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Commuter rail: considering the alternatives

Of all the commuter rail lines being considered for Houston, the one to Fort Bend is the most studied. It was one of two lines proposed as part of a 1993 plan that failed to get federal funding. It was the only commuter rail line included in the 2003 METRO referendum. And, in 2003-2004, it was the subject of 9-month study (1.7mb PDF) sponsored by HGAC.

The 2004 study concluded that a 15-mile commuter rail line along US90A from Fannin South to Rosenberg was feasible, but that it would need its own tracks alongside the existing freight rail tracks. It estimated 12,100 daily boardings for a capital cost of $380 million. (These are 2004 costs, and there has been a lot of construction inflation since.)

This year’s HGAC regionwide study looked at the same corridor as part of its “Principal Corridor” system, but, because the goal was to bring all lines into one central hub, modified it to run to the Intermodal Center instead of Fannin South. The study also extended all of its proposed lines to the edge of the HGAC 8-county region, which put the end of the line in Kendleton, TX (pop. 537) instead of Rosenberg (pop. 24,043). These changes resulted in a much longer 50-mile line which would also be considerably more expensive (over $600 million) due to the additional rural trackage and the cost of upgrading the busy Terminal Subdivision inside the Loop. However, the projected ridership — 7,500 — is much lower than the earlier study. That may be due to some differences in the models used, but it likely has more to do with the lower level of service in the newer study (8 trains a day each direction instead of 22) and with the fact that a lot of the people who live in Fort Bend work in the Medical Center.

In the final stage of the study, the system was modified based on railroad input. Because of the same freight rail congestion that lead the 2004 study to study separate freight rail tracks, the 90A corridor was dropped altogether from the modified “baseline” system, replaced by a new “Popp” corridor. This has the advantage of a good connection to the Medical Center. However, it requires creating an entirely new rail corridor inside 610, following 288. The study found a ridership of 8,406, better than the Principal Corridor plan but still much less than the 2004 study.

At the public meeting on the HGAC plan, Missouri City Mayor Leonard Scarcella reacted angrily, calling the revised plan the “Loop-De-Doop.” It’s not hard to tell where he’s coming from. In avoiding freight rail congestion, this option also avoids most of Fort Bend’s population. Overlay it on population density, and we see it’s a classic case of rail where the people aren’t:

So how did we get here?

The problem is not in the study itself, but in the basic parameters it was based on. The political leadership of HGAC wanted to study only a single mode (diesel locomotive-hauled trains sharing tracks with freight rail) with the lines running into the Intermodal Center and extending out to the edges of the HGAC region. No study was ever commissioned to see if those were the right assumptions.

So let’s question those assumptions. First of all, mode: with congested freight rail tracks and no good connection to Downtown, this might not be a corridor suited to commuter rail. In fact, the 2004 study considered light rail, running alongside the freight rail tracks as in the photo above. Because light rail trains are smaller, they are suited to more frequent operation: every 15 minutes at rush hour instead of every 30. That alone, they found, would increase ridership from 12,100 to 17,200. If those trains were run onto the Main Street line, eliminating a transfer, ridership would increase further to 21,800. Light rail would come at a higher capital cost: $756 million compared to $383 million. But the cost per rider would actually be lower.

Now let’s question another assumption: do we need rail to Rosenberg? Population density drops off dramatically once we get past Sugar Land. The line outside of there cost the same per mile, but it picks up many fewer people. So let’s determine the extent of the line based on where the people are, not on political boundaries:

With the outer end at Sugar Land, we have only a 12.6 mile line. Assuming the same cost per mile, that cuts the capital cost to $376 million, less than commuter rail to Rosenberg. But even if we assume that the people who would have boarded in Richmond and Rosenberg would not ride at all (when in reality many of them would simply drive a bit further and catch the train anyway) we still get a ridership of 13,900, higher than commuter rail to Rosenberg.

The bottom line: based on these studies, light rail to Sugar Land cost less, carries more people, and offers more convenient service that commuter rail to Rosenberg or Kendleton. And, of course, the light rail line could always be expanded outwards in the future.

But the most important point is this: we have a variety of transit modes to chose from — commuter rail, light rail, commuter bus. We can’t assume that one of these will be the right answer everywhere. We have to consider all of them in light of the demographics and existing conditions in each corridor. And, in the end, we’ll likely find different answers in different corridors. HGAC indicated two weeks ago that that was indeed the intent: studies will be done in each corridor, considering multiple modes. We need to make sure that political pressure to move fast, however well-intentioned, does not override that process.

The forums are the right mode for your comments.

Details matter when it snows … and when it doesn’t *

What do you get for $400 million in transit improvements?

In 1995, Boston opened a new $160 million basketball arena, now called TD Banknorth Garden, with a major commuter rail station, North Station, on the ground floor. In 2003, Boston’s MBTA spent $325 million to completely rebuild the subway station that serves the commuter rail station and the arena. And in 2007, MBTA enlarged and improved the commuter rail station’s waiting room.

So what is it like to transfer from the subway to commuter rail? You get off in a spacious, well-lit station. You follow signs to commuter rail, up an escalator and through a mezzanine. And then … you end up outdoors, puzzled. There’s a building to your left, 60 feet down the sidewalk. It’s labeled “TD Banknorth Garden.” There’s no mention of commuter rail. But it turns out that’s where you want to go. So, if you are in the know, you walk 60 feet down an unshaded concrete path alongside a loading dock driveway and then you’re at the entrance to the commuter rail station.

How much would it have cost to add a sign below the “Garden” sign saying “North Station MBTA commuter rail”? Perhaps several hundred dollars.

How much would it have cost to build a enclosed, air conditioned walkway from the subway to the arena? $100,000, $200,000 at most, increasing the project cost by 0.05%.

Boston is not a Mediterranean climate. It gets hot in the summer. It gets cold in the winter. It rains. That 60 foot walk is bearable, but it’s not necessarily pleasant. And that part of the experience colors everything else — it tends to cancel out the nice subway station, and the new waiting area, and as you’re walking that bit through the snow you think “maybe I should drive.” And if you’re not a regularly commuter, that minute — or ten minutes — of confusion looking for the train station is even worse.

Some transit planner sits in their office and thinks, “we rebuilt the subway station, and elimated the ugly El over Causeway Street, and created an easy cross-platform transfer between the Orange and Green lines.” And I say, “You did, and that’s great. But you forgot about the experience, and you got one detail wrong, and now 10,000 riders a day are living with it every day.”

The experience *

This isn’t one of the longest posts I’ve written, or the most interesting. But it is one of the fastest. I’m on board Acela Express train 2165, headed south through Connecticut on my way from Boston to New York. Out the window I can see blue water and sailboats.

That’s my knee in the picture. Note the gap between it and the seat. I’m 6’3”, so that’s a novel experience. There is no gap between my knees and the seat on an airplane. My computer is actually in a comfortable position. There’s a power plug, located on the side wall where it’s easy to reach. Two cars behind me, there’s a café car selling food, whenever I want it. All of this stuff is available the moment I want it – there is no seatbelt light. And the aisle is wide enough to really walk in.

But the best part of the experience isn’t on the train. I boarded at Boston Back Bay, two blocks from Copley Square. No airport shuttle, no taxi, no airport rail link – just take my luggage and walk down the street from my hotel. I got to the station way too early – about 20 minutes before departure. One minute would have sufficed; trains can’t be hijacked, so the TSA isn’t around. And at the other end of the trip, I’ll get off the train right into Midtown Manhattan.

All of this is to say that there’s more than one way to measure traveling. Time is one thing. Comfort and convenience is another. Time-wise, this trip took about the same, door to door, by train as by plane. But rather than sitting comfortably in one place, working, I’d spend much of the plan trip waiting in lines, waiting at the gate, sitting in an airport shuttle, and waiting until we reach cruising attitude. I might arrive at the same time – but I’d have gotten less done, and I’d be much less relaxed.

Transportation planners design for things they can measure. Travelers make decisions based on how they feel. Sometimes the feelings match the planning metrics. But sometimes they don’t. Time waiting feels a lot longer than time moving. Time spent in a comfortable seat feels shorter than time in a cramped seat. Those perceptions are as real – perhaps more real – than the numbers the computer spits out.

Extreme transit makeover: Schedules 2.0 *

Everybody know that the Web has given us all access to personalized information: directions, book recommendations, news. Transit agencies have started taking advantage of that with trip planners and schedule alerts. And transit (at least somewhat) easier to use.

But technology has changed paper, too. Once, printing meant large production runs. Now, it’s possible to print things one at a time. But transit still works in a world where documents — bus schedules, system maps, and brochures — are printed in large, one-size-fits-all, runs.

Consider an office building: several hundred people, all of whom need to get to work and get home every day. They should know what their transit options are. But a system map posted in the lobby won’t do the trick: it shows too much information, and that’s intimidating. But a custom map (click for pdf), showing just the routes that stop nearby, would.

Transit Poster

The technology is not difficult. The time involved is not prohibitive. And, once the map exists, it’s easy to convert for posting on a web site, printing in an employee manual, and otherwise making it available to people whom it would help. It would be entirely possible to put one of these in every large office building lobby, in every hospital and in every university in Houston.

It’s not good enough to simply provide transit. One has to make people aware it exists. And transit agencies ought to be using every tool they can to do that.

Hop, skip, and jump *


At the corner of Church and Market (above), you have transit choices. To get to Downtown San Francisco, you can take the J Church light rail line (the silver train), which ducks into a tunnel 2 blocks later and runs in a subway under Market Street. You could also take the F Market and Wharves streetcar (the orange train), which runs down Market on the surface. The J will get you to the heart of the financial district in 11 minutes. The F will get you to the same spot in 20 minutes.


There’s another set of transit choices at Balboa Park, 6 miles south. This is the end of the line for the J, 35 minutes from Downtown. But noone would make that whole trip on the J, because the BART heavy rail trains that stop here make the same trip in 15 minutes.


The BART line, in turn, ends at Milbrae, 13 stations south of Downtown It shares that station with Caltrain, the commuter train that comes in from San Jose and Gilroy. When its downtown extension is complete, Catrain will makes it from Milbrae to San Francisco in less than 20 minutes with only one stop; BART takes 33 minutes.


This might seem like a gratuitous duplication of transit. Market Street is the only street in the United States with three different rail transit systems along it — fast, slow, and medium. One might think that, given a faster and a slower transit line on the same street, people would ride the faster one. But ridership proves otherwise. All four run standing room only during rush hour: the F carries 19,000 trips a day, the J carries 18,000, BART carries 59,000 within San Francisco, and Caltrain carries 33,000.

What we’re seeing here is a common pattern in mature transit systems. I’ll call it hop, skip, and jump. For local trips, you need to provide a system with a lot of stops. But for longer trips, that gets too slow. So you need to provide another system with fewer stops, and probably another system with even fewer. Then you connect the systems.

Hopskipjump Diagram

Here’s how it works on Market Street: The F stops 15 times between Church and Embarcadero; the J in its subway stops only 4 times. If you want to get from one spot in Downtown San Francisco to another, the shorter walk to the F makes up for a trip that’s maybe 5 minutes slower. But if you’re riding the J in from Noe Valley, a trip that’s ten minutes slower each way makes a big difference.

There’s no way a “one service fits all” system would serve all these needs. If you were to replace the J with BART, a lot of people in the gaps between stations wouldn’t be within walking distance of transit anymore. If you replace BART with the J, then nobody would want to put up with the slow ride all the way from the airport.

It’s important that all these systems make it to Downtown San Francisco, the most important employment center hereabouts. It would be possible to stop Caltrain at Milbrae and ask everyone to transfer to BART. But that means a longer, less convenient trip, and fewer people would chose transit.

But it’s also important to connect the systems at their outer ends: if you live at Balboa Park and work in San Jose, at the other end of the Caltrain line, you shouldn’t need to travel north to Downtown in order to travel south. What looks like duplication is actually a series of different transit service serving different needs.

So, if you’re going to build multiple systems, which comes first?

There will always be political pressure to build the express system first, because fast is sexy. But doing that means only a few people will be able to walk to a station, and a system that’s completely dependent on local bus feeders likely won’t attract more people than the bus system it replaced. One could, of course, rely entirely on park-and-rides. But that still serves only the jobs that are right next to the few stations, and it tends to encourage more low-density development, the most expensive kind of urban form to serve with transit.

So you build the local transit first. You put high quality transit within walking distance of as many people as possible. That builds ridership, and that ridership then justifies the express service. And the local service makes that express service more useful to everyone who uses the system. An asphalt analogy: we have local streets, we have frontage roads, and we have freeways. All are useful; together they make the complete system. We build the local streets first, then the frontage roads, then the freeways.

Look at any mature transit system in the world, and you’ll see hop-skip-jump. In Boston and London, commuter rail and heavy rail run parallel to each other, with the heavy rail stopping more often. In Chicago and New York, you have heavy rail express lines running alongside heavy rail local lines. In Frankfurt and Toronto, streetcars run parallel to subways. Cities that have tried to do everything with one system — a popular idea in the 1970s and 1980s — are finding the limitations of that approach. That’s why Atlanta is considering a streetcar directly above the MATRA subway, and why Oakland is putting BRT alongside BART heavy rail. In transit, one size does not fit all. Am effective transit system is really multiple systems, serving multiple roles, all linked together: hop. skip. jump.

The high cost of “high tech” *

It’s the beginning of a new year, so it’s a good time to look into the future. But here’s a caution for transit planners: don’t look too hard.

As a society, we like to believe in the power of technology to change things. Transit has not escaped that, and we regularly see new technologies touted as the solution to our transportation problems. A great, albeit somewhat dated, example above, from the excellent blog Paleo-Future: not only is it a monorail (a technology that’s still considered futuristic today, 106 years after the first urban monorail entered service) but it transforms into a ferryboat to cross rivers!

Here’s the truth: new technologies that truly transform transportation are rare. In urban rail transit, the last was in the 1880s and 1890s, when Frank Sprague perfected electric propulsion. If I spot you one non-transit technology — air conditioning — you could create an effective rail transit system using only pre-1900 technology. But don’t leap to the conclusion that transit is outdated: a freeway would be no less efficient using 1927 Ford Model As, and Southwest Airline could operate the same schedules using 1958 Boeing 707s.

But merely the fact that existing technologies work just fine has not stopped politicians and transit planners from trying to do better. The results have often been ugly. The most famous example is San Francisco’s BART. It was to be the subway of the future. It introduced a new computerized control system, a new computerized ticketing system, and even a new track gauge. The system had a cost overrun of 50%, and the new innovations never lived up to expectations. The ticket machines were temperamental, and the bugs in the control system took several years to work off. Even after service had begun, a train (luckily without passengers) ran off the end of the track and landed in a station parking lot. More remarkably, the computer technology didn’t actually improve on older technology. It turns out that it’s not the control system that determines BART’s capacity; it’s the track layout. Every San Francisco-bound BART train under the bay has to stop at a single platform in Embarcadero Station, and thus the time it takes for passengers to get off the train determines the spacing between trains. The Key System — which operated in the same corridor from 1939 to 1958, with the same number of tracks crossing the bay — had multiple San Francisco platforms, and it could actually operate more trains with a much more primitive signal system. BART is a useful system; it is hard to imagine San Francisco without it. But it could have been equally useful and been built in less time for less money had it used off-the-shelf technology,

BART’s experience is not unique. The Las Vegas Monorail was shut down when parts started falling off. The French GLT guided bus system, intended as a more economical alternative to light rail, has had repeated problems with vehicles swerving off the guideway, and it turned out to cost more than rail. Toronto’s Scarborough RT was initially buggy, forces a tranfer because of incompatible equipment, and is now proving enormously expensive to renovate because of its proprietary technology. The common theme is that these systems were chosen for the perception of modernity, not because of technical analysis. And the operators paid the costs of finding the flaws in previously untested systems. Buses and light rail may be boring, but we’ve built so many that we know what works and what doesn’t.

But while new technologies have not revolutionized transit as promised, new ideas have. Light rail was not a technological innovation; it was simply the idea of using streetcar technology but running the train in reserved right of way rather than in lanes shared with car traffic. The result is faster, more reliable, and more efficient services than streetcars or buses at a much lower cost than a subway. We can dismiss it as just a new way to use technology that already existed, but that’s true for Southwest’s frequent short-haul flights with fast turnarounds, or FedEx’s overnight service, or the unit trains that have made freight railroads so much more efficient. And the result of this idea has been better transit in dozens of cities.

There are surely innovations in transit’s future, perhaps in the use of computers to provide passengers with more up-to-date and more customized information, perhaps in new, fast faster construction techniques. But I suspect they will come with vehicles and guideways that seem quite familiar. There’s a real benefit to sticking with well-tested technology: more predictable budgets and schedules. In any project, public or private, that matters. And, by not focusing on technology, we can focus on what really matters: building transportation systems that go where people want to go and are easy to use.

You can’t always get what you want


If you want to see some really unhappy people, check out Rad Sallee’s latest column in the Chronicle. In it, readers complain about the recent re-timing of Downtown traffic lights. As Rad notes:

Reader response is running about 4-to-1 against the new downtown stoplight timing. Even granting that people are more likely to speak up when they’re steamed than when they’re mildly pleased, that’s a big margin.

Most of the unhappy readers, it seems, just want the signals put back the way they were. But here’s the catch: back then, people weren’t happy either. Here’s Lisa Falkenberg, writing in the Chronicle earlier this year:

The lights downtown don’t behave like regular traffic signals. Instead of progressively changing colors, they act more like a bunch of Texas politicians: If one turns red, they all do.

I wondered how they got that way. Perhaps the person who programmed them took the term “synchronization” a little too literally. It’s supposed to mean that the lights work together, changing colors progressively like falling dominoes, so that, ideally, a driver who minds the speed limit could catch every green and never have to stop.

Could it be that the city is being incompetent in two completely different ways? Or is it simply that this problem is harder than people suspect?

I drive Downtown often, and I can see what people are upset about. One problem is east-west streets: creating “green waves” on the north-south streets means that the cross streets experience almost random light cycles: very rarely doers a northbound “wave” on, say, Travis coincide with a southbound wave on Milam, so if a cross street gets a green light at one of those streets it will get a red light on the other. The second problem is that drivers don’t react quickly enough: when the “wave” hits an intersection there are already cars waiting at that light because they just turned onto that street. When the cars following the wave approach the intersection, they have to slow down or stop to let those standing cars get moving. The “wave” builds up a moving traffic jamb in front of it, and after a fee blocks cars that had been hitting green lights start hitting reds, having fallen too far behind to stay with the “wave.” Both of these problems are inherent to this scheme.

The old scheme, where all the lights turned red or green simultaneously, had neither of those issues. But it had its own problems: it meant that crossing Downtown required stopping 2 or 3 times, and it tempted drivers to run a red light to make it just one more block. And, of course, neither scheme works very well for pedestrians or bicyclists.

In other words, we have a choice of two imperfect solutions. Neither one will work well for everyone. In the end, the choice is who to annoy and how. Unfortunately, that’s a common problem in transportation. In fact, it’s a common problem in life. But it’s hard when you’re headed home and stuck at another red light to have that kind of perspective. So I suppose the positive note here is that the Chronicle performs a valuable service by giving people someplace to vent. Of course, you can do that in our forums, too.

Commuter rail, meet light rail. Light rail, meet commuter rail.


While light rail gets the attention, studies continue for commuter rail in Houston. HGAC is evaluating possible routes, and TxDOT’s selected alternative for the SH35 corridor includes commuter rail. As I’ve said before, commuter rail isn’t an alternative to light rail. But the only way we’ll have an effective commuter rail system in Houston is if it connects well to light rail. And that means it makes sense to include commuter rail in light rail planning and vice-versa.

The fundamental problem is this: commuter rail needs to use existing railroad rights of way. And none of those rights of way enter any of the major employment centers in the urban core. So every commuter rail passenger will need to transfer to another mode of transit to get to work. And, since that mode should be as frequent, fast, and reliable as possible, it should be light rail, not buses in traffic lanes. And, of course, the transfers between commuter rail and light rail need to be as easy as possible.

Commuterrail-Lightrail Small

METRO’s plans already include two light rail-commuter rail transfer stations: the Intermodal Center (just north of Downtown) and Northwest Mall. Both serve the 290 line, connecting it to Uptown, Greenway, and the Texas Medical Center as well as to Downtown. But the other commuter rail lines need to be connected to the activity centers as well. And that means creating more transfers at key points where the light rail lines intersect commuter rail. The most significant of these places:

  • At Hillcroft Transit Center, the abandoned railroad right of way used by the University Line continues onwards to West Houston and Fort Bend County. Here, commuter rail and light rail might actually share the same right of way: if this commuter rail line is to make sense it needs to continue on to Downtown, and the only way to do that is to use the same 50 foot strip of land along the Westpark Toll road that the University Line will. Obviously, that will happen only if the light rail line is designed to permit it.
  • Bellaire Junction is where the University Line crosses the north-south Union Pacific railroad line which could carry commuter rail to Sugar Land and Rosenberg. There’s not much here, which is why there’s no station here in METRO’s current plans. But the elevated light rail tracks over the railroad could be designed for a future station platform where commuter from Fort Bend could change trains to get to Uptown and Greenway Plaza.
  • Eastwood Transit Center is already a connection for local buses and commuter bus service to Clear Lake. But it could also be a commuter rail transfer point, since the rail line that leads to Alvin ducks under I-45 here.
  • Lockwood and Harrisburg will get a station on the East End Line. But it’s also on a logical eastward extension of the University Line and alongside the railroad tracks that could carry commuter trains to Galveston. This could be how light rail riders from the East Side and commuter rail riders make ti to UH, TSU, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway, and Uptown.

At this point, commuter rail is still speculative. The lines on the map above are those rated highly by HGAC (with the exception of the I-10 line, which HGAC studied despite the fact that the railroad line is now occupied by the Katy Freeway) as well as the SH 35 corridor studied by TXDOT. Some of these may be built; it seems unlikely all of the will be built, and it’s entirely possible none will. But transit systems have long made provision for possible future expansion.

It may seem a bit premature to plan a transit line around another speculative future line. But it would seem really stupid if 10 or 20 years from now a commuter rail line crossed a light rail line that connects to a lot of jobs, and there’s no way to transfer from one to the other.


Another look at who’s riding light rail *

This May, the Houston-Galveston Area Council surveyed riders on trains and buses in the Houston region. They completed 12,000 surveys, including 1,136 on METRORail (resulting in a +/- 2.9% margin of error). Some of the more notable findings (pdf):

Rail has attracted new transit riders. 49% of METRORail riders had a car available to make their trip; 41% said they started using transit because of the rail line. Notably, rail has also attracted more people to buses: 12% of METRO local bus riders said they started using transit because of the rail line.

About half of rail riders made their entire trip on rail. 54% of rail riders transfer to or from a bus. That’s remarkable for a line only 7.5 miles long: 68% of Houston bus riders transfered on their trips. But it also points to the importance of linking light rail and bus lines well.

Rail serves all income levels. Like local buses, METRORail serves as a transportation safety net for those who can’t afford to drive. 40% of riders have household incomes below $32,000. But 20% have household incomes over $81,000, compared to only 5% on METRO local buses.

Pedestrian-based transit works in Houston. 28% of METRORail riders park-and-ride (I’d estimated 30% based on boarding data); 8% are dropped off by car. That leaves 2/3 of riders who get to the train (or to a bus that got them to the train) on foot. On average, they walked 2.4 blocks — about 1/8 to 1/4 mile, depending on the part of town — to a station.

Rail is serving non-work trips as well as work trips. 35% of METRORail riders are headed home; 30% are headed to work. That means that no more than 2/3 of trips — and probably more like 1/2 — are home-to-work or work-to-home. 13% of riders are bound for school; 8% are going to the doctor; 5% are running errands; 4% are on a recreational trip. Only 65% of rail riders ride 5 or more days a week; almost 10% ride less than once or twice per month. METRORail is serving a lot of commuters. But it’s also taking care of all the other kinds of trips people make. Compare that to METRO’s park-and-ride buses, where 90% of the trips are home-to-work and vice versa and 85% of riders ride at least 5 days a week.

Bikes expand the reach of transit. Bike riders ride on average 2.2 miles to a station. Thus, there are many more people within biking distance of a station than within walking distance. However, only 0.6% of rail riders arrive by bike. That’s probably due in part to restrictive bike policies (no bikes on trains during rush hours) and limited bike racks at stations.

High quality bus transit can attract riders who would not otherwise take transit. Some statistics for the suburban park-and-ride system, which uses HOV lanes to provide frequent, reliable, fast, nonstop service: 50% of riders have household income over $81,000, 87% had a car available for the trip, and the average rider drove 6.4 miles to a park-and-ride. (A reminder, though: high quality bus isn’t cheap: the park-and-ride system cost three times as much to build as METRORail even though it has the same ridership, and has much higher operating costs.)

The ridership numbers alone make the case for the Main Street Line: it’s carrying more people per mile (and thus per dollar invested) than any other modern light rail line in the United States. But this survey data amplifies that: the Main Street Line works because it serves more than just home-work trips, because it stops within walking distance of important destinations, and because it serves the poor and the prosperous. The Main Street Line is a good model for successful urban transit; it’s no accident that the University, Uptown, North, East End, and Southeast lines will follow its example.

A narrow view of railroad crossings


The Chronicle reports on a Texas Transportation Institute study that measures the motorist time lost at railroad crossings and then determines a cost-benefit ratio for building grade separations at those crossings. That’s a valid measure. But it’s also a narrow one.

Railroad crossings aren’t just about congestion. Those people stuck on Westheimer in the photo that ran with the article are losing time on their way to work or home or shopping. That’s a problem. But it’s a much worse problem when an ambulance is stuck at a crossing while a heart attack victim waits on the other side. There are neighborhoods in the East End where the nearest hospital, the nearest fire station, and the local school are all across railroad crossings. And, while the trains that cross Westheimer tend to move fast, the trains in the East End are often moving at a crawl or stopped entirely. There are neighborhoods that can be completely cut off from the outside world by one or two stopped trains. Measuring congestion does not measure that.

And transportation isn’t just about moving people. All the stuff you use every day has to come from somewhere. Railroads almost surely alleviate more congestion than they cause. About half of all freight movement in the United States is by rail. Were we to get rid of freight rail, we’d double the number of truck on the highway. Imagine your commute then. And, considering that the government subsidizes trucking and not freight rail, imagine your tax bill.

Freight rail is a complex problem. To solve it, we have to weigh the needs of neighborhoods, the need to move freight efficiently, and the impact on car traffic. To do that, we need some better measures than this study provides.

We take the measure of your thoughts in our forum.