Friday, December 4, 2015

TOD Fail

The land around the majority of light rail stations has been zoned for retail, in accordance with the theory of Transit Oriented Development. The unintended consequence has been that development near transit stations has been auto-oriented, with single story retail and large parking lots.
Attempting to implement TOD outside of the context of a controlled and designed mega-project is extremely problematic. TOD is a designer’s solution antidote to sprawl, and it requires the implementation of all project elements simultaneously, to form a coherent whole, to be successful.
For the majority of transit stations, using TOD as a planning and development paradigm is inappropriate. A city is not a building writ large, or a district a single development writ large. Outside of the context of an integrated district-scale redevelopment plan, with a single master developer (private or public), development around transit is not TOD, and should not be treated as such.
To meet the necessary threshold for walkable neighborhood retail, residential density near transit stations needs to rise substantially. In most areas, where existing residential development consists of single family detached housing, raising the average density requires the addition of very high density residential development. Thus, planners should both permit and incentivize the development of very high density (elevator apartments, minimally). In theory, the necessary population to meet the threshold to support neighborhood retail is services should be provided by adjacent high density residential. Lacking that, a TOD cannot support pedestrian scale retail.

The financial underpinnings for residential density are provided by rapid transit with good access to regional employment. Without the accessibility premium, there is no demand to support the residential density. That accessibility premium exists: a) in the context of severe traffic congestion (where transit provides a significant time advantage over the personal automobile) or b) high parking costs near workplaces, so that transit represents a significant financial advantage. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Human Transport

For human transport, the relationship between time space and distance is fixed: S=D/T. Travel time can be reduced by increasing speeds, but total energy output remains a limiting factor; and higher speeds are less efficient. Prior to the advent of vehicular transit, travel speed was nearly constant. With speed constant, it is only possible to increase the distance of residence from work by increasing the amount of travel time. With wage labor, the combination of hours worked and necessary hours for rest provided a hard limit on the amount of travel time available. Thus, any efforts to de-congest a city (to lower overall activity density) are reliant on vehicular transportation, for which travel speed is not constant. (Vehicular transportation also provides a limited conversion of travel time in resting time). The adoption of mass transit in urban places did not initially occur to limitations in space (as is currently the case), but rather due to limitations on total human energy output. The 'massification' of transportation is more efficient than individual transportation. It also facilitated the replacement of human bio-energy with that from fossil fuels. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Housing and transportation cost trade-offs

History is demonstrably replete with examples where housing has been allowed to depreciate into dangerous and barely habitable conditions while still remaining attractive to prospective tenants. Many of the health and safety initiatives of the urban Progressives was dedicated to overcoming the economic rationality of this behavior. However, in some cases, the remedy has proven worse than the disease.....

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Parking in the CBD

I was reading this, and was struck by this bit at the end:

"argued parking lots can be a boon to the city — they're being used, after all. And the ordinance actually hinders development, he said, reasoning that it inhibits competition, and parking rates go up as a result. Owners in turn have less reason to develop lots, and dig in their heels"

Let's deconstruct that a bit: "They are being used, and are thus a boon". That argument is a bit tetchy--if I were to add free parking all over downtown, would that be a boon?

Short answer: 'No'. 
Long answer: Free parking is a subsidy to people who drive to downtown. Which is something that people who take transit, or live downtown don't get. Secondly, downtown real-estate is expensive. Letting someone use it for free is silly. 

But this is market based--why not let someone develop parking lots? The ordinance certainly hinders development of parking lots--that's the point. So, why not let half of downtown become parking lots? Lots of cities do. 

Because it kills walkability. Walking along a parking lot is boring and unpleasant. And downtown isn't just the premier office and retail center for the metro area--it's also the premier entertainment district, tourist destination, and convention center. People who come downtown for a show, to visit Temple Square, and to go to Conventions all wind up walking around downtown SLC. 

Does it actually inhibit competition for parking?
No. The lawyer is very clever--talking as if parking lots were the only option. You'll notice that multi-story parking structures aren't forbidden. Parking structures are the real competition to surface lots.

The Politics of Property Taxes
A quirk in Utah property tax also plays a role. When your property is assessed, it is assessed on the value of the improvements--the stuff on the land, rather than the land itself. (Why this is stupid will have to be a later post). The 'improvements' value of a parking lot is not very much--it's just asphalt over dirt. The value of a parking garage is much much higher, in the millions of dollars. For SLC, it makes financial sense to have anything BUT a parking lot.

And so SLC is holding down the supply of surface parking in the CBD. Which means supply is constricted even as demand rises. Prices are determined by the mis-match between supply and demand, so the cost of parking is going up. As the price of parking rises, the expected ROI on building a parking garage rises as well, so it makes financial sense to build a parking garage. 

Digging in their heels
The last bit is simply silly--if rates go up, owners have MORE reason to develop parking lots. More lots are being developed for the same reason no-one builds high rises in historic districts--it's illegal.








Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On Central Bus Terminals

City Lab says

I say:

Bus terminals are fine. Central bus terminals are problematic. Using a central location for for end-of-line 'terminal' functions means you need space to store a lot of buses, which means you need a lot of real estate, which means 'central' bus terminals are never central. More successful are transit malls, where many buses load and unload, but without having a huge array of idling buses, noises and belching exhaust. One of the things that made Fung Wa so so successful was that their use of curb-space was illegal, so they had to be FAST in loading and unloading, so they couldn't afford to 'store' buses.


Monday, July 20, 2015

A Concise History of Rail Transit in America

Modern transit comes from two historic lineages: Steam railroads, and horse-cart street railways. To operate in an urban environment, steam railroads underwent a number of modifications. To reduce conflicts with street level traffic, were either elevated or under-grounded. At some point, they were also electrified, typically use a third-rail system. Once that occurred, expansion required the continued use of grade separated, exclusive guideway, so no one touched the third rail and died. In contrast, street railways were electrified as trolleys, using a pantograph. (Cable-cars can be thought of as a 'dead branch' alternative to electrification). The converging modes of electrified heavy rail and street railways were hybridized as the "Inter-urban". Electrified the whole-way, using a pantograph, and running in a mix of at-grade and tunnels. After the second World War, almost all pure street running 'trolley' systems were 'bus-tituted' out of existence, while some inter-urban systems survived. The survivors all had some off-street running-way, viz: RTA Streetcars, San Francisco cable car, MBTA Green Line & Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Line, SEPTA Subway–Surface Lines: Suburban Trolley Lines & Girard Ave Trolley, RTA Rapid Transit: Blue and Green Lines, Newark Light Rail, Muni Metro. Between ~1930-1972 is sort of a 'Dark Age' for urban rail--almost nothing new is built. Then there is a resurgence of heavy-rail systems to deal with traffic congestion: BART (1972), Washington Metro (1976), MARTA (1979), Baltimore Subway (1983), and Miami-Dade (1984). All run at-grade in the suburbs, and in tunnels in the city center. About 1980, America adopts the Stadtbahn/'City Rail' concept from Germany, and APTA coins it 'Light Rail'. It runs at-grade in the suburbs, and at-grade in the city-center, like the inter-urbans. Being regulated as 'light' rail, it is allowed to operate in mixed-traffic with cars, making it easier/cheaper to build. Over time, the surviving inter-urbans are rebuilt/revitalized, making use of the same vehicles as the new 'Light Rail' systems. Circa 2001, Portland reinvents the 'streetcar', which runs at-grade, in mixed traffic, with smaller vehicles, and making extensive use of single-track.

Now, to get back to what is 'Rapid' transit: Rapid transit is something that has it's own (unshared) guideway. Subways, elevated rail, commuter rail all clearly meet this standard, as do most of the 'Metro' systems of the 1970's heavy-rail revival. But the surviving inter-urbans and new light rail systems are a confusing mix: They have portions of exclusive guideway, so they have rapid transit portions. But LRT means 'Light Rail Transit' rather than 'Light RAPID Transit'. This gets confusion in the context of BRT, which actually means 'Bus RAPID Transit'. BRT gets developed in Latin America as a sort of bus version of a heavy rail system--buses with unshared guideway. But that's another topic. In summary: HeavyRail = Rapid, Streetcar !=Rapid, LRT !=Rapid...but does have sections that could be. (Cable-cars get lumped in with LRT largely on the basis of Cable-car != heavy-rail.)

And finally: Metro!=Heavy-rail, but Metro ⊂ Heavy-rail. Freight, Metro, Subway, Elevated, Commuter Rail ⊂ Heavy-rail.

=     Equal to
!=    Not equal to
⊂    Is a subset of.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Reflecting on this article, I wrote:

Much planning is done by architects, who are totalitarian visionaries. This is fine, when they are limited to perhaps a dozen acres, but a disaster when combined with city-wide 'comprehensive planning'. 'New' planned cities uniformly fail (or mutate from their original plan); this failure can be attributed to a lack of understanding of how cities actually function. Our efforts to address congestion through construction is a manifest example of this--we are trying to manage a system of interactions, but our conceptual framing of the system does not match the bounds of the system. Hence the need for the 'fuzzy' bounds discussed.

Density is an areal measure; Intensity is the point measure.

 Essentially, Any county-level estimate of population density is trash. What is needed is a continuous measure of density, rather than an areal unit of density. The pixel maps of employment density generated at <http://onthemap.ces.census.gov/> represent such a method. It would be difficult but feasible to generalize such a method to GIS. It would require assuming population uniformity at the block level, but doing so would certainly be better than doing so at the County level.

If you aren't familiar with them, I recommend Jarrett Walker's (Human Transit) blog; specifically, the blog posts on 'The Perils of Average Density' and 'Portrait of a City as a Squiggly Line'.

Monday, July 13, 2015

On Garden Cities

Not a fan. Like TOD, Garden cities are intended to be independent cities, but most wind up as suburbs or larger metropoli. In locations too distant from central metropoli, they tend to suffer the fate as most 'New' cities--eventual or immediate failure. Our understanding of how cities work is still too poor to bring cities into existence without passing through some sort of embryonic form.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

"All those Empty Buses"

Most Buses are Empty
Cars are empty most of the time.
So are roads. 

But Why Run Empty Buses?
If something is going to be used part of the time, it has to be available all the time. 

But It Costs to Run Buses!
It costs to run cars ($0.57/mile).
It costs to maintain roads ($250,000/mile/15 years).

Nobody Wants to Ride Transit!
Nobody likes paying 1/4 of their paycheck for gas, either. 
But people should get to choose which they prefer to do.

Buses Are Subsidized!
So are cars. Roads are provided free, and they aren't cheap.

The Gas Tax Pays for Roads!
The Federal gas tax pays for highways..
...except when it doesn't (Highway Trust Fund is broke)
...except when it doesn't (deferred maintenance)

You Want Everyone to Take Transit!
I want everyone to have the option to take transit.
YOU want everyone to drive.
YOU want everyone to have to own a car.
And YOU want to strand everyone else (old, young, poor, disabled) without a car,
or leave them dependent on someone who does have a car. 

The untruths, half-truths, misconceptions and bullshit that characterize conversations about transit. 

Gets My Goat

Articles like this never fail to get my goat:
"Your city bus costs more per mile than a first class overseas flight"

...it claims.

But the devil is in the details:

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION:
These public transit systems charge a flat cash fare to go one mile within the center of their cities. So if you're using one for a quick trip, you'll pay the following:
New York Subway, Boston T: $2 per mile
Chicago El: $2.25 per mile
Atlanta MARTA: $1.75 per mile
Los Angeles subway: $1.25 per mile
San Francisco MUNI: $1.50 per mile
London Tube: £4, or $5.63 per mile (plus more if you travel beyond the central city)
Paris M├ętro: €1.60, or $2.01 per mile
Cairo metro: 1 Egyptian pound, or 18¢ per mile
Hong Kong MTR: HKD$7.7 or 99¢ per mile

The author assumes that the default fair is for ONE mile of travel. Nevermind who uses that same transit fare to travel much further. UTA's default fare was $2.50 for a bit...but that provided 2.5 hours of travel time, enough to get from one end of the system to the other. Which takes 2.5 hours, and covers (fully) 83.1 miles of distance, or 0.03008423586 cents per mile. Given that the IRS allows you to deduct 57.5 cents per mile for driving.

Long story short, this points out two things:

FIRST: Short trips are more expensive than long ones.
Airplanes are different than buses.  Air resistance increases with the square of velocity. The faster a vehicle travels, the more air resistance opposes it, and the more power is needed to overcome it. An airplane traveling at 640 mph generates 16 times as much air resistance as an airplane traveling at 160 mph, despite the fact that it's only going four times as fast. To minimize this effect, airliners fly very high (39,000 feet) where the air pressure is much lower. (For reference, Mt. Everest is 29,000 feet at the peak). For a flight, all the cost is in getting up in the air, to cruising altitude (after which, the plane largely just maintains a semi-ballistic glide through the thin air of the upper atmosphere, all the way down. Most of the flight is spent at 'cruising altitude'. The cruising altitude is selected on the basis of algebraic equation containing the costs per unit of vertical travel at a given height, and the cost of getting to that height. The way the math works out, its always cheaper to go to where the air is thin, so the cost of a flight is largely invariant to the distance traveled.

SECOND:
It's not how good something is, it's how good it is compared to its alternative. Every trip takes time, and costs money. The default alternative for short trips is walking, which can be very time consuming, but costs (effectively) nothing. Whether it's worth spending money for higher speed depends on your own personal cost of time. If your time is worth $10 an hour, saving 1/2 hour is the same as saving $5. So every 6 minutes of your time is worth a dollar. If the bus fare is $2, take the bus anytime doing so will save you 12 minutes, or anytime you have to walk over 6/10 of a mile.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Grades of Right of Way

'Degree' of Right of Way (ROW)
A: Grade Separated (Elevated/Underground)
B: Separated (Exclusive use, separated by vertical barrier)
C: Dedicated (Exclusive use, separated by painted stripe)
D: Mixed Traffic

This applies for all vehicles: Cars, trains, and bikes. The names change by mode, but the effect is constant: The higher the 'degree', the faster and more safely you can travel; less interference with other modes, less danger of another vehicle intersecting your path.

CARS
A: Freeway
B: Best car pool lanes
C: Most car-pool lanes
D: Most roads

TRAINS
A: Subway, (& best light rail)
B: Light rail (inter-urban configuration)
C: Light-rail, in-street for fire-lane
D: Streetcar, or tram.

Bicycle
A: Elevated bikeway
B: Separated bike lanes (bikeways)
C: Most bike lanes
D: Biking in the street.

A bike does not need a road. A road is engineered to support thousands of pounds per square inch. Something much lighter (and cheaper) works. But lets get this out of the way: Sidewalks are for pedestrians, not bicycles. Bikes travel at 5-15 miles per hour, three times of a pedestrian. The geometric design, in terms of clearances, straightness, and pavement quality that works for a pedestrian doesn't cut it for a bike. So we need a bikeway. Bikeways get called 'multi-use paths' so that people can also skateboard, rollerblade, and jog on them. It's a legacy of their historic recreational use.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Cycling lanes in SLC

I grew up biking in a context where urban biking was dangerous, drivers indifferent and sometimes hostile. Being killed by being hit behind from a careless/inattentive driver was continual worry. (Which is why I often bike on the wrong side of the road--at least I can see someone coming). Three yeas ago, I didn't care--the risk was an inherent part of the activity. But now...

I want separate bicycle lanes, I want them everywhere, and I  don't care what it does to traffic speeds. When I bike, I bike with family, with vulnerable people. So the separated bike lanes are really nice. Having a lane of parked cars between you and traffic is an enormous comfort--distracted drivers get to crash into a parked car, instead of someone you love. The painted lines are crap, and I sneer that them. Sure, they are better than nothing...but not much. Most were put in place as part of road diets, as an excuse to narrow the road--the bike lanes on 700 East and 300 West most notably.

I think SLC should take a lane off the whole of 3rd South and give me a continuous protected route from Downtown to University. The traffic volumes don't justify the pavement width, anyway. 100 South cars, 200 South for Streetcar, 300 South for bikes and 400 South for TRAX.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Subsidizing Sprawl

If you weren't in the know, the WestSide COnnector (from I-15 to Provo Municipal) is pure sprawl subsidy. Nothing out there but farmland and wetland, all of which soon to become more low-density suburbia. How do I know this? Because there is nothing else out there!


Check it out!

The road will initially be a two lane highway...but they are already purchasing land for 3 more lanes, to make it into an arterial road. Why an arterial road? Because they already know that big-boxes and subdivisions are going to sprout up along it, generating traffic, so that it will become too congested, with too many turning cars, for a 2-lane road to support.

But it will never be too congested. Note all the curves in the road--it is to avoid wetland. To the south and the west of the road, it will be possible to build almost nothing.  In effect, this is going to be an 'orbital', at the edge of the urbanized area. Which suggests congestion will be less severe, as the road will only be loading from one side.

Still, a gift to autotopia--the only through road for a mile will be on the outside edge of the urbanized area. No hassle for drivers, but a longer walk for everyone else.

Friday, February 27, 2015

What is Light Rail Transit?




Almost all transit built in the United States since 1980 has been ‘light rail transit’ (LRT)--but ‘light rail’ is a regulatory classification for a vehicle, not a type of transit. The term ‘light rail transit’ covers a wide range of types of propulsion, guideway, and operating characteristics. A clearer articulation of the characteristics of different light rail systems would help to better determine the relationship between transit investment and associated outcomes.

The US is slowly emerging from a transit Dark Age. The combination of subsidized competition and public dis-investment effectively expurgated most urban passenger rail systems from existence. It is necessary to re-invent, or rediscover, the constitutive elements of effect transit systems. Historically, there have been many different types of rail transit systems, but they fall into a small number of distinct types, which might be called suburban railways, street railways, rapid transit systems, and tram-trains.

Suburban railways link major cities to suburban locations distant from the central city. They linked independent towns to a nearby major city. Suburban railways are characterized by high speeds and a very limited number of stops, and characteristically bypassed the outer edges of an urbanized area to reach a central location. The require exclusive guide-way, but their relatively infrequent operation (hourly) means that this requirement can be met through temporary physical separation (crossing gates) rather than the full cost of grade separation.

Street railways develop from the horse-cart service. Initially steam powered, the nuisance presented by the smoke and cinders meant that almost all systems were eventually electrified. Acting more as labor-saving devices, they acted as a ‘pedestrian extender’, rarely traveling much faster than a running man, and stopping frequently. In Europe, the modern implementation is known as a ‘Tram’; in America, as a ‘Streetcar’.

Rapid Transit systems represent yielding to necessity. In locations where cost or difficulty of obtaining sufficient surface right of way (viz: London, NYC, Chicago) underground or elevated construction was necessary. Full grade eliminates the need for sudden stops, making much higher speeds possible. The lack of cross-traffic also makes much higher headways possible, so that it is possible to run a very large number of trains on the same section of track. A bare handful of metropolitan areas have been able to fund the construction of new rapid transit corridors.

Tram-trains operate as railways outside of cities, but as street railways within them. Adapted from the ‘City-Rail’ system in Karlsruhe, Germany, it represents the revival of a historical form of American transit, the ‘Inter-urban’. Inter-urban’s were passenger rail lines running along freight railway right of way between cities, but on city streets within the city. They represent an effort to reduce the friction of transportation, by obviating the need for a mode-switch from train to tram at the edge of the dense, pedestrian oriented central core.


Every implementation of mass transit system represents a trade-off between cost, speed, and access. Evidence suggests that the trade-offs are not entirely granular, but rather represent a series of ‘market niches’ or functional classes of transit. The same classes of transit emerge independently, repeatedly, in different locations, at different times. Analyzing the characteristics of light rail determines that there are ‘functional classes’ of LRT, with different service characteristics, which resemble the service characteristics of historic transit modes.