Posts By christof.spieler

Think of the cargo

Carolyn Feibel has a great piece in the Chronicle on freight rail. Not only does it take a big big picture look at transportation — which doesn’t happen very often — but it focuses on freight, not people.

Where ever you are, look around. We are all outnumbered by stuff: food, clothes, gadgets, appliances, furniture, building materials. And while that stuff doesn’t travel as often as we do, it all had to get to us. And there’s more stuff moving behind the scenes to make our lives possible: a lot the electricity that’s keeping this computer running comes from coal, and that coal had to get to Fort Bend from Wyoming somehow.

So moving stuff is as important a part of our transportation system as moving people. But look at the comments on the Chronicle web site: light rail, high speed maglev, commuter rail. Invariably the conversation turns to moving people. Our transportation planners and policymakers are the same way. Freight rail was virtually ignored — except as an obstacle for commuters or an opportunity for rail transit — for 50 years. We have a sophisticated model that estimates how people travel to evaluate highway and transit projects, but no such model for freight (A bit of good news, though: stimulus funds are going to a regional goods movement study, and HGAC is now seeking a firm to do that work.) We don’t even know how many trucks use which road. With that lack of data, freight is sidelined to an appendix in the regional transportation plan. But look around: our roads are full of trucks, our tracks are crowded with trains, and the port keep growing. We can’t figure out our transportation system without understanding freight.

And while we’re speaking of the stuff that sustains our lives, I should plug Cite 79, which will be going out to Rice Design Alliance members and to bookstores including Brazos, Issues, and the MFAH soon. It’s about the city as a machine and the often hidden infrastructure that keeps it running. We have maps of sewage, water supply, and landfills, an inside look at a nuclear power plant, a tour of the dispatch center that controls Houston’s trains, and a history of pipelines.

And, yes, Cite is part of the reason this blogs’ been quiet: sometimes, I write online; sometimes I write for Cite; sometimes I make powerpoints (i.e. two hours on Texas transit for a UH architecture class this afternoon.) I can’t usually do all of them. Expect to see more here again soon. Meanwhile, make your own content in our forums.

America’s longest toll road has no pavement *


You’re on Cajon Pass, in the mountains that separate the Los Angeles Basin from the high desert. On a hillside in the distance, big rigs are grinding up I-15. But you’re about to see a lot more trucks on the tracks in front of you. A train is approaching: 4 locomotives pulling 100 truck trailers, belonging to many of America’s biggest trucking firms, in between. And right behind it is another, this one with 250 shipping containers. The two rail lines in this pass combine to carry 100 trains a day. The majority of them are carrying trucks.

What you’re seeing here is the western end of one of the world’s greatest railroad lines, BNSF’s “Transcon.” It links San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Phoenix to Texas, the Midwest, and the East. Where all those traffic streams combine, across Arizona and New Mexico, the line carries 100,000 containers and truck trailers a day. That’s as many as travel by truck on I-40, which runs alongside. All that cargo started its trip by truck and will finish its trip by truck. In addition, the railroad carries another 50,000 trucks worth of freight in tanks cats, flat cars, hoppers, and boxcars. This is an interstate – with a difference. And it’s only one one of two major transcontinental rail lines across Arizona; the other, operated by Union Pacific, links the same places and is similarly busy.


Over the past decade, railroads have been steadily picking up market share from trucks: in 1996, they carried 33% of U.S. ton-miles; in 2005, they carried 38% (pdf). The Transcon saw a 50% increase in rail freight from 1994 to 2004. And this gain in market share has come despite that fact that the railroad was raising its prices.

Trains are benefiting from two major efficiencies: energy and manpower. Because steel wheels on steel rails have less friction that rubber tires on a concrete road, and because a 4,400 horsepower engine is more efficient than a 500 horsepower one, trains are much more fuel efficient than trucks. A train can move a ton of freight 400 miles on a gallon of fuel; a truck can do only 130. Every time the price of fuel goes up, railroads look better. And when the price of labor goes up, railroads look better, too. That train with 200 containers requires a 2-person crew in place of 200 truck drivers. And drivers have been harder to find lately – few people want the life of a long distance trucker.

Meanwhile, railroads have overcome some of their natural disadvantages. By moving traffic in trailers and containers, they don’t need to maintain a spur track to every industry; they can concentrate their traffic on a few main lines. U.S. railroads have 1/3 of the track they did in 1920 but carry 3 times as much freight (pdf). And every shipper in the United States is a potential rail customer; in fact, since most trucking firms use rail as an integral part of their networks, many shippers are using rail without knowing it. Likely, so are you: the biggest railroad customer in the United States is UPS.


But railroads have one huge disadvantage, courtesy of the government. Those trucks on the interstates are being heavily subsidized. One 18-wheeler does as much damage to the highway as 50,000 cars, but it pays only as much fuel tax as 5 cars. That does not even take into account the fact that building highways with clearances, lane widths, grades, and curves to accommodate trucks likely adds a third to the cost of a automobile-only highway. The mainline railroads, meanwhile, get no taxpayer support to maintain their tracks; in fact, they have to pay property tax on them.

The truck subsidy distorts the market in two significant ways. One is that it favors one mode over another. Rail is inherently more economically efficient – the fact that it’s taking traffic from trucks even with the deck stacked against it proves it. Were the playing field level, trains would carry more, and the overall cost of moving goods would decrease. The other distortion is that, by making transport artificially cheap, we’re encouraging firms to do more of it. The loss of industrial production in the United States can be blamed directly on cheap transport: a $1 widget can be shipped halfway around the globe so cheaply that we can make it in China for use in New Jersey. If shippers had to pay the actual price of transport, they would shift supply chains, production, and distribution to be more efficient, and, once again, the overall cost of moving goods would decrease.

Railroads have been investing in improving their infrastructure to increase capacity. Cajon just got a 16 mile long third track at a cost of $90 million. That added as much capacity as two freeway lanes at less cost (pdf). But while those freeways lanes would be funded by the taxpayer, the railroad had to pay for its additional track itself, and as long as we subsidize its competition, the amount of money available to do that will be insufficient to meet the need.

Libertarian think tanks like the Reason Foundation are calling (pdf) for the government to create a network of transcontinental tolls roads to carry truck traffic. But they’re missing something: those toll roads already exist, and they’re maintained and operated by private enterprise without taxpayer help. They just don’t have any pavement.

For more pictures from Cajon, see my gallery.


A high speed rail to-do list

On Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration comes to town with a high speed rail workshop.

Texas is surely one of the top five high speed rail prospects in the county. Houston, Austin, Dallas, Texas and San Antonio have 16 million people between them, all potentially within 2 hours of each other by high speed rail. That’s no as many as California’s system (33 million) but it’s more than Florida (12 million) or the Pacific Northwest (7 million) and it requires maybe a quarter as much track as the midwest system (37 million.) And, unlike Florida, we’re building good local transit systems that can get people from the high speed rail station to their destinations.

But we’re behind all of those places in implementation. That’s what the FRA wants to talk about. President Obama wants to see high speed rail happen in the United States. He’s putting money in his budgets. But without local effort to organize projects, that’s money’s useful. So what do we need to do to get started on high speed rail in Texas?

We need to get Houston connected to the rest of Texas on the federal map. The feds are only going to fund projects in officially designated corridors. So far, Houston isn’t on the same corridor as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. But a bill passed in October requires the Secretary of Transportation to study adding Houston to that corridor. With a push from out local congressional delegation, that should be a no-brainer.

We need to get the state government involved. A private entity — the Texas High-Speed Rail Corporation — is studying high speed rail. Private capital and operations could be a key part of high speed rail. But the state government has to be on board for property acquisition, to accept federal funding, and likely to add some funding of its own. TxDOT says it’s putting together plans. But we have yet to see how large a role the state is willing to play.

We need studies. High speed rail will require environmental analysis, cost estimates, and ridership estimates. California spent ten years laying that groundwork. We don’t have any of it.

We need to figure out where the terminals are. Dallas already has a ready-made rail station. We don’t. And we need to get the trains into IAH and DFW as well. Texas, unlike California, is flat. Getting tracks between cities is easy. Getting them into the cities will be the big challenge.

We need to coordinate with commuter rail.
We’re talking about commuter rail in Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth is planning to expand its network, and Georgetown-Austin-San Marcos-San Antonio are doing studies. High speed rail and commuter can share corridors and even tracks. By integrating the two, we can offer better connections, save cost, and minimize impacts. That also opens up more funding sources: federal high speed rail funds and federal transit funds can be combined.

That’s a lengthy to-do list. Texas tried for high speed rail once before; politics killed that attempt. This time, the politics seem better, especially with Continental and American on board. But we still need leadership to bring the pieces together.

Comments? Forums.

Why the feds like pavement but not rails

So what’s the difference between highways and transit?

No, it’s not that transit gets subsidies. Highways do, too. In fact, every mode of transportation but pipelines and freight rail does. Federal and state highways are funded by gas tax. But freeways, expressways, and major arterials — the kinds of roads which are federal and state highways — account for less than half of vehicle miles traveled nationwide. The rest of the roadways are paid for out of county and city general funds. The second largest transportation budget in the Houston area comes from Harris County property tax. So if you’re driving on a local road, you’re subsidizing highways, and if you have a home or a business, you’re subsidizing local roads. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important to realize that no form of passenger transportation pays its own way, even if you leave out private subsidies and indirect costs.

What is different, though, is how the federal and state government fund highways and transit. The difference at the state level is obvious: the state does not finance transit. If you’re a city or county looking for state funds, and the best solution for your particular transportation problem is transit, too bad. You get a road. The difference at the federal level is less obvious. But the bottom line is that it’s much easier to get highway funding than it is to get transit funding.

An article in this morning’s Chronicle highlights the differences well. The North and Southeast METRORail lines, which have completed their environmental process, have a contractor selected, are ready to break ground, and are slatred to be done in 3 years, are not “shovel ready.” But the Grand Parkway segment E (as seen in the New York Times), which even its supporters admit has been rushed, which has not completed environmental clearances, and which does not have a contractor selected is “shovel ready.” And oh, yeah, it’s a stupid project with no real transportation benefit. But it will get stimulus money.

So what’s the difference between the Grand Parkway and METRORail? Why are they treated differently? Because they’re funded by two different agencies. The best explanation I’ve heard (and unfortunately I can’t remember the source) is that the Federal Highway Administration thinks it’s in the business of helping states get highways built, while the Federal Transit Administration think it’s in the business of making sure agencies don’t spend too much on transit projects. That difference in attitude permeates everything the two agencies do.

Here’s how federal highway funding works: every state gets a certain amount of money by a national formula. That state then determines how it wants to spend the money and tells FHWA; FHWA sends checks. By federal law, an environmental impact study is required. But FHWA is pretty lax on those; major projects like the widening of 610 are routinely characterized as exempt from the environmental projects, and many of the biggest environmental impacts from highways don’t have to be considered. Everyone knows that the biggest impact of the Grand Parkway will be the paving over of large portions of the Katy Prairie, prime wildlife habitat and a “sponge” for floodwaters, to build new subdivisions. But the environmental study was able to claim that development would have happened anyway, and the FHWA agreed.

The most crucial omission from the federal highway funding process, though, is any kind of cost-effectiveness requirement. The FHWA does not care how much transportation benefit will come from your project, whether the same benefit could have come from building a cheaper project in the same corridor, or whether another project elsewhere has better bang for the buck. If the state thinks it’s a good idea, it gets funded. And with “the state,” I mean a 5-member commission appointed by the governor. In fact, state departments of transportation were explicitly structured in the Progressive Era to avoid political oversight.

And, oh, yeah, the feds pay 80% of highway project costs.

Now consider FTA funding for new projects. Every project has to start with an Alternatives Analysis which has to consider cheaper modes like Bus Rapid Transit. Only after the FTA has approved this document can the project start the environmental process. After the environmental process there’s another process, not required by law but instituted by the FTA, to determine the risk of projects running over schedule or budget. And once you’re done with all that you’re still not guaranteed funding. Instead, you’re up against a lot of other projects, and every project gets rated on the basis of its cost-effectiveness, its benefits, its environmental impacts, and the financial stability of the transit agency. If you don’t score high enough, you get no money. Even if you do, the FTA may arbitrarily decide not to fund you. And meanwhile, you have members of Congress trying to block certain projects (it happened to us, it happened to LA, it even happened to Seattle because of congressmen from Oklahoma and Kentucky.)

So you make it through all that? The feds give you 50% funding.

The federal transportation funding bill is due for reauthorization this year. We now have a president who’s talking about the need for building more sustainable communities, a secretary of transportation who’s working on coordinating transportation planning with land use planning, and a House transportation chairman who’s been outspoken is his support for transit. This bill is a chance to fix the fundamental flaws in the federal funding process. Hopefully, the final result will treat all modes equally. It’s hard to build a good transportation system otherwise.

Despite being financially stable, cost-effective, and very accountable, our forums get no federal funds. So you won’t have to analyze the environmental impact of your comments.

The way to Santa Fe *


I’ve seen a lot of commuter rail (and I mean a lot: 15 of 18 systems in the United States), so it’s not that easy to impress me. But I rode New Mexico’s Rail Runner for the first time last week, and I was blown away. I’d go as far as to call it the best recent commuter rail startup in the United States.


Start with the most important criterium: it goes where people want to go. It connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the two most important cities in New Mexico; half the state’s population lives in that corridor. The Albuquerque station is Downtown, right on Central Avenue, next to offices, lofts, and restaurants.


Santa Fe has two stations: one is next to the major government office complex (the station is closer to the front door of one office building than most of the parking lot is) and the other is Downtown, a third of a mile from the State Capitol and half a mile from the Plaza.


To connect the two cities, New Mexico actually built more than 15 miles of brand new railroad line, much of it in the median of I-25. That’s a notable departure from the typical philosophy of “we’ll run the trains where the tracks happen to be already,” and the crowded trains out of Santa Fe (I had trouble finding a seat on the 4:10 southbound) testify to its success.

Growth restrictions in Santa Fe have made it a very expensive place to live, and Indian reservations restrict growth to the south. But, thanks to the state government, Santa Fe is a major employment center. That means a lot of people are commuting into Santa Fe from Albuquerque and its northern suburbs, and the Rail Runner serves that travel market well. Trip time from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, 60 miles, is an hour and a half, and the intent is to reduce that to 1:15. By 2025, freeway travel times are expected to be at 2 hours. And commuter rail is a productive trip, too: the trains have comfortable seats, tables to work on, and electric outlets for laptops, and wifi is on the way.


The Rail Runner is well connected, too. Of course, there are park-and-ride stations, but 9 of 10 stations have local transit connections, too. The Downtown Albuquerque station is at the main bus transit center, with connections to the “Rapid Ride” bus on Central Ave. (which connects to the major hospital and the university) and the proposed streetcar line. Amtrak and Greyhound operate out of the same facility. There’s a nonstop airport connection bus, too, that meets the trains. Schedules for connecting bus routes are available on the Rail Runner website, and Rail Runner tickets are good for free rides on Albuquerque and Santa Fe local buses. A new regional transit district plans to increase feeder bus service. And, yes, there’s room for bikes on every train.


The schedules aren’t as frequent as some other systems — this is not the densely populated Northeast, after all — but they’re pretty comprehensive. The first northbound leaves Albuquerque at 4:23 AM; the last train of the night leaves Santa Fe at 9:30. There are trains in both directions all day, and there is midday service. Current schedules are limited by long sections of single track, but the new alignment was designed to add a second track, and they are making the most of the track they have: the southbound train met a northbound at a siding without stopping, which is only possible if both trains are on time.


But the best part of the Road Runner is the customer service. The crews are some of the nicest I’ve met: they were smiling as they collected tickets, and once, when a passenger wasn’t paying attention and realized too late we’d reached his station, they actually stopped the train for him after we’d started moving again and re-opened the doors. Every station has complete information posted on schedules, fares, and connecting transit. The web site is complete. Tickets are sold on board with cash or credit cards, or you can pre-purchase them on the Web and print them out. A lot of the regular riders I saw were wearing their passes on Rail Runner-issued lanyards so the crew was able to check their tickets at a glance. Everything looks classy: the web site, the stations, highway signs pointing to the stations, the information kiosks, the newspaper racks, the cloth seats, the schedules, and the trains all have the distinctive rail runner logo and colors. In fact, when the doors close, the sound is not the usual buzz but a distinctive “beep-beep.” Everything seems to say, “we’re proud of what we do.”


The line is also very neighbor-friendly. A lot of the crossings were retrofitted as quiet zones. And the last few miles into Santa Fe, built along an existing rail right-of-way, include a hike-and-bike trail (still under construction, but already well used) running alongside.


Two years ago, I noted 8 habits of highly successful commuter rail lines. The Rail Runner manages them all:

1. The ideal commuter rail line improves on current transit options.
2. The ideal commuter rail line makes use of unused rail capacity in a corridor where highway capacity is scarce.
3. The ideal commuter rail line serves more than commuters.
4. The ideal commuter rail line has a city at each end.
5. The ideal commuter rail line offers good connections to multiple employment centers.
6. The ideal commuter rail line serves long trips.
7. The ideal commuter rail line connects to local transit.
8. The ideal commuter rail line has stations you can walk (or bike) to.

Rail Runner is a remarkable achievement for a small state. Albuquerque is the 60th largest metro area in the country, on par with Dayton, OH and Omaha, NE. Santa Fe is the 282nd, smaller than Muscles Shoals, AL. The whole state has only 1.9 million people, fewer than live in Houston city limits. In that context, 4,000 riders a day is pretty good (It beats Shore Line East into New Haven and Altamont Railway Express into San Jose, CA, for example.)

Morever, the whole thing was implemented in only five years: in August of 2003, Governor Bill Richardson asked the department of transportation and the local council of governments to study commuter rail and the legislature to fund it. The first trains ran to the southern suburbs of Albuquerque in July 2006, and the line to Santa Fe opened in December of 2008. A small team did all of this, with minimal bureaucracy, and they based what they did on a lot of data: for example, fares were decided on not based on an arbitrary fare box return ratio but on phone surveys of what people were willing to pay. There’s a great report (84.3 MB Microsoft Word) available from NMDOT on the Railrunner website with a lot of background.


A lot of parts of the Rail Runner story aren’t easy to repeat. The existing railroad line which makes up most of the route carried relatively little freight traffic but had been maintained to 79mph standards for Amtrak service; Burlington Northern Santa Fe was willing to sell it as well as the rest of the line all the way to the Colorado border to the state, nearly 269 miles of mainline track in good condition with room for double track for $75 million. That’s a great deal. But the standards of service, and the quality of the experience, are worth emulating. And so is the political leadership that make it happen.



Rapid streetcar *


We’ve already discussed the disadvantages of streetcars sharing traffic lanes with cars: it results in slower and less reliable streetcar service. That’s not an inherent problem with streetcar technology; it’s a result of how that technology is implemented. Streetcars can also run in their own lanes or outside of streets entirely. That’s not a new idea: streetcars in New Orleans have run in grassy street medians (they call them “neutral grounds”) since the late 1800s. New there’s a name for that, originally coined by Lyndon Henry: “rapid streetcar.” Here’s how it fits in:

Local Bus Streetcar Rapid Streetcar Light Rail
40′ diesel vehicle on rubber tires 60′ electric vehicle on steel rails 60′ electric vehicle on steel rails trains of up to two 90′ electric vehicles on steel rails
shares lanes with cars shares lanes with cars operates in own lane or outside of streets operates in own lane or outside of streets
stops with sign, maybe a bench, maybe a shelter stops with sign, bench, shelter, short platform stops with sign, bench, shelter, short platform stations with shelter, benches, long platform, lighting, ticket vending
lowest capital cost medium capital cost medium capital cost higher capital cost
slow slow faster faster
unreliable unreliable reliable reliable
does not attract choice riders attracts new riders; makes surrounding areas more desirable to live, work, and spend time in attracts new riders; makes surrounding areas more desirable to live, work, and spend time in attracts new riders; makes surrounding areas more desirable to live, work, and spend time in

The most common rapid streetcar implementation in the United States is the use of abandoned railroad lines. This is very effective, but only if there happens to be an available right of way in the right place, as there was in Memphis:


…or here in Boston. Note the hike and bike trail alongside.


Alternately, rapid streetcar can run in streets, either in the center or along the curbs, in lanes marked off with paving, pylons, fencing, or landscaping, as along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, in a wide boulevard created by the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway:


or simply with pavement marking, as here in Memphis:


It’s not necessary to separate the streetcars and cars totally: one advantage of a streetcar is its flexibility, and in a tight area, especially one with minimal traffic, a rapid streetcar line can run in traffic lanes for a few blocks. But that affects service. Every block of reserved right of way means faster and more reliable trips.

So far, rapid streetcar is uncommon in the United States. That’s not due to cost: building outside of a street is actually a bit cheaper than building in a street, and the cost of dividers to separate a lane in a street for streetcars is minimal. Not is it because the idea is novel: it’s simply basic good transit practice. Rather, the problem is political. It’s very difficult to take space away from cars. Even in transit-dependent cities like New York, San Francisco and Toronto, where the majority of residents don’t own cars, vocal business owners and car commuters have fought any attempt to give transit its own space. Politicians like streetcars because they satisfy calls for rail transit. But they don’t want to potentially antagonize anyone by taking space from cars, so they put streetcars in mixed traffic. The result looks good, and it’s an accomplishment to brag about. But it’s not actually better transit service than could have been provided with a bus.

Rapid streetcar is another tool for creating good transit. It fits neatly an ordinary streetcar line and light rail: the low cost of the former with the improved speed and reliability of the latter. It makes a lot of sense for corridors where better transit service is needed but demand doesn’t warrant light rail. But doing it right requires the political will to give transit its own space.

The little line that could *


Houston’s Main Street Line opened 5 years today to a strange mix of high and low expectations. On one hand, it was the long-overdue product of nearly 25 years of planning since METRO was created, with an explicit voter mandate to build rail, in 1979. In a way that the HOV lanes never did, it represented improved transit in a city that had long been demanding it. On the other hand, it was a modest beginning: only 7.5 miles and 16 stations, designed to fit a $300 million price tag that Lee Brown considered politically acceptable. It was widely considered to be too little, too late: a line going nowhere.

Today, by every measure, the Main Street Line is a huge success:

  • It carries 40,000 people on an average weekday. That’s remarkable for a line so short; it’s more than the 12-mile line in Minneapolis, the 25-mile system in Pittsburgh, 27-mile system in northern New Jersey, the 30-mile system in Baltimore, or the 42-mile system in San Jose. Only one other light rail system in the United States carries more passengers per mile, and that’s Boston’s, which had a 100-year head start. Dallas carries less than twice as many passengers on seven times as much track built for $2 billion.
  • It’s turned out to serve a lot of trips very well. About half of rail riders have a one-seat ride, compared to only 34% of Houston bus riders.
  • It has attracted new riders to transit. Half of riders have a car available; 40% didn’t ride transit before the line opened. It even seems to have attracted people to connecting bus routes: 12% of Houston bus riders weren’t riding before rail opened.
  • It’s made service faster, more reliable, and more frequent for many existing transit riders.
  • It has proven (again) that Houstonians will walk. 2/3 of light rail trips start on foot.
  • It has attracted a wide range of riders going to a wide range of destinations. Unlike the Park-and-Ride buses, which are full during rush hour but idle during the day, the light rail line is carry lots of people all day, every day. Average weekend ridership is around 15,000, more than any Houston bus route carries on a weekday. Only about half of trips are home-to-work. I’ve found myself on standing room only trains on every day of the week and nearly any time of day.
  • It’s reduced the number of accidents on Main Street. Yes, that’s true: there were more car wrecks on Main before rail was built than there are now.
  • It has supported extensive development along the line: new highrises Downtown, new hospitals in the Medical Center, and new apartments in the Museum District: at least 50 significant projects.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of this story is that Houston is now considered a model for effective, cost-efficient transit. Along with Dallas and Denver, it’s proven that light rail isn’t effective only on the East and West Coasts. Now we have light rail in operation in Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Charlotte, and under construction in Norfolk. Houston has also created helped create a new model for light rail. Older systems were generally suburban-oriented, using freeways or abandoned rail lines. Since planning started in Houston, though, we’ve seen a series of new lines running down streets in the urban core: the starter line in Phoenix, the University Line in Salt Lake City, the Central Corridor in Minneapolis, and the Third Street Line in San Francisco.

The Main Street line is a testament to the value of putting infrastructure in the right place. A clue to its success: only 8 square miles, or 0.4%, of Harris County, is within walking distance of the Main Street Line. But that area includes 6% of the county’s jobs. This light rail line may be short. But it goes where people what to go.



A new streetcar era? *


Transit, like any other fields, has trends. And today’s hot trend is the streetcar. Portland opened a modern streetcar line in 2001, Tacoma followed in 2003, and Seattle’s Lake Union Streetcar opened last year. Austin, Atlanta, Fort Worth, Dallas, Oakland, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and others are studying new lines. In San Francisco (below), New Orleans, Philadelphia, Memphis (above), Dallas, Tampa, and Little Rock, vintage streetcars (or replicas thereof) serve the same function.

So what’s a streetcar? Like light rail, it’s a vehicle running on steel rails powered by an overhead electric wire. In fact, light rail and streetcars are fundamentally the same technology: they’ve shared tracks in several U.S. cities, and in Europe it’s often hard to tell them apart. But in North American practice there are several differences in how the technology is used:

  • Streetcars are shorter, narrower, lighter, cheaper, and lower capacity than light rail vehicles.
  • Streetcar stops tend to be not only smaller but simpler than light rail stations
  • Streetcars often collect fares on board (or don’t collect fares at all), instead of having ticket machines at stations like light rail.
  • Streetcars usually run in traffic lanes shared with cars, and they usually use the same traffic control devices (traffic lights or even stop signs) as cars.
  • Streetcars are generally built with the idea that it’s acceptable to shut the line down temporarily for utility work. This avoids the need to relocate underground utilities.


The advantage is that these features combine into lower construction cost and less impact than light rail. But you get what you pay for: streetcars in mixed traffic are also slower, less reliable, and lower capacity than light rail. If the Main Street line were streetcar instead of light rail, it would have cost less to build. But it take about half an hour, not 20 minutes, to get from Downtown to the Med Center, rush hour trip times would depend on traffic, and the line would have reached full capacity in June of 2004. If we consider service instead of technology, these new streetcars resemble a local bus route. They are not a substitute for light rail, or even BRT, in reserved lanes.

But there is an alchemy to streetcars: people prefer them to buses even if they do not offer better service. Part of that is the distinctive branding, which distinguishes a streetcar line from the rest of the bus system. Part of it is the certainty of rails: you know exactly where that streetcar is going. And part of it is the lure of novelty and nostalgia. This draws riders onto streetcars who would not have taken a bus. And thus it draws development, too, and that is one of the big lures of streetcars.

Streetcars have slipped into a specific niche in North American transit. They’re a tool for downtown and near-downtown revitalization. They’re intended to promote the construction of lofts and apartments, to draw visitors to cultural institutions and restaurants, and to attract tourists. They’re often constructed outside the regular transit structure, funded through tax increment districts and other local funds, and operated separately form the rest of transit system.

So this is the new U.S. streetcar model: low capacity, low speed, mixed traffic, low impact, low cost, maximum economic benefit. In this model, the ideal streetcar line:

  • Serves existing existing or under construction high-density population (so there are riders on day one.)
  • Connects to at least one employment center (so the riders have somewhere to go.)
  • Serves restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, museums, and other leisure attractions (to draw tourists and locals.)
  • Serves areas that have development potential (to generate the tax revenue to pay for the line.)
  • Is only a few miles long (so slow speed doesn’t matter as much.)
  • Runs on streets that are not too congested (so the streetcars aren’t stuck in traffic.)
  • Has a moderate level of transit demand (because that’s what a streetcar can handle.)

Obviously, some of these points are basic to all good transit. But some are very specific. A streetcar has inherent limitations; a good streetcar line is designed to accommodate those. What works in the Pearl District in Portland or South Lake Union in Seattle will not work in every neighborhood, or serve every transit need.

In a small city, streetcars could be the core of a transit system. In a big city, they simply do not have the capacity or the speed for that. But they could be a modest start for rail transit — Dallas had its streetcar line in 1989, seven years before light rail opened — or they could be a local component in a larger rail transit system. That’s the case in Portland, where the light rail line runs one way through Downtown and the streetcar line the other, with a transfer station where the cross, and in San Francisco, where the streetcar line offers local service in a corridor that also has a light rail and heavy rail subway.

The last paragraph could have been written 100 years ago, when streetcars were also a trend. In smaller places, like Houston, they were the transit network; in bigger cities, like New York or Chicago, they were local feeders to subway and elevated lines. Back then, too, streetcars served to stimulate development; neighborhoods were laid out around them, and the lines were often funded through the sale of those lots. Those same neighborhoods remain the places where streetcars work best: they’re close to the core, they’re mixed use, they’re walkable. In many cases, the new streetcar lines are in fact reconstructions of old lines. The streetcar trend is in one sense an admission of error: we would have done well to keep those lines 60 or 80 years ago. And now, in some cases, it makes sense to bring them back.


Read about streetcars in “Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century” (the first chapter is available as a PDF) and in Paul Weyrich and William Lind’s report.

Why are the buses late? *

The Houston Chronicle notes that METRO’s buses are only on time 61% of the time, and asks why. That’s easy. Yes, there are some avoidable reasons why buses can be late. Once, on my commute, the bus driver actually got lost. But there are two major reasons why buses times are unpredictable: traffic and passengers. The traffic is the same traffic everyone else is stuck in. The passengers come into play when there are more of them than usual or when it’s raining and they have to pause to fold their umbrellas, or if someone has to fumble for change, and a 10-second stop turns into a 60-second stop. And there’s nothing you can do about either of those things that doesn’t involve major investments like dedicated lanes or ticket machines. Local buses in mixed traffic run late. That’s what local buses in mixed traffic do, especially on long routes like many of METRO’s.

There is something else worth noting, though: cars run late all the time, too. The only way to make sure you’ll be on time to an appointment you’re driving to is to leave early. But we’re used to that. It’s also a socially acceptable excuse: I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve seen someone walk into a meeting late and say “traffic was really bad” and everyone nods.

The power behind commuter rail *

For 70 years, in a period where transit and railroads underwent massive change, one thing has remained constant: the propulsion of choice for any new American commuter rail line is diesel. But that was before $125 a barrel oil. If we build commuter rail in Houston, it’s worth asking how it ought to be powered.

The diesel locomotive has a lot going for it. Diesel is easily portable and packs a lot of power per pound. The external infrastructure is simple; trains can even be fueled directly from a tank truck. Diesel locomotives are off-the-shelf, they share most of their components with common freight locomotives, and it’s easy to find people who know how to maintain them.

But diesel pollutes, it produces greenhouse gases, and it’s gotten a lot more expensive. And there are alternatives.

The gold standard for railroad propulsion is electricity, as it has been since it was invented. Electric locomotives are quieter, more powerful, longer-lasting, lower-maintenance, and more energy-efficient than diesel. They emit no pollution from the vehicle itself, and if the electricity is provided from hydroelectricity, wind, solar, or nuclear, they do not pollute at all. In passenger use, electric trains lend themselves to powering every axle, which increases acceleration and reduces trip times. And the electric motors can be used to brake the train as well as accelerate it, returning energy to the system, saving 15% or more.

Electric propulsion has only two downsides. One is minor: the visual appearance of the wires. Modern systems are very simple, and it’s worth noting that the extremely appearance-conscious Swiss have no objection to errecting them in their treasured mountain landscapes. The second is more significant: perhaps $6 million a mile to install the wires. That immediate cost is what taxpayers and shareholders see. But on a heavily travelled route, the lower operating costs –and better service — can justify that. The world’s busiest railroad systems — Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, China, India, Russia — all have significant electric routes. In the United States, New York, Philadelphia, D.C./Baltimore, and Chicago have electric commuter rail, and San Francisco is preparing to electrify its line.

No other alternative to a standard diesel locomotive is as common as electricity. But there are other viable technologies. Hybrid locomotives are in use for freight trains, and they could easily be adapted to passenger use. Likewise, natural-gas powered locomotives are a proven technology. Both are still dependent on fossil fuels. But another proven alternative is not: in 1955 the West German railways introduced ETA 150 battery railcars, which could carry 86 passengers 180 miles at up to 60 mph on one battery charge. 232 were built, and they remained in everyday service for 40 years. Could 2008 technology do better?

In 1998, with oil at $20 a barrel, diesel propulsion might be an obvious choice for commuter rail. In 2008, with $125 a barrel, it seems foolish not to consider other options. Whatever the choice is, it will stick for while: commuter locomotives last for 20 years or more, and electric infrastructure is cheapest when it’s done at the same time as track upgrades.

Above, the worst of both worlds: MBTA’s Boston-Providence route is one of two U.S. commuter rail lines that runs entirely under electric wires but uses diesel locomotives.