and that’s an idea of the relative importance of airport transit. Airports are major employment centers, but in the discussions about bringing rail to LAX, that seems to be an afterthought. In terms of convenience, I don’t see how any LAX rail connection will ever beat increased FlyAway service, which offers you a one seat ride right to your terminal. There is a logical front-door stop for LAX rail: a Sepulveda/Century stop on a future line that roughly parallels the 405. I’ll have much more to say about such a line in the near future.

If Jose Huizar Wants More Skyscrapers Downtown, He Should Make It Easier to Build Mid-Rises

One of the more frustrating things about land use and transportation in LA is that we don’t even realize what we’ve done right. Because of that, lately we’ve started to get dangerously close to getting things wrong, as some people are promoting adoption of the worst policies from other cities. See, for example, the current fixation on getting rail into LAX. I’ll have more to say about that soon, but today’s issue is City Councilor Jose Huizar worrying yet again about the supposedly insufficient number of high-rises being constructed downtown.

I’ve written about this issue before, and everything I said then is still true. But today, we have a motion proposed by Huizar to look at in detail. The motion calls everything up to 75’ tall “low-rise”, but by any rational definition 7 stories is mid-rise – especially in LA. “Type III construction” refers to wood-frame construction, the only type of construction economically feasible for mid-rises given the seismic loads that structures in LA must endure. As has been written elsewhere, developers say that due to the cost premium of concrete/steel construction, buildings between 8 and 15 stories tall don’t make sense in LA – once you go to concrete/steel, you need to go to at least 15 stories to be profitable.

I’m in favor of everything on the first page of the motion: getting rid of parking minimums, making permitting much easier, eliminating restrictions on density, and removing limitations on reusing existing buildings as hotels. But on the second page, Huizar proposes prohibiting mid-rise construction in “Zone 1” (roughly everything from the 110 to Flower, from 7th to the 10) and curtailing mid-rise construction in “Zone 2” (roughly everything from Flower to Olive, from 7th to the 10, or within 1000’ of Pershing Square station). I’ve sketched these zones in Google Earth – Zone 1 in red, Zone 2 in yellow – excluding the Pershing Square area.


Now the first thing you might notice in that graphic is that there is a ton of surface parking in the area. If I have time, I’ll update the post with a more accurate calculation, but I feel comfortable saying at least 30% of the parcels in the area are surface parking lots. On top of that, there’s a lot of older, truly low-rise construction, 1-2 stories tall. There’s no reason at all to worry about running out of space for redevelopment, even if you restrict tall building to this area, which you shouldn’t.

Prohibiting mid-rise construction will slow down development in one of the few areas in LA that’s growing as fast as it should. That will drive up housing prices in the area and reduce employment in construction.

But even worse, the motion will fail at its own purpose – prohibiting mid-rise construction will make high-rise construction less likely. Why? Well, if you’re going to build high-rises, you need to attract the kind of people who can afford high-rises. And the kind of people who can afford high-rises expect a lot of amenities in the neighborhood like shopping and restaurants. The easiest and fastest way to increase the amenities of the neighborhood is to make it easy for developers to construct the kind of buildings they want – in this case, a lot of mid-rises.

The high-rises? They’ll come naturally when the neighborhood becomes more desirable. We’re already seeing that in the more established parts of downtown. So if Huizar wants more skyscrapers downtown, he should make it easier to build mid-rises.

Gold Line Foothill 2B on the Cheap

In my post on the virtues of LA’s LRT system, I noted that from a network perspective, you want to avoid building anticipatory lines and start with where you already have demand. The Gold Line Foothill Extension Phase 2B is a little weak in that regard; the northern edges of the San Gabriel Valley are lower density (by LA standards, though still higher than most US suburbs). In theory you could allow a lot of new development there by upzoning, but who knows if it will happen? Indeed, the project has many features that should give you pause: extension for the sake of extension, lower density areas, shared ROW and expensive infrastructure (long flyovers at Lone Hill Av and Towne Av) to accommodate low-volume freight without upsetting FRA bureaucrats.

As a result of this, the project has been taking some licks on Twitter recently from folks like Erik Griswold and Market Urbanism. The momentum behind Phase 2B has been compared unfavorably to the lack of double-tracking and other improvements to Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line. However, between LA Union Station and La Verne, these routes don’t serve the same places. The obvious advantage of Metrolink is that it will (should) be a much faster ride from Pomona to LA Union Station, serving the middle of the San Gabriel Valley (Covina, Baldwin Park, and El Monte). The Gold Line serves Pasadena, a regional node (and regional nodes are more important in LA than other cities), along with Northeast LA and the northern fringe of the San Gabriel Valley (Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Irwindale, Azusa, Glendora,  and San Dimas).

So it seems like there is still value in a transit service along the corridor. However, since the nature and density of development aren’t right for full-blown LRT, we should consider a much more cost effective option. This would be sort of like the old “interurbans”, borrowing from shared infrastructure best practices in places like Karlsruhe.

I’d split the project into three sections:

  • Azusa/Citrus to Glendora (1.1 miles): this section would remain typical double-track LRT, and run on the same headways as the existing Gold Line.
  • Glendora to La Verne (5.8 miles): this section would be single-track with a single passing siding at San Dimas, and run on 15 minute peak headways.
  • La Verne to Montclair (5.3 miles): this section would operate over the existing Metrolink San Bernardino Line, which is presently all double-track, and run on 15 minute peak headways.

Note that throughout, I’m assuming the existing freight track and grade crossings between Azusa and La Verne are unsuitable for conversion to LRT operations, and must be replaced entirely. This may or may not be true.

Azusa/Citrus to Glendora

I’m a little more optimistic about the Gold Line to Azusa than some people. A huge new master-planned community, Rosedale Azusa, is under construction on the north side of Azusa/Citrus Station, and it will have a ton of apartments and townhomes on the part of the site closest to the station. Across the city line, Glendora just annexed some adjacent vacant land, suggesting that someone may have development plans in store there as well.

In terms of the development along the corridor, Glendora is pretty similar to Azusa. Therefore, I’d keep this section double-track, all at grade except for the diagonal crossing of the intersection of Grand and Foothill. The Glendora Station should be located at this intersection, which means it would have to be an elevated station. The reason that the station should be here, instead of at Vermont, is that this location facilitates a transfer to transit on Grand, one of the main north-south arterials in this part of the San Gabriel Valley. (I should add a rule to my network design principles: never build infrastructure that screws up an obvious future line.)

The freight track that’s been maintained from Azusa/Citrus west as part of Phase 2A would tie in to the LRT track just east of Azusa/Citrus. An at-grade runaround track would be provided at Glendora Station, since the viaduct grades would be too steep for freight.


This section would require track, signals, OCS, and traction power infrastructure similar to what’s proposed under the current Phase 2B plan.


Ok, so far all I’ve done is increase the cost of the project. Fortunately, we’ll more than make up for it on the rest of the corridor.

Glendora to La Verne

At almost 6 miles but with only one station, this portion runs through less intense development in Glendora, San Dimas, and La Verne.

This section should be built as single track, with the track located so that constructing a future second track would be easy. Since vehicle malfunctions most often occur at stations, the logical place for the sole siding is at San Dimas station. This station would be a center platform with pedestrian at-grade access, located just east of San Dimas Av. With a critical single-track section of just less than 5 miles, if we assume an average operating speed of 50 mph between Glendora and San Dimas, it will take a train 6 minutes to traverse this section. With 6 minutes eastbound, 6 minutes westbound, and some schedule pad, the target 15 minute headway is achievable.

We should also eliminate the dedicated freight track on this section. Freight can run at night or during midday on the same track as the LRT trains. The current design for this section has two long, costly flyovers, one each at Lone Hill Av and Towne Av, so that the exclusive freight track can run on the north side of the ROW and service customers on the north side of the track between those streets. The freight track runs on the south side in the rest of the project. It is illogical to spend so much money on exclusive track and grade separations for a freight branch currently serving one train per day, with little prospect for growth.

Significant cost savings can be achieved just through building only one shared track instead of two LRT tracks and one freight track, but there are additional savings that could be had in systems (a nebulous term that refers to signals, OCS, and traction power).

LA’s existing LRT network runs on fixed-block cab signals. Current LACMTA design criteria specify that the LRT branch lines (i.e. everything except the future Regional Connector and the existing Blue/Expo between 7th/Flower and the Flower/Washington junction) must be able to support 3 minute headways. Minimum headways are a major driver of costs in signal systems, because shorter headways require shorter blocks, which means more signal locations and all their expensive equipment. If we’re going for 15 minute headways, designing the signals for 3 minutes is overkill, and we could go with much longer blocks. Really, there’s no need to have any signal blocks between Glendora and La Verne, other than at the San Dimas siding.

We could take this a step further and say that we don’t really need cab signals – at all. Even the FRA (more on them later) allows you to run 59 mph with no signals and 79 mph without cab signals, speeds well above what would be necessary for this service. For the purposes of cost estimating, let’s say we have cab signals. I’m not willing to accept the risk of a train overrunning a signal at San Dimas, resulting in two trains heading towards each other on single track, with neither train being warned of the impending collision. Since all trains will presumably be stopping at San Dimas, we can put out a fixed approach signal heading into the station in each direction. On the five mile section between Glendora and San Dimas, we’ll need a few cut sections, which should be placed such that they don’t interfere with logical future infill stations, say at Loraine and Lone Hill.



The final cost savings we can squeeze out of this section is using spring switches instead of power machines. The switch is set up so that a spring holds the switch in the correct position for facing moves (trains that are heading towards the switch points, from the single-track to the double-track). For trailing moves (trains heading from the double-track to the single-track), the weight of the train pushes the switch points into the correct position, compressing the spring. Thanks to some railfans in Virginia, we have confirmation that spring switches are used on mainline LRT operations.

For traction power, we could save money by building fewer or smaller substations, since we won’t need as much juice to support 15 minute headways. The next step would be to consider eliminating electrification altogether, which I’ll address separately. For cost estimating, assume the line is electrified.


La Verne to Montclair

Between La Verne and Montclair, we already have two tracks. Headways on the San Bernardino Line are constrained by a long single-track section that’s stranded in the middle of the 10 between the 710 and El Monte. Fixing that is probably a billion dollar project, which won’t be happening anytime soon. So let’s make the most this double-track capacity and just run the Gold Line trains on these tracks.

Since we’re saving money elsewhere, why not make this project benefit Metrolink too? Today, the SB Line bumps up against Arrow Hwy just east of San Dimas Canyon, just across the street from the Gold Line corridor. The SB Line then curves south before meeting up with the Gold Line ROW east of White Av, after a 40 mph reverse curve that crosses Arrow Hwy at grade. The fix would be to swing the SB Line north onto the Gold Line ROW east of San Dimas Canyon. Arrow Hwy could fly over the SB Line on a new highway bridge; there are no intersections or driveways to preclude the bridge, and there’s plenty of ROW. I’m showing this as an optional cost. The Gold Line would merge with the SB Line here at a new interlocking.

The combined single-track railroad would cross Wheeler, A, D, E, and White at-grade, merging in with the existing double track section of the SB Line east of White. La Verne Station would be a center platform just west of E.


At Pomona, Claremont, and Montclair, new high level platforms would be needed for the Gold Line. At Montclair, a new siding track would be built on the north side of the ROW so that Gold Line trains could layover at the station without interfering with Metrolink operations. Fortunately, there’s an existing interlocking just across Monte Vista, so the siding track could be added to that interlocking rather than being an entirely new interlocking. The westbound home signal on the northernmost track would need to be relocated.


Again, for the purposes of cost estimating, assume that the line is electrified and uses cab signaling. I’ll explain electrification and signaling concerns like PTC in more detail below.



Avoiding the cost of electrification infrastructure is another way to save capital costs. The service could be operated with DMUs from Montclair to Glendora, with passengers transferring to the Gold Line there. The disadvantages are significant: forced transfers, introduction of new type of rolling stock, captive fleet, inability to interline with the Gold Line, and inability to change service patterns without incurring major capital costs.

There are also disadvantages to electrification: freight limitations due to wire height, and the introduction of traction return current on the SB Line between La Verne and Montclair.

To me, the advantages of electrification outweigh the drawbacks. It is undesirable to have a captive fleet of a new type of rolling stock, especially such a small fleet, and the transfer is a major inconvenience to passengers. Finally, it is bad form to lock in service patterns with hard infrastructure constraints.

Meanwhile, the disadvantages of electrification are relatively easy to address. It is possible to construct the OCS to be high enough to accommodate double stack freight clearances (22’-6”). For example, UTA’s Trax LRT system is set with a wire height of approximately 22’, which would allow for double-stack freight. I’m not sure if LACMTA’s existing LRT vehicles have pantographs capable of operating on wires that high, but it would be a reasonable assumption.

At any rate, between Glendora and La Verne, we’re talking about a minor dead-end freight branch line with low volume, all of which is local traffic. BNSF isn’t about to start running double-stack unit intermodal trains here like they do on the 91 Line. Between La Verne and Montclair, there’s probably a little more freight, but UP is running the majority of its traffic on the Los Angeles Sub and the Alhambra Sub. There aren’t any active customers between La Verne and Montclair, so any oversize items could be brought in from either the west via the Alhambra Sub or the east via the San Gabriel Sub. For the freight service that’s going to be operating here for the foreseeable future, 19’ of clearance would be just fine.

The existing signal system on the SB Line between La Verne and Montclair is probably not compatible with traction return current in the rails. The existing system most likely uses electronic track circuits, which use coded pulses of electricity in the rails to communicate information about track occupancy and signal aspects to adjacent signal locations. This system can be modified by adding equipment that uses a modulating frequency to distinguish the signal information from traction return and cab signal indications for trains. Cross bonds at signal block boundaries would also be required.

Platform Height, Length, and Width

Current LACMTA design standards call for LRT platforms to be built for level boarding (3.25’ above top of rail), long enough to accommodate three-car trains. Level boarding is absolutely the way to go, for legal reasons (ADA), moral reasons (equality of access), and practical reasons (boarding/alighting efficiency & vehicle interoperability).

However, three-car trains are probably overkill for service on this line, so I’m going with one-car trains. This does save a little money on construction costs. It should go without saying that space should be left to extend the platforms to three-car length in the future. If you want to get really chintzy, you could build wooden platforms, but for the sake of argument, I’m going to assume typical concrete platforms.

Level boarding platforms that comply with ADA requirements on the gap between an LRT vehicle would have a platform edge 54.77” (4’ 6.77”) off track center per LACMTA standards. These platforms are therefore not compatible with normal mainline passenger or freight equipment, which is up to 5’ 4” off track center. For Glendora and Montclair, which would be exclusive Gold Line use, that’s not an issue. For San Dimas Station, where freight would likely be run at night, the platform could be built with flip-up edges to allow passage of freight.

For La Verne, Pomona, and Claremont, that wouldn’t be acceptable, because Metrolink equipment needs to run at the same time as Gold Line equipment. These platforms could be designed with 5’ 8” clearance and platform extenders, similar to those that NYC MTA had at the old South Ferry station. Mechanical components are undesirable, especially at open stations, because they require diligent maintenance, but I don’t see a way around this that wouldn’t have high capital costs, like gauntlet tracks. (And really, it’s a symptom of how spoiled we are in the US that people would argue for millions of dollars in capital costs to avoid having to do regular maintenance.) I’ve included an allowance for platform extenders in the costs.

Service Pattern

By going with one-car trains, I’ve tipped off that I don’t plan on making the service a straight extension of some Gold Line trains. I propose that the new service run one-car trains between Montclair and Pasadena. An offsetting number of three-car Gold Line trains would short turn at Pasadena so that the number of trains on the line between Pasadena and Montclair would stay the same.

service pattern

The short turn three-car trains would turn at Sierra Madre Villa, where there’s already an interlocking just west of the station. To expedite the short turns, home signals would be added at the east end of the platform. The one-car trains would turn just south of Fillmore, where an interlocking and short new siding would be constructed at what appears to be a previous siding location. The overlap complicates operations, but it’s logical given that it results in all short turn trains serving all Pasadena stations. I’m assigning a capital cost here of $3m ($2m for signals, $500k for track, $500k for OCS & miscellaneous crap).


A more ideal setup would be as I’ve sketched below, because it would allow the short turn trains to diverge and merge without interfering with opposing traffic. There may be space for this if you do strip ROW takings to the north and south, but I’m not going to make that assumption.


A rapid transit service that has some vehicles turn back before the end of the route is more operationally challenging than one where all trains run to the end of the line. You’re trying to insert the short turn trains back into traffic quickly enough that they don’t delay following outbound trains, but without screwing up the inbound headways either. A scheme with all three-car trains, and some turning back at Glendora, would have one such location (Glendora). The scheme proposed above has two such locations (Glendora and Pasadena) and is therefore a little trickier.

However, it offers considerable savings on the capital cost side because it allows shorter platforms and reduces the size of the vehicle fleet needed to operate the service. It also reduces traction power loads, which reduces the costs of substations. There are operations cost savings as well, since a one-car service will use less electricity. (The operations costs won’t be 1/3 of a three-car train, since much of the cost is the labor of the driver.)

Not to short change the operational challenge of running this type of service pattern, but if the MBTA can make the Green Line work, with its 90-second headways, multiple turnback locations, and merges from branch lines that aren’t even under central control, we can make this work.

Regulation Protestation

You didn’t think I would just come out and propose some crazy Euro scheme without at least considering the US-specific regulations that have precluded this type of service, did you?

Freight Clearances

First of all, on the freight side, if UP has retained final say over freight clearances on the SB Line, that is a potential fatal flaw, because it would be virtually impossible to overrule them. Getting CPUC to approve the clearances might be challenging enough. The cost of building gauntlet tracks at La Verne, Pomona, and Claremont would probably exceed what could be justified by expected ridership. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that flip-up platform edges are acceptable.

PTC and Cab Signals

We’re getting to some genuine weirdness here. But let’s think everything through.

  • LRT trains won’t interface with the PTC system. But they’ll be forced to stop by the cab signals, so they won’t rear end each other or Metrolink trains.
  • Metrolink trains won’t interface with the cab signals. But they’ll be forced to stop by the PTC system.
  • If a Metrolink train is accidentally dispatched onto the Gold Line, it will be stopped by a PTC wayside unit fixed at stop. (Freight running at night would be stopped by the PTC and call dispatch for permission to proceed.)
  • If a Gold Line train is accidentally dispatched to the west of La Verne or east of Montclair, it will be stopped by getting no cab signal. (Electrification infrastructure should extend just far enough west and east to allow the train to remain on the wire in the event of such a mishap.)

That leaves the issue of the Gold Line interface with the “kitchen sink” functionalities of PTC – the miscellaneous goodies that have nothing to do with the Chatsworth crash that supposedly moved Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. In this case, that means overspeed derailments and work zone incursions.

The normal speed profile of this section of track would be enforced by the cab signals. But any slow orders would not; nor would temporary speed restrictions for work zones. Fitting the LRT fleet with PTC equipment would cost a lot of money. Can’t we just admit that PTC was a huge boondoggle, and. . .

(muffled sounds of struggling as FRA goons drag me out into the streets of Palms and beat me with spare Colorado Railcar parts)

Ok, where was I? If we can’t get an exemption from PTC functionality for the LRT trains, it should theoretically be possible to interface the PTC system with the cab signals, and use software to drop the cab signal when there’s a slow order or work zone. I’m not a huge fan of unique installations like that but as a last ditch solution, it might be acceptable.

Current Wars

There is one other issue that I’ve ignored so far: any future Metrolink electrification would likely use that punk Tesla’s AC distribution system, 2x 25 kV, while LRT uses DC at 750 V. You could write volumes on it, but for now, note that DC systems have proven to be the most common choice for LRT, while 2x 25 kV AC is the standard for commuter rail and intercity trains. Ultimately, this problem will have to be solved by having a small dedicated fleet of trains for this LRT service capable of running on both 750 V DC and 2x 25 kV AC. Dual mode trains are nothing new.

Metrolink electrification is not on the horizon, it doesn’t make sense to introduce 2x 25 kV AC on such a short segment of track, and it doesn’t make sense to procure a new, small, unique vehicle fleet if it can be avoided. The cost of a few dual mode vehicles for this service would practically be a rounding error in the overall cost of Metrolink electrification, but would be a major expense for this service as a standalone project. Therefore, I see no issue with going with 750 V DC for the time being.

What About Wheels?

Some light rail systems that are streetcar legacy systems, like the MBTA Green Line, use vehicles with wheels that have a flange depth less than mainline rail. These systems also often use flange-bearing frogs through turnouts. Using that type of turnout is not an option if you’re sharing tracks with mainline commuter and freight trains. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of wheels LACMTA LRT vehicles use, or if it’s an issue to run shallow flange wheels through mainline rail special trackwork – perhaps a reader could provide some insight? The answers to these questions could have some bearing on what turns out to be the most practical choice.

Total Cost

Throwing some money at design and contingencies, we come out at about $130m, or just over $10m/mile. Not bad for 12.2 miles of new rail transit, right?


Rough Schedule and Cycle Time

Based on typical speeds, I’d expect end to end running time from Fillmore to Montclair to be about 47 minutes. Allowing 5 minutes for turn at Fillmore and 8 minutes for turn at Montclair, that’s a cycle time of 105 minutes. To run 15 minute headways, you’d only need 7 vehicles. Meanwhile, short-turning an equivalent number of three-car trains at Sierra Madre Villa instead of Azusa/Citrus reduces peak period requirements by 6 vehicles. (See that? See what I did there?)

Moar Cheaper Pleez

The obvious ways to drive down costs even further are (a) start the single-track concept at Azusa/Citrus and (b) avoid electrification and the changes to signaling that result from it. The problem with (b) is that you then have to procure new vehicles, either dual modes or DMUs (which would never be allowed in the downtown tunnels because of fire hazards) or new EMUs that have battery backup for running between the SB Line merge and Montclair. With the latter, I’m assuming that you’d still electrify the line from Azusa/Citrus to the SB Line merge, and provide recharge capability at Montclair so that trains wouldn’t get stranded.

I estimate the cost of option (a) as $115m. For option (b) with EMUs, I estimate the cost at about $107m. For option (b) with DMUs, I estimate the cost at about $84m. For both scenarios in option (b), I included a vehicle cost of $10m. That’s much less than it would cost to procure a new fleet of 10 vehicles for the service, but I’m crediting these alternatives for reducing LRT fleet requirements. Ignoring that credit would bring the costs closer to $150m for EMUs and $125m for DMUs. This assumes that the new vehicles could be maintained at existing yards and shops.

Think About Your Future

There’s one final thing to consider when building infrastructure, and it’s especially true of rail infrastructure: it’s never going to be cheaper or easier to build it than it is right now, when nothing’s in the way. A surefire way to look foolish in front of the public is to undersize something and have to expand it in 5 years.

Adding a second track is more costly when you have to work around an active railroad instead of on an almost vacant ROW. That means if you are going to build a “startup line” or single-track line, you need to be pretty certain that the single-track will be sufficient for long enough to make the future capital premium worthwhile in today’s money. I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of writing this post if I didn’t think a single track would work for a while, but this is still something to take seriously.

Fire Away

Alright, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of questions and issues I missed, and this isn’t a slam dunk. So, fire away: tell me what I got right, what I’m overlooking, what I could improve, and your thoughts on the overall viability.

Should We Worry About Highway Subsidies?

I touched on this issue way back when I wrote about the gas tax, but I’d like to expand the thought.

One of the most common criticisms of auto infrastructure from transit and smart growth activists is that drivers don’t pay the full cost of roads – the gas tax and other associated fees have not been increased enough to keep pace with spending new construction and backlogged maintenance. Much of the money spent on highways comes from property taxes, which you pay regardless of if or how much you drive. Counter to this, you have folks like Randal O’Toole, who note that no transit agency in the country covers even its operating costs with fare revenues, let alone capital costs. Transit agencies don’t pay property taxes, but they run buses over roads paid for by those taxes. In addition, the federal government and many states have dedicated part of their gas tax revenues to transit, meaning that drivers subsidize transit.

Still Not User Fees

As I said in my post on the gas tax, I don’t see how transit activists can win under the “user fee” framework. Some, like Cap’n Transit, claim that transit would make money if drivers were forced to pay the full cost of driving. However, given typical farebox recovery ratios on US transit systems (about 25%-50%), I don’t see how that could happen. Assuming farebox recovery is currently 50%, an agency would have to either double the number of people on each vehicle, double the amount of money extracted from each rider, cut unit operating costs in half, or some combination of the three. (Note that just doubling ridership doesn’t cut it if you have to run additional vehicles, since that costs money.)

Realistically, it seems to me that a scenario in which a transit agency has 100% farebox recovery is a scenario in which low ridership routes are eliminated, low ridership stops are eliminated, off-peak service is reduced, and peak service fares are higher. Now, maybe you’re fine with that scenario, but you should back up, read your Jarrett Walker, and ask yourself what you’re actually trying to do with your transit service. Are you ok balancing the transit agency’s books by raising fares on people too poor to afford cars? Are you ok with stranding people who live on low volume routes? Are you ok telling your city’s late-night crowd to suck it up and pay for a cab?

Generally, though, the agency is being asked to provide some minimal level of service to all parts of the region, for some minimum span of service, regardless of profitability. In that context, it’s not consistent to expect the agency to be profitable. There are also many benefits that accrue to society as a whole that the agency can’t capture – for example, if someone chooses to ride transit instead of driving, there are benefits to air quality from less congestion. In that sense, we aren’t “subsidizing” transit, we’re making an investment in the public domain that ought to produce future public benefits exceeding the cost.

And here’s the thing: many of the same arguments apply to roads.

For example, implementing tolls or increasing the gas tax is only progressive at the crudest level of analysis. In general, transit riders are poorer than drivers, but there is huge variability within drivers. Within the driving population, these taxes might be regressive, since wealthier drivers can afford to live closer to work. Like low volume transit routes, it is expensive per capita to provide arterial roadways to rural areas, but we’ve decided that in our society everyone deserves some base services. We also expect roads to produce benefits to society that aren’t directly captured by the government agency in charge of roads – for example, when rubber-tire internal-combustion trucks became available, there was a large reduction in the amount of horse poop lying in city streets. (The memories have faded, so we don’t often think of the horse poop benefits of trucks nowadays.)

Public Services Framework

In fact, both roads and transit could be considered public services like police and public schools, and we certainly don’t expect the police department or elementary schools to fund themselves entirely from user fees.

In that case, why charge drivers anything for road use (or why charge patrons anything to ride transit)? There are two reasons to charge for public goods:

  • Negative externalities (in this case, mostly air pollution and GHG emissions)
  • Overuse (in this case, congestion)

With this framework, the gas tax serves both purposes: it imposes a base usage fee that discourages people from driving for no reason, and it taxes people in proportion to the amount of pollution they create. The gas tax should probably be increased nationally because of the high costs of air pollution and GHG emissions. Some states or metro areas might consider a further increase as a base congestion charge. Managed toll lanes, like exist on the 91 and the 110, should be implemented on a larger scale to help deal with congestion during peak periods.

Another nice feature of this framework is that it’s perfectly logical to charge drivers more than it costs to maintain the road if demand is very high. The surplus can be used to fund other parts of the transportation system. For example, New York charges very high tolls on the Hudson River bridges and dedicates the surplus to transit operations. It’s also reasonable under this system to charge wealthy Acela patrons more than it costs to run those trains, and subsidize other services.

It always seems like a pretty cynical argument to me when I hear transit activists argue that “drivers should pay the full cost of roads”. Under a counterfactual where highway user fees generated more than enough money to cover maintenance of existing roads, would they be arguing that the rest of the fees should be used on roadway expansion capital projects? Of course not. Taking roads and transit to be public services results in a more consistent argument.

What About Overbuilding?

Part of the argument is that if drivers had to pay the full cost of roads, we’d build less roads. True, and valid if your preexisting goal is building less roads. By the same token, if transit riders had to pay the full cost of transit, we’d be building fewer trophy streetcars and suburban LRT lines.

Overinvestment and misallocation of resources is a classic problem of public services. Cities with useless streetcars are no different than rural towns whose police equip themselves with tanks or cities that say they’re going to supply every student with an iPad. In other words, there is no substitute for good governance. While you certainly could curtail some of the abuses by going to a user-fee system, remember the compromises that go with that. Other countries have shown that competent public governance is possible.

However, the more I think about it, the more I’m in favor of getting the federal government out of the capital projects side of things. Our mainline freeway and rail networks are complete, and the federal government seems to make a lot of poor investment choices now that most of the good capital projects are complete. There’s definitely an equity case for some federal involvement in helping out poor states and cities with operating costs and vehicle procurement, and the federal government should help states and cities out by using its low interest rate to borrow, but should the feds be involving themselves in things like Portland’s streetcar extension or the 69 freeway? Probably not.

Are Roads a Public Good?

You could make an internally consistent argument that drivers should pay the full cost of roads if you think that roads are not public goods.

I’m not buying that argument for arterials and neighborhood streets, since having two competing road networks in a city would be a huge waste of land, like having competing gas or electric companies. If arterials and streets were privately owned, they’d have to be regulated like a utility, and you’re right back to the issue of competent governance.

The argument is believable in the case of limited access tollways, where it’s easy to control access at onramps and offramps, and easy to manage demand through variable tolls. If public arterials are available, no one needs to use the freeway. However, I think there are practical limits to that model as well, which I’ll address in a separate post.