Thursday, August 8, 2013

Twin Cities Alignment Madness and the Perfect Network

I just looked at the number of posts I have in the hopper and its depressing.  I've started a lot of them but haven't finished any of them because I'm trying to address too many issues.  So I thought maybe I should try to keep it a bit shorter (didn't quite work), but not quite twitter short. So a few issues that have been bothering me...

Transit that Tries too Hard

The first issue that's been poking its head out lately is that of the Southwest Corridor alignment in Minneapolis.  It's been driving me nuts for a few years because I'm getting even more tired than I was before of freight rail alignments that are built just because of the cheaper cost.  This should not be just an issue of cost but about the purpose of transit in a system.  Right now it feels like the Twin Cities are just building light rail lines because they decided they want to and it has to serve everyone's politics, which makes for messy and mutli-serving transit that helps less than it should.

Streets.MN has a great number of posts about the background of this on the SW Corridor, but I wanted to focus on two issues in particular.  The purpose of each piece of a transit network, especially the high capacity parts, and the actual alignment of the line.

Transit Building Blocks

Rail lines that are built should have a purpose.  During the regional planning process, corridors should be sussed out based on their need in the overall system, not necessarily because of their technology.  The first reason is that the technology becomes a major issue and argument when people don't quite understand how each works.  And then second, it devolves into a money issue.  It's too expensive!! They cry. 

In the Twin Cities, you have a very low performing commuter rail line with limited service, and a somewhat high performing light rail line that actually acts more like a commuter rail line with greater service frequencies.  The "light rail" line runs down an arterial, operating not like an urban line but more like a suburban line.  It's basically the worst idea of all, putting a rail line in the center of a freeway.

Which, by the way Matthew Yglesias, is a great way to build a transit system that is predestined to not live up to its goals.  This quote "with dedicated busways running in highway medians just as decent light rail lines do" killed me.  Highway medians are a good way to deter transit ridership.  Just ask the Harbor Freeway in LA.  Well that made me mad, along with the rest of the post.  Because the issue isn't bus versus rail.  And don't get me started on the "just like light rail only cheaper" bullshit.  The reason why its cheaper is that you're not doing as much!  But this is a political will issue.

Yes a political will issue.  We should have light rail (and subways) for heavily traveled segments that NEED transit capacity.  This means the places where buses that come often are still sardine tins during rush hour.  Even a place like Geary in San Francisco is an issue for BRT because by the time it opens, it will already be at capacity. Should be a subway.  But we're too focused on cost.

But we do need BRT too!  We should also give priority to buses in places where that means the street will move more people with dedicated lanes.  Take a lane from the car.  But this is the problem, we won't do it, because we won't take that step politically.  Too sacred. Political issue.

But this leads me towards the point I'm trying to make.  David Levinson did a cool thing and overlaid the London Underground onto the Twin Cities geography.  What it also reminds me of, is the fact that European Cities like Budapest and Vienna have subway systems that feed the core circulation, while commuter lines perform a different function of bringing people in from the periphery, skipping a lot of stops in the core, while tramways and buses perform another function on the surface of local stop transit.  This is all to say that each of the transit modes has a specific purpose in the network that we try to cram into a single transit project here in the United States.

In the Southwest Corridor light rail line, just like Mike Hicks mentions, you have an alignment that tries to be a commuter line with light rail technology.  All fine but if you're trying to connect two major employment centers in the American freeway loop, it seems like not just the employment should be connected, but all the major service hungry places on the way that you should be building rail for in the first place.  No more sardine tins at rush hour right?

If I had it up to me, I would build a subway network a la Vienna/Budapest.  Short lines that stay in the historic streetcar suburb core whose endpoints can serve commuter networks and operate inexpensively (because they'll carry so many people) with 2-4 minute headways meaning no one has to wait very long, boosing transit ridership.  In this same area on the surface, create bus lanes for those corridors that need it and build a central station where commuter rail lines and express buses can connect with the places further afield that don't need to be connecting every block with the surrounding neighborhoods.  That's what the surface buses and internal subway network are for.

But that's a dream right?  We live in the right now, and that right now is light rail on freight rights of way. Unfortunately.  Again, we shouldn't be trying to cram three purposes onto one train. 

The Twin Cities Alignment

Well if we're stuck in that paradigm we should at least do things right. What drives ridership? Because that's why we're building the line with better capacity, to serve a lot of people who are currently in sardine tins.

According to Gary Barnes (writing specifically about the Twin Cities) and Zupan, it's employment density being served by clustered residential densities.  While the employment provides the ultimate destination which is MOST necessary, riders need to come from somewhere.  So pockets of population density connecting to major employment centers are going to drive ridership, which in turn drives transit success, which in turn drives political will to do more GOOD transit projects. 

So where are we at now?  We're at a place on the Southwest Corridor where a bad decision was made because of the long gone FTA Cost Effectiveness Measure, which has been pushing stupid decisions ever since it was enacted.  The running joke about the model was that the best transit line is one without any stops because it makes the train go faster. But what happens is a lot of freight rail transit lines.  Some aren't too bad like Charlotte where the opportunities are high, but others are kind of lame.

So what was the bad decision in Minneapolis?  Not connecting people with places they want to go.  Or not connecting popular destinations with the people that want to go there.

The biggest trip on transit is the work trip.  59% of transit trips are work trips, meaning that's important to people.  But work destinations are generally those of leisure and convenience as well.  So let's look at the alignment, along with where people who WORK in downtown actually live.

The data below comes from the Census "On the Map" tool, which is an employment dataset with cool mapping features.  Try it out for yourself sometime.

Residential Density of Downtown Workers

People that work downtown live in the area in darker blue along the red line (the line that should be) as opposed to the yellow line (the line that currently is in planning).  1,700-2,700 workers who work downtown per square mile in the areas that are darkest while only 100-400 in the light blue the yellow line occupies.  See how its REALLY light blue.

I'm sorry if the map is a bit ugly, it's late and I wanted to get this out, but hopefully the point comes across.  I don't understand why building something that is useful but a bit more expensive is harder than building something that is of less use.  Perhaps the yellow line would be faster, but that only benefits the suburbs rather than everyone.  Additionally, the people along the red line also have a higher propensity to work in the Golden Triangle further down the line.  See below!

Residential Density of Golden Triangle Workers

The densities are much less as 200-300 people per square mile living in the darkest blue, but its still something more than the current yellow alignment.

And sure, you could say that it matches the residential densities of the place, but that's where high capacity transit should go!  In any event, this is just to show that it seems silly that the corridor of most benefit would be bypassed, when it really should be considered more, if only for its long term value to the region.  Yeah, it will cost more if you want to tunnel, but it will also serve an area that has a greater need, and can create greater value in the long run.

If you learn one thing from this post.  Connecting people to dense employment drives transit ridership, so run the transit from where the people live to where they work in the highest densities.  No brainer.


Froggie said...

Tried to tweet this too (in pieces).

IMO, you're undervaluing the Hiawatha line in your post. First off, connecting downtown to the airport is important, and that's exactly what the Hiawatha line does.

Second, except along 5th St downtown, 34th Ave south of the Humphrey Terminal, and the "abandoned" stretch of Hiawatha Ave (the part bypassed by Hwy 55) between 52nd and 54th, the Hiawatha line doesn't exactly run down a road median. Along Hwy 55/Hiawatha proper, it runs along one side or the other, switching just north of Lake St. Through most of south Minneapolis, it's more urban than suburban...running along the neighborhood side of an arterial that separates those neighborhoods from an industrial rail corridor on the other side (and, admittedly, the neighborhoods east of that industrial corridor).

Despite all that (or perhaps because of the direct downtown-airport connection), it's blown ridership projections out of the water, even forcing Metro Transit to buy additional rail cars early to keep up with demand.

As for Southwest, optimally yes it would serve Uptown. But there are strong arguments to be made in favor of a direct interlining with the Central and Hiawatha lines (something the Nicollet alignment failed to do). I'm not sure if a Hennepin alignment was studied in depth, but that street's a quagmire to begin with. I know from the early alignment studies (about 10 years ago) that Lyndale was seriously considered, but dropped because it "removed a lane in each direction and hundreds of on-street parking spots". Take that for what you will.

Beta Magellan said...

I’m generally not impressed by arguments claiming that places like Minneapolis need subways to build transit ridership. When I lived in Chicago I was within walking distance of two crosstown buses that I’d rarely have to wait more than five minutes for and one crosstown bus that I rarely had to wait more than ten minutes for; these bus lines’ daily ridership figures easily beat ridership figures I see from downtown-headed routes in other midwestern cities, like Minneapolis. This always sets a little alarm off in my head when people talk about subways in places like Minneapolis-St. Paul—if fifteen minutes is your threshold for high-frequency, you’re not doing enough. Your talking about real rail service when you don’t even have real bus Additional bus service doesn’t have the sheen of new rail service (and there are diminishing returns with each increase in frequency), but a city that can’t muster the operating funds to run buses at decent frequencies might not be able to run rail at decent frequencies, either (and additional bus service doesn’t come with nearly as high debt service costs, either). The ‘L’s in Chicago that operate at ridership levels comparable to actual metros (the system as a whole, in terms of capacity, is really in between light rail and metro) also tend to have ridership figures an order of magnitude higher than the “high-performing” bus lines in mid-sized midwestern cities (100,000 riders per day rather than 10,000). Yonah Freemark tore Nashville a new one for unrealistic expectations for new light rail, and that was “only” assuming it would triple ridership.

My old neighborhood is served by the ‘L,’ but it was also very dense before the ‘L’ arrived. My corner of the neighborhood was built a few years before our branch of the ‘L’ was constructed and mostly consists of three- to five-story multi-unit residences on very narrow plots. Of course, that neighborhood was pre-automobile, too, and that’s a big part of what keeps transit ridership strong there. It’s a difficult and expensive place to own a car (either due to permit or finding and paying for garage access). And it’s worth noting that Chicago couldn’t even afford to bury the ‘L’ in a subway until the late thirties.

All of this makes me think that there’s a pretty questionable cost-benefit to building a subway in Minneapolis—although they’re dense and crowded relative to other parts of Minneapolis-St. Paul, by the standards of cities that have metros they’re low density and chock full of easy parking. It’s possible a subway may change that in a few decades, but I think there are easier paths to decreased automobile dependence and increased density than subway construction. And of course, just because one alignment is better doesn’t mean that it’s worth six times the cost better.

David Greene said...

So much misinformation exists about the SWLRT line and it's getting tiring correcting it.

One of the reasons to do the Kenilworth alignment is to connect North Minneapolis to jobs in the SW suburbs. This is a critical opportunity link which does not exist today. So yes, the current alignment *would* serve dense neighborhoods of Minneapolis and it would create new ones to boot. This is as much an equity issue as it is a transportation issue.

Uptown will be served just fine by the Kenilworth alignment. It's a short bike ride to the West Lake station and we'll probably be putting in streetcar service through Uptown as well. A streetcar is a much more appropriate technology for the area.

We aren't going to build subways in the Twin Cities. We're not going to build new subway systems *anywhere* in the U.S. It's too expensive. Anyone who actually thinks we're going to do it is living in fantasy land.

Froggie is very correct about the Green Line interlining. The route is much more valuable because it seemlessly flows into the existing network.

Jim said...

I wonder if it would be possible to interline with Central Corridor by making a right turn from Nicollet onto 5th. Downtown Denver has a couple right turns in their LRT, so clearly there is precedent for it.

Froggie said...

@Jim: I believe it was looked at, but turned down due to some engineering issue. Nicollet Mall is not very wide, which might be part of it. And IIRC the station placement on 5th comes close to the edge of the block (downtown Minneapolis city blocks are not wide...less than 300ft).

There's also that you would miss the 2 stations on the west end of Hiawatha/Central, at Hennepin/1st and at the ballfield/Northstar station. Would just be better operationally to tie SWLRT into the ballfield.

Ben Ross said...

David Greene said: We're not going to build new subway systems *anywhere* in the U.S.

The Baltimore Red Line, now past its ROD, will run in subway through downtown. Los Angeles is looking at an underground downtown connector. San Francisco is building a light rail through downtown in subway. Washington's core capacity study is looking at a new Metro line through downtown. And, of course, New York has a new subway line and an extension under construction.

One of the advantages of light rail is its ability to go in subway through downtown.

Unknown said...

Metros through downtown don't always help, the entire line must have facilities for priority for it to work. Otherwise its a lot like SF MUNI where anything outside of the tunnel falls out of its schedule extremely quickly because of running with traffic. Trolley-style always runs slower than traffic without priority enhancements like dedicated lanes, signal priority, etc.

An impressive thing about Zurich is they avoided building a metro by deciding to displace vehicles with tram priority. The problem is that its hard to take out lanes of traffic and leave them empty the vast majority of the time in the US. This is why dedicated freight ROW will be used instead of severe displacement of private vehicles.

Lastly, the new SF subway tunnel is a huge waste of money on a system that can't afford basic maintenance to keep vehicles working and has on time performance of under 60%.

Imogen said...