Posts about Light Rail
Norfolk's Tide Light Rail opened in 2011, and has exceeded its initial ridership projections. But the Virginian-Pilot newspaper recently called for Hampton Roads Transit to slash Tide fares to increase ridership. Are fares holding back ridership, or are other factors at play here?
Do free fares encourage new ridership?
Simply put, yes. The editorial notes that for a 10% decrease in fares, ridership generally increases about 3%. The real question is whether the additional subsidy required to operate a free (or cheap) transit service is worth the cost.
But for all of its problems, it's probably not the fares that are keeping people from riding the Tide.
The Virginian-Pilot argues that the Tide's problem is low demand, and points to falling ridership on the line. This ignores that ridership has fallen on the area's bus routes as well, and in Hampton Roads a bus fare is the same as the fare on the Tide. Maybe the whole system should be free. That would probably increase transit ridership.
Other cities either have (or have experimented with) free fares but there's not a lot of evidence that the prospect of a free ride leads to a big increase in ridership. Besides, there may be better ways to increase ridership.
What does the Tide actually need?
The editorial does make some suggestions that would also benefit the Tide. The first is an acknowledgement that the system needs to grow. Norfolk wants to expand the system within its own borders to the Naval Base and the Airport. Meanwhile Virginia Beach wants to take advantage of the existing railroad right of way and extend the line all the way to the Atlantic waterfront.
This would automatically put the system closer to a great number of people and jobs, and could even have state-wide benefits with the ability to take Amtrak to Norfolk and then light rail to the beach.
The editorial also notes that the Tide was meant to jumpstart a wave of transit-oriented development (TOD) that hasn't happened yet. In the DC area we know how long it can take TOD to arrive even for an extensive system like Metro. The Pilot does seem to get that TOD will increase ridership. But instead of arguing for zoning and policy changes, it assumes the free fare itself will be enough to generate the TOD.
Development centered around transit will very likely increase ridership, though those land use changes will take decades. And people will not decide just to locate next to a transit line because it's free or cheap. They'll only move there if they find the line useful. If it doesn't go where they're going, they won't ride it, even if it is free.
That's why it's important for Hampton Roads Transit to build a larger transit network and why it's important for the local governments to encourage development (the places people want to go) near transit.
The city of Norfolk's goal (building TOD and reducing traffic) is notably different from Hampton Roads Transit's, whose goal is to make sure it can provide service without running into any large budget problems. If Norfolk ends up agreeing with the newspaper and makes the Tide free, maybe the city can pay the difference so the additional subsidy requirement won't harm other transit services in the region.
It's good that the Virginian-Pilot wants the Tide to be successful and recognizes that transit is an effective way to reduce or mitigate the effects of traffic congestion and how it can be a tool that allows lifestyle and urban form changes. But just focusing on fares is a narrow solution that will have less impact than a more balanced approach.
The same can be said for transit in the DC region. Free fares may be a good thing to consider, but we should be considering many factors when discussing how to increase ridership.
Projects like the Columbia Pike Streetcar will have ridership whether or not the cost to ride is free. The proposed line will connect dense, diverse neighborhoods along the Pike to the Pentagon and the Metro system. It will also likely encourage more development in the corridor over time, which will have a positive impact on ridership. Making fares cheaper may increase ridership, but transit-oriented development and service improvements (faster trips, more frequent trains) will make the line more useful, and that will have a much larger impact on ridership.
Strasbourg, France is a beautiful city that takes its complete streets to heart. The roads through the old city gracefully mix street trams/light rail with bicycle paths and friendly traffic calmed streets. Pedestrians move easily. Its central intercity train station is a glamorous historic building sheathed in a chic, modern glass shell.
My family moved to Strasbourg when I was 12. In French school, I comprehended little, and regularly escaped the gates of Le Lycée International des Pontonniers to explore the city by foot and public transportation. It was liberating to take my lunch money and spend it in boulangeries around town or even into Germany across the Rhine River. My parents thought I was in school and I may not have been in the country!
Given the quality of its infrastructure, it would be easy to think the French city is quite large. In fact, Strasbourg is a metro area with a population the size of Albany, Little Rock, Colorado Springs and would rank 73rd in US metro size behind Columbia, SC.
6 tram lines ply this small city
The Strasbourg metropolitan area of 760,000 people contains six tram lines, 56km (36 miles) of track, 72 stations, and daily ridership of 300,000 as of 2010. No US city near this size has this kind of rail system.
During the day, trams run every 6 minutes Monday to Friday, 7 minutes on Saturday and 12 minutes on Sundays. Yearly passes are 456 euros ($620 dollars) with discounts for those over 65 and under 25. A single fare is 1.60 euro ($2.18).
Trams glide from suburbs into the dense city with a dedicated right of way. Photo by michallon on Flickr.
Strasbourg's trams function as a hybrid of what in the US we would call streetcars and light rail. The rail vehicles are similar to streetcars because they are mostly in the roadbed and integrate into the city's fabric, but unlike streetcars, they operate with their own right of way separate from traffic, as light rail does.
Bicycle infrastructure abounds
To complement the tram system, Strasbourg has almost 500km (311 miles) of cycling paths, 18,000 bike racks that serve over 130,000 cyclists. Secure bike parking lots and tire inflation facilities are available at bus and tram stops for transit card holders.
Baltimore County, a national leader in Complete Streets, still lags far behind Strasbourg
Many US cities have adopted complete street ordinances and individual streets have been retrofitted. Locally, Baltimore County has been recognized as a national leader for Complete Streets, ranking 6th among 83 communities in the US with Complete Streets programs.
Despite this recognition, the county's on-road bike network is minimal; members of the Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee have been frustrated by the lack of commitment to projects; the county has missed the mark on its pedestrian safety campaign; and now its county executive struggles to find a $50 million contribution for the $2.4 billion Red Line his administration says it supports.
In Baltimore City, Council Bill 09-0433 was adopted in 2010 directing the Departments of Transportation and Planning to apply "Complete Streets" principles to the planning, design, and construction of all new city transportation improvement projects.
Despite the accolades and the policies, "complete streets" in Baltimore County and Baltimore City still feel foreign. Too many incidences of tragic pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle crashes get blamed on user error than engineering design.
Only a few of the most progressive US cities are scaling up Complete Streets projects. On the ground implementation in many jurisdictions remains the elusive prize. Complete Street advocates look forward to seeing first rate projects in the city and the suburbs get designed, funded, and become reality.
You can see a gallery of pictures of Strasbourg's complete streets infrastructure at Comeback City.
What do you get when you plot onto a single map every known light rail, streetcar, and BRT plan in the DC region? One heck of a huge transit network, is what.
Every planned light rail, streetcar, and BRT line in the DC region. Click the map to open a zoom-able interactive version. Map by the author, using Google basemap.
This map combines the DC streetcar and MoveDC bus lane plan with the Arlington streetcar plan, the Alexandria transitway plan, Montgomery's BRT plan, and Fairfax's transit network plan, plus the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, the Long Bridge study, the Wilson Bridge transit corridor, and finally the Southern Maryland transit corridor.
Add the route mileage from all of them up and you get 267 miles of proposed awesomeness, not including the Silver Line or other possible Metrorail expansions.
To be sure, it will be decades before all of this is open to passengers, if ever.
The H Street Streetcar will be the first to open this year, god willing, with others like the Purple Line and Columbia Pike Streetcar hopefully coming before the end of the decade. But many of these are barely glimpses in planners' eyes, vague lines on maps, years or decades away from even serious engineering, much less actual operation.
For example, Maryland planners have been talking about light rail extending south into Charles County since at least the late 1990s, but it's no higher than 4th down on the state's priority list for new transit, after the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and Baltimore Red Line. Never mind how Montgomery's expansive BRT network fits in.
Meanwhile in Virginia, the Gallows Road route seems to be a brand new idea. There's yet to be even a feasibility study for it.
Even if governments in the DC region spend the next few decades building this network, there are sure to be changes between now and the day it's all in place. Metro's original planners didn't know Tysons would become the behemoth it is, and contemporary planners can't predict the future with 100% accuracy either.
Last year the Coalition for Smarter Growth published a report documenting every known route at that time, and already a lot has changed. More is sure to change over time.
Holes in the network
With a handful of exceptions these plans mostly come from individual jurisdictions. DC plans its streetcars, Montgomery County plans its BRT, and so on.
That kind of bottom-up planning is a great way to make sure land use and transit work together, but the downside is insular plans that leave gaps in the overall network.
Ideally there ought to be at least one connection between Fairfax and Montgomery, and Prince George's ought to be as dense with lines as its neighbors.
But still, 267 miles is an awfully impressive network. Now let's build it.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Not to be outdone by its neighbors' aggressive plans for rail and BRT networks, Fairfax County has an impressive transit plan of its own.
Now Fairfax has a major countrywide transit plan too, called the High Quality Transit Network. Top priorities are to finish the Silver Line and the Bailey's Crossroads portion of the Columbia Pike streetcar, but that's not the end of Fairfax's plans.
Both rail and BRT are possibilities for all those corridors. Some may end up light rail or streetcar, others bus. Route 1 and I-66 could even include Metrorail extensions.
In addition to all that, Fairfax County Parkway is slated for HOT lanes, which could make express buses a more practical option there.
As the DC region continues to grow, and demand for walkable, transit-accessible communities continues to increase, these types of plans are crucial. If our major arterial highways are going to become the mixed-use main streets of tomorrow, transit on them must significantly improve.
Fairfax is undeniably still spending a lot on bigger highways. Planners' inability to calm traffic on Routes 7 and 123 through Tysons, for example, indicates roads are still priority number one. But it takes a plan to change, and this is a strong step forward. So good on Fairfax for joining the club.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Often when a new city proposes its first rail line, opponents who don't like spending money on transit call for BRT instead. So it's tempting to think cities might have an easier time implementing new transit lines if they simply planned BRT from the start. Unfortunately, BRT often faces the exact same opposition.
Two projects that have faced major opposition, the Nashville BRT (left) and Cincinnati streetcar (right). Images from the cities of Nashville and Cincinnati.
Both Nashville and Cincinnati are among America's most car-dependent and least transit-accessible large cities. Nashville's entire regional transit agency only carries about 31,000 passengers per day. Cincinnati's carries about 58,000.
For comparison, Montgomery County's Ride-On bus carries 87,000, never mind WMATA.
In places like Nashville and Cincinnati, authorities have ignored transit for so long that any attempt to take it seriously is inherently controversial, regardless of the mode.
Arguments may fixate on rails, dedicated lanes, or overhead wires, but for at least some opponents those issues seem to be simply vehicles for larger ideological opposition.
That may sometimes be true even in places with stronger transit cultures. Arlington's streetcar and Montgomery's BRT network are both controversial themselves. Both have plenty of detractors who say the plans are unaffordable or would get in the way of cars.
Ultimately there are many reasons a city hoping to improve transit might choose BRT or rail. The two modes are both useful, and smart cities use them both based on the specific needs of the location.
But either way, expect similar tropes from opposition. It's inescapable.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Better transit could one day come to Virginia's Route 1 between the Beltway and Woodbridge. A transit study looked at transit options and narrowed down the choices to curbside or median Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), light rail, or a hybrid of BRT and extending Metro's Yellow Line.
The study presents a wealth of data and a thorough analysis, but raises key questions, including what speed limit is appropriate for a more transit-oriented Route 1. A new high-capacity transit system would transform the corridor, but there would be challenges to ensure a safe pedestrian and bicycle environment and preserve affordable housing.
The study considered 8 transit options before eliminating streetcar, enhanced bus, express bus, local bus, a Yellow Line extension all the way to Woodbridge, and monorail. The 4 alternatives that remain for further study are:
- Curbside Bus Rapid Transit (including a stretch in mixed traffic from Pohick Road to Woodbridge)
- Median Bus Rapid Transit (with a shorter mixed traffic section in Prince William County to Woodbridge)
- Median Light Rail Transit
- A Metrorail-BRT Hybrid, extending the Yellow Line to Hybla Valley and then switching to BRT.
The study looked at 3 land use scenarios:
- A baseline forecast for 2035 from the regional Council of Governments model;
- 25% more growth based on what a BRT or LRT line would likely generate;
- 169% more which is necessary to support Metrorail service.
For the road itself, the study rejects widening Route 1 to four lanes in each direction, as well as converting existing lanes to transit-only. That leaves a recommendation for three general lanes in each direction as well as transit in a separate right-of-way.
What transit do you think should go in this corridor? In part 2, we'll talk about how to create a sense of place and what this plan means for housing affordability.
When built, the Purple Line could dramatically improve transit commutes in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. To explore that and other changes the line will bring, researchers created a series of maps including this one of the "commute shed" of each Purple Line station, or how far you can get on transit before and after it's built.
Two weeks ago, the Purple Line Corridor Coalition organized a workshop called "Beyond the Tracks: Community Development in the Purple Line Corridor" to bring different stakeholders together and talk about ways to prepare for changes along the future light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which awaits federal funding and could open in 2020.
The coalition is a product of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, which hosted the workshop. Members of the group include nonprofit organizations, developers, and local governments in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. At the workshop, they looked at examples from cities like Minneapolis and Denver, which recently built light-rail lines.
The 16-mile corridor contains some of the region's richest and poorest communities, in addition to major job centers and Maryland's flagship state university. When it opens in 2020, the Purple Line will help create the walkable, urban places people increasingly want. However, rising property values could potentially displace small businesses and low-income households. To illustrate and explore these issues, the Center for Smart Growth produced a series of awesome maps.
Like the DC area as a whole, the Purple Line corridor is divided from west to east, with more jobs and affluence on the west side, and more low-income households on the east side. Many of the estimated 70,000 people who will ride the Purple Line each day in 2040 will come from communities in eastern Montgomery and Prince George's county to jobs in Bethesda and Silver Spring.
But today, getting between those areas can be difficult and time-consuming, whether by bus or by car. It's no surprise that many commuters along the eastern end of the Purple Line have one-way commutes over an hour.
These maps, and the map above, show the "commute shed" of three Purple Line stations, or how far you can get on transit in an hour. In all three cases, the Purple Line opens up huge swaths of Montgomery, Prince George's and DC to each community. While the Purple Line only travels through a small portion of our region, it adds another link to our existing Metro and bus network, meaning its benefits will go way beyond the neighborhoods it directly serves.
But better access comes with a price, namely rising property values. The revitalization of downtown Silver Spring has resulted in higher home prices in surrounding neighborhoods because of the increased demand to live there. But Silver Spring and Takoma Park still have substantial pockets of poverty, meaning that low-income residents may not be able to afford to stay in the area once the Purple Line opens.
There are two ways to ensure that neighborhoods near the Purple Line remain affordable for both current and future residents. One is to protect the existing supply of subsidized apartments. Many complexes near the Purple Line have price restrictions for low-income households, but they will expire before it's scheduled to open in 2020.
The other is to build more new housing near the Purple Line. New homes are usually expensive, but increasing the supply of housing to meet demand can result in lower or at least stabilized prices. We're starting to see this in downtown Silver Spring, where thousands of apartments have been built in recent years. But Montgomery officials reduced the number of new homes allowed in Chevy Chase Lake and Long Branch due to concerns about changing the character of each neighborhood.
There are a lot of great and interesting communities along the Purple Line. But many of them are dramatically different places than they were even 10 years ago. They'll be different in 10 more years, whether or not the Purple Line is built. We can't preserve these places in stone, but we should try to ensure that the people who enjoy and contribute to these places can stick around in the future.
The Federal Transit Administration has just issued a Record of Decision for the Purple Line, basically approving the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It's one of the last pieces needed to build the line, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2020.
Maryland Transit Administration officials made the announcement this morning during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting about the Purple Line, which Purple Line NOW! and BethesdaNow subsequently tweeted.
The FTA will make a formal announcement next week. The agency's decision means Maryland can start purchasing right-of-way to build the $2.37 billion Purple Line, and makes it eligible for federal funding. President Obama recently included it in his 2015 budget, which Congress will have to approve later this year.
With state funding in place and an ongoing search for a private partner in the works, nearly all of the money needed has been secured. As a sign of how likely the Purple Line is to get built, the Planning Board is meeting today to make detailed recommendations about how it should interact with surrounding neighborhoods, like what materials to use for retaining walls.
Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney has a column today urging the affluent Town of Chevy Chase, which has been fighting the project for years and recently hired a congressman's brother to lobby on their behalf, to lay down their arms and use their money to make the project better instead.
"Some people have more money than good judgment," he wrote. "The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare."
- 15th Street cycletrack gets s*** on ... literally
- Hey, streetcar critics: Stop making perfect the enemy of good
- Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 25
- If Georgetown had a Metro station, it would be one of the system's busiest
- The region needs to hear the call to action on climate change
- How to sculpt a skyline: Arlington planners rethink Rosslyn
- DC will start saving a lot of money while offering better transit for persons with disabilities