Saturday, March 05, 2011

Rail transit will not solve urban congestion

I have another guest column in the Record today: Public will never give up their cars. It is printed along with an article by Tim Mollison of Tri-Tag: Rail transit an answer to urban congestion.

While I thank the Record for airing the debate, I'm not thrilled with the way they broke up my paragraphs in the print edition, which messed it up somewhat (the online version is the way I wrote it). Also, I object to the headline they put on my piece, as I neither say nor intend to say that the public will never give up their cars. I myself bought my first car at 40 and would prefer not to own one. A better headline for my piece would have been "Rail transit will not solve urban congestion."

However, reading my column again, it would have been better to put the last four paragraphs first, which would have clarified where I stand on transit. I want better transit; I want density; and I want a city that makes it easy to get around on transit - but from my analysis of the proposal, I think LRT will not only fail at achieving those goals, but will take us backwards.

Anyway, that's not the point of this post. If anyone is interested in the Jane Jacobs reference, I thought I'd supply it. She has a lot more to say about why LRT became a fad and why it's wrong. Luckily, parts of the book are available on Google books, here.

Here is the relevant excerpt:
[Paul Martin] told me that he intended to announce a program of federal grants enabling municipalities to install light-rail public transit. Now it was my turn to demur.

I told him that unfortunate experiences already showed that fixed transit routes were expensive failures when they were not preceded by evidence of sufficient demand. Underused routes not only are a drain on transit systems but are ill-suited as contributors to the needs and convenience of users. In the past, designers of transit systems had usually chosen to locate rail routes by observing which bus routes were most heavily used, a pragmatic method that worked well in Toronto and elsewhere. After it was apparently lost to transit engineers' memories in the 1960's, Toronto and a number of other cities, among them Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago, tried rail routes justified by other goals and these have been unable to pull their weights, literally or figuratively. They don't have enough passengers.

I asserted that a prudent program to promote transit must be flexible enough to encourage experiments with routes, should that be what a city wanted to do, and possibly experiment with bus sizes, before settling on fixed rail routes. Why not specify grants for transit? I wondered aloud. Why specify from on high what form the transit must take?

... [Mr. Martin] pointed out that the mayors of every large city had asked for light-rail transit grants. I told him that I had attended the meetings where they arrived at this unanimity; they reasoned that asking for light-rail grants was politically more realistic than asking for other kinds of public transit equipment or more general transit help, such as grants for operating costs, the most desperate need in some municipalities.

Mr. Martin perfunctorily conceded that flexibility might be worth taking into consideration. Again I saw that our points of view were different. What he could contemplate as attractive bonanzas for clamoring cities and perhaps for complaining corporations producing rails and streetcars, I feared as foregone fiascoes.


1 comment:

Michael D said...

Please explain how iXpress is insufficient evidence of demand. I think it appropriate to quote a recent staff note (page 11, linked here):

Crowding on GRT Routes

An analysis was presented at the budget meeting demonstrating that almost 50% of afternoon peak period trips on iXpress have a peak load greater than 40 which is slightly higher than the 37 seats on a standard low floor bus. The GRT measure of an overcrowded trip is 150% of seated capacity, as per Regional service standards, which is approximately 55 passengers. iXpress exceeded this standard on 18.8% of trips during fall 2010. No other GRT routes exceeded this standard. During the same period, 2.4% of iXpress trips had a peak load greater than 70 passengers and 0.6% of iXpress trips exceeded a peak load of 75 passengers.

That's with 15 minute headways. It's to go to 10 minutes this June, which isn't likely to resolve the situation. At this point there are likely many people who would take the iXpress instead of a car but who do not simply because of the overcrowding.

This is a situation where substantial ridership has been built up using an express bus route, and the light rail is to be used to upgrade the service to be able to handle further growth (and to help guide it). And the upgrade is being planned before the bus service reaches absolute capacity. This is about as prudent as you can get in terms of transit planning, and is absolutely not what Jane Jacobs was talking about.

(I should also note that the funding from the upper levels is not technology-specific, and I agree with the Jacobs quote that such technology-specific transit grants are not appropriate.)