Monday, September 14, 2009

When Road Engineers Do LRT

I mentioned in a previous post that I don't believe freeways are places for stations. I stand by that remark and worry that here in the United States, we're worried so much about the lowest cost we don't really care about the outcome on ridership, as long as it hits a target for cost effectiveness (the FTA kind) that makes us marginally happy.

Unfortunately using this cost index we're not maximizing our opportunities when we decided that the freeway is the place to be all the time outside of the CBD. I don't disagree with folks like Jarrett when they say that rapid transit has its best opportunities to run fast in the freeway. But at the same time, there are similar opportunities to leave the freeway ROW when it comes time to have a station and connect the places that people ultimately want to go, and the parcels that should be redeveloped into walkable districts.

I believe a perfect example of this is the Denver Tech Center. When they designed the T Rex project, why didn't they go forward with the option that would have allowed direct access to the center of the employment district? I imagine it was perceived cost compared to running time. It didn't matter that its where people wanted to go, when the train was moving it was running fast, so stopping on the other side of the freeway was a better option for the ridership modelers and the engineers designing the road.

It doesn't look like anyone was thinking of people when they designed the interchange. I'm sure they are happy with the way the light rail and freeway interchanges look and operate, but unfortunately the engineers did nothing for people riding the train to work in the second largest employment center in the Denver region. Now the line is on the other side of the freeway, away from the largest market forces in the area and not available to change the parking lots over because of the continued utility of the car. In the cold of winter people get to walk over an overpass above a bunch of cars driving at 65 miles per hour.

The map below shows a routing that would have been very easy to build in my mind and not cost much more money. You could have surface stops and a few cut and cover tunnels would be needed but nothing huge. It likely would have brought over time a jump in tens of thousands of riders over the long term. Simple ideas like this is why I don't like the idea of freeway running. It gives designers a free out when it comes to designing for people instead of cars. The map below also shows where the videos below that I took came from.

View Denver Tech Center in a larger map

Video 1

Video 2

I also still believe that its possible to have fairly rapid transit on arterial streets, we just need to do it right. Sometimes such as in Charlotte you get lucky with a freight ROW that runs parallel to a major arterial and a major freeway. In this instance, you have the best opportunities. But for the most part, major highways don't lend themselves to going places where people want to go on foot. While it might seem like a nice compromise, I think that we're selling ourselves short if we continue to build stops in the center of the freeway.

And ultimately in the United States where we don't seem to know how to design rapid transit, its perhaps best to keep it away from the freeway all together, especially if this mistake will continue to be made where it seems cost is more important ultimately than connecting major employment districts directly.


Jarrett at said...

I agree completely except for your last paragraph. The fact that poor tradeoffs get made on specific sites isn't a reason to avoid freeways all together. It's just a reason to fight, project by project, for smarter decisions, and also, as you say, to look at how to capture land use benefits in the FTA process.

I suspect that the challenge in revising the FTA process is not so much any ideological resistance there. It's that it's really hard to treat a land use outcome as predictable in the way that ridership from existing development is predictable, becuase land use is the result of the intersection of a whole bunch of forces, only one of which is transit.

Brian said...

The vacant lot east of the Belleview Station in the video used to be a nine-hole golf course and driving range. Developers have Plans for TOD on this site when the real estate market picks up again.

Light rail has better access to commercial sites further south, like at Arapahoe Station. Most of the vacant land is on the west side of I-25. So even though they missed the heart of the Tech Center, there are plenty of TOD opprotunities make up for it.

EthanJ said...

I think the problem is that running in the freeway ROW is so CHEAP. That land is "free" because the gov't already owns it. All the construction is at grade and the ground is level and straight, with good drainage and easy access for utilities.

When you start to add off-ROW stations, costs rise very fast. Granted, ridership also rises. But it is hardly cheap to add two or three tunnels and bridges, and land for additional ROW.

I'd also note that the Denver Tech Center looks totally auto-focused - isolated buildings, surface lots, wide streets. I'd guess the developer would like rail, but not if if means disrupting auto-traffic with grade crossings, in-street running, or substantial traffic delays from construction. That means fully elevated or underground tracks through DTC. And now your costs are prohibitive....

Peter said...

it seems like we should be able to build huge station platforms -- or just regular TOD development -- right on top of where stations would be.

so, just cover-over the entire highway, as is already done in some places.

can we retrofit a highway so we can do TOD right on top of the darn thing? If so, problem solved.

i can't remember any places where this already exists, but I know I used to drive under office buildings in at least one city....atlanta?