The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about San Diego


In San Diego, an example of how "within walking distance" does not always mean "walkable"

I like to ride the San Diego Trolley when I visit family there, but the mile walk from the station to their house is so, so awful that it always makes me think twice about riding the train. Here at home, my walk to the Metro is the same distance, and I do it happily all the time.

The walk along Jackson Drive in La Mesa isn't very inviting. Image by the author.

The 1.1-mile walk from the Grossmont Trolley station in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa to my family's house takes you through a strip mall parking lot, along the six-lane major arterial Fletcher Parkway and then up the overly wide four-lane Jackson Drive before you turn into their neighborhood. It's not pleasant, as the picture above shows.

The route of my walk in La Mesa. Image by Google Maps.

As a result, my family only drives to the station when they ride the Trolley, and I—someone who likes to ride transit—think twice about making the walk when I'm there.

The crazy thing is that this is a comparable distance to what I walk a couple of times a week from the Shaw-Howard U Metro station to my house in Eckington.

What's the difference? The walk in DC is along leafy streets lined with rowhouses in the Le Droit Park and Bloomingdale neighborhoods. Yes, I cross three major roads—Florida Avenue, and North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue where they meet—but it is just two intersections, and I do not walk along either street for very long.

I use T Street NW when walking from the Shaw Metro station to Eckington. Image by Google Maps.

Street design and development patterns matter

Much of the residential development surrounding the Grossmont Trolley station, including where my family lives, was built during the post-war suburbanisation of the 1950s and 1960s. Miles and miles of single family ranch houses built for people that get around in a car.

Retrofitting this suburban, auto-oriented built environment for pedestrians is difficult. The basic infrastructure, including sidewalks and crosswalks, exists in La Mesa.

However, there are also a number of missed opportunities when it comes to changing the built environment to make the walk more pleasant. These include wider sidewalks, barriers between passing cars and the sidewalk that increase pedestrians' perception of safety, and streetside land use that is inviting to pedestrians, like store or home fronts, instead of strip mall parking lots and driveways.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of Retrofitting Suburbia, talked about turning major arterials into tree-lined "boulevards" as one example of a suburban retrofit in a 2010 TED talk. Transit access can be a catalyst to such retrofits, she noted.

La Mesa is trying. The 527-unit Alterra and Pravada apartment complex is immediately adjacent to the Grossmont station, built atop its parking lot.

But even the Alterra and Pravada building is not the most inviting pedestrian environment. The ground level lacks retail and is instead dominated by entrances to the parking lot.

DC, at least in its older neighborhoods, benefits from having a pedestrian-friendly streetscape already in place. However, the region faces many of the same issues at some of Metro's more suburban stations, for example in Tysons and White Flint.

Better walkability means more transit riders

PlanItMetro has found that a larger "walkshed"—the area around a station that is easily walkable—to a Metro station directly correlates to higher ridership. Shaw, which has a Walk Score of 97 out of 100, saw an average of 5,087 Metro riders on weekdays in 2015 compared to Grossmont, which has a Walk Score of 76 out of 100, that saw an average of 5,707 Trolley riders on weekdays during its 2016 fiscal year that ended in June.

However, Grossmont is a transfer station between the Trolley's Green and Orange lines, which boosts ridership numbers. San Diego measures ridership by the number of people who get on or off a train, versus the number of entries and exits to a station as DC's Metro does.

The Metro system handled an average of 712,843 weekday riders and the Trolley system an average of 122,157 weekday riders in 2015, data from the respective transit agencies shows.

La Mesa is a reminder that simply building transit is not all that it takes to make a suburban neighborhood walkable and generate new transit ridership. A fact that is applicable in many city's around the country, including in the DC suburbs, as they build out their own light rail systems to previously auto-oriented suburbs.


National links: Can San Diego cut back on car use?

San Diego has big environmental goals that include getting a whole lot of people to stop driving, coastal cities are, indeed, generally more expensive than those in the middle of the country, and Uber is losing a lot of money. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.

Photo by Nathan Rupert on Flickr.

Lofty goals for San Diego: San Diego's leaders have some aggressive goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Part of the plan is to get more people to travel by some mode other than a single-occupancy vehicle, the hope being that 50% of the workforce is out of cars by 2050. But that idea clashes with existing land use patterns and plans. (San Diego Union Tribune)

Rent prices, nationwide: 11 million Craigslist housing listings from the summer of 2014, studied by researchers at UC Berkeley, say a lot about what rents were like around the country. True to what you've likely heard, the coasts are expensive and the sunbelt is cheap. If you want the most space for your money, move to Memphis. (Next City)

Uber footing the bill: Uber posted a $100m loss inside the United States for the second quarter of the fiscal year, bringing its grand total of losses for the first half of the year to $1.2 billion. Most of the losses are basically subsidies to keep Uber's large stable of contracted drivers on the road. Market analysts expect the company to continue to lose money at the expense of keeping its market share. (Bloomberg Technology)

Urban cow tipping: Vandals in St. Paul have decided to push over car2go vehicles, which some observers are calling "Urban Cow Tipping." The Smart Fortwo model is a tiny vehicle that's easily tipped. Similar incidents have occurred in Denver, Columbus, and Kansas City. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

No grid in Dallas. But a super-grid? Dallas doesn't have a traditional grid network outside of it's historic post-war neighborhoods. But it does have a "super-grid" of arterials that could be the key to the cities transit future. (D Magazine)

Rental Glut: Major housing construction of over 7,500 units in Brooklyn is likely to lead to a glut, analysts say. While prices probably won't have huge drops, it's likely that the upper end of the market is saturated to the point that rents will flatten out. (New York Times)

Transit Trends Episode 6 with Lukas Neckermann

This week on Transit Trends, my YouTube show, my co-host Erica and I chat with Lukas Neckermann of NEXT Future Transportation Inc. We discuss the timeline for autonomous vehicles and whether we're ready for them.

Want more news about cities? I write a daily newsletter called The Direct Transfer Daily. Check it out!


San Diego's Trolley is just the beginning of an extensive countywide rail network

Continuing our look at transit systems outside the Washington region, San Diego county has a light and commuter rail network that stretches 117 miles across Southern California.

The San Diego Trolley departing Grossmont station. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

The 53.5-mile San Diego Trolley, and its distinctive red cars are the flagship of San Diego's network. The light rail system carries an average of 124,000 passengers every weekday, the fourth most among American light rail systems. It also connects many of region's major destinations including downtown, at least one of the naval bases, and the US-Mexico border crossing at San Ysidro.

The Trolley has three lines, and the segment of the Blue Line between downtown San Diego and the Mexican border that opened in 1981 makes it the oldest modern light rail in the US. The first segment of the Orange Line did not open until five years later in 1986, and the most recent extension came along in 2005.

Map of the San Diego Trolley.

While it covers much of urban San Diego county, the Trolley has its limits. You can't ride to the beach, Hillcrest (a dense urban neighborhood), or popular tourist sites like Balboa Park and the zoo. You also can't take it to University City, a major education and employment center north of downtown, though that will change when the 10.9-mile Mid-Coast Corridor extension opens in 2019.

Two commuter rail lines stretch San Diego's network

At the Santa Fe Depot and Old Town stations, the Trolley shares a platform with the county's Coaster commuter rail line.

Amtrak and Coaster platforms are on the left and Trolley platforms on the right at San Diego's Santa Fe Deport.

The 41-mile line hugs the Pacific coast from downtown San Diego to Oceanside, offering some impressive ocean vistas along the way.

View of the Pacific Ocean from the Coaster. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

At its northern terminal, the Coaster connects to the county's hybrid light commuter rail line the Sprinter, as well as the Los Angeles region's Metrolink commuter rail system and Amtrak.

A Coaster train at Oceanside Transit Center.

The Sprinter runs between Oceanside and inland Escondido along a 22-mile suburban highway corridor. The line has faced criticism for its low ridership and limited frequency. On weekdays it runs every 30 minutes (even less often on weekends and evenings) and averages about 8,000 riders, despite initial targets of 11,000.

The Sprinter. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

Criticizing the Sprinter for not being as successful as light rail, though, is a little unfair because it's not light rail. Many commuter rail lines only provide good service at rush hour, and thus often have relatively low ridership compared to all-day light rail. As a hybrid, Sprinter strikes a balance between the two, providing better all-day service than commuter rail like Virginia's VRE, but not as good as light rail.

The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the area's metropolitan planning organization, both plans and funds transit in San Diego. Funded by a half-cent county wide sales tax, it decides what gets built where and when, leading to transit investments being spread across the region.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) in actually operates the Tolley, and the North County Transit District (NCTD) runs both the Coaster and the Sprinter.

San Diego's centralized planning and funding structure is certainly different from ours. The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board handles our region's long-term transportation plans, but it is up to the individual jurisdictions to actual design, fund, and build those projects. This means varying priorities, and projects whose benefits aren't immediately apparent across the region as a whole.

Unfortunately, a centralized planning organization with the power of the purse is unlikely in the Washington region because there are too many governments in play. But San Diego's system is an example of what such an organization can do.

For more on transit developments in other cities, check out GGW's coverage of San Francisco BART's new Oakland Airport connector and Dallas' DART light rail system.


How to tell the difference between streetcars and light rail

There is much confusion over what separates streetcars from light rail. That's because there's no single easy way to tell, and many systems are hybrids. To tell the difference, one has to simultaneously look at the tracks, train vehicles, and stations.

San Francisco's Muni Metro runs both in a dedicated subway and on the street in mixed traffic.
Is it a streetcar or light rail system? Photos by Matt Johnson and SFbay on Flickr.

It's hard to tell the difference because streetcars and light rail are really the same technology, but with different operating characteristics that serve different types of trips.

The difference, in a nutshell

Theoretically light rail is a streetcar that, like a subway or el, goes faster in order to serve trips over a longer distance. But what does that mean in practice?

There are several features of tracks, vehicles, and stations that both streetcars and light rail sometimes have, but which are generally more common on light rail. Thus, although there's no single separating test that can tell the two apart with 100% accuracy, it's usually possible to tell the difference by looking at several factors simultaneously.

Image by the author.

Let's look at each of those factors, one by one.

Lanes and tracks

It's a common misconception that streetcars always run in mixed traffic with cars, while light rail has its own dedicated track space. That's often true, and it's such a convenient and easy-to-understand definition that I've been guilty of using it myself. But it's wrong.

There are too many exceptions to that rule to rely on it completely. Sometimes (though rarely) light rail lines run in mixed-traffic, and there are plenty of streetcars with their own right-of-way. Some streetcars even have subways.

Compare Sacramento's mixed-traffic light rail with Philadelphia's streetcar subway, for instance:

Left: Sacramento light rail in mixed traffic. Photo by Flastic on Wikipedia.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar in a subway. Photo by John Smatlak on Flickr.

In fact, practically every mixed-traffic streetcar has at least a short section of dedicated track. That's true in Atlanta, Seattle, Tucson, even DC. Those streetcar lines don't suddenly become "light rail" for one block just because they have a dedicated lane somewhere. It's just not that simple.

And some streetcars have long stretches with dedicated lanes. Toronto's massive streetcar network has several dedicated transitways, and DC is planning one on K Street.

Left: K Street transitway. Image from DC Streetcar.
Right: Toronto's Saint Clair transitway. Photo by Sean Marshall on Flickr.

There are too many streetcars with dedicated lanes for that to be a reliable indicator on its own. Too many lines that mix dedicated and non-dedicated sections. Certainly it's an important data point; certainly it's one factor that can help tell the difference. But it's not enough.

An even simpler definition might be to call anything with tracks in the street a streetcar, and anything with tracks elsewhere light rail.

But that's not reliable either, as Portland and New Orleans illustrate:

Left: Portland light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: New Orleans streetcar. Photo by karmacamilleeon on Flickr.

Salt Lake City muddies the water still further. Its "light rail" mostly runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight train right of way, almost completely off-street.

Left: Salt Lake City light rail. Photo by VXLA on Flickr.
Right: Salt Lake City streetcar. Photo by Paul Kimo McGregor on Flickr.

Vehicles and trains

If tracks on their own aren't enough to tell the difference, what about vehicles?

It's tempting to think of streetcars as "lighter" light rail, which implies smaller vehicles. Sometimes that's true; a single DC streetcar is 66 feet long, compared to a single Norfolk light rail car, which is over 90 feet long.

But not all streetcars are short. Toronto's newest streetcars are 99 feet long.

Toronto streetcar. Photo by Canadian Pacific on Flickr.

In fact, many light rail and streetcar lines use the exact same vehicles. For example, Tacoma calls its Link line light rail, and uses the same train model as streetcars in Portland, DC, and Seattle, while Atlanta's streetcar uses the same train model as light rail in San Diego, Norfolk, and Charlotte. And Salt Lake City uses the same train model for both its streetcar and light rail services.

Left: Tacoma light rail. Photo by Marcel Marchon on Flickr.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

Left: San Diego light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Atlanta streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

And although streetcars often run as single railcars while light rail often runs with trains made up of multiple railcars, there are exceptions to that too.

San Francisco's Muni Metro and Boston's Green Line definitely blur the line between streetcar & light rail, perhaps more than any other systems in North America. Some might hesitate to call them streetcars. But they both run trains in mixed-traffic with cars, and some of those trains have multiple railcars.

Meanwhile, many light rail systems frequently run single-car trains, especially during off-peak hours.

Left: Norfolk light rail with a single car. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: San Francisco streetcar with two cars. Photo by Stephen Rees on Flickr.

Stations offer some help, but no guarantee

Light rail typically has bigger stations, while streetcars typically have smaller ones. A big station can sometimes be a good clue that you're likely dealing with light rail.

For example, look at Charlotte and Portland:

Left: Charlotte light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But that's only a general guideline, not a hard rule. Just like tracks and vehicles, there are many exceptions. Light rail often has small stops, and streetcar stations can sometimes get pretty big (especially when they're in a subway).

This light rail stop in Norfolk is smaller than this streetcar stop in Philadelphia, for example:

Left: Norfolk light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

Stop spacing and route length

Probably the most reliable way to tell streetcars apart from light rail is to look at where the stations are located. Light rail lines typically have stops further apart from each other, on lines covering a longer distance.

This chart explains the difference:

Image from Jarrett Walker.

This is the definition transit expert Jarrett Walker favors, and if you have to pick just one or two factors to consider, stop spacing and route length are the best.

But even this is no sure way to categorize all lines as either streetcars or light rail. It might be easy to tell the difference between something with stops one block apart (theoretically streetcar) versus stops two miles apart (theoretically light rail), but what if the stops are 1/4 mile apart? Or what if the gaps aren't consistent? There's no clear place to draw the line.

Furthermore, Walker's graphic itself illustrates exceptions to the rule. The top line shows a light rail route with stops close together downtown, the third line shows a streetcar with some sections that have far-apart stations, and the fourth line shows a very long streetcar.

There are certainly plenty of real-life examples of those exceptions. Before Arlington, VA cancelled its Columbia Pike streetcar, DC and Arlington were considering linking their streetcars with a bridge over the Potomac River. Had that happened, there might have been a mile-and-a-half between stops.

Certainly station spacing and route length provide a convenient general rule, but only that. There's no hard boundary where everything to one side is streetcar, and everything to the other is light rail.

To really know the difference, look at everything

There are seven factors that light rail usually has, but that streetcars only sometimes share: Dedicated lanes, off-street tracks, bigger vehicles, multi-car trains, longer routes, bigger stations, and long distances between stations.

No single one of them provides a foolproof litmus test, because sometimes streetcars have each of them, and sometimes light rail doesn't. But if you look at all seven together and determine which direction the majority of a line's characteristics point, over the majority of its route, then you can usually sort most lines into one category or the other.

For example, DC's H Street line fits neatly into the streetcar category, because it runs in the street almost totally in mixed traffic, with small vehicles on single-car trains, along a short route that has frequent, small stations. Even if DDOT builds the K Street transitway and a dedicated-lane streetcar on Georgia Avenue, the majority of the seven factors will still point to streetcar.

On the other end of the spectrum, Seattle's Central route is squarely light rail. It has a dedicated right-of-way that's often off-street, uses large 95 foot-long vehicles that are usually coupled into multi-car trains, along a long route with infrequent stations.

Left: Seattle light rail. Photo by Atomic Taco on Flickr.
Right: DC streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But even then not every system is crystal clear. San Francisco's Muni Metro, Philadelphia and Boston's Green Lines, and Pittsburgh's T, for example, all have some segments that look like classic streetcars, but also some segments that look like classic light rail. These networks defy any characterization, except as hybrids.

It's a feature, not a bug

The fact that it's hard to tell the difference is precisely why so many cities are building light rail / streetcar lines. The technology is flexible to whatever service characteristics a city might need.

You can use it to build a regional subway like Seattle, or you can use it for a short neighborhood circulator like DC's H Street, or anything in-between. And perhaps even more importantly, you can use it to mix and match multiple characteristics on the same line, without forcing riders to transfer.

That's why many of the most successful light rail / streetcar systems are the hardest ones to categorize as either / or. They match the infrastructure investment to the needs of the corridor, on a case-by-case basis, and thus have some sections that look like light rail, and others that look like streetcar.

That's not muddied. That's smart. That's matching the investment to the need, which is after all more important than a line's name.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


DMU trains are the DC region's missing transit mode

In the DC region we have Metro and commuter rail trains, with light rail, streetcars, and BRT all in the works. And of course, regular buses. But one common mode we don't have is DMU trains, which bridge the gap between light rail and commuter rail.

DMU train in San Diego. Photo by mrpeachum on flickr.

DMU stands for Diesel Multiple Unit. DMU trains are intended to operate on routes that look like commuter rail, but at almost light rail frequency. They go over long distances, with infrequent stations, usually on or adjacent to freight tracks. But instead of coming only at rush hour, trains come all day long, as often as every 15-20 minutes.

That's a great service model for suburban corridors that need something better than rush-hour MARC or VRE service, but are too far away for light rail and don't have the density to justify the costs of Metrorail.

DMUs, and their electric cousin EMUs, are used in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Portland, San Diego, Dallas, and Austin. They're proposed in even more cities.

One big advantage of DMUs over traditional commuter trains is that DMUs can operate on-street, like light rail. That makes integrating them with downtown areas much easier, because it frees DMUs to go anywhere, rather than only to a city's main rail hub.

Austin DMU on-street. Photo by paulkimo90 on flickr.

All MARC and VRE trains to DC must go to Union Station, because all the long distance tracks through DC go to Union Station. Not only does that constrain route planning, it's also a limit on capacity, because there are only so many platforms at Union Station. But a DMU could go anywhere.

There are not currently any plans for DMU lines in the DC region, but there could be. DMU would be a great solution for Maryland's proposed Charles County corridor or Fairfax's Route 28. Officials are looking at light rail for those corridors, but they're far out in the suburbs and wouldn't have very frequent stops, so DMU might be more appropriate.

In the long term it might also make sense to convert some of MARC and VRE's existing lines to DMU, or to supplement them with more DMU trains. That would give them more operational flexibility, and could increase service. But MARC and VRE are established as traditional commuter rail, and may be uncomfortable with anything else.

MARC and VRE also have to use tracks owned by freight companies. DMUs can be used in mixed company with freight, although that requires federal approval. But if the freight lines are already using their tracks to capacity, which is common in the DC area, then there's no room for more trains no matter what they look like.

DMU isn't Metro, and it isn't light rail. DMU trains can't do all the things those modes can do. It's not an appropriate mode where frequent stops are necessary. But for long corridors with infrequent stops and moderate capacity needs, it's ideal. We should keep in mind as we continue to advocate for new transit lines.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City