Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Shrinking Market Not Suitable for Rail Investment?

A lot of discussion about the auto bailout is out there by people much smarter than me so I'll leave that to them. But in a discussion about Detroit and its possible shrinking city status because of a drawn down auto industry, the Urbanophile states that transit expansion or initial construction of light rail doesn't really make sense in a low or no growth market. In the case of Detroit, he believes that a shrinkage strategy should be employed and money should not be wasted on movement and economic strategies such as light rail.
Detroit wants to build a big rail transit system. This is a variation on "silver bullet" thinking where Detroit will build light rail on Woodward and suddely life will be pumped into the city. It's possible I guess. But while that strategy might be appropriate for higher growth locations like Columbus, I don't think it is where declining cities like Detroit need to be spending their money. Detroit has much higher priority needs than this.
Perhaps this was made for greater discussion today by an article about Buffalo's light rail line, which is one of the new light rail lines that was built after the 1981 light rail return spark in San Diego. Buffalo was one of the cities that was low growth building new transit versus many of the high growth regions. Expansion also was stalled by politics and a lack of priority. Extensions have been on the books for a while and as of now, they total over $1 billion.

After San Diego, the class of the late 80's light rail included Portland, Sacramento, San Jose, and Buffalo. All of these lines have been successes in some ways and failures in others. San Jose for instance runs straight up the corridor it should, but the land use decisions along the line and its slow speed perception have doomed it so far too low ridership compared to peer lines. But we've learned a lot since then about focusing development, ridership induction, and urban design.

One thing those lines did that we know better about today is that they were designed to bring people from the suburbs to the Center City acting as extended parking lot. The lines that have succeeded the best today are those which connect multiple places and destinations. An example of this is Denver which just opened its southeast corridor just a few years ago which connects the Tech Center, Multiple Universities and downtown Denver. It has similar ridership to the Houston light rail line which connects downtown with the biggest medical center complex in the world. They both attract similar ridership with similar counts of jobs even though the lines have different distances (numbers on this are forthcoming).

The lesson from this is that if Detroit or Buffalo as shrinking/low growth cities are looking to bring people from the suburbs to downtown and hope that the line works without combining every other planning and infrastructure tool, it will be doomed to fail. A key to making expanding transit work on major corridors is the connection of destinations as well as a focusing program on bolstering those destinations.

One of the major mistakes that Buffalo made in its planning and subsequent allocation of funding was that it didn't take the line out to the University which was just a few miles further away. Cleveland, which is a city that is in a similar situation as a low growth city has made the Euclid Corridor their priority and have recently redone the whole street with BRT. They have also invested heavily with new public infrastructure and civic buildings. Obviously you know where I stand on the technology but the investment infusion and focus is something Cleveland did right. This is in stark contrast to the waterfront line which they built and just waiting for things to happen. They did not. Another simple improvement Cleveland could also do is move the Shaker Heights line further out a mile or two into a major suburban job center connecting that center with downtown with rapid transit.

So if you are a place like Detroit, Buffalo, or Cleveland which have a negative or low growth outlook, if there is a high capacity corridor that is ripe for investment, just holding back on the transit is not going to solve anything. In fact, you're taking away an organizing tool from the toolchest and increasing your longer term city and transit operating costs which all too often in these cities means service cuts, especially with a high cost energy future.

Weak market cities need those destination connections and a reason to organize or else there is likely to be a vacuum and development will happen in the business as usual sprawl fashion instead of focusing it making things even worse. Just because a city is low or slow growth doesn't mean development doesn't happen. The important thing is to be more fiscally conservative in your investments that promote new development. The long term viability of the city depends on creating value and not spending money on frivolous infrastructure such as road or water extensions that will make life even worse further down the road.

Of course these need to be long term strategies instead of short term fixes. Just building a light rail line and stepping back only works in Sim City. But if we're serious about helping these cities out, giving them the investment tools and pushing them to make the right investment decisions will go a long way towards a better livable environment, reductions in energy consumption, and long term fiscal strength.


arcady said...

"San Jose for instance runs straight up the corridor it should, but the land use decisions along the line and its slow speed perception have doomed it so far too low ridership compared to peer lines."
I really wish I had the time to write up a full analysis of this, but it's not quite right. The basic problem is that the part north of Downtown was entirely office parks, the part south of Downtown almost entirely residential, and the sidewalk running through Downtown makes the actually useful trips painfully slow. Another problem is that it's very San Jose-centric: lots of people work further along the line, in Sunnyvale or Mountain View, but if going from the south end of the line to North 1st is already pretty slow, then taking the light rail to Sunnyvale is just painful. Some of these things are starting to change now, thanks to changes in land use, and the North 1st corridor is getting a lot more residential development, while office parks further north are being replaced with new, taller buildings (5 stories is the new standard, quite a change from the original mostly 1-story office park construction).

Anyway, getting back to the topic of Detroit, I think the one way for the light rail to succeed is if it becomes the focus of whatever development or re-development goes on in the city. It can't be all decay and ruins, and whatever good parts there are would get a nice boost from a light rail. Also, unlike Buffalo, I presume it would be a relatively inexpensive surface line, rather than a quite expensive subway.

Anonymous said...

The city has to rebuild it self.

It's that easy and that hard.

The Urbanophile said...

I view rail transit as primarily a transportation mechanism, not an urban renewal mechanism. In growth cities there is increasing demand for travel and more development to channel to transit lines. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland have the opposite problem: they are shrinking, which reduces travel demand and there is limited organic (i.e, non-subsidize) growth to channel. These cities can't maintain their existing infrastructure, much less afford new ones. That's one reason Cleveland has not improved despite massive fixed line transit infrastructure compared to cities like Columbus, Indy, and KC that are running rings around them.

Of all the smaller Midwestern cities, I still think KC is the best candidate for rail, followed by Columbus, then Indy. Cincinnati and Milwaukee need to boost their growth rate before making transit investments, though Milwaukee could benefit from improved connectivity to Chicago.

Anonymous said...

KC and STL voters shot down rail. STL has not leveraged its early LRT era investment either.

The Urbanophile said...

Bad timing on the transit tax ballots in the Midwest with this economy. We'll see what the end up doing in KC, but the powers that be are unlikely to give up on it.

Milwaukee might get something small scale done. But my dark horse candidate for the small Midwest city that will actually make a big transit investment is Indianapolis. When Indy decides it wants to do something, it gets done. I think there's an emerging consensus that something needs to be done there on the transit front.

serial catowner said...

Actually, Detroit would be a good candidate for a 'city of the future' approach. There are national strategic reasons to keep the city viable, and almost nothing there now is worth saving, except for historical reasons.

Basically, the city has almost four times as much land mass as economic activity. The people living there have more cars and less money per capita than almost anywhere else in the country.

What could be done is to build a car-free core with transit surrounded by greenbelt. Parts of the greenbelt could serve as a reserve for future economic growth.

This would shrink the part of the city requiring services to a size that has enough density to pay for services.

Sadly, the national vision is lacking. Somehow we became convinced that blowing up and rebuilding Baghdad was more important than fixing Detroit. We'll be paying for that for a long time.

Adam P said...

As a Buffalonian, I definitly agree with the comments. Just a couple miles further of an extension on the light rail to the UB North Campus would have made people feel a whole lot better with the line and made it a lot more succesful. I've gotten off at the northernmost point and rode my bicycle up to north campus in about 15 minutes so it really is not that far at all.Further extensions into the suburbs would definitly help too. Way too often people complain that it is the train to nowhere, because it is so short and only stays within the city limits. There is a lot of potential though, as it has always ranked among the highest systems in terms of passengers per mile of rail. Additionally, studies have shown that residences within a half mile of the stations still average a higher property value.

Rhywun said...

The article from Buffalo Business First that you linked to was infuriatingly asinine, as I expected it would be. The only accurate speculation in the article is that Metro Rail would have been better if Amherst NIMBYism hadn't stopped it at the city line, and it had connected to the University as originally planned. No mention is made of the fact that the line functions quite well as a city subway, tying together numerous crosstown buses and making many trips much faster than before. Then there's the inevitable bemoaning of the lack of automobile traffic on Main Street, and the ludicrous claim that it killed downtown shopping. One need look no further than Buffalo's slightly smaller neighbor Rochester (my hometown) for proof that downtown shopping is dead or dying in similar cities across the country. Bringing cars back to Main Street isn't going to bring shopping back. Downtown is already overloaded with free parking in an attempt to lure in the coveted suburbans and it hasn't worked.

jon said...

Aren't vehicles going to be sharing even the same lanes as the LRVs on Buffalo's Main Street Mall?
I agree that the Buffalo's Metrorail is actually a very good line despite all the negativity. I've only visited Buffalo once but I used the line a lot when I was there (including outside of downtown too) and it seems to me to serve the prime corridor in the city.

I was recently looking at a brochure I picked up this summer in Detroit about the Woodward LRT line and was amazed that the line was only projected to have ridership of 10-11,000/day for the length from downtown to 8 Mile. But I suppose a shrunk Detroit could be centered around the Woodward LRT line with new mixed use projects. Woodward hits some of the main institutions and assets (museums, universities, med center, etc.) for the entire region and is one of the few thriving parts of Detroit. There is also a fair amount of vacant land and under-utilized neighborhoods along Woodward that are starting to come back (Brush Park) which is seeing some new infill. I'm not sure about the LRT line going past New Center (unless it reaches far into the suburbs well past 8 mile). But I think the key with urban development and urban design in general is to build off a region/city's assets and I think Woodward hits all the key assets in the city.

An issue I have with San Jose VTA LRT is that if you want to go from downtown San Jose to East San Jose on LRT you have to first go way north to Milpitas then back south again past the Great Mall. And the fact that the whole north part of the line was developed in the last 10-20 years and yet took a 1960s auto-centric land use plan. In this video you can see it running through open land, they hadnt even built the roads (8:08-8:48) so they were starting with a clean slate for development! Then the southern segment was originally to run in the middle of an expressway which ended up being built as a freeway which I dont think helped the LRT system. Its a good system also but has some problems IMO.

Matthew said...

I never did understand why in the world the VTA wrapped around on itself on the northern lines. But the 1st St Corridor actually seemed very nice. Buildings we definitely not just 1 story, and ridership was pretty impressive, especially mid-day, at least to Great America. Not to mention the wonderful San Jose transit mall...

rhywun said...

Aren't vehicles going to be sharing even the same lanes as the LRVs on Buffalo's Main Street Mall?

I doubt it. You'd have to remove wheelchair ramps and boarding platforms for that to happen.

amazed that the line was only projected to have ridership of 10-11,000/day for the length from downtown to 8 Mile

That does seem shockingly low. But don't forget that Detroit was built for the car. It never had the density to justify any kind of rapid transit, not even the density that Buffalo has (or had).

jon said...

I recall previously seeing a photo of cars and LRVs sharing the same lanes, but I just searched again for it and it looks like it is in fact the case...

brochure on project

re: detroit
true and the city has emptied out for the last 40 years to less than half its population. i still was expecting more though. afterall 7500 people a day use the downtown people mover.

rhywun said...

I recall previously seeing a photo of cars and LRVs sharing the same lanes

It boggles the mind that they're seriously using the phrase "excessively wide sidewalks" and intend to combat the "problem" by filling downtown with even more cars, which, if they're "lucky", will require demolishing even more buildings--you know, those things that contain stuff to do--into parking lots. The idea that there needs to be something to DO there besides drive around seems to have completely escaped them, either that or they haven't noticed that downtown already contains oceans of free parking.

njh said...

Things that struck me:

1) the line runs through fields
so why did they build such useless low density around it?

2) they built a freeway around it!
Yuck, what an ugly place to catch a tram, and then, why would you ride a tram if you have to drive to a freeway on ramp to catch it?

3) the person saying she drives a mile to catch it.
A mile! That's 15 minutes walk, or 5 minutes on a bike. Why on earth would you drive that distance (I walk that distance to the station).

Alon Levy said...

Urbanophile, I don't think putting transit in declining areas is necessarily a form of urban renewal. It can be used as a way of replacing increasingly unaffordable cars.