Tag Archives: transit

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

Transit Isn’t “Alternative Transportation”, It’s Just Transportation

One of my pet peeves  in the discussion on transportation is the pitching of things like transit and biking as “alternative transportation”. There are four problems here:

  1. If transit and biking are alternative transportation, they’re alternatives to “normal transportation”, i.e. cars. Transit and biking advocates should not be using terminology that reinforces car ownership as the default.
  2. It results in people actively seeking to provide a new mode of transportation for no other reason than increasing the number of modes available.
  3. It’s used to retroactively justify failing transit projects, e.g. “at least we gave people an alternative to their cars” (even if they’re not using it because it’s not very useful).
  4. It’s used to proactively justify transit projects that are likely to fail, e.g. “our community deserves alternatives just as much as everyone else” (even though it is likely to be difficult to design a useful, cost-efficient transit system for the community in question).

The first should be self-evident. For an example of the second, consider NYC and SF pols’ irrational exuberance for ferries. The most common examples of the third are defenses of low-ridership LRTs and commuter rails. (Ironically, buses are usually given a pass because thanks to bus bias, people expect/accept low ridership.) The fourth is usually seen in the form of communities demanding expensive rail systems where they don’t make sense and, after construction, morphs into the third problem.

At the moment, my favorite example of the second problem is the proposed bikeway for the High Desert Corridor. No one is riding their bike 55 miles from Palmdale to Adelanto to go to work, even in the relatively benign Southern California climate. It’s a recreational trail at best, and if you’re going to build a recreational bike path, why in god’s name would you put it in the same ROW as a freeway? On the other hand, if we want to make biking to work, school, and entertainment easier in the High Desert, we could probably spend the money on more worthwhile projects within the developed cities themselves. But no: planners are providing Another Alternative, so everyone is happy.

Efficiency is the Goal

The right way to look at all of this is that we have all sorts of different travel needs, and we have different options for meeting those needs. Figure out what needs you’re trying to meet, and then pick the transportation option that best serves those needs.

Let’s say you need to move an industrial transformer. Your realistic options are shipping, freight rail, and truck. Obviously the available infrastructure matters, but in general shorter distances will favor trucking, longer distances will favor rail, and very long distances will favor shipping. You’re not going to ship it or rail it from Los Angeles to Ventura. But you might put it on rail to go to Chicago. And if you need to get it from Shanghai to Los Angeles, you’re going to ship it – even if the FRNs get their Bering Strait Bridge. Biking and transit are not realistic options here.

Now obviously, that’s an extreme case – most trips don’t involve moving industrial machinery. But the same logic applies. If you accept the premise that we need a better way to move people and goods from Palmdale to Adelanto, a bikeway is not the answer. Neither are airplanes. Cars, buses, trains – they’re the options here.

Efficiency Favors Transit, Walking, and Biking in Urban Areas

Framing things from an efficiency point of view frees you from the need to spend money on infrastructure that doesn’t make sense. It also you gives you another leg to stand on in dense urban areas where providing infrastructure for one type of transportation means taking it away from someone else.  If you ask me, it’s a lot better than “social justice” arguments about providing space for all users. (Those arguments are a little rich, since bike infrastructure often seems to be deployed first in areas whose residents have the least economic need for it. As others have noted, these arguments are hard to accept when many people are treated as if they don’t have the right to be on the street at all.)

The most insurmountable challenge to cars in urban areas is geometry. They take up much more space than biking, walking, or transit. Even the most heartless auto advocate can’t deny that riding a bike for a trip of a mile or two is a better use of urban space than driving. In addition to being humane and treating bicyclists like they’re actually people, encouraging bike use improves the economic efficiency of the city. When less land is used for parking, more land is available for other productive uses.

At this point, Randal O’Toole usually jumps in and says hey, if people want to drive, shouldn’t we provide them with the infrastructure to drive? After all, you’re providing the infrastructure for people who want to bike. And maybe, from an “all users” perspective, he has a point.

But from an efficiency perspective, you get to say nope, sorry. The government’s job is not bend to your every whim. The government’s job is to provide public goods and make decisions about fair allocation of public resources that result in benefits to society. We only have so much space on the streets. And in cities, we can serve more people and more trips in a more efficient manner by providing bike infrastructure and quality transit.

This framework also you gives you a solid case against building expensive transit infrastructure to low-density areas due to the “our community is just as deserving of transit as the city”. Nope, sorry. Why don’t you try upzoning a bunch of your town, and come back to use when land use justifies the investment? (In general, it’s a bad idea to build transit and hope that land use patterns will change in response.)

At this point, Jarrett Walker might jump in and say hey, efficiency is only part of the equation for transit; we also have to provide service to low-density areas and at low-ridership times of day to make the system equitable and dependable. Fair enough. That service should also be provided in an efficient manner, which generally means by bus. You don’t get to have a subway to Chatsworth or Scarborough just because the Westside and Yonge Street got one.

By recognizing that different types of transportation are better able to serve different types of trips, we can move past the car being the default, recognize when politicians are pandering with projects that introduce a new mode of questionable value, and make the case against expensive transit projects that offer little value. Transit isn’t alternative transportation, it’s just transportation.

What Are the Arguments Against New Freeway Capacity?

The current conventional wisdom in urban planning is that freeways are bad. As a result, the usual response to any plan to build a new freeway or widen an existing one is to throw the book at it, and hope something sticks. This is straight out of the NIMBY playbook, and if you have enough money and good lawyers, you can usually find some technicality that will at least delay the project and force the proponents to pretend that they like to waste their money on “mitigation”. These arguments don’t have to be logically consistent, they just have to work. For example, you can argue that the new freeway lanes will be filled with cars before you know it, and that the new freeway lanes will go unused. Take your pick.

Engineers, though, we’re pretty agnostic. You go to school to learn how to design railroads, and in calculus, you sit next to someone going to school to learn how to help the CIA blow up railroads with unmanned drones. Whatevs. And that’s how it should be. You don’t want the police selectively deciding what laws they’re gonna enforce and who’s gonna be on the receiving end of that enforcement based on their personal opinions. And you don’t want your engineers to do a crappy job on your track design because they have a philosophical disagreement with streetcars. By the time things reach the engineers, all the relevant planning decisions have already been made. Even if I think your project is a bad idea, I’m gonna give you the best damn design possible.

When I look at things at a planning level, I try to bring that same sense of doing things efficiently. When I get upset about a freeway project, it’s not because it’s a freeway per se, but because (a) it’s in a place where there’s no need for any new transpo or (b) there would be a better way of meeting the travel demand. There are lots of bad freeway projects in the US, that are a waste of money and resources because they’re not very efficient. The planning level is the right level at which to stop these projects. So with that in mind, here’s an engineer’s assessment of the quality of planning level arguments against new freeway capacity.

No Demand

An easy one to forget, but like the do-nothing alternative, sometimes it’s the best. If there’s no demand for the facility, there’s obviously no point in building it. Since there is usually pent-up travel demand in cities, this argument is best applied to the pointlessly proliferating pork barrel rural freeways like the I-99 and the I-69.

Induced Demand

If anything, this is an argument in favor of new freeway capacity. Induced demand, as Kurumi whimsically put it, is the tragedy of a highway, once built, being used as intended. When urban planners talk about induced demand, they always do so as if it were some evil willed into existence by the freeway – like the additional people and goods moving around are just out there for the hell of it. But that additional traffic represents people who were able to move to the city for a better job, businesses that were able to reach more customers, friends who were able to head across town to meet for dinner.

Put another way, let’s say that we decrease the peak period headways on the Blue Line from 6 minutes to 4 minutes, and in a couple years, all the new trains are just as full as the existing trains today. Would anyone make the argument that the project was a failure because the trains are just as crowded? Of course not.

Increased traffic volumes do result in an increase in negative externalities like air pollution. The proper course of action is to appropriately price the negative externalities of driving. Indeed, if externalities were appropriately priced, the apparent need for many freeway projects would vanish. Controlling them by restricting capacity is like controlling people’s sewage output by not installing a larger pipe. It might work, but it’s not pretty.

Declining VMT

Now we’re getting somewhere. In the past, traffic predictions were usually too low. Today, they seem to be too high. If you’re reading this, odds are there’s no need for me to go into too much detail, but per capita vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) has been declining since 2004. This is due to a combination of the Baby Boomers aging (old people drive less), young people wanting to drive less, a significant increase in the price and price volatility of gasoline, stricter licensing laws, and the general economic malaise of the last decade. The relative importance of each of those factors is determined, of course, by the writer’s preexisting bias.

Declining per capita VMT can be a pretty solid argument against increasing freeway capacity, but it depends on the rate of population growth in your region. Let’s say that per capita VMT is declining at 1% per year. If you’re Houston, and your population is growing at 2.2% per year, the total VMT in your region is still going to up. Empty capacity in Cleveland doesn’t do you any good. Now, you could argue that something else would be a better transportation alternative than a freeway to meet that demand, but that’s a different argument, discussed in more detail later.

On the other hand, what if you’re Cleveland or Buffalo or Detroit, or any city that has lost population in the core while growth in the region has been anemic, if that? Well, you might want to reconsider expanding your roads. It’s hard to imagine that any of those three cities needs a major roadway expansion project. You have to wonder what MDOT is thinking when they write an EIR for widening the I-94 that says the city might lose residents due to the negative externalities of the wider freeway, but that they can be replaced with more commerce. Really, Detroit is lacking vacant land for commerce?

So declining per capita VMT might be a good argument; it depends on the city.

Parking Capacity

This starts to get into network effects, which are naturally more difficult to understand and model, and therefore more readily ignored. You could say that you don’t want to make it easier for people to drive to a destination because it will make the parking situation worse. Parking capacity is nominally easy to fix by building structured parking, and at some point, people will just stop driving to the place if they expect parking to be exceedingly difficult to find. This isn’t really an argument against building new freeway capacity so much as an argument for better parking policies, which is a separate issue. I think some guy named Donald Shoup wrote a book about that.

Local Street Capacity

Insufficient local street capacity is a great argument against building new freeway capacity. Local street capacity is limited by the available ROW, the need to provide space for competing uses like sidewalks, bike lanes, and street parking, and the need to split green time between conflicting movements at traffic signals.

Jarrett Walker likes to say that one of the best arguments for transit is geometry, because no technology can repeal its laws. Likewise, an important feature of the local street capacity constraint is that geometry makes it very difficult to resolve. Ultimately, and fairly quickly, you run into the need to do things like grade separate intersections and widen ROWs – things that are very expensive and unpopular, to say nothing of ruining the attributes that made the destination attractive in the first place.

A classic example of this is the 10 freeway in Santa Monica. There is a lot of congestion going westbound in the morning, starting at the off-ramp to Cloverfield and 26th and building back from there. The two-lane off-ramp queues back onto the highway, and before long, it’s curtains for all the westbound lanes and the ramps from the 405 too. The issue here is that the local streets in that area are saturated. It would be pointless, perhaps even counterproductive, to widen the 10, because it might make the situation on the local streets worse, and there’s no room to expand those streets.

Local street capacity in Long Beach is popping up as a reason to not widen the 405 in Orange County, and it’s a great argument. (Contrast this with the congestion on the 10 east at the junction with the 110, where the primary issue seems to be insufficient weaving distance on the 110 at the downtown exit and the 101.)

Better Transportation Alternative

As an engineer, this is pretty much living the dream. Nothing makes an engineer more content than coming up with a more efficient way to do things. And happily, there are a lot of ways to come up with a better transportation alternative. It could be a transit option. It could be fixing bad parking policies. It could be something that costs less. It could be just making more efficient use of existing infrastructure through things like improving signal timings and ramp metering.

This is the reason that all good engineers should love bike infrastructure. Even if you don’t think biking is fun, even if you ignore the health benefits, even if you think the political left is using it as a pretext to turn ‘Murica into China or Europe, in your cold engineer’s heart, you have to accept that biking is a very efficient way to serve mid-distance trips that are too far for walking, but not long enough to capitalize on the advantages of cars or transit. The advantages of cars and transit increase as the length of the trip increases, but the disadvantages are relatively fixed access problems, e.g. getting to/from the transit station or parking and getting to/from the arterials and freeways.

Los Angeles, coincidentally, is a city with huge bike potential. The pattern of development and density in LA naturally lends itself to trips of that length, and the street grid makes it easy to provide the infrastructure.

Case Study: Expo Line

Let’s take a look at an LA case study: the Expo Line, as compared with the option to widen a competing freeway, the 10, between Downtown LA and Santa Monica.

Note that right away, we can see that induced demand is no good. You’re fooling yourself if you think auto travel on the 10 and transit trips on the Expo Line are zero-sum. We’re certainly hoping that the Expo Line is going to induce some demand! Declining VMT is probably not a good argument here either. The LA area keeps growing, traffic on the 10 is already terrible, and the Westside in particular would be gaining population quickly if we’d get rid of the foolish zoning that prevents it from happening.

Parking capacity is a pretty good argument in Santa Monica and Downtown LA. As much as people in Palms and Culver City might complain, the parking situation there is actually pretty liquid. As surface parking lots and low-rise buildings in Santa Monica and Downtown LA are converted to mid-rise buildings, hotels, and high-rises by market demand, the cost of building parking spaces goes way up, because a structure parking spot costs about ten times what a surface spot does. If parking is unbundled and parking minimums are eliminated, many trips to or from these locations will naturally gravitate to transit, which is a more efficient way of serving those trips. This also makes a greater variety of land uses viable, and that’s a good thing. Finally, Carter Rubin would tell us that building more structured parking in Santa Monica will have a negative effect on the economic productivity of the area.

Local street capacity is a really good argument in both Santa Monica and Downtown LA, because in both places, the local street network is saturated during peak periods. In downtown, some of this is spillover congestion from the gridlock on the 110 and the 101. In Santa Monica, the aforementioned congestion on Cloverfield, as well as the greater 3rd St area (Ocean to Lincoln, Pico to Wilshire), seems to me to be almost entirely a function of local streets being maxed out. Expo Line allows for growth to continue in both neighborhoods without the need to undertake expensive highway projects. Palms and Culver City local streets aren’t terrible, though downtown Culver City can be bad at times.

Right in line with parking capacity and local street capacity constraints, we can see that the Expo Line is a better transportation alternative than widening the 10. A new lane on the 10 would have a capacity of about 2,300 veh/hr, or at an occupancy of 1.5 pax/veh, 3,450 pax/hr. The Expo Line, running 6 minute headways, has a capacity of about 10 train x 3 veh/train x 100 pax/veh = 3,000 pax/hr. The difference is, the congestion on the 10 is so bad, there’s no way it actually will carry that many people during peak periods. (Many people would argue that we could eliminate that issue with congestion pricing; while I’m in favor of HOT lanes, I think the idea of tolling all freeway lanes is impractical – an issue I’ll take up another time.)

Since Expo Line and the 10 don’t follow exactly the same corridor, there’s the benefit of providing better transportation to parts of the city that wouldn’t benefit as much from the 10 project. It lets trips on the Expo Line corridor avoid traveling north-south to the 10. That spreads the transportation wealth, since people near the 10 already have a high-quality transportation facility. (Some people don’t like living near a freeway, but hop on Westside Rentals and see how many listings say “convenient to the 405”.)

In terms of cost, Expo Line is probably a winner too. Widening the 405 by one lane between the 10 and the 101, about 10 miles, is costing over $1b. The project to add four lanes to the 5 between the 605 and Artesia, about 7 miles, is $1.6b but doesn’t involve the amount of retaining walls of the 405 project or a potential project on the 10, though it likely needs more ROW. Adding two lanes to the 10 between 4th St and Crenshaw, the logical limits and about 10 miles, would probably at least $2b. Add in the costs of additional parking and local street capacity in Santa Monica and downtown LA, and you’re in the neighborhood of the Expo Line’s $2.5b cost. The Expo Line will also make efficient use of available capacity elsewhere in the system (Gold Line and the forthcoming Regional Connector) that is not available to a project on the 10, since the 110 and the 101 are jacked.

Argue Smart

A victory on a technicality might feel great in the short run, but in the long run it’s Pyrrhic. The proponents of projects get wise and produce ever more voluminous studies. The same tactics can be used to stop good projects; pick your favorite transit project, and odds are it’s facing a bogus NIMBY lawsuit. Continued frustrations build a political movement to change the laws on environmental review (which, though I think it needs to be addressed, if done poorly could open the door for harmful projects). You can only win on technicalities for so long, as Expo Line opponents just found out.

Stick to the arguments above, though, and you’ll have a solid case every time. Laws can fix trivial details, but they can’t change the laws of logic, geometry, and efficiency.